FRUSTRATED town leaders have hit back at a national newspaper feature which has painted Bolton as a ‘nothing of a town’.

The lengthy article in yesterday’s Guardian describes Bolton as being a declining town.

“In fact, decline is a polite word. The commercial heart of one of the largest towns in the UK is in nothing less than an existential struggle,” writes London-based journalist Andy Walton, who grew up in Bolton.

He cites the closure of shops such as Prestons of Bolton and the conversion of a former library in Victoria Square into a betting shop as examples of the town’s problems, which he claims have been compounded by the development of Middlebrook, the Trafford Centre and Manchester town centre.

“The town centre might have been resilient enough to deal with one, or perhaps two of these competing retail opportunities, but all three together seems to have proved too much,” he states.

But the town’s leaders are indignant about the image Mr Walton’s article gives of the town.

“It’s disappointing. It’s what he thinks of a Northern town and it’s nothing like that. We don’t wear cloth caps and clogs,” said council leader Cliff Morris, who pointed out that a photograph used to illustrate the feature is at least eight years old, showing Deansgate before Wilko moved in.

“There are a lot of people interested in our town centre and we are doing extremely well.”

Cllr Morris recited a long list of improvement that the town has made, including the refurbishment of Newport Street, museum and Albert Halls as well as an investment of £100 million approved to encourage developers to come to the borough.

Council chief executive Margaret Asquith says she is particularly unhappy about the impression the article might give to young people.

“It’s really sad,” she said.

“We work very hard in Bolton and for young people to read an article like that, it could be really disheartening.”

She added that is not fair that there was no mention of the town’s “fantastic” award winning parks, the attraction of the town for Ironman organisers or that more than quarter of a million people will be coming to the centre this weekend for the Food and Drink Festival.

Bolton North East MP David Crausby, who is quoted in the article, is critical of its emphasis on the negative aspects of the town, contending that focus should be on the area’s brighter future.

But he believes that the problems the centre has had cannot be ignored.

“It’s the elephant in the room and we can’t ignore it,” he said.

He cited the decision to build a retail park off Trinity Street as an error, taking shoppers away from town centre shops.

“The town centre has become a mess. Being prepared to speak out has provoked the council to do something and, all credit to them, they are doing something.

“As a town, in the past, we have made huge mistakes. Bury, for example, has stolen a march on us.

“At least, even though it is several years’ late, we’re getting it right.”

He looks at examples such as the transport interchange due to open next month and the arrival of the Light cinema at the Market Place as indications that Bolton is now on the up.

But he believes more can be done to improve matters further with Government money and better transport links.

“We also need to introduce more green space into town centres,” he said.

“And we have to have a long term plan as to where we want the town centre to be going. I want to know what the town centre will be like in 20 to 30 years’ time.”

Cllr Morris and Mrs Asquith deny mistakes were made in the past, rather the town was responding to changing lifestyle and shopping habits.

Cllr Morris stressed that, had the successful Middlebrook complex not been developed, then shoppers who use it would still not have come to the town centre, but would have headed for the Trafford Centre instead and Trinity retail park is used for different shopping trips than the centre.

“It was far looking because, at the end of the day, that’s what people want,” he said.

The Guardian article criticised what it described as the “evisceration” of the Market Hall, stripping the building of its distinctive character by replacing stalls with chain shops.

But Market Place manager Nikki Wilson-Cook states that the Market Place has benefitted the town, transforming the shopping and leisure experience.

“The extensive remodelling of the Victorian vaults has provided a stylish and popular venue for dining and leisure time,” she said, adding that the centre has a wide range of bars, restaurants and shops as well as a cinema and adventure play area, all of which have generated jobs.

Their number will also be added to tomorrow when a bar named The Cave and The Dessert Café opens in The Vaults.

“We feel honoured to be able to be able to provide the community of Bolton with new opportunities,” added Mrs Wilson-Cook.

“I’m personally hugely proud of what Market Place has achieved over the last few years. I am also really excited to see how much Market Place and Bolton progress over the next few years.”

Towards the end of the Guardian article positive aspects of the town, such as the Octagon Theatre, the university, food and drink festival and the Newport Street redevelopment are mentioned.

And Mr Walton stands by his article, maintaining that the problems with the area needed to be mentioned in order to put the town’s present day position into context.

“I am fiercely proud of Bolton,” said the Wanderers’ supporter, whose family still live in the area.

“When I bring people to visit I am very proud of the history. I was there on the streets when Fred Dibnah died and turned out for the funeral.

“But I don’t think pride equates to pretending all is well when it isn’t. I can hold my head up high and say that I have written the truth.”

He added that since his article was published he has been contacted by numerous people on social media.

“I think there was enough positive stuff in the article for it to be, overall, reasonably hopeful about the future,” he said.

“I genuinely hope that it helps people have a positive discussion.

“It is not for me to say what should happen in the future but the people of Bolton deserve the chance to have a larger say.”

But Cllr Morris stresses that Bolton will not remain static, with plans in place to make further changes, including enhancing Knowsley Street.

“There is always room for improvement,” he said.

Issuing an invitation to Mr Walton, he added: “Come and have a look round and look at all the changes and improvements we have made. We don’t dwell on the past — we look to the future.”