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Report: How Blackburn is bucking the trend of declining town centres

Hemmingway Design ©

The ‘death of the high street’ is one of those ubiquitous phrases that has come to define the times we live in.

In 2018 major high street staples like Marks and Spencer and Carphone Warehouse announced mass store closures, with town centres across the country reporting falling sales and decreased footfall.

Blackburn is bucking the trend, and a ten-year regeneration plan that began with improvements to their bus station led to a 2016 award for ‘High Street of the Year.’

Since winning the award, the town centre has gone from strength to strength, with a string of new businesses opening and 250,000 extra visitors coming into the town centre.

It coincided with the new ‘Cathedral Quarter’ which has transformed the way residents and visitors view the town.

‘The award gave people a sense of focus and validation of what people in the town were trying to do,’ says Cllr Phil Riley, executive member for regeneration at Blackburn with Darwen Council.

‘People’s aspirations have improved and so has a sense of themselves. It’s done a lot for the local esteem and belief.’

The Boulevard

The new bus station. Nick Guttridge ©

Key to the council’s regeneration plans was a restructuring of the old bus station which was self-deprecatingly known as ‘The Boulevard’.

‘It was a very uninspiring entrance to the town,’ says Cllr Riley.

So Blackburn with Darwen Council went about driving the £40m Pennine Reach scheme, which sought to improve the transport connection between the towns of Darwen, Blackburn and Accrington whilst building a new £5m bus station.

‘It was quite adventurous and it’s transformed the way people see the town when they come out of the bus and train station,’ says Cllr Riley.

‘I’ve lost count of the number of people who told me they thought they’d got off at the wrong stop,’ he adds.

New public open space was created around Blackburn Cathedral, which stands in between the bus and railway stations, along with new office space, a hotel, retail and restaurant units.

Also built was the first cathedral cloister in England in 600 years.

The scheme has been praised by the Department for Communities and Local Government, who said in a January report that Blackburn was a ‘prime example of a cathedral that has gone above and beyond in encouraging local growth.’

Another upcoming boost to the town centre will be the restoring and refurbishing of up to 25 historic buildings around King George’s Hall, to create a new ‘Heritage Quarter.’

With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the council will offer grants of up to 80% for conversation work to heritage buildings, funding repair or reinstatement of architectural details and bringing empty properties back into use.

Cllr Riley says the key to their success has been about playing to Blackburn’s strengths and being proud of where the town has come from, especially its history in manufacturing that saw it dubbed ‘the weaving capital of the world’ in the 19th century.

It’s not about making the town a museum, either. 25% of the population still works in making and manufacturing.

‘We have more members of the public employed in manufacturing than just about anywhere in the country,’ claims Cllr Riley.

‘It’s a working town.’

Fashion designer Wayne Hemmingway, who was brought up in the town, helped organise a National Festival of Making which included manufacturing and arts workshops and food festivals.

‘That’s a celebration of what people in Blackburn do. It’s about accentuating the positives and changing people’s perceptions,’ says Cllr Riley.

‘We’ve started to liberate some people’s views.’

Opening Walls

Open Walls ©

Blackburn-born street artist Hayley Welsh has had her work exhibited in London and New York, but a desire present a positive vision of her hometown led her to set up Open Walls, which in 2018 celebrated its third year.

Over two weeks forgotten walls of Blackburn are brought to life with the creation of a vibrant outdoor gallery, by international, national and local artists, who together create a collection of large-scale murals and art walk trails for the residents and visitors of Blackburn to enjoy.

The project began in 2015 when Hayley painted one wall in the town and saw how art could change perceptions and bring communities together.

‘I realised the difference it made to Blackburn,’ says Hayley.

‘People stopped and talked to each other as I painted, and I knew I wanted to make more happen.’

In 2016 she invited five other female street artists to Blackburn to paint, which has evolved to nine artists in 2017 and fourteen in 2018.

It was a multicultural offering too, with Caryn Koh of Malaysia painting a dressmaker and Alexandra Gallagher painting a gold, nature and geometric detail for the Roomali Indian restaurant.

‘I have seen Blackburn evolve into a more creative space with entrepreneurial projects opening up and I hope Blackburn Open Walls adds to that growth,’ says Hayley.

‘Seeing an individual make a difference in a space is really inspiring, as is the idea of encouraging creative conversation through our public spaces.’

‘I think art can help [change perceptions]. It takes a lot to change perceptions of a place but seeing passionate people share their fight is beautiful to see.’

The Brexit conundrum

Blackburn Cathedral

An irony of leave-voting Blackburn’s renaissance is that a ‘significant’ amount of funding for their various regeneration projects came from the EU regional development fund.

‘Without it, it wouldn’t have worked,’ says Cllr Riley.

The referendum has exposed further divisions in a place that has been called the most segregated town in England.

According to the 2011 census, Blackburn had an Asian population of over 34%, and the council hopes its inclusive brand of regeneration will bridge the divides that have come to define the town in the national press.

So how does the council make the significant Asian population feel involved and part of the regeneration plans?

‘We are not reinventing Blackburn of the 1970s, which was a hard-drinking sort of town’ says Cllr Riley.

‘We want it to be family friendly and inclusive. We’re in the process of building a Bollywood meets Hollywood cinema. This is the town now and it’s the right to thing to do. The blokey town centre has been and gone.’

‘We have a new Asian dining brand opening soon called EastZEast. That’s pitched at everybody and was set up by a local man that always wanted open a restaurant in Blackburn but never felt the moment was right.

‘He has piggybacked on the sense of optimism.’

Cllr Riley says the ‘art form’ for town centres must be about managing the process of change so people can have an ‘experience,’ rather than a mundane retail offering.

‘We have a very young population. If I was growing up in Blackburn, what would I want it to be like and want would make me want to stay here rather than move off to Manchester? It needs to feel vibrant and modern and a place where stuff happens.

‘We want people to say, “I’m going to Blackburn because something is happening.”‘

 

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