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Sunderland Planning; it's time we hit Refresh

Photo: Sunset over The River Wear
Like everyone else I know who was born and raised in Sunderland, I love our city, its wonderful people, its unique history and the countless beautiful features that make this such a special and life-affirming place to live. It is precisely my love of this city that is now causing me another, more troubling feeling I believe is shared by many others who live here and, like me, are increasingly concerned by what is (or more to the point is not) happening in an area of great importance for our future - namely, the council's much-publicised plans to revitalise the city centre.

Let's start with an honest recognition of the mountain we have to climb. Wishful thinking, empty hype about the supposedly huge strides forward already made, and forthright denial about the scale of the task will, in my opinion, do nothing but damage our prospects of achieving what we want. First, we need a truthful "warts 'n all" diagnosis of Sunderland's current state of health and, for present purposes, I think the following will do: "not great, but with obvious potential for transformational improvement so long as weaknesses are honestly recognised and properly addressed.
Photo: Artist Impression of the Stage 1 - Vaux Site
Let's look more closely at some of these weaknesses, starting with lack of vision. By this I mean a clear vision we can all share of what the revitalised city centre will look like, inspired by what is special about Sunderland and showing how the city's unique character lies at the heart of our vision for its future. Not a series of bland cityscapes with artists' impressions of shoppers shopping in some isolated patch of nowhere-in-particular, but a dynamic image of Sunderland's unique and distinctive features woven into the living fabric of the city we plan to transform. Yes, we must of course apply proven success factors, like devising a coherent plan accommodating key retail and leisure facilities, with powerful incentives for incoming brands, businesses and investors; but no, we are not trying to make Sunderland look like Oxford Street, or Newcastle (wonderful as they are!): we have our own past and identity and this must be our inspiration and the defining feature of our vision of the city's future.
Banks of the River Wear: not an artist's impression
Let's focus on one currently overlooked feature of supreme importance: the River Wear. Like Venice, Amsterdam, London and any great river-based city, we have to show how we will bring the river and the entire waterfront back to life, integrating it as a vibrant part of the new city - with boats, barges, restaurants and the like bringing life to what is still sadly more reminiscent of one of the bleak industrial scenes so hauntingly depicted by one of our more celebrated local artists, L.S. Lowry. Highlighting distinctive cultural landmarks, such as our museums, concert halls, theatres, new statues, parks, walkways and the like, we need a sharper visual understanding of how the revitalised Wear will look and how it will function as an integral part of the city as a whole. Doing this sooner rather than later will also ensure we capitalise on the opportunities represented by Sunderland's nomination as City of Culture 2020.
Authentic local icon: River Wear Bridge
The next weakness to address is planning, which needs to be better integrated, more open and more consultative. Better integration means holistic co-ordination covering, not just the city centre, but also the immediate environs i.e. the arteries feeding life-blood into the new city, with a clear layout showing key landmarks, such as malls, major retail outlets, leisure & cultural facilities plus a traffic & pedestrian scheme showing how access will be gained, smooth traffic ensured for private and public transport as well as pedestrians, and the supporting parking and public facilities.
Long standing image of The Vaux Site
A further point that needs to be openly aired is the perception that the entire exercise is intended to benefit only a tiny number of well-placed insiders, rather than the community as a whole. Stated bluntly, the real stakeholders are seen as a handful at the topmost level of the council and, from the private sector, a correspondingly tiny number with close personal, political and business connections to senior members of the council. It should be stressed that this perception may be misplaced. However, to deny that it is widespread flies in the face of reality and we need to communicate honest commitment to the principle of collaboration between the public and private sectors, with a genuine intention to engage the local business community.

Let's openly ask why - formed as "a joint venture between Carillion and Sunderland City Council" - Siglion was given such sweeping and seemingly exclusive responsibilities "to carry out Sunderland's largest ever regeneration project", including "providing development, asset and fund management", also covering "the Vaux site, Seaburn, Chapelgarth, Farringdon Row and Numbers Garth," making it the owner [in its own words] of "an impressive investment portfolio of 100 industrial, retail and office properties with around 700 tenancies." Impressive, indeed, for the fortunate shareholders - but what message does this send to others in the local business community, potential new investors and the rest of us? "If you're from Sunderland we'd like you to be part of it!" say Siglion. But what initiatives have been undertaken to consult local people, to incentivise local businesses and attract major investors - with opportunity explained and new investment encouraged by the prospect of ownership + private profit? It is fundamental to success that potential participants should feel sure this is an even playing field and the rules of the game are honest, open and fair.
Sunderland - the scale of opportunity is honestly breathtaking
Despite sporadic reports of BID initiatives aimed at involving local traders, there is no evidence to suggest meaningful consultation, and the stark fact is an overwhelming majority of local traders feel excluded from involvement in shaping the city's future. Yet they are the engine-room, with invaluable understanding of how it will work best, and they need to feel confident this is a real opportunity for them to join in shaping the city's future and, as equity partners, reap the profits they will help to create. Encouraging as some success stories are, notably the green light (at last!) for the new Vaux Brewery, there is far too little tangible evidence to suggest a rolling programme of revitalisation that will include Sunderland's wider business community, including small and medium size business and local traders.
Indeed, Siglion's publicity seems focused on promoting its status as proprietor of the entire project, rather than empowering local business. Under the heading "Things you didn't know about Sunderland," their website says: "£1.2 billion has been invested or is earmarked for investment in the city by 2024." The correct assumption this is not widely known is a worrying indication of what they see as the purpose of communications - not to mention what it says of their transparency standards. Clearly intended to wow those of us for whom this does, indeed, sound a colossal sum, the statement raises appreciably more questions than it provides answers. Where is this money coming from? Where, specifically, is it being invested? How much is past, and how much is future investment? Is Siglion handling the entire portfolio? As a JV in which the local community is key stakeholder, what is being done to ensure the community has accurate and up-to-date information on these vitally important financial matters?

