New location announced for Wigan armed forces hub

Withnall House
Withnall House

The borough’s long-awaited armed forces hub could be open within a matter of weeks - though not at the expected location.

Town hall bosses have revealed they have switched the location of the pioneering centre from the market hall to Withnall House close to Wigan Little Theatre.

Wigan Sea Cadets and the local partners helping current and former personnel and their families are now hoping to move into the spruced-up building by the end of next month.

Planning permission will then be sought for a bespoke new centre next to the existing building and local authority leaders are crossing their fingers that this will be constructed and open before the end of the year.

Council chiefs originally looked at Withnall House but opted for the town centre plan to renovate the shopping area as it was not available.

However, the departure of children’s services employees from the site on School Lane for other council facilities paved the way for returning to the idea of moving there and the team in charge moved quickly to make it a reality.

Council bosses are hoping Withnall House will answer some of the criticisms and concerns veterans’ groups and residents had about a hub in the market hall.

Worries raised included a lack of parking in the town centre near the building and a feeling the market hall was too open and public for ex-personnel to feel comfortable going there and discussing intensely personal issues.

Emma Barton, assistant director for economy at Wigan Council, said: “This is a much more accessible site with car parking adjacent to it.

“It was on our list of options to be considered for the original concept but it wasn’t available.

“It was only late last year we suddenly found out the building could be in consideration again and we have snatched this opportunity.

“We engaged with our partners and they said they wanted us to really explore it. It’s a great step forward.

“Ultimately this ticks all the boxes. The internal changes can be done so much quicker than at the market hall.”

Chris Thomas, armed forces programme manager, added: “The building is off to one side making it more discrete and discreet for the hub.

“A number of veterans and family members told us they found it quite imposing coming into the large Life Centres but this will be welcoming and filled with partners who understand their needs.

“We have never stoppeed listening to the armed forces community.

“Now we can say how we have been working on solutions to the problems they have raised.”

Planning permission is expected to be given by officers imminently and discussions to find a contractor to do the refurbishment work are already under way.

The new building, which will be connected by a corridor, will probably require approval from the planning committee.

All the organisations involved in the hub will move in during the first phase although it is the new building which will provide intimate spaces for one-to-one sessions and therapy and counselling services alongside meeting rooms and social areas.

National bodies such as the Royal British Legion, Walking With The Wounded and SSAFA have already expressed interest in working from the hub.

Mr Thomas also responded to frequent questions about coverage for the whole of the borough, stressing the hub will provide a centre to support work being carried out in communities from Leigh and Tyldesley to Shevington.

After a long-running planning and development saga the council expressed its delight at finally unveiling a timetable for the hub and delivering on its commitment to supporting the armed forces community of which around one in eight Wiganers are a part.

Ms Barton said: “The armed forces hub will be a fantastic facility for the whole region and is a great example of how we are leading the way in Wigan. We know there are already veterans’ hubs in the North West but this is the first of its kind.

“We are very enthusiastic about this invaluable asset and we’re excited that an opening date is now in sight.”

The project is being funded through a £500,000 pot set aside by the town hall alongside £100,000 of Ministry of Defence funding and more than £140,000 from the sale of Wigan Sea

Cadets’ previous building, a former church in Scholes. The move to Withnall House has received the thumbs-up from military organisations. Ian Almond, project and fund-raising manager at Wigan Sea Cadets, said: “Withnall House secures a long term future for Wigan Sea Cadets in a building which will be suited to deliver the cadet experience to our young people.

“Whilst it has been a lengthy process, it has been crucial that the delivery of the hub meets the needs to support veterans, armed forces families and also our requirements in providing our training structure to cadets.

“We are looking forward to moving ship and being able to offer better facilities to our cadets, adult volunteers and the wider community.”

Alison Bunn, North West area manager for the Royal British Legion, said: “The hub will act as a focal point for serving individuals, veterans and their families so they can easily find information and will combat social isolation which is an issue for veterans of all ages.

“Both the British Legion and our partner organisations will be able to use the hub to meet with those who need support or advice and will provide a valuable base in Wigan to reach out from.”

However, the switch of plans does raise some questions about the future of the market hall, with the armed forces facility heading there to ensure the long-term viability of the shopping centre.

Ms Barton was unable to give firm guarantees on the traders’ future but thanked them for co-operating throughout the hub’s creation and stressed helping them was very high on the local authority’s priority list.

She said: “We are exploring a number of options for the space that was allocated for the hub.

“We’re passionate about supporting our local economy, especially the independent traders.

“We have a number of long-term aspirations for refurbishing the market hall and in the short term we are actively looking to increase footfall, support existing traders and bring new ones in.

“We want to ensure the market is as vibrant as it possibly can be.”