The Case for Stalybridge: Andy Burnham’s Vision for Six Forgotten Towns

Stalybridge as one of six ‘forgotten towns’ in Mayor of Greater Manchester’s revitalisation plan

The polycentric nature of Greater Manchester and each of its boroughs can be a blessing and curse. It is a blessing in the sense where each of the ten boroughs have a character of their own. For example, with my borough [Tameside], the virtually unbroken urban sprawl of Manchester ends in the western part of Stalybridge, Dukinfield, and Hyde. East of the said places, suburbia meets the Pennine foothills alongside charming small towns and villages (Mossley, Broadbottom, Mottram, and Hollingworth in our case).

One thing which undermines its the polycentric nature is centralisation. One town, usually the largest town in the borough, gets the lion’s share of the customer facing public services. For example: the longer library opening hours; the state-of-the-art leisure centre; or it acts as the borough’s main retail destination. Ultimately, this leads to one town becoming a de facto city with its other towns acting as suburbs.

The loudest exponents against centralisation can be seen and heard in Stalybridge. From Heyheads to Hydes, and Matley to Ridge Hill, Stalybridge itself is polycentric. In 1884 it expanded, taking in the Castle Hall and Gorse Hall areas and Matley village, hitherto part of Dukinfield. Before 1884, its railway station was in Lancashire, whereas the Victoria Market Hall stood in Cheshire.

Since 2000, the centre has been transformed by the return of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Before the closure of Rififi and Amber Lounge in 2014 (soon to reopen as an exclusive bar and nightclub), it was to place to be on Friday nights and Saturday nights. It was known as StalyVegas. Today’s drinkers – some of which veterans of Bar Max, The Pavilion Bars, and Rififi in their pomp – seek quieter surroundings, epitomised by Bridge Beers.

The shopping centre, which has been in long term decline, struggles against competition from the internet and other major centres. In spite of this, the number of shops closing seems to have slowed down. J.D. Wetherspoon turned The Society Rooms into its flagship pub in the Tameside area. FiveADay, Magpie’s Nest, and All Fabrics have cemented their place in the psyche of today’s shoppers, in the same way Bottom Dollar did for shoppers in the 1980s and 1990s.

In spite of recent positive developments, there are still a number of unresolved issues which are stifling the centre’s potential growth. Firstly, the chimera of parking. Or lack of parking. Whether drivers are parking their vehicle for the 0746 to Manchester Victoria or nipping to Mettricks, parking charges or good quality spaces is an emotive issue.

Public transport is another one. To serve the people of Stalybridge better there should be, in my view, a full time bus service that links every part of Stalybridge to its centre and beyond. If you travel from Heyheads to Hydes after 9pm (or 6pm on Sundays), you need to walk to Carrbrook for a 348, and hope the 389 gets you to Stanley Square. From Heyrod, after 6pm, the lack of an evening service on the 353/354 (and Sunday’s more limited 355 service) makes walking a viable option for physically fit residents.

Besides the need to improve bus services, Stalybridge’s rail services need improvement too. The proposed timetable for May 2018 will see two trains per hour from Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria. There will also be two trains per hour to Manchester Piccadilly, Huddersfield and Leeds (some to Hull), with a skip-stop service between Stalybridge and Huddersfield (Greenfield – Marsden – Huddersfield, and Mossley – Slaithwaite – Huddersfield).

Nothing has been said about the retention of its link with Liverpool Lime Street and Scarborough. As for the electrification work, will it be fully finished? Or will Stalybridge passengers be waiting for the unicorn that is bi-mode trains and digital signalling (seemingly the DfT’s CBA option)?

Close to the railway station is the site of the proposed Stalybridge West development. Earlier this year, it was floated that Stalybridge Celtic Football Club could leave Bower Fold and play their home games there. With previous industrial activity, contaminated land stymies residential development (not least the smell of Bayley Street recycling centre by potential residents). An edge of town retail development could see shoppers eschewing the main town centre. With access from High Street to Market Street, a potential rat run.

