Three years ago, on a freezing, dark December morning, I stood outside Wilkinsons in Beeston and gave an interview to BBC Radio Nottingham about why I would be spending the next few days getting people to sign a petition to keep Wilkinsons in Beeston, and to protect the 60 jobs there. I was expecting a few signatures, but after two days of standing outside, kept alive with cups of tea the Wilkos staff smuggled out, I, along with volunteers who came along to help me when things got really busy, had accumulated over 3,500 signatures. I’d suspected it might be popular – I have always been a fan of Wilkos and their staff – but was surprised and overjoyed to see the extent Beestonians shared that love. It was duly presented to the council, who unanimously backed our call for Wilkos to reconsider shutting down completely, and take premises that the Square developers Henry Boot had offered them. This fell on deaf ears, seemingly, and in April 2012 Wilkos closed and demolished, with half the staff losing their job and the other half relocated to Nottingham and Long Eaton.
Three years later, and once again I’m bleary-eyed, cold, and in Beeston Square giving an interview to Radio Nottingham. In the three years that have passed, so much has happened I won’t bore you with blow-by-blow details: I don’t need to, you probably live here and have seen, heard, and been inconvenienced by it.
Yet there is lots of reasons to be cheerful. It’s looking like it will be six months overdue, but the tram is nearing completion and gradually things are getting back to normal. Chilwell Road is (belatedly) open to traffic, albeit one way and so complex to navigate you might need one of those passengers rally drivers have, shouting ‘Hard left! Brake! Avoid bloke in hard hat!’.
Good news from a council meeting of the Beeston Town Centre Working Group I attended at the Town Hall on Tuesday evening. The tone was of cross-party optimism. The work initiated by the Continuum, of which I will talk about in a post later this month, is starting to bear fruit, with the University Built Environment department coming down to help their neighbours here in Beeston. Beeston has been identified by businesses and retailers as a very attractive area to set up, to such an extent areas of land the council own that would usually been sold for a quick buck (such as the old market place) are now being kept as they are expected to rocket in value.
While budgets are tight, money was there to be spent on some cosmetic features before the end of the financial year. Some good ideas came up, such as up lighting the parish church and other prominent, good-looking buildings. The Tories on the committee were in agreement with Labour and Lib Dem councillors that the worst was over, and Beeston was now on the verge of increased prosperity.
It was also mentioned by the attendant council officer that ‘A large retailer has leased the remaining units in the Square development, though we can’t say who it is’. The meeting chair responded ‘I think anyone using Facebook over the last couple of days will know who we are talking about’.
It is, of course, Wilkinsons. While their frustrating (one journo recently summed them up as ‘I’m sure there are countries that would like a Secret Service as effective as them’) communications department still refuse to confirm or deny, it is pretty clear they are the retailers that have snapped up the units. As I understand it, the contracts are signed and the ink dry, and they will be back early 2015. We broke the story this Monday on The Beestonian Facebook page, and within a few hours had hundreds of likes, tons of comments and more shares, views and interactions on that single post than anything we’ve ever posted before. At the time of writing, that one post has reached over 26,000 people. That is more than the population of Beeston. We really like Wilkos here.
Why have they came back? Commercial viability, of course. Yet one of the ways they would have assessed how well they will do here would have been to monitor stuff, such as the recent post on Facebook where we asked ‘What do you most miss about Beeston?’. The overwhelming response was ‘Wilkos’. The 3,500 signatures collected, and the coverage in the media all added to the case to return to our town. A minor part maybe – that store was highly profitable, after all – but by clubbing together as a town, and getting our voice heard change can happen. Well done, Beeston.
So jubilation, happiness, nice way to slide into Christmas and the spangly brand new Beeston of 2015? Well, if only life was that easy.
I was live tweeting the meeting on Tuesday, just to see if Wilkos was mentioned. Once it was, I was toying with going home. I was tired, the council chamber air conditioning is so dry you feel the moisture being sucked from your pores, and my phone battery was telling me it had a pitiful 1% of life left in it. Yet, being essentially a polite type of person who doesn’t like to interrupt stuff by clomping out, I stayed.
It was then the bad news was released. A piece that was not on the agenda, as notification had only just been issued. British Gas / National Grid had demanded that they come into the Square, dig a huge area running from Oban House right to the centre of the Square, with another excavation running down to the bus station. Please feel to add your own swear-word here. I will go with ‘shit-the-bed’.
So just as we get back to normal, with the new Square development opening in around a fortnight and the nearby tramworks easing up; Chilwell Road being fully open to traffic and Wilkos jubilantly marching back; new ideas about future development coming in and national retailers pricking up their ears to Beeston; just as it looks like we would be free of trenches and holes and hi-vis and helmets and having to work out new ways to get anywhere; this bomb gets dropped.
It’s why I’m back in Beeston Square with the BBC. I was booked into my usual monthly slot on the Breakfast Show Newspaper Review tomorrow, but received a call early morning while I was still snug under my duvet, asking if I could come a day earlier as the news about the excavation was being reported directly from Beeston. I hopped out of bed onto my bike, and trundled to the Square.
The story seems to be that National Grid unexpectedly announced that the gas main-lines in Beeston centre are in a dire state and need urgent replacement. Not repair, replacement. This means a major piece of work. I have been tipped off that it might just be these areas either, but great swathes of Beeston.
Why wasn’t this done while the tram works were already digging up Beeston. Seems it didn’t occur to National Grid. They can, and do, just announce they want to carry out major works, and then just march in, with little room for opposition. In this case, they have demanded that they have the Square for six months.
This may be contingency planning, and it will take a lot less, but it still doesn’t bode well. It shouldn’t impact on the tram delivery, or the opening of the new Square, but it is going to lead to bizarre scenarios such as the digging up of new paving NET have to lay as part of their contract, after less than a month. As the paving contractors will have already have been paid, there is seemingly no way to avoid this.
Why was so little notice given? Why have National Grid /British Gas just decided that pipes that have been there for decades need replacing now, with such urgency? Why could it have not done over the last few months?
We need answers, and we need the people responsible to see how incredibly damaging their actions are. My suggestion is this. Over the last few years, Beeston has been torn apart, and not just physically. The tram has polarised many people, with little room for people like myself, and what I suspect is the majority of Beestonians, who are tram agnostics. Pro / Anti arguments rage, to little end or use.
We need to show some unity. Right now, we face a common enemy. This is not a council issue, this is not an MP issue, this isn’t even a tram issue. This is a private utility company caring diddly-squat for our town, and kicking it when it was just getting back up. We need to unite to tell them that this is unacceptable, that they must get these works done with the minimal of fuss, as fast as humanly possible, and work with Beeston, not against us, in getting this over with asap.
It’s Christmas (well, close enough). Beeston, time to set your differences aside and lets get together. We work better that way.
Follow the Beestonian Facebook site for regular updates on the situation, and other news about Beeston, here: https://www.facebook.com/TheBeestonian.