History building futures: Why our Old Town Hall matters

SAVED: Many pieces of furniture from the Old Town Hall have been stored safely for future use
INSPECTION: Many pieces of Old Town Hall furniture have been stored safely off-site for renovation and future use.

THE LAST time I was inside the Old Town Hall it was a grim experience.

The last tenants were pigeons who had left their mark throughout the building and the damp and rot had eaten through the once grand features.

I had taken the opportunity to view the building some years earlier – before I became Council Leader.

It was then that I felt the council had failed as the civic custodian and we simply had to put it right.

I can be a romantic about heritage at times, I admit, but this feeling was deeper than mere sentimentality.

When the Old Town Hall, particularly the Firth Street extension, was built in 1890 we were the Kings of Cotton.

We ruled the world in that realm to the extent that we even had our own stock exchange here setting the price of cotton, reflecting our place as the most productive cotton spinning town in the world.

As we entered the building on my first-ever visit the health and safety briefing was, I thought, a pretty standard ‘tick box’ affair: nothing too serious, just going through the usual motions.

But within seconds of entering, the sights were truly shocking.

A deep sense of sadness drew down as we began our walk through the building and it never left me.

When I made my second visit back into the Old Town Hall, I was now leader. This time I was the council – no one else to blame or push for an answer.

No lights were on. The electricity had been disconnected some time ago and so we relied on the thin slices of light highlighted by the dust we were disturbing and, of course, our trusty torches to light the way.

The building stank of a mixture of damp and pigeon mess. The floors had now become covered in a white chalky substance and as we walked our feet were often caught unaware on the bumpy surface.

The old ballroom at the front of the building was secured with a thick steel door. We were approaching the ‘safe room’.

Many of the features throughout the interior had been removed following a spate of thefts years before. What remained had been taken into the ballroom and locked away to save them from thieves. Unfortunately it didn’t save them from decay.

Beneath dust sheets there were stacks of chairs, tables, fireplaces and light fittings from various parts of the building. Some had been damaged during removal and others just showed inevitable signs of age. It’s hard to imagine what damage can be caused when a building has been left for more than two decades without ventilation or heating. The roof was acting merely as a colander in places, bringing down the ceilings and fittings as the water passed through.

Throughout the building various details and odd features would catch my eye: the old family crests, the decorative mouldings and tiled flooring all giving sad hints to its former grandeur.

The layout is complex, the corridors in the place are like rabbit warrens and I can still smell ‘that’ smell as I write this.

The Council Chamber was as unnerving as it was dangerous. The floor had given way in a large section showing the room below and the wallpaper still gave a fleeting sense of its historic past.

The courtrooms were by far the most impressive and, perhaps with the exception of Oldham Parish Church, have some of the most wonderful details in the borough. Courtroom A, along with its crests and hand-painted frescos, showed a softer side to the bulky building and large-scale fixtures elsewhere.

The old police cells told a more modern social story as the graffiti from their former occupants – perhaps even someone reading this now – was made as they passed the time before being presented to the magistrate.

I won’t repeat some of their more colourful thoughts, but I did think to how we now view hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt as an important recording of a point in time.

Quite what someone would make of “Dave ‘ov Oldham” and his views of the police of the day would be interesting if nothing else.

The stunning Egyptian Room (notice that seamless link?) with its floor to ceiling tiles and its double-height vaults was once home to the Treasurers department, where the good folk of Oldham had come to pay the rates not that long ago.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, I had requested that all the fixtures and furniture from the safe room should be relocated during building works and I was keen to see them once again.

Last week I went to the secure offsite storage facility to view what had been saved.

With the benefit of light and a safe calm place to view I realised just how much we had managed to safeguard and we’re now looking to renovate some pieces and rehouse them for us all to enjoy in the future.

Why does any of this matter?

Well to some people it won’t matter one bit. Some will complain about the Old Town Hall as a symbol of civic decline but be equally outraged by our attempts to bring it back to life. Personally, I think it matters a great deal.

I consider the council’s role to be that of a custodian: not simply the owner of buildings like this. Our occupation or control isn’t anywhere near as important as our responsibility to take care of it for the next generation.

