Little force, big achievement

Little force, big achievement

As NE1 Ltd sets out to convince backers that its uplift of a city centre merits it a second five year term, chief executive Sean Bullick tells Brian Nicholls over lunch what else can be achieved

Many folk - even in business - don’t realise much of Newcastle city centre’s recent upsurge of attraction originates through enterprise of a mere half dozen industrious enthusiasts. Sean Bullick and his five-strong team at NE1 Ltd in five years have livened and enriched the city’s heart with remarkable achievements: A bustling new evening economy of shopping and entertainment between 5pm and 8pm, when the city centre previously could be as boisterous as the Marie Celeste.

New public attractions such as a Fashion Week, Restaurant Week, World Cities Week, power boat grand prix racing beside a marina opened on the Quayside, open-air cinema, a quayside “seaside”, cycle hiring at 20p for two hours (against “Boris’s bike” hires costing £6 in London), seven big streets festooned with Christmas lights for the first time, and - pause for breath - five new pocket parks of green, neutralising tarmac and concrete. That’s the appeal to the public. To the economy of the city you can add: Some 4.3m additional visitors to Eldon Square alone after 5pm since the Alive After Five programme began, a 16.7% average increase in total consumer spend between 2010 and 2013, a £220m income stream in the previously “lost” early evening, and a £250,000 saving for 103 businesses through joint procurement.

“I think we’ve come a long way from having really nothing and trying to persuade businesses to invest in us when there was no track record to help persuade them,” Bullick says of NE1. “Some people are surprised we’re no great monolith but a very good small team. “A challenge we’ve always had is getting over what we’re about. We seem to be the tip of an inverted iceberg. We know what we’re doing and why. But even a lot of businesses, while they know we do this, that or the other, don’t realise all we do. They don’t necessarily know our logic about long term value for businesses and a return on investment for them, some of which is immediate. “It matters to us that businesses know they’re benefiting and why.” It matters now particularly. NE1 is business led, commercially run, private and independent and a not-for-profit company, set up in April 2009 by city centre businesses in Newcastle under national legislation.

It manages Newcastle Business Improvement District (BID), whose purpose besides delivering long-term value to city centre businesses, is to champion that area, intensify its competitiveness and ensure Newcastle remains a leading UK city. NE1’s initial five year term is ending. A ballot among participating businesses will decide if the company should have another five years. NE1 will distribute a formal business plan in September, along with feedback from a consultation document, and from wider consultation. The ballot will be on October 24. Lunching in the calm atmosphere of the Vermont Hotel’s brasserie, Bullick enthuses across the table over NE1’s ambitions for a second term. This enthusiasm relates to a number of major new proposed public realm projects and developments including Northumberland Street, Percy Street, Bigg Market and the area around The Gate, further phases of Central Station and East pilgrim Street. “Tasteful updating of the station is being recognised as a great opportunity to create a proper sense of welcome,” he declares. “A Grade I listed building with greater passenger appeal, Stephenson’s heritage and all that. Its big improvements are a result of money NE1 has been able to get, proving the catalyst.”

In an essential partnership with the City Council, East Coast and Network Rail, NE1 is marking the John Dobson designed station’s 150th anniversary with a £20m enhancement, £5m of which NE1 got through the Government’s Regional Growth Fund. The station will have a new travel centre, a doubling of retail, better lighting, toilets and signage. “Station users will find a newly glassed portico entrance pedestrian friendly and fantastic. Over the way will be cafes and trees - Newcastle with a modern European and cosmopolitan feel.”

Tim Hedley-Jones, East Coast’s stations and property director, is one of many sharing Bullick’s enthusiasm. “The improvements,” he affirms, “will accentuate the important heritage of the building, one of only six such stations in the UK, and act as a stunning new gateway to the city for visitors.” All should be complete by next May. “In terms of a national project, it’s the first big thing we’re looking to,” Bullick says. “Assuming we get a second term, we’re keen to link the station with the new business area in neighbouring Stephenson Quarter. “As national rail infrastructure develops, we must ensure we’ve proper land assemblage in place to benefit the city. Besides attracting new hotels and new businesses it would be a shame if we don’t look to this. Stephenson Quarter will add vastly to the city as a very interesting area and a good place to work.”

