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How one Northumberland town reversed decline to find a new future; Amble has spent more than 20 years re-inventing itself with a number of award-winning projects.

Byline: Graeme Whitfield

On a sunny day last week, there were few better places to be than on theNorthumberlandcoast.

A gaggle of tourists stood waiting by the harbour for a pleasure cruise to take them puffin spotting, while around the corner other visitors enjoyed the award-winning ice cream parlour or headed for an equally award-garlanded fish restaurant.

But this was not Bamburgh or Seahouses, nor was it Alnmouth or indeed any of the coastal villages that so typify the beauty of the Northumberland coastline.

It wasAmble, a town that many even in the North East would not exactly have top of their list for a destination on a summer day out.

Even some of the town's staunchest defenders will admit that it has generally been known for more negative factors: for its unemployment, and for the decline of its traditional mining and fishing industries.

And yet slowly - with one small project after another, leading onto bigger schemes that have properly transformed the town - Amble has fought back from that decline, building a new industry, tourism, and making that much overused word - regeneration - a reality.

When Amble was named the UK's best coastal community in the Great British High Street Awards a few years ago, some eyebrows were raised.

But not in Amble. Here people have spent more than 20 years turning around both the town itself and perceptions of it, with those two efforts sustaining each other.

"At one point people never looked enviously at what Amble was achieving," I was told last week. "Now they do."

Amble's re-birth has not happened overnight, but hs been a more-than-20-year battle, starting with the formation of the Amble Development Trust in 1994. With grants from local, national and international sources, the trust has instituted a string of projects that have changed the town physically but also the way its residents think about it.

"It was perceived as a grimy industrial town with very few prospects and if you lived here you were either a fisherman or a miner," said development trust director Julia Aston. "The mines closed and there was very little opportunity.

"We wanted to change people's perceptions of what the town was, and by doing that, try to get inward investment, not just from the public but the private sector as well. "

Early projects included the conversion of the former Fourways pub into offices and Northumberland College setting up in the town. The town's main retail area, Queen Street, was improved and a town square created.

With each project, the trust found that success breeds success. A harbour village was created with small retail outlets, the Old Boat House restaurant -- voted Coastal Fish Restaurant of the Year for the last two years -- and the Northumberland seafood centre and hatchery. The trust also turned the site of a former dancehall into Fourways2, providing offices for itself, other public services and small businesses.

But not all of its activities have been about physical buildings, with projects to improve digital skills in the town, support the fishing industry and boost volunteering.

Funding for those project has come from a myriad of sources, with One NorthEast, the Northumberland Strategic Partnership, the Northern Rock Foundation, Alnwick District Council, the European Regional Development Fund, Defra and Northumberland County Council among those that have contributed to the regeneration effort.

But no amount of external funding can subsitute for buy-in from the actual community.

Andy Sim, vice chair of the development trust and an Amble resident from more than 80 years, admits that it was hard to get people enthused at the start of its activities and took some solid achievements before the town's initial apathy was overcome.

"I've seen a gradual challenge in Amble over the last 20 years. Prior to that the town was at a standstill," he said.

"When I was a kid you could go to the street and everybody knew you, you know everyone. Now there's strangers on the street but one of the things I keep asking them is: 'What do you think of Amble?' I'm starting to get the answer now: 'It's a great place, everybody speaks to you.'"

"We have had to reinvent ourselves because we're not going to get mining any more," said Julia. "Fishing industry is reducing, we're not going to get heavy industry on the industrial estate. So we've had to reinvent ourselves, and that was about having a long-term vision.

"It does change the nature of the town. We're lucky in some respects - some of the coastal villages, up to 50% of houses are holiday lets. There's still enough people in Amble living all year round for there still to be a sense of community, and for things to be happening all year round.

"We do find that a lot of younger people have gone away to university. Once you've got a professional qualification you need to go where the jobs are for that.

"But you quite often find they'll come back and commute, so even if they're not working here, they're choosing to live locally. That's the sense of the community. If you've been brought up in a place like this there's something that draws you back."

For Ann Burke, who chairs the Amble Business Club and runs a gift shop on Queen Street, that sense of community has been crucial to the town's turnaround.

"There's always been a sense of community on Queen Street," she said. "I've had a shop there for 30 years and there's always been that.

"This moment in time is probably the most unsettled that the business community has been. The start of the demise of retail on Queen Street was the closure of the two big Co-ops. Various nationals have gone too. Northern Rock went, we lost Barclays -- we're suffering the recession on the high street the same as all other high streets.

"Amble is slow to go with the trend. When you go into a recession, it's a long time happening but it takes us a long time to come out again. Now we've got talk of retail on the outskirts of the town which is unsettling.

"But through it all, the businesses support the town in whatever way they can. Everybody's supported one another and helped one another as well."

"The majority of business in Amble now are independent traders," Julia added. "They feel an affinity with the town and want to be a part of it rather being a big company that's here when there's a profit to be made and the minute there's not a profit to be made, they close shop.

"That was one of the things that helped to win us the coastal communities award - they could see the traditional independent shops and the new type of retail at the harbour village."

The centrepiece of that harbour village is the Northumberland seafood centre and hatchery, where young lobsters are reared and then returned to the sea, both to support the fishing fleet and as a visitor attraction.

That centre is run by Andy Sim, a more recent arrival to Amble.

He said: "Where Amble has done really well is that success breeds success. It's done one thing and on the back of that success it's brought something else in. It's lots of incremental, little things but it's starting to come to a point where all those little initiatives had really made a huge amount of difference to the whole community.

"And not just to the people here but it's really changed the perception of people outside. It's not that long ago that people struggled to sell a house, now you're struggling to find one to buy. There's been a really change-around in perceptions."

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Credit: Amble development trust

Amble harbour village

Credit: Amble development trust

Amble harbour village
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Chronicle (Newscastle upon Tyne, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 20, 2018
Words:1296
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