John Harris

Journalist & Author

Is saving Newcastle a mission impossible? | John Harris

Caught between savage cuts and a rising demand for services, Newcastle is at risk of financial collapse. Can its progressive leader Nick Forbes rescue the city from disaster?
Funding crisis leaves Newcastle facing ‘impossible cuts’ and social unrest

Newcastle’s Civic Centre, a grand construction completed in 1967 and formally opened the following year – by King Olav V of Norway, no less – is a monument to civic pride and political ambition. As the headquarters of the city’s council, the building’s huge leather-clad doors, vast chandeliers and abstract art embody not just a strident modernism, but two bigger ideas that seem to have been frozen into every tile and fitting: a determination to pull Newcastle away from long industrial decline, and a belief that city government has the power to do so.

In that sense, though it was conceived before he took office and opened after he had moved on to other things, the civic centre embodies the visions of T Dan Smith, the notorious Labour leader who once gloried in the unofficial title of “Mr Newcastle”. Smith, who ruled the city from 1960 to 1965, was eventually jailed for corruption, and provided the inspiration for Austin Donohue, a central character in the BBC’s epic drama Our Friends in the North. He said he had come to transform a place he thought was “moribund”. “Cities are what men make of them, on land that is given by God,” he said; he dreamed of turning Newcastle into “the Brasilia of the north”.

Forbes was assailed by strangers in the street; once, he was attacked by a man holding a placard with his own face on it

But we’ve got to keep our eyes on a far horizon. Because if we don’t, then we simply wallow in self-pity

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