After some difficult times and apparent political inertia, Swansea has found a new sense of purpose and self belief. This has culminated in a number of landmark developments and business initiatives. But improving its transport infrastructure and city centre remain big challenges for the city. Wyn Jenkins reports.
Dylan Thomas, Swansea's favourite son, called his home many things. The phrase an "ugly, lovely town" caught people's imaginations, as did the film Twin Town's twist on the phrase "a pretty, shitty city". But the label that has perhaps defined Swansea over the years is another quote from the poet - he also called the city the "graveyard of ambition".
The favourable interpretation of this phrase is that Swansea is such a nice place to live no one ever leaves. The many former students who remain in the region are testament to this. Unfortunately, many have instead taken the comment to mean Swansea is a dull and dreary place where nothing exciting or innovative ever happens.
And this is the image Swansea has become stuck with. A recent UK-wide survey conducted by Swansea Futures, an organisation formed to create a consistent and coherent brand for the city, illustrated people's misconceptions. One in ten thought Swansea was in England. Only one quarter could locate it correctly and many did not know it was on the coast. Given its proximity to areas of outstanding natural beauty such as the Gower, this sums up the poor job the city has done over the years of making the most of its natural assets. Thomas also called Swansea "the city that has turned its back on the sea".
In some ways, Swansea's image problem is not that surprising. It has struggled more than similar cities to adjust to a post-industrial economy in Wales. For almost 20 years, the city seemed to stagnate. Its once busy ports and docklands became wastelands, its city centre slowly decayed and unemployment increased. "Not a lot happened here for 15 years," says Peter Jones, chairman of Swansea Futures and partner in the Swansea office of law firm Morgan Cole.
But the city is now changing on a scale that those who saw its decline in the last quarter of the 20th century can barely believe. The sky is filled with cranes as new buildings and developments spring up across the city and it is already home to landmark developments such as the National Waterfront Museum. It has a new 20,000-seater sports stadium. And its new leisure centre will, when completed, become Europe's first indoor surfing centre.
The development of its bay area, known as SA1, is tipped by many to eventually outshine that of Cardiff - a big brother of a city that may have overshadowed Swansea for too long. SA1 is also realigning the city's geography to place the emphasis once more on its proximity to the sea - a crucial part of the city's appeal.
Finally, but most importantly in the long term, the city is making big strides towards refocusing its economy. Spearheaded by projects initiated by its university, the city is moving towards becoming a knowledge-based economy. This process will take time. But if the 20-year vision of some individuals comes to fruition, the city could become the cornerstone of a vibrant technology sector in Wales as well as a hub for other parts of the service industry such as call centres.
"The city is reinventing itself," says Chris Holley, leader of Swansea Council. "And what we have realised is that if you are going to reinvent yourself you have to do it inwardly. Our secret as a city is what we already have. What we need to do is build on that and make what we have more accessible to people."
Kevin Thomas, partner at Swansea-based law firm Morgan LaRoche, puts it another way. "For a very long time Swansea was a city of plans rather than action," he says. "But the change in the last two years has been incredible. The city's confidence has returned. I think the penny has finally dropped. The work that is going on that will link everything to the seafront again is fantastic. Swansea is truly a city of the sea in a way that Cardiff will never be."
Turning to face the sea
Realigning the city's geography to place more emphasis on the sea is at the heart of the developments in the city. One of Swansea's biggest problems is its topography - having the sea on one side limits access to the city and hinders transport links. There is no easy solution to this problem, which is exacerbated by the city's layout. The main access road from the east runs parallel with the seafront, dividing the city centre from the marina and bay areas.
This means Swansea's city centre truly has, as Thomas observed, turned its back on the sea. Visitors to Swansea could spend a whole day shopping without realising they could be on a beach within five minutes' walk. The busy road separating them has redefined what the city can offer visitors.
A lot has already been done to realign the city. SA1, the city's flagship waterside development, is now linked to Swansea's old marina by three modern bridges. The development of Salubrious Place at the bottom of Wind Street, Swansea's infamous nightlife centre and a natural route to the dock, has brought the old marina and the city closer. As has the £32.4m regeneration of Princess Way - another street linking the centre with the marina - which will be mostly pedestrianised. The establishment of the National Waterfront Museum across the road from these streets and the landscaping of surrounding land has also helped.
One of the first projects to arguably kick-start this process, however, was the 2002 opening of Morgans Hotel, a five-star boutique in a listed building also across the road from Wind Street. Swansea's first five-star hotel - as ranked by the Welsh Tourist Board - was an early indication of good things to come to this part of Swansea. For Martin Morgan, the owner, developing the building was something of a leap of faith.
