Our new town centre – we can’t stand still

This week we made a big exciting step on our path to further regenerate our town centre and continue its transformation into a vibrant hub of leisure, culture and pride.

Along with the council’s other Cabinet members, I have voted in favour of the Oldham Town Centre Masterplan.

This is the biggest forward planning exercise we’ve ever had for Oldham town centre. It’s exciting and it’s all about creating the kind of place we want it to be in the future.

Many positive regeneration schemes are already improving our town centre – like the Old Town Hall, and plans for the Cultural Quarter with a new Coliseum Theatre, and the Independent Quarter – but we cannot make the mistake of standing still.

So I think I should start by telling you what this is all about.

In short, we want Oldham to be a vibrant place with high-quality attractions, an excellent cultural and shopping offer and a family friendly night time economy.

Ultimately, we want the town centre to be a place where more residents want to live and spend their leisure time.

To achieve this we need a plan, one that can help us turn Oldham into the place we all deserve.

We have a lot to offer in Oldham. We will be a big voice and a big attraction within Greater Manchester and this masterplan will help make us stand out as a destination of choice within the region and beyond.

With these plans we’ll show everyone just how great Oldham is and exactly what we have to offer.

We want to transform five sites in the town centre, 21 acres in total, by 2035.

The plans would deliver a new Tommyfield Market on the existing site with a new 600-capacity multi-storey car park adjacent. This aims to attract additional footfall, plus complementary new retail/leisure units and quality public spaces.

As well as a new market we want to deliver homes and town centre living, a new Civic Hub and plenty more space for other developments.

This would all bring in a projected additional £50 million a year to our economy.

There are only five local authorities to have lost a bigger percentage of their budget from the government over the last seven years than Oldham. We don’t get a fair deal from Westminster but this won’t prevent us from deciding our own future.

This masterplan is a very large scale redevelopment and we can’t fund all of this on our own.

We have a fantastic opportunity to attract partners from the private sector into a joint venture to deliver this scheme, or elements of it, and we’re confident this will be attractive to them.

We’ve already seen private retailers coming forward to invest their own money in our Prince’s Gate scheme. This is because Oldham is attractive, Oldham has potential and Oldham has great ambition.

We are now going to begin a 12-month consultation on our Town Centre Masterplan, listening to residents, partners, business and traders.

When consultation gets underway I would urge everyone to do your bit, get involved and give us your views and ideas.

We all have a stake in the future of Oldham’s town centre and this is a fantastic opportunity to transform its prospects over the next two decades.

I’m the Leader of Oldham Council but I don’t have the monopoly on the right ideas. I’ll be in touch to let you know how you can get involved. We need to hear what you think because you are at the forefront of everything we do.

People will ask questions and so they should. Because we’re a proud bunch in Oldham and we care about our future.

And there might be people who criticise these plans. I remember people doing this when we announced the Old Town Hall plans but just look at it now. We deliver.

It’s a very exciting time to be an Oldhamer and we’re just getting started.

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

Old Friends returning – New friends found

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SMOKIN’: The newly-opened Smoke Yard restaurant on  Church Terrace, just opposite the Old Town Hall, is run by Ata Mubeen and Luke Rafferty who were schoolmates at St Augustine’s  

OLDHAM town centre is continuing to grow in confidence with an impressive and growing range of new shops, restaurants and attractions for people of all ages.

If Marks & Spencer signing the deal to come to Oldham last November was a symbolic pointer towards a brighter future then T J Hughes’ welcome return is another big boost to our morale.

For too long local people could only watch on helplessly in recent times as the town centre they knew started to change and the doom and gloom of decline set in.

As with many other towns, the new world of online retail, changing shopping habits  and national economic pressures meant far too many stores were closing and leaving large gaps on our High Street.

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NEW LIFE: Renovated shops on Yorkshire Street

I’m not trying to suggest that Oldham is sorted yet – not at all – but I do think there is enough happening now to give us all grounds for hope.

This all makes me think back to the time when I visited a small town on holiday and started speaking enthusiastically about it to a local resident.

I began the conversation by saying how envious I was of them having the view they enjoyed every time they open their front door.

But the conversation quickly turned into a busman’s holiday as he began telling me all the problems he perceived with the place: from bins not being emptied to the water charges soon to be introduced.

I have the same perspective problem myself at times; and perhaps more than most given the job I do.

I too tend to notice the shop that has closed, rather than the surrounding units which are open. I also tend to notice the broken paving slabs, not the metres of perfectly finished surface I’ve just unconsciously strolled across.

Taking time to pause and reflect on that can be good for the soul. It gives you a clearer sense of perspective about what is good and clarity about what actually needs to improve.

TJ Hughes
BACK: T J Hughes has re-opened in Oldham

Last week I joined the hundreds of folk who visited the re-opened TJ Hughes and – yes, after leaving with the mandatory Vax Carpet Cleaner (!) – thought to myself that I hadn’t seen the shopping centre feel that busy for a long time.

TJ’s are also not alone in showing faith is what is now happening in our town centre.

