In the summer of 2022, I spoke with Swansea council leader Rob Stewart about the past, present and future of Swansea.
How much has the success of Swansea City Football Club over the last 15 years or so helped the city. Does it make any real difference to the city?
Yeah, economically the club is massively important. When the club were in the Premier League, the global reach of the swans as a brand and therefore the city, you could not buy that. I remember my previous work was with government, setting up factories etc. in different countries and I’ve been to Brazil a couple of times. Nobody knew Swansea the first time that I went out. When I went back, nobody knew Wales, but everyone knew Swansea because of the football club, and you cannot overestimate how important that is to the city.
But does that really matter? When we are getting the arena together or whatever, surely it doesn’t really matter?
Of course it does. I think with Premiership status comes a certain awareness and the Premier League is global. It is a status which lifts you above where you would otherwise. In terms of status, when you are talking with people who want to invest or want to create jobs then football is a good leveller, it’s a good opening gambit. That is something which is unquantifiable but there is good evidence to suggest that the economic impact is there to see thanks to the football club and we should all be thankful for that. Obviously as a Swansea lad, you want to see us do better than Cardiff. As leader, I want to see us back in the premiership because the interest that we had from China a few years back, from America obviously, it does give us an awareness which we don’t usually have.
Were you involved at all with the stadium coming into being?
I became a politician first in 2003, so the stadium was at the point where it was nearly completed. I know the background as to why the council took the decision to develop the land so that it didn’t fall on taxpayers. The council were right to show the ambition they did because we had the swans at risk of dropping out of the league completely. The council actually stepped in twice to support the club and ensure they continued to be a functioning club and I think they were right to do that.
When you are setting out to build something like the stadium, it’s not always clear what the benefit is to the taxpayer but I think the council were really clever because what we did here has been copied across the country in other towns and cities. Essentially, all the development around the stadium and the funding from that was used to pay for the stadium.
That was the foundation for the club to set out its ambitions and become a more professional outlet and get to the premier league. I think that if the club was still at the Vetch and I know that emotively the vetch is still a special place and a big part of history, but I don’t think the swans would have got back into the premiership without the stadium. It was the right thing to do.
And as you say, it has gone full circle, where the council’s investment in the club has helped the club which has helped the city grow?
Yeah, and I’m a believer that we must work together. We have created since 2014 what we call ‘Team Swansea’, it’s not a cheesy speech, it’s a real think. I talk regularly to the chief exec of the Swans and the stadium as well as the university and the major organisations across the city to understand their plans and their ambitions and to ensure that we can work collaboratively to bring this city forward and support each other.
Obviously, there are strict rules by FIFA and UEFA as to how involved a council or government can be with a football club, if in, 5- or 10-years’ time or whatever, the club wanted to expand the stadium, can the council put any money towards it?
The council still own the stadium and obviously it is leased to the club. We have been very clear, that if the club wanted to purchase and own the asset then that is something that we have no issue in principle of doing. There is a whole raft of ways that the asset can be expanded. As owners and landlords of the stadium we could legally expand it ourselves I imagine. However, for the taxpayers, we obviously need to ensure that any deal is right. So really, we wouldn’t rule out putting any money in, but it would need to be in a way that was lawful and was a good deal for the taxpayer.
You mention the building and the development down there, obviously there were a lot of grassroot football fields there. Do we have enough football pitches in Swansea for grassroots?
We certainly have enough open spaces; I think Robert Francis Davies said that we have more open spaces in our city than any other of our size. We have been working again with the academy and the swans to create 2G, 3G and all-weather pitches across the city and we have had a massive expansion in those sort of facilities over last 5 or 6 years.
Innovative ways, like the redevelopment of our schools. People may not know but we have spent £150 million on schools but this isn’t just on buildings but on things like 3g pitches. We want to ensure that there are all-weather pitches across the county. As well as that, we have tried to support clubs to take ownership of their fields. Saying ‘if you are a football club then you probably have a better idea of what you need that we do’ and allowing them to have more control over it.
We are in strange times in grassroots football. The Mens game here has declined a lot. I played Sunday League for years and we had 3 or 4 leagues running and now there aren’t any. However, the girls and women’s football are increasing dramatically, it’s hard to foresee the future but in ten years’ time, if as many women are playing the game as men do, which looks possible. Where can they play?
All I can say is that everywhere that we have delivered all weather pitches, they are fully booked. Demand still outstrips supply. We have been re-elected, I think football remains the major participated sport for men, boys, girls and women and I think it’s great that more people are playing the game. We want to support that because it leads to healthier lifestyle, mental health and development. For all those reasons it’s the right thing to do. We invested £1 million into a skate park; we have a programme of about £20 million going into sports which includes more all-weather pitches.
Swansea Skate Park
That skate park looks as if it’s been a bit of fun to get through!
Yeah, its not our delivery but its on land that we are in control of. Clearly there were people that didn’t want it in that location, but the community views were the one that won out.
If you’d have told me 20 odd years ago that Swansea would have got to the Premier League and everything that went with it, then I wouldn’t have believed you. Its nearly 20 years since you became a councillor. Would you have believed the change in Swansea over that time?
I’ve lived in Swansea all my life and I want it to succeed, I’ve lived and worked here all my life. Political point for a moment, for a long part of the 2000s I think we drifted, we missed out on a lot of investment which happened in the north of England and in places like Cardiff and Bristol.
Why was that?
I don’t think we had ambition. This is not to criticise anyone but it’s the signs of a coalition and we had a coalition in Swansea for 8 years. What always comes with a coalition is compromises and people balancing other parties’ points of view. People trying to work together to run Swansea and I am not a great believer that coalitions deliver. It’s not a criticism of anyone, I’ll leave the party politics for the chamber.
What I hope that we have been able to do since 2012 and since I took over as leader in 2014 is to say that ‘we are going to change the city centre’. My background is in project management, my background is in project delivery, I came to politics with a skill set to do that and you only get one crack at it and when I became leader, I wanted to deliver on the things that we promised people. You are always going to get people who disagree, people used to say ‘things never happen here, Cardiff will get it’ and in a sense we were talking ourselves into failure.
Ambition is Critical!
A part of my first job was to convince people that we could deliver and set out a stall that ‘we are going to deliver an arena in Swansea and not just because we want a shiny new building but because we want people to come here, for Swansea to be a destination again’. Now at the time I didn’t have the money to do it, I had the ambition, but some people didn’t have the belief. I managed to secure the city deal of £1.3 billion which created the finance.
That’s now created interest and private investors are now investing in Swansea again. Private investors are contributing £1 billion into this city, more than we have ever had. You look across the skyline and we have crains at various sites. If people haven’t been into the city since covid then when they get here; it’s a different city. It is not done yet; we still have major challenges and of course we had to do this through Brexit and covid, but we have to step up, we have to believe ourselves more, we have had too much small-town thinking.
Before the last election. I put out in the press that we were going to deliver an aquarium for Swansea. Now, when I did that for the arena 5 or 6 years ago, I had loads of people saying ‘it won’t happen, it will go to Cardiff etc…” when I did that for the aquarium, I didn’t get that. I had people saying “where will it be? What’s going to be in it? Who is going to run it? But nobody questions that it would happen. That’s a big change in the perception of what we can do.
As we have done is Sport, there were loads of fans that didn’t believe we could get back in the Premiership but we did. My job as council leader, is to ensure that the city gets back into the Premiership and you have to back yourself to do that.
What’s the biggest change? The one bit of infrastructure which will be this council or even your legacy?
I don’t like legacy stuff because it’s a bit self-indulgent. I’m proud of securing the city deal because that has allowed everything else. £1.3 billion is not a small amount of money but it has allowed what is happening on the Kingsway, the arena, offices, houses for people that will cost less than £100 energy bill a year. Its enabled so much. I’m proud we delivered the arena because it is the point-to thing, people can say that ‘we weren’t messing around, we were serious’.
I must admit that I love the bridge leading up to it. Whether you like it or you don’t, its ours, its unique, it’s our bridge!
I was concerned about the colour of the bridge, if you imagine, when you paint your living room, you put a little bit on the wall and you don’t know how its all going to look until its done, and it is no different with a big project. The bridge was supposed to exactly match the metal on the outside of the arena, of course when it turned up its not an exact match but there is an aging process to it, to ensure the paint lasts.
