Saturday, September 30, 2017

Through the power of dance!

The first time I saw Marlborough Crescent and the nearby streets was from the top of a bus travelling west into Scotswood, then being taken away in the back of fleets of lorries following T. Dan Smith’s Great Leap Forward for Newcastle city in the early 70s. Cruddas Park was not yet synonymous with intractable urban problems. The lower end of the West Road around Bath Lane, Pink Lane and behind the historic Stoll Theatre was grim. Very grim. Great patches of beaten flat mud alongside the dereliction were home to heaps (in every sense) of battered second hand cars. Many even had matching coloured doors.

Somehow Marlborough Crescent and the streets to the north avoided complete demolition. One born and bred Geordie friend told me it was here, not the Grade II Listed Eldon Square where the retail centre of the same (misused) name should have been sited. He was probably right.

Instead it became the home of Dance City.

Originally housed in a lane off Waterloo Street, these dance studios got the money together to build a brand new centre with a marvellous performance space alongside one of T. Dan’s infamous urban motorway schemes, known to us as the Jackie Milburn Boulevard. I’ll say no more.

By the 90s the district was to be rebranded as the Theatre Village. I’m not sure what John Hall, one of the proposers, got out of it. If it ever meant much, the brand name hasn’t damaged the place that’s for sure. Waterloo Street had been revitalised by the superb North British development in 1980, still one of the best looking in the city. This scheme was followed by an imaginative re-purposing of a very fine 1930s brick building that had had a long and often shabby recent history bang opposite, Some of the other additions since then have not been either as successful nor have gelled as well; the large central space between Dance City and the newly built Holiday Inn Express seems a desolate place even in sunshine and what little that has been done to landscape this sweep of concrete simply underlines this.

Fortunately, this hasn’t undermined what has been gained. Many trees around the area and besides the motorway planted twenty years ago have begun to make an addition to the feel of place here that I find reminiscent of some of the best urban spaces I know or have seen around the country and overseas. There is a fine feeling about this slice of urban living between the ‘Boulevard’ and the Central Station. It is both large scale and small scale, busy and quiet, a complex of surprising vistas. One can see a distant hillside topped be woods in one direction and in another a narrow 19th century lane that looks as though horses and carts and business men in stovepipe hats have only just left.

Slideshow here (off site link)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Field day

Save Newcastle Wildlife (S.N.W.) have made a 'Corporate Complaint' against Newcastle City Council.

"We submitted a request for an enforcement case to be raised on 4th June 2017 to address this issue, but are yet to receive a response."

Read more (and sign up if you can) here.

The unstoppable concreting over the Green Belt is a national issue, not just a local problem.

My own view is simple. We need housing for low waged people (so-called social housing) and for those starting on the home ownership ladder. Fortunately the north east as a whole has plentiful post industrial and under used land where affordable homes could be built. Much of this land lies along the axis of the Tyne itself, east to west. This is also a major transport axis and opportunities for employment and easy to reach facilities. It is also not the area that developers wish to exploit. Instead these wish to monetise the city's Green Belt because of the additional (premium) weighting this carries for profit. Selling a house out on the Green Belt produces greater profits. So public housing policy is stifled and private greed wins every time. It's enough to make any one burn down a Grade II Listed building ...

The ever readable Rowan Moore, architect correspondent for The Observer has worthwhile views as always:–

"At the centre of debates about green belts is the question of trust. In theory it should be possible to build on a very small proportion of the nation’s green belts in such a way that affordable housing and sustainable communities are created, and more people have more and better access to nature than before. In practice few people trust that this will happen, as the available evidence is that we will get instead a smearing of developers’ standard products across the countryside, for sale at inflated prices."

Please do read the entire article here.

Monday, September 4, 2017

No Quarter

I need to say at once I cannot pity anyone who describes a place in an English city as a 'Quarter'. I despise them. But even criminals and narks have a role to play, as the famous historian E.P. Thompson wrote; without them we would know far less about historic figures. In the case of the over promoted estate agents who work tirelessly to file down what is left of the meaning and significance of living in a city rather than a corporate dream park of the wish fulfilment of the mediocre, we can use them and their brochures – a favourite weapon – to define exactly what is shallow and worthless about today's planners.