On Alive after Five, there have been some perceptions that it’s wholly about retail. True, that has been an anchor, for Bullick stresses: “If shops aren’t open nothing will happen. But Alive after Five is also about professional services, restaurants and bars benefiting, theatres and cinemas. The £220m extra brought in by a 5pm till 8pm shops opening, and free parking, since October 2010 isn’t all new money. But Alive after Five has made a major impact. Enjoying the city centre early evening is now a norm, working commercially for businesses and in a cultural way too. The place is vibrant and busy at a time when it wasn’t previously.” In environmental and safety aspects, cleaners and patrolling Rangers introduced have contributed to a situation whereby 64% of consumers interviewed recently felt the city centre looks cleaner, while 83% felt safer walking the streets.

Many of NE1’s “foot soldiers” are Mitie employees. Among volunteers also, a number have secured permanent work. The public are kept informed about events by a website and a dedicated fortnightly what’s on magazine. Bullick says: “We’re keen to involve as many more businesses as we can - retailers, yes, but also anyone else who can help emphasise the city’s new mix and match combination, whereby you can come in, eat well, do some shopping, catch a film, or whatever - all this in a very compact area, without an equivalent of crossing half of London. Our programme so far has been diverse,” Bullick suggests. “We’ve tried to be innovative and ambitious, ensuring all we do is quality. I think people we work with see and accept that. They’ve facilitated most of what we’ve had to do. We hope to improve even on that.” Street upgrades would continue to sights felt deserving of titivation too. A promising signal is the City Council’s agreement to continue free parking in the evenings. “It’s the only thing in their financial budgets they’ve agreed beyond their present two or three year window,” Bullick observes. “That’s a flying start, though all subject to a positive vote for NE1 to continue.” This August 31 and September 1 will also see NE1’s second free-to-watch Zap Cat Power Boat Grand Prix, two days of 20 teams in fast powerboat racing between the Tyne and Millennium Bridges. The event attracted 25,000 spectators last year. Bullick says NE1 is delighted with the Quayside Marina project and the growing number of yachts and other private craft now coming into the heart of the city. “The Quayside feels very different,” he adds. “While many crews have come from along the North East coast, we’re getting international visitors too.

NE1 has made inroads in Holland and Belgium, and already we’ve had up to six Dutch craft put in together. We’re keen to run an international race attracting more foreign craft and adding to the sense of a cosmopolitan Newcastle.” There are ambitions for pavement cafes along there, and promotion of the traditional Sunday market. Says Bullick: “It’s especially great now with leisure boats and ferries about. I shop at the market, particularly for bread, and there’s a stall there selling fantastic locally produced sausages.” While NE1 hopes for additional support as new businesses spring up, it will remain concentrated on its present precinct, the area within NE1 post code plus bits of NE2 and NE4. It includes the Central Motorway, Haymarket, the Great North Museum and Exhibition park, Newcastle University, the RVI, St James’s park and Boulevard and down to the Tyne. Bullick says: “Space2… is already open and will be expanded if we get a second term. It’s about bringing young people into town. It’s also about giving them employment skills, businesses tackling youth unemployment and Newcastle businesses leading the way nationally by taking the initiative. They have had 4,000 kids through, working with around 25 NE1 businesses, running 35 courses per week.” progress has been financed by £10m from a 1% levy on the rateable value of supporters’ estate and about £22m from elsewhere.

The levy presently covers some 1,400 rateable units of about 880 retail and other investors that include hotels, law firms, bars and clubs, the RVI Hospital and Newcastle United football club. Overheads have remained constant. What chance a second term? “Things have been going very well,” Bullick summarises. “I think people realise the project would always be long term. If support stopped now the whole thing might wither on the vine. That’s not what we want. But we’re not complacent about winning a second term We need to work hard - demonstrate we’re an investment, not a tax. I think we do. A vast majority of businesses so far are very supportive.”