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.