The re-elected leader of Cardiff Council said that getting more people in the city into housing will be one of his top priorities this term.
Leader of the Labour group at Cardiff Council, Huw Thomas, was re-elected as council leader at the end of last month, having already held the post since the 2017 local elections. The party won big at this year’s local elections in Cardiff and went from holding 40 seats in the council chamber to 55.
However, the administration has a lot to work on. Chaotic scenes of queues along the M4 and the challenges posed to public transport during Ed Sheeran’s visit to Cardiff last weekend brought the subject of transport in the capital back into focus
With a highly anticipated new city centre bus station still a year from operation and a reported overspend on the South Wales Metro, the question of whether Cardiff’s infrastructure can meet the demands of a fast-growing city has been raised once again.
On top of this, there are concerns over the rising cost of living, the increased competitiveness of getting on the housing ladder in Cardiff and the need to balance addressing the climate emergency with the need for more housing.
So, how does the Leader hope to address some of these concerns? In an interview at his office in County Hall, we asked Cllr Thomas what he hopes to do in the coming years
What are the three main issues that you hope to tackle going into this term?
“[The] cost of living first and foremost, and a key part within that would be house building, or cost of living in a housing context. So probably second on the list of what I’m most proud of [as Leader] would be the council housing that we have built over the last four [or] five years. By the end of this year, we will have built 1,000 council homes.
“The commitment in our manifesto goes even further to [a] further 1,500 at least, as with the council actually playing the role of developer as well and building some homes for private sale, but where we sell those properties, the profits are recycled into building more council homes.
“But also getting on with building more houses generally on the open market because people are telling me that they want their children to be able to afford to buy in Cardiff and at the moment that’s not feasible. And we also know that the cost of renting is becoming unsustainable.
“I look at the different rates between renting in the private sector versus renting council houses or social housing. That is a huge difference. We need to do more work with the Welsh Government to make renting affordable, and make sure that everyone gets good quality property as well.
“I have touched on education [and] we want to continue [with] that and then really making progress now on the climate change agenda. We declared a climate emergency [and] we published One Planet Cardiff, which is our plan to make the council net zero by 2030. [It] sets up the ambition for the city to do that as well.
“That’s clearly a step beyond and we don’t have all the levers for that. It is deliverable, but it’s also hugely challenging in terms of the changes we will need to make as a council to achieve that net zero.
“And then finally, I think it’s that that economic renewal post Covid – getting investment into Cardiff, but making sure it’s the [right] type of investment [and] creating the type of jobs [that] people in Cardiff can access – and good well paying jobs at that.”
I know people are quite eager to see the new bus station in Cardiff. Is that on schedule to be built on time?
“As I understand it. I am as keen as anybody to get that bus station opened. When I was first sat in this chair five years ago, I said getting that done was a priority. It is getting built, we can see it coming out of the ground. I think what needs to be understood in the context of that bus station [is], yes it has taken some time to deliver, but part of the reason for that is some of the funding challenges that needed to be overcome. They were overcome and as a result of that, the only contribution the Council has put in – and the taxpayers of Cardiff by extension – is the land.”
Will your administration be bringing in a congestion charge?
“Let’s just be clear, the whole reason any kind of charging mechanism was mooted in our transport strategy was because we wanted to have an honest conversation around how some of the improvements and changes we wanted to see could be funded. You are talking upwards of a billion pounds worth of funding required, we believe, into public transport in the city.
“We think having a conversation about some form of charging mechanism is appropriate in the context of what are the various means you have funding this. Absolutely no decision has been taken on any form or or any kind of charging mechanism via congestion charging [or] a workplace parking levy.
“But, we’re still open to the conversation and there are some preliminary studies going on at the moment and we will have the conversation with the people of Cardiff in due course about what that what that might look like or may not look like.”
if there was a congestion charge brought in would you be able to say who that would be aimed at?
“I think it is too early to say to any definite degree because no plans exist yet. It’s something that’s been being worked through. Certainly, I would want any kind of charging scheme to be equitable and we would not want there to be economic penalties on the people of Cardiff and we have said that throughout.”
Are you concerned at all about the Metro overspend or are you worried that it could lead to services being cut back similarly to what we’ve seen with other projects, like HS2?
“It is certainly something I’d be concerned about. That is just instinctive concern. I’ve not seen the figures. But, our expectation from the Metro particularly in its next phase from 2023, is that we do see new stations opened in Cardiff, and we do see the beginning of that line through Cardiff Bay that I was [talking] about, and those feel to me pretty fundamental in achieving our climate targets and in enabling people in Cardiff and people who travel into Cardiff to make journey choices other than by car.
“Yes, talk of inflationary pressures and any kind of de-scoping of the metro, while I understand the pressures TfW are facing, certainly would raise concern and I would like to understand from TfW what they are going to do to mitigate that pretty quickly to be honest.”
How much of a concern were the scenes, like the build up of traffic, that we saw when the Ed Sheeran concerts were in Cardiff? How does the council hope to prevent similar issues from happening further down the line, especially with a new arena due to be built in the Bay?
“I don’t think the two kind of levels of events are comparable. [With] Ed Sheeran [you had] 70,000 or 75,000 people in the stadium and then some other events in the city at the same time. And also, the half term traffic contributed as well. [However], the arena down here will be 17,000.
“There will be more regular events, but you are talking very different levels of capacity. What it emphasised to me – of course, I was concerned by some of the scenes – was that need for that investment into transport on a regional basis because the issues were not localised just to Cardiff. There were reports of the [traffic] stretching back to the Severn Bridge.
“Okay, well, what needs to happen for us to get more regular, more reliable rail traffic across that corridor? We’ve been working with Newport and Bristol for a few years now making the case for something quicker than the existing service in terms of rail between Cardiff, Newport and Bristol.”
On top of it opening up the way for Cathays High to be expanded, what else does the council hope to achieve through the land exchange at Maindy Park? Because a lot of people are asking, what will the council be using that land on Blackweir Fields for.
“That proposal is being consulted on now and it would either be Blackweir or Caedelyn. There is some flexibility in that response and both pieces of land are larger than the land currently at Maindy, but in effect, what we are proposing is to transfer the covenant from one piece of land to another and that in effect gives additional protection to that land.
“It is a slightly convoluted process because in effect the land at Maindy is still going to be for public use. It is just going to be used as a school playing field as opposed to what it is now. But, in the strictest sense, that is a disposable public space, so that’s why we have to go through the process.
“I want to be very clear that the proposed land use for that land at Maindy is as playing fields, which outside of school hours is going to be available for community use and I think that has not been well understood. In fact, a third of that land is going to become a public park, creating accessibility that is not there in the form that it is now.”
How can you convince people that green spaces that are under a covenant can be protected if the covenant can be transferred as easily as it seems to be from Maindy Park?
“I would say actually that it is not a straightforward process and I think the Council has to reassure, in this case the Charity Commission, that this is not just land being replaced. It is not just a case of eliminating that piece of land. I think that protection, as it were, is still very much in place in terms of the Charity Commission independently giving a view.
“Like I said, why we are doing this is to enable the construction of a desperately-needed new high school for kids who, in some cases, are coming from really challenging backgrounds. It is providing a top class educational facility for them, coupled with sporting facilities – this is a school that currently has to travel by bus from Maindy to get to Heath Park to access sporting facilities, whereas under our plans now most of that provision will be on their doorstep.
“On the land that we are talking about now, the remaining third of which becomes a public park. I understand the concerns of the community, but I think people need to step back and look at the overall plans as a whole and see the positive impact this will have for people at that school, but also the community in terms of their access to parkland which doesn’t exist at the moment.”