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How Blackburn won a double at the Great British High Street Awards

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 March 2017

The Gladstones View Townscape Heritage Project, one of the next developments set to take place in Blackburn

The Gladstones View Townscape Heritage Project, one of the next developments set to take place in Blackburn

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After it was crowned winner of Britain’s Best High Street, Rebekka O’Grady visits the town to find out what the judges liked so much.

Laura Diffey, Marketing Manager at the Mall, BlackburnLaura Diffey, Marketing Manager at the Mall, Blackburn

Blackburn’s success is a story that’s been 15 years in the making. That’s what Business Improvement District manager Harriet Roberts tells me as we chat over drinks at Exchange Coffee in Blackburn’s Exchange Arcade, a beautiful mid-19th century building packed full of independent retailers.

It’s a story that’s far from finished, but it’s one that has certainly reached its first peak in terms of recognising just how far the town has come with two accolades at The Great British High Street Awards.

‘We brought the judges to Exchange Coffee for afternoon tea when they were on their tour of Blackburn,’ said Harriet, who has been a part of the BID for three years. ‘That day, advocates of the town really came through. Judges were impressed by the passion of the people who live here, and the multi-million pound redevelopment that has gone into making it a place for people to visit and enjoy.’

For many, Blackburn is now unrecognisable thanks to this investment and the work of the BID and Blackburn with Darwen council – a collaboration considered to be forward thinking in its view of the town’s future.

From the introduction of huge town events (such as Blackburn Heritage Festival and Countryside Comes to Town) to a new £5 million bus centre, a £66 million redevelopment of The Mall and the Cathedral Quarter’s £33 million investment, it’s turning into a real destination. The town even scooped gold at Britain in Bloom, and is in the running for the national award this year.

For Harriet and the team, it was rewarding enough to even be recognised as finalists at Britain’s Best High Street awards, but the real buzz came when they were crowned Best Town Centre and also Overall Champion, beating 26 other finalists for the top spot at the ceremony in London.

‘I didn’t even consider winning anything when I heard all the other amazing stories, but when we got the town centre award I thought, job done. It was when they started to describe Blackburn in a ‘This Is Your Life’ kind of way for the £10,000 prize I got hysterical when I realised it was us.’

As well as the cash, which will be invested into new marketing material for the BID to sustain its work and legacy, the prize also includes expert advice from Google and a trip to the head offices of Twitter to increase their knowledge of how social media can help the high street.

‘This is now our year, we have to focus on bringing people back to Blackburn and change their perceptions. It’s not just a mill town, Blackburn has transformed. People don’t always believe things until they see it, and now 15 years of work is coming together, it’s tangible. The amazing thing is that this is only just the beginning of what can be achieved.’

The Mall

Reopened in 2010 following a £66 million redevelopment and extension, The Mall is a retail destination that is continually evolving. Owned by Capital and Regional, who took over the shopping centre in 2004, it’s a place that has lent itself well to the changing face of Blackburn.

Blackburn bus station, the Mall and Blackburn MarketBlackburn bus station, the Mall and Blackburn Market

‘On the whole, people come into the centre and can’t believe how much it has changed,’ said marketing manager, Laura Diffey. Only last July they launched another phase of development, a £3 million renovation of the entrance (which provides access to the new bus centre), a new gym and further shopping units.

‘They say it looks like something which should be in Manchester. We now have the big brands people love and are constantly trying to improve the customer experience, whether that’s food catering operators to shopping incentives. We always want to develop and change perceptions.’

Although The Mall is completely separate from the BID, Laura says they work closely with Harriet and the team, as do the retail managers, to discuss key objectives in the town and how to improve.The win at Britain’s Best High Street awards she said had a massive impact on visitor numbers at The Mall at Christmas, as people were intrigued to know why and what Blackburn was now about.

‘Here we work closely with the BID team and council to put on well rounded events that the whole town can enjoy. It’s about us all being successful and not conflicting ideas – as a community shopping centre working together and the community is our focus.’

