A recent post by local beer blogger Curmudgeon about the decline of the pubs around Stockport marketplace struck a chord with me as it echoed some of the thoughts I experienced during a Saturday morning visit to Stockport town centre . Another recent news article that quoted a statistic that almost a third of the shops in Stockport centre were closed seems very accurate, the only retail growth seems to be in Mobile Phone outlets and the “vulture” perches such as Cash Generator, Bright house and pay-day loan shops. One of the latter seems to open every week. On Princes Street, I wandered into a electronics exchange shop, through a fug of stale tobacco , which was full of people who, quite frankly, would have been better advised spending their money on soap and Ariel washing powder than some tawdry DVD or the latest Blackberry. These places always seem one step away from legalised fences anyway. Who is going to be bothered tracking down some Xbox or Ipod docking station on sale in Stockport stolen last week in Huddersfield or Telford?
Having lived in Stockport for almost 30 years, it was sad to see just how far the centre has declined. At the risk of sounding a pompous snob, it now just feels like a shopping centre for Brinnington or Adswood’s finest on Giro day. Twenty years ago you would frequently meet neighbours from Cheadle or Bramhall in Marks & Spencers or Waterstones but now Merseyway holds few attractions for Stockport’s wealthier suburbs. It is becoming an underclass ghetto and the slide seems set to continue. Those middle class kids mugged around Grand Central and on the 192 bus in the early nineties are now grown up with young families and, for them , Stockport is forever tainted as scum city.
The market area itself , with it’s recently restored Market Hall, Produce Centre and Staircase house should be the focal point of regeneration but this too seems to be struggling. Just off this area, on Hillgate, an independent young woman’s clothes shop has a notice in the window declaring relocation to Bramhall. Whilst the council’s plan to support the town centre with an apparent £12 million bid for the Debenhams site lease makes sense, the place needs some inspired micro management from some retail professionals, preferably local , with some impact actions such as parking restriction relaxation, business rate support and some very positive encouragement to the right sort of retailers and food outlets that will bring in people from the wealthier suburbs to give a better socio-economic mix of shoppers.
I used to say that town centres like this left me feeling I lived in what I felt communist Eastern Europe would have been like; grey monolithic buildings with matching overcast skies, badly dressed people with grey faces, queues outside poorly stocked food shops and the overbearing presence of ” Big Brother” state. But I expect life in picturesque Wroclaw, Budapest or Bratislava is probably so much better in 2012. Ironically, perhaps the only heartening point of the morning was the welcoming attitude of a Polish deli owner in his “sklep” hidden beneath the A6 bridge by the Plaza.