Initiative, Fanzone (Park Lane) - but where are the fans?
Success, of course, begets success - and success stories like the new Sports FanZone near Park Lane need to be communicated clearly and boldly, with the message unmistakably embedded: "There's plenty more of where that came from round here - be part of revitalizing Sunderland: here's how." Flagships have to be seen, not hidden. And if big money really is being invested into Sunderland the specifics should be shared openly, rather than bundled into a bullet point aimed at promoting Siglion.
Retail Highstreet & The Bridges Shopping Centre: room for improvement
Although there are encouraging reports of plans for new retail outlets and restaurants, the information channels are hearsay and rumour, rather than authoritative announcements from suitable sources telling us more about which brands are interested and where they intend to locate. A dependable information feed on such matters is vital for building momentum.

There have also been rumours of a new NEXT store opening on the site of the old Leisure Centre, with no indication of prior consultation or consideration of the impact this will have on the wider retail environment. Essential to good planning must be the question: is this a one-off benefit for a single brand or a building block intended to fit neatly into the bigger structure planned around it? What, if anything, has been done to stimulate local retail by considering a modern mall, attracting major players like Westfield? In its present form the Bridges Mall is, frankly, a dreadful misuse of a prime site: suffering from poor layout, frumpy atmosphere and constant "churn" of the kind of brands we need to be putting down long-term roots in Sunderland. Another indication of disjointed planning is the Superdry store: a fabulous modern brand and one of the UK's most popular clothing stores, yet in Sunderland (until driven away by under-performance) it has to make do with a classic no-no for such a prestige brand, being positioned next to Tesco Metro.
Photo: Liverpool Merseyside Maritime Museum - 750,000 visitors in 2016
Ever prominent in the Council's showcasing of local development is the still incomplete New Wear Crossing connecting Castletown and Pallion: too big a subject to go into here, the big unanswered question here has to be how this will fit in with and complement plans to revitalise the inner city.

There are also several new initiatives we might usefully consider, each with the advantage of being low-budget to explore, yet potentially carrying a tremendous publicity yield, hugely strengthening Sunderland's appeal as a cultural and leisure destination, and significantly increasing local jobs and revenues.

First - and let it be clear this is at present no more than a raw idea, albeit one that is obviously viable - we should explore the possibility of basing a new national Maritime Museum in Sunderland. With our first shipyard dating back to the early 14th century, and within living memory having been hailed as "the greatest ship-building town in the world", Sunderland is a pre-eminently suitable location for such a museum. Consider what the Merseyside Maritime Museum has done for Liverpool: in the first 6 months of 2016 it attracted just over 350,000 visitors, was the 2nd most popular of Liverpool's 7 National Museums, with 2% less visitors than its most popular museum attraction: the Museum of Liverpool. 63% of visitors were from outside Liverpool City Region, 98% said their visit was "good or very good", and 98% said they would recommend to a friend.In Sunderland the last people who truly appreciated our ship-building value were the Luftwaffe - and it's time we put that right! Why not set the wheels in motion by contacting the Minister for Culture and the high-ups at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich? If we want to contend we have to get pro-active and demonstrate that we - I mean the entire local community - have a great heritage we are proud of, and we are passionate about incorporating this as a defining feature of our revitalised city.
The Powerhouse of Nissan UK - Nissan Motor Manufacturing, Sunderland
Second - and this is particularly topical in light of the recent good news our increasingly close ties with our international partners at Nissan will continue for at least another generation – why not explore the possibility of twinning with one of the great port cities of Japan? Using this to increment goodwill and better our understanding of Japanese culture, not just for our city but also our country? Again, low cost to explore but potentially high yield if it comes off, and raising our profile as a tourist destination. Similarly, of all the multiple channels available to us thanks to cultural and business links we could forge through famous Mackems, we should explore similar initiatives elsewhere, sensibly prioritising ones with best potential for local investment.

Third - what more can we do to attract more brands, businesses, investors, artists, musicians, tourists and visitors to the city? What events, campaigns, initiatives and other promotional activities can we use to attract the attention and resources we need? At present what meaningful incentives are there for the people we want to attract as our welcome guests and future business partners? Thinking we can get this over with a "contact us on info@" message will do nothing but block progress, downgrade our prospects and, at worst, bury the opportunity altogether. The message must go out loud and clear "Welcome to Sunderland: benefits of doing business here include …" e.g. in the case of retail, 0% business rates for first year of trading + 2 years of 50% business rate discount, expert help with finding the right location, free parking for full-time staff working in the city centre, and other early-bird benefits that will grab the attention of the partners we wish to recruit.

With the wind now blowing firmly in our sails the time has come to steer Sunderland safely out of the doldrums and back into the open seas, where we can again prosper as a great city recognised as a major centre of trade and culture. Not as a local wannabe living in the shadow of successful neighbours like Newcastle and Gateshead, but with confidence in our future and determined to base our planning on what will always and unmistakably be the quirky, beautiful and magnificently unique city we know and love.

In collaboration with our wonderful partners at Nissan and thanks to our brilliant local workforce, we have managed to boost national confidence at a critical time for our economy, turning local opportunity to major national advantage. We now need to get this momentum driving the city's faltering revitalisation programme. In other words, we have to show the world we mean business and to achieve this we have to highlight planning and hit refresh.
Sarah Lofthouse