Magazine article Management Today

Can Hipsters Save the Northern Powerhouse?

Magazine article Management Today

Can Hipsters Save the Northern Powerhouse?

Article excerpt

Posh pubs, cool cafes, digital start-ups and even a charcuterie restaurant are turning Middlesbrough into the Shoreditch of the north But will a bevy of hip independent businesses be enough to regenerate this deprived, traditional industrial town, asks Jack Torrance.

Beneath a ram's skull at a makeshift bar, a wispy-moustached hipster in a bowler hat and a faux-vintage Adidas T-shirt sups a pint of Blue Moon beer. Around the corner, a couple sip Salvadorian Finca Bosque Lya coffee. Later, up the road, trendy twentysomethings pore over a menu of 20 gins and 12 tonics.

No we're not in Shoreditch or Soho, but the industrial north-eastern town of Middlesbrough, more famous for its petrochemicals and parmos (the local delicacy - breaded chicken, flattened and smothered in bechamel sauce and cheese) than its cocktail bars and single origin espresso. These hip new businesses are the product of an initiative to regenerate the city centre in the hope of offsetting the long-term decline of its traditional industrial base.

Teesside is a region built on steel. In the 1850s, the discovery of iron ore in the nearby Cleveland Hills led to an industrial boom and massive population growth. In its heyday the sprawling steelworks in Redcar employed more than 40,000 people. But in 2015, after years seemingly on the brink, its blast furnace was finally extinguished after SSI failed to find a buyer willing to take the site off its hands.

There remains a substantial chemicals industry on the north bank of the Tees, but long, slow industrial decline has left Middlesbrough with high levels of unemployment and poverty. Half of its council wards are among the 10% most deprived in the country. For all the talk by politicians, the 'Northern Powerhouse' seems yet to make its presence felt here and the town is in real need of a private sector recovery.

That's why the council has been encouraging the proliferation of these hip businesses around Baker and Bedford Streets, a part of the town centre that used to be partially derelict. After starting out with a couple of vintage clothes shops a few years ago, it's now home to three micropubs, a charcuterie restaurant, a sourdough pizzeria, a skateboard shop, a loose-leaf tearoom and a speciality coffee house.

One of the pioneers was The Twisted Lip on Baker Street, a pub clad in Victorian decor that serves a range of unusual real ales and posh pub grub like camembert bonbons and 'gourmet' scotch eggs. 'We're doing really well now,' says landlady Erica Saul. 'It took a while for people to get their head around what was going on. They'd walk in and not recognise anything because on tap there's not your generic Carling and Foster's. But they liked the change and saw we were doing something a bit different.'

Initially the council took a bit of convincing. 'Another drinking area in the centre of town that could be a strain on the resources of police,' she adds. 'It was a big thing for us to convince them that this wasn't going to be a generic place where people would get drunk and have fights and cause a load of chew (Teesside slang for aggro).' But it eventually opened its chequebook, sprucing up the pavements and streetlights, commissioning street art and helping to convert the next road across, Bedford Street, into the shops and restaurants that are there today.

Another local that got in on the action was Dave Beattie, who used to work as a chemical engineer for BOC, one of Teesside's largest private employers. After he quit his job and travelled the world, Beattie decided to start his own business roasting imported coffee beans in Rounton, North Yorkshire. A coffee shop on Bedford Street followed soon after. 'What we wanted to do was showcase the coffee in a way we would like,' he says. 'The only way of doing that was by opening a coffee shop ourselves.' It's not been a walk in the park - 'I've lost three years of my life, I may as well have been in a coma,' he says. …

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