We’ve recently welcomed the likes of the Entertainer Toy Store, Warren James Jewellery, Pep & Co and Ethel Austin in joining our line-up of main brand shops – and that’s as well as fantastic new independent retailers such as Suits Scoots and Boots.

The thing that excites me most though is when Oldhamers themselves set up shop here.

They know more than most people about our town centre and clearly many are recognising that something really positive is happening.

Right now we have potential clients literally queuing up for assistance to join the Independent Quarter – to the extent that we need extra staff just to deal with the enquiries and grant support.

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HOT: Jack’s Smokehouse is proving popular on Yorkshire Street

Newly-opened restaurants like Jack’s Smokehouse and The Smoke Yard are the latest additions heading what is going to be an impressive list of people who believe that now is the time to invest here.

I can also tell you that ahead of the opening next year of the Old Town Hall with its seven cinema screens we’re getting some fantastic interest from national and local restaurant operators. Watch this space…

What I hope everyone will do in the meantime is to continue to get behind Oldham town centre and back it: from our indoor market with over 100 stalls, to the traditional outdoor market – and from our High Street to our Independent Quarter. And when people moan to you that “there’s nowt in Oldham”, please challenge them back.

We’ve already got big names like Debenhams, Next, River Island, H&M, BHS and others – and we’re soon to welcome a new M&S.

The town centre is now clean and well cared for, it has improved facilities like our play area where you can spend family time – oh, plus up to three hours of free parking on weekends – so why not give us a go?

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Regeneration – It all adds up

REGENERATION: The investment, benefits and impact of the five major regeneration projects planned for Oldham Town Centre.
REGENERATION: The investment, benefits and impact of five major regeneration projects planned for Oldham Town Centre.

I WANT to use my penultimate blog before the local elections to talk about one of my driving passions – rebuilding Oldham.The new edition of Borough Life is dropping onto your doormats this week and inside you’ll find a double-page spread which looks at the changing face of Oldham.

This shows a mixture of just some of the various housing, schools, retail, business and transport regeneration projects which have either been completed or are well underway across the borough – and there simply wasn’t enough space to provide the full list.

As a public body we have a responsibility to justify all of our spending and be open and transparent about it.

It is clear that some schemes have really caught the imagination and attention of residents and I’m pleased that, like me, many can see just how important these will be to changing the fortunes and perceptions of our town.

Work is now well underway on several major projects like the cinema and restaurants at the Old Town Hall and the new Oldham Leisure Centre, and – from those days of early artists’ impressions – things are beginning to feel very real.

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, you must at least admit that I am consistent in arguing that our borough deserves better than to be simply ‘managing decline’ – a route which too many would accept as the next chapter in our future.

I believe Oldham deserves better than to watch the threads of its rich cultural and economic heritage unravelling before our eyes. It deserves better than seeing once-great buildings falling into disrepair and the loss of things that not only once made us great but are also key to our confidence as a place.

I simply don’t accept that has to be our future at all.

I believe things can and will be better. BUT that will only happen with a combination of investment, a great deal of concerted effort and an acceptance that if Oldham wants to change for the best then we must collectively take responsibility for it.

We have an opportunity to work to transform Oldham together and leave a legacy of optimism and positive growth for generations to come.

The Old Town Hall is a prime example.

In recent decades this building had gone from being a symbol of civic prosperity and pride to one of decline.

So, what were our options?

Well, we could have simply demolished it, but I don’t have the stomach for that, and I don’t think residents do either.

We could have opted to ‘do nothing’ and let the building continue to rot, but you might be surprised to learn that costs serious money.

Whilst the building stands idle Oldham Council is footing a hefty bill: maintenance, empty building costs and other associated payments would mean a 25-year cost to the public purse of just over £16m. I’m not sure the public would consider that money well spent. 

I certainly don’t and, let’s be clear, there are absolutely no economic or social benefits to be had from this option. If anything, this plan would be in negative equity on both counts.

The third option was to be ambitious and use this historic venue as the foundation stone to rebuild Oldham. With this project we’re now addressing our lack of a cinema and establishing one in a unique setting that will put it in a different class from characterless out-of-town retail sites. Not only can that give Oldham a fantastic new entertainment facility in its own right, but it will also help to redefine the future of our town centre.

The total cost of this option is £36.7m, with £26.3m coming directly from Council resources.

So the actual cost difference between ‘doing nothing’ or placing this iconic civic emblem at the heart of our new vision for Oldham town centre comes to just over £10m.

Does this represent good value for money? Well, in working this out it’s important to also look at the economic and social impacts the project will have on the town.

Firstly, this scheme has already seen the creation of jobs, work experience opportunities and apprenticeships by the developers, Morgan Sindall. It is estimated that the Old Town Hall will generate 74 full time and 159 part time jobs within the development and elsewhere in the town centre.

It’s also estimated that it will generate a boost of £5.5 million per year to Oldham’s economy which, over 10 years, equates to in excess of £55 million of additional economic activity.

Secondly, the Old Town Hall will attract new investors. The clear message we’re sending out through investment in regeneration on this scale is that Oldham means business and is ambitious for its future. The announcement – at long last – that Marks & Spencer is finally coming to town is surely proof that confidence breeds confidence.

