'We don't want to be the new Chorlton': Withington's plan to be 'the village everyone wants to live in' – Manchester Evening News
As leaders across Manchester work to boost the economy after a devastating year, community groups in Withington are looking well into the future.
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A greengrocer, a butcher and post office – these stalwarts of a traditional village have become something of an endangered species in Manchester.
Withington has long held these amenities dear. In a single visit you can drop off your dry cleaning, get a key cut, make a donation to the charity shop, do your food shopping and then have a pint.
And more recent additions such as a record shop and beer hall have added a dash of hipster cool to a suburb that already benefits from a large student population.
Residents in the south Manchester suburb have a strong sense of civic pride and it currently boasts a number of community groups and initiatives from Withington Walls to Love Withington Baths.
But the area is also dogged by pollution, fly tipping and low level crime.
As city leaders across Manchester prepare plans to boost the economy after a devastating year, groups in Withington are looking even further ahead.
A plan to transform the area into a more “liveable, loveable place that meets all the needs of a diverse local community” by 2030 has just been approved by Manchester City Council.
A revamped public square, car-free streets, restored shop fronts, more street art and better cycle routes form part of a new vision.
But even before these plans were given the green light, a number of community led events and schemes have been ongoing to improve the area.
So what does the future hold for Withington? How will it survive the devastating blows doled out during the pandemic? And how can it retain it’s village feel?
Withington has seen a number of new developments in recent years.
The former Cine City cinema now stands tall at the south end of Copson Street as the Scala apartments – named after the cinema which opened in 1912.
The Edwardian Withington Baths, where many of south Manchester’s children learnt to swim, was due to be closed in 2013 but was saved by residents.
They formed the Love Withington Baths group, organised a £150,000 revamp and most recently secured £81,000 Heritage Lottery Fund cash to replace the roof.
The former White Lion pub, a Grade II listed building which had become a derelict eyesore, was transformed into a Sainsburys convenience store in 2011.
Since then a number of independent traders have joined the raft of small businesses that were already long-established in the village.
Popular cafe Toast nestled alongside the long-running Fuel cafe bar, while Deco Records became Wilderness Records.
Recently, a group of locals transformed the suburb's most neglected spaces into works of art.
The Withington Walls project matched local artists with empty walls and shop shutters to create a free public outdoor art gallery.
The huge Akse mural honouring local lad Marcus Rashford is the most high-profile piece with people visiting from all over Greater Manchester to see it.
In October Withington Public Hall Institute opened its doors. It’s a far cry from the former men’s club and snooker hall, once known as ‘the homewreckers’, that preceded it. Now the Burton Road site serves artisan pizzas, craft beer and flat whites.
And despite only being open for two weeks before the November lockdown, the social enterprise has managed to stay afloat.
That venture was a follow on from The Lock Inn pop up events, which ran at the Baths and at the former NatWest Bank in Wilmslow Road.
In 2019, the bank was used for a series of community events showcasing local food, arts, crafts and music.
The Grade II listed bank building is due to be transformed into a bar, restaurant, apartments and offices to “propel the renaissance” of the village.
Lyndon Higginson transformed long-established student haunt Soloman’s into a tequila bar, Southside, back in July.
Despite the difficulties the pandemic has thrown up, he’s optimistic about the future.
“Off the top of my head there have been at least five new openings in the village within the last 12 months so as horrible and annoying this pandemic has been for everyone, I think the village is better off for it in many ways,” he says.
Lyndon – who also owns Wilderness Records on Egerton Crescent, and several bars in the city centre – say the pandemic has seen more people staying local.
“We opened Southside with major restrictions in place that constantly changed. A difficult situation for every business but challenging with a brand new opening,” he says.
“The one thing we noticed was, we were busier than a lot of venues in the city centre after the first lockdown. I do think a lot of people just stayed around their local areas a lot more. Nobody really wanted to get in a taxi or a bus to town.
“I think people felt safer and I think people wanted to shop local to help the businesses that couldn’t trade during the lockdowns.
“I really do think that this is the start of the Great British high street making it’s long overdue comeback. People feel much more obliged to shop locally.”
