Inside crime-ridden town plagued by drug dealers who 'even camp in school field' – forcing locals into drastic action | The SunApril 10, 2023
THE small town centre of Oldham boasts nice bars and restaurants, with a quaint old church and shopping complex and the old Grade II listed town hall converted into an Odeon cinema.
But look closer and you see a different story – with locals plagued by such horrifying anti-social behaviour they have made drastic self-imposed curfews to avoid being at the mercy of gangs and drug dealers.
The town was identified as one of five neighbourhood crime hotspots in England and Wales this year in a report by the think tank Onward – which said that tackling antisocial behaviour was crucial for “left behind” areas.
The facelift of the high street cannot hide the gangs of youths that populate there day and night because they congregate from suburbs of the town that have nothing for them to do.
And the new tram service installed in 2014 has not provided the desired results of linking the satellite town to bigger cities – with some users scared to use it at night, fearing for their own safety.
One fed-up resident says drug dealers are so brazen that one even camps out on the local school field during the summer months.
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'Off the scale' problems
Speaking to the residents in and around the town, they all say exactly the same thing as engagement worker Samantha Jones, 50, who said: “They are spending money, but they are spending it in all the wrong places.
“The problems here with anti-social behaviour are off the scale. I wouldn’t go out around here on a night.
"And that has got nothing to do with the dark – even in the summer I wouldn’t go out past a certain time because of the amount of gangs and drugs out here.”
Samantha lives in Coldhurst, on the outskirts of the town centre, which has been identified as having the highest level of child poverty in the Greater Manchester area.
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Around 64 per cent of kids are living in homes with an income over 60 per cent lower than the average.
The area is made up of a large Bangladeshi and Pakistani community who first came to the UK in the 1960s to work in the thriving textile industry in the town – at one time boasting the biggest cotton production in the world.
But the demise of that proud history of industry – the last textile mill closed in 1998 – has cost them dearly.
'I'm only staying as it's cheap'
Coldhurst is soaked in a depressing atmosphere devoid of community spirit. It is a sprawling estate serviced only by a couple of corner shops.
Samantha says: “What is the point of levelling up if you’ve got a community who can’t even afford to heat their homes?
“It is so sad to see your own community going downhill. There are so many people who have lived here for years moving out without steady families replacing them.
In the summer there’s even a drug dealer who camps out in a tent on the school field
“My neighbours are leaving and I’m so sad about that. I’m only staying because it’s cheap and times are tough.
“It’s like they just move everybody here without a care for those who are left behind.
“At the moment we are fighting a plan to build a home of multiple occupancy for 14 people, and they want to put them here.
"The community is already struggling and they add more struggling people to the mix.
“I work full-time with socially disadvantaged people who have problems with alcohol and drugs, so I get that people have problems.
"But what the council are doing to this estate is not right, they are leaving us behind.
“There is a real problem with anti-social behaviour. It’s really scary. I walk my dog on the school field and there’s no way I’d walk him in the evening.
“In the summer there’s even a drug dealer who camps out in a tent there.
“The field is used by local football teams but it’s been ruined at the moment after being torn up by a quad bike.
“There are problems with kids and drugs and cars speeding through. And don’t even get me started on the fireworks.
”There is also a massive problem with litter and fly-tipping. It’s horrendous round here.”
'The whole thing is a joke'
Retired couple Edith, 70, who used to work for the NHS, and ex-builder Melvyn Walwork, 74, have grown up on the estate, and have been heartbroken as they have watched it decline over the years.
“There is money being spent,” said Edith, “but it is being spent in all the wrong places. They are upgrading the town centre and creating a tram service but leaving us behind out here.
“There used to be five pubs around here but there isn’t one now. There is no café or anywhere to meet. We live in a community that doesn’t cater for us. The whole thing is a joke.
“Our old town hall is now an Odeon cinema, and the actual civic centre is a tall grey eyesore of a building that overlooks the whole of Greater Manchester, that we call the Ivory Towers. There is no pride here anymore.
“When these council flats were built here there was real pride in making them look nice, but now there is just rubbish everywhere.
“When I was a kid I used to play on these fields and our parents knew where we were. I had a great time growing up.
“Now, you have to be aware of everything going on around you. Only a couple of weeks ago someone stole £1,500 from my 90-year-old neighbour, saying he was going to fix her roof. She never saw him again. Now she has a sign saying No Callers. That is so sad.
“There are so many rentals now that nobody has any pride. In streets with back alleys you find that people will just throw their rubbish out into the alley, leaving it a right mess. We have problems with mice and rats.
