RESIDENTS have condemned the 'selfish and horrible' arsonists who destroyed a new sculpture welcoming visitors to Atherton.

The willow-weaved sculpture of a woman and child collecting flowers in a basket was deliberately set on fire on Friday night in what has been described as ‘an evil act’.

Installed at Blue Bell Boundary Gardens, Bolton Old Road, on the last day of April, the sculpture was part of a project by Atherton Environmental Projects (AEP) to make the entrance to the town more attractive.

It was also the centrepiece of Atherton's community category entry for the North West in Bloom competition but there is not enough time for the company that made the sculpture to produce a new one before the entries are judged next month.

Laura Potts said on Facebook: “Whoever did it is selfish and horrible.

“This is pure ignorance. It is disgusting."

A fire crew from Atherton put the blaze out at 11.30pm and said later that the destroyed statue had been deliberately set alight.

Greater Manchester Police are investigating the incident and any witnesses are urged to come forward.

Barbara Grundy added on Facebook: “This is all getting too bad. The police need to act or the townsfolk will.

“Why is it that they can't bear to have anything that makes the town nicer? It makes my blood boil.

“If they are caught they need to pay for it to be replaced and work on other things that need to be done in the town."

Atherton Cllr Karen Aldred, who worked with Cllr Martin Aldred and AEP volunteers to help fund the sculpture, which was chosen by children and parents at the adjacent St Phillip's CE Primary School, said: “I hope that the person or persons who did this are proud of themselves because they have taken away a massive community effort and really upset schoolchildren.

"I cannot express how soul destroying this fire is, but volunteers are determined to overcome this evil act.

“It is a real blow and an insult to all the volunteers and all involved from the school who have been working hard to enhance this area for many months.

“The mindless act of destroying the willow structure that the children and staff at St Phillip's CE Primary School chose is really is disgusting, but we will not be beaten.

"This area has been entered into North West in Bloom, to represent Atherton, and the sculpture was the centrepiece.

“Sadly, it is too late to get another sculpture made now before the judging and it is too late to back out of the competition, but we have rescued the children's wooden squirrel sculpture, which was part of the centrepiece.

“We plan to get our heads together with the school and come up with something else to go in the space where the sculpture was for the competition.

"The sculpture cost £625 and we are determined to raise this amount to get another one made in the future.

“We have received many words of support and offers to raise funds for another sculpture. We will take up these offers and would welcome support from others in the community as well.”

A spokesman for Greater Manchester Police said: "This incident is being treated as suspicious and enquiries are ongoing."

Anyone with information about the fire should call police on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

To help Atherton Environmental Projects call 01942 894262.