In addition, further investments like £1.4m into improvements for small businesses in Oldham’s Independent Quarter – plus Shaw and Lees District Centres and the A62 Failsworth corridor – ensure that existing businesses are also benefitting from our regeneration.

Finally, the development will give a significant boost to the number of visitors into our town centre: which will also increase the amount of money spent in our local economy.

It’s estimated that the cinema alone could attract approximately 214,000 visits every year and (based on evidence from the Northwest Day Visitor Survey) this could generate £2.4 million of expenditure elsewhere within Oldham town centre. Over 10 years that means in excess of £24 million of additional economic activity created.

With that kind of return on your investment then, the real question is not ‘Why are you doing this?’ – it’s actually, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’.

If you haven’t yet received your latest Borough Life and want to find out more about regeneration schemes and the economic benefits, you can download it from the Oldham Council website by clicking here.

MILESTONE: I was delighted to announced tthis week that get Oldham Working has already created 2,169 jobs, apprenticeships and trainee opportunities.
MILESTONE: I was delighted to announced tthis week that get Oldham Working has already created 2,169 jobs, apprenticeships and trainee opportunities.

Finally, I must end this week with a nod to the fantastic success of the Get Oldham Working campaign.

Regeneration isn’t just about bricks and mortar or landmark buildings, it’s also about people, skills, support and prospects.

This campaign, working alongside a range of partners across all sectors, has already now smashed its ambitious target to create 2,015 employment opportunities by the end of 2015.

It has seen the provision of 2,169 jobs, apprenticeship and trainee opportunities to local people since its launch in May, 2013, which breaks down into the creation of 1,184 jobs, 342 apprenticeships and 643 trainee and work experience opportunities.

And the work will continue. We are all committed to continuing this partnership – and with an increased focus on creating more jobs.

The Get Oldham Working campaign shows that by working co-operatively together we can make a real difference to reduce unemployment and support new business ventures.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps: Gamechanger

GAMECHANGER: Prince's Gate at Oldham Mumps is all about our aspirations for Oldham
GAMECHANGER: Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps is all about our aspirations for Oldham

THIS IS a big week for Oldham – and one that I believe will be a significant milestone in our future success.

In recent years you’ll have already become aware of several regeneration schemes that we’ve brought forward for Oldham Town Centre.

Work is already ongoing to transform the Old Town Hall into an ODEON cinema with restaurants and a high-quality new public space at Parliament Square.

Builders are also busy finishing the bespoke FCHO headquarters on Union Street and constructing our new sports centre.

Plans for a new Coliseum Theatre and Heritage Centre are entering their crucial second bidding phase and we’ll also be making important decisions soon on the next steps to deliver a hotel and a revitalised QE Hall.

But our approach is about so much more than just dealing with individual buildings and problems.

We’ve always had a wider vision and I hope that is now becoming clearer after we finally unveiled our plans for Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps this week.

I’ve been unashamedly calling this masterplan a “gamechanger” and I don’t say that lightly because it really is all about our aspirations for Oldham.

For too long we’ve been the only town of our size without a Marks & Spencer (M&S) store and the news that we’re so close to achieving it has been very well received by people across the borough.

Prince’s Gate is a significant scheme for Oldham Mumps. This is a part of town that we know has stalled in recent years but now has a unique chance to capitalise on our long-awaited Metrolink connection.

Not only will it deliver a big M&S in a 51,000 sq ft food and clothing store, it will see them acting as anchor tenants to attract more missing retailers into an additional 66,000 sq ft of retail space.

That will all be housed in a stunning glazed development with a natural wave form roof and around 200 underground car parking spaces on what is currently the Park and Ride site at Mumps.

The first development phase will see a replacement Park and Ride facility delivered over the road before construction work then gets underway to enable the new stores’ to open their doors in 2017.

But that retail element is just one part of the work we’ve now set out to transform this area into something offering a much wider range of exciting new benefits.

VISION: CGI view from above of the Prince's Gate at Oldham Mumps site.
VISION: CGI view from above of the Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps site.

Regeneration here will establish a quality town centre living offer as well as redeveloping redundant land.

Our vision is to deliver 800 quality homes – including apartments – with a significant number provided on the former Mumps station and heavy rail line, plus a total of around 700 car parking spaces around the site.

The fine former NatWest bank building will also be refurbished to include apartments, retail and leisure units.

And there will be another new retail/residential unit on the RSPCA/Roscoe Mill site hosting a major supermarket tenant – talks are ongoing – with 50 apartments above across three storeys.

Our plans for Oldham are focussed on two key things – the place and its people – and it’s more important than ever to invest in both now.

Prince’s Gate is without doubt the most important scheme we’ve been working on and will ultimately set us apart from other towns.

But this masterplan hasn’t been developed in isolation from other projects – we’ve been talking to M&S since 2011 – and it’s integral to a much wider vision of the town centre’s future.

It will totally complement our blossoming new Independent Quarter, for example – and that’s no accident.

