The council has bought an ailing Wigan shopping centre in a dramatic bid to turn around its fortunes with a massive regeneration plan.
The local authority swooped to purchase The Galleries in Wigan town centre which has suffered years of decline, with more than half of it now empty.
Having purchased the entire complex the town hall now hopes to transform it into a vibrant hub with shops, leisure facilities, a revitalised market and new homes.
Although plans are still at a very early stage options which could be considered for the site include a cinema, family and tourist attractions and facilities for people visiting for major events such as Wigan Pride.
The council had strong words for the previous private sector owners and says it felt it had little choice but to step in.
Emma Barton, assistant director for economy and regeneration, said: “We took the decision quite some time ago to let the private sector lead on The Galleries, but we are intervening at this stage because the private sector is struggling, both in Wigan and nationally.
“We have had so many complaints and concerns from local businesses, residents and shoppers in the town centre. They are frustrated and appalled at the state of some of the units.
“The previous owners have just not been able to respond so we’ve stepped in. This is a catalyst for change to protect jobs, support businesses already in there and help the centre to move forwards.
“We need to diversify the town centre and give people reasons to come into Wigan. We feel there’s room for growth, not only for shoppers but for visitors.
“We want the centre to be a fantastically great place to live, work and ultimately invest.”
The council has bought the entire retail complex, including Makinson Arcade, Marketgate, the indoor market hall and the former Morrison’s site, which altogether makes up almost 150 units and provides scores of jobs.
The purchase of The Galleries, for a fee which is not being disclosed for commercial reasons, is mostly being funded through Wigan’s dividend from its investment in Manchester Airport.
While recognising there are many services residents would probably like to see money ploughed into at a time of straitened budgets Ms Barton defended the use of the pot to make long-term changes to one of Wigan’s most recognisable areas.
She said: “This is not impacting on any public service funding and we think it is a wise investment, supporting our local businesses and protecting jobs and the town centre.”
The council’s recently-arrived director of economy and skills Becca Heron added: “This is a real opportunity to shape the future of Wigan town centre and to put it on a more sustainable footing.”
Although the move may seem unexpected it actually follows a recent trend of councils getting involved more directly in town centres, with Rochdale, Chorley, Stockport and Sheffield all ploughing money into the urban environment rather than getting developers or private firms to do it.
Built in the 1980s, The Galleries has come to look increasingly dated and has suffered from lack of interest from businesses, with owners last year closing off the entirety of Marketgate to the public.
The council has become increasingly alarmed at the effect a mothballed shopping centre could have on the entire middle of Wigan, while the loss of business rates from firms moving out has also had an impact.
Council ownership of The Galleries was also praised by leader Lord Peter Smith, who said something had to change.
He said: “Wigan Council is committed through The Deal to support our local economy to grow and prosper.
“For too long The Galleries has suffered from a lack of investment.
“This has been detrimental for the town centre and for the people of the borough who love to shop in Wigan town centre and have watched The Galleries decline with sadness.
“Doing nothing is not an option. The council is now investing for the good of the town and the local economy.
“This is an exciting new chapter for Wigan town centre.
“We have the opportunity to deliver the once in a lifetime regeneration that will transform the centre with new residential and leisure uses.”
Council officers last week said it was far too early to enter into detailed discussions of how the currently-empty areas might be transformed.
Ms Barton said the first task was to ensure the existing retailers stay, while the indoor market traders have also been briefed on the changes.
However, she has unveiled a general vision for the sort of facility The Galleries might eventually be and in particular outlined the town hall’s deep commitment to helping the market thrive.
One aspect of redevelopment definitely on the agenda, though, is urban homes for young professionals.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham spoke passionately about the need for affordable town centre housing at his recent public questions event in Wigan and the idea is also part of the regional Spatial Framework.
Ms Barton said: “For existing firms it is business as usual. We will continue to support. We are also passionate about our business start-ups, particularly local independent ones. We also want to help people with new business ideas take that next step.
“We have a strong independent offer in Makinson Arcade and Jaxons Court and we want to build on that.
“We’ve had the aspiration to move the market from its current location, which isn’t helpful, for a number of years. We can now re-open that.
“We’re passionate about supporting the local traders there and we are looking at where the best place for them is and how quickly we can make that happen.
“We would also like to see housing in The Galleries. There is a new focus on the role of housing developments in town centres and we have commissioned studies on areas of opportunity for that in Wigan.
“It could potentially meet the needs of young professionals looking to find their own place, whether rented or owned, and of older people needing some support to live independently as long as possible.
“We have identified there is a gap for leisure facilities in the town centre and has been for a number of years. There are a number of options for this, including more food and beverage options, leisure activities, places to visit and things to do. We’ve no specific plans for a cinema but this is one of the options, we’ve not ruled it out.
“We have very high-profile events bringing people into the town centre on a regular basis and we want to support that more.”
Recognising that retail management is not part of its core business the local authority has teamed up with real estate specialists CBRE for the new venture.
Plans are also being drawn up for development, with the first phase lasting 90 days and consisting of essential maintenance which must be done to ensure visitors’ safety.
After that there will be a 12-month proposal for the first aspects of the transformation and a three-year plan outlining the more ambitious aims.
The town hall said this was a one-off intervention to help a struggling venue and it did not envisage the centre being in public ownership long term.