We’ve been here before, of course, and I wrote on the same subject back in 2012. Stockport was nominated as a “Portas pilot” town, but Mary’s magic touch doesn’t seem to have made much difference. (Did it anywhere?) Obviously if there was any kind of instant formula, plenty of towns around the country would already have seized upon it, but it’s a complex and challenging issue. I claim no professional expertise on the subject, but I thought it would be worth offering some musings.
With the rise of out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping, a large chunk of the business once enjoyed by traditional town centres has disappeared, and realistically it’s never coming back. If you want a specific, high-value item, it’s far easier to buy it from somewhere you can easily collect it, or have it delivered to your door. But that doesn’t mean that people end up sitting in isolation in their own homes, and town centres need to concentrate on areas where they can make a difference, either in giving a personal touch or where impulse buying and actually handling goods are important. That means sectors like fashion and jewellery, hands-on services like opticians and hairdressers, eating and drinking, and entertainment.
The role of local councils in urban regeneration can often be overstated. They can create the conditions for it to happen, but the bureaucratic and entrepreneurial mindsets are ultimately poles apart. In particular, they can’t dictate what kind of businesses they want to open. What councils can easily do, though, is make town centres less attractive places to visit and do business. A few years ago, I made a post in which I included a long list of ways in which one particular council had made their shopping centre less attractive, and were then surprised when people stopped using it. Depressingly, some loon in the comments thought that many of these were actually good ideas.
The most significant area in which councils can make a difference is that perennial bugbear, parking. All too often they have regarded it as a cash cow without any regard to its contribution to the wider economy of the town centre. Clearly it isn’t possible in a major town centre to provide unlimited free parking, but if it is to compete with locations like the Trafford Centre, it is important that it is both convenient and reasonably-priced.
There isn’t really an absolute shortage of parking in central Stockport, but there are several ways in which it could be improved. The longer-stay car parks should be converted to pay-on-exit, so people don’t have to guess how long they’re going to be there, and there is no longer any risk of incurring a fine for overstaying. And it’s hardly user-friendly in this day and age that parking machines don’t give change, and don’t accept notes or cards. There should be a limited amount of short-stay free parking as close to the centre as possible, and all parking should be free after 6 pm. It would also be desirable to provide more commuter parking on the fringes of the town centre at say £4 a day to encourage employment.
It’s all very well to preach that people should be using the bus, but in reality it has to accepted that decent parking is key to attracting more visitors, especially the more affluent who are going to spend more. The fact that the council offered free parking on Sundays and after 3 pm in their own car parks in the run-up to Christmas shows that they are well aware it is a disincentive.
Another area where council policies have an effect is the provision of public toilets. This is not a statutory obligation, and many councils, including Stockport, have taken advantage of this to literally slash the number they provide. But, without toilets, people may feel the need to curtail their visit, or take their business elsewhere to out-of-town supermarkets where facilities are available. There are some decent toilets in Merseyway, albeit provided by the shopping centre operators, not the council, but the town centre would also benefit from a high-quality set on or close to the Market Place.
This raises another issue, that of connectivity. The town centre is on two levels, connected by a variety of steep banks and steps. Even if you don’t find them physically challenging, they form a psychological barrier. You could easily spend all your time in and around Merseyway and Princes Street and never realise that the Market Place and St Petersgate even existed. Likewise, the station is a fair distance from the heart of the town, and at a much higher level. It’s not immediately obvious when arriving by train that there even is a town centre, let alone how to get to it. Possibly the two could be linked better by installing an all-weather travelator between the station approach and the bus station, and another connecting Warren Street and the Market Place.
The council also has a role in maintaining the quality of the environment – clearing litter, providing adequate bins, fixing broken paving, removing growths of weeds. Small things can have a big effect on visitors. A place that looks cared for comes across as more welcoming. And the collection of tacky “Christmas market” stalls that adorned the Merseyway precinct over the festive season didn’t exactly give an upmarket impression.
The area around the Market Place and the Underbanks represents what must be the best-preserved historic townscape in the whole of Greater Manchester and, although of limited extent, in quality it stands comparison with many of the well-known architectural show towns. The bridge carrying St Petersgate over Little Underbank is a particularly unusual and distinctive feature. This has potential as a tourist destination which surely could be exploited more than it is at present. Putting informative signboards up pointing out noteworthy features would be a start. As more visitors were attracted, the footfall would generate the demand to open up businesses in some of the currently vacant units, thus creating a virtuous circle. There are areas within Greater Manchester that manage to support a variety of independent, upmarket businesses, and if Ramsbottom can do it, surely this part of Stockport can too.
To their credit, the council have produced a pub trail of the town centre in conjunction with the local CAMRA branch, and the town’s appeal as a venue for pub and beer tourism should be shouted more loudly, particularly with the opening of the Robinson’s Brewery Visitor Centre. The council should also be very careful to avoid the loss of any more of the town’s historic buildings, such as when the future of the Midland pub on Wellington Road North was threatened by a few inches of cycle lane as part of a new road scheme. Fortunately, after public protest, it was saved.
As outlined in the post I linked to above, employment is a key factor in ensuring the vitality of town centres. Workers will provide business to coffee and sandwich shops, buy gifts, cards and top-up shopping and patronise pubs and restaurants after work. They provide additional footfall and in a sense are a captive audience for retailers. Plus, if they like what they see, they may return at other times for more serious shopping trips. This is why the encouragement of employment, and providing the necessary facilities, is an important element in the mix. A town centre should not be solely seen as a retail destination.
On the other hand, while it’s sometimes claimed that increasing the amount of housing in or near town centres is a good way of reviving them, in fact, as I argued here, that only has a very limited effect and can indeed be an admission of defeat.
While there may be ten thousand people living in Manchester City Centre now, when thirty years ago there were only a few hundred, that is still only the population that would support the handful of pubs in a typical small market town, and in terms of the centre’s overall pub trade is a drop in the ocean. Pubs thrive in the centre of Manchester, and other large cities, because they function as retail, employment, business, cultural and entertainment hubs for a wide surrounding area and thus attract large numbers of people for a wide variety of reasons.It’s their attractiveness as a hub that makes town centres thrive, not people living close by. And, in general, people, especially those with families, much prefer to live in leafy suburbs than cramped town-centre flats.
Just as small changes can easily set off a cycle of decline, it’s possible that things can go the other way. I’ve expressed a certain amount of scepticism about the Redrock development, in being unsightly and poorly integrated with the rest of the town centre. But one thing it does bring is aspirational eating places, something that previously was singularly lacking. Some may sneer at “chain restaurants”, but it was noticeable on a bright day between Christmas and New Year that Pizza Express was pretty full of fairly young and affluent people who previously might not have found anywhere to eat to their liking. Might that turn out to be just the catalyst the town centre needs, and have a halo effect in also making nearby retail sites more desirable?