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Nations & regions focus: The North East

Words: Mark Smulian

Growing pains


Think of the north-east of England and most people will think of heavy industry. The region has a large and sparsely populated rural area to its west and north, but is perhaps best known for its chemicals industry around Teesside, Nissan’s car plant near Sunderland, and a developing renewable energy sector.

The North-East has 2.5 million residents and covers the counties of Northumberland and Durham and two conurbations: Tyne & Wear (Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland) and Tees Valley (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees).

There are six ports, with Teesport being England’s second largest, and international airports at Newcastle and Durham-Tees Valley.

"Enterprise zones have benefited the region, with a focus on new ways to grow the economy"

Devolution in the region has been unpredictable. Tees Valley is set to elect a mayor in May to lead a combined authority armed with powers over local transport and investment. The mayor’s key task is likely to be to lead regeneration in an area that has been hit by steelworks closures but which remains among the UK’s largest industrial clusters.

An attempted devolution deal for the rest of the region collapsed last year when several councils got cold feet. Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland are continuing the effort to develop a joint devolution proposal.

Enterprise zones have benefited the region, with a focus on new ways to grow its economy. The first is based on offshore renewable energy at Blyth, the Centre for Offshore Wind and Renewables in North Tyneside and Sunderland’s A19 Corridor, the UK’s first designated area for ultra-low carbon vehicles. A second zone covers 10 separate sites concerned with passenger vehicle manufacture, subsea and offshore technology, life sciences and healthcare, and creative and digital services.

With a revival in its economy, the North-East now has to catch up on housebuilding, which fell back during the recession, to accompany the new businesses it has attracted and hopes to attract.

Major projects

IAMP, Sunderland

A Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, the proposed International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP) will be a 100 ha centre for advanced manufacturing and supply chain industries. North of Nissan’s factory, it will offer 260,000 square metres of development land with a transport interchange, shops and 150-bed hotel. To cope with the increased traffic, Highways England will build a grade-separated junction between the A184 and the A19, due for completion in 2021.


Dissington Garden Village

Northumberland County Council has approved a new garden village on green belt land on the Dissington Estate in Ponteland, six miles north-west of Newcastle, despite local opposition. Should it proceed, the scheme will have 2,000 homes on a 210 ha site, as well as enough employment space to create the equivalent of one new job per household.

Tyne & Wear Metro expansion

Regional transport authority Nexus plans to expand Tyne & Wear’s Metro system using underused or disused rail track linking to Washington, Blyth, Bedlington, the Cobalt business park, and Newcastle’s western suburbs.

Interview: Renewal and renewables


Martyn Earle is an associate planner with Barton Willmore.

“It seems to be busy here, in local authorities and in consultancy,” says Martyn Earle. The activity extends to planning policy, too. For example, North Tyneside is at the examination-in-public stage of its local plan and Durham at issues and options. “Generally,” says Earle, “the big cities are busy.”

The region has “been coming out of recession with new employment sites in North Tyneside and projects like Narec Distributed Energy at Blyth, which tests renewable energy equipment”.

North Tyneside currently has two major strategic sites, with 3,500 homes at Murton, which was long safeguarded but not used, and Killingworth Moor with 2,000 homes.

“We’ve not had that before, as there has been a historic undersupply when people did not build during the recession but growth is now driving higher demand.”

"Changes in government policy make it very difficult to get permission for onshore wind farms, so now it's only really offshore or near shore"

Newcastle has even set up a special planning team to deal with strategic residential land, Earle says, and while volume housebuilders have dominated the market hitherto, “others are now coming to the fore and consultants are leading big projects in a way we’ve not seen for a few years”.

Older industries like shipbuilding may still be found on a smaller scale but “increasingly sites like that are going for regeneration and areas along the A19 are doing better, with the Cobalt business park being the main example”.

The North-East’s push into renewables has not all been straightforward.

Earle says: “I would have said five years ago that renewables was going somewhere and we were seeing development happen but changes in government policy make it very difficult to get permission for onshore wind farms so it’s now only really offshore or near shore.”

