To help Britain's towns we need a great economic rebalancing

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)

July 11, 2019
ormer mill conversions provide ideal homes for new companies. Photo: Joel Goodman
ormer mill conversions provide ideal homes for new companies. Photo: Joel Goodman

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 Oldham is a troubling case study for economists and policymakers—one which underlines just how strenuous it will be to achieve a rebalancing, to pull such places back into the caravan of rising national prosperity.

The hope has been that encouraging the growth of big cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle will benefit depressed outlying towns, that the growth will “trickle out.” That just doesn’t seem to have happened for Oldham, despite being less than nine miles from booming Manchester. Complaints about the impact of the local tram connection suggest proximity has been a mixed blessing.

"However bleak things might look from on high, there’s much to work on down on the ground in places like Oldham”
Or, at least the “trickle out” phenomenon has not happened yet. Perhaps it’s a matter of time. It took decades for Oldham to become the textiles powerhouse of the 19th century. It took decades for that progress to reverse. Why would we assume that prosperity could be restored overnight?

The conviction of locals—and local experts—is that it will take major long-term national investment and genuine devolution of decision-making power to people who have the on-the-ground knowledge to use it most effectively, whether on skills, housing, health or transport infrastructure. And that’s probably the best bet for towns not just like Oldham, but others close to the top of the ONS deprivation league table such as Walsall, Birkenhead and Middlesbrough.

One of Theresa May’s last attempts to do something to extinguish her “burning injustices,” famously mentioned in the inaugural speech outside No 10, was a £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund. But, sadly, this turned out to be a demonstration of why the government’s regional development policy has failed: this was an under-funded, last-minute, sticking plaster-style solution cooked up by ministers and civil servants in distant Whitehall, all while they stumbled around in the Brexit quagmire.

As we left Oldham it had turned into a bright, though somewhat hazy, day so we stopped on Copster Hill to take some shots of the view down to the towers and cranes of the Manchester skyline. A red brick tower drew our eye down to an old mill just below us. We decided to descend and get some close-up shots of what we assumed would be a grim, albeit telegenic, symbol of Oldham’s neglect and hopelessness.

But as we got closer we realised the 1905 Heron Mill had actually been converted into a gleaming new distribution centre for Ultimate Products, the local, graduate-training, consumer goods firm that Williams also writes about. A lesson then. However bleak things look from on high, there’s much to work on down on the ground in places like Oldham.


(This article features in “All about towns,” Prospect’s new report in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation)