Swansea pulled out of ‘stagnation’: An interview with the Labour council leader of Wales’ second city
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
He is a DVLA project manager and former DJ credited by many for raising Swansea’s profile and driving through regeneration schemes that would have seemed far-fetched a few years ago.
Supported by a cabinet who often use the words “vision”, “leadership” and “ambition” when referring to him, Rob Stewart has certainly been leaving his mark since becoming council leader in 2014.
Confidence isn’t a problem, he comes across as being on top of the details, and it’s rare to see him flustered.
At times it feels he counter-punches too strongly when criticised by political opponents, but he will say that politics always has an element of theatre.
And it emerges that he, like other elected representatives, has received some very unpleasant abuse.
Mr Stewart is one of many prospective Swansea councillors standing at the council elections on May 5, and he felt there was plenty of work still to do.
We met at the The Red Lion in Morriston, where he lives, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
The grim scenarios running through my head jarred with the lunchtime hubbub. Trolleys of food passed by – one thing was for certain, people in Morriston ate well.
Mr Stewart was born in Newport, moved to Swansea aged 3, attended Cwmrhydyceirw Primary School, the former Llansamlet junior comprehensive, Morriston comprehensive, the old Swansea College in Tycoch, and finally Swansea University to study humanities.
After graduating there was a stint at the Post Office, London, then a number of roles in the DVLA in Swansea – take your pick from redesigning driver licences, bringing the IT system back in-house, and delivering online services.
“I am still on a career break,” said Mr Stewart.
In fact, he helped out with a DVLA project on a part-time basis in 2014 after becoming leader.
Others would have known the 50-year-old as DJ Rob, who did weddings, parties, radio slots, and played at pubs and clubs in Swansea.
Rugby fan Mr Stewart also plays the piano and is a keyboard organist.
He was first elected as a Labour councillor in 2003, aged 30, and would later become cabinet member for finance when the party re-took power in 2012.
Two years later he took over from leader David Phillips following the latter’s resignation.
It wasn’t your normal political succession, and Mr Stewart preferred not to dwell on it.
He said: “David and I have a good working relationship now.”
What were his priorities on becoming leader, I asked?
“The critical thing for me was restoring confidence for business, investors and the public, that things could happen in Swansea, that we weren’t going to continue to lose out,” he said.
“I think Swansea had been in a stagnation period for large parts of the previous eight years.”
It was a time when the impacts of the 2008 financial crash were reverberating, private investment was limited, austerity was the buzzword, and a £1 billion city centre regeneration scheme for Swansea was pulled by Hammerson – the company appointed by the council a few years previously.
Mr Stewart said Swansea didn’t receive the level of funding from the UK and Welsh Governments afforded to other cities, and his view was that it hadn’t been ambitious enough in setting out a programme of delivery.
He said he was very keen to sign the £1.3 billion city deal for the Swansea Bay City Region, which he and others did in March 2017.
In some ways, it feels as if the Labour administration became a de facto commercial agent and project manager – by necessity, it would say – to push through city centre schemes and encourage private capital to follow.
The indoor arena is now open – part of the £135 million Copr Bay project – Wind Street and The Kingsway have a new look, the Palace Theatre and Castle Square are to be transformed, a £41.5 million high-tech business hub will take shape at the former Oceana nightclub site, heritage buildings at the Hafod-Morfa Copperworks are being restored, and a company called Urban Splash has been appointed as a development partner for seven city sites.
Privately-funded student accommodation schemes have gone up, the Albert Hall is getting a new lease of life from its private owners, buildings on The Kingsway are being revamped, a New Zealand-based company called Skyline Enterprises has submitted a business case to the Welsh Government to build a gondola ride, zip wire, luge runs and other facilities at Kilvey Hill, and a new consortium has revived plans for a Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.
“People can see a physical delivery,” said Mr Stewart.
An argument from the main Liberal Democrat-Independent opposition group has been, can Swansea afford this given the substantial sums the council has borrowed.
“Yes, 100%,” replied Mr Stewart. “Part of the strategy has been to borrow at the lowest interest rates possible. I think people will look back in a few years and think it was an incredibly cheap deal – and we have paid back expensive borrowing.
“I am absolutely confident that repayments are covered until at least 2030. By then we may have decided to divest, or reinvest, and the assets will have gone up in value.”
The council has set aside money to cover repayments. It has also re-profiled how it spreads long-term debt payback – one consequence being lower repayments now and higher ones later.
Assets like new arenas, car parks and offices also generate income, but they have maintenance costs.
Mr Stewart said he expected land values to rise in the city centre, creating a more attractive climate for private business.
“People won’t invest unless they make their money back – they (commercial properties) were too cheap to be investable,” he said. “That’s turning now. Developers are refurbishing buildings.”
Is there a risk that too much office space will be available given the home-working revolution, I asked.
Mr Stewart replied: “What we do know is that when companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs reach a certain size they don’t have quality office space to go to.
“We want to make sure we keep companies in the city, and attract others. Everything we have built we have tenants for. We have significant interest for 71/72 The Kingsway (the Oceana nightclub site).”
Mr Stewart has combined his council leader role with regional and national ones, including chairman of the ruling committee of the Swansea Bay City Region. He said he worked 70 to 80 hours per week, with one day a week focused on Morriston issues if possible.
Would a crack at being an MP or MS appeal?
“My job is not done in Swansea, if the people continue to support me,” he said.
He did go for the Labour nomination for the Swansea East MS seat in 2007, and admitted he would consider such an opportunity if arose some years into the future.
Mr Stewart said the council leader role was rewarding, but he added that it was the smaller projects, like new play areas being installed, which gave him most satisfaction.
He said local issues included anti-social behaviour and the need to breathe new life into Woodfield Street, Morriston’s commercial artery.
Coming out of Covid and driving the economy forward, he said, were among Swansea-wide priorities.
Was he too hard on political opponents, I asked?
“Sometimes political debates are theatre, although that’s not to say serious points aren’t raised, ” he said. “But it’s sometimes with a twinkle in the eye.”
Mr Stewart’s time in the Labour administration has coincided with the rise of social media.
“It’s a doubled-edged sword,” he said.
He uses it, and thought it was right for politicians to do so.
“Leaders should be accessible,” he said. “But you also leave yourself vulnerable to people who just want to level abuse, or have an agenda.”
He said it was hard for family members when they read something about him online which was untrue.
Matters on one occasion escalated gravely, he said, when council staff were threatened online. The police were called.
“I was threatened with decapitation,” said Mr Stewart.