In that area, between Yorkshire Street, Clegg Street and Union Street [East], you can already see some of the most inspiring green shoots epitomising the spirit of what we’re trying to achieve.

Independent and niche traders are putting their life savings on the line, helped by our £1 million investment and support package, to forge a brighter future.

We’re investing something back in people here who, in turn, are investing something of themselves in Oldham’s future and that fledgling Independent Quarter will act as a natural, buzzing link from Prince’s Gate up towards the new ODEON cinema and Parliament Square, and the adjacent shopping centre.

It’s vital that we get the balance and these linkages right, which is why we’re also working closely with Kennedy Wilson, the new owners of Spindles Town Square, about how to best align our plans so that their venues – the traditional retail core of Oldham – also go from strength to strength.

In addition to all that we’re continuing to work hard on improving the town centre experience for everyone. That includes not just our plans for a new public space at Parliament Square, but further enhancements to the public realm and street furniture, the addition of a childrens’ play area, measures to attract street performers, and the fabulous WOW Bed which won Britain in Bloom.

Overarching all this we’re also striving hard to ensure we’re creating new jobs and opportunities for our residents and bringing new money into town.

An independent economic analysis of the Prince’s Gate masterplan has projected it will create more than 700 new jobs and could generate up to £21 million per year to the local economy.

In the days of shrinking local authority budgets we know that taking such an active leadership role is one hell of a challenge, but it is also one we must not shirk.

UNVEILED: The biig moment this week as we unveiled our plans to the media.
UNVEILED: The big moment this week as we revealed our exciting plans to the media.

The Prince’s Gate masterplan will bring new private investment to Oldham – and it will in turn raise the new business rates and Council Tax income needed to deliver the facilities we know the public wants.

We could, of course, follow the example of many other councils right now and just navel gaze instead.

We could continually whinge about Government funding cuts and see our future role as being to simply empty your bins and deliver statutory services.

But I don’t believe that is what you want and I am certainly not the man to sit here and do that.

I’m not interested in a continual pathway of further decline for Oldham and simply drifting along as a satellite town to Manchester. What would be the point?

This borough deserves better and that’s why we are tackling this huge programme to try and improve people’s lives, facilities and prospects.

These are bold plans for Oldham that will need external partners and investors to get on board – many of whom we are already talking to.

But equally we will also need advocates like you to act as positive ambassadors for our future and help to spread the word.

To ‘do your bit’ I would ask you to please take the time to visit the Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps webpage by clicking this link.

Here you can watch a video blog from myself (don’t worry, it’s short!), and a stunning 3D animation of our plans. You can also read more about the scheme, including a list of Frequently Asked Questions.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Made in Oldham

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Learning their trade: Apprentice gardeners Callum Gradwell, Sean Mitchell, Sean Rainford, Alex Burbridge and Max Foster.

Welcome to my last blog before recess. As the summer break approaches I thought I would take the time to reflect on our positive progress, as well as outline the challenges we face when we return at the end of August.

On a recent walk through the town centre, I was really pleased to see how busy it was.  The fabulous Britain in Bloom display looked glorious in the sunshine and the sound of youngsters playing happily was coming from the new children’s play area next door.  There has been a lot of feedback recently from people saying that Oldham is looking the best it has in years – and I agree!

It has taken a lot of hard work though (glad it’s nearly the holidays!) and thanks are due in no small part to the excellent council teams who grow the plants and plan and maintain the displays. They excel themselves, producing displays even better than the year before. I need to also thank the in-house team who designed and built the children’s play area – the town centre really is ‘Made in Oldham’!

towncentre300Looking down High Street, (past the buskers who were entertaining the crowds and generally adding to the atmosphere) I could see the wrapping around the Old Town Hall. The covers and scaffolding mask the industry taking place inside to turn it into the Town Centre’s first cinema for nearly 30 years.

It was really great to see the Gallery Oldham exhibition on the history of Union Street. One of the displays showed the original signs, posters, doors and exit sign from the town’s last Odeon! We’re coming full circle and soon a state of the art cinema will open its doors.

And it isn’t just the physical place that is changing – economic growth is also on the up for people of all ages. The number of people claiming Job Seekers Allowance has reduced by around 46 per cent since this same time last year, meaning we are now ranked third in Greater Manchester and we are currently the best performing across the region for those aged between 18-24 claiming JSA.

Now caution is needed on these figures.

We know Universal Credit and sanctions have affected the official figures but there is no doubt things are improving as we go full force on Get Oldham Working. And as if that wasn’t enough, we received the welcome news this week that for the first time since the recession weekly wages have risen and Oldham no longer sits at the bottom of the league table of average incomes in Greater Manchester.

We still have a long way to go and we must not take too much from small gains. We know only too well that for too many a Living Wage is not within reach as they struggle to make ends meet.

For Oldham to be the borough we want, it must be that if you are willing to work hard, then hard work pays. We will continue our push for economic growth but also to ‘raise all boats’.

