Unit mistrust

From their stalls on Wigan Market, traders’ views on a controversial redevelopment of the town are captured in words and pictures by Ryan Ashcroft

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It’s a familiar story across towns in the North but how it plays out in detail matters. Wigan Council wants to redevelop its town centre to bring back footfall after the collapse of the high street but traders fear being sidelined.

In 2020, Wigan Council appointed Galleries25 – a joint venture between Cityheart and Beijing Construction Engineering Group International (BCEGI) – for a £130 million redevelopment of the Galleries Shopping Centre.

The council believes there is too much retail space in town and “can’t afford to do nothing about it, especially in the current financial climate”.

The Galleries is at the heart of the doing. The council bought the shopping centre in 2018 and wants to turn it into 464 new homes, a 150-room hotel and a centre for a cinema, events, mini-golf and a bowling alley. There will be a new food hall and a landscaped public square.

With work due to start next month, the current market hall is to be demolished and a new one built on the Marketgate part of the site. The council says its location was suggested by traders in consultations and it will front on to Wigan’s main thoroughfare, Standishgate. It says its Big Listening Project in 2018 showed support for the redevelopment.

The market traders will not be moved until the new hall is completed in 2024 and Aidan Thatcher, Wigan Council’s director of economy and skills, says all of them will be offered space.

“The redevelopment of the Galleries Shopping Centre and Market Hall is a significant opportunity to regenerate and repurpose Wigan town centre for the benefit of local businesses, residents and visitors based on current and future high street trends,” says Thatcher.

“The market is an important asset in our town centre and will be a focal point of the new development.”

But there has been vocal opposition to the plans. Some traditional market traders fear they are being relegated to a corner of the development, with the possibility of fewer available units, while the main focus will be on a gentrified food and drink operation. They also fear the demolition and construction process itself will damage their business.

Wigan Local History and Heritage Society says the Galleries match the town environment and should be repurposed, not demolished. And in an added twist, there has been criticism of the choice of BCEGI for the development, because of the poor human rights record of its owner, the Chinese state.

Here, photo-journalist Ryan Ashcroft goes to market.

Kevin Gopal

Ali Sher stands by the counter on his clothing stall at the indoor markets. Sher has owned the stall for 35 years, providing affordable and quality garments to the people of Wigan. “I have time to think about the move as it’s two years off until the markets are properly demolished, although work is starting in March to demolish the building around us as we work, and some traders are moving out now because of this,” he says.
Two locals drink tea and chat outside one of the indoor market’s cafes. Wiganers have been coming to the markets for decades to grab a brew and socialise. The general sentiment among traders and customers is that the new gentrified markets will drive up the prices of food and drink in the area, making these little meetings “too pricey”.
David Holme, co-owner of family-run business Bickershaw Hall Nurseries, passes a bag of vegetables to a customer on their market stall. Bickershaw Hall Nurseries has been going since 1932, and has been supplying Wiganers with fresh fruits, vegetables and plants since the indoor markets opened. “This stall has been run by multiple generations of my family,” Holme says. “It was my great-grandfather that started it off and has been passed down four generations. It’s me and my brother in charge now. I love the people you meet in the market but, sad to say, it isn’t the same place it used to be. Dwindling footfall and lack of choice for customers as traders have left due to rising rents means it’s no longer the social hub it used to be, and no amount of redevelopment will help that if the choice isn’t there. The millions given over to Chinese investment companies could have been better spent improving infrastructure and retail around the town. In my opinion, the new development will take retail out the town because of the lack of focus on it.”
A staff member at Clunan’s food stall serves a customer. “Clunan’s first started around World War One when my grandparents, George and Mary Clunan, sold eggs and produce from the outdoor market,” says co-owner Kathleen Clunan. “After that, my parents took over and, in the 1970s, they expanded into the indoor market. We’ve been here ever since. Now it’s me, my husband and my sister that run it. It’s always been a family business. Most of the traders here have grown up together, working on our parents’ stalls and carrying on the work. There’s a real sense of community here. We’ve got to try and survive the next two years in the markets as they gradually demolish the building around us. “Footfall has decreased since Covid, costs have risen dramatically and there’s real uncertainty about the redevelopment. Wigan Council were given a £80 million support package by central government to boost the town, but unfortunately this has been put into the pockets of the big redevelopment firms to build the unnecessary flats, hotel, and entertainment complex. As quoted by an employee from the National Market Traders Federation, we are the ‘backbone of the town centre’. “Between the 50 traders, we have over 1,000 years of market and retail expertise. We don’t know if we will make it through the next two years. Around half a per cent out of the £80 million support package would cover the traders’ rent during this two-year interim period, but the council aren’t prepared to help like that. It feels like we re being attacked by friendly fire.”
Hla Yin cuts meat at her Chinese takeaway stall Yummylicious Foods. Hla has been running her stall at the markets for nearly three years. “I love working at the market. The other traders are really friendly, and the customers are lovely. Some are very generous too with tips. To be honest, I am worried about the redevelopment plan. I’m worried about having to start up the business from zero again.”
Anthony Ainscough at his electrical stall Vacuum Repairs. “I’ve been working amongst these markets since I was seven when I used to help my dad out on a Saturday for pocket money. I’ve had my stall for almost 30 years. It’s my life really. These redevelopment plans are going to gut the centre for retail and replace it with flats and coffee shops, and they’re pulling the car park down. People will stop coming into the town. The big retailers like M&S, Morrisons and Debenhams have left already. A boost was needed for the centre, but they’ve gone about it the wrong way. Personally, I don’t think we’re wanted anymore. They’re just moving us to a corner to try and keep us happy.”

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