Let’s not kid ourselves that someone will come along and save the day for us. The responsibility to sort this is ours alone.

Having missed out on a number of commercial developers and cruelly being turned down for a Heritage Lottery Bid we simply cannot wait any longer.

Today we have a plan and it’s coming together. At long last we will transform the Old Town Hall into a cinema with the restaurants you and I want to see in Oldham. We are determined that we will create something special here, something to be proud of and that will make a statement about where Oldham is going.

Like many old buildings the scale, complex layout and design of the Old Town Hall act as a barrier to its future survival.

Without conviction and – let’s be honest –bloody-minded determination it would continue to fall to ruin until there would be no other option left than to send in the bulldozers and flatten it. Then we would lose something which once made us great:  we would lose a big part of what makes us Oldham.

KICK-OFF: Signing the the Get Oldham Working Construction Charter and breaking the ground at the new Oldham Sports Centre with Anthony Dillon, Willmott Dixon’s Northern Managing Director.
KICK-OFF: Signing the Get Oldham Working Construction Charter and breaking the ground at the new Oldham Sports Centre with Anthony Dillon, Willmott Dixon’s Northern Managing Director.

I want Oldham to be confident in our future, but we can only do that if we also build on our past.

You will be starting to see more modern signs of other regeneration projects now with the new Oldham Leisure Centre development breaking ground this week, for example.

This is just the latest physical indication of investment plans coming together and it will be a facility that will be the envy of other towns.

There is no doubt we have many challenges here as a borough – but the opportunities are also very exciting.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

A day in the life of unsung frontline staff

WHO YOU GONNA CALL? Oldham Council's Contact Centre staff deal with between 10,000 and 12,000 phone calls a week.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL? Oldham Council’s Contact Centre staff deal with between 10,000 and 12,000 phone calls a week.

LIKE MANY councils up and down the country we work hard to give support and advice to residents.

For some people seeking advice or accessing services may mean they pay a visit to their councillor, local MP or an organisation like Citizens Advice Bureau.

But what isn’t seen as widely are the everyday successes: the human contact and support offered at the frontline by our unsung heroes at the Contact Centre.

Oldham has a population in excess of 225,000 people so you would expect these staff to be busy people – and they are – but the sheer scale of what they deal with is truly staggering.

We employ 36 members of staff to answer your phone calls through our partner Unity.

Each week these call centre staff answer between 10,000-12,000 calls. Yes, that’s EVERY WEEK!

With an average call volume of 561,000 a year it puts into context the number of people who are coming into contact with the council for a variety of different reasons.

When you call our main switchboard you go directly through to a human being – not an automated machine.

Automation makes sense on payment lines but isn’t always great as a first impression and that might explain why there is a recorded 97 per cent satisfaction rate amongst those who call our team.

Many services can, of course, be automated and in the modern age most people accept that payment on automated telephone lines is convenient and straight forward. Looking forward, however, it is clear we must do all we can to get more payments made online.

As it stands the same number of payments are made by speaking to a ‘human’ as are done online. That just means it is one less member of staff who is available to deal with those issues which really do need a personal touch and it all costs us more as taxpayers.

Based on our most recent information around 65 per cent of Oldhamers now have online access. As you might expect it is mainly older people who are behind in joining the digital age and it is widely accepted that some people will always need an alternative to online in the near future.

In addition to our telephone call centre we also take pride in our face-to-face support at ‘Access Oldham’. Based at the Civic Centre, this is the council’s main customer access point for queries about our services. This is primarily delivered face-to-face, although free phones and PCs are also available there for the public to use.

We employ 16 staff in Access Oldham to ensure that those needing advice and support are seen quickly and that the issues they raise are dealt with efficiently. Each week Access Oldham sees more than 2,000 visitors, which means they greet around 100,000 visitors a year.

Most enquiries here are about Benefits and Council Tax support but it has also become the first port of call for a range of other services such as Free School Meals, Education and Environmental Services.

