“Well we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been” (Talking Heads: 1985)
WE HAVE great ambitions for the future regeneration of Oldham town centre.
Plans are well and truly in place to begin work this year on some exciting flagship projects including the Old Town Hall cinema and restaurants scheme, plus the nationally significant Hotel Future, which held a successful launch event in Manchester on Tuesday evening.
Whilst I am more confident than ever these schemes will come to fruition and make a positive difference here they will not – alone – address an underlying problem: the cynicism of some people when you suggest change.
I’ve encountered this a lot in recent weeks after talking about plans to improve Oldham and capitalise on the arrival of our new Metrolink line.
I firmly believe that when visiting a town or city you should be able to get a feel for where it has come from; the hands that have built it up and those who made their mark on its character.
You cannot say that you get that feeling in Oldham town centre today.
We’ve talked a lot about diversity since 2001 but almost nothing about the very thing that brings us all together regardless of background – the place itself.
Oldham has its own niche in history. The mills might have been ‘satanic’ but there are too many people who say that whilst offering no credible solutions about how to replace them with a more ‘green and pleasant’ land.
We’ve had our personalities too.
Winston Churchill, for example, may not have been the best-ever Oldham MP – and only time will tell if he was one of the worst (!) – but he did have a very important place in history.
I am grateful that the Oldham Evening Chronicle has recently begun a series profiling those famous Oldhamers who could be remembered and celebrated in our town centre.
Churchill might be a household name but others have clearly made more of direct impact on our town and yet they go without even a modest mention or passing nod at present.
Since starting this discussion about how to improve our ‘public realm’ I’ve actually discovered that statues are incredibly controversial – although that hasn’t been helped by it seeming to be the single most important issue occupying some members of the Council’s official opposition.
Statues are nothing new in Oldham but numerous developments during the past few decades have gradually seen them removed from the town centre.
The result, in my opinion, is that it makes it much harder for people visiting to get a sense of the place and its history.
The beautiful Alexandra Park is now home to several statues which used to be located in the town centre. They provide a wonderful talking point, adding character and encouraging people to ask; “Who is that?” and “Why is it here?”. Perhaps some of them should make a return?
I welcome the debate we’re starting to have about all this – and it’s crucial that we get this right – but it’s also important to be clear that we’re not, as has been alleged, planning to spend £500,000 on a statue. Nothing like it.
What we are keen to do is to inject some heritage back into Oldham town centre after decades of it being either ignored or airbrushed out.
The final answer might not be statues at all. It might perhaps be a wall of fame or interpretation boards, for example – but either way this should not become a party political issue.
Short-term electioneering has failed Oldham too many times and I won’t fall into that trap. To rebuild this place in the way it deserves and needs we must plan ten years ahead – not just to next May.
During this debate one idea which also seems to be gaining support is not to remember historical politicians, industrialists or personalities, but instead to find a way to represent the ’everyday man and women’ of the Borough.
It’s proving to be an interesting discussion so far and local people will soon get the chance to have their say – it’s your town after all.
Thanks for listening,