It’s show time!

JUST THE TICKET: Council Leader, Jim McMahon, celebrating the Odeon deal on the steps of the Old Town Hall with Shoab Akhtar, Cabinet Member for Business and Town Centres.

JUST THE TICKET: Council Leader, Jim McMahon, celebrating the Odeon deal on the steps of the Old Town Hall with Shoab Akhtar, Cabinet Member for Business and Town Centres.

WHEN THE new Oldham cinema opens its doors in 2015 it will have been a decade that our borough has been ‘without reel’.

We’re now making great progress to address the lack of local flicks which, of course, started when the Roxy at Hollinwood showed its last film in August 2005.

Our latest boost in that mission was confirmation this week that Oldham Council and ODEON have now agreed an exciting deal to run the new facility t the Old Town Hall development.

Our vision to create a vibrant town centre has leisure and entertainment attractions at its heart and this project will blow the dust off a neglected but wonderful building and open it up again to a whole new generation.

We’ve been in discussions with Europe’s largest cinema operator for several months about these plans.

The Old Town Hall will be a landmark development that restores the Grade-II listed building as a ‘civic jewel’ – reusing and extending it to become a new family entertainment complex with an 805-seater cinema with seven screens, plus six restaurants and a branded café franchise.

In any regeneration scheme I’m always conscious about the need to preserve and respect our heritage assets and that’s why these plans are designed to sympathetically conserve as much of the existing building as possible.

The work will also bring the venue into the 21st century with a modern glazed ‘light box’ extension, and provide a new public square adjacent to it in Clegg Street which will feature restaurants and can play host to arts and cultural events.

The case for the cinema and redevelopment of the Old Town Hall is compelling. More than 91 per cent of 426 residents who attended an open day event voted to support this new use for the building.

The development will be funded through a mix of council-sponsored funds including borrowing repaid by tenants like Odeon and restaurants plus, of course, income from increased Business Rates.

The total price of the scheme will also be reduced by Government tax incentives designed to encourage historic buildings like this being brought back into use.

In September 2013 an independent Economic Impact Assessment reported that the scheme is expected to generate around £57m of GVA – ‘Gross Value Added’ – to the local economy over the first ten years. It will also create an estimated 238 jobs, which is why it is such a significant regeneration project by anyone’s measure.

OTHEvening
FUTURE: The latest artists impression of how the Old Town Hall will look from Clegg Street.

ODEON is the largest cinema operator in the UK and is synonymous with great film experiences. From day one we were absolutely determined to get them on-board and bring them back to the borough. Their commitment to us is a huge vote of external confidence in our aspirations for the town centre.

Central to those plans is a recognition that a thriving town centre isn’t just about retail any more – it’s about a mix. It’s about providing other complementary uses that make it a place that people will want to spend time in.

That means we need to combine a wide range of high street retailers with varied markets, thriving independent businesses and a leisure offer – plus a range of cultural venues, attractions and events, new open public spaces and a more attractive environment.

By using the Old Town Hall’s historic building as its ‘shell’ we have a fantastic opportunity here to deliver a cinema that is in a unique venue and has a backdrop that will put it in a different class from the usual out-of-town retail parks.   Signing up the cinema operator is a very important step in this project and now we can’t wait to get started on working with ODEON.

If you’ve been in the town centre recently you’ll probably already have noticed that the building itself is now about 80 per cent covered in scaffolding.

What you can’t see behind it are our contractors, Morgan Sindall, who are carrying out enabling works to allow a ‘drying out’ process to take place before restoration work begins.

The next steps will then see stonework, cleaning and repairs, the demolition of certain areas, roof replacement and internal support foundations.

During Spring a specially-designed hoarding featuring photographs of local people and their memories of the Old Town Hall will also be put in place.

The Old Town Hall has been a sad sight in recent years: a jewel that only said the wrong things about Oldham’s ambition as a place and for its people.

But as you can see we’re now well on the way with delivering this exciting project and I want to place on record my thanks to Oldham Council officers for working round the clock on the ODEON deal.

