Next stop: Stockport

At the steamy end of July 2021, candidates and grads from GM Leaders Plus coaxed Stockport Council colleagues into the baking sun to show us what the town is up to – and there is a *lot* to see. This is a just a taste of what course candidates and the FoL team learned about; for details on town centre evolution and council strategy, follow the links inline or ask us to connect you.

Some of the council’s work is of course focused on Covid recovery. Stockport was hit hard by the closure of four anchor stores – some accelerated by lockdown – and the harm to residents’ financial resilience, with its knock-on effects. It has responded with community programmes and cross-sector partnerships under the One Stockport banner plus further economic support, from direct financial aid to peppercorn rents for businesses in need.

Other projects have been running for a few years, and are proving out when they’re needed most. Initiatives include an evolving vision for the rail station and adjacent Stockport Exchange commercial/hotel scheme; buying and transforming the Merseyway shopping centre and other key assets; securing strategic Lottery, Infrastructure Fund and private investment for townscape and heritage restoration; and using its new Town Centre West Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) to help deliver £1bn worth of housing, mixed-use regeneration and infrastructure.

Core to the long-term strategy is smart partnering, underpinned by key asset purchases and a single regeneration fund on the council side, and long-term vision from the developers it partners with. Stockport is still keen to draw investors who would usually look to Manchester, but it’s doing it on its own terms.

Public space, successful place

When we visited, the 2021 Gigantic Leap art trail had just been installed (overseen by Leaders Plus alumna Helen Walters): 21 locally-designed frog sculptures that highlight changes around the town. At the same time, artist Joe Rush’s amazing Mount Recyclemore – G7 heads of state sculpted entirely from e-waste – had just been shifted from the G7 Summit to the Exchange, where owner musicMagpie is based.

Stockport Exchange is a source of particular pride for the council, which went from pursuing developers – and finding Muse as a good partner – to having investors and commercial occupiers come to them seeking space. The first two office buildings have been let quickly, the Holiday Inn Express is a top performer for the chain, and the next two phases are well on their way. The Exchange is also home to the MDC office, for easy access.

Heritage value

The next stop was along the Mersey, still mostly inaccessible but soon to be partly opened up and potentially linking with the Greater Manchester Bee Network for walking and cycling. The river’s heritage could be celebrated more, and Weir Mill is expected to be a catalyst for that. The £60m Capital & Centric mixed-use project has a gateway spot between river and viaduct and will host apartments, workspace, restaurants, public space and more.

The heart of Stockport’s heritage assets and efforts is Old Town, where refurbishment of the Market Hall and addition of a food court in the Produce Hall has been a magnet for restaurants, pubs, workspace and shops. To keep the square lively through Covid, the council leased prime retail space to 20th Century Stores at a discount and will hand over the head-lease this year.

The five-year Rediscovering the Underbanks programme of refurbishment, co-sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will also help train people in restoration skills, which are at risk of disappearing as craftspeople retire and building trades training shifts toward modern methods of construction.

Connecting people and place

Stockport’s hilly topography, interlaced by rail, river and roads, calls for ingenuity. To connect the council-owned Redrock leisure & cinema hub with the town centre, the council bought & demolished four units to make a small park. The council wants to add more green links, partly as a ‘bridge’ from less-affluent Lancashire Hill, so residents can access services and retail and still feel they belong despite the influx of new businesses and residents.

A big part of that inclusivity effort is the Stockroom, backed by £14.5m in Future High Streets funding, which will repurpose a vacant arm of the Merseyway shopping centre as a learning, performance and community services space.

Finally, there’s the MDC: a long-term programme combining Greater Manchester funding and Stockport Council powers and initiative. The MDC aims to deliver 3,500 homes and a million square feet of employment space based on “Community, Sustainability and Innovation”. More than just buzzwords, the three principles were in evidence across our visit – including likely sustainability requirements in Stockport Exchange occupier leases.

Thanks to everyone who set up and/or hosted parts of this visit: Amy Beasley, Service Manager for Place Planning (GM Leaders Plus 2021); Jo Foskett, Inclusion Manager (GMLP 2021); Development Managers Richard Humphries and Alex Fyans; Joe Conmee, MDC Programme Manager (GMLP 2020); Laura Green, MDC Development Manager.

Opening – or re-opening – public space and walking-cycling connections 

Heritage everywhere, much of it being brought back into use

Council interventions include building/owning Redrock leisure centre and buying Merseyway shopping centre to repurpose parts of it as retail, community and workspace.