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Son’s book tribute to Welsh local government giant

17 Dec 2023 5 minute read
Cllr Aubrey Hames, Remembrance Sunday service, Newport, South Wales, 1972. Photo Robin Weaver.

Martin Shipton

The son of one of Wales’ most prominent 20th Century council leaders has published a book about his father in the centenary year of his birth.

Aubrey Hames led Newport council in the 1970s. He has been credited with implementing a housing policy that helped thousands, using creative accountancy to mitigate the effect of swingeing budget cuts imposed when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and saving the Grade 1 listed mansion Tredegar House from likely demolition.

Duncan Hames’ book Mr Newport: The Story of Aubrey Hames tells how his father was born in poverty, seven miles north of Newport, in the village of Sebastopol in 1923. Military service as a young man saw him serve in India during World War Two and later in Palestine, during the time of the British Mandate which ended with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Returning to the UK, Hames joined the Labour Party, initially in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, where he had a job as a clerk, and later in Newport, where he was first elected to the council in 1954.

Housing

He took a particular interest in housing, opposing the policy that was fashionable at the time of demolishing homes wholesale, instead favouring refurbishment. He devised a scheme that enabled local residents to form housing associations and buy houses for just £1 from the council and rent them out at low prices. Also, he successfully led a campaign to stop the route of the M4 motorway going right through the centre of Newport.

For a time Hames harboured an ambition to become Newport’s MP, but discovered that he wasn’t able to win the Labour nomination because party members didn’t want to lose him from the council.

In his professional life, he rose to be a manager with the state-owned British Transport Docks Board. He faced the biggest challenge of his life when he was falsely accused by his employer of corruptly awarding contracts. He was dismissed from his job and faced a criminal trial, where the case against him was thrown out because there was no evidence against him. He later won what was at the time the biggest employment compensation award of its kind at an industrial tribunal.

Labour of love

For Dominic Hames, a university lecturer, writing his father’s biography has been a lengthy labour of love, with the research beginning in 2009.

In the introduction he writes: “Many people interviewed for this book talked about Aubrey’s intelligence, honesty, financial acumen, and intimate knowledge of government policy, as well as his remarkable ability to turn people around to his way of thinking.

“By a considerable margin, he played the most significant role in the evolution of the Labour Party in Newport in its history, and in the process turned it from an institution that prioritised the interests of its alderman and councillors to one that prioritised the interests of its constituents. It would not surprise me if no individual across the UK has ever revolutionised a local Labour party the way he did. This meant that by the 1970s it was 20 years ahead of other Labour groups in Gwent, as well as probably every other Labour group across Wales.

“ … Because of Aubrey, by the time Dame Rosemary Butler [Presiding Officer of what is now the Senedd 2011-16] and Paul Flynn [MP for Newport West 1987-2019] were elected as councillors in Newport in the early 1970s, matters were debated, decisions made by consensus, and Labour Party members were equal regardless of age and experience. Across the rest of Gwent, and probably elsewhere, this was not the case; matters were not debated, seniority dominated the decision-making process, and new councillors had no say in the running of the party or the decisions made.”

Tredegar House

During his time on Newport council, Hames persuaded the authority to buy Tredegar House at a time when it could easily have fallen into ruin. By exploiting loopholes in UK Government regulations, he also enabled the Newport Centre – a leisure and entertainment venue in the middle of the city – to be built largely with government money, thus avoiding saddling local taxpayers with a hefty long-term debt.

Duncan Hames concludes: “By the time Aubrey died in 1998, he was without doubt the best known and most respected citizen of Newport. A man who had turned down every honour offered to him ended up being possibly the most honoured individual within Newport, by the people of Newport, in its history.” Months before he died, Hames was made a Freeman of Newport, having been persuaded to accept it for the sake of his family, not himself. He was the first person to have such an honour conferred on him since Field Marshal Montgomery received it in 1945 for commanding the victorious Allied forces in World War Two.

Duncan Hames speculates on what more his father could have achieved if he had had the advantages of future Home Secretary, Chancellor and President of the European Commission Roy Jenkins, who was born nearby at Abersychan.

He writes: “Aubrey did not have the academic career that Roy Jenkins had, but this had everything to do with his lack of opportunity rather than his lack of ability. In both local and national politics, Aubrey was renowned for his intellect, particularly in the field of political economics. He regularly outmanoeuvred the national government of the day, taking advantage of various loopholes for the benefit of Newport … In terms of talent and intellect, there is little doubt that given the same opportunities as Roy Jenkins, Aubrey would have had the ability to have a stellar Parliamentary career.”

Mr Newport: The Story of Aubrey Hames by Dominic Hames is published by Arena Books at £26.99.


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