A nighttime scene in Oldham

Hope amid hard times in Oldham

Between silent factories and struggling shops, there’s poverty and even hunger. But there’s also a steadfast community spirit which holds the key to turning this town around. Jennifer Williams's reporting and Joel Goodman's photography is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
July 4, 2019

There’s a particular image of Oldham that goes some way towards encapsulating decades of its history, successes and struggles.

In the background stand the long-silent mills, testament to a bountiful, industrious identity reaching back more than 200 years. Terraced houses, built for the thousands of people originally working in those mills and, later, for the engineering giants that flourished here during and after the Second World War, curve into the middle distance.

Yet what’s missing from the picture is just as significant. Gone from the frame is the pocket of Oldham’s library, police station, youth centre and social services department, including a day centre for the elderly. All of these have shut since the introduction of austerity, within a few years and a few yards of each other. Yorkshire Bank closed its local branch in 2017; the post office went late last year.

Not far out of shot, the engineering giant, Avro, once anchored the surrounding community of Chadderton. Home of the Lancaster Bomber and employer to more than 11,000 people, it was eventually subsumed into BAE Systems, before closing in 2012.

The story of Oldham will resonate in many former industrial towns, especially across the north and midlands, that live in the shadow of a neighbouring city. It is the tale of somewhere, and there are many such places, that feels as if it is considered rarely, if at all, by ministers and officials in faraway London. It is a place where a strong identity fights to flourish under layer upon layer of economic bad fortune. Consequently, Oldham’s experience can tell us an awful lot about the ferocious currents swirling through our national politics.

But this is not a story about the “left behind,” a phrase that causes eyes to roll when it is uttered here. Those words subtly lay blame with the town itself, suggesting its people were too slow, too short-sighted to keep up with the big boys, be it London or resurgent Manchester next door.

There is much to admire in the Oldham of 2019, and—if you look for it—a great deal of hope. While admitting that times feel tough and power out of reach, people stress in the same breath that their tale is also one of pride and generosity, of hope, resilience, imagination and solutions. It’s just that, at times, it can feel like an uphill struggle.

The original powerhouse

In the 19th century, Oldham was one of the Industrial Revolution’s engines, the original “northern powerhouse.” That legacy can still be seen today in mills, facades and parks scattered across the borough, from the recently-renovated old town hall, dating back to 1841, to the landscaped gardens of Werneth Park, built by three local merchant families seeking resplendent views down towards Manchester’s Cottonopolis.

There were more looms and Spinning Jennies in Oldham than anywhere else in the empire. The bottom slowly fell out of the old textile industry, but in parallel another employment base had developed in engineering. And the manufacturing plants that came into their own during the war became the social as well as the economic heart of their communities.

“Post-World War Two,” says Jim McMahon, the Labour (Co-op) MP for Oldham West and Royton and former council leader, who grew up just over the border in north Manchester, “engineering firms had innovated along the way and those skills had been retained. Salaries were good and it was a strongly unionised workforce. Avro had a social club, a tennis court.

“All of that was part of people’s identity—they were proud of the thing they’d created, they had a decent pension, they could see themselves moving up in life. There was immigration, but it wasn’t a time of economic strain in the same way, because people had moved from the mills to engineering.”

As Britain’s manufacturing base began to decline in the 1970s and especially the early 1980s, however, Oldham was hit again. The engineering plants withered just as remorselessly as the mills had, until cotton-spinning stopped altogether here in 1998. But this time the cut-backs and closures of the old factories came with the bitter twist that there was no new industry to ride to the rescue. Simultaneously, higher education was rapidly expanding nationwide and in spades in nearby Manchester, whose universities now include two of the largest in the country. But for a place like Oldham, which has a further education college but no university, the effect was to export many bright young people to the cities, while offering others vocational training—a poor relation in terms of government attention and resources.

“At the height of the industrial revolution,” says Graham Foulkes, vice-chair of the local clinical commissioning group, “there were more millionaires here than any other place in the world. If you look now, we have no industries that employ large numbers of people.”

Perhaps not industries. But retail giants like JD Sports have moved in, bringing zero-hours warehousing contracts with them, with none of the social identity, real career opportunities or anchorage once provided by the likes of Avro. Wages here are, according to official labour market statistics, £96 a week behind England’s average. The government’s social mobility commission ranks Oldham as one of the nation’s “cold spots,” places where—by looking across a range of indicators—they judge it unlikely that individuals who have grown up in deprived neighbourhoods will go on and succeed.

