A two part series on the state of Stalybridge
Monday 16 March, Stalybridge town centre. A typical work day, not that you were able to tell unless you went to the town’s Tesco store. Melbourne Street and Grosvenor Street, its main shopping streets: a place where the tumbleweed jumped ship years ago.
In the last five years, efforts to get Stalybridge town centre back to its 1980s pomp have been stymied by a number of factors. One is lack of local power. Another is the government’s controlled demolition of public services, where Northern England has been at the sharpest end. Also the lack of disposable income among residents thanks to their policies – particularly spending cuts and tighter use of sanctions by the DWP.
Among its 22,500 or so residents, Stalybridge is a complex beast. There is pockets of Mid-Cheshire style affluence in the Stalybridge South ward, around Mottram Rise and Mottram Road. Also fairly well-to-do households around Stalyhill; 1970s to 2000s era private housing off Huddersfield Road. Plus traditional terraced housing nearer the centre and on the outskirts which adds character to the town.
At the opposite end of the scale, a small but significant number of former local authority properties. This is represented by Ridge Hill Estate just off Stamford Street. Off Huddersfield Road, former municipal housing stock in Copley (Brushes Estate and Demesne Drive), and Carrbrook (one of three Manchester Corporation overspill estates in Tameside).
There is more to Stalybridge than the town centre itself. The pre-1974 borough incorporated the villages of Heyrod, Heyheads, Millbrook and Carrbrook. Also the hamlet of Moorgate, plus Mottram Rise and Copley. Castle Hall, immediately south of the town centre and Hydes (to the west on High Street) was part of the Dukinfield parish boundaries till 1884. Part of it prior to 1884 was actually in Lancashire, with the railway station under the aegis of the red rose palatine, and the Victoria Market hall in Cheshire.
Owing to the town’s complexities, the 1974 Local Government Act was never going to cover the town’s needs properly. A number of municipal boroughs would be absorbed by bigger boroughs and district councils, some of which a Westminster invention. Centralisation was always going to favour the administrative capitals of each borough, and in our borough’s case, Ashton-under-Lyne.
Which is why a lot of residents in Stalybridge says “Ashton gets everything”. Whether or not funding is sought by the council. Likewise in Chadderton or Royton in relation to Oldham. Or Herne Bay in relation to Canterbury.
Panic on the streets of Copley…
After the Huddersfield Narrow Canal’s opening in 2001, the “beautiful town with a new canal” was the place to go to for revellers. New bars opened on Market Street all the way from the railway station up to Waterloo Road. Armentieres Square would have an air of Amsterdam with its canalside views. It was hoped the continental café society chic would transfer to Stalybridge.
In the early noughties, the town’s nighttime economy kept it on the map, with the town being dubbed as “Staly Vegas”. By contrast, the town’s daytime economy was far from buoyant. The Tesco store, assumed to attract greater private investment did the reverse. Independent shops changed hands more often than the 343 bus had timetable revisions.
Besides the arrival of Tesco, claims of overzealous traffic wardens and arcane one way systems did damage to the town’s retail offerings. In spite of this, some traders stuck it out or moved elsewhere in Stalybridge. Some because of development like The People’s Gallery, who moved to a location by the River Tame.
Today, thanks to the loss of its once convivial atmosphere, the town’s nighttime economy isn’t as busy in 2015 as it was in 2005. The former Palace Cinema – later Rififi and Amber Lounge – and The Pavilion Bars have remained vacant for over a year. Bar Liquid, previously the Rose and Crown, empty for well over two years. Though The White House has reinvented itself and become a vibrant public house, the Old Fleece has seen numerous changes of management.
Since the late noughties, Stalybridge railway station has gained greater popularity as a destination in its own right, as well as a thriving commuter hub. The Rail Ale Trail, which covers the Huddersfield line, has seen increased footfall to the station’s buffet bar. There is now five platforms, the same number it had from 1914 to 1969. With electrification set to come at the end of this decade, it could become a popular commuter town.
But Stalybridge is more than a possible dormitory town. Nor is it a future suburb of Ashton-under-Lyne City Centre which could be likely in 2050 or thereabouts. Or sooner.
The privatisation of public space
Over the last decade, the town has seen continued development. Most of it residential, but less of it sympathetic to the town’s surroundings. New build housing development off Grove Road spoils the view of Staley Hall for Huddersfield bound passengers. The hall, thankfully renovated, offers self-catering accommodation. Its potential as a tourist-boosting stately home attraction lost.
