My vision for Newport city centre - taskforce chief Simon Gibson
THE chairman of the new taskforce looking into solutions for Newport city centre says he personally wouldn't bet a city on a shopping centre that might never happen.
Simon Gibson, who is heading up the Welsh Government's new business development project, said trying to compete with Cardiff and Bristol was folly and that the city needed a "serious business district".
But there are no politicians on his group because they "have had their go".
He told the Argus Newport needs a major regeneration project on the scale of Cardiff Bay or MediaCityUK in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, and that the city has the potential to be one of the "hottest" cities in the region already being the technology capital of Wales.
But if people are to fix it "we need to think about the Kingdom and not the tribe".
The chief executive of Sir Terry Matthew's investment firm Wesley Clover said the city has suffered from a lack of consensus in selling itself, and that the experience of hosting the Ryder Cup in Newport had been "painful".
In a long interview with Mr Gibson, the Argus asked what he thought the planned Friar's Walk regeneration project, which it is hoped will kick start Newport city centre's retail regeneration.
He said that in his personal opinion he "wouldn't bet the city on a shopping centre that might never happen and filling it full of retailers who themselves have a questionable future".
"If you own a shopping centre then you should be fearful because a lot of your tenants won't be there in five years' time," he said.
"Why would we bet the future of the city on such fragile places? There's far better things we can do in the city than just building a few new shops."
Mr Gibson is heading up the seven-man strong steering group behind the business development project, which is tasked to look at why firms are struggling in the city centre.
The rest of the appointments were discussed between himself and business minister Edwina Hart, he said. Some were suggested by the minister while others were picked by him.
Asked why there were no politicians on there, he said: "The politicians have had their go.
"That's not to say they are not vital, they represent the democratic voice of the people, but all we're going to end up with is hopefully making suggestions that the politicians can put forward."
Mr Gibson has been involved in business in the city and the region over a 30 year period, and has built companies here such as Newbridge Networks and Ubiquity.
He has also served two terms on the board of the former Welsh Development Agency (WDA), where he was involved in the Cardiff Bay and the Works in Ebbw Vale regeneration projects.
"That was an interesting experience to see how these big projects get delivered. Newport is not a project to tinker around with a few buildings," he said.
"The work that is going to have to go on in Newport is going to have to be on par with those."
He said Newport city centre needs to differentiate itself from "very very good shopping resources in Bristol and Cardiff" and that trying to compete with them was "folly".
But he pointed to the designer outlet shopping centre in Swindon as something the city could try.
He added that the city needed a "serious business district." He added the move by insurance giant Admiral, which employs 400 in Newport, into the city centre is a good one.
"Admiral is a good start. If we start building a technology cluster in the city centre itself, particularly in hi-tech and creative industries... we start to play to our strengths," he said.
The chairman of the steering group added that people needed to be encouraged to live in the city centre as well, so it stops being a no-go zone in the evenings.
"What did Cardiff Bay have, what did Salford Quays have, what did Liverpool have, what did Canary Whalf have? They had a big vision," he argued.
As a prerequisite for getting its work done, the taskforce would likely want a "big vision that creates consensus", statutory powers for whoever makes it happen and sufficient capital to attract private investment.
He said he had the impression that "with the right vision the cash is there" from the Welsh Government.
"If we propose a shopping centre or tinkering around with construction along the waterfront there won't be cash available because the vision is not enough to make the change," he said.
One of the tasks of the project, he said, is to identify what opportunities there are for the city, and play to those strengths.
Newport, Mr Gibson said, has suffered in the past from "a lack of cohesion in the public message – what is the product, what are we doing here."
He said cities such as Cardiff and Bristol have created such a consensus, which could also be seen playing out in Swansea with the city's new university campus.
He said: "They have a very ambitious programme... but everyone's has been on message. MEPs, MPs, AMs, city councillors, the business community, the academic community, they all speak as one."
Mr Gibson says the city has been insular and "tribal" in the past.
"If we are going to fix the city, we need think about the Kingdom and not the tribe," he said.
"Whenever there has been an opportunity to do something significant it has turned into a tribal issue."
He said there had been political tribalism as well as "public sector vs private sector".
"It just seems that good works and virtuous projects fragment quickly because there is always someone lined up throwing rocks at it," he said.
Mr Gibson said that was seen in the experience in hosting the Ryder Cup in 2010 at the Celtic Manor Resort – in particular he said organisers faced an attitude that Sir Terry "must be making tonnes of money out of it".
"It was fairly painful putting that on," he said. "I can't say it was a pleasure. It was quite difficult and quite fraught.
"There were huge swathes of people looking in complaining about it. "
He said there was an issue with people being pessimistic about the city.
He said: "We need to realise we are sitting on a gem here if we can just make some brave decisions that transform the city."
The steering group, he said, is to perform its task for free.
He said: "I've asked for volunteers. I haven't recruited employees. Bottom line: No one is going to get any money for doing this."
Putting criticisms to him that no one in the group is a regeneration expert, he pointed to his work at the WDA and his day job where he has built three and a half million square feet of real estate.
Others have asked why a few of the board's seven members can be linked to Sir Terry.
Mr Gibson is chief executive of Wesley Clover, owned by the billionaire, while Ian Edwards is chief operating officer of Sir Terry's Celtic Manor Resort. Another, Ben Milsom, was a graduate of the Alacrity scheme, which has received backing from the businessman.
However Mr Gibson said he is his own man and not Sir Terry's. He said Alacrity is not Sir Terry's scheme but is a charity supported by the public sector and a number of private concerns.
"I think Ben's met Terry once," he said. "The only other person is Ian. This year the Celtic Manor was reported the best hotel in Britain.
"My response is we should be so damn lucky to attract someone with Ian's expertise to volunteer to do this thing."
NEWPORT has the potential to be one of the hottest cities in the region, according to Simon Gibson who commended its transport links, beautiful surroundings and hi-tech firms.
He said Newport has been left behind and is sandwiched between two power house cities – Cardiff and Bristol. "It has somehow deteriorated over a 30-year, 40-year period. It's a poor cousin of the cities in the region.
"We need to fix that. It should be the hottest, in my opinion, because of its location."
The chief executive said that the location of Newport is unique, being the first stop into Wales from London.
"I don't know a city in Wales where you can get from the major motorway to the city centre within two minutes," he said.
He said Newport also has a "easy catchment area" to hire people from – businesses that set up here can hire from the West Country all the way to Bridgend, and up into Monmouthshire.
"Newport also enjoys one of the most beautiful hinterlands of any city in Britain, in Monmouthshire, and we don't play that up enough," he said.
"We are the undisputed technology capital of Wales. We don't play that up anywhere near enough. The city has key strengths in its capabilities in technology, particularly in things like homeland and cyber-security.
"We way outgun Cardiff in technology and we way outgun Swansea."
He added that the city had "really powerful public sector employers" including the statistics and patent offices.
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