Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sows ears and silk purses

It’s hard to believe it now, but in the 1970s when I grew up the glamour football team to support was Ipswich town. It happened to be my hometown club, but their support spread far and wide. The team was filled with well-mannered, clean-cut role-models like Paul Mariner, George Burley and Mick Mills. But if you were a bit rebellious and liked your footballers cut a bit rough, there was nobody better than Eric Lazenby Gates; a grizzled and aggressive forward who always managed to look a mess but play with astonishing skill. He was the type of man who even if you dressed him in a Saville Row dinner suit would somehow still look like a tramp.

When I was ten my parents paid for me to go on a summer football course, coached by Ipswich Town players. I found myself in a group coached by Gates. His thick Northeast accent proved too impenetrable for most of the boys, but with Geordies in the family I understood it perfectly. So did my parents who asked me to be moved into another group to get away from the torrent of smutty jokes and filthy language that were part of his coaching style.

Eric Gates disappeared back to the North East with a transfer to Sunderland a few years later and for many years I thought nothing more of him. That was until earlier this week when I found myself outside the house he was brought up in, in the ex colliery town of Ferryhill in county Durham.

Ferryhill has the curse that has befallen many so-called regeneration hot spots. Its renaissance has been put-off or petered-out. The plans were ambitious. In 2006 a ten year plan was announced by the council that would have seen 400 hundred ex miners cottages demolished and hundreds of new homes built in their place. The works started with the flattening of a chunk of houses in streets named after the great industrial men of their day Stephenson, Watt and Faraday.  But then nothing, the money ran out and with the 2008 market crash, investment slipped away. Far from regenerating the area, the talk of demolition caused, those that could, to move away. Today Gates’ house stands among many others empty and forlorn overlooking a few acres of wasteland.  There is no plan B for Ferryhill, or indeed the many other similar areas where ambitious renewal plans have stalled or been shelved half way through. As we await the Comprehensive Spending Review, there seems little prospect that help will come from elsewhere, or that budgets will be replenished to enable stalled regeneration plans to start up again. The age of demolition and rebuild is, for now at least, over.    

But all should not be lost. These houses could be homes again. Creative thinking like the approaches used in Salford or Anfield can remodel terraced housing and make it appealing and attractive to people looking for homes. Regenerating an area doesn’t have to mean flattening it and starting again.  The great news for places like Ferryhill is this approach is cheaper and therefore more financially viable than the plans that have been abandoned. Places can reinvent themselves, just like people. Eric Gates today earns his living travelling around the Northeast as an after dinner speaker , dressed no-doubt in a Saville row dinner suit.

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