Thursday, 4 January 2018

Regeneration game

My recent post about the closure of Winters on Little Underbank highlighted the issue of the regeneration of Stockport town centre. It can’t denied that it’s in need of a shot in the arm, with a high proportion of vacant shop units, many of those that are trading occupied by rather downmarket, low-rent businesses, and a general air of neglect and tattiness hanging over the whole place. As one of the commenters says, “The town centre is somewhere that people from Stockport's wealthier suburbs shun on an increasing basis.”

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?

29 comments:

  1. "There is Stockport, too, which lies on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, but belongs nevertheless to the manufacturing district of Manchester. It lies in a narrow valley along the Mersey, so that the streets slope down a steep hill on one side and up an equally steep one on the other, while the railway from Manchester to Birmingham passes over a high viaduct above the city and the whole valley. Stockport is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent."

    Friedrich Engels, "The Condition of the Working Class in England", 1845.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Underbank and Lower Hillgate used to be a cornucopia of small quirky shops where you could buy such things as a rare postage stamp or a sex toy or a transistor or a fancy dress costume. I suppose such small shops have been driven away as much by the very high business rates as by online competition
    Whilst the are needs redeveloping I would hate to see it become just another "clone town" the way Spring gardens in Buxton has.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The other Mudgie !4 January 2018 at 11:17

    Engels certainly had a way with words.
    I expect that fifteen to ten years ago he would have described Winters as "a dusky, smoky hole".

    ReplyDelete
  4. Having just moved to Stockport I am hopeful that the Underbank/Old Town area does regenerate. I love wondering around the old streets and it is a welcome change to Manchester, there is something truly unique to that area and I just hope the potential can be realised. Theres a few great shops including TRAMP hair, 20th Century Stores and Hatters Coffee but there needs to be more of a buzz around the area. Even heading to the Vintage Villages on Sundays it feels rather desolote. I hope it remains independent and doesn't fall to the fate of the Northern Quarter which has lost its rough around the edges charm in an attempt to attract those that spend lots of money but create nothing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Maybe Altrincham isn’t a bad example, alongside Rammy? The new market there has turned Alty into a destination, even though it’s main shopping precinct is similarly careworn as Stockport’s. The market hall in Stockport is actually pretty nice - the council did, I think, make the right decision to invest in it - but it’s more of a functional shopping destination than Altrincham’s.

    Wayfinding signage could certainly be improved, as well as heritage plaques

    All that being said, I don’t hold out much hope. Even though I live in Stockport I rarely find myself in the centre. Working in Manchester (and also because where I live - Gatley - has a convenient train link into Manc rather than the longer bus journey to Stockport) means that if I’m doing any drinking it’ll be there.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post, not least because it echoed and artuclated many of my own thoughts. Be sure to ask SMBC for a consultancy fee as the level of insight would cost them plenty from some management consultants. I also like what you said about the Red Rock development, we were there this afternoon and have to admit that it does bridge the gap and extend the town centre northwards. All it needs is one of those small To Let shops to become a micropub (the Swan with Two Necks may yet enjoy a revival). Steve Pilling, of Damson in Heaton Moor and other pubs and restaurants has been given the opportunity to develop the Produce hall in the Market area as a food and drink multi outlet which may yet provide another catalyst to bring more people up in to that area.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks - I did devote a fair bit of thought and effort to this post, so it's good to know it's appreciated :-)

      Possibly one of the Red Rock units could become one of Thornbridge's new craft bars, as after all they're fairly local. Or even BrewDog Stockport!

      Delete
    2. Agreed Ted, an excellent post from Mudge which the local council would do well to take note of.

      Delete
  7. "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."

    Or sneak into pubs or fast food restaurants. Or buy something if they can't sneak in.

    Some councils, eg Richmond, actually have an official Community Toilet Scheme where non customers can use pub, restaurant, café etc toilets, though, with the council paying a bit for maintenance (but less than stand alone facilities).

    I recall in Berlin when I lived near there many bars, restaurants etc had a sign saying non customers could use the facilities for 50 cents. I presume that was a legal requirement if so many did it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I believe Munich pulled all public toilets, but they require all beer halls to permit the public to use their toilets.

      Delete
    2. If you have to use facilities surreptitiously, then it becomes a big psychological deterrent, and isn't really practical if you're a parent with children.

      Stockport theoretically has a council-run "community toilet scheme", but it is so poorly publicised as to be largely a waste of time. It needs proper flag signs on the streets, not just little stickers in windows.

      Delete
    3. Germany as a whole is poorly provisioned with public toilets. Railway stations or shopping centres are your best bet, although I didn't know about the beer hall thing in Munich.

      Given the crowds in the Hofbrauhaus, it would be dead easy to sneak in for a craft piss, without anyone batting an eyelid.

      Delete
    4. Is a "craft piss" a special, independent, strongly-flavoured, artisanal piss, as opposed to a dull, bland macro piss? ;-)

      Delete
    5. I like your style, Mudge. My comment should have read "crafty" piss, as I'm sure you know, but I think when the "urge" strikes, it's definitely going to be a dull, bland, but much needed macro piss!

