March 7, 2022
Words by Steven Hugill
Photography by Christopher Owens
To understand Pam Smith’s journey to the North East requires you to begin at the end.
Well, to be absolutely precise, the finishing line of the Great North Run. For as she passed under the timing arch on South Shields’ seafront back in the early 2000s, welcomed as she did by spectators’ cheers and a tricolour Red Arrows salute, the experience triggered a starting gun effect in Pam’s affection for the region. Though Lancashire born and bred, in those immediate post-race moments of exhilaration and exhaustion, the North East captured her heart and, much like the flagship event she’d just completed, its appeal grew only stronger with every passing year. And, ultimately, it proved too much of a lure to ignore.
For today, nearly two decades on, Pam is up and running as chief executive of Newcastle City Council, having taken over from Pat Ritchie in early January. And, sitting in an office overlooking Great North Road – a relatively short dash from the famous half marathon’s starting point – Pam is focused on helping the city, and the wider region, set the pace when it comes to economic, environmental and social regeneration.
“The North East just hugs you in,” she says. “I felt it when I did the Great North Run; completing it was stunning, with the amazing beauty all around at South Shields, but the people were just as fantastic too. “I wasn’t living in the North East at the time, I was a visitor, but when I crossed the line, I was embraced by such a strong community spirit and a real sense of welcoming.
“And it’s something I’ve never forgotten.” And, as she watches wintry gusts push white clouds across the blue skies beyond her office window, Pam says she is determined to harness those memories – and use skills and expertise accrued in previous posts – to deliver new legacies for her adopted city and its surrounds. Highlighting recent investments from tech companies including Version 1 and cybersecurity operator Arctic Wolf in Newcastle, which both commit to creating hundreds of roles in the city, Pam says there is much scope to secure further growth.
She says: “I’m here to work with councillors, residents, businesses, universities and the voluntary sector to make sure we continue to punch above our weight. “There is a real opportunity, for example, for Newcastle and the North East to be world-leading in digital change. “The ambition is certainly there – you only have to look at the companies we’ve recently attracted and how the North of Tyne Combined Authority, of which we are a part, is investing in digital inclusion. “Furthermore, the world today is all about data, evidence and putting things into practice, and we have the ability to do that in abundance thanks to the National Innovation Centre for Data, based on Newcastle Helix.
“This is a fantastically vibrant area, which has an entrepreneurial spirit connected to its communities that is not theoretical but abundantly tangible.”
Equally striking, says the former Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council chief executive, is her new authority’s commitment to the green agenda. Having previously acted as a lead on age-friendly, equality and green work across Greater Manchester, Pam says she is excited at further catalysing Newcastle City Council’s net-zero drive. Led by commitments that include the £50 million City Centre Transformation Programme, which, among other targets, aims to reduce traffic in the city centre and create more space for people to enjoy on Grey Street, the authority is also part of the 30-year North East Community Forest scheme, a multi- million-pound venture bosses say will plant tens of thousands of saplings on council-owned land and private hillsides between Newcastle and County Durham.
Furthermore, Pam says the council is continuing talks with the Government over the Whitehall-mandated introduction of a clean air zone, which will cover most of Newcastle city centre. She says: “You have to look at the green agenda as a jigsaw puzzle and work on all its parts – you can’t simply choose one piece. “You need ambition – which this council and the wider city has – and a clear plan on how to get there. “And you must take people with you too; once you’ve set the ambition, you’ve got to make it real on the ground, and we’re delivering on this with things like the Community Forest. “We’re supporting businesses with grants to help them ‘green’ operations and are working to do the same with our public estate, backed by £30 million from the Government, to create things like low-traffic neighbourhoods.
“We’re installing heat pumps in properties and training people in green skills for the jobs of the present and the future.” And Pam, whose CV includes stints as chief executive at Burnley Council and a number of years at the Audit Commission, believes her new authority’s goals are well within reach, thanks to the region’s innovative history. She says: “It’s not like our green credentials have just appeared – they’ve been around for a long time.
