Whatever's happened to Hartlepool?: A new 'historic' seaport, a mall with Versace and Armani, a marina and a museum designed by Norman Foster. Jonathan Glancey meets the man with a pounds 1bn plan for Teesside

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Duncan Hall waves a proprietorial hand and gold cuff link at rows of gleaming American-style shops: 'Just look at this. They've never had a McDonald's or a Toys 'R' us up here before. The big retailers haven't wanted to know about this part of the country. Now they're all crowding in: Allders, Do-it-All, you name it . . . . . we've spent pounds 15 a square foot above the national average building these shops; we're going for the best.'

Five minutes away is the new Hollywood-style Showcase Cinema. 'Biggest in the country,'says Hall. 'A dollars 40m American investment, 3,400 seats with a 12,000 seat arena under construction.' All this and a 'Hollywood Bowl', a drive-through Burger King, and a mother of a Pizza Hut.

Duncan Hall is performing conjuring tricks in the urban fiefdom of Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, a patchwork of cooling towers and chemical works punctuated by the detritus of abandoned industry. In this unlikely setting, he's turning chip butties into scoops of French fries and mugs of instant coffee into cappuccino. Whatever next?

The Teesside Development Corporation, of which he is chief executive, has been given 10 years to inject new life into one of the most run-down areas of post-industrial Britain. A Tory quango working alongside Labour councils, since 1987 it has spent over pounds 238m, most of it generated by profits made through selling land to developers and corporations, some money has come from the EC and it has cajoled private enterprise to invest a further pounds 736m.

Hall is an unrepentant Thatcherite in a Labour ghetto where Keir Hardie might still raise more cheers than Tony Blair. 'This is where Mrs Thatcher came for her 'walk in the wilderness' on 16 September 1987,' says Hall. 'One look of those steely blue eyes convinced me. You just had to believe her when she said something had to be done.'

You might have heard this before. Remember when Mrs Thatcher promised heaven on earth in London Docklands, when she promised that Battersea Power Station would rise again as a fun fair? BMWs all round? Docklands, for all the money pumped into it, is still a mire of empty offices and flats. Battersea Power Station is still derelict, a symbol of private sector promises.

The something Duncan Hall has done is evident, however, the moment you step out of his post-modern office overlooking the Tees in Stockton. An embankment is being built along the river. There are new houses as far as the eye can see.

Hall drives a silver Rover Sterling ('soggy thing; the Alfa's in for servicing') through Teesside Park, a brand new pounds 22m shopping centre, more Seattle than Stockton. 'Big business has to be convinced that Teesside is on the way up. That's why we've built so much so quickly; not just shops, most of it is primary infrastructure. We can't afford to put the cart before the horse. Teesside has a population of 675,000; in a decade we've lost 57,000 jobs in shipbuilding, heavy engineering and chemicals. It's a long haul back, but we're getting there. In 1987, you could buy land here for pounds 13,000 an acre.' Today an acre of prime Teesside costs pounds 250,000.

Next stop along the A66 to Hartlepool ('a retail and leisure corridor') is the Tees Barrage. 'This is the core of the whole development', says Hall, 'nothing less than an act of faith. How could we improve Teesside's image in one fell swoop? Clean up the Tees, that's what, give the river back to people who have, unwittingly, turned their back on it for the past 200 years.'

The barrage is an impressive hunk of neo-Victorian engineering. A new road crosses it, a restaurant overlooks it and yachts will soon queue to pass through. 'The barrage means the Tees is clean now; we've even re-routed the sewer outlets and you can swim in it. Last week we released two million salmon fry.

'That over there,' he says, pointing to a massive abstract concrete sculpture, 'is going to be the biggest white-water rafting circuit in Europe.' What used to be here? 'Heavy engineering.' Who is going to use it? 'Oh, they'll come,' Hall answers, as if the question is as redundant as much of the Teesside workforce.

Back on route 66, Hartlepool and the sea hove into view. 'Population 95,000, unemployment around 15 per cent', says Hall. 'There's more money here than you might guess. Cash economy.'

Hartlepool, home of Robert the Bruce, Bisto and Chick 'Zing Went the Strings of My Heart' Henderson, has been on its downers for as long as anyone can remember. 'By the opening of the 18th century', writes Walter Gill in The Hartlepool Story, 'it was falling into further sad decay' Unemployment was 25. per cent in 1979; the last shipyard closed in 1962.

Geordies call Hartlepudlians 'Monkeyhangers' after the infamous incident during the Napoleonic wars when a monkey was taken for a French spy and hung. More recently, Hartlepool has been infamous for poverty, unemployment, drunkenness, child murder and the fastest relegating football club in the League. These have been exaggerated by the media, but even a chocolate box artist would find it hard to paint a rosy picture of the town. That is until Hall parks the Rover by the new sea wall.

Behind us is an extraordinary sight: a brand new late 18th century sea port, Hartlepool Historic Quay . 'Built in 52 weeks by Balfour Beatty. That's how we get things done here. Fixed price, fixed term contracts. No excuses for delays, no escape clauses.'

We sit outside an 18th century tavern (or what looks like one). 'The tavern didn't exist a day before it opened', says Hall. 'We had a set designer fit it out in less than 24-hours'. Today, it is jammed full. 'It'll be more popular next year when we open the biggest and best bingo hall in the country here.' The quay is expected to attract half-a-million visitors in 1995.

'There's no attraction to match this within miles. You've got York Minster and the Norvik Centre, Durham Cathedral and Beamish Open Air Museum, and that's it. By December we'll have Jackson's Landing, a mall of between 25 and 30 big name designer shops - Armani, Versace, the lot, and eight class restaurants. They'll come from miles away to shop here.'

Will they? Hall cites the example of the designer shopping mall opened recently in Street, Somerset where coachloads of shoppers pile down from Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands every day.

'The other dock is the site of the new Imperial War Museum. It's by Sir Norman Foster. We've got him on a design and build contract so we can get it built and fitted out in 52 weeks. We're also building 800 new homes around the new marina. We've sold most of them. You tell me which are council flats and which belong to yachties. You can't, can you? I like to see everyone mixed together, real life coming back to the town.'

Although not quite yet. Towns do not grow or repair themselves quickly. The encouraging sign is that the marina, quay and mall are linked to the town centre, unlike, say, the new marina at Southampton. Duncan Hall and his team are learning from the mistakes of earlier development corporations.

To date, the Teesside Development Corporation has reclaimed 3,487 acres of industrial blight. It has four years and just 100 acres to go. Love it or hate it, it is the world Mrs Thatcher wanted for us. He believes, despite local scepticism that leisure and shopping are the anchor that will hold Hartlepool steady while future waves of economic depression and elation buffet it.

Nowhere else in Britain do you get this sense of an exhausted industrial world giving way to a leisure-based post-industrial world. But how will Hartlepudlians adapt to this. It will be as easy, I suspect, as hanging a monkey.

(Photographs omitted)

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