England, and the midlands and north in particular, has no shortage of mid-sized towns which once seemed happier and more desirable than the inner cities whose markets they served. Yet today, those towns can feel overshadowed by local metropolises like Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester itself, which have begun bouncing back in the 21st century.

And if Oldham is typical of many an English industrial town in its history and geography, it has the full social mix too. It has thriving middle class neighbourhoods, elegant interwar housing in areas like Coppice, in which university-educated, upwardly-mobile second-generation British Pakistani families have increasingly settled, and also the cluster of pretty villages across Saddleworth, on the edge of Yorkshire.

It also has neighbourhoods where working class homes were thrown up fast for workers of the once-burgeoning mills. “The mills needed large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers to come to Oldham and the housing stock reflected the sudden increase in high numbers of people,” says Foulkes, referring to rows of high-density terraces built in the early 20th century, many of which were later lived in by workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh, ushered in to staff the mills particularly during the 1950s and 1960s.

“By today’s standards, it wouldn’t get planning permission. But you still have many, many people living in poor housing, overcrowded. Poor housing stock, poor health.”

He traces the borough’s extreme health inequalities back to that. “In Oldham you have some of the biggest differences in life expectancy, more than 11 years between the wealthier parts of the borough and the poorest. That disparity is one of the widest in the country.”

Remarkably, three of the 20 worst wards for child poverty nationwide (and there are 9,000-plus in total) are found in the centre of this modestly-sized town. Improving housing here could not be more urgent, and yet when the cuts hit in 2010, the government immediately axed its housing renewal programme for Werneth, the poorest ward of the lot.

The abundance of relatively cheap housing has also led the government to send thousands of asylum seekers to Oldham under its “dispersal” programme, but with no extra money for health or council services. Oldham houses around 800 asylum seekers at present, often people in need of significant support.

Oldham is not alone in this respect. Elsewhere on Manchester’s peripheries, three other industrial towns—Bolton, Wigan and Rochdale—house around 1,000 asylum seekers each. All are areas that have also suffered disproportionate council cuts. Theresa May’s local authority of Windsor and Maidenhead has no asylum seekers. Neither does David Cameron’s back yard of west Oxfordshire.

Northern exposure

As I write, Phillip Hammond is on television, rejecting the UN rapporteur’s scathing report on British poverty. “Look around you, he says. “That’s not what we see in this country.”

A few days before, hundreds of miles away from London, where the chancellor makes his comments, I had been sitting down with three volunteers at Oldham’s central foodbank, tired at the end of a busy shift. Their drop-in next to the Spindles shopping centre is packed full of tins and donated children’s clothing. Thank you cards are pinned up behind the counter. Two thirds of the people using it are in work, but demand has risen year on year with cumulative benefit cuts, and especially since Oldham’s Universal Credit pilot began in 2013.

“I can’t even describe it,” says volunteer Diana Walsh, 53, looking momentarily lost for words, of the new benefit intended to top up low pay as well as provide for the workless. “But we will give it a good go.” Between them Diana and her fellow volunteer Zoey Stansfield, 46, plus manager Lisa Leunig, 52, reel off a catalogue of delays, administrative errors and refusals. “A man came in the other week with a broken foot. He’s got a warehouse job,” says Diana. “You can’t do a warehouse job with a broken foot. They wouldn’t give him housing benefit, so he was just on statutory sick. We often see grown men in tears because they can’t believe they’re here.”

Men cry through a mixture of humiliation, relief, and being overwhelmed, the women agree. Diana tells, appalled, how earlier this year a television crew from Brazil came to film at the centre, sympathising about the levels of poverty.

At the start of the pilot, when some thought there were just “teething problems,” it took two to four months for people to get their payments, says Zoey. “In that time, you had nothing. That’s when a lot of people lose their homes, lose everything, just trying to survive. They go into arrears and then climbing out of arrears is impossible. And it’s not got any better.”

Foulkes, of the local NHS commissioning group, agrees with the volunteers: “I’ve seen it on a personal level in community meetings,” he says, adding that people with mental health problems or struggling with literacy have been driven to the brink of suicide trying to fill in forms. “I’ve seen people drowning in debt and absolute poverty.”

Arrears at the borough’s social landlord, First Choice, have risen by nearly £500,000 since Universal Credit came in. “Which is shocking,” says Zoey, “considering we were one of the initial pilot areas. If anything, we should be seeing things getting better, not worse. Half a decade is long enough to show the government it’s not working. But they don’t care.”

