The leader of the Isle of Wight Conservative party has responded to comments made about plans to rejuvenate parts of Newport, which could include demolishing County Hall.
Dave Stewart says that his political opponents have provided ‘knee-jerk’ criticism to the Conservative’s ambitious visions for a new ‘Newport Riverside Quarter’, which he says is disappointing.
Cllr Stewart has said that such a reaction indicates that the opposition have either not read the proposals in full, or have deliberately chosen to narrowly look at them from a perspective that suits their ‘default inclination to oppose’.
In a statement, Stewart explains:
“What we have put forward are – as I have emphasised – just ideas at this stage, in order to start a dialogue with Islanders about how we rejuvenate Newport Town Centre. However, the overall vision is one which we intend to take forward if re-elected with a majority in May’s local elections. Following such an outcome, feasibility work, costings and wider consultation would then take place.
“However, it may be helpful if I set out some of the overall objectives behind what we are proposing:
- To breathe new life into Newport, with high quality, sustainable development – in keeping with the town’s historic character – making use of surplus buildings and land for a range of uses, including the provision of homes for Islanders.
- In doing the above, to increase footfall for existing and new businesses in the town, including both retail and hospitality premises and the development of a vibrant night-time economy.
- To restore The Guildhall to its former glory, making use of it as a new civic centre for use by both the Council and the community at large.
- To provide modern fit-for-purpose, joined-up facilities for our public services here on the Island – including office and meeting space on a scale which has regard to home-working practices. This is an opportunity to continue to develop our ‘one public service’ approach.
- To deliver much-needed new homes for Islanders in a sustainable location, with a range of tenures (including rental properties and starter homes) – with the Council likely to retain the freehold of the majority of land currently in its ownership.
- To help protect green spaces elsewhere on the Island from being developed for the provision of new homes.
- To have a rejuvenated and busy harbour, bringing more visitors into Newport via the River Medina.
- To improve sports and community recreation facilities at Seaclose Park, boosting the health and wellbeing of new and existing residents.
“Having regard for the above, we don’t just see this as a vision for Newport – but one for the Isle of Wight as a whole. All of us benefit from having a vibrant County Town which has much to offer both Islanders and visitors. Furthermore, it is only by making use of brownfield sites in places like Newport town centre than we can substantially reduce the need for building new houses in the countryside. In this way it becomes a win-win for the whole community.
Addressing the decline of the High Street, Cllr Stewart goes on to say:
“Those political opponents who claim that this vision does nothing to tackle vacant shops in the High Street are also missing the point. Sadly, post-pandemic – coupled with the shopping trends of recent years – our town centre retail area will not return to its previous size. This is a reality not just in Newport, but in other towns across the Island and indeed on the mainland.
“Rather than seeking to fill all of the currently vacant premises, we need to look at how we bring more people into the town to enjoy the many independent shops and eateries which are unique to the Island – alongside essential services like a new Post Office location, which we are working towards. With more people living in and visiting the town centre, we will see new hospitality and specialist retail outlets opening up – principally in the core area we are proposing – from St Thomas Square to Carisbrooke Road.
“It is no good – as other political parties have done – just listing a range of things you would like to see in Newport town centre. You need to be prepared to make more substantial changes which act as a catalyst for increasing footfall and the vibrancy of the town. Residential-led development of the eastern end of the town will help achieve this, helping provide a critical mass to support a busy retail core. Enhanced health, dental and welfare provision would also be included within this – as these services are needed for both existing and new residents.
The Conservative leader has been especially critical about former leader Jonathan Bacon. Dave adds:
“I was staggered to read Jonathan Bacon saying that we should only look at housing once the local economy is functioning again. It was as a result of his time in office – and that of his fellow “independents” – that the delivery of affordable housing fell to an all-time low, resulting in the housing crisis we now have. It has taken us the best part of this council term to get things moving to the point that now – for the first time in nearly 10 years – over 100 affordable houses have been provided during a 12-month period. The only major housing-related decision during the independents’ tenure was to grant consent for 900 homes (Pennyfeathers) on greenfield land at Ryde – for which a single brick has yet to be laid. As such, I’m disinclined to give any credence to suggestions from Mr Bacon that we should hold back from delivering housing on brownfield sites, given his own track record to the contrary. New homes can be provided, hand-in-hand, with economic recovery – and indeed the one will be an enabler for the other.
In summary, Dave says:
“I am proud of the vision we have set out, and the resulting dialogue that is now underway. We have already received more welcome responses from people not just in Newport but across the Island, who – ignoring the kneejerk responses of our political opponents – recognise the ambitious and forward-looking nature of our proposals.
“Finally, I say this to our political opponents: if you really care about our County Town, then show it by giving residents the opportunity to vote for you in May’s elections. Despite pontificating about the future of Newport, ‘Our Island’ have not yet announced any candidates to stand in the town. The Lib Dems and Greens have both only announced candidates for 2 out of the 7 seats in Newport – none of which are in the town centre. Even Labour are only planning to contest Newport seats which sit west of the Medina.
“It simply isn’t credible for a political party to claim to be interested in an area if it isn’t prepared to put forward prospective councillors to be champions for that community. As things stand, only the Conservatives (fielding a full set of 39 candidates) and Labour (contesting a majority of seats) can genuinely claim to be interested in our County Town. Nominations close on Thursday: let’s see if the other parties are prepared to step up to the plate by then.
£One thing remains certain: with the Island Conservatives there will be strong leadership of the Isle of Wight Council, ensuring the Island community is kept safe, contributing to the recovery of the Island’s economy – all underlined and achieved through the sustainable management of council finances”.