David Adamson takes in a town eager to get change underway
Much is made of Oldham's history.
In his 1977 book Tradition in Action: Historical Evolution of the Greater Manchester County, N. J. Frangopulo explained how "if ever the Industrial Revolution placed a town firmly and squarely on the map of the world, that town is Oldham".
In the years since Frangopulo's sticking of pins in the map of the world, another industrial revolution has been underway and, now, has very much arrived.
But when the spinning jennies of the new world are server farms and data stockpiled somewhere in the ether, the mills and geographical quirks of a place like Oldham then serve little purpose. Or at least in their original form.
Regenerating Oldham is about making it a great place to live, work, and get on in life
Like with many of Manchester's satellite towns, a reimagining of what a town centre can be for its residents is at the heart of a raft of regeneration plans, and Oldham is no different.
Arooj Shah, Leader of Oldham Council and Portfolio Holder for Reform and Regeneration, explained what is set to happen in the town centre, along with what has already gotten underway.
"We’re working hard to breathe new life into places old and new," she said. "So there’s loads of activity taking place. We’ve demolished TJ Hughes and we’re getting ready to start putting the steel frame in that will eventually become our brand new Tommyfield Market and events space.
"Round the corner, on High Street, we’re carrying on with the work to make the town centre safer, greener and cleaner. It’s an extension of what we’ve already done with Hilton Square – more plants, trees and places to sit to enjoy them. All of it paving the way for a beautiful new town centre park that we’ll create once Tommyfield moves into its new home."
Cllr Shah continued: "Down near the bus station you’ll notice the road is being dug up to connect Oldham with the Bee Network. The network will link cycling and walking routes across Oldham and Greater Manchester so it’s easier and safer to get around.
"We’re also cracking on with revamping the Old Library – a special place that holds so many childhood memories for me. I’m excited to see a new generation of kids coming through the doors."
While a prevailing tone of positivity and the accompanying plans often represent the first breaking of ground before the diggers come in, Cllr Shah explained how this needs to not only look forward to a bright future, but ensure that future has solid foundations.
"Town centres can no longer survive as places where you just go to shop," she said. "We need more footfall at all times of the day and new places to visit. Homes, the park on their doorsteps, a new theatre, new venues to eat and socialise and so much more. All of this will future-proof our town centre and make our borough stronger.
"Regenerating Oldham is of course about improving our town, making it a great place to live, work, and get on in life."
For plenty of people one of the cornerstones of a town centre, and somewhere to not only 'get on in life' but take stock of it, is the pub. Never before has the future of such an English institution looked so shaky, but there are establishments that prove the adage that 'if you build it they will come' (Book of Genesis? Nope. Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner).
The Fox and Pine is one such institution. When Chris and Michelle Riley took over an end-terrace office on Greaves Street in February 2020, their plan was to open 'an old fashioned traditional boozer'. While the risk of not having a food offering may seem like adding an extra burden to what is already an uphill battle, the plan paid off.
After picking up 'Pub of the Year' and 'Town Pub of the Year' CAMRA awards for Rochdale, Oldham and Bury, The Fox and Pine went on last year to be named Greater Manchester Pub of the Year for 2023.
This is, of course, no mean feat, and serves as an encouraging template for others looking to set up in Oldham town centre, even if that prospective pub is intended to feel 'like someone's front room', as owner Chris Riley explained.
"Michelle and I had worked in pubs for years and then said 'Shall we just do it ourselves?'," he said. "So we took this building on, which was just a derelict end-terrace office. It's been all sorts over the years - it was the Alcoholics Anonymous at one point.
"We tried to create somewhere that feels a bit like someone's front room - just an old-fashioned traditional boozer, which they seem to be ripping down these days. There's lots of mix-and-match and upcycling, and the locals use us for club meetings and people come in and have a good time with a few friends chatting away. If you can run a pub like that you've won haven't you?"
Clearly Chris and Michelle's iron resolve paid off, and while they enjoy their popularity from locals and visitors from further afield thanks in part to the CAMRA awards, Chris is under no illusions about what makes a thriving town centre; competition. But will prospective new pubs even get the chance to give it a go?
"Oldham's going through a transition, isn't it?" he said. "You can see all the building work that's going on but I think a lot of people are holding back on investing. There's not much money going around at the minute.
"Generally, it's a struggling town. A lot of Northern towns are struggling. We're up against it. What you find is a lot of people come in and just get a taxi; they do a little circuit of this pub and a few others and then head off. It's a nice circuit but it's not big enough. We need more but it will come. You have to have good competition, because if you don't you're just going to be treading water."
"I don't have any reservations about the changes to the town centre," Chris continued. "If anything it needs to be quicker. Things just go too slowly in this country. I'm a firm believer that things should just pick up quicker.
"Too often when somebody is building something in this country they'll have started three years ago, say it's going to be open in two years, and then say actually it's going to be another two years. So we're talking six, seven years?
"Why, in this country, is everything so slow? I think there's too much red tape, and then you'll have four different council leaders within that time. Then they'll go back to the drawing board and you just think, 'Get it done. I could be retired by the time this is ready'."
Someone who has been witness to the changing town centre over the last four decades is Phil Garratt, owner of Wino's of Oldham, a specialist wine shop that he opened back in 1983, when the structures and securities of town centre life seemed much more stable.
"I think it's pretty self-evident most towns in the country, especially towns like Oldham, have gone downhill over the last 40 years," he said. "We've got less independent shops, less reason for people to do specialist shopping, and coupled with the demise of the markets and the surge in online retail, you don't have to be too brainy to see why these things have happened.
"It's very sad when successful businesses go, and they go for a variety of reasons: people retire, people sell out, people lose the will to keep going. I don't think there's the skill set anymore amongst the young people to set something up and there's certainly not the incentives there for independent retailers. You see youngsters setting up online retailing and that's maybe the way to go. We've survived because we've diversified, and we've still got a loyal clientele who will make an effort to come into Oldham, even though they maybe don't want to, to come and shop with us."
While looking back at the state of the town centre's health when he opened Wino's in 1983, Phil also looked ahead to what Oldham could become. There can be incentives for change, he explained, but there are also elements of town centre life that, like its inhabitants, are organic and resistant to too much control.
"Back in 1983 it was still fairly vibrant," he said. "Tommyfield market was still a fantastic market on maybe three or four days a week; one day it'd be second hand, then pot stalls, then fruit and veg. It was probably for the tail-end of a different generation, with lots of independent shops. With the best will in the world, local authorities aren't the best at improving things. They spend a fortune and most of the time it doesn't make things better, it makes things worse. I don't want to blame the local authority because they're trying to do the best they can, but sometimes you're better letting stuff evolve rather than imposing massive change overnight."
"In some ways the likes of the council are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea," Phil continued. "They want things to be better, and they get lots of government money, but maybe it's just a natural evolution and that towns like Oldham have to really suffer before things improve.
"You need some young people with a lot of energy, who've got good ideas. If you're talking about opening cafes, bars, wine bars, interesting little food places. There's certainly plenty of premises around and I'm sure that the rents should be reasonable for them. The council should be welcoming people like that with open arms. The people of Oldham certainly deserve a decent town. We keep our fingers crossed and let's hope it's on the up."
While a storied and successful past is no guarantee of a prosperous future, Oldham does appear to be marching into the new world with a positivity that should entice others to embrace and invest in the town.
Without a loom in sight, there certainly seem to be hopes that Oldham can once again place itself firmly and squarely on the map of the world.
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