George Osborne handed Crewe an early present the other week. According to the chancellor, HS2 will reach the town ahead of time. It’s like a twelve-years-of-Christmas countdown, with huge, brassy engineering balls dangling from the festive tree. The wrapping paper will come off some time in 2027, and the train arriving at platform futuristic will be the 10:59 from London Euston. It will have taken less than an hour.
Cheshire’s engine room is now geared up to deliver significant benefits to the North West and beyond. Quicker journey times, for sure, but there are also fantastic opportunities for myriad engineering, technical, logistics and office-space companies already present or planning to locate to the region.
The idea of a Northern Powerhouse has been bandied around for some time. It would be a stretch to include Crewe or Cheshire in that bracket, more edge-of-Midlands to be accurate. However, equally significant is the Gateway to the north – and that is Crewe, whether you’re talking about road or rail.
Only now are planners fully grasping the geographic significance of Crewe, a true gateway that can unlock potential for every town and city (north, south, east and west) beyond its junctions. Thousands pass through the railway town each day, but increasingly many are hanging around for more than coffee, cake and a platform shuffle.
Bentley Motors carries the luxury car manufacturer flag with an ever-burgeoning workforce and healthy order book; huge cranes reinforce the publicised growth and dominate the town’s skyline, and by early 2016 a new office block (pictured) and styling centre will be constructed. Manchester Metropolitan University has its Cheshire base a stone’s throw from the railway station; and one of a new generation of university technical colleges will open its doors to students within twelve months, located in the heart of the town. Some of the best talent will be on tap.
One immediate question is how easily will users of the new station hub be able to access the town’s retail core, just under a mile away? A tram would be ideal but would come with a hefty price tag. Innovative solutions are needed soon, as the railway bridges dotted across Crewe now struggle to accommodate the rise in car journeys. There must be a shift in thinking, for economic, efficiency and health reasons.
Increasing rail capacity in particular is vital. As access to the larger northern cities becomes easier, Crewe is the obvious mid-point to break the London journey – whether that’s commuters, freight distribution, or the location of larger companies’ employees outside of the capital. Land prices are modest, incomes are just below the national average, but there is a diverse range of skills available to perspective employers. Crewe ticks numerous boxes for potential investors on several fronts.
The South Cheshire Chamber of Commerce has described the town’s HS2 station hub as “a new beginning”. While that sounds somewhat dramatic, it’s not so outrageous. The station and its labyrinth of rail lines once defined Crewe; that can be true once again. John Dunning, chairman of chamber, quite rightly pointed out that the new high-speed line is “a fantastic opportunity for growth and inward investment” for the region as a whole, including Stoke, Warrington and North Wales. He and the organisation’s members will be keen to move quickly.
The signs are positive. Transport for the North (TfN) has a newly-appointed chair, former CBI director general John Cridland, complete with a £200m pot to support its role in overseeing £13bn of investment into the region’s roads and rail. Locally, the £26m Crewe Green link road has opened for business. Connectivity between the south of the town and the M6 motorway/A500 junctions will improve significantly, with pressure on roads around the railway station and industrial parks eased. Crucially, access to swathes of development land around Basford becomes possible.
As the coal and steel industries disappear off the UK map, there are calls to protect what’s left of the UK’s industrial and engineering heritage. Why not start that resurgence with Crewe? Siting a major maintenance depot or, the ultimate nod of approval, creating a new engine/rolling stock manufacturing plant would be a gamer changer. Perhaps then the town once synonymous with every aspect of railway life could rightly re-establish itself as one of the country’s most significant hubs.