Landmark arts, leisure, retail and social developments are bringing the North-east to life –but is there enough bread-and-butter work to keep local firms in business?
If you want a quiet drink in Newcastle upon Tyne on a Friday evening, don’t go down to the quayside. The recently regenerated, pub-strewn north bank of the Tyne seethes with the town’s hedonistic youth hell-bent on a boozy night out. This tide of young people has brought life to the quayside. But, until now, there has been little to attract them across the river to Gateshead, except the moored-ferry nightclub Tuxedo Royale.

Now, a £60m Music Centre designed by Foster and Partners, a five-star Hilton hotel, a £20m entertainment complex developed by Taylor Woodrow Properties, the £46m Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and Chris Wilkinson’s £19m Baltic Millennium Bridge are all set to change the face of the city and of Tyneside as a whole.

So, on the face of it, the market seems healthy. But beyond these glamour projects, work is thin on the ground. Local firms are suffering from a paucity of bread-and-butter work, as well as losing out to national firms and big-name architects on the area’s high-profile projects.

Also, although Gateshead and Newcastle’s quayside are prospering from government and lottery cash, Newcastle’s historic Grainger Town has only just secured regeneration cash, and other parts of the city have yet to see any aid. The newly formed One North East regional development agency hopes to remedy this with a £135m annual investment programme supporting 65 small regeneration partnerships and land reclamation schemes, such as in Middlesbrough’s docklands.

Jonathan Blackie, director of regeneration of One North East, freely admits that the whole area has big development problems. “The North-east is the region in England that has experienced the most significant economic and structural change in the past 10 to 15 years. There has been considerable inward investment, but a lot of work still needs to be done – the Gateshead Quays, for example, were untouched by the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, which was responsible for the now booming quayside.

“There is also a major job to be done in reclaiming the former coalfield sites and investing in communities which have, in a sense, lost some of their reason to exist. The area has a complete range of decline to manage, from rural coalfields to urban centres.” Blackie paints a bleak picture but one that helps explain why, as contractors such as Tarmac admit, developers are less willing to speculate in the North-east than in other regions. Tarmac Building’s business development manager for the North-east, Nick Corbett, says enquiry levels and tender prices are low, but he adds: “If anything, we are suffering from the slow speed at which projects in the pipeline are coming into the market.” He speaks of insecurity and indecision in the market. “I don’t know what’s causing it. I’m puzzled,” he adds.

Corbett is not alone. The word most commonly used to describe the situation is “flat”, although one QS based in the North-east goes further and calls it “desperate”.

Small local firms complain that there is hardly enough work in their own back yard to keep them afloat. Last August, architectural practice Couves went into liquidation, and a couple of other small practices are rumoured to be in financial trouble. Successful local architects, such as FaulknerBrowns and Ryder, have found that the way to win work is to look outside the region. FaulknerBrowns in particular draws only a relatively small proportion of its fee income from home-grown schemes. It recently completed a health club in Newcastle and is working on two leisure/retail schemes, but its major projects are currently in Manchester and Milton Keynes.

Bill Ainsworth, locally born and educated, formed Ainsworth Sparks in 1963 and worked as executive architect on the city’s metro system with FaulknerBrowns. His practice is struggling to compete with London architects: “It’s difficult for someone who has worked in the region for a long time and proved they can do it,” says Ainsworth. He believes clients are to blame because they think they get a better building from a “name” architect.

“I don’t mind if the buildings are beautiful, but they are not always beautiful,” he says.

St James’ Park

Home to one of the premier league’s top football clubs – Newcastle United and its black and white “toon army” of supporters – St James’ Park stadium is expanding. Architect Taylor Tulip Hunter has designed a £42m third tier that will increase the ground’s capacity from 36 700 to 51 000. Contractor is Ballast Wiltshier.

International Centre for Life

This is the cornerstone in the redevelopment of Newcastle’s neglected western fringe. The council hopes the area will become a “leisure quarter”. A £25m FaulknerBrowns-designed leisure complex with multiscreen cinema next door has planning permission (but no start date), and it is hoped the area between here and St James’ Park will be turned into a boulevard lined with offices and hotels.

