Paying more and getting less - the town that got £200m taken out if its pockets

Reporter: Charlotte Hall, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 23 February 2024

Oldham council is well on its way to setting the budget for the next year.

That means significant decisions are being made about how the council will spend its money - from everyday services like rubbish collections to transforming town centres with ambitious regeneration projects.

Council bosses called this year’s budget “one of the toughest we’ve ever had to set”.

After historic cuts in grants and funding and the spiralling demand and cost of social care, they’ve had to dig deep to cover a £30m shortfall in their books.

They’ve decided to make £11m of cuts to council services and have had to raise council tax by five per cent.

But they claim to have prioritised the most vulnerable in the community by focusing spending on social care and accommodation for those facing homelessness.

But what do Oldhamers think about how the council currently spends its money?

The Local Democracy Reporting Service took to the streets of Oldham town centre and Alexandra to speak to local residents about everything from council tax to a Borough circus.

‘Oldham is one of the most miserable towns to live in - we can vouch for that.’ 

Roy (78) and Janet (77) Hazeldine have lived in Oldham all their lives and don’t believe the council has been spending money on the right things.

“They seem to be wasting a lot of money on various things like all this new building,” Janet said, gesturing to the temporary fencing erected outside the Spindles shopping centre.

“I read the other day that Oldham is one of the most miserable towns to live in - and we can vouch for that.

"We need more green spaces.”

Roy quipped: “They should be spending money on reducing the council tax.

“They also need to reduce the rates in the shopping centre,” he added.

“Because a lot of places are going to be replaced with the same types of shops, charity shops, takeaways and phone shops, because other places can’t afford it.”

‘The kiddies don’t have enough’ 

For mother-of-two Angela Hughes, 51, the town doesn’t offer enough for youngsters.

“There’s nothing here for teenagers,” she said.

“I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter at home, and there’s nothing for her to do after school.

"She goes to college and she comes home - that’s it.

“Kids need somewhere safe where they can spend time.

"But there’s nothing to come up into Oldham for.”

Her older daughter, now 28, left town for university and never returned.

“They’re our next generation, the next ones who are going to stand up and say ‘this is our town’ - and what do they have to say about our town? Nothing.”

Maureen Salt, 65, of Fitton Hill, was also concerned about what the town was offering the young.

“The kiddies don’t have enough,” she said.

"“They live on these big estates and don’t have anywhere to go.

"They have to go miles and miles to find somewhere nice to play out.

“It’s not fair.”

‘The parks are beautiful’ 

But one thing that many of the residents agreed on was that the parks Oldham has are well-looked after assets for the local community.

In Alexandra Park, a couple who did not wish to be named told of how they have been coming to the area twice a week for years and are on first-name basis with some of the gardeners.

“The parks are beautiful,” said one.

“The money spent here [in Alexandra Park] is pretty good but they’re short of staff.”

The shortage is unlikely to change in the next year, as the budget squeeze will likely see the council cutting 33 vacant and agency posts for park services.

“[The council] are good for looking after the parks,” Maureen agreed.

“Just not for anything else.”

Community, community, community 

Merril Taylor, 64, who worked for the council as a social worker for over 20 years, said: “I don’t keep up with it because it all feels a bit hopeless.

"I don’t feel as though we’ve got a voice anymore.

“For me, it’s about social spaces.

"The regeneration projects in the town centre are not enough.

"You can’t have community unless you provide community spaces and that’s what I think Oldham’s rubbish at.”

Merril, who lives in Chadderton and grew up in the area, said she remembered how there used to be carnivals in the park in Alexandra and music concerts in the town hall.

“Now there’s none of that recreational stuff,” she said.

“But that’s how you bring communities together.

“The town feels very segregated now.”

Communication is key

Merril also wanted to see more visible communication from the council about cultural events happening in town and about the regeneration plans - through posters and notice boards in parks and social clubs.

But others, including opposition groups, have called for the council to reduce funding for comms, and the council is in fact slashing two full-time positions from their communications team this year to help address financial pressures.

Council leader Arooj Shah responded to these comments: “We really welcome people’s input into how the council spends its budget.

"It’s what helps set our priorities, such as keeping our most vulnerable residents safe; helping people live healthy lives with more opportunities; boosting business and jobs; giving children a better start in life; and making Oldham a great place to live for everyone.

“But our budgets have been cut in real terms by 56% by central government since 2010.

"That’s more than £200 million Oldham has lost.

"We need to take tough decisions on how to spend the money we do have.”

She noted that the new budget covered many of the priorities raised by residents, including “much-loved” parks, “transforming” the town centre, growing the local economy and offering leisure facilities and events for residents.

“But we must recognise the government has slashed councils’ funding,” Shah said.

“Oldham doesn’t get as much council tax and business rates as many other councils do.

"The last 13 years have hit us hardest - and we must take difficult decisions.”

She named the projects at Spindles, the building of new event spaces, the creation of 2,000 new homes, creating new ‘one-stop-shop’ family hubs and upgrading facilities in parks.

“I hope the exciting new areas we are investing in show how we listen and act on what people want and need.”

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