My own trip to Oldham showed me what’s required—serious investment and devolution of power. (This article features in “All about towns,” Prospect’s new report in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation)by Ben Chu / July 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
It wasn’t for nothing that when I was sent by BBC’s Newsnight to investigate Britain’s yawning regional inequalities, I pitched up, one chilly spring evening, at the Premier Inn on Oldham Broadway.
In 2015 Oldham was identified as the most deprived town in England by the Office for National Statistics. When you throw gauges of well-being such as income, health, skills and housing into a statistical cauldron and stir it around, the place that, apparently, comes out the lowest is this former global textiles superpower in the northwest. For a film about the “two nations” of modern Britain—the prosperous and the not-so-prosperous—Oldham, sadly, was a natural place to illustrate the latter.
Jennifer Williams’s report on the town resonates with what we learned. There was an uncomfortable sense among locals that improved transport connections—through the Metrolink tram—to the flourishing city of Manchester has merely made it easier for Oldham residents to get out of their own town to work, shop and play. “Lots of people are on these trams but they’re not getting off until Manchester,” David Whaley, the last editor of the Oldham Chronicle lamented (the print edition shut in 2017 after 160 years of publication).
But in interview after interview we also found the same quiet, but defiant, sense of local civic pride, despite the adversity, that Williams also identified.
Around a sixth of the metropolitan borough’s 250,000 population is Asian. Unskilled Pakistani and Bangladeshi labourers arrived to work in the town’s textile mills in the 1950s and 1960s, encouraged to come by British ministers to fill gaps in the labour market. Then, in one of the nasty ironies of globalisation, they lost those jobs as textile production shut down in the UK and shifted to the lower-cost developing world in the 1970s and 1980s.
That might have been a recipe for alienation and anger among those affected. And it would be vain to deny that those emotions exist as times become harder. But what’s interesting is that one finds just as much local devotion from Oldham’s Asians as one does from the white community. “I’m proud to be from Oldham—proud of the history, the people,” Rabina Kauser, who works for the Aksa Housing Association, told me on an earlier visit to the town.
Yet the fact remains that…