The catalyst that will bring the eyes of millions onto Leigh and helped transform into a place that ‘wants for nothing’

Leigh has undergone a massive transformation in recent years – highlighted by the town’s starring role in a massive year for sport.
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Having hosted four games during the summer’s Women’s Euros – a tournament watched by a record-breaking 365 million people worldwide – the town’s venue, Leigh Sports Village, will host three fixtures in the Rugby League World Cup later this month.

The construction of Leigh Sports Village (LSV) is seen as a “catalyst” for the town’s transformation into a post-industrial success story by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who as former MP for the town, was in office for a critical period in its regeneration.

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Officially unveiled in 2008, LSV’s stadium – home to Leigh Centurions and Manchester United Women – has also hosted sell-out Lionel Richie and Elton John concerts. The opening of LSV was followed by the £50m Loom retail park in the town centre and the guided busway service.

The Loom retail park in Leigh town centre compared between 2009 and 2020The Loom retail park in Leigh town centre compared between 2009 and 2020
The Loom retail park in Leigh town centre compared between 2009 and 2020

Now, with a population of just over 40,000, the area is so popular some councillors are claiming “Leigh is full”.

Former cotton mills have been repurposed – a multi-purpose community hub in one case, plush penthouse apartments in another. With amenities including a cinema, restaurants gyms and chain stores, the phrase "you want for nothing in Leigh”, is commonly heard in the town.

A place with proud history built around coal, cotton and silk, Leigh was hit by the decline of British industry, with Parsonage Colliery closing in 1992.

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But investment has flowed back into the town in a way that politicians, including Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, feels demonstrates the way a former mining community can be “put back on the map”.

Plank Lane development of Pennington Wharf in Leigh compared between 2009 and 2020Plank Lane development of Pennington Wharf in Leigh compared between 2009 and 2020
Plank Lane development of Pennington Wharf in Leigh compared between 2009 and 2020

This has boosted the town’s strong sense of identity, which has seen residents and current MP James Grundy calling for independence from Wigan – dubbed Lexit.

“If you had said to me then, in 2001, that 20 years hence Leigh would host a UEFA Championship and a World Cup, then even I would’ve struggled to believe that was possible,” Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said. “But that is what 2022 will bring to Leigh.

“I always talked about LSV being the catalyst. [I thought] this would be the thing that changed perceptions of Leigh and put us on the map.

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“Sometimes in politics statements fall short but this didn’t. LSV has done everything we wanted it to do.

Parsonage Way development in Leigh in 2014 compared to 2020Parsonage Way development in Leigh in 2014 compared to 2020
Parsonage Way development in Leigh in 2014 compared to 2020

“That coming together with sport and education, and commercial development, it was meant to be that big stone in the pond. It was always clear to me it would start a knock on (effect) with development.

“The Loom came and delivered a cinema back to Leigh, which was a big call from the public – and then the guided busway. None of this would’ve worked if we didn’t have connectivity.”

The Loom, a nod to the town’s spinning and weaving heritage, brought Cineworld, Nando’s, Anytime Fitness and Tesco to the town. Meanwhile, LSV brought Manchester United’s women and youth teams, as well as a Morrisons and a new athletics track for Leigh Harriers – where Olympian Keely Hodgkinson started out. Keely’s former Fred Longworth High schoolfriend Ella Toone, who plays weekly for the Red Devils in Leigh, made headlines with her glorious Euro finals goal.

Transport and connectivity

St Helens Road in Leigh in 2017 compared to 2021 St Helens Road in Leigh in 2017 compared to 2021
St Helens Road in Leigh in 2017 compared to 2021
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The guided busway – which sees double-deckers travel along lines like a tram – was once so controversial it was labelled the ‘Misguided Busway’ – but its now in such high demand passengers are demanding more buses.

“For years people told me they didn’t want this misguided busway,” Mr Burnham continued. “(But) I remember the first letter from someone complaining about the guided busway, saying ‘when it gets to Tyldesley I can’t get on it’.

“That was the first complaint of its success. I don’t think it has solved Leigh’s transport problems but it has definitely helped in a big way.”

There have been calls to improve connectivity to Liverpool and Manchester and upgrade the road network to cater for the number of people brought to the area by new housing developments. A new train station in Golborne and the completion of Atherleigh Way bypass are things that GM Mayor and Tory MP James Grundy both want to see, despite being on opposite sides of the political divide.

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“There has been significant regeneration of derelict former industrial sites in Leigh over the last decade,” Leigh’s MP James Grundy said.

“The Pennington Wharf site is one of the more impressive recent developments, built on the site of the old Bickershaw Colliery, and The Loom has brought new jobs and commercial activity to the heart of the town.

Leigh MP James GrundyLeigh MP James Grundy
Leigh MP James Grundy

“We must continue to bring brownfield sites back into use to maximise the potential of Leigh. The challenges we face over the next decade remain significant, and much work remains to be done.

“One major challenge is infrastructure. To continue the regeneration of Leigh we need the town to be reconnected to the national rail network, and I’m delighted to say we’re making progress on this with a new railway station at Golborne, and making progress on a station for Leigh at Kenyon Junction.

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“We also need to see the completion of the Atherleigh Way bypass, which has remained unfinished for nearly forty years now. Leigh is halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.”

Transport infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges the area faces at the moment, with the number of new developments putting pressure on the roads. Pennington Wharf saw an unused site off Plank Lane in the town brought back into use – but the roads nearby are often at a standstill during rush hour.

Mr Burnham is keen to promote the use of public transport and cycle routes from new developments, while councillors are urging for infrastructure to be upgraded before any more developments come in – a debate coming to a head with the latest masterplan for 1,100 homes at Mosley Common.

What the future holds

Coun Keith Cunliffe, Deputy Leader of Wigan Council, said: “We are ambitious for our borough. We want to support our district centres to not just survive but thrive, and be places that people are proud to live, work and visit.

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“There have been a lot of changes in Leigh in recent years, with both council and private investment. I am proud of what we have achieved already, with the expansion of Leigh Sports Village, improvements in Leigh town centre, and our work to help support our local businesses and residents in Leigh.

“But there is more to be done. Leigh, along with town centres across the country, has been impacted by the pandemic and changes to how people shop and spend their money. The Council’s ‘Strategic Regeneration Framework’ for Leigh town centre sets out our plans to deliver an ambitious and exciting future for the town.

“We have also bid for over £11m of Levelling Up funding from the Government, to transform Civic Square into a community events space and better connect it with the town centre, and to carry out a major refurbishment of Leigh Market.”

While there are plans to improve the town centre and upgrade what facilities are already on offer, there is still much that can change for the better, with health inequalities and deprivation still a key focus for Wigan Council.

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“The town is transitioning from a poor post-industrial town gradually into a potentially wealthy commuter community,” Mr Grundy says. “We have to use both public and private investment to complete this transformation, and if we do, I believe Leigh will have a great future ahead of it.”