Posted May 2nd, 2011

The 1980s saw the closure of the Vickers Elswick works after more than 130 years of continuous production. When the factory closed in 1982, tank production was transferred from there to a new factory on the Scotswood site which employed only a small fraction of the previous workforce.

The decline was not caused by loss of demand for the products or the skills of the workforce but was the result of a strategy of disinvestment by the company from its UK plants and development overseas. This was compounded by the introduction of new computer-based technologies during this period which could replace the work of hundreds of skilled workers with some expensive machinery worked by a handful of operatives. The workforce fought to keep the factories open and retain the jobs, arguing that existing skills and equipment could be used for profitable and more socially-useful purposes such as making medical equipment, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.

The demise of the Vickers factories also changed the landscape of the west end. Despite the severe and continuous decline of its industrial base since the war, the West Newcastle riverfront had still been dominated physically by heavy industry until the 1980s. A visitor driving along Scotswood Road might have been unaware of the presence of a river behind the miles of factories. This was to change drastically during the 1980s as one closure followed another. The Vickers Elswick site was cleared and replaced by a modern Business Park with tree-lined avenues and walkways along the riverside. One effect of this, together with a major programme to clean up the formerly sewage-filled Tyne, was that people began to fish in the river once again.

A new Conservative government brought in a set of new policies to revive areas like Benwell and Scotswood. There were Enterprise Zones – watered-down versions of free trade areas,  loosely modelled on the experience of places such as Hong Kong. The idea was that, freed from ‘burdens’ such as planning regulations and rates, the private sector would bloom and expand, creating new wealth and jobs. Then there were Urban Development Corporations which invested huge amounts of public money into assembling land and preparing infrastructure in order to stimulate private sector business activity. The west end of Newcastle had both of these, but jobs continued to disappear, unemployment continued to grow, and social problems multiplied. The local problems of industrial decline were exacerbated by a national recession and central government economic policies predicated on the belief that unemployment was reasonable price to pay for bringing down inflation.

There were changes on the housing front also. The government was keen to increase owner occupation and to reduce the scale of council housing. This was to be achieved partly through the introduction of the “right to buy” which meant in practice that the more popular council estates became increasingly privately owned, whereas the least popular remained largely in council ownership. This led to a situation of increasing ghettoisation, where those with fewest resources and least choice were concentrated together in particular areas. Among the worst affected were those estates in Benwell and Scotswood at the bottom of the banks with relatively poor access to shops, transport and other facilities. South Benwell and Lower Scotswood were especially badly affected, as their high levels of unemployment of almost 60% attested. Difficult economic circumstances produced serious social problems, and the area as a whole became beset by growing levels of crime, disorder, anti-social behaviour and other difficulties.

The problems were by no means confined to council estates. Benwell and Scotswood had many areas of owner occupation and of mixed tenure, and many of these began to be affected by spiralling problems of crime, anti-social behaviour and void housing, often linked with a rise in irresponsible or downright criminal private landlordism.

One of the private estates that began to show signs of serious problems towards the end of the decade was the showcase Low Delaval Estate. This had been the city’s first example of a block sell-off of council housing. The entire estate had been sold to a private developer at a token price, and the developer was given a large government grant to refurbish the flats to be sold on for low-cost owner occupation. After a short honeymoon period during which prices rose rapidly in line with house price inflation, many of the new owner occupiers found themselves trapped in negative equity or unable to sell at all at an adequate price as the housing market declined. Despite restrictive conditions in the leases, many sold to private landlords. The resulting influx of private tenants with anti-social or even criminal tendencies led to a vicious cycle of falling house prices, worsening living conditions, and rising levels of void properties.

Such situations were repeated across many parts of Benwell and Scotswood, and the area as a whole was increasingly affected by worsening crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour, which the police and the council appeared unable to tackle effectively. This in turn led to more and more people trying to move out of the area, leaving behind them growing levels of void housing and despair.

Throughout all this, in most neighbourhoods, determined groups of community activists worked hard to protect and improve their communities and to try to reverse the deterioration of the area.