Monday, December 22, 2008

Fifty years and counting

In what will be my last post of the year I would like to write about a subject tangental to the coming destruction of the City Stadium cum Battlefield open space by agents of the Newcastle Upon Tyne City Council.

For the past fifty years Newcastle City Council has had a truly remarkable record in town planning. In that time it has achieved a consistent record of failure in all it has done.

From a starting point of presiding over what the then embryonic Civic Trust described as one of the finest Georgian – Victorian cities in England (i.e. world), it has worked hard to inflict a train of destruction upon this heritage and replaced it with warmed over mediocrity. What was once remarkable, civic and exemplary has been replaced by the kind of facade building which has blighted many provincial English cities. Set down in this city today, a stranger might wonder where they were, or even in what part of north western Europe. What one sees all around is now just a kind of wallpaper, found anyway.

The Central Motorway Scheme cut through the heart of the city. Presiding city boss T. Dan Smith (known as "Mr Newcastle") called this programme of sacking the city as building a "Brasilla in the North", where elegant squares and residential streets would be re-created as motorway flyovers. Smith was the first in a long line of the over-promoted taking unstoppable powers to themselves to wreck all they surveyed in the 'capital of the north east'. In Smith's case a desire to govern as a semi-autonomous regional potentate may have been inspired by early life Communist sympathies or have some deeper, psychological, cause, one which expressed itself in an orgy of demolition and gimcrack building projects. However, whatever his failings, he was at the end something of a character; the faceless, bloodless, apparatchiks who followed him were less memorably corrupt.

Eldon Square was once a graceful Georgian square, Grade II* Listed buildings standing in the centre of Newcastle close to the Grey Monument. Smith had Eldon Square demolished, except for part along one short side, to make way for a twenty storey high hotel which was never built. Later the site was taken over and expanded in stages to provide the large sprawling complex known as the Eldon Square (sic) Shopping Mall. This is less architecture than a machine to take money off shoppers.

These actions helped to frame the twin ideas that here was a city ripe for speculative developers and that in building terms, the past was expendable. Grey Street, long recognised as the major achievement of architect John Dobson has been mostly preserved and acts as a kind of fig leaf to the city council's rapacious planning policies and lack of judgement. So long as 'we' have Grey Street, the legend goes, 'we' are preserving the best of the past. Meantime, trees have been felled and parks and quiet streets destroyed in order to facilitate the private motor car.

I well remember the impressive Victoria Square, a grand leafy presence just north of the city centre. This was knocked down to make way for the Central Motorway scheme. Within years an underground railway – the Tyneside Metro system – was up and running, rendering the Central Motorway unnecessary; a decade later still the Western By-Pass obviated the need for traffic to traverse Gateshead and Newcastle on its way north or south. For the space of a few years only was the destruction of much irreplaceable heritage required. 

Smith has gone but his shade and legacy remain, even though some of it has been demolished and rebuilt again, as are parts of Eldon Square today. After T. Dan Smith, the idea prevalent in Newcastle is that the city must be re-built in some far-fetched comparison with a distant model of modernity: Chicago, Milan, Brazilla, Venice – the list has never been definitively written, and each new twist of electoral fashion produces the same dissatisfaction with plain old Newcastle as she was built by men and women who believed in something. 

At this point I have to make a confession. As  child I recall how thrilling it was when, watching a movie about the 'Spanish Main', a moment came when some strange sailing ship suddenly ran up the 'Jolly Roger' pirate flag and what had seemed so innocent was suddenly transformed. That moment has come.

I am an unashamed enthusiast for modern architecture. I believe some of the architects working now have ideas and inspirations to transform our experience of the built environment in wholly positive ways. New innovative buildings have, learning from Early Modernist failures, gained knowledge on how to make public spaces work. An inspired new building can transform our lives, showing us how to look again at the world around us and changing our perceptions of both ourselves and the places we thought we knew.

I believe this building is one such.

The idea for the form of the new University of Northumbria Business and Design School is based on the two halves (hemispheres) of the human brain.