Surviving the pandemic
Withington boasts a wealth of independent businesses. Some have been allowed to stay open during the various lockdowns, but others have been forced to diversify as they struggle to negotiate enforced closures and Covid rules.
Berrin Golding runs the Mockingbirds boutique, on Wilmslow Road.
Over the last year she’s had to set up a click and collect facility, a website, model clothes and use her bike for deliveries.
Brexit too has made it harder to get stock, while predicting fashion trends with no knowledge of how the pandemic will pan out has proved almost impossible.
“It came as a real shock last March,” she says “All the Spring and Summer stock was coming in, lots of things for festivals and holidays but everyone wanted loungewear.
“I had to reduce all of the dresses and partywear, bags, accessories. We lost a lot of money.
“We had to make a lot of decisions at the last minute.
“Being a fashion business we order forward. At the moment I should be ordering for summer next year but I have no confidence anymore to put in a forward order. We still don’t know which way things will go.
“It has really been a difficult time to assess what stock to hold.”
Despite a myriad of difficulties, Berrin says Withington customers have really supported local shops in the most difficult trading year in memory. She hopes that local loyalty will outlive the pandemic.
“I’ve been here eight years and I’ve had a community of people supporting me from the beginning,” she says.
“I’m really grateful for them. They could buy from anywhere but they have shopped locally.
“A lot of people have been buying local and are aware that small businesses would not survive without them. Also not many people want to take public transport and venture into the city centre.”
As a Withington local of two decades, Berrin says the suburb has changed dramatically. She hopes the positive change will continue.
“Both shops on either side of me were closed when I first opened and were covered in pigeon poo,” she says.
“Then suddenly the village became a lot more popular and a few independent businesses opened. The village started to look a lot better.
“Withington is unique because it’s a really diverse community and that’s what I love.
“As long as we have Copson Street it will be great. I always think it’s like a street in New York. A lot of those businesses, like the greengrocers and the locksmiths, have been there for so long I would be upset to see any of them go.
“Cities do change and if something is changing it means there is a demand for it.
“I don’t think it will change the identity of Withington because the driving force has come from within, from people who live here.”
A public square, new shop fronts and the old Bank
A new framework for the village to achieve 'self-fulfilling regeneration' over the next two decades was this month backed by residents, traders and councillors.
The framework, which was signed off by the council executive this week, outlines plans for a revamped public square, car-free streets, restored shop fronts, more street art and better cycle routes.
It quotes an aspiration to turn the area into a more “liveable, loveable place that meets all the needs of a diverse local community” by 2030.
It proposes a major redesign of Wilmslow Road, and the roads that feed off the main thoroughfare, to make it safer for pedestrians to cross.
Copson Street could be completely pedestrianised to create a new public space for markets.
While the Wellington Road junction, by the library, could be closed off to create a more seamless public space – known as Rutherford Place.
The We Are Withington group is aiming to secure more substantial support from the government to realise its ambitions, and have their sights on a slice of the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund.
Withington Village Regeneration Partnership (WVRP) members have been buoyed by a range of largely positive responses.
Chairman Dave Payne is keen to see Withington retain its village appeal and hopes long lost shops, such as the fishmongers, will return.
He was born and raised in the suburb and says: “One of the things Withington Village has in its favour is that it is a designated Conservation Area and part of its key character is the proliferation of relatively small units.
“The pavements are very tight,” he says. “And there’s currently nowhere in Withington where you can sit down and have a chat.
“If you improve the environment for everyone, you make it a more pleasant place to shop and hang out.”
He adds: “It always has been a good village from being a kid. My mum used to do all her shopping here. It needs to remain all things for all people.
Who lives here?
Withington has always been a village of families.
Students still make up a large part of the population but as they move towards more purpose built accommodation that may change.
That demographic differentiates Withington from affluent Altrincham and trendy Levenshulme – which both seen community-led revivals in recent years.
Behind the cranes dragging up a huge new tower at the heart of The Christie hospital live a number of long-term residents on affluent streets. There is plenty of social housing on the Old Moat estate and a mix of student housing and private homes along Yew Tree Road and the surrounding streets.
Competition for homes in the area is already high and with so many improvements on the horizon that will only increase.
So is there a danger that as the village changes and develops, house prices and business rents could increase and long-term traders and residents could be priced out?
