Sunday, May 10, 2009

All fouled up


It was some time after that I discovered the truth about the large well-fed figure who decided I needed to be put in my place.

We met at an event meant to discuss urban regeneration but this turned out to be nothing more than a piece of window dressing; a tiresome, no doubt, duty to press the flesh with the underclass, the better to master them. In reality, to any observant person it was obvious all the important decisions had been taken elsewhere, all the consultations ignored, deals done. The apparatchik’s steady progress in public affairs assured. With luck a comfortable seat at the boardroom table might not be far off.

Later, a year or so, I was told my fat friend had been to university with leading figures in government. He is their man. He carries their bags.

I drew attention to myself. I asked innocently enough whether he had noticed that much inner city regeneration had been led by artists? Had he! Sensing a troublemaker who needed to be put down, he launched into a description of a photographic exhibition he had seen (or perhaps not) shown by a short lived co-operative in Newcastle, The Zone Gallery. According to him the exhibition consisted of photographs of some whacky Teuton who specialised in mutilating his own body. That was art dealt with. And me.

It was a clever ploy. It suggested that art was extreme and unpleasant and more than a bit mad. It disposed of a line of enquiry and it evinced a protective instinct for the cause closest to his cholesterol threatened heart: Flash developers of ‘quality projects’. Out with the pierced manly bits and in with the marinas.

But not smells.

The Lower Ouseburn (the clue is in the name) is not a pretty river, especially at low water. In warm weather it wiffs a bit and there is evidence of centuries of industrial use covered by mud.

Imagine: You have just splashed out on your ‘quality’ riverfront apartment. It cost a fortune and is actually much smaller than the average Council flat but it has kudos and it is fashionably ‘riverfront’ style living. Private high security keeps the unwashed at a distance and away from your Porsche. But ... Hey! What’s this? Mud! As in MUD! Right in front of one's Continental veranda type window box! I paid XXXXXXXX pounds for this view!?

Thirty years ago the Lower Ouseburn was in limbo. Yet, I never then looked down as my bus took me east or west over the Byker Bridge without thinking this collection of abandoned buildings huddled beneath the arches had 'something'. The old warehouses backed onto narrow, steep lanes, with strange faded signs on wall ends gave it the sense of a place which never left me. I was delighted when I learned years later that others had done something practical about this gut feeling.

First up were The Bruvvers, a theatre group whose founders opened up the impressive old Cluny Warehouse as a theatre workshop, bar and exhibition space. Next, the Byker City Farm was set up and gradually a series of informal community initiatives attracted to these derelict places and spaces came into being. In a process familiar now from a dozen cities around the world this spirited activity drew attention, some good, some less benign.

Artists make interesting neighbours. Rarely do they seek trouble and often they re-invent, re-shape, spaces with imagination and (importantly) their own or not much money. In exchange they get ‘interesting’ places in which to work and live. Then the rot sets in. Others with an eye to making money sense a killing to be made. There was a growing movement in the 80s in cities such as New York and London to re-house young trendy’s in ‘lofts’, made romantic by penniless artists like Pollock and Rauschenberg decades earlier, and much money to be made so doing. Other cities caught on. Old buildings such as garment workshops, cotton mills or warehouses could be turned into attractive and desirable residences in which to put one’s executive feet up after a long day in the office. London’s Docklands, opened up by artists and makers in the 70s, in a short time became a very exclusive address, once the artists and sundry 'riff-raff' had been ousted. What happened in New York’s SoHo has now spread to Tribeca (formerly a warehousing district).

This 'white Porsche man' phenomenon is hitting Ouseburn now.

