The Tide Turns At Cardiff's Port...And Opponents Can't Hold It Back

Robert Gatheridge remembers when the area around Cardiff Bay was nothing but derelict buildings and wasteland. "It used to be an area people feared to tread," says the longtime resident of the Welsh capital. But now there are cranes and bulldozers everywhere. New roads and shiny buildings sit alongside sites leveled and ready to be built on. The change, says Gatheridge, 42, "has put us on the map."

Certainly that was the goal of the $4 billion plan, first announced in 1987, to regenerate the old docklands of Cardiff. The scheme, one of Europe's most ambitious, covers one-sixth of the city of Cardiff--a 1,100-hectare area. Already springing up is a posh inner harbor area with upmarket shopping, museums, and tourist attractions, modeled on projects in American cities such as Baltimore. There will be millions of square meters of new office space, 6,000 new homes, and maybe a new arts center. There should be 30,000 new jobs and 2 million tourists a year. "The Cardiff Bay regeneration plan is critical to Cardiff's prospects," says Max Munday, economist at the Welsh Economy Research Unit of Cardiff Business School. The city is already one of Britain's fastest-growing, though its jobless rate is 7.1%, vs. 6.5% for the nation.

VANISHING MUD. But these big plans, say the developers, hinge on the controversial centerpiece: a 1.1-km marine dam. The reason? A 13-meter tide, the second-largest in the world, means that Cardiff Bay is actually tidal flats. For 14 hours a day, it's mud. While that makes a perfect habitat for migratory birds, developers didn't think it would attract the fancy folks they're after.

So a dam, or "barrage," will impound two rivers, creating a 200-hectare freshwater lake. After a six-year battle in Parliament and two years of construction, the barrage should be finished early next year. By October, 1998, the mud will have disappeared--unless opponents come up with some last-minute way to stop it.

The mud didn't prevent Cardiff from being one of the world's busiest ports at the turn of the century. But the port has languished since World War II because of the decline of the Welsh coal and steel industries. In 1987, the government decided something needed to be done. It pledged $720 million to regenerate the area and aims to attract $3.2 billion in private investment.

Cardiff Bay Development Corp., the quasi-governmental group running the project, has concentrated on cleaning polluted land, creating infrastructure, and battling for barrage approval. In 10 years, the developers have achieved only 42% of their goal for December, 1999, when the CBDC is due to dissolve. But $1.3 billion in private finance has come in from companies including Ocean Technical Glass, a Japanese-German joint venture.

Nevertheless, the project has a raft of critics. They say the area is too far from the city center. And of the 7,845 jobs created, many were simply shifted from nearby. Says Charles Burris, publicity officer for Cardiff Residents Against the Barrage: "We aren't against redeveloping the docklands, but this isn't the right way to go about it."

The most vehement criticism is over the $308 million barrage. Even as it nears completion, opponents including local politicians, residents, and environmental groups fight on. "This is the biggest waste of money since the pyramids," says Rhodri Morgan, a local Member of Parliament.


Opponents see huge environmental problems. The lake will be a pollution pit, they say, breeding bugs, algae, and bacteria. It won't be suitable for swimming, windsurfing, or waterskiing. And rising groundwater could threaten 19,000 nearby houses.

What's more, the barrage will destroy the feeding grounds of thousands of wading birds. To win approval, developers promised to create a compensatory bird habitat. They are struggling to get the nod for a $9.1 million scheme to make a wetland in the nearby town of Newport by flooding previously reclaimed coastal farmland.

Opponents hope the European Commission or maybe a new government in Britain might stop the barrage, but chances of EC rescue seem slim, and the Labor Party hasn't taken a position. With less than a year to go, time is running out.

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