Wrexham is the fourth largest town in Wales, but unlike other major Welsh urban centres, it is located in the north-east corner of the country, very close to the English border. While Wrexham is an undeniably Welsh town, it is also closely linked to the north west of England.
The Welsh Assembly Government's Spatial Plan for Wales refers to the important cross-border linkages Wrexham has with Chester and Deeside. So while Wrexham, which is significantly bigger than any other town in north Wales, can lay claim to being the 'economic powerhouse' for the region, it also inevitably faces outwards from Wales and is subject to strong influences from across the border. This creates some ambiguity in its identity, and in how it is perceived by others.
At the 2001 Census Wrexham town had a population of 42,576. However the town merges with a number of former villages, forming a wider Wrexham Urban Area, with more than 63,000 inhabitants, and is the main administrative and service hub for Wrexham County Borough, with 130,000 inhabitants.
This population has grown continuously for more than two centuries, as the area has gone through processes of industrialization and post-industrial modernization. Perceptions of Wrexham often lag behind the realities of recent change.
Wrexham: Industry Past and Present
Like the major south Wales towns, Wrexham owes its importance as an economic centre to the development of coal and iron industries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The town stands on the southern part of the north Wales coalfield, mined for centuries until the last pits were closed in the late twentieth century.
Early iron workings in nearby Bersham were developed by John 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson who eventually moved production onto the Brymbo estate at the edge of the town. By the 1830s 40 pits had been sunk on the estate, and iron was being produced on a large scale. George Borrow describes visiting Wrexham in the 1850s where he encountered the 'grimy-looking huts' of colliers and their families, and the fierce glare of furnaces and clanging engines made the scene 'a vision of hell'.
Despite numerous changes of ownership and fortune, the Brymbo works continued production throughout the nineteenth century, and produced steel from 1885. The mid-twentieth century saw major expansion and modernization of the plant but the steelworks closed in 1990, with a loss of 1100 well-paid, and well-respected, male skilled jobs.
Borrow's description of Wrexham drew attention to another leading industrial activity, brewing. Thanks to excellent underground water supplies, Wrexham beer gained an outstanding reputation. There were 19 breweries in the town by the 1860s, and in 1882 a group of German immigrants set up the first successful British lager brewery. Following a succession of mergers and takeovers, the Wrexham Lager Brewery was the last of the breweries to close, in 2000, when its site was redeveloped into a major shopping centre.
The loss of all its main industries by the end of the twentieth century ended a key phase of the town's historyExcept for some 'heritage' sites and trails, there are now few visible traces of them. The chimney from Border Brewery was saved from demolition to compete as a landmark with the 15th century tower of St. Giles parish church. Other remaining brewery buildings have been converted into offices and flats. Housing now fills the former Brymbo site, and land once occupied by mines has been developed into business and industrial parks. Wrexham FC's training ground, Colliers' Park, lies above the former Gresford pit, where 266 died in an explosion in 1934. Seventy five years later a memorial match was held to honour those who died because they had switched shifts to watch a home game the next day.
It took years before Wrexham began to recover from the destruction of its key industries. The Brymbo site remained undeveloped for more than a decade, a symbolic blight on local people's expectations. But with considerable strategic support and investment, including European funding, Wrexham has been relatively successful in finding more modern industrial and technological work to replace its older industries.
The town's strength lies in attracting a diverse range of 'mainstream' manufacturing and processing activities, including major UK, European and global companies. Wrexham Industrial Estate is among the largest in Europe.
Consequently employment and economic activity rates have been consistently above average for Wales. The contribution of 'production' to the local economy, at 22 per cent, is well above the norm for Wales (13%) and the UK (10%). A quarter of the town's economically active population work as process, plant and machinery operatives.
Wrexham: Social and Economic Change
In recent times considerable effort has been put into strengthening the retail and service sectors, with the most recent £100million shopping development in Eagles Meadow bringing in the big names familiar to contemporary consumers. Even so 'services' account for less economic activity than is true for Wales as a whole.
While Wrexham also has large employers in health (Wrexham Maelor hospital) and education (Glyndwr University), professional, managerial and technical occupations play a smaller part in its economic profile compared to Wales and the UK, as do the self-employed. Furthermore, many who work in these higher level occupations live outside the town.
Hence Wrexham continues to have the appearance of a predominantly working class community. With just two exceptions (1924, 1931) Wrexham has voted Labour since 1922.
Wrexham today has new and busy roads connecting it outwards to Chester, Shrewsbury, and the motorway network to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. It has modern shopping centres and high tech factories, and its own University. Wage rates for men compare favourably with the rest of north Wales, and most of Wales. But its reputation continues to be overshadowed by a legacy of industrial decline, and by the existence of pockets of genuine deprivation. Local representatives feel this contributes unfairly to the contrast often drawn with the supposedly greater prosperity of Chester, just across the English border.
