A new climate of growth is evident in an area which has depended on hand-outs. Terry Murden reports.
The defence of Britain holds a special place in the history of the River Tyne. From here were launched great battleships, cruisers and aircraft carriers from famous yards like Vickers-Armstrong and Swan Hunter which once employed tens of thousands in every trade imaginable. The Tyne also supplied ships for foreign navies. Between 1985 and 1905 the greater part of the Japanese Imperial fleet was built or armed at Elswick, a mile upstream from the centre of Newcastle.
At the launch of the battleship Hatsuse in 1899 the chief instructor to the Japanese Navy said that all of the ships built at Elswick were "appreciated very much in Japan for their good results, and especially for their speed, which always exceeded that contracted for". Nearly a century later the Japanese are returning the favour. Sanwa Bank, the fifth largest in the world, has provided the initial funds for developing the Newcastle Business Park on the site of the former Elswick armaments factory. The rubble of William Armstrong's great industrial triumph is now the foundation for an economic battle being waged on the Tyne to try to restore it to its former prosperity.
The 60-acre Newcastle Business Park is the largest development of its kind in the North of England for 50 years. It is in the custodianship of the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (TWDC) which, together with the Teesside Development Corporation, is spearheading the Government's strategy for rebuilding the North-east economy. The Newcastle Business Park has been a remarkable success story. The TWDC invested £12.5 million in the hope of attracting £45 million of private funds. So far it has brought in £140 million. The site is 80% full and on course to provide 4,000 jobs.
Significantly, private funds are now finding a home in a region which traditionally depended on barely justifiable government grants to attract factories. The North-east is now attempting to shake off the shackles of the branch economy which this policy created and left it vulnerable to any downturn. Alistair Balls, the TWDC's chief executive, said that the market now dictated the development of prestige sites like the Newcastle Business Park.
The TWDC was one of the third generation of urban development corporations. Unlike the London Docklands, which was hooked into one of the biggest and strongest financial centres in the world, Tyneside and Wearside were inhabited by industrial ghosts and handicapped by poor property prospects and low business confidence. As the great heavy industries of coal and shipbuilding diminished, so did the importance of the region's arteries. The TWDC is now reviving these neglected resources with a strategy aimed essentially at changing outsiders' perceptions of the region and bringing in private funds. If these are the means then the end is the creation of jobs in a diversified economy and an attractive environment for both leisure and residential use.
On the city's historic quayside one of the most exciting office schemes anywhere in the North is to be developed alongside former shipping offices on the East Quayside. It is to this site that the TWDC hopes companies will relocate their headquarters - or major departments. Kevin Carrick, area director for commercial estate agent Storey Sons and Parker and an adviser to the TWDC on property matters, said: "The business of attracting headquarters is the market to be addressed. It could add to the value of the North-east. There is some indication that companies are now looking more strongly at relocating."
Several factors have conspired to hold up the development of the East Quayside. Because the Tyne is characterised by an assortment of small holdings, assembling land big enough to make development worthwhile has been a major exercise. Two landowners within the boundaries of the East Quayside scheme have objected to the TWDC plan and an appeal will be heard in the new year. Also one of the partners in the development, a local builder, collapsed when the construction industry ran into difficulties.