Fantasy or wilful deception? Do these people believe in what they are promoting? Are they just pretending?

Pilgrim Street is being 'regenerated'. In science fiction this is always an 'iffy' moment. What's coming? Well, in this case, I am certain, more corporate crap.

The Odeon cinema on Pilgrim Street, with its officially protected Grade Listed interior, was knocked down this year. Or fell down. But the protected Grade Listed interior had by then been smashed up by the owners to ensure the building shouldn't survive; the city council even chipped in for the cost of demolition further down Pilgrim Street, taking away one of the few distinguished modern buildings to grace the city. Money doesn't speak. It gets its own way.

 The former Bank of England Building on Pilgrim Street.
Years of studied neglect can't quite hide the quality.

The whole of this part of the city centre where the Odeon once stood has been given the usual label: the Pilgrim Quarter. The plans – that are actually less plans, more some kind of pants wetting fantasy – show a series of glass frontages linked to hollowed out existing fa├žades that cannot be pulled down or persuaded to fall down.

I seriously doubt any of the developers, their bank managers in Panama or Grand Cayman, P.R. people, or city planners have read their Kierkegaard –

"A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary which is at the same time reflective and passionless leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance," 

– words that seem just, well, so apt. Quarter is a smarmy label that proposes a sort of false history, more surface than reality. A old friend told me about how a north east development agency wished to remove the reality of the fisherman's life when it re-developed a quayside. A few good old boys sitting about mending nets, but no beat up vans and piles of plastic boxes full of stinky fish scales ...

Beyond the flashy images and gushing prose –

"The East Pilgrim Street ... represents one of the most strategically important City Centre regeneration areas in the north of England. Newcastle has consistently been identified as a location for major retail growth and provides the space for the retail, leisure and commercial core to expand." (1) [Emphasis added.]

– lies a rather brutal fact, Newcastle is not Manchester nor Birmingham; it commands no great hinterland of punters and all its ancient and traditional industries are but a memory. Where is the economic base to support these grandiose and verbose statements? Where does it live? Gosforth 'village'? The Wallsend Quarter?

The size of the available 'pot' has not escaped Intu, whose own Eldon Square up the street was built over the Grade II Listed (sic) Eldon Square, an earlier crime in the upward progress of Newcastle's assent into the Big Time.  When, earlier in the softening up process, the gushing wall of P.R. fell over Intu they were not best pleased, having, one assumes, worked personfully to keep the shop lights on in their own empire during a long and painful economic recession since 2008:

"Plans to turn Newcastle into the biggest retail centre in the North could instead send shops across the city into “a downward spiral of decline".

The owners of Newcastle’s Eldon Square shopping centre have told a planning inquiry into the future of Tyneside that hopes of eventually turning East Pilgrim Street into an £800m shopping centre to rival the likes of Harvey Nichols and Selfridges could fatally damage existing retail centres.

Bosses at Intu want to see Newcastle Council forced to promise an impact test on any new shopping centre."

No dice.

"Harvey Emms, the council’s most senior development official, said the East Pilgrim Street plan was there to cement the city’s place in the region". (3)

Region. Does Mr Emms get out much? Newcastle is smack in the centre of a large 'region' of sheep rearing and forestry, set well away from prosperous heartlands in the English Midlands. Perhaps he was thinking of Middlesbrough? Cramlington? Or, ... Sunderland? Newcastle is going to have to find lots and lots of people with deep pockets who choose to spend their great wealth in this city. They are going to be spoilt for choice.


One of the more amusing aspects to this Fantasy of the Quarters, is the memory I have speaking last century to a previous Mr Joy Boy and well paid over-promoted estate agent who planned something remarkably similar to that proposed for the city today (tomorrow, whenever?); a barely sentient population of credit card carrying punters apparently, borrowing money they could not repay for stuff they did not need at prices they could not afford. This nonsense went by the epithet "High Street U.K." during a break in the pep talk to the assembled suits and money grubbers present, I asked about the contribution of the arts to this city's well being and regeneration. Artists, he announced (he was of that type described by Queen Victoria as speaking to her as if addressing a public meeting), were degenerates and perverts. Next question.

