A New Lease of Life

Chorlton’s Co-op Funeralcare building isn’t exactly its most attractive destination – but it could be! Linsey Parkinson talks to Chris Peacock of Chorlton Community Land Trust.

Most of us barely give the Co-op Funeralcare building a second glance, but it used to be something very special indeed. Formerly the Picture House and the Gaumont cinema, it was the main social centre for Chorlton, earning its place in the history books by playing host to the Bee Gees’ very first public performance.

“The plot is up for sale and the current plan is to demolish the buildings and replace them with residential apartments. It’s a prime site, right in the centre of Chorlton and has amazing potential to become its very heart,” says Chris, who has a background in urban and environmental planning. “Do we really want it to be demolished and replaced with another block of flats?”

Chorlton Community Land Trust (CCLT) is a fast-growing community benefit society, made up of people who care about how Chorlton is developed, how land is used and how any changes should be made with people in mind, rather than simply profit.

“We should never assume that what happens in our neighbourhood is solely a matter for Big Business. We have more say than we might think: at CCLT we want to put community and environmental considerations at the heart of every scheme and think that the various developments that are happening should be looked at collectively to make sure the right uses come forward in the right places. We believe that the community should work proactively with developers and the Council to deliver projects that benefit the area and its residents, whether that’s through affordable or age-friendly housing, improving the public realm or creating shared, accessible, community spaces. Crucially, we see our role as bringing stakeholders together and raising funds to help the ideas become a reality.”

Which brings us to the Co-op Funeralcare building. Across Nicolas Road, the Precinct (owned by Greater Manchester Pension Fund) is due for redevelopment soon, while the health centre (Chorlton Family Practice) has outgrown its current premises. This is a convergence of opportunity which could – if it’s done right – be transformative for Chorlton residents and visitors.

“We’ve been meeting all sorts of people – Chorlton councillors, Chorlton Family Practice, Chorlton Voice, Chorlton Good Neighbours, housing associations and others. Between us, we’ve come up with some very exciting ideas based around bringing the main historic building back to life, enhanced with a new facade to Manchester Road, and using it as a cultural and community food and drink space.

A foodie community

“Chorlton has some amazing food outlets, both on and off the high street – imagine them having a presence in a new pop-up food hall, like Mackie Mayor in the Northern Quarter. Altrincham Market food hall was a real catalyst for regeneration and it could really do the same for us.

“We could have outdoor seating along the south-facing Nicolas Road facade. Then, in the adjacent space, running southwards to the precinct and Graeme House, we could even work with the Pension Fund to create a new public square for events, markets and social gatherings.”

A creative community

“Bee Gees fans already come from all over the world to have their pictures taken outside – even though it’s a funeral home! A celebration of the Bee Gees and Chorlton’s rich culture could be a real attraction. We could also use that same space for cinema screenings, live music, theatre performances, community meetings, collaborative co-working space or studio/rehearsal space.”

A place for wellbeing

“There’s a large garage behind the main former cinema, which also forms part of the site. We recently lost our leisure centre, so why not use part of the space as a gym or sports hall, which could be used by the community and pupils at the adjacent Oswald Road Primary School? There’s space too for Chorlton Family Practice to relocate there, so we could have a fantastic new centre for community health and wellbeing.”

And a place to call home

“There is also the option of linking up with a housing provider to build some affordable homes for older people. There’s going to be much more demand for older people’s housing in the future: right-sizing also helps free up larger houses for local families.

“Chorlton’s a fantastic place: it has a strong sense of community and identity, and people are full of ideas. We have a unique, independent retail offer, great creative industries and this plan could showcase everything that Chorlton does best. As things stand, we have no anchor attraction, people are priced out of the local housing market and our district centre is looking very tired. This plan addresses those issues and could also make us an attractive destination, boosting our local economy.

“What’s also interesting here,” adds Chris, “is that the landowner (the Co-op) has a strong sense of community purpose and social responsibility. Yes, they could decide to sell to the highest bidder for another apartment block, but there are other areas that are much better suited to just housing than this plot right in the centre of Chorlton. We are sure that they will face strong local opposition if that’s the route they choose – but we hope that they’ll see a real opportunity to do something special here.”

Next Steps

“We have submitted an application to the City Council for the building to be designated an Asset of Community Value. If successful, we’ll have a six-month period during which we can develop our ideas and work on a formal bid. If there is support for the plans, we will look for funding from various trusts, appeal to the 3,000,000 Bee Gees Fan Club members and launch a community share scheme – we have plenty of options.”

“Chorlton has lots of highly skilled people that care about this opportunity and we know that we can offer up a credible and viable proposal. We don’t want developers to come in and do things to Chorlton – the community should be actively involved in decisions over its future. If a project’s not right for the area, or needs improvement, the local community will challenge it in an intelligent, informed and constructive way. Community-led projects like this have been successful in other areas – so why not here?”

chorltonclt.org