Back in 2010, Altrincham had one of the highest proportions of empty shops in the country. One in three were unoccupied.
Internet shopping and out-of-town retail parks were held to blame. The only hope for the high street was thought to be yet more charity and pound shops. But today things are very different. The rate of vacancies has fallen by three-quarters and visits to the town centre are up by 25 per cent.
At the heart of this renaissance is the renovated Altrincham Market House - a fabulous place with communal tables, independent kitchens, and handpicked stalls, offering everything from Lebanese wraps and sourdough bread to craft beer and artisan chocolate. The market is busy and commercially successful, with a £5m annual turnover.
The project was led by Nick Johnson and Jen Thompson, of Market Operations, the same company that recently turned a neglected Grade II listed 19th Century market hall in Manchester’s Northern Quarter into the fabulous Mackie Mayor, where you’ll find an outpost of Lancaster’s Atkinsons Coffee Roasters. Nick said: “The idea is simple: each of the kitchens is owned by an independent operator and the dining area is shared so you can enjoy a wide variety of food together at the same shared table.” Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor are two examples of how imagination, ingenuity and investment can prove the doomsayers wrong.
The Piece Hall in Halifax is another. After undergoing a £19m renovation, this magnificent galleried courtyard is now home to a range of boutique shops and independent cafés and bars.
More towns want in on the action. Plans are underway in Macclesfield to transform the 100-year-old Picturedrome cinema into a European style food court. Huge enthusiasm shows there is demand for vibrant meeting places with a social purpose.
“I see this as a model for how you could restore the high street,” Nick said. “People lust after spending time with other people in real time - eating, drinking and people watching. They always have and always will. We’re hard wired, it’s part of being human.”
By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design