Wigan’s commitment to culture and its bid to use leisure and the arts for regeneration has been lavishly praised by the region’s night tsar.
Sacha Lord, who serves as the night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, says he is extremely impressed with what he has seen happening in the borough.
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That means Wigan potentially has a major role to play in the regional blueprint unveiled for boosting businesses operating after dark.
Mr Lord, who is best known as co-founder of the Parklife festival in Manchester, says he has been speaking to Wigan about getting the borough a Purple Flag, a national recognition that it provides a safe, diverse and vibrant place to go out.
He also wants a Safety Haven for people who need assistance at night, along the lines of one trialled in Manchester city centre, to be installed in the borough and says this is very likely to happen.
Wigan is also in a position to teach the other boroughs of Greater Manchester about encouraging culture and getting people engaged in activities, Mr Lord says, with The Fire Within programme based in The Galleries Shopping Centre potentially providing a model for others to follow.
Mr Lord says the borough has been keen to work with him since his appointment.
He said: “Wigan was one of the first authorities to get in touch with me and I’ve spent quite a bit of time there.
“I think Wigan is at a very exciting moment and it understands the importance of a night-time economy and culture.
“I have to doff my cap to Alison McKenzie-Folan for her leadership and her team for really pushing this forward.”
With long-established places for a night out around the town centre being joined by the likes of Wigan Pier, which is being transformed into food and drink venues, a wedding destination, events spaces and the home of a gin distillery and microbrewery, Mr Lord says it is important people head out in Wigan confident they will be able to have a good time.
That is where the Purple Flag – the night-time economy’s equivalent of the Green Flag for parks and the Blue Flag for beaches – comes in.
Mr Lord said: “The Purple Flag is a kitemark recognising there is a healthy environment for going out in.
“In my blueprint safety is the number one priority.
“Bury has the Purple Flag and I’ve been working on it with Stockport, but I think it would be great to put an application in for Wigan. It’s the council’s idea and I’m supporting it.”
An emphasis on keeping people safe on a night out will be welcome news to those who worry that parts of Wigan have garnered an unsavoury reputation after dark.
And if anything goes wrong while people are having a night out, the Safety Haven recently tried out in Manchester can help.
The hub brings together a range of services for people who come to grief but do not really require the NHS to intervene or ways of helping those whose plans have gone a bit awry or simply need a break from the booze.
Mr Lord is keen to talk up the positive aspects of safe havens for reducing the pressure on frontline services and also wants to dispel any suggestion that the introduction of one would mean Wigan is out of control at night.
He said: “They have been called ‘drunk tanks’ but it’s not that. It’s a bit of a triage service for places with a lively nightlife. It’s something that has been welcomed by authorities in Wigan and should be seen as sending out a positive signal.
“Every time someone walks across the NHS’ threshold it costs the Government £700, even if they just sit in A&E and sober up. Compared to that the cost of a Safety Haven makes it a no-brainer.
“We know the NHS and police are very stretched and people who have had a bit too much to drink don’t need to go to hospital or waste the time of the ambulance service. It also wastes police time as they sit with them until the ambulance arrives.
“You can also get plasters for cuts at the Safety Haven, you can charge your phone if your battery is dead, you can speak to someone if you’ve lost your friends or feel anxious, and you can get free bottles of water.”
The blueprint, though, is about sharing ideas rather than simply bringing ones from elsewhere to Wigan.
And it is the recent decision by Wigan Council to invest in a new cultural strategy, working with award-winning international artists Al and Al, while transforming six empty retail units into an arts HQ and exhibition spaces, that Mr Lord is most excited about.
He said: “The Fire Within is amazing. I went to the opening day and there were so many people there: families, kids, babies in prams, pensioners.
“I would very much like to see other places and other boroughs do something similar.
“It’s for everybody and I want going out to be something people of all ages do. It’s not just about the 18-to-25 age bracket.”
Mr Lord says he also wants Wigan to make more use of its green spaces for leisure, remembering fondly travelling to Haigh Hall for the big open-air concerts and saying he would like to work on opportunities for similar events in the future.
Other ideas in the regional blueprint include pilots of night-time transport links, getting more culture hubs, cafes, shops and restaurants to open later, expanding Mapping GM as an online resource for tourists, visitors and residents and creating a voluntary Operators Standard to protect employees’ rights.
The document also calls for assistance for businesses starting up or moving into Greater Manchester, more mental health and well-being support for those working unusual or anti-social hours and research into the labour market to remove skills gaps.
This is no blue-sky thinking either as the key priorities are to be met, wherever possible, by April 2020.
Mr Lord says he also wants more support to be available for independent companies to ensure local firms are well represented in regeneration projects alongside big national names.
He said: “I grew up in Altrincham and there are so many small companies offering really good food and drink there now. This is something I’m very keen on.”
As well as looking for improvements, Mr Lord wants existing good practice highlighted and says Wigan is in a position to do just that.
He said: “Wigan can shout a lot more about what it is doing. There are some great things happening.”