Blackburn Market

Canon Andrew Hindley, Blackburn CathedralCanon Andrew Hindley, Blackburn Cathedral

Markets today can often be sad spaces, with empty units and a floundering visitor rate. but that’s far from the case at Blackburn Market. With an annual footfall of £4.7 million and high capacity of traders, it’s a place that is certainly on the up.

‘I would say that 85% of traders who joined us nearly six years ago when we opened on this site are still with us,’ said market manager, David Smith. ‘Any new traders we have are thriving, and one business even extended over another two units in a matter of months as within six weeks of opening he was making a profit.’

The reason for the £8 million development’s success is partially a result of the influx of visitors it receives from The Mall. Based below the shopping centre and with direct access to the bus centre, the market boasts over 120 varied stalls and a large food court with delis and cafes.

‘Due to Blackburn’s development there are enough people coming into the town to make the market sustainable. Due to everyone working together it’s a place that is growing year-on-year.’

Cathedral Quarter

Lizelle Hollin of the Dales Fine Foods stall with Blackburn Market Manager, David SmithLizelle Hollin of the Dales Fine Foods stall with Blackburn Market Manager, David Smith

For Canon Andrew Hindley, it’s been a passion for over two decades to develop Blackburn’s Cathedral Quarter and create Cathedral Court. The idea, first spoken about back in 1996, was to have accommodation on cathedral grounds – a plan and vision for the parish since it was founded in 1926.

‘It just had never been realised. So we decided to turn our attention to it,’ said Andrew, who as the Canon Sacrist, has chief responsibility to plan all worship held in the Cathedral and take day to day responsibility for the care of the Cathedral fabric. In addition, he is also director of Blackburn Cathedral Developments.

‘We began seriously working on it in 1999 and hoped to deliver it as Millennium project, but a grant application wasn’t successful. So in 2004 we partnered with the council, the Homes and Communities Agency and the European Regional Development Fund, and together the Cathedral Quarter was born.’

The financial crisis of 2007 meant work didn’t start until 2014/15, and the development was finally completed in July 2016. The £33 million regeneration has provided new public and private open space in and around the buildings and Cathedral, a new bus interchange in front of the Railway Station, restaurant units and Blackburn’s first Grade A office block, plus a new six-storey Premier Inn.

Cathedral Court, which cost £8 million (funded by a series of regenerate grants, private donors and Cathedral recourses), is a development extended to the south side of the Cathedral, and houses new offices, a library, conference facilities and halls of residence for choral and organ scholars.

For the first time in over 500 years, a complete set of cathedral domestic buildings have also been created through the development, providing residential accommodation for clergy and staff in the form of three townhouses and seven apartments.

‘It’s a massive sense of achievement for all, a true partnership between public and private sectors which has been successful. With all the developments going on, we’re seeing something of a Manchester effect in East Lancashire. If the Northern Powerhouse means anything, it needs to emanate outside of Liverpool and Manchester.’

One big name that is already drawing visitors is Northcote. The Lancashire culinary giants, headed up by Michelin starred chef Nigel Haworth, were approached by Andrew to open Café Northcote in the refectory space – which they happily accepted.

‘I admit we had slight reservations at first, but once we saw the plans for the development we really wanted to be involved,’ said Claire Arnold, operations director for Café Northcote and Northcote at the Rovers. ‘The whole regeneration was just really taking off and we wanted to be a part of that.’

The 78-cover café runs seven days a week, offering a menu which has a massive emphasis on quality food made from scratch using the best suppliers from around the region. Despite having a well known fine dining name attached to it, the café’s prices remain competitive to others in the area, in order to make it accessible to all.

Café Northcote is also set to be a part of a new concept, bringing together some of the most exciting young chefs for a series of pop up evenings. The Taste of the Future Apprentice Kitchen will see Northcote’s novice chefs take over kitchens for six evenings (£35pp) spread over three months.

‘A mentor will be on board to help but the apprentices will come up with menu ideas and how to run the kitchen and restaurant,’ explained Claire. ‘They will have a truly immersive feel in what it takes to run a kitchen and restaurant.’

The concept will work in partnership with local charities, with proceeds from each event going towards good causes as well as furthering education for the Northcote apprentices.

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