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Does the Greater Manchester experiment work for Oldham?
In this town, bad economics breeds bad politics
In last week’s local elections, Oldham lost its third council leader in succession. Labour’s Amanda Chadderton, who had made it her mission to stabilise Oldham and rebuild trust with local people, suffered the same fate as her predecessors in 2021 and 2022. After losing her seat, Chadderton pointed to the toxic forces that have poisoned Oldham’s politics in recent year, forces that we reported on extensively here on The Mill. “I have death threats, my house is double alarmed, I carry a police alarm,” Chadderton said. “The police have had to follow me home so no one else follows me home.”
But there is a broader story in Oldham than one about a borough beset by conspiracy theories and allegations of council corruption and incomptence. As we’ve suggested in our past reporting, the background to the political chaos is a more prosaic story about jobs and incomes and economics – and of a town left behind by the growth of Greater Manchester and struggling to find its role in the modern world. That’s the subject of today’s story by Daniel Timms, our data and policy reporter, who has been speaking to the authors of a report that was supposed to open a new chapter for Oldham. So the question is: can it?
By Daniel Timms
It was 1861, and desperation was in the air in Lancashire. The American Civil War was raging and the Confederate South had halted cotton exports. This, they hoped, would cripple the British economy, forcing the country to support the Confederacy's cause in the war.
The cotton workers had other ideas, and – at a meeting at Free Trade Hall in December 1862 – they pledged their support to the Union and its anti-slavery stance. This was especially noble, because the drying up of cotton supply was devastating for their industry. Unemployment surged, and many workers moved away, to ply their trade in Yorkshire’s wool industry or elsewhere.
In Oldham, a town entirely dependent on cotton spinning for its income, the threat was existential. But at its lowest ebb the town’s institutions rallied. Millowners came together, a committee was formed, land was bought. Then local cotton workers were employed to build the Alexandra Park, a grand public space in the best of the Victorian tradition. This kept workers from destitution, maintaining their skills, and meant that when the cotton returned, the staff were there to spin it.
It’s an incredible story of a town’s resilience against the odds.
160 years later, and it’s 2021. The institutions of Oldham are again responding to a crisis. But this was a much more gradual and insidious threat; economic decline, instead of decimation. It was clear that something was going very wrong in Oldham, and had been for some time.
The annual salary in the town lags the national average by over £7,000; life expectancy is around two and a half years lower; and a much smaller proportion of people have high-level qualifications. In 2004, Oldham had the 43rd worst deprivation of English local authorities – but by 2019 it had climbed to 19th. Things weren’t just bad – they were getting worse.
In response, the council commissioned a year-long process – the Oldham Economic Review. The fundamental question, easy to ask, but very hard to answer: What is the economy of Oldham actually for?
A feeling of decline
“It used to be simple – it was engineering and cotton,” Alun Francis, the principal of Oldham College, and one of the lead authors, tells me. “Its job was to make things and sell them.” Everyone knew this, and so it was easy to attract investment and design a skills system geared to local industry.
But things change: now it’s much less straightforward. Manufacturing remains a significant sector, but most residents couldn’t tell you what the local factories produce. There are big employers, including our friends at the MEN, whose vast office and printing plant is in Chadderton, but it’s hardly a media hub. Those conducting the review didn’t have the easiest job on their hands.
This ambiguity might not matter, were it not for the fact that many perceive the town to be in decline. This isn’t really about the economic statistics, but what people see around them. When I visited Alexandra Park on a glorious spring day and asked a few open questions about the town’s economy, most people highlighted things that had gone: the Coliseum, the shops, the market (which is in fact relocating). The fortunes of Oldham Athletic – a founding member of the Premier League but recently demoted to non-league status – seem to embody a broader sense of a way lost.
To understand more about how residents feel, I called Maureen Keith-Wright, 66, who we spoke to when we covered Oldham’s toxic politics a year ago. Maureen grew up in Chadderton, so knows the Oldham of before – but her secretarial career, which began in Manchester, has since taken her to Scotland and London. She returned to Oldham many years later to look after her mother, working as a school librarian before retiring last year. She has the kind of insider/outsider perspective that feels necessary to honestly assess how Oldham is getting on.
When I ask her to compare the town, then and now, I get the sense she’s struggling to put her finger on something that’s been lost. She doesn’t have a rose-tinted view of the past, recalling how family finances were a continual pressure growing up. Yet she feels there’s less on offer in the town, particularly in terms of employment, than there used to be. “It’s on a kind of downward…” she corrects herself. “Not a downwards spiral, because a lot of things are happening... But it’s…” – and here she struggles for the right word – “not as vibrant, shall I say, as it used to be.”
She reflects on the loss of the Coliseum – “our little theatre” – and it seems that even as she’s saddened by its loss, she’s sadder still at the general apathy it’s been greeted with by many. “Usually people are up in arms about a theatre closing down – it was a very popular theatre… it’s just gone, and nobody’s doing anything about it”. More broadly, she sees “an awful lot of apathy. People aren’t just really bothered… I don’t know whether that’s because people are really struggling, and have got other things on their mind?” She helped to volunteer at the recent local elections, and sees the same pattern of general disengagement – especially among the young. “I could count on one hand how many 18 year-olds, 20 year-olds came in. Probably about five. So why is that? Why?”
