It will take more than the signing of a £350m-plus agreement for the regeneration of Skelmersdale town centre to impress Caroline Ellis. She works in a shoe shop in "Skem's" Concourse shopping centre, a spotlessly clean, but curiously empty two-storey mall.
This glass structure, with its Aldi and Bon Marche and Poundland, forms the heart of Skelmersdale. There is not much else to do when the shutters come down at 5.30pm. The library has late opening on two nights, and the Nye Bevan Pool, named in an earlier spirit of optimism, is open until 10pm. There is no cinema though, or even a bingo hall, and not many pubs. People go to Wigan, or Liverpool, for fun.
"They kept promising that something would come, but we're still waiting," says Caroline. Will it finally come now that West Lancashire District Council and the national regeneration agency English Partnerships have formally signed up developer St Modwen to undertake a transformation of the town centre?
"This significant appointment highlights the start of extremely exciting times for Skelmersdale," says Paul Spooner, regional director for English Partnerships. "Local people can look forward to a new town centre designed to the highest standards in urban and architectural design and environmental performance."
Ask around in the "Conny" and it's not so much "environmental performance" as cheaper shop unit rents and a Next that would make traders and shoppers happy.
The bloke in the shoe-repairers thinks that all this regeneration business is a "waste of time". He says that if the rents were cheaper, more traders would stay. We're discussing a nearby 757 sq ft unit. It used to be a discount book-shop, but has stood empty for three years, he says. The management company, London and Cambridge Properties, want an annual rent of £17,500, a spokeswoman confirms.
There are rumours that Tesco could be interested in coming to town. This worries residents, who fear that their homes will be bulldozed to make way for a super-store. Much of the housing stock, scattered in clusters around the town centre, needs serious refurbishment; the big issue will be whether demolition makes better economical sense.
Over at the library, manager Jane Berry, who has worked here since it opened in 1978, sees the need for change, but is concerned that her library will turn to rubble without a proper replacement in the plans: "The library and the Nye Bevan pool are right in the middle of the land earmarked for redevelopment," she says. "Regeneration can only be good for the town, if it goes ahead. It would be good to bring in bigger and better retailers, but local people use the library for all kinds of things, and we don't want to be sidelined."
West Lancashire District Council, the North West Development Agency and consultants Broadway Malayan, have contributed to Skelmersdale Vision, a wide-ranging "visioning" exercise to establish priorities. A draft masterplan is tabled to go before councillors on February 7 and 12, followed by further community consultation. Plans are expected to be firmed-up in the spring.
Caroline in the shoe shop has lived in Skelmersdale for 23 years, moving here from London when she was 18. "I hated it at first," she admits, "it was full of country bumpkins. But you get used to it. It's got a good sense of community really."
Her comments highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Skelmersdale. Built in 1964, at the end of the "New Town" boom, it was intended to house the overspill from North Liverpool, suffering a housing shortage since the Second World War. The original projection was for 80,000 residents. This never happened, due to changes in population and dispersal patterns. There was a sense, even back then, that Skelmersdale had been abandoned when housing trends moved on. The fear of history repeating itself underlies the uncertainty in the town today, which has a population of about 40,000.
You can't help but think that whatever the problems are, it is not the fault of Skelmersdale
There is a moratorium on new-build, pending the redevelopment plans. Local estate agent Lynsey Houghton, of Your Move, says that families who moved here in the 1960s still form a large proportion of buyers. "There is lots of ex-council stock, and the prices – up to £120,000 for a three-bedroomed mid-terrace – are cheaper than surrounding areas," she says.
Skelmersdale is 15 miles from Liverpool, and 30 miles from central Manchester. Wayne Hemingway, drafted in by Broadway Malayan, told locals that they should regard themselves as "urban pioneers", building "Lancashire's New Model Town". He reckons it could be a great place for families seeking an alternative to city living. You can see what he means, in theory, but there is a long way to go.
After you have circumnavigated Half Mile Island, rumoured to be the largest traffic roundabout in the world, and arrived at possibly the only free multi-storey car-park in the world, the first thing that hits you is the sound of seagulls. Southport is only half an hour's drive away.
The economy seems to be doing relatively well. Adjacent to the M58, Skelmersdale has several industrial estates; major employers include the Co-operative Bank, and Matalan's headquarters. Lambert Smith Hampton recently received 12 expressions of interest for an 8.53-acre site on the Stanley estate, which has expanded rapidly in recent years to include tenants such as Great Bear, Comet and Asda. LSH did not quote a price but the area attracts around £275,000 an acre for industrial use.
Judging by the queue in front of the Concourse, the guaranteed business to be in is taxi-driving. "Roughly, it's a pound a mile," says Fred Hallam, who drives a hackney carriage. "Mostly it is shoppers and young mothers with buggies who can't face the walk." Not surprising that. There are few pavements – another one of those wacky 1960s planning ideas – and the underpasses have a reputation for crime.
You can't help but think that whatever Skelmersdale's problems are, it is not the fault of Skelmersdale. Most of the people who live here didn't ask to come. Most of them want it be a better place; but their version of a better place and the regeneration industry's version of a better place will be very different things.
Upstairs at the Concourse is an empty unit, which has a sign exhorting shoppers to "Share the Vision". On a nearby bench, a middle-aged woman is simultaneously texting and eating a Gregg's pasty. I ask her what used to be in the glass-sided unit. She looks at me blankly, and replies, "Nothing, it's been empty for ages." Empty unit? Empty vision? Let's hope, for the people of Skelmersdale's sake, that this latest regeneration bid doesn't turn out to be a load of empty promises.
- Jayne Dowle is The Times Bricks 'N' Mortar's Northern correspondent