OPEN any newspaper and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an editorial that doesn’t warn of impending financial doom.
The FTSE is yo-yoing like an errant bouncy ball, well-known retailers are shutting their high street doors and tight-lipped businessmen wearing permanent masks of fear can be often seen studying the Financial Times with grim resolution.
But while the country’s stagnant growth is undoubtedly a worry, pockets of development are inching forward.
Wakefield Council’s leader, Peter Box, spoke exclusively to the Express about the recession, how the Five Towns is “ripe” for development, and the council’s role in seeing that vision come to fruition.
He said: “What we’re trying to do is encourage growth and new jobs. There’s only so much the local authority can do directly but our role is to act a as catalyst, working with the private sector so they feel confident about investing in the Five Towns.
“I think there’s evidence across the district that’s happening. Compared to some of our neighbours, we’ve seen regeneration continue to take place.”
Wakefield has battled adversity for years, overcoming the closure of the pits and the loss of blue collar factory jobs which led to huge gaps in the district’s once-thriving industry.
But while some areas continue to be marred by loss, the vision for Wakefield continues to be positive, according to the Whitwood councillor.
Coun Box confirmed several sites in Castleford continue to be of interest to investors, in particular, the Wheldon Road site – in part owned by rugby team Castleford Tigers – which hopes to sell the land to a supermarket retailer to fund a new stadium at Glass Houghton.
Coun Box said: “The thing is to make sure a new stadium becomes part of the community in a way that encourages other investment. People have said to me that the recession has really affected places like Castleford and traders are recognising that.
“If we have a new stadium, it means people are spending in the town. I would personally hope to see it used for music events. We don’t just want a stadium where rugby is played.”
Other potential developments include defunct chemical plants, Hickson and Lambsons, where there are plans to start building houses before the end of the year.
Coun Box said other vacant sites, such as the former Allinson’s flour mill and Nestle factory could also entice future developers, and the council’s role will be to ensure a mix of development.
He said: “I’m hoping that the proposed Lambson development will start in the near future and when it does, the whole of the riverside to Fryston is ripe for development. When these sites are developed it will be a huge benefit to Castleford. It won’t be done quickly but we can work with developers and make sure they have confidence in that part of town.
“What I would like to see is a balance. A supermarket would bring more people into the town but there’s got to be something there to attract them.
“We want people to come out of the supermarket and go into the centre. That’s where we have to work with traders to make sure it’s complimentary to a supermarket, not competition. If we get that wrong it won’t benefit Castleford.”
Coun Box said the council will be carefully considering the types of proposals and ensuring a wide range of schemes are given the green light.
The authority will also be instrumental in ensuring the planning process goes smoothly, speed up proposals where possible and help with grassroots funding for schemes such as improving shop fronts in town centres.
There is still however the harsh reality of the national economy to consider – a stumbling block which cannot be solved by a single local authority.
He added: “The recession is blocking growth at the moment. This is a national issue, inflation is rising, unemployment is rising, companies are finding it difficult to borrow from banks. The economy is flatlining. We need to see growth but there’s no consumer confidence. It won’t improve here until it improves nationally.
“We have been bucking the trend in that development has taken place and some jobs have been created because of that, but it can’t last forever.
“I accept a local authority should invest in the future and we have shown we can do that in Wakefield. But people shouldn’t expect us to solve a national economic problem.”
Still, the council leader remains hopeful that in years to come towns like Castleford will have evolved considerably.
“We’re well-placed geographically and if we know there’s an investment coming in we can make sure any jobs created go to local people.
“It’s a difficult time for small businesses but in my experience there’s more help available. Competition is fierce in a recession so there needs to be niche markets. That’s where over the medium-term, places like Castleford will change. There’s no reason why that can’t happen but it has to evolve. I believe it can and it must.”