“We’ve got the fantastic Metro, for example, and Newcastle was recently named one of the UK’s greenest cities by international climate research provider CDP, so the foundations are more than solid. “This region has a rich history of being world-leading, and the moves we are making now will ensure it continues being so in the fourth industrial age. “Ultimately, we’re harnessing a community spirit that has existed for centuries. “We’ve gone from coal mining and shipbuilding to digital and tech – and healthy living too, with the Helix-based National Innovation Centre for Ageing – and we’ve never lost our desire to lead the way.
“How many places can say they’ve managed to retain and capture such spirit? “It’s a real reason why I believe we can be world-leading again, this time in the green, blue (ocean energy) and digital agendas.” However, while providing watershed change around sustainability, Pam says she is also deeply committed to improving residents’ lives. This, she says, will come through the introduction of step-changes to services that not only improve quality of life but increase the area’s attractiveness for both natives and newcomers.
She says: “I want us to focus on what matters most to residents. “They ultimately pay my wages and expect me and my team to get things done, so it’s imperative we do so. “With that in mind, I want to deliver more engagement and community-based services. “For example, we have hubs centred around children’s services, but we are expanding those to work with other bodies, such as the voluntary sector and other professionals. “This will mean our services are better connected to communities and providing what they need, rather than a one-size- fits-all approach.
“We also need to market ourselves more internationally to attract further businesses and continue working with companies, schools, colleges and universities to drive the skills agenda. “Yes, we’ve seen companies like Version 1 and Arctic Wolf arrive recently, but we need to continue making sure that globally, as well as domestically, business understands and acknowledges Newcastle and the North East as a great place to invest.”
Pam continues: “We are the 11th best destination for attracting UK visitors but one of the lowest for attracting international visitors – and it’s because we’re an international secret. “We need, therefore, to work with our businesses and hospitality sector to highlight further our fantastic offer when it comes to lifestyle and promote the message that you can be in the city and then, in just a few minutes, be at the coast or in the countryside, and that you can live your best life here.
“We must promote our night-time economy more too. “It’s a critical part of the vibrancy of Newcastle; it employs 6500 people and contributes £340 million to the economy – and now is the time to further share that vibrancy with the world.
“We’ve also got to make sure we retain those who go to university here and ensure the voice of young people is heard – and heard very loudly – because they are the ones who will find the solutions of the future. “There is so much talent around and a big part of my job is creating opportunities that maximise peoples’ abilities,” says Pam, who began her career as an apprentice on a technical and administrative training scheme with Oldham Council.
She adds: “Succession planning, whether through apprenticeships – we’ve got 120 at the council – or through our universities, is crucial to our future because it will equip people with the skills they need for the new jobs coming through. “And I also want to have a ‘returners policy’ that encourages people to come back to the region.”
Another key facet in the continued growth of Newcastle, and indeed the North East, will be the roll out of the Government’s much-anticipated ‘levelling-up’ white paper.
Pledging to “extend, deepen and simplify devolution”, the document, which is to be enshrined in law, makes 12 headline commitments that include improving pay, employment and productivity, boosting skills and increasing individuals’ health and wellbeing across the entire UK. And Pam says the paper, which was announced last month, can act as a spur to realise the city’s ambitions. She says: “It has to be welcomed because it provides, for the first time, clear missions to achieve, and metrics to measure their progress and make them real. “And that is where our role in local government comes in, to work with partners to make them real. “‘Levelling-up’, to me, means enabling the fulfilment of the positive contribution that Newcastle and the North East can make to the economic wellbeing of the UK, as well as the health and wellbeing of people in the country. “It’s about ensuring no child is left behind and about having a minus nine months to 90-plus strategy across the age spectrum, which makes sure people feel connected and part of a vibrant and prosperous Newcastle and wider North East.
“Ultimately, if you don’t enable the North to give its full contribution, then you’re missing out on a lot of talent, economic contribution and you’re not doing justice to people in its regions.”
She adds: “With the white paper, there is an opportunity for us in the North East now to make the dialogue between the region and the Government easier. “And the easier we make it to do things at pace and at scale, the easier it will be to attract investment and support. “It comes back to what we have in front of us; the potential is huge, and we need to keep our eyes focused on it. “I’m absolutely convinced this is Newcastle’s, and the wider North East’s, time to really shine.
“And we’ve got all the ingredients to make it happen.”