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New council leader says ‘nothing is off the table’ in plan for city growth

Cllr Dimitri Batrouni in the Newport City Council chamber (Pic: LDRS)

THE new leader of Newport City Council insists “nothing is off the table” when it comes to reinvigorating the city centre and attracting new investment.

Dimitri Batrouni took the top job in May and says he is determined for residents to have more say in how council services are shaped.

The election of a Labour government in Westminster will mean “better collaboration” but there is no guarantee further cuts to council services can be avoided, he warned.

And Cllr Batrouni said he wants to change the “negative vibe” around Newport and “grasp” the city’s potential for growth and prosperity.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service this week, he said regenerating the city centre was “one of the highest priorities” for his time as council leader.

This will mean diversifying what Newport offers, and an acceptance that large department store-type units “don’t work” as well as they used to when it comes to attracting shoppers, thanks to the growth of online sales.

“We need to change the offer, and we need to think creatively”, said Cllr Batrouni, listing more city-centre homes, promoting Newport’s independent retailers, and capitalising on the local live music scene as potential routes to future success.

But a plan to improve the city centre is nothing new for Newport Council, so is this just more of the same?

“What makes things different [this time] is I’m the first one that says he can’t solve it by himself,” Cllr Batrouni said.

“If you expect the city centre to be taxpayer-led recovery, it isn’t going to happen.

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“It can’t be all on the taxpayer. It shouldn’t be either. It has to be a collaboration with the private sector as well. But there’s this assumption straight away that the city council and taxpayers, which is ultimately what it is, will front all the costs for the private sector to benefit.”

Business owners have received that message “quite well” and want to work with the council “to drive pro-growth and pro-business in the city”, Cllr Batrouni said, adding: “It has to be a partnership. It’s the only way you will regenerate the city centre, with the council, with the private sector, and where appropriate [with] third sector organisations and private developers.”

Residents will also play their part, and the new leader is keen to develop an online “dashboard” for citizens to access data on spending from potholes to grass-cutting, in what he calls a “step change” that will “make the council more transparent”.

“That’s what I’m hoping to do to make it far more interactive [and promote] far more engagement with residents,” Cllr Batrouni explained. “It’s their council, it’s their money.”

The new leader was elected to represent the city’s Gaer ward in 2022, after spending a decade as a Monmouthshire County Councillor, including a long spell as the Labour opposition leader.

He hopes the party’s control of the city council, Welsh and UK governments will ease the pressure on public services, while acknowledging there is no “magic bullet” for Keir Starmer and co in Westminster.

Cllr Batrouni said “austerity has hurt” local government and the city’s “hard-pressed” residents, who saw council tax bills rise by 8.5% earlier this year.

“It’s been very difficult,” he said. “The council’s found £75 million of savings over the last 10 years.”

“We’ve done our best to protect schools and social services,” Cllr Batrouni added. “Two-thirds of our budget pretty much goes on that.

We’re doing our utmost, but what I would say to [residents] is their council tax only covers 25% of our budget, [and] 75% of the budget comes from central government.”

Will a change of government in the UK mean an end to cuts to council services in Newport, then?

“Probably not, because the economy’s in a bad place,” Cllr Batrouni said. “There’s no magic bullet. It’ll be a tough few years still to turn the economy around. But what I’m really confident [about] is that the Labour government will turn the economy around and that taxpayers will benefit in the long run.”

Recent census data shows Newport is the fastest growing part of Wales, and more people living here means more pressure on existing services.

The new council leader acknowledged that “we need to invest heavily in infrastructure… to meet demand”, with the local authority “investing £80 million in our capital budget this year”.

New schools, healthcare services and roads will all likely be required to keep up with the demand for homes, and Cllr Batrouni – who supported the M4 relief road project before it was scrapped – said he will “ensure” Newport gets the public transport investment that the Burns commission recommended in the wake of that decision.

“When [it] was politically decided not to proceed with that [relief road project], there were promises made to Newport and I will make sure they deliver, because our infrastructure is not delivering for the demands,” he said. “And if we continue to grow as we are, it’s only going to get worse.”

“My job is to find the money and get it. I have to ensure that we get the money to drive the city forward,” he added. “I keep saying it is a city on the rise. Cardiff had better watch out, we’re coming for them.”