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Inside Bolton's ambitious plans to treble town centre residents

The council’s masterplan envisages adding accommodation for 5,000 people to the town centre

March 21 2024, 11.25am

Bolton Council’s bold ambition to nearly treble the number of town centre residents could rely as much on people from Berlin or Belgium as Blackrod, believes developer Tim Heatley.

The Capital & Centric co-founder has plans to build 160 new one to four-bedroom homes on four plots around Bradshawgate and Breightmet Street. They won’t be cheap, they won’t go far to solve the housing crisis that afflicts Bolton as much as anywhere – but they could be key to reviving the town centre’s fortunes.

The council’s masterplan envisages adding accommodation for 5,000 people on top of the 2,000 or so already living in the centre. Following the town centre’s much documented retail decline, more residents, spending locally, are seen as a necessity. But the residential market is “currently in its infancy”, according to a report by Deloitte for the council last year, with an undersupply of residential units, particularly of high-quality rental product, with most being fully occupied”.

Enter Manchester developer Capital & Centric. Heatley believes its Neighbourhood: Bolton scheme, currently awaiting planning permission, could appeal to local people. But others figure highly in his thinking – those who’ve come to Manchester, from other parts of the country or overseas, to study, stayed to work and lived in the city centre.

“Often digital nomads, they can choose to live wherever,” Heatley, whose firm has been behind two million sq ft of commercial, residential, hotel and leisure development, mainly in the north, in the past 10 years, tells The Bolton Lead. 

“They’ve chosen Manchester city centre because they studied there. It’s got relatively low crime rates compared to other cities in the world, good access to healthcare, it’s LGBT plus-friendly, politically stable, got green ambition, culture, art and so on. 

“But when they flip into family mode, or they’re a couple and they want more green space, access to a car, a pet, they move into the suburbs, but they can’t all live in Didsbury and Altrincham and Chorlton.”

They might be easier to lure in than local people. 

“It’s making our towns attractive to those people in other locations that have no preconception about Bolton. They’re going to step off a train or a tram and see cool houses. Say that to a Bolton person and they’re sceptical why anyone would come from Berlin but that’s because they’ve got preconceptions.”

Eccles-born Heatley, known for appearing in the 2020 BBC documentary Manctopia about the city centre property boom, is confident about Neighbourhood: Bolton. He acknowledges Bolton will need to fill in some gaps to provide a city centre lifestyle – more co-working spaces, yoga centres, gyms and the like. And with proximity to the transport interchange a key attraction, there’s an irony in selling a place on the ease of getting out of it. 

“But if you create all that stuff and it’s available to them, then they’ll go: ‘You know what? This is half the price I was paying in the city centre. We know C&C – they own Kampus, the most expensive place you can rent in the city centre.’ But this is the same furniture, the same architecture - it’s the same.”

Other schemes are underway in the town centre and recent funding from the Greater Manchester Brownfield Programme could kickstart more. Public realm improvements such as the new Elizabeth Park are improving the surroundings. But developers’ characteristic bullishness is matched with a degree of nervousness, perhaps because of the recent past’s stalled schemes, perhaps out of concern for some of town’s current problems, maybe because the future housing market looks iffy.


The recent past involves Bolton Regeneration and Muse, property bodies that were the main repository of town centre living ambitions. 

Bolton Regeneration was a joint venture between Beijing Construction Engineering Group International and Granite Turner that was to build 150 homes as part of the proposed Crompton Place Shopping Centre redevelopment as well as 144 flats on what was then known as the Trinity Gateway project near the train station. But in a “mutual agreement”, the two companies surrendered all their options in October 2021 and the council went on the hunt for new developers.

Muse was earmarked for Bolton’s big one – 300 homes at Church Wharf in the north-east of the town centre. Although planning permission was secured as long ago as 2019, the scheme never got off the ground. 

