Wales at war over where to assemble

Roger Dobson on this week's showdown in the fight between Cardiff and Swansea
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The Independent Online
IT'S THE week of the final showdown between two warring Welsh cities.

The battle raging over whether Cardiff or Swansea will become the home of the new Welsh Assembly, with all the wealth and prestige that it will bring, will be won and lost this week.

Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales, is expected to put all concerned out of their misery and make his final choice in a contest which many believed had been settled years ago.

Since the fight for the Assembly began, with everything from campaigning posters and records to new songs and T-shirts thrown in the ring, there has been intensive lobbying throughout Wales.

Every speech and every word uttered by Welsh ministers and civil servants has been analysed for clues. On Friday one senior civil servant referred to assembly "buildings" rather than "building", fuelling rumours that a Cardiff Bay contender, the only bid involving more than one site, had won the day.

Assembly week begins today with an arguably unwanted curtain-raiser in the form of the twice-a-year bloodletting between the third division soccer clubs of the two cities.

Some trace the rivalry between the two cities back to the mid-18th century when Swansea was the prosperous place to be. A century later it was overshadowed by a Cardiff growing fat on coal exports, which at one time made it one of the biggest ports in the world.

"The rivalry was at its most intense in the mid-18th century as Cardiff overtook Swansea in size and then in civic status from 1905 onwards," said Cardiff MP Rhodri Morgan. "Swansea didn't get made a city until 1969 and that was only because things were so quiet in Wales in 1969, they were desperate for things for Prince Charles to do in his Investiture year."

For decades the two cities have fought or agreed to differ over most things, but the battle over the Assembly has been the most public of them all.

In the west corner is Swansea, the 18th-century copper capital of the world, which was once - some say only once - described as the Naples of Wales. Home to the Gower Peninsula, Penclawdd cockles, laverbread, and Bonnie Tyler, it also prides itself on being the capital of Welsh Wales. It was described by Dylan Thomas as his "lovely ugly town". Swansea folk are known as "Swansea Jacks", meaning a bit fly.

Swansea campaigners believe their Guildhall is the right home for a Welsh Assembly, not least because they voted in favour of devolution in the referendum while Cardiff voters rejected it. They were first to launch a rival bid for the Assembly and their armoury includes a promotional CD single with the Morriston Orpheus Choir and, of course, the words of Dylan Thomas himself.

In the east corner is cosmopolitan Cardiff, home of Shirley Bassey, Bernice Rubens, and Shakin' Stevens. Declared a city in 1905 and capital of Wales since 1955, its population look down on most of the rest of Wales as "woollybacks", a reference to the high ratio of sheep to people in most other areas. It boasts Tiger Bay, the revamped Cardiff Bay, the Welsh National Opera and Brain's beer.

But perhaps Cardiff's most important asset in the battle for the Assembly is the Welsh Office, a huge warehouse of civil servants, most of whom are not too keen on shunting up and down the M4 servicing a Swansea-based Assembly.

The hot money, at least in Cardiff, is on Cardiff getting the prize, and Swansea getting a consolation - perhaps an announcement that a foreign firm will bring in hundreds of jobs.

Cardiff City Hall was the favourite site, but a post-referendum row over money scuppered that idea, at least temporarily. Cardiff County Council rejected the Welsh Office offer to buy it for pounds 3.5m.

City Hall is among 14 sites in the capital that are in the running. But for some outsiders, hopes of landing the Assembly have long since faded. Merthyr Tydfil's Cyfarthfa Castle, Wrexham Town Hall, and Navigation Park in Abercynon were early casualties.

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