Posted March 28th, 2011

By the end of the 20th century, few traces remained of the variety of manufacturing industries that used to fill the land above the Tyne. It was possible to cycle or walk along the riverbanks and even to fish in the river – unimaginable 20 years earlier. Instead of the former heavy industries, there were miles of warehouses, retailing outfits and office developments. These looked better than the dirty old factories but they provided only a fraction of the jobs previously to be found along the riverside.

The area was still relatively deprived and bore the scars of the years of social and economic deprivation and unrest. However for the most part the serious problems that had manifested themselves during the high unemployment years of the 1980s and 1990s began to recede, as improved policing combined with a better economic environment and greater opportunities for young people took effect.

However, the beginning of the decade was to bring a bombshell. The City Council launched its ‘Going for Growth’ strategy, which set out a vision for Newcastle as a “competitive, cosmopolitan and cohesive capital”.

This strategy envisaged the demolition of over 7,000 homes, most of them in the inner west. Most of Scotswood and large parts of Benwell were deemed “unviable”. Going for Growth was seen as a brave and visionary plan for the city, which over a 20 year period would tackle the social and economic problems of its most deprived areas by removing them wholesale and replacing them “mixed communities”. The plan was not just about housing – it also included ideas for improving shopping and community facilities, building better schools, and creating new employment opportunities and transport links.

Going for Growth prompted outrage from many local residents who did not consider that losing their cherished homes was a reasonable price to pay for what they saw as merely paper plans. In many neighbourhoods, residents organised against the demolition proposals, with some measure of success. The plans to demolish part of the North Benwell terraces to create space for a new shopping centre were dropped, for example, and ultimately the final number of houses cleared was considerably less than in the initial plan. However, the main plan to clear a large area of Scotswood and West Benwell in order to create a big empty site for a new “world class” housing development went ahead, despite prolonged and vigorous campaigns by local residents.

The original Going for Growth masterplan envisaged the first 1,000 new homes being built in Scotswood and West Benwell in 2006. However the legal and planning processes involved in large-scale housing clearance took a great deal longer than the council had reckoned. For several years, Scotswood and West Benwell were peppered with empty sites, partially cleared streets of housing, and rows of boarded-up homes. Dereliction was everywhere, but there were few signs of the promised “urban renaissance”.

The large-scale new building plans also failed to materialise on the scale envisaged by the City Council. The masterplan had envisaged a big increase in the number of homes in the inner west, mainly through the creation of a “World Class Urban Village” in Scotswood and West Benwell with up to 3,000 new houses. This was criticised by the government and the Audit Commission as unrealistic, and watered down to a more limited scale. The unpopular ‘Going for Growth’ label was also dropped.

Unlike previous regeneration initiatives which had built or improved housing in the area, the 2000s regeneration strategy had to be led by the private sector. Part of the grand plan was to hold a major Housing Expo in Scotswood to kick-start the regeneration by attracting developers. The Housing Expo was to be “an international demonstration of the best current ideas and approaches to urban living”. The model had been used elsewhere in Europe, but this would be a UK first – and the first set within existing communities. The intention was to hold the Expo in 2008, but the timetable kept slipping until finally the idea was abandoned altogether in the context of the national economic recession.

Throughout this whole depressing period, committed community activists continued to invest time and effort in helping to shape the plans and working in other practical ways towards the aim of creating a better quality of life in their local communities.

By the end of the decade, there was little to show in terms of a housing renaissance, although Scotswood did by this time have a brand new Academy on a former housing site. This replaced the former Westgate Community College.

Ten years after the launch of Going for Growth the last of the condemned homes in Scotswood and West Benwell were still to be demolished, and the area was blighted by empty sites, empty houses and empty shops.