A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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TWENTIETH-CENTURY CHESTER 1914-2000
Central government became increasingly involved in the administration of Chester after 1914. Its involvement was the creative force which determined the direction and level of social and environmental change. Small towns such as Chester tended to suffer from the 'politics of the rates', which meant that local politics were reactive, not dynamic. Most ratepayers were concerned primarily with keeping rates low, with the result that local government alone was unable to fund the creation of a healthy, beautiful, or culturally stimulating urban environment. In particular, the problems and opportunities associated with Chester's special status as a historic city would not have been addressed without funding from central government. It was difficult at first to persuade Chester city council of the need to preserve the city's historic environment, because conservation cost money, and the preservation of old buildings or archaeological sites could interfere with more obviously profitable commercial developments. For many years the dilemma was presented to Cestrains as a choice between incompatible opposites rather than as a unique opportunity. They were asked whether Chester was to become 'a dead museum piece rather than a living, dynamic city', not how they could capitalize on the survival of the physical evidence of its past. The prevailing attitude before the 1960s can be summed up by the mayor's declaration in 1955 that 'we are not a lot of old fogies living on our traditions'. (fn. 1)
The difficulty in nurturing civic pride was compounded because many Cestrians lived in suburbs outside the county borough; although they were provided with services by the city council they paid rates to the county. The city within the walls alone retained some coherence, but the dominance of retailing interests there made it difficult to provide an effective cultural focus for the urban area as a whole. The problem was highlighted after 1974, when the county borough was merged with the outlying suburbs and an extensive rural area as one local authority. By then, however, Chester had begun to benefit from reconciling environmental enhancement with economic selfinterest, through a growing recognition at all levels that the location of new businesses and the encouragement of tourists and shoppers depended on the attractiveness of the built environment.
Meanwhile the city's economic base had been transformed, in part through the development of its long-standing role as a regional centre. (fn. 2) In 1914 Chester was an old-fashioned and declining county town, with a stagnant population, moribund traditional craft industries, and some mid-Victorian heavy engineering. Although it attracted a few modern factories between the First and Second World Wars, the rising prosperity and growing suburbs of that period depended as much on industrial employment elsewhere in the region and on the provision of services, including high-quality shopping, for people living beyond the city. Those developments were qualified by severe national economic difficulties and by the fact that until the 1950s the city centre was disfigured by slum housing and semi-derelict areas such as Lower Bridge Street and Watergate Street. From the 1960s, however, Chester's economic fortunes and physical appearance were revived in tandem by the consolidation and then the massive extension of the city's importance as a shopping centre, by the accumulation of other types of service jobs, especially in the public and financial sectors, and by the rise of tourism. Economic growth was accompanied by a pioneering and highly successful conservation of the city centre's historic fabric in the wake of the Insall Report of 1968. Although parts of the city, notably the largest council estate, Blacon, were blighted by all the characteristics of late 20th-century social deprivation, Chester as a whole was very prosperous. By the 1980s it was widely regarded as 'the Surrey of the North', (fn. 3) and it was symptomatic of Chester's image at the end of the 20th century that in 1995 a glamorous new television soap opera, Hollyoaks, was set in a fictional suburb modelled on Handbridge and filmed in and around the city. (fn. 4)