“Bar Gap Road was a beautiful street and there are houses where we remember the residents and they had so much pride. They would be turning in their graves if they could see what had happened to their homes.
“The only reason we don’t go is because we’re too old to move.”
Fly-tipping & rubbish
Three council workers from the agricultural department regularly have to get rid of litter before they can do their work.
One said: “Last week there a couple of mattresses thrown on to some land and it must have been harder work to fly-tip than to dispose of it properly.
“I really don’t know why they do it but it is a real problem, they don’t care. Volunteer groups go out all the time and clear it all up. I don’t know what it would look like if they didn’t do it. Awful.”
There is a registered charity and state-of-the-art youth zone called Mahdlo, built in 2012, situated between Coldhurst and the town centre which does a brilliant job with children aged 8 plus.
They charge 50p per visit and a £5 yearly membership offering amazing activities like sports, a climbing wall, baking and craft.
But a mother-of-six, who did not wish to be named, said there was nothing for younger kids.
She said: “There is a tiny little park and a field and that’s it.
"No baby groups or meeting places. No cafes or anything like that.
"People are struggling with a cost-of-living crisis, they don’t want a nice town centre, they want a caring community.
“There is no wonder the kids start hanging about when they learn from such a young age that that is all there is to do.”
'I'll probably be a criminal'
In the town centre a 16-year-old, who lives on the large housing estate of Limeside, approaches to speak to us and throws his finished chicken nuggets on the floor as he says: “Oldham is crap. There is nothing for me here.
“I come from a family of criminals and I will probably be a criminal.
"I was thrown out of school and there’s no work. What are my prospects?”
Even the other 16 and 17-year-old lads he is with seem concerned about the marketplace in the two centre, which they say attracts crackheads.
One man, retired barber Stephen Russell, 65, told how there were plans to move the market stalls to the centre of the town in the hopes of reducing the trouble there.
He says: “Yes there are problems here, just like any other satellite town, it can be a problem at night, but Oldham is a good place with some great architecture.
“What they need to do is open up the town centre and create living space for the young to make it a thriving and buzzing place like Manchester. It needs a bit of life injecting into it.”
The town is seven miles northeast of Manchester. It rose to prominence in the 19th century and was a boomtown of the industrial revolution with textile manufacture at its centre.
Happy Valley’s Sarah Lancashire, radio presenter Nick Grimshaw, presented Phillip Schofield, Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati, scienceman Brian Cox, comedians Cannon and Ball and Take That’s Mark Owen hail from there.
Two teenagers studying at Oldham College, Achlys Earnshaw and Gabriel Anderson, both 18, said the town centre can feel threatening on a night with groups of youths, especially when the football has been on.
Achyls said: “We will usually avoid coming out into town when the football has been on but otherwise we like to come to the cinema because it’s the best thing there is to do round here.
”For me, the worst thing has got to be the litter, you see it scattered around everywhere you go. It’s disgusting.”
Gabriel said: “I use the trams because I have no choice, but I have seen a girl get accosted by an older man before and it was scary. It’s not always very nice.”
Landlord David Johnson, 58, said: “Oldham is really deprived. There are a lot of people out of work, there are people on crack and carrying bottles of cider wherever they go.
“We do like the tram network, it makes travelling easier but I don’t use them at night.
"I’m lucky I don’t need to, with the problems with anti-social behaviour around here, I can’t imagine it would be a good thing.”
Oldham Council said it has a "clear vision" for its future and has consulted with residents, businesses and community groups about how to improve the area.
Council leader Amanda Chadderton said she was "fed up" of the area being "talked down".
She said: “Oldham residents are rightly proud of their town and their local communities.
"Oldhamers are resilient and there are loads of groups and individuals who work together to support their neighbours and make their neighbourhoods better places to live.
"And the council supports them doing this while do we all we can to deliver better services and regenerate the borough.
“Oldham Council’s 'Don’t trash Oldham campaign' has cleaned up the borough, tackling fly tipping and littering and issuing fixed penalty notices and prosecuting offenders where we have evidence.”
She said a new environment crime team will "come down hard" on cleaning up the town.
Councillor Chadderton added: “Revamping our high streets, improving green spaces, helping the most vulnerable, working with police and communities to tackle anti-social behaviour – these are all things that councils, including Oldham Council, are striving to do each and every day.
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"A lack of proper long-term investment from government means that we have to bid for pots of money and pit ourselves against other areas for funding to do these things, but we have the ambition, and the informed, long-term planning, to be successful.
“We are regenerating our town centre with a new market, new homes, a new park, and new businesses."
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