Note the Central Motorway inchange in forground. This 1960s era scheme smashed through much of the inner city suburbs of Sandyford and Brandling Park, taking Victoria Square with it.

Critic John Grundy thought that this area around Manors (less than half a mile from Battlefield) was  worth coming to look at because it was so completely awful; a perfect demonstration of what a piecemeal approach to planning (sic) can achieve.

Not any more. The new University of Northumbria Business and Design School Building at Manors has made people to whom I have shown it sit up and gasp. Whatever else it is it is not mediocre. Like some strange vehicle – airship? – it occupies its dominating position with aplomb. In sunlight it sparkles like crystal; in rain it seems like a kind of grey Uluru (a.k.a. Ayer's Rock), peeping above the trees planted to screen the mutiplex cinema which formerly stood on this site. A space age building, it sits at ease within this previously barren landscape and has actually helped to point up the 'lost' qualities of the sprawling vista, not least the view south towards the Tyne Bridge and the expansive sky in all directions overhead.

What has this to do with Battlefield?

I think that the whole area stretching from this impressive building eastwards to the edge of the Byker district, and spanning the Ouseburn, is one of the most fascinating in the city and one in which I think the possibilities for development are rich, realistic and challenging. I will discuss these at greater length in due course, but I will end this post by stating my own position.

I do not think there is a contradiction in wanting to preserve places where leaves collect on footpaths, birds build their stick nests and building for development. It can and has been done elsewhere –  a fact, which when I pointed examples of it out to a Council employee, lowered the temperature of our conversation. People say, oh well, you cannot have progress and leave things as they are. No, but you can improve them. One has to have imagination and the will power to achieve the best of both. For too long Newcastle has had to settle for a very poor standard. This must end.

Best Wishes for Christmas
and a Peaceful New Year!

Monday, December 1, 2008

'Oooo they can't take that awaaay from meee' ...(Oh, yes they can)

If you have been following the story of this "threatening" (© Metnor Group plc) piece of open space then you will enjoy viewing these images. It may soon be all just a memory ...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bog or standard? We do both!

Metnor don't do architecture: They build for clients. Here are two images of 'projects' which Metnor, chosen by Newcastle City Council to 'do up' the Battlefield and City Stadium open spaces, have brought to fruition, if that is the right word.

Very clean ...

Oh, dear ...

In truth I do not care how Metnor and the University of Northumbria house the University's students. That is between themselves and the students (known in the trade these days as 'units'). What does concern me is that Newcastle City Council has decided that any scheme on the former paint factory site – Offices? No! 'Environmental' offices! No, the market has collapsed... Apartments! No... Too much poison in the soil and the credit crunch. Wait a minute, student flats! – is also license to do some 're-construction' on "threatening"* open space neither Metnor nor the University of Northumbria owns. Who put that idea into their collective heads?

I ask again: When did the City Council decide upon this? Under what measure and how did our local councillors vote? Because there was a vote, wasn't there?

* The exact word used by a PR representative to me at one of the public viewings of this tawdry scheme. "Tawdry" is my word incidentally.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Business opportunity

Offices no more. Apparently, the pressing need to provide Newcastle with yet more offices no one wants, has effortlessly been overtaken by a scheme to create a student ghetto, having only a few months prior to this been a develpment site for 500 plus apartments arranged in eight massive towers – and all by the same developer! But someone hasn't had time to alert the passing trade to this 'change of use' as my recent photograph shows. When the plans change week by week sign makers cannot really be blamed. What next? A Casino?

More posts soon and I hope a bit more of a celebratory note. Afterall, strolling through this piece of precious open space on a sunny day will soon be just a memory, courtsey of Metnor, The University of Northumbria and the City Council, who are the actual owners of the City Stadium, held in 'trust' for the whole community. How does that work, exactly?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Portland Green Revisited

Developers Metnor Property Group and partner Northumbria University have decided to produce "modified" proposals to place before Newcastle City Council for rubber stamping. Given the very brief time between the first public consultation and this one (14th–15th November) I imagine the 'modifications' to be somewhat cosmetic.

