TIME IS flying this year but it does also feel as though a lot of positive things are coming together right now.
Without wanting to jinx anything, of course, I do think we have positive progress starting to be seen on several important fronts.
One regular criticism I am hearing from residents, however, is about the perception of Oldham town centre, and I must say I feel some of that is unfair.
It’s all too easy to make throwaway comments and I got some undue criticism last week on Twitter for daring to defend the town centre…from Oldhamers themselves.
That’s not because I am blind to the problems people see with our High Street. It’s because it’s my job to sort it out: not just complain from the sidelines.
I can assure you it‘s a task that I and other team members are taking very seriously, but there’s also a real danger that – in a bid to reassure people that something is happening – we listen too much to ‘knee-jerk’ comments and rush into spending our limited money on things that will actually make no real difference.
I am very clear that we have to be focussed on a long-term rebuilding plan here – and the town centre is central to that.
One thing Oldham has got, and not many would argue about this, is a rich heritage and history.
The Borough’s current form is quite young in historical terms and was transformed from a collection of small hamlets and villages of around 14,000 people to what it became during the industrial revolution when we were an absolute powerhouse.
I believe we need to use this heritage as the foundation stone upon which we build our future and focus on the thing which, regardless of background or ethnicity, brings us all together: Oldham the place.
We’re currently working up plans for public consultation on how best to incorporate heritage in our regeneration and got a welcome boost this week with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to support a landmark project to unite the town centre’s cultural jewels; including plans for a new Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre.
This looks to complement Gallery Oldham, Library and Lifelong Learning Centre and bring them together with new arts, heritage and leisure facilities in one totally integrated facility.
The plans would see a new Oldham Heritage Centre housed in the refurbished ex-Oldham Library and Art Gallery building on Union Street.
This is an opportunity to create a museum that tells our story: the richest and most productive cotton town in the world; the first seat of Sir Winston Churchill; the home of the Lancaster Bomber; Oldhamers marching to Peterloo; Annie Kenny fighting for women’s right to vote; the parts for the world’s first computer being made right here etc. The list goes on and on.
Redeveloping the Old Town Hall is symbolically important, but so is that Old Library venue as we prepare for Metrolink in 2014/15.
These are two really fantastic Grade II buildings and when that new town centre line arrives we will need a proper launch – brass bands and all.
As part of these plans, a separate application to Arts Council England Fund is also seeking a grant towards a new-build Oldham Coliseum Theatre, including a state-of-the-art auditorium. This we see as the theatre’s long-term future having already funded works to ensure it can continue in the medium term at Fairbottom Street.
If people reading the latest news still don’t believe what you’re seeing then I would ask just one thing: please at least give us a chance to deliver on it.
Within less than two years real progress is now visible on our regeneration vision.
Is there work still to do? Of course there is and just because we haven’t gone public with something yet that doesn’t mean we’re not working on it behind-the-scenes.
We’ve always said that we’d only go public when a project or good news is confirmed. I’m fully aware that people have been promised the earth before and feel let down when it hasn’t materialised. I do not intend repeating that cycle of ‘emotional boom and bust’.
Finally, you may have seen the Oldham Chronicle’s report last week about the delays people affected by the Shaw gas blast are still facing as a result of insurance companies reviewing claims.
Although the Council often gets the blame for delays and frustrations I can say that we’re working hard to keep people informed. Ultimately, however, the insurers’ relationship is with the insured – not us.
We try hard to get information and it’s fair to say that some insurance companies are better than others. Our officers share these frustrations.
We do not and should not ever underestimate the pressure and stress on those people and families still living this scenario day in and day out.
But we said at the outset that we would see the task through and stand by the people of Shaw. We will stick to that pledge.
Thanks for listening,