Six months into Middlesbrough’s radical regeneration plan, it’s clear to see that new life is already being breathed into the town centre – and council chiefs are promising that the best is yet to come. Michael McGeary reports…
The authority is delighted with the headway made since the launch of the town’s first Investment Prospectus.
Hardly a week goes by without another lively new restaurant, boutique or micropub arriving on the scene, tempting more and more local people to return time and time again.
“Not long ago every time you walked up Linthorpe Road you’d see something else had closed – now you see something else opening,” says Middlesbrough mayor Dave Budd.
“We’ve made fantastic progress, with around £50m-worth of external investment and just over 500 direct jobs created to date,” adds chief executive Tony Parkinson. “That’s thanks to extremely important new schemes such as Flannels, Bistrot Pierre and Turtle Bay.
“There are also many big schemes to come, such as the snow centre, the student village, offices near Centre Square and Teesside Advanced Manufacturing Park (TAMP), but the closer you get to the end, the slower things move. It might look like nothing’s happening, but it is.”
Budd and Parkinson say every smaller project helps lay down firm foundations for the potentially transformative larger schemes to come. And it’s a two-way process. They cite the £8m town hall restoration as a prime example of how one major investment can trigger many more smaller ones.
“If you speak to Bistrot Pierre, they’ll tell you the town hall redevelopment is a major reason they’ve come here,” says Parkinson.
“They’re also aware of the office developments we’re proposing and the thousands of white-collar jobs coming here.
“We know Bistrot Pierre will bring other businesses and we’re hopeful that the restoration of the facade along Albert Road will soon be complete.”
The first phase of the town hall work should be finished by April 2018, at which time the town hall will reopen before work on the roof begins later that year, and the two men are clearly excited by the progress so far.
“It’s an astounding venue,” says Budd. “It’s getting towards completion and you can now start to see what it will be like.
“As well as the major concerts we’re used to, there are several other spaces including the old courtroom, which are ideal for smaller poetry readings and acoustic concerts.”
Old carpets have been stripped back to reveal tiling which is now being restored to its original state. The former fire station will be a coffee shop and access is being opened up to one of Britain’s best preserved Victorian courts.
A carriageway that most people don’t know runs all the way through the building has been modernised in a way that respects its heritage, with a new version of the original glass roof. The restoration also revealed some surprises.
“We took away the false roof expecting to find asbestos, but instead we discovered the original stained glass ceiling,” says Parkinson. “Each pane is now being painstakingly hand-restored.
“It’s going to be absolutely stunning and I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished.”
While the night-time economy is beginning to thrive once again, the council says the Centre Square offices will provide balance for the town centre after a Centre for Cities’ report highlighted the need for more commercial space.
Although building work has not yet started, talks are already at an advanced stage with several potential tenants, including a blue-chip company Parkinson says, enticingly, would “completely transform this town”.
“There’s a definite move towards firms wanting to be back in a city centre rather than in a 1990s’ urban development out in the middle of nowhere,” Budd adds.
The success of the Orange Pip market in the thriving Baker Street and Bedford Street area perhaps epitomises the growing mood of optimism within the town more than anything else.
An ever-more eclectic crowd flood in every month to sample street food and explore the cluster of independent businesses that have sprung up there in recent years.
“Orange Pip has played an incredible part in what’s happening,” says Budd. “We get 10,000-plus people coming to every one. The psychological effects go way beyond the cost of putting it on and it’s become precious to people in a very short space of time.”
But Parkinson says the success of the Holiday Inn Express and the eagerness of other hotel chains to come to Middlesbrough is the most encouraging sign of the progress being made.
“Hotels really do their homework and don’t build unless they know there’s a demand. We might feel things are going well, but that’s an industry you can rely on to get it right.
“If you add a snow centre into the mix with 2.5 million visitors a year and head offices of companies as well, the future looks very rosy indeed.”
Excellent transport links are vital to bring workers in for the new jobs being created and the council is working with the Tees Valley Combined Authority as it seeks to provide another river crossing, improvements to the A66 and better rail connections.
“Rail passenger numbers are rising by eight per cent a year, which I believe is more than anywhere else in the north, but the new services deserve better facilities,” says Budd.
“We’re looking at the whole area around the station, including Albert Road and alongside the railway line, where there are some fascinating possibilities that can help glue the town together in a meaningful way.”
Proximity to the railway station is one of the catalysts for the expansion of the Boho area and the redevelopment of Exchange Buildings and has also attracted investment firm Tier One Capital to Middlesbrough.
“We also need to deal with road connectivity,” says Parkinson. “We have pinch points in the town and on the A19 and we need to work with the combined authority on the wider issues.
“We’ve produced a bus transport plan that looks at the movement of people around the town in this new economic era and ensures people can get in and out of the town easily.”
The council insists we don’t have long to wait to see the town complete its dramatic metamorphosis.
“We’re not talking about years away,” Parkinson says. “We expect all these projects to start taking shape in 2018. Outline permission for the snow centre has been granted and we’re expecting to receive a detailed planning application, with the build beginning soon after that.
“Work is well under way on the Middlehaven Dock Bridge and access road that opens up the whole of the land through to Riverside Park that we now own. That £10m scheme will be complete at some point next year.
“We currently have the Welding Institute on Teesside Advanced Manufacturing Park and we have active interest in further units. One company has already made a board decision to relocate here from five locations across Europe, bringing 450 jobs.
“Many of these aren’t things the council is actually delivering, but we’re creating the conditions for people to come and invest and also helping with issues such as road infrastructure and planning. After that, it’s up to them to secure their funding and deliver – and we’re confident that will happen.”