Old Town Hall is the ‘reel’ deal

IMG_7169LAST WEEK I visited the Old Town Hall development – and it was an absolutely fantastic experience.

I had been really looking forward to the visit so when I left home last Wednesday morning in belting-down rain I feared I would get a phone call asking me to postpone.

It’s not even been a full month since I’ve officially been Council Leader and this was something I’d been really looking forward to since Day One.

Fortunately we are hardy folk here in Oldham and – despite near-horizontal rain and a swirling wind – myself and the Chief Executive, Carolyn Wilkins, braved the elements to walk from the Civic Centre to the site to see the progress for ourselves. And it was worth it.

I know this project is hugely significant for Oldham and that’s why we have such high expectations of it. That building is symbolic to me and it must be for so many fellow residents.

A lot of us have memories invested in the place from when it was in public use but, even if you’re not old enough to remember those days, you’ve probably despaired at its sad state of decline.

Once on-site with our brollies exchanged for hard hats and high-visibility jackets – and after a quick briefing on health and safety – we approached the building from what used to be the Clegg Street car park.

IMG_7201You may have noticed that the first of the spectacular glass panels making up the new glass extension to the side have recently been installed.

These look impressive enough from the outside but once we’d gone through the main entrance and up a couple of those old flights of grand stairs we were then able to enjoy the vista that people will soon be able to gaze down upon from various levels of the seven-screen ODEON cinema and the new restaurants that the “glass box” will front.

The five ground floor restaurants and the one first floor restaurant will have external seating areas and brilliant views across Parliament Square, which will be our first public space in decades: a new place where families can enjoy leisure time in the kind of environment they have long deserved.

In the original ballroom David Dobson, the project manager, explained the floor had fallen through in places here and that the huge problems they had battled with rain pouring down the walls and dry rot had been typical throughout the building.

IMG_7188The old ballroom (pictured above) has now been rebuilt and refurbished effectively as a ‘soundproof box’ ready for the final fixtures and fittings that will make it one of the smaller and more intimate cinema screens. We were told that final works start from the ceiling downwards and – with that already complete – the light fittings, screen, seats and carpets will be next.

This was one of several rooms we visited which are all in various stages of development. Each had a different past use and quality or allure – and the restoration work could be seen all around us with various groups of craftsmen painstakingly restoring frames, tiles and other delicate features (see below).

IMG_7233When we finally got to the magnificent Egyptian Room I was offered the chance to climb two vertical ladders to view the latest restorations at roof level.

This is an extremely tall and splendid place and I have to admit at this point I gave in to my vertigo. Being able to see the huge drops beneath and between my feet was already unnerving enough!  However, I will definitely want to revisit this room as it nears completion because it will be spectacular – the jewel in the crown.

Having declined the invitation to climb I looked around another of the ground floor areas that will become restaurant space and saw a young worker. I asked what he was doing.

I wanted to know what his job was, but he thought I was questioning whether he was working hard enough(!) and said he was “only taking five minutes”.

I quickly clarified and it turned out he was a labourer and clearly in one of his first-ever jobs. Having seen the progress on the development for myself it was great to listen to someone so early in their career talking about the project with such enthusiasm.

He told me he was fascinated by the work to restore the old features, which he had really come to appreciate, and that he would be bringing all his family and friends to visit the Old Town Hall as soon as it was open – such was his pride at having been personally involved. That conversation was one of the highlights of my visit.

IMG_7370Make no mistake, the Old Town Hall remains a magical venue.

There’s always great public eagerness to see the latest artists’ impressions of it but, as a politician, you always have a nagging inner fear that the reality might not match up to them. That will not be the case with this development.

We do have an opening date ‘pencilled in’ for later this year, but we won’t be going public with it until we are certain there are no unforeseen issues that might delay us on what remains an incredibly complex heritage scheme.

In a week dominated by the harsh realities of Council Tax and budget setting, this reminded me about the very best part of this job – being able to create new opportunities, improve the borough and help restore civic pride.

This project is crucial for the local economy in terms of the jobs and additional inward investment it will bring, plus enhancing our regional profile and attracting new visitors.

So much has already been said and written about the Old Town Hall that I don’t think anything I write here can possibly add any further to that growing sense of expectation.

But I do know that when those famous old doors are finally reopened this will be a place that people will want to visit again and again.

Jean

Taking Charge Together – and getting the Right Start

IT’S BEEN a really important week in terms of our latest plans to improve local health and tackle inequalities.

Firstly we have seen the launch of a vital new campaign – Taking Charge Together – with partners across Greater Manchester.

This will shape health and social care plans across our region for the next five years.

As you may already know, the ten local authorities are now in charge of the £6bn to be spent on health and social care as part of the devolution deal with Central Government.

This is a fantastic opportunity to make our own decisions about the services we deliver and need.

Our shared goal is to see the fastest improvement to health, wealth and wellbeing of the 2.8milion people living here, but to do that we need to find solutions together.

Your opinion and input really matters on this, so I’d urge you to please do your bit by helping us get a better understanding about what helps or stops you from making important choices about your own health.

Please watch the video at the top of this blog to find out more and then visit www.takingchargetogether.org.uk to fill in a quick snapshot survey for us.

Any information you give is confidential and you can even select a ‘Rather not say’ option if you prefer not to answer a particular question.

