Friday, 17 December 2010

Another milestone for Friars Walk approaches

On Monday, Newport City Council will find out which developers are interested in building and then operating the Friars Walk development. Irrespective of who we have spoken to, everyone recognises the importance of the Friars Walk scheme. Apart from bringing much needed new shops, a cinema and restaurants, it will also substantially rehabilitate some of the most barren aspects of Newport’s townscape. It’s not just new shops that Newport needs, but a City Centre which feels like a coherent place which is enjoyable to spend time in.

Any developer worth their salt will be taking a long term view of this project and I hope that whoever is selected will begin by looking at the mistakes from the past. Sadly, they won’t need to travel far. Like many places, Newport has its fair share of scars from a previous generation of redevelopment and infrastructure projects which will serve as a reminder of why it is so important to get Friars Walk right. However, these problems aren’t unique to Newport. Other cities have had a far worse situation to deal with and recovered comprehensively by healing similar types of scars that were caused by earlier inappropriate interventions.

The Bullring in Birmingham is a classic example. An organic network of historic streets was swept aside to make way for the brave new world of 1960’s ‘comprehensive redevelopment’. The warren of lanes and streets were seen back then as ‘anti-planning’ and unorganized.  What replaced the bustling streets became a monotone of monolithic grey blocks, dark malls and soulless pedestrian walkways which blighted the centre of the City and just as importantly, its image, for a generation.  In the 1990’s, Birmingham awoke to the problem and set about dismantling the failed vision by rebuilding the sense of place and reinstating some of the intimacy which had been previously discarded. The Bullring today is a thriving, forward looking expression of metropolitan values and high quality urban design. Just as importantly, it is commercially successful and has allowed the developers to make a handsome return on their investment. I hope that Newport can go through a similar metamorphosis as a result of Friars Walk.
Whilst the long process of getting the retail scheme on the ground continues, our team has been busy refreshing the regeneration masterplan for Newport and we are entering a critical phase of the process. Following on from initial consultation, we have made considerable progress towards refining the vision, clarifying the aims and objectives and devising a long list of potential projects. A batch of these came direct from local people direct from our facebook page ( Our next task is to whittle down the long list into a shorter, more refined one. The results of this work will be available to view at the end of January, when the draft proposals and ideas will be presented at a drop in exhibition in the City Centre.

Another satisfactory development this week has been the coverage that our work has received from a small, but significant, corner of Newport’s creative community ( I think that it’s critical that Newport’s future is built upon things which it already does well and music is one of these things. Developing a sense of dynamism and momentum requires a multitude of activities working in harmony to develop a buzz about the place.

With the right kind of help a healthier evening economy and music scene is something that we know can be achieved. Add to this, a rehabilitated City centre, a broader mix of shops and restaurants and finally, Newport can start to move out of the shadow of its neighbours and establish itself as a place with its own unique identity and positive future.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Finding a way forward for Newport

I hope that the recent ‘Save our City’ meeting was a turning point for the future of Newport. Clearly, there is only so much that can be achieved by a two hour meeting between 250 frustrated and angry people and four politicians. It wasn’t quite cathartic, but perhaps it was the beginning of a reaslisation that Newport’s problems are too big to be solved by any one group alone.

The session was called by the Chamber of Trade to ask senior Newport politicians what they were doing to halt the apparent spiral of decline which some feel has engulfed the City.

The opening exchanges revolved around car parking, crime and anti-social behaviour and when the proposed new shopping development might arrive. But in my opinion, the most telling exchanges came towards the end of the meeting when one trader asked the Council “what is your vision?”

Sadly, there wasn’t much common ground in the Kings Hotel that evening but the meeting highlighted how important it is for Newport to have a framework of decision making that everyone: politicians, officials, traders, shoppers and potential investors understands.

Only this week, we’ve been reviewing the regeneration masterplan prepared in 2004. The good news is that there is much to retain and build upon. However, so much of the previous strategy was based upon a credit fuelled property model that no longer exists. We can no longer rely on being able to build our way out of trouble and need to work with what we already have, which lets not forget, is a lot. 

Perhaps, the most significant outcome of our appraisal of the 2004 regeneration strategy was discovering that it wasn't particularly user-friendly. Dont' get me wrong, documents like this aren't meant to be page turners, but they do need to tell a clear and compelling story of how a place will be rehabilitated. We’ll be recommending to the City Council and Newport Unlimited that the way forward will be an updated regeneration plan that is simple to use and easy to understand with a vision, clear objectives and appropriate project ideas which everyone can get behind and make happen.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

How should we define success and what will it look like in Newport?

It’s been a busy week. Newport is slowly taking over all of my other projects (including the one called my social life). Working out what parts of the old strategy need to change, what the future priorities might look like and how the new strategy might reflect this has been time consuming stuff and we’ve only just started.
A sizeable wedge of the week has been spent working out how we are going to get people involved. I’ve concluded that this will include: facebook, the Argus, meetings with different groups (Council people, artists, community representatives, pinstriped property investors, promoters, traders etc), The Voice magazine and the good ‘ol fashioned public exhibition (which is currently pencilled in for January).
As some of our team are not Newportonian’s we invited our colleagues to spend a day with us in the City Centre. Our tour was conducted in sunshine during the Monday of half term and the place looked grand. The streets were busy and our guests, from London and Cardiff, thought that Newport looked much better than they had been expecting. What were they expecting? Clearly our reputation has travelled far and wide. Surely, Newport can’t conjure up the same images that you get when you think ‘Croydon’ or ‘Luton’? Apart from the busy streets, most of the compliments were directed at our buildings, which can become a passive and familiar background blur when you live here. Look up next time you are in town and you’ll see what I mean.  (I don’t recommend doing this in Cwmbran).