      Delete
  8. Be simpler to just bulldoze it all and start again. Then you can lay it all out better and put a really large Wetherspoons in the middle. One so big it has it's own monorail.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sensible suggestions only please Cooking Lager, or are you starting the year as you mean to go on?

      Delete
  9. At least you seem to have a decent minded council with respect to the pub trail.

    My council (Bradford) actually pay someone to write and maintain an alcohol policy. Suffice to say its anti alcohol consumption. After that the city centre suffered hugely from the closure of pubs and bars until a mini renaissance created by the opening of The Sparrow in North Parade. Now there are a cluster of decent real ale and craft bars around this hotspot.

    Bradford which used to be a massive real ale destination is now way behind Leeds. Not to mention Huddersfield (for goodness sake)

    ReplyDelete
  10. The other Mudgie !5 January 2018 at 12:07

    Parking might “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” but car parks cost money to build and maintain and they occupy land that could otherwise generate income as housing or business or retail premises. All too many motorists have the selfish attitude that they have the God-given right to drive where they like, when they like, without paying and with no regard to other users of a town or to the environment. As a pedestrian non car owner I don’t expect to subsidise middle-class motorists from Stockport's wealthier suburbs as I’m drinking my Robinsons or Sam Smiths.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, if you deter high-spending, affluent people from visiting your town centre, you're not going to regenerate it, are you?

      Delete
    2. The other Mudgie !5 January 2018 at 14:46

      Maybe but high-spending affluent people can afford a few quid top park their cars.

      Delete
    3. They can also very easily vote with their wheels and take their business elsewhere - it's not a captive market.

      Delete
  11. Although you've challenged it, having people live in an urban centre is definitely the way forward. Stockport must make for a good commuting town to Manchester. Having people walking too and from the station through the High Street creates a vibrancy and encourages people to stop off for a pint or two when they aren't shackled to a car.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But people living in Stockport and commuting to Manchester isn't going to revive Stockport town centre, is it? And how many people are going to walk along Merseyway to get to Stockport station?

      Delete
    2. Mr Micawber would understand that if more money comes into Stockport then goes out, Stockport becomes richer - and vice versa. So Stockport gets a little bit richer every time Robbies sell a bottle of Trooper to New York (or Leeds), and Stockport gets a little bit poorer every time one of the brewers spends their wages on an iPhone.

      Likewise, Stockport gets richer every time a commuter spends their wages on one of the Magnet's homebrews and poorer every time a Stopfordian buys a pint of Beavertown in an Enterprise pub, or a pint of OBB in a Sam Smiths, and Britain as a whole gets poorer when someone buys a pint of Heineken in a Star pub.

      So if you want to regenerate, you need to find ways to get more money coming in than goes out. Having commuters coming home and spending some of their wages in Stockport is one part of that picture.

      I agree with you on parking - it's one of those things that has a disproportionate multiplier effect relative to the cash raised. If going free isn't an option, then free after 3pm seems a good way to encourage those in work to pick up the odd thing in town rather than going to Mr Amazon. But in general town centres have struggled to cope with the massive generational shift that's happened, of the demise of the full-time housewife. Now that most women are working and there's more people living on their own, the average household is far less likely to have someone "spare" to go shopping during the day. So there needs to be more thought to opening at times when working people are actually around to shop - perhaps opening til 7-8 on a Friday (taking the hours from earlier in the week), which would also mean people are more likely to "follow on" and have a drink or meal.

      Delete
  12. This is an interesting piece from Simon Cooke: Can smaller cities thrive? Only if they've good suburbs

    "There's no right answer to city size (indeed it's quite a deep wormhole in academic geography these days) but there is a case for being comfortable with being liveable and interesting rather than chasing the megacity rainbow. For smaller cities there needs to be more focus on suburbia, on family life and on amenities that allow for these things to thrive. Suburbia gets a bad press but the truth of the matter is that it's where most of us want to end up - house, garden, kids, good schools, safe streets, recreation grounds with youth football, family-friendly restaurants, a decent pub where you can sit down and chill."

    ReplyDelete
  13. Why wouldn't working in Manchester and living in Stockport revive Stockport? I live in Sutton, 12 miles from London and the High Street is doing better than Stockport by the sounds of it. Why? Because commuting is by train and people walk to flats nearby. When a mass of people do that the High Street remains alive past 5pm and pubs fill up as people pop in to the pub or restaurants on their way home.

    And no, Sutton isn't some hipster enclave, it was one of only 3 boroughs in London to vote Leave. Let's face it, there is no real succesful alternative for towns like Stockport that aren't on the tourist trail.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Well, the closure of Marks & Spencer isn't going to do much for town centre regeneration, is it? The opening of an M&S branch was once seen as a sign that a town had "arrived".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The other Mudgie !21 February 2018 at 19:27

      Maybe not so much closing as relocating in Stone, Staffordshire where M&S are currently recruiting fifty staff.
      Would rather still have the historic Joules Brewery closed there by Bass Charrington in 1974 than any number of new shops

      Delete
  15. And, in recent weeks, Stockport Council have decided to hike parking charges yet again. They seem to have a death wish for the town centre.

    ReplyDelete

All comments currently require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, if you want to make more than the occasional unregistered comment, if I don't already know you, you will need to tell me something about yourself - my e-mail address is in the sidebar.