Sometimes it takes bad news to encourage a call to action. And so it was last year when South Tyneside was placed in the bottom ten places in the country for culture in the RSA’s Heritage Index.
Those of us who live in the Borough or are regular visitors to the area simply couldn’t comprehend the news. How could the birthplace of the Venerable Bede - and the literary legacy he left us - be highlighted as an area of cultural deprivation? From South Tyneside’s award-winning parks to its stunning coastline and Roman sites to areas of outstanding natural beauty, we found the news very hard to believe.
However, since the announcement hit the headlines last year, we have done a great deal to correct those misconceptions and make our historic and cultural assets more visible to the wider world. We now recognise that in some ways, we had not done enough to shout about our heritage and culture. We know people come back to South Tyneside year on year because they recognise the superb offer, but that does not necessarily mean that we were doing enough to reach out to new visitor markets.
And so we embarked on a venture to do more to increase the visibility of our assets. In a bid to improve our Heritage Index score, our current 21 blue plaques have been listed on the Openplaque website. Furthermore, councillors have established a commemorative blue plaques scheme with the aim of recognising significant people and places which reflect the historical value to the Borough. As part of this, we are encouraging local people and visitors to get in touch with us to provide their suggestions on who should be nominated for a blue plaque. We are expecting a rush of nominations. From film director Sir Ridley Scott to Brendan Foster who masterminded the Great North Run, South Tyneside has spawned people who have excelled in their field and helped to put the Borough on the national and international map. It is only right that we honour them in this way and remind both local people and visitors of our wonderful heritage.
As a local authority, we are not only proud of our heritage, we work consistently to protect and expand it. Our latest cultural offering, The Word, National Centre for the Written Word, recently opened its doors to great acclaim. Blending a new cultural venue with exhibition space and a digital media centre, The Word pays homage to the written word in all its different forms. Housed in a landmark building, this new cultural institution will host a rolling programme of high profile exhibitions, events and writers in residence to celebrate the written word in all its forms to educate, inspire and entertain. So it gives us great pleasure to announce that this year we’ve jumped 71 places in this year’s Index.
Earlier this year we also secured initial support for £2.45 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and Big Lottery Fund to restore one of our parks. This support, as well as a development grant of £194,000, means that South Tyneside Council and the Friends of the Park group can work together to bring forward detailed plans for North Marine Park which will seek to restore the park back to its Victorian splendour for future generations to enjoy. Key elements of the project include creating better links between the park and the newly transformed Littlehaven Promenade and Seawall as well as improving the area round the Lawe Top which, as the park’s highest point, acts a viewing platform for the stunning coastline and harbour. The plans also include restoring original features such as the grotto and the promenade staircase as well as introducing new features such as a play area and a café. Improvements to the bowling area are also planned as well as special arts installations. Our plans include securing Green Flag Heritage Status for this project.
The opening of Jarrow Hall, on the site of the former Bede’s World, by Groundwork South Tyneside and Newcastle, is another feather in our cultural cap. This superb venue allows us to celebrate the Borough’s rich Anglo Saxon history and the life of one of the country’s greatest scholars, the Venerable Bede. We have worked with Groundwork to secure a sustainable future for this site and the important story it tells.
Cultural life is at the heart of our strategy to enhance the wellbeing and prosperity of the Borough and improve the lives of our residents, also given a nod in yesterday’s Autumn Statement. By using culture as a catalyst, we are delivering real change in South Tyneside. Not only is culture helping to regenerate our Borough and safeguard the 3,500 jobs reliant on tourism, we are also showing how it can make a tangible difference to people’s lives. By making the most of our heritage and increasing the visibility of our assets, we aim to build on the six million visitors we currently attract to our area every year and become the North East’s premier coastal resort.
Iain Malcolm is Leader of South Tyneside Council
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