Yesterday's Invest in Wigan event - excellently ran as usual by Insider North West and sponsored by Wigan Council - was held somewhat appropriately at the impressive 'The Edge' venue near Wigan Pier which includes conference facilities, café, offices and a newly opened large auditorium which houses The Community Church.
The main feature was a discussion facilitated by Insider North West editor Simon Keegan who introduced notable panelists: Ian Lenagan [Wigan Warriors Owner, EFL Chairman and owner of several IT and training businesses], Donna Hall [Wigan Council Chief Executive], Chris Shaw [Associate Director, Urban Splash], Gary Speakman [CFO Shearings Leisure] and Duncan Sutherland [Director Sigma Capital] who discussed the impact the impending HS2 to the town of Wigan which is now being described as the gateway to the North. HS2 feels like one of those big ideas that has been floating around for years, sometimes so derided that you think it'll never happen and then, even when green-lighted, you think the huge infrastructure implications must mean it's decades away. However, Duncan Sutherland explained that high speed trains, which have been ordered, will be coming through Wigan in just 7 years. Albeit on existing track from Birmingham and then the new high speed track to London from there reducing the journey time to London to something like an hour and a half, ultimately this should be as low as just over an hour.
That kind of journey time makes London commutable, but then that's also the fear - will it just make it easier for people to head out of the town rather than to it? Duncan reassured us, with the example of Lille in France, that this needn't be the case. Lille, formerly a struggling industrial town, recognised the potential of being on the Eurostar line to London and TGV network to Paris which is just an hour away, and invested in its own infrastructure before the railways were upgraded to become a flourishing city with a large student population and thriving cultural scene. Duncan advised that Wigan needs to be doing the same now, to ensure that it is ready to take full advantage of the opportunities HS2 will bring.
It was reassuring then to hear from property developer Harinder Dhaliwal, managing director of Step Places, who have been selected to redevelop the iconic Wigan Pier buildings. These have long been empty and slowly falling into a state if disrepair following the closure of 'The Way We Were' museum and George Orwell Pub. The museum closed over ten tears ago so it's been a sorry demise and one that's hard not to witness as the buildings sit on one of the main routes in and out of the town centre so you can't help but pass them. Various schemes have been considered, in fact we developed some concepts a couple of years ago for Ian Lenagan as part of a bid to house a new Rugby League museum there along with a new 'Cherry and Whites' leisure facility. Sadly the Super League chose Bradford, apparently mostly because they didn't want RL to be seen to be dominated by Wigan. However, the plans Step Places and Harinder have put forward do seem promising: "Our proposals will see the buildings become a multi-functional leisure venue promoting arts culture and events. We are truly excited to be part of a partnership delivering such a world-class venue and bringing life back to Wigan Pier, respecting its past and heritage and looking forward to the future of a significant buildings of such local and national importance."
Chris Shaw, from developers Urban Splash, was also on the panel. Urban Splash have a long track record of redeveloping brownfield sites, old mills and run down areas with some very imaginative and award winning schemes such as Fort Dunlop in Birmingham, the Old Tobacco Factory in Bristol, more recently the New Islington Estate in Ancoats Manchester and even the fabulous art deco hotel The Midland in Morcecambe where we've had a few fantastic bd2 Christmas parties! Chris stressed the importance of the right mix of commercial, residential, retail and leisure in order to attract the kind of people - artisan bakeries, craft beer bars, cafés and restaurants were all mentioned as the kind of attractions young professionals are looking for if you're trying to draw them away from the likes of Didsbury and Altrincham to take advantage of the new connectivity.
This is great advice that Wigan Council now seems to have accepted, as Councillor David Molyneux, deputy leader of Wigan Council, commented: "Wigan Pier is one the most iconic locations in the North West. We have had long-held ambitions to create a new purpose for Wigan Pier as a destination and leisure attraction." Getting these schemes right isn't easy and the initial plans do look promising, so I hope they do come to fruition as I have personal and painful experience of an earlier redevelopment of the adjacent Trencherfield Mill building which lies on the adjoining spur of the Leeds Liverpool canal. Some thirteen or fourteen years ago we were approached by The Council as a prospective tenant of the Mill as they were trying to regenerate the area with a cultural and creative feel with a leisure, retail and residential mix including a new theatre. It was all very exciting, we had plans drawn up and negotiations were held about buying the top 2 floors of a section. Sadly, the developers the Council chose back then and who bought the property, were only paying lip service to their agenda and so, bit by bit, all the 'mixed use' ideas disappeared and pretty much the whole development including the areas we wanted, were given over to residential so it's now mostly small flats that haven't aged very well either, oh and a Dominos takeaway.
Wigan Pier is indeed an iconic location with some great buildings and links - cycle or walk on the Leeds Liverpool canal tow path towards the east and you quickly ascend a flight of 21 locks and find yourself going through the stunning plantations surrounding Haigh Hall and onto Aldington and Chorley. Go west and you'll head past the DW stadium and some remaining industrial stuff before quickly coming to the delightful Crooke Village - where there's a great canalside pub - onto Shevington, Appley Bridge and Parbold - again with great pubs and restaurants such as The Boat House, Windmill and Yours is the Earth. If the attraction of the waterways is combined with a sensitive development with right type of leisure and residential, it's exactly the type of area that young professionals would consider moving to. This will hopefully be added to by the regeneration of the town centre now that Wigan MBC has acquired the flagging and dated Galleries shopping centre which they're aiming to also redevelop with a leisure bias. This will, in turn, make the town more attractive and have a knock on effect on the surrounding areas - speaking as someone who's trying to open a craft beer bar at the moment!
Finally, as a slight but related aside, the event closed with a rendition of a song from Beyond Wigan Pier brilliantly performed by Scott Chapman and Olivia Garcia who received a rapturous reception from the, slightly surprised, business audience. Beyond Wigan Pier has been written by local composer Alan Gregory and it's Wigan’s answer to the West End’s Orwell Musical that is written, produced and performed by Wiganers for Wiganers. It shows how the town has moved on since it was portrayed, fairly bleakly during the post-war depression era, in George Orwell’s seminal book The Road to Wigan Pier which celebrates its 80th Anniversary in 2018. The musical is to premiere, somewhat appropriately at The Edge, on 27th April following a very successful crowdfunding process which raised over £30,000. As Wigan's leading creative agency, we've been delighted to support the show by donating the brand, website and promotional materials and are looking forward to the premiere which we will also be filming. Tickets are available!