The future looks bright for our youngest residents too.  The launch of our Education Commission to raise local standards and aspirations was followed last week with news that Oldham’s primary school pupils achieved record SATS results. Provisional results show that 79.9 per cent of the borough’s 11-year olds are now hitting the national standard expected in reading, writing and maths. Congratulations to those pupils, their families and their teachers – enjoy the summer break!

The new UTC (University Technical College) will soon be open and the new Digital Skills Centre at Oldham College will offer our young people modern skills.

Our Sixth Form College continues to excel, and around 100 university graduates walking through town highlighted how importantly we view education.

But we know we can do better. For too many of our young people, the kids in the middle, they just ‘get by’. In a modern Oldham it isn’t enough just to get by when our ambition is for every young person to realise their full potential.

So things are looking up, but the borough’s resilience to market conditions needs to grow.  Oldham has a tendency to be severely affected by small fluctuations in the economy and the labour market. Boom can turn to bust very quickly – as we have witnessed in the past.

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The Conservatory, Alexandra Park

If you are going away over the summer break, I hope you enjoy your holiday. For those who are staying closer to home there are some fabulous events taking place over the summer right across the borough. Why not take advantage of our lovely parks and open spaces; it is Love Your Local Park week this week, so make the most of them. The Visit Oldham and Go! Oldham websites are full of places and activities to visit and do over the holidays, lots of them free, so make the most of your money, and your borough, over the next few weeks. www.visitoldham.com and www.gooldham.com

As for me, there is still a few days to go before the start of recess and it continues to be busy with the Britain in Bloom judges visiting tomorrow. I hope they are impressed, I know many Oldhamers are.

Thanks for listening

Jim

 

The face of retail is changing

HIGH STREETS: Business rates are a major issue – we should link rateable values with rent levels or property values.

FOR MANY towns the traditional high street line-up of local family run shops is now a thing of the past.

There’s a range of reasons for this dating back to the emergence of the supermarket in the 1950s, for example, and on to large warehouse type megastores.

We’ve also seen the rise of American-style malls, out-of-town retail parks and big multiple retailers.

These are all in a position to dictate terms and push up rents in the best location: often meaning those without the means to pay big sums are pushed further out – or go out of business altogether.

Smaller firms also find themselves competing not just on rent levels but against the significant buying power the ‘big boys’ now have; retail giants like Primark can undercut any market stall trader.

But if you ask many small town centre businesses what vexes them, chances are they will say it’s the cost of business rates.

Even now with the small business rate relief in place many town centre firms simply do not benefit and the costs can be significant.

Calls for a supermarket tax have been made in response, in an attempt to get some local benefit back from national supermarket operators.

In Oldham the largest business rate payer, after the Royal Oldham Hospital, is already Tesco. Adding another small percentage on to what supermarkets like them pay would go some way – but would not generate enough money alone – to give traditional high street firms a fighting chance.

Internet retailing is also a big development. This shows little sign of slowing down in its inexorable march to take a greater share of the UK pound; although that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Over the years we’ve seen many new businesses created here in Oldham from people with a great idea and a small amount of money, but they need a helping hand.

In my view it’s time we called for a level playing field to give these high street outlets a fair shot.

The Tax Justice Network has calculated that tax evasion in 145 countries worldwide costs $3.1 trillion every year.

In the UK alone, more than £70 billion is lost, which could pay for more than half of the NHS budget. At a time of dwindling public finances and brutal cuts to services, people are beginning to wonder whether the status quo is right or fair.

Although the culprits are numerous, particular attention has been drawn to discussion of a so-called ‘Amazon Tax’ in recent months in America.

Critics of Amazon.com argue that its avoidance of paying sales tax in many states – despite having warehouses there – gives them an unfair advantage over ‘real life’ shops with storefronts. Following drawn out legal battles in courts across the country, Amazon is now forced to pay this tax in 20 American states.

But what about here in the UK?

Amazon is the UK’s leading online retailer, but it paid just £3.2 million tax on sales of over £4.2 billion last year.

Although frowned upon my many, this is totally legal at present because HMRC allows it to get away with arguing that it should be taxed in Luxembourg. This situation is similarly dismal for countless other online retail corporations.

If taxed fairly, the potential income to Britain’s economy from online sales could be transformational.

A recent Ofcom study found that Britons spend far more money online than any other nation. On average, we click and spend £1,175 per person each year. Almost three quarters of us buy goods online every month, and nearly a quarter of us do it every week.

The total revenue from UK internet sales in 2013 was £32 billion. Even if a tiny 1 per cent sales tax was applied to that, it would pump a much-needed £320 million back into the economy which could then be used to support hard working small business owners who often find themselves out-priced by e-retailers.

The Manchester Evening News last year highlighted the unfairness in the current system of business rates which sees the location of struggling ‘Class A’ high streets priced out of regenerating themselves. Notably, it showed that a Fish and Chip shop in Rochdale was paying more than Harrods and Harvey Nichols (per sq metre).

At a time when businesses are closing it isn’t just price-sensitive punters who are encouraging more charity shops to open. The huge discount they get on business rates (80-100 per cent) means that even by paying market rents they can afford to operate on the high street.

