Sean Fielding recently became Leader of Oldham Metropolitan Council, promising to inject ‘energy and real ambition’ into the local authority.
He immediately made headlines after ordering a review of the £350 million town centre Masterplan. The plan’s proposals had included demolition of both Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Tommyfield indoor market hall, relocating council staff to a new HQ, and freeing-up old sites for redevelopment.
However, after becoming the council’s political leader, Sean Fielding declared the Masterplan fell ‘far short’ of what was needed to give a compelling vision for Oldham. Now he has asked planning and regeneration officers to review the plan’s viability with new focus.
In his first in-depth interview, he told Oldham Business Edge about alternative options for key locations, including an increased emphasis on new town centre housing.
He also discussed Oldham Council’s support for businesses and investment, economic opportunities and planning, and the allocation of land for future industrial and commercial use.
Regarding English regional politics, he said Oldham’s profile in Greater Manchester needs to be raised and that Prime Minister Theresa May prefers the Conservative-influenced West Midlands regional devolution scene to Greater Manchester’s Labour variety.
He said the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ vision is now a ‘vacuous’ slogan, highlighted by the lack of northern political power to intervene in the Northern Rail train cancellations controversy, despite public calls for action.
Sean Fielding, aged 28, is the youngest-ever leader of Oldham Council. He studied civil engineering at Manchester University and never expected to become a council leader a few years later.
He was sponsored on his engineering course and spent a year’s placement at Sellafield in Cumbria. After his university course, he hoped to find a civil engineering job but could not because many employers said work was drying-up due to large infrastructure cut-backs.
“I had engineering skills that were supposedly in short supply but couldn’t find a job. So, I went back to working in Tesco in Failsworth, where I’d previously worked while a student.
“I’d also joined my local Labour Party branch in Failsworth and was invited to be considered as a candidate for the council elections. I was later elected and things snowballed from there.
“I never set out for a career in politics. People wrongly assume I did because of my age. However, six years after becoming a local councillor I’ve become the Leader of Oldham Council.”
He recalled: “There was a lot of politics in our family which influenced me. My dad, Stuart, works in the bus industry in Oldham and is active in the Unite trade union. My mum, Helen, worked in finance for Manchester City Council. They didn’t earn massive wages, but they made sure I was comfortable and had opportunities that they did not.
“Unlike some politicians who talk of growing-up in poverty, I did not. However, my motivation for getting into Labour policies was because too many families do not have those comforts or opportunities. They face barriers on wages, housing or education.”
THE MASTERPLAN – YOUR CONCERNS AND THE CURRENT REVIEW
“When I stood for the Leader’s role at Oldham Council, I expected the council would remain under Labour control after this year’s May elections, which is what happened. However during the election process, a lot of concerns were raised about the Masterplan, the town centre and the demolition plans. Despite there being no change in political control after the election, it would be wrong not to act on those concerns. That would be the worst kind of politics, which is the reason why people become disillusioned with politicians.
“I thought there was a need to pause and reflect on what people were telling us. The purpose of having elected councillors is to represent the people. Elected councillors are different to council officers. If they don’t do represent the public effectively then, frankly, there’s no point in coming here.
“New work is being done internally by council officers on the Masterplan. They are looking again at certain aspects of the proposals – such as the not demolishing Queen Elizabeth Hall and the indoor market – and focusing more on town centre housing.
“Council officers expect a change of focus with a change of political leadership. They are very professional and will be asked to do work reflecting the political priorities of the new administration.
KEY TOWN CENTRE LOCATIONS
Previous mixed retail and residential regeneration plans for Prince’s Gate and Mumps were dealt a blow after M&S pulled its plan for a store there. Nearby land along the former railway line was earmarked for housing but no developments have started.
Sean said: “Prince’s Gate has the potential to be a prestigious eastern gateway into the town centre from some affluent areas of the borough. It must do the town justice and sell Oldham. It must be more than just a location for the bypass going past the town.
“We need the right mix of leisure, dining and retail across the town centre as a whole, and some retail needs to be unique.
“If Oldham’s shops are just the same as Bury or Manchester’s then there’s no reason for people to visit Oldham. Even central Manchester is threatened by changing retail market conditions, such as the future of House of Fraser. Oldham is arguably more vulnerable to retail changes, so we need schemes that are sustainable for the future.
“It’s a shame that the old bank building at Mumps is still empty but it cannot be redeveloped in isolation. Planning permission has been granted but developers want confidence in Mumps as a whole. So, it’s up to Oldham Council to come up with details for the whole area, including Rhodes Bank.
“The housing market typically values properties by what exists next door and nearby. However there’s currently nothing ‘next door’ to the old bank or to other sites in the Mumps area. I think there are opportunities for the old bank for residential and other uses, but it needs a comparator. The council has a role to provide that – to give it an early kick-start.
