Lovely houses face a ghost town of empty shops on the historic Barry waterfront

Path between shops, with shopfronts standing empty and only one person in frame
-Credit: (Image: John Myers)

The waterfront development in Barry has been more than just another development. Over the last thirty years, it has bit-by-bit, delivered regeneration to a historic dockland that was once at the heart of the coal trade.

Yet today, there are huge frustrations at the difficulty developers are having delivering what should have been one of the crowning glories of the development of disused docklands that was first discussed in the 1980s.

Where there were once quays at the waterfront, lovely houses now look out over a ghost town of rows and rows of shops that have sat completely empty for years. Promised parks and green spaces have not been delivered and ponds and sculptured gardens have been a disappointment.

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The wider area has been the beneficiary of the revival of the Pump House building and the arrival of street food and shopping complex Goodsheds; generally this is a place where people enjoy living. They're just really, really frustrated at the gaping hole where shops, cafes and restaurants should be.

"This is one of the biggest developments we’ve had in the Vale ever, on the scale of when they built the docks in the first place," says ward councillor Mark Hooper. "The vision for it was to have units and facilities that suited the numbers of people, and as we can see around us they've just not materialised."

As we walk along the waterfront with Mark on a blazing-hot day in Barry - "it's always sunny in Barrybados," he says - a look around one of the main communual squares on the estate shows one very clear thing: Where there should be shops, restaurants and cafes there is almost nothing.

Only two retailers - Koi Nooshi and Full Belly Deli - have taken to this site, operating out of relatively small catering pods. But all around there are vast empty units plastered with generic images of smiling faces. One of them has a sign that reads: "Retail units opening 2019."

Sign reading 'retail units opening 2019' with a black tape cross over it
'Opening 2019' turned out to be some very wishful thinking -Credit:John Myers
A shot of two buildings from across the water, with empty ground floor units - some of which are covered by window stickers
All these ground floor units sit empty - only the two catering pods are in use -Credit:John Myers

It's not just in this square, either; this is the case all across the estate. "We're a long way back from where we should be and where people want to be," says Mark. "When people buy houses they buy a lifestyle, not just the bricks and mortar. I think they were looking for more than has been delivered at the moment... the developers have been able to sell houses quite quickly but have not been as interested in the rest of the facilities around them."

A spokesperson for the consortium of developers said they were "sorry" to hear about residents' concerns but demand for comnmercial units had declined since the pandemic. A new commercial agent has been appointed to remarket the area under the new brand of 'Dockside.'

There are hopes that planned new Cardiff and Vale College campus nearby will help with footfall and make the units more attractive but as it stands they are all empty except the catering pods. For the latest Welsh news delivered to your inbox sign up to our newsletter.

This isn't the first time issues with the waterfront have been pointed out - and in fact the council began legal action against the consortium - comprising developers Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Homes - in August 2023. In February an agreement was struck for the developers to stop selling homes on the site until overdue work on landscaping, road surfacing and open spaces was completed.

That work is still visible on a walk around the site - with areas fenced off as walkways and communal spaces are completed. This all feeds back into the problem with the empty units. "Part of the reason [not all of] the houses have been sold is that until very recently this has been a building site," Mark says - adding: "It’s very hard to get people to open a hospitality business when what they’re looking at is a building site.

Mark Hooper, wearing a pink jumper, leans on a railing on a sunny day at the waterfront and looks to camera
Mark Hooper is a local councillor and walked us through the issues with the development -Credit:John Myers
A pile of pallets in a fenced-off area next to an empty unit on the development
Sections are still being finished now -Credit:John Myers

"It has taken real pressure from the community, which I’ve helped to support, to get the council to start putting pressure on the developers to sort this. The developers are the people who’ve let the communities down because they’ve not provided the public facilities we need here, but the council needed to get their act into gear and push them to do it, and it’s been such a struggle to get them to."

The council says it has been taking "strong and sustained action" against the consortium but Mark says its action has been "really ineffective until very, very recently."

The problems with the development, in fact, go much further back than this. In 2017, residents told WalesOnline they felt "forgotten about" as pavements fell apart and vehicles were damaged by unfinished roads - with the council branding the workmanship "unacceptable." In 2019 action was taken to prevent Persimmon Homes from building houses without planning permission - months before it was served with a similar enforcement notice.

These issues are now resolved but a startling nine years into Barry Waterfront's lifespan there are now more to deal with. For one, roads around the development still haven't officially been adopted by the council. This sounds quite dry but if a road isn't adopted then the council doesn't pay to maintain it, which can cause all sorts of problems.

A drain raised above the road surface which caused problems in 2017
An old photo shows now-resolved issues with the roads - but more problems have taken their place -Credit:Richard Swingler
The interior of a large room with plaster on the walls. Nothing is inside except a couple of pieces of equipment
One of the huge retail units that now sits empty -Credit:John Myers

"There have been safety concerns on every single junction coming into this estate and they’ve only just started work on that," Mark says. Work has started on some now, including work on lanes leading up to traffic lights - he adds: "That’s something the developers initially said they didn’t need, they got an independent report to say they did need it, and they’ve still taken two years to sort it out. We’ve had accidents there, no fatalities but thank goodness for that. Safety concerns should have been paramount."

