Why I wrote an alternative masterplan for Newport, South Wales

The Wave, Newport. Image: author provided.

To some, Newport is just another post-industrial city facing hard times. The data will tell you that it has the highest proportion of empty shops in Wales and England. With economically-successful Bristol half an hour to the east and the cultural and political hub of Cardiff 20 minutes to the west, what chance does Newport have to rise?

I can understand that way of thinking: the challenges to the city are great in both number and scale.  Yet I see things very differently. Newport has a once in a generation opportunity to reinvent itself. The gateway city to Wales is very well connected by road and rail to the rest of the UK.

House prices, while rising fast, are still far lower than our neighbouring cities. While not quite keeping pace with demand, the rate of home building in Newport is the fastest in Wales. Much of this development is non-controversial due to the large brownfield sites being brought back into use. There has been an influx of people moving from the Bristol region to Newport because of the cost-of-living advantages.

In the short term, this creates a commuter economy. While not ideal, that is still good news for Newport: people who previously spent their money largely in Bristol, will now have greater disposable income and spend at least some of it in Newport and south east Wales.

When one takes a longer-term perspective, the benefits for Newport are even greater. If a young graduate is priced out of Bristol and sets up home in Newport, they will initially put up with the commute. But in time they might want to work closer to home. Newport has already made significant advances in creating a hub for data and software innovation. If a similar approach is taken across other sectors, then the environment which creates new business opportunities will encourage professionals to develop their careers in Newport.

The alternative Masterplan, which was written as a constructive response to Newport City Council’s own proposals, calls for a challenge to the approach of simply maintaining the current impetus. Cities rise and fall over time: but to rise requires both the market conditions and the policy to harness them.

Friars Walk. Image: author provided.

Currently, a relatively affluent periphery is developing around Newport, but the city centre continues to be under great pressure. While changing shopping habits have affected every city, Newport is particularly badly hit because it has a relatively large retail footprint for its population size. The creation of a retail/social experience hub around the three-year-old Friars Walk development, connected to the railway station, is a good way to inject greater vibrancy into the city centre. Where that releases former retail space, new homes and office space can be created which will further increase footfall in the city centre.

We also need to look at how people move around the city. Newport is set to gain some welcome benefits from the South Wales Metro project, with a new rail link re-connecting the Ebbw Vale line to Newport’s main station, and local stations proposed for Caerleon and Llanwern. However, these will not have the same transformative effect as the Metro proposals in Cardiff or Rhondda Cynon Taff. I support the Metro, but I don’t want the economic gulf between Cardiff and Newport to be exacerbated.

The logistics of the Great Western mainline and Newport’s relatively low population make rail-based solutions difficult to deliver. So my report calls for a whole-hearted adoption of Bus Rapid Transit. BRT suffers an image problem because it lacks the glamour of trams – and until someone sees it up and running, their only reference point is the traditional bus service. Newport should aim for an exemplar to demonstrate how a metro-style network can be created using BRT.

The murals in Newport Civic Centre. Image: author provided.

Currently, Newport is generally viewed as Wales’s third city. It is also the third largest city of the Severn Region, although perhaps without the profile of fourth-placed Bath.

However, the advantages this post-industrial city has over others with similar economic and social challenges are significant. It is the central city of the Severn Region. We tend to ‘gold-plate’ the Wales/England political border, but in a practical sense Newport is on the doorstep of high-salary, low-unemployment Bristol and affluent Gloucestershire. It is less than two hours from London by train. And we are less than one hour from two international airports and eight universities, two of them Russell Group.

 The foundations for building an even better Newport in which to live, work, study and socialise are strong. To produce policy to harness that opportunity, we must be ambitious.

The alternative masterplan can be read in full here.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.