Set to transform the town is two developments. One is Stalybridge West, set to redevelop the western part of the town. Backed by GVA Grimley, its aim is to offer mixed-use development from the upper part of Market Street down to Bridge Street. This would occupy the site of IMI Range’s and Bostock and Bramley’s works.
The second and most controversial one concerns the redevelopment of Armentieres Square. Fire damaged shop units which overlooked the square were vacant for nearly four years. Demolition followed in 2013 with the site still vacant. The last business to form part of the unit, The Millpond public house, closed last year, awaiting demolition.
In its place may be an eight-storey (yes, eight storeys!) mixed-use development comprising of apartments and shop units with parking space. Though the modernist look may be a better fit elsewhere in Stalybridge, it is out of sync with its immediate surroundings. Views of Wild Bank, Buckton Castle and Alphin Pike from Armentieres Square may be undermined.
A consultation event took place at Stalybridge Civic Hall from 3pm to 7pm yesterday [Monday 16 March 2015] with talk of a negative response to the plans. The development, sponsored by New Charter Housing Trust, saw the people of Stalybridge angry about its height as well as its modernist style.
In the last decade, the continued privatisation of public space has had a great effect on our localities. With Stalybridge, it has meant shop units being empty for several years; private sector rents at unjust rates; the delay in demolishing the fire ravaged shops on Armentieres Square; and inaction over the former clinic site off Market Street.
Lack of spending power and civic participation
At a personal and professional level, the lack of funds or a regular income stream stymies civic participation. At local government level, Tameside MBC among with most Northern English councils have been forced to cut services. Though an unpopular move, this has meant the loss of buildings, whilst minimising the impact on frontline staff. It has meant allowing third parties to manage their buildings whilst the council retains ownership of the property.
As a consequence of central government actions, Labour-led councils have disproportionately took a hit. In doing so, it has seen its constituents turn against the councils, pointing the finger at councillors or any form of municipal service. As well as creating division amongst residents, it has given credence to the Conservatives’ argument that “Labour councils often overspend, or spend outside their means”. In other words, acceptance of their ideas of small government and contracting-out services to private sector concerns. Hence also the rise in popularity of UKIP among people likely to be affected by their approach to reshaping the public sector.
With continued privatisation and cutbacks comes a distortion of public perceptions of local government. Accountability is reduced when the bins are contracted out; likewise with parking controls. Wages are driven down to maximise private profit which takes money out of local economies. The profit driven ethos makes for greater insecurity.
As a consequence, vox populi is less willing to vote in the local elections if there is nothing worth voting for. Not only as more services are contracted out, but also if public spending isn’t seen in their locality. Instead, our borough council becomes a branch office for central government. Their independence is stifled, they become profit centres focusing on the most viable part of the borough. Other towns lose out.
In Stalybridge the remoteness is intensified, with the Local Studies Library moving to Ashton. The Civic Hall never got its permanent indoor market stalls, as detailed in the original plans (no operators came forward to run the market). At the height of Staly Vegas Fever, its police station was closed and replaced by a part-time police post, thanks to a PFI scheme funding two new police stations in Ashton and Hyde.
Though with potential for a future outdoor market, the former police station is set to be demolished and replaced by flats. Urban Splash’s well-documented financial troubles meant the Pattern House scheme on Longlands Mill was left incomplete.
If everyone was listening…
In a nutshell, lack of accountability in both public and private sectors is failing Stalybridge. Reduced spending power of its residents and local government hasn’t helped either. In the former this has affected local shops, the viability of its bus routes and average attendances at Bower Fold (with The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic on the verge of relegation to the Northern Premier League Premier Division). In the latter, it has meant reduced opening hours at the library and Astley Cheetham Art Gallery on Trinity Street; the loss of public toilets since 2013.
For the last five years, the people of Stalybridge have gone beyond writing letters to the Tameside Advertiser and the (New Charter backed) Tameside Reporter. Alongside Tameside MBC’s own Town Teams, a grassroots group known as “Stalybridge Together” has been active in the last year. Their aim is the creation of a Town Council covering the whole of Stalybridge from Hydes to Heyheads, and Moorgate to Mottram Rise.
Their overall aim of a future Stalybridge Town Council is to offer something further to Tameside MBC’s offerings. A social contract tailor made for its residents, such as beautifying the area and working to manage community facilities. In the long term, this may include the retention of its Handmade and Farmers’ Markets and operation of Stalybridge Civic Hall.
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In our next part of The View from Ridge Hill, we shall focus on the possibilities of a future Stalybridge Town Council. This part will also include a few policy ideas.
S.V., 17 March 2015.