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The North-East has the skills to drive recovery – if London will let it

The North-East has been hard-hit by the recession. Nevertheless James Pallister finds an optimistic architectural scene in Newcastle, the city with the highest density of architects outside London

‘The hunger to take charge and drive the recovery is everywhere. And what is standing in the way is London wanting to take all the decisions.’

It was rousing stuff from Michael Heseltine, speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme shortly after the government had formally accepted the lion’s share of the 89 recommendations he made in his ‘No Stone Unturned’ report.

Just three years after the Coalition’s ‘Emergency Budget’ abolished the Regional Development Agencies, Heseltine made the case for a rebalancing of England’s economy away from London, saying: ‘London didn’t make this country. It was our great cities where the wealth was started in the 18th and 19th centuries.’

Any practising architect in Newcastle could have told him that. Boasting England’s highest concentration of architects outside London, its fine Regency streets are a solid reminder of the wealth that used to flow through this regional centre. Despite the closure of several firms, including housing stalwarts Browne Smith Baker and Devereux’ Newcastle office since 2008, its architectural scene continues to build top-quality work both at home and in far-flung locations: Canada, China and London. 

But the North-East is having it tough. Public spending cuts have seen councils like Gateshead cut 45 per cent of staff; it has the UK’s highest unemployment rate (9.8 per cent). Unison reported earlier this month that four times as many of its members in the region – including those in work – are asking for handouts from the union. The city’s architects have had a grim few years, though several now report an uplift over the past six months. This reflects Glenigan data, which reports the North-East as the region with the largest Q1 2013 gains by value – admittedly from a low level – in new project starts, compared with 2012, rising by 77 per cent to £144 million. A cheerful Paul Jones, Professor of Architecture at Northumbria University, says: ‘Sometimes you feel like one of those Roman soldiers posted to Hadrian’s Wall.’ Such is the UK’s centralism it’s easy to feel cut off, even though London King’s Cross is just a three-hour train ride away.

We never had the boom in the way Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds had and as a consequence we have less distance to fall

‘We never had the boom in the way Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds had and as a consequence we have less distance to fall. As [architects] got made redundant they set up their own practices. They seem to pick up very good bespoke work, but those in the middle have suffered,’ says Jones.

Jones is a strong advocate of the region. ‘People say we’re like Brown Ale – it doesn’t travel well. The truth is people want to stay here. Not because they’re parochial, just because they like it.’ Graham Farmer, head of School at the University of Newcastle, agrees, pointing to the region’s quality of life as a big reason why people like to live and practise here. As Jones points out: ‘Newcastle has two universities in The Guardian’s Top Ten Architecture Schools. London doesn’t have that.’

Northumbria University runs a BIM academy with local big name Ryder Architecture. Part of Jones’ research work is to enter and win design competitions to pass to local practices to work up, like Studio SP’s North Sea Observatory gallery in Lincolnshire, on site now.

One positive thing which comes out of recession is that there is more diversity in practice

‘One positive thing which comes out of recession is that there is more diversity in practice. When people set up by themselves they tend to differentiate themselves by the quality of their design,’ says Jones.

One such duo is Will Mawson and Dan Kerr, who both took voluntary redundancy from Napper to set up Mawson Kerr. ‘Work has picked up for us significantly since last November, which bucked the trend of the previous couple of years. There is still a lot of caution from the clients, with the banks’ lending decisions playing a key role in outcomes. There is a general opinion in Newcastle that workload is picking up.’

Kevin Brown, of Sadler Brown Architects, thinks the recession will ‘last longer, be much deeper and more structural than previous ones.’ He is optimistic for the future but in the meantime the local market has dried up. ‘Most developers here just go and play golf now. London is a totally different market; there’s the impression that there is no recession there. The government should help take the heat out of London and spread it out to the regions,’ says Brown.

Despite the recent noise-making about turning attention back to regional centres and recent eye-catching proposals from Ed Miliband calling for new regional banks, many architects remain sceptical, including Tim Bailey, of XSite Architects. Bailey’s practice is in the Ouseburn area, which overlooks the Tyne to the south of Byker Wall. This ‘cradle of the industrial revolution’ is currently home to several creative businesses and a £12 million, 70-home development by Ash Sakula, planned to break ground this year, for a joint venture between Igloo and Carillion.

‘A return to a local voice in banking would be fantastic. However, the call is a timely political narrative, and the likelihood of really seeing it much slimmer. Many of [Heseltine’s] ideas are sound but I believe will never fully address the underlying economic problems for the region: which are size; geography; infrastructure deficiencies; and skill base being eroded by draw of stronger regional economies,’ says Bailey, nailing how a London-centric economy tends to weaken the regions.