This year there is renewed progress in the town centre though, with building work underway and brownfield funding to kickstart the stalled schemes. One of the most prominent of current schemes is Placefirst’s Deansgate Gardens – 167 homes for long-term rental opposite the former Beales department store and with the River Croal on the other side. 

Construction started last year and Placefirst expects completion in summer 2025. Despite the progress though, no one from Placefirst would be interviewed for this piece. 

A spokesperson said it would answer The Bolton Lead’s questions by email but didn’t reply in time for our deadline because it wanted to check the responses with the council. 

Nor would anyone from housing association Bolton at Home be interviewed about another town centre project showing tangible progress. It is working with Manchester developer Step Places on a development of more than 200 homes on and around the old Moor Lane bus station site. Bolton at Home’s portion includes 82 homes at affordable rent – defined as up to 80 per cent of the local market average. None appear to be at social housing rent – usually a lower figure that takes into account local incomes.

FSG Moor Lane Developments – the joint venture vehicle between Step Places and Bolton at Home – is now constructing two of the four apartment blocks and the townhouses but applied to make cutbacks on the remaining two because the development is “currently facing viability issues because of the grant funding position and recent increases in construction costs”. A council planning committee earlier this month approved the removal of all balconies, the use of UPVC windows instead of aluminium frames and the removal of some decorative features in the brickwork.

Watching the Moor Lane development with interest is Fay Hargreaves, who has lived for more than 10 years in her housing association flat in a converted church five minutes away. Town centre living suits her in a perhaps unexpected way. She has PTSD from a serious car accident when she was living outside town, and anxiety about traffic and roads that was leaving her isolated. After talking it through with friends and family, she moved to her current flat – a “safe environment”, she says, and, before the Moore Lane bus station was demolished, only a five minute bus ride from her mum in Great Lever and her best mate.

The town centre is good for accessibility to shops and services, with plentiful pedestrian crossings to make getting there less stressful. She has no need for the posher shops that have deserted the centre. 

She used to volunteer at Band, the community mental health service, which was only a stone’s throw away. Her boyfriend could walk to work at a nearby church. Since the bus station was demolished in 2018, the bus services are not much further away, in the modern interchange next to the train station. It all worked for Fay. 


Bolton town centre


But the demolition has meant a lack of footfall in this area – and that has brought its own problems, with visible drug dealing and drug use. She feels safe in her flat, less so when she opens her door.

“This area in the past five or six years had really gone downhill,” says Fay.“If you go outside my flat now there’s a needle next to my dustbin. They’ve not even put it in the bin. They’ve literally just chucked it at the bin. Who does that?

“Because of where the bus station was, it made this part of town where everybody was. There’d be a lot of working people coming in after work, bobbing into the market. A lot of older people as well and people felt the need to protect them so you’d have a lot of people looking out for each other. 

"Now the market’s practically isolated from the rest of town. If I was an older person I’d be a bit concerned about going to the market at certain times. It gets dark at four o’clock. It makes it less accessible for the elderly. Before they could get their shopping and get straight on the bus – it was really easy for them.”

Nevertheless, if she could ever afford to buy, Fay would consider staying in town. Better policing would help, she says, as would more facilities for young people, and more incentives for them to take up volunteering. But Fay’s mum Jayne wouldn’t live in town “if you paid me”. 

When she moved into her house less than a mile away in Great Lever more than 20 years ago, the street was half-boarded up. It was improved but recently she says there has been an increase in fly-tipping and it’s gone downhill again. She still wouldn’t leave though – because of the green spaces. Sunnyside Park’s not far and even closer are her front and back gardens. Out front there’s an acer tree she’s carefully nurtured. In the back she points proudly to two rowan trees. 

“We need more housing so perhaps for younger people with no vehicles who need transport connections to get to work - it’s good for them to live in town,” says the former mental health worker. "But I’m retired now. 

“I wouldn’t swap the space in my garden. How could I? I’m constantly out there gardening. For me, everything’s about my dogs and my birds and the garden.”

