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The writing on the wall

The cultural heart of a community is under sustained attack.

In Newport folklore, there’s an apocryphal tale that the pillars of the Westgate Hotel on the high street still bear the bullet holes of the Chartist rebellion of 4 November 1839. It’s a suitably ghoulish anecdote, held dear by inhabitants of the site of the last serious armed rebellion in Britain. Chartism – the 19th-century workers’ movement for political rights – is at the core of this industrial city’s history, taught in primary schools and commemorated in a mosaic mural that leads to John Frost Square in the city centre, named after the ringleader of the rebellion.

Some of my earliest memories involve being dragged past the 35-metre mural on rainy Saturdays as I accompanied my mother on errands, and gazing at the top-hatted angry men, waving scythes and brandishing placards. Two scenes stand out: the beginning, which depicts two women staring at a poster advertising the “Chartist Insurrection” (an exciting term to an impressionable young mind), and a later one that shows the Chartists being shot at by men in uniform for demanding rights we now take as given.

Now, however, local people are fighting with developers over the future of the mural. Plans are in hand for a new Debenhams in the centre and they state that the mural must go. The council has said it would be too difficult, and too costly, to relocate or incorporate it into the new structure.

Campaigners argue that it’s just the latest in a series of cuts to the cultural heart of a community under sustained attack – first from the economic crisis, now from austerity measures. The art gallery in John Frost Square also faces cuts, and the clock that stood there for a decade is being moved to a housing project only after developers made a donation towards the cost. The nearby Stow Hill Library faces closure and many shops in the centre of town lie empty, leaving Newport feeling increasingly desolate.

Newport’s daily paper, the South Wales Argus, undertook a survey to highlight the extent of the problem. One in four shops in the centre lies vacant, and often these dead businesses are not firms that have gone bust, such as Jessops and Blockbuster, but large chains such as Topshop and Marks & Spencer, which are doing well elsewhere. Not in Newport, where unemployment is high and disposable income is low.

Although many of the lots in the square are awaiting development, residents fear another “Ryder Cup scenario” (the golf tournament was held here in 2010), in which promised redevelopment swallows millions of pounds but delivers little of long-term value for local people.

When I left for university in 2006, Newport seemed to be on the up. Banks and insurance companies were opening up call centres and offices on industrial estates, promising jobs. Then the financial crisis hit, and it hit Newport harder than many other places.

Each time I return, the centre seems more deserted. A recent renovation of the railway station left a futuristic architectural anomaly right in the middle of a section of the central district that looks all the more desolate for the half-hearted attempt at salvaging it. There’s a sadness here, rather than anger, and local people and friends I speak to see the decline as inevitable.

For many who witnessed the destruction of nearby mining areas under Thatcher, then the destruction of the steel industry that once sustained Newport, it is hard not to think that history is repeating itself. But in a city where one of the bloodiest battles for equal votes was fought, it is particularly bitter that it is a cabinet so weighted with unearned privilege that is wreaking the damage.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess