So why isn’t Newcastle booming?

The Tyne and Gateshead Millennium Bridges, seen from the High Level Bridge. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

One of the great privileges of editing CityMetric these last few years is that it’s given me an excuse to visit the cities of parts of the country I don’t know and which, let’s be honest, the London media tends to ignore. Often, it turns out, these cities are rather magnificent, and I’ve come away baffled both that we don’t shout about them more, and that they’ve been, economically speaking, left to rot.

Last month I completed my tour of the major British cities, when I visited Newcastle, and spent three days, pretty much, wandering about. I’d heard good things, but I was still bowled over by quite how great the place is: glorious Victorian architecture, fine parks, pubs and cafes, beautiful countryside on every horizon and, in the eastern suburbs, the seaside. All that, and it has the finest collection of bridges in one place that I’ve ever encountered, too. Never mind England, this is one of the great cities of Europe.

And yet, as anyone who knows anything about the British economy could tell you, it’s not doing all that well. This chart shows GVA per worker – a measure of productivity – in Great Britain’s core cities and capitals. At £45,970, Newcastle is 10th out of 12, some way behind similarly sized port cities like Liverpool (£48,830) and Glasgow (£49,340).

 

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On wages, Newcastle’s ranking is the same. The average weekly wage in Newcastle is £501, compared to £512 in Liverpool and £526 in Glasgow.

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And so it goes on. This one’s exports per job, which you’d want to be high, but which is, in Newcastle, low:

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This one’s claimant count, the percentage of working age people claiming out of work benefits. This time you’d want it to be low, but oh look:

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This trend isn’t universal. On welfare spend per capita, Newcastle is high, but lower than both Liverpool and Glasgow; and its employment rate is actually middle of the pack. But nonetheless, the pattern is clear: even by the standards of post-industrial northern cities, even by the standards of places with similar economic histories, Newcastle is depressed.

And yet, it’s glorious. What gives?

A couple of obvious possibilities spring to mind. One is that blame lies with the type of industries on which Newcastle built its wealth. As far back as the 17th century, it was a port city, which made its money largely from exporting coal to London. Glasgow may also have been hit by the decline of the British shipping industry; but few of the core cities were as dependent on coal-mining, and those that were (Nottingham, Sheffield) generally fared even worse than Newcastle.

Another possible culprit is geography. The big idea in urbanism over the last few years has been “agglomeration”, the idea that a bigger, denser labour market drive productivity. If that’s correct, Newcastle’s relative remoteness may be holding it back: there just aren’t that many people in the North East, and attempts to fold it into programmes like the Northern Powerhouse always felt like a slightly embarrassed afterthought rather than a proper economic development strategy.

But Paul Swinney, the Centre for Cities’ head of policy, and a native of the city’s next door neighbour Sunderland, puts forward another theory for the region’s problems – one found at the intersection of local government and the built environment.

Newcastle, as noted, has many beautiful buildings in its city centre. But that isn’t where the late One North East Regional Develoopment Agency or other similar bodies focused either their efforts or their subsidies, Swinney notes. Instead, the money went largely to out of town business parks like Newburn Riverside, a few miles west up the Tyne.


This had a couple of implications. One is that the presence of subsidised offices in the suburbs undercut the commercial property market in the centre: private developers didn’t develop, because it was harder to make money doing it.

It also had an impact on the type of jobs attracted to the region. Public sector agencies and space-hungry but relatively low-skill industries like call centres moved in; higher wage jobs like finance, tech or business services didn’t. As a result, “In Newcastle, there aren’t loads of people walking round in suits compared to Manchester or Leeds,” says Swinney. “And in Sunderland you struggle to find people in suits full stop: all the jobs are out if town.” If the regional development agency had focused on making the city centres “an attractive place to do business,” he adds, “I think you’d see a slightly different economy.”

To be fair, the city council is now focusing its efforts on reviving the city centre. It’s in the middle of a £45m investment to turn its 50-year old Civic Centre into modern, open-plan office space; once completed, it’ll provide space to rent to other employers, too, and this plus the maintenance savings should bring in £32m over 25 years.

It’s also looking for ways to encourage families to move back to the city centre, says Ged Bell, the Labour councillor responsible for employment policies. It’s looking for ways to bring new industries, such as renewables, to what were once the Tyne shipyards, too. The city council clearly recognises that it needs to make more of that glorious centre than it did in the past – although whether austerity and the dead hand of national government will allow it remains to be seen.

No city deserves to boom: that’s not how economics works. But Newcastle, more than most, seems on the face of it to have all the ingredients that should make for a thriving regional centre. I don’t really know why that’s not how things have played out there. But I can’t help but think that, if we spent more time asking, the UK would be in a better state than it is today.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.