I’m obsessed with our town centres. I see so much potential in them. At a time when we’re trying to work out how to provide the housing we need, create more sustainable living, and regenerate former industrial sites, for me the answer must partly lie in renewed and prosperous town centres and high streets, especially in areas like ours, with several small towns with distinct identities.
But these are clearly difficult times. It’s hard to overstate just how much retail trade is now done online. At the same time, the workplace trends that once sustained Tameside’s small shops – large factories where people would be paid weekly in cash and pass through the market on the way home – are long gone.
The issues in each of our towns are different. Stalybridge has a number of key sites that are derelict and need initial public investment to make them viable. I am very pleased that we’ve already been successful in sorting out two of these: the old Casabalancas gym in Armentieres Square, and the Castle Street site next to Longlands Mill. Hyde actually has a decent footfall and several thousand people working there each day, but the town centre is too disparate and there are a lot of retail units. I think it needs a clear and imaginative plan for the future. Mossley, both top and bottom, is doing better, though I am certainly not complacent. All contain terrific local businesses, for example the Camera Shop and the Tweed Brewery in Hyde, Florence and Amelias and Magpie’s Nest in Stalybridge, Mossley Organic Fine Foods and Sweet Vintage Tea Rooms in Mossley. But we all want more of them.
After I was first elected as our MP, I started by just getting people together to talk about our town centres and see if they shared the same passion as me. Nearly everyone did, even if they disagreed on the potential solutions. These discussions eventually led to the creation of ‘Town Teams’, groups of volunteers trying to work together to improve each town centre. They were based on the proposal put forward by Mary Portas who did a review of High Streets for David Cameron’s Government. They’ve done a lot of good but it has always been clear the Government need to back this work with real resources.
Nearly every town in the country is suffering from changes in how people shop and work, so the need across the country is a large one. However, I must admit I was annoyed when we initially didn’t get anything from the Government’s Future Towns Fund. There’s was always going to be an issue in Tameside over which towns we should put forward, but Tameside’s choices of Hyde and Stalybridge were the right ones. You’ll probably think as the MP for Stalybridge & Hyde I’m bound to say that, but both towns had done a lot of work and shown where money could make a difference. I don’t expect to win every bidding process with the Government, but you can imagine how I felt when the Manchester Evening News reported Cheadle had been awarded funds despite Stockport Council not even bidding for it!
However, since that disappointment we’ve had some much better news. Stalybridge has been awarded funds from the Government’s ‘Historic High Street’ fund. I’ve no idea what the difference is between the ‘Future’ and ‘Historic’ High Street funds, but the money is welcome. It will be put to use to realise the vision coming out of the ‘Town Centre Challenge’ setup by Mayor Andy Burnham (who has also put some funds in – thanks Andy). Meanwhile Hyde has won the British Property Federation’s Futures Challenge, which means we get £100k to develop a masterplan for the town. Between 6 and 9 people, with backgrounds in housing and regeneration, will be asked to draw this up. A judging panel then chooses the best proposal to take to the public, which is announced at the prestigious MIPIM property summit in October.
So, whilst the challenges are big, there is much going on and my passion remains undimmed.