2nd November 2018
People are talking about the North now…
The idea of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is something that has been talked about for some time, and there’s nothing quite like chatter and coverage when it comes to making things happen. You have to ride that wave, and it seems to be happening.
When you see people that you respect riding that same wave, like Andy Burnham in Manchester choosing to come out of mainstream MP politics to become a Mayor, you know that something’s happening.
London has become a much harder place to put roots down…
Also, there are now a lot of Northern cities that are more dynamic and more interesting places to live than they were a number of years ago.
Liverpool is a prime example of that – it would be a great choice as a place to live today, and while that wasn’t always the case, it is catching up to and even surpassing quite a few other cities. There’s movement happening in the North of England and it’s a very interesting time.
There’s still a long way to go – if everything was rosy then companies like ours would be considering upping and moving away from London, but we’re not.
I can’t see a time in my lifetime where it’s a straight choice – where it doesn’t matter if you leave London and move
to Manchester, Newcastle or Liverpool because your lifestyle and your ability to run a business would be just the same.
Some people are saying that has already happened. It hasn’t – but there’s a positive movement in that direction.
Housing is a hugely important thing to people…
It’s about having a place to call your own in a location where you’re able to get a job that you actually want. Those things are vital.
That’s a large part of why the Staiths project is the best thing we’ve done as designers. There are 2000 people living at the Staiths South Bank development and when you leave a legacy on that scale, it’s great knowing it is such a success.
It’s about the great feedback we get, even all these years later, and the nice words we hear, whether we’re walking through the site or an email arrives out of the blue.
People thank us for doing it. We’ve never had a project that’s had that much feel-good factor before.
We get more good feedback from the users of that project than anything else we’ve ever done.
The Staiths wasn’t just about me and Gerardine…
We built an amazing team of local people, including another couple with similar views to us in Mark and Jane Massey from IDPartnership in Newcastle.
The people that were working at Wimpey at that time were also right behind the project, and then you had firms like
Arup and Cool Blue Communications in Middlesbrough. We attracted a great team and it was a real right place, right time, right team project. We just gelled.
The project gets a lot of visits from some pretty important people in urban design and the housing industry. We know how it has influenced house builders nationally and internationally, and how it’s become a brand in its own right. When you’ve achieved that, it gives you a great sense of self-satisfaction, and immediately we knew that we weren’t one- trick ponies.
The place you live in impacts a lot more on your well-being than a blouse ever could…
Fashion can be a very frivolous industry, so to change to something very serious like urban design was big for us.
The results gave us a lot of confidence and career satisfaction, and it’s about the sheer joy we get when we go back to the Staiths. It is maturing really well and the community has taken over some green spaces and is really looking after it.
It’s the simple things like the Staiths Café, which is a roaring success. It was started
by a couple of residents and now employs more than ten people. There are things like markets taking place, and it’s become a permanent part of Newcastle-Gateshead life.
There aren’t many housing developments that have ever done that.
We’ve always been good people-people…
We talk to people and understand them. With Red or Dead we stuck to our roots when it came to fashion and where we came from. We didn’t get carried away and stray into the rarefied element of things.
It’s important that we design at the level of the background we came from, and we’ve stuck to that. We know the importance of listening to people. Most of our friends
are from the same background, and even when we were winning Designer of the Year awards with Red or Dead, we never really mixed with the industry.
We’ve always been left-leaning. We don’t have the trappings of the money that we’ve got. We’ve got two cars in the family – one of them has 280,000 miles on the clock and the other has done 255,000. That’s the way we are – if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it.
The UK is way behind some of the urban design thinking in Europe…
If you go to places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, you’ll find that they understand the better side of human characteristics compared to us.
We’re still car-dominated in the UK, which is not the right way to have our cities. We still put people in cars before we put them on bicycles, which is beyond madness in my view.
We also still put cars ahead of pedestrians; we still build housing developments on the outskirts of towns and expect people to drive to the shops, and we’re still not using our brownfield sites to their full potential.
There’s so much to learn, and it’s mainly because big housing developers have so much power. Planning has been hit over the head with a giant frying pan and had its heart ripped out through austerity to such an extent that there’s no fight back.
We know that we had an impact (with the Staiths), and sometimes you have to be happy with simply nudging things forward, because you very rarely get a seismic shift as a result of doing something good.
There’s a lot more happening that’s good today compared to when we started the Staiths project, but it’s still not the norm. The industry has moved forward, just not at the pace I’d have liked to have seen.
We love working in the North East…
We’ve still got a house on the Staiths and we’d love to spend more time there. I’m a keen runner and one of the things I just loved to do was running out towards South Shields, or over the High-Level bridge and back down the Newcastle side of the river. I also love cycling along Keelman’s Way.
There’s a friendliness to the region and great wit. People are self-deprecating and have the ability to work hard and find thrifty and innovative solutions to problems. That’s why we enjoyed working there so much.
The Festival of Thrift, which has been held in places like Redcar and Darlington, is a good example. It works because there’s an ability to be clever about making do and getting by. It’s about not having loads of money, but still making a good fist of things.
Northerners know the value of hard work and the value of rolling your sleeves up, putting a bit of elbow grease on and getting stuff done. That’s what’s always been good about the North East.
People matter a lot.