TOWN centres are hugely important.
They attract a great deal of public and media interest and are representative of the general health of a community in many different ways.
When the community changes either in demographic, cultural or consumer terms, the High Street also changes and reflects that.
As we embark on one of the most comprehensive town centre redevelopment schemes in Oldham’s history it is rewarding to see the pieces coming together – especially when other parties also take a lead.
The new owners of the Spindles/Town Square shopping centre have just announced plans to redevelop it and link in better with our plans for a new cinema and restaurant complex in the Old Town Hall.
The news means the new glazed extension on the Clegg Street side of that building is now set to be mirrored by a redeveloped Town Square shopping centre. That would see the huge former TJ Hughes unit remodelled to include more restaurants and attract more of the kind of stores into our town that people have been asking for.
We haven’t gone public on everything just yet – and there’s a good reason for that.
We made a pledge not to make promises until we were sure we could deliver them and we’re sticking by that.
We’ve done everything possible to ensure that what we have announced to date for the town centre has funding in place so it will actually happen. Although you can never account for a third party changing their mind it is ‘so far, so good’ on that front.
Our vision for Oldham town centre is clear. We believe we can be the strongest in North Manchester and are determined to lay the foundation stones that will make that happen.
Accessibility and transport is vital.
Although the Metrolink tram works have taken their toll on businesses the long term prize is one which will connect us with more than a million people who will have easy access into the heart of Oldham.
“They’ll just go to Manchester”, I hear you say. Well, true – some will and that’s fine.
But our compact size gives us a real advance over Manchester in my view. Yes, Manchester is accessible but it’s also a large city centre which can take time to navigate and, depending on which stores you want to visit, they can be some distance apart.
We aren’t trying to be Manchester either: we simply want to be the best Oldham we can be.
Free parking is a major boost to our plans. It does cost us money in terms of lost income, but it also brings more people in.
If we are going to compete with out-of-town retailers we need to fight them on the same ground by offering this.
Equally when I visit the Cheshire Oaks outlet I don’t just go for the shops (not least of all because shopping isn’t one of my favourite pasttimes!) but I do like the overall experience. Aside from it taking too long to find a parking space, once you are walking around there are little touches that make all the difference. As a parent, for example, the free outdoor playground for children to burn up all their energy while you drink coffee is great – and there’s no reason we couldn’t have the same in Oldham.
Our market could also be thriving again. The Council’s Market Team has done wonders in attracting new traders into the indoor market, but it can be a real struggle for small businesses to make ends meet.
We now need to look at how we can support businesses to be more viable in the longer term, not simply put pressure on to generate income for income’s sake.
Clearly our outdoor market does struggle at times. If I’m honest I don’t think it is as a bad as some people might say, but I do think we can do better. I’m just not sure it is in the right place – at the back of town where people have to go out of their way to get to it.
We are also blessed with some really fantastic buildings in our town centre. Some hark back to our days as a productive town generating wealth and building structures which made a statement. There are some really interesting buildings which tell their own stories too.
But to be honest my patience is now at an end for seeing old buildings being bought cheaply and then totally abused by developers who clearly have no idea about design, heritage or how they impact on the feel of a place.
Ripping out Georgian windows and doors in one property on King Street was vandalism, for instance. Installing cheap and poorly designed uPVC windows on the historic Mess House on Yorkshire Street and decades of horrendous roller shutters is also killing the identity of our town centre. Planning controls and rules and regulation do fail us. It’s frustrating because we have little existing powers, but we do need to act when we can
I will be consulting all political groups in Oldham and businesses to seek support to remove permitted development rights in the town centre.
Effectively that would mean ANY alternation would require planning permission – or if they fail to apply, we would have powers to take action.
This isn’t itself the full answer though. We need to improve our guidance and support for developers and businesses who do want to play their part in this too.
We also need to bring about real change to the Mumps area. As a gateway it is embarrassing and not good enough for the town centre that we aspire to be.
We’re currently developing proposals for a new development there which, if approved in the future, will create a real gateway from east Oldham and Saddleworth.
I also believe Yorkshire Street could be very special. That’s why we’re developing plans to invest in independent businesses there and breathe new life back into empty units.
On top of this activity the overall scale of our town’s physical regeneration programme is huge and it will set us apart. T here’s the new college to come, new HQ offices on Union Street for FCHO, the new hotel and conference centre at Hotel Future, a new leisure centre, new shops, bars and restaurants with a cinema, plus a new Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre and much more.
On my desk at the moment there’s an old dusty document dating back to 1946-7.
It is called the ‘Oldham Town Centre Plan’ and sets out ambitious plans to create a new Oldham.
Guess what? It didn’t happen.
I also know that countless other grand visions and schemes since then haven’t happened either – so I fully accept the right of people to say: “I’ll believe it when I see it”.
But I do like a challenge.
Thanks for listening.