Paul Salveson on Oldham’s Coliseum closure and the decline of town shops
Labour’s victory in the West Lancashire by-election was hardly unexpected. The best the Tories could come up with in response was to say that the 10% swing wasn’t as much as they’d expected. There were some big local issues which highlight the sick joke that the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda has become – in particular, the Department for Transport’s rejection of plans for a rail link to Skelmersdale, now the biggest town in the West Lancashire constituency. Skelmersdale (or ‘Skem’) was one of the 1960s new towns, built in the days when the car was king and planning was built around assumptions that universal car ownership was just a matter of time. So the railway that ran through the centre of the planned town was allowed to close and get built on. A community that grew to a population of over 40,000, mostly rehoused Liverpool families, was left stranded, with only a slow bus service to get them into the city for jobs (if you were lucky) and to see friends and relatives.
In a positive display of partnership working, Conservative-controlled Lancashire County Council worked with Labour’s West Lancashire Borough Council and Liverpool City Region, with its Labour mayor Steve Rotherham, to come up with a plan to get Skelmersdale back on the rail network with a short link to the existing electrified Merseyrail network at Kirkby. It looked like a scheme tailor-made for the Government’s levelling up policy: getting people into jobs, offering an alternative to the car and deliverable. Yet it was rejected as being ‘poor value for money’. Instead, a bus link has been provided to get people to the station at Kirkby. Experience has shown that these bus links, for relatively short journeys, are seldom well used. People wanting to get to Liverpool city centre would use a direct train service, but taking a bus to then get a train is more problematic. Those that can would probably carry on driving to the nearest station.
The decision probably cost the Tories little more than a handful of votes – their supporters in Skelmersdale are a virtually extinct species. But it highlights the nonsense of civil servants in London having responsibility for a decision that should be made within the region. Meanwhile, about 30 miles to the east, the people of Oldham have been informed by the London-based Arts Council of England that all of their funding for the highly respected Oldham Coliseum theatre is to cease. This means the theatre, which has worked hard to make itself inclusive and accessible to everyone in Oldham and beyond, will close down. The decision to stop funding the Oldham theatre is all the more perverse when the Arts Council has recognised regional imbalances yet still gone ahead with its plans that will see the end of one of the North’s most successful theatres.
About halfway between Oldham and Skelmersdale is my home town of Bolton. Fortunately, we’ve an excellent theatre which is, so far, managing to survive. We’ve got good rail links. Unfortunately, the fine town centre, dominated by the 150-year-old town hall, is crumbling, with empty shops and worse to come. A few weeks ago, Marks and Spencer announced it was closing its town centre store because of ‘changing shopper needs’ or some such bullshit. This comes on top of the general decline of the town centre which has seen Woolworth’s, Debenhams and dozens of small shops disappear and much-heralded development plans run into the sand. Marks and Spencer was the last remaining ‘quality’ store of any size in the town centre. Not to worry, there’s another Marks and Spencer, along with multiplex cinemas and all the big name chains, three miles away at Middlebrook – a large retail development which is poorly accessible by public transport but has a huge free car park. The Tory-controlled Bolton Council has said it has been ‘in talks’ with the company to persuade them to stay, but I suspect it would take a sizeable financial inducement to get them to reverse the decision. Not our problem? Well, yes, it is: it will accelerate the town centre’s decline, with other shops and cafes that benefit from people coming into town to visit M&S becoming vulnerable. And, oh, yes: Bolton’s bid for levelling up funds to regenerate the town centre was recently turned down.
What all this adds up to is the absurdity of decisions that affect the lifeblood of communities being made by civil servants in London. The North needs strong, well-resourced and democratically accountable regional government that can work with local authorities and the private sector to support new railways, arts facilities, town centres and much more. It would be nice if Keir Starmer and his team showed some more signs of recognising this.