TODAY the Wigan Evening Post launches a campaign urging everyone to buy locally, in a bid to save some of our best-known shops.
It comes as the town toils under one of the highest shop vacancy rates in the country. Shock new figures show that 22.7 per cent of its shops are now empty and the number of closures has rocketed by more than eight per cent in the space of 12 months.
The worrying statistics from the Local Data Company are amply illustrated when looking around many local centres and seeing dozens of boarded-up and derelict stores.
Nationally the average increase in empty shops in medium-sized retail areas like Wigan stands at 4.2 per cent, but the local average is almost double that: at 8.2 per cent.
Although Wigan Council has admitted that there is a problem it has criticised the report, saying that the statistics they are based on are now out of date.
But as of this month council bosses have revealed that there are still 80 shops standing empty across the borough.
Coun David Molyneux, deputy council leader, said: “Compared to neighbouring town centres, Wigan is continuing to perform well in the current economic climate.
“While the latest report shows an increase in vacancy rates, it is important to note that since the survey was conducted several units are now occupied.”
This is echoed by Patrick Prinsloo, Wigan Local Policy Manager at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
He said: “The most recent figure from the council shows a vacancy rate of 16.3 per cent, so we believe the figure in this report is too high. Nevertheless, the trend is still upwards so it is a concern.”
The council points out that Wigan town centre continues to be one of the top 100 retail destinations in the UK, but shopowners have criticised this saying that there is not enough focus on the borough’s other retail centres.
Hilda Byrne, who owns a music shop in Leigh, said: “There has been a lot of investment in Wigan in recent years, but nowhere near as much focus or money has been put into centres outside the town centre.
“There are events on in Wigan for half term and school holidays, but it’s places like Leigh, Atherton and Ashton that need things like this going on to draw people in, not Wigan which is busy without such events.”
Coun Molyneux added: “There are a number of events planned throughout the year that will animate the town centre and encourage visitors from across the borough and throughout the region.
“Whilst the forecasts for 2011 for UK high streets in general are not as positive as we would have liked, we have a strong partnership with the retailers in the town and have excellent support from the management of The Galleries and the Grand Arcade.
“We are therefore confident that Wigan will continue to weather the economic storm and perform well in the face of adversity and we will continue to encourage shoppers to support our town centres and buy local.”
Yvonne Fovargue, MP for Makerfield, said: “The high street has a special place in the heart of people the length and breadth of this country.
“At its best, the high street is a place where people go not only to shop, but to find services, access leisure facilities, and meet friends in bars, pubs and restaurants.
“The Localism Bill is a smokescreen for huge front loaded cuts to our council by this Tory-led government. I support a ‘town centre first’ approach where that is the expressed view of a local community.
“If we are to see thriving local town centres we need to see a mix of public and private investment which is why I welcome the recent decision on Ashton clinic, which can act as a catalyst for further regeneration.”
Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, said: “Small businesses, including market traders who play such a vital role in Wigan town centre, are under huge pressure from the recession, cancellation of public sector contracts, the banking crisis and online and out-of-town shopping.
“Wigan Council already supports and promotes local shops with its ‘buy local’ initiative. It’s time the Government did its bit and used its stake in our state owned banks to force them to lend to small businesses again.”