“The enabling authority”: What explains Warrington’s economic boom?

Warrington’s Georgian Town Hall, behind its Victorian gates. Image: Racklever/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

When you’ve spent a couple of years trawling a database, you start to notice patterns. Here’s a map of GVA per worker, a measure of productivity, across the main British urban areas. Darker colours mean higher numbers:

Image: Centre for Cities.

That darker, green blob about halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, is Warrington. It’s by far the most productive city in the north west of England.

Another map. This one’s welfare spend per capita: you’d probably want your blob to be as light as possible, to represent that everyone is doing alright without government support. And once again: Warrington sticks out like a sore thumb.

Image: Centre for Cities.

Last one. This one’s wages. It’s less obvious here, because Warrington’s weekly wages are roughly on a par with those of Liverpool and Manchester (in fact, they’re slightly lower). But you’d expect wages to be highest in a region’s big cities, and lower in the smaller, nearby towns. And yet Warrington, unlike the other cities of the north west, is competing with the big boys.

Image: Centre for Cities.

The obvious question is: how?

History and geography

Context first. Warrington started out as a market town, on the Lancashire bank of the Mersey; but by this point, the river is little more than a stream, and the town swiftly spread across the river into Cheshire, the county it’s now part of. Half a century ago, it had a lot in common with the other smaller, industrial settlements of the north west: it was a centre for brewing, distilling and, most notably, wire manufacture. (The number of things in the town still nicknamed “The Wire” – a football team, a rugby team, a radio station – is faintly unsettling to any fan of the work of either David Simon or Doctor Who.)

Warrington in context. Image: Google Maps.

In 1968, though, Warrington was designated as one of the government’s final wave of new towns. Land left vacant by the closure of the munitions factory at ROF Risley was purchased by the Warrington Development Corporation and redeveloped as the new residential estate of Birchwood. Other sites – notably that of an airbase, RAF Burtonwood – have since also been repurposed as housing. Over the last half century, the population of the town has roughly tripled, to over 210,000: in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the decades when many northern industrial cities were in decline, Warrington’s population boomed.

The Village Hotel: a very ’80s vision of the future. Image: Jonn Elledge.

You can see this dual history – part ancient market town, part post-war boomtown – in the fabric of the place. The main thing I knew about Warrington before I visited it that it was a new town, so I was expecting a sort of northern Milton Keynes.

That wasn’t entirely wrong: the majority of the housing is relatively recent. And one of my meetings took me to a combined hotel bar/café/health club which offers something called “Inspiration Suites”, and whose enormous brick-surfaced car-park surrounds a fountain spouting extravagantly dyed water, like a vision of the future, c1986.

But there’s another Warrington: the covered market square, where there’s a pub dating from 1561; the grand Georgian and Victorian buildings on Sankey Street and Palmyra Square. The town hall is the Grade I-listed Bank Hall, which dates from 1750; its grand gates, at the foot of its long lawn, were created as a gift for Queen Victoria. She declined them, but nonetheless: Warrington was and is a real place in its own right, not merely an overflow for people who wanted to escape the big cities on either side.

The market square. Image: Jonn Elledge.

Economics

So why is Warrington doing so well, when so many similar sized northern cities are doing so badly? Why is it attracting the knowledge intensive service businesses that a modern western city needs to boom?

Image: Centre for Cities.

Geography is clearly a factor. The town lies within relatively easy reach of both Liverpool and Manchester, via train and motorway and, should you fancy it, canal. It lies on the main north-south routes (the West Coast Main Line; the M6), too. Whethe you’re a commuter or a business, it’s a good place to be based.


That doesn’t explain why it should have done so much better than Wigan, 10 miles to the north, which shares many of these advantages, however. So here’s another theory: Warrington’s success is the legacy of its history. Its new town status meant it had a lot of land, ready and hungry for development. It also gave the town what Steve Parks, managing director of Warrington & Co., terms an “enabling authority”: a council that saw economic development as a key part of its role.

The development corporation responsible for the new town closed its doors in 1989. But today Warrington & Co. essentially continues its mission, by providing business support, and leading local development and regeneration schemes. It creates the infrastructure necessary to unlock new developments; helps developers get planning permission; and manages the council’s property portfolio, providing it with a handy revenue stream.

Technically, Warrington & Co.’s staff are council officers; but their email addresses suggest otherwise, and they were largely recruited from the private sector. “When an investor thinks they’re talking to Warrington Borough Council, they think they’re all about car parking and grass cutting and so on,” Parks says. The impression of a private company was created intentionally, “to drive a different dynamic”.

“To some extent,” he goes on, “it’s a northern post-industrial town. We’ve had out of town development and the new town, but there’s a donut effect: the donut has done well, at the expense of the demise of the town centre.”

So the priority at present is correcting for that. Its big scheme of the moment is Time Square, a new chunk of town centre including a cinema, offices, eight new restaurants and two new bars. The council, through Warrington & Co., is taking on the development risk itself. Other schemes are in the pipeline, too. “We’ve broken the town centre into seven quarters,” Parks notes. “But we’re doing them all at the same time so we don’t just chase the blight around the own.”

A hoarding for the new development. Image: Jonn Elledge.

There’s much still to do. The first thing many visitors see when they arrive at Warrington Bank Quay station is the town’s biggest remaining patch of industrial decay, a spit of land between the river and the railway, which the counc il fears shapes perception of the place: a new road is needed to unlock its re-development. There are plans to bring residents back to the town centre, too: the council has planning permission for another 500 extra homes; James Peacock Developments has already created a chichi apartment block next to Central station. Parks talks, perhaps optimistically, of attracting tech business to a local digital hub, too.


All sorts of factors have contributed to Warrington’s success, but one of them must surely be this: a council willing and able to do the things necessary to push the town forward, and with the land, and cash, to do it. It’s the same attitude that led it to create a second arms-length company, Warrington’s Own Buses, which does what it says on the tin. It’s like a Victorian municipal corporations, still running in 2018.

Most of the factor that enabled Warrington’s boom aren’t replicable. But with some thought and some investment, this one, perhaps, could be.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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