When I started this blog I was intending to share my rediscovery of the place I grew up, Newport, and who better for my first interview here than the Mayor of Newport himself Matthew Evans. I was delighted when the Mayor agreed to meet with me in his chambers at the civic centre, and here is what we chatted about…
So Mr Mayor did you grow up in Newport yourself?
I did, I was brought up on Western Avenue, my parents moved when the M4 was being built, and my grandparents originated from Newport. I did move away, spending time in London and Lincoln and then back to Newport in the early 90s when I started up my own business, Matt’s Snax, providing corporate buffets. I did that for 7-8 years and it was very successful, but every time I expanded it was just more money from the bank, so I sold it and became involved in local politics in 1999.
How did you get into local politics?
Purely a parochial reason, my daughters used to attend Baneswell Nursery School and even though they’d left, the council decided they wanted to close it, and the more I looked into it and the rationale behind it the more I got annoyed about it. So I stood in the elections in 1999 and I won. I’ve been standing ever since and managed to keep my seat, have been leader of the opposition for 9 years, leader of the council for 4, I’ve done pretty much everything in local politics, but I’m not a career politician, I don’t agree with career politicians.
Do you find the younger generation aren’t interested or are they keen to learn more now?
It’s interesting you say that, I’ve tried to be proactive using social media. I was the first mayor in Wales to use social media and have a Twitter account, so that helps bring a greater understanding to younger people. I’ve also initiated children from schools coming in for a question and answers session, I didn’t want any pre-empted questions, happy for them to ask what they like. There is a lot of interest about what goes on in Newport, it’s just about having the right information to be able to make valid choices.
I’ve seen you at my children’s school interacting with the children, being heckled for having a funny tie by a child…
I can remember getting a ticking off because I tried to remember thanking everybody, and he told me I had forgotten to mention the lights! So you live and learn, you’re never too old to be told.
I had St Mary’s school at the chamber last week, they came to the parlour, and it was a new experience for them, and a great opportunity to show them what happens in local government.
I imagine they were in awe of this room.
They were, and they are all in awe of the chains, the mayoral chains of Newport are one of the best bits of bling in Wales. So they like that, a bit of pomp and ceremony. I think it’s good that we still have a mayor who is non political, who can carry out ceremonial functions, who wears the robes on remembrance day, but not just remembrance day – I can remember one of my first engagements last year was to attend a ladies 100th birthday party, and she wanted the full regalia, the full chains, it was a hot day and nursing homes can be a bit hot, but since then I have been to the birthdays of a lady who was 105, and a gentleman who was 107 so that’s another thing the mayor does for the citizens of Newport, which the leader of council wouldn’t have time to do, so I think it’s nice we can still do that.
Yes there has to be a certain amount of recognition, and celebration, making into an occasion.
You know budgets are tight, but people come up, we had seamen come up who are all volunteers to have coffee and biscuits, gone are the days of large drinks cabinets and full meals and the rest of it, but I still think it’s important to recognise people as a city, it’s amazing how many different organisations that I didn’t know existed are going around the community volunteering, largely unseen and unrecognised and it’s great to be able to thank them on the behalf of the people of Newport.
Can you tell me what your favourite places to go in the area are, or what places you’d visit as a family when your children were small?
Oh yes we used to go on day trips to Barry Island when the girls were younger. Tredegar House at halloween, and fortunately we’ve got a lovely park just down from where we live so go on lots of walks to the park, we also had holidays in west Wales, with old fashioned entertainment of sand and water, you don’t need an Xbox to enjoy yourself, a bucket and spade is enough. We used to watch the rugby a bit too.
What do your girls think about you getting into politics and being Mayor?
When they went to local schools I think at the time it would be a bit embarrassing for their Dad to turn up and make a speech, having said that I think they are both very proud, they attended the Mayor making ceremony and are keen to see what happens, both are at university, the younger one is 19 and goes to Cardiff UWIC (I know you’re not supposed to call it UWIC anymore but it is UWIC for the older generation), and she’s doing sports rehabilitation and massage, the older one is doing her finals at Nottingham Uni in law and psychology, but she’s interested in politics and will often phone me to ask questions.
It doesn’t matter the age, but people will say to me “Oh I’m not bothering to vote because it doesn’t affect me” and all I will say is well if you came out of your door and saw rubbish all over the streets and fell over a pot hole, the schools were shut and you couldn’t get your elderly mother into social care she needed, there were no parks… People don’t understand how much local government actually affects them. If you don’t vote you’re still going to get somebody! So you have got to get somebody, if it’s the lesser of two evils then so be it.
Would it be better to have the information more accessible and maybe simplified so people are better able to make a decision?
Yes that’s interesting, on a personal view I am loath to see it made too easy to vote though, because people could just go down the pub and get a text and just press a button, and in some ways I don’t think that would help democracy, because people have a duty to educate themselves to a degree, because local politicians take a lot of decisions on their behalf.
It’s coming to the end of your Mayoral year now isn’t it?
Yes on the 19th of May the picture on the wall there will be put into the mayor making ceremony, which you can watch live on the webcast, (as with all council meetings on newport.gov.uk) and then when we come back there will be a new picture on the wall and that will be out in the corridor. It’s been an incredibly successful year..
What’s changed in local politics in the time you’ve been mayor? Obviously there have been budget cuts and tricky decisions by the council, but is there anything that’s been really positive over the last year?
Well the mayor has no powers at all and no budget to run on his behalf, but one thing I will say which has been a huge positive, is that the mayor chooses his charities and I chose the Newport Sea Cadets and Teenage Cancer Trust, we had a charity meeting recently and we’ve managed to raise over £40,000 during the year, which is a massive amount, compared to what has been done in the past 6 or 8 years. I did have one major charity dinner from contacts made as council leader with the Celtic Manor, and raised a massive amount at that dinner, getting the local press on board, and also promoted awareness of the charities as well.
I’ve seen you at many events. You obviously make an effort to get out and about.
Well we’ve done over 300 engagements since last May, but it’s about being proactive and when it’s quiet in January I made a point of visiting some of the care homes to talk to staff and residents, in some ways it’s about saying you only get one year as the mayor, to make the most of it. And I’m not ready to finish yet, I’ll continue to raise awareness until the end of my term.
I saw you at International Women’s Day at the Riverfront doing a Tommy Cooper impression. That’s not something I had expected to see the mayor doing, but you were clearly happy to get involved. It was a very uplifting event.
It was, I’ve been to a number of pantomimes and ended up being the butt of jokes or put on stage, and I’m happy to do that, of course there is a serious side to the role where you wouldn’t go charging around in your shorts and mayoral chains, but ultimately you want to show you’re human and enjoy where you are.
— Mayor of Newport (@MayorofNewport) March 9, 2015
Things have changed for the better in Newport, but what would you say to people who still have a perception that Newport isn’t a nice place to be?
I can understand people being frustrated, when I became leader of the council it was one of the worst recessions we’d had, it was difficult and I could understand people’s frustrations. I would say “well we’ve got this new development” and I’d get “well that’s not going to happen”, but apart from that I think Newport has a lot to offer, excellent road and rail links and I’d rather promote Newport as a destination than Cwmbran for instance, because it’s got so much character, it’s got the buildings, the cathedral, Tredegar House, the Transporter Bridge, the wonderful parks and open spaces, the canal, and you’re in the countryside in 10 minutes.
I think there are a lot of positives about Newport. Yes there are clearly negatives but the city centre is undergoing a transformation now, it’s not just the shops, it’s the cinema, the family restaurants, the jobs and as a result of the development we’ve seen work being done on the Kings hotel, the former Yates’ and Admiral in the centre. I think there’s been more positivity, and of course success breeds success. It encourages investors to come into the centre and from that point of view the future is looking quite rosy.
If someone had said to you 15 years ago that you would one day be mayor what would you have said?
I wouldn’t have believed them, no, and I say to all the people that come to the council chamber that in order to be the mayor all they have to do is to get involved in local politics at any age, and if you stay the course and get elected at least three or four times in 15 years then you have that opportunity. Clearly it’s not going to be a massive amount of people that do that, but the good thing is whether you’re male or female the opportunity will arise if you stay in local government for so long, stick with it.
Education is something that I am interested in since my children are in school here, so what do you think of education as a whole in Newport?
I’d be minded not to answer that in case I delved into the realms of the political and I might get myself into trouble if I start getting into that. There’s a fine line and there might be some people not very happy if I did comment. I’ve been very good this year, I haven’t made any political comments even on my personal twitter.
It can be very frustrating at times but it’s down to that self discipline, and saying “no I won’t respond to that” as I take my role seriously, I have to chair council meetings, and the last thing you want is for someone to say you’re being biased, and I think I’ve been very fair to all sides.
So at the end of May we will keep an eye on your Twitter feed then?
Yes the Matthew Evans one will be firing up again.
What’s been the best part about being mayor so far?
One of the most poignant moments was when I hadn’t been mayor long and there was a delegation for children from Chernobyl to come over, there is a lady I think who lives in Caldicot, and each year she invites the school children over, sadly a lot of them are terminally ill. We met them at Tredegar House, it was a nice day, they had a lot of fun in the house, park and playground and they were well looked after. I think just appreciating somebody who each year has a house full of people and volunteers to bring them over, and make sure they have a wonderful two weeks is just the sort of example of the type of environment that you work in.
I suppose as highlights of the year go also being there at the NATO summit to meet the President of the United States and Prince Charles, as I had never met Prince Charles before, and to talk to Angela Merkel has got to be a long lasting memory.
What was the President of the United States like in real life?
I wasn’t expecting to meet him, I had no idea that I was going to meet him, I was hoping to meet Prince Charles so it was a bit of a surreal moment, I must say I don’t think his handshake was quite as strong as I was expecting, he is tall and he was very pleasant, I thanked him for taking time out of his schedule, and that I appreciated it was a working experience for him but that I hoped he was enjoying his stay in Newport, which he said he was doing and was thankful for the weather. I then asked if he wouldn’t mind meeting some local school children and that was my moment with the President of the United States. Had I been expecting to meet him I might have had a few more questions, but then spontaneity is good.
There were some concerns beforehand about demonstrations, but I think it passed off extremely well and as a positive message for the city, I think it will be difficult to beat that kind of advertising where you’re turning on the BBC news in the morning and it’s live from the Celtic Manor. Although some of the Welsh publications were a bit confused about the location, saying “the NATO summit at Cardiff”.
I would like to thank the Mayor of Newport for giving up his time to do this interview.
Here is the mayors twitter handle- @MayorofNewport
And links to the Mayor’s chosen charities-