Philip Barnes – Blog

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WHERE has Newcastle’s Manchester envy come from?

And we’re not talking football or music here.

I was a privileged to be asked to speak at the recent Developing Consensus conference in Newcastle alongside, amongst others, Lord Shipley, James Ramsbotham from NECC and Barry Rowland the Chief Executive of Newcastle City Council.

The day had one key objective; namely to achieve consensus between the public sector and the private sector on how to deliver new investment, development and jobs.  Various fascinating and interesting issues were raised during the day.  Perhaps the first of these was the differing levels of interest from the two sectors.

Whilst over 150 business and property people turned up only 8 local authority officers attended. No politicians were able to make it, disappointing as they are the people who have the elected mandate to make the difficult and important decisions on where and how to bring forward growth and jobs.  Various speakers outlined the numerous economic strengths of our city and region. Our friendly and hard-working workforce, our quality of life and our transport links were cited.

Less clear was how many other locations might also claim these advantages in this competitive global marketplace.  And then people started talking about Manchester, with a combination of envy, antipathy and fear.

Economists realise that economic growth is not usually driven by the right location, raw materials, ports or motorways. Rather growth is created by having inclusive pro-business political and economic institutions.  Why else is South Korea one of the richest nations on earth whilst neighbouring North Korea is one of the poorest?  Achieving a pro-growth institutional framework often depends on what economists call a ‘critical juncture’. Namely an economic or political shock to the system.

But more of that later…………….

The Newcastle City Council speaker acknowledged the vital role of supporting the business sector but stressed that the overriding objective of the council was to address inequality and improve disadvantaged communities.

Whilst it is clearly impossible to argue against either of these objectives, many in the audience felt that the current priority should be on encouraging business to create the jobs, growth and taxes which then provides a  sustainable platform for such socioeconomic improvement.

At times, the conference struggled to get to grips with what the people in the room could actually do to improve the growth prospects of the region. Talk of the Eurozone crisis and the growth of Brazil and China are interesting, but it is fruitless focusing on exogenous factors beyond our control.  There seemed a reticence to talk about the disadvantages of the region as perceived by potential investors, and what we can actually do about them. For example, housing. The region has the worst housing stock in the UK, highest levels of pre 1919 terraces, too many old flats and a woefully low proportion of modern detached family housing.

The discussion on housing was understandably muted given recent decisions to scale back the proposed level of new family housing in favour of relying on inner-city  brownfield sites of questionable attractiveness to either developers or customers.  This reticence is despite virtually every economist in the country now advising Government that an increase in house building is crucial to achieving economic  growth.

Back on to Manchester and the reality of Manchester’s success. Remember it is the third highest visited city in the UK and in 2010 was voted by British business leaders  as the second best city in the UK to locate a business.

But earlier I mentioned critical junctures, and without wishing to trivialise, the injuries inflicted on over 200 people, Manchester’s critical juncture was one of the worst  episodes in the city’s history – the IRA bomb in 1996.

The City and its neighbours immediately developed a unified growth and regeneration culture in response, which persists today. While many in the North East may cast envious eyes over to the North West perhaps the loss of One North East can be viewed as our shock to the system.  Rather than bemoaning its demise we should see it for what it is – an opportunity to choose a bottom-up path of our own creation.

And with a brand new business-led Local Economic Partnership now firmly finding its feet under the effective leadership of Paul Woolston and Ed Twiddy, we have every  reason to be optimistic especially building upon the two Enterprise Zones and the fantastic new City Deal for Newcastle Gateshead.

The final Developing Consensus speaker was the inspirational Jason Tipton of Insure the Box. An inward investor from Essex now based at Quorum in North Tyneside.  In his view the North East is the best place in the UK to locate a business.

Food for thought.

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Through the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s successive Labour and Tory Governments proudly jostled with each other over who had built the most houses. Reflecting the public mood and ambition.
So what has happened since, such that the public psyche is now to regard new housing as a pollutant to be viewed in the same way as a waste tip or an opencast, rather than a social good?Most right-minded people accept the need for new houses, so why such a furore when a Council or developer wants to provide much-needed new family homes.
Churchill said, “in history lies all the secrets of statecraft”, so I tracked down the 1945 and 1967 Town Plans for Newcastle. What did I learn?
The first lesson was that neither Chief Planner Parr (1945) nor Chief Planner Burns (1967) were short of confidence. Urban remodelling, infrastructure projects and urban extensions held no fear. Both men articulated Newcastle as an economic powerhouse which required a radical plan to address a changing economy.
The second lesson was that both plans “got done”. The 1945 plan proposed two city centre university campuses, a western bypass, a central motorway, slum clearances, plus numerous housing and industrial estates. All ticked off.
The 1967 plan proposed a shopping centre around Eldon Square, a new civic centre, pedestrianisation of Northumberland Street, more slum clearances and family housing at, interalia, West Denton and Kingston Park. Again all ticked off.
Fast-forward to today and what a difference.
Newcastle has built 11650 less houses than needed and planned for since 1991. Bridging NewcastleGateshead planned to redevelop thousands of houses. In reality only 3000 obsolete homes were demolished and only 348 new homes were built despite £360m of funding.
One unwelcome feature of the old plans was the approach to consultation. More about telling people rather than responding to their views. Messrs Parr and Burns applied a “top down” approach believing planners had a professional duty to provide that most basic human right – a good home. They recognised that a city which doesn’t build homes for its working families will age and die. Good housing is, after all, a key determinant of happiness and prosperity. But building lots of new housing is very difficult. Even Chief Planner Burns said in 1967 that housing planners must expect, “a constant spate of ill informed comment” The Local Government Association confirmed recently that public opposition is the biggest barrier to building new homes.
In today’s ‘localism’ world it seems as though we sometimes just ask what people want and then accede. Recent decisions in North Tyneside emphasise that a purely localist approach will make it difficult to deliver the houses needed to address our housing crisis. Often the debate focuses on greenfield versus brownfield. With 90,000 homeless in the region the reality is we need both urban regeneration and new mixed use garden suburbs. Perhaps we need to look outside the region for additional guidance. There are two particularly useful sources.
In 2006 the EU funded OECD told us that “Newcastle’s rural area presents the liberty to conduct spatial planning, particularly in the handling of housing issues”. Then last month the Newcastle City Council Corporate Peer Challenge led by the LGA told us that “establishing a vision for the future of housing in Newcastle is necessary and will require tremendous strength of leadership”.
So back to the unpopularity of new housing. Two things are certain. Newcastle/Gateshead is a fantastic place to live and work. Secondly the Council’s planners are doing a great job pushing forward their plans. As the Core Strategy is finalised over the coming months, history tells us that good city planning should be accompanied by a healthy dollop of ambition.