We all understand the importance of this. It’s not just about building a new cinema, it’s also about the confidence of our borough and the growing belief in the future we are defining for ourselves.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Foxdenton: Forging a future together

MEMORIES: My first introduction to Oldham business development was accompanying my dad removing rubble from the former Chadderton power station site (pictured).

AS WELL AS providing political leadership a key part of my role at Oldham Council is a responsibility for regeneration and key strategic projects on Cabinet.

Basically it means that through a wide range of projects – including the schemes at Foxdenton and Hollinwood Junction – it’s my job to carve our borough’s ‘point of difference’ and plot our future in a rapidly changing global economy: no small task for any town or city.

My first introduction to Oldham business development was actually as a youngster in 1986.

I used to go to work alongside my dad who was a truck driver removing rubble from the former Chadderton power station, which is now Broadgate Business Park.

There was talk of the development growing in the coming years to become a modern business park and capitalise on the M60 (then the M66 section) motorway which was becoming a reality. The land at  Foxdenton was certainly already in the minds of planners even then.

Fast forward almost 30 years and that little boy riding shotgun as his dad cleared the old power site would never have imagined he’d end up in position whereby it’s now his role to help create today’s modern job and business opportunities.

Some might say I should’ve followed in dad’s footsteps rather than entering politics but one thing is for certain – the Foxdenton site was already allocated for employment use well before my time as Council Leader.

Don’t get me wrong. In saying that I’m in no way deferring my responsibilities or trying to make a case that this project was inevitable and the council was somehow merely a spectator.

In reality this could have remained a plan that sat on a shelf for decades to come. I suspect it definitely would have done so if the landowners had not recently decided now was the time to sell to a private developer.

With every strategic idea that crosses my desk, my primary focus is always Oldham residents. How many could be employed? Would they be paid a fair wage to support themselves and their families? Could it boost the town’s confidence? Could it offer educational, leisure or other opportunities to local people? And so on.

Long-term planning has always been vital to the modern growth of Greater Manchester in schemes like the M60 and Metrolink; both of which caused significant disruption at the time but are now accepted as vital.

The building of Broadway itself and the houses around that area was, I suspect, met with opposition and anger when first mooted. Managing that kind of change is important and the first part of that is about making the case for it.

Our borough clearly needs to refine itself if we are to grow and create better housing and employment choices for residents. But there is also a problem with our land supply. There isn’t much of it available to build on, certainly not on the scale needed to meet the demands of the GM economy.

Our borough is large and there’s plenty of open ‘space’ but that isn’t the same as developable land. With such a huge part of it lying within the Peak District National Park – and protected through greenbelt policies – that considerably reduces the options to build.

Our borough is also, of course, not an island. For many parts south of Oldham it’s part of Manchester’s incremental urban growth with many residents retaining a sense of belonging to the city.

Oldham’s growth from a small collection of villages and hamlets to the industrial revolution powerhouse  wasn’t some neat and well planned process. Within the space of a few decades the borough mushroomed to what it is today in a very short time. Large mills packed in tightly with terrace properties with little or no green space was the trademark form. With the decline of the cotton industry the mills slowly went – the vast majority of the 365 mills are now demolished – and because of the way those areas were designed the sites naturally lent themselves to housing developments owing to poor access and the need to provide relief in the form of green space.

Within districts like Chadderton development was less manic and more concentrated with urban growth coming mainly in the post-war period. Generally speaking that’s the neighbourhood we see today with the natural addition of new roads, schools and business uses.

With Greater Manchester growing faster than any city outside London there’s a real opportunity to change the fortunes of our borough and capitalise on that – but we also have to contribute to it as well which means sites like Hollinwood Junction and Foxdenton are key.

I do recognise this is all academic if you’ve become used to living in an area surrounded by open space you’ve enjoyed, and it would be wrong to dismiss that because it’s vital those directly affected by the development see some benefit. As a local history buff I’m also very aware of the need to ensure Foxdenton Hall and Park retain their character.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Foxdenton site is a 121-acre area of greenfield between Broadway (A663), Foxdenton Lane, Ferney Field linear path and Hunt Lane.  Much of the land has most recently been used for grazing, but has a history of heavy agricultural use, some tipping activity, and there is an old railway line splitting the site in two.

