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Food and green spaces in Oldham

Oldham Council's vision is to be Greater Manchester’s "inclusive economy capital", by making the most of local assets and resources, including local purchasing, supporting local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and working with the community and voluntary sector. This ethos can be seen in their work on food and green spaces, crucial to the health and wellbeing of residents.

Partnership working and the co-operative ethos

Oldham, a Victorian “Northern Powerhouse”, has a long history of innovation and enterprise. The council believes this to be the key to tackling the deep social and economic disadvantage that still exists. Its location also has benefits – being able to draw on the resources of Greater Manchester, while providing a gateway to the Peak District.

The council leads the Oldham Partnership, which involves Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the fire and police services, leisure and care providers, Citizens Advice, local colleges and others.

The Partnership’s shared vision for the area is set out in the Oldham Plan, with the council’s corporate plan setting out their role in it. The council was a pioneer of the Co-operative Council concept, and the Partnership’s vision is for Oldham to be Greater Manchester’s “Inclusive Economy capital”, with “a new economic model that is fairer and more co-operative”. This involves making the most of local assets and resources, including local purchasing, supporting local SMEs and working with the community and voluntary sector.

This ethos can be seen in their work on food and green spaces. These are seen as crucial to the health and wellbeing of residents.

The parks department, which has a strong partnership with the public health team, has a key principle of harnessing green space for community value. This includes health and wellbeing benefits, environmental benefits (including reducing flooding and noise nuisance) and opportunities for jobs, skills and teaching. While some authorities treat parks maintenance as routine expenditure that is a drain on budgets, Oldham takes an utterly different view: they aim to put all green space to productive use.

Evolution of recent projects

The council and its partners have set up many projects around food, green spaces and environmental stewardship in recent years.

Get Oldham Growing, launched in 2014, had the aim of building skills within communities, reducing loneliness and isolation among residents and offering support to community-based food businesses. This fit well with the aims of Well North, a partnership between PHE, the University of Manchester and Manchester Academic Heath Science Centre, to find new ways of creating healthy communities in the North of England. The resulting collaboration resulted in the Well Oldham project, launched in April 2015. This project aimed to work with local people on growing and cooking, and work symbiotically with schools and local businesses to promote learning and an entrepreneurial culture around growing and food.

Well Oldham has now been merged with the Council’s Food Programme to ensure access for residents to affordable healthy food. Since 2017 this has all been run by the Growing Oldham: Feeding Ambition (GOFA) partnership. Several council policy teams are represented on the GOFA partnership, as well as elected members and local action groups, for example:

  • Oldham Food Network: a network of small community groups which coordinates food activity and seeks to develop and share learning on growing food. It was established following a borough-wide Fair Access to Food workshop.
  • Action Together, which leads the End Hunger Oldham campaign – the local version of a national campaign to tackle food poverty.

GOFA has used involvement in the Sustainable Food Cities award scheme to motivate and shape its activities – it now has a bronze award and is working towards a silver.

More recently, Get Oldham Growing (GOG) has been embedded as one of three themes, together with Food Security and Made in Oldham, in Oldham’s Food Strategy (September 2020). Oversight and governance in relation to the strategy rests with the Oldham Food Partnership Board, made up of representatives from the food sector, public services and the Voluntary, Community, Faith and Social Enterprise (VCFSE) sector.  This ensures that work to build community knowledge and skills around food growing continues as part of the borough’s strategic approach to the provision of healthy and affordable food.

In particular, the strategy makes the links between GOG and increasing food security in the borough, aiming to reduce the reliance on emergency food aid. GOG has for example, recently provided fresh vegetables to Oldham Foodbank and continues to develop programmes of volunteering at the Growing Hubs across Oldham.

GOG is a key programme within the Food Security Action Plan, helping to support delivery on the objective to improve food education and skills, and thereby also linking to the Made in Oldham theme.

Going forwards, focus will be on developing the GOG brand, as well as training and volunteering activities, many of which were temporarily suspended or reduced during the COVID-19 lockdown. Opportunities are being considered to access further funding to expand volunteering and training at the hubs, as they begin to re-open and volunteers return. The Growing Hubs and community food growing generally are seen as important in helping Oldham to move towards greater food security.

