“The area is tackling the problems that beset declining places close to big cities.”
Writing in the Financial Times, Stockport born vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and a former UK Treasury minister, Baron O’Neill of Gatley – Jim O’Neill believes Stockport’s development corporation aims to make it a much more attractive place to live adding that he too has been influenced by the experience of Stockport.
Between October 2013 and October 2014, I led the independent City Growth Commission. This contributed to the establishment of the Northern Powerhouse and the coalition government’s embrace of devolution to cities and the introduction of “metro mayors”. But critics of the commission have repeatedly charged that its recommendations would only benefit big urban areas, exacerbating the plight of smaller cities, towns, and rural parts of the UK.
The commission’s brief was to look at major urban areas. We only considered those with populations of more than 500,000 people. I believed that it was only by boosting these larger urban areas that a significant difference to Britain’s overall economic performance could be achieved. I still do. But as time has passed, I have come to understand the local economic and social issues affecting smaller cities and towns.
The House of Commons housing, communities and local government committee report into high streets and town centres rightly points out that retail came to dominate town centres at the expense of civic and community functions. As a result, the massive structural changes to retail that we are now seeing pose an unprecedented challenge to town centres that growth in big cities will not address.
Mayoral Development Corporation
For any town to thrive it needs people. The plan for Stockport’s development corporation aims to make it a much more attractive place to live I have been influenced by the experience of Stockport, too. With 291,000 residents, Stockport is one of the 10 boroughs in the Greater Manchester area. The town centre is roughly three miles from where I grew up. Indeed, as a teenager I had a part-time job in a store called Ellis Sykes in the Merseyway shopping centre, selling pots and pans. At that time, in the early 1970s, Stockport was still a busy centre of hat making and heavy industry.
A few years ago, with some spare time on my hands, I got off the train from London at Stockport and decided to take a stroll around the town centre. I was taken aback by the lack of vibrancy and the relatively small number of people on the streets. The place had changed fundamentally in ways that cannot be understood simply by looking at much-publicised vacancy data alone.
More recently, the week after I resigned as a minister in Theresa May’s government, I stuck to an agreed invitation to give a talk at the Robinson’s brewery in Stockport about the town and the Northern Powerhouse. When it came to what Stockport should do to improve its lot, after praising the success of “Robbie’s” and suggesting that the town would be a big beneficiary of a proposed road tunnel under the Pennines linking Manchester and Sheffield, I was stumped.
From time to time, I have said to those who complain about being left out of the urban devolution revolution that they should do something to make their area seem different, to excite businesses and attract people who may want to live there. I believe that Stockport is now in the early stages of doing just that. It is an excellent example of the sort of ambition that other towns on the edge of larger cities, especially those in historic manufacturing areas that have long been in decline, need to show. And I applaud Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, for using his devolved powers to establish a mayoral development corporation, or MDC, in Stockport.
The idea that Stockport’s leaders have promoted in recent years is that its rail connections to Manchester, Birmingham and London, combined with its proximity to Manchester airport and the motorway network, means it has tremendous potential as a business location, as well as a leisure destination, particularly around the historic Market Place, with its bars and restaurants. A new office development around the railway station is transforming an area that is emerging as a genuine alternative to Manchester city centre for major businesses such as Stagecoach, Music Magpie and BASF. But for any town to thrive it needs people.
The plan for Stockport’s MDC aims to make it a much more attractive place to live, taking advantage of its proximity to the economic engine of Manchester city centre. Younger people increasingly value urban living so the time is right to redefine town centres as places to live. Making that happen in Stockport won’t be easy — redevelopment of brownfield land is notoriously difficult — but the council is investing to make things happen. If Stockport gets the backing it needs, and is granted the appropriate powers and resources to acquire brownfield land for to up to 3,000 new homes near the station, it could be an object lesson in how town centres can shape their own destinies.
I have sometimes thought that York was the only true shining beacon of life outside the Northern Powerhouse’s big urban areas, but Stockport is now giving it a run for its money. I hope central government takes note, and gives Mr Burnham and his colleagues in Stockport the modest resources and powers they need to deliver. The writer is vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and a former UK Treasury ministe
Graham Prest, Chairman of Hazel Grove based Prest Financial Planning supports Jim’s enthusiasm for Stockport:
‘’This positive article about the encouraging progress Stockport is already making also highlights the various opportunities & challenges ahead. These are certainly exciting times for Stockport & with the right leadership in place the town is ready to accelerate its’ growth plans’’
We thank Jim O’Neill for writing such a positive article and true representation of the huge steps Stockport is taking to create a town centre fit for the future. – Marketing Stockport