“Shall we meet online or in real life?”

This increasingly common question speaks volumes. No matter how good your internet connection or webcam is, it’s still not the same. Maybe The Matrix has raised our expectations. Workers in the cultural sector have again shown their creativity and resilience. Online shows, workshops, musical performances from bedrooms. Innovative styles like the self-selecting ’front row’ of an online comedy gig. It gives the comedian real interaction with at least some of the audience. There are also advantages in inclusivity for people who find it difficult physically getting to events. They might live out in the sticks, or have limited mobility.

Some forms of entertainment translate better than others. The connection with the crowd isn’t there online. Singing The Blaydon Races or Wise Men Say in front of your living room telly is nothing like adding your voice to thousands of fellow fans. Part of the human condition is enjoying being together. Well, some of the time. Last week I had a meeting with Minister Caroline Dinenage and Lord Neil Mendoza to discuss cultural recovery and levelling up. The Cultural Levelling Up Fund has given a lifeline to some of our local venues like Alphabetti, Liberdaje, and the Tyne Theatre and Opera House. But there is a long way to go. It was great to hear Lord Mendoza say he’d take up the challenge to show culture can contribute to levelling up. I’ll continue to push.

Before becoming Mayor I was Councillor for Monument ward which covers Newcastle City Centre. I’d often meet with businesses to discuss the future of the City Centre. The trend of working from home and shopping online was already happening. Like King Canute (or is it Cnut – need to be careful with that spelling!), we can’t hold back the tide. The trickle has become a torrent. Next week I’m meeting Minister Paul Scully about re-opening cities. The government want to discuss how to get people back into offices and shops. We need to be thinking further ahead than that. Shops and office space are going to change. We’ve already seen some big names from the high street disappear. Reimagining the future of Britain’s city centres is now urgent.

In Newcastle we have two universities, a football stadium and a hospital to build a vision around. And people will always want a nexus of pubs, bars and clubs to socialise in. The transport network is focused on city centres, so they’re easy to reach. Cultural venues are well placed there to take advantage of the transport links and plug into the social scene. How should we reimagine our city centre? A focus on public spaces so people can gather in a pleasant environment has to be part of it. More green spaces that show off the beautiful architecture. Flexible meeting rooms for when ‘working-from-homers’ need to meet in person. Spaces for community groups to convene.

My kids love meeting their mates to play games. I’d be interested in hearing your ideas, so do get in touch via the North of Tyne website.

Our Citizen’s Assembly starts next week.

We’ve been busy making sure all the participants have the kit and skills they need to join in. If they don’t have a computer, we’re lending them a laptop. We’ve worked hard to make sure they come from a diverse range of backgrounds, ages, geographies and also different views on climate change. One gentleman has been isolating all throughout the pandemic and was thrilled when we got the Zoom connection up and running. He’d never used Zoom before.

“I can see you!” He was blown away that we wanted to hear his opinion and is excited about taking part.Many other participants have said how chuffed they are that we’re asking their opinion, saying they’ve never been asked before.

That is the power of connection. Whether in the physical realm or the virtual. Digital may not be real life, but it can make a real difference. We’ve all experienced upheavals and changing patterns of activity over the past year. We need to identify the good bits we want to keep and embrace them

Published Originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.2.21