The Greater Manchester town where too many feel ‘trapped’ – and the one thing that could change it

It was the cut that left residents feeling trapped – and businesses fearful for the future. But now the V2 bus – which links Atherton to Manchester, is set to return.

The guided busway service was credited with attracting more commuters to the borough of Wigan, the furthest of Greater Manchester’s authorities from the centre, when it began running over six years ago. Cafes, bars and shops all benefitted from the increased connectivity.

But, after demand plummeted in lockdown the service was slashed – and even after lockdown ended, wasn’t fully restored.

Now, transport bosses have revealed that the service will return to a full-time schedule, a major announcement for locals. The news on the V2 – which travels directly from Atherton town centre to the Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) via the Leigh Guided Busway – came as Transport for Greater Manchester promoted their launch of the Bee Network, coming September 24.

The idea behind the Bee Network is to bring buses under local control in a London-style system, creating a more efficient and comprehensive service than the current deregulated market.

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As part of these plans, TfGM has announced the ambition to increase the daytime frequency on the V1 and V2 services on the Leigh Guided Busway (LGB) to at least eight buses in each direction every hour .

Currently, five V2 buses an hour run during peak hours between Atherton and Manchester (7am to 9am and 4pm to 6pm), but the service was cut entirely during off-peak hours – until now – which meant Athertonians had no direct service at those times.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham inside one of the new Bee Network buses
(Image: TfGM)

This is more than just a win for public transport users in the commuter town – some businesses in the area see this as an opportunity to continue the economic boom the service brought before the pandemic. Councillors, commuters and businesses all campaigned for years to get the V2 back because of the perceived financial benefit.

Previously, locals told the M.E.N they felt trapped in the area without a reliable bus service. Despite having a train station, which is a 20 minute walk from the centre, strikes and a lack of a full-time bus service left residents feeling stranded.

For places like the Snug, a café/bar that showcases live music acts, the V2 bus service brought acts and punters. Before the service was cut down, they often had young music acts travelling with their kit on the bus arriving directly outside the door of the coffee house.

Much like the Night and Day Café in Manchester city centre, they promote local up and coming acts – but when the bus disappeared at off-peak times, so did the opportunities for bands that were not yet old enough to drive.

Rachael Flaszczak (middle) with Ben Morgan and Olivia McCaffrey in the Snug, Atherton
Rachael Flaszczak (middle) with Ben Morgan and Olivia McCaffrey in the Snug, Atherton
(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

Owner of the Snug, Rachael Flaszczak, said: “It’s going to be amazing for Atherton because I can tell ticket buyers we have this service back and we fought to get that. If I can be confident in great transport links it will help business.

“Things seem to be lifting in the town. We are getting an Early Doors Project (an innovative project aimed at boosting the local music scene) so we’ve been given funding for the early night time economy now as well.

“That regular bus will be great as people don’t want to be restricted by bus times. I think we’re going to see a massive difference in Atherton.

“We’ve got a great mix of bars, the traditional pubs, cocktail bars and music venues like ours – and we have two more that are due to open soon.”

The choice for bars in the town is expanding – which is why Atherton is becoming more of a go-to destination in the evening. Patrick McLoughlin, who runs The Cabinet bar on Church Street with his cousin Kieran McLoughlin, says he has had punters coming from Altrincham for a night out in the town.

His ambition is to be at the heart of a thriving Manchester-style bar scene, so local young professionals in the area don’t need to go to the city for a night out. He believes if you offer the right transport service, people will come from far and wide to sample what Atherton has to offer – although it could mean more people travelling out of the town as well.

Patrick McLoughlin, co-owner of The Cabinet in Atherton
Patrick McLoughlin, co-owner of The Cabinet in Atherton
(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

“We don’t know where people come from most of the time when they’re not local. For a night out it’s different from the early evening trade and the bus will help those coming from out of the area.

“We get people from all over for a night out here. We’ve had people from Altrincham just to try it,” he said.

“I’m not sure if people will come from Manchester but it might have the opposite effect where people may leave here to go to Manchester. However, it’s always good for new transport links to come in and it’s good for the general local economy as we’re a commuter town.”

Patrick believes the nightlife in the area is the best it has been in decades, but people have to be drawn out. The Cabinet puts on quiz nights, a popular bottomless brunch on a Saturday in order to draw in the clientele in what is a tough period with the cost of living crisis ongoing.

