Jayne Dowle’s sketch: Stockport

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Jayne DowleThe distance between Stockport and Manchester is seven miles. The arts centre is called Seven Miles Out, so work that one out. The very existence of the place is proof both of a desire to establish a strong local identity and a collective will to improve what is on offer apart from pubs and Primark.

With its groovy orange signage and old gas lamp outside, it's a quirky kind of place, as far removed from a multi-million pound "leisure destination" as you could imagine. As we shall find out though, there is more than one solution to Stockport's major challenge – attracting more people into the town centre of an evening.

"The name was inspired by one of Stockport's cultural landmarks," says 21-year-old Joe Barratt, who helps to run the place as well as acting as a semi-official ambassador for the town. "It was a boutique here in the 1960s set up by an entrepreneur called Miles Baddeley. We wanted to recreate and celebrate this era of independence in Stockport."

Seven Miles Out is a few minutes' walk away from Primark, in a redundant shop unit in the Market Place. It was partly funded by £50,000 from the widely-criticised Portas Pilot Scheme, which chose Stockport as one of the 12 towns to benefit from its misguided munificence. Two years on though, and what has emerged is a determination from Stockport people to do it their own way.

One thing which was agreed was that the evening economy should be a key priority. That's where Seven Miles Out and street festivals such as "Foodie Friday" come in. This regular event features gourmet street vendors and was so successful it persuaded Robinsons Brewery and Coronation Street star Rupert Hill (Jamie Baldwin) to invest in The Bakers Vaults pub, which had closed down.

Even so, the very concept of an arts centre seems to belong to another, far more idealistic era. That's what it's like in Stockport though. The past pervades in the layers of history and redevelopment – from medieval Staircase House, Stockport's oldest house, to the stunning Art Deco Plaza cinema, to the 1960s Merseyway shopping centre – which run through the town like strata in the outcrops of local red sandstone.

Closing time, 5pm

The proud spirit of independence Joe Barratt talks about is evident along the Underbank, a key street in what has been christened "Stockport Old Town". The Little Underbank Tearoom advertises a rather aspirational "Afternoon tea for two, £15". Owner Sheila Haggan bills her café, crammed with China tea-sets, as "a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of modern life."

"The council could do more with this street," says Ms Haggan. "Some parts of it are lovely, they remind me of Chester. But then you do have empty shops next to businesses, and that looks bad. I'm all for a better evening economy. We close every day at 5pm, but I wouldn't mind opening later to be honest."

Those seven miles are both a benefit and a disadvantage; they mean that the town comes within the economic orbit of Greater Manchester, but also that the big city exerts a pull both on people and spending power. So, how to take the best bits from Manchester without becoming a second-rate clone seven miles down the A6?

In the Old Town, it's easy to draw comparisons, not just with Chester, but with Manchester's Northern Quarter. "There is no reason why Stockport Old Town cannot develop in the same way as the Northern Quarter," says Joe Barratt. "It is well-placed to become the new bohemian destination in the North West for those who now find the Northern Quarter too gentrified and expensive."

When you think that the resident population of Stockport is 300,000, plus more than 34,000 students at Manchester Metropolitan University three miles away, and another 39,000 at Manchester University a few miles further, his idea doesn't seem quite as far-fetched as it might.

"The nightclub scene really is in Manchester though, we would find it very difficult to compete," admits Cllr Patrick McAuley, executive member for economic development and regeneration at Stockport Council . "In Stockport we want to capitalise on the niche that is here, the history and the culture, to create a more family-oriented offer."

Lee, the shop manager at Restore, a furniture shop which gives employment to recovering addicts, is yet to be convinced. He admits he never goes out in Stockport. "It's not a case of there being too many pubs, it's the fact that there isn't much of an alternative to the drinking culture," he says. "That's no good for someone like me, who has had a problem with alcohol."

Lee's shop is in a former 19th-century brothel close to the revamped Market Hall. It sells 1930s drawers and 1960s dressing tables painted up and given a new lease of life. Vintage is big in Stockport: there's a Vintage Village in the Market Hall every month.

Old furniture, old clothes, old buildings… Stockport is also pioneering imaginative regeneration of disused town centre sites. In the former Peaches nightclub, for example, the Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust is creating 51 apartments, available on a shared ownership or rental basis with prices starting at £105,000 for one bedroom. There was once a Presbyterian chapel on the site, then in the late 19th century, a Reform Club, so it certainly had history. "As with any conservation project there were challenges that needed to be overcome," says James Bromfield, development manager at the Trust. "The buildings were dilapidated which led to hidden problems and site access was problematic due to the position in the town centre. As part of the conversion, some of the grave headstones have been kept and now form part of the communal garden pathway."

This £6m collaboration between the Homes & Communities Agency, Heritage Lottery Fund and Stockport Council puts an interesting spin on the "evening economy" – what to do with redundant pubs and clubs which are no longer economically viable.

Johnnie Johnson has also redeveloped the former Salvation Army Citadel into 14 apartments, for shared ownership. Elsewhere, Guinness Northern Counties has two developments, Mealhouse Brow and Revive, and the Royal Oak Brewery was transformed by Equity two years ago into apartments for shared ownership.

Proud history, watchful future

There is certainly no failure of imagination, or political will here. Property developers and retailers see the potential in Stockport's history. And young people such as Joe Barratt talk passionately of taking inspiration from the past. Yet Stockport Council is about to land a very 21st leisure complex on the town. The question is; where does this fit in? And just how will it fit in?

By 2018, Red Rock, a £45m brand-new destination offering 40,000 sq ft of space, will be open. It will be anchored by a 10-screen multiplex cinema, already pre-let to the Light chain, plus more than 38,000 sq ft of retail, restaurants and bars, new public squares and a 340-space multi-storey car-park. Alongside this, a new £42m transport interchange will improve public transport access.

"The new name for the scheme had to strike a balance between creating a vibrant, urban brand while connecting with Stockport's heritage," says McAuley. "Yes it is imposing, but the imposing element is quite important to the project. It will be close to the motorway, so we want people to see it. At the same time though, we're making sure we're not just putting in bricks and mortar. We're improving that area, bringing in public art, and making sure we are telling the story of Stockport. If you were to walk through Stockport, you're actually seeing history. We want Red Rock to be a part of that." How it fits into the urban landscape of brick and stone and rock is for the council to worry about. How it fits into Stockport's own story is for the proud people of Stockport to decide.

@jaynedowle Every month, Jayne Dowle visits a different location in the North West

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