Banks of the Tyne

The Baltic Flour Mill, one of many old industrial buildings on the south side of the Tyne, is to be reinvented as a centre for contemporary art by architect Dominic Williams. New restaurants and bars are set to open in Gateshead and a competition is being run to convert the towers of the Tyne Bridge to office or leisure space. The regenerated Newcastle quayside is already thriving.

Durham Millennium City

Durham City Council has secured a Millennium Commission grant to provide part of the funding for a £28m project to upgrade a run-down area of the city, much of which is designated a world heritage site. Designed by architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, it will include a 500-seat theatre, visitor centre, lifelong learning centre, a community resource centre and new pedestrian piazzas.

City of Sunderland College campus

This £5m learning resource centre is designed by Ryder for City of Sunderland College to let in as much natural light as possible. It includes an atrium street, laboratories and flexible teaching spaces.

Shiremoor leisure and retail scheme

This £22m leisure development for Northumberland Estates has been designed by local architect FaulknerBrowns. It is hoped that the scheme will help boost the local economy in the former mining village of Shiremoor, particularly if it is linked to the city centre with the planned extension of Newcastle’s urban metro system. Outline planning permission was granted in late 1998, and the preferred developer is Amec Developments.

Newcastle Airport

Undergoing a £27m expansion, a new terminal is set to double its capacity. The work, a joint venture between Sir Robert McAlpine and Haden Young, is due for completion in April 2000.

New school, Houghton-le-Spring

This design by David Darbyshire Architects for a £1.3m school in Houghton-le-Spring, a village a few miles outside Newcastle, shows a central circular library space with classrooms either side of a curved “activity street”. St Michael’s RC Primary will replace the current primary school, which houses 210 pupils. It is due to start on site in December for completion in September 2000. QS is Summers, M&E work is being carried out by Cundall Johnstone & Partners, and structural engineer is Sir Frederick Snow & Partners.

Ferry pontoon

The terminal linking the north bank of the Tyne with South Shields is being upgraded with a bascule bridge designed by Ainsworth Sparks, framed steel pavilions and a waiting room.

North-east’s top projects

Dryburn Hospital, Durham £96m. Architect HLM, contractor Balfour Beatty, QS Turner & Townsend, structural engineer White Young Green Consulting, M&E RW Gregory & Partners Department of Social Security, Long Benton £90m. Architect Sir Michael Hopkins and Partners, contractor Amec, project manager Mace, QS Summers, structural engineer WA Fairhurst & Partners Gateshead Music Centre £60m. Architect Foster and Partners, acoustic engineer Arup Acoustics International Centre for Life Visitor centre, office space and university laboratories, £54m. Architect Terry Farrell, main contractor Laing, services and structural engineer Mott MacDonald Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art Gallery, £46m. Architect Dominic Williams, engineers Atelier 1 and Atelier 10 St James’ Park Upgrading two stands at NUFC’s stadium, £42m. Architect Taylor Tulip Hunter, contractor Ballast Wiltshier Durham Millennium City Project to mark the city’s 1000th anniversary, £28m. Architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, contractor Carillion (formerly Tarmac) Newcastle Airport Extension of terminal building, £27m. Joint venture between Sir Robert McAlpine and Haden Young Shiremoor leisure/retail complex and metro station £22m. Architect FaulknerBrowns, M&E RW Gregory & Partners, QS Summers, highway services and structural engineer WA Fairhurst & Partners Baltic Millennium Bridge £19m. Architect Chris Wilkinson, contractor Harbour & General, steel contractor Watson Steel, M&E firm Kvaerner Markham

Well, fancy that

  • The city is named after the new castle built by William the Conqueror’s son in 1080
  • Newcastle Breweries first made Brown Ale in 1890
  • The metro was the first light-rapid transit system in Britain
  • Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre has the oldest working stage machinery in the world
  • The Tyne Bridge and Sydney Harbour Bridge were built by the same company. Newcastle’s was first and is one-third the size of Sydney’s bridge
  • The creators of the comic Viz come from Newcastle.
  • The Beatles wrote She Loves You in the Imperial Hotel in the Jesmond area of the city
  • Bouncers in the city are trained by the council as part of its door registration scheme
  • Newcastle was the first city ever to host a beauty competition, in 1905