There's an air of optimism among the traders of Bridgend town centre.

This is surely counterintuitive. Covid-19 continues to present huge and unprecedented challenges, while the agonising saga stemming from the referendum decision to leave the EU is still playing out.

Ford is shutting down its engine plant this month with the loss of 1,700 jobs and hopes of an Ineos 4x4 car factory with 500 employees have been dashed.

Yet, in Bridgend, traders have posted an upbeat video on Facebook that exudes positivity and speaks of a prosperous future for the town’s shopping area.

Are they deluding themselves or do they have tangible grounds for such a view?

While it’s certainly the case that empty shops are to be seen in the town centre, some businesses have been thriving while fresh ones are showing the confidence to invest in new premises.

Tudor Morris runs a family butcher’s shop that has actually increased trade during the Covid crisis.

He said: "During lockdown, the supermarkets tended to close down their fresh meat counters. I decided to run a home delivery service.

“People came back to me that I hadn’t seen for years and even since the supermarkets have started selling fresh meat again, a lot of the customers have stayed with me.

“They value the personal service I can offer and have been very supportive. I’m trading at double what I was before Covid.”

Tudor Morris outside T&H Morris butchers

Michelle Davies runs a takeaway patisserie called Sheffs close to the old pedestrian river bridge. Her takings also increased during lockdown – by 150%, she says – and she’s opened two more outlets elsewhere and taken on 12 new workers.

“We only had two weeks off during lockdown,” she said. “Because the pubs and restaurants were shut, we were able to do more business because we’re not a cafe with sit-down tables. All of it is takeaway and that’s what people were looking for.”

Felicity Ladbrooke has run a jewellery shop in Bridgend town centre for nearly 40 years. It actually began selling Italian shoes. She first showed her interest in retail at the age of five, when she asked her mother to buy her a shop.

“From a personal point of view, trading hasn’t been bad despite the lockdown,” said Ms Ladbrooke. “Many haven’t been able to go away on holiday and missed being able to come into the town centre socially because cafes weren’t open.

“People have been buying lockdown treats and are looking forward to having a good Christmas.”

Felicity Ladbrooke runs a jewellery shop in Bridgend

Felicity Jewellers was shut from March 21 and reopened on July 6. She said she was pleased that most of the independent shops had reopened.

“I think the future has to lie in independent shops. Some people like the impersonality of shopping in out-of-town stores, but that doesn’t apply to everybody.

“Many appreciate that independent outlets provide extra choice for the customer and give a town character.

“I look forward to more niche shops in the town centre that offer something different, with the entrepreneurs to open them.”

Adrian Reynolds demonstrated his confidence in Bridgend town centre last month by opening a French-influenced restaurant called Morgan’s Bistro and Cocktail Bar.

Josh Morgan at work at Morgans Bistro and Cocktail Bar

He’s currently employing 11 people and tables in the restaurant are sometimes fully booked. He says that with 22 years’ experience in the hospitality industry before starting this new venture, he is well-placed to add to the attractiveness of Bridgend town centre as a leisure venue.

“We’ve been planning to open for the last seven months, but had to delay because of Covid. The pandemic didn’t put us off – it just meant we had to open later.

“We’re in a part of the town centre where there are also a couple of Italian restaurants and a couple of Mediterranean restaurants. Many of our customers are people in their 40s and 50s and older.

“As well as having French items on our menu like frog’s legs and snails, we do steaks, which are very popular. We want people to realise they don’t have to go to Cardiff to have a good meal in a restaurant or some cocktails.

“I think the future for the town centre has to be focused on the hospitality and leisure industries.”

The confidence shown by the various traders is based on an awareness that, in Welsh terms, Bridgend is a relatively prosperous town.

Some traders are surprisingly upbeat about the future

It sits in the M4 corridor, has enjoyed high-wage employment – the average amount earned by Ford workers has been £41,000 – and has a professional element whose presence is confirmed by the rows of solicitors’ and accountants’ offices that stretch down the hill from the train station, which has mainline direct links west to Swansea and east to London. The town is also within easy commuting distance of Cardiff.

