(Are These Towns) Turning Into Ghost Towns?

Rochdale, Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne on Town Centres’ Red List

Portland Basin, Ashton-under-Lyne
Portland Basin, Ashton-under-Lyne: one of Tameside’s noted landmarks.

Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Rochdale have a number of things in common. A popular yet frequent and arduous bus route [409] links the three places. All three centres will benefit from the Metrolink by next year, share a local FM radio station, and have a proud industrial heritage.

In more recent times, the three towns and their surrounding areas have been at the sharp end of the ConDems’ cutbacks. The Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside boroughs’ main employers were historically the public sector. Some 2,000 jobs have been lost through Tameside MBC’s cutbacks alone. Besides public sector job losses, the private sector seems to be anxious about recruiting, with some companies cutting staff or reducing hours of existing employees. Recent statistics have seen rising unemployment in Oldham and Tameside; the latter area only last week was deemed as the hardest area to find a job anywhere in the UK.

As Neil Kinnock said in 1983, ‘when wealth dies, spending dies’. As a consequence of the above, all three centres have suffered as the spending power of its citizens has been stifled. Hence the wide presence of charity shops and cheque-cashing places in the three centres, not only in the last five years, but also in the last two decades. In more recent times, competition has come from superstore chains’ continued expansion, retail parks and internet shopping. In Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Rochdale, retail parks are starting to be hit by online shopping; the Snipe Retail Park is starting to look a little sparse for instance. Even so, the retail park and edge-of-town superstore remains a popular choice with the area’s motorists, owing to plentiful free parking. In the last three decades, the lure of free parking has seen multiple retailers flee town centres in favour of cheaper out-of-town premises, thus making Yorkshire, Union and Stamford Streets shadows of their former selves.

Geographical Factors

In AGMA’s ‘Traditional Town Centre Indicators for Retail’ table, Ashton-under-Lyne has been a stable regional centre over the last ten years. Most of which is probably down to the continued popularity of the monthly Farmers’ Market and refurbished indoor market hall. It could be claimed that most of Tameside’s 210,000 citizens flock to Ashton instead of the borough’s other towns for their shopping needs. The picture’s not that simple as Hyde remains a solid secondary regional centre, serving the southern part of Tameside, plus parts of the High Peak and Stockport boroughs. Ashton also faces competition from the successful Crown Point North, a short walk from Denton town centre and off the M67.

Oldham has seen a rise in its UK/North West ranking in the last ten years, though recent trends has seen the Spindles and Town Square shopping centres look emptier. It has the most multiple stores (149) of our three towns (20 more than Ashton, 25 more than Rochdale) and has been buoyed by the opening of BHS’ store in Spindles. It has the largest primary catchment area (179,000, compared with 136,000 and 90,000 in Ashton and Rochdale respectively), one which is helped by pockets of affluence in Saddleworth and Shaw.

Rochdale has seen decline in retail trade over the last 10 years. Over that period, the lure of neighbouring Bury has proved to be a greater draw for some Rochdalians. Like Ashton, the wider borough has two dominant secondary regional centres, in the form of Middleton and Heywood. As well as Bury, Rochdale has competition from nearby retail parks – including at the end of the A627(M) – Oldham’s Elk Mill Retail Park.

The Retail Red List

Analysis from Javelin has placed Ashton-under-Lyne as the fifth ‘at risk’ town centre in the UK. Rochdale and Oldham are thirteenth and twentieth respectively. The report also took into account non-retail factors such as access to public transport, leisure facilities plus the impact of competing centres and internet shopping. All three centres are also affected by the pulling power of Manchester city centre; the M60 motorway has made Bury and Trafford Centre a short drive away.

We Believe Town Centres Have a Future

i. Ashton-under-Lyne:

AGMA’s report has suggested continued focus on the town’s outdoor and indoor markets. This is congruent with Tameside MBC’s plans to rejig the open market. It also suggests a central Ashton campus for Tameside College. Here, we are going full circle towards the college’s roots at the Heginbottom School next to Ashton Central Library and Warrington House (now converted to flats). It has been suggested that Tameside’s present council offices could be refurbished and fulfil that role (with Son Of TAC off Penny Meadow). Then again, demolition of TAC could be consistent with plans to improve Ashton’s public realm once the Metrolink project has finished.

