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Confidence and challenge in the North East

25 November 2019 Author: Ian Tant

RTPI President Ian Tant on his recent two-day official visit to the RTPI’s North East region.

Over several decades, the iconic Spanish City “pleasure garden” in Whitley Bay fell into sad disrepair while time and the weather took a serious toll on the building. Debate focussed on decay and demolition.  An iconic building, it became a symbol of decline and nostalgia: as Mark Knopfler sang in Dire Straits’ “Tunnel of Love”:

“Girl, you look so pretty to me, as you always did,

Like the Spanish City to me, when we were kids”

Today, Spanish City looks prettier than ever – lovingly restored by North Tyneside Council with its dome open to view from within the building as well as outside. The multi-award winning scheme (it was a double winner at this year’s RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence) has repurposed the building as a 21st century leisure facility, set alongside wonderfully detailed public realm on the seafront. This jewel of the area is a shining example of the confidence that local authority leaders, planning vision and architectural care can deliver to an area.

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Above: (l-r) Dan Wise (North Tyneside Council), Amrit Naru (ADP Architecture - architects for the Spanish City refurbishment), Ian Tant and Tim Crawshaw (RTPI NE Vice Chair) with Spanish City in background

All around Spanish City, new developments and refurbished buildings show the care and pride that the scheme has brought to the town. The Council is right to be proud of its achievement.

Smith's Dock

Not far away in North Shields is the imaginative, inspiring redevelopment of Smith’s Dock on the River Tyne. Here, Urban Splash and Places for People are producing a future masterpiece of urban development which has already delivered high quality flats and modular-built homes in the first phases. The whole approach (including the George Clarke-designed town houses) exudes care, confidence and optimism.

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Above: Smoke Houses and Smith's Dock, North Shields

Of course, such development doesn’t spring up of its own accord or with ease. Property prices and land values are low by national standards, seriously complicating the delivery of brownfield regeneration. At Stephenson Quarter in Newcastle, early phases of the redevelopment, including a Crown Plaza hotel, offices and the award-winning Urban Technology College, exemplify the vision of the City Council, developer (Cloustons) and consultant (Lichfields) for this important site. Sadly, the next phases became stalled by the downturn at the end of the last decade and have yet to resume in earnest. Significant investment is required in land clearance, archaeological investigation and historic building refurbishment (this is the site of George Stephenson’s 19th century railway engine production) just to return land values to break-even. The situation has become more complicated as a “meanwhile” reuse of the Boiler House as a music venue has become established, installing an agent of change issue into the mix, affecting the scope for new homes nearby.

But the opportunity for great, city-centre development remains and no-one has given up hope.

Forth Banks

The nearby Forth Banks (or Forth Yards) area offers an even greater opportunity. This huge site is capable of delivering over 1,300 dwellings and 40,000 sq metres of business space, closely linked to the city centre as a hugely sustainable new urban quarter. Yet the area faces physical, financial and legal obstacles in multiple land ownerships, access difficulties, contamination and still-active rail infrastructure. The City Council has consulted on a new development framework* and the scope for new homes, businesses, parks and leisure facility make it a clear priority to unlock the potential.

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Above: Stephenson Quarter and Forth Banks, Newcastle

These combined challenges of land assembly, funding, decontamination and infrastructure delivery offer an object lesson in why brownfield land is far from easy to bring forward. They also help to explain the frequent comment from council officers, developers and consultants alike that “one size doesn’t fit all”, referring to the limited applicability of national planning policies and solutions that are often seen as geared to South East England values rather than those in the North East.

Durham's Riverwalk development

Yet the overall mood is one of positivity, reflected again in the admirable Riverwalk development at Durham. Here, a major new retail and leisure complex has been fitted into the precious historic fabric of the city, facing the Castle and Cathedral. The vision and care given to the design of the centre, which relates at once to the existing street pattern and the riverside, attests to the power of planning in the region. A similar quality of development can be seen at the Teaching and Learning Centre at Durham University and in the University’s exciting, markedly-expanded Maiden Castle Sports and Wellbeing Centre, set amidst its playing fields in the Green Belt.

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Above: Riverwalk, Durham

There are serious challenges facing planners in the North East region but there is a level-headed determination to rise to these and to reach outcomes which instil confidence in the towns, cities and communities of the area. It’s little wonder that awards are being garnered.

Ian Tant

Ian Tant

Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.