In February some men turned up having last worked on Christmas postal and warehousing shifts. The Jobcentre had assessed their income based on their last pay packet, long since gone, and allocated Universal Credit accordingly. “They were coming in with £30 for a month, including housing benefit—£30 to pay your rent, feed yourself and keep warm? In February?”

Angels of mercy

I meet Peter Russell on a Saturday night in May, at Oldham’s Street Angels outreach project.

Set up by the Dean of Oldham’s CoE parish church, Jean Hurston, the team helps people out on the town over the weekend, as well as the homeless.

Peter, 26, has been helping since they got him off the streets a few weeks ago. “I think there’s just a break in the system,” he says. “With zero-hour contracts, it’s hard for people to keep their home. I was living in my house six years and getting into debt and arrears and becoming homeless, paying them off then going back into them… It was the month’s difference that always set it off, when you lose work and go on to benefits. I feel for people in that situation.” Peter speaks with quiet anger of the spiral he and others have found themselves in. “It’s trying to keep a rhythm, trying to keep things flowing,” he says of juggling rent with wages. “I’ve worked on the markets, I’ve worked cash in hand doing walls and flagstones, painting, bakeries, I’ve just had to keep a bit of a flow up.”

“While I was homeless, I still had my job over at JD [warehouse]. I was still doing my 12-hour shifts. I struggled to sleep through the day and also do my work. I didn’t really have a great Christmas with the weather.”

It became “harder to hide it for work,” he says of sleeping rough. “Luckily they had showers there but people were realising I was staying back to have a shower when everyone else was rushing off. It became noticeable.”

Peter came of age roughly as the national economy hit rock bottom. He says he has been in his recent situation “a few times” since he was 16—everything “coming to crash: family, health, one after the other” after losing work. Street Angels, he says, was “the first place I’d ever asked for help.” And I could fill this article many times over with stories like his.

At 11.30pm, a man called Jim comes in for a brew and some cake, before wandering back into the night. A couple of hours later, Gemma, the team’s paramedic—who patrols the area to find people who might need help—appears and says she’s found Jim. He’s out of it, drunk.

They’re not sure who to ring. His last house, he mumbled, was in Rochdale, so they call Rochdale council’s out-of-hours housing department. Rochdale say he is from Oldham. Oldham council’s team say they can help in the morning, but he will need to phone them then.

He doesn’t have any money or a mobile. He’s 69. At 2.45am, we sit looking at him asleep in a chair. “Look at that face, how much character there is in it,” says Jean, quietly. “A life well lived.” As they prepare to take him to A&E in a taxi, they have put £2.50 in his pocket with a note asking him to ring the council the following day. They know full well the hospital will quickly realise there’s nothing wrong with him, but at least it’s warm there.

It is ironic that even when this team has an NHS-funded paramedic, intended to relieve pressure on the hospital by bandaging people up when they’re out on the town, there’s still nowhere for Jim to go: so they end up having to send him to A&E anyway.

I’m left feeling angry and guilty. When they go back to A&E the next day, Jim has gone.

Enterprising spirit

If Oldham is to thrive in the 21st century, if people like Peter are to get out of the trap, it will have to adapt its economy. Local leaders know this.

Alun Francis, principal of Oldham College, says towns like his—places that don’t have the benefit of a university in the “knowledge economy”—tend to be “forgotten.” More generally, he admits, former industrial towns on Manchester’s northern fringes, from Ashton to Wigan to Oldham itself, have not benefited from its growth in the way the more degree-educated areas to the south have done. Greater Manchester has, many people here acknowledge, its own north-south divide.

That has been a source of political tension for some time, with council leaders in outlying areas pushing for more focus away from Manchester. But Francis still believes the town can only move forward as part of Greater Manchester. “It can sometimes feel a bit like we are in extra time, 3-2 down and need to score two goals in injury time to turn things around,” he says of the conurbation’s attempts to punch its economic weight against London. “The teams who succeed in those circumstances are the ones who stick together, keep to their plan, and work very hard. And even if you sometimes lose, you get up and start again the next day.”

Greater Manchester’s approach, despite tensions, has been one based on collaboration. Its combined authority, with Oldham’s council leader Sean Fielding leading on skills, approved a £9m grant to the college to expand its construction courses. Oldham’s growth sectors are—and need to be—construction, health and social care, digital and business, says Francis, so the college is trying to skill up the next generation accordingly. Ask him about businesses in the town and he quickly points excitedly to a raft of firms which have been quietly innovating.