The decision to build a student housing ghetto on the former paint factory will go ahead.

But what I want to know is this:

When did the battlefield stroke City Stadium open space become the feifdom of the two proponents of this all embracing scheme?

When did our local councillors agree to allow the developers to include the open space in their plans?


Unless something amazing happens we will soon see another example of what passes for 'the planning process' in this northern outpost of insider dealing.

Until then, enjoy the 'threatening' open space while you are able.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Fifth of November ... less about plots than pagan rites, Halloween (All Hollows Eve) the time when the spirits of the dead were frightened away.

How I wish the bangs and showers of sparks would frighten away those whose ambition is to fence in and privatise today's open space (Metnor and the University of Northumbria's plans are so formulated that that is the only reasonable conclusion one can draw from viewing them).

Why so?

Well, Metnor (or their appointed PR representives) assured me that Battlefield (which they do not own incidentally) is a threatening place, run down and uninviting. They even 'closed down' a thriving Italian restaurant alongside the open space the better perhaps to underline their point, but that is another story ...

While we still have it (and Metnor have decided to revise their plans) here is the "threatening' Battlefield open space to enjoy for at least one more early winter's night.

Footnote to Newcastle City Councillors: It is permitted to reply to an e-mail. It is quite easy but if you require assistance I am sure there are paid IT people on hand at the Civic Centre to help you.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It is all becoming clearer now

The Blackfriars Centre was deserted apart from about six officials (none of them wearing identify badges so far as I could see) and your correspondent. Already incubating a cold I was perhaps less communicative than I ought to have been, but also I felt completely out numbered. The exhibition had been on view for a couple of hours by the time I arrived but I did not sense there had been a crush of visitors. I was 'buttonholed' a couple of times as I viewed the display panels and I may have been surly in reply. If so, apologies. It all became clearer later ...

The panels were rather low down and it is difficult for me to bend and read for long. But in truth if you are used to them, then these displays and artist's impressions are much the same. The model was better and I came to the following conclusion.

The paint factory site will be re-developed as a student campus for around 2000 people. Much of the design is unexceptional but the developer's own the site and it would be difficult for the Newcastle City Council to refuse them. My chief concern was the intentions the plans had for the open space adjoining.

It was clear from statements accompanying the proposals that Newcastle City Council have been hand-in-glove with the developer's. The intention is to use the re-development to re-shape the open space. The open space is described in terms which will be familiar to people who have seen similar operations. I was told the area by the railway and road bridges was 'forbidding'. Other words used play the game of framing the current site in language of threat and undesirability. The sub-text is "Here is a piece of near derelict land used now only for anti-social activities. With our intervention the space can become a pleasure ground." As if, magically, anti-social behaviour will vanish with the arrival of all weather running and cycle tracks, changing rooms and a 'landscape feature', essentially a large earthwork.

My fear is that the results will be a loss of congenial views and strolling space and their replacement with an owned space set aside for specific purposes and excluding any other. Effectively the only users of such spaces will be the young and fit – mostly students.

Students already use the space successfully. Their use of it does not preclude the space being used by others for very different purposes. When I attempted to point this out I was assured by one representative at the presentation that most of the site was unused, activity being confined he thought to the cycle and pedestrian pathway. This has some truth, but it suits his purposes to suggest that the remainder of the site is underused by being undesired or unsafe.

It helps no one to pretend there are not issues surrounding urban open space. Yet, despite having unsavoury events attached to them I see no anxiety to close the Royal Parks or cover them with earthworks to keep out the celebrities and MPs trawling for sex after dark. The arrival of built features and sculptures will not address underlying social problems, simply sweep them under a carpet of PR.