The leads to what has been the biggest barrier in the development of Stalybridge: land ownership and land usage. In the last decade, there has been issues over the ownership of vacant properties. Most notably the site of the former Stalybridge Clinic which has resulted in the closure of the Riverside Walk from Old Street to the war memorial.

Though ownership issues of the Millpond and neighbouring shops have been solved, its replacement is less sympathetic. The replacement structure, Summers Quay, is a mixed-use residential and commercial development. 67 apartments are under construction aimed at young professionals. It is the first project by Cavendish Property Developments, a newly formed subsidiary of New Charter Housing Trust for commercial projects. As noted in previous blog posts and the Stalybridge Town Facebook page, its architectural style ired the residents.

With fresh eyes

In the last decade, the people of Stalybridge have called for democratic change as well as free car parking. With the former, this has ranged from change within the existing borough council constricts, to a Town Council. Some, as far as the notion of Hard Tamexit – leaving Tameside MBC to join Cheshire East, with a newly formed Stalybridge District Council. The people of Stalybridge, more than most it seems, are deeply passionate about their town, with Town Council meetings lasting up to three hours long.

Since May of this year, Greater Manchester has had its own elected mayor, Andy Burnham. Though a Labour win in Greater Manchester was never in doubt, his campaign on tackling homelessness won him votes. Through the Office of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has called on ten borough councils to identify towns that had been ‘left behind’. The other five Greater Manchester towns are:

  • Farnworth (Bolton MBC);
  • Prestwich (Bury MBC);
  • Radcliffe (Bury MBC);
  • Stretford (Trafford MBC);
  • Swinton (Salford City Council).

Alongside Stalybridge, the other five towns have been overshadowed by major centres elsewhere. Stretford lies in the shadow of the intu Trafford Centre and Manchester city centre. As a consequence, the Stretford Mall is almost a ghost mall – a far cry from when Muhammed Ali visited the centre to promote Ovaltine. Swinton, though home to Salford City Council’s headquarters and its Central Library, is in dire need of investment.

Farnworth lies in the shadow of Bolton, but Bolton town centre itself needs some tender loving care with its retail offerings taking a hit. From Farnworth, it is just as easy to take a train to Manchester. Prestwich, besides having Manchester on its doorstep, shares the same Metrolink line as Radcliffe. Both centres are in the shadow of Bury which is booming. Ultimately, changes in shopping habits have affected both town centres.

Three of the five town centres are less than ten minutes drive from motorway junctions, which offers potential for enticing motorists into the centre. Swinton, Farnworth, and Prestwich are just off the M60 and M61 motorways, with junctions offering scope for park and ride schemes. With Prestwich, it is just as easy to nip to Tesco off Junction 17 of the M60 motorway (and ignore the centre completely, which is a short walk anyway).

Farnworth is just off the Kearsley Spur of the M61 motorway but (you’ve guessed it) it is easier to find your nearest Tesco on the SatNav. Swinton is just off Junction 14 of the M60 motorway, but its junction design makes a trip to Walkden’s Tesco and lovely (yet nearly empty) Ellesmere Centre more feasible. There is a Park and Ride facility which is designed for the V1 and V2 services, but you need to change buses at Wardley. (Extending the 484 from Prestwich to terminate at Walkden could help).

Radcliffe and Stalybridge are 10 to 15 minutes away from motorway junctions on the M60 motorway (17 and 23 respectively). Plus you need to pass another town en route (Whitefield and Ashton-under-Lyne in this case).

How the towns compare

Farnworth

For fans of Peter Kay’s work, the town’s most famous building is St. Gregory’s Social Club. This was used as The Phoenix Club in Phoenix Nights. The town has its own market and is on the main road into Bolton via Moses Gate. There is also a pedestrianised shopping precinct but the centre’s hive of activity is along Market Street and its town centre supermarkets.

  • Main bus routes: 2, 8, 37;
  • Trains: Northern service from Bolton and Manchester Victoria.

Prestwich

As well as its hospital, Prestwich is noted for being the birthplace of Mark E. Smith, founding lead singer of The Fall (still to this day after 41 years). On the Bury New Road, Prestwich is a lively district centre well connected by local bus routes and trams. The Longford Suite is a popular civic hall which plays host to concerts and local theatrical productions.