One of them, Ultimate Products, started as two men—Barry Franks and Simon Showman—selling suitcases on Oldham market in 1997. It now has a turnover of more than £100m. The converted mill housing its world headquarters is an Aladdin’s Cave of household goods you would never know were distributed from, or developed, branded, even designed in Oldham: Russell Hobbs kettles, Salter kitchenware.

Marketing director Craig Holdham admits they could have long ago moved to a distribution hub somewhere on the side of the M6, but chose not to. “Oldham is a fundamental part of our history,” he says, adding that their conversion of two local mills into their offices has been a labour of love. It is labour that has created good jobs in the town as well.

But when they started trying to recruit people to their graduate scheme, they quickly noticed a problem: “We found early on that we were getting a lot of people applying that were from outside of Oldham.”

The firm didn’t just want graduates coming across from Liverpool or Manchester, he says, or even Stockport—it wanted young people born and bred in the town, attracted back following their degrees. “So we put a lot of emphasis on trying to redress that. When we started, we had eight people in OL postcodes” applying, but “now we have 80.” The firm now goes into universities to explain to students—and, indeed, to the universities themselves—that graduates “don’t have to go to the bright lights of London or Manchester.”

It has also joined up with Oldham College to start an “academy”: training people at 18 to have the confidence to work for them. That doesn’t just mean in warehousing, he says, but in higher-skilled supply chain jobs, digital, design. “They might not have all the skills or experience,” he says, “but we feel they have got the talent. We want to harness it.”

Down the road in Glodwick, social entrepreneur Majid Hussain is also positive. In fact, the man behind the Ghazali Trust project is relentlessly positive. “Some things have become Manchester-centric,” he admits of the way the region’s economy has developed. “Not by intent, but by the sheer nature of Manchester. But we are reaching for the sky. Manchester is Manchester and Oldham is going to shine.”

He says it is his “responsibility” to contribute, particularly in the wake of cuts, which have seen Oldham lose £337 per head in council spending since 2010. Meanwhile, according to Centre for Cities analysis this year, Oxford has by contrast gained £115 per head.

The Ghazali Trust was established in the aftermath of the Oldham riots in 2001, when tensions between British Asian and white youths erupted in Glodwick. “People don’t wake up in the morning and think ‘I’m going to start launching bricks at cops and causing chaos,’” he says.

“We thought: ‘There’s something behind this.’ That’s when we decided we can’t wait for someone to come and sort this out. We have to start talking to people.”

That was the start of what is now 18 years of community engagement. He gives one recent example that has coincided with a gradual rise of low-level crime as policing and youth services have been depleted.

“On Bonfire Night, you get youths throwing fireworks at 999 services,” he says.

“Last year, we took responsibility [for] managing that with police, council and fire services. We got 50 volunteers to manage those few days.” The community essentially grouped together to keep an eye on potential anti-social behaviour, talking to the kids and monitoring for any flashpoints. It worked. “In 2017, Oldham was one of the worst in Greater Manchester for violence around fireworks night. This year in Glodwick, there were zero incidents, down from 40-odd the year before.”

Two years ago, the charity bought the old leisure centre that the council was shutting down as it sought to save cash by merging facilities. That story of “rationalisation” is common enough in towns like Oldham, but the trust has set about turning the building into something distinctive.

As we stand at the building site, Majid points to where each thing will be. Here will be a dementia-friendly café. There, a community orchard. Here, a space where lads can come in to do wrestling. There, GCSE catch-up courses, Here, a gym. Some will be revenue generating, to cover wages; much of it will be run by volunteers. If you set a smart and idealistic school student an assignment to design a facility that could help fix Oldham’s problems, you can well imagine they might dream up something exactly like this.

Its £250,000 build cost has been funded by local donation: some from the council, some from the waste processing firm Viridor, some from the police and some from Sport England. It will have taken vision, energy and enterprise to convince all these outfits and bureaucracies to dig deep. But it is the £80,000 raised from a charity dinner in the local community that stands out. “We said to the community: if you really care, what are you going to sacrifice?” says Majid. “And this guy comes up to the stage with his car key. How much do you think it was worth? £21k. And he wasn’t rich, he was a small business owner.”

Majid sits on an array of Oldham’s public bodies, so he knows the effects of the cuts full well. “Oldham disproportionately has taken a bigger hit than a lot of other places,” he says.

