INVESTING in large-scale developments which provide anchor tenants is an important part of our plans to regenerate Oldham town centre – but it’s not the whole picture.
These schemes are already moving forward as the opening of Metrolink draws near early in 2014.
Work has begun on the flagship Old Town Hall cinema and restaurant venue, for example, and matters are also progressing for a new modern office HQ for First Choice Homes Oldham on Union Street.
We have been clear all along that regeneration isn’t just about ‘big ticket’ projects and attracting large national retailers – even though the recent arrivals of BHS, Toymaster and Blue Inc have given a welcome boost to footfall in the shopping centre.
For Oldham town centre to have a brighter and sustainable future we also have to create an environment where the residents of the Borough feel better connected to it.
The introduction of free weekend parking for up to three hours and free on street parking was part of this and wasn’t, of course, free of cost to Oldham Council.
The loss of revenue to the coffers is around £600,000 a year, but we know it has increased footfall by around 30 per cent bringing in more than £1.5m in trade to Oldham’s shops and town centre businesses. It’s a hit we believe is worth taking.
Even though we are in a difficult financial position we have been conscious that we must focus on the ‘fightback’ as we work to create the Oldham we demand. It meant not taking short-term cash out at the cost of the viability of the town and – at the very least – the free parking will remain in place until the major regeneration schemes are complete and the pain of Metrolink construction is over.
Our investment in events and activity in the town centre has also been central to bringing in more visitors.
Although I’m no Sci-Fi enthusiast it was clear the recent Doctor Who events were a big success – attracting around 6,000 people. The same can also be said of The Big Bang bonfire, with pulled in more than 15,000 visitors, and last weekend’s Christmas Lights switch on where Bob The Builder attracted over 10,000 people.
These kind of events, coupled with investment in markets, give people a reason to visit and they complement the work of the Spindles Town Square shopping centre and other businesses involved in the Town Centre Business Partnership.
This week’s launch of a new £1m investment fund (see here) to boost independent businesses – approved by Cabinet on Monday – is also going to provide another major boost.
We are to invest in new and existing independent businesses to initially revitalise the ‘triangle’ area between Yorkshire Street, Clegg Street and Union Street (East) to create a High Street environment that provides a very different offer.
This fund will also be used to undo some of the more inappropriate alternations to buildings in the area as we consider removing Permitted Development Rights with an Article 4 Directive.
Roller shutters, poor signage and general insensitive development have detracted from the genuine beauty of some of the buildings in and around the area. You only have to look up beyond the ground floor to appreciate that we actually have some great buildings here which, with a small investment, will create a focal point we can all be proud of.
With the imminent arrival of Metrolink it is clear that more investors are now seeing Oldham as a place to do business. A walk on Yorkshire Street this week to discuss our plans with Paul Hughes from Zutti Co demonstrated the confidence that is starting to be felt in that part of town. We heard about a new café and hairdressers that are being fitted out ready for opening in the next couple of weeks.
The decline of the eastern part of town started well before my time – actually before I was born, I would say(!) – and well before internet retailing became a threat to the High Street. Perhaps it was a result of the sheer size of the town centre or poorly coordinated development but, whatever the reasons, I believe the building blocks are being placed today which will begin the fightback.
This isn’t going to be easy, it isn’t going to be quick and – be under no illusions – it isn’t cheap. But the only alternative is that we stand by and simply manage decline.
That’s not good enough for Oldham anymore. If we want the town centre we all demand with the facilities it needs to carve a prosperous future then we cannot sit here hoping someone will come along and do it for us. We have to lead from the front.
If you put this support for independent traders alongside the newly established £1m Enterprise Fund you can see there is now more assistance than ever available to new business start-ups: all there to invest in people who, in turn, will invest something of themselves into Oldham.
So the message is going out loud and clear: Whether you’re an existing trader, landlord or someone looking to start out – Oldham is open for business.
Thanks for listening,