Digital future shines bright for Oldham 

EXTERIORYOU MAY have read this week about an important new report outlining a masterplan for the future of Oldham town centre to 2035.

That will go before Cabinet next Monday (July 10) and – following that decision – I will blog about it next week.

What I will say now, however, is that the importance of having a plan for our future is more vital than ever and I saw that first-hand last week at the opening of Oldham’s new digital hub in what was the Wahoo bar on Yorkshire Street. 

This completes a dramatic transformation for a period building that had fallen into ruin and been empty for several years until the council bought it and refurbished it to attract new tenants.

FURNITUREBYLAURENJust a couple of weeks earlier ‘Furniture by Lauren’ also began trading next door at 46/48 Yorkshire Street in what was once known as the Kiss Bar.

Gavin and Lauren Howarth from Royton run this small family business. It specialises in made-to-measure sofas but also sells a full range of accessories and just one peek through the window – or at their website – shows you the kind of elegance and style on offer. They’re yet another welcome addition to our Independent Quarter, so please pay them a visit…  

The opening of the digital hub – at 38-44 Yorkshire Street – was an inspiring event.

The aim of this venture is to help local entrepreneurs launch and expand technology businesses. 

On the upper floor is Wayra UK’s Open Future North office, which is the northern branch of their national support network for technology firms, backed by the worldwide O2/Telefonica Group. 

IMG_9488Ground floor is the new home to Hack Oldham (see above), our community-led ‘makerspace’ that has grown from humble beginnings to offer a great range of workshops and events to upskill residents.  

They’re also offering desk and workshop space on a daily, half-day or monthly basis plus training rooms in what is a great creative environment for people to network seven days a week – much better than working alone at home(!). 

I’m particularly pleased that Wayra chose to come to Oldham.  

As an administration we’re clear that we are ambitious for everyone, so to attract their investment is fantastic.

But what was just as exciting was to see Wayra launching their new Fair By Design scheme: an investment fund that already has £8million to deploy, and is looking to raise up to £20million.

Its objectives are inspiring. It will support up to seven start-ups a year to tackle the ‘poverty premium’, and that’s something that is very important to me.

It’s hard enough being ‘left behind’ in 2017 and being among the one in five people that are living in poverty.

But what’s even worse – and surely unjustified – is the ‘poverty premium’: the situation where people are actually paying more for everyday goods and services like energy, borrowing, transport, insurance and food than others who can more easily afford them. 

The Fair By Design scheme complements our own drive for Inclusive Growth so that everyone gets the chance to share the benefits of economic prosperity.

This week, I was confirmed as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Lead on Fairness, Equality and Inclusion, so this is all very close to my heart.

To be tackling clear social injustice like this by supporting local tech companies to design solutions is something that can really put Oldham on the map.

WAYRA4The digital hub venture is also another important way in which we’re diversifying our offer to residents and businesses.

We have many talented individuals and our goal is to provide them with opportunities here, so that they don’t need to move elsewhere.

The Independent Quarter will be an ideal location for this. Once businesses grow out of the space provided by Wayra, they will get the chance to relocate nearby, ensuring they are still within easy distance and access to advice and that network of like-minded individuals.

Small to medium enterprises like these are vital to Oldham’s economy – remember that around 85 percent of Greater Manchester’s Gross Value Added (GVA), the total measure of the value of goods and services in the area, is generated by these companies.

Oldham’s offer to business has never been stronger. I’m confident that through Wayra and Hack Oldham we can truly become a digital force in Greater Manchester – and one for positive social change and mobility.

Jean

Giant strides forward for Oldham

illuminate1ILLUMINATE – the first-ever late night arts festival we’ve held in Oldham town centre – was a sparkling success.

Now that the Old Town Hall is back in business and revitalising the area, exciting new opportunities are opening up that enable us to offer completely different types of events for the public.

And Parliament Square – the new public space adjacent to it – is a perfect new location to host these events given its central location, street furniture, space and vistas.

It just gives us a whole new civic focal point where families can gather and be entertained.

illuminate3Illuminate was the first of our new regular events designed to capitalise on this and we were delighted by the public reaction.

Even though it was a four-hour long ‘drop in’ show, it was busy throughout the evening as hundreds of people braved the wintry showers. The Old Town Hall and its Lightbox made the perfect backdrop for the array of spectacular performances of drumming, lighting, choreography and dance.

A major highlight was the children’s lantern parade and there were some great street arts to see including the Spark! illuminated drummers, Global Grooves’ carnival arts version of The Tempest and The Bureau of Silly Ideas.

Gallery Oldham held an installation of ‘Shakespearian curiosities’ in its gardens, plus a visit from an illuminated vintage bus and a Stomp to the Light dance display from Oldham Theatre Workshop. It stayed open late and it was great to see so many people milling around it on an evening.

illuminate2It was also fantastic to see Oldham Parish Church playing a central part.

In recent times this Grade II* listed church – which dates back to 1830 in its current form – has felt somewhat ‘left out of things’ on the periphery of a quiet area, but not now.

For Illuminate it was beautifully lit up with spectacular 3D projections accompanied by a bells and pipes soundtrack from the church itself. Outside an installation of sound, water and mechanics by Oldham artist Mike Green added to the ambience, and I know many people kept going back up for another look.

Tours were also held in the crypt beneath the church and there was a real sense that this jewel has finally re-entered the town centre ‘scene’.

illuminate5In that crypt, of course, lies the Oldham Giant, whose five-metre puppet persona was a main attraction for the evening.