Another aspect of the presentation underlines to my thinking the shallowness of the enterprise. Apparently, the very recent planning application to build private flats over the site fell foul of the fact that the cleared site is contaminated with toxic residuals from the paint making process, presumably heavy metals. This, rather than the present financial crisis, was responsible, it was claimed, for the demise of that scheme. (Lucky then I went along because no one told me! I never received an acknowledgement or feedback whatsoever to my reasoned objections to this earlier proposal.) Hopefully, some of you will be ahead of me here. Why does a site unsuitable for private flats become suitable for students? There was some flannel written at this point about extra and expensive site works and so forth, but the bottom line is that the recent collapse of confidence meant the developer was looking at a white elephant. There was even an (artlessly candid) admission that many flats were expected to be sold to investment buyers who would have rented in an 'uncontrolled' way to – students... 

Further, it was claimed that with the construction of this dedicated student 'campus stroke ghetto'  another benefit would be that many local flats and houses would be given up and made available to 'families'. If you think student neighbours are a nuisance wait until you meet some of the 'families'. Having lived in two areas where there was a mix of private lets to students and non-students, only the students made for reasonable neighbours in the sense that they could be talked to and would listen if approached in the right way. I am extremely nervous about the potential impact of a large slice of the 'buy-to-let' market coming on stream at once when the economics are so bad for the investor's presently. Many will not be able to sell without losing money. They will not be able to finance the empty properties for long and the pressure to take tenants, any tenants, will be very great. It is a recipe for social disaster and I can take any Councillor to see examples and meet with housing association professionals to learn first hand what the private unregulated letting sector can do to the fabric of a community.


i) The person who told me the open space was threatening and undesirable also told me La Gabbia restaurant had closed.

ii) When I asked if the plans for the site were available online I was told they could be e-mailed to me personally if I provided an e-mail address. I declined to do so. The plans must be made available to all.

iii) It is clear that a linking thread, and one which goes back years, between all the previous attempts to build over – how else to describe these schemes? – the Battlefield City Stadium is the Planning Department of Newcastle City Council, the same one which wished to acquiesce in the transfer of the historically important Leazes Park to Newcastle United Football Club and to 're-develop' adjoining Castle Leazes common land for a private health and sports club 'village'. That tawdry story deserves a book.

(Edited for lost link 14.04.09)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

La Gabbia lives!

I have this morning trekked through light rain to view the presentation of plans to re-develop the former Berger paint factory site on behalf of the developers Metnor Group plc and the University of  Northumbria. More on this later.

During the brief conversation I had with one of the staffers on duty I was told that a recently opened (and good) Italian restaurant on the fringe of the proposed development, La Gabbia (see photograph), had 'closed'. (I asked the question twice so there can be no confusion, at least not on my side.) On my way back home I detoured to see for myself if this sad news was true. Instead of shutters and 'To Let' signs I found the business was about to open. More, it was cheerfully advertising 'Coming Events', including Christmas.

I was so relieved I contacted La Gabbia via their web site –

This is what I have written to La Gabbia:

I was surprised and a little saddened to learn from a representative of the company promoting the re-development of the paint factory site for student flats that La Gabbia had 'recently' closed. I hope this is not the case. I had a very enjoyable evening with you recently and regard your arrival as a bonus to the area. The company handling the PR for the developers might care to hear from you.

Indigo Public Affairs can be reached at

Best Wishes,

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hit the phones!

Response to my e-mail to Indigo Public Affairs today:

Dear Mr –

Thank you for your email regarding the Portland Green site. We are experiencing temporary difficulties which should be resolved by this afternoon. In the meantime, if you can forward your comments to me I will make sure they are recorded.

Apologies for the technical difficulties and I look forward to hearing from you.

Matt Harmer
Indigo Public Affairs
020 7587 3041 (direct)
0845 458 4511 (switchboard)

And from Metnor Group plc this morning:

Mr –,

Thank you for pointing this out, I'll look into it straight away. The 'Yourshout' website is run by the company that's running the Public Consultation exercise and I've forwarded your observations to them. I'll let you know as soon as they get back to me.

Brian Ham
Metnor Property Group
0191 268 4000
07713 317 888

Metnor Group plc's website is at

This e mail has been sent from Metnor Group plc or one of the companies under its control as listed below:

Metnor Group plc (Registered Number: 03596379)
Norstead - A division of Metnor Group plc
Metnor Construction Limited (Registered Number: 04424488)
Metnor Property Group Limited (Registered Number: 04382136)

All of the above companies are Registered in England and Wales with the following Registered Address: Metnor House, Mylord Crescent, Killingworth, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE12 5YD

Rub of the Green

Latest News!