Outputs delivered

The outputs from this agenda have included:

  • six “growing hubs”, based around community gardens in parks and green spaces across Oldham, where volunteers grow fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices and flowers, and run events and assets such as cafes
  • a community-owned green energy company
  • an apprenticeship scheme run jointly by the council and Oldham College, involving horticulture courses at the council, particularly aimed at those furthest from the job market
  • food for school meals procured locally, thereby reducing food miles, and staff trained in the Food For Life approach
  • coordinating holiday meal provision and ensuring best practice is spread across Oldham
  • involvement in Britain in Bloom, including its 2020 theme of “Grow Social”.

Most of the outputs have either been co-delivered with local residents or the council has facilitated residents to deliver the projects in their entirety, in keeping with the co-operative ethos. For example, GOG has supported over 80 community food initiatives, engaging over 800 people and employing community-based Health and Growing Ambassadors. Local residents were involved in co-designing and delivering a Growing Conference with workshops attended by over 120 people.

The council and its partners have been keen to access funding from a range of sources, including national programmes and agencies, and have employed it on the same co-operative basis. For example, a Food Enterprise Fund has been set up using funding from Well North, to issue grants of varying sizes (from hundreds of pounds right up to £50k). The Green Dividend Fund has enabled 1,500 residents and over 500 households to deliver 50 projects: “edible landscaping projects” and the delivery, design and maintenance of community gardens. Oldham Food Network has also run community crowdfunding, where donors receive fresh surplus food, and managed to raise over £20k for a kitchen for Oldham Food Bank in under eight weeks.

Northern Roots

This project began in 2017 and concerns a 160-acre site next to Alexandra Park. To scope out a community-determined vision for the site as a whole, the council commissioned E3M, a national “knowledge community” of social enterprise leaders.

They convened “Oldham Alchemy”, a 24-hour event in July 2018, with 85 participants from E3M itself, the council, a range of Oldham organisations and communities, and social investors. Attendees participated in working groups, which explored how the site could be used for:

  • community growing and enterprise
  • training, skills and research
  • leisure and tourism
  • improving health and wellbeing.

They made proposals for amenities, considered governance and a business model for the site, and proposed principles for taking the project forward.

Over the following years, plans for the site firmed up. By March 2020, these included:

  • community growing and market gardening
  • walking, biking and camping
  • outdoor education
  • a programme of arts and cultural events
  • a microbrewery
  • teaching and workshop space
  • forestry.

Despite COVID-19, the project has shown considerable progress since then:

  • Local volunteers are growing fresh fruit and vegetables on the site for local communities in need.
  • Twenty Trainee Beekeepers have completed their free 12-month beekeeping programme and Northern Roots bee products are now on sale.
  • Following Mountain Bike Discovery day in early 2020, a consultation took place on the creation of a Bike Hub and Trails facility, running from November to December 2020. The site was widely used by mountain bikers and other cyclists during the COVID-19 lockdown.
  • A five-month community consultation has just been completed on what local people & visitors would like to experience or operate on the site as a whole.

Behind the scenes there has been progress too:

  • Business model and master planning have evolved considerably.
  • The first Board of Trustees has been appointed.
  • A Landscape Manager has also been appointed, who will lead on the conservation and restoration of the site.
  • Funding has been raised through various sources, including the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, GM Moving, the Rural Community Energy Fund and, most recently, the Towns Fund. This last pot of funding will move the project into its capital build phase and deliver a Visitor Centre and Education Centre.

Monitoring and evaluation of the project as it progresses is being undertaken in partnership with Salford University. There are high-level targets, but also digital sources and participant data are being used to inform the development of the project – for example, the bikers are uploading their routes. Toolkits are being developed during the course of the project for learning from it and the council is considering whether these may have commercial value.

The business model involves setting up a charity which will own the brand and have a long lease on the land. It will sub-licence individual assets to operators. The council has guaranteed funding until September 2021. However, it is determined that in the long term the project will be commercially self-sustaining (besides providing environmental and social benefits). The Northern Roots project team is currently mapping out sources of future revenue and capital funding more generally, which could include ethical investment funds and/or community shares. It is also working on licence terms and assembling a delivery team.

Keys to success

Oldham believes that crucial elements in its success have been:

  • a clear co-designed and co-owned vision
  • building strong partnerships
  • strong leadership from senior members and officers providing momentum
  • co-ordination of resources across Council services and the wider Oldham Partnership.