Welcome to Newcastle-Gateshead, England’s regional centre for culture, business and cutting-edge technology. Sound fanciful? Prepare to think again.
Those still harbouring Likely Lad preconceptions of the old industrial north should note that Newcastle has been named by US magazine Newsweek as one of the world’s eight most creative hi-tech cities.
Ken Brown, Newcastle city council’s principal consultant, explains that the title recognises years of transformation from a low to hi-tech business, and should encourage more leading IT companies to set up in the city.
Superior public services, set up to meet tight e-government deadlines, will support those changes.
And Newcastle city council has a modernising agenda that has taken it well ahead of national government targets. It has signed a local public service agreement to bring the 2005 e-government deadlines forward to March 2004. A call centre for environmental services opened two years ago, and digital TV and on-street kiosks have been tested for the past two years.
The council is also investing in customer relationship management with spending driven by the need for a central customer database. Newcastle has implemented and developed about 60 different IT systems over the years.
The database will provide a cross-reference for these IT systems, and pull together various channels to allow the council to provide a better service.
‘We’ll be able to see if an individual is contacting us about council tax, via digital TV. We’ll also be able to see if they’re contacting us about housing repairs through the customer service centre,’ explains Brown.
The commitment to e-government also requires close working relationships with other local authorities.
The most significant, according to Brown, is the North East Regional Smartcard Consortium (NERSC). Newcastle is a lead authority and 26 local authorities in the North East are participating in the project.
These local authorities will create a smartcard for each of the three million citizens in the region. And, allied to existing customer relationship management technology, the councils will create a searchable customer database.
‘This technology will allow us to pull together existing data for all 26 local authorities. In theory, this will let us achieve joined-up working through those collaborative customer databases,’ says Brown.
The initial smartcard rollout is due in the first quarter of 2004. Newcastle and its associate local authorities have already been through a number of pilot exercises.
There are 10,000 cards being tested in the Tyne & Wear region, many used by schoolchildren. The council is also working with others on individual projects.
A joint venture with Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council will allow external users to access council services via the internet and other electronic channels.
‘It’s not a formal partnership,’ explains Brown. ‘But we’ve had a couple of key initiatives with Redcar & Cleveland. We share some hardware platforms for web development and that makes things easier.’
Both councils use the Lotus Notes platform and have purchased the Mandoforms online data capture and processing tool to fast-track online deployment of electronic forms.
Mandoforms automatically tailors questions in each form to the end user’s previous responses and validates the information they provide as they type. Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council and Newcastle City Council have injected £41,000 and £53,300 into the project respectively.
Newcastle plans to use the Mandoforms product on digital TV. Both local authorities will also deploy e-forms on street-side, touch-screen kiosks.
‘Working with Redcar & Cleveland demonstrates that we want to act together and gain economies of scale,’ says Brown. ‘It’s basically a good opportunity to share some tools for development.’
Going for Growth is Newcastle’s 20-year regeneration strategy for the city. The programme aims to create 30,000 more jobs and to build 20,000 new homes by 2020. Only 12.5% of the new homes will be on green field sites, with the remainder on brown field sites. ‘It’s about making the city a better place to live and, in its basic sense, it’s a housing regeneration project,’ explained Brown. ‘But within that we’re trying to exploit better use of IT for citizens. And as part of that, we’re establishing tele-centres in various parts of the city.’
The council is also working with other relevant parties, such as Citizens Online, to increase connectivity in deprived inner city wards. Brown pointed out that educating the general population is vital.
‘The North East has had high unemployment for some time,’ he says. ‘If we’re going to compete in the information economy, we’re going to have to stimulate growth in the use of IT.’
As part of Going for Growth, the council has established two employment sites on the outskirts of the city. One of these, Gosforth’s Newcastle Great Park, is the result of a partnership between Newcastle City Council, the local community and a development consortium of Bryant Homes and Persimmon Homes.
Accounting and software specialist Sage recently started work on a #50m UK headquarters at Newcastle Great Park, and it is estimated about 1,500 employees could be based at the site.
Other companies are planning to move in soon and there are opportunities for start-up organisations, but Brown warns that business growth will need to be supported by housing growth.
- This is an edited extract of an article that first appeared in our sister title, Computing.
- To read more about technology and the public sector go to www.computing.co.uk/ Analysis/1135175
CULTURE, TABS AND BEER
Newcastle-Gateshead’s joint bid to win the title of European Capital of Culture 2008 will be helped by the opening of its new international arts centre, the former Baltic Flour Mill, on the Gateshead bank of the Tyne. The centre, housed in the 1950s grain warehouse, is the largest international venue for contemporary visual arts outside of London, with 10,000 square metres of space. The cost of the conversion came to around #46m with #33m coming from the National Lottery Arts Council. The new centre has four galleries, lecture theatre and cinema, artists’ studios and workshops as well as a shop, riverside cafe and glass rooftop restaurant.
The state-of-art Gateshead Millennium Bridge leads the visitor over the Tyne from Newcastle’s quayside to the arts centre on Gateshead quay joining the cities’ two most famous landmarks of the millennium.