Lancashire hot spot

New Maker Movement is spearheading a revival of Blackburn’s lost liveliness

Urban Room as doodled by Chris Shipton.
Urban Room as doodled by Chris Shipton.

How do you build momentum in a dubbed ‘Crap Town’ like Blackburn where shops shut at 5pm, and there are no hotels or discernible nightlife? It’s tough, but Lancashire lad Wayne Hemingway reminisces of an 80s that regularly welcomed musicians like David Bowie and The Sex Pistols. 

Hemingway was here to introduce Blackburn is Open, a manifesto to revitalise the town, while also welcoming guests to the pilot of a trailblazing Urban Room linked to the  non-partisan Farrell Review. These, he said, could empower a new can-do spirit in a population where 25% work in manufacturing – a ratio reportedly double the national average. His role here was as a creative director to help drive a growing ‘maker movement’ in the borough, and which recently commissioned local taxidermist Nicola Hebson to set up her pop-up curiosity shop here, with sell-out ‘anthropomorphic taxidermy beginners’ classes’.

Add to this the recurring creative programming ‘First Thursday’ and the launch of the town’s new FabLab and Making Rooms, and the ambition for Blackburn to extend its reach with a first Festival of Making in 2015 is ultimately realisable – ‘but we need help’ urged Wayne. Success had already been achieved on a shoestring. Now, with added resourcing and priority, Blackburn had the potential to become a true Capital of Making.

The opportunity Hemingway saw was in empowering its people to take more creative risks. It was time, he said, to grow a collective sense of ‘generosity’ in the town’s heart. Alluding to some illustrated examples, he longed for a more open mind reset that might one day allow 24-7 unmanned libraries – or wild swimming in the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. While he dreamed of this out loud, graphic recorder Chris Shipton doodled his visionary mind-map for posterity (above).

For the next part of the evening, 50 invited guests and locals had gathered in the old Chapel of Ease while little gems tempted further exploration on its fringes. Side shows included a Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA) vision called ‘[re]create Blackburn’; a photography showcase of ‘Hidden Blackburn’; and a pop-up recreation of an earlier film festival showing Jacques Tati’s modernist masterpiece, Playtime. 

Chair for the night, Darwen-born architect Philip Thornton, then introduced three speakers to draw synergies from a Blackburn looking both back and forward: Otto Saumarez-Smith delivered a lecture on the deemed ‘visual panache’ of the town’s Corbusian-like shopping centre, designed in the 60s by BDP; Carolyn Butterworth talked passionately of the school of architecture’s community focus; and Sara Hilton extolled the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘New Ideas for Old Buildings’. 

The parallels helped inform a concluding debate in this, the UK’s first-ever community ‘place-space’. In recognition, one of the Farrell Review’s key authors Max Farrell had come to Blackburn to set out its key recommendations, and to encourage (or drag kicking and screaming?) politician, professional and public out of the silos to talk more. 

In terms of Blackburn is Open, the town’s urban future looks optimistic under the unconventional creative eye of Wayne Hemingway. With both its chief executive and head of regeneration present throughout the entire event, the council is clearly following this new Urban Room with interest, and that should be applauded. That this was the first in the country, and conceived by its own Arts Services team, was a real coup for the town.

Blackburn’s development of a 7ha cathed­ral quarter is already addressing many of the centre’s shortcomings, as was first described by Hemingway, and this work will feature in a future Urban Room. However, more help is needed now if Blackburn is Open’s growing Maker Movement is to fully contribute. Simply put, it now needs strategic recognition and support to add energy to a new civic spirit of ‘pay-it-forward’ – or as Wayne so nicely put it: it was time ‘to place Blackburn at the centre of this generosity’.