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We’re living in interesting times

January 26, 2016

 

It’s said in some cultures that wishing someone the opportunity to live in interesting times is a type of curse.

 

I shouldn’t wonder that Swansea Council leader Rob Stewart thinks it must have been said to him recently.

 

Last Friday’s unveiling of ambitious city regeneration proposals was an unprecedented success. It also managed to set the bar of expectation at a hugely challenging height.

 

Yes, it’s the latest in a list of super plans for Swansea, many of which didn’t quite materialise. So as you’d expect, the scale of the overall scheme gave the cynics and sceptics ample scope to sneer.

 

Yet the consensus among those I spoke with following the presentation at the top of the Meridian Tower - many of who have extensive development experience – was that the waterfront and city centre schemes possess the right mix combined with the right approach.

 

“Highly ambitious but highly achievable”, said one property valuation expert to me. The project in her opinion is marketable to investors, operators and tenants. Some of the coverage in the property press already seems to bear this out.

 

This emphasis on commercial reality is a key difference from previous aspirations.

 

We're not dealing with a few sketches and drawings put together by planners in the vague hope that retailers will flock here. Swansea Council has taken a pragmatic step by directly engaging the development industry and getting a real-world feel for what works and what doesn’t.

 

The anticipated timescale will probably be a disappointment to those who think that building Rome in an afternoon, let alone a day, amounts to dragging your heels. That’s too bad.

 

Something this important can’t be rushed. There is nothing ‘in the bag’ about these proposals which will need time to evolve. Developers are notoriously risk-averse. They much prefer putting cash into places that are already successful as opposed to those which aspire to be.

 

We have a habit of sending out the wrong signals to potential city centre investors. Sometimes it happens via controversial planning decisions. Mostly it’s down to a near-constant succession of highways schemes that have been about speeding up through-traffic instead of improving access.

 

Swansea might well be open for business but it’s often nigh impossible to get into the place to find out. This has to change and I’m told moves are already in hand to make it happen.

 

Joint ventures are nothing new here. Liberty Stadium, the National Waterfront Museum and the Wales National Pool are all evidence of that. These however were done exclusively with public sector partners.

 

The problem is that local officialdom has never quite understood the private sector motivation to get a decent return on investment. This also has to change.

 

Rob Stewart is unequivocal that his job is to deliver much needed regeneration and employment benefits on either side of Oystermouth Road. Let’s hope that everyone on his team is just as single-minded as him. They will need to be.

 

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What's the cost of connecting?

 

A group of 100 business and residential premises in the city will soon be getting broadband speeds of several hundred megabits per second by participating in an ultra-fast BT trial.

 

Meanwhile, those of us in the slower lane of the information super-highway continue our attempts to fathom the pros and cons (operative term) of advertised broadband speeds

 

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. I’m getting around 38Mbs in my area, courtesy of Superfast Cymru and the Welsh government.

 

It’s not what I signed up for though. To be honest, I don’t remember what I was promised – which puts me among the four out of five subscribers who can’t correctly calculate the total cost of a broadband contract.

 

Some price ‘bundles’ make gas and electricity tariffs look easy-peasy. This has led the Advertising Standards Authority to announce they will be looking to ensure people aren't misled. 

 

An ASA decision is expected in June. Not much fast about them either.

 

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A question of fees

 

A common complaint in the past has been how voters can’t distinguish between political parties. That is until the subject of tuition fees comes up on the doorstep.

 

The controversial charge was knocked up substantially during the days of the last Westminster coalition. It means students in England need to find £9,000 a year to finance their courses. Welsh students however only pay £3,685 towards their tuition fees, wherever they study in the UK.

 

The cost of these subsidies will be £3.6bn over the course of the next assembly.  Last October, Welsh Conservatives made it clear they would rather scrap the grant and spend the cash instead on the NHS and further education colleges.

 

Labour are having none of that and are committed to keeping fees down for now.

 

Neither party appears to have consulted voters on the issue though or look likely to do so.  No difference there then.

 

 

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