I have contacted my local Newcastle City Councillors (all of them Liberal Democrats) encouraging them to resist the plans about to be submitted by Metnor and the University of Northumberland to build a large student barracks complex over the former paint factory and Reg Vardy car showrooms sites and to get their hands on the Battlefield open space next door.

I also tried to contact Metnor and "Indigo Public Affairs" (whom I presume are doing the leg work for Metnor and Northumbria). I used the e-mail address given on the leaflet distributed locally and which I have repeated in my post below. It does not work (my emphasis added):
This message was created automatically by mail delivery software.
A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its
recipients. This is a permanent error. The following address(es) failed:
SMTP error from remote mail server after RCPT TO:
host []: 550
this email address does not exist
Fancy that!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How Green is my Valley?

Climate change. Now the cash is in letting to students ...

When it came I must confess I was surprised for a few seconds.

On a day (a week, even) of high politics and financial bail-outs of staggering magnitude, would seem an odd moment to indulge in speculative ventures. Entitled "A New Look for Portland Green" I knew what it was about at a glance. So that is what they have decided to call the old paint factory site.

Someone will compile a list of all the fugded up heritage names and hand me down quaint titles that planners and estate agents reach for when they want to paint lipstick on a corpse. 'Barracks on the Green'? No... 'Billet by the Tyne'? No ...? One can picture the session as one black suited embalmer tries to out do the others in raking up a suitably misleading place name for a student ghetto. For that finally (?) is what is proposed. Green? Think naive rather than leather on willow.

Gone are the environmental office blocks. Newcastle has already a swathe of unlet offices, many newly built, others which have languished for years, so this decision to pull the 'eco-building' was inevitable (See photograph above.). A quarter of a mile away offices stand unlet and likely to remain so until someone realises the only way forward is to demolish them. Gone are the plans for five hundred plus "apartments", downed by the credit crunch and falling house prices (and potential profits to the developer). Instead what is planned is a "much needed" profit taking oppotunity to erect a barracks for students alongside the existing one on Portland Road and to accompany the many others which have been built on every available strip of land (including air space over the Metro Lines) between the central motorway and the suburbs.

The proposers of this wretched piece of money grubbing are Metnor Group plc "working closely with the University of Northumberland".

Worse, they are also reviving ideas first put forward several years ago (and the impetus for this blog) to "improve the facilities (sic) of the City Stadium. Open space is very valuable to the area and we are interested in hearing your suggestions on how it could be improved". Set alongside this self-serving cynical sentiment is a photograph of the City Stadium arena of such thudding ordinariness  it would drive a Methodist to drink.

Who are these people? Am I free to I suggest ways in which where they live can be improved?

Metnor and or the University of Northumbria are "providing Newcastle City Council with funding" to facilitate their bid to ghettoise Shieldfield and Battlefield. No doubt this will be described as 'planning gain'. There are names for this kind of behaviour, none pleasant. It will also make it rather more difficult for the City Council to oppose the development. As an offer it is at one and the same time demeaning and contemptible. 

The area between the central motorway and the edge of the Lower Ouseburn Valley has many exciting possibilities. It is an area in which the right plan could be extremely beneficial both to existing enterprise and future ventures. Much in this area needs re-development. The effort to re-generate this district requires sensitivity and imagination, neither of which are apparent in this scheme. It is a plan to insert into a small area a number of  large buildings with high occupancy figures creating a dense concentration of people in a finite area – or is it? I have long suspected that the intention is to build over the City Stadium site where possible. The previous scheme (see my early posts) envisaged a large car park and similarly promised to "improve" the remaining smigin of open space.

