Residents' group calling for rethink on Wigan town centre redevelopment plans
They are calling on Wigan Council to look again at its controversial multi-million pound scheme to transform the middle of the town.
The Friends of Wigan Town Centre has been formed to raise a number of concerns about the council and its partners’ scheme to completely transform The Galleries Shopping Centre.
The group wants the current proposal, which involves hundreds of new homes and leisure facilities including a cinema, a hotel and a new market hall, to be put on hold.
The group has also questioned just how popular the ideas the council has brought forward with its partner Cityheart actually are with the public.
However, the group has stressed that its concern is with the details of what has been proposed and it is not against the overarching concept of the need for change in the centre of town.
A Friends of Wigan Town Centre spokesperson said: “People are concerned that the development we’ve got is not necessarily the best and there could be better ways of doing this in Wigan.
“There is also the feeling that this needs a rethink in the light of the pandemic.
“The Friends of Wigan Town Centre are pro-development, but we are interested in development that retains our rich history and doesn’t gentrify us.
“We are concerned that this is being pushed through quickly and will demolish a lot of heritage and replace it with concrete.
“We want opportunities for people to enjoy outdoor activities. If we’ve got obesity and loneliness problems surely our town centre should be a place where people can be together, not sitting in the dark watching a film.
“We want to see a just, fair and equal town centre that is poverty proof so everybody who lives here can go there to enjoy it.
“It should be somewhere people can enjoy art or music with independent shops. It needs to be somewhere people who haven’t got much income from any of our estates can spend a day and have some fun.
“It just feels like Haigh Hall all over again. We think the council is making a rash decision and acting too quickly without involving the expertise of citizens. We feel we will end up with a development that will cost us millions further down the road.
“Big players shift out, they aren’t here for the long run. Only the people stay around, so let’s create a Wigan town centre that supports our local economy so when times get tough we stick together.”
The group did a Freedom of Information (FOI) request which showed a 2019 consultation involved 441 people saying they wanted leisure facilities in the town centre and some suggesting a cinema and a hotel as options.
They have also raised concerns that the council’s high-profile Big Listening Project, from which emerged the desire to overhaul urban centres in the borough, was conducted before the novel coronavirus hit and had a massive impact on the economy and residents’ everyday lives.
The group also says it would like the housing that ends up on part of The Galleries site to be run on either a co-living or co-operative model.
The spokesperson said: “We are up for the idea of housing but we are especially concerned about it given the rate of properties being bought up by unscrupulous landlords as prices are rising in the borough.
“That will lead to tenancies being given to people who are having a tough time without the proper support while landlords cream off the profit.”
Other ideas include bringing the Grand Arcade into the regeneration mix, especially with big high street names departing in recent years, the latest loss being anchor tenant Debenhams.
The group has suggested that some of the proposed entertainment and leisure ideas might actually work better across the road, with The Galleries being used for independent businesses alongside food and drink.
There are also concerns that the town's older residents are not sufficiently included in the plans.
The group says its first task is to raise awareness among the public of the redevelopment project and to encourage as many people as possible who are concerned about it to head to
Wigan Council’s planning portal and lodge objections or comments about the application for the transformation of The Galleries.
Plans are then being made to prepare a petition so people who struggle with the planning website or do not have easy access to the internet can have their views collected and delivered to the local authority.
The Friends’ group is also heading into Wigan town centre at weekends to speak to people about their views and also to gather personal stories and histories about the area which is earmarked for change.
The group says it would be particularly keen to speak to market traders, who are facing a major move under the proposals.
Ultimately, the campaigners say they would like a much more democratic and grass-roots approach to the future of the town centre, with the council working alongside citizens in a co-production operation.
The spokesperson said: “Our first priority is to halt the current plan so we can have a rethink.
“We’re not anti-development at all. Something has got to change in the town centre, it is awful.
“However, we are anti development done in this way. There has been no co-production, co-creation or proper engagement with citizens about what might work best for our town.”
Issues with the planning portal have also been raised, with campaigners saying people trying to leave their objections have faced difficulties including having to register separately to have their say on applications and the website repeatedly timing out, not saving comments or having server problems.
They fear that people are being effectively disenfranchised and the portal needs a major overhaul as it is currently too complex and putting people off using it.
The council said it noted the concerns but could find no evidence of technical issues, while also reminding residents they need to register separately for the planning portal as it runs on different software and comments cannot be made through My Account.
Wigan Council has spoken of the need for regeneration of the town centre and how it had consulted with residents over several years about it.
Becca Heron, director of economy and skills at Wigan Council, said: “Wigan town centre is facing challenges, like town centres up and down the country. These challenges have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Retail is no longer the draw it once was and purchasing The Galleries in 2018 has given us an opportunity to redevelop the town centre, creating a more sustainable model for the future.
“Our proposals for The Galleries and wider town centre recognise that shopping habits have changed and that to attract footfall we need to give people more reasons to visit.
“Our extensive public consultation and engagement and market testing confirms this.
“We believe the current layout of the shopping centre does not work, with large spaces vacant and unused.
“Building a new scheme with a flexible and accessible space with improved connectivity across the town centre, will help to attract more visitors.
“The redevelopment of The Galleries will enable some of the surplus retail space to be repurposed to bring arts, leisure, housing, culture, food, independent shops, craft and makers into the town, making it more appealing and attractive to visitors and affordable.”
The council says turning around the fortunes of town centres was one of the top priorities that emerged from the Big Listening Project in 2018, when it said more than 6,000 residents had their say and over 10,000 ideas were submitted.
This project then fed into the creation of the local authority’s Deal 2030 strategy, in which “vibrant town centres” were included as one of 10 key points.
The council says residents told them of the need for more things to do in the town centre, especially for families, for independent and artisan businesses and shops and for a boost to the local night-time economy.
In 2019 the council spoke to people in The Galleries and just 11 per cent were happy with the town centre as it is.
The town hall said comments about the redevelopment can be received up until a decision is made, even though formal consultation ends on July 19, and residents can as a last resort email their views to [email protected]
Find out more about the new group at www.facebook.com/friendsofwigantowncentre
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