AS SEVERAL EU countries, including France, see their credit rating downgraded it does focus the mind again on economic matters – and in particular here in Oldham.
Expert assessments are that it will take until 2032 – that’s another 20 years – to return to our 2008 economic position.
The problem with that for Oldham is twofold.
Firstly, 2008 might have been better for us – but it still wasn’t great.
Secondly, waiting another 20 years just to be back at a standstill simply won’t move our Borough forward.
In that context the challenge for all Council leaders is to understand their local economy, understand the national direction and assess the UK’s position in the global economy – not an easy task.
We can learn a lot from the last decade.
At a time when the rest of the UK was growing significantly Oldham stood still.
Worse still, when you unpick our numbers, it tells a tale of private sector decline and public sector boom with roughly the same numbers of private sector jobs lost here as were created in the public sector.
That’s all well and good but we’re also now experiencing massive public sector cuts that affect the Local Authority, NHS, Police and Fire services to name but a few. A rapid increase in public sector jobs simply isn’t going to happen.
As political leaders we naturally also might become more cautious about embarking on ‘big ticket’ projects when finances are tight. But at the same time, our aspirations for the future of the Borough shouldn’t diminish. Our challenge is to marry these two instincts and get the big decisions right.
Even when times are tough there’s usually some money to invest, but clearly less. It’s therefore vital we focus on any investment on job creation and schemes that will attract inward investment.
We must also be clear that at times it is not best for us as a Council to deliver development. What we can do though is provide leadership, corral resources and ensure any effort or investment is used to the best effect.
We must also accept that although we aspire for and demand high-quality jobs, for many people ‘a job is a job’ and we shouldn’t be snobbish about new jobs being created. Clearly there needs to be a mix.
We should also recognise that growth might not now necessarily mean a shiny new building: it might mean using what facilities we already have in a better way.
We also need to recognise that the type of jobs available is changing across the UK, which also competes in a global market. Science, new technologies and creative industries will grow, but not at the rate needed in Oldham – so what else is going to help us expand?
Investing in education has paid dividends for Oldham and this surely cannot be faulted. We have an outstanding College and Sixth Form, for example. We are also home to a University Centre and schools that are improving across the board. These factors will undoubtedly assist in attracting investment in higher skilled jobs in the future.
As a Council we also have a large land bank which we can release for investment. This might be for housing or commercial properties and without a doubt will make an investor look at Oldham with interest.
Improving our infrastructure – to which Metrolink is central with routes to Manchester Airport and Media City – will also aid recovery, as will pursuing an investment strategy that is focused on job creation.
We must ensure too that when we talk about development plans they are real opportunities. For instance, if we say we have a development site, it has to be just that: not simply a vacant piece of land. Planning permissions, other formal permissions and associated infrastructure should be in place now so that any would-be investor can get going straight away.
Ultimately the recovery will be private sector-led. We can’t fight against the way in which Government funding and policy leans towards that, and nor should we.
But that also does not mean the private sector will simply ‘sort it’ for Oldham.
For us to defy the critics and prove we can do better than 20 years of drag we have to show clear leadership and – most importantly – provide real opportunities for growth; not just warm words and artists’ impressions.
Thanks for listening,