“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 council 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

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.