When I was a boy growing up in Abergavenny in the 1950s the town straddled one of the main routes into Wales – the A40. Indeed, the town prided itself as being ‘the gateway to Wales’. In those days there was no Severn Bridge, let alone a second crossing and motorways were something for the future. Railways were still the first option for long journeys and buses for shorter ones.
Today no doubt Abergavenny stills regards itself as a gateway to our country though it has dropped in the pecking order. Indubitably, the mantle has now been passed to Newport, twenty miles or so to the south, but with a major caveat. While the major communication arteries into Wales – the M4 and Great Western Main line – pass through Newport, very few travellers ever pause to give the city time or consideration.
These thoughts were going through my mind last week during a conference organised by the Gwent Branch of the IWA at Newport’s splendid new Riverfront Theatre on the regeneration of the city. The main theme was developing the city centre and Newport Unlimited’s vision for how it imagines it will look by 2020. Established in 2003 by the Welsh Development Agency as was, Newport Unlimited has already a list of impressive achievements under its belt. These include the Theatre where we were meeting, the Newport University city centre campus, the Kingsway shopping centre and car park, and the new train station associated with the 2010 Ryder Cup.
All these are important new assets for the city and no-one could quarrel with the 2020 vision or mission statement, which sets out to create:
“A city known as a destination for jobs, learning entertainment and a unique shopping experience. Newport will strengthen its role as a regional centre where more people have opportunities to work, live and play.”
But that’s the problem. The aspiration is so general and bland that no-one could take issue with it. Indeed, the same could be said of any regional centre anywhere in in the UK. To utilise the bottom-line marketing question, what is Newport’s unique selling point? Or as someone in the audience at the conference asked, “What is the overarching connecting theme that holds together the plans for Newport’s future?”
The question was made more urgent by Cities Outlook 2012, a report published on the eve of the conference by the Centre for Cities think tank. This ranks 64 cities across the UK according to their relative performance in terms of numbers of knowledge economy workers, the qualifications of the workforce, business start-ups per 10,000 of the population, and patents registered per 100,000 population.
On these scores Newport – along, it should be said, with Swansea – comes near the bottom of the list. The table below gives the cities at the bottom of the table, which have fewer people with high skills, more people claiming Jobseekers Allowance and a larger proportion of their total jobs are made up by the public sector. As the report puts it, “Cities like these are likely to be more vulnerable to rises in unemployment in 2012”
On the other hand, cities near the top of the table, those which according to the report are the “ones to watch’ in terms of development in 2012, reveal much better scores on all the criteria deployed
The report is clear that different policies must be devised for different cities that face challenges in facing the year ahead. One size will not fit all. So what can Newport do to push itself higher up this league table?
One thought that occurs to me is that Newport could start making an imaginative reality out of its claim to be the “Gateway to Wales”. It could identify particular assets that resonate with attributes that characterise Wales as a whole and make a virtue of them in terms of providing an introduction to the visitor of what Wales as a whole has to offer.
To take one example, Wales has been endlessly promoted as a Land of Castles In fact there were 641 at the last count meaning that we have more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe. In fact almost every town or village has some form of castle or fort including, of course, Newport. Most reading this will have seen it since it borders the river where the main railway line crosses. It is virtually impossible to visit, however, and the remains are so vestigial that, as it stands, it is hardly worth visiting anyway.
But if the site were redeveloped and made to house an interpretation centre using the latest computer graphics, it could introduce the visitor to the castle experience of Wales as a whole? There’s a big story to tell here, one that as far as I know has not so far been put into one place, and where better than in the gateway town to Wales.
How many people know that Newport boasts a magnificent cathedral which is 1,500 years old? Fewer still, I imagine, have ever visited St Woolas on Stow Hill, founded in the late 470s by the soldier-prince Gwynllyw. What about developing another interpretation centre at this site as an introduction to all the magnificent religious buildings and histories that are scattered across Wales?
Then there’s the Newport medieval ship, discovered in the banks of the River Usk in June 2002 during construction of the Riverfront Theatre. Funded by the council, a team of specialists are currently recording and conserving all 2,000 ship timbers and the artefacts discovered during the excavation. Once conservation has been completed it should be possible to rebuild the ship for open display. The opportunity could then be taken of placing this at the centre of a major exhibition introducing the visitor to Wales’s maritime history and other places connected with the sea around the country to visit.
These are just three examples, off the top of my head, of ways Newport could put its Welsh gateway status to good use. In the process it would provide a reason for people not just to by-pass the town on their way into Wales but to visit it as well, increasing the footfall and general prosperity.