2021: The year the story changed
Looking back on 2021, in spite of the pandemic, Wellington turned a corner. After 20 years of doom and gloom about the decline of its high street, it has been pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that something exciting is now happening.
Across 2021 we have seen regular news of new businesses opening and existing businesses expanding – and at a rate we haven’t seen before. It is evident as you walk around the town. Shops that were vacant, sometimes for a long time, are being occupied. The Wrekin Inn has been refurbished and reopened by our own Rowton Brewery. The iconic Cock Hotel nears the end of its own massive refurbishment ready for a Spring launch. Inside the market – a place that was attracting much negative comment just a year ago – the new food court and (oddly named) youth market outside has not only brought a whole chunk of the market site back to life, but has kicked-off a programme of hugely popular late-night openings that have amazed visitors. Themed events at The Walnut and The Gratitude, razzmatazz at The Orbit for the new Bond film, and away from the centre, the continued success of the Bowring Cafe (including a new indoor seating area) has added to the sense that Wellington has got its mojo back.
At the latest count by the Love Wellington team, an incredible 50 businesses have launched or moved to new premises in the last 12 months. Some of these are office-based so aren’t visible on the high street, and some are to be found within the market, but almost half are retail and hospitality businesses occupying shop units in the street. In a year of so much continued uncertainty, this is a remarkable success. So what’s going on?
FIRST, THE BACKSTORY
The more that you’ve thought about the future of Wellington in recent years – and I’ve thought about it far too much – the more significant this very recent change feels. When I started to take an interest 20 years ago as a student (and living somewhere else for the first time), Wellington was still struggling to redefine its role having been demoted from East Shropshire’s main commercial centre to very much second place behind Telford. This specifically local challenge was being compounded by wider national trends that saw a move away from traditional high streets and towards out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks. Then in 2008 came the global recession. And THEN the rise of online shopping. In the meantime, property owners accustomed to the profits of past times had been reluctant to lower their rental expectations. Units sat vacant, or else where snapped up by nationwide charity shops and budget chains that were willing to pay the high rents that local independents were not. Whilst there were many exceptions, Wellington looked increasingly like a low end, budget shopping destination – and the narrative of a place that’s “all charity shops” was set, how ever unfairly.
At the same time, national government and local authorities had probably failed to recognise the scale of what was happening – or at least to agree what they could/should do about it. Wasn’t this just market forces? High streets would adapt, they always did. It didn’t feel like their job to directly intervene – not when they had so many other things to worry about. [The thing is, high streets matter to people – and when people see them failing, they start to feel rotten about where they live. Vibrant high streets are good for our wellbeing. Start framing it in those terms and the public authorities can get interested – and these days they are interested. But I digress.]
And so, amid this perfect storm, Wellington’s fortunes continued to fall. There were moments of optimism and of real investment – before the global recession caught up with the public sector in 2010, the town benefitted from public realm works paid for by Advantage West Midlands (AWM) – a long-lost regional quango; building renovations funded under the Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) by the Heritage Lottery Fund; and the development of a new civic and leisure centre around the swimming baths on Larkin Way by Telford & Wrekin Council.
The recession can partly be blamed for cutting of the blood supply to these positive interventions. Without it, some of the short-lived new businesses lured into vacant premises by tarted-up shop fronts would have survived and others would have joined them. Without it, further resources from government may have been forthcoming. Whenever they were challenged about lack of investment in Wellington centre around that time, the borough council very reasonably pointed to their £8.5m investment in those new civic buildings – alongside the AWM and THI money. But looking back now, I think most would accept that welcome though all this big structural stuff was, too little was done to join the dots between these elements and the fortunes of the high street. Yes, the new civic centre brought a few hundred new office workers into Wellington – and I’m sure some bought sandwiches and greetings cards and postage stamps on their lunch break – but the fact of their presence wasn’t enough to make a real impact when the high street was in such a dreary state.
SO WHY THE CHANGE?
If spending millions a decade ago didn’t turn things around, what is the root of the sudden success we’ve seen in the last 12 months? Well, it’s not quite THAT sudden – 2021 is when the new openings have really ramped up, but the green shoots have been there for a couple of years.
1) A council putting its money where its mouth is
I said above that councils, like central government, had been slow to respond to the seismic changes high streets have been experiencing in recent decades. Ten years ago, our council would have seen its job as investing in the infrastructure – fostering an environment attractive to new businesses – but they would have drawn the line at directly pumping money into small businesses. That has changed, and since 2019 we have seen them awarding grants of up to £10,000 to individual businesses wanting to set up in Wellington (and other borough towns). New openings paused during the early lockdowns for obvious reasons, but during 2021 we’ve seen many more new ventures appearing and several if these aided by a £10k grant. I know that for some these grants have been the difference between being able to open/expand and not. Nothing makes people feel more positive about the town than seeing new, quality businesses opening. Through its grant awards, Telford and Wrekin Council has been able to directly – rather than just indirectly – enable that.
