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In the first in a series on European capital of culture bids, Nick Triggle looks at Newcastle and Gateshead...
In the first in a series on European capital of culture bids, Nick Triggle looks at Newcastle and Gateshead

Looking back now, it seems easy to identify what the turning point in Tyneside's recent history was. In February 1998, the 20m-high Angel of the North was assembled overlooking the A1. To say Anthony Gormley's steel sculpture, with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, has altered the way people view the area would be an understatement. It has completely overhauled it.

Les Elton, Gateshead BC's chief executive, says: 'The angel was the start of things. It has given people confidence that we can achieve things. There was a lot

of criticism of the council when we first came up with the idea but we stuck to our guns.'

Now, four years on, Tyneside is becoming synonymous with art and culture. But what is most surprising is that much of the change has come from south of the river. Gateshead, top of the local govenment league tables, has stolen the limelight from its big brother, Newcastle. You need only look along the riverside for evidence of the fact.

Standing like a colossus to the east is the£70m Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Its visitor numbers are equally as impressive as its structure: within the first three months of opening this summer 350,000 people passed through the doors.

Next to take its place on the river will be The Sage Gateshead, a£70m music centre funded with the largest ever arts lottery grant outside London. The Norman Foster-designed building will house the highly-regarded Northern Sinfonia orchestra when it opens next year.

But it is not just about arts. Like Barcelona and Berlin before it, Gateshead is using culture as a stepping-stone to regeneration. East Gateshead will be changed beyond all recognition over the next decade with new business already beginning to show an interest in locating there and plans are underway to build more than 2,000 homes.

Regeneration is taken up by Beyond Imagination, Tyneside's bid for European Capital of Culture 2008 title. When bidders were asked to name themes behind bids, Newcastle and Gateshead stressed the importance of sustainable development and the local community. The bid's literature says it wants to see 'greenhouses' as well as galleries, 'street parties' as well as 'plays'.

Noel Rippeth (Lib Dem), Gateshead's opposition leader, says: 'Everything is inter-linked and regeneration is a key part of that process. But we want to see more business and tourism come to the area too.'

However, that is not to say Newcastle should be overlooked altogether. The award-winning Gateshead Millennium Bridge, with its 'winking eye', was officially opened in September last year and is symbolic of the growing partnership between the two. Nearly three years ago, the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, a partnership between the two councils and local business, was set up to direct the£450m 10-year investment programme, which will transform the area and hopefully culminate in winning the capital of culture race.

And it is this teamwork Newcastle City Council leader Tony Flynn (Lab) believes will bring the area success. 'Working side by side with the private sector I believe we will be able to present a very strong case,' he says.

While Gateshead is the driving force behind the bid, Newcastle's input is no less important. The city has a historical prestige which Gateshead, no matter how hard it tries, just cannot match. In the past it was a great provincial centre, with booming, wool, cloth and fishing industries. But it was coal that finally emerged as the region's premier money-spinner, providing jobs for those north and south of the river and putting Tyneside at the heart of Britain's industrial revolution.

Newcastle also boasts its fair share of cultural attractions. The restoration of the Georgian heart of the city has won international acclaim, culminating in Grey Street, a long steep road which leads from the shopping centre towards the Tyne, being voted the best in the country by a recent poll of radio listeners.

The Tyneside double-act has been so successful that Newcastle/Gateshead was named as one of the world's top eight cities by Newsweek magazine in September. Gateshead BC leader Mick Henry (Lab) wants such recognition to lead to more improvements over the next decade. 'I hope in 10 years time people will look back and say we have made a difference. This area has so much potential and it really is a joint effort between all the partners. Even if we are not chosen for 2008 many of these changes will still go-ahead. It would not mean the end of everything.'

Despite what Mr Henry may claim publicly, becoming the capital of culture remains the ultimate goal. The NGI estimates that if Tyneside is chosen it will mean four million more tourists, an injection of£700m into the economy and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. These benefits cannot be sniffed at by an area still suffering from the decline in industry. Employment, at 65.1%, is still one of the lowest in the country, education attainment is poor, although improving, and life expectancy is by far the lowest in England.

As Neil Rami, the NGI's chief executive, says: 'The impact the title could have on Newcastle and Gateshead will be nothing short of phenomenal. Winning should be seen as the catalyst for real, long-lasting change.'

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