How did you get involved in the Great Exhibition of the North?
I was asked by the Government to chair the board around three years ago. I put the independent board together and the first thing we did was run the process by which towns and cities across the North could bid to host the exhibition. Initially, we had 11 places that we whittled down to a shortlist of four. The board and the judges then spent a day in each of the four places, hearing from the bid teams about what they had to offer. I oversaw the whole process but removed myself of the scoring because two of the bidding places were from Yorkshire. The winner of the process, of course, was NewcastleGateshead.
Why was NewcastleGateshead chosen?
Something that really impressed the judges about NewcastleGateshead was its amazing quayside, river and bridges, framed by the Sage Gateshead and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary art – among many other great buildings. One of the objectives of the exhibition is to change perceptions of the North and to raise its profile. I think when people see NewcastleGateshead quayside – especially if they arrive by train – they’ll just say, ‘wow, that’s amazing’.
You mention that one of the aims of the exhibition is to change perceptions of the North. What are its other aims?
One of the projects I was involved in was bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire in 2014. That event gave Yorkshire a great sense of pride and we’re hoping that the Great Exhibition does this for the whole of the North of England. We also want to persuade more of our young people to study in the great learning institutions of the North. Equally, we want to persuade our graduates to stay in the North and apply their talents here as we leak too much of this to the South East.
Another objective is to get more women into engineering. Only eight per cent of engineering graduates currently are women across the UK and, worse than that, only half of these go on to jobs in engineering.
The exhibition will be a celebration of art, culture and design and something we want to do is inspire people, particularly young women. For example, the first Brit into space was a woman – Helen Sharman from Sheffield – and her space suit will be on display as part of the exhibition. I think her story will inspire a lot of people and, speaking as a single parent of a 15-year-old daughter, I hope that it will resonate with her too.
What impact will the exhibition make on the North East?
For the North East – and certainly for NewcastleGateshead – there will be an economic impact. A lot of visitors will travel to the region this summer and will visit hotels, restaurants and bars.
What about the wider North?
The exhibition will give the North a boost of confidence and, hopefully, get people to start thinking about the opportunities for the North if we work together. If you look at the North of England and aggregate the size of the economy, it’s bigger than most European companies. There’s nothing that we don’t have in terms of assets and by working as a team – which is what is happening with Great Exhibition of the North – there’s nothing we can’t achieve.
Why should people get behind the Great Exhibition of the North?
This is the first ever great exhibition to take place exclusively outside of London and for it to be held in NewcastleGateshead is so special. Everything as part of the Great Exhibition of the North will be free and we want people to bring their children, grandchildren and friends, be part of history and be proud of what the North has achieved.
What about businesses – why it is important that they get behind the exhibition?
The working title of the exhibition is the ‘Economy of Tomorrow’ and will celebrate innovation. We want to hear from companies who are doing cutting-edge stuff which involves the latest technology. The exhibition is a great showcase for them to be able to demonstrate their products and wares to the world. It will also be a great way for businesses to attract and retain new talent and attract and retain new customers.
While I’m sure businesses in the North East will see the benefit of getting involved, what about those located elsewhere in the North?
This is not the Great Exhibition of NewcastleGateshead, it’s the Great Exhibition of the North. We want to showcase businesses and organisations from across the North of England. The National
Graphene Institute in Manchester, for example, is already involved. We want to engage everyone from a line south of Sheffield up to the Scottish boarders. If you have examples of really good practice in terms of arts, culture or design – or ideally a combination of all of these things – it’s important you’re represented in the exhibition.
So businesses can still get involved?
Absolutely. Our full programme at it stands will be unveiled on February 27, but it’s not too late for businesses and other organisations to get involved. This a coalition of the willing and we’ve already had great support from many organisations. The two local authorities in Newcastle and Gateshead have been exemplary in the way in which they’ve worked as have lots of other agencies, such as NewcastleGateshead Initiative and the Great Run Company. I think that it’s particularly fitting that the exhibition’s closing event on September 9 with be the Great North Run. It was the North East of England that brought mass participation running to the rest of the world.
You’ve helped organise a number of major events, such as bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire. What’s the biggest challenge of putting on events like these?
When you’re dealing with a multi-agency approach, it’s key that all the relevant agencies work well together. Thankfully, we’ve been very lucky with this project. There’s been a real willingness from all the partners to contribute positively, which has made my job as chairman pretty straightforward. We’ve also had tremendous support from Government, which helps. Clearly, with any major event you’re putting on now, security is a factor. I deal with security services all around the world on different events and the quality of services that you have here in the North East as a good as anywhere else.
Some details of the event were released on January 1, including a dramatic fountain display on the Tyne, the display of George’s Stephenson’s Rocket, John Lennon’s piano, Helen Sharman’s spacesuit and specially-commissioned music, film and poetry. Is there anything in particular you’re most looking forward to?
The thing that I’m really excited about – which I am with all the events that I’ve been involved in – is the opening night. Seeing all the hard work everyone’s put in coming together on June 22, I think will be a memorable night for NewcastleGateshead but also for the North of England. Another thing is Diarmuid Gavin’s garden [an urban garden and leisure destination designed out of shipping containers to be constructed in the shadow of the Tyne Bridge], which I think it will be an inspiration. A lot of people will remember the  Gateshead Garden Festival and the impact that that had. In many ways, it was a catalyst for positive change and I hope that Diarmuid’s garden will do something similar.
I believe the exhibition is expecting to attract three million visitors – half of which will be through digital mediums…
Without the technology we have today, we would not be able to do the exhibition in the shape and form that we’re doing it – we’d need a budget 20 or 30 times higher.
What do you think the legacy of the exhibition will be?
Ensuring that there is a long-term legacy is important. I’m not a big fan of things that are one-off ‘flashes in the pan’. There’s a specific legacy fund that the Government will makes some announcements on over the next few months.