(Spoiler Alert: Probably Not)
Nearly two years ago, Rishi Sunak created the first Charter City in the UK at Teesside Freeport. But, not content with taking huge swathes of Teesside out of democratic control, things went one step further in January 2023 when Michael Gove announced the creation of Middlesbrough and Hartlepool Development Corporations to “revamp” both town centres. In June 2023, newly elected Middlesbrough Mayor Chris Cooke asked for a three-month cooling-off period before £15mn of publicly-owned assets were handed to the Middlesbrough Development Company (MDC), run by the same people who had been given Teesside Freeport. Ben Houchen, Middlesbrough South MP Simon Clarke, and others accused opponents of opposing job creation. This was a variation on their usual rant about talking Teesside down. They wanted their MDC, and they wanted it now. In the meantime, Houchen had commissioned development consultancy Arup to produce an MDC master-plan, a “vision” for the town’s future, which was published in July 2023.
I have a cunning plan
Let’s review some highlights of the master- plan. The Gresham redevelopment will centre on the former Crown Pub. In February 2023, just after Michael Gove had announced the setting up of the MDC, the council bought the Crown Pub before conducting a structural survey. Interestingly the master-plan doesn’t mention that it may cost millions of pounds to refurbish this building.
Over at Captain Cook Square there’ll be a “leisure” hub, a cluster of gaming centres featuring licenced bars. The former House of Fraser building is set to be transformed into offices, alongside other uses that are yet to be revealed. Middlesbrough Council bought this site, and there were plans to turn it into a glass-covered Victorian indoor market.
The property developers have had their eye on Middlesbrough Bus Station for years, and now comes their chance. The “Town Gateway Redevelopment” is a charter for Ben Houchen’s favourite type of people – property developers. According to the master-plan:
“It has been proposed that the bus station could be ‘decentralised’ into a number of mobility hubs or ‘superstops’ that can support electric and potential hydrogen transport”.
The central idea of Arup’s master-plan is that interest in the town from the private sector will be sparked after the initial projects get underway. Hopefully this will be the case with the town’s high-rise office blocks, all of which have been unoccupied for several years. Jomast Developments Ltd have finally started work on converting Church House into apartments. Jomast has had less luck with Gurney House, which has been empty for 27 years since the abolition of Cleveland County Council in 1996. In 2012, they announced plans to convert this building into a casino. These plans came to nothing. Jomast received £1.25million of taxpayers money to refurbish the Wesley Chapel in Hartlepool. That was courtesy of the cousin of the MDC, the Hartlepool Development Corporation, also owned by Ben Houchen.
Over in Middlehaven “one of the most exciting plans is for an innovative internationally-recognised leisure venue between Middlesbrough College and the Riverside Stadium”. The Gazette’s Emily Craigie writes that “People will be keeping a close eye on whether this is delivered after the £30mn snow centre scheme collapsed”
I love the night life
Will the night-time economy save the day for Middlesbrough town centre? Well, possibly. There are some interesting runners and riders:
Barry Faulkner once wined and dined convicted cocaine dealer Charlie Kray (he’s the one who DIDN’T kill people). We’re still waiting for his Sky Bar in Centre North East though. That would have been great, with its casino, bowling alley, island bar and a well-known restaurant chain. All available to hire for weddings and baby showers. Barry was having more luck with his Empire night club until September last year, when a 19-year old club-goer was stabbed in the back. Cleveland Police triggered a review of the venue’s licence and Middlesbrough Council subsequently withdrew it. After several months of toing and froing, Faulkner decided not to appeal the decision in February 2023. Barry also used to own Faulkner’s Bar Diner, in the Grade II Listed former Barclays Bank at 1 Albert Road.
The Spensley family own this building now. The Spensleys have a storied tradition in the Middlesbrough night-life. An example is in Middlesbrough when they reduced the amount of alcohol in their vodka. In May last year, Stephen Spensley was refused a planning application to build a nightclub and smoking area on the roof of his pub, the afore-mentioned Faulkner’s Bar Diner now known as Spensley’s Emporium. Only a month after this failed, Spensley put in an application to revamp the ground floor with a huge transformation. Just weeks later he abandoned the ground floor revamp and handed the place over to a restaurateur called Jason Jahangiry so that he could create a “food epicentre” called Bloom Global Eaterie with “indulgent plates” of cuisine from as far away as Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
It’s difficult to keep up, although former Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston helped out by giving a free external building refurbishment, via the Middlesbrough High Street Heritage Action Zone fund.
Maybe Danieli Group CEO Neill Winch will help out when he opens STACK, a load of “trendy shipping containers” under the A66 Viaduct, as per this pre-election photo-op with Andy Preston in March 2023. But when Neill gave an update to the Teesside Gazette in June, suddenly all was not well in the world of trendy shipping containers. Two months later, not one trendy shipping container has been stacked, and Andy Preston isn’t available for photo-ops anymore as he is no longer mayor.
Perhaps Craig Harker could contribute to the elegance of Middlesbrough’s Victorian Quarter by opening a branch of the George Pub and Grill on Albert Road. Nazi Imagery? Binge eating? Fat shaming? Domestic Violence? The adverts write themselves. It’s all a good old-fashioned British giggle, although maybe not so much for women cowering in domestic violence shelters hoping that their ex doesn’t track them down on social media.