They wouldn’t persuade Jayne but Capital & Centric is promising community gardens for Neighbourhood: Bolton’s houses, which will all be sold to owner-occupiers or rented directly to them. Heatley says he won’t sell to investors or deal with intermediaries. “That’s because we feel the beneficiaries of regeneration should be the people who live there and not some random, abstract investor who may never visit the house.”

He adds: “We spend a lot of money on architecture and energy efficiency, things like that. Our homes are more expensive - simple as that - because I won’t compromise. I’ve always done it that way and it’s always been the right kind of approach from a business perspective.” 

It’s not from the goodness of his heart, he adds. If you can save people money on their energy they might be willing to pay the higher rents or purchase price. And, although he admits his customers might need to be pioneers to some extent while they wait for the cafe bars and yoga studios to spring up, human nature means those people exist.

“There is no market like this because no one’s ever built it. They’ve gone cheaper. The town centre needs to broaden its consumer base. That’s not to alienate the people of Bolton. We do need to attract a new audience in addition to serving the existing one.” 

But to secure his pioneers, Heatley will need to seek gap funding from central government, and it has just been awarded £1.04 million from the Greater Manchester Brownfield programme for the Trinity Gateway part of its scheme. That’s the same site as the one Bolton Regeneration couldn’t regenerate. A further £5.2 million from the programme has been earmarked to revive the Church Wharf scheme, this time with Watson Construction likely to be at the helm, although a spokesperson points out that the council hasn’t signed off a deal yet and is still in discussions.


Bolton with Manchester in the distance


The need for such funding also means that planning authorities will struggle to ask town centre developers for so-called section 106 contributions. They can ask for this money to fund additional facilities such as highways, health centres, playgrounds and even additional affordable housing. 

The developers though can argue that their scheme wouldn’t be viable if they had to pay and that it brings benefits to the public sector in the form of growth, business rates and additional spend. Often it is the developer that prevails.

Heatley says Neighbourhood: Bolton and Capital & Centric’s nearby scheme, the well advanced Farnworth Green, excite him more than building in the city centre, which would be more profitable. Martyn Cox, former leader of Bolton Council until last year’s elections and now leader of the Conservative Group, talks of public sector money being used to give developers confidence they can make their schemes viable. 

But the industry - and its ability to make a dent in the UK’s housing shortage  faces other challenges too, says Heatley.

“Interest rates mean everything is more expensive. The cost of finance and materials is more expensive. The industry is woefully under-skilled. You can see it and feel it when you walk around construction sites. We’ve lost out massively because of Brexit – lots of hardworking people have been going back home to Poland, for example. Lots of hardworking and skilled production people are no longer in the UK. 

“On sites everything feels like it’s going over budget all the time because there’s very little ability to manage costs properly. A lot of the subcontractors don’t know where they’re gaunt to get their labour and materials from. And knowledge and skills on site aren’t there to some extent so there’s problems if that doesn’t work or that doesn’t fit. That’s a pain.

“We have anywhere between 800 and 1000 people on site at any one time, across our projects. The bigger the project the better, I suppose, because you’ve got bigger firepower, bigger supply chains, and existing suppliers you can go back to repeatedly. They’ll lean into us more because they can see there’s a pipeline of work for them. It’s harder if you’re a smaller organisation, smaller projects because you can’t demonstrate a pipeline, so suppliers will say, look, I know you need 50 pallets of white tiles but Capital & Centric need them. I’m going to send it to them instead. We get the benefit of that but I can see the problems that exist elsewhere.

“The construction industry is in a tough place at the moment. The builders that can build are probably making a lot of money because they can charge a premium, and they are. But the long term wider economic growth prospects for that sector and the contribution of that sector to UK GDP is a problem. It’ll act as a drag. 

“You can’t invest in building as much as you’d like to because of a lack of skills. Everything is slow, inexperienced and expensive, and that’s not a formula for lots of homes, which is the only way you can ever hope to reduce the cost of them – by making lots more available.”

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