A tale of two cities for Sunderland City Council’s chief executive Patrick Melia
Patrick Melia helped restore Whitley Bay’s majestic Spanish City to its former glory, now he has his sights set on an altogether larger city, having swapped Tyneside for Wearside.
A man proud of his regional roots, to Patrick Melia the role of Sunderland City Council chief executive is far more than just a job.
Having served as a director at South Tyneside Council, chief executive at North Tyneside Council and now filling the hotseat in Sunderland, Melia feels personally invested and hugely motivated to improve the areas in which he’s grown up and earned his professional spurs.
Jarrow-born, he has spent five years north of the Tyne and, despite leaving the organisation with a heavy-heart, Melia couldn’t be happier with how his new role at Sunderland City Council has played out over the past ten months.
“I was born and raised in Jarrow and have worked in the public sector all of my working life,” he said.
“I joined South Tyneside Council as a finance assistant straight from school, which today would be called an apprenticeship, and worked my way up over 15 years before going on to hold senior positions [director of finance] at Northumbria Probation and Durham Police Force.”
Having started his career with South Tyneside Council, Melia then returned to the authority as Executive Director of Regeneration and Resources in 2008 and, after five successful years as a director, he was headhunted by North Tyneside Council and joined the authority as its new chief executive in 2013.
“North Tyneside was a great place and the council provided some really good services for residents but it needed to up its game from an economic perspective,” he said.
“Seaside towns and cities across the UK have all had their challenges over the last two decades and North Tyneside – home to Whitley Bay and Tynemouth which were both once fledging tourism destinations – is no different.”
The first job Melia faced was taking on the regeneration of Whitley Bay’s award-winning Spanish City, a landmark which, when it opened its doors back in 1910, was the largest free-standing dome in the UK after London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Sadly, the regional icon no longer boasted the lustre that brought visitors flocking in its heyday.
“The council’s main focus was on getting it restored and open to the public, but I wanted to make sure the focus was not just simply on Spanish City, but Whitley Bay as a whole. The site was home to numerous pubs that had been shut for 20+ years and the promenades had gone years without investment.
“We spent around £40million in total,” Melia said. “This included the buying up and renovating of nearby properties and all of the work surrounding the seafront, and it wasn’t long until this investment started to bear fruit.
“Today, it’s home to a number family-friendly restaurants, a tea room, event spaces and a champagne bar and has encapsulated the hearts of local people.”
More than 50 businesses have now opened up in and around Spanish City since the development re-opened in July last year and it has proven a major boon to the town, stimulating economic growth through increased spending not only from residents, but also visitors from outside of Whitley Bay.
This turnaround, not only of Whitley Bay but of the investor confidence in North Tyneside as a whole, would then act as a catalyst to Melia’s next big challenge, swapping North Tyneside Council for Sunderland City Council.
England’s largest seaside city is undergoing a transformation of its own and over £1billion is set to be invested in the city over the next decade.
“I felt as though I’d done a lot at North Tyneside and Sunderland was such a big draw in terms of not only the challenges it faces, but also in the potential it has,” Melia said.
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Similar to Whitley Bay, Sunderland has suffered a dwindling population and shrinking economy over recent years. However, Melia is confident that, by implementing a similar strategy to the one he executed north of the Tyne and with the team at his disposal, this trend can be reversed over the coming years.
“The opening of the Northern Spire was a real signal by Sunderland City Council that the city is open for business but it’s only the start,” he added.
“We’ve now drawn up a city vision which, when you take into account the Northern Spire, equates to around £1billion being injected into the city over the next decade, it’s a real signal of our intent.
“At the centre of the council’s strategy is the city centre. As a city with a population of close to 300,000 people, it’s staggering that only around 2,500 of them live in the city centre. This is something that needs addressing and has shaped our city masterplan.
“The city centre is silent after 6pm during the week on most nights and it’s because there’s no real community there anymore. Since the closure of the coal mines and the shipyards, most of the jobs have been shipped out to Doxford Park, Rainton and Washington.
“We need more jobs in the city centre and that’s been made very clear. The plan is to double the population in the city centre and to increase the number of people working there. We want to create another 6,000 jobs over the next decade.”
THE BEAM, the first building to be erected on the former Vaux Brewery site, is set to play a huge role in this.
The masterplan also includes the construction of state-of-the art homes overlooking the River Wear, a new footbridge improving connectivity to the Stadium of Light and a whole host of leisure and commercial developments.
Add to that the 7,000 jobs being created by the £400million International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP), STACK at Seaburn – an exciting new development for the seaside that will revive the city’s coast – the new city hall, which will house multiple public sector organisations and housing developments at Ryhope, Seaburn, Chapelgarth, Houghton and Washington, it has been a busy 11 months for Melia and his team, but he is excited about the potential to transform the city long into the future.
“The council has already begun to take control of numerous derelict buildings in the city and will continue to do so over the next few years, creating the right environment for people to invest. Also, by increasing the population of the city centre, you create more demand for services and what you’ll see over time, as office space and housing developments continue apace, is more people spending money in the city centre, leading to more investment in the city.
“When I moved to North Tyneside, they asked me why nobody was investing in Whitley Bay and I told them that we had to give them a reason to. We needed to create the conditions where it was good to invest, it’s like the old adage says, ‘build it and they will come.’
“As a council, we must show that we’re confident in Sunderland, that we want to invest here and that it’s a great place to live and work, and the investment will follow. This is a long-term commitment as there’s a lot to be done, but I have every confidence that we have everything at our disposal to make it a success.”
As well as outlining his plans to make Sunderland a more dynamic and vibrant city, Melia was also keen to stress the council’s plans to make it a healthier city. “We aren’t as healthy as the rest of the North East and the North East isn’t as healthy as the rest of the country, which is something we really need to address,” he said.
“We are launching a new campaign later this year called Step Up Sunderland which is about getting the city moving and exercising. We’ve also vowed to put wellness at the heart of each and every
development we get involved in. By creating better places to work, you create healthier communities and help people live more independent lives.
“I’m a believer that everyone should be able to access the same opportunities and life chances and we have a huge part to play in making this happen.”