Last December, Oldham Council entered a formal legal partnership with private sector partners to create Foxdenton LLP. This will turn this area of land* into an office, business, industrial, leisure and residential facility, which looks set to provide more than half of Oldham’s employment land need with at least:

  • 1,500 permanent jobs;
  • 165 full-time construction jobs;
  • 375 new indirect jobs;
  • 4-500 new high-quality two to five bedroom homes;
  • A new 20-acre community park.

This number of new job opportunities for Oldham residents would dramatically improve the lives of families, reduce the numbers claiming benefits and increase the money flowing through our local economy.

Even just the residential part of this site is set to raise household expenditure in the borough by a huge £5.3 million a year (a substantial chunk of which would go to local businesses), and bring in around £700,000 of council tax which will contribute to delivering services and facilities for everyone to benefit from.

The new homes are also very much needed. According to the Greater Manchester Forecasting Model, the number of households in Oldham is projected to increase from 90,400 in 2013 to 94,700 in 2023. By 2033, we’re projected to need housing for 98,000 families – a massive 7,600 more families than we have here today. But increasingly buyers want also high quality and a ‘lifestyle’ too, not just bricks and mortar.

Getting started now on sites like Foxdenton (in combination with school expansions, new schools and other development work) is an effort to future-proof Oldham’s development. If we don’t make progress now, we may reach crisis point once these projections go from being numbers on spreadsheets to being real people without anywhere to live, work or study.

A senior Government politician once asked me: “What’s the point in towns like Oldham now all the mills have all shut?” Regeneration projects like Foxdenton and Hollinwood, the Old Town Hall and cinema, the major retail site at Mumps, the Yorkshire Street Independent Quarter, Royton Town Centre and many more are – I believe – providing the answers. For the first time in a very long time, Oldham is again defining its own destiny.

I know change is difficult and I would reflect that we’ll work hard to ensure local people see some practical benefit at Foxdenton. For example, the new linear park should offer a great facility that creates a natural gap between the existing properties and the new homes that will follow.

We worked hard to design the site in a way that balances the need for business space with the fact that those living nearby want to retain as much of the residential character of the area as possible. We are also still early into this process and there is room to adapt and amend based on local feedback.

The site at Albert Street, Hollinwood, is as close to my own home as the vast majority of those living near to Foxdenton and the questions being asked by residents there (including myself) are the same. It is natural and we will continue to listen.

This scheme is vital for the future of our borough and the wider city region but there is still much work to do. I hope that the council, including ward members, can work together with local people to plan through this project, share information and take views into account.

Clearly some people will oppose the scheme on principle. I respect everyone’s right to their opinion, but I hope there is also some recognition that the council is trying to make it work for everyone involved, including immediate residents.

There are still issues to resolve, including addressing concerns about traffic volume on Broadway, and I can assure residents this has not been put to one side: it’s very much at front of our minds.

For those who recognise that development is important (or at the very least inevitable) let’s make it work. Let’s try and get the best possible deal for local people.

By working together we can ‘design out’ many issues and hopefully get a plan which achieves the need to create new jobs and homes, but in a way which sees everyone benefiting.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

* Please note this is an updated version of this blog. The first published copy had referenced the land at Foxdenton as ‘largely derelict’, which clearly it is not. Apologies. This was a ‘copy and paste’ error not picked up in the final edit and originally related to referencing the former landfill use on part of the site. Thank you, Jim.

The welfare state: is it fair?

FOODBANKS: A growing symbol nationwide of how people are struggling to make ends meet.
SYMBOL OF THE STRUGGLE: 347,000 people used foodbanks last December compared with 26,000 five years ago.

I WANT to set the record straight about welfare reform this week – and attempt to bust a few commonly-held myths that often go unchallenged.

The creation of the Welfare State was one of the most socially progressive policies in modern history and it was one born out of need and politicians having vision about the type of society they wanted to create.

The year 1942 was very different in many respects and it is difficult to compare today with those times but we can point to the founding principles set out in the Beveridge Report. The five giant evils were squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease – and reflecting on those gives us perspective when faced with the challenges of a welfare system under attack.

Looking at where we are today, almost six years into this recession, practically everybody is feeling the pinch.

