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HMRC city centre move demands major transport upgrades

Original source (on modern site) | Article images: [1]

Major improvements to bus, Metro, cycling, and walking routes into Newcastle city centre will be needed to cope with an influx of 9,000 Government workers, it has been warned.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) confirmed this week that it will be moving thousands of staff from its bases in Longbenton and Washington to a huge office block to be built on the site of the old Odeon cinema by 2027.

It is hoped that the giant 'Pilgrim's Quarter' office move, the biggest in the city's history, will also give a big boost to the revival of shops, restaurants, and bars.

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But the city's Liberal Democrats have warned that the HMRC relocation will demand significant transport upgrades, at a time of financial crisis and major uncertainty for the North East's bus and rail services.

Tyne and Wear Metro operator Nexus is currently predicting a £20m budget deficit next year, while MPs were warned on Wednesday that North East bus operators could fall off a financial "cliff edge" without new bailout funding from the Government.

The Lib Dems pointed out that thousands of staff who currently drive to the Ministry site in Longbenton will likely be unable to park in the city centre and will need viable alternatives.

The city council opposition party's transport spokesman, Coun Greg Stone, said: "The Pilgrim's Quarter development is very good news in terms of boosting the city centre's economy. Thousands of office workers will generate significant additional demand for city centre retail, bars, and restaurants.

"But it will bring with it a challenge for thousands of workers who will have to change their journeys to work, and it's imperative the council starts work now with HMRC, the Reuben Brothers, and Nexus to design and implement a sustainable travel plan.

"It is extremely unlikely that commuting by car will be feasible for the new HQ, given the lack of parking and existing congestion problems on key routes. But there are very real concerns about the fragility of public transport alternatives, given the current Joint Transport Committee financial crisis. I think there is a real challenge ahead if fears of significant reductions to bus and Metro capacity become a reality in coming years.

"Work needs to start immediately on a sustainable transport plan for the new HQ, including active travel connections crossing the Central Motorway and reliable and accessible public transport alternatives for commuters. We would expect to see a robust plan in place for this with significant financial contributions from HMRC and the site developers. This is going to be a key test of a professed commitment to supporting the regeneration of the city centre."

Taras Properties, a development vehicle acting on behalf of the billionaire Reuben Brothers, is behind the regeneration of Pilgrim Street.

The Odeon site, which currently houses the Stack shipping container venue, was originally earmarked for a £200m leisure, shopping and living complex before council bosses urged the developers to redraw the plans following the devastating impact of the pandemic on Newcastle's existing retail centres like Eldon Square.

How Pilgrim's Quarter will look (Image: Ryder Architecture)

The northern section of Pilgrim Street also is due to be pedestrianised under the city council's plans for a major rejig of city centre bus routes, the key element of which is the closure of Blackett Street.

Nexus said it was already speaking to HMRC staff ahead of the switch from Longbenton to Pilgrim's Quarter, by which time a new £360m Metro fleet should be in service and train frequency increased across the system.

Customer services director Huw Lewis added: "Pilgrim Street Quarter will also be very well served by buses from all over the region and could not be better placed to help encourage commuters to use their cars less and sustainable transport more, boosting passenger numbers.

"What we need now is for Government to recognise that public transport will be vital in getting people to what will be its largest single civil service building in the country, and that Metro and buses must be supported with additional funding beyond March 2022 as we complete our recovery from the pandemic."

Labour councillor Ged Bell, the city council's cabinet member for development, transport and neighbourhoods, said local leaders would "ensure that this office move is sustainable and well-served by public transport, walking and cycling routes".

He added: "As part of the planning process the developer will submit a detailed travel plan looking at the potential impacts on travel patterns and additional improvements or changes will be considered as part of this process.

"While public transport operators are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic on passenger numbers, we believe this development will encourage more people - who may currently travel to work by car - to use public transport."

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