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How an English City Is Losing Its Soul

A splurge of polished student housing is displacing Newcastle's coolest district.
December 19, 2016, 8:51pm

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

Stefano Congiu seems pretty relaxed for a guy who knows his cafe is going to be flattened.

"It's done now," he says, resting a knee on the arm of a knackered chesterfield sofa and shaking his short ponytail with a pained smile. "It's a shame, a shame."

His Tower Café in Ouseburn, Newcastle is a pleasant jumble: the burnt orange and slightly queasy purple walls, plus one violently lemon patch by the door, are covered in an esoteric collection of artworks. In the yard, an industrial-sized bobbin doubles as a table. While we chat a stringy 20-something with glasses and an enormous Roy Wood beard wanders in. He's a T-shirt printer, one of the 18 or so independent business owners based here.

Lime Street in the Ouseburn valley. Photo by John Lord

Well, for the time being at least. In five years time it'll be a five-story student block, next door to a four-story student block, and about 50 meters from two more enormous, blank, bloodless, dour blocks. There are more being built across the road in Shieldfield. There are more at the top of Stepney Bank. There are more everywhere in the city: 34 went up between 2010 and the end of 2015. At the start of the year there were 24 more at various stages of planning. Ouseburn, close to both colleges and full of brownfield land, is hot property.

In November the council planning committee gave developers the Adderstone Group the go-ahead to knock down the former schoolhouse the Tower Cafe is in, Uptin House, and replace it with a five-story block of student apartments. Up to this point, the anxiety over the pace and planning of student blocks on brownfield sites had been quietly simmering: now that an existing building full of the arty types who made Ouseburn a cool place is being razed, it's starting to boil.

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Kate Hodgkinson is at the vanguard of the campaign to save Uptin House. She's an artist who runs Ernest, a cafe and bar in the center of the new developments, and Cobalt, a complex of DIY artists' workshops around the corner which faces Adderstone's offices across the street. She's helped organize the campaigners' crowdfunding for legal advice, their petitions, and a vigorous campaign on the council's planning portal—of 231 public comments on the plans, 211 are objections. With the coming apartments at Uptin House to its rear, Ernest will be flanked by six blocks. "We feel very, very vulnerable. We are literally an island now," she says.

The Ouseburn valley in 1906

Ouseburn's a valley. The lower area used to be full of warehouses and lead works, but since the 1980s it's bloomed into an enclave of independent pubs and venues. In the upper part of the valley things were much the same until a couple of years ago. What used to be brownfield land and empty shacks is now apartments. And hey, that's fine—nobody misses brownfield land and empty shacks, right?

But there's a wider context, involving a long and frankly quite boring planning saga.

Basically, in 2007 the Lib Dem council floated the idea of draining students out of the traditional go-to suburbs like leafy, affluent Jesmond and terraced, multicultural Heaton and put them in purpose-built blocks around the city. The buzzword was "destudentification." Ouseburn was due half a dozen or so. But, says Stephen Powers, the Labour councillor for Ouseburn, "Because there was nothing put in place to stop only a few developments coming forward, it sort of opened the floodgates."

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"The policy failed to encourage developments to happen outside of what would be noticeably really attractive areas such as Ouseburn, with close proximity to the universities," he says. "It really set the precedent for many more developments to then come forward."

So now there are absolutely loads of student beds in Ouseburn. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but now the developments are being plonked on vital components of what makes Ouseburn what it is, it's becoming one.

Adderstone's CEO, Ian Baggett, wasn't available to talk to us, but he's been bullish in the local press. "In the Newcastle I was brought up in, jobs, homes, and investment can never be the wrong decision," he told the Chronicle after the planning decision was made. "It is not the critic who counts."

Stepney Yard, built by Adderstone, is typical. Bald, voguish light bulbs, and fresh nut-brown sofas can be seen through large windows. On the opposite side of the street, where there's a car windscreen repair shop in a lock-up, spiked metal fencing, and graffiti.

You can see the appeal of the new, all-bills-included luxury blocks: ensuite bathrooms, fresh paint. and no having to harass roommates for not paying the water bill. Some have theaters and gyms onsite. Louise and Savannah, two third years who moved into Stepney Yard with a group of friends at the start of the academic year, are big fans.

"We personally really, really like it. We get on really well here," says Louise as Savannah nods. She likes the security of parking her car inside Stepney Yard's high gates.

Stepney Yard. Photo via Adderstone

Traditionally, students in Newcastle head to classic student houses—cheap furniture, endless damp, a weird slug problem—in the suburbs. "If you live in Jesmond it's really expensive and you don't get anything like what's in here," says Savannah. "We all have private ensuite bathrooms in each room, so it's much nicer than a house share where you've all got to share everything."

Chantelle, a fourth year Business Studies student at Northumbria, isn't sold on the campaigners' demands. "I see their point, but I think, if anything, Tower Café and Ernest will get a lot of customers from this being open, because it's so convenient for us." She pauses. "I've never been to them myself, like."

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Nor have Savannah and Louise. "I don't personally do anything in Ouseburn, even though it is quite a nice area," says Louise.

Savannah concurs. "That Ernest café we walk past every day, and we go, 'We've got to go, we've got to go,' but you just never get around to going."

The promise of student business is one that "trips off the tongue of developers," Kate says, but it's not one that's born out in reality. "We do not see that at Ernest. That does not translate into the local economy," she says. "I think they've chosen to live in these safe, sanitized units, and they will go to the safe, sanitized, gated shopping areas."

Powers is worried about what living in a gated complex does to a student's chances of hanging around after graduation, too. "I came to Newcastle for university, and I lived in a community, and I fell in love with living in Heaton, so much so that I wanted to stay after university. Students aren't getting that now; they're almost divorced from the city," he says.

Savannah certainly didn't know much about the area before she moved in. "I only found out it was called Ouseburn the other day," she laughs.

This is happening in cities across the north of the UK: Durham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool. Developers can't get enough of high-density student blocks. Whether or not their cloistered environs are really good for students and the areas around them is uncertain. For Kate, the campaign is about protecting the identity of the post-industrial city from this weirdly superficial gentrification.

"We've lost our shipping, we've lost our mining, and now we've lost a lot of funding—are we going to sit back crying into our cobbled streets and hobnail boots, to fit into what everybody expects the North to be, or are we going to say, 'No, actually, we're fucking great and we're going to stick our necks out and celebrate what we've got and protect what we've got; we're going to be the city that doesn't bite the hand off every developer, but can protect these things much more'?" says Kate.

She pauses. "But I don't think we are going to be that city. I've fallen a bit out of love with Newcastle. And I just feel very, very disempowered, because I thought good would win out. And it definitely hasn't."

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