Contributed by Mark Barrow
Chief Executive, Newcastle Borough Council
Thank you for inviting me to contribute towards your forthcoming newsletter and to share my thoughts on issues and opportunities for Newcastle town centre.
Since my arrival, almost two years ago now, I have been promoting a vision that seeks to increase the quality of development and also find ways of repairing and nurturing the historic character and feel of the town. Of course, recent economic events have changed the assumptions of many of us working in the field of regeneration. Many of our timelines will now have to be revised in the light of dramatically reduced private sector confidence, capacity and finance.
The Council has taken a firm step towards using its own assets to promote and stimulate regeneration, creating places of quality and, overall, working to give people confidence in Newcastle as a place to invest, undertake business activities, access services and for families to spend leisure time. The Guildhall project is one example of this approach. Also, we have advanced proposals to refurbish Lancaster Buildings, investing in excess of £2million, to restore another of our focal point buildings with the hope of attracting more private sector knowledge-economy jobs; similarly we have recently purchased the former St. Giles and St. George School and are developing proposals for it to become a hub for culture and the arts. To support all of these we are at the design stage for a significant investment in the public realm throughout the heart of the town centre including new market stalls.
The difficulty we face as a Council in shaping the developments driven by the private sector is that the national planning framework is, by and large, too crude a tool to shape developments exactly as we would want them; clearly some form of ownership interest puts you in a much stronger position. All too commonly Planning Departments around the country have to wrestle with projects produced at the fancy of individual developers and architects with little regard for their wider context or impact. Of course individual site/property owners have their own drives and aspirations and co-ordinating them is notoriously difficult. Nevertheless the Council continues to work with the private sector to harness their potential investment and our recently-adopted Supplementary Planning Document provides clear guidance about the form of development and kind of activities that we encourage. We, like many other historic towns, do attempt to secure developments sympathetic to the nature, character and heritage of the area. Consequently we are working with the North Staffs. Regeneration Partnership and the Regional Development Agency (Advantage West Midlands) to support key investments, recognising that some commercial viability is an increasing challenge for private sector schemes. This may also result in the acquisition of key sites by the Council/public sector partners to enable us to exert much greater control over development schemes than is possible through the Town Planning processes.
I am very conscious that the infrastructure that supports the development of the town centre needs attention. We are currently promoting proposals with Staffordshire County Council in respect of improved/new bus station facilities, exploring the potential for a “shared space” project and finding ways of breaking the “collar” that effectively the ring road is to the town centre. An example of a good shared space project exists in Ashford, in Kent where they have reduced a road similar to Barracks Road to single carriageways, reduced the speed limit to 20 mph, removed the clutter of railings and many signs and resurfaced the highway in a more pedestrian-friendly manner. It is intended that such ideas will be informed by a transport study to assess the potential effects on the highway capacity of the ring road/arterial roads that support the town centre.
It is my hope that the town centre will develop a base of speciality/niche retailers, including a strong and locally-relevant street market, effectively a retail offer that complements Hanley City Centre rather than competes with it. We aim to make the town centre vibrant and diverse in terms of evening entertainment and cultural offer. Clearly we have to find ways of repositioning the evening economy so that the town centre has the look and feel of a place that is inviting and welcoming to everyone. I feel passionate about the effects of out of town retail developments and their effect on high streets across the country. I am equally keen to retain and attract more businesses and commercial operations to the town centre. We need to reverse the trend of companies relocating to out of town locations simply to satisfy a need for staff car parking. The pressure of the current economic downturn, the advance of supermarket retailing and internet shopping is creating the space for a strategic discussion about what purpose the town centre of the future has. Clearly it needs to be much more than a retail centre; I want it to be a place where a diverse range of activities can be mutually reinforcing. In no small way I would want the town centre to benefit from a growing knowledge-based economy and the Council continues to explore the scope for developing more of a ‘University Town’ character with colleagues at both Keele and Staffordshire Universities.
The theme throughout this response is that we are aiming for quality, by this I mean better quality developments, retail offer, public transport, public realm and supported by a greater degree of town centre management. I accept that these are high aspirations; however I would also suggest that you cannot aspire to be average. Of course this would be difficult to achieve without more and better paid jobs, an adequate supply of good quality housing of all types and all the
other factors that add up to make Newcastle-under-Lyme a place that people choose and want to be a part of.
I hope your members find my comments of interest. We do welcome and support the contribution the Newcastle-under-Lyme Civic Society provide. I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for all your interest in the on-going development and care of one of this borough’s most important assets.