I commend my hon. Friend Jack Brereton on highlighting the opportunities that town centre heritage action zones offer to towns such as Congleton, which I have the privilege of representing. Indeed, I believe that Congleton would be an ideal candidate for such a scheme, because the funding and support provided would add real value to the energy that is already demonstrated in the town by volunteers, councillors, council staff and local businesspeople. That energy already makes Congleton a pleasant and enjoyable place to live, work and visit. However, the heritage action zone scheme—£40 million announced this autumn to improve up to 60 historic high streets, over a four-year programme of high street improvements and cultural activities—could, I believe, add an extra bonus to the work that is already being done locally.
Congleton has a strong community life. Only recently, the pedestrian area of the town centre has been beautifully improved, which has added much to the enjoyment of shopping within the town and the opportunities that local retailers have to promote their produce. In addition, there are many activities in Congleton throughout the year, a few of which I will touch on in a moment. Congleton town centre itself, opposite the historic town hall, has a number of buildings in the Lawton Street conservation area that would benefit from the support that the town centre action zone could provide.
Congleton is of real historic interest, and there are many towns across the country like it: places that local people know are enormously interesting and attractive, but people outside those towns are often unaware of. They are places where people who live within a short distance—an hour or so—could come to spend a pleasant day out, or even a weekend. My belief is that some added investment in the town centre would act as a catalyst to providing additional tourism opportunities at the weekends. For example, just a few minutes out of town, we have Brereton Heath country park; Little Moreton Hall, the black and white timbered National Trust property; and Astbury Mere, where young people go sailing and there is a beautiful park for dog walking. All of these areas, combined with greater interest and support in the town centre itself, would mean that we would attract visitors not only for a day, but for a weekend. Why travel long distances to enjoy a break away when often, within a short distance of where we live, there are some really interesting historic towns? However, as Heritage England has said, those towns are often unsung outside of their immediate area.
Congleton has a great history. It was a mill town in the 1700s, and as well as making silk, it was almost unique in producing a material called fustian, linked with velvet cutting. Ribbon weaving started in Congleton in the 1750s, and continues to this day with Berisfords Ribbons, which is a key business in the town and a member of the very active East Cheshire chamber of commerce, based in Congleton. I hope that the Minister will visit Congleton to see what an ideal candidate it would be for a town heritage action zone. Jackie MacArthur, the town centre marketing manager for Congleton, is based at the town hall, and like her colleagues, she does a tremendous amount to support the life of the town. She has said:
“Congleton is very proud of its heritage and is getting geared up to celebrate 750 years of its charter (2022)”— in fact, it has its 750th mayor as we speak.
“The town held its first heritage and antiques festival this year. The town has a fine Grade 1 listed Georgian Church…built between 1740 and 1742…one of the finest examples of a Georgian church interior in the country.”
I am pleased to say that that is currently undergoing major restoration work, costing over £350,000, which underlines the historic value of the property.
The town has aspirations to improve other buildings in the town centre area, including the cenotaph and Bradshaw House, built in the 1820s, which I have spoken about before in this place. It would make an ideal location for Congleton Museum, but it is currently unoccupied, and has been for some time. It is a historic grade 2 listed Georgian building; it is a few yards from the town hall, so it is right in the centre of the Lawton Street conservation area. It is currently owned by Cheshire East Council, and it would enable Congleton Museum, which has now been in existence for 17 years, to expand.
Congleton Museum, a charitable trust run entirely by volunteers, is now the area’s leading museum in collecting and analysing archaeological finds. It has been entrusted with the care of important hoards from wider afield, but it simply has inadequate room to display them. Its status has brought about many partnerships with the national museum community, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, it desperately needs to move from its current cramped premises at the back of Congleton town hall into new premises, and as I say, Bradshaw House would be an ideal building for it to move into. That would provide not only museum space, but a café and plenty of room for school visits, which the museum currently hosts but could offer much more of if that move could be made. If Bradshaw House could be renovated, that would be an important and practical way in which a town centre heritage action zone could make a difference for the people of Congleton. The local energy that exists needs that additional national support to make it happen.
I want to touch on two or three of the events that Congleton holds to give a flavour of what happens throughout the year. On
As another example of the rich depth of cultural activities, on Saturday I will be at the Congleton Choral Society’s Christmas concert with the philharmonic brass ensemble in the town hall. It has several concerts a year, and I am privileged and honoured to be president of the choral society. Its performances really are of an exceptionally high quality. Any visitor who wants to spend a weekend in Congleton and its surroundings would enjoy visiting the buildings and the more recognised tourist attractions, and almost every weekend there is a concert or a show at the Daneside theatre, which is a very active local theatre in walking distance of the town hall.
Visitors during much of the year can enjoy the incredible floral displays across the town. Council staff, councillors and volunteers are tremendously committed to putting in hours of time over the year to create an attractive town for people to live in and visit. I commend the town because last month for the eighth consecutive time we won the gold large town award at the North West in Bloom awards ceremony. Also, the town was overall champion at the Cheshire Community Pride awards, and at the end of October achieved a gold award at the national Britain in Bloom awards in Belfast: a real accolade for the townspeople of Congleton.
As a historic town, Congleton could not be a more appropriate place for a town centre heritage action zone. I unashamedly invite the Minister to visit. I look forward to meeting English Heritage representatives to discuss how the town could benefit. Its website states:
“Working with local people and partners, including local authorities, Historic England is helping to breathe new life into old places that are rich in heritage and full of promise—unlocking their potential and making them more attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors...through joint-working, grant funding and sharing skills...places will be recognised and celebrated for their unique character and heritage”.
I do not think there is a better place than Congleton for that to happen.