The concluding part of our series on the state of Stalybridge
Friday 20 September 2014, Westminster. A typical work day, but a seminal moment North and South of the Border. A sigh of relief for the Coalition Government and Labour as the break up of the UK was postponed. In a referendum the previous Thursday, Scotland voted against independence from Westminster: 55% NO, 45% YES. Shortly after the result and in the run-up to the referendum, there was talk of greater devolution in England. In this case, its main urban areas, federal units, or an English parliament.
Some 190 or so miles south of London, this didn’t escape the attention of Bridgeites. The people of Stalybridge have pushed for the return of its own town council. It would be churlish to think of this as an opportunist move shortly after Scotland’s bid for devolution.
In fact, the groundwork may have been set some 18 years ago. Firstly, in the 1998 local elections, the Save Stalybridge Party got over 250 votes in the Dukinfield Stalybridge ward.
Plans for refurbishing the market, its future discontinuance in its original guise and conversion into the civic hall was met with rancour. One afternoon in January 2002 saw a demonstration led by socialist actor Tony Booth. What was originally going to be the retail hall was vacant at the time. By 2004 it became exhibition space, hosting occasional craft markets and antiques fairs. Today, it hosts the popular Craft Market organised by MWL Events.
Eighteen years on, several shops have come and gone. As well as unrealistic rents and Kafkaesque one-way systems, a constant irritation would remain overzealous car parking enforcement officers. Inaction over derelict buildings and cuts to public services exacerbated their concerns.
In the same month as the Scottish Independence referendum, a group of people involved in the Stalybridge area met up at The Wharf Tavern. Its members including residents and professionals who work in the town. They would later be known as “Stalybridge Together”, an apolitical group favouring the formation of a Stalybridge Town Council.
Elsewhere in Cheshire, town councils close to their desired model are in operation in Crewe and Congleton. On a smaller scale, are the Parish and Community councils in Mossley, Shaw, and Saddleworth. Before a Town Council can be created:
- A petition containing 10% or more of the area’s signatures must be sent to their local authority (which in our case is Tameside MBC);
- The signatories must be based on the most recent Electoral Register;
- Its area needs to be clearly defined;
- Every resident within the area must be consulted (which, in the case of Stalybridge includes farmsteads near Wild Bank as well as flats on Ambleside).
If the petition is deemed valid, the future council will be required to undergo a Community Governance Review.
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A proposed Stalybridge Town Council
The Stalybridge Together website details two plans. One is its Neighbourhood Plan, as per the 2011 Localism Act. This enables residents to have a say on planning laws, the look of future developments and local services. In greater detail is their three-year plan which espouses a cooperative ethos with Tameside MBC and other third parties. Its eight key objectives entail:
- Preserving the unique character of Stalybridge: its Victorian architecture, views of the Pennine foothills;
- The promotion, development and maintenance of a vibrant town centre: a place likely to draw visitors into the centre, free of unsympathetic developments and overzealous parking enforcement officers, with a diverse retail mix and other attractions;
- The revitalisation of Stalybridge Civic Hall as the town’s thriving focus point: more specifically, greater use of the building for entertainment, retail markets and exhibitions as well as democratic functions;
- The improvement of community spaces in the town: besides Cheethams Park, other open spaces like Gorse Hall Park and Stalybridge Country Park;
- A safer Stalybridge: cooperation with emergency services in fire and crime prevention. This includes working with the PubWatch scheme and Greater Manchester Police’s Community Support Officers (PCSOs);
- The development of tourist attractions and occasional events: as well as museums, something extra, of local interest to draw people to the town. Such as heritage centres and existing events like the Whit Friday Brass Band Contests;
- Ensuring that road and rail transport best suits the needs of Stalybridge as a whole: for instance, ensuring the 343 or the 1715 train to Huddersfield is up to scratch;
- Community leadership and effective management of local resources in a transparent manner: in other words, best use of resources for the people of Stalybridge and serving its people fairly.