2) Bottom-up as well as top-down: an active ‘civic life’ matters
Big spend regeneration schemes have been pretty rare since the financial crash and austerity. The idea that you can save a town centre by building something big and shiny is, in any case, very ‘early noughties’ – the prevailing view now is that it you need to support and knit together the creative, people-driven stuff too if you want to really bring places back to life. Wellington has always had lots of voluntary groups doing good things, but increasingly in the last decade we’ve seen volunteer-led activity in what could be called the ‘place-making’ sphere – Save The Clifton (now The Orbit), Walkers Are Welcome, LA21, Friends of Wellington Station, Friends of Bowring Park, Friends of Dothill Nature Reserve, Wellington History Group – a spin-out from the Civic Society – and others too. Aided by social media (which enables them to share more of their work and build wider networks) these people are investing their time in making Wellington a nicer place to live.
3) Love Wellington has changed the narrative
Ever since I started really caring about Wellington the prevailing narrative has been a depressing combination of ‘it’s all charity shops’ and ‘it’s not like the old days’. When positive things happened, there was always someone quick to say ‘that won’t last long’ or ‘shame about all the [insert negative observation]’ or ‘yes but, the real problem is…’. As Facebook went mainstream a decade ago and local pages started springing up, so this narrative took root there too. The admins of those groups often did their best to highlight the positives, but it was an uphill struggle. Good news stories from the borough and town councils were easily lost and lacked the energy to make them stick. Groups like ours – Wellington H2A – and LA21 tried to change the tone, doing and talking about the good things, and I think that helped, but it needed a more concerted effort to turn around the oil tanker of negativity. Since 2018, Love Wellington has done that.
Professionally led with funding from the town council, but drawing on a network of local volunteer contributors, Love Wellington has systematically and relentlessly brought positive Wellington stories to people’s attention. Its Facebook and Twitter pages share photos and good news stories daily; it has got many of those stories into the local media and pulls them together for the quarterly ‘This is your Wellington’ town council magazine. It seeks out opportunities to raise the town’s profile further afield, too – in 2019 Wellington was even a finalist in the Great British High Street Awards, recognising its regeneration journey. All sorts of great stuff can be happening, but in a place like Wellington that had been so resistant to adopting a positive narrative about itself, that great stuff has to be constantly celebrated and emphasised in order to gain traction and lead to more great stuff. This has been the power of Love Wellington – it’s not rocket science, but it has been essential.
2021: The jigsaw pieces slot into place
Thanks to all these factors, in my view, Wellington’s high street went into the challenges of the pandemic much stronger than it would have done a few years earlier, and probably much stronger than some other towns. Instead of feeling this would be ‘the nail in the coffin’, many of us were instead thinking ‘things have been going so well, let’s get through this and pick up where we left off as soon as we can.’ Quick-thinking and community-spirited businesses showed their mettle and earned much gratitude as well as sympathy in those worst months of the pandemic: takeaway meals from The Walnut and Bowring Cafe, for instance; deliveries from Ken Francis Butchers (now Anthony’s of Wellington) amongst others. Love Wellington, meanwhile, was there to communicate their efforts and share what positivity they could. What’s more, the experience of lockdown – making all our worlds smaller overnight – meant that thousands of Wellington folks who might ordinarily work/shop/relax further afield were confined to the town. How many people have rediscovered what’s on their doorstep these past 2 years? We have relied more on local shops and services in that time, and thus noticed more and cared more. Local loyalty is back.
And so this was the backdrop to 2021. Yes, another very difficult year – and I can’t imagine how businesses, especially in hospitality, are living with the ongoing uncertainty of it all. But the groundwork that was laid running up to 2020, plus the council Revive and Thrive grants for start-ups, plus the pent-up demand and paused new enterprises on hold from 2020, plus the new ‘hyper-local’ lifestyles Wellingtonians are now living – all have made this the year when so much came to fruition.
And this is all BEFORE the £3m Towns Fund money starts to be planned and spent – that is an opportunity we must seize. It will be focused on the very centre of the conservation area and will hopefully help tackle the big outstanding issues there – the gapping hole of 4 Market Square (Stead and Simpsons), for instance, bought 2 years ago by a local developer but still sitting empty.
Optimists like me have been saying for years that a revival is around the corner, but sometimes that revival – if we were honest – seemed far off. Finally, it feels like it’s here.