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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THE ECONOMY, 1974-2000
In the last quarter of the 20th century Chester enhanced its role as a sub-regional centre for west Cheshire and north-east Wales, its buoyant economy generally riding above periods of national recession and mainly dependent on a wide range of employment in retailing, tourism, the professions, and the public sector. The city also became important as a provider of financial services through the arrival of several national firms. Employment in manufacturing was declining, and continued to depend on a few large industrial plants outside the city. The closure of the Shotton steelworks in 1979 was a heavy blow, depriving many Chester residents of their jobs, (fn. 1) but the other main industrial firms in the region, Vauxhall Motors and ICI at Ellesmere Port, British Aerospace at Broughton, British Nuclear Fuels (later Urenco) at Capenhurst, and a newcomer, Toyota Motors near Wrexham, remained significant throughout the period. They were not only the main source of manufacturing jobs for Chester's workforce, but also supported the prosperity of the wider area on which Chester's servicebased economy depended. (fn. 2) There were no large manufacturing concerns within the city. Characteristically it instead housed the administrative offices of firms which made things elsewhere, besides a small number of hi-tech manufacturing plants. Many of them were new to the city after 1974, and many were foreignowned. Corporate headquarters new to the city included Shell Chemicals U.K.; the Continental Can Co., subsidiary of a German firm, which made drinks cans at Rugby (Warws.); and Harman U.K. Ltd., which made audio equipment in Cambridge. Specialist manufacturers included Deva Manufacturing Services Ltd., high-precision engineers; Barry U.K., the British subsidiary of a French chocolate maker; and the Original Bradford Soap Works, the European branch of an American firm. All three built new factories on new industrial estates in Chester in the 1990s. (fn. 3) The manufacturing sector as a whole employed less than 19 per cent of the employed workforce in 1981, and less than 13 per cent in 1991, well below the national averages. Two thirds of the city's manufacturing workers were employed outside Chester district. (fn. 4)
County council planning policies throughout the period recognized that manufacturing jobs in Ellesmere Port and beyond Cheshire were complemented by service employment in Chester, and sought to encourage Chester district council to concentrate on attracting more service jobs. (fn. 5) It did so in part by allotting land for offices on the periphery of the city, a process closely bound up with planning issues. It was made easier by the fact that in 1984 the whole district, as part of the Wirral and Chester travel-to-work area, was designated a Development Zone eligible for government grants, largely on the strength of very high levels of unemployment in Birkenhead and parts of Ellesmere Port. Development status (downgraded to Intermediate status in 1993) helped Chester district council to set up an employment development unit in 1986, advertise the city's attractions to businesses, and provide the infrastructure for new industrial, business, and retail parks.
Sites for new industry were established west of the city centre along Sealand Road, first in an extension of the Sealand industrial estate, next by the creation of the Stadium industrial estate on the opposite side of the road, on the site vacated by Chester City Football Club in 1990, and finally at Chester West employment park, an 84-acre greenfield site further out on the south side of the road. The first businesses to set up there included an American printing firm, New England Business Stationery; a regional computerized stock-control centre for Boots; a printing works for the Thomson International newspaper group; and offices for Pearl Assurance. In the early 1990s the district council laid out Chester Gates by the M56 north of the city, 37 acres for warehousing and distribution depots. (fn. 6)
Of far greater significance for local employment was the private development of Chester business park, opened in 1988 on 150 acres beyond the southern outskirts of the city east of Wrexham Road. It incorporated (as offices) the picturesque farmhouse and outbuildings of the former Wrexham Road farm, built by John Douglas for the Grosvenor estate in 1877-84, (fn. 7) but was otherwise a greenfield site which provided high-quality and often architect-designed office accommodation in a landscaped setting. Close to the motorway network and thus within fairly easy reach of Manchester international airport as well as the private airfield at Hawarden, it attracted several large firms new to Chester. Among the first was the administrative headquarters of Shell Chemicals U.K., whose domestic-style pavilion with a hipped roof, by Leach Rhodes and Walker, (fn. 8) set the pattern for most which followed. Other notable buildings were those for Marks & Spencer Financial Services, by Aukett Associates, (fn. 9) and the palatial, Palladian-styled complex which by 1999 could accommodate up to 2,000 employees of MBNA International Bank, the British arm of a large American bank. Other firms which set up at Chester business park included the business services arm of the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Trinity International, a holding company with interests in regional newspapers, paper, and packaging, which bought the Mirror Group of newspapers in the late 1990s and became Trinity Mirror PLC. (fn. 10)
The growth and diversity of the service sector was the main reason for Chester's economic success in the period. Despite the retrenchment of the public sector under both Conservative and Labour governments after 1979, Chester's long-established position as a regional administrative centre meant that employment levels in public administration and services remained high. The district and county councils each employed about 1,000 people in the 1990s, the Royal Mail and Chester College each about 500, and the Countess of Chester Hospital some 2,500. The city was also the headquarters of smaller employers as diverse as the county police force, the Chronicle group of local newspapers, Chester City Transport, and the diocesan administration. (fn. 11)