The Cabinet, Church Street, Atherton
The Cabinet, Church Street, Atherton
(Image: LDRS)

He says businesses in the town have changed dramatically in recent years, with traditional vendors such as green grocers and butchers leaving due to the introduction of supermarkets, replaced by bars, cafes and hairdressers.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the changes. One local 85-year-old, born and raised in the town, described the centre of Atherton as ‘depressed’ and offering her nothing compared to years gone by. The pensioner, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the place was filled with banks and independent vendors before being taken over by bars and hair salons.

“Praise the lord,” she said when hearing the V2 will be returning on a full-time schedule. “Although there will not be a lot of impact on the town.

Market Street, Atherton
(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

“I’m an Atherton person, but the bus takes you out of the dump, which this is, into the big city and we’re not city types here.

“Manchester offers a variety that local shops don’t. I have worked outside the town in my life and I escaped at one point.

“It’s a depressed sort of place, with lots of unemployment and not much prosperity. Tesco shut our shops, all we have is bars.

“It’s now a night time economy. This (pointing at the new bar Society currently being renovated) used to be a bank and now we have bars instead.

A yellow 'Bee Network' branded on the Leigh Guided Busway route
A yellow ‘Bee Network’ bus branded on the Leigh Guided Busway route
(Image: MEN)

“Charity shops, bars and nail places are all we have. I think the restoring of the bus service will not make a lot of difference to the town, I’m hoping I’m wrong, but if people don’t use it it won’t stick around.

“I think the town is beyond saving.”

The pensioner was complimentary of the bus itself, saying it was great news for commuters – although she didn’t believe Atherton would benefit in terms of increased business.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has often hailed the guided busway as a success, and ranks it alongside the development of Leigh Sports Village as a catalyst for investment in the area. LSV was followed by the £50 million Loom retail park in the town centre and the guided busway service.

“For years people told me they didn’t want this misguided busway,” Mr Burnham told the M.E.N previously. “(But) I remember the first letter from someone complaining about the guided busway, saying ‘when it gets to Tyldesley I can’t get on it’. That was the first complaint of its success. I don’t think it has solved…transport problems but it has definitely helped in a big way.”

A musician who goes by the name of Spud was playing his saxophone on the high street, watching the world go by. A local man himself, who plays in various high streets in Bolton, Wigan and Salford, he sees Atherton’s centre as lacking – but not in a way that’s out of the ordinary at the moment.

Spud the saxophone player sat in Atherton high street
Spud the saxophone player, sat in Atherton high street
(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

“I’ve read about the V2 coming back,” he said. “An increase of buses is always a good thing.

“But I don’t think people would come here from Manchester. It’s a political mess altogether with the economic situation, I’ve been here two hours and got £10.

“With online shopping and stuff like that, it’s all going downhill in town centres. I used to busk in Manchester but I wouldn’t do it now, having trouble with beggars over pitches.

“This is a nice place and I like coming here. It changes in terms of footfall here. I came this morning, it was busier than I’ve ever seen it but I got less today than I usually do.

“For the businesses it could be beneficial. But everyone is struggling, not just here. This will be dead after lunch time.”

Wigan Council has a ‘Plan for Atherton’ which states the ambition for the town to ‘play a central role in a borough-wide economy that is anticipated to grow to £5.2 billion over the next 10 years’, with steps including singling out sites for strategic growth, identifying town centre ‘gateway’ sites for regeneration, encouraging pop up stalls in the centre and providing more town centre housing.

“With its great schools, high quality greenspace, attractive heritage buildings and excellent road and rail transport connections, Atherton has much to be proud of,” the plan states. “Atherton’s centre continues to thrive as a bustling local town with a diverse mix of unique independent shops and leisure venues and a developing quality night-time economy with an increasing number of busy restaurants, cafes and bars.

“Atherton’s location close to Manchester also offers great potential for future growth. This Plan is the first step in helping to achieve that growth, highlighting what we already have in the town and surrounding area, and what we can build on for the future.

“There are many exciting opportunities for Atherton to take advantage of over the next few years, but this will only be achieved through the combined efforts of the private and public sectors, local businesses, residents and other stakeholders.”

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