Monday, 3 December 2018

The city that's very much Alive After Five

It’s been a torrid few months for the UK high street, so I was very pleased to meet a man who’s helping the city of my birth to buck the trend…

An annual budget of barely £2 million may feel like loose change in an era when billion seems to be the new million. But for a small team in Newcastle it’s been enough to transform the life of the city centre.

It’s an achievement that’s just been recognised in the most emphatic way: businesses have voted by an overwhelming 88 per cent in favour to renew the city’s Business Improvement District (BID), whose third five-year term begins in April 2019.

When the BID was launched in 2008, it was on the back of a 67 per cent vote in favour; that rose to 78 per cent in 2013 and now the BID company, NE1 Ltd, is the most strongly supported of about 300 such ventures nationwide. It has also been named the best BID in Europe by the German Chambers of Commerce.

The Business Improvement District concept originated in Canada and revolves around the idea that businesses pay an additional levy so they can work together to improve trade. In the UK, businesses vote to pay additional business rates and, in the case of Newcastle, it’s an extra 1p in the pound.

The man who will steer the BID through its new term is Chief Executive Adrian Waddell, above, who joined the original NE1 team as Operations Manager in 2009, via the unusual career path of 25 years in the Army, followed by a degree in Fine Art. He moved up from Operations Director to take over the reins from outgoing Chief Executive, Sean Bullick earlier in 2018.

I meet Waddell in his office on the “top deck” of Milburn House – a Grade II Listed Newcastle office block, overlooking the castle, whose interior is modelled on an ocean liner.

After service with the Royal Artillery in Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands and Afghanistan, Lieut Col Waddell left the service in 2004 and returned to his native North East England with his wife, Corinna.

“I loved soldiering, but it was time for a change – my wife would have agreed to almost anything and so I found myself sitting in Kabul filling out UCAS forms for a Fine Art degree at Newcastle and, quite extraordinarily, they gave me a place.”

While studying, he set up a business dedicated to helping local artists to get their work displayed in offices, but trade dried up when the banking crisis hit in 2008.

When he got the chance to join NE1 Ltd early in 2009, it was as Operations Manager in a team of just three. “It turned out I was working with really interesting and talented people – it was all about delivery and making new and different things happen in Newcastle,” says Waddell.

“As a result of NE1’s initiatives and the way that we work in partnership with other organisations, we have allowed Newcastle to buck the national trend on the high street. That said, it’s a competitive environment and we are in a fight.”

The weapons that NE1 has deployed in that fight have been, says Waddell, defined by quality and ambition.

They’ve included opening a city centre marina, above, and a series of events, such as removing all traffic from busy Blackett Street to create a green “park” in the heart of the city for ten weeks in summer, featuring games and rides and family activities. Then there’s Restaurant Week, the Motor Show and Quayside Seaside, the city beach that now features nightly as national BBC link with sausage-dog walkers from the city, below. All told, the 2018 Events programme drew an additional 340,000 visitors into the city centre.

But the real game-changer has been Alive After Five, which began in 2010, when NE1 persuaded the majority of city centre shops to stay open every day until 8pm. “Alive After Five has been transformational for the city centre,” says Waddell. “It’s attracted 13.7 million additional visitors, which is equivalent to £839 million spending.

“Most significant, I think, is that it’s changed the behaviour of people using the city centre and it accounts now for 20 per cent of the city’s daily footfall.”

That in turn has led to 78 new restaurant openings, giving Newcastle the highest number of eateries per head of population outside London. And, refreshingly, the offer reflects a healthy mix of both national chains and locally-based operators. The city continues to add new hotel beds at a dizzy pace, as visitors flock to major sporting events, like four Rugby League Magic Weekends, or to three Ed Sheeran concerts.

Central to Waddell’s role is the continuous process of ensuring all key stakeholders – including two universities, a Premier League football club and a major teaching hospital – remain on board.

“We value the sense of scrutiny and the fact that every five years we get the chance to prove our worth to the city centre,” he says. “The whole renewal process keeps us very focussed on what we are doing, keeps our ideas fresh and ensures we are talking to our partners.”

The pay-off for institutions like the universities and the hospital is in helping to attract staff and, of course, students; ensuring they can all enjoy a better quality of life, with a vibrant city centre on their doorstep.

CGI of the new-look Bigg Market
For the future, NE1’s key focus is on strengthening links between the city centre and the emblematic Quayside. At the same time, a £1.6 million Heritage Lottery grant has helped a £3.2 million transformation of the public realm in the Bigg Market, once celebrated as young people’s drinking circuit.  A similar amount is being spent on Northumberland Street, the principal shopping street.

The public realm work has, in turn, helped to stimulate multi-million pound hotel and leisure investments by regionally based groups, including Malhotra, Ladhar and Tokyo Industries, which wants to create an event space and rooftop bar in the North Tower of the iconic Tyne Bridge.

All these, alongside external investment by such as German Motel One Hotels, and Ireland’s Dalata – whose new 265-room four-star Maldron Hotel, is the first in the UK – helps to breed confidence and achieve the wider goal of placing Newcastle firmly on the map of major European cities.

So plans for a major international convention centre across the river in Gateshead and a huge scheme to build the Whey Eye – Europe’s largest observation wheel – as part of major new attraction a mile downriver from Newcastle city centre, are just as welcome as investment in the heart of the city.

Says Waddell: “Businesses don’t pay much attention to political boundaries – success for Newcastle city is indivisible from success for Newcastle city region.”
  •  A version of this blog appears in the May issue of Flybe's magazine, Flight Time.
  • See also my author blog

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