The importance of civic pride
“You need places to feel like they’re going in the right direction”, Professor Andy Westwood, the other main author of the review tells me. While some have been quick to deride the Government’s Levelling Up strategy as no more than cosmetic interventions to paper over economic cracks – so-called hanging basket politics – he’s not so sure. “Identity and civic pride – that stuff does matter”.
I’m meeting up with Westwood at the University of Manchester, and while it feels a long way from Oldham, he’s no ivory tower academic. He’s spent much of the last year travelling around post-industrial towns in Germany and the United States trying to understand how to turn the fortunes of such places around.
Oldham’s story may be unique, but he believes it’s a “metaphor for other places”. Its story fits into a pattern across the developed world, where populism has found a fertile soil in areas affected by industrial decline.
In Oldham, we’ve seen this play out in real-time, as we’ve covered repeatedly here in the Mill. Unproven allegations about cover-ups by the Labour leadership continue to find a receptive audience. And when the third local election in a row leads to the downfall of the council leader, it starts to look like a pattern. Beneath the personalities and the drama, it’s hard not to conclude that economic conditions are among the main causes for the political dysfunction. Everywhere has its conspiracy theorists, but in a context of economic decline, narratives of betrayal and cover-up have an extra potency. Perhaps especially so, when it’s hard to know exactly who or what to blame for the malaise.
Multiply the problem across the many towns like Oldham, and you have a coalition of the disaffected, with serious political heft, and a willingness to vote for whoever promises solutions. In this way, Westwood believes, local problems can become national, or even international ones.
You might consider the Oldham Economic Review to be a sort of localised sequel to a piece of work carried out fifteen years earlier – the Manchester Independent Economic Review. This was a large suite of documents drawn up by economists to set a new narrative for the city region – emphasising the huge untapped potential in Greater Manchester. For those who have followed the ups and downs of Greater Manchester’s devolution journey from the beginning, it is a seminal text – providing the intellectual underpinnings for all that was to follow.
The review in Oldham was a somewhat more modest affair. “We didn’t want it to cost a lot of money. What places like Oldham don’t want is a load of consultants to come in and tell them what they knew in the first place,” Francis tells me. Much of the analysis was carried out in-house, though outside experts came in to be interviewed for their perspectives.
Despite its low-budget nature, the review is impressively broad in its scope, and doesn’t shy away from the big questions.
The Greater Manchester conundrum
Like: should the push to improve a city be focused on its centre? Just as fashions change, so too the trends in urban policy thinking. An approach that was considered de rigeur a few years back is now more likely to be found in the policy equivalent of a bargain bin.
If we look back at the government’s regional policy from the 2010s, a crude simplification of this would be something like “strengthen city centres in less productive areas”. The idea is that city centres are the most likely places to generate high-skilled, high-paying jobs, so you encourage investment there. Then, you focus on creating good transport links to that centre.
This not only makes those jobs more widely available, but will in itself make the area more productive. This is via a process known as “agglomeration”, where you make the labour market bigger (e.g. more people can reach the city centre with an hour’s commute). People can get jobs that better match their skills, and learn from others around them. End result: productivity up for everyone.
Sure, you think. This all sounds logical. But more recently, some – Labour’s shadow minister Lisa Nandy, most notably – have argued that the place of towns has been overlooked in this worldview, and that the benefits that spill out from city centres have been oversold. In one of his early speeches as Prime Minister, made at the Science and Industry Museum, Boris Johnson summed up the view: “Too many places – towns and coastal communities… don’t feel they are getting benefits from the growth we are seeing elsewhere in the UK economy.” As a result, a lot of Levelling Up funding was channelled to local councils, especially in towns like Oldham which had tended to vote for Brexit. The previous policy of science and tech-led city centre growth seemed to be dead in the water.
Oldham is a particularly interesting example. Yes, it’s long been treated as part of Greater Manchester and was connected to the Metrolink in 2014. Before that, it was part of a Lancashire ecosystem, where its mills would spin cotton brought into Manchester, before sending it north for weaving in Preston and Burnley. Yet it fiercely maintains a sense of being a town in its own right, not a suburb of a bigger conurbation.
Both Francis and Westwood were clear that Oldham is inescapably part of the Greater Manchester fabric, and to pretend otherwise is nonsensical. But they argue for a more nuanced understanding of agglomeration that is not just between the centre and the periphery, but also between places around the edge.
In Andy Burnham’s vision for Atom Valley – announced after the review was published – the authors may have found what they’re looking for. This is a Mayoral Development Zone, designed to concentrate new business investment in Bury, Rochdale, and Oldham.
“Something important has shifted”, Francis tells me. He believes the city region now recognises that “if we’re going to turn around former industrial cities, the outlying boroughs must be part of that story.”
