In the past quarter century I’ve been carried, toddled and walked through the middle of Gateshead. And in that time, I’ve seen my town change, grow and mature, just as much as I have.
Last year a new Gateshead was unveiled – one that was unrecognisable to the town centre I walked through for years before. And above the town centre’s Tesco there are now 993 new beds for Northumbria University students to lay their heads. Last weekend the aisles of Tesco were teeming with with freshers as they exhausted the retailer’s stock of home essentials – pots, pans, duvets – for their new rooms.
According to estate agent Knight Frank, university cities including Newcastle, Liverpool and Edinburgh have an “acute undersupply of accommodation” for students. With an extra 30,000 undergraduates enrolling in England this autumn and another 30,000 to follow in 2015 after student number controls were relaxed, universities like Northumbria and Newcastle have rushed to upgrade and expand their student halls.
Universities are now the largest landowners and landlords in many UK towns and cities. And with that wealth and power comes responsibility for introducing buildings and students that bring benefit to the community.
To some locals, the influx of more students to a neighbourhood brings only noise, drinking, litter: antisocial behaviour. But I remember what was there before in Gateshead. Trinity Square hasn’t won any prizes for outstanding beauty (in fact, it was shortlisted as an eyesore by architectural magazine). But it’s infinitely better than the spare and sparse town centre it replaced. I can still remember hopping between the puddles under Owen Luder’s brutalist car park and into the unloved indoor market to visit a video-game shop that sold legal second-hand games over the counter… and cheap copied ones under it.
Gateshead at the turn of the millennium was desolate and bleak. Some parts still are, but redevelopment is radiating out from the middle. Some £120m of investment has been ploughed into the town centre, focused around the new supermarket and university accommodation. Residents far and wide reap the benefits. For younger generations, growing up in Gateshead will be a very different proposition.
In 2010, as enormous cranes were dismantling the Luder’s concrete car park and its abandoned shops, nibble by nibble, I wrote about the Get Carter car park, and the people who stopped by on their morning commutes to capture the progressive demolition on their camera-phones:
“Despite the fact that pound shops that snuggled inside its lower floors were ten a penny and pretty much all you could get at the rundown cafes ran like a Biblical sermon (“egg and chips, ham and chips, fish and chips, bun and chips, pie and chips”), there was a sense of unity with the car park which meant that everyone who passes and looks up at the demolition is doing so with a “good riddance” coming from their mouth but a tear in their eye.”
The only reminder of this darker, drearier past is the “Get Carter” butchers that sits across from the street where the car park once stood. For the thousand fresh-faced students who moved into their new homes this week, and who will watch films at the local cinema, buy groceries in the new shops, and eat in the restaurants that have taken residence since Trinity Square’s foundations were laid, that name will mean nothing. But research suggests that every £1 invested in students by universities is worth £1.38 to the economy of a town like Gateshead.
Gateshead is becoming a “univer-city”. Embrace it, because a vibrant “univer-city” with new buildings, bright residents and big dreams is better than an abandoned, steel-shuttered movie set with a single, fading claim to fame.
Chris Stokel-Walker is deputy editor of Northern Correspondent
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