Quite understandably, people look to us for solutions to the challenges faced by towns. We will have a lot to say on this, but let's start with two basic principles. First, that there are as many solutions to the challenges faced by towns as there are towns themselves. The naive belief that a one-size-fits-all suite of solutions can be imposed upon towns is part of the problem. Second, we are clear that any solutions should begin and end with the greatest resource those towns have; their people.
These two principles, faith in the power of people to deliver in towns and a pattern of investment which accentuates the unique characteristics of each of our towns, will underwrite much of what we in the Centre will advocate for. They are of course easier said than done, but ought to at least invoke a debate about the unequal distribution of power and the type of devolution we want. All of which brings us to Runcorn, and a project which appears to embody these two principles.
Runcorn, a town of sixty thousand people, sits on the southern bank of the River Mersey. The 'old town' of Runcorn sits between two of the most famous stretches of water in Britain; the Bridgewater Canal, considered to be the first true canal in Britain; and the vast Manchester Ship Canal, once the largest navigable canal in the world. These waterways constitute a significant part of Runcorn's unique identity. Unsurprisingly, in a recent BBC/YouGov survey over three-quarters of people in Runcorn considered history and heritage to be strong contributors to their sense of identity; a history and heritage largely built by its canals.
Which might explain why, over a decade ago, volunteers in the town set up an organisation to breathe life back into the old canals. You see, there was a problem. The canals no longer worked. Or, more precisely, they'd been blocked and filled in to make way for the construction of the Runcorn-Widnes bridge in the 1960s. In truth, the canals had fallen into disrepair anyway. Runcorn's designation as a new town saw its population more than double in the space of a decade, requiring the construction of new homes, shopping centres and infrastructure investments like the Runcorn-Widnes bridge. The town appeared set on a course for the future through the means of an expanded and re-imagined Runcorn. It seemed that, despite the efforts a small but committed group of local volunteers, Runcorn's historic link with the canals had been finally broken.
Until recently that is, when the construction of a new bridge across the Mersey provided the campaign with the impetus it needed to press for the re-opening of the historic Bridgewater Canal locks. In 2004, the Unlock Runcorn campaign was launched with the express intention of restoring the dormant canals of Runcorn and for the waterways of the town to re-open to pleasure boating, a rapidly expanding tourist industry estimated to run into the hundreds of millions of pounds each year across Britain. We visited the campaign recently and were walked through the old locks. Nowhere does the old and the new clash more shockingly than in a patch of land at the end of the canal locks. To the left stands the now-defunct Riverside College; new buildings which once provided vocational courses but now await demolition. In front of us stands Bridgewater House, a grade II listed building and one-time home to the Duke of Bridgewater during the construction of the canal (pictured). It's home to offices and is in a state of near-perfection architecturally, surrounded as it is by new apartment buildings and the college. Reassuringly, the owners of Bridgewater House support the Unlock Runcorn campaign.
So, what is the campaign plan? The Unlock Runcorn feasibility study envisages the construction of a new boat lift, the re-opening of the historic locks and a rare incline railway to transport boats to the Ship Canal. In short, a must-do destination for pleasure boaters. The Runcorn Ring as it would be known would unblock the canals and compliment the plans of the local council, who have ambitious plans to regenerate the town centre itself, including a Canalside quarter. In short, the canals of Runcorn would again flow with traffic. A re-developed town centre would front on to a working canal system; something unique to Runcorn and part of a grand plan for the town. Little surprise then that the Unlock Runcorn project has the support of the local community, local councillors, the local MPS, Mayor of Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram, Joe Anderson and John Bishop, a native of the town.
We hope the Unlock Runcorn project is approved by council officers as we believe it embodies much of what we at the Centre For Towns would advocate for; namely a sensibly planned and fully costed community-led project which reflects the unique characteristics of place. Many of our towns, including Runcorn, are making real efforts to push back against a narrative which can sometimes accentuate the negatives when it comes to the future of towns. The local council have ambitious and exciting plans for the borough, as the recent opening of the Mersey Gateway bridge symbolised. These ambitions are to be welcomed. At the same time, we hope that Unlock Runcorn are a part of those ambitions. It would be a shame for such a rich community asset to be kept hidden, particularly when there is so much goodwill around it. By letting the canals flow again, the council can rightly claim to have reflected a unique part of Runcorn's heritage whilst also looking unapologetically to the future. In so doing, it will have reflected a key part of Runcorn's identity and given a small community project the support it deserves. We hope it can find the room within its own ambitions to do so.
You can learn more about Unlock Runcorn at www.unlockruncorn.org and here at the Centre we want to hear about other community-led projects irrespective of size. So feel free to contact us using our contact form.