We have got to the point where I’m glad we got to, people call it the Taco Bridge or the Crunchie Bridge, for good or for bad but they weren’t questioning that it was going to be there. We are talking about a physical landmark in Swansea but for 10 years we were talking about things not happening.
My mortgage is up for renewal soon. I’ve seen the figures and it’s going up a bit. The council have borrowed a fair chunk have they not? Is the council going to see the same issue on a larger scale?
This is where I think we have already been proved right. You and I with our mortgages, we can possibly fix our rate for 5 years. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose depending on what happens to the rate. We borrowed about £100 million at 1.96% and we have been able to fix that for 50 years. The rate if we borrowed today would be 3.25%.
This is the bit that never gets in the press; we pay back as a council, £14 million of old borrowing every year. That old borrowing was taken out in the 90s and 00s when interest rates were 9% or 10%. So, what we have done is that we paid off the old expensive stuff and have taken out new stuff at a historically low rate. Even though we borrowed double what we had, what I’m paying back is less than what we were before. It’s a no-brainer.
Where are we with the tidal lagoon?
After it being cancelled twice. I am a stubborn bugger and so we set up a piece of work in the city deal to look at what we can do to make the tidal lagoon possible. The technology is not in doubt, the wall, solar, all the turbines, it’s all proven, it’s not new, it’s how you put it all together that’s key.
The part that the government wouldn’t approve was the cost of it, so I set a challenge which is essentially; what do we need to do to make the finances work? We went out to a load of international companies, and we got together a load of people who had worked on things like Disneyland Paris, projects in Dubai, big major, multi global projects. Ones which bring in resources around the world.
There are people in there that they call ‘Imagineers’, they do next generation engineer thinking. What they were tasked with doing was working out what to do to make the lagoon possible without costing a fortune.
So, we have a new scheme which has come together with a firm called DST. They are not a household name, but they’re involved with major film distribution. Involved with the Marvel franchise, Lord of the Rings etc. They have invented a new type of battery technology which uses coal, it stores the energy produced by green methods. They have recently signed a £500 million deal with West Virginia to create a battery facility there.
What this does is produce a green battery using coal. One thing that we have in common with West Virginia is that we still have lots of coal, but we can’t burn it because it will pollute the atmosphere. What we can do though, is to use the coal in the batteries which is a much greener method. It could be a new industry for us, so why wouldn’t we?
It isn’t the council or government doing this but the private sector. They are interested in that, and is how they became involved in the Tidal Lagoon. Another thing that DST are good at is bringing other consortium partners together. They are bringing HSBC in for funding, SSC for energy distribution, Siemens for energy technology.
The first lagoon proposal was that we would have a wall with 16 turbines in. The tide comes in and the tide goes out, every time it does this, it moves the turbines but that was the only thing creating electricity. It would cost £1.3 billion to build the wall and engineering and you got 1 energy source. That is why it was unaffordable without government support.
What they’ve said is, hang on, lets look at it a different way. They have developed this battery technology and they want to deliver a battery technology in the dock area near the lagoon. It then potentially utilises coal from Wales for the batteries and those batteries can potentially be put in the walls of the lagoon, so they store a lot more energy than what the lagoon produces alone.
Then they thought, the thing about the lagoon is that it is an un-interrupted power supply. Unless the moon stops going around the earth then there will always be a power supply.
What is the greatest need for an uninterrupted power supply? And that is data centres. So, they are looking at 2 mega data centres to be a part of it. The cloud for computing, facebook, mining, all require massive data centres that need to have uninterrupted power. It can’t be off for a second.
It is a big offering to companies like Google and Amazon, we could host their data centres here and we have got a big power station right next to it. Data centres take a lot of energy and its not good for the likes of Google and Amazon to be burning massive amounts of fuel for their data centres, but the lagoon creates green energy which could be uninterrupted to support it.
Not only that but the data centres are massively hot. They need massive amounts of air conditioning to cool them but let’s backward engineer that and let’s extract the heat from the data centres and pump them out into houses built around the docks and the lagoon. This gives low-cost heating to thousands of homes. All of this together, plus floating solar gives us something which not only doesn’t cost anything but provides massive amounts of revenue back and potentially clean energy for 45,000 houses.
We have targets to be net zero as a council by 2030 and as a county by 2050. If we can get this off the ground, we can get to net zero by 2030. It’s a massive game changer. It doesn’t currently require any money from government.