For Bailey, the axing of the Regional Development Agency (RDA) is a great loss. One North East invested over £2.7 billion into the regional economy over nine years. PwC estimated that the local economy generated £1 for every £1 of public money spent. He says: ‘One North East was widely recognised as one of the more successful RDAs. The council or Local Enterprise Partnerships can’t do what the RDAs were good at, which was ensuring that projects weren’t ruined by competition between Sunderland, Tyneside or Durham and so on. They were very good at taking a regional view.’

Stuart Palmer, the Brummie principal at Studio SP, is less convinced. He says: ‘The relationship between One North East and the larger practices was so entrenched that none of the smaller practices got a look in.’

Palmer’s former colleague, Mark Thompson of Ryder, which is currently building the Hitachi factory at Newton Aycliffe where London’s Crossrail trains will be assembled, is also relaxed about the RDA’s demise.

He says: ‘They had grown to a size which was never intended, they suffered from scope creep and spread the jam too thinly. There was the feeling that, if one town got something, then another should also. Beneath their strategic ambitions there was too much internal politics and they grew far too big.’

Thompson sits on Developing Consensus, the cross-business group which this month called on North-Eastern local authorities to unite to win new investment. Speaking to the Newcastle Journal, its chairman, Adam Serfontein of the Hanro property group, pointed to the united approach cities like Manchester took at MIPIM to bid for investment.

‘Until we do this, we will continue to miss out on inward investment opportunities. The seven local authorities have a golden opportunity to co-ordinate and pool their inward investment functions. We cannot afford to linger on this any longer.’

The cyclical nature of these debates is not lost on FaulknerBrowns’ Neil Taylor. He says: ‘One of the ironies is that Ed Miliband is calling for a regional bank, Heseltine is calling for money to go to the regions and all parties are saying we need a regional funding authority, just three years after the RDA’s were abolished. It breaks your heart.’

Taylor describes a palpable upturn in the past six months at home and abroad. The practice is in rude health, having taken a cautious decision to diversify during the boom years. It has recently added to its sports and leisure portfolio with a velodrome in Toronto and has student facilities in Newcastle and the prized Bishopsgate Goods Yard site in Shoreditch, London, for a Hammersons/Ballymore JV.

With typical Tarzan-esque ebullience, Heseltine predicted resistance to his ideas. ‘There’s going to be a battle now. Whitehall is not going to give up easily what it has accumulated over 100 years.’

Newcastle’s architects have long been fighting this battle. As Taylor points out, success has always meant looking beyond the Tyne and the Tees.

For him, the region has a compelling offering beyond its countryside and its cheap beer, which many in the region will agree with.

He says: ‘What the North-East can offer is very high quality, well-trained staff. People tend to stay with a firm and develop their careers there – you don’t see the high turnover of staff that you get in London. This allows a region like ours to offer phenomenal service and phenomenal value.’  

Local view: Brian Aitken, editor, The Newcastle Journal

Brian Aitken

Brian Aitken, editor, The Newcastle Journal

‘A leafy Suffolk town is getting more funding than Newcastle [for bus transport]. It’s that lack of commonsense thinking that scares me’

At 6pm, in his third-floor office just off the Bigg Market, Brian Aitken is checking over tomorrow’s news pages. Aitken has been at a lunch, hosted by his paper, the Newcastle Journal, celebrating the successes of the region’s top 200 businesses.

The front page splash he has to sign off tells a different story of what Newcastle families are facing: the city now has 15 food banks and their usage has shown an ‘unprecedented rise’ among families who haven’t previously called on the service, including those in work.

According to City Council leader Nick Forbes, rough sleeping in the city centre has tripled in the past three years.

The indiscriminate way in which public sector cuts are being applied worries Aitken. ‘Things have been simplified, so that rather than taking into account the amount of need, they have taken into account head of population. Bus usage in the North-East is higher than the rest of the country. That used to mean the area would have more funding to run that transport. But now it is based on head of population, so a leafy Suffolk town is getting more funding than Newcastle. ‘It’s that lack of commonsense thinking that scares me,’ he says.

Aitken has a straightforward recipe for growth, one stubbornly resisted by central government. ‘I think we need to start spending and building again. The last time we were in a recession, we built ourselves out. I can’t see why we don’t.

‘I’m neither Labour nor Conservative but I firmly believe the austerity measure as are wrong and are being taken for dogmatic reasons.’

Though he concedes the past few years have been tough for businesses, Aitken is quick to point to the region’s success. ‘Manufacturing here defies the odds. The North-East is the only region that has a positive export trade surplus, built around Nissan, the most productive motor plant in Europe.

‘The port of Tyne itself is very vibrant. When offshore energy really takes off, we are in a great position.

‘There’s an incredibly diverse set of businesses here. I think what we need to do is to make that the North-East isn’t left out, for example in funding decisions, by talking to Whitehall directly. The North-East just wants a level playing field.’

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