‘USE IT or lose it’ is an old maxim but it’s one that couldn’t be more relevant right now to the future of your public services, amenities and choice.
It’s been at the forefront of my mind in recent days when holding discussions on Oldham town centre, and about Greater Manchester Police’s plans to close station front desks across the region.
Hopefully you’ll have read elsewhere by now about our plans to introduce what is effectively three months of free parking on Council-owned car parks on Saturdays from mid-October to mid-January, 2012.
After listening to the many concerns expressed to us in recent weeks this is a move unashamedly designed to boost town centre trade during a critical period.
For Oldham Council it’s also about showing leadership to help businesses and residents feeling the pinch.
To my mind all town centres – not just Oldham – still haven’t found answers to the questions posed about their futures since out-of-town retail parks and super/mega-markets began sprouting nationwide in the 1990s.
However, according to a recent survey, Oldham town centre – with a 16 per cent rate of vacant shop units – is actually performing better than its North West neighbours (who average 19 per cent).
I also genuinely believe our town centre offering (i.e. not including retail parks) is better than the likes of Rochdale and Tameside, and that if it was a retail park the brand names you’d see on the billboards – ‘Debenhams, H&M, Topshop, River Island, Primark, Next etc’ – would have traffic queueing in a snake like it usually is at Elk Mill on Saturdays.
But I’m also a realist. We can’t sit here and fiddle.
I know that a town centre affected by the Metrolink roadworks, and where you must also pay to park, isn’t a good mix at present. And although the Council does rely on that car parking revenue, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.
What I’m equally clear about is that we need to measure the true value of this ‘free parking’ pilot when it ends next year.
The question will be: Did this significantly boost trade or would that same money have been better spent on other methods to promote the town centre, like hosting festival events and on-street entertainers, or better marketing?
The unavoidable bottom line here though is that if residents want a viable town centre then they have to take advantage of this offer and visit it to do their shopping.
If they don’t then the implications for traders in this climate are pretty clear and there’s no politician alive – however much energy they might expend – who can shield businesses from what their spreadsheets and bank managers are telling them.
So with Oldham town centre, I’d say it’s very much up to you: ‘Use it or lose it.’
That simple choice is also relevant (in the past tense) to the recent debate about GMP’s proposals to close police station front desks across Greater Manchester to save £1.5m a year.
These counters serve two purposes right now – acting as a practical reporting point for the public, and providing visible reassurance of policing activity in our communities.
But the public can’t reasonably demand that something is kept open if – as GMP’s figures suggest – they’re not actually using it.
GMP’s survey showed a fall in desk visits from 1 million to around 500,000 in the past two years. They also estimated that 47 per cent of visits were generated by the police themselves – e.g. pre-arranged appointments that could be diverted elsewhere.
In Oldham – at opposite ends of the Borough – the case to keep the desks open was unconvincing. Failsworth station in 2009, as an example, was getting 1.7 visitors per hour, and none on the day surveyed in 2011.
Up in Saddleworth the Uppermill front desk this year was only averaging 1.13 visits per hour and – for that one visitor – these desks cost about £100 per visit to accommodate. Clearly the reassurance provided to the community can’t be quantified just in visitor numbers and I have made that point to GMP during a meeting with Greater Manchester leaders last week.
Right now we’re in discussions with GMP to mitigate these closures in our Borough and see how we might use our six new district town halls to fill some of this gap: enabling people to report crimes, for example.
But in the financial climate that all public services are now operating in, ‘Use it or lose it’ remains a burning topic for us all.
There’s a debate to be had here about how much value something genuinely adds to your day-to-day life as a resident – and it applies now to so many things that we’ve all grown to take for granted over the years: like police station front desks, libraries, and recycling centres, for example.
So, a busy week all in all. Not least because my son Harry turned three on Tuesday focusing my mind on why I joined the Council in the first place – to make our Borough the best it can be for the next generation and beyond.
Thanks for listening,