Middlesbrough has been named as one of the small cities of the future by the Financial Times. The Council’s Head of Economic Growth and Infrastructure Sam Gilmore explains more about the ongoing changes to central Middlesbrough and how he will judge their impact.
I have an acid test in mind for Middlesbrough.
I’ll be satisfied when I leave the office at 5.30pm on a weekday and town is still buzzing.
Day will fade seamlessly into night with very little change in the atmosphere.
Traditional options including restaurants and bars will be alive, boosted by a wider choice of activities such as virtual reality gaming.
The changes we’re introducing to central Middlesbrough have been long in the making. The struggles of high streets may have been amplified and accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but a shift away from retail has long been on our agenda.
There are three main challenges we face. We have to make a place where people want to live. We have to be a place where people can work in a job they aspire to. And crucially, we have to be a place people want to spend their leisure time.
The good news is we’re making great progress on all three fronts.
We’re building more housing than we’ve seen in a generation in the centre of town. The St Hilda’s area will largely become unrecognisable with new homes surrounded by a new school, luxury office accommodation and the expanded college.
The average weekly income of someone who works in Middlesbrough is currently over £500. That shows we are creating opportunities and well-paid jobs; but there is still much work to do.
Historically it can be argued that we haven’t matched up those jobs with the people who live here. That can result in people leaving town and deciding to make their futures elsewhere.
We’re now breaking that chain with the help of our outstanding education institutions.
With the strides we’re taking, people can choose a profession whether it be architect, designer, games developer, solicitor or accountant and be confident they can do that in Middlesbrough.
The final piece of the jigsaw is leisure.
We were extremely pleased to receive £14.1m from the Future High Streets Fund. We’re now getting on with converting that into action.
There are strict timescales in which to spend the money and we have firm plans in place to do so – 2022 will be a year of massive change for Captain Cook Square.
The first fit-out started in late January. Boutique bowling firm Lane 7 is converting the former TJ Hughes store into Level X, a family-friendly gaming and sporting paradise. I can recommend the simulated darts!
Elsewhere, the former Peacocks store will be transformed into The Wired Lobby, an e-sports venue with capacity for hundreds of people.
There will be much more to follow and once the first outlets launch I expect a resurgence in new interest.
Companies like to see others go into a new development first and then there’s often a tipping point. That happened at TeesAMP and Centre Square.
Leisure is a robust industry. Yes, it was in the complete doldrums during the pandemic but it will rebound fairly quickly. The demand hasn’t gone away.
It’s a massive frustration for me to see busy platforms at Middlesbrough railway station on a Saturday morning seeing people head off to Newcastle, York or Leeds.
People are rightly protective of their spare time and disposable income and we have to ask ourselves why don’t they want to spend it here?
It’s not all about serving the tourist market. It’s about the residents of Middlesbrough first and foremost.
But how we present ourselves to inward investors and leisure companies is also crucial. Our location and potential was a key factor in being named the joint 3rd best small city in Europe for foreign direct investment strategy by the Financial Times.
We can’t just sell ourselves as 140,000 people in Middlesbrough. Actually it’s 800.000 people within a 30-minute drive.
That’s what businesses care about. Once we take into account the people who live within a 30-minute journey we’re talking about a place that’s knocking on the door of being the size of a Leeds city region.
The problems that the retail industry faces aren’t unique to Middlesbrough and haven’t just dawned on us in the past year or so. There has been a cultural shift with people spending more money online and what we’re trying to do is be proactive.
Retail will always be a component of our town centre but the issue we faced is that we had four shopping centres essentially competing against each other. That led to decline.
That’s why we invested directly in the market. The Council’s purchase of the Cleveland Centre was completed last month.
This was another sign for me that everything is clicking together. It’s great to have Captain Cook Square and the Cleveland Centre together. It allows us to be flexible and retain businesses of different types in central Middlesbrough.
Things are falling into place and I’m looking forward to leaving work in the not too distant future and enjoying all the new things our town will have to offer.