"There is a perception that people in West Wales will not spend money," Morgan says. "But I knew that wasn't necessarily true. I had always loved the building and wanted to invest in something of quality that would also help put Swansea on the map. This was one of the things that was a catalyst for the regeneration of this part of the city. We are perfectly positioned between the new developments in the marina and the city centre."
The opening of the National Waterfront Museum has given this part of the city another big boost. And once the leisure centre reopens next door to it in 2008, two of the city's main leisure attractions will form what might be considered a new heart of the city, almost halfway between the current centre and the marina. The tallest residential building in Wales - to include a top-floor restaurant - is also planned for the old marina, boosting this part of the city further.
"It is clear that the docks were once at the heart of Swansea," says Stephanos Mastoris, head of the museum. "Without those, Swansea would not have developed in the way that it has.
The heart is now shifting back towards the docks. The layout of the land around this museum is designed to draw people down from the centre to the waterfront. It is a relatively straight path down from Wind Street and through the underpass to this area."
The underpass Mastoris mentions provides an easy link between the city and the marina. But it is the only one of its kind in Swansea. A bridge also crosses the road. But its location means it is not used very frequently. Pedestrian crossings across the four-lane road are the only other way across this barrier.
Changing this and strengthening links between the city centre and the marina is a priority for the city. A number of plans have been mooted to solve this problem. The most ambitious would be to re-route Oystermouth Road - the main access road into the city from the east - through tunnels. This would remove the barrier between the two parts of the city, opening it up. This, however, would be a very costly project and many doubt whether funding can be secured.
"We would dearly love the Assembly to give us money to do this," says Holley. "But if that does not happen we must find other, more imaginative, ways in which we can link the bay and the centre together. Perhaps we can create more ways to cross the road and turn it into something more like a tree-lined boulevard." A report is due out before the summer that will reveal more about the city's plans.
Strengthening the core The council's aim is not only to link the centre to the old marina, the home of the Waterfront Museum and leisure centre, but to also make access to SA1 easier. This development is seen by many as crucial to Swansea's future appeal.
"This is a landmark scheme which, to my mind, gives Swansea the edge over Cardiff in terms of waterside residential and mixed use developments," says Robert Evans, director at property consultancy EC Harris, which has worked on a number of projects at SA1. "Swansea is becoming a very desirable place to live and work. The city has traditionally suffered from a bit of an image problem and has perhaps been overshadowed by Cardiff. That is starting to change.
"But the city must also learn from the lessons of cities like Cardiff and ensure good links are in place between the waterfront and the city. There is the danger the two become divorced from each other. That will be the key to completing the city's regeneration." He suggests one solution would be to build a tram system between the city and SA1.
Matthew Stephens, sales and acquisitions director at Quest, the property development company behind South Quay, one of the site's mixed-use developments, agrees. "This gives Swansea a real platform of quality in terms of residential and office space. The city has never had anything like this before. And I believe its proximity to the city centre, providing the links are there, gives it an advantage over Cardiff Bay. SA1 will complement the retail offering in the city."
To maximise the effect of this link, however, the city desperately needs a better city centre. A number of large retail parks have been formed around the city's outskirts in the past 20 years. These have been very successful in their own right. They have created jobs and transformed parts of the city once left scarred by its industrial past. But they have also hit the retail offering of a city centre already showing signs of decline in other ways.
"You have to remember Swansea was flattened during the Second World War," says Hywel Evans, president of the Swansea and West Wales Chamber of Commerce and managing director of Computeraid. "It was rebuilt during the 1950s but it is now looking very jaded.
It has gone downhill. The enterprise park has sucked out a lot of business from the centre and it is crucial the city addresses this. If the centre implodes investors will not look at other parts of Swansea."
The city received a body blow in 2004 when department store David Evans, one of the city's flagship stores, announced it was to close. Plans are underway to redevelop this site. Thurleigh Estates has bought the building and has already signed agreements to let space to Zara and Slater Menswear. "Thurleigh is negotiating with more retailers," says Holley. "It will become a modern fashion outlet."
Evans at the Chamber believes the city hit rock bottom when David Evans closed, but is now on the way back up. Some, such as Jones at Morgan Cole, believe revamping its centre will consolidate its role as a regional capital for south west Wales. But many also think that, compared with other cities such as Cardiff and Bristol, Swansea will always struggle to compete as a retail destination. This means it needs to play to its other strengths.
