SAVING CARDIFF’S SOUL | POLITICS FEATURE
SAVING CARDIFF’S SOUL
by Yasmin Begum
A number of historic buildings and venues have disappeared from Cardiff over the past few years. If we’re being specific, at least 40 pubs have shut down since in Cardiff since 2003. These venues have included the Point, the Music Millennium Hall and pubs like the Wharf and the Grange. One of these included the iconic Poets Corner on City Road, which has become the centre of a hotly debated row by local councillors in the area. It echoes fiery debates in other parts of the city on the line between gentrification and urban renewal around areas of housing, rent, homelessness and more, which have been happening over the past 30 years.
City Road isn’t immune to these changes. The former sorting office for the Royal Mail was turned into a venue for Coleg Glan Hafren, the tall building on the south-side of the road dominating the skyline. It was used before it merged with Barry College, creating Cardiff and Vale College and necessitating a new building on Dumballs Road. The tower block has recently been turned into the Neighbourhood, a student housing complex.
There were plans to create student flats at the Poets Corner, plans that have now been approved. Earlier in November the West Wing of Cardiff Infirmary was approved for development to turn it into student accommodation. The Coal Exchange, once a market floor for coal trading and later a widely renowned music venue, is now being turned into a hotel, spa and events venue all less than five minutes away from the most deprived area in Wales, Butetown.
Homeless charity the Wallich says there’s been an 83% rise in homeless in Cardiff over the past two years. Nearly 11,000 people in Cardiff are on a social housing waiting list in 2014, according to a Cardiff Council document. We have thousands of people waiting for housing as we build buildings that aren’t houses for everyday Cardiffians.
Less than a stone’s throw away from Cardiff Bay is Butetown, home to some of Cardiff’s oldest communities and the remnants of Tiger Bay. It’s a historic BME (black and minority ethnic) area in Cardiff, along with Grangetown and Riverside.
In 1911, Cardiff was home to the second largest population of foreign born males in the UK after London. It was also the world’s second largest port after New York City. It’s reflected in the city’s diversity, as Tiger Bay and Butetown is one of the oldest multicultural communities in the UK. Communities speak Somali, Punjabi, Bengali, Arabic, Tigrinya and dozens more, practicing a variety of different religious traditions for over 200 years.
Gentrification refers to or describes the “process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents”. Cardiff Bay, formerly known as Tiger Bay, ripped apart communities in south Cardiff. These communities were internally displaced and moved to different areas to facilitate the development into the tourist-friendly and chain-heavy area that we see today. The process of renewal and rebuilding is an ongoing process, and it’s happening in different areas of Cardiff today. How many people can afford to live in a Cardiff Bay flat?
Rent prices have increased hugely all across the city, but especially in areas such as north Riverside, which is now known as Pontcanna. Lower Cathedral Road, like Lloyd George Avenue, is a region where you can walk the tightrope between deprivation and wealth, the poor and the rich. It’s in the subtle nuance of lessening trees, more expensive cars and unconsciously, in the economic activity of the population and social surroundings. If you go left from town you step into Riverside, the 13th most deprived area in Wales, if you go right you enter into a very affluent neighbourhood. Perhaps most viscerally, Cardiff Council has consciously followed this gentrification through a recent hike in council tax for north Riverside, aka Pontcanna.
A report by the Centre of Dynamics on Ethnicity at Manchester University has found that “there is evidence of dispersal of ethnic minority groups from areas in which they have previously clustered”. In other words, areas that have traditionally been BME are seeing people move out at a time of record homelessness and rent prices going up. People are being priced out of the city, unable to access housing.
We know that Wales has some of the poorest areas in the United Kingdom, with one in four people in Wales living in poverty. Wales is also home to some of the poorest communities in Europe and nearly half of Wales lives in or around Cardiff. Poverty is now particularly pronounced in the city. This means that there are more people per capita in Cardiff living in poverty.
Cardiff is home to over half of Wales’ BME population, meaning that we’re at a particular breaking point. This breaking point isn’t just for BME people, but for all Cardiffians. We’re seeing wealth unfairly concentrated in pockets of the city with real-life effects on health. Someone in Butetown is likely to die 12 years younger than someone in Radyr. Poverty goes hand in hand with educational attainment, with children eligible for free school meals in Wales 26% less likely to achieve five GCSEs A*-C in Wales.
The average wage for Wales hovers at £15,000 a year, while Cardiff nears the £20,000 mark. But let’s be honest, not everyone in Cardiff is on that. Not the substantial amount of people who run the city, who work in bars, restaurants, sanitation and the service industry. People from working class backgrounds are much more likely to be in these professions at a time when numbers of these establishments have soared.
In 2015 a report found that Cardiff could face a housing crisis that is much, much worse than London’s unless more homes are built. A Welsh Government report on housing and homelessness as was reported to find that “if house building does not catch up with projected growth in families Cardiff could see more than 1,384 more households than homes this year, and 41,111 households than homes by 2036”. People are moving out of lower-income communities, unable to afford rent to buy housing. A study from the Joseph Rowntree found that areas such as Canton, Leckwith, Riverside, Cathays and more were in the process of gentrification in 2016.
What does this mean for the soul of our city? Who’s benefitting from Cardiff’s prosperity? It’s not kids on council estates in Fairwater and Ely. There’s a record amount of young people in prison and record amounts of deprivation. Urban renewal is gentrification. We have a rising heroin epidemic in Cardiff city, but no money to reinvest in drug rehabilitation, and little debate and consideration for a sensible drugs policy. But we’re going to get a shit ton of new venues and a box city with a cinema in it, safe. The very communities that made Cardiff what it is aren’t where they formerly were. Now more than ever we need to create a tangible history of Cardiff when our presence is being erased through urban renewal. It’s shocking that the Butetown History and Arts Centre was forced to close due to lack of funds. Philosophically speaking, we need to defend ourselves against moves to displace our identity. We need to talk about the city’s heritage, the Irish and the Lascars, the South Asian seamen who came to Cardiff, and our Welsh speaking communities, and physically speaking, we need to save historic buildings from redevelopment and communities from economic displacement.