Politicians are by and large over promoted. Few have an adventurous streak or vision; those who do can get it badly wrong

In order to cash in on the 'louche' appeal of Ouseburn and the near by Quayside development (though that was almost solely commercially driven from the outset, unlike Ouseburn) Newcastle City Council has courted developers who might ‘finish’ off the regeneration (sic) of the Lower Ouseburn Valley. In the booming 90s they were not unavailable. They came and they saw and some stayed and parlayed. One company wanted to build a thirty-story block on a sliver of land it bought beside the confluence of the Ouseburn with the River Tyne. Their's was a simple plan, really. What you cannot buy horizontally you might try to seize vertically. This scheme was so outrageous it whipped up widespread opposition; but the plans lingered on and many felt there to be a real danger of it being nodded through, if not by local government sitting on its hands and crying copious crocodile tears, then by distant central government.

A few weeks ago, however, the developers sold the land and the scheme is now officially dead, though whether because of opposition or the collapse in the housing market I will leave to others to judge. One can be quite certain sentiment or conscience played no part at all.

Unfortunately, Newcastle City Council had agreed to build a nice barrage across the Ouseburn, holding back the water in a lagoon so as to remove the sight of mud and occasional pong at low water, all for the sake of the ‘quality’ homeowners they and their developer pals wish to hook.

The developers were meant to ‘contribute’ to the cost of the barrage ("planning gain"), now thought (by the Newcastle Journal) to be around 4.7 million GBP (about 6.5 million USD). Now, the entire cost will have to be borne by Newcastle’s long suffering populace. But no flats, no deal. Just a barrage no one really wanted apart from the Ouseburn Trust (sic), itself a creature of the Newcastle City Council. Er, white hippo, anyone?

“One long-term Ouseburn resident, who did not want to be named, said: “People have been asking why it couldn’t remain a tidal estuary. They are wondering how much attention was paid to alternatives such as cleaning up the river or environmental solutions like planting reed beds.”

Says it all.

Me? I am going to write and ask if an exhibition of Councillors cutting off bits of themselves could be put on somewhere nearby. That might draw a crowd.

No individuals nor organisations should be identified with this blog or myself, but I include links to some interesting publicly available material here for background and recommend in particular the Monkchester photographic web site. Not a bleeding Tueton to be seen anywhere. - Ouseburn barrage

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

No Let up

It might seem tangential to a blog about the survival of a piece of open space, but I am turning to the subject of letting. Around the fringes of Battlefield (a.k.a. City Stadium) the 'to let' signs are gathering as thickly as starlings once did. Streets of neat terrace houses and flats are lined with the colourful and stylishly corporate signs plugging four or five bedrooms available to students.

The decision to go ahead with a large student village on the former paint factory site is just one development among many that have recently grown up close to the city campuses of the two Universities. These new halls of residence (though never so described) are designed from the ground up to provide a higher standard of habitation and greater facilities to a more and more demanding student population far removed from Muriel Spark’s ‘Girls of Slender Means’, or Kingsley Amis’s ‘Lucky Jim’ post war students boiling an egg over a gas ring. Income plays a part obviously, but the standard of accommodation that can be provided seems important as a means of attracting and keeping student’s happy and staying around for the duration of their courses.

This development is going to seriously impact on the ‘buy to rent’ investment housing market. Those who fled the stock market after the ‘internet bubble’ sank much capital into this kind of investment product, financed in part by competition among the former building societies and now dried up banks. The properties are staying unlet for weeks and months and soon a large and heavy penny is going to drop. The owners will not be able to find student tenants let unless they lower rents drastically, perhaps impossible given mortgage repayments, or face being stuck with properties which, if they are tempted to sell, will be coming onto a slack market at one and the same time.

So the question will be where to get tenants, any tenants, to fend off losses? By this way comes a whole tranche of problems. Ask any social housing professional.

If any one at the Civic Centre has considered these questions in detail they seem to have misled themselves badly if they believe as stated to me that this represents a great new opportunity in 'freeing up former student housing' for families. If you did not like noisy student neighbours wait until you meet some of the families who may soon replace them.

Agency signs have been photographically manipulated by battlefieldthebeautiful to remove contact details only.