One Hundred and Thirty Million Pounds of Earth: Investigating land ownership in Newcastle upon Tyne

This post discusses a research project and accompanying exhibition examining land ownership and new purpose built student accommodation in Newcastle upon Tyne. Written by Julia Heslop.

The Shieldfield estate (Photo credit: Julia Heslop)

Shieldfield is an estate on the outskirts of Newcastle city centre which has seen increasing development pressures, with a 467 per cent increase in student housing numbers between 2011 and 2015 which has affected the character and social mix of the area. After years of fighting developments residents feel distant from institutions of power, ignored and disempowered, as one resident explains, ‘We feel as if we’ve been left behind. I’m passionate about Shieldfield […] I’ve always lived here and I’ve seen all the changes. But it’s so sad, the decline in the community, and the spirit’s gone. We’ve been promised different things so many times and we’ve been let down’. Residents are increasingly worried about the long term future of the area, fearing that the close proximity of the estate to the city centre will create continuing development pressures which could displace existing residents.     

New student accommodation in Shieldfield (Photo credit: Julia Heslop)

The artwork and research project One Hundred and Thirty Million Pounds of Earth, on display at Shieldfield Art Works, was made in response to the dramatic rise in new developments. A collaboration between community group Dwellbeing and Newcastle University Planning students, the work traces the value and ownership of the new student residences. The work tells a story of a neighbourhood caught in the middle of a global land and development market. After the 2008 financial crisis, student housing was seen as a ‘sure profit’ for developers and investors alike, and this created a boom in the student accommodation market which has been replicated around the UK. For some residents, the estate of Shieldfield has become an island, leaving people feeling ‘hemmed in’ by new developments that are physically and socially disconnected from the wider neighbourhood.

One Hundred and Thirty Million Pounds of Earth, Shieldfield Art Works (Photo credit: Matthew Pickering)
One Hundred and Thirty Million Pounds of Earth, Shieldfield Art Works (Photo credit: Julia Heslop)

The land titles for all twenty student accommodation blocks were bought, tracing the owner, their location, how much they paid for the land and the date of purchase. This was mapped and then each of the new student accommodation buildings was recreated for the exhibition using handmade bricks, made by residents, local children and artists. The size of each model corresponds to the amount paid for the land, with each brick worth £250,000. But land values vary hugely, depending on the market conditions at the time it was bought. For example the student accommodation block Camden Court (owned by BAE Systems Pension Funds) was bought for more than £23 million in 2011, whilst in comparison the building The Shield (owned by Property GP1 Ltd, registered in Guernsey), was purchased for a mere £1 million in 2015. This money, totalling over £130 million, ‘invested’ into the area to build the new developments is international in nature, over 50% of it lying offshore, and has little relationship to the local or regional economy. As a result the work lays bare the vast sums of money flowing through the neighbourhood – money that barely touches the estate.

Map showing every student accommodation block in Shieldfield, noting the owner, location, price paid for the land and date of purchase. The estate is in the centre of this map.

One Hundred and Thirty Million Pounds of Earth highlights the uneven value of land transactions in the area and prompts questions about the role of international capital in local development: who decides how the value of land is calculated? Who has a say in urban planning and development processes? What is the true value of the land beneath our feet?

This work was made as part of Dwellbeing, a group of people that live or work in Shieldfield who have come together in response to the impacts of rapid urban development in the neighbourhood. Dwellbeing organises conversations, events, art activities, newsletters and trips to build knowledge about the issues that affect the local area.

Concept: Julia Heslop

Design: Julia Heslop and Hannah Marsden

Data: Josh Chambers, James Maloney and Hannah Swainston

Build and installation: Adam, Albie, Alisha, Alison, Allie, Ava, Bobby, Callum, Calum, Casey, Cheryl, David, Emily F, Emily P, Haley, Hannah M, Hannah P, Helen, Isabel, Jill, John, Julia, Mikey, Minnie, Molly, Nick, Shannon, Sharon, Sophie, Sue, Val, and Wendy.

Land for What? London – Capturing the value of land for the common good

Increases in land value can be divisive as owners benefit while everyone else pays the cost.

Communities create the value of land yet do not benefit from it. In this session we will collaboratively explore three ways to address this problem by looking at Land Value Tax, ‘Planning Gain’ taxes and rethinking ownership.

Molly Scott Cato (MEP, Green Party)
Duncan McCann (nef)
Duncan Bowie (University of Westminster)