My suggested solution is simple.

I would make internet retailers pay UK tax on purchases sent to UK addresses. It’s time to end companies abusing legal loopholes by basing themselves in tax havens.

An additional 1-2 per cent ‘convenience sales tax’ should also be applied to purchases online. This is to recognise the cost savings of a non-high street presence and the fact that a great number of traders are international and providing very little local benefit.

We should also link rateable values with rent levels or property values. This would make sure that the local trader in Rochdale isn’t paying more than Harrods in Knightsbridge, and that the out of town retail shed isn’t paying less than a town centre newsagent.

These measures (or even just one) would help to fund an overhaul of business rates which could see the high street at least given a fighting chance in the future.

There will be conflict which we will need to address, however, not least of all for local councils and the move to self-financing.

If the review of rates linked to local property values wasn’t carried out properly it would simply mean more cash for wealthy councils like Kensington and Chelsea and far less cash for us here in Oldham.

I’m sure academics can make the case for or against all of these points and I suspect some might even not be possible, but many people would at least agree that the status quo isn’t really an option either.

OLDHAM: Much proactive work is done and underway to stand up for the health of the high street.
OLDHAM: Much proactive work is underway to stand up for the health of the high street.

There is still a great deal local councils can do, and in Oldham we do have a proactive story to tell on this:

– We are balancing new development evenly across the town to ensure we maintain footfall levels and don’t displace customers.

– Even though budget reductions have affected us, we’ve reviewed council-owned buildings out of town and relocated staff – around 500 extra staff are now based in the town centre as a result.

– We have also scrapped weekend car parking charges for up to three hours and on street charges for up to 30 minutes daily.

– We have worked with businesses to create a programme of events and activities as well as specialist craft and student markets.

– We have invested in a combined central library, gallery and tourist information place as we work to attract new visitors as the Gateway to the Pennines.

– We have established the Enterprise Trust to offer grants totalling £1 million to new business ideas and an additional £1 million High Street fund to create a Yorkshire Street independents quarter.

– We have acquired a significant number of buildings in the independents quarter which allows us to offer cheap and more flexible leases.

– We have invested in markets, bringing stalls onto the high street and supporting new businesses to open in Oldham, now meaning Tommyfield Indoor Market is 98 per cent full.

– We are creating a new Town Team to ensure businesses have on-site support, mentoring and access to grant funding, as well as ensuring basic maintenance is done to a high standard.

– We have invested more than £3 million to upgrade our new Metrolink stops and deliver a brighter ‘welcome’ to visitors.

– We have created a £150m capital investment fund which will add variety to the town centre in the form of a new leisure centre, cinema, restaurants, bars, shops, theatre, heritage centre, hotel and conference centre as well as the tram system and new public spaces.

– We have also supported private investment in new offices, investment in the shopping centre and new town centre residential developments.

All that – and there’s more to come – because here in Oldham we are determined to fight back and stand up for the high street.

But it’s also time the Government pitched in to help with things that lie outside of our control – and what better place to start but with unaffordable business rates?

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Today Manchester, tomorrow the world!

ALL ABOARD: One of the first trams to take the journey on Oldham's new town centre Metrolink line on Monday
ALL ABOARD: One of the first trams to take the journey on Oldham’s new town centre Metrolink line on Monday

SO IT IS finally here!

After decades of planning, posturing and pain, Oldham Town Centre now has its own direct tram connection with Manchester City Centre.

And tomorrow, it’s the world!

Well, via Manchester Airport at least, when the next expansion of the network connects us to the international airport, plus the city region Enterprise Zone, where plans are in place to create more than 13,000 new jobs.

Oldham felt very different to me on Monday, and I know many people shared that sensation, but that isn’t to say we’re claiming that everything is now sorted for our town centre – far from it.

We know there remains a great deal left to do.

Metrolink is the spark for our renewal and I hope people who live and work here can see the importance that all these different schemes are going to have for our future prospects. 

This isn’t just about building a tram. It’s not just about building a cinema or restaurants – and it isn’t just about new shops, offices, a leisure centre or a college.

It’s about having the courage to hope and aspire – and to build confidence.

Even now some people remain unconvinced of our intent and I suppose that’s reasonable given the time it’s taken to see some schemes come to fruition and, let’s be honest, some over the years which haven’t come off at all.

I offer no explanation to the past, but I do take personal responsibility for what happens now.

And I do know that every member of council staff and much of the wider community are beginning to believe that Oldham is now on the verge of something very special indeed.  

You’ll probably have seen the first artist’s impressions released this week, for example, showing the stunning new leisure centre planned for the town centre.

It’s just one of many schemes on the table (of which there is more detail and announcements to come) including the cinema, new Coliseum, Heritage Centre, Hotel Future, plans for our markets plus developments to attract new retailers, both national and independent.

Put them all together and I hope you can see that Oldham is ready to come out fighting from the recession.  

Huge projects like Metrolink will, of course, involve changes and inevitably there is always a settling-in period when people have to get used to new arrangements.

