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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.