Thoughts from Leader of Oldham Council - Councillor Jim McMahon
IT WAS the annual Best Bar None awards last week – where leading bars, pubs and nightclubs come together to promote a healthy night time economy and celebrate success.
It is fair to say that the night-time economy of Oldham town centre is now a shadow of its former self but, unfortunately for licencees, quite a lot of people in the Borough are actually quite relieved about that(!).
Several years ago that area, particularly around Yorkshire Street, was burgeoning and regularly packed out with punters.
But with any success story you inevitably find that some fly-by-night operators will come along and jump on the bandwagon in a hope to simply cash in and we saw that with some of the types of bars and takeaways which sprang up.
There were cheap promotions with drinks often for £1 or less, meaning that bottled water was actually more expensive to drink than vodka. This, sadly, encouraged people to drink as much as they could – and often more than they could handle – before being carried out and ending up in a gutter or worse: fighting in the streets.
Don’t get me wrong here – I fully appreciate the problems facing the pub and bar trade.
Supermarket deals significantly undercut any town centre establishment and fuelled a problem whereby many revellers were ‘pre-loading’ on cheap booze at home before they’d even arrived in town to dance the night away. Those deals remain unchallenged.
For any town centre to succeed it needs a vibrant night time economy just as much as a daytime offer.
But equally the town centre is for also everyone – not just for ‘kids’ (you can tell the Council is aging me quickly!) or for those slightly older who still behave like kids.
I had the recent pleasure, well perhaps the ‘experience’ at least, of being on Yorkshire Street in the early hours of Saturday morning with my partner after a meal and drinks with friends.
Although Oldham is not alone in this – and maybe I’m just getting too old and grumpy – but it didn’t feel as though we have moved on much from the modern disease of going out to get drunk rather than for going for a drink, and the effects are very different.
As we plan for the new Oldham we are building we have got to make a decision about how much the current night time economy fits with our vision for a vibrant, healthy town centre.
Even today, despite the reported demise of the night time economy, visitors to Oldham Coliseum regularly report feeling unnerved at some of the goings on as they leave the theatre late into the evening.
That’s why I welcome the words of Terry Bruce, the owner of Liquid and Envy, in throwing down the gauntlet to the industry to ‘raise the bar’ at the Best Bar None awards.
He believes town centre bars need to offer people more and voiced some promising ideas, including the creation of a venue designed to attract people of all ages.
For any night time economy to work it has to self-regulate better than it previously did.
The Council, Greater Manchester Police and volunteers like the Street Angels can all help but we have limited power against cultural issues or the very apparent ‘race to the bottom’ which sees venues trying to offer the cheapest deal, rather than the best night out.
With the cinema on its way to the Old Town Hall supported by a great selection for national and local brand restaurants, Oldham-based bar operators do have a real opportunity to help change our night-time economy for the better.
Soon we will also firm up plans for the new Coliseum Theatre and Heritage Centre on Union Street which will bring in visitors from further afield. And all that would be in vain if we allowed Yorkshire Street and the surrounding area to descend unchecked again.
We need to sit down with the bars and nightclubs and talk about how the two economies can live and thrive together. For some they are part of that vision, for others it could be a much shorter conversation.
In our bid to create the town centre boom we need to make sure those trying to make a quick buck don’t descend on Oldham and undermine what we’re trying to achieve here.
Put simply, we need to aim for quality, not quantity.
Thanks for listening,