Darwen: Punching above its weight

Wayne Wild pulls no punches when he talks about the impact the £25m Darwen Town Deal will have on a part of east Lancashire already “punching above its weight”.

Darwen will use the funding to underpin its ambitious £116m investment plan which aims to generate and safeguard more than 600 jobs and create or assist more than 200 businesses.

“It will be truly transformational,” says Wayne, who chairs the board that has secured the cash.

He adds: “Given the size of Darwen, we are clearly punching well above our economic weight to have secured the maximum amount of government funding available.”

Town Deals have been seen as part of the government’s levelling up agenda, aimed at communities that have long been in the shadows. In many ways Darwen fits that description despite being home to a number of innovative, leading businesses.

At a Lancashire Business View conference on property and regeneration earlier this year Martin Kelly, Blackburn with Darwen Council’s director of growth and development, said the town had been “unloved by many for many years”.

Jake Berry, a member of the deal board, also summed up the feeling of many locals when the bid was submitted last January. The local MP spoke of a “collective feeling that our town was being left behind, overlooked for investment in favour of bigger, neighbouring towns and cities”.

We said from the very beginning that this was an once-in-alifetime opportunity

That is now all set to change. The bid the board sent to the government identified a host of projects to improve the town, including restoring its Victorian market, creating a new food hall and ‘makers market,’ to attract visitors.

The vision also includes upgrading Darwen’s theatre and library, improving its ‘gateways’ and the links between the town, its parks and the surrounding moorlands.

There are plans for new employment sites to support new jobs, a ‘box park’ for business start-ups, town centre living projects and ultrafast broadband.

The funding will be used to progress ‘quick win’ projects that are already underway, including the creation of an urban sports village.

The deal has also secured a big early economic win. It will help support Perspex International’s planned investment in new facilities in the town, safeguarding more than 250 high-quality jobs.

The flagship business has announced it will spend more than £30m creating a new production plant and research centre in Darwen. Town Deal money will help with some of the infrastructure that will be needed.

Wayne says: “For a town like Darwen to get £25m, the full allocation, is massive. And this is money that will be invested in Darwen, people in the town will see the benefits.

“The board has worked extremely hard over the best part of two years to get to this stage.”

The next stage is drawing up business cases for the planned schemes and it may be the autumn before the first projects start to come forward.

Wayne sees ‘town centre living’ as an important part of the mix. And he points to the positive impact of attracting people through the development of high-quality homes has had in Manchester, Liverpool and nearer to home, Preston. He says: “We said from the very beginning that this was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“We knew from the outset that the full £25m wasn’t guaranteed and that we needed to develop a really strong bid to make sure we could secure as much money for the town as possible. That was our absolute priority. Now we can start making a difference.”

Martin Kelly believes it will. He says Town Deals have been created to deliver major impact in smaller towns like Darwen.

He talks of a “21st Century market town” and says: “Drawing up carefully developed projects enables £25m to make a real difference in a place like Darwen.”

There is certainly plenty of ambition to go along with the cash. Martin says creating a sister operation to the new Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) North West, which has just opened in Samlesbury, is also on the shopping list.

He also points out that the plan doesn’t just look at how the town centre can serve local people but how it can attract visitors from outside and become a destination. He points to the success of Hebden Bridge.

He says: “People will see real change. The magic is in unlocking some of the private and public investment that can be leveraged from the £25m.”

  • To read this feature in full and access further Lancashire business news, advice and analysis subscribe to Lancashire Business View magazine or join the LBV Hub from just £2.50 per month. Click here to subscribe now.