Just like Lambeth and Southwark on London’s south bank, Gateshead plans to cash in on the prosperity of its northern neighbour by enticing well-heeled cultural punters from across the river and further afield. The big difference is that Gateshead has no existing cultural attraction like London’s South Bank Centre, which was established for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Just the opposite: the town’s most prominent building is a six-storey car park in stained concrete whose moment of fame came as a backdrop in the Michael Caine thriller Get Carter.
Gateshead is a town crying out for regeneration, and in recent years, the borough council has proved remarkably successful in cashing in on whatever development funds and grants might be available. Now the borough has been earmarked to receive £34m from the new regional development agency, One North East.
When it comes to development funds, the real flavour of the decade is culture, courtesy of the National Lottery. Gateshead has hit the lottery jackpot several times, with a total of £92m promised by the Arts Council and the Millennium Commission.
The upshot is that Gateshead Quays and the East Gateshead area as a whole are the subject of a £470m comprehensive regeneration strategy, which covers 200 ha of land and will include a 700-dwelling urban village, a business park and the upgrading of an athletics stadium to international standard, as well as the cultural quarter. The borough council’s planning director, Jerry Barford, claims this amounts to the largest regeneration programme in the country.
The cultural quarter on Gateshead Quays will, of course, be the jewel in the crown of the regeneration. Yet Barford claims: “We didn’t start with the big picture for a cultural complex. We did it incrementally.
“We have a history of involvement in public art that goes back to the 1980s,” he says. “Then, in the early 1990s, we saw an opportunity in the empty flour mill to bring forward an imaginative scheme for its conversion to a gallery of contemporary art. At that time, there was no lottery on the horizon. It was an act of faith, but we were eventually awarded £34.5m from the Arts Lottery Fund.” Next came the footbridge. “We had the idea to tap into Newcastle Quayside, which had become one of the most vibrant leisure areas in the country. We proposed a new footbridge close to the flour mill that would provide a 1 km circuit including the existing low-level swing bridge.” And Foster’s Music Centre? “This is where a bit of luck came in,” admits Barford. “We never set out to have a music centre. There was a need for a regional, national, almost international, music resource, but it could have been located anywhere in the Tyneside region. Northern Arts had identified a site in west Newcastle, but when the crunch came, Newcastle City Council felt unable to offer financial support, so they signed up with us.” As a fourth major component of the cultural quarter, Gateshead council came up with the idea of a mixed-use leisure centre with a 20-screen multiplex cinema that would counterbalance the high art of the contemporary art gallery and music centre. A report by property consultant DTZ argued that the private sector would be interested in a leisure development and Taylor Woodrow has been appointed preferred developer.
When it comes to fitting together Gateshead council’s shopping list of buildings on the ground, however, the lack of a preconceived masterplan begins to show. Unfortunately, the key stretch of the riverfront is occupied by a dingy naval reserve training centre, and there are no plans for its relocation. This means that there will be little opportunity for punters to saunter along the riverside and muse on the remarkable cultural patronage of Gateshead council.