THE ARTIST'S images were exciting. They showed a pleasant waterfront with housing, shops and restaurants. It was a bustling view of things to come. Only it didn't come. Martin Wade recalls the dream of the Usk barrage.

Just over 20 years ago, the plans for a barrage across the Usk, despite being supported by many people in Newport if not across Gwent, were turned down.

The 1980s saw many plans to redevelop waterside and dockland sites as a means of regeneration. It had worked in Liverpool, London and Barcelona and South Wales wanted to emulate the success of these schemes.

The plan for a barrage across Cardiff Bay was hatched in the late 80s as was the scheme to put a barrage across the Usk at Newport. But the two schemes were to have very different outcomes.

It was hoped the barrage would transform the waterfront of Newport, create more than 5,000 jobs and 2,300 new homes as part of a £400 million waterfront park alongside the river. It would have become the second-biggest development of its kind in Wales, second only to Cardiff Bay.

The barrage, which would have been sited where the SDR bridge is today, would have kept the waters of the Usk at a permanent high-tide level, covering what was seen as the ‘unsightly’ mud banks which were believed to be deterring developers.

Newport Borough Council began putting plans for the barrage together in 1988 and eventually hoped it would be completed by 1998. They estimated the scheme would bring 5,000 new jobs to the centre of Newport which had the highest unemployment levels in the (then) town and would cost £70m.

By 1992 a Bill for the construction of the barrage went before a House of Lords committee. This was seen as an important first hurdle which would boost private sector confidence in the scheme if passed.

An exhibition on the barrage had opened earlier that year at the Kingsway Centre in Newport, aiming to "enhance people's understanding of the proposals and of the economic and environmental issues surrounding the project".

The Argus told then how construction firms were eager to bid for work building the barrage, noting that: "Tarmac, Wimpey Homes, Blue Circle Industries plc, Regalian and Lovell Urban Renewal have expressed an interest in developing riverfront sites if the barrage goes ahead". Talks "with an unnamed French construction firm" about the project were also hinted at.

Newport council said the scheme had the backing of most Newport residents and its need was pressing. Its head of urban development, Roger Davies, told the Argus: "The problems of the riverfront at present are clear for all to see, neglect, decay and dereliction have been there for too long," he said.

He admitted it was not surprising there had been "some vocal opposition". He said 60 talks and presentations had been given on the barrage, yet at the public inquiry into the local plan, just 11 local objectors came forward.

Worries about flooding were dismissed. The barrage would protect the town. Migrating fish would be shepherded through the barrage by special locks it was said. The banks of the Usk above the barrage were not breeding grounds so would not be affected.

Gwent tycoon Terry Matthews, then still growing the Celtic Manor "was a strong supporter of the barrage" the Argus noted, adding he was said to have bought parcels of land along the River Usk, and was planning to build a theatre complex and office developments.

Welcome though the jobs and regeneration might have been for Newport, reassurances on the environmental effect of the barrage failed to quell concerns which would be the project's undoing.

Objectors to the barrage included the Gwent Wildlife Trust, the National Rivers Authority, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales and the United Usk Fishermen. They all were concerned that the barrage would destroy the rich fishing the Usk provided, increase flood risk and harm other wildlife.

Some claimed that if the water levels rose with the barrage it would spell the end of fishing on the river Usk. One of the 100 members of the Isca fishing club, Sid Waggett said he and other fishermen “had been sold down the river by the plan”, adding bitterly: "When they build the barrage the river will be a playground for boating people who probably never heard of the Usk before.

But it was not just the fate of fish that concerned the objectors. The chairwoman of the Gwent Wildlife Trust, Elsa Wood, said: "We are fighting against the Usk Barrage because it is environmentally damaging for a number of species.

She said: "There are certain fish it will affect" adding "the migration of otters down the Usk to the Gwent levels will also be hit." She warned darkly: "Lower down the Usk there will just be a sterile lake."

An enquiry into the barrage was launched in January 1995 to sift the competing claims. It sat until April. We had to wait until September for the verdict of the enquiry, but as late as August, many expected the barrage to be given the go-ahead. The Argus told that Secretary of State for Wales William Hague was set to "formally announce acceptance of the barrage scheme."

The Argus was clear in its support, saying the barrage would bring closer “the vision of a reinvigorated Newport”.

Support and opposition was to split with many in Newport supporting the scheme while rural Monmouthshire, where more saw risk, opposing.

The pros and cons were reflected in reaction to the decision. In those days the Argus printed separate editions across Gwent. And when the news came on Wednesday September 13th 1995 that the scheme had been blocked the two front pages reflected the reaction in two different parts of Gwent:

First edition (Newport): IT'S NO: Usk Barrage: Welsh Secretary delivers hammer blow by blocking scheme

County edition (Monmouthshire): IT'S NO: Delight as barrage scheme is rejected

A telephone poll launched by the Argus after the shock decision showed both the strength of support but also the significant minority who did not back the scheme.

More than two thirds of callers said that the barrage plan should not have been rejected. Of 3,285 readers voting, 2,228 said the Welsh secretary's decision was wrong while 1,057 agreed with the move.

On a visit to Gwent a week after the fateful decision, William Haig said that Newport “should not despair for its future” despite the project being turned down, adding "There was much more public opposition higher up the river than in comparable cases and that has to be taken into account."

When asked why other Welsh barrages were given the go-ahead while Newport's proposals were turned down, he said: "We are dealing with a river of great environmental significance and it would have a much greater impact on fish life.”

Some of the sting inflicted by the rejection of the barrage has been taken away by the regeneration which has happened along Newport’s Riverfront since, not least with the opening of Friars Walk. But there remains a tantalising sense of what might have been had that decision in 1995 gone the other way.