“But in a place that’s on the wrong end of most statistics, for the people in these communities to really take the bull by the horns and say ‘we are going to turn our fortunes around’ is commendable.”

When Sport England had come to visit the project earlier this year, declaring a need to engage “hard to reach” communities, Majid was blunt. “Hang on a minute,” he told them. “We are not hard to reach. We have been here for 20 years. You’ve just never tried.”

Take back control

It is three years since Oldham voted for Brexit, and 200 years this summer since thousands of people marched from the town to Manchester, where their peaceful demands for democratic rights would be answered by the Peterloo Massacre. Yet the biggest single obstacle blocking the town’s path to a better future is still a lack of control.

The overlapping and self-reinforcing effects of all the recent cuts to benefits and services here have come on top of long decades in which Oldham’s economy has been subjected to the chill winds of international trade, with little that could be called an industrial strategy to help it compete. Closing factories have long threatened the town’s sense of identity, and now—as shoppers have moved online or jumped on the tram to Manchester—multiple closures on the high street are again straining this place’s sense of itself.

Control has never felt further away. “We feel ignored, irrelevant to the government and the country,” says foodbank volunteer Diana, as she mulls over how the town she loves has changed during her own lifetime.

Bob Kerslake’s review of the divides in this country for the UK 2070 commission published in May, was intended to look back 50 years at regional inequality in this country, as well as forward another half-century. It describes how that guttural frustration came about in communities like this. Comprehensively, the former head of the home civil service picks apart decades of what he calls an “unstated” bias within government towards London which consistently “countervails” occasional rhetoric about rebalancing. The result is gaps between the southeast and everywhere else in skills, life expectancy and earnings.

Expectations need to be lifted, he says. “Unless we create more centres of decision-making and investment across the country, we will constantly face the sorts of experiences that you’ve got in places like Oldham, that are seen as, if you like, remote and easily used as guinea pigs, places that are left to their own devices and not supported.” What’s needed is a “plan for England” with proper devolution, beefed up local governance and a major programme of infrastructure all now essential.

Even Manchester, next door, has been “going up a down escalator,” he says, swimming against the tide. At some point, he believes, there will have to be a “break in the clouds”; if nothing else, London and the southeast cannot continue to hoard such a disproportionate chunk of jobs and growth.

Bolton-born Ian Warren, of the Centre for Towns think tank, agrees there must be a proper debate about “who holds power,” rather than decisions being “reached in rooms in Whitehall with little or no knowledge of the needs of a place like Oldham.” Local voters are “not wrong,” he says, “when they choose to express their dissatisfaction with an economic and political settlement which appears to prioritise putting the jobs of the future somewhere else.”

“The good news is always the people within these towns themselves,” he adds. “They are our best chance to turn around towns like Oldham.”

Looking after its own

Even without the necessary power to determine its own future, Oldham has proved its mettle time and again. All three of the women at the foodbank speak with emotion about the support they get every single day, especially from people who have the least.

“Even though we’re classed as a deprived area, the generosity and kindness of people is amazing,” says Zoey. “We have a lad, Ibrahim, who is 13. He’s on Twitter and he retweets things and donates… every time he gets so many likes. For his last birthday he had no presents and gave everything to charities. I always think teenage boys are much maligned in the mainstream media, but he is my shining light.”

Jean, at the Street Angels project, does not begrudge the role she and her volunteers undoubtedly play in filling the gaps left by a retreating state. “There are people who will say we shouldn’t be doing it, we’re propping up failing services,” she says. “But actually, I think we should be doing it, because we should practise what we preach.” So does Majid Hussain: he sees it as his duty. Acknowledging that Oldham’s 2001 riots continue to be exploited by hard-right politicians—in recent weeks by Nigel Farage, but also Tommy Robinson—he insists Oldham is not defined by that, noting they’ve not yet got very far.

“Look, the fact we’ve never had a BNP councillor here says it all,” he says. “Poverty and deprivation affect people of all backgrounds. Oldham, because it gets branded, doesn’t get the opportunity to shine when it does awesome stuff. I think there’s going to come a day when the good stuff we are doing in Oldham is going to make us a leading light.”

Or, in the words of Peter Russell, as he spends his Saturday night helping other men back on their feet: “Don’t get me wrong though, Oldham’s a lovely town. They look after their own.”

Jennifer Williams's reporting and Joel Goodman's photography is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This piece forms part of Prospect's report "All about towns"