The unique character of Stalybridge is something which is felt strongly by its citizens and visitors to the town. The breathtaking nature of its views are best experienced on foot atop Wild Bank or aboard the 343 bus to Oldham via Mossley. In the centre itself, the Victorian architecture. All of the above allied to the development of the town as a tourist attraction as well as a desirable place to live.
Of recent times, another concern of its residents is the town’s retail mix, some of which they feel undermines the town’s unique character. The loss of key independent shops and some of its replacements – notably bookmakers tops the list. Also the longevity of new businesses. With plans to restore business rate control to Greater Manchester (subject to approval, following the last Budget), this could have a positive affect. Given recent changes
The town’s key landmark, the Stalybridge Civic Hall, is central to the town’s commercial value. With the building managed by Carillion, along with other Tameside MBC owned properties, hire charges have risen dramatically. This has put the Civic Hall beyond the reach of community groups. A future Stalybridge Town Council, managing the Civic Hall aims to remedy this wrong. It aims to make hire charges more affordable, giving the Civic Hall more regular events. In addition to the monthly craft market, scope for more concerts, exhibitions and indoor markets.
A vibrant Stalybridge will also go hand in hand with well managed public spaces. Not only its parkland, but also Armentieres Square, the forecourt of its Civic Hall and any spare ground. This also includes making its thoroughfares safer, as part of its partnership with Greater Manchester Police and PubWatch. Keeping Stalybridge safer is a priority throughout the whole area. Besides cooperation with third parties, PCSOs and community groups, this entails the maintenance of street lamps and pavements.
Any rise in fortunes could be a catalyst for new tourist attractions, particularly historical ones. Whereas the Tameside area has a good heritage centre for the whole of the borough, one which covers Stalybridge in greater is appreciated. In Stalybridge Together’s Three Year Plan, one idea is a nature trail around the town, taking in the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, bridleways and the River Tame. Given the diverse terrain and excellent views, there is scope for a Stalybridge Trail along a circular route via the Mossley/Stalybridge boundary in the north and the Dukinfield/Stalybridge boundary.
The effectiveness of the above is helped by effective road and rail transport, particularly public transport. Of great criticism among Stalybridge’s rail users is overcrowding on Manchester bound services. Reliability issues and high fares is a common complaint among passengers on the 348 and 389 buses. A future Town Council may have some input in the creation and retention of Transport for Greater Manchester supported bus services. As well as buses, trains and cars, policies are in motion for safe cycling and pedestrian routes. Not only the maintenance of footpaths but also litter bins along the way.
As well as aiming to improve the lives of its 22,500 citizens, a Stalybridge Town Council will come into its own as budgetary pressures will affect Tameside MBC and the other nine councils making up Greater Manchester. With present policies at Tameside MBC favouring property sales over staff redundancies, the future council wishes to enter into negotiation over the transfer of the following provisions from Tameside MBC to Stalybridge Town Council:
- Stalybridge Civic Hall;
- Astley Cheetham Art Gallery and Library;
- Town centre parking spaces;
- Public toilets;
- Parks and open spaces;
Tameside MBC will retain ownership of the above properties, though a future Stalybridge Town Council will manage the facilities.
Any town, parish or community council is funded by a precept on each resident’s Council Tax bills. The level depends on the demands of each area and the size of its boundaries. As with Council Tax rates, this varies according to each Council Tax band. Budgets are set immediately before the 01 April of each year.
Parish Councils and Town Councils are elected every four years. In Stalybridge, this is likely to incorporate both Stalybridge North and Stalybridge South wards, and the Stalybridge portion of the Dukinfield Stalybridge ward.
As with Mossley residents there would be, within a five year cycle, a Town Council election, elections for Tameside MBC councillors (one-third, two-third and full council), a European Election, and a General Election.
The proposed council will be made up of twelve councillors within three wards. Each one of them, democratically elected by local residents, in an unpaid capacity.