‘If there were better jobs, Oldham would be happier’
Which brings us to another great question: what sort of jobs does Oldham need? Cue another tug of war – this time between those who push for new high-skilled jobs (like: data scientists and software engineers), and those who focus on improving conditions in existing jobs in the “foundational” economy (unglamorous roles such as shop assistants and care workers). The former group would argue that the only way to seriously increase productivity is to change the jobs mix, while the latter contend that these jobs aren’t an option for most local people, many of whom lack the requisite skills.
Of course, both are important, and it's a question of emphasis. But the review is clear in diagnosing one of Oldham’s main economic problems as an overdependence on the public sector. Since 2010, public sector wage rises have regularly been frozen or capped, while austerity has led to job cuts. As a result, the amount of money flowing round the town has been gradually stripped away.
Keith-Wright, who has come to see these issues through the prism of the young people she’s worked with in the school library, sees a lack of job opportunities as a major problem. Most of the opportunities available seem to be in retail and hospitality, and while there are apprenticeships for some of the schoolchildren, they’re only available to a small number. If they want a decent job to get their teeth into, they’re much more likely to find it down in Manchester, she believes. If there were better jobs, she tells me, Oldham “would be a happier, more inclusive, place” – but community tensions are more easily inflamed when so many are struggling to get by.
Westwood believes the foundational economy is really important, but also that the point of a foundation is exactly that: it’s a starting point and you’ve got to build on top of it. Oldham shouldn’t just become a provider of low-value services to Greater Manchester – this would mean “locking the place into a low-wage [equilibrium]”.
The review calls instead for the town to break away from this dependence and put in some serious legwork attracting the private sector – developing missions and targets to make this happen.
All the same, the state of public services is a serious concern. When I speak to Mohammed, Paul, and Andy, friends who meet for a regular catchup in Alexandra Park, it’s top of the list. “Services have been cut drastically”, Paul tells me, highlighting mental health services. Weaning the town’s economy off public sector reliance while filling resource gaps in its public services will be a major challenge.
Both of the main authors of the review have a background in skills policy, and it shows – this is the chunkiest part of the whole thing. They believe that the way the UK runs further education has let Oldham down, by not incentivising colleges to provide students with the courses that would actually help them to get good jobs in the local area.
Westwood characterises the attitude from the Department for Education as: “We don’t care about Oldham – just deliver X number of Level 3 qualifications”. In Germany, by contrast, technical colleges are deeply embedded with local trade unions and industry, meaning their qualifications are kept relevant.
There’s also the perception problem. “In practice, technical education in our country has become associated with finding something to do for those who are leaving school with the lowest level of achievement”, says Francis, who as the local technical college principal is at the coalface of these issues. The system is one of labyrinthine complexity – having been treated to decades of tinkering with by policymakers, but little long-term strategy.
But he’s optimistic the situation is improving, with the introduction of a system of qualifications for vocational subjects (called T-levels) meaning it’s clearer what you get from taking a course. He’s cautiously supportive of further devolution of skills funding in the recent Greater Manchester deal – though he believes it’s vital for the Combined Authority to be a broker between industry and the skills system, when the temptation will be to take a central planning role. The review argues it should be up to Oldham to decide what its skills priorities are, then negotiate with Andy Burnham’s team – bottom-up, instead of top-down.
One year on
It’s a year since the review was published: has anything changed since? It would be harsh to say “nothing”, as some groups have been formed to explore the review’s various themes. “We’re pleased there’s an implementation plan”, says Francis, “and we would like to see some real energy in implementing the proposals”.
But the sense I get from other conversations is that there’s frustration at the molasses-slow pace of change, with impetus being lost since the leader who launched the review – Arooj Shah – was removed. In Alexandra Park, Mohammed shared the view: “We’ve had the talking done – now we need the walking.” Certainly the merry-go-round of council leaders in Oldham has made it almost impossible to have a strategic focus.
When I visited Oldham, I didn’t instinctively share the pessimism that I heard from some of those I spoke to. Perhaps the sunny weather coloured my impressions, but the high street seemed fairly busy, and while I could understand some of the comments about a lack of variety in shops, there weren’t many empty units. Construction work is underway to extend and improve the Spindles shopping centre, which was bought by the council a few years ago, adapting to the need for a wider range of uses such as co-working space and flats.
And last summer Oldham Athletic was bought by local businessman Frank Rothwell, bringing to an end the unpopular reign of the former owners. The team has just enjoyed a positive end to the season, winning four out of five of their last games. If football mirrors life, then perhaps Oldham’s economy is also at a turning point.
I ask Keith-Wright how she feels about the town’s future. “Hopefully it’ll pick up, and things will change,” she offers, though there’s a note of doubt in her voice. “Oldham has still got very nice people. There’s a lot of love there.”
That counts for a lot, but it will only take you so far when the economy isn’t working for most people. “We’re a friendly bunch”, she says. “We just haven’t got any money.”
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