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.


Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.

School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.