Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, in A Clockwork Orange, credit Wikipedia
The Missing Link
Bill Hartley hits Stockton
Recent remarks by the Home Secretary, wherever they were directed, shone an unaccustomed spotlight on Stockton. [Editorial note; James Cleverly allegedly called Stockton a “s**thole” in the House of Commons]. Some towns never really succeed. Others go through a period of prosperity before sinking into decline. Stockton, on the north bank of the Tees, falls into the latter category. Like many councils Stockton’s local authority pours out optimistic propaganda but the townscape has all the signs of a decline which may be impossible to curtail. There is a revival plan though and it is going to cost a great deal of public money.
The high water mark of 19th century prosperity is often reflected in town centre architecture. Some places possess handsome commercial buildings and arcades adorned with sandstone facades, ornate windows and other decorations. Stockton is a depressing exception. The original port on the Tees was Yarm which had the good fortune to be superseded by Stockton, before it could be overwhelmed by industrialisation. Hence it retains the charm of a Georgian market town. In contrast, Stockton has a ragged row of undistinguished buildings along its high street.
Stockton was predestined to fail despite becoming the terminus for Mr Stephenson’s new railway, built to reach the Tees by the shortest route. From here South Durham coal could be shipped out. Even back then though, farsighted businessmen such as Joseph Pease who promoted the Stockton and Darlington Railway, saw it as merely a stepping stone. The ultimate destination was Middlesbrough, a place with more room for expansion. Stockton continued as a port serving the coal trade but no-one was going to spend money on handsome buildings which might signal confidence in the future.
There are today two Stockton’s. Just out of town along the A135 towards Yarm lie new housing developments, office parks, trading estates and car showrooms. In effect, people and businesses have gone elsewhere. These places may have the same postcode but it is quite possible to live here and never enter the town centre, which is only a short bus ride away.
Stockton’s life as a river port effectively came to an end with the opening of the Tees barrage in 1995. It was done with the aim of controlling the river’s flow to prevent flooding. The Tees is still in theory navigable and it is possible for light craft to reach Yarm. However, the operators PD Ports, ‘do not encourage’ recreational craft to travel upstream. Looking out over the wide expanse of river at Stockton, there is no sign of any craft, even of the light variety.
Behind the high street there are a few surviving Georgian town houses tucked away and enthusiastically promoted as ‘heritage’ by the council. Unfortunately the overriding impression is of worn out 1970s shopping developments whose tenants have fled, and for which demolition would be a merciful release. Pictures of the High Street from the 1980s show a last gasp of prosperity at a time when people still went to town on the bus to shop. The nostalgia sections of online local media feature memory lane pictures plundered from the archives. For long term residents of Stockton it must all seem rather poignant.
A walk down the bleak high street prompts a comparison with Durham’s dying coalfield communities further to the north. There are former retail premises with sufficient floor space to have been transformed into low end night spots. In close proximity lies a pawnbrokers and a slots arcade, plus of course the ubiquitous tattooist and a place where you can have your nose or eyebrows pierced. These are poverty row businesses found in low rent corners of most northern towns. In Stockton they have most of the high street.
Futurology plays a big part in local government planning, dutifully reported in the Northern Echo. For example, back in 2020 there was headline telling readers, ‘What the future could look like for six Teesside town centres’. Stockton and its hinterland have been the unfortunate recipients of boundary changes, done in a series of mainly futile attempts to create a sense of place under the banner of Teesside. In 1968 seven local councils were merged into a single district. Then in 1974 ‘reform’ came to the rescue when a new county called Cleveland was invented. Stockton came under the same authority as Middlesbrough, even though they lie on opposite sides of the river. Teesside now has a combined authority dishing out development grants. Looking back on the recent history of local government in the area, it might be understandable if the average person is completely baffled by who does what. The term six towns incidentally, is hardly common currency. It seems unlikely that the residents of genteel Yarm will wish to be associated with Stockton. Essentially it’s an artificial construct of the sort beloved by local government lifers, to try and give meaning and coherence to something dreamt up in a committee meeting.
More recently in 2021 the Guardian carried an article headlined, ‘Bulldoze the high street and build a giant park’. The story referred to what the local council, funded by grants from the combined authority, plan to do to rescue the place. The idea is to make the river an asset once more. A library is to be built and the local bureaucracy merged in a new council headquarters close by. In order to achieve this a gargantuan open space is to be created; essentially a huge landscaping project with an ‘urban park’ and a piazza. These spaces are seen as having potential for festivals and the like. All very well of course but such events don’t happen on every day of the year. Currently there are earthworks hidden behind hoardings next to the bush shelters. These are decorated by an artist’s impression of what life is soon to be like. Racing shells are depicted languidly rowing past parkland, like the Oxford Eights Week transported north. This forms part of an imagined aerial view with river and town blended seamlessly together. In this scene the high street has been purged of bookies and tattooists.
The problem with such a development apart from its sheer size (anticipated to be three times larger than Trafalgar Square) is the lack of ownership. Opening up such a large space will make it hard to integrate with the high street or dovetail into the town. Making it the venue for occasional festivals and other one off events leaves a gap during the remainder of the year. A gap if the example of similar projects is anything to go by, which will be filled by street drinkers and drug users. In turn others will find the place less inviting. Elsewhere when this has occurred the ‘solution’ is to employ street wardens to liaise with these people; additional unforeseen expenditure together with increased cleaning costs. It doesn’t solve the problem of course, merely demonstrates that it is being ‘managed’.
A better approach might have been for the council to acknowledge that economically speaking the high street is beyond salvaging. The places where people wish to live and work are up the road. Rejuvenation might have a better chance of success by seeking ways to bring old and new Stockton together, accepting that the nexus has moved. A riverside location has an aspect which could make it attractive for housing. Instead they have opted for a vast open space.