This time next year, however, the hill may prove more of a distraction. At its modest summit, where caterpillars still chew through dandelions and bees bump into tussocky flowers, a new structure will stand. Not some cheery council signpost, announcing Gateshead's twinned-city ties to somewhere warmer, nor some polite and low-slung welcome to the region, freshly painted with funds from Europe, but a vast and dominating statue, 65ft high by 169ft wide, dwarfing the towerblocks with its thick steel shadow. The Angel of the North is to be a modern rarity: a monumental piece of public art - the grandest conceived for years, perhaps decades - designed by our most praised contemporary sculptor, Antony Gormley, winner of the 1994 Turner Prize, and erected by local politicians purely for the purpose of glorifying their locality. As the wind whips in off the North Sea, the Angel's hundred welded tons of curves and ribs will not corrode, but stand, reddening and proud, for at least a century. Ninety thousand drivers will see the Angel daily. Their commutes and shopping trips and sales odysseys will never be the same again.
That is the plan. Construction of the Angel by sections - its Easter Island head, its airliner-width wings - is not actually expected to begin in local shipyards until the end of the year. Its foundation piles will be driven 60ft into the hill in January; its first copper-alloyed components will not be hauled up from the Tyne or the Tees until March at the earliest. The festival to mark completion is scheduled for "July", a detail Gateshead council officers divulge with less than their usual proud certainty.
In the meantime, other opinions have formed and hardened. The houses round the hill are mostly occupied by pensioners, retired to the edge of town to garden with long-roughened hands. In the closest, Ron Mitchell waters his nasturtiums; on winter afternoons, the Angel will throw a stripe of shade across his house. "Drivers don't need a bloody landmark," he says, his vowels as thick as his elbows. "They're never going to stop in Gateshead." Further down the road into town, Mr Empson, who was a storeman until he was sacked at 60, will have a clear view of the back of the Angel's head. "It's a waste of money," he says, almost before being asked. "It reminds me of a German Messerschmitt."
You could mock his paranoia. But since February 1994, when Antony Gormley, graduate of Ampleforth and Cambridge and associate of old-Etonian art dealer Jay Jopling, was first asked to draw up an angel for an unused sliver of council land at Gateshead's southern approaches, the views of Mr Mitchell and Mr Empson have run through the newspapers and pubs and bus queues of the town like a slow fire. The flare-ups have been spectacular: front-page links to Nazi monuments, petitions signed by thousands in a few afternoons, shouting matches in the council chamber about distracted drivers piling up dead on the A1. The heat of all this, and the council's determination to extinguish it - in May it gave Gormley's plans final approval - has become more than a local matter.
The Angel of the North, or (to some) The Angel of Death, has drawn to its aid Virginia Bottomley, the Arts Council and pounds 584,000 from the National Lottery. Against it stands a large proportion, probably a majority, of the people who live in the town it is supposed to symbolise. Both sides ask questions about public art and its role and responsibilities that could be asked anywhere in the country: What is democratic art? How do you consult people about it? Can you balance present against future taste? Will "culture" help revive an area where the traditional economy has faded? And, finally, is this particular sculpture any good?
Gateshead is a good place to have these arguments. Passed through, as people have done since its Roman occupation, for larger, more metropolitan Newcastle, it can seem a mere concreted-over borough of everybody's favourite city across the Tyne. Its most prominent buildings are an athletics stadium, a shopping centre and a multi-storey car park. Newcastle has always controlled the river; Gateshead got coal mines instead, in 1344, and 600 years of overcrowding and reliance on fickle seams and commodity prices. In the 18th century it was popularly known as "the dirty lane leading to Newcastle". On his English Journey in 1934 JB Priestley found it "a huge dingy dormitory", money and talent still walking away north over the bridges.
When Gateshead did finally grow, from the 1950s on, into a big town of steel and heavy industries and 200,000 people, it did not do so gracefully. Its centre is mostly grey slabs, stacked on top of each other as the land tilts towards Newcastle. Its suburbs march south along the road to Durham: first inner- city terraces, some boarded up in despairing clots, then comfortable but inelegant redbricks with Volvos gleaming outside. Mid-afternoon, there are plenty of men about, with wrinkly tans from work outdoors - or no work at all: one in seven is unemployed, officially.