Next month we will also be hosting a community roadshow event in Oldham with Key 103 on March 7 on Albion Street (outside Tommyfield Market Hall) from 10am to 4pm. More details about this will follow soon in local media and all our usual channels.

Secondly this week, we’ve also signed a deal with Bridgewater Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to deliver services in our 16 children’s centres plus school nursing, health visiting and a family nurse partnership.

This three-year contract starts on April 1 and will be part of Right Start: an innovative new service which we’ve just launched. This will be working with families all the way through pregnancy and until a child starts school.

Right start 1
DEAL: Signing on the dotted line with Colin Scales, Chief Executive of Bridgewater Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

It’s a joined-up approach to these services and the realisation of a vision we’ve been working towards for some time.

Right Start will make it easier for families to contact professionals at every stage of their child’s development and will offer a service that is personal and tailored to their needs.

It’s about having a single service to help us to realise that ambition – recently referred to in the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report – of making sure all our children are ‘school ready’ and developing well.

Bridgewater will also be providing school nursing and oral health services – all supported by an integrated digital care record which will share information across services.

It’s an exciting development and part of that wider vision to reduce health inequalities, which is something we can all play a part in.

Finally – and also looking to the future – I will be going on-site at the Old Town Hall development to check on progress later this week.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been in the building so I’m really looking forward to seeing the work that is going on. I will share some photographs, updates and thoughts with you all on that next week.

Jean

Oldham moving up a gear

JEANAUDIIt’s been a good week for Oldham with the news that we’ve signed another major inward investment deal – bringing yet more jobs and money to the local economy.

Landmark deals like this one are usually the result of considerable time and effort by officers and this one is no exception.

Last year the Jardine Motors Group, a major Audi dealership, approached us about the availability of the old Westhulme Hospital site off Chadderton Way.

They had identified it as a perfect fit for their plans to build a 17-car showroom with a 24-bay service workshop and to create a hub that can support all of their existing businesses across the region.

The site was owned by the NHS Trust and we knew it was surplus to requirements so officers in our regeneration team set to work with them to see what could be done.

The upshot – subject to planning permission – would be a new Audi dealership that will represent an investment of around £8 million into the borough.

Not only does that mean another major brand has chosen to have a presence in Oldham, it’s also good news in so many other ways.

It will mean the creation of around 87 new skilled jobs and Jardine have also signed up to our Get Oldham Working campaign which means they’ve committed to working alongside our colleges and supply chains to create even more new local opportunities.

Audi
MAJOR DEAL: Artist’s impression of the proposed Audi dealership off Chadderton Way.

That makes this a ‘win win’ for everyone – and every extra bit of business rates income will, of course, also help the council in the face of our ongoing financial pressures.

That is timely as Monday saw the release of the final Local Government finance settlement, which is official confirmation of exactly what funding we will get from Government for the 2016/7 financial year.

Tomorrow night (Thursday) we will be taking the final proposed tranche of cuts for that year of around £16.1m to Cabinet.

Getting to this stage has meant making a series of tough decisions: the vast majority of which neither myself nor my colleagues would willingly want to make.

Part of the final proposals also mean that your Council Tax will increase next year.

Two per cent of that rise is because the Government – by its own admission – simply isn’t giving us enough to help tackle the spiralling costs in social care.

Their solution to this has been to conveniently give all councils a new option to put their Council Tax up by 2 per cent to fund that gap (it doesn’t do that at all, by the way).

I understand every Greater Manchester council – like the vast majority across the country – will be taking this option, but it is still a bitter pill.

Essentially the Government is passing the blame for this funding cut and problem down to us – and then leaving us to pass it on to your bottom line.

Since 2009 we’ve now had to find a total of £176 million in cuts from our budget and February has become a time of year that we all dread.

The decisions get harder each time and so, undeniably, does the impact on residents and your frontline services.

Our final proposals will go next to Full Council (Budget) on Wednesday, February 24, for approval.

The meeting will, as usual, be broadcast live on our website, but I can’t promise it will make for happy viewing(!).

Jean

The work goes on…

JeanStretton
NEW LEADER: Councillor Jean Stretton has replaced Jim McMahon as Oldham Council Leader

WELCOME to my first-ever blog as Oldham Council Leader – and thank you all for the many good wishes and congratulation messages that I have received.

I’m honoured to be following Jim McMahon in this role and – like him – I’ll be writing a blog each week.

I wanted this job because Oldham is in my heart and it’s in my blood.

I was born here, brought up here and have lived here most of my life.

As I explained in my first speech as Leader to Full Council last week, I’m very proud of the forward strides we have made since 2011 – and that work goes on.

There’ll be no lowering of ambitions, no slackening of effort and no settling for second best while I am at the helm in Oldham.

People want and deserve our long-standing regeneration schemes and these will continue.

But I will also be giving more focus to social regeneration: not just bricks and mortar.

A major priority in that respect is my pledge to ensure the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report recommendations are implemented.

Too many young people don’t get to reach their full potential because some of our schools are not yet up to scratch.

I’ve been asked what happens next.

Well, that document won’t be sitting on a shelf gathering dust – I won’t allow it.

Cabinet has already committed £1m to take this work forward and a meeting later this week will discuss the structure and governance arrangements that we will need to get cracking.

Parents and education partners will all want to see us get on with this work quickly.

You can rest assured I will be taking a keen interest in this – and I have high expectations of the difference that we can make by working together with those partners.

Jean