Skip to content

Business & Economy

Interview: Stephen Patterson – chief executive, NE1

NE1 for change

Stephen Patterson has been hitting the phones hard this summer.

In fact, if you haven’t received a call from Stephen or one of his fellow NE1 directors Tariq Albassam and Ben Whitfield over the last couple of months, then chances are you’re not one of the organisation’s 1400 members.

Newcastle’s Business Improvement District (BID) company is coming to the end of its five-year cycle.

It faces its own ‘election’ before the end of the year and, if it is successful and reinstated for a fourth term, will secure an additional £10 million of ring-fenced investment for Newcastle city centre.

Win the vote, and it will continue to operate from April 1 next year.

Taking nothing for granted, despite notable successes since its inception in 2009, NE1 has drawn up a consultation document with plans and proposals that will shape Newcastle over the next five years.

All businesses in the city have had their copy since June, ahead of the vote in September, and NE1 chief executive Stephen and his team have been gathering feedback on their proposals.

The responses will help secure NE1’s status, as well as shape a city already undergoing significant change and development.

Delivering for people

Stephen tells North East Times: “One of the key issues in the past has been around investment, but we can all see the cranes over the city and we are entering a really exciting period of transformation.

“We have been working very closely with our businesses to stay very focused on what the issues and priorities are now.

“We’ve always been really conscious that if we are balloting our members and they are voting, we want to make sure that when it comes to the ballot paper landing on their desk, it isn’t an unknown.

“I think it’s perfectly reasonable for businesses to expect us to chase them, even though it introduces a degree of personal jeopardy for myself and the staff.

“If you think, the day after the ballot, if businesses vote no, we’ll all be out of jobs.

“But I wouldn’t have it any other way because it definitely keeps us focused on delivering for people.

“What we’re up against is the status quo.

“If businesses are happy with the status quo, and, if they’re getting everything they want from the city centre, then there’s no reason for NE1 to exist.

Hitting the phones every day

“Business Improvement Districts are created by businesses, for business.

“We’ve been speaking to members, hitting the phones every day, meeting with businesses, speaking to them about their priorities, so that when we pulled together our business proposal, it was as near, as possible, to what businesses had told us they want.

“There have been no major surprises, but there are definitely key areas for attention.

“I always think of it as a refinement and polishing process.

“The consultation document has themes in it that businesses have told us are important.

“We then distil down these priorities for the next five years.

“Historically, there are always certain issues we need to focus on; that is the benefit of doing an in-depth consultation with business.

“If they’re unhappy, they’re not shy in telling us, which is as it should be.”

The Quayside is our shop window

The consultation period has already identified key areas that business leaders would like to be addressed over the coming years, as the city’s skyline and workforce change.

With more than 15,000 new workers coming into the city as office developments reach their conclusion, existing companies want to see improvements to the 55 Degrees roundabout, for example.

And the new arena on the Gateshead side of the River Tyne is also seen as a major opportunity.

Stephen says: “There have been some specific issues raised, which I expect we’ll address in the business plan.

“The 55 Degrees roundabout is one of them, and how appalling the experience is, for pedestrians in particular.

“We’ll definitely have to work with partners to deliver a solution for that.

“The Gateshead Conference and Exhibition Centre is going to bring in a million additional visitors per year, so we’ll be having discussions with businesses on the Quayside.

“They will help determine whether we are set up to capitalise on this opportunity, and ask difficult questions like, ‘are we attractive enough?’

“This provides real opportunity.

“I always think of the Quayside as our shop window.

“We’re really fortunate as a city to have such an iconic view, which I don’t think you have in Manchester or Birmingham.”

Over its last five-year cycle, NE1 raised around £1.8 million from the BID levy annually, which is charged on top of business rates, to fund work and initiatives across the city centre, with an additional £41.1 million generated by its own national and local lobbying.

Some of that investment can be seen clearly on a daily basis, with NE1’s Street Rangers providing assistance for business, residents and visitors.

The new NE1 Business Crime Reduction Partnership has encouraged closer relationships between police, council and businesses since its launch last year, and resulted in 80 per cent recovery of stolen goods in the city centre, as well as a decline in anti-social behaviour and graffiti.

