Durham has been undergoing a transformation in recent years. Andy Richardson asks developer Allan Cook what the new Milburngate site will bring to the city.
A WISE old Northern Echo reporter used to say that Durham City was “like a big pit village with a posh church in the middle.”
Mind you, he was from over Consett way where the legacies of coal and clergy still linger. Hoy a lump of coal on Derwentside and you’re at risk of knocking out a stained-glass window pane or two.
Nevertheless, his point was spot on. Durham is a strange hybrid of a place. Plonked in the middle of cobbled streets, red brick rows, pubs, and a hit-and miss array of shops is one of Europe’s architectural wonders.
Few would argue that the city has been blighted by some pretty woeful building developments in the thousand or so years since William de St-Calais oversaw the Cathedral’s construction.
The functional but unlovely County Hall and North Road Bus Station are set to be bulldozed in the coming years. Neither will be much mourned.
The brutalist Student Union building Dunelm House has a clutch of aficionados, but its pugnacious presence has always divided opinion. Two years after its opening in the mid-1960s it had already been dubbed as ‘the city’s ugliest building’ and swooned over by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the noted architecture historian.
The old passport office and original Milburngate Shopping Centre lasted a few decades, swept away as part of the ongoing developments taking place along the banks of the Wear.
Scan Durham’s famous skyline today and one of the first things you notice are massive industrial cranes - a sign of progress that invariably thrills developers but jangles the nerves of locals who’ve grown wary of the city’s ‘next big thing.’
Nothing will ever have the lasting appeal of the Castle and Cathedral World Heritage Site but can the latest riverside project finally gives Durham a facelift that enhances its charm rather than another ill-judged jab of Botox?
On the day Business Echo visits Durham the wind almost takes the Milburngate site office door off its hinges. Inside is the imposing figure of Allan Cook, managing director of Arlington Real Estate. Allan’s firm is transforming land on the north bank of the river in partnership with Richardsons. The site is opposite the Freeman’s Reach development, which Arlington and Richardsons have built to widespread acclaim, and the unlovely Walkergate complex of bars and restaurants, which they had no hand in.
Allan has the bearing of man with a few decades of success under his belt but he never sounds arrogant or complacent. He admits to feeling a weight of responsibility that this £150m development, consisting a 92-bed hotel, bars, cinema, eateries and apartments, must deliver something of lasting value to the community and the wider region.
He understands the history of this place and also of its huge potential. He talks about it as “the project of a lifetime.” That’s not a throwaway line. The company is used to handling bigger projects than Milburngate in terms of scale, but not, in Allan’s opinion, of importance.
Under his leadership Arlington has been responsible for the 90-acre DurhamGate development at Spennymoor, transforming the old Black & Decker site into a development which will eventually include more than 620 homes.
By contrast, Milburngate occupies only six acres.
“But that is about a quarter of Durham city centre so in terms of impact this is huge,” says Allan, adding: “I’ve always loved this city. I used to cycle here when I was a lad. I still go for evenings out here once or twice a week. It is a special place.
“The people of Durham are an educated bunch. They are well organised and knowledgeable. Developers need to treat them with the respect they deserve.”
Allan went to university in the 1980s. Students nowadays look enviously at that decade when full grants and no tuition fees meant many undergraduates could spend their downtime Inter Railing through Europe or joining Ban the Bomb demos. That might have been the case for some, but Allan Cook’s father saw things differently. Allan comes from Hartlepool.
“At end of my first year studying a degree in Economics at Manchester I came home to Hartlepool for the summer holidays and my dad said: “you’re not going to be sitting around here for eight weeks, you’re going to get a job,” recalls Allan.
“There was a guy dad used to go to the pub with who was a manager for a small door-to-door insurance company. One of his guys had had a heart attack so they said I could take his round. I’d literally had one day off from university and was on the streets collecting money. After that first day I went and bought myself a decent pair of shoes because it was a bloody long walk.
“I did that for about six weeks but the guy who’d had the heart attack didn’t come back. It got to the point when I was due to go back to uni and they said: ‘any chance you could stay on?’ I didn’t really fancy it. It was nice to make money but I didn’t want to walk around the streets of Hartlepool all my life.”
The prospect of a full-time contract persuaded Allan to defer his second year of studies.
“The plan was work for six months and go travelling for the rest of the year. But one thing led to another and I never went back to Manchester.
“I ended up taking on this guy’s agency.
I was just a kid running the place, managing blokes in their forties. I could add up so the job was easy for me but the best bit was that you got to meet people. There were some real characters on the estates. You’d go to council houses in Hartlepool and they’d have knocked down the internal walls. There’d be a horse in the kitchen, a car in bits on the floor but.. lovely, lovely people.
“Once I was out on a round at Christmas time. It was Friday so I had a load of money, probably £1,000 or more, in my leather bag. This woman always used to invite me in for a cup of tea and it was freezing so I couldn’t wait to go in. Somehow before I went inside I’d taken off my cash bag and left it on a wall. When I realised what I’d done and rushed outside the bag was gone.
“Within an hour I had it back. There’s not many places where that would happen. These people barely had two pennies to rub together but the bag was returned with all the money intact. These were good, honest people.”
Allan gradually worked his way up in the insurance business. By 1989 he started his own business in Hartlepool and was the go-to man for financial and tax advice to small businesses across County Durham and Tees Valley.
One of his clients was budding property magnate Chris Musgrave, later to become one of the region’s leading property magnates - the Wynyard Park development being his most high-profile venture.
Once Alan began to concentrate on property himself he never looked back.
“We are very proud of what we have achieved at DurhamGate,” he says. “It’s now got a real community feel. But Milburngate is another thing entirely. Being just across from the World Heritage site means you approach things with a heightened sense of respect. We are creating a whole new quarter for the city and trying to bring some new things into play.”
He talks excitedly about the “quality” tenants coming to Milburngate - Everyman’s arthouse cinema, a high-spec Premier Inn hotel, a Pitcher and Piano bar as well as spaces for local artisan food outlets. The idea is that this will be a destination for visitors. You can easily see it becoming a first, and perhaps only, port of call for people pouring down the hill from the railway station. Allan is determined to ensure his swanky new site works with the rest of the city rather than sits in splendid isolation.
“When you take a stroll around Durham you soon find that there are a lot of dead ends. We want to help knit things together.”
A new footbridge linking Milburngate with Walkergate is “very much an aspiration”. He’d also like to see Walkergate mirror some of the quality touches that his development promises to deliver.
In theory, this is the kind of joined-up thinking the city has been crying out for. It remains to be seen if Allan’s vision to open up Durham’s riverside and link the city like never before works out.
Now that the site clearance is complete the skeletons of the new buildings will start to rise out of the soil in the next few months. The first units are scheduled to open around spring 2021.
Allan adds: “We wanted to anchor it with some well-known brands but also get high quality independents in here. We don’t want this to look like everywhere else. People don’t come to Durham just to see chain brands. They want it to be a different. This will be different.”