Even more striking was the growth of financial services, which came to provide a very large number of managerial, administrative, clerical, and call-centre jobs. In Chester district as a whole, their number grew from 10,800 in 1991 to 15,000 in 1997, most of whom were employed in the city centre or at Chester business park. (fn. 12) The one important firm of local origin was North West Securities, renamed Capital Bank in 1997. In the 1970s and 1980s it continued to grow and diversify by operating financial services on behalf of other organizations such as the Automobile Association and the National Farmers' Union, employing 4,500 people in 1997 and almost 6,000 in 1999. It built two further office blocks in City Road in 1987-8 and a training centre at Chester business park, and in the later 1990s refurbished as its headquarters the former Western Command building overlooking the Dee from Queen's Park, adding an oversized portico. (fn. 13) The main financial services employers at the business park, Marks & Spencer and MBNA, employed almost 2,500 people between them in 1999 and were then still growing. (fn. 14)
Many older and much smaller providers of financial and professional services continued to occupy offices in the city centre. In 1990 Chester had at least 20 firms of accountants, 21 of solicitors, 11 of architects, 37 insurance brokers, and 10 advertising agencies. The three largest firms of consulting engineers and the two largest estate agents each employed over 100 people. (fn. 15) Office accommodation for several hundred very small businesses was provided by the refurbishment and adaptation in the 1990s of two city-centre industrial buildings, the Steam Mill by the canal and the Cheshire Enterprise Centre, the latter in a former goods depot at Chester General station. (fn. 16)
Chester's importance as a shopping centre remained high throughout the period, though by the late 1990s it was beginning to be challenged by out-of-town developments elsewhere in the region. The distributive trades and catering employed significantly above the national average, some 24 per cent of the Chester workforce in 1991. (fn. 17) As elsewhere, the 1980s and 1990s saw greatly increased competition among the main supermarkets who invested in large new stores away from the town centre, leading to the closure of smaller food shops both there and in local shopping centres throughout the city. Sainsbury's opened on the eastern outer ring-road, Safeway at Bache, and Kwik Save on Sealand Road. (fn. 18) Only Tesco retained a presence in the city centre, at Frodsham Street. Local shops survived in fairly large numbers in Hoole, but the big council estates at Blacon and Newton suffered a decline in their shopping facilities. (fn. 19) The catchment area for the city-centre shops remained very wide and indeed was probably extended by the improvement of the local motorways and trunk roads: in the late 1990s it was reckoned to extend to Colwyn Bay, Wrexham, Whitchurch, Nantwich, Winsford, Northwich, Runcorn, Widnes, Ellesmere Port, and in west Wirral almost as far as Hoylake. The city centre, however, had almost reached full capacity: shop vacancies were low and it was increasingly difficult to meet the strong demand by the largest retailers for expanded premises, though Marks & Spencer, Littlewoods, and BHS all managed to increase their sales space in the mid 1990s. Chester was very attractive to chain stores of all sizes and types, and in 1997 ranked 16th nationally for their presence, far above its population ranking. Rentals in the most desirable locations, including Eastgate Street and Foregate Street, were as high as in Liverpool and Manchester city centres, and on some measures Chester was placed in the top five retail locations in Britain in the early 1990s. (fn. 20) The lack of any sizeable new retail development in that decade, however, especially a third enclosed shopping area to add to the Grosvenor Centre and the Forum, caused Chester to fall in the principal national ranking of retail centres from 9th in 1989 to 23rd in 1994. In the late 1990s the city centre nevertheless retained what by most standards was a very large array of shops. Besides the chain stores, it included the longest-established department store, Browns (owned by the Debenham Group), many antique shops, and specialist food retailers of a type in sharp decline in most towns of Chester's size, such as fishmongers, game butchers, and cheese shops.
From the mid 1990s, however, new out-of-town shopping centres threatened Chester's regional preeminence for comparison shopping. The huge Trafford regional shopping centre in Greater Manchester, opened in 1998, initially had less impact than was feared in Chester's core catchment area, especially south and west of the city, but two other developments nearer Chester looked set to divert much of its custom. The Cheshire Oaks outlet mall at Ellesmere Port, opened in 1995 and extended in the later 1990s, was the largest development outside North America of cutprice retail outlets selling goods direct from the factory, and by 2000 was attracting 6 million visitors a year. The Broughton Park shopping centre opened in 1999 with 300,000 square feet of shops (fn. 21) in a part of northeast Wales which had hitherto looked almost entirely to Chester for its major shopping facilities. Chester's own retail parks, Greyhound retail park and Chester retail park, both on the western edge of the city, with 19 and 6 stores respectively, were small in comparison, besides being disadvantageously sited in relation to the new competitors.
The significance of tourism to Chester's economy grew enormously between the mid 1970s and 2000. (fn. 22) Chester zoo, on the north-eastern outskirts at Upton Heath, was the second biggest tourist attraction in the North-West but enticed visitors into the city centre only to a limited extent. Within the city the most visited places were the cathedral, walls, and Rows. Apart from the cathedral, the other paid-for attractions there drew only small numbers, and even in the 1990s such free sites as the castle and the canal basin were relatively undeveloped. Despite the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, the number of both day-trippers and staying visitors rose rapidly to an estimated 1 million in 1983 and 6½ million in 1995, who were believed to spend £38 million and £150 million annually in the city centre. Even in 1983 tourism was reckoned to support 4,000 jobs. British visitors were predominantly from the better-off social groups, and there were also many overseas tourists from North America, western Europe, and Australasia. Surveys showed that the main reasons for visiting Chester were its buildings and history, the general ambience, and the shops. The importance of the city-centre environment to tourism thus helped to keep conservation at the forefront of the political agenda locally, as well as making the council increasingly vigilant for opportunities to attract more visitors.