Empty retail units, ageing transport hubs and the need for homes are problems facing local authorities across the country. In Stockport, the battle to address those issues is very much on.
Place North West met up with Cllr David Meller, cabinet member for economy & regeneration, for a stroll around the town to get an idea of the scale of the council’s redevelopment plans.
The power of the MDC
Stockport, more so than anywhere in Greater Manchester outside of the cities, has a strong and exciting pipeline of work. This is a testament to the success and ambition of the town’s Mayoral Development Corporation.
Launched in 2019, the MDC drives Stockport’s regeneration ambitions by utilising its links with the combined authority; it is the envy of other boroughs toiling to get their development plans off the ground.
“The MDC has been fantastic for us as it has given us that status and presence,” said Meller.
“It came with risk as we were one of the first to do it, but it has given us a national profile.”
As well as boosting development, the MDC has done something even more impressive: it has acted as a soothing balm for Stockport’s often fractious political environment.
There is no overall majority within Stockport Council. The Lib Dems have the most seats but Labour’s Cllr Elise Wilson leads, much to the chagrin of Lib Dem leader Cllr Mark Hunter.
The Conservatives, often accused of siding with Labour to block the Lib Dems, are led by Cllr Mike Hurleston.
But while the leaders of all three parties couldn’t agree on a way forward for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework – or much else for that matter – they sit together on the board of the MDC.
And in that context, for the most part, they play nicely.
“Politically in Stockport, it can get quite colourful, particularly when it comes to planning but it has brought everyone around the table and given us a shared vision. It gives us the stability and consistency that we need,” Meller explained.
With other boroughs, including Rochdale and Tameside, closely monitoring Stockport’s success with a view to creating their own versions of the MDC, is Meller worried that similar models elsewhere in Greater Manchester could dilute Stockport’s power?
“What is good for Tameside or Rochdale is going to benefit the shared prosperity of Greater Manchester. I don’t think it would take the lustre off what we’re doing,” he said.
One of the key projects being led by the MDC is Stockport Interchange, a £120m scheme that will see the town’s huge, rundown bus station revamped. The project will also feature 196 homes and a two-acre public park.
The bus station has become steadily more dilapidated in recent years and is now a sprawling concrete and glass eyesore in the shadow of the town’s famous viaduct.
“I can’t wait for it to be razed to the ground,” Meller said. “It can’t happen soon enough.”
In addition to the upgrade of the bus station, a pedestrian and cycling bridge connecting it with the railway station – itself the subject of a £550m masterplan – is also proposed.
The station masterplan, which includes the long-awaited expansion of the Metrolink network, is one example of the ambition being shown by Stockport Council to turn the town into a modern, thriving place to live.
However, long-term strategic plans take years to deliver, so managing the expectations and “growing impatience” of residents is a key part of the battle, according to Meller.
The housing question
Close to the station and the interchange is Weir Mill, a crumbling red brick building on the banks of the River Mersey. Manchester-based developer Capital&Centric bought the site from Maryland Securities in 2020 and has lodged plans for its redevelopment, aiming to breathe new life into the derelict site.
However, there has been noisy opposition to one element of the proposals, a new-build residential block that some believe is too high and impinges on the view of the viaduct.
The block in question is required in order to make the scheme viable and the objections to Capital&Centric’s proposals have frustrated Meller.
“A lot of people who moan about the tower are the same people who post pictures of [the viaduct] when it was covered in smog thinking those were the halcyon days.
“People are being priced out of Manchester and we have got a real opportunity here to provide good quality homes.”
The question of delivering homes is a contentious one in Stockport. Having walked away from the table in terms of the GMSF, the onus is now on the council to draw up its own local plan and prove it can deliver 18,000 homes between now and 2038.
Some degree of compromise will be required to meet the target as there is unlikely to be enough brownfield sites in the town centre to meet the demand.
It would be reasonable to suggest then that a portion of the borough’s Green Belt will almost certainly have to be surrendered.
Even if there was sufficient land in the town centre to deliver all 18,000 homes, Meller is concerned that some people’s reticence to build on the borough’s Green Belt could result in the town centre becoming too dense.
“There is a belief we can put all our housing in the town centre and that isn’t the case.
“We’ve got to be mindful that we don’t overdevelop to the point that it just becomes a place that he’s just stacked high with tower blocks,” he said.
If the GMSF debacle is anything to go by, the local plan process is likely to drag on and on and could get ugly.
But picking land to build houses is not the only contentious topic in Stockport. The future of the much-loved Central Library on the A6 is also causing consternation among residents.
The council wants to relocate the town’s library to Stockroom, a 47,000 sq ft civic hub within vacant retail units at Merseyway and not everyone is happy about it.
Stockroom is a complex and multifaceted proposal with several moving parts. Firstly, there is the issue of the central library that more fatalist Stopfordians claim the council wants to demolish or sell.
“This is categorically not true,” Meller said.
The party line from the council is that no decision will be made on the library until a full and thorough consultation has taken place. This consultation has now launched.
The creation of Stockroom aims to address several different issues, namely improving literacy rates in the borough and enticing people back into the town now that the withering of high street retail has rendered much of it vacant.
“We’ve still got about 11,000 adults in Stockport who have got poor literacy and numeracy. Having something here, that is far more accessible than the central library out there, will get people using the services,” Meller said.
In other words, the council is putting sense over sentiment.
“I think we can do something here that is really quite special with a bit of a social conscience behind it,” Meller added.
Stockport is not turning its back on retail completely. Poundland and JD Sports are rumoured to be in line to take over the former BHS unit, which is being split into two. Meller, however, was tight-lipped.
The town also has a Primark, a company whose appeal never seems to dwindle, no matter how desolate its surroundings.
As well as BHS, Stockport has lost two other former high street giants in recent times: Debenhams and M&S.
Poundland is to temporarily move into the former Debenhams unit while its new store is being finished but the long term plans for the unit are unclear.
The same cannot be said of the old M&S unit, which Glenbrook is converting into Stok, a 64,000 sq ft mixed-use commercial scheme.
A short walk away, as everything seems to be in Stockport, is a clutch of new-build offices strategically positioned next to the train station.
Stockport Exchange has so far seen 120,000 sq ft of workspace delivered, let to occupiers including Music Magpie, Stagecoach and BASF.
Muse Developments, the council’s delivery partner on the scheme, recently lodged plans for the next stage, an additional 64,000 sq ft.
After the arrival of Covid, Meller admits he was worried the council might be “overexposed” in terms of the amount of office space it had, but he is now feeling more optimistic.
“I’ve had conversations with our officers, and they’re still really confident. I think we can deliver here what is in Manchester, but much cheaper.”
Who is here?
Developers Glenbrook, Muse and Capital&Centric can see the potential of Stockport, and they are not the only ones.
Investar is delivering the 440-home Royal George Village and, having won planning consent last November, is gearing up to start on site.
High profile developers such as those plying their trade in Stockport currently might never have arrived if it weren’t for the influence of the MDC but Meller is determined that his town doesn’t become a development free-for-all.
“We have got that real track record of delivering, which cements what we are doing and builds confidence for others to come here and invest.
“Personally, I want developers who have got a decent conscience. If we can get private investment then great but it needs to be the right investment from people who appreciate the town,” he said.
- Stockport Council is speaking at Place North West’s GM Development Update on Thursday 9 September