Smart city-regions: Nowhere should be left behind

6 min read

Since Greater Manchester’s Metro Mayor, Andy Burnham, first announced the ‘town centre challenge’ back in 2017, Stockport has emerged as an exemplar, progressing with a successful development model which other towns are now beginning to adopt.  

Upon the launch of the initiative, Greater Manchester’s ten local authorities were invited to nominate towns they felt would benefit most from a coordinated programme of regeneration that brought together multiple stakeholders across the public and private sectors. Those put forward were Farnworth, Leigh, Prestwich, Rochdale, Royton, Stalybridge, Stretford, Stockport and Swinton. 

In Burnham’s own words, these are all towns ‘which have felt left behind.’ Others have referred to them less kindly as ‘ghost towns’ or ‘forgotten’. Although the people living and working in these places might not agree, the contrast with the ongoing and visible resurgence of nearby Manchester city centre – with its record number of cranes adorning the skyline – has made such labels hard to shake.  

These words have been echoed recently by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a speech at Manchester’s Science at Industry Museum in which he announced a new fund for 100 deprived towns, designed to “turbocharge” growth in the region. Johnson remarked that whilst central Manchester was much like London, full of opportunity and prosperity, just a few miles out of the centre it is a completely different picture. Johnson also set out his four key ingredients for success, which he believes are lacking in such forgotten places: 'liveability, connectivity, culture and power. 

In the context of Greater Manchester’s town centre regeneration, it is perhaps no surprise that Stockport has taken the leading role. As the largest of the several so-called ‘left behind’ towns, it is ahead of the curve. A consistent, focused and progressive executive direction between 2011 and 2017 helped to lay the foundations, while a continued willingness to adapt and lead, excellent transport connections, and a relatively diverse housing mix and growing cultural offer, tick off Johnson’s four key ingredients.

Much trickier to publicise, but also notable, is the fact Stockport has been an important testbed for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s holistic approach to placemaking, which has now been adopted across the entire region in the form of the ‘Greater Manchester Model’.  The model – which in essence prioritises residents’ personal needs and their communities, and then develops property solutions to support that philosophy – is something that should be welcomed and championed.    

Stockport is the location of Greater Manchester’s Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) – the first in the country which will bring new powers for the Mayor to hold, acquire, and develop land. In Stockport’s case, this concerns a 130-acre brownfield site designated for the creation of an urban village with up to 3,000 new homes. It could also eventually bring powers to grant discretionary business rates relief to businesses operating in the area.       

If Stockport MDC gets the green light – it has had positive feedback from a public consultation and is now awaiting subsequent approval from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – it will help to accelerate the principles behind the Greater Manchester Model. 

Delivered properly, an MDC in the context of the Greater Manchester Model has potential to not only transform Stockport, but greatly impact on how other Local Authorities and Combined Authorities (across the UK as well as Greater Manchester) might integrate and deliver their services in future. Exemplifying how far ahead Greater Manchester is on this matter, a regional taskforce with the aim of breathing new life into struggling town centres has only recently been established in the West Midlands.  

Prioritising the needs of people and their neighbourhoods when delivering public services marks a radical departure from the traditional approach and it begs the question why hasn’t it been done already? The answer is that, up until very recently – prior to metro mayors and devolution – our local government has been restricted in exactly how they were able to influence and shape delivery.  

We’ve seen the detrimental effects of this across Greater Manchester. While Manchester city centre has transformed dramatically over the past twenty-plus years, it’s a template for success that hasn’t translated to nearby places like Stalybridge or Stockport. Nor would it necessarily work for places further afield like Barnsley, Burnley or Huddersfield.  

The devolution of powers to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is now helping to address this issue, unlocking the potential for much better ‘place-based’ strategies. Early signs of progress, seen in places like Stockport, show that shaping the delivery of a successful place is complex and multi-faceted, and depends on far more than capital investment alone. Perhaps the 100 deprived towns fund will be a further step in the right direction with regard to regional growth and the prosperity of outer city areas such as this. 

What the 100 deprived towns fund must recognise to be successful - and as the Greater Manchester Model attests - the answers to successfully redefining our forgotten town centres will be found not only in property driven solutions. They will also be found in prioritising asset-driven solutions; that is aligning planning requirements to the needs of a town’s neighbourhoods, rather than allowing them to be driven solely by a developer’s commercial nous.    

It’s important that town and city planners don’t just build on an architectural vision. If we are to be truly successful within Greater Manchester and the wider region, we must be careful not get lost in the bright lights of city centres and should embrace our towns equally in the creation of sustainable places to live and work, ensuring that the four key ingredients of success are realised. To achieve this, our towns need a spatial vision that intertwines and complements their neighbours.  

 This article was originally published by the Manchester Evening News.