An exclusive look round Wigan's biggest ever restoration project
Masterplans have been drawn up in the past to breathe new life into the Eckersley Mills complex near Wigan Pier, all of which have come to nought; and for decades this vast relic of Victorian industry has become an increasingly worrying and disfiguring eyesore.
But work is now under way to welcome in a whole new era which, if future plans are also passed to go alongside the one already granted, will see the 17-acre site undergo a £200m transformation into something that will be the prestigious equal of anything in our North West cities.
Hospitality, homes and leisure are all on the horizon and some could be with us sooner than you might think – the end of 2024 being the target for phase one.
The collection of buildings, which include three colossal mills built in the last two decades of the 19th century and in conditions varying from robust to precarious, were bought by the Wigan-based Heaton Group 18 months ago from Manchester-based Maryland Securities which had promised major overhauls but never delivered.
In charge is local man John Heaton who loves his town, has fond memories of going to the roller rink at Eckersley’s as a boy and is determined to improve Wigan’s lot.
The town’s MP Lisa Nandy officially marked the start of work, with a tour of the site, meeting apprentices and staff, and viewing the plans.
It is the 80,000ft sq Mill One on which work is now being carried out, beginning with a “soft strip” – sensitively taking out the leavings of recent occupants, paring it back to the original structure and fixtures before turning the upper floors into offices, creating a top floor extension which will be a shared work space including a bar and outside terrace area, while the ground floor will become a 22,000ft aq food hall a la Mackie Mayor in Manchester or Altrincham Market, complete with a micro-brewery.
When full, the place will employ around 400 people.
Ms Nandy said: “It is great to see a part of Wigan’s heritage being saved – by a Wigan family business — with such an exciting and ambitious scheme.
“It’s important that we do what we can to bring new life these historic buildings. What the Heaton Group is planning is really putting Wigan on the map. I am looking forward to seeing how work progresses."
Alex McCulloch, Heaton Group’s development manager for the mills, says the plan is to have it all finished within 12 to 18 months. Heaton has 100 staff working on site plus sub-contractors so it is a hive of activity.
He added: “Mill One is in pretty good condition which is a big help to start with and we are not wasting time now that planning permission has been granted.
"There were some businesses in there – a storage company, bed shop and gym – and they have now moved to new homes, while the soft strip is well under way. And in terms of office space we already have 53 per cent of it let.
"Heaton Group has various offices at the moment but we will be moving all our operations into there ourselves too. We are currently also interviewing operators, local restaurants and food companies that might want to settle here."
But Mill One is just the start. Mill Three is going through the planning process at the moment and the intention there is to turn it into 137 residential apartments. Certain more recent add-ons will be demolished to allow the original building and features – including Mill Three’s tower – to shine.
All the work is being carried out with a, so far, approving Historic England looking on.
Mr McCulloch said: “The original buildings are all grade II listed and we want to preserve as much of the history and integrity of them as we can. But there will come points when you have to weigh up the viability of it.”
Mill Two is in the worst state of the three main edifices, an upper floor and part of the roof having gone at some point due to neglect and the elements.
Mr McCulloch is more guarded about the plans for it and the remaining premises, not least because they are a much earlier stage of gestation and could change.
But it is Heaton Group’s intention eventually to submit a “masterplan” to the council which will cover everything else within the Eckersley Mills boundary, and it’s likely to include “leisure,” a change of venue for the roller rink and new bars, restaurants and shops. The masterplan could have 10 phases in it, and Mr McCulloch won’t be drawn on timescales for completion of the whole project.
For all the dereliction and decay, it is not hard to see the underlying beauty of these magnificent old buildings which include all kinds of stylish architectural quirks and features of which modern-day, grey box distribution centres are devoid. And some of the plans show tree-lined avenues will be introduced to improve the landscape.
Sadly not everything in the complex can be saved though.
Mr McCulloch said: “Some parts of Mill Two are beyond help, other parts give hope. We will save what we can but there will also be new-build residential. Take the chimneys, for instance. They are unlikely ever to be used as chimneys again but if they can be saved, they we will save them because they are part of this place’s history.
"The site has really be left to go to rack and ruin for so many years but we are here to rescue it.
"This is a very exciting project for us. Heaton Group is a Wigan company and it’s family-run. We are in the business of ‘place-making’ – bringing the level of areas up. We want to show that Wigan can compete with other areas in which we work such as Manchester and Liverpool, and we want to create prosperity and jobs in the process.
"It’s about time Wigan became a destination. It deserves it and it’s time has come. We want to attract businesses from Livepool, Manchester and Preston and we need to create places like this to do that.”
If some of the plans sound a little familiar, that’s because there is some admitted overlap with multi-million pound regeneration of nearby Wigan Pier, where there will also be a food hall, along with a gin distillery and microbrewery, events facility and more.
But those involved in these plans don’t so much see this as competition as projects that will complement each other and, ultimately aim to bring in even more investment of this kind to the Pier quarter, town centre and beyond.
Managing Director Mr Heaton said: “As a Wigan business Eckersley Mills means a lot to us. It has been neglected and suffered from a lack of investment, so bringing life back to the mills is a positive, but it has to be done right. Our plans will save as much of the mills as we can, create jobs and attract new businesses into the town.”
David Proctor, Wigan Council’s assistant director of planning and regeneration, said: “We have worked extremely closely with the Heaton Group and their team and are delighted that planning permission has now been granted for first phase of the development, with an application for the next phase now under consideration.”
Aidan Thatcher, director of place at Wigan Council, said: “There’s a lot of excitement on site and it’s easy to see why with the scheme progressing so quickly and moving forward at pace. Mill One is progressing well and we’re already looking forward to the next visit.”
For more than 50 years The Heaton Group, which is currently based on Wallgate in Wigan, has built its name delivering residential developments across the North West of England. Current projects include The Exchange and Bishopgate Gardens, both in Preston and Urban Green in Trafford.