This scheme does not represent an advance on the noted successes of the Lower Ouseburn and by comparison, obviously does not seek to do so. It is a manoeuvre by a developer hand in glove with a University (University!) intent on generating yet more income from students. If any students have read this far: I am a former student and have relatives who are or were recently students and I am sick of the rackeeting to which the young are being subjected. This scheme is nothing about providing students with accomodation but everything about making even more money from them; and if a district loses amenity and a quiet lung of this busy city is fouled up as a result, too bad. Mine's a gin and tonic and here's to success! 

I intend to oppose this scheme and I hope you will join me.

Metnor have kindly provide an email at which one can record one's response to their wretched ideas for the former paint factory and adjoining open space:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Man with a Camera

I have opened a space on Flickr for showing many more photographs than would fit comfortably on this web site. Please take a few minutes to explore these. The archive can be found in the "Links" items.

I shall be fitting more archive shots of Battlefield onto the Flickr in due course.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mean Streets Revisited

Today the news is all about the Credit Crunch and fears of a 'melt down' as one huge, vast even, financial mismanagement of the economy by bankers and financiers comes home to roost. In the light of this, development is a long way off for Battlefield. I now very seriously doubt whether the five hundred plus flats and apartments planned for the former paint factory site – is there a curse? – will go ahead. It is doubtful if the 'environmentally sound' offices due to be constructed on the old Reg Vardy car showrooms (see previous posts for images) will, either.

In some ways I am relieved. In others not so. (Quite apart from natural human decency in regardling the consequences for millions of people's livelihoods.) However, I would welcome appropriate development of the Shieldfield–Battlefield–Lower Ouseburn which respects the efforts that have already been made, enhances the character of the area and promotes a diverse useage. What is not wanted is a monoculture of rabbit hutch 'studio dwellings' and empty offices.

To continue ...

The route from Shieldfield to Stepney Bank, looking back towards Shieldfield. Just beyond the railway arch to the right is a pathway entrance to Battlefield Open Space. This area is rich in development sites.

One of the old, 19th century houses on Stepney Bank.

New build on Stepney Bank. The white painted building on the left is the home of Northern Print, an artist's printmaking workshop. Note the steepness of the roadway.

The bottom of Stepney Bank. The pale green ended building is a public house (pub) and beyond it is the entrance to Byker City Farm, one of the original pathfinder ventures in the Lower Ouseburn's regeneration in the late 20th century.

Another pioneer of the 'new' Lower Ouseburn was the Stepney Bank Riding Stables who have been providing opportunities for inner city kids to have access to horses and horse riding for decades. This view includes their marvellous new indoor facility (right). Peeping over the top of the nearest building is the 'staircase' of the National Centre for the Children's Book, 'Seven Stories', an important new cultural site in the region for book illustration and the celebration of children's literature. 

To come: More on the potential in the Shieldfield–Battlefield–Ouseburn area for a mix of open space, recreation, work and living.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A View from the Bridge

In recent decades areas of cities which were overlooked or simply remaindered by departed activities such as London's dock lands or New York's Tribeca have by master strokes of imagination been re-born as culturally exciting and commercially valued places for people to come and work, live and play. This model, whereby neglected commercial properties are given new life, often by arts based organisations, is so common today it is almost a cliché. However, when I once tried to enlighten one well fed member of the New Labour gravy train he bridled badly at the suggestion that his career in re-developing run down chunks of northern real estate with public money owed anything to 'perverts'.

What Mr 'Never Missed a Meal' failed to see was the essential creative background to city re-generation. His fat head was well stuck in the concept artists' aerial impressions of sweeping new zones spreading out across 'derelict' land which he paraded before the eyes of the credulous. The idea that there might be something there worth hanging on to – a history of place for example – was not on the agenda. Big vision means big profits, jobs on the boards of successful bidders and finally, retirement to the Caribbean where the sun always shines ...

Cities interest me. The great ones continually re-invent themselves, sometimes, as in Europe after 1945, by necessity, other times by the creative spur of a few less prejudiced minds. A good example of this is the Ouseburn, where already by the twenty first century some exciting initiatives had made an impact. Taken together with outlying areas there is here still a set of wonderful opportunities and challenges. In coming weeks I hope to celebrate this vision, one which depends on people, on a sense of place, of imaginative solutions to work, living and transport, one which enhances the environment rather than rolls everything up in corporatist ambitions.

