The factories of the Industrial Revolution ran through several regions of the north, making them once prosperous. But, since the closure of the cotton mills, most of these regions have been economically left behind, which has caused a decline in productivity, health, education and more. Coupled with the 2008 economic crisis and the COVID-19 outbreak, these regions have remained in a status of economic disparity. Oldham is one of those left behind towns, with challenging rates of economic decline. Skill levels are one of the most accurately indicative marks of socioeconomic outcomes. In Oldham, 28.3% of the population have a Level 4 qualification, which is a starkly low number compared to Greater Manchester at 39.2% and England at 42.8%.
At the request of Oldham Council, the Oldham Economic Review (OER) has been undertaken with a remit to examine the town’s approach to improving its economic prospects. Conducted through a partnership between Oldham College and The University of Manchester, the OER has been funded by Oldham Council, with match funding from the CAPE project, and overseen by a board of commissioners from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the Chamber of Commerce and public, private and voluntary sector employers and stakeholders from Oldham. In addition to skills and higher education, the OER looked closely at R&D, innovation and productivity, in detail at employment and skills data and at housing and health and also at issues affecting the borough’s civic pride, including its heritage, social fabric and the town centre.
Through monthly evidence sessions, the OER board heard from expert witnesses, alongside the work of CAPE policy fellows reviewing Oldham’s business base, its education system, its relationship with Manchester city centre, as well as issues such as crime, physical environment and civic pride.
The findings in the review reveal the harsh reality of the towns that are left behind. For instance, Oldham residents live on average 2.2 – 2.6 years less than the average person in England. These rates are directly linked to a variety of issues such as poverty, socioeconomic class and health. Furthermore, the findings also reveal that women are extremely underrepresented in the active labour market, revealing that only 66.4% of women are economically active in Oldham compared to 74.8% for the rest of the country.
The collaboration behind the OER has enable a unique approach to knowledge exchange, bringing academic expertise alongside a place-based approach bringing unique insights and resulting in hyper local recommendations with implications reaching also to the national level. Policy rarely seeks a role for local colleges as strategic players in their places working with local partners including the local/combined authority, the LEP, the Chamber of Commerce and local universities. DFE policy doesn’t prioritise the capacity or autonomy that might support this. But despite this, some colleges are breaking out of delivery roles to offer something much more significant. The OER board took evidence from Dudley College an institution that is deeply involved in local and regional conversations about business, innovation and the communities of the West Midlands. The OER board showed that Oldham College could lead similar debates about the local economy. Colleges can do so much more if they are recognised and supported in this broad and strategic role. They are part of a place’s institutional capital and critical to its future.
For further reading, see the full Oldham Economic Report along with the executive summary of the findings.