NEWLY released government papers reveal the behind the scenes negotiations that nearly saw Swansea, rather than Cardiff, become the home of Welsh democracy. 

Tony Blair’s new Labour government had promised to establish a Welsh Assembly, that would sit at Cardiff City Hall, when it won the 1997 general election, pending a referendum. The Assembly won approval, by a narrow majority, that September but within weeks talks over acquiring the historic City Hall had stalled. 

Cabinet papers, released by the National Archives yesterday, show how then Welsh Secretary Ron Davies was unable to reach agreement with Cardiff Council led by councillor Russel Goodway. 

A letter from Davies to the prime minister, dated November 1997, outlined how Cardiff council was holding out for an above market price for the Grade I listed building. 

Davies told Blair he had “excellent alternatives” which were either using temporary accommodation in Cardiff before moving to a new building or setting up the Assembly at Swansea Guildhall. 

A handwritten note scrawled on top of Davies’ letter to the PM states “Can you sort out Russell, we need Assembly in Cardiff”. 

The government was willing to offer £3.5m for Cardiff City Hall, which the district valuer had assessed as the market value, but the Labour council was holding out for some £14m. The government had budgeted for between £12m and £17m for setting up the Assembly and feared the need to upgrade City Hall would take the total cost to £32m. 

The National Wales: Cardiff City Hall Picture: Huw Evans AgencyCardiff City Hall Picture: Huw Evans Agency

The Labour government had won 34 of 40 Welsh seats at that year’s election and the papers show Blair’s aids were still trying to understand how the long promised Assembly had only won approval at the referendum with a majority of less than one per cent.  

Davies warned Blair he was concerned rising costs would be a gift to political opponents, especially if extra costs would have to be met from the Welsh block grant and come at the expense of public services. 

The then Caerphilly MP wrote: “Our political opponents have focused consistently on the cost of the Assembly. They will examine our decisions and their costs in remorseless detail and point to any additional costs as further evidence supporting their view that the Assembly is no more than an expensive talking shop which will come at the expense of front-line public services like health and education.” 

The National Wales: Former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies Picture: Huw Evans AgencyFormer Welsh Secretary Ron Davies Picture: Huw Evans Agency

Davies had suggested the Assembly could have been temporarily or permanently located at Swansea Guildhall and claimed his alternatives could be kept within the £17m budget. 

His letter to Blair stated: “Swansea are predictably eager to host the Assembly” and added: “there are also substantial wider benefits”. 

He said locating the Assembly in Swansea would give “immediate substance” to "our commitment" to “do more for the relatively neglected west of Wales.” 

Davies said by December, when the legislation to establish the Assembly was due to get its second reading in the House of Commons, he wanted to be able to announce a consultation on either a temporary home and new build in Cardiff or Swansea “as my first choice”. 

Other papers show how Davies was preparing to get the “bad news” of the breakdown in negotiations with Cardiff out of the way so as not to distract from the bill’s passage through the Commons. Labour had a massive majority, despite the potential opposition of some Welsh Labour MPs, and only the Conservatives, who didn’t hold any Welsh seats at the time, were opposed to establishing the Assembly. 

Eventually Davies did invite bids from other Welsh locations to host the Assembly with sites offered by councils in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Merthyr Tydfil, Powys, Wrexham, Flintshire and Bridgend. 

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But eventually Davies opted for a temporary Cardiff site and a new building, a decision later ratified by the Welsh Assembly which is now known as the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru. 

Notes in the cabinet papers show the Swansea Guildhall option was considered cheaper than any Cardiff site including Crickhowell House which became the Assembly’s home from its opening in 1999 to when the new Senedd Building opened in 2006. The final cost of the new building was £70m. 

Peter Black, who represented Swansea in the National Assembly as part of the South Wales West region from 1999 to 2016, said he doesn't believe the city was being seriously considered over Cardiff. 

The Liberal Democrat, who remains a councillor in Swansea, said he also doubts the lower cost estimates for the Guidhall were accurate. 

The National Wales: The Senedd in Cardiff Bay Picture: Huw Evans AgencyThe Senedd in Cardiff Bay Picture: Huw Evans Agency

The former Assembly Member told The National: “I think Ron Davies used Swansea as a negotiating point. It became quite apparent Swansea was never considered a serious option, despite that a lot of work went into preparing the bid by Swansea. 

“I think the cost is complete nonsense. When the Liberal Democrats took over Swansea council, in 2004, the Guildhall required £30m of work, and put in place a programme that is coming to an end now. 

“It’s a Grade I listed building, as is Cardiff City Hall, and the cost estimate was way out to bring the Guildhall up to standard. 

“I think it was right they should look outside Cardiff for a home for the National Assembly but that’s history and we are where we are but I think Swansea was just a negotiating tactic.” 

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