The sound of builders at work echoes in the wind around The Rock shopping centre in Bury.
It’s a noise shoppers have grown used to over the years – and now they’re now reaping the rewards.
Bury is booming. New shops are opening, car parks are full, and countless chip and pin machines trill with the sound of shoppers’ fingers.
But it’s a different story in other towns across Greater Manchester, especially neighbouring Rochdale and Bolton.
The future of the high street has been much discussed over recent years. With the increase in internet shopping and out-of-town retail like the Trafford Centre many brands have moved away from their high street roots, leaving boarded up buildings and a sense of decay.
In Bolton 23 per cent of shops stand empty. In Rochdale the figure is 20 per cent – an increase from the previous 12 months, according to figures from the Local Data Company.
While in Bury there’s more and more development. The Rock is always busy and there’s more development on the way. The old Sol Viva nightclub (the Roxy to older clubbers) is being transformed into restaurants, with the derelict Flying Shuttle pub next on the list.
But why is this town bucking the trend?
A simple walk round Rochdale demonstrates the point. Even McDonald’s has moved out of the town centre. To Let signs, closed roller shutter doors and boarded-up buildings pepper the Drake Street approach to the town centre. Yorkshire Street’s Marks and Spencer trades alongside a collection of discount stores.
The town’s once thriving market inside the Exchange precinct has moved to a temporary position on the car park where the bus station used to be. Although saved by the council from closure, it’s a shadow of its former self.
The Metrolink came to Rochdale in 2014, but the town is still trying to get its own redevelopment off the ground. Rochdale’s £100m retail revolution – the Riverside project – was passed in April, more than 10 years after it was first announced.
Due to start in the autumn, it aims to bring a new Marks and Spencer and a Next outlet, adding to the Wheatsheaf Centre and the Exchange. A revamped market will also get a new home too. All these are positive signs but in the meantime, Bury has ploughed ahead.
Similarly in Bolton the Whitakers department store, a famous old jewel in the crown of shopping in Bolton, was rebranded as Beales in 2011. It’s now closed.
Prestons of Bolton, known to many as the ‘Diamond Centre of the North’, has long gone. The owner said the business had succumbed to the decline of the high street.
The Bank Street approach to the Deansgate heart of the centre is virtually a solid row of graffiti-stained eyesores. Closed-down stores and shops pop up everywhere you look, as in Rochdale.
Speculation about the closure of Marks and Spencer in both towns continues.
There has been investment in Bolton, most notably in the Market Place shopping centre which now boasts a cinema. There was anger however over the demise of the former Market Place. The new transport interchange aims to get more people into Bolton and the council is pumping £100m into a masterplan designed to regenerate the town centre.
But what is it about Bury that has allowed it to buck the trend?
It has a market with a rich history and a well established town centre – but in many respects is little different from its near neighbours.
Arnold Wilcox-Wood is centre director at The Rock and used to manage the Crompton Place shopping centre in Bolton. He has the answer in one word: footfall.
Ready access to the town by road, reasonable parking prices and the Metrolink have all contributed to bringing shoppers to the street.
Mr Wilcox-Wood said the struggle for many towns has been the struggle to offset the effect of the out of town retail parks and, of course, the Trafford Centre.
“Since 2010 and the opening of The Rock date we have had the recession,” he said. “Footfall in shopping centres and on UK high streets has been in decline. Here we have gone the other way. Our footfall over the last seven years has increased by seven per cent per annum. It is a very attractive centre and we have got the big names that people want.
“We attracted Debenhams here, which was voted Debenhams store of the year last year – the first time a non-Debenhams flagship store has won the accolade.
“Bury itself is architecturally very pleasant. There is a rejuvenated Mill Gate shopping centre. The Met theatre has been refurbished. There is the East Lancashire Railway and the Fusilier Museum all within a quarter of a mile of each other – alongside the famous Bury Market.”
Despite planning, and hardwork by businesses and town centre bosses, good luck has also played a role.
Bury was fortunate enough to be one of the first towns to get itself on the Metrolink map as well one of the earliest to institute as an ambitious town centre development plan – just before Britain was rocked by the 2008 financial crash.
And for many people Bury also benefits because of its size – a handly lay-out of stores within a mile. There’s no out-of-town shopping, like the Middlebrook in Horwich, Bolton. Two of Bury’s main supermarkets and the two main retail parks are in the town centre.
Council leader Rishi Shori said the town was the third most popular retail destination in Greater Manchester, after Manchester city centre and the Trafford Centre.
“Bury has benefited from its very good transport links and it also has a very mixed offering in a small geographical area,” he said. “There is high-quality retail mixed with leisure, a cinema, bowling and restaurants all within a square mile. Bury’s offer is almost unique and our planning policies deter out-of-town retail. We are ensuring that development is in and around our town centre and it seems to have worked very, very well.”
Tourism also underpins Bury’s success. Visitor spend rose from £238 million in 2009 to just over £302 million in 2012, with the figures still rising. The Rock development also has 400 flats and apartments, all let or sold. People live in the heart of the town.
Getting shoppers back into Bolton and Rochdale will be hard, according to Mr Wilcox-Wood.
“Bury looked to the future where as other towns, in my opinion, stood still and made no plans for the future,” he said. “We punch above our weight and we are the smallest borough, but we are beating the others hands down.”
He said he hopes Bury’s neighbours see success, because better town centres are better for everyone.
How are Bolton and Rochdale trying to kick-start their town centres?
Mark Robinson, assistant director of economy at Rochdale council, said: “Rochdale is in the middle of a £250m regeneration programme which has transformed the town centre since 2010. Among the many improvements is the river Roch re-opening project, which has won a number of national awards, our new transport interchange, Number One Riverside and the town centre Metrolink stop. Work is to start soon on our new £60m shopping and leisure development, Rochdale Riverside, which will include new M&S and Next stores as well as a cinema, and our brand-new market, which will replace our current temporary market, is set to open next year.
“In addition to this, the council has implemented a package of support measures for businesses, including our nationally-recognised business rates sale and property renovation grant, which between them have resulted in 24 new businesses opening in previously vacant units in the town centre since 2015, including a new restaurant, a new cafe, a hairdressing salon, a bakery, shoe store and fashion outlets. Five new businesses, including a wine bar and coffee shop, have also recently opened without any council support. ”
A Bolton council spokesman said: “Whilst economic growth in Bolton’s town centre was affected by the recession, there have recently been a number of major retail investments in the town centre.
“Moorgarth have invested over £20m into the Market Place Shopping Centre and have increased the occupancy rates in the centre to over 80 per cent. Topshop, New Look, Clarks, The Entertainer, the Body Shop and a new café are amongst retailers which have opened in the new centre, as well as a host of restaurants and a cinema. And footfall in the centre has also increased by 45 per cent over the last two years.