Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan’s stunning album

It is a shame that so few great bands have named themselves after civic functions. The only one that springs to mind is The Chicago Transit Authority. They dropped the Transit Authority bit when they started climbing up the charts. After 1976’s If You Leave Me Now, their fame went stratospheric. I only wish I was a Child of the Seventies, who bided their time with Stalybridge Old Band and the as-yet-unrealised Chicago tribute act, SELNEC Southern.

1976, apart from being known for its wonderful summer was a seminal year for income redistribution. The gap between British low earners and high earners was the narrowest it had ever been. Concorde jets and High Speed Trains gave us high hopes of a faster, more mobile future. At around the time when Greater Manchester’s Picc-Vic Project was kyboshed, the people of Runcorn went to air-conditioned shopping centres on fast single decker buses. Along dedicated busways.

Arthur Ling’s development of Runcorn new town inspired Gordon Chapman-Fox’s latest release. Under the alias of Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan, he released Interim Report, March 1979 at the start of this year. His inspiration is how Runcorn’s future of pristine white air-conditioned malls, connected by giant Scalextric tracks with district centres and subways at each stop would have been years ahead of time. Way ahead not only of Runcorn in 1961, but also how the new town has matured (or lost sight of its original ideals) in 2021.

On his social media pages, he chiefly points the finger at Thatcherism. Three years after Southgate Estate was completed, the communal model of public housing was shattered by Right To Buy. Maintenance standards slipped, and a certain member of the Royal Family likened Earls Way as ‘a grubby laundrette’ because of its porthole windows. By 1989, the dream was over with demolition following suit, and its replacement by less iconic yet functional houses with gardens.

On the 28 March 1979, things could have been different. If the then-Prime Minister James Callaghan won his vote of no confidence that night, Thatcherism might have been postponed for a few months or eradicated completely. Was Chapman-Fox’s choice of month for his release inspired by that possibility?

As the proud owner of Ling’s 1967 prospectus, I just had to have the downloaded version of Interim Report, March 1979. Being as (a) the limited vinyl editions had sold out; and that (b) I had yet to dust down my turntable, the download held sway. Not least the possibility of being able to listen to it on mobile devices.

Interim Report, March 1979

For an album with such a dry title, there’s no way on Eileen Bilton’s life that Interim Report, March 1979 would have accessible pop tunes. It is 35 minutes of ambient synth breaks, reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, and David Bowie’s Low album. Only with Crosville green single decker buses on overhead decks beside Shopping City, white toilet tiles, and chip wrappers.

The first and last tracks open and close with sampled speech. This taken from British New Towns: Runcorn, a 1973 film which looked at the merits of its pedestrian access and busway. Opening the album is Gateway To The North. This is an energetic number which conjures up images of busways, traffic free pedestrian access, and a few jars at The Straw Hat in Shopping City.

Ariel Views By Helicopter gives the listener an aerial impression of the nascent New Town centre. A shift away from the old Runcorn town centre by the Bridgewater and Manchester Ship Canals with a view of Weston chemical works, the Murdishaw complex, and the yet-to-be-finished M56 motorway. It gives the impression of a future with more green space, close-knit communities, and efficient public and private transport.

The third track, Castlefields, is the first of two tracks to feature the town’s estates. It is by far my favourite track as it combines ethereal melodies with Tangerine Dream synth sensibilities. This reflects the Halton Castle which towers over the estate and its more modern fortifications of low-rise deck access flats.

Doing exactly what is says on the tin is The Town of Tomorrow, which is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon and Alpha Centauri releases. The synth noises are similar to passing traffic on the M56 by day. They may remind you of the bright lights of Weston’s chemical works in a Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack sense.

After Castlefields, Intercity is another favourite. As you would expect, this conjures up images of Class 86s on the West Coast Main Line from Liverpool Lime Street to London Euston. The station predates the New Town, and is one of two stations in the town (Runcorn East opened in 1983, close to the site of Norton station).

As well as its iconic shopping precinct, Shopping City also reminds me of Rochdale Bus Station in the 1980s. Especially the subways that led to each of the two platforms and 24 stands in all. The slightly eerie tune suggests a Dawn of the Dead style air, though Shopping City was at its lively best in 1978 – 79. The idea of taking a footbridge from shop level up to busway level (still possible at North and South Bus Stations) seemed futuristic. Once again, with my Rochdale head, reminiscent of the overhead footbridge from the town’s previous bus station up to Marks and Spencer or the brown toilet-tiled glory of its shopping centre by Woolworths.

My second favourite track on this album is Windmill Hill. Another atmospheric one that is inspired by the wooded hill near Phoenix Park and the water tower. It is a peaceful number, a lull before the resigned bombast of the final track, Gateway To The Future.

Opening and closing with sampled speech from British New Towns, Gateway To The Future is a most melodic track. One that would be at home with the end credits of a film inspired by this LP. This song gives the listener an impression of fast flowing traffic on the M56 to North Wales; a dynamic service industry and heavy industry. A desirable residence for commuting to London, Liverpool and Manchester from as well as Weston to Palacefields.

Sadly, the reality didn’t match Chapman-Fox’s aural What If? scenario. There was (and still is) a lot of love for the old town, which peacefully coexists with the new town centre. With the merger of Warrington and Runcorn Development Corporations in the late-1970s/early-1980s, it is easy to think that Warrington and Runcorn are joined at the hip. (It is nearer to Widnes).

As an aural What If? scenario, Interim Report, March 1979 does a superb job. At times, it may leave the listener a little saddened to see how Runcorn didn’t quite meet Arthur Ling’s vision. On the other hand, it reminds some listeners of the New Town Development Corporation’s high hopes – the Bauhaus influenced dream compared with the free-trade reality which followed.

For some listeners, Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan is an acquired taste. If you prefer a bit more accessible, this album isn’t quite your cup of tea. Once you give it a few more listens, it will grow on you. It is not unusual for me to play it twice or three times in a day. After several listens, I find it as easy to listen to as Black Lace’s Agadoo or any of Elvis Presley’s works.

We cannot wait to hear more from Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan. Perhaps their next album should have Murdishaw, Weston and Palacefields among their track listings. Fantastic work.

Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan have a Bandcamp page where you can download or buy physical copies on this album. Downloads are priced £8.00. At this time of writing, they have sold out of vinyl copies on all three pressings.

S.V., 23 April 2021.

Southgate Estate image by RuthDonnaMills, August 1989 (Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike).

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