MORE TOWN CENTRE HOUSING
“We want to look more at town centre housing. Twenty years ago, Manchester only had a few hundred people living in the city centre. Now it has thousands of residents and the electoral boundaries are being changed because of the massive population growth.
“I was in Rochdale recently, where the agencies there are starting to look at more housing. There are similar opportunities for Oldham in offering city centre-type living at more affordable prices. Here the rents are lower, the tram links are excellent and there are benefits in getting out of Manchester city centre.
“But we must ensure people have the right offer of things here. That’s why the new restaurants, bars and cinema are important. Oldham town centre is very different now to when I was at Oldham Sixth Form College ten years ago, so it’s important we recognise changes for the better.
“However, there are challenges too. For example, we are keen to bring the land near the old railway line in Mumps to the market for housing. There are barriers to this, such as land ownership issues, which we want to address with the help of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, who I’ve raised this with already. We need to do some effective communication and lobbying on these issues, which may include working with the Government.
I think the Mumps area lends itself to townhouses. It’s on the fringe of the town centre and close to existing residential areas. Recent developments in Derker (new townhouses in the London Road area – which arose from former national Housing Market Renewal programmes – prove there’s a market for people who want to live close to the town centre with lots of amenities. It’s a shame those renewal programmes were ended a few years ago and didn’t go further.”
RM: A new Coliseum Theatre and heritage centre is being developed on Union Street. However, some landmark historic buildings are empty, such as the former Prudential building. Aren’t there opportunities to use posters, flags or billboard campaigns to promote the changing town centre and development opportunities?
SF: “The Union Street corridor is very important to portray the right image of Oldham. Trams pass along it in both directions to Manchester and Rochdale, packed with hundreds of passengers. We need to use the opportunities there and along other important corridors to showcase the changes in Oldham. I don’t think that’s happening on Union Street at the moment. Work needs to be done. I asked the council to replace old billboards at Mumps and we need to look at all important corridors.
COUNCIL COMMUNICATIONS WITH BUSINESS
RM: Is the council communicating enough with businesses?
SF: “I think we could do a lot more regarding communicating help and advice for businesses. I’ve spoken to retailers on Yorkshire Street recently, who said there was a big blitz of communication and advice when the Independent Quarter was first promoted. But those activities may have ran out of steam a little. A lot of that communication for the Independent Quarter was done by third parties because the council is not always the best organisation to do every task.
“A lot of business support and advice is still available, including a £4million white label business finance initiative which is loan funding specifically available for Oldham to support business growth and development – and to complement the wider business support already available from Oldham Council, the Growth Company Business Growth Hub and Oldham Enterprise Trust. However, we have not picked-up the pace with promoting that to attract the kind of businesses we want. However, we will be looking at bringing that forward very soon.
LAND FOR INDUSTRY & COMMERCE
RM: Does the borough have enough land and infrastructure for industrial estates, business and logistics parks? Shop Direct is relocating work done at two Greater Manchester sites including one in Oldham to the Midlands.
SF: “I think we have the space to bring logistics-type employment into the borough although the hilly terrain means some sites aren’t as easy to develop as other parts of Greater Manchester.
“Transport links are very good with the M62, the A62, the M60, the Metrolink trams and connections to Manchester city centre. We’ve started to expand at Broadway Green and Hollinwood Junction, but I think other sites might need support from Greater Manchester, and possibly the Government, to unlock.“But we also need to consider what other types of employment we want? There’s a place for logistics but I also want well-paid jobs for local people. We cannot exclusively become the logistics capital of Greater Manchester simply because we have the space.
“Shop Direct said infrastructure was not the issue that prevented them from staying here (in Shaw and in Bolton). They said quicker home delivery from the East Midlands was the factor although it’s not an argument I agree with. Oldham Council offered Shop Direct a site at Broadway Green but they chose not to take it.”
FUTURE PLANNING – GREATER MANCHESTER SPATIAL FRAMEWORK
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Spatial Framework’s is a detailed, draft planning proposal for the whole region. Its ‘Northern Gateway’ policy looks at potential industrial and commercial development sites along the M62, between the M66 to the A627(M) for Oldham and Rochdale. Ideas include the extension of the Kingsway Business Park to the southern, Oldham, side of the M62. Following the May local elections, which included changes in political control at Trafford Council, negotiations are again ongoing about the Spatial Framework’s details.
SF: “There is a very clear north-south divide in Greater Manchester. The Spatial Framework is a golden opportunity to put some of that right – to rebalance development and ensure Oldham and Rochdale get their fair share of the pie.
“My view is that the Spatial Framework is about controlling development across Greater Manchester rather than it being purely market-led. The consequences of market-led development have been that boroughs like Oldham and Rochdale have been left out. We want development and employment – but we need it on our terms.