That, at least, is what I hope explains the recent sheer stupidity of some drivers who think that rushing out for fried chicken or a kebab is far more important than the tram being able to drive down Union Street safely.

The Oldham Chronicle has done a fine job in helping us to raise awareness of this problem and it has prompted myself and several other residents to nip out with camera phones to snap the worst offenders.

We began enforcement action with a CCTV car on this just before the Christmas holidays.

Between December 23 and January 11, over a period of 12 days, it issued 44 enforceable Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs).

Yet the problem has worsened since then. In a five-day period from January 13 we issued a further 98 PCNs and, despite all the publicity, the problem is not abating.

In the last week before Metrolink opened on Monday another 122 PCNs were issued and sadly, this week, we are still dishing them out in considerable number. 

The offences vary from blocking the tram line, parking completely on the new (and expensive) footpaths, over double-yellow lines and mounting kerbs.

Perhaps this is proof – if it were needed – that some people need a refresher course in the Highway Code, common sense and taking responsibility for their own actions.

The Oldham Chronicle (January 29th edition) highlighted one driver who double parked and blocked the tram lines to collect his takeaway. When the tram stopped at the blockage and sounded its horn the driver reappeared – only to shout abuse and simply go back into the shop for his meal. Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes a special kind of selfish individual to behave like that.

Last Friday I witnessed similar antics as I walked down Union Street.

SELFISH: Union Street has been plagued by parking like this.
SELFISH: Union Street has been plagued by problem parking like this.

A car (pictured, right) pulled in across the parking bay and onto the footpath.

Having gone out of my way to take a photo of this stupidity, the driver asked me why I was so interested in his parking. I told him it was because he was blocking where pedestrians want to walk.

He simply put his window up and drove away, regaining his courage later on Facebook to state that he could park wherever he wanted and there was nothing the council can do about it.

He is correct in saying that the council has no powers to stop pavement parking, but the police do. They have been passed the photograph and screenshots of his Facebook comments. Let’s see if they have a word. Over the top, perhaps? You decide.

What has given me hope is that residents like myself, fed up with this selfish and inconsiderate parking, have been ‘snapping’ examples and posting them on Twitter. This is a good example where Social Media can give real ‘power to the people’.

Perhaps some of these motorists will now be reflecting whether a £70 ticket was really worth them not bothering to park for free around the corner and walk a few yards? I hope so.

But even those minor hiccups can’t be allowed to take the gloss off the arrival of Metrolink this week, which is a game-changing new opportunity for Oldham.

Metrolink is here to stay – and you can’t block progress!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

£1 million investment to boost Oldham traders

Yorkshire Street
TRADING IDEAS: Jim McMahon discussing the plans to help independent town centre traders with Paul Hughes, from Zutti Co, and Councillor Shoab Akhtar on Yorkshire Street this week.

INVESTING in large-scale developments which provide anchor tenants is an important part of our plans to regenerate Oldham town centre – but it’s not the whole picture.

These schemes are already moving forward as the opening of Metrolink draws near early in 2014.

Work has begun on the flagship Old Town Hall cinema and restaurant venue, for example, and matters are also progressing for a new modern office HQ for First Choice Homes Oldham on Union Street.

We have been clear all along that regeneration isn’t just about ‘big ticket’ projects and attracting large national retailers – even though the recent arrivals of BHS, Toymaster and Blue Inc have given a welcome boost to footfall in the shopping centre.

For Oldham town centre to have a brighter and sustainable future we also have to create an environment where the residents of the Borough feel better connected to it.

The introduction of free weekend parking for up to three hours and free on street parking was part of this and wasn’t, of course, free of cost to Oldham Council.

The loss of revenue to the coffers is around £600,000 a year, but we know it has increased footfall by around 30 per cent bringing in more than £1.5m in trade to Oldham’s shops and town centre businesses. It’s a hit we believe is worth taking.

Even though we are in a difficult financial position we have been conscious that we must focus on the ‘fightback’ as we work to create the Oldham we demand. It meant not taking short-term cash out at the cost of the viability of the town and – at the very least – the free parking will remain in place until the major regeneration schemes are complete and the pain of Metrolink construction is over.

Our investment in events and activity in the town centre has also been central to bringing in more visitors.

Although I’m no Sci-Fi enthusiast it was clear the recent Doctor Who events were a big success – attracting around 6,000 people. The same can also be said of The Big Bang bonfire, with pulled in more than 15,000 visitors, and last weekend’s Christmas Lights switch on where Bob The Builder attracted over 10,000 people.

These kind of events, coupled with investment in markets, give people a reason to visit and they complement the work of the Spindles Town Square shopping centre and other businesses involved in the Town Centre Business Partnership.

This week’s launch of a new £1m investment fund (see here) to boost independent businesses – approved by Cabinet on Monday – is also going to provide another major boost.

We are to invest in new and existing independent businesses to initially revitalise the ‘triangle’ area between Yorkshire Street, Clegg Street and Union Street (East) to create a High Street environment that provides a very different offer.

This fund will also be used to undo some of the more inappropriate alternations to buildings in the area as we consider removing Permitted Development Rights with an Article 4 Directive.