Wrexham has one of Wales's largest local authority housing estates, Caia Park. In 2001 this contained 11,882 people living in more than 5000 households. Typically, when the estate was built in the 1950s it had no local amenities and it quickly gained a reputation for social problems. Today parts of Caia Park rank among the most economically and socially deprived areas in Wales, and the estate forms part of a Communities First regeneration project.
Caia Park gained notoriety in 2003 when it became the focus of riots, which started allegedly with an argument between local football supporters ('Wrexham Frontliners') and Iraqi Kurdish refugees.
Fifty-one local people ended up sentenced for offences including throwing petrol bombs and assaulting the police.
Accusations were made that refugees received favourable treatment compared to local people. Commentators linked the events to a sense of dislocation and despair caused by the disappearance of secure employment from the town.
When the riots occurred there were no more than seventy refugees (not all Kurds) in a town whose population was at least 98 per cent white British. Since then Wrexham has indeed attracted growing numbers of migrant workers, and grown significantly more ethnically diverse, and can lay some claim to becoming 'multicultural'.
Wrexham: Migration and Diversity
The presence of economic migrants reflects the availability of low-wage, low-skill jobs in industries like food processing. In particular, Wrexham has large numbers of Portugese and Polish workers, whose presence in the town is reflected by shops and cafes catering for their needs.
At the start of this century Wrexham had one of the main concentrations of migration from the new European accession countries, chiefly Polish. Wales has had less such in-migration than other parts of the UK, but 16% of its total share went to Wrexham, adding around 2500 individuals during 2005-6. One response has been the development of a 'cohesion strategy' for the town, which acknowledges the increasingly complex make-up of its various communities of interest, and seeks to bring them together under a 'One Wrexham' Charter of Belonging.
Although there are said to be some community tensions, fortunately there has been no repetition of the violent conflict of 2003. Local survey evidence suggests that 60 per cent of respondents believe Wrexham is a place where “people from different backgrounds get on well together”. Although reassuring, this is significantly below national response rates of over 80%.
Wrexham's ethnic minority population remains small – perhaps around 2.6 per cent. A far more significant factor in the life of the town is the movement which takes place every day, and on a more permanent basis, across the English border. Some 17,000 people commute out from the local authority area, while nearly 16,000 travel in. Many will be crossing the border,
Housing restrictions in neighbouring English counties can result in others settling in Wrexham. Of those who live in Wrexham, 72% are Welsh-born, a figures below the Welsh average of 75%, but above that found in neighbouring parts of north Wales. This means that about a quarter of Wrexham's population were born in England. The proximity of maternity hospitals in England means these figures are not wholly accurate as indicators of any national allegiance, but nevertheless there is a consciousness in Wrexham that a significant and growing part of the local population originates from outside Wales, and therefore may not share the same sense of identity and commitment to the developing institutions of a devolved Wales.
Wrexham: National Identity and the Border Question
When the issue of Welsh identification became controversial during the 2001 Census, around 9% in Wrexham wrote in that they were 'Welsh' , below the overall Welsh figure of 14%, and considerably less than in other parts of north Wales. Welsh-speakers account for 15 per cent of the Wrexham population, less than the national figure of 21 per cent, and well below the proportions found in communities further west. These data provide ammunition for those who see Wrexham as 'anglicized', although the majority of its residents would strongly contest any suggestion that they are not fully Welsh.
Even so, the town's location makes it unavoidable that decision makers must orient themselves as much to developments on the other side of the border as to what occurs within Wales. In many respects, Wrexham is closer to north west England than it is to the towns of the North Wales coast, or to Cardiff and the other south Wales centres.
There is a strong undercurrent of opinion that so far Wrexham has not done as well as south Wales, and particularly Cardiff, out of the devolution settlement– for example, the town has acquired few of the institutional paraphernalia of devolved government. The town's failure to win city status in 2002, when this was given to Newport, fuels this belief.
Wrexham Looking Ahead: Town or City?
Wrexham has not given up its quest for greater recognition. A new bid has been launched to gain city status in 2012. The case is made in terms of the economic regeneration Wrexham has undergone, making it 'the premier administrative, commercial, shopping and industrial centre for north Wales', with a substantial education sector, a large teaching hospital, and developing sports and cultural facilities.
The latter will be enhanced, together with its Welsh identity, during 2011, when Wrexham hosts the Welsh national eisteddfod. The award of World Heritage status to Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct has increased the town's tourism potential.
To counterbalance these positive developments, recession has brought some significant recent job losses. The much-praised attempt to run the Wrexham and Shropshire railway line to London proved unviable, and Wrexham FC is struggling (again) to find a buyer.
The impact of the Eagles Meadow development on the attactiveness of Wrexham, especially the High Street, has been the subject of heated local debate. Some of the contributions demonstrate continuing uncertainty and lack of confidence about the town's future, making unflattering comparisons with successes achieved in similar sized urban centres elsewhere in the UK.
- Graham Day was writing in response to the BBC/Open University series Town With Nicholas Crane