IN St Helens, there seems to be a pervasive sense of negativity that has grown in some quarters of town.

As you may have seen, many stories about the town often receive a heavy dose of cynicism and pessimism on social media, whether this is related to the council, the town centre, or businesses departing the high street.

With a high street pockmarked with empty shops and several nighttime venues closing down in recent years, some of this negativity is understandable as many residents remember a booming retail sector and a busy nightlife in St Helens.

However, as many Star articles and the annual Pride of St Helens awards highlight, there is much to be proud about in St Helens, and many of the problems facing the town have a historical, political, and financial cause.

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St Helens 'never recovered' from the closure of the mines

St Helens Star: Sutton Manor pit in 1974 and 1991 - which was a huge employer in the townSutton Manor pit in 1974 and 1991 - which was a huge employer in the town (Image: Gary Conley)
As many Sintelliners are aware, St Helens was a powerhouse in the industrial and manufacturing industries, with Pilkington Glass, Beecham pharmaceuticals, and the collieries in Sutton Manor, Bold, and Parkside being huge employers in the borough.

With thousands of people working in the borough's mines and supporting industries, the closure of the pits was particularly devastating for St Helens families.

With mining families already struggling for the best part of a year in the 1984-5 strikes against Margaret Thatcher's government, the union's eventual loss shattered the working class community, who had no other option but to find other work, despite many having no other experience apart from working in the mines.

Despite the "horrible conditions" in the coalfields, Gary Conley, who worked in Sutton Manor coalfield between 1974 until its eventual closure in 1991, said the miners had a relationship that felt like a “brotherhood".

Once this brotherhood was fractured during the bitter strikes, Gary said that this allowed Mrs Thatcher's government to "smash the rest of industry and the unions", which he believes had an enduring knock-on effect on working-class towns like St Helens.

St Helens Star: Ex miner Gary Conley at the Dream Sculpture, located at the former Sutton Manor colliery siteEx miner Gary Conley at the Dream Sculpture, located at the former Sutton Manor colliery site (Image: St Helens Star)
Gary, who helped to bring the Dream sculpture to the site of the former coalfields in Sutton Manor, said: "I've said this many times, but former working-class mining towns like St Helens never recovered from the mines being closed the way that they were.

"There were 1,500 people employed at the Sutton Manor pit at one point in time, and when you think about all the supporting industries that supported the mines, you can see why so many families struggled.

"There was a real brotherhood in the mines and I believe that the town had a much tighter community back then, 100 percent.

”Now, it feels like much of this pride has faded in the town.

"The town centre, for example, is not how I remember it being with all the shops, benches, flowers, and fountain that it used to have.

"At times it feels like the rugby team is the only thing that people are proud of these days, but there are some amazing people from St Helens."

Town centre struggles and cuts to public services

St Helens Star: Many residents have fond memories of a busy high streetMany residents have fond memories of a busy high street (Image: St Helens Archive Service)
Although St Helens' other industries did not have the same battle with the government as the miners did, employment options also dried up in other areas as St Helens sites were sold off, businesses merged with other companies, and many job opportunities were taken out of town.

In more recent years, the retail sector has significantly struggled with the rise of online shopping, retail parks, and big-name brands choosing city centres over satellite towns.

While this struggle can be seen in St Helens, it is not something specific to the town, with neighbouring areas such as Wigan, Warrington, and Leigh all undergoing or set to undergo regeneration projects, which gives weight to the argument that northern towns have been left behind.

And while there have been false dawns about regeneration in St Helens, and some residents have criticised certain aspects of the council's plans, a major £90m investment is set to transform the town centre and hopefully give it the shot in the arm that it desperately needs.

St Helens Star: £90m regeneration plans are set to start in St Helens this year£90m regeneration plans are set to start in St Helens this year (Image: St Helens Council)
In addition to issues with the town centre, some of the negativity and criticism that has been levelled at the council has been to do with the closure or reduction of public services.

For example, anger was expressed following the closure of four community libraries earlier this year, as well as concerns about the  closure of the swimming pool Sutton Leisure Centre and the demolition of Parr Baths.

However, while these decisions come under scrutiny, there is no getting away from the increasing budget cuts from central government over the past 14 years.