The Banker's Crash that swept to destruction Mr J.B.'s plans to build a Fifth Avenue on the Tyne resulted in empty properties all over the city. Around the as yet to be damned with a label Pilgrim Street, former shops and offices standing dismally empty were let out as temporary spaces to em, ... artists ...

"Norham House, a former office block that used to be occupied by lawyers and accountants, had in more recent times been home to artists.

After 2010, Norham House became better known as The NewBridge Project with a street level gallery and bookshop and a warren of studios, workshops and exhibition spaces.

It run a programme of exhibitions, talks and other events and has been a popular destination during the annual Late Shows in Newcastle and Gateshead."

1. NCC website updated 27th July 2017. Retrieved 4th September 2017.

2. Newcastle Journal 11th June 2014. Retrieved 4th September 2017.

3. Ibid

4. Newcastle Journal 13th June 2017. Retrieved 4th September 2017.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Living Space

'Battlefield' is the name I gave the City Stadium on the edge of Shieldfield and Heaton affording recreational space and fine views over Ouseburn and the Tyne towards Gateshead the south. The 'battle' was to ask our Council (in the late 90s) to think again about building a 1300 space car park over the 'site'. At that time I learned that this piece of greenery has no status as 'open space'. Due to history – it is actually landfill – it cannot be built on as far as I understand so the Council, or, rather, the Council's permanent officials have sought to 'do something with it'. Fortunately they haven't and recent cash-in-hand from government that helps our Council keep its large direct labour force in work meant the creation of a cycle track. The unexpected consequence has been to create er, a park. In 1997 it looked much less so than nowadays. So good things come to those that wait.

Perhaps. The latest threat is to all such informal public accessible spaces in our cities and towns. As Councils face the reality of Austerity 2.0* they have been compelled to think of all kinds of innovative ways to give away public spaces up to and including parks and gardens. It might be that going for a walk will involve a ticket or season ticket quite soon; and that casual 'knock up' tennis will put you back a few quid.

Meanwhile, even cities are getting in on the act. Newcastle has still, despite the Curse of Eldon Square, a walkable city centre and byways across town. But some of the newer developments have pedestrianised whole areas. Northumberland Street east of John Dobson Street past City Hall is essentially the property of Northumbria University who have smothered it in corporate business street furniture dross and bling. Other areas are being turned in 'Quarters'. This is a really bad sign. Personally, I feel anyone who thinks in terms of Quarters in a city this old is an addict of fake news and should be helped.

The Guardian is pointing out in a useful way what is happening. True some tidying up and separation of walkers (revellers) and traffic is good. But is it coming at a price?

A link to the Guardian online article here. It's very London focussed but unfortunately grabbing formerly public space for a corporate possession and therefore possible exclusive uses, is not confined to London.

The image above is of the quasi open space, Granary Square around the corner from The Guardian's own offices in King's Cross. They know of that of which they write.

* I lived through Austerity 1.0 (1945 –)

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Economic Consequence

Two timely posts in one.

First, Save Newcastle Wildlife (off site link here) have made no further progress on getting Newcastle and North Tyneside Councils to face up to their plans to destroy or undermine prime local habitats with aspirational house building and playing fields. Explanations as to how these schemes fit in with previously expensively compiled master plans larded with bold declarations are awaited.

Secondly, a superb article by the ever readable and sane Rowan Moore on the 'studied decline' of a precious national asset (and exemplar to the wider world) being thrown under the bus by the Austerity process. (Full article here). Two governments and, perhaps, a third one currently have pursued an economic policy that has run down the public aspect of national life almost to nothing.

In 1919 John Maynard Keynes wrote the hugely influential The Economic Consequences of the Peace that described the outcomes of financial ignorance overruled by political ideology as leading to disaster and the probability that this in turn would return the world of catastrophic war in twenty years. I do not for a moment suggest an apocalypse will result from spec building and trashing our city parks; but the short sightedness of the policy has a crushing familiarity. Obsession with one factor and ignoring all others – or even that there might be an alternative to the current policy of avoiding accidents by cutting off one's own feet.