First, some portraits of the place. These link together parts of Battlefield, Ouseburn and Shieldfield. 

Looking east at Portland Road. Battlefield Open Space lies beyond the trees at the bottom of the lane. This area is rich in development opportunities. Just to the right a set of offices, Maling Square, has given the area a new dimension.

Shieldfield Tower peeks over the Portland Road Halls of Residence. Just to the right, behind the shrubs is the southern extent of the old Berger Paint factory site, subject to a planning application for eight tower blocks of five hundred plus apartments. This road dips behind the re-developed building to the left. Part has opened as an Italian restaurant. Further down artists' and craftspeople studio spaces have been created. Other nearby businesses have had a face lift of repainted facades. The road leads beneath the East Coast Mainline railway a few yards away to Stepney Bank and onwards down to the Lower Ouseburn.

The railway bridges which are such a prominent feature of the Lower Ouseburn. The East Coast Mainline is on the left; the right hand tracks are those of the Tyne and Wear Metro light railway. A station was once proposed for this site and may yet be constructed. If so it would provide a very useful access point to the Ouseburn Valley and Shieldfield.

The area is rich in building land opportunities particularly for mixed use. Here the space on the left adjoins the new Maling Square office development. The building at the top of the photograph may well be re-developed as is or new build. Close by are a Chinese church and community centre and the locally well known Biscuit Factory commercial art gallery. There is also a large hall of residence here. This is a potential hub of Lower Ouseburn which together with a Metro stop could become a vibrant place to live and work.

A view of a new building going up just beside Stepney Bank. Many of the buildings down the steep bank towards the Lower Ouseburn are of some historic interest and reach back into the area's industrial past. Here there are stables and an artist's print workshop, Northern Print. Stepney Bank connects by an arch beneath the railway to Shieldfield. There is also access to Battlefield Open Space.

Coming soon: More images of the Ouseburn–Battlefield area and further thoughts on what makes the area such a special mixture of present experience and possibility for the future.

Ah! There goes Summer ...

The torrential rain has kept most of us off the streets and I am no exception. Here is one I made earlier, taken almost exactly a year ago it is proof the sun does sometimes put in an appearance.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Summer? II

Some further images of Battlefield in Summer(?) ...

First, some Common Adenostyles, obviously a garden escape.

Next a lovely Grey Poplar, Populus x canescens

A view of the combined cycle way and footpath. It wends through the overhanging trees which I can remember as 'stick' plantings back in the mid 1970s.

The old paint factory site subject now of a planning application. At least the plants and birds have it to themselves for the moment.

Cyclone fencing around the site, 'gravel' invaded by plants.

It seems less and less likely that the scheme to erect eight tower blocks for 500 plus dwellings will go ahead due to the "credit crunch" and the economic outlook impinging on developers profit margins.

This is the quiet time for Battlefield, despite the summer holidays and the schools being closed. When students return in mid to late September the cycle path will be busy with pedestrians and cyclists hurrying between the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria and the student digs spread across the suburb of Heaton.

A post on my thoughts on the architecture and possibilities for future sympathetic development of the Battlefield area and neighbouring Lower Ouseburn will appear shortly. 

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Some photographs of Battlefield taken recently.

Rain seems to suit the trees which are groaning under growths of foliage.

Progress on the new Ouseburn Community Centre has been swift.

Rain over Battlefield. The sun breaks through now and then so it has been an up and down summer here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

But will it ever happen?


This photograph was taken earlier in 2008.
The site remains untouched by shovel or pick in August.

Realistic prospect or speculative investment?

The signs have been up for some while. Ambitious plans to build "environmental offices" over part of a former car showroom adjacent to the Battlefield alias City Stadium open space do not seem to be progressing at time of this posting.

Each day there is more gloom from the property front. Costs too are rising. Against this background of financial uncertainty the decisions investors make (or have made) will need revision.