For some, the creation of a Town Council has people thinking “not another bunch of councillors”. A councillor for the future town council is elected on a four year term. He or she must (from one of the following criteria):
- Live within three miles of Stalybridge’s boundaries, which covers a significant chunk of the Tameside area;
- Have lived in Stalybridge for 12 months or more, as a owner-occupier or tenant;
- Be eligible to vote in Stalybridge; or,
- Worked in Stalybridge for most of their life.
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Events in Stalybridge are being watched closely by other towns in the Tameside area. The launch of Stalybridge Together and their plans for a Town Council has pricked the consciousness of Dukinfeldians and Dentonians.
The people of Dukinfield have seen themselves as kindred spirits to their fellows in Stalybridge. Among their concerns is the loss of open space, cuts to public services (its Community Centre’s closure a notable example) and the possible loss of William Andrew Swimming Baths.
With Dukinfield in the geographical centre of Tameside, it is in most cases easy to get to Hyde, Ashton and Stalybridge. That can be a hinderance; one which has seen its only bank close in April 2013. One which saw its railway station close five years before the Beeching inspired cuts. A lot of Dukinfeldians go to Stalybridge for shopping and leisure, and are just as passionate about the latter town’s decline as much as theirs.
Denton, besides being a good halfway point between Ashton and Stockport is as complex a beast as Stalybridge. It has a sizeable amount of private housing to the north-east of Crown Point and in Dane Bank. Plus social housing off Stockport Road and Haughton Green. Again, the same quibbles which has afflicted Stalybridge and Dukinfield residents. Like their fellows in Stalybridge, devoid of a regular market.
In the last five years, the people of Denton have taken control of its two branch libraries. Following closure on the 12 October 2012, the West End and Haughton Green libraries have been taken over by residents. The libraries are ran on a voluntary basis whereas Tameside MBC’s Denton library has returned to its first home in the town hall.
Shortly after the launch of Stalybridge Together, the 22 January 2015 edition of the Tameside Reporter saw mainly complementary views. One reader said it would be “the best thing that happened to Stalybridge for the last 30 – 40 years”. The Tameside Green Party dubbed the future plans as “DevoStaly”.
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The next five years on a constitutional level is set to be a most interesting one. Especially in Greater Manchester, with plans to increase devolution and introduce an elected mayor. In one corner by the foothills of the Pennines, even more so. And more so with other towns in Tameside MBC boundaries watching with great interest.
Some residents in the borough favour Town Councils as a motion to give the present Labour-run Tameside MBC a kick in the proverbial. Some think it is “yet another tier of local government” and firmly believe in a 66.6% reduction in Borough Council councillor numbers.
Others favour the pragmatic approach espoused by Stalybridge Together, with the emphasis on Together meaning Tameside MBC, community groups, and any functions of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. As said by the chairperson for Stalybridge Together in the Tameside Reporter’s 22 January 2015 edition:
“We don’t want to replace Tameside Council, we want to work with them to improve Stalybridge.”
This inspired by the development of Mossley’s town council since 2000. One resident said it was people of Stalybridge whom inspired this, a place which in his words:
“Has a tradition of people coming together when the time is right… It is time for Stalybridge people to say ‘enough is enough, this is our town and together we are Stalybridge’.”
As proven by the Luddite movement, Chartism and in more recent times, its stand against overcrowded trains. A future Stalybridge Town Council could be a progressive force for good. One where everybody has a stake in their town: from Heyheads to Hydes; Mottram Rise to Heyrod; Cocker Hill to Brushes Estate; Castle Hill to Copley.
The hard work has just begun, starting with the petitioning stage. One where the people of Stalybridge wish to have their town, their way within the next five or so years.
- Tameside Reporter: 22 January 2015;
- Stalybridge and Dukinfield Reporter: 13 May 1998;
- Stalybridge Together website (checked 18 – 19 March 2015).
S.V., 19 March 2015.
Postscript: the next Stalybridge Together Public Ward Meeting is set to take place on Sunday 22 March 2015, at 1pm in The Wharf Tavern, Caroline Street, Stalybridge. 343, 389 and 408 buses stop nearby; further buses five minutes walk from Armentieres Square.