Sunderland - a city comes of age

PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 May 2013

Sunderland and River Wear

Sunderland and River Wear


Celebrations are underway to mark one of the North East's biggest birthdays. Chris Titley joins the party.

This year, Sunderland comes of age. While the banks of the River Wear have been settled since Stone Age times, and its name is derived from ancient Anglo Saxon, Sunderland only became a city 21 years ago. It was a big moment. Several previous attempts at gaining city status had failed. But in a letter dating from March 1992, the Queen finally promoted Sunderland into the big league.

To mark the occasion a letter was sent to schoolchildren. ‘Her Majesty The Queen has given us this great honour to mark the 40th anniversary of Her Accession to the throne,’ it read. ‘In doing so, The Queen has recognised the outstanding contribution made by countless generations of ordinary citizens of Sunderland to the life and progress of the British nation. It is up to you now to carry on this great tradition.’

Chris Mullin was Sunderland South MP from 1987 to 2010. He said city status made a difference.

‘It was a boost to our morale at a time when our fortunes were very low. And it did help address the sense of inferiority, not to say victimhood, vis-à-vis Newcastle,’ he said.

‘This is a little known fact, but Sunderland is bigger than Newcastle. If you compare the populations, the borough of Sunderland is a few thousand more than Newcastle.’

When Sunderland was made a city, it was in a poor state. Shaken by the loss of both shipyards and coal mines, it also saw many businesses and shops close, including the Binns department store which had occupied two sides of Fawcett Street.

‘For several years, when one walked down our main street, both sides were boarded up,’ Mr Mullin remembered. ‘You walked through a corridor of boarded-up plate glass windows. That was a rather depressing moment.’

But Sunderland has turned itself around. Inward investment, most notably the Nissan factory, has created countless new jobs to replace those lost. On the city outskirts, Doxford International Business Park is a major success story, while many small and medium-sized businesses have sprung up on the north side of the river.

What was Sunderland’s small polytechnic has blossomed into a highly-regarded university with 20,000 students, the St Peter’s Campus created on the site of a former shipyard near the estuary.

Perhaps the most iconic structure symbolising the new Sunderland was built on the site of a former pit: the Stadium Of Light, home to the football team.

‘Building it there was a stroke of genius,’ Chris Mullin says. ‘That vast site, which was derelict, might have mocked us for decades if the Stadium Of Light hadn’t been built there.

‘The stadium’s proved a great triumph, though the quality of the football has varied enormously over the years. I have to say that I think the fortunes of the football club are a more important guide to the morale of the city than whether or not we’re called a city.’

The club does more than simply entertain fans with the same sort of leap-and-lurch thrills as you get on a rollercoaster. Through its charity the Foundation of Light, established in 2001 by former club chairman Sir Bob Murray, it runs classes and programmes at the stadium which help thousands of young people improve their lives.

To mark its 21st anniversary as a city, Sunderland is putting on a range of events. ‘Celebrating Sunderland being a city for 21 years is an excellent opportunity to remind residents and visitors what Sunderland has achieved in that time, its distinctive qualities and its optimistic plans for the future,’ said Coun Paul Watson, leader of Sunderland City Council.

‘The timing is excellent; there is a huge amount of change on the ground across Sunderland and lots for us to celebrate and feel proud of. We’re also keen to gather people’s own memories of the past 21 years.’

People are being asked to send their stories, memories and photos of the post-1992 city to the council. An exhibition of the materials collected will take place later in 2013.

This year’s Sunderland Festival is dedicated to the anniversary too. The idea is for the city to come together in celebration during the festival, which runs from June 14 to 16. Live music, outdoor movies, sports and games are planned.

Any residents celebrating their 21st birthday this year will be invited along and presented with a commemorative gift.

‘There are a few other ideas in the planning that will launch soon,’ said a council spokesman.

The 21st celebrations are an excellent opportunity to celebrate Sunderland and its people, so opportunities to work with communities are being explored.’

For Chris Mullin, Sunderland has been transformed over the last two decades. As well as the shipyards and pits, the Vaux brewery has gone as have a thousand textile jobs. In their place new, hi-tech businesses have sprung up. Most recently a futuristic building on Tavistock Place, the Sunderland Software Centre, has been built and is seeking tenants. Sunderland has even got its own marina, complete with yachts.

But what of the future? ‘The jury’s out on that. If you look at where we are now and where we were around the time Sunderland became a city, we’re light years away from where we were,’ said Mr Mullin.

‘We have succeeded in attracting enormous amounts of investment. Parts of the city centre have been transformed. Life on some of our most blighted estates has been transformed for the better by the activities of the social housing company. So all of that’s good news.

‘But it is very fragile. And I don’t think anyone can say for sure what’s going to happen next.’

Apart from a year-long party, that is. Happy 21st, city of Sunderland.

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