The opening of the Metrolink in 2014 will make Ashton-under-Lyne one of the best connected centres in terms of public transport provision. Electrification of the L&YR line via Charlestown onto Stalybridge and Leeds will improve connections further, though whether new rolling stock arrives remains to be seen. To ensure the success of the above modes, greater integration with local bus routes should be considered.

Relocation of Tameside College to a more central position in the town will increase footfall and – hopefully – the variety of shops. It may provide a fillup to Ashton’s pubs and address some of the competition issues it faces from Ashton Moss, Snipe Retail Park and Crown Point North.

ii. Oldham:

Further up on the 409 route, it is hoped that the swift development of its old town hall into a cinema would draw people back to the centre of Oldham. The town hasn’t had a permanent cinema since 1986, with its nearest ones in Ashton and Rochdale. Part of their recommendations include the enhancement of Spindles and Town Square shopping centres, as a gateway to the proposed cinema.

However, their recommendations include one glaring omission, and this concerns the development of Tommyfield Market. In the last two decades, its open market – once one of the UK’s largest – has been cut dramatically, partially replaced by car parking. If travelling to Oldham by bus, there is every chance you may approach the centre on foot via the Candlelight club or an alleyway by the Snipe Inn. Steps should be taken to allow a clear walking route from Oldham bus station to its market, and the shopping centres.

For similar reasons to Ashton’s plan with Tameside College, it is hoped that more central housing would increase footfall into the centre. The lure of a direct Metrolink tram to Manchester and Chorlton could make Oldham town centre a good central location for bachelors, students and Asian families. Such steps have taken place with the redevelopment of St. Mary’s Estate.

iii. Rochdale:

It is hoped that the past would meet up with the future in Rochdale, with great emphasis on the town hall area, and the River Roch. Where its past would meet the future would be expressed in its forthcoming bus/tram interchange. Powered by an Archimedes screw as a sustainable energy source, it will be on the site of Yelloway’s former Weir Street garage. Already, its new library has opened opposite.

It suggests the opening up of the River Roch’s bridge at the Butts, creating a mini Amsterdam style setting. The Town Centre East scheme, aims to offer a mixed-use scheme on the site of its present bus station. Suggested, is the movement of its market to Yorkshire Street. This could be achieved by refurbishing the existing Wheatsheaf Shopping Centre to allow this. It is important that a suitable walking link – akin to the present footbridges – should be created from Weir Street up to both Wheatsheaf and Rochdale Shopping Centres.

Consistent with plans to boost footfall in Oldham, it is suggested that more housing should be introduced on the edges of the centre. On that note, could Fallinge be redeveloped? Or would new-build housing appear off Molesworth Street, Sparrow Hill or Hamer?

*                   *                   *

East of the M60’s verdict

Are our three towns detailed in this report Ghost Towns? At present, yes, but we cannot afford to sit back and watch the shutters roll down. Our towns are in the midst of a major revolution, one which appears every 40 – 50 years which has fundamental effects on the character of, and psychogeography of our High Streets.

The plans presented by AGMA for our three affected towns are good, but I feel it will take much more to get Ashton, Oldham and Rochdale back to their pomp. All three areas need serious investment outside of retail, in the form of secure private and public sector jobs, which will ensure the success of AGMA’s schemes.

Though they quite rightly acknowledges the Metrolink’s role in regeneration, it neglects the possibilities for enhanced local bus provision. The bus’ role in the vitality of our three centres is important: which other form of public transport best links our town centres from immediate residential areas and smaller town centres to our main centres? Only taxi and private hire minicabs surpass our double deckers in penetrating our towns. Foot and cycle does a similar job, albeit much better. A strategy for pedestrian and cycle access is absent in their draft report.

What of the smaller town centres like Stalybridge, Droylsden, Royton, Middleton, Chadderton and Heywood? They are just as important as our regional (in the context of our local councils) centres. They should complement the bigger centres and have a mix of some chain stores with independent retailers. As petrol costs and transport fares rise, it is important that a small centre of short walking, cycling or affordable cab fare distance from home should be sustainable. In Stalybridge, a town steering group [Stalybridge Town] is making great steps to improve the attractiveness of Stalybridge, and it seems to be going very well.

In relation to AGMA’s plans, will they (our fellows in Westminster) listen? Will it take more than the above plans? Or will it be filed and put on a shelf along with Picc-Vic and the Eastern Bypass? I’ll believe it when I see a Tameside College sign on Katherine Street!


  • GM Town Centres Project: draft report on the state of town centres within the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (AGMA, 11 March 2013).

S.V., 18 March 2013.


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