Despite all this, though, the town is oddly trim. The streets are far cleaner than Hackney's; the municipal rosebeds are tended and blooming as any in Hove or Harrogate. Public transport works. More unexpectedly still, in the small spaces between the roads and the carparks, art peeks out. Outside the Iceland superstore, a black figure squats massively on the pavement. Part cartoon punk, part fox and part tortoise, Mike Winstone's Sports Day is 10 years old and missing just the odd tile from its base. Mums look at it as they heft their bags of frozen food; dads let their sons scale it; tourists just click away. There is more. Down the hill by the Tyne, a whole park of sculpture fights for light among trees: an egg-like steel Cone by Andy Goldsworthy, the proud ball and arch of Colin Rose's Rolling Moon, Sally Matthews' skeletal scrap-metal goats, munching among the nettles.
The roots of the Angel row can be traced back to these works. In 1986, years before the Angel was even a sketch in Gormley's studio, Gateshead's Labour council started trying to change the town - attract business, tourism, new thought - with art. In a pioneering scheme called "Art in Public Places" it has commissioned and distributed two dozen sculptures and murals to streets, parks, Metro stations and hospitals. It holds art festivals and activity days in schools and old people's homes. It lends money to local businesses if they sponsor exhibits or donate materials. It publicises its efforts in finely typeset brochures.
Most impressive of all, Gateshead hardly pays for anything. "Around pounds 50,000 from local taxpayers in 10 years," says Sid Henderson, head of the council's arts committee. "We're very careful of money in Gateshead." He is sitting in an unused office in the vast red hacienda of the civic centre; in every other way, though, he is not quite the expected provincial arts tsar. Henderson is 65, with milk-bottle glasses and the kind of rising Geordie intonation that impresses Southerners. He talks about art with an old-fashioned, socialist populism: "We're short of galleries, so the idea of public art was thrust upon us ... One of the key issues is broadening minds, making people think. If I go to the high street in Bognor Regis or Gateshead it's the same symbols, like McDonald's ... We need to break that up."
Not every Gateshead politician, however, shares his enthusiasm. For as long as Henderson has been putting up sculptures, an opposition Liberal councillor called Kathy King has been trying to have them torn them down. She is about his age, tiny, and quite relentless: "Have you seen the fat man next to Iceland? People ask, 'Eh? What's that?' People gaze at it in total disbelief." She smiles - a grandmother in RayBan's - and speeds on: "We're not going to combat the pigeon- whippet image if we're thought of as putting things up just to change that image. It's like drinking your tea with your little finger out."
But King's crusade has a flaw: she is in opposition. She and her Liberal Democrat allies have only 15 council seats between them in Gateshead; Labour has 51 (there are no Conservatives), united behind Henderson's sculpture projects. In 1990 he thought of his grandest yet: "I was in Yugoslavia on holiday just before the breakout of war, and there was this sculpture on a hillside commemorating the navy called Seagull's Wings. It was simple, but beautiful ..." He sounds dreamy for a moment: "The way the wings intertwined ..." In Gateshead, his colleagues were wondering what to do with a disused colliery the council had acquired beside the A1. The bath house, where the miners had once washed, stood on a rise that might make a site for a landmark. A grant was coaxed from central government to demolish the building and mould the rubble into an artificial hill.
For two years Henderson's arts officers worked through artists' catalogues and transparencies, until their eyes glazed over. By the end of 1993 they had a shortlist of two British sculptors: Anthony Caro and Antony Gormley. One series of pieces by Gormley, 6ft spectres of lead and fibreglass called A Case for an Angel, trapped somehow between human and mechanical form drew them back repeatedly. They decided on a version 10 times larger.
