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,
* 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.