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Masters of our own destiny

Nick Johnson

Let’s stand up and fight the blight of corporate might

The impact on highly geared, highly ambitious property players of the Lehmans collapse gave me time for reflection on the erosion of regional identity, the importance of independents, the death of the high street. I realised I was unhappy with the place in which I lived, that people not architecture and design were the solution, and that we had to find another fleet-of-foot way, to reinvent ‘place’ that side stepped the overstuffed melee of mindless moneyed middlemen that the so-called regeneration industry had become. 

Seven miles south of Manchester, Altrincham’s market charter dates back to 1290. It has some of the most expensive houses in the country, some of the finest schools, railway and tram stations and is one mile from the country’s third largest airport. On paper the town should be a runaway success. It isn’t.

In 2010, Altrincham hit the headlines as the town with the highest proportion of shops lying empty in the country. Dealt a triple whammy by Manchester’s über mall, the Trafford Centre, the recession and some dreadful planning decisions, it flat-lined. Alty Market followed the same trajectory, occupying a beautiful listed building, finished in 1879, home to over 300 traders up to the early ‘80’s and latterly, in the world of chains, corporates and empty brand identities, the last bastion of 30 diehard market stalwarts.

Regeneration can be effected without big bucks and big architecture by embracing individual enterprise and endeavour

Inspired by local graphic designer Peter Saville, the proposition for change seemed simple – Altrincham was the original market town, it now needed to become a modern town with, at its heart, a modern market. It was inspired by London, fuelled by the desire to make Alty fit-for-purpose and determined to be anti-everything – anti-corporate, anti-big money, anti-middlemen, anti-lawyers, anti-establishment, even anti-architecture. It also fiercely promoted independence, enterprise, the region, distinction and identity. 

Operating in a property world where permanence is the key to value, the object is to demonstrate ‘value through impermanence’, the capacity to generate demand and ‘footfall’ through constant, clear and heavily curated change. Curation of people and what they do is the key. Regeneration can be effected without big bucks and big architecture by embracing individual enterprise and endeavour. 

Less than 18 months and £1m later, there is a real sense that perception of the town is beginning to change. We have fostered and facilitated enterprise – there are eight new independent food operators, all less than 18 months old, who now have a seat at the Market House table. They are good, different and started business on one of our market stalls. 

We have a Manchester man who makes possibly the best wood-fired pizza in England, a Salford based micro-brewery staffed by 20-something sommeliers, an expert chocolatier, coffee from a Lancaster coffee house whose sons win UK barista championships, and a Michelin quality chef. Outside we have over 60 constantly changing creative, spirited, people. Pulled together and craftily curated, it looks pretty powerful. And it’s fun.

We need to bring some intelligence back to the debate about the places in which we live. If we are to fight the blight of corporate might, we need to drink to our differences, indulge our identities and subvert the systems we have allowed to suffocate our souls. 

Peter Saville says people get the city they deserve. You can scale that down to village. If we don’t stand up and attempt to change things around us… we deserve what we get. 

Nick Johnson,  previously deputy CEO at Urban Splash, is director of Market Operations