‘Newcastle is a hive of innovation’

City Spotlight | North East
Millennium Bridge spanning the Tyne between Gateshead and Newcastle

A town with a rich industrial history and legacy as a trading destination, Newcastle has evolved to become a hotbed of innovation – and has become a beacon for business in the North East. Business Leader Magazine brought together a panel of regional experts to discuss the strengths of the city, the challenges it is facing and its relationships with other nearby cities.


  • Nigel Emmerson, Head of Newcastle office and Real Estate Partner at WBD
  • Paul Jennings, CEO of North P&I Club
  • Alexander Thompson, ACT Copywriting

What are the strengths of Newcastle from a business perspective?

Emmerson: “Newcastle is a city rich in history, where the industrial revolution commenced and we continue to see this strong legacy in the breadth of businesses based here. Data and technology are strong sectors in the North East region, making it a hotbed of innovation, as is the manufacturing sector which continues to grow from strength-to-strength. Newcastle is a great place to live, work and do business.

“We have a very good light rail transit system with a far reaching network and people here are a pleasure to deal with, thanks to their warm, honest and hardworking temperament. The government’s ‘levelling up agenda’ means that it has to make the North East a priority and support the economic recovery of the region post-COVID-19.”

Jennings: “As a business that grew out of Newcastle’s shipping boom in the 19th century, we have always been proud to have our roots in the North East. Our headquarters remain today, 160 years after our formation, on Newcastle’s Quayside, and we continue to enjoy the benefits that Newcastle has to offer to businesses and organisations based in the area.

“For example, the city’s excellent transport links mean that it is only a few hours away by rail to London or Edinburgh, and Newcastle International Airport offers daily flights to a range of domestic and international destinations. Additionally, major motorways and road routes, such as the A1, nearby A19 and A69 mean that the city is well-connected to all corners of the UK. The city itself is served by the Tyne and Wear Metro, covering most of the region. For our employees and business partners, this makes Newcastle an ideal location for connectivity and commuting time.”

What are its weaknesses?

Emmerson: “Newcastle is a well-connected city thanks to our excellent rail network and airport. However, the HS2 network only reaches as far north as Yorkshire so the North East is losing out when it could reap the benefits of such an ambitious project. The city also has areas of social depravation and poor education which must be addressed by politicians and the business community.”

Jennings: “Newcastle’s major weakness aren’t really anything to do with the city or region itself, but rather a number of perceptions of the area that have proven to be vastly outdated. Those perceptions are stuck in the past, assuming Newcastle to be a heavily industrial city with little to offer modern businesses – when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth, as the people who live and work in the city will tell you.”

How would you describe its relationship with other nearby business destinations, towns and cities?

Emmerson: “As the last city in England, Newcastle has strong ties with the Scottish capital. Edinburgh is only an hour or so away, where we also have a large office. “There is also good natured rivalry between Newcastle and the other northern cities of Leeds, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, Leeds is a hub for the legal sector and Middlesbrough is forging ahead with the re-development of the old steel works site.”

Jennings: “The North East has a strong regional identity, tied together by its close geographical links. When people talk about Newcastle, what they often mean is Newcastle-Gateshead – the wide urban area that straddles the Tyne and dominates the Tyne and Wear region. With other major towns and cities such as Sunderland, Durham and Middlesbrough close by, each area has a unique economy and identity, but the genial Geordie personality means this solid North East identity has become well-known across the UK and the world.”

Thompson: “Historically, our relationship with Sunderland is a funny one. The football rivalry is very real, but when it comes to day-to-day life and working relationships, I’ve never noticed any negativity there. If anything, I’d say we stick together in the North East.

“Looking North, our closest city is Edinburgh. It’s only a 90-minute drive, so it’s a real shame there’s not more synergy. I have clients who, until recently, worked with Scottish businesses. The Scots have cut ties with them because they’re an English business and the want to keep money in Scotland. Northerners have always been close with the Scots, so it was awful to hear they’re putting barriers up.”

What challenges has the city faced recently and how will it overcome them?

Jennings: “Like everywhere else, Newcastle has had to face down the coronavirus pandemic, with its associated economic impact on businesses and communities, this will inevitably result in changes to the city centre and the way people work and live, especially with the rise of home working and the decision of many businesses to keep flexible or blended working arrangements in place, as we will be doing.

“Recognition as a force within the North of the Country has been a challenge for Newcastle as much attention and funding, under initiatives such as Northern Powerhouse, have been disproportionally directed at North West cities and areas.”

What future developments are planned and how will they impact the area?

Emmerson: “There are some fantastic projects happening that will bring investment, jobs and innovation across the city and wider region. The Newcastle Helix, due to be completed over the next couple of years, is a landmark 24-acre hybrid city quarter in the centre of Newcastle, home to many international companies and in particular tech and science businesses. The Quayside conference centre is another great development and something Newcastle was really lacking. We also hope to see the area get a freeport, where normal tax and customs rules do not apply, which would really benefit the business community after the Brexit transition period.”

Jennings: “One of the most impactful planned developments in the region is further development on the banks of the Tyne on the Gateshead Quayside, where a new international conference centre, arena and leisure destination is planned. This site sits at the heart of Newcastle-Gateshead, and is sandwiched between the cultural landmarks: the Sage Gateshead arts centre and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.

“A world-class conference centre is the one asset our region has previously lacked, and this development will lift the city to the next level internationally, and no doubt draw huge events and investments.”

“The city generally has been through a huge period of change and redevelopment, with large sections of the city having been modernised in recent years. For example, the Stephenson Quarter has recently been developed behind Newcastle Central Station, where a new college, hotel and office buildings now stand.

“Further phases of work to add residential space is also due to be delivered in this area. All of this development is helping the city make best use of its space, building on the tremendous industrial heritage of the region to solidify its position as a vibrant, innovative and forward-thinking place to live, work and invest.”

Thompson: “There are huge proposals to build the new Gateshead stadium, ‘Wey-Aye’ entertainment centre and a ‘Jesmond of the West’ bar and restaurant scene, all a stone’s throw from the River Tyne.

“That, along with new flats, will transform the already impressive Quayside. I just hope the flats aren’t sold to foreign investors, and they’re affordable enough for locals to live in.”

Emmerson: “Newcastle is a hive of innovation with many nimble high tech businesses based here. It is therefore unsurprising that technology and life sciences are strong sectors in the city. Newcastle also boasts strong real estate, energy, automotive and manufacturing sectors.”

Jennings: “When people think of the North East, they often think of heavy industry – manufacturing and automotive industry in particular. However, Newcastle has a much more diverse business landscape than many people outside the region realise.

“The professional services sector is particularly strong in the city; alongside our own headquarters on Newcastle’s Quayside are major global names such as KPMG, Grant Thornton, Barclays, Norton Rose Fulbright and Arcadis.

“The city’s world-renowned universities, home to over 40,000 students each year, mean that there is a huge and fast-growing tech sector, and research-driven sectors, like life and health sectors, also play a big role.

“That’s before you get to Newcastle’s hospitality, retail and culture offer, which is also a major employer and what people tend to remember most after a visit to the city.”

Thompson: “Newcastle is an insurance hotspot. Why? Because according to studies we’ve got friendly accents. Basically, we’re good at delivering bad news. Apart from that, our tech scene is really up and coming.

“You’ve got the likes of Newcastle Helix and Proto in Gateshead, which are real hubs of activity at the moment. And let’s not forget the thriving start-up scene in Newcastle. As a start-up myself, I’ve been overwhelmed with support from everywhere in Newcastle. Everyone’s connected and keen to help out – which is the Geordie way!”

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