Behind the headlines: The truth about deprivation in Oldham

BBC HEADLINEIT HURT like hell to see news stories labelling Oldham as the ‘most deprived town’ in England this week.

As a proud resident and Council Leader, that’s one of the ‘top five’ headlines you never want to read.

My instinct was to defend the area because, hand on heart, I genuinely don’t believe Oldham is the most deprived town – and I don’t say that with my head in the sand either.

Many shocked people got in touch asking me how this survey could have reached that conclusion, so I did some fact-finding…

It turns out the Office for National Statistics (ONS) looked at one part of our borough – focussing just on centrally-located wards near Oldham town centre.

Big districts like Royton, Shaw, Failsworth, Chadderton and Saddleworth (just named one of the best places to live in the UK) weren’t included, which explains a lot.

The part of Oldham surveyed was those wards we historically know to have socio-economic problems, like Alexandra, Coldhurst, St Mary’s, Waterhead and Werneth. They’ve long been our areas of highest deprivation and we’ve never denied that.

Like many parts of towns and cities or large urban conurbations, these areas of Oldham are still undergoing economic restructuring after the decline of manufacturing. It’s a legacy many places are still dealing with and we’ve not been sat here waiting for some report to point that out.

ONS-logoThis ONS survey is based on data from the 2011 Census, which is five years old. We’ve been on a dramatic journey since then.

In 2011 we had no Metrolink extension. All of our major regeneration plans and social regeneration initiatives that can make a real difference to deprivation were, at best, at initial planning stages.

Oldham Council and its partners recognised, however, that if we shirked the challenges, nobody else would come along and rescue us and, since then, we’ve been recognised nationally as having made major improvements.

Together we’ve worked incredibly hard to change Oldham’s story.

Get Oldham Working, for example, has created more than 3,700 new work-related opportunities for residents. Warm Homes Oldham has lifted more than 3,300 residents out of fuel poverty and we now have a range of partners committed to working together to improve school results through the Oldham Education and Skills Commission.

The ONS survey doesn’t recognise any of that. It comes from researchers interrogating spreadsheets rather than (perish the thought) actually coming to visit the place. And all of the place too – don’t redraw the boundaries of what those who actually live here recognise as Oldham(!).

One quick trip here would’ve confirmed the story for them that our renewal is real.

OTH2We’re attracting major new retailers and investment, including Marks & Spencer and a regional Audi dealership. We’ve created a blossoming Independent Quarter that will soon have a Digital Enterprise Hub, and only this week Nandos and Gourmet Burger Kitchen agreed to join ODEON in our flagship Old Town Hall cinema development.

We haven’t got everything right and there’s a long way to go in tackling some issues linked to deprivation. But we also know it can’t change overnight and the battle is hardly helped by slamming a town and publicly crushing its confidence.

There’s also many things you cannot measure on a spreadsheet. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” and you’d struggle to tell partners like Voluntary Action Oldham, the Oldham Foodbank and charity workers that their outstanding work in those communities is somehow not relevant to the true picture.

That’s not to say, however, that statistics aren’t useful – so let’s look at those that explain how deprivation is being perpetuated in Oldham.

Since 2009, Government has reduced our funding by £192 million – more than 40 per cent. By 2017 we’ll have £2,015 less to spend on services per household.

british pound currency symbol made in 3d over a white backgroundOn top of that, the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 caused an estimated £90.1m loss to the borough and last year’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill will see a cumulative loss of another £58m over the next four years. These are huge amounts to take out of people’s pockets and the local economy.

Oldham is also not alone or unique in these challenges: we’re part of a bigger geographical club.

The ONS survey said that five of the ten most deprived towns and cities are from the North West, and those with the least deprived areas are mainly in the South East – and that shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

I’d be much less annoyed about this survey if I thought it was ultimately going to lead to action. I’d personally hand deliver it to the Chancellor myself if I thought he would use it to help Oldham, but he won’t, so I do question what the merit of it is.

Here in Oldham we know that only we can help ourselves by pushing forward with our regeneration plans, raising aspirations and creating new jobs, opportunities and homes. That work goes on.

And although Mr Obsorne claims that places like Oldham and our neighbours are all part of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the necessary funding to turn that rhetoric into reality is yet to materialise.

Believing in Oldham is not just about words, it is about deeds.

PollingStationFinally, this is my last blog before the local elections period officially starts and council publicity is restricted.

On Thursday, May 5 a third (20) of the total 60 council seats – one in each ward – is up for election.

I won’t use my blog to solicit support for any particular party or cause, but I would ask that you do please use your vote.

To check if you are registered to vote or find out more information, visit the Elections page on the Oldham Council website by clicking here.

I hope you all have a fantastic Easter Weekend and my blog will return in May.


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