Nadeem Ahmad looks out from his newspaper kiosk at Warrington Central train station and is happy with what he sees. “I like Warrington,” he says. “The people are helpful. It is a very peaceful place.” Nadeem has stood here selling papers for 17 years, whilst Warrington has transformed itself into the logistics and nuclear engineering hub of the North West.
In the next few years though, his view out on the world will be transformed. Opposite the station is the site of the new “Stadium Quarter”, where a total of £190m will be invested: a campus for the University of Chester, an £8.5m business incubator part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, and a University Technical College.
It will certainly create a better impression than the current vista – a jumble of derelict ground, winter quarters for fairground rides, and a pub – which greets anyone who bothers to get off the train between Manchester and Liverpool.
This is the thing with Warrington. Despite a string of impressive economic achievements – highest earnings in the North West (6th in the UK), the country’s 8th most popular office location, and home to around 8,000 businesses employing 115,000 people – most people pass through it without giving a second thought of what lies beyond the railway station.
If they did, they would find a sprawling, wide-open kind of town, with an enigma at its heart. “There’s an interesting culture here which I haven’t come across in any other place outside the South East really,” says Andy Farrall, executive director for economic regeneration at Warrington Council.
“Many places outside the South East have a dependency culture, they are always asking for grants. We’ve never been dependent. Warrington as a business community has had to get on with things. We’re more self-sufficient and self-confident than a lot of places.”
A question of pride
What does this ever-onwards thrust do to the locals though? At the railway station, Chris, a management information analyst, is waiting for the Manchester train. He’s 25 and Warrington born and bred, yet rarely socialises in Warrington, unless it’s down to the cinema at Westbrook, the out-of-town shopping/leisure centre.
Despite the talk of economic success, despite the presence of big names such as Travis Perkins and Asda, which chose Warrington for huge distribution warehouses, and thriving industries from chemicals to recycling, he can’t find a job here. “I know there are plenty of jobs in Warrington,” he says. “But there need to be more, especially compared to Manchester. We’ve achieved a lot and I take pride in Warrington. But am I proud to come from here? I’m not too sure about that.”
In the rush to get on, something has been left behind – including the town centre. Now, the £52m redevelopment of the Bridge Street Quarter – yes, another Quarter – by Muse Developments is about to start, bringing a new market hall, cinema, restaurants, new council offices and public square. There are also plans for 1,500 new homes, says Andy Farrall, with an ambitious target of 4,000 residents living in the town centre in the next five to 10 years.
Warrington certainly needs this urban heart transplant. There’s not much of a pulse in the afternoon silence of Chapelford Urban Village, hailed as a new way of living a few years back. In this residential suburb next to Omega, the massive business park built on the site of the former RAF/USAF Burtonwood airbase, there are already more than 2,000 houses in serried ranks, with another 1,100 in the pipeline from Miller Homes. There is a Sainsbury’s, a pub and a school, but apart from the grass and ponds, little in the way of amenities. The street names – Santa Rosa Boulevard, Seattle Close, Lincoln Heights – add to the sense of eerie nothingness. Are we in Cheshire? Or Minnesota?
And why exactly do people move here? “The proximity to the Omega development,” says estate agent Paul Shawcross at Bridgfords in Warrington. “Plus, there is the access to Gemini and Westbrook shopping areas which include retail stores such as IKEA, Marks & Spencer and Next.” In other words, an easy commute to earn the money to spend in the shopping mall. Warrington is known as a futuristic kind of place, but what a future this suggests for our urban landscape.
However, for residential investors, at least there is a steady stream of tenants, especially as 4,000 new jobs are promised in the latest plans for Omega’s south site. Monthly rentals range from £600 for a two-bedroom apartment to around £1,400 for a four/five-bedroom family house. Shawcross adds that a lot of early buyers were investors buying in bulk. “Many of our clients bought from out of town,” he says. “This was due to the promise of the new train station [still proposed at West Warrington], and appealed to those who were looking for an easy commute.”
Given the lingering presence of the Yanks, it is ironic that America might help us make sense of Warrington. The term “Doughnut City” was first coined in the States to describe a location where most urban and economic activity takes place around the ring road. In the empty centre of the doughnut there is decline, accelerated by the fleeing of people to the outer reaches.
Whilst Warringtonians have not exactly fled in droves – Golden Square shopping centre sustains a Debenhams for a start – Warrington has some work to do to redress the balance. Its strength, in particular its historic adaptability to new industries, is also its weakness. It pulls attention away from the centre like a magnet. This has brought prosperity to business parks at Birchwood, but how to translate this into a sense of place?
This is the question taxing the brains of the council, which is attempting to create an identity with its new campaign #LoveWarrington. The challenge is not just to create slick PR though, but to get people to actually buy into their town.
In Palmyra Square, property developer Dave Critchley of Jensen Investments is doing just that. He is about to complete the £3m transformation of The Treasury, from a former technical college into a landmark evening economy destination. This 1901 cornucopia of stained glass, intricate carvings and wedding cake ceilings is being marketed at Warrington-based bar and restaurant tenants. “I would like it be full of local, independent businesses,” he says. “It’s a great location. And that’s what we’re aiming for here, to really make it a proper Warrington place.”
Warrington needs more of this kind of enterprise to maximise the potential of its historic buildings and give people an alternative to the multiplex/mall. But what kind of place is Warrington itself? The answer, it would seem, lies somewhere between the Northern town that should be in the South East, and an outpost of Minnesota off Junction 8 of the M62.
Each month Jayne Dowle visits a different location in the North West. Follow her on Twitter at @JayneDowle