Jane Redfern Jones warns that Wrexham needs to re-assert its Welsh nature or risk being absorbed by its cross-border neighbours
Wrexham is a wonderful place full of excellent people but it has suffered from being ignored both culturally and economically for too long. Towns such as Llangollen and Corwen in Denbighshire successfully market themselves. However, comparatively little has been done in Wrexham to promote its fantastic history and heritage. Outside the town we have two major National Trust properties, country parks and miles of rolling countryside. This is what we should be promoting, not pushing Wrexham as an under-confident piece of the English commuter belt.
Town planners need to give the town more structure and landmark. Former Wrexham resident Jamie Harris, an architectural stonemason, commented that he would love to see a great deal of new-build projects being decorated with traditional patterns calling on our history and culture, Celtic knotwork, Owain Glyndŵr, and scenes from the Mabinogion. In short, we should be promoting an architecture that is very different from its English neighbours.
One apparent threat to Wrexham’s identity is the West Cheshire / North East Wales Sub-Regional Plan. This strategy, which has received strong opposition from the People’s Council of North Wales, proposes tightening the links between adjoining Welsh and English counties. It was created by the Mersey Dee Alliance, a partnership which includes the local authorities of Cheshire West, Chester, Denbighshire, Ellesmere Port, Neston, Flintshire, the Wirral and Wrexham.
Those opposing the plan feel that north east Wales is being prepped for an influx of workers from across the border, workers who are keen to find affordable housing at much more reasonable prices than those found in Cheshire’s leafy suburbs.
There have also been a number of smaller debates surrounding what Janet Ryder AM calls the “creeping Chesterfication” of north east Wales, pointing to the re-branding of a Flintshire hotel formerly known as ‘The Gateway to Wales’ to ‘Days Hotel – Chester North’. As she said, the re-branding was, “One of the unforeseen consequences of councils like Flintshire signing up to a long term plan called the West Cheshire/North East Wales strategy”.
The project is described as a comprehensive housing, employment, recreation and retail strategy for a wide area. Except that when one considers what is planned on the Welsh side of the border one finds only housing.
Going back in history, towards the end of the Second World War, a lack of affordable housing meant many problems for the Roman City of Chester. Large areas of farmland on the outskirts of the city were developed as residential areas in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964, a bypass was built through and around the town centre to combat traffic congestion. These new developments caused local concern as the physicality and therefore the feel of the city was being dramatically altered. In 1969 the City Conservation Area was designated.
The sub-regional strategy is seemingly aimed at the expansion of Cheshire and Merseyside into north east Wales. The expansion of Cheshire and Merseyside is limited due to building restrictions and this desire to preserve their green belt. In Wales there is no green belt and the strategists identify north Wales as the answer to their expansion limitations.
Welsh identity is identified in draft versions of the plan as being a “threat”. It is seen as a barrier to the implementation of the plan. Draft versions of the plan also make reference to the fact that people in north east Wales are very ‘attached’ to their Welsh identity and heritage. This is not conducive to the economic expansion that is planned and explains why it is identified as a ‘threat’.
A newcomer to Wrexham, businesswoman and television celebrity Stephanie Booth agrees that Wrexham lacks an identity. She says, “During our research prior to buying the Wynnstay Arms Hotel in Wrexham we undertook a survey in southern England where many of our hotel guests originate and to our dismay and surprise the bulk of respondents thought Wrexham was a ‘town in England near Chester’. Hence our campaign to forge a new identity for the town via Wrexham County Borough Council lobbying for city status and inserting in to our national advertisements ‘Wrexham – Capital of North Wales’”.
The idea of creating an identity and vision for Wrexham has been discussed before. Back in November 2006 a seminar called ‘Sense of Place’ was organised by the council as part of Wrexham Business Week. It was followed by publication of the study in February 2007. It was a much more positive and locally distinct vision which is still languishing on a shelf. It advised a branding vision actually based on the town and its people. However, it was dropped and a new vision was commissioned in line with the West Cheshire plan. The original work focuses on Wrexham’s Welsh identity, character and uniqueness. These are assets the Mersey Dee Alliance and the cross-border sub-regional strategy apparently do not consider useful to market.
This strategy is wrong. As an English person living in Wales I know what first attracted me to this beautiful place, which is why I started a campaign to preserve Wrexham’s Welsh identity. This prompted a huge debate and incredible support.
The council has never before tried to market Wrexham as a prosperous Welsh town. Perhaps this is intentional so as to make things easier for the West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub Regional Strategy to slip into place. Though now with Stephanie Booth in town and a new Wrexham Chamber of Trade and Tourism being formed, our council will have to sit up and take notice. Perhaps soon we will see our town receiving the recognition it deserves. Let’s hope so.
The Sense of Place study, prepared by Angharad Wynne marketing and communications can accessed at http://www.wrexham.gov.uk/assets/pdfs/tourism/wtf/sense_of_place_report.pdf
The West Cheshire/North East Wales sub-regional strategy can be found at: http://www.merseydeealliance.org.uk/subregion.htm.
This article first appeared in the current Summer 2010 issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda.