Wellington 2030: a letter from the future
Reviving an idea from a few years ago – and prompted by local social media guru Pete Jackson – I thought I’d try writing a ‘postcard from the future’. But brevity not being my strong point, it turned into quite a long letter. Bear with me – there’s a lot worth exploring in the Wellington of 2030…
Well it was certainly a tough few years after the pandemic. And then we’ve had the climate crisis to deal with. Yet wander around the centre of Wellington today and things are looking good – in fact, the place is doing better today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. That might surprise you, standing there in summer 2020 on the brink of the biggest global recession in living memory – and make no mistake, it’s going to be a whopper. So now, in 2030, why isn’t it all tumbleweeds and ‘to let’ signs?
It’s complicated, but it started with the experience of lockdown – the Great Pause, as we call it. It made a lot of people notice the world on their doorstep – the streets, the parks, the shops and pubs. There was a lot of new-found love and loyalty for all things local in the months after lockdown, and that came in handy as the global recession unfolded. A lot of people had less to spend, sure, but they DID keep spending with that favourite pub or restaurant, that local bakery – the places they’d missed during lockdown or which had done so much to help their communities get through it all. By contrast it has been the big city centre stores and the retail parks that have borne the brunt of the recession. The pandemic accelerated trends to online shopping and home delivery whilst the recession that followed – lower demand, crippling commercial rents – made for a double whammy. Plenty of big names contracted or went bust completely. Commercial property values plummeted. There’s now many a shopping centre around the UK that’s being redeveloped as housing (good news for developers and the housing crisis!) whilst local high streets, in the meantime, have enjoyed something of a renaissance.
And there’s another big factor in all this. The lockdown made many people realise they could work at home – or at least, that they didn’t need to commute into big city centre offices every day. Suddenly, millions of office workers were liberated from their city centre and commuter-belt lives. They were reassessing what sort of life they wanted, and many looked to quieter places with better priced housing. Wellington, like so many smaller towns close to the countryside – yet well-connected by road and rail – has benefitted from this.
So let’s take a walk around Wellington on a sunny Saturday in 2030 and you can see how it is for yourself.
Painting the town
One thing you’ll notice is just how good well turned-out the buildings are, with signs and colour schemes that help the town look better than it has for years. This hasn’t happened by accident – ever since its shop front improvements programme in 2019, the council has been much more interventionist about how landlords and businesses look after their premises. There’s a council-backed design team that advises and regulates on this – you can’t just paint your façade any way you want these days. Some businesses complained at this ‘interfering’ but look around at the place it’s definitely paid off. Just walking down the street puts a smile on your face.
Two feet and two wheels
You’ll see a fair few empty spaces in the car parks, but that doesn’t mean the town is quiet. A lot more people walk and cycle in these days – in fact bike sales boomed in the years after lockdown. It’s something you never used to see on the roads coming into Wellington – from Dothill and Admaston, Shawbirch and Leegomery: families walking and cycling towards the town. New cycle paths, including from the big developments at Lawley, make this a much more appealing prospect than it used to be. This makes for a nicer environment for everyone, and means there’s plenty of space for those who really need their cars – i.e. those who are less mobile, and those visiting from further afield.
It’s true that walking and cycling doesn’t work so well if you’re doing a big shop, but that’s not such a familiar concept these days as most people get their supermarket shopping delivered. In any case, quite a few of the town’s shops collaborate to run a home delivery service for those who want it. On Saturdays in particular, a trip into town is for all the extras – meat from the butcher, fruit and veg from the grocer, quirky bits and pieces from the creative shops and stalls – things you can fit into paniers on your bike. The market is the beating heart of the shopping in the town, rejuvenated by investment in the early 2020s and steadily attracting new traders and customers ever since as part of that whole ‘local living’ movement that followed the pandemic. It’s still the place to get your household items and slippers, but also all sorts of food, arts and crafts. You’ll see visitors wandering around the market, too. They usually come for cycling long weekends, getting a train into Wellington then hiring bikes and cycling down to Ironbridge. The Wrekin is a popular morning’s activity and they’ll often pop into the market to pick up lunch on the way back. Live music in the summer (and all year round in the market) adds to the atmosphere.
Cafes, culture and company
And so a trip into town is also something people do for pleasure, not just for shopping. So you’ll see the cafes and restaurants spilling out into the street with happy customers chatting away. It’s got that real neighbourhood feel. The Orbit has gone from strength to strength, its cinema augmented over the years by a gallery space, dance studio and artists’ workshops upstairs. It was a project that foreshadowed things to come as other former retail and office buildings have found new uses that give people more ways to enjoy the town. Remember that I said commercial property prices had fallen? Well in Wellington that created an opportunity – one which the town and borough councils took advantage of, thankfully, at the start of the decade. That’s given them the chance to drive regeneration from the front, incentivising some great new businesses to set up here and a few other projects besides. In Crown St, the 17th Century Crown Inn – a shop and office since the 1960s – has been revived as The Brewer’s House. This is a makers’ shop and exhibition space on the ground floor, including a timber-framed extension fronting onto Bell St. It showcases the work of about 30 artist-makers who mostly work from home or studio spaces around Telford. On its upper floors there’s a popular town museum which tells the story of the town through the lives of past inhabitants. It’s a great little heritage attraction and what with The Wrekin, the Market and Sunnycroft has put a lazy day in Wellington on a surprising number of visitor itineraries.
The Brewer’s House has helped to bring Crown Street back to life
Not that it’s only Saturdays when the place comes to life. There’s a much more mixed crowd out and about on weekdays too, mainly because of all those homeworkers I was telling you about. Spending more of their time at home, at least for part of the week, they’re able to wander into town for coffee and for lunch, picking up a few bits here and there from the shops, and enjoying a midweek pint in an evening. It took a global pandemic to make people realise that hours spent commuting could be much better spent enjoying the things on their doorstep. And when all those home workers need some company, or meeting space, they head into one of the co-working spaces that we’ve seen pop-up even in smaller towns like Wellington in the last ten years. Such a facility has been central to a redevelopment project in New Street, where a new residential scheme of apartments hosts a popular co-working space at street level.
This co-working space in New Street gives home-workers a place to congregate
The pandemic, the recession, the battle against climate change – it’s been a decade of huge upheaval, and that has led a lot of people to change course and build a different kind of life for themselves, whether by choice or necessity. The bookshop on the Square, the zero-waste shop, one of the new antiques shops and one of the new bakeries – they’re all run by people who lost their jobs or wanted a change of lifestyle after Covid-19. Taking their lead from existing businesses like Gratitude Café, The Walnut and The Daberhashery, these ‘post-pandemic’ start-ups didn’t just seek to attract customers but to embed themselves in the community, with book clubs and craft clubs, outreach projects and support for local charities. There’s a real blurring of the lines between business and community these days – it’s not something all traders have got their heads around, but those that have are reaping the rewards.
This way of establishing a business is now the norm in places like Wellington – and it’s what has seen local high streets come into their own whilst city centres have struggled. It has brought places like Wellington back stronger than they’ve been for a generation or more. Is it ‘like the old days’? That depends on how old you are, and how closely you look. Compared to the 70s and 80s there’s less of most stuff – fewer shops, fewer pubs, fewer cars. Yet the people are here – probably more people, spending more time and more money in town than there have been for 30 years. The thing is, the world’s changing in lots of ways – but this time, instead of getting left behind, Wellington was ready for the change and made the most of it. So to everyone sitting there in 2020 – hold your nerve. It’s going to be tough, but seize the opportunities that are coming and you’ll see Wellington thrive in ways you’d never have expected.