There are people living in and around Bridgend with significant amounts of money and traders believe that some of the redundancy money being picked up by the Ford workers will come their way.

Meanwhile, the money saved during lockdown by those who would normally meet their friends for coffee and cake is sometimes going in the direction of the “lockdown treats” referred to by Felicity Ladbrooke.

This is all to the good, but is it as sustainable as the traders hope?

Former First Minister Carwyn Jones has represented Bridgend at the National Assembly and now the Senedd since the outset of devolution in 1999. His narrative is markedly different from that of the traders who perhaps tentatively see a bright future.

Asked how the county borough had been affected by Covid-19, he said: “The most obvious effect has been on retail where we’ve seen some shops close down completely and some have not yet reopened.

“Offices have managed to benefit from furloughing, but for a lot of small businesses it’s been a step too far. So Bridgend town centre at the moment is not prospering. There are lots of empty shops and lots to be done in the town centre to make it more attractive.

“But Covid has really hit a lot of businesses. And a lot of restaurants and cafes which were looking to open have found it very difficult to open and are still finding it tough going.”

Some shops remain empty in the town centre

The impact was mitigated by furlough, especially by those who were able to access the money, but, said Mr Jones, for new businesses it was more difficult because they couldn’t access the funding available under the UK Government’s scheme.

“They, I think, will get there, but it’s been a hard slog for them. Without furlough, I think we would have seen a disastrous rise in unemployment and a record crash in the number of businesses we have in Bridgend.”

Asked whether he thought there was a realistic prospect of extending furlough beyond October, when the UK Government scheme is due to end, Mr Jones said: “Well, this is a Government of U-turns and I would hope this is another U-turn they perform.

“I think having a cliff edge, although they do like cliff edges, at the end of October is very difficult for a lot of businesses. I think we will see a lot of businesses fold at that point.

“My concern is that there will be some businesses which have carried on going because of furlough and then find that there’s nothing at the end for them. So that cliff edge is hugely difficult and I do worry that October will bring a hugely difficult message in terms of the economy for Bridgend and, of course, the whole of the UK.”

Asked what kind of businesses he thought were likely to fold, Mr Jones said: “I think it’s the ones that will see a lag between when furlough ends and when business starts to pick up.

“The smaller businesses... I think the problem is, if you’re a supplier for a bigger company and that bigger company has a time lag until its business starts to pick up again, you’re more vulnerable because you’re small. And all of a sudden you find you have a limited order book and no furlough money. And that’s when it becomes difficult.

“I’ve seen so many good businesses fail over the years, not because of anything they’ve done wrong, but because the cashflow has buried them. I think that’s the big issue.

“There will be a huge cashflow problem in October that could last for months until things start to get going.

“I think the problem the UK Government has is that it seems to think ‘lift furlough and everything goes back to normal’ – and that’s not the way the world works.”

Asked about the prospects for a second spike, given the now increasing number of Covid-19 cases in Wales, Mr Jones said: “We have the beginnings of a perfect storm – a Covid spike, the end of furloughing and a no-deal Brexit, all within a few months. That is the biggest hit the UK economy would have faced since the war – since the war itself, actually. And we are not in a strong place to deal with that.”

Mr Jones said he had been reluctant to support the idea of a further referendum on EU membership because some people had argued for that following the very narrow victory in the 1997 devolution referendum.

“You have to accept the result and I still think that,” he said. “But nobody voted for a no-deal Brexit. That was never on the table. Nobody had advocated a no-deal Brexit at the time and now this myth has arisen that this is what people had voted for. I don’t believe that’s true at all.

“For the UK Government now to say they will actually go back on previously-agreed principles such as the Withdrawal Agreement in relation to Ireland is crackers because all that means is no-one else will ever take the UK seriously. Why would you conduct a negotiation with a country that agrees something and then decides to unagree it further on down the line?

“We look foolish – completely foolish. Notwithstanding the effect on the Northern Ireland peace process, it makes us look like amateurs, frankly – which is what we are, of course, because we’ve never done this before. Or at least haven’t done it for many, many years.”