The facebook consultation ( ) has been running for three weeks and is proving to be a fascinating way of gaining people’s: priorities, ideas, pet hates and hopes for the future. There are a few recurring themes which include: the need to make the most of our music and cultural scene, the importance of our independent traders and the need for free parking. The online survey is also giving us some interesting results. Feel free to have a look. It takes less than a minute.
One topic which hasn’t yet generated clear consensus relates to the future of shopping in Newport. It seems that many people want a new shopping development, but one that will not damage our existing independent businesses or dilute the ‘soul’ of our City. There seems a genuine sense of unease about trying to be like everywhere else, a ‘clonetown’, whilst at the same time recognising that we shouldn’t have to travel to Cardiff to shop in a department store or visit a Pizza Express.
Recently, a friend of mine eloquently commented that: “Newport is a shit City. Name me one other city that doesn’t have a Pizza Hut in the Centre?” and I thought, “Is that a bad thing?” So a key question is: what will retail success in Newport look like? Should we welcome chain shops and restaurants where a higher proportion of the money disappears to shareholders in the United States? Or should our shops and restaurants be locally owned? (Think Pizza Hut vs. Vittorio’s) Can an environment be created in Newport where corporately owned and locally owned shops and restaurants can work together?  I sense that this may be our most important challenge ahead.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Building a shopping centre and loyalty

It has been made crystal clear to the regeneration team this week what NCC's number one regeneration priority is: get the new shopping centre built. It's comforting stuff, but we're wondering, 'is there more to fixing Newport than getting a developer to build a new shopping centre?'

For a start, it'll be interesting to find out whether the developers are out there these days who will build what Modus said they would build a few years back at the height of the property-led economic bubble. Which, as we all know, has well and truly burst.

What seems certain from the Future of Newport facebook page (!/pages/The-Future-of-Newport/110386125692564?v=info) is that the people of Newport don't seem to be up to date with the Council's strategy, and we hope to change that. The Council are coming under intense criticism, but mainly because I dont think that they have explained how they are going to go about getting new shops into the City Centre. Its not clear to people that it is not the Council who will build and pay for the new development and neither will it be them who pick the shops that go in it - but NCC will select the developer who will have responsibility for all this. If anything goes wrong, it'll be the Council that gets the blame, so it's up to them to get the right developer to build something which is good quality and realistic. If they dont ask enough of the developer, the resulting centre wont do enough to revive the town, if they ask too much and the developer has to downsize, everyone will end up disappointed again and this downward trend may not be reversed.

Getting property deals set up is a complex and highly technical process, sometimes requiring a degree of confidentiality, but people should still be given the opportunity to understand the process, priorities and timescales involved. In our current information vacuum, the Newport rumour mill is in overdrive about which retailer the City is losing next and we believe that this rapid erosion of confidence is doing Newport down, damaging our image and hastening the decline.

One thing I am currently considering is whether the entire strategy for Newport should be based entirely around getting into a shopping mall arms race with Cardiff, Cwmbran, MacArthur Glenn and Bristol? In these times where every town feels the same (and everyone is skint), we need to be thinking of building on Newport's identity and heritage as well as new shopping malls. We've started thinking of things that will get people back shopping in Newport long before Friars Walk, or whatever it ends up being called, is opened. I found some answers today and surprised myself in the process.

For the first time in ages I spent two enjoyable hours shopping. In Newport. I've got into the habit of shopping elsewhere so much that I forgot what Newport has to offer. I had great service and spent hard earned cash in locally owned shops on good quality stuff. It made me feel good, you know that warm glow that you dont get when you leave St.David's 2. It really highlighted how much Newport has suffered from being talked down, often by residents. There's good stuff here, honestly.

So whilst part of the strategy might be based on getting a new shopping mall in the City, part of it is up to residents, as consumers, to support the businesses in the City Centre. Today's lightbulb moment has been signficant for me. Every penny spent outside Newport City Cente will ultimately damage it, and we cannot blame the City Council for that.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Newport: the fightback

It's been a tough week for the 'Port. M&S are on their way out of the town. Arcadia Group (Monsoon, Accessorize, Burtons, Top Shop) are rumoured to be combining into smaller units, Next are rumoured to be, well, next! On top of this UK Government has decided to axe 300 jobs in the Passport Office. Can it get any worse? The glitz and glamour of seeing Tom Cruise in Greggs on High Street seems a lifetime ago. What can be done? What should the Council be doing? What about Newport Unlimited? Most importantly, what can the residents of our town do to make a difference?

There is a glimmer of good news amongst all this though...

The company that were going to develop Friars Walk went bust and it was their job to buy up all the land needed to build the new mall. Of course, that didnt happen, because they ceased to exist. The Council stepped in and used their planning powers (Compulsory Purchase Orders for the anoraks) to get all the land in their control so they could go out there and find another developer. Sadly, Iceland got in the way of this and the dispute went all the way to the High Court. Fortunately Newport City Council won their case this week and can now start the process of finding a developer. The bad news is that these things take time and I honestly think it could take up to four years for the centre to be with us.

Also planning consent has been given for a replacement scheme for the doomed 'City Spires', where the Cambrian Centre is now. I just hope that the applicant has everything lined up and is ready to actually build it.

It's obvious from this weeks events that Newport can't wait four years for something to happen, the City is unravelling before our very eyes and action is required urgently.

I had my first meeting with the City Council and Newport Unlimited this week as we kick start the process of updating the existing strategy. So much has changed since the old one (from 2004) was produced that its time for some new thinking. We are going to work at 100mph to keep up, then get ahead.

The idea of the entire City Centre being a desert is not one that anyone wants to imagine. It time for everyone to roll their sleaves up and work for our City.