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

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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.