How does that feel for you as a Labour leader? We’ve talked about billion-pound investments, Google and Amazon, is that just how it is? Are we in a capitalistic world and we can’t do things without the big players? Does that sit fine with you or would you rather this was a government putting this together?
I’m a pragmatist at the end of the day. A monopoly is wrong whether its private or public. I don’t support the broad capitalism where they ruin the environment, rip off workers etc. There are expertise in the private sector. The private sector is not a bad word, they have a part to play in the same way as the public sector does. If you go to the extreme in either system, then we are in trouble. I’m happy with the medium. Do I think this nonsense the Torys talk about that the private sector is always best? No, I don’t. Do I think that the private sector in the NHS is a good thing? No. Do I think we have great bus services in the area? No.
But if we had a Labour government in Westminster and in your ideal scenario, would a £1.3 billion tidal lagoon have some government funding?
The question is what does it need? The first offering that we had for the lagoon, I still believe that if it needed additional funding and it was going to be the first in the world then that was perfectly legitimate for a government to support. We are already putting subsidy into wind and into nuclear. What seemed unfair was that the government decided that it wasn’t willing to put it into tidal. A government investing into Tidal is perfectly legitimate and a good thing to do.
Did you go too far with some of the things which you said pre-election?
Give me an example.
Calling Matthew Bailey a “committed right-wing Tory”.
I think that is reasonable political exchange. The reality with Matthew was that up until the 24th February, he was the Conservative candidate for Clydach. He resigned from the Tory party and stood as an independent a couple of weeks later. We’d had exchanges in the past around conservative policy, including things like cuts to universal credit of £20 a week and other policies which I disagree with and he defended them and remained in the Conservative party. I get called a ‘left wing labour politician’ etc.. and it’s all a part of the game. I think it was legitimate for me to call him out for being a tory councillor and a tory member up to two months before the election.
But “committed right wing”?
Torys are right wing and I’m guessing that as he was a tory member for many years then he must have been committed and given that the Torys are right wing then he must have been.
This is a sore subject, but we have a real problem with heroin. Whenever I walk through the city centre it’s like zombie apocalypse. What can be done? I understand its tough.
Again, we look at our own area and think that we are the only ones going through this problem, but we have county lines which is the trafficking of drugs by organised crime to supply to vulnerable people. It is linked with sex trafficking, and it is a complex problem. It is not something that only affects Swansea but as a major city we see our share.
We are in the process of setting up a drug commission, but a part of the challenge is that it is not just the end user you need to get to but the organised crime, the sexual exploitation of people, it is a really nasty system. It is about the police, the health board and everyone working together so that we all coordinate our efforts. For the ordinary member of public, what we see is the anti-social behaviour and the same concerns are being raised in Neath, Carmarthen, Cardiff. I went to the Labour conference in Brighton and the amount of people begging there, people under the influence of drugs and alcohol; it isn’t just a Swansea.
Finally, I do feel that as you’ve said, we have this real ambition in Swansea now. We are seeing change, but can we keep it up?
Yeah. Once you are standing still then you are actually going backwards, and people need to remember that. When people are scared of change, I always say that not changing is the worst thing that you can do. That’s what we did for 8 years and it’s the worst thing to do. I’m happy for people to question whether we are making the right change but not whether we should change at all. We cannot lose the ambition because everyone else is going to move forward.
In terms of what’s coming, the reinstatement of Castle Gardens, the upgrade of that key area. The delivery of the Library and archives in the BHS building, the delivery of 71-72 Kingsway which will provide 600 really high quality jobs to support Oxford Street, the Kingsway and that part of the city. Delivery of the aquarium, the public sector hub, which is ourselves, Welsh Government, UK Government all bringing jobs into a new building just opposite the arena. The delivery of new homes in the city centre, not just student accommodation but new homes for families.
Skyline Park on the top of Kilvey Hill, that is definitely happening, it is signed off by the board, by Welsh Government and will shortly come to us to sign off. The opening of Penderyn whiskey, hopefully a new hotel near the stadium, expansion of the stadium if that’s what the club wants to do. All those things are possible. The tidal lagoon, they have raised £344 million already for that. The metro will happen. We need to keep moving forward.