“This is an issue I’ll be pushing at Greater Manchester Combined Authority, particularly because of ‘inclusive growth’. This phrase may seem like jargon but it’s about rebalancing the economy and making sure nowhere is left out.”
GREATER MANCHESTER POLITICAL LEADERSHIP
RM: Where does political influence and power lie in Greater Manchester, and who’s best-placed to advocate for Oldham? What’s the balance between Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council; Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Sean Fielding, Leader of Oldham Council; and MPs in Westminster, such as Jim McMahon?
SF: “The dynamic of Greater Manchester politics has shifted very quickly. Sir Richard Leese is the only person around who took part in signing the original devolution deal. That experience has brought its own benefits for him. However, the combined authority should be all about local authorities working collectively in the interests of Greater Manchester. It’s not about one individual. By working collectively, we sometimes do things for the benefit of other boroughs rather than our own.
“However Oldham has not benefited for a long time, if ever, from the collective benefits of the combined authority. We must not be afraid of opening our mouths. There are also other leaders in Greater Manchester who can come along and make the case for change.
“The housing investment fund in Greater Manchester does not work because it’s a loan structure. We need a grants structure in Oldham because of the property market. We need change there, for example.
“We also need to be clear about our identity. Some Greater Manchester boroughs are happy to be dormitory towns for Manchester. We have a bit of that, with our aspirational homes programme for people who want to live here and work in central Manchester. However, we also need to create employment here.
”We have a large workforce in Oldham. But the evidence is that it’s not worthwhile for some people to travel for work at Manchester Airport or Trafford Park because of the wages and the travel involved.
“Health and care is a massive sector which can provide skilled technician and lab roles in Oldham. These can be well-paid jobs grown on our doorstep. This is the similar case for other boroughs. I think we could make a better case about these types of issues and argue more strongly at Greater Manchester-level.”
RM: Does wealth trickle-down to Oldham from Manchester city centre? And is there a case to redraw council boundaries to reflect the modern, fluid Greater Manchester?
“As a member of the Labour Party, I don’t believe in trickle-down economics. There are benefits for Oldham in being close to Manchester that we can exploit, such as housing and city centre-type living at Oldham prices, and good connections for businesses to locate here. But I wouldn’t describe that as trickle-down economics.
“I’ve mentioned the north-south divide in Greater Manchester being a big issue. The Manchester border is just 30 seconds from Failsworth and Oldham has a lot in common with north Manchester, which is a world-away from south Manchester. Local authority boundaries may change in future but I have to work with what we have, here and now.
RM: Why did the Labour Party select you to replace Jean Stretton as Leader? Was there a period of drift, stagnation or division in the Labour Group over two years?
SF: “For a few years we became used to Oldham being talked about more positively and for the council being outgoing. I think there’s a perception that the Labour Party at Oldham Council became bogged-down in internal, operational things – in managing things that officers and managers should do.
“In me, the Labour Party saw someone who was not a typical local government leader. They wanted someone who will be different and listened to. Jean Stretton provided stability when Jim McMahon left sooner than expected. (to become Oldham West MP after the death of Michael Meacher). The Labour group is grateful for Jean providing that support, but the mood is that we have to pick-up the pace and move on. Standing still is equivalent to going backwards. Oldham cannot afford to ‘tick-over’.
“People are sick of negative headlines about Oldham and seeing it at the wrong end of league tables. They want to know what we’re doing to get out of it and set the pace.
We also need to look beyond Oldham and Greater Manchester for examples of best practise. When Jim McMahon was council leader, he spoke about ‘batting at a higher level’. He’s now in opposition at Westminster while I’ve got the resources of a borough council to demonstrate what the Labour Party can do for people.”
ENGLISH REGIONAL POLITICS & IDEAS
RM: What are your feelings about regional politics currently and ideas such as the Northern Powerhouse?
SF “The Northern Powerhouse is just a slogan now. The recent chaos of Northern Rail demonstrates how vacuous the Northern Powerhouse is. And the politics of the West Midlands seems more palatable to the Government.
“The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has made a point of speaking about the ‘Midlands Engine’ a number of times. But we cannot let things go. Greater Manchester still has more devolved powers than any other English region. It’s the job of the ten local authorities here to make sure that we are heard and get a fair deal.
“So, I’m keen to develop relationships with other Greater Manchester leaders and also visit other places. I’ve been looking at successes in Preston and Wigan, which operate some programmes similar to our co-operative borough work in Oldham.
“Finally, and locally, it’s important to recognise good changes in Oldham over recent years. I have a friend from Oldham who now lives in Bristol. He said recent developments such as the Odeon cinema, the Old Town Hall, Parliament Square, and various new cafes and restaurants in the town centre are all positive changes, and better than many other Greater Manchester towns. We need to build on that momentum.”