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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 August, 2003, 07:43 GMT 08:43 UK
Cheshire frets about 'affluenza'

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Are there clouds in Happy Valley's blue sky?

In the third part of a series on the north-south economic divide, BBC News Online visits the extraordinary pocket of wealth in north-west Cheshire, and finds that affluence brings its own worries.

They don't call Bollington "Happy Valley" for nothing.

For a start, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the little Cheshire town has the world's highest ratios of pubs to people.

The conurbation of Greater Manchester may loom just 15 miles away, but no metropolitan soot besmirches Bollington's Victorian stones.

And although the cotton mills that underpinned the town's economy closed years ago, Bollington is rolling in money.

Cheshire cheer

Cheshire - or at least its northeast corner, around Macclesfield, Wilmslow and Knutsford - is an extraordinary pocket of affluence by any measure.

Compared with the rest of northwest England, it stands out like a sore thumb.

Northeast Cheshire
The average house price in Macclesfield borough is 200,000, compared with 96,000 for the North-West as a whole.

Macclesfield's gross domestic product per head is 114% of the national average, as against 87% for the North-West.

And unemployment in northeast Cheshire is just 1.1%, one-fifth of the national average.

When high incomes are set against the relatively low cost of Cheshire living, the distinction becomes even more acute.

According to a recent survey from Barclays Private Clients, Tatton - the parliamentary constituency that encompasses much of Macclesfield borough - has the highest disposable income in the country, and three other Cheshire districts were in the national top 10.

Balls and malls

Much of this glamour is concentrated in Wilmslow, now more or less a dormitory town for Manchester United football club.

Peter Harrington
This is a very smart town with very smart people... we don't see beggars in the street
Peter Harrington
"Sit in any of the cafes on this street at night, and you'll see Bentleys, Rollers, Aston Martins, Ferraris - more than you'd see in a couple of years in Manchester," says John Duckworth of Wilmslow car dealership Stratstone's, which alone accounts for 20% of UK sales of 100,000-plus Aston Martins.

Peter Harrington, whose town-centre jewellers sells 25,000 watches to footballers and silver salvers to the gentry, can barely contain his glee.

"This is a very smart town with very smart people - discerning people who love to shop.

"Cheshire is now sucking the money out of [the Lancashire towns of] Rochdale, Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Blackpool, because they don't have the infrastructure any more.

"We are quite cushioned; we don't see beggars in the street."

In comes the money...

Nor is there any sign of the boom levelling off.

At an annual 51%, house-price growth Macclesfield borough is the fastest in the country.

Regional disposable incomes
Footballers' mansions aside, town houses in pretty Knutsford now regularly fetch 1m-plus, and a basic semi can be 200,000 - almost 10 times the price in some places north of Manchester.

"I really can't see how things can slow down, at least in the short term," says Rodney Jennings of Meller Braggins estate agents.

According to Peter Yates, chief planning officer of Macclesfield council, his borough receives more planning applications than any other in the northwest, and has already filled its quota of new developments until 2011.

"Wilmslow nearly died 10 years ago," says Paul Waddell of Wilmslow Interiors.

"There used to be a lot of empty premises; now, it's impossible to find any. It's a very busy little town."

... out goes the charm?

Not everyone is cheering.

Rapid development has, some say, torn the soul out of Cheshire.

Wilmslow, and scarcely a footballer's wife in sight
"When I moved here 25 years ago, Wilmslow was very charming," says Susy Krakowski, a local hat designers.

"It's very lacking in charm now.

"You never meet people who have been born here; it's always the place that you move to when you've made some money in the city.

"And that has gone pretty rampant recently."

Wilmslow's mushrooming pubs and bars, locals say, attract a rowdy element to the town after dark; the police have responded with a series of sweeping nighttime raids.

Social dysfunction

In Bollington, a tightly-knit - and until recently, fairly insular - little town, the erosion of community has been felt most acutely.

John Kershaw
Local people here are being squeezed... It sounds odd to say it, but we are a deprived area
John Kershaw
The town has seen an extraordinary influx of new blood - pilots based at nearby Manchester airport, scientists working at AstraZeneca, whose headquarters are near Macclesfield, doctors from the Manchester hospitals.

And while this has brought in money and jobs, says John Kershaw, Bollington's mayor, it has disrupted the usual calm rhythms of the place.

St John the Baptist church, a Victorian gem in the centre of town, closed its doors in June after running out of money for repairs.

"We have a prize-winning brass band, but it has nowhere to practise; we have a fantastic cricket club, but the pavilion is an absolute disgrace," says Mr Kershaw.

"There's plenty of money here, but it's a question of squeezing it out of people."

'We are deprived'

Worse, high property prices are starting to have the same sort of effect as in the more famously well-off South-East.

Manchester United
A typical day in Cheshire's wealth belt
Few people who work in Wilmslow can afford to live there: only one member of the town's fire brigade lives locally, for example, and many people commute from the other side of Manchester.

"Local people here are being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed," says Mr Kershaw in Bollington.

"If you're faced with minimum house prices of 190,000, you need two damn good incomes to service a mortgage.

"It doesn't leave you a lot of disposable income. It sounds odd to say it, but we are a deprived area."

The council understands the crippling shortage of affordable housing, says planning chief Peter Yates, but is hampered by regulations.

Unlike the South-East, where some greenfield sites have recently been earmarked for huge swathes of housing, there is still a blanket ban on most kinds of new development in the north.

Don't worry, be happy

There are, it seems, currents of resentment beneath Cheshire's placid surface.

Long-time residents dislike the brashness of the new money, and the noise, traffic and builders' dust it brings with it; newcomers, for their part, see many locals as unthinkingly conservative, determined to cling to an outmoded vision of rural seclusion.

Nearly everyone is worried that Cheshire might start to suffer the sort of "affluenza" they perceive in London and the South-East - gridlocked roads, collapsing public services, unsustainable levels of immigration and so on.

But to be realistic, such fears are still remote.

Cheshire's residents may be experts at saloon-bar whingeing, but deep down, they are a contented lot.

In a recent survey for Cheshire County Council, 92% of people said they liked living in the area, rising to 98% in Macclesfield borough - a figure scarcely imaginable in the Home Counties.

There may be moans, but it seems that Happy Valley is still smiling.

North-south divide 'getting worse'
06 Jul 03  |  England
Tackling the great divide
04 Jul 03  |  England

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