As Newcastle Science City moves towards a new chapter, chairman Paul Walker reflects on what it has achieved - and what it will.
Newcastle is transforming: the skyline is changing as new buildings emerge.
The business base of the city is undergoing an even more radical change, as new sectors emerge, entrepreneurs step forward to exploit new ideas, and established firms begin to rise again after years of slow growth.
It was 10 years ago that Newcastle was first designated a “Science City” by Gordon Brown. At the time I remember a certain amount of scepticism that we really deserved this accolade. But I was proud to become its chair, and proud of its achievements since. Even after leaving my role as CEO of Sage plc, I wanted to retain a commitment to the future economy of the city.
For me, this partnership continues to represents the most important investment in the future of the North East.
From the start, the regional agency One North East, the city council and Newcastle University seized the initiative to use the old brewery wite as a centre-piece of a new endeavour. It’s a site that has lived the economic history of the North East.
Originally the Elswick Colliery, then later the production centre for Newcastle Brown Ale, it’s been Newcastle’s industrial heart for 200 years.
And now, re-emerging as Science Central, it is at the heart of Newcastle’s future in knowledge-based industries.
The ambition to create a new science-based business quarter at the heart of the city was, and remains, a hugely ambitious project.
There were serious hurdles to be overcome. The Government’s decision to abolish One North East meant the two other partners stepping in to retain the initiative, and wrestle the asset from a reluctant Government. The recession hit demand for new business space.
The council and university gave a three-year commitment from 2012, and it took an innovative City Deal negotiated with Government to finally unlock the funding model.
Newcastle University’s £50m commitment to locate leading-edge science and digital expertise on the site has finally established Science Central as the place to be for growing business. It will now begin to take shape, with new pathways and public squares, homes and businesses.
The opening of the Core building this autumn is a major landmark. This July the partnership won funding for new laboratory space and an energy centre.
There’s hard work ahead, but the city council is driving the project forward with commitment and energy.
We will commission the NewcastleGateshead Initiative to deliver a more ambitious international marketing plan for Science Central, bringing business in from around the world.
Science City has never just been about bricks and mortar. It has ensured that world-class research from Newcastle University is channelled to the benefit of the city. The partnership has supported over 755 regional companies to commercialise new ideas, created 43 new companies, and helped over 6,000 schoolchildren across the city to see the wonder of science and what it could mean for their future.
Funding pressures are now extreme for both partners, particularly the city council after several years of Government cuts. So our challenge has been to retain momentum, without calling on scarce public funding. The company structure, which was set up while One North East was still a partner, and which was appropriate at the time, has now served its purpose.
In future, the Science City partners will draw more upon their own resources and expertise, rather than use a separate company to deliver on their behalf.
In future we won’t be able to offer direct support for business, working instead through initiatives like the Business IP Centre based at the City Library. As live projects come to an end, we will have fewer staff, focusing on a small number of experts working flexibly to respond to new opportunities.
As we move into the next stage, we will need to focus on a smaller number of the biggest challenges. That means identifying the needs the city will have to meet in the decades ahead, and applying expertise to place Newcastle at the forefront of technology and innovative business.
We are working with the Government’s Chief Scientist to identify the initiatives which Newcastle will need to back to be a successful city for decades ahead.
We are clear this isn’t science for its own sake. We need to focus on the challenges which affect the future wellbeing of people across the city and beyond: how will we heat our homes, how will technology help us to live well for longer, how will digital technology change the way we live our lives?
And we will invite national Government agencies and private investors to join us, to set up business in Newcastle, to invest in the city, to bring the jobs of the future, and share in our city’s success.
Newcastle has transformed over the last 10 years. But the future transformation will be even greater. I am confident that through innovation, foresight, investment and partnership, we can secure that future, here in Newcastle.