Did Brexit force Ford to leave Bridgend?

Mr Jones said: “I think with Ford it was the final straw. It’s not the only factor. We’ve been in discussions with Ford about the Bridgend plant for a long while – there were some difficult issues there, but we thought they were being resolved, to be honest.

“It was the uncertainty that Brexit brought. If you were a car manufacturer, why would you bother staying in the UK when you can have certainty in your biggest market, which is Europe?

“The possibility of having tariffs on car parts and cars, in the end, didn’t help Bridgend Ford. It wasn’t the only factor, but it’s what did for the plant in the end, unfortunately.”

In a statement issued at the time of the closure announcement last year, Ford of Europe president Stuart Rowley said creating a sustainable business required the company to make “difficult decisions”, including the need to make its engine manufacturing base suitable for the vehicles it produces in the future.

“We are committed to the UK. However, changing customer demand and cost disadvantages, plus an absence of additional engine models for Bridgend going forward, make the plant economically unsustainable in the years ahead,” he said.

Later, Mr Rowley said the decision had nothing to do with Brexit, although he realised the company’s plans would be “very significant for the employees, their families and the community in south Wales”.

He confirmed the company will repay £11m in incentives offered by the Welsh Government.

When confirming last month that it would be opening a factory in France rather than Bridgend, Ineos did not explicitly state its reasons, but it is understood that it would save a considerable amount of money in doing so.

In a statement, the company said: “Ineos Automotive is in advanced talks with Mercedes-Benz about acquiring its manufacturing site in Hambach, on the French border with Germany in Moselle.

“Although the deal is not yet done, we are confident that terms will be agreed and that the Grenadier’s new home will be in France. Hambach is a great solution for Ineos, with a highly-experienced workforce and an excellent track record amongst Mercedes plants for the quality of its product output.”

The Welsh Government has confirmed that it is looking to recoup money from Ineos for preparatory work undertaken in support of the project. The amount spent is understood to be around £5m.

Asked what impact it would have on Bridgend if furlough is not extended in some way, Mr Jones said: “What we’ll see is businesses not being able to keep workers on, businesses not being able to function because they haven’t got the workers that they need, because demand isn’t there, and I do think we are headed for – I hope I’m wrong – a very difficult economic scenario post-furlough.

“I think we’ll see that gap of months when the demand isn’t there in the way the UK Government thinks. Christmas may help in some sectors – that extra Christmas demand – but in January and February, if demand isn’t back to what it would normally be at that time of year, then we’ve got problems.”

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Asked how in the more than 20 years that he’s represented Bridgend, the town and county borough have developed, Mr Jones said: “We’ve lost some big employers in that time. Sony. Revlon from Maesteg. But we’ve tended to be able to make the jobs up. Others have come in and mopped up the people who maybe have lost their jobs. We haven’t seen a spike in unemployment.

“There’s a big difference between the north of the county and the south. The south of the county has always been more prosperous.

“The economy’s done pretty well in Bridgend. We’re well-placed with the M4 and the railway line. We’ve got a fortunate geography – and some big employers other than Ford. We’re not a town with one big employer. So, in the past, any job losses have been able to be made up.

“But this time... even Ford, that would have been something we could probably have made up in time. But with all that’s happening now externally, it’s far tougher to do that. Trying to attract investment into the UK is very, very hard unless you’re trying to attract somebody in who wants a base in the UK because their market is the UK. And there are not many firms like that.

“If you’re an American company, the UK has been attractive. It’s familiar in terms of language, you’re familiar with the legal system – and you’ve had access to the Single Market. Now, if I was an American investor, I’d be looking at Ireland because it’s got the same advantages and it’s in the EU.

“If there is no deal, there’s no access to financial services, there’s no access to transport – airlines particularly – and the whole thing goes completely pear-shaped. Countries build their relationships on agreements and we won’t have an agreement of any kind with the EU."

Setting out his biggest fears for his constituency, Mr Jones said: “We’ve been very successful at bringing investment to Bridgend over the years. It will be far tougher in the future – much, much tougher. On top of Covid and the ending of furloughing, there’s a perfect storm gathering around business that won’t exist anywhere else in Europe.