Wage levels are stagnating and the cost of living is rising, leaving people with less money left to spend on luxuries and, in many cases, even household essentials.

What we all initially hoped would be a short painful period of ‘tightening our belts’ has turned into more of a straitjacket we’ll never wriggle our way out of. It’s become a harsher new way of life.

During that time the Government’s Welfare Reforms, with its well-publicised cuts to benefits and credits, stringent Work Capability Assessments and huge numbers of sanctions, has gradually created an atmosphere of mistrust towards all people who get support from the state.

The attack on benefits and the welfare cap which aims to ensure no one is ‘better off’ on benefits than those in work is fundamentally flawed. If the benefits system today is to act as a safety net and to ensure the neediest and vulnerable in society are taken care of then an arbitrary cap might be politically convenient but it practically causes some serious problems.

Even below the cap, the language used by government and media commentators (who I suspect will pay more on a single meal than some families have to feed their families for a week) is weak.

Surely the argument should be about the lack of vision by today’s government. We see an argument around the edges and posturing to create an image of almost ‘tough love’; pushing people who are trapped on benefits with the nudge they need, and want, to get back into employment. And what better incentive than to create a welfare system so against its founding principles, so prone to error and one which is driven by a targets culture of kicking those already down?

Sanctions for those claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) can be a useful tool to deal with the minority who don’t want to work, but that is not how they are used. Official figures show that in Oldham, the Job Centre attempted to withdraw benefits from more than 11,600 people. However, most of those who were picked out had done nothing wrong, with just 5,366 of those actually sanctioned. Of that group of 2,927 won their appeals against the decision. How much did all that cost the public purse?

Alongside that there has also been a worrying rise in the hostility levelled at those people who – whether due to age, illness, disability, lack of skills or lack of opportunity – are genuinely not able to work.

The lack of any meaningful industrial and engineering strategy for the UK over the decades has left large parts of the UK unsure about the future.

If you want to see the real story just take a look at the (JSA) figures for Oldham. It is not the case that thousands have been ‘sat’ on benefits. The real picture is one of low pay, no pay. They will then come off JSA, only to be forced back onto it when they are let go by the employer.

And when we take a closer look at those in work we see a shameful picture of the UK’s weak employment base.

A new Joseph Rowntree Foundation report has found that more than half (52 per cent) of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK are in working families: many of whom are claiming working benefits just to make ends meet.

Indeed, in the last 10 years, £15 billion of the overall £63 billion rise in spending on benefits has been through increased take-up of Family Benefits, Income Support and Tax Credits.

Put simply, the state is actually propping up those employers who simply aren’t paying their staff enough to support a reasonable standard of living.

The idea that people are generally ‘too keen’ to claim benefits, or that benefit fraud is rife, is also untrue.

Did you know that benefit fraud represents just 2 per cent of the estimated total annual fraud in the UK – around £1.6 billion out of a total estimated £73 billion? Tax fraud, by comparison, accounts for a whopping £20 billion. The government hasn’t been so vocal about the corporate scroungers.

Both figures are a lot of money – and fraud is never right – but it seems that the direction and levels of public hatred are out of all proportion with the real issues.

What are we doing to help?

Here in Oldham, we’ve employed Welfare Advice officers to help local people get access to all the benefits that they are entitled to, but may not have been aware of or were reluctant about claiming (no doubt for many due to the stigma of doing so).

In the period from April 2013 to January 2014, we’ve supported 984 local residents to access more than £2.47 million of funding through this work. That’s money that has helped to improve their daily lives – and the health of the local economy.

History tells us that recessions polarise opinions – and that’s hardly surprising.

Suspicion and cynicism flourishes as times get tougher and people look for answers and someone to blame.

But scapegoating isn’t the solution and it’s time some of the prevailing ‘truths’ were exposed for what they are – myths.

Perhaps we need sanctions for government ministers for failing to fulfil their implied contract?

Thanks for listening.

Jim

Embracing digital – Improving services

IN YOUR HANDS: Residents will soon to be able to engage with many of our services online at the Oldham Council website.  Oldham Council's website
IN YOUR HANDS: Residents will soon to be able to engage with more of our services online 24/7.

