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/ Careful Ambition - Planning and Development in Newcastle Town Centre
When I was first elected in 2001, I was very much a ‘planning virgin’. Little was I to know how much of my time, over the last eight years, would be consumed by planning issues.
Immediately, there was putting a stop to methane-drilling, which would have blighted much of Newcastle’s wonderful Green Belt. Then came the controversial Wolstanton Link Road. Ugly distribution sheds rear their heads, too, with depressing regularity.
But it is battles – sometimes outright trench warfare - over development in our historic Town Centre, which have taken the most effort and concentration.
As a Member of Parliament, I probably take a closer interest in the minutiae of planning than most – and certainly more than is healthy for my sanity some times.
The reasons are severalfold. I was born and bred in Newcastle and remember its history, the ups and downs in the sixties and seventies particularly. My wife’s an architect, with a great eye for design and a part-degree in town planning. I am also the founding patron of Urban Vision, North Staffordshire’s architecture and design centre, which fights to improve our built environment locally.
The biggest reason, sadly though, is an almost complete lack of faith in our Borough Council’s planning and development control functions. And I can date quite precisely when I lost confidence, fixed bayonets and vowed ‘enough is enough’.
It was in 2005, during a battle over developments at Zanzibar and Titleys warehouse. I’d already seen poor advice, which had led to two eyesores: namely, No.1 London Road and Brunswick Court, buildings totally unsympathetic to their surroundings.
Now at Zanzibar, this other crucial gateway into town, officers were minded to permit further over-development of questionable design quality. There was a distracting fanfare, trumpeting a leafy café plaza, funded by the developers, to smoothe the passage. Then officers rolled over, as so often, dropping a requirement for active frontage, where clubbers once queued at the Crystal or Tiffany’s, as it used to be.
Not only did this hair-tearing cave-in break all the rules of good urban design, it made absolute nonsense of plans for the public realm. Without space for a café or restaurant, how on earth could you have a ‘café plaza’?
Those developments have not taken off. But I’ve learned to my regret since never to take anything for granted with our planning people. Just when you think that nothing could trump the last daft decision, something does. Just when you assume, logically, a recommendation must go one way or the other, another head-shaker happens.
I’ve seen, for instance, how Lymedale – conceived of necessity to provide jobs after closure of Holditch colliery – has become a ‘one trick pony’ sprawl of ugly sheds. That’s planners, not politicians for you. It was certainly not the original intention. But ask, expectantly, where’s the landscaping to hide the blot on Newcastle’s townscape, and the answer comes: ‘Aah, yes, with hindsight….but we’ve run out of land now.’.
We’ve seen the failure, too, of the Town Centre Area Action Plan (AAP), which would have given a robust development framework for Newcastle. Nearby Biddulph got one through, but one of the biggest district councils in the country could not.
The most serious recent example of the bloody-minded, contrarian attitude at work is the budget hotel and discount food store coming to the old Georgia Pacific paper mill.
One part of the department namely, producing a Supplementary Planning Document to replace the defunct AAP, laid out a wholly different use for the site. Expensive consultants agreed. Urban Vision opposed the application: it was more ‘out of town’ and inappropriate for the edge of a historic town centre.
But ‘development control’ (a cruel oxymoron) ticked their boxes, pronounced all design to be subjective, pulled the rug from under their other colleagues and produced a eye-popping ‘yes’ recommendation.
With this sort of sabotage, we might as well all go home – or insist that what Newcastle needs is new blood and fresh leadership in this crucial department.
Apart from the Guildhall, we’ve seen little change for the better of late. The Town Centre Public Realm project seems almost stillborn. For years now, the Council’s been deaf to common sense calls to promote specialist shopping around Bridge Street (instead, the new parking regime is killing trade and shopkeepers are up in arms).
Now times are harder, the challenge is even greater. Buildings are for generations, not just for Christmas. Sacrificing quality for expediency simply will not do. Those siren calls should be resisted. We need a ‘can do’ approach, not an ‘anything will do’ attitude. As Newcastle’s MP, I want to see a mix of care and ambition from the Council for our town centre, and I’ll do anything I can to help. Or provoke debate.