“Yes, of course, in Europe people have to deal with Covid and deal with the economic hit, but they won’t have to deal with losing the biggest part of their market. That’s something that will put the UK at a unique disadvantage.”

Jeff Jones is a former Labour leader of Bridgend council. Now retired, he used to work as a college lecturer, lives in Maesteg and was educated locally and at the London School of Economics.

As someone from the less prosperous north of the county borough, he has an even more jaundiced view of the way things could play out than Carwyn Jones and believes there is a need for major state intervention.

He said: “Brexit was hard enough, but the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges faced by the county borough.

“With Ford closing, you just don’t know the extent of the knock-on effect on local businesses. Lots of small firms have been involved in the supply chain.

“According to a new report on our fraying social fabric, Maesteg is the seventh most deprived town in England and Wales and Bridgend county borough the 295th most prosperous local authority area, with the neighbouring area of Vale of Glamorgan at 92 on the same list.

“North of the M4 are three valleys where economic activity is very low. This is the reality and it hasn’t just happened.

“Places like Maesteg haven’t recovered from the period of mine closures in the 1980s.

“In 1969, when I went to university, there were three local pits, Revlon, a multinational cosmetics factory whose products were sold all over the world, Louis Edwards, which made shirts for Marks & Spencer, and Silent Channel, later Cooper Standard, which made rubber excluders for vehicles like Land Rovers.

“There were also lots of workers employed by the steelworks in Port Talbot. Three buses would leave Maesteg at 7.15 in the morning to take them there.

“We literally had full employment. But over the years all these jobs have gone and they have never been replaced.”

Mr Jones also believes that securing inward investment projects will be tough, given that the UK cannot provide unfettered access to the European Single Market.

“I think the next four or five years is about holding the line as far as possible. The furlough scheme should continue or we will face a cliff edge.

“So far as Bridgend town centre is concerned, I can see the argument for pushing the hospitality industry – Bridgend certainly has people with money, who tend to be older with final salary pension schemes as well as the professionals.

“What worries me is the lack of well-paid jobs available for younger people. Really, the only answer is a UK Marshall Plan with massive public sector investment aimed at reviving the economy in the way the European economies were revived after the war.

“Without such a programme, there will be further decline.”

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Carolyn Webster, a Conservative councillor who was brought up in Porthcawl, represents a ward that covers part of Bridgend town centre. Describing herself as an enthusiastic Brexiteer, she puts forward an unashamedly positive view for the future.

“I’ve been very impressed by the way independent shops have coped with the Covid crisis and taken initiatives that bigger shops haven’t been able to, like home deliveries,” she said. “I agree with the Bridgend traders that the future lies with independent businesses who are able to bring individual character to the town.

“As someone whose family has lived in Porthcawl for 14 generations, I’ve also been delighted to see its revival as a tourist destination, largely because people aren’t going abroad. It’s been the busiest I’ve seen it for years. I know that ‘Rishi’s dishes’ [the cut-price restaurant deal subsidised by Chancellor Rishi Sunak] have been very popular there in particular.

“I do hope people continue to use the town centres – Covid has provided a great opportunity to reset the button and change the way we live, both environmentally and in the way we shop.

“The closure of Ford and the failure of the Ineos project to materialise were devastating blows for Bridgend, but I’m confident that City Deal projects will bring new industries and make the borough a centre of excellence in new technical fields.

“I know there is anxiety about the Brexit negotiations, but they haven’t finished yet. I’m glad to see that we’re standing firm and I believe that a good deal can still be reached. I believe that new trade deals will enable us to be free-flowing in the future.”

And she adds: “I don’t want us to be full of doom and gloom, but of self-confidence.”

As so often, seeking different people’s views about the economic prospects of an area provides a gamut of responses, ranging almost from the euphoric to the apocalyptic.

There is no doubt that current circumstances provide huge challenges, but they do also provide significant opportunities.

The traders in Bridgend seem up for both.

Let’s hope the politicians are too.