“Burnley has a town centre its people should be fiercely proud of.”
The view of Burnley town centre manager Catherine Price who believes people’s perceptions are slowly changing as continued investment brings about an air of positivity that extends way beyond the borough’s borders.
“I was in Manchester recently at an event showcasing Burnley. It was about attracting investors to the town and there was such a positive atmosphere.
“People were so impressed with what Burnley had to offer. People’s views on the town were just so positive. They were saying how it was such a forward-thinking authority and an area that stands out from other places. It was brilliant. There’s a lot of positivity around Burnley at the minute.”
Pilloried by many in recent years as home to nothing more than “bookies and pound shops”, Catherine is adamant that despite high street struggles nationally, Burnley is bucking the trend. But it needs people’s support.
“When Primark opened we did a town centre visitor guide because we knew people would be coming who either hadn’t been to town before or hadn’t been for a long time.
“Even as I was handing that out, a woman coming out of Primark said to me, ‘Oh there’s nothing here, it’s just charity shops and pound shops’. I was trying to say to her, ‘But there’s here and here’.
“She carried on walking away going, ‘No, no, no there’s nothing’. She’d just come out of Primark, which is neither a charity shop or a pound shop.”
The Primark effect of course cannot be underestimated.
Footfall figures spiked following its opening in May and have continued to rise.
While it shows that Burnley remains an attractive proposition to big brands, Catherine is quick to point out the important role independent shops have to play.
“For the size of Burnley, we need the brand of shops that people would expect to enable us to compete with the likes of Blackburn, Manchester, Bury. And Primark shows you that that can be done. And we absolutely need those brands.
“Our independents though are how we stand out. We need a good mix of both and we are very supportive of both.
“Charter Walk offers a nice mix of independents as well. They’re not fully focused on just brands. Little Barista is a lovely little business and two smaller businesses have just opened there; a florists and the Chocolate Box, both of which were on the market but have been able to grow and move into Charter Walk.
“We’ve also had some new business open up on lower St James’ Street; The Loft, a hair and beauty business moving from Manchester Road for a more visible presence on the high street, a plants and gifts shop and then a cabinet maker from Barcelona who wanted a business premises where he was visible in the town centre and close to the countryside.
“Everything I do is about changing perceptions. People need to come out, see the town centre for themselves .”
Town centre events such as the Literary Festival, the Summer Garden Party, this weekend’s Christmas Party; these are all put on not just to entertain families but to also showcase forgotten surroundings.
And Catherine said the amount of people who attend these events and leave with a different view of Burnley town centre no longer surprises her.
“We held a volunteer event recently for our upcoming Burnley Light Night. A mum had come to volunteer with her daughter and when she found out who I was she collared me and said, ‘I just wanted to say, I’m so impressed with the town centre’.
“They had come for the literary festival and they absolutely loved it. It was the first time they had been to something like that. She went on about how she hadn’t been for a long time but she thought the town centre was lovely.
“She meets up with her friends every few weeks – they come from all over – and so she brought them into Burnley for a coffee. They couldn’t believe how nice Burnley town centre was.
They loved it and she felt proud.”
And this, believes Catherine, is in no small part due to the £4m. refurbishment programme the town centre underwent.
The scheme, which saw new paving, seats, trees, planters and other features installed in Curzon Street and St James’s Street, was heavily criticised in some quarters before its completion at the end of last year with many feeling the money would have been better spent elsewhere.
“While I was at the Burnley Summer Garden party, two older ladies stopped me and said, ‘Before these improvements I was criticising the council saying that’s such a lot of money to spend on paving and what a waste of money it was’.
“She said, ‘I have to eat my words now. It looks so nice and it’s made such a difference’.
“I’ve noticed that a lot. We had a lot of people saying, ‘How’s paving going to make a difference? What’s paving going to do? How does paving bring in new business to the town centre? How does paving encourage new visitors?’
“And actually it does all those things. We have businesses that have come, not wholly, but partly on the strength of the improvements because they know it’s a much nicer environment and because that leads to people spending more time here. And of course more dwell time means more time to spend money.”
