In her latest monthly report on the smaller towns of the North West, Jayne Dowle, The Times' Northern correspondent for its Bricks & Mortar supplement, visits the 'Cheshire Set' haven of Hale Barns
The woman on the Post Office till doesn't want to talk about it. The deli owner doesn't want to talk about it. The guy doing brisk lunch-time trade in the fish-and-chip shop is happy to talk about it, but only if he doesn't give his name.
The proposed demolition of The Square shopping centre in Hale Barns, Cheshire, has got most of the 9,000 population talking. So much so that planning permission to put a new Waitrose in its place was turned down due to size and traffic issues by Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council in July 2006, amid a furious anti campaign. The Co-op store also objected. A public inquiry is underway. The final week of the hearing will be held in November.
It is strange then that few traders are keen to share their views on The Square's putative replacement, planned by Altrincham developer Citybranch – a 30,000 sq ft, three-storey Waitrose, plus 14 further retail units, 51 apartments and 287 parking spaces. Citybranch bought the site several years ago.
"It does need a modern-day facelift," admits Stuart Kirk, who has run his butcher's shop opposite for 20 years. "I wouldn't knock it all down though. If it goes, then it isn't a village is it?"
The question of whether Hale Barns is a village is central to those on both sides of the battle – as in "whoever heard of a Waitrose in a village?". Hale Barns takes it name from a17th Century tithe barn. It was still mostly rolling acres when nearby Hale and Altrincham were being red-bricked over by the Victorians.
Some of the first residents, according to Clive Hall of Holland Hall estate agents, were "rich creative types who didn't have to even think about money. They built their "country retreats" and felt that they were well away from the city."
Undeniably though, Hale Barns has been swallowed up in the South Manchester sprawl. But its "village" status remains sacrosanct to many residents, who represent old and new Manchester money, including long-standing Jewish families and a growing proportion of Asian business-people. It is a heady mix of cultures – and cash. More than one local confides that the only thing they all agree on is that they don't want Waitrose. You get the distinct feeling that if this was anywhere else, The Square, a nondescript 1960s-style precinct, would be redeveloped without much of a murmur. But this lot aren't giving in to large-scale commericialism without a fight.
Various people tell me that it is the "second richest place in the country after somewhere in Kent"
Leading the campaign against the supermarket is Rev Rob Hinton, the vicar of All Saints church, who represents the Hale Barns' Residents' Response protest group (HBRR). "The size and scale of the proposed new development is totally out of keeping with the area, " he says. "It's not a case of 'not in my backyard', it's more a case of 'my backyard isn't big enough. It's like squeezing a quart into a pint pot."
Adam Gross, a director of Citybranch, comments: "Most local residents shop outside Hale Barns and improved facilities in The Square may reduce the need for many residents to drive out of the area… we still think that our scheme is supported by the silent majority of Hale Barns residents who understand how the current centre will decline and the improvement in facilities that our scheme will offer."
Turn off the M56 and drive along Hale Road towards Altrincham, and you might not realise you have even passed through Hale Barns. The large Catholic church at the top of Wicker Lane, the war memorial and several old pubs attest to its "village" status. To be honest though, the main drag is hardly chocolate-box. It is anytown suburbia, with an estate agent and a carpet shop and an Oxfam and a dry-cleaner's. There is a beauty salon, but none of the cappuccino bars and chi-chi little outlets selling kids' clothes and candles now associated with smart "villages".
Hale Barns is rated as one of the top 10 most affluent wards in England (source: Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council). Various people tell me that it is the "second richest place in the country after somewhere in Kent", but The Square gives none of this away.
Then again, the whole point of Hale Barns is off the high street. Between the A56 and the M56 are some of the largest, most opulent and most expensive houses in Cheshire. Many of these were built between the wars, on sprawling plots that stand well back off the road behind trees and security fences.
"A property went for £4m not that long ago on Chapel Lane," says Hall. "Generally you're looking at up to £3m for a house. The cheaper end is down towards the M56. Here entry level for a four-bed, 1960s house is about £380,000-£390,000." Just under 85% of Hales Barns properties are owner-occupied, against 72.3% in the wider Trafford area.
The latest TMBC ward profile reports that in Hale Barns only 98 individuals are registered as unemployed. There is certainly plenty of work for the building trade. Many older houses on the most desirable roads – such as Carrwood – are being pulled down or "remodelled". Huge new all-mod-cons palaces are going up on the existing plots, seemingly without too many fights in the planning department. Back on the high street though, both sides are digging in for a winter campaign.