Civic Society chairman Roger Smith says some homes are already unaffordable for people who grew up in the area.
“The takeover of traditional family houses for students has been a problem,” he says.
“Some areas of Withington and Old Moat and South East Fallowfield have been struggling with the number of students. When a house goes up for sale landlords are able to pay higher prices than village families can.
“On some streets it’s 90 percent students, which is over the top. We want a sustainable and balanced society.
“With 90,000 students in Greater Manchester the pressures to accommodate students has been great. We think that pressure is easing as students move northwards but even so house prices are unmanageable for some people.
“The children of long term residents can’t afford the prices themselves. But that will go on regardless of gentrification.”
Lyndon Higginson says students bring a lot of business to the area.
“I think there’ll always be a high number of students in the area,” he says. “There’s a load of massive houses with too many bedrooms for that to ever go away.
“Without the students there wouldn’t be cool little vegan ice cream places like Ice Shack, or great live venues like Fuel. Wilderness record store wouldn’t have happened either. Having that cool, young student crowd keeps the place cool and vibrant.”
But Lyndon too says gentrification could provide a barrier to some prospective home buyers.
“It’s the age old problem that’s happened everywhere,” he says. “As the area gets better, the rents go up and it costs more to live there.
“I don’t see too many issues with that as long as there’s enough affordable housing being built as well. Without that happening the area will lose all of its edge. Social diversity is key in creating a great community.”
But Dave Payne says there is no aspiration to gentrify the area beyond recognition.
He was the WVRP is working with developers and Southway Housing Association to identify and provide more residential accommodation in the heart of the village.
“Southway are of course a social housing provider so affordability is at the heart of their ethos,” he says.
“We have also worked to encourage investment in Withington by reputable landlords who have worked with local independent businesses to provide them with affordable opportunities to thrive. The really exciting initiative that’s happening at the Withington Institute and Public Hall is a great example of this.”
How will it be different from other suburbs?
Areas such as Altrincham, Levenshulme and West Didsbury are now some of the most desirable places in Greater Manchester. So can they provide a template for Withington?
Roger Smith, of Withington Civic Society, says the village is already attractive but could be better.
“There are a lot of problems,” he says.
“Parts are very rundown, there’s fly tipping, too much litter, the environment is not as good as it should be. We could make it better.
“The sooner we can get going the better.”
Crime and antisocial behaviour have also been raised as concerns among residents.
Despite these difficulties Roger is very positive about the future.
“We all know the face of the high street has changed forever,” he says.
“I think the future of Withington will hopefully be in a mixture of independents and areas used for art and culture.
“We’re lucky because Withington has tremendous community spirit.
“We do look to West Didsbury and say in many ways there is more of a buzz about those sort of places.”
Dave Payne says a Withington’s designated Conservation Area status should help to protect it from too dramatic a change.
“Part of its key character is proliferation of relatively small units,” he says.
“Being a conservation area this is likely to remain the case and major chains aren’t particularly attracted to smaller units, so they remain affordable to the smaller independent businesses which help give the village its character.
“It’s a similar scenario in Manchester’s Northern Quarter where despite the massively increased profile of the area in the last decade or so it remains a hive to flourishing independent businesses in part because of the small scale make up of many of the units.”
He says the latest plans will provide an opportunity to identify ‘voids’ in the village.
“I think it shows that we have got a great community around here of people who greatly care for Withington and want to see improvements,” he says.
“We don’t want it to be the new Chorlton or the new West Didsbury.
“And the market created in Altrincham – there isn’t the space for that in Withington. We would like to try and create a community market in Withington with locals rather than just people from outside the area.
“We would also like to bring back the lost shops of Withington. We used to have butchers, a fishmonger, a deli, a health food shop, a toy shop – they’re gone. Lots of things have gone. “We would like to identify those voids in the village. We’re trying to make the whole area a better place.”
Lyndon Higginson is optimistic too.
“I reckon the mix is pretty good right now and is only going to get better,” he says.
“There’s so many cool little places to hang out. The independent venues all work really well together. There’s pretty much everything you need in the village. The Withington Walls street art project adds an element of cool as well.
“I reckon we’re only a cool florist and an amazing bakery away from it being the village everyone wants to live in.”