Estates in the West End of the city, and nearby areas such as the Meadow Well estate in North Shields were burning and an organised crime problem had spawned a culture of violence and drug dealing which was destroying its reputation as a centre for night-life.
Northumbria Police, responsible for Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and a mixture of pit villages and farming communities, appeared helpless. This was the situation inherited by John Stevens who, having undertaken the controversial inquiry into shoot-to-kill allegations in Northern Ireland, became Chief Constable of Northumbria in 1991.
He promptly embarked on a root-and-branch restructuring of the force, the effects of which emerged in the Home Office's official crime statistics released yesterday. For the sixth consecutive financial year, crime in Northumbria has decreased, a record unmatched by any other force. During that period, crime has fallen by 42 per cent.
Stevens, who two years ago moved to London to become Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, returned to Newcastle yesterday to give evidence in a court case. He said the atmosphere in the city had been transformed. "People feel a lot more secure," he said.
The reversal in the crime rate has brought a new confidence to the North- east. Nick Brown, the managing director of a Newcastle-based public relations firm, said: "We try to promote the north and it helps us if we have things like this to show people. People feel better about an area and more bullish about it if they see figures like these." Kim Auburn, 29, a single mother from Shiremoor, near Newcastle, said depressed districts of the county were coming back to life. "It's improving all the time," she said. "They must be doing something right to get low crime."
The strategy that Stevens employed was based on the new concept of "intelligence- led policing" which concentrated on targeting known persistent criminals and crime hot-spots.
This was combined with a new working relationship with the region's local authorities, swapping information and pooling resources. Mr Stevens said: "It was a matter of giving up our operational independence in certain areas so that we all worked to the common good."
Newcastle became the first city to be given blanket coverage by closed- circuit television cameras. On problem estates, police-licensed wardens were appointed with the task of reducing crime at schools and other public buildings.
Many of the strategies pioneered in Northumbria have already been embraced elsewhere in the country.