A REGENERATION plan has been drawn up for the commercial heart of South Shields. Yet 50 years ago, a similar plan, that was very much one man’s vision, gave us the town centre we know today.
I’ve been looking at what was proposed, what was achieved, and what is now on the cusp of change.
HE had every confidence in what he and the authority were setting out to achieve.
“There is no doubt that when this is complete the Market Place will be a very fine square in which the townspeople will have considerable pride.
“It will enhance the appearance of the central area and, perhaps, be a ‘crystallisation of the contentment, pride and order of the community.”
Components of the Market redevelopment, said Borough Engineer John Reid, were the building of three new pubs, the pedestrianisation of Dean Street and the leasing of the first and second floors of the new three-storey buildings on the west side of the square to the Ministry of Works.
Fifty years later, two of the pubs – The Commando and The Brigantine – have gone, as have the Ministry offices, Wouldhave House, recently demolished.
The current regeneration plan for South Shields town centre, dubbed South Shields 365, is already erasing some of Reid’s and the old Corporation’s bolder visions which were, in their own way, part of a plan to modernise and transform a town centre that still showed the scars of war.
If it illustrates anything, it’s that most town planning is fundamentally finite, that little is achieved without some controversy and that there is always the risk that today’s visionary concept is tomorrow’s eyesore.
Yet it gave us the town centre we know today – the only town centre that a generation or more of townsfolk have ever known, who don’t remember the toothless gaps left in the Market Place by wartime bombing, or the narrow streets south of King Street, like Keppel Street and Chapter Row, that had become inimical to modern traffic.
In fact the widening of Chapter Row, Keppel Street and Church Way, at the Market, was one of the key proposals, along with a new bridge to replace the old railway embankment that divided Keppel Street in two.
The needs of traffic was one of the aspects fundamental to the improvement plan.
It wasn’t just that it was seen as imperative that the town should make the change-over from trolley buses to motor buses, which would have meant the expensive erection of overhead trolley equipment along new routes; but car usage was also increasing at a significant rate.
Between 1955 and 1960, the number of cars in Shields had doubled, which was higher than the county average.
It was estimated that there would be nearly 17,500 cars in the town by the end of the next decade.
By then, the plan envisaged, 2,000 parking spaces would have to be provided in the town centre.
The movement of traffic through and around the centre was also a consideration. Roundabouts had proved their worth in the town, said John Reid (though one that had been proposed for the junction of King Street and Ocean Road just after the war had never gone ahead). And though it was made difficult at the time by the trolley-bus system, it was envisaged that traffic in King Street would eventually operate one way, from east to west.
Ultimately, however, it was proposed that King Street should become traffic-free, except for probably two hours in the morning for service vehicles.
Said Mr Reid: “If this could be done, it would be possible to make King Street into a modern shopping precinct such as has been proved eminently satisfactory and desirable in Coventry and the new towns.”
Not all that was envisaged in the plan was realised within the 10 years it set itself, but its vision would eventually also give us the Denmark Centre and the library, both built on old Victorian Streets, and the present Post Office – the latter two of which are set to go under the current redevelopment proposal.
John Reid, who had started work as an articled clerk in the Borough Engineer’s department in 1920, retired early on the grounds of ill-health in 1963. At the opening of the Keppel Street bridge two years earlier, Ald Mrs Margaret Sutton said that since Reid had first laid his plans as early as 15 years before, there had been many things to show for his progressive outlook, and that South Shields, as a consequence, had left other areas of Tyneside, such as Newcastle – incredible as that now seems – on the redevelopment back foot.
John Reid – his other achievements in housing and industrial development are another story in themselves – died four years later, aged only 68.
PROPOSALS in the plan that didn’t make it:
* The conversion of the Market Place into a garden layout. Reid said he was prepared to accept, after all, that “no good purpose would be served” by raising such a controversial idea at that time.
* The construction of a new road linking Anderson Street with Ocean Road, opposite Wesley Street. Property owned by Cowie’s motorcycles in Ocean Road was acquired and demolished but the road was never put through.
* The widening of Fowler Street between Keppel Street and the Town Hall, but to provide for the contingency, Anderson Street was to be improved and partly realigned between Catherine Street and Beach Road.
* Four-storey car parks in Coronation Street and Burrow Street, and three-storey ones in North Street and Queen Street. In the end, the only multi-storey car park would be built in Mile End Road.
* The demolition of the Criterion pub on the corner of Fowler Street and Ocean Road.