  • Main bus routes: 98, X43;
  • Trams: every six minutes to Bury and Victoria.

Radcliffe

In the shadow of Bury, Radcliffe has the potential to be a vibrant small town. Though it retains a market hall and has had its bus station remodelled, it has seen the loss of its iconic Civic Suite. There are plans to create a new facility which include a swimming and a new civic suite. Affordable houses stand on the site of the former Radcliffe Civic Suite.

  • Main bus routes: 98, 524;
  • Trams: every six minutes to Bury and Victoria.

Stalybridge

Of the six town centres, Stalybridge has iconic buildings and excellent views of the Pennine foothills. Within twenty minutes walk or a short bus ride you could be in open countryside. The loss of its indoor market and the town hall remains a sore point. Its mix of affordable housing near the centre and excellent rural views in Carrbrook and Stalyhill makes it a winner for most families.

  • Main bus routes: 236, 237, 348;
  • Trains: four per hour to Manchester stations and three per hour to Huddersfield, some continuing to Hull or Scarborough.

Stretford

Like Stalybridge, Stretford has the canal as a potential selling point. Stretford could potentially become a key district centre within Trafford MBC boundaries. Since the Stretford Arndale was built, that became its town centre. Today, shops have left the covered centre in droves giving it a Ghost Mall feel. In its pomp it had a covered market and a good number of national chain stores. Part of the Stretford Mall (its present name) faces demolition.

  • Main bus routes: 23A, 255, 263;
  • Trams: every six minutes to Manchester city centre and Altrincham.

Swinton

Without Swinton, Salford City Council would have been stuffed in 1974. It is home to the City Council’s Civic Centre (formerly of the Municipal Borough of Swinton and Pendlebury) and Central Library. The Central Library has moved from the Lancastrian Hall to the Swinton Gateway centre. Its main shopping centre is Swinton Square which includes an ASDA superstore and an open market (transferred from Pendlebury).

  • Main bus routes: 26, 27, 37;
  • Trains: Northern services to Manchester Victoria, Wigan Wallgate, and Southport.

Andy Burnham and the Regeneration Game

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, aims to bring together a wide coalition of groups. These include landowners, developers, community groups, and housing providers. He favours a move away from the “developer-led green-field first approach of the past.” He also sees transport and digital connectivity, alongside local retail and leisure facilities as top priorities. Councils have been invited to provide ideas for new events venues, housing developments, and neighbourhood centres.

For Stalybridge, this could see greater support for its polycentric structure. Could the franchising of local bus routes restore evening journeys on the 340, 353, and 354 routes, and radically improve the 408 route? Could the former Job Centre Plus space provide space for start-up businesses as seen with Hack Oldham? Will the ‘innovative housing’ solutions blend in with the centre’s character?

In Conclusion

Of the six towns suggested, shortcomings of a transport nature is a common trend. The effect on public services, thanks to Tory spending cuts imposed on Greater Manchester’s councils is another. Across all six towns, traffic is a major concern.

Whereas Radcliffe, Prestwich, and Stretford have decent tram connections, Swinton and Farnworth have less frequent stopping services. Stalybridge falls somewhere in between, but the frequency of its rail service will be determined by HS3 and Northern Powerhouse Rail issues. For all six towns, the need for vastly improved bus services – hopefully as part of TfGM’s future franchising powers – is an absolute must.

We hope the “developer-led green-field first approach of the past” has been scotched from the future development of Stalybridge. With plans to build on Sidebottom Fold and Stalyhill, it has led to local campaigns to protect the two sites.

We hope the town’s community groups and online communities are represented and that Stalybridge should be part of a new era. A new era which of regular markets, more special events, less crowded trains and better buses. The people of Stalybridge themselves are the drivers of change. All they need is the car keys, a bit more help, and the reassurance of not having to return to the car park five minutes before their ticket expires. It’s a shame that Andy Burnham cannot sort out Stalybridge Celtic’s appalling away record.

S.V., 21 November 2017.

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