Roller shutters, poor signage and general insensitive development have detracted from the genuine beauty of some of the buildings in and around the area. You only have to look up beyond the ground floor to appreciate that we actually have some great buildings here which, with a small investment, will create a focal point we can all be proud of.

With the imminent arrival of Metrolink it is clear that more investors are now seeing Oldham as a place to do business. A walk on Yorkshire Street this week to discuss our plans with Paul Hughes from Zutti Co demonstrated the confidence that is starting to be felt in that part of town. We heard about a new café and hairdressers that are being fitted out ready for opening in the next couple of weeks.

The decline of the eastern part of town started well before my time – actually before I was born, I would say(!) –  and well before internet retailing became a threat to the High Street. Perhaps it was a result of the sheer size of the town centre or poorly coordinated development but, whatever the reasons, I believe the building blocks are being placed today which will begin the fightback.

This isn’t going to be easy, it isn’t going to be quick and – be under no illusions – it isn’t cheap. But the only alternative is that we stand by and simply manage decline.

That’s not good enough for Oldham anymore. If we want the town centre we all demand with the facilities it needs to carve a prosperous future then we cannot sit here hoping someone will come along and do it for us. We have to lead from the front.

If you put this support for independent traders alongside the newly established £1m Enterprise Fund you can see there is now more assistance than ever available to new business start-ups: all there to invest in people who, in turn, will invest something of themselves into Oldham.

So the message is going out loud and clear: Whether you’re an existing trader, landlord or someone looking to start out – Oldham is open for business.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Raising the bar: responsible nightlife

ECONOMY: For any town centre to succeed it needs a vibrant night time economy just as much as a daytime offer.
ECONOMY: For any town centre to succeed it needs a vibrant night time economy just as much as a daytime offer.

IT WAS the annual Best Bar None awards last week – where leading bars, pubs and nightclubs come together to promote a healthy night time economy and celebrate success.

It is fair to say that the night-time economy of Oldham town centre is now a shadow of its former self but, unfortunately for licencees, quite a lot of people in the Borough are actually quite relieved about that(!).

Several years ago that area, particularly around Yorkshire Street, was burgeoning and regularly packed out with punters.

But with any success story you inevitably find that some fly-by-night operators will come along and jump on the bandwagon in a hope to simply cash in and we saw that with some of the types of bars and takeaways which sprang up.

There were cheap promotions with drinks often for £1 or less, meaning that bottled water was actually more expensive to drink than vodka. This, sadly, encouraged people to drink as much as they could – and often more than they could handle – before being carried out and ending up in a gutter or worse: fighting in the streets.

Don’t get me wrong here – I fully appreciate the problems facing the pub and bar trade.

Supermarket deals significantly undercut any town centre establishment and fuelled a problem whereby many revellers were ‘pre-loading’ on cheap booze at home before they’d even arrived in town to dance the night away. Those deals remain unchallenged.

For any town centre to succeed it needs a vibrant night time economy just as much as a daytime offer.

But equally the town centre is for also everyone – not just for ‘kids’ (you can tell the Council is aging me quickly!) or for those slightly older who still behave like kids.

I had the recent pleasure, well perhaps the ‘experience’ at least, of being on Yorkshire Street in the early hours of Saturday morning with my partner after a meal and drinks with friends.

Although Oldham is not alone in this – and maybe I’m just getting too old and grumpy – but it didn’t feel as though we have moved on much from the modern disease of going out to get drunk rather than for going for a drink, and the effects are very different.

As we plan for the new Oldham we are building we have got to make a decision about how much the current night time economy fits with our vision for a vibrant, healthy town centre.

Even today, despite the reported demise of the night time economy, visitors to Oldham Coliseum regularly report feeling unnerved at some of the goings on as they leave the theatre late into the evening.

That’s why I welcome the words of Terry Bruce, the owner of Liquid and Envy, in throwing down the gauntlet to the industry to ‘raise the bar’ at the Best Bar None awards.

He believes town centre bars need to offer people more and voiced some promising ideas, including the creation of a venue designed to attract people of all ages.

For any night time economy to work it has to self-regulate better than it previously did.

The Council, Greater Manchester Police and volunteers like the Street Angels can all help but we have limited power against cultural issues or the very apparent ‘race to the bottom’ which sees venues trying to offer the cheapest deal, rather than the best night out.

With the cinema on its way to the Old Town Hall supported by a great selection for national and local brand restaurants, Oldham-based bar operators do have a real opportunity to help change our night-time economy for the better.

Soon we will also firm up plans for the new Coliseum Theatre and Heritage Centre on Union Street which will bring in visitors from further afield. And all that would be in vain if we allowed Yorkshire Street and the surrounding area to descend unchecked again.

We need to sit down with the bars and nightclubs and talk about how the two economies can live and thrive together. For some they are part of that vision, for others it could be a much shorter conversation.

In our bid to create the town centre boom we need to make sure those trying to make a quick buck don’t descend on Oldham and undermine what we’re trying to achieve here.

Put simply, we need to aim for quality, not quantity.

Thanks for listening,

Jim