David Adamson takes the temperature of a town in the midst of massive regeneration
“Stockport is the new Berlin” once proclaimed Luke Unabomber, with either lashings of irony or a sense of hopeful wish fulfilment, depending on who you ask.
The town was once famously described in the 2005 book, Crap Towns in the following glowing terms: “The overriding look for Stockport is a shaven head with optional Fila cap perched on top, a Reebok shellsuit, the legs of which are tucked into a pair of overpowering patterned socks.
“Anyone deviating from this universally accepted look faces daily verbal and physical abuses. Entertainment includes being glassed in one of the town's many pubs, avoiding being stabbed on the infamous 192 bus and avoiding leaving your house as much as possible.”
I don't really remember what the exact turning point was, it just kind of felt like it arrived
Now, 18 years after that more-than-slightly sneering appraisal, Stockport has found itself on The Times’ list of ‘One of the Best Places to Live 2023’, which described it as having “engineered a remarkable reinvention in recent years, turning itself from a standard former mill town into a funky, family-friendly alternative to the Northern Quarter…where the avocado-brunching millennials move when they have a Lejoux pushchair…but still want to live a fashionable life”.
While the suburbs of Marple, Bramhall, Cheadle Hulme and the Heatons have always enjoyed a level of middle class amenity, the town centre seemed slightly hollowed out and underserved. Until now.
The degree of regeneration in the town centre is almost sarcastically visible, with every turn presenting you with either a sprouting tower block or the careful refurbishment of buildings that hold much of the town’s legacy of hats and hops.
Local Valuer for estate agents Edward Mellor, Robert Heritage, explained that when he took on the role at the nearby Edgeley office in 2014 the town centre was worse for wear, but that the gradual change he’s seen hasn’t simply been down to property developers and council initiatives, but something more organic.
“It was in a sorry state,” he said. “There was a lot of dilapidated empty properties down in the town centre, and Merseyway itself was never the most glamorous of locations. The same could be said for the old part of town, which had a feeling of quite seedy backstreets.
“I don't really remember what the exact turning point was, it just kind of felt like it arrived. A few independent traders started to creep in, the old town got repaved and everything got a bit of a facelift. Now there’s taprooms and Foodie Friday. It’s quite trendy now.”
When he started his role nine years ago, Robert said there were few people living in the town centre, but with the development of the likes of Weir Mill looking to bring people into the centre, the excitement of a reborn town is spreading to its suburbs, especially Edgeley, where the house prices are reflecting this change.
“The centre was predominantly office buildings,” he explained. “And I think as time has gone on any old office block and available building is being converted into residential properties, but it's taken a long time. Everywhere you look there's something changing at the moment and you can see now how far it's come."
Robert continued: “I think that feel-good factor about the area changing is spreading to the surrounding suburbs because I speak to a lot of people in Edgeley and the question I’m asked every week is ‘Do you think my value is going to increase now that there’s a lot of change going on?’ I think people are noticing that and I think it’s had a positive impact generally on the housing market in this area, because it's something to be excited about again.
“Edgeley’s always been an area synonymous with first time buyers and families and borders some more affluent areas while being a more affordable area to be. It’s got the proximity to Stockport, accessibility to some good schools, the motorway links. It's very convenient for a lot of things. You could argue the high street isn’t up to scratch but that may change with everything that’s happening.
“In the last nine years or so property values in Edgeley have probably doubled: we started selling terraces at 100 to 120 grand and a lot of those now sell at 200 plus.”
While the market has been enlivened and the retail units of the town centre taken on by risk-taking independents, there can be no doubt the significant shot in the arm has come from major investment by local government, chiefly Stockport Council and the Stockport Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC).
Paul Richards, Chief Executive of MDC and Director of Development and Regeneration at Stockport Council said: “Stockport town centre is rapidly becoming one of the UK’s most sustainable and liveable town centres. The town centre is undergoing a significant transformation, with over £1bn investment in delivering new homes, transport infrastructure, workspace, green open space, and cultural and leisure facilities.
“Central to our plans is the transformation of Town Centre West into the most sustainable and liveable neighbourhood in the UK, led by Stockport MDC. By delivering 4,000 homes in the next decade, we will double the current number of homes in the town centre and contribute to 10% of Greater Manchester’s drive to deliver 36,000 homes by 2032. This will make an enormous contribution to the vitality of our town centre, bringing people closer to local amenities and innovative new transport links.”
On Little Underbank, the area seeming to be the hub of what The Times tediously called ‘avocado-brunching millennials’, there’s a slight discrepancy between the bars, independent clothes shops and trendy homeware stores, and the sheer number of boarded up shopfronts.
Julian Avdaj, owner of Salty Towers Fish Bar - nextdoor to theBistro Marc at Winter’s - puts this down to the only factor of any true influence: footfall.
“With these new developments coming up we hope to get busy and for Stockport to get better,” he said. “Every day seems to get better but I don’t feel the change is happening quick enough."
Julian continued: “I don’t know how things work in the council but everything takes time to be done. It might take a couple of years, we don’t know yet, but the businesses can’t wait that long. We need more people in because otherwise the businesses are going to disappear, especially the small ones.
“They can’t sustain themselves while waiting for change to happen. We’ve got bills to pay and there’s not enough people around.”
While the boarded up shops may be cause for concern, they won’t stay that way for long, explained Guy Jenkins, owner of Blade Barber Shop, which sits opposite three units on Little Underbank that he says are due to become bars any day now, heralding a transformation into something equivalent to the Northern Quarter that he says he’s seen coming for a long time.
“I was in the Northern Quarter before it was even called that,” he said. “There was a load of regeneration going on then and I could see that taking shape. So when I moved here 16 years ago, I looked around and thought this could be the next Northern Quarter. And gradually you can see that taking shape now as well."
Pointing to the shops opposite, Guy continued: “This opposite is going to be a bar, so is that next to it, and the coffee shop’s reopening after it’s been redeveloped. There’s two a few doors down that have been sold, I’m not sure who to but they went very rapidly. Every week there’s something going on.
“You might walk down here and think ‘it looks a bit shit down here, doesn’t it?’, but it’s not. I know Winter’s has closed but some pizza guys from the Northern Quarter are taking that over, and the bottom of the White Lion’s going to be a restaurant.
“There’s loads going on, it’s just been really slow. I said to my wife years ago it’ll be the next Northern Quarter, give it five or six years, and it’s been 16. But it’s all going on and it’s a great place to stay, otherwise I’d have fucked off back to town.”
Berlin it may not be, but while people’s hopes and expectations rise like the towers beside the viaduct, there’s a sense of a town rediscovering itself.
Let’s say “Stockport is the new Stockport”.
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