Valuable skills


Despite its image as an economic laggard, North-East planning departments lack capacity much as those in most of the parts of the country, both in development management and planning policy. “There is a skills shortage here in planning as much as there is in any other region,” says Ian Cansfield, senior vice-president of the RTPI North East.

Significant housing and industrial developments are planned and the region’s emphasis on encouraging the renewable energy industry might attract planners interested in its possibilities. In Tees Valley there is a prospect of working with a new combined authority with substantial devolved powers.

One unusual source of planning jobs is the presence in Newcastle of the HQ of the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), which licenses, regulates and plans marine activities to ensure they are carried out sustainably. The MMO is involved in planning matters that have a bearing on the coastline and offshore areas. The MMO devises England’s marine plans, which inform sustainable use of marine resources and help marine users to find locations for their activities.

Recent successes

The Word, South Tyneside

The National Centre for the Written Word – The Word – is the centrepiece of the South Shields 365 Town Centre Vision, a £100 million series of projects to revitalise South Shields town centre. Opened in October 2016, the venue includes a library, exhibition space, children’s craft space and digital media tools to promote creativity.

Wynyard Gardens and Visitor Centre improvements

Part of a £5.3 million redevelopment of a grade II listed stately home and hotel north of Stockton-on-Tees, the development includes a new visitor centre, £1.6 million walled rose garden, and one of the North-East’s largest glasshouses. It was overall winner of the RTPI North East Awards for Planning Excellence 2016.

STEM Centre, Middlesbrough College

Middlesbrough College’s £12 million STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Centre brings education, training and local businesses together in one building, and is intended to help put the region at the forefront of training in the oil, gas, manufacturing and engineering trades. The centre won the chair’s award in the RTPI North East Awards for Planning Excellence 2016.

The Curve, Teesside University

This £22 million environmentally friendly building at the centre of the Teesside University’s ‘campus heart’ development links the campus’s north and south sides and provides 1,476 sq m of flexible learning space. Commended in the RTPI North East Awards for Planning Excellence 2016.

Interview: Signs of regeneration


Ian Cansfield is senior vice-chair of RTPI North East and director of planning at Cundall.

“Everyone is pretty busy” in the North East, says Ian Cansfield. His employer, engineering, design and sustainability consultant Cundall is growing, and fellow planners in other consultancies and local authorities are also finding plenty of work.

Cansfield himself sees “a lot of housing applications and a number of regeneration programmes” coming through. By way of example, he cites his own involvement with the housing-led Ouseburn Valley regeneration in Newcastle and the employment-focused scheme for the former Vaux Brewery site in Sunderland.

"It is not quite like the south in terms of pressure on green belts, but there is some and there’s a challenge to use brownfield sites well"

This 5.5-hectare site forms part of a £100m regeneration project around the city by Siglion, a joint development venture by Sunderland City Council and developer Carillion. Sites at Seaburn, Chapelgarth, Farringdon Row and Numbers Garth will also be incorporated into the larger project.

Cansfield says the main driver of economic growth in the region is manufacturing, in particular with the proposed International Advanced Manufacturing Park coming near the Nissan plant at Sunderland, which directly employs some 7,000 people and sustains a large supply chain of local businesses.

“The idea is that IAMP will attract more advanced manufacturing investment here,” he says, adding: “There is also renewal energy getting going with sites on the Tyne and at Blyth.” Tees Valley, meanwhile, is steadily diversifying away from reliance on the chemicals industry, he says.

Demand for housing is picking up after dipping in the recession and taking some time to recover, with pressure for new homes in particular in and around Newcastle. “It is not quite like the south in terms of pressure on green belts, but there is some and there’s a challenge to use brownfield sites well,” Cansfield says.



RTPI North East is run by a regional management board, chaired by Martyn Earle, and including a young planners’ representative. A regional activities policy committee, which includes representatives of other institutes, is fed into by a number of small steering committees for Planning Aid, Young Planners. Members and PR, CPD and Policy. In 2016, the CPD committee organised 11 conference days, including events on planning law and the technicalities of planning.

Nations & Regions Focus