An alternative vision for the city is that of a leisure destination. "I don't think we can become another mega-retail outlet like Cardiff," says Holley. "I don't think there is a need for it. But what we can become with everything we have to offer is more of a visitor destination with our economy revolving around leisure and culture as well as retail. That allows people to discover some of Swansea's real secrets such as its indoor market."
"You sell Swansea to tourists, you sell Wales," adds Jones.
This approach to attracting visitors also ties in neatly with what it has to offer businesses. It is crucial that in the long run Swansea also has what it takes to attract quality firms to establish offices in the region. One of Swansea Futures' mandates is to develop literature and programmes designed to sell the benefits of living in Swansea to people thinking of taking jobs there or companies planning to open offices in the city.
"There are so many unique aspects of Swansea that are key selling points," says Fiona Rees, executive director of Swansea Futures. "The city has a unique combination of city, coastline and countryside that makes for a very good quality of life. Most people have to choose one of those three things. Here, you do not have to compromise. It is also a very friendly and welcoming place to outsiders."
Shouting about its assets Swansea has other characteristics to further its appeal to companies. Many cite its workforce as a big attraction. Welsh insurer Admiral, for example, is set to increase its presence in the city. It already employs 650 staff in Swansea. This year, it will move to new premises at the SA1 site, where it will create a further 350 jobs over three years.
It says it is easier to recruit in Swansea than Cardiff. "The local labour market has produced an abundance of talent in the past and our expansion will allow us to draw on it once more and reinforce our position as a company dedicated to the Welsh economy," says Justin Beddows, spokesman for Admiral. He says the city has a big catchment area for staff stretching from Bridgend in the east to Carmarthen in the west.
Other local businesses back up Admiral's comments. "Swansea is now moving towards becoming a knowledge-based economy," says Jones at Morgan Cole, the first company to take premises at SA1. "The workforce here is very good. And it is attractive to workers in so many other ways due to its quality of life."
Robert Lloyd Griffiths, director of business development at law firm Leo Abse & Cohen, which has an office in Swansea, agrees. "It is an increasingly vibrant area and is a perfect base from which to service clients across south west Wales," he says. The only small negative for some firms, but which is changing, is that despite its attractions it can be hard to attract experienced, senior staff in some professions to the area. "That is the biggest issue for us," says Thomas of Morgan LaRoche.
As well as attracting businesses to the city, Swansea is also trying to create more of its own. A lot of momentum has been generated by the University of Wales Swansea; the most ambitious scheme being the Technium concept - a project set up by the university and funded by the Welsh Development Agency. It involves building purpose-built office space for small, fast-growing companies with a focus on knowledge-based industries. Nine such buildings will be completed by the middle of this year with more in the pipeline (read more about the Technium initiative from p44).
But there are other projects as well. The university opened an Aquaculture Wales centre earlier this year, funded by the European Union and the Welsh Assembly, that aims to research and help facilitate the creation of land-based commercial centres that will farm and sell fish. This is a potentially huge business for Wales.
The university also recently took delivery of the world's biggest computer, to be dedicated to medical research in a new Life Sciences Unit formed with IBM. And the university has also been involved in a £330m project that will create an internal Institute of Advanced Telecommunications. The scheme is the result of a collaboration between the university, the Welsh Assembly and a number of private sector partners.
"All these things are about incubating the knowledge economy in this region and creating a sustainable engine for economic development," says professor Marc Clement, chair of innovation at the university. "Over time we hope there will be a honey-pot effect. Not only will some of the businesses that have come through things like the Techium centres be successful and continue to grow, we also hope other firms will attracted from elsewhere because of the skills and the type of companies we have operating here."
It is projects such as these that will guarantee the long-term prosperity of Swansea and its economy and make the city's future - which looks so potentially bright at the moment - a reality. Projects such as SA1 will create high-quality office and residential space and schemes such as these emerging from the university will fill them.
Swansea may not be there yet. It still has a troublesome transport system, to which there is no easy solution due to the city's topography. It must follow through on its plans to refocus the city, turning once more to face the sea. And do everything it can to ensure its city centre is as good as it can be. All while making the most of the assets it already has. "Swansea has never shouted about its assets enough," Morgan says.
But the list of what it has to shout about is growing fast, highlighting the natural assets the city has always had. Soon, perhaps, it will be known as a graveyard of ambition for all the right reasons, as a place to live and never leave. Dylan Thomas also said "ambition is critical". Swansea seems to be rediscovering this.
Also in: March - April 2006
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