Whither Porthcawl?

Just before the local elections a few weeks ago, I mentioned that one area Bridgend Council have seriously underperformed is the regeneration of the seaside town of Porthcawl. I thought the topic was significant enough to look at in some more detail.

Background

Porthcawl is the third largest town in the county of Bridgend, with a population of around 16,000. It was once a coal-exporting port for the Bridgend Valleys, but is perhaps most famous for its seaside resort status – with Trecco Bay being a popular getaway for miner’s families, and most people in the local area will have visited the Coney Beach fun fair at some point in their youth.

In what will be a familiar story in seaside towns across Wales and the UK, over many years the “Costa del Orite Butt” had become fairly run down, unloved, and in dire need of a turnaround in fortunes to avoid becoming – to be frank – a South Walian Rhyl. Porthcawl does seem to have avoided this fate, thanks in part to an excellent local comprehensive school (one of the better ones in the county) and being able to attract wealthy retirees. However, that doesn’t make for a successful economy.

Porthcawl lost its rail link in the Beeching cuts – and is probably now competing with the likes of Mold, Caernarfon, Abertillery, Blackwood and Tredegar for the title of “largest town in Wales without a railway station“. The port was downgraded into a harbour/marina, and the town has had to compete with cheap foreign holidays for tourists. Porthcawl was also the only one of the “big three” settlements in the county (Bridgend, Maesteg, Porthcawl) to not have some sort of focused regneration initiative.

That changed back in 2007, when Bridgend Council launched a consultation on regeneration plans for the Porthcawl area. Dubbed the “Seven Bays Project“. It earmarked a significant chunk of Porthcawl’s seafront for a massive regeneration project, which is hoped will open up land for residential and leisure development, improve flood defences and give the economy of the town a much-needed boost by improving retail choice.

What’s planned?

The planning guidance was published in November 2007. This has been supplemented by the current Local Development Plan (which includes the regeneration sites). The regeneration areas are split into three areas.

1.The Western Development Area: This is the current Salt Lake car park, Porthcawl Harbour and the Dock Street car park. I’ve found this outline plan, but the final scheme could be a lot different.

Developments in this area include:

  • A new 32,000sqft (Tesco) supermarket
  • A new surface car park
  • An 80,000sqft expansion of Porthcawl’s retail core, with new public spaces
  • A possible cinema and budget hotel
  • A landmark “leisure box” building and refurbishment of the Jennings Building
  • 650 residential units, including a possible care home.
  • An upgrade to Porthcawl Harbour itself, including committed funding towards development of water sports facilities

2.The Central Development Area: This includes the Coney Beach funfair, Griffin Park and the Sandy Bay promenade.
Developments here include:

  • An upgrade to Sandy Bay promenade, with a new“gateway”
  • Taller buildings, presumably apartments with retail space below, along the promenade
  • An expansion of Griffin Park eastwards
  • Improved flood defences

3. The Eastern Development Area: This is basically the former Sandy Bay caravan park, a brownfield site that stretches from the Parkdean Trecco Bay caravan park to Porthcawl town itself.
The main focus in this area is residential, with an unspecified number of new homes, a new “foreshore park” at the eastern end of the Sandy Bay promenade and lifeguard station. It would be linked to the Portway by a new link road and redirected bus routes, but the new link road wouldn’t provide a through route to Newton or Trecco Bay, instead there’ll be a “bus gate“.

What’s gone wrong?

Well, it’s five years on, and not a lot has happened in that time, while other regeneration projects in the county have moved at a much quicker pace (I’m thinking of the current works in Bridgend town centre in particular).

I think it’s unfair to put all of the blame on this on the council, though. Residential development seems to be a key enabler for part of the regeneration, and market conditions haven’t been great for that.

These things do take some time, but if you look at comparable large-scale regeneration schemes – Bargoed’s “Big Idea” for example -they’ve been delivered quickly and rather efficiently, while having to counter the same economic problems – sometimes more pronounced – than Porthcawl.

Some people of Porthcawl have lost faith in the whole process.

The “Porthcawl First” group was formed in 2011. They believe that many of the regeneration proposals have been “imposed” on the town, with a lack of transparency. They also make a strong case for more local control, support for improved and higher quality tourist facilities and improved leisure facilities in the town.This could stem from the claim that around 30%, or more, of Bridgend’s Council Tax revenues comes from the Porthcawl area. Due to house prices in the area, this is perfectly believable, but I’m not sure if it’s ever been officially substantiated.

There have been consistent campaigns for a swimming pool in the town over several years, with no forthcoming results. The closest one is in Pyle – about 5 miles north of Porthcawl – with another one – aimed mainly at tourists – on the Trecco Bay camp. This “backlash”, which has been dubbed the “Porthcawl Spring”  could’ve played a part in Alana Davies – a prominent member of Bridgend’s cabinet -losing her seat to an Independent in May’s local elections, though Alana has subsequently become Porthcawl’s mayor.

The Outlook

Tesco are imminently” due to put in a full planning application for the Salt Lake car park site, as reported in the Glamorgan Gazettein the last few weeks.

However, I’m sure many people in the town are going to be worried that the other leisure and retail developments won’t happen for a long time. If it’s taken this long to get a major supermarket chain to commit, how long will it take to get the mooted (but not confirmed) cinema, or the “leisure box”built? It could result in the only deliverable project being a supermarket with a housing estate around it. That would be a huge let down.

Maybe Bridgend Council could do what Newport Council did. When the very ambitious Friar’s Walk development fell through, they waited until a slimmed-down, but equally ambitious, proposal came along – when they could’ve accepted any old development.

My concern is that, with mounting criticism, Bridgend Council, or their regeneration partners, might want to cut their losses and open the land up to anything – just to get something built, or to stall for time. Porthcawl deserves better than that.

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Owen