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.


“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  

For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.