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.
An interesting and idealistic vision of a future Wellington with some good ideas about shopping ‘local’, sustainable transport and supporting regeneration. However, I just cannot see it happening, as the Borough Council (and the Wellington Council lacking in vision, funding and action) is really only interested in ‘Southwater’/ ‘Telford shopping centre’ and are now spending another £17 million on the Telford Central ‘Station Quarter’to further embed the Telford message and concept. The vision for the Borough Council is Wellington as a district centre for commuters (based on more car usage) and it seems every single piece of regeneration land is going to be used for more housing (over 1,000 new houses in the town and its vicinity). Wellington could be a lot better, but it now lacks the drivers for footfall – no hotel, very few interesting shops, no museum or art gallery (have a look at the lovely Much Wenlock museum and tourist information centre run by the council and the same in Oswestry), no bookshop, no tourist/visitors centre and few decent eating or drinking places. Those are the sort of things that an ambitious town needs and I see no signs of any of them coming soon with a deep recession around the corner. Sorry to be slightly negative but I do not see the support for this good vision from the ‘powers that be’!
Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Alan. I think you’re a bit harsh on the borough council – their shop front grants in the last year or two have been helping improve the look of shops (although its a frustration some don’t take advantage of the scheme) and their business start-up grants have helped get some quality businesses into the town – e.g. The Walnut, Nanny’s Bakery, the kitchen doors shop in Church St. This does seem more interventionist than some councils I see. On the Southwater / Telford Centre point – I’ve got mixed feelings here. Yes, I’d love to see that sort of investment in Wellington, but I think big investment in Telford Centre has to happen – it has huge potential to deliver business and housing growth in the decades ahead, but in order to do that it needs improvement beyond its 1960s-70s origins as a car and carpark dominated shopping destination. As hinted at in the ‘letter’, if we think high streets are going to struggle in the years ahead then indoor shopping centres and the like are REALLY going to get it – they’re much less versatile than traditional high streets and can’t survive the retail revolution. You’re right that there are some key elements that Wellington lacks – bookshop, museum, gallery etc. Some of these have to be community or business led – the council isn’t going to open a bookshop – but yes, my hope is that by making a couple of key property purchases and securing some investment they will create some of those other attractions that we need. Making anything new happen in a recession is going to be difficult but we need that vision from the councils AND from business owners to make a difference. The next year will be crucial in building some momentum,
Thank you for your interesting reply and I agree with much of what you say, yes, of course the Council can’t run a bookshop but they could incentivise specific businesses with the existing high street grants. Firstly I think the Councils (both Borough and Town) need to accept that Wellington is in a very poor place in terms of regeneration and not use a well meaning PR campaign to pretend otherwise. Wellington like many other similar towns is struggling very badly. My main point is that £10,000 grants to repaint shop frontages (whilst positive in itself) will not be the game changer Wellington to create significant footfall – it needs major projects. I’ve just walked around the town (albeit on a very quiet Wednesday with the Covid background) and 50% of the shops are closed including the Market, no public toilets or any community or tourist facilities for any visitors – its sad site with very few shoppers about. I agree with you as well there is considerable potential for community facilities, but the Council seem to be impotent when it comes to action. For example the Clifton cinema site which is a strategically key site for regeneration in the town has been on the market 3 or 4 times over 10 years and the Council could have bought it on several occasions – sadly it looks like it will become another housing development. Have a look at what Trafford Council have done by buying the old Altrincham Market hall and it is now one of the best food halls in the Country, attracts lots of footfall and a similar project has regenerated Macclesfield with the revisioning of the long closed Macclesfield Picturedrome cinema into another great food hall. There is another great example in Banbury with the Council rebuilding the closed BHS store site into another new food hall project called Lock 29 (www.lock29.co.uk) to make new imaginative use of redundant retail space. In nearby Madeley, the Town Council have bought the historic Anstice Hall and managed to get various lottery grants to restore the building to become the cultural heart of Madeley and have done an excellent job.I understand In Wellington, the Borough Council own the old job centre in New Street and the building is in a good condition and could be redeveloped into a Wellington visitors centre/museum/Wrekin heritage centre etc – that is an opportunity for the Town Council but I very much doubt if they will do anything about it. In my own opinion there is lots of opportunity but very little action or imagination of what can be done by the ‘powers that be’. This discussion is useful and hopefully will create a debate amongst the community and the Council.
I loved this letter and thought it was a fascinating look into what a possible future for Wellington could be. There IS support from the “powers that be” and a vision like this will not happen overnight. If you look at the changes that have taken place in Wellington, even over the last 18 months, there has been huge steps forward. Many things hold us back – like absent landlords etc which can really slow the whole process down. The pandemic has shown us that the community pulls together, the market traders pull together and there is a lot of support there. There is SO much going on, behind the scenes and in front. The fact that someone has taken the time to write this “letter” shows the passion and drive that many also share. A positive change IS happening but we do need to all pull together and not be so negative. The whole community is what will be the driving force behind them – and that includes the “powers that be”. The only way is up for Wellington.
Thanks Paola – I hope you’re right about the ‘powers that be’. I also get the impression there’s genuine commitment – in recent years I see councillors really get the need to support the high street, but the challenge will be making the case for the resources it’ll need to make good on those commitments when there will such a lot of competition for spending. It’s true that the whole community needs to get behind the town, and it’ll also be important that existing businesses think about their offer and their profile and do what they can to prepare for emerging trends. Some are doing this so well, building connections into the community and promoting other businesses. Some are basically invisible and will need help to modernise. But I’m positive this vision can be something like reality!
The letter from 2030 is optimistic and positive and shows how Wellington ‘could’ improve significantly.The ‘green’ approach is great. However, its going to need funding, dynamic leadership and full community involvement, especially with the Covid 19 challenges! It seems that there is a pot of £25 million earmarked from Government for regeneration of Telford from the ‘left-behind’ Towns fund which is funding for 101 towns (up to £25 million each) through the #Mytown scheme. The Government are presently asking for suggestions for each town on the mytown.communities.gov.uk website and they are ‘saying’ that the funding will be spent according to the priorities of the communities rather than the councils, so this is a chance for Wellington folk to nominate some potential schemes to regenerate the town centre. There are already a few mentions of Wellington but the more community involvement (and suggestions) the better!