However, not even salubrious surroundings combined with big brand shops is enough nowadays.
The town centre landscape has changed massively in recent years as more and more people settle for home comfort and online convenience.
These days, shoppers demand a more diverse experience.
“No town centre can survive on retail alone,” admitted Catherine. “It’s about having an experience and that includes your coffee shops and your restaurants and your bars.
“Carnivoro is a beautiful building, a wonderful restoration and I’m getting loads of positive reports; Palazzo, another beautiful transformation that’s doing really well. And then we have an American diner that’s applied for planning permission and an ice cream parlour. These are giving people more of a reason to come into town.
“Market Kitchen is also doing brilliantly. That’s proven really popular since it opened. In the long term all the food retailers are going to be concentrated in one part of the market – a food hub.
“There’s some really interesting food from around the world there and the beauty is you can come with a group of people, each eat something different but then sit together in the seating area.
“Market Square is also going to see further development so the units behind the stairs and under the balcony are brought forward. That will be a nice transformation and means that we will be bale to get businesses in there.
“They’re just a little bit hidden away under the balcony which can be a little off-putting to businesses. I know we have businesses interested in those units. There are lots of retailers desperate to come to Burnley but there’s just not been the right space for them.”
All of this leads nicely to Pioneer Place.
The recently announced town centre defining development, earmarked for the former Pioneer site in Curzon Street, would see Reel Cinema relocated there along with restaurants, a public plaza, shops and a 125-space car park.
It would be fair to say that plans have been met with a certain degree of cynicism, many recalling the failed Oval development from a decade ago.
However, Catherine is confident that Burnley is in a much stronger position now.
“There is cynicism because of what happened with the Oval development but I think we’re in a different place now. I don’t get the impression that there are the same issues.
“That was going to be retail-led as well. Pioneer Place will be leisure-led. There will be a small number of retail units but it will be predominantly food and drink. Reel Cinema will be a key part of the town centre so we’re looking at the kind of causal dining outlets that would go with a cinema.
“We’re working with developer Maple Grove; they’re talking to people who for years have wanted to come to Burnley but there’s not been the space for them.”
A planning application is expected to go in before Christmas with Maple Grove confident the development, if given the go-ahead, will be finished by August, 2021.
“There’s a gap that’s starting to close,” said Catherine. “People now go home after work and then the next wave doesn’t come back out until after 10pm. We have places like Illuminati that do lovely food – Carnivoro and Palazzo. A lot of people go to Palazzo after work and so we are starting to get that.
“The key for me with Pioneer Place is to integrate it with what we already have. The development will face the rest of the town centre; it will be shaped so it opens up to the town centre, opening up all of that area around Curzon Street and Standish Street.
“Obviously this should all help to increase footfall.”
Increased footfall inevitably means more cars and no story on Burnley town centre would be complete without a passage on parking.
“Parking is an issue that is raised a lot,” said Catherine. “There’s this perception that because there’s only 40 minutes on-street parking for free, it’s somehow restrictive. We don’t want people to come for 40 minutes. That parking is there to help people who need to nip into town to run an errand; go to the bank or the post office.
“Longer on-street free parking would end up being taken over by commuters and staff from businesses. Shoppers would not get a chance to use them.
“Part of parking management is about getting an appropriate turn over of car parking spaces. If on-street parking was free all day there would not be a space anywhere.
“It can cost you £25 to park in Manchester for five hours. Millennium costs £3 for all day. It’s £1.50 for one to two hours at the other car parks.
“We want people to spend time here and support all the businesses. We have lot of car parks. We get criticism from people saying they’re all full. They’re not.
“Pioneer does get full since Primark arrived but there’s loads of other car parks and we are looking at improving signage.
“Car parks have to be paid for, they have to be maintained, they have to be safe, and there are costs involved unfortunately.”
Catherine’s enthusiasm for Burnley town centre is infectious. Her role as town centre manager is undoubtedly more than just a job to her.
And while she understands criticism and negativity is par for the course, she simply asks that people give their town centre a chance.
“They may be surprised.”