Martin Horwood MP
Civic Pride crack
‘Civic Pride’ is an idea as old as the cities of ancient Greece, or Rome, or renaissance Italy or Victorian England. It is the pride a citizen takes in their own city-state or town, with a hint of partisan prejudice. But it also implies a bit of organisation and promotion. And whether it was Athens in its rivalry with Sparta or Birmingham with London, it was always competitive. Civic pride is called for when you have something to prove.
Cheltenham’s Civic Pride project began a decade ago to steer the development of key sites like North Place, the Municipal Offices and Royal Well behind them. Civic Pride’s great champion was John Morris, one of Cheltenham’s most passionate councillors who died suddenly very recently. The name has changed now – to the Cheltenham Development Task Force – and the brief is more clearly economic. That’s really what we have to prove: that despite the reviving fortunes of Gloucester and the temptations of Cribbs Causeway, Cheltenham still has the economic edge.
As John knew, we’ve taken that edge for granted for so long that it takes some effort to remember that it was not always so. Anthea Jones’ brilliant new history of Cheltenham tells how, after our initial explosion of prosperity as a resort selling quality of life, sport and education in the nineteenth century, Cheltenham hit harder times in the early twentieth. A drive to attract industry then brought famous names here including Smiths, Dowty and Walker Crossweller (now Kohler Mira). The late twentieth century saw this sector decline as elsewhere, but Cheltenham again reinvented itself with the arrival of GCHQ in the 1950s and then the corporate headquarters of Eagle Star, Chelsea, Kraft, Gulf Oil, UCCA (now UCAS) and the government’s Countryside Commission, all in the 1970s. In the 70s, my parents used to take me shopping in Gloucester. By the 1990s, Cheltenham’s dominance in retail too seemed unassailable.
Now everything suddenly looks shakier. Kraft, Chelsea and the Countryside Commission’s successor are all going. The Gloucester Quays retail development has caused jitters in the Chamber of Commerce.
We must keep our nerve. We still enjoy many assets from earlier eras. Education, quality of life and our regency town centre remain and cannot easily be imitated. We now boast an extraordinary array of world-class festivals, built up over decades and soon to be joined by the new Cheltenham Film Festival. We still offer advanced engineering and high-tech skills. And we still enjoy direct rail connections to London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester. We even have great road and air connections if carbon doesn’t worry you. If it does, we have a university leading in sustainability and a host of new green-tinted companies. Whatever the Development Task Force plans for those key Cheltenham locations, we must not abandon the qualities that built sustainable prosperity in the past. If we need to reinvent Cheltenham again, we must do so with real civic pride in what makes us special, not in imitation of others. John would have expected no less.
Anthea Jones’ Cheltenham: a new history is in all good bookshops.
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