Compared to when the government took power in 2010, St Helens Council estimates that its budget from grants to fund services has been cut by £117m per year.

With a growing demand for children and adult social care services in St Helens, and as the borough contains some of the most deprived areas in the country, it is easy to understand the difficulties in spreading this ever decreasing pot of cash.

Again, this is also not just a problem specific to St Helens, as although the government handed a £600m uplift to all UK councils earlier this year, more than half of the country’s local authorities responded to a survey saying that they were unlikely to balance their books in the next five years.

'There is so much to be proud about in St Helens'

St Helens Star: Martin Blondel has helped to continue the legacy of Steve Prescott with the Steve Prescott Foundation and the Pride of St Helens AwardsMartin Blondel has helped to continue the legacy of Steve Prescott with the Steve Prescott Foundation and the Pride of St Helens Awards (Image: Martin Blondel)
Despite the loss of industry in St Helens, the decline of the town centre, the cuts to public services, and the financial difficulties people have faced in the cost of living crisis, residents have pointed out that there is still much to be proud of in the town.

In addition to the town's rugby and darts success, and the good news stories that the Star shares, the Pride of St Helens awards showcases the community spirit, inspirational people, and the best of our borough every year.

Following on from Steve Prescott's incredible fundraising efforts during his battle with cancer, the awards show was launched back in 2012 to highlight the positivity in the town and show another side to the negativity that was present.

One of the chief organisers of the Pride of St Helens awards is Martin Blondel, who has helped to keep Steve Prescott's legacy alive with countless fundraisers and charity events operated under the Steve Prescott Foundation.

St Helens Star: Martin was awarded an MBE for his services to the community during covidMartin was awarded an MBE for his services to the community during covid (Image: Martin Blondel)
Speaking about the launch of the pride awards and the negativity that has persisted in town, Martin said: "I'm quite passionate about this, because this was the whole reason we started the Pride awards twelve years ago.

"Many of us were tired of seeing the same negativity about the town centre, and the complaints about the number of pound shops opening.

"So we wanted to do something to highlight the great and the good in St Helens, and raise the aspirations for people in the town."

Over the past 12 years, the Pride of St Helens awards have highlighted the incredible achievements of people in the borough, such as war veteran and triple amputee Andy Reid who went on to launch the Standing Tall Foundation to support veterans and those with addictions and mental health problems.

The awards have also highlighted the work of Rainhill writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, comedian and actor Johnny Vegas, footballer Conor Coady, Saints captain James Roby, and Marie McCourt's campaign for Helen's Law after the tragic death of her daughter in 1988.

With many more awards showcasing the tireless work of community volunteers, NHS heroes, foodbank workers, and those who have overcome mental and physical challenges, Martin said that this shows the type of town that St Helens is.

St Helens Star: Andy Reid has been recognised at the Pride of St Helens AwardsAndy Reid has been recognised at the Pride of St Helens Awards (Image: Dave Gillespie)
"When you hear the stories of all the people that the awards have highlighted, you realise how many inspirational people come from our town", Martin added.

"I think people forget how much strength St Helens has, and despite being a small town, we punch far above our weight.

"We also started the 'Pride of Place' award last year to show that people are proud to be from St Helens and there is so much to be proud about."

Alluding to the financial challenges that the council has faced over the past decade, Martin said that seven council event officers used to help support the work of the Steve Prescott Foundation, which was set up to continue the fundraising work of the Saints rugby league legend.

Although this support has been withdrawn due to the cuts from the government, Martin said that the Foundation does all it can to provide people with the opportunity to get involved in events such as the St Helens 10k, the St Helens Gala, or the various other fundraisers that it helps to organise.

St Helens Star: Andy Reid and supporters of the St Helens Gala eventAndy Reid and supporters of the St Helens Gala event (Image: Steve Prescott Foundation)
Martin added: "I do understand that there have been a lot of false dawns about regeneration, for example, in St Helens, and financially, times are tough for people.

"But at least there are changes happening in our town and I think without the support of our organisations, businesses, and charities, things would be a lot worse.

"The best thing about St Helens is its community spirit and people like Steve Prescott were so proud to be from St Helens because of this.

"I think the town needs to get behind one another and focus on the positive things that we have got going in St Helens, because if we don't, then things are never going to get better."