Thursday, July 18, 2019

All we are saying, is give Stockport a chance

Eric Jackson, Statement Artworks 
I spend more time than is healthy thinking about how northern towns can become better places. I try and do my bit by using them. One of the traits of a failing place is that it will have lost a clear purpose and people don't go there.  There's only so long you can keep going somewhere out of civic pride and loyalty.

My nearest town is Stockport, and significantly, a framework was released today for a large part of the centre of the town that planners have called Stockport Town Centre West, from the area around the station, down to the river Mersey and along towards the bottom of Hollywood Park. It's significantly the first Mayoral Development Corporation that Andy Burnham is backing to use powers of land assembly and planning.

This is unquestionably a good thing.

Let's get a few home truths on the table first. In its present form Stockport Market is dead. Turning it into a food hall, like Altrincham, in one swoop wouldn't have worked; but it has to change. The sale and development of the Produce Hall could have been handled better. It got the whole project off to a bad start. The external aesthetics of the Red Rock leisure complex, with a great new cinema, are pretty grim. Any plan to reinvent a shopping precinct where the largest retailer is Primark is on a hiding to nothing.

Right I've said it. Can everyone move on now?

I'm on record as saying the Light Cinema is the best I've been to. I really love it. I've now been to the Produce Hall a few times and the reshaped Market Place and I think it's great too. I had a good chat to the gaffer, Steve Pilling, and he talked me through the scale of the project, and the thinking behind the different "stalls" and the need to prove the concept, create footfall, then to support other decent quality operators to come once it had been established. I was delighted that our wonderful neighbourhood Cambodian is expanding from Marple and into the Produce Hall. I'm sure others will follow.

I'm really pleased that Foodie Friday is still thriving on the last Friday of every month.

The area around the Underbanks, all around the brewery is an absolute treasure trove, every bit as potentially charming and fascinating as historical cities like Chester and York. The key word there is potentially. It also has the commitment from some really sassy and innovative retailers. I'm not sold on the identity of the area as "Stockport's Soho", but as this piece from the Manchester Evening News captured recently, the will to improve the area is palpable, but also tainted by frustration. Parts of it are crumbling before our very eyes.

Here's the thing though. Without footfall, without people coming to a place, day in, day out, then specialist retail and leisure dies. It can't support a business, let alone a town. Stockport, like many northern towns, has a big challenge to attract the people with money to spend, to sustain the businesses and to provide a range of things for people from all different incomes to come and enjoy.

You can get part of the way by encouraging existing locals, by swishing things up to tempt the Bramall set to stop by (and Marple, Davenport and Woodford types), but the re-population of town centres is what will surely be key. Town planning takes time, and everything has to be patiently and carefully consulted on.

The latest plans for Town Centre West look uncontroversial and rather urgent. The consultation period is open until the 6th of September. I know what I'll be submitting: just get on with it.

This piece of news passed me by at the time, but Chaat Cart, another local Marple favourite, is also setting up in the Produce Hall alongside Angkor Soul.

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