Earlier that day I had the great pleasure of meeting Tom Scholes-Fogg and his granddad, John, who had travelled from London and Slaithwaite respectively to see Illuminate.

Tom had contacted me via email after the Old Town Hall opening event last year when he was astonished to hear how his sixth great grandfather – Joseph Scholes – had been brought back to life in puppet form.

Known as a “gentle giant”, ‘Dody’ was said to have been around 6ft 7in tall and 37 stones when he died in 1814. Instantly recognisable for obvious reasons, he was probably the best-known Oldhamer of his time: especially given his work as a military recruiting sergeant and his time as governor of the Oldham weavers’ workhouse where he stood up for the rights of underfed local apprentices.

Tom showed me some of the research he has been doing into this story and shared some fascinating anecdotes.

There were thousands of people at Dody’s funeral – he’s been buried three times, which is another story in itself(!) – but it was only able to take place after the windows of his Henshaw Street home were removed once the funeral director realised he just couldn’t get his casket outside. Once on the streets it had to be carried by several groups of 12-strong coffin bearers who constantly rotated, such was the weight of the task at hand.

illuminate4The Scholes family are rightly proud that their ancestor’s story is finally getting a wider audience and it was a wonderful moment on Friday night when Tom and John met up with locally-based Debbie and Amelia Scholes – four generations of the family – to have a unique ‘selfie’ with the Oldham Giant puppet.

Tom continues to research this story further so, if you have any information or anecdotes passed down amongst your family about him, then please get in touch and let us know via an email to presspr@oldham.gov.uk with the subject ‘Oldham Giant’.

Finally, if you want to see ‘Dody’ and others there are now regular public openings of the Oldham Parish Church and the crypt on every second Saturday of the month from 9.30am to 1pm. Group/party visits can be made by prior arrangement with the church, and light refreshments are also available. I can highly recommend a visit.

Next week, I’ll be returning to more serious matters as I blog about our final Council Tax proposals for 2017-8 and the continued crisis in national underfunding for adult social care.

Jean

Independent Quarter: As one door closes…

tooth1
NEW TENANT: The Tooth Place is bringing the Old Mess House back to life

I WAS in the Independent Quarter last week to welcome our latest new tenants to the area.

The Tooth Place has just moved into the Old Mess House building on Yorkshire Street after this local business had got too big for their previous home on Rhodes Street.

I took a tour of the practice, managed by Dr Amjad Chaudhary, and could not fail to be impressed with what they have had done to the place.

There’s been extensive refurbishment internally and to the exterior of the building. It has all taken around 18 months and it has scrubbed up incredibly well.

The design and layout meant that finding a new tenant for this building would always be problematic but it works really well for their four new dental surgeries – and with another yet to come that will mean extra capacity for more local patients.

tooth2This is just another great sign of renewal in the area. We’ve removed the historic issues of anti-social behaviour at this premises dating back to the ‘Wild West’ days and revived it for a new use in a way that completely respects the heritage of the building.

It’s also another great example of the Co-operative ethos combining investment from Oldham Council to initially purchase the building with a local business prepared to take a personal stake in its future and invest their livelihood.

I also took the chance to call into Scoots, Suits and Boots to see Mick Harwood while on Yorkshire Street.

He was the first-ever recipient of an Independent Quarter grant and – along with his wife Jo – blazed a trail for others to follow.

Sadly, Mick recently took the decision to close his shop but he is going to continue trading online – at least for the time being – at www.scootssuitsandboots.com

We all wish him the very best with his new plans but he’s been such a hit in the area with shoppers and other traders that we simply didn’t want the partnership to end.

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AMBASSADOR: Mick Harwood of Scoots, Suits and Boots

Mick has been a great ambassador for everything we are trying to do in the IQ and popular with shoppers and traders alike.

His innovation has ranged from putting an eye-catching installation in his shop window, to organising vintage markets attracting people from as far afield as Wrexham on scooters, to launching his own record store….

That’s why I am pleased to report that he has accepted an invitation to become a voluntary mentor for future independent businesses opening in the town.

Mick is the certainly the right man for that job and we’re delighted to be able to keep his passion and knowledge on-board for others to benefit from in future.

Finally this week an update on the future of the Link Centre.

Budget-making is never easy. It’s something few of us enjoy in any walk of life and for local authorities like ours it has been an ever-increasing nightmare for the past eight years.

More than £200m has been taken from our funding since 2009 and an impact on public services is unavoidable.

I wish it were different but the harsh reality is that – other than statutory services which Government requires us to provide – practically nothing can be exempt from consideration as we try to find huge savings.

linkcentre
LINK CENTRE: The facility will remain open but with a new operating model

The Link Centre offers a large number of services, support groups and signposting facilities for residents with a disability, carers and others with additional needs, but it has also had low footfall for a period of time and it was right to consider the options.

When the option to close it first came onto the agenda we knew it would inevitably cause concern, and I’d like to thank everyone who took part in the public consultation on this.

It has now been decided that the centre will remain open, but with the caveat that it will have a different operating model to help find the necessary savings.

It was obvious from the consultation that there is still a need for the Link Centre in Oldham. You shared your views, concerns and suggestions and we listened to them.

The best way forward is for communities to take control of the services provided and for the centre to be run in a different way that makes it more financially viable. To that end we intend to allow a third sector organisation to run the building and let space.

What’s important is that it means our residents will still be able to access and develop the services that they want to see at the centre.

Jean