Gormley was not keen. After 15 years making and displaying mysterious metal casts, set from his own naked body, in galleries and carefully selected public spaces - Londonderry, the crypt of Winchester Cathedral, the Australian desert - he did not feel the pull of a six-lane trunk road: "I told Gateshead I didn't think I was a motorway artist."
There was another reason too. In 1988 Gormley had been asked to design a figure for a triangle of disused land near Leeds station. He proposed Brick Man, a mummy-like giant, 120ft tall. At first the sculpture looked sure to be erected; then public opposition rose against it. Finally, a council planning committee rejected it as "unsuitable": out of scale and character with its surroundings. Gormley was furious. The planners, he said, "clearly have a more timid idea of the city's future than me".
Antony Gormley is proud - or, more fairly perhaps, an artist who has long worked his ideas about his work and its value into a dense weave of argument, which only patience and expertise can unpick. He is 45, tall and patrician. He ambles about the clean spaces of his south-London studio, giving precise orders to his assistants in the casual drawl of the commanding classes.
Still, in early 1994 he went to see Gateshead's hill - and changed his mind. Its position at the head of the Team Valley, crowning the long sweep of the A1 into the North-east, was just the kind of high-visibility site that, despite Leeds, he still craved. Sculpture "should be a confrontation", Gormley said in an interview once; the public should be "coming to terms with it, coming to terms with themselves". And, this time, he feels more of a mandate: "This initiative is so rare and so exciting because it comes from the representatives of the people of Gateshead," he says, sitting in his studio's neat office. He is almost hidden behind a vase of pale flowers: "... which is quite a small community with very high unemployment and all of those things."
Gormley's idealism can seem a little vague. During 1994, his plans for improving this "community" met their first rumblings of resistance - letters to the Gateshead Post, questions in council meetings from Kathy King. In January 1995, these swelled into a Stop the Statue campaign, led by all the opposition councillors. The same month, the Newcastle Chronicle, which had all but joined the campaign itself, organised a phone-in poll about the Angel: 250 readers voted in favour of the sculpture, 1,200 against.
The arguments opposing Gormley's plans, at this point only unconvincing sketches printed in unsympathetic newspapers, varied in force from the absurd to the awkward. A Liberal Democrat councillor warned of carnage on the A1, as drivers fell under the Angel's spell: "Almost literally, those who have voted in favour [of it] will have the blood of the victims, and perhaps their very lives, on their hands." A letter to the Newcastle Journal declared the sculpture a blasphemous idol: "The Lord shall stretch forth and the fire of Heaven will be unleashed." Then in February 1995, the Gateshead Post, not to be outdone by its rivals' barrage of anti- Angel stories, produced the most thunderous of all. A local teacher handed the paper a photograph of a statue erected outside Berlin by Albert Speer for the Luftwaffe in 1935: its wings were shorter, but in front-page silhouette it looked enough like Gormley's Angel. It was a headline writer's dream.
The artist protested convincingly, yet there was a truth buried somewhere in the accusation's wildness. The monumentality of the proposed sculpture did make some residents feel uneasy, oppressed even. "The other pieces have all been on a much smaller scale," says Jonathan Wallace, a Liberal Democrat member of the council's Art in Public Places panel. "You have to go out of your way to get to them... This is being forced on you." Kathy King has a related objection: that a sculpture, unlike the performing- arts centre she would prefer, offers a limited kind of dialogue with the public once it is erected. You can dislike it, but it doesn't go away.
By the middle of last year, the Angel was in trouble. Labour councillors gritted their teeth and voted it through planning committees; their fundraisers tickled pounds 150,000 out of the European Development Fund. But the "Hell's Angel" tag stuck. Its estimated cost grew from pounds 350,000 to pounds 800,000, its silhouette - in the imagination of a town with a large Jewish population - to that of a German fighter aircraft. When Gormley came to Gateshead to state his case, his school talks and charm were blotted by his threat to take the Angel elsewhere if the town didn't want it.