Newcastle has also secured its rightful place on the national and international sporting and events map, building on the success of rugby league’s Magic Weekend, by hosting the opening match and opening ceremony of the Rugby League World Cup last year, and representing the North East in the joint FA and Irish FA bid to host the Euro 2028 football finals.

The city was also in the running to stage this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which eventually went to Liverpool, as the stand-in for Ukraine.

And even more record-breaking results are expected from one of NE1’s largest successes, Newcastle Restaurant Week, which was held in August and is now in its 13th year.

Stephen says: “I was chasing Terry Laybourne, at Cafe 21, back in 2009 for an offer for the website, and I always remember him saying, ‘Stephen, I’m not going to give you one of those tawdry 50 per cent off type offers; I’ve spent my life building my restaurant and its reputation, but you should have a look at what they do in New York’.

“So I did.

“In New York, you have a fixed price for lunch and evening meal.

“Ours is slightly different, but the underlying premise is exactly the same; a fixed price meal at some of the city’s finest eateries, which is a discount on the usual menu, and a great offer for new and existing customers.

“We launched the first NE1 Newcastle Restaurant Week with only 13 of the city’s top restaurants, and had no idea whether it would work.

“But the messaging and the offer were so simple – an invitation to try a new restaurant or visit an old favourite knowing you’re going to enjoy a highly discounted meal.

“Research shows people use the event as a treat, or a way to discover new places.

“We were the first city in the country to introduce Restaurant Week and, in January, we hit the million pound mark for the event, which is remarkable.

“This money is delivered directly into the tills of participating businesses and does not include the extra boost to other businesses like bars, public transport providers and other leisure venues that all benefit from the event.

“Restaurant Week creates a real buzz in the city, with more than 55,000 diners enjoying the event and transforming two of the quietest weeks of the year into two of the busiest.

“We’re now sought out for advice from cities across the country on the concept.”

Stephen adds: “When NE1 launched 15 years ago, Newcastle was known as one of the best nights out – a party city.

“Look at the city now; its foodie scene is almost unrecognisable.

“Food has changed a lot over this time, and Newcastle’s food and restaurant sector has grown in range and quality; it has been transformed.

“Newcastle now has more restaurants per capita than any other city outside London and, alongside Bristol, is ranked second for the most independent restaurants.”

Proactive, heavyweight lobby

Attracting tourists, sporting superstars or the world’s greatest entertainers may be part of its remit, but Stephen knows NE1 is no use to anyone if they cannot get the basics right.

And Newcastle will only be able to keep up with forward-thinking European cities if its streets are clean and businesses are happy.

He adds: “The three core areas we established in 2009 are every bit as relevant today as they were 15 years ago.

“They’re essentially a stronger voice for business and having a really proactive heavyweight lobby to act with a common voice on big strategic issues like transport, clean air zones or operational issues that are specific to businesses, such as street lighting, level paving stones, etc.

“The second element is attracting, promoting and marketing the city and putting on events that draw people into Newcastle, celebrating  its quality and diversity, and really shouting about it.

“The third area, which is certainly no less important than the other two, is the city environment.

“We have a rapid response clean team and a Street Ranger team, which we are expanding.

”We’ve always focused on these three core areas, but we’re commercial nomads, wherever we represent the businesses of the city, or businesses raise something as an issue for us to tackle, we’ll focus on that.

“We work with the council and try to be a critical friend, bringing businesses and the council together to discuss things pragmatically and openly.

“Some things might be extremely contentious, but we have to have these conversations.

“One politician said that the relationship between NE1 and the council contains ‘a degree of friction’, but that friction is an essential part of the relationship.

“You’re always going to have some difficult conversations.

“At the moment, we have huge investment coming into the city centre, but more people equals more mess, more people means more commuting.

“It will have positive impacts because that many people will provide a greater critical mass for public transport, which will result in more transport frequency – which can only be good.

“But we need to be in a position where we can have these challenging conversations.

“There’s no point shying away from them.

“Business wants Newcastle to be a cosmopolitan, major European capital city.

“There is no perfect city, but the challenges and opportunities we face are the same for all major cities around the world, and there are things we do exceptionally well here.

“We hope the BID vote goes in our favour, so we can continue to campaign for this great city.”