HOUSING is a hugely-important issue that affects every resident, family and community across our borough.
This week I’d like to share my thoughts on the history of Oldham’s housing and look at what needs to be done next to fulfil our plans to build thousands of aspirational properties and meet new demands.
In its heyday Oldham’s skyline was dominated by 365 mills: a time when our town became the most productive cotton-spinning town in the world. With the mills came the industry, the people and the homes.
The smoking chimney stacks have now gone, along with a great number of those homes, as more modern housing has replaced the back-to-back terraced streets.
But the people are very much still here and, despite a dip in population, Oldham is now growing again and has new housing needs.
Long before my time local leaders and decision-makers recognised that the place which had developed so quickly, at times feeling like a ‘pop-up town’, had left a deep legacy of poor urban planning, poor quality open space and little relief from red brick rows and cobbled alleyways.
Successive clearance programmes over decades have undoubtedly gone a long way to addressing this and – although some of these design and social experiments haven’t stood the test of time – many provided decent homes for new generations.
In more recent times the last Labour government understood that if we wanted to address urban decline and poverty then decent homes are essential. We know that if you live in a damp and draughty home this affects your children and their education, it affects family life and can leave long-lasting health problems.
More recently with the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme from 2001 onwards many homes were improved and terraced housing given a new lease of life, but it was recognised that a healthy housing market also needs variety and choice as well as decent bricks and mortar.
The Housing Market Renewal (HMR) programme was set up in 2004 to tackle this head-on. It wasn’t without pain because, unlike many places, Oldham didn’t have street after street of empty houses. We had lots of homes in a very poor state of repair with low sale and value demand: effectively propped up by private landlords relying on the lack of choice to drive demand.
The process of clearance is never an easy one but it’s hard to disagree that difficult decisions sometimes have to be made for the long term good of the community.
In 2010 the country then awoke to a Tory-led coalition government.
We knew housing investment would slow down, but few could have foreseen just how cruel the cuts would be. With a day’s notice the HMR programme was binned and barren swathes of land within old street grids were left as a stark reminder that the new government had seemingly written off towns like Oldham.
Over the past five years, despite this, our council has worked tirelessly to get these areas moving again – and enjoyed remarkable success. It is still very much work in progress but new homes have been built, friends reunited and many families given the chance to have a stable ‘forever home’.
Our house-building programme will eventually see thousands of new aspirational homes built to give choice and variety to our communities.
The word ‘aspirational’ conjures up an image for many people of big executive homes for private sale, but my view is different. If people are willing to do their bit and contribute to our community through work, volunteering or caring, then a fair town should offer good opportunities to all residents, regardless of income, tenure or circumstance.
That isn’t to say that a four-bedroom detached home complete with garage awaits everyone, but it’s got to be more than a substandard terraced house with no outside space and little parking.
It’s got to be something like our new St Mary’s Estate in Oldham, for example, a multi-award winning affordable housing development that has provided 90 new high-quality family homes on the cusp of the town centre, all built to the highest specification and green standards.
The Tory/Lib Dem Coalition failed to address our housing crisis and the new government is already sending ominous signals just weeks into the job.
On headline policies alone such as the relaxation of inheritance tax – which the IFS predicts will push prices and retention rates higher – or the expansion of the Right to Buy to our social housing market – which is predicted to slow social house building – the early signs are not good.
The government must work with councils and towns like Oldham to inspire and properly fund house building if we’re serious about addressing our needs going forward.
Indeed, to match current year-on-year demand Greater Manchester must build 10,000 homes a year – we currently only achieve around 4000.
All the major parties pledged to build more than 200,000 homes a year at the last general election, but we must recognise that the UK has only ever historically broken the 200,000/250,000 homes a year mark through clear government intervention and initiative.
We need government to acknowledge our concerns and make new house-building a top priority: including through major capital investment.
That means a determined effort to fund urban renewal in areas like Oldham and similar towns and cities across the north.
We are a proud town that played our part in contributing to the wealth of this nation when times were good – now we need help to rebuild and contribute again.
Thanks for listening,