The Coningsby Manifesto: An Alternative Vision for Stalybridge

Where next for the ‘beautiful town with a new canal’?

‘If you want to see life,’ said the stranger, ‘go to Staleybridge or Bolton. There’s high pressure.’ – ‘Coningsby’, Benjamin Disraeli

Stalybridge Farmers' Market: stallholder portrait
A stall holder at the Stalybridge Farmers’ Market on a soggy Sunday in January. The Farmers’ Market has been a recent success after moving from Mossley to Armentieres Square.

The Stalybridge of 2013 is a world away from the account of events in Benjamin Disraeli’s 1844 novel. At the time, Stalybridge was a growing industrial town, and two years away from getting its railway station. It was thirteen years away from having its own Municipal Borough.

The textile industries have gone, having been replaced by light industrial concerns. Housing has in the last 60 years expanded into Carrbrook, Hague Estate and Ridge Hill thanks to municipal and private development. It has increasingly become a popular commuter town owing to its railway station and picturesque scenery.

Today, thanks partly to the party which Benjamin Disraeli represented (and the Redcliffe-Maud Report) it along with Ashton, Dukinfield and Hyde no longer has borough status. Many citizens living in the nine towns which make up Tameside have fond affection for the former Borough Councils and Urban District Council, and the people of Stalybridge are no exception.

Who can blame them, when their town hall was allowed to fall into disrepair, leading to its demolition? Though the Civic Hall is attractive inside, how many Stalybridge people would rather see it back to its best purpose as the Victoria Market Hall? The former girls school, which includes the town’s police post is up for sale. Why did the new clinic have to sacrifice the fine 1930s building which was Stalybridge’s Community Centre? The new clinic could have been built on its old site and offer patients a much better view than a car park or the Job Centre Plus opposite.

On the internet and in the local press, it has been argued that Stalybridge seems to be at the back of the queue for spending projects. Besides the closure of its public toilets (or should I say privatisation as TESCO or The Millpond has replaced such facilities), the non-working nature of the Civic Hall clock has pricked the town’s consciousness. Likewise with the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery only opening in the summer holidays.

The common criticism – shared also by residents of seven other towns in the borough – is that Ashton’s getting it all. On that note, how far are we from Ashton-under-Lyne becoming Greater Manchester’s third city taking in the other eight areas as its suburbs?

That would be a retrograde step; the strength of Tameside is the distinct identities which its nine towns have. Which is why I happily put ‘Dukinfield, Cheshire’, ‘Stalybridge, Cheshire’ or ‘Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire’ when I send anything using the (slated for privatisation) Royal Mail. Never ‘Tameside’, nor ‘Oldham’ after Dobcross nor Chadderton. In terms of democracy, there should be greater say for Dentonians, Stalybridgeans and Dukinfielders to take control of their destiny. Parish Councils and Town Councils co-exist within Oldham and Tameside boroughs (Shaw and Crompton, Saddleworth, and Mossley), but even with an extra local voice, they are still affected by their Metropolitan Borough’s cuts.

The centralisation towards Ashton is nothing new. The opening of the TAC building saw the movement of council departments from other parts of the borough to their then state of the art complex. Furthermore, local government reform and spending cuts has favoured centralisation. It is no coincidence as to why Local Election turnouts have suffered; the populace wonder if there’s anything worth voting for, with some critics wanting to reduce Tameside’s councillors by 66.6%.

Such Good Work, Yet Being Ignored

Stalybridge Carnival, the Hail Ale Fund and some of the town’s new businesses: all fantastic initiatives and ideas, yet seemingly ignored in some quarters. The formation of Town Teams within Tameside have also given them a nudge, though some may think it’s a little too late. A fair number of recent innovations have come from the people of Stalybridge themselves. Having seen the loss of its Town Hall, Markets, free parking and privatisation of indoor and outdoor spaces, they have hit back. Not only online and in writing, but also in practice. Recent events such as the Dinosaur Day and the forthcoming Stalybridge Fringe Festival have raised the profile of the town.

