South East Wales

Newport city centre fears at shop exodus

Image caption Shops have closed in Newport, including Next and Burton, while Topshop says it will also shut its store on Commercial Street

As high street names Marks and Spencer, Next, Burton and Topshop close stores in Newport, Gemma Ryall asks what it means for a city which just a year ago was in the global sporting spotlight.

With its boarded-up shops and empty buildings, Newport's high street is probably not that different to many city centres in difficult economic times.

But this is the area that only a year ago was hosting the prestigious Ryder Cup golf tournament, which promised so much in terms of investment and visitors.

Far from bringing boom, however, shoppers and workers in the city say they have never known the centre so quiet and neglected.

Newport council insist that the number of visitors to the city centre increased by "several thousand" in August and September compared to the same time last year.

But in recent months, high street giants Marks and Spencer, Next, Burton and Topshop have said they are closing shops.

And building work for the long-anticipated new shopping centre Friars Walk is not due to start until 2013 after work was delayed because of the credit crunch.

So what has happened to the once bustling centre of Wales' newest city? And what is being done to bring back the shops - and shoppers?

'No large employers'

Graham Morgan, director of the South Wales Chamber of Commerce, said a combination of things were behind the Newport exodus, particularly the fact that there are no longer many large employers based in the city centre.

"You have Newport council in the civic centre, which is quite far from the shopping centre, and most professionals like accountants and solicitors are now based near there too," he said.

"All the other big employers have moved to the peripheries of the city to be closer to the motorway. So you haven't got people popping in to shops at lunchtime to contribute to the economy.

"Newport needs to attract the big employers back to the centre. They have the infrastructure now with the new, state-of-the-art train station."

He said more also needed to be done to stop shoppers heading to out-of-town retail developments, like in nearby Cwmbran, and to the big shopping cities it is sandwiched between - Cardiff and Bristol.

"It's having the determination to create a better environment. You compare the arcades in Cardiff to what Newport has - it needs more of a cafe culture where people can relax with a coffee," he said.

"It needs to diversify to attract a different audience, having boutique-style shops and nice cafes and restaurants."

'Finishing early'

For those who work in the shops and indoor market in the city centre, it is a worrying time.

Shirley Carroll, who has worked at Ben's Bakes in Newport's indoor market for seven years, said she had noticed business becoming quieter.

"It's not as busy as it used to be. It's a lot quieter," she said.

"Now Marks and Spencer is going - it's a bit odd not to have one in a city centre.

"To be honest, I have noticed a lot of stall holders here finishing early because there's nobody here."

Ensieh Sohrab, is the shop manager at Amesha Handicrafts in Newport and also works at their shop in Cardiff.

She said the business may relocate entirely to Cardiff if business does not pick up in the next six months.

"It was quite busy when I joined six months ago but recently it's got a lot quieter, which you wouldn't expect with Christmas coming," she said.

"I don't know why it's happening but I think it's because so many shops from this part of town have gone."

And Natasha Barrett and Sophie Lightbody, who work in Pilot on Commercial Street, said they were worried about their jobs.

"We've only been open seven weeks but if Topshop can't survive here what hope have everyone else got?" Miss Barrett said.

'Key priority'

Newport council said it is doing everything it can to encourage people to visit the city centre, with a range of initiatives including a free parking offer in its car parks.

Bus services will be returning to High Street in December and a major refurbishment of the indoor market is planned.

Image caption The planned Friars Walk shopping centre would be built around John Frost Square

Planning permission for the Friars Walk development is also due to be submitted "shortly", the council said, with work expected to begin on site in 2013.

"Newport City Council and Newport Unlimited have made the city centre a key priority," said Matthew Evans, leader of Newport council.

"Initiatives like our first ever food festival which was held in the city centre last month have proved hugely successful and helped people rediscover that Newport still has much to offer.

"We have many excellent independent shops which were named the best in the UK by an independent survey less than a year ago."

He added: "I believe Friars Walk will attract new names to Newport as well as persuade others to return to the city centre or change their mind about moving."

Speaking to BBC Wales last month about the Ryder Cup's legacy, Mr Evans said: "Many local businesses gained directly as a result of the event although we always recognised it was not going to bring financial rewards for everyone, especially in view of the economic climate."

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