Leadership: Batten down the hatches

May 1, 2020


For more than a decade, Business Improvement District company NE1 has played a leading role in developing Newcastle city centre into a vibrant and diverse destination with something for everyone to enjoy either during the day, the early evening or at night. But the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic has left Newcastle – alongside cities around the world – on its knees. Here, former Army Lieutenant Colonel and NE1 chief executive Adrian Waddell describes to Alison Cowie the fight he, NE1 and Newcastle face in the weeks, months and years ahead

Adrian Waddell has had what is best described as an eclectic career. He spent 25 years in the Army – with active service in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Afghanistan – before swapping the rifle for the paintbrush to complete a fine arts degree at Newcastle University.

Adrian intended to become a full-time painter after graduating and set up his own art business in preparation. But when the 2008 financial crisis hit and, with a family to support, the ex-lieutenant colonel decided a more reliable source of income should be secured.

This came when he successfully applied for the position of operations manager at NE1 – the newly-formed Business Improvement District (BID) company for Newcastle.

NE1, which was established in 2009, is part of a global network of BIDs that are business-led and business-funded companies seeking to improve a defined commercial area.

Adrian spent almost a decade in charge of NE1’s operations before being appointed chief executive in 2018. NE1’s most prominent project has been Alive after Five.

The scheme, now in its tenth year, has helped to create an early evening economy in Newcastle, which Adrian describes as having “completely transformed the way the city operates and feels.”

It is estimated since launch that Alive after Five has brought over £800 million into the city and has helped create a food and beverage sector that boasts more restaurants per capita than any other UK city outside London.

Adrian also maintains the scheme has helped attract major residential investment into the city, such as Hadrian’s Tower by The High Street Group – the 27-storey luxury accommodation currently under construction – and Newby’s proposed Quayside West development on a derelict site next to Newcastle’s Utilita Arena, which includes up to 1200 residential units.

“Alive after Five created an early evening economy that didn’t exist before,” says Adrian. “It created an early evening vibrancy, and people now want to live in the city so they can be part of that without the travel.”

NE1, meanwhile, has supplemented its Alive after Five with several other high profile projects such as Screen on the Green, Restaurant Week, the Motor Show and the establishment of Newcastle Marina – all intended to bring more visitors into the city – whether locals or those from further afield.

As Newcastle’s BID has grown in prominence and stature, it has been able to work on bigger and more ambitious projects.

It partnered with Newcastle City Council and Network Rail to secure £25 million of funding for the Central Station development, as well as £3.2 million of investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the city council and property owners to redevelop the Bigg Market.

“It’s taken the thick end of six years to get the Bigg Market project off the ground but we’re now seeing a pipeline of over £70 million of private development into the previously underperforming area of the city,” Adrian reveals.

NE1 has also been concentrating on reviving the fortunes of the city’s retailers and has gathered a consortium comprising the council, business owners and international retail specialists to develop a strategy to make the city a more popular destination for shoppers.

Interventions being looked at include the possible permanent pedestrianisation of Blackett Street and the revamp of Northumberland Street’s access roads including Ridley Place, Northumberland Road and Saville Row.

Adrian continues: “Many years ago, Northumberland Street was considered one of the most valuable streets outside London in terms of retail properties, but that simply isn’t the case anymore.

“There needs to be investment so that we can ambitiously rebuild that notion of quality. We want to be able to compete nationally and internationally for the best stores and the best brands and create an environment that supports and nurtures our independents.”

All of NE1’s activity has undoubtedly helped Newcastle’s endeavour to become one of the most popular city destinations in Europe. That was, of course, until the lifeblood of the city was effectively severed on March 23.

With coronavirus sweeping the globe – already wreaking havoc in Italy and Spain – the UK Government announced that all non-essential shops, libraries, gyms, bars and restaurants should close.

Newcastle – alongside all of the nation’s cities – became a virtual ghost town overnight with only a few outlets remaining open for the public to buy food and medicine while adhering to strict social distancing rules.

NE1 implemented a homeworking policy for its small team who turned their attention to supporting their businesses, which rewarded the organisation with an 88 per cent approval rating in 2018 – at the time, the highest vote of any BID in the UK. “We’ve had to refocus on the really important, practical support that businesses and our partners need,” says Adrian. “Most important has been making sure that businesses know where to find the information about Government support and how to access it.”

Adrian reveals that team members have been speaking to businesses directly over the phone as well as sharing information via email and through social media channels. NE1 also recently held its first webinar, focused on the coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, with expert advice from Robert Gibson, senior partner at Samuel Phillips Law Firm.

While Adrian says the Government’s initial announcements exceeded his expectations, as the weeks roll on, he predicts further investment will be needed to kick-start the UK economy.

The chief executive recently wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak highlighting the issues that are adversely affecting SMEs in Newcastle and elsewhere. And it was also announced that £10,000 from NE1’s Geordie Jackpot was being donated to Cash for Kids to help Newcastle families who are struggling during the coronavirus crisis.

At a regional level, Adrian believes steps will soon be taken to develop a multi-partner plan to welcome people back to Newcastle city centre and elsewhere, post coronavirus.

“We already know most of the challenges, but we’ll soon be able to start planning with certainty about how to address them and with whom,” he says. “The only thing we’re struggling with, at present, is the ‘when’ as we don’t yet know how long the lockdown will go on for.

“But I think there’ll be plenty of ideas and it’ll be exciting,” Adrian continues. “There’s lots of moving parts to this and I know local businesses want to be part of the solution.”

Despite the massive upheaval and calamitous economic predictions – most stark being the Office for Budget Responsibility that estimates UK GDP will shrink by 35 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 – Adrian remains positive about Newcastle’s future.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” the chief executive says. “If you look at the city’s strengths – its retail, leisure and hospitality core, diverse cultural offering, a leading NHS hospital trust, two globally recognised universities, NUFC and the events held at St James’ Park, the strong tech sector, the development around Newcastle Helix and the exciting residential investments coming into the city and its surrounding areas – Newcastle is in a really good place.

He continues: “As a major UK and European city, we can generate our own gravity to a large extent. We’re also getting much better at working collaboratively, which will be crucial as the city recovers.”

Adrian predicts that, as the lockdown restrictions relax, the city’s professional services businesses will bounce back the quickest, with more support needed for the leisure, hospitality and retail community. He also sees a greater trend towards buying local and in creating shorter, more robust supply chains.

“As a BID company,” Adrian’s continues, ” NE1 will do its level best to make sure there’s a lot of promotion, news and activity around Newcastle’s re-emergence.”

Perhaps Adrian’s unorthodox past in the Armed Forces and as an artist has equipped him well with the required skills in seeking creative solutions to fight this unprecedented and unpredictable battle.

NE1 has joined forces with BIDs in Sunderland, Durham and across the UK to support the national #RaiseTheBar campaign to persuade Government to extend its coronavirus rescue package for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses.

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