Besides these fantastic events, we need to help with getting Stalybridge back to its best. No number of dinosaur days or farmers’ markets is enough to reverse the cuts made to Stalybridge. Not only in the last three years, but also the last forty years. Though the reopening of the canal and aspect of Armentieres Square looks inviting, we need some sort of added dimension. We need to get back to the idea of turning to Uppermill for inspiration with the little craft type shops and gallery. However, there are two things which stand in the way of this approach: one, is the parking restrictions (though this needs to be complemented with cheaper bus fares to and from Stalybridge, and cycling facilities); and two, the borough’s low wage economy. Hence the preponderance of betting shops throughout the borough and cheque-cashing/payday lender shops in Ashton-under-Lyne.

We not only need the vision of our local entrepreneurs, we also need a less centralised borough which ultimately benefits all nine towns including Stalybridge of course. More money has been spent on Stalybridge by Network Rail and First/Keolis Transpennine Express on the town in the last three years!

*                             *                             *

An Alternative Manifesto for Stalybridge:

  • Local Government: the formation of a Parish Council, ultimately leading towards Town Council status. Accommodation could be based in the Civic Hall, or offices could be elsewhere within the town centre, such as the former Barclays Bank on Melbourne Street or the former Union Bank branch on Market Street, latterly used as a bed showroom for George Dean and Co.;
  • Railway Services: to support the Northern Hub project which involves the electrification of the Transpennine Express route and push for improved express connections to Yorkshire, North East England and Merseyside;
  • Bus Services: to work towards more affordable fares for Stalybridge bound shoppers, and incentives to woo bus users into the town. This could include discounts at certain shops or incentives to use the bus for watching Stalybridge Celtic’s home matches;
  • Car Parking: reduced parking fees and the introduction of free parking concessions at certain hours to boost footfall into the town;
  • Cycling: greater awareness of cycle routes in Stalybridge and improved facilities for cyclists. In addition to bicycle rails and toilet facilities at Stalybridge railway station, Armentieres Square could be a good place for something similar to the Cycle Hub in Ashton-under-Lyne and Bury;
  • Public Toilets: reopen them! Or create a new facility which also offers provision for cyclists complete with lockers (q.v. Cycling section);
  • Shopping: to continue the push for more regular markets, in addition to the incumbent Craft and Farmers’ markets. Ultimately, this should be considered as part of a plan to have a more regular retail market on Armentieres Square and/or at the rear of the Civic Hall (which could be achieved by purchasing and demolishing the late 1960s Police Station building). Other ideas could include the introduction of a local currency scheme like the Totnes Pound;
  • Culture: to continue to promote and support the work of local creatives in and around the town;
  • Local Businesses: work towards offering rent incentives for business start ups within Stalybridge, from Carrbrook to Hydes, Castle Hill to Mottram Rise and Hague Estate;
  • Environment: to fight against proposed overdevelopment of the area around the former Carrbrook Sidings;
  • Civic Pride and Community: to ensure that Stalybridge town centre and its districts does not suffer from insensitive development nor present a dowdy outward image in its commercial centre. This entails the restoration of the clock at Victoria Market Hall/Civic Hall, the promotion of activities which drive people in to the centre of Stalybridge and other schemes such as the Hail Ale Fund which have a positive and lasting impact on its citizens;
  • Entertainment: in the last five years, the StalyVegas scene has changed towards one from vertical shot drinking to slightly less perpendicular drinking habits (usually real ale). There has been a shift towards live acts in public houses, though no venue suitable enough for acts commanding bigger audiences. The closed Rififi nightclub should be considered as a multipurpose venue for live groups and/or cinematic exhibition, in a similar vein to the Holmfirth Picturedrome.

There you have it, the twelve planks of The Coningsby Manifesto. 99.9% Stalybridge, 0.1% to do with the One Nation Conservative, author and former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Only in reference to his 1844 novel and the character Mr G.O.A. Head of Staleybridge.

As ever, feel free to comment or add a few more recommendations. So long as they are 100% Stalybridge of course.

S.V., 16 September 2013.

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