ONLY two businesses have taken advantage of a £20,000 grant scheme to open shops in the town centre, it has emerged.

But town hall chiefs have defended the take-up rate - saying they want to make sure they are giving taxpayers’ money to “sustainable firms”.

Since October Bolton Council has been offering grants of up to £20,000 for entrepreneurs to open businesses, with Elite Dress Agency and Vegas Boutique now trading as a result.

Another 16 firms are in the process of completing business plans.

However, opposition councillors have raised concerns that more needs to be done to boost business in Bolton.

There have been 164 inquiries about the scheme, of which 50 formal expressions of interest have been submitted for consideration.

Conservatives leader Cllr David Greenhalgh said: “What is happening to all these people showing interest?

“Two take-ups after all that seems very little from more than 160 inquiries.

“The council is providing the support, but for only two businesses to be trading suggests that there’s something we have to look at.

“We need business in our town centre, and we need to support people who want to open businesses here in Bolton.”

Of the 50 expressions of interest, 16 firms — including delis, boutiques and beauty salons — are being actively taken forward, with applicants finishing off their business plans or securing leases.

Keith Davies, Bolton’s director of development and regeneration, said another 20 were being offered support with business plans. A further 12 applications have been rejected or withdrawn.

A pot of £1.5 million has been set aside for the scheme, and applicants can ask for more than £20,000 if they meet more stringent criteria.

Mr Davies stressed that it was important that grants were provided to sustainable businesses, so as not to waste money on ventures that could fail in a few months.

The “vast majority” of expressions of interest have been submitted by people with limited business experience, meaning they have needed time and support with developing their ideas, he added.

He said: “This is about sustainability for the town centre. We have to make sure we attract the right types of business, and it’s all part of the long-term game — giving people the opportunity to start their own business, and be sustainable in the long term.”