LAST 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.
You 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.
The 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).
When 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.
Make 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.