ASHTON’S town centre has been declared ‘no longer fit for purpose’ – by the council whose headquarters are located in it.
And the admission by officers at the Tameside authority should be the start of ripping up previous plans and starting again, says one councillor.
Over the last few years, the town has seen its landmark Marks and Spencer store disappear, along with several other businesses.
Its outdoor market has also suffered after a remodelling, with several stalls remaining empty and the historic town hall off limits.
Cllr Mike Glover described it as ‘being a building site for the last 10 years.’
Now despite landing a near £20 million Government grant in the Levelling Up Fund, which will be spent on revamping the building, the summation has been laid out to councillors in black and white.
As shutters remain down at a number of units, the slide presented to the council’s North Strategic Neighbourhood Forum said: “Once a leading destination for both local and out-of-town shoppers, the town centre is no longer fit for purpose, with a large number of shop closures and footfall has continued to decline.”
And Ashton Hurst councillor and Ashton Town Team member Dan Costello believes it is now time to start afresh.
He said: “That was the first time I’d seen it admitted but it’s something the Town Team had been talking about.
“Business owners have been saying this for ages but I’m surprised at the ‘not fit for purpose’ comment.
“Decades of mismanagement have caused it, that’s the feeling we get from the business owners.
There’s a lot of upset at the way the outdoor market was redesigned, they’re adamant that had a negative impact on footfall.
“And seeing a building site isn’t something that makes a town centre good or attractive to walk around.
“Local businesses keep telling us they’re suffering and all we want to do is make sure they’re supported and that we have a good town centre.
“As a Town Team, we’re always making suggestions to Tameside Council but I’ve not seen anything taken on. I’ve not seen anything implemented.
“One thing we talked about was proactively sourcing traders for the market. It’s honest, I agree with it and it’s good there’s that recognition.
“I’d like to see everything starting from scratch again, in terms of, ‘Let’s start with a blank sheet of paper and think about what we want the town centre to be.’
“If it’s no longer fit for purpose, what has been happening has failed.”
Gregg Stott, the authority’s assistant director of investment, development and housing, countered that statement by saying: “The town centre has undergone improvement and had significant investment over recent years.
“Clearly, we have Vision Tameside through Tameside One as it is better known but also the new transport interchange that is now fully open and is a fantastic asset, not just in terms of access into Ashton but into Manchester and beyond as well.
“And there is that further opportunity to restore the historic Ashton Town Hall, so lots of investment has gone on and a considerable amount more will be planned.”
But he admitted: “We need to repurpose the town centre, which means looking at more residential development, more mixed use.” Cllr Glover quizzed Mr Stott on the future of the ‘building site’ that lies next to the new Ashton bus station – the third incarnation in 40 years.
He was told that was part of the bid for funding and the council is working with Transport for Greater Manchester on contractual matters as it is a ‘priority area for future development.’
Plans are afoot for it to be turned into a temporary town centre car park before Christmas but Cllr Warren Bray said: “Unfortunately, TfGM are playing hardball.”
Ashton succeeded in getting £19.9 million for investing into its town centre, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak name checking it during his Budget speech.Tameside Council will work with the owners of the Arcades and Ladysmith Shopping Centres and it is designated as ‘growth location.’
Part of that is the Ashton Moss area and plans are in place to develop it further, with up to 200,000 sq m of space creating as many as 4,500 jobs.
Mr Stott added: “That’s known as Ashton Innovation Corridor, containing Ashton town centre, St Petersfield and Ashton Moss. We want to keep that momentum going, particularly with Ashton Moss.
“Hopefully it will be taken to the next level, when we can realise what is the major strategic site.”
Building, not restarting, the aim for council
TAMESIDE Council insists it is not a case of ‘rip it up and start again’ when it comes to Ashton town centre.
But it does plan to address what it has heard from its voters – it does not meet their needs.
Arguments will rage on about what should be done, what has not been done and how new life can be injected into the area.
One thing is not on the authority’s agenda though – starting afresh.
A spokesman said: “Acknowledging there is work to do to progress this and create a town centre that is fit for purpose in the long term is not about ripping up this plan and starting again.
“We have already made great progress and shown that we are committed to investing in Ashton by bringing the tram into the town, the opening of the new interchange, the building of a new college complex and library service in the town centre and improvements to our market.
“We have a comprehensive transformation plan for Ashton town centre, as with all our town centres in Tameside.
“We will continue to implement our ambitious plans by investing and seeking further funding in the area.
“We have recently successfully bid for £20 million of levelling up funding which will accelerate our existing plan to carry out development works at the former interchange site to bring residential, retail and commercial space into the heart of the town,
“It will also go towards walking, cycling and public realm improvement and the restoration of Ashton Town Hall.
“We are confident that Ashton can continue to grow and be a thriving and successful town centre. It already has a lot to offer and we can only build on this as we move forwards.”
They also claimed: “The decline of the high street is not a situation unique to Ashton, nor is it an issue that only smaller town centres are facing.
“It is a national decline following the evolution of the way in which people use their town centres, over a decade of austerity and more recently the detrimental impact of the pandemic.
“As a council, we recognise that our town centres are in need of investment to re-design their overall offer and boost economic growth creating a thriving place to visit and work.
“Our residents tell us Ashton Town Centre is not currently meeting their needs, we plan to address this.”