TECHNOLOGICAL advances in recent times, and particularly in the last decade, have transformed every aspect of our day-to-day lives.

Statistically 86 per cent of adults in the UK have now used the Internet – and why not? There’s more reason to do so now than ever before.

We can manage our money, order groceries and takeaways, download music, books, games and films, book a holiday, compare insurance prices and even find a date online. If you need something, there’s almost certainly a way to do it or find out how to on the internet.

The rise of ‘apps’ (software for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets) and wireless technologies like 3G, 4G, 5G (and probably several other Gs by the time you’ve finished reading this blog) mean we’re all able to do a bewildering array of tasks online and can also do them ‘on the go’.

More than half of UK adults now own a ‘smartphone’ and take-up of mobile internet was up to 49 per cent in 2013, which has more than doubled since 2009.

You’ll also have noticed that most of the innovations in what we can do have so far been driven by the private sector. For all the examples just cited it’s easy to name a brand or company associated with them be that the likes of Barclays, Tesco, iTunes, Amazon or LoveFilm.

Businesses of all sizes have now recognised they simply must offer services online through simple apps that allow customers to engage with them around the clock from any location.

The public sector, however, has a fair bit of catching up to do to match the kind of digital advancements that people have come to see as the standard in almost every other area of their lives.

Online services in local and central government are pretty patchy at present: available for some services, or in some areas and not others, and of varying quality and usability depending on where you live and what you need.

Wanting to be on the front foot and not left behind we’ve been looking at how we can transform residents’ experiences of interacting with us here at Oldham Council – and in ways that don’t merely treat people as consumers but in a way that fits our ambitions to be a co-operative borough.

That’s why we’ve been hard at work for many months now developing our own online customer service platform, called MyAccount.

Within weeks a phased launch will begin and once the full roll-out of components is completed, residents will be able to engage with many of our services online including Environmental Health and Environmental Services, Pest Control, Revenues and Benefits.

This means tasks like paying your Council Tax, organising Housing Benefits, reporting graffiti or litter – many of the most common interactions with us – will be possible anytime and anywhere.

MyAccount will allow you to securely store all your personal details, such as your address, Council Tax account, direct debit instructions, previous and current interactions with us, and check the status of them.

This can be done from the comfort of your own home, out and about using a mobile device, at the council’s Access Oldham contact centre, any of our 13 libraries, or at 15 other locations with free public access computers across the borough.

The beauty of the technology is that it will help to make tasks less complicated.

As an example, if you’re out and spot fly-tipping that you want to report to us then you can do so and – using a mobile device – enable GPS mapping to pinpoint your location. You can also upload a photo which helps us by giving us more exact information so we can deal with the problem more effectively.

In time not only should your experience of our services be more convenient, but it will also help to save money in a time of greater need as local authority faces unprecedented change.

It’s estimated that MyAccount will save us around £800,000 a year as it will cost an average of 15p per interaction compared with traditional methods like face-to-face (£8.62) and telephone (£2.63).

Whilst those savings aren’t to be sniffed at, this isn’t about just money.

This represents a fantastic opportunity to improve our services and target particular help to those who need it – and it is about your council better reflecting the needs of the communities it serves.

People want convenience, ease of use, and open access to information 24/7. We can give them that and also map data and service requests to target issues quickly.

As each service prepares to go online we will publicise the details fully, so keep your eyes on our website, local press and our Social Media accounts for more details in the coming months.

Digital offers huge potential benefits and it can be used to make a real difference to people’s lives.

As a local authority we must embrace it and use it as a tool that drives service innovation, changes the way we engage with you and explores how we can all better achieve the outcomes we seek.

Digital also perfectly complements our co-operative ambitions by looking at how we deliver your services in a more holistic way and with a focus not just on convenience, but also on how residents themselves can contribute and ‘do their bit’.

When you consider how quickly digital has transformed our lives and expectations it’s clear that we simply must move with the times – and the future possibilities are very exciting.

You may start off using MyAccount to pay your Council Tax and report a pothole on your street in 2014, but a few years hence who knows what might be possible?

Thanks for listening,

Jim