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.