A consortium spokesperson said all roads have been constructed "to the necessary standards required" but added that work was underway on one junction with "further improvements" planned for the future.

On our walk across the waterfront we meet up with resident Tim Brown, who has lived in his Barry Waterfront house for three years. He loves living there, saying: "I’ve never lived anywhere where we have so much contact with neighbours; when the sun comes round everyone is out on their terraces talking.

"Apart from my radio it’s very, very quiet. The kids come out and play on the front sometimes, it’s lovely. We’ve got the resident swans, we call them Torvill and Dean. There’s Philip Schofield who comes now and then. People further down have got proper swan food; they’re trying to outdo us. I’d like to see a dolphin out there, or a whale - I think it would add about £10,000 to the price of the house."

But he's quick to tell us his list of frustrations with the project too: "It seems they've only responded to finishing the work off if they’ve been threatened with action by various people. The roads for example - this [outside the house] has only just been finished."

He points at a water feature near his house. "This pond up here has been a joke - the pond that isn’t a pond, the bridge over troubled water."

Tim, wearing grey shorts and a red t-shirt, leans on a black railing with lightbulbs fitted along it
Tim lives in a lovely house but just steps from his door the development's shopping district is a ghost town -Credit:John Myers
A circle of fences around an area now covered with decorative stones, with a walkway over it
The baffling 'pond' -Credit:John Myers

The "pond" now looks like a bed of stones with an off-centre walkway over it. At one stage it was a pond without a walkway, then a pond with a walkway, and now it's been filled in with stones and is a walkway over a few rocks with a very underwhelming water fountain just-about poking out.

Tim is happy with the benches that have been put in recently and how close the development is to Barry railway station - but the empty units are a bugbear for him too: "They're quite big units and I just don't think it was thought through properly, it's a shame." Join our WhatsApp news community here for the latest breaking news.

At one stage we bump into Nic Hodges, another local councillor who has heard plenty of residents' concerns about the development. He wants some of the empty units to be used as a heritage centre to celebrate what was, at one stage, the biggest purpose-built rail-integrated dock in the world: "You need someone or something to come in and tie the area together, to kick it off. It’s a cracking area and it’s going to get better but it needs a bit of work."

Just paces away from where we met Mark, a jutting-out parcel of green land is set to become the next protagonist in this whole saga. Plans - entirely separate from the Waterfront development and not connected to the developers in the consortium - are underway to create a marina on this land (which is known as the Mole).

A footpath leads out onto the Mole, which is covered in grass and shrubs
The Mole is the site of the next big planned regeneration in Barry -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales
The water, with some houses in the distance overlooking it
Part of the old docks, the area is full of history -Credit:John Myers

In late 2023, £19.8m of Levelling Up funding was obtained to deliver this - but that funding comes with a timescale. The council wants to install a watersports centre on the marina, too; the plans are ambitious but it remains to be seen if they'll be delivered.

A spokesperson for the Barry Waterfront Consortium said: "We were sorry to hear the concerns of residents at the Barry Waterfront development, and have been working hard alongside the Vale of Glamorgan Council to ensure the development is delivered in line with the relevant planning consents.

“In addition to providing new homes for local people, we have delivered essential infrastructure at the development, including a new school, and are nearing completion of public open spaces. The commercial units have been marketed since 2019, but demand has declined significantly since the pandemic. A new commercial agent has been appointed and will soon launch a new marketing strategy for the units. Meanwhile, outdated signage is being removed.

“The roads have been constructed to the necessary standards required by the Local Highway Authority. Work is complete on one of the junctions from Ffordd Y Mileniwm, with the second underway. We are planning further improvements for the remaining junctions in collaboration with the council.

“We will continue to work closely with the council as we complete the outstanding works, ensuring we provide a high-quality development for the community.”

Bright blue and red bench
These benches have recently been installed in a step towards better landscaping -Credit:John Myers
The empty units as viewed from the street
A new marketing campaign is being launched to try and fill the units -Credit:John Myers

Vale of Glamorgan Council chief executive Rob Thomas said: “It is important to remember that council efforts to press construction firms responsible for delivering community aspects of the Barry Waterfront Development into action and the Barry Making Waves Project are entirely separate pieces of work.

“The council has been taking strong and sustained action against the Waterfront Consortium, made up of national housebuilders Persimmon Homes, Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Homes, for some time.

“We began legal action last August, which resulted in the consortium making a written commitment to deliver key elements of work. The council’s leader, chief executive and other senior representatives met a large number of waterfront residents back in September to fully understand their frustrations.

“Regular fortnightly meetings have since been held with the Waterfront Consortium to drive progress on the matters that need attention. That has led to road surfacing, planting, landscaping and other work on areas of public open space, with new agents appointed to market restaurant and shop units at the district centre.

“There has also been significant work carried out on the main link road which we hope will soon allow it to be adopted into our highway system. As a result of the council’s insistence, the developers have set out a comprehensive programme of works in chart form that allows residents to see the timeline of future activity. This is available on the council website.

“As far as the Making Waves Project is concerned, in addition to a new marina, it will provide a watersports centre, a new park and the creation of new business space within the upgraded council docks office. All of this will benefit residents and visitors, bringing more people to the town and boosting local trade.”