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)