Newport became a city in 2002. JAMES MCCARTHY looks at how that status benefits an area and what local people think has changed in the ensuing 15 years
WHEN Newport acquired city status in 2002 it was against a backdrop of gloom. More than 2,100 steel jobs had been axed in Gwent the year before, almost half of those based in Llanwern.
The town had already failed to secure city status twice – in 1994 and 2000. So it was hoped its fortunes could be turned around.
Fifteen years later Newport is a different place. But change has been a long time coming.
“These things mean everything and nothing, it depends what people make of it,” Newport West MP Paul Flynn said.
He claimed Newport’s “unique features and robust character” made it deserving of city status.
“There is a certain cachet in being a city rather than a town,” the shadow leader of the House of Commons, 82, said.
“They concentrated on the fact that it has the wonderful Tredegar House and the world-class Celtic Manor hotel and the cathedral and Roman remains at Caerleon.”
The contest to win city status was launched to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee
Hollywood legend Anthony Hopkins, whose parents once ran Caerleon’s Ship Inn, had backed the bid.
So had telecoms billionaire Terry Matthews, owner of the Celtic Manor.
He had just put Newport on the map by persuading the organisers of the 2010 Ryder Cup to hold their contest at his resort.
Four years later the 2014 Nato summit was held there.
Mr Flynn said: “There are not tangible benefits. One of our problems was we could not change the name of the football team from Newport County to Newport City.”
He warned shouting “up the City” in Newport might not be beneficial to one’s health “because of the associations with other cities in South Wales.”
“City status is not a magic cure for a place’s ills, but it is all positive and advantageous,” he said. “It gives you a feeling of antiquity and permanence.
“Our cathedral was here in the sixth century and the Romans before that.”
Lister Tonge is dean at St Woolos Cathedral. The site became a religious one in the 5th century. Woolos is a corruption of Gwynllyw, the name of a Welsh saint thought to have lived between AD450 and 500.
The church’s presence was key to Newport’s transition from town to city.
“You only have to look at the buildings above the shop fronts to see this is a city with an enormously proud past,” Rev Tonge said.
The award was announced by then Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine on Thursday, March 14, 2002.
Then First Minister, the late Rhodri Morgan, sent a personal message of congratulations, dubbing it a “well-deserved honour”.
He said Newport has had “most, if not all, the characteristics of a city for many decades. “It is a go-ahead and vibrant gateway into Wales,” he said.
Valerie Hoppe was married to Benjamin Hoppe, chairman of the campaign to make Newport a city. He died aged 83 after a fall this year.
“The only involvement I had was going to the dinner with the Queen,” she said.
“They held it in the leisure centre. I sat two tables down from her.
“It was much better than expected. I did think it would have been nicer to have it at the Celtic Manor or one of the other hotels, though.
“I didn’t speak to the Queen but she and Ben had a chat. He said the lady-in-waiting, who was on the other side, was very nice.”
She said it was “quite an achievement” acquiring city status. “It was a bit of a joke that Ben was a Swansea man,” Valerie said. “We came up from Swansea in 1963.” Former Newport council leader Bob Bright helped bring the Friars Walk shopping development to Newport.
“It’s certainly been a benefit from a marketing point of view,” Mr Bright said.
“It has become more prosperous because it is on the M4 corridor. The latest boost is the certainty of the tolls being abolished on the Severn Bridge.
“If you’re in Asia, or America, or even Europe, and you see ‘Newport city’, you’re more likely to take a bit of notice.
“That is probably the biggest benefit of it becoming the third city.”
Mr Bright, who left office last year after falling ill, admitted there was still “an awful lot that needs to be done.”
“There has been criticism from locals,” he said.
Dean Beddis is one of those locals. The owner of the city’s Kriminal Records said: “Nothing has changed, there .are more homeless people living on the streets and the employment figures have not gone up.
“The main street has disappeared, though the new buildings at Friars Walk look great. Newport looks like a Valleys town. It does not have the ‘oomph.’
“There is no big stadium or music venue, no music festivals or tourists.”
He insisted he has “always loved the place”.
“I will probably never move, but it does not have the attractions [of ] Bristol, Swansea or Newport,” he said.
Retired leisure worker Pam Glover said: “I don’t think of it as a city, it’s a town.
“The cities I’ve been to don’t look like Newport. Think of Liverpool, Cardiff, London, Manchester and Bristol.
“They are building houses and things but as far as the city centre is concerned, it does not feel like a city centre.”
At the time of the win it was said Newport was successful because it fitted the criteria of a town with regional or national significance, and a forward-looking attitude.
Pam said: “We’ve got Friars Walk, but what else have we got? You can get through there in 10 minutes and on the main street there is hardly anything.”
Stirling in Scotland, Preston in Lancashire and Lisburn and Newry, both in Northern Ireland, were also awarded city status the same year.
“I don’t think Newport will improve in my lifetime,” Pam said.
Chainsaw sculptor Chris Wood runs Wood Art Works, in Ponthir, just outside Caerleon.
“They have done quite a bit and replaced it with an awful lot – your normal c**p,” the 48-year-old said.
“They have stolen its culture, it’s nowhere near like it used to be.”
He remembered attending gigs at TJ’s – the venue famous for being the place Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love.
“I don’t go into town much any more but it seems a bit soulless at the moment,” Chris said. “What Newport used to be known for, the amazing music scene and everything, has all gone, and I think the council are quite happy about that.”
For him Newport had “always been the same as a city anyway”.
“The huge thing was when they took down the Chartist mural. Whether people liked it or hated it, it gave Newport an identity.
“They said they were going to replace it but they won’t.
“And if they do, it will be with something boring, it will not have the same impact.”
Illustrator Phil Hackett lived in Christchurch, Newport, and in the city centre, before he moved to Bristol.
“It definitely looks a bit smarter now,” the 36-year-old said. “There has been lots of money chucked into the high street with all the benches and things.
“But you have still got people sitting around the streets with their dogs and drinking.
“The people have not changed, even if it does look a lot nicer.
“One thing that made me laugh was when Friars Walk was being built was that people were complaining there was not a Burger King.” One has since been built on Commercial Street.
“Newport is stuck in the shadow of Cardiff and Bristol, which is difficult because you can always just pop on the train and go to one of those.”
Dean Beddis, Anthony Hopkins and Pam Glover