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Barry is showing how the power of local community can drive regeneration

Barry Island, South Wales (Alamy)

3 min read

When you think of Barry, the first things that leap to mind are its gorgeous coastline, the renowned tourist attractions, and, of course, Gavin and Stacey. But Barry has something even more profound going for it: a strong community committed to improving its town.

Barry has faced real challenges in the last 50 years and the town contains some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Wales. Home to the largest coal port in the world in the Victorian era, Barry successfully reinvented itself in the 20th century as a popular holiday destination. But by the 1990s tourist numbers dwindled and the Butlins holiday camp on the island closed, dealing a big blow to the local economy. 

Because of this experience, Onward visited Barry as part of our Levelling Up in Practice programme to examine what could be done to help the town turn itself around. Unlike many of the other places we visited as part of this programme, we found that the town is already well on the way to levelling itself up.

In the last decade there has been a remarkable recovery in Barry. The clearest sign of its renaissance is the redevelopment of Barry’s waterfront. In the last eight years, this programme has delivered more than 2,000 new homes for the area.

And there is more to come. A proposed development on a small peninsula of land in the centre of Barry, the Mole, could see further regeneration if the area succeeds in securing backing from the government’s Levelling Up Fund. The £20m project would deliver a new marina, more housing, co-working spaces and a new water sports facility that local clubs can use as a community space.

But what makes Barry exceptional is the extent to which the local community has helped drive the town’s regeneration. Community groups have been working for decades to bring forward new sites, originally becoming involved in the early 1990s when discussions started about repurposing industrial land on the waterfront. Activists pushed the marina project for over 14 years. 

If you want to know what levelling up looks like, look no further than Barry.

Local entrepreneurs have also played an important role. After the local council and the Welsh government invested £1.6m to save an old pump house by the waterfront, a local businessman bought the site and converted it into a popular coffee shop and co-working space. The same entrepreneur, Simon Baston, also created “Goodsheds” nearby, a container village hosting restaurants, retail units, apartments for short-term lets, and workspaces for start-ups, creating a new centre of activity for Barry on the waterfront.

Of course, Barry’s regeneration has been helped by good fortune, with Gavin and Stacey generating interest in the town as a tourism destination. But local entrepreneurs and business owners have been savvy enough to take advantage of this buzz, launching themed products to cater to visitors.

But the success of Barry’s regeneration would not be possible without the strong sense of community in the town. People we spoke to said they had “nothing but positive” things to say, that the town had “potential”, was “vibrant” and had started “going in the right direction”. The local football team, the annual music festival GlastonBARRY and the war museum are all sources of community pride.

Despite the progress being made in Barry, it still faces challenges. More can be done to bring skilled, technical jobs to the town, helping the local economy diversify away from its reliance on tourism. Barry’s renaissance to date has largely benefitted the affluent western part of the town, with pockets of deprivation still prevalent in the east. And a number of locals cited concerns about crime and anti-social behaviour.

But while these challenges remain, recent history suggests they too will be overcome by the town’s strong sense of community and passion for improving their place. If you want to know what levelling up looks like, look no further than Barry.


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