As well as taking initial enquiries some matters need more time to resolve, so around 3,000 one-to-one interviews per month are also carried out, mainly relating to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefits. Even with that high volume the average waiting time is now around 15 mins with 91 per cent of visitors being seen within 30 minutes.

We are keen to ensure good ‘customer service’ is being given so we also ask those using the service how they rate us. As a sample we receive back around 350 surveys each month both online and in person. Last year satisfaction was at 96 per cent and, so far, this year, it has increased to 98 per cent – not bad going!

Aside from the formal Contact Centre, our local libraries are also vital in delivering services like this. We are keen to see more computers based at these and are rolling out free WIFI so they can help libraries become the modern hub of the community in the way that was always intended.

As councillors and even MPs and advisors we usually get to see those people who are let down and can wrongly assume that is the norm.

Thankfully it isn’t, so it’s good to take a step back today and appreciate all those hardworking frontline staff that are helping so many thousands of people.

Thanks to you all!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

A Mayoral year to be proud of

AMBASSADORS: John and Kathleen Hudson can be proud of an incredible year as Mayor and Mayoress of Oldham.
AMBASSADORS: John and Kathleen Hudson can both be proud of  their remarkable year as the Mayor and Mayoress of Oldham.

TODAY was Annual Council when we reflect on the recent local elections, hand over the chains of the Mayoralty to a new councillor and give thought to our priorities for the year ahead.

I was absolutely delighted to be invited to offer a vote of thanks to our outgoing Mayor John Hudson and Mayoress Kathleen Hudson.

Politics doesn’t  – or it certainly shouldn’t – come into the role of Mayor.

This post is above party politics and, as the first citizen, your responsibility to represent all communities and interests is huge during that term of office.

I reflected on what has been an incredible year for both John and Kathleen.  They have fulfilled their duties with grace and passion and in a manner that also showed the real strength of their partnership.

When John set out on this journey at the same time last year he made one key pledge to us: to be a Mayor for the whole of the borough.

Having known John for many years we knew his tenure would be interesting, and we also knew it was guaranteed to be fun, but no one could have guessed just how much the activity and commitments of their mayoral year would have meant to the borough.

In numbers it has seen:

  • 3 Royal Visits
  • 9 Full Council meetings chaired
  • 25 events held
  • 33 school visits hosted in the Civic Centre
  • 360 individual engagements and appointments
  • £44,500 pounds raised for local charities.

The time and energy that both have them have put into this term has been staggering and anecdotally it seems certain that the people of Oldham have simply welcomed them to their hearts.

John and Kathleen didn’t just want people to attend their events, they wanted them to enjoy them and remember the good time had – which they certainly did by all accounts.

To have raised a staggering £44,500 after costs for local charities and good causes takes some serious effort – especially during these hard economic times.

But it’s not always just the big events that are the mark of a good mayor. It’s the school visits, the community events and the people getting to see the Mayoral role for what it is: the ultimate ambassador for the borough that we love.

My favourite quote was from a bloke in the toilets who gave John, in my view, the highest praise he could at one event, saying: “He’s all right that Mayor! He’s just a common bloke like the rest of us.” What more could you ask for as a reference from the people that matter most?

I want to thank John and Kathleen for everything they have done for their chosen charities, for the reputation of Oldham Council and – most importantly of all – for the confidence of our borough.

As Councillor Fida Hussain now takes on the role of Mayor, he will know he has big shoes to fill for sure.

But I also know he will approach it with the same passion and humour needed to get through a mammoth year ahead.

For myself, as a political leader, my main task at Full Council today was to present the priorities of the new administration following the local elections.

These came from the 30 pledges that were in our party manifesto for a fairer Oldham and it gave me great pride to put these forward.

Obviously I believe they are good and positive things in themselves – and I hope that other people equally saw them as worthy.

But I also know that these pledges will touch people across Oldham and make a difference to their lives: however big or small.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Fair employment makes business sense

SIGNING UP: Cath Green signing up FCHO to the Fair Employment Charter flanked by Carolyn Wilkins, Chief Executive, and Jim McMahon, Oldham Council Leader.

