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.