Cash-strapped Bolton faces uncertain times

The real economy is starting to feel the crunch as job losses bite. Jonathan Brown reports from Britain's largest town
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The Independent Online

When American politicians get real about the credit crunch, they like to talk about how it is affecting "mom and pop" stores on Main Street. Perhaps the nearest equivalent you get to that in Bolton, Greater Manchester, are the stallholders on Ashburner Street Market. Their experience makes depressing reading.

Zed Ibrahim, known to his friends on the market as Little Sid, can't remember a time when demand for his cut-price T-shirts was so bad. "It's terrible," he says, shaking his head sadly. "Fewer people are coming here to do their shopping. They just don't seem to have the money."

Mr Ibrahim's friend Paul Heaton has been trading in computer goods here for 15 years. "Half the market is empty stalls. People might be spending money in town but in the traditional market they are spending nothing."

Bolton is Britain's largest town. As well as boasting a Premiership football club and a host of famous sons, including celebrity steeplejack Fred Dibnah, whose outsize statue graces the town centre, it also remains a diehard centre of manufacturing.

Although it might not measure up to the boom years of the late 1920s – just before the first Wall Street Crash – when 216 cotton mills and dozens of bleaching and dyeing works employed thousands of workers, some 20 per cent of local people are still making things.

There are still plenty of jobs in aerospace and other manufacturing industries. The decision by Handleman to locate here two years ago, bringing with it 1,200 jobs distributing CDs and DVDs on behalf of Tesco, was a major coup for the local council.

But problems are beginning to emerge– enough to concern the MP Ruth Kelly, whose Bolton West seat is considered the most vulnerable in the town. Yesterday's local paper carried a full page advertisement announcing a £1m liquidation sale at a local furniture-makers, with hundreds of half-price sofas, rugs and beds and "no reasonable offer refused".

A fortnight ago the online computer retailer announced 20 of the 240 people it employs in Bolton would be made redundant. And two months earlier Peter Hunt Bakery went into administration, with the loss of 650 jobs, after the administrators failed to find a buyer.

However, Nigel McFarlane, the Bolton manager of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, believes the town is well placed to survive the storm. Recent years have seen a massive redevelopment of the town centre as part of a 10-year strategy to compete with neighbouring cities such as Manchester and Liverpool.

"We'd like to see more support for manufacturing but I don't think we are going to get it," said Mr McFarlane.

He added that the town's people suffered some of the worst health in the region and there was also a major skills gap. "The chill wind hasn't finished blowing yet and there will be more victims before it's gone. But there is no reason why we should be worse affected than anywhere else."

There was a similar mood in the property market where a one-bedroom flat costs just £30,000. One local estate agent, who asked not to be named, said there were sales out there but they had to be worked hard for and that what price falls there were were being driven by "silly offers" put in by buyers on the lookout for a bargain.

Over at Market Place, a recently completed £100m refurbishment project, there were shoppers out in some force. Reopened earlier this year by the Earl of Wessex, local people bitterly opposed the plan to clear out the small retailers who had traded there for decades in favour of the ubiquitous high street brands which now dominate the Victorian building. Some 88,000 people signed the petition rejecting the stripping away of Bolton's identity and the creation of what was described as another "clone town".

When it comes to the real economy, few enterprises come more down-to- earth than the makeshift stall outside Newport Arcade. Its owner, who gave her name as Pam, was doing a lively trade selling woolly hats and umbrellas for £2.99 a go. She laughed at talk of the credit crunch. "How can it affect me?" she said. "I'm not looking for credit. When they were handing it all out, they weren't giving it to me. Be realistic – I'm selling hats for £3. You're in Bolton. Everyone here is on the social."