CHARLES GRAHAM - Highs and lows of 2011

Wigan Warriors celebrate winning the Challenge Cup
Wigan Warriors celebrate winning the Challenge Cup

FOR many reasons 2011 will go down as an unforgettable year.

It was one of some uplifting highs but also some horrible lows, both at a local level and in the wider world.

Thumbing through the last 12 months’ copies of the Wigan Evening Post quickly reminded me just what an emotional rollercoaster (if you will forgive the cliche) we have been riding on.

No year is ever one of unremitting joy or gloom, but perhaps because the personal repercussions of global economic catastrophe have been so profound, we have seized all the more enthusiastically on the good bits. Then again there were really good things to cheer about.

But certainly the economy has been the root of more troubles than anything else. As Britain teeters on the brink of a double-dip recession, we can reflect on an unprecedented year of austerity measures, all the more noticeable because they have come after so many years of never-had-it-so-good prosperity.

Earlier in the year hardly a week went by without our having to report the latest plans by our local public bodies to downsize, with hundreds of health workers’ jobs earmarked for the axe while more than 1,000 have been quitting their posts with the local authority.

These have been grim times for the public sector and it came as little surprise when many of its members took part in a far-reaching one-day strike. Further industrial action has not been ruled out by at least some of the unions as negotiations with the Government about less generous pensions rumble on.

A fundamental part of the coalition’s masterplan from the start was that the jobs lost by the bloated public sector would be more than compensated for by a resurgent private one. Great if it works because at the heart of many of the best economies lie private businesses that make things and export.

It hasn’t quite panned out that way nationally, in no small part due to continuing financial woes abroad beyond our government’s control. Unemployment has been far outstripping recruitment by the private sector which has plenty of problems of its own, not least because of bailed-out bankers not being so generous with loans as had been hoped and consumer demand (thanks to soaring utility, petrol and basic foodstuff prices) not being there.

In Wigan we can at least cheer the relative becalming of unemployment figures. They have fluctuated all year but overall are pretty much where they started. In the circumstances that’s pretty good.

Of much greater concern is the fact that more than a third of these 9,000 people are aged under 25. Wigan has also been shown (under certain criteria that the authorities here question) to have one of the largest numbers of NEETs in the country: those Not in Employment, Education or Training.

The last thing we need for the long-term good of our local economy is a huge cohort of desperate and disillusioned young adults who get out of or never get into the habit of a work ethic.

You look around and wonder who could be offering people work. There seem to be enough jobs going as shelf-stackers and in the service industry if you look hard enough or willing to enter those areas of employment.

But plenty of other local businesses big and small have had their problems, with recruitment the last things on their mind.

It has, for instance, been another very trying year for JJB Sports which, after axing dozens of its stores, put many more on notice of closure if they don’t buck up their ideas. The retail giant’s woes aren’t all of the economic downturn’s doing but it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

There are quite a few more empty shops on the borough’s streets than there were 12 months ago, although the Grand Arcade still seems to be going strong.

We have said goodbye to several long-running smaller firms whom the more optimistic would have expected to go on forever. Wildings camera shops and Bradburn Camping of Orrell both cited competition from the internet as hastening their demise although both businesses still exist in online form.

The admission this year that the 1,000-job, prestigious Fashion City textile research and development complex – planned with the Chinese government for Westwood Park – was now officially off was cushioned by the fact that most of us had already predicted it was dead in the water long before. Alternative uses for this prime brownfield site have yet to come to anything.

On a more positive note, there have been some promising noises in just the last few weeks about pressing high-profile yet unused big buildings into profitable use. Most notably the intention of turning that hideous former Wigan Police headquarters on Harrogate Street into a hotel. They say they would re-clad its outside rather than flatten and re-build. Whether that proves to be a wise move, only time will tell.