AS THE cost of living continues to rise and wage levels fall it’s vital that we look beyond just bricks and mortar when growing our local economy.

As a Cooperative Council we believe in fairness and work hard to promote an ethical approach to all that we do.

That doesn’t mean we’re perfect and always get it right – far from it – but it does mean that our intent is to ensure our residents have a better and stronger future.

Building on the success of previous campaigns like Fair Energy and Fares Fair, our latest drive is to secure a better deal for Oldham workers through Fair Employment.

Our new Fair Employment Charter (FEC) reflects our ambition to do more than just reduce the number of residents who are unemployed in Oldham.

What we want to do is create employment opportunities that are fair, ethical, responsible and sustainable. That works better for everyone.

As the largest employer in Oldham – and one that has a strong emphasis on place leadership – we have a clear responsibility to positively influence and improve the conditions of employment and encourage all of the borough’s 6,000 businesses to do the same.

Put simply, those businesses and organisations who sign up to our FEC are pledging to:

1) Pay a living wage
2) Offer fair contracts and stability of employment
3) Offer access to training and support
4) Support membership of trade unions
5) Enable and encourage employees to ‘do their bit’ for the borough
6) Support local people into work through Get Oldham Working

All those pledges are important, but the Living Wage and job security are absolutely key.

That’s because there has to be an ability for workers to earn enough money to cover their bills and also have the job security that means they can access mortgages, quality tenancies and basic credit. That is the crux of what fair employment is all about.

Essentially this is about us working to ensure that when the economic recovery arrives it is genuinely for the benefit of everyone – and our work to secure the support of local businesses will be vital to the success of the Charter.

Through high profile support, an ongoing PR campaign and spreading the word at networking events with local firms we’re already underway with work to spread awareness of its benefits and the value of fair and equal employment conditions.

There is a whole programme of engagement activity ongoing right now: including work through the Oldham Business Leadership Group’s Enterprise Fund to support young entrepreneurs and grow existing organisations.

We’re also targeting the ‘Top 100 Oldham Businesses’ to gain the backing of those creating new employment opportunities, or who are strategically important to the borough, or businesses with growth potential.

We’re working across ‘Team Oldham’ with a range of business-facing colleagues from the council and Greater Manchester who focus on supporting Oldham businesses and can co-ordinate our approach to promoting the FEC.

We’re also using an internal working group to improve our business engagement so that the Charter is automatically promoted as part of the ‘business offer’ when we contact firms.

In addition we’re using our wider Business Engagement Programme which links companies into a range of support and campaigns where councillors and officers can speak to them about the benefits of supporting the FEC at both a district and a borough-wide level.

As the largest organisation in Oldham, the council can also encourage its own suppliers to join us in becoming ‘fair employers’ through responsible procurement procedures such as the Social Value Procurement Charter. This way we can act responsibly and create a positive impact across our all networks.

Working with businesses, partners and suppliers like this we will recognise the efforts of local employers and optimise the positive influence we can exert through our procurement and regeneration programmes.

I was delighted to attend the Oldham Business Breakfast at Mahdlo this morning where we heard many success stories about local businesses growing and taking more people on.

It was also great to see Cath Green, Chief Executive of FCHO (First Choice Homes Oldham) signing the organisation up to the Fair Employment Charter.

As a major local employer they recognise the importance of investing in high-quality staff and treating their workforce well. Let’s hope there are many more Oldham companies that will now follow suit.

On Oldham Council’s part, we are determined to set the standard here.

We’ve committed to introduce the National Living Wage by 2015 and are pushing hard to get staff back into the community through our volunteering programme.

Many staff have already been fundraising for the Co-operative Oldham fund and so far more than £5,500 has been raised by events like the recent Manchester 10k run and my own (poorly thought-through!) abseil down the 14 story Civic Centre tower.

This pot is for organisations that have a great idea for their community but need funding to get it off the ground. Projects that help people to get into work or promote wellbeing in the community are its top priorities.

Driving all this work is a clear recognition here that being rooted in our communities is central to being a cooperative council. We must work hand-in-hand with others to build a better borough.

Thanks for listening,

Jim