Boom to bust in Cardiff Bay

Another building development in Cardiff Bay has been frozen as the credit crunch bites. The Bay is peppered with half-finished apartment blocks, newly-built relics of boom and bust, semi-permanent eyesores that remind us of the inability of capitalism to solve basic human needs.

Dave Reid, Socialist Party Wales

There are plenty of homeless people, unemployed building workers and piles of unused building materials. Yet there is no profit in construction workers building homes for the people who need them. So they remain unbuilt.

Thousands of people need somewhere to live in Cardiff. Young workers are forced to sleep on friends’ sofas because they cannot afford the bond and rent for a place of their own. Young families are cramped in small flats because they cannot get even close to affording a mortgage, even as house prices fall.

The council stopped building houses decades ago, widening the gap for the private developers to step into. For those with a tidy wage there are the “luxury apartments” down the Bay – small, smart flats in modern wooden-clad tower blocks with spiky shrubs in uniform, neat gardens.

A year ago it looked like the boom would never end, with a new luxury tower springing up every month. Even the housing associations got in on the act, building luxury apartments to rent for profit down the Bay, forgetting about desperately needed social housing.

But the credit crunch has put an end to all that. As the developers discover holes in their balance sheets they walk away from their half-built sites, leaving unfinished blocks scarring the landscape and blocking the pavements.

The sites remain. Breeze blocks are piled up ready to use, the construction workers who were ready to cement them laid off. Wheelbarrows are strewn around the sites, abandoned by the retreating developers.

Cardiff Bay itself is the symbol of the Thatcherite promise of the post-industrial age. Thatcher and the Tories wiped out industry in Cardiff and the rest of Wales with only two minor steelworks remaining after thousands of jobs were destroyed. But no matter, they said, the future is in services – financial services and the leisure industry.

So Lord Edwards, the Tory Welsh secretary, formed the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation (CBDC), another unaccountable Tory quango, to redevelop Cardiff docks.

They promised that this would be the hub of a new Wales, founded on finance and tourism. And the Labour politicians, on the way to becoming New Labour, bought into the idea as well, accepting highly paid part-time jobs on the quango. The Tories did the deals while the Labour leaders did the PR, loudly shouting “jobs!” every time anyone queried the project.

While hospitals were sold off and the council was refused cash to build council homes, hundreds of millions were poured into the Bay development. A £200 million barrage was built across the Bay to create a huge lake in front of the development and cover the low tide mud.

Restaurants and bars sprang up as well as public sector developments like the Assembly, the Millennium Arts Centre and the council itself. The old docks, that used to make up one of the greatest exporting ports in the world, were scrubbed clean and landscaped ready for jet skis and windsurfers.

People living down the docks were pushed aside. The famous Tiger Bay, the Butetown community, was effectively privatised by the CBDC with promises of jobs. The Butetown Carnival created by the community and famous around the country, was taken over by the CBDC, run “professionally” and then quietly closed down.

The jobs promised by the men in suits to the local community proved to be illusions. Most of the construction jobs went to outsiders. And what remained after were minimum wage jobs serving in the restaurants and pubs. Industry sold up and left the area taking with them the better-paid jobs. Caradons that had taken over the old Currans steel plant, based in the area for over 100 years, decided it could make more money by closing the factory and selling the land for a luxury apartment development, so it shifted production to Stoke, taking with it 400 better paid jobs.

Cheap labour was driving out proper jobs. Harry Ramsdens instead of Currans. One developer was reported as asking whether the Castle steelworks lying to the east of the newly developed Roath Dock could be removed because it was a bit of an eyesore.

No one will ever know how much money was made by the privatisers and developers in Cardiff Bay. The privatisation of British docks into Associated British Ports (ABP) was said to be Thatcher’s favourite privatisation. Billions have subsequently been made from the sale of dock land. And Cardiff was one of the most profitable, second only to the London dockland developments. According to The Guardian, Lord Edwards later joined the ABP board and the Welsh office minister behind the scheme joined its property arm.

Making money

And while the developers made money hand over fist, working people in Cardiff did not. The CBDC and its Labour hangers-on promised 30,000 new jobs, but a maximum of 20,000 have been created and 15,000 jobs were lost when industry pulled out. Instead of tens of thousands of new jobs being created, we saw a frenzy of speculation as the developers stampeded into the Bay to build luxury apartment blocks in the property boom upon which the sun would never set.

Of course everyone likes going down the Bay for a bit of a promenade down the front and to have an ice cream and a pint. But the jet skis and windsurfers are banned because the docks and the Bay have been poisoned by algae, like the financial system that has been poisoned by bad debt. And talking of debt, we still have to pay £4 million a year for the upkeep of the barrage.

Still, as we sit licking our ice creams in the cafés on the waterfront we can still dream on what the billions could have been spent on – rebuilding public services and valley communities perhaps, hospitals and new council housing.

And maybe Barry Island could have been given a lick of paint.