A little over 50 years ago, the British government decided to designate a “new town” in the rural county of Shropshire, taking in the smaller towns of Dawley, Oakengates, and Wellington. Thirty miles north west of Birmingham, it helped to deal with the increasing urban sprawl, and eased congestion, in the West Midlands. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went to school in Newport – another one of these towns which forms the borough of Telford & Wrekin.
Telford is unusual amongst New Towns, in that it took in sizeable pre-existing settlements. As Labour councillor Concepta Cassar explains: “Although Telford is classed as a new town, it’s one built on the venerable shoulders of a number of far older towns that have as much, if not more, history and character as other towns and cities in the UK.”
“In the early days of Telford’s history in the 1960s, Telford was going to be called Dawley New Town. But Dawley itself goes back to the Domesday Book and is one of the oldest settlements in Shropshire.” In the end, it was named after the engineer Thomas Telford, hugely influential in developing the infrastructure of the county.
There’s been a lot of investment into Telford in recent years. As of summer 2019, the new “Fashion Quarter” is deep into development, with the likes of Next and New Look moving from their previous plots to larger builds. The showy Southwater area just outside the shopping centre, which opened in 2014, cost £250 million, and hosts the usual chain restaurants: Nando’s, Bella Italia, Zizzi. Asda moved from a large plot inside the centre to a standalone supermarket opposite the bus station. Think Birmingham’s attempts to move away from a concrete jungle landscape, but on a smaller scale.
There’s also been a new bus station to replace one that had long been looking exhausted. “Areas like the bus station are extremely important for residents across the borough,” explains Concepta, “Though I hope that in time we will see change at a national level that prioritises municipal control of bus services so that they can serve the public and not profit.”
But for all of this investment, the centre of Telford feels slightly uninspiring. Bleak consumerism – grandiose shopping quarters slap bang in the intersection of numerous small towns. Nearby Shrewsbury, Shropshire’s county town, has a rich history and picturesque town centre with pedestrianised shopping areas alongside a couple of indoor shopping centres. They might not have the sheer volume of shops that Telford can offer, but the experience feels more natural.
Cassar is full of praise for the town centre, highlighting the green spaces that still remain: “There are many fine achievements to celebrate in the centre of town,” she says, “including Telford Town Park which has received the International Green Flag Award for the fifth year running. This forms part of a vast network of green spaces and corridors which really bring home why it was referred to as a ‘forest town’ in the early days of the new town.”
Although not a ‘garden city’, this combination of urbanisation and green spaces can work well for residents who desire a mix of the two. For people who have lived in the area prior to the New Town being built, there’s been a definite transformation over time. For long-time resident Mick Balshaw, “Telford has changed to the point that if someone had been away for 20 or 30 years, they wouldn’t know the place.”
I ask him if he thinks there’s been a loss of character in the town, with local shops closing down as ASDA, Aldi and Lidl prevail, but he sees Telford as no different to anywhere else. “They have definitely lost out to the big boys, but it’s down to internet shopping, and who wants to walk down a rainy high street when you have an indoor shopping centre?”
Mick has lived in Lawley Village for nearly 60 years. One of the smaller towns that make up Telford, it’s had its own bit of redevelopment in recent years. With a large Morrisons supermarket in the centre of town, new build houses, and an eyecatching primary academy, it showcases the best of what Telford can offer. Likewise, Madeley, in the south of the town near the famous Ironbridge contains two secondary academies built in the last ten years, and a plethora of shops and eateries, from Aldi and Lidl to KFC and Tesco, though a few independent stores still stand strong.
Telford is a polarised town with its fair share of issues. Earnings are lower than the national average, and a number of areas make the top 10 per cent most deprived in the country. Local MP Lucy Allan is a fervent Tory Brexiteer, and under her watch Telford is set to lose it’s A&E centre, meaning that residents will need to travel to Shrewsbury.
It’s interesting to compare Telford to other new towns. Milton Keynes is considered something of a success story as far as new towns go, with its gridsquares and redways. It might also be without much character or antiquated charm – just ask any supporter of AFC Wimbledon for their thoughts – but economically speaking, it’s one of the most successful cities in the UK and perhaps the clear winner of the ‘new town’ project. It’s all well and good for a town like Telford to have glitzy shopping quarters, but when vital services are being closed down, you have to stop and think about what the residents would actually prefer.
All these years later, in Boris’s Brexit Britain, can we say that Telford has been a success? “There is an awful lot of history of which to be proud in modern-day Telford,” says Cassar, and she’s not wrong. Despite the issues of deprivation which still lie in the town, there is a concerted effort to improve, and it seems that despite the occasional Lucy Allan-influenced flashback, it is gradually happening.
Or as Mick puts it: “I have lived in Telford for 59 years and can honestly say it’s is a better place to live now.”