While some would say it is already over supplied with empty offices, some brand new, others old, redundant and in need of modernisation, Newcastle needs still more office space apparently.

But will it ever happen?

Monday, July 14, 2008


New offices at Maling Square. See post below for details
of Newcastle's already extensive stock of empty offices.

A new development looms over Stepney Bank.

Battlefield (a.k.a. the City Stadium) overlooks the Ouseburn Valley; indeed, was built over it in the late nineteenth century. The Ouseburn was until recently a scene of industrial activity and associated pollution. A lead factory was once a prominent feature of the Lower Valley. Today there is no single activity which defines the Valley. A large scrap metal facility; a national centre for the Children's Book; a stables for the promotion of horse riding; a floor carpet outlet; a music and entertainment venue; a 'city farm'; a fine art print studio; numerous small businesses. The variety of enterprises are matched by the variety of buildings, some dating back to the earliest days of the valley's occupation, some brand new. Several old buildings have been given a a face lift or adapted to new purposes such as the National Centre for the Children's Book. By the late 20th century, the Lower Ouseburn began to attract the far-sighted, especially creative people; a theatre company set up in the Cluny, a former warehouse, and a pattern familiar from other cites of creative minded people seeing the 'hidden potential' so-called run down areas resulted. 

The Ouseburn Trust
has helped establish the district's credentials as a centre for creative endeavour through a combination of regeneration and recovery. Access to the city of Newcastle is via the Quayside, itself the focus of ambitious and (mostly) successful regeneration. It the case of the Quayside the impetus was provided by commercial drive; few old buildings survive. Instead a fresh start produced some striking designs, though subsequently the architecture has been markedly utilitarian, and a dilution has occurred. New projects are less post-modern than opportunist. (Further west along the river at Forth Banks new buildings have sprung up which lack any visual reference point except 'corporate Mediterranean hotel'.)

There are alarming signs that the opportunists have Ouseburn in their sights. The attractions are obvious. The 'business model' is well tested and practically writes itself. Artistic and community enterprises make attractive (and amiable) neighbours. The sheer variety of building types also are attractive to many, especially the young. They are 'trendy'. Once the pioneers 'break the soil' as it were – usually with public money – the developers follow, falling over themselves to grab as much as possible and move on. Democratically the local authority ought to provide the check upon them. However, in recent years successive governments have made the process easy for speculative developers and harder to resist. It fact most local authorities will not take steps to block developers since bearing subsequently the entire legal costs can be so onerous. In effect many undesirable schemes – undesirable in the sense that the proposal cuts through existing plans or conservation area objectives – get through by brute force.

There ought to be some common sense applied here. It is so obviously in the interests of all that development and re-generation go forward together and at a steady pace. Sudden over-kill will jeopardise everyone's investment, both of financial and human resources. Do the 'men in the white Porches' get it? I doubt very much if they do. One cloud on their skyline presently is the current 'credit crunch' and its associated economic problems. This may force speculators to re-think their commitment, always a pragmatic affair: How much can I make? 

My own guide to these matters is the largely forgotten architectural critic
Ian Nairn (1930–1983). I read Nairn's London Observer column years ago  and discovered in him those sympathies for relationships which helped me appreciate the built environment. His warnings – he coined the term "Subtopia" as a portmanteau word to cover his most pressing concerns about the negative impacts of planning – seem prescient. Alas, much of what he wrote is out of print. Nairn I am certain would have lots to say about Ouseburn. The different flavours, facets and prospects which are contained within the small compass of the Valley. I very much hope these can survive the present scramble.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

High Summer

Since I returned to the scene it seemingly has hardly stopped raining. One way to reflect on wet days is to imagine the good the rain does to flowering plants. Here is a sample of some of those I found growing around Battlefield and the former paint factory.

More soon on the future for Battlefield and the prospects for the Ouseburn Valley as I perceive them.

Broom Cytisus scoparius (I think ...)

White Clover Trifolium repens plus fungi

Bindweed Calystegia sepium (probably)

Purple-Loosestrife Lythrum hysoppifolia

Dandelion Taraxacum officinale seed head