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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Liam Thorp

The 'forgotten' town that is about to make national headlines

At a table outside The Viking pub next to Skelmersdale's Concourse Shopping Centre, friends Sue and Paula are chatting over a cigarette.

It's 5pm on Friday and the music from inside the lively pub is getting progressively louder. The imposing retail centre that the pub is attached to is winding down for the day, with a clutch of teenagers gathered outside, wondering what to do with their evening.

"This is a forgotten town", says Paula, taking a slow drag of her cigarette, "I've lived here for 50 years and its the worst it's ever been. I have told my kids to take their kids and get out, there is nothing for them in Skem."

Her friend Sue, who manages the boozer she is sat currently outside agrees, adding: "There's no feeling of community here anymore, I think people don't respect the place."

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For the unacquainted, Skelmersdale is a town of around 40,000 people within the West Lancashire Parliamentary constituency. It is located around 15 miles north east of Liverpool and six miles to the west of Wigan. Originally a Roman resting point and with a first recorded mention in the Domesday Book in 1086, the bulk of the town as it stands today was created in the 1960s, largely as a residential overspill for the rapidly growing population of nearby Liverpool.

If you do happen to have heard of Skelmersdale - known as Skem locally - it may well be for its most famous quirk. This is a town that does not have traffic lights. The road network was specifically designed to avoid traffic jams and predominantly uses roundabouts to keep things flowing.

It is a touch ironic that a town most well known for its commitment to free-flowing movement now feels somewhat stuck, with its people cut off from other nearby areas. Ask anyone in Skem what they are most frustrated by and many will tell you it is the lack of a train station in the town and generally poor public transport alternatives. Incredibly it takes at least an hour and a half to travel just 15 miles by bus into Liverpool.

In July, the government rejected funding plans from Lancashire County Council, who had submitted a business case to the Department of Transport for the creation of a rail station on the site of the former Glenburn Sports College, which the council closed in 2015. It was hoped a new station could link up to the Kirkby-Wigan line and potentially become part of the Merseyrail network.

Friends Sue and Paula sat outside the Viking Pub in Skelmersdale (Liverpool Echo)

The rejection was the latest blow for a town that has been crying out for better connections for a long time now and that feels like it is continually let down by authorities of all stripes and and at all levels. Current West Lancashire MP Rosie Cooper described the government's decision as a 'cruel joke.'

For Glen Meskell-Brocken, who grew up in Skem but now lives in Greater Manchester. The saga of the train station that never was and the shuttered school it was planned to replace still leaves a bitter taste. Glen was one of many people who joined a campaign to try and stop the closure of Glenburn College by the County Council in 2015.

At the time the council said falling pupil numbers and poor results meant it could not justify keeping the school open. Glen said he and others knew it was a short-sighted decision that would harm future generations.

"There was a mass campaign to keep it open", he explains, "people knew that if one of the only high schools in the town were to close, it would create real problems for the young kids coming through. Everyone knew the plan was to earmark the land for a train station bid, but that was obviously turned down so now the school is gone and Skem still doesn't have a train station."

Now 48 and working in arts education, Glen lived in Skelmersdale until he was in his mid twenties. "Growing up it was like a massive playground", he explains, it is quite a beautiful place with lots of green spaces around it. But after the age of about 12 there is just nothing for you."

He adds: "There's no industry, no jobs, no public transport and so a lot of people don't venture out of the town. Many haven't got cars or the economic ability to get to other nearby towns and cities. Skelmersdale often gets overlooked for central funding because it is part of the constituency of West Lancs and is surrounded by more affluent places."

Skelmersdale's position as the poor sibling of West Lancashire is made clear in a public health report from Lancashire County Council. It shows that the seven most deprived council wards of the West Lancashire district are all in the town. The seven wards are not only the most deprived in West Lancashire, but four of them fall into the top 5% most deprived areas in the whole country. One line from the report sticks out powerfully - 'life within the seven wards seems much harder than elsewhere.'

If people in Skem feel forgotten about and ignored, they could be about to be thrust suddenly into the national picture. Earlier this week, Labour MP Rosie Cooper, who has represented the West Lancashire constituency since 2005, made a surprise announcement that she would be moving on to a new job.

Ms Cooper, a former Lord Mayor of Liverpool, announced she would be taking up a new position as the char of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust. The move will trigger a fascinating and high profile by-election in the coming months. It will be the first electoral test for new Prime Minister Liz Truss while Keir Starmer's Labour will be expecting to improve on Ms Cooper's 8,336 majority as they attempt to show they are a government in waiting.

The announcement immediately got tongues in Westminster wagging and one name in particular danced onto a multitude of lips - Andy Burnham. The popular Mayor of Greater Manchester and former Labour cabinet member is consistently linked with a move back into Parliament and a potential future run at the leadership. He may not think the timing is quite right for this north west seat, but as one senior Labour source said: "You can't always pick the perfect time, I think a lot of people will be talking to Andy about West Lancs."

For Glen Meskell-Brocken, the idea of a political heavyweight like Andy Burnham representing his overlooked home town would be huge. "Andy would go down an absolute storm in Skelmersdale. He would be such a prominent voice for the town and would get himself right in the middle of that community," he explains.

Someone else who would welcome Burnham with open arms is former local councillor Claire Cooper. She represented the Birch Green ward of Skelmersdale for Labour from 2016-19 but has since left office - and the party.

The 60-year-old now pours her efforts into championing the town where she lives through community work, including running the Made in WN8 group which promotes and supports local craft businesses from Skelmersdale. Aware of the town's many challenges, she is keen to push the positives and promote the people of the town she loves.

"It can feel like a bit of an island here, you feel a bit stuck because of the lack of transport links, but there is a lot going on here," she explains, adding: "There is a feeling we have been left behind, but a lot of people are proud, they just want more opportunities and to be given a chance. It is one of the best communities I have lived in, we just deserve a lot more than we get."

On what - or who - comes next, she adds: "I think Andy Burnham would go down very well, I think people would get behind him - but there are some good local candidates too."

Back at the Concourse Shopping Centre, butcher Peter Murphy and his son Ryan are closing up for the day. While Peter has been operating at the shop for 16 years in Skelmersdale, he and his family live in nearby Kirkby, which is currently undergoing a multi-million pound regeneration in its town centre.

"If you look at Kirkby, it has really come on. Skelmersdale needs some interest shown in it. It feels like absolutely nothing has changed in the 16 years we've been here.

"The people here are great but there's just not much for them to do. Whoever comes in has a job to do."


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