Regional focus: Newcastle
4 July 2014 | By Richard Simmons
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Its new incarnation as a UK tech start-up hotspot is putting the spotlight on this vibrant city
Newcastle is a city built on the coal industry. The grand civic buildings that speak of its former wealth still stand tall but the industry that made their construction possible has now largely vanished.
But although it has been forced to weather some tough times, Newcastle has not fallen into irreversible decay. If we are going to resort to clichés (and it is hard not to when the city has produced so many pop-culture icons), although much of the surrounding area is struggling, the grim-up-north world of Billy Elliot is no longer the reality in Newcastle.
So what’s driving its success? After all, like many regional cities, the public sector is very important here, and everyone knows the difficulties it has experienced due to the tough economic climate and government cutbacks.
It is among Newcastle’s private sector businesses that optimism is to be found. In particular, technology is a growing sector in the city. Indeed, The Guardian has dubbed its start-up scene “the best-kept secret in tech”, and even Buzzfeed has taken a break from reporting on celebrities that look like cats to report on the city’s startup scene.
Among the numerous fledgling tech companies based in the city are the football-focused MatchChat, music discovery service Playlists.net and fundraising platform Givey. Among the more established tech names present are software giant the Sage Group and Eutechnyx, the company behind a host of racing-themed video games.
Away from tech, manufacturing is still an important sector in Newcastle. There is also a finance scene that hasn’t been crippled by the woes of Northern Rock, and the city has emerged as a popular location to base call centres.
The legal market has historically had room for half a dozen significant commercial firms.
DWF partner Helen Agar, a Newcastle native who has practised in the city since her return from London in 1994, says the city’s location and size makes it a “slow-moving legal market – not as dynamic in terms of change as somewhere like Leeds”.
Nevertheless, the game has changed in the city, as one of the longest-established firms has gone through a period of evolution. Dickinson Dees was Newcastle’s largest and most venerable firm – too large, in fact, for Newcastle to hold it. It expanded into Yorkshire, but that was not enough, and a merger with Southern stalwart Bond Pearce has seen it transform into a national firm.
The creation of the new Bond Dickinson, along with DWF’s arrival on Tyneside through its 2012 merger with Crutes (of which Agar was formerly managing partner), means there are now five national firms on the scene – the others being DAC Beachcroft, Eversheds and Irwin Mitchell.
In terms of regional clout, Bond Dickinson clearly has the advantage. It recruits 20 trainees per year in Newcastle, more than the other four nationals combined.
There are also a number of Newcastle-founded independents with significant commercial offerings, giving students who hope to practise in the region a nice spread of options.
Among the most prominent of these is Ward Hadaway, which recruits about 13 trainees per year. Proving the point about the public sector’s importance to the city, the firm’s clients include the NHS and the Department for Work & Pensions, while private sector clients include local names such as Sage and Newcastle United FC.
Smaller Newcastle firms include Muckle, Watson Burton and Sintons, which have similar practices but their own specialisms.
While Newcastle certainly has a bustling nightlife, its brash Geordie Shore side should not overshadow the softer, more cultured aspects of the city – it has a distinct folk music and poetry tradition, the Baltic art gallery and Sage music venue on the Gateshead side of the Tyne, and the windswept but beautiful countryside along Hadrian’s Wall.
So while many trainees who end up working here are often locals or have an existing connection to the region, “we’ve also got a lot of very happy imports”, says Agar. “When people who have come as the other half of a returning Northerner – or who have just decided to relocate – arrive here, they love it. It’s a very vibrant city with a lot going on.”