Dave Whelan had designs on opening a new hotel next to the DW Stadium but he and his grandson David Sharpe have other ideas for the former Fitness First gym now: hoping to turn it instead into a Wigan version of Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip restaurant (please note, Daves, that that world-famous emporium in Guiseley near Leeds has just closed; oh, and the key to great fish and chips is beef dripping).

One plan that caught almost everyone by surprise was the recent revelation that Today’s Christian Church on Pottery Road is hoping to take advantage of the Saddle Relief Road plan and build a 1,000-seat performance venue.

Of all the times to come up with something as exciting and long-overdue as this. Let’s hope it comes off.

As one door opens another closes. It was quite ironic that the hall plan should be announced at almost the same time as the Wigan Pier nightclub shut up shop for the last time. The world had changed around it. Suddenly there were lots of residents at nearby Trencherfield Mill complaining about window-shaking drum beats at 4am and council noise abatement got involved.

But Wigan’s famous night scene has been struggling as a whole. A number of clubs have shut (only sometimes to re-open under a different name) but there is a consensus that King Street only really gets going on a Saturday night now.

Running parallel with King Street we have the soon-to-be completed Wigan Life Centre. Very smart this new one-stop-services-shop, baths and library looks too but so it should at the price!

Of far better value, I would suggest, is the Wigan Youth Zone, building work on which is set to begin in the new year.

Given the aforementioned NEETs crisis, anything that gives our young generations new interests and a sense of belonging the better. The Council has caught some flak for pledging £600,000 a year to the project from money saved by vacating other buildings for the Life Centre, but I think on balance it is a sound investment.

One big pity is that it is going to sit right next to the now empty Drumcroon art gallery and education centre which the authority couldn’t find the money to keep subsidising. I would like to think that this hugely valuable service, which not only displayed art but also loaned it out to schools, can in some other form be resurrected.

Further down Parsons’s Walk we can at least see the long-awaited improvements’ being made to Mesnes Park. This to me is one of Wigan’s greatest treasures and it was with great delight that I have watched the National Lottery money being spent on it. Much more to come in 2012 too.

We have had our chances to smile in between the swathes of cuts and the introduction of fortnightly bins.

Right up there must be Wigan Warriors’ regaining of the Challenge Cup trophy after a thrilling final against Leeds Rhinos at Wembley.

The season may have ended in slightly muted fashion, but there has been enough talent on show for devoted fans to be salivating over the new Super League fixture list. It was great to be down at the DW Stadium to cheer the triumphant squad home. Just like old times.

Wigan was in party mood in April too when locals joined in the Royal Wedding celebrations. Considering the austerity faced by many, I’m glad it didn’t get bitterly in the way of watching two of Britain’s more comfortably-off citizens tying the knot.

And we can do it all again in 2012 with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

This year also marked 50 years since George Formby died. Happily this didn’t lead to morose commemorations but a celebration of the acclaimed entertainer’s achievement, not least because 2011 has also been the golden anniversary of his fan club.

There were exhibitions, parties, church services and even a TV programme (with Formby fanatic Frank Skinner).

A new book threw a bit of controversy into the mix with the revelation that his dad, himself a legendary entertainer, was a bigamist and because of this George was illegitimate – although he went through life oblivious to the fact.

I am going to leave my reflections on the year though with tribute to another inspirational figure.

Sadly there is not a year goes by in a borough of our size without one or more of its citizens’ being murdered and in 2011 we lost several.

A death which made national headlines was that of submariner Ian Molyneux who was shot by a crew mate.

He left four children and a wife, Gill, who has emerged a truly admirable figure in the wake of this personal tragedy.

Anyone who read our Christmas Eve edition which included a long interview with Mrs Molyneux, cannot fail to have been moved by her bravery, stoicism and compassion.

She has managed to suppress perfectly natural feelings of hatred towards killer Ryan Donovan, her feelings being predominantly of sad bewilderment at why he felt the need to destroy not only her husband’s life but his own. She has expressed a desire to meet Donovan face to face.