He imagined a second Leeds. Some of his allies on the council and in Northern Arts, the region's cultural cheerleader, began groaning, off the record, about "arrogance" and "patronising" southern artists who needed to be "kept quiet". The Art in Public Places panel, which had discussed all the previous sculptures, stopped meeting. In June 1995, the council abandoned plans to erect a cone made of paving slabs in a southern suburb of Gateshead called Eighton Banks. The site for the Angel was a few hundred yards away.
On the hilltop there is still no hint of the planned sculpture. No council notice, no preliminary surveyor's post - just a single pit-prop bleaching in the sun. This year, however, the Angel has begun to look more possible. Gateshead is helping to stage Visual Arts UK, an all-year fantasia of exhibitions and events which Northern Arts won for the region. As part of it, Gormley made a rather different visit to the town in the spring, collaborating with local volunteers to set up and exhibit Field, a bewitching army of 40,000 tiny terracotta figures, in an abandoned factory near the centre. Between March and May, 25,000 people came to see it, the most ever for an exhibition in the North-east - and six times as many as signed Kathy King's petition against the Angel.
"People are saying there's method in Gormley's madness," says Caron Storey, who manages a pub and guest house across the road from the site for the Angel, and sees the main chance. "Loads of people went to see Field. They discuss it in the hotel." When Gormley's plans got their Lottery grant in April, she let Newsnight into her bar and defended him. Minds have been changed in the towerblocks too. Eva Mullen lives in the one nearest to the hill, in a flat looking down on it from the fifth floor. "The more they talk about the Angel, the more I want to see it up," she says, squinting from a hot bench at its imaginary outline.
Meanwhile the sculpture has steamed on through its council votes like a heavy-plated dreadnought, under fire but apparently unsinkable. Every criticism, from messed-up local television reception down, has been deflected with official surveys, Angel education programmes and slightly exasperated denials. "We're now on the point of commissioning the most famous sculpture in Britain," says Mike White, assistant director of arts, shutting his eyes as he answers one more question.
Yet the bigger uncertainty remains: the Angel will probably be built, but to what effect? White talks about pounds 800,000 of business for local concerns which need it - perhaps for Swan Hunter, ship-building symbol of the region's regenerative capabilities, and favourites to win the fabrication contract. For the longer term, Gateshead civic centre bursts inspiringly with wall plans and promises of a town rescued by art - a riverside flour mill made into Europe's best contemporary art gallery, economic talent lured north from London by the cultural buzz, the Angel greeting them.
It's a brave notion: the exchange is usually taken to happen the other way round. And Gateshead may not have its sculpture as a unique selling point for long, with David Mach building a massive Brick Train for Darlington down the road and County Durham planning a mega-statue, twice the height of the Angel, based on a mythical local monster called the Sockburn Worm. The whole public-art craze in the North-east could just be Labour councillors, entrenched in power and far from Westminster, having a bit of fun. But then, as they say in Gateshead, "You've come to write about us, haven't you?"
The usefulness of the Angel controversy to the town has not been entirely accidental. Northern Arts has been discreetly giving journalists Kathy King's phone number since the beginning. Of course, it all threatened to get out of hand for a while, they say, when everyone started to believe her, but now the council will get its sculpture anyway, set higher on a pedestal of publicity.
Gormley may not feel quite as sanguine. The press, he says, have been "quite wicked". He has learnt to be less bombastic about the Angel, though. His idea about "confrontation" has softened into a vision of the sculpture "negotiating" with its public: a glance from a mother taking her kids to school, a thought sparked in a passing tourist. "There's certainly going to be graffiti," he says. "Why shouldn't there be? There'll certainly be people who want to climb it - why shouldn't they? You don't have a notice on every tree in the landscape saying, 'Do Not Climb'."
Statues do have a rough time in the North-east. Jackie Milburn recently had his football removed in Newcastle town centre; Robbie Burns fled from park to park as limbs disappeared; someone even tried to steal Goldsworthy's Cone from Gateshead - while it was being put up. The Angel will be different, says the council, even "impregnable" as it stares proudly south from its hilltop. Affection may be harder to secure. Ron Mitchell will have to look up at the Angel from his garden. But he has a prediction: "Dogs are going to be urinating on the legs." !