How Sir John Hall went from buying and selling houses in Sunderland to building the Metrocentre

Sir John Hall at his Northumberland retreat.
Sir John Hall at his Northumberland retreat.

Metrocentre mastermind Sir John Hall has told how he went from selling houses in Sunderland to developing Europe's biggest shopping centre.

From humble beginnings in Northumberland, he rose to mastermind the development of the largest shopping centre in Europe and reinvigorate Newcastle United football club.

Now 84, he splits his time between the Wynyard estate and a country home in Lesbury, Northumberland.

He's led a full and eventful life which has seen him go from a pit village to becoming one of the North East's most successful businessmen.

But wherever he has been and whatever he has done, he has always remained in touch with his roots.

Born into a mining family in North Seaton, Ashington, Sir John earned a place at the grammar school in Bedlington in 1944, which he says in a rare interview with our sister paper the Northumberland Gazette, "made a tremendous difference to my life".

He wanted to be a municipal engineer and went for a number of interviews, but was unsuccessful, before his old headteacher told him there was a job as an apprentice mining surveyor at Newbiggin Colliery and he would put in a word if he wanted it.

“I was indignant,” Sir John said. “I was too good for the pits. But my father said to me, ‘Take that job and it will help you get another job’, and I never knew what he meant until years later.

“So I took it and went down the pits for eight years. I had a great time, there was a great camaraderie and the coal board was a wonderful employer.”

He then started to study to become a chartered surveyor so the coal board moved him above ground to work in its estates office in Ashington. A year after starting there, he turned up to work to discover that the land agent had died suddenly and he had to take on his files.

After qualifying, a visit to Killingworth New Town, which was being built by Northumberland County Council at the time, proved very illuminating. “I just learned about development,” Sir John says.

Next up was working as an estate agent in Sunderland to learn about the selling of houses. And it was there that he set up his company, Cameron Hall – Cameron being his wife Mae’s maiden name as "she was as much part of the business as I was".

Despite having no money, he happened to meet a bank manager, Peter Swainson, who had moved to the city around the same time and, having set up an account with him, received a £2,000 loan. Sir John used his services for 32 years until Swainson moved away from the North East and retired.

Houses in Sunderland were bought and modernised before being sold on for a profit, and there followed a move into commercial development, starting with a new Co-op in Gateshead.

The seeds of what became the Metrocentre were sown during Sir John’s trips abroad. “One thing I learned was we don’t have all the answers in property in the UK, so I travelled and travelled, mainly to America. At the time, it was where everything happened in retailing, where all the new ideas were.

“I saw the American malls and I thought that was a great idea for the English winters. I tried to find a site for it, but I was before my time. No local authority was going to let an out-of-town shopping development go ahead.

“Then Mrs Thatcher got into power and in order to stimulate the economy she created Enterprise Zones, based on an American idea, so I knew what they were.”

The aim was to cut taxes and strip back planning rules in areas which were unattractive for development, just like the site in Gateshead where the Metrocentre was built, which Sir John says was ‘a lagoon’ where they used to pump all the slurry from the power station at Dunston.

But having gained an option from the electricity board on 100 acres of land and the Enterprise Zone status being granted, there still remained the tricky problem of persuading retailers to come on board.

“I learned a lesson; if you’ve got anything to sell, tell the world,” says Sir John, so in an era before the internet and social media, he organised a three-day exhibition at Gateshead’s Five Bridges Hotel.

The turning point was when Marks and Spencer agreed to take on 150,000 square feet, and from there all the others followed. Within six months, most of the scheme was let.

* Read Sir John's full interview with the Northumberland Gazette, where he reveals his only regret about the Metrocentre.