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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Nick Statham

'They are sh***ing everywhere': On the streets of Rochdale where regeneration, traffic and pigeons are on the minds of voters

Last year, Middleton Independents Party came from nowhere to become the third largest group on Rochdale council, taking five seats at the borough’s first ‘all out’ elections in nearly 20 years. The fledgling party - whose ‘Think Middleton before Rochdale’ slogan tapped into a feeling the town had become the poor relation to its larger neighbour - was left celebrating an historic result.

But acrimony would soon follow when one of its new councillors immediately defected to Labour, claiming MIP was more right wing than he had realised and later branding them ‘unprofessional’. Tensions between the parties have seldom been far from the surface as the municipal year has worn on, locking horns over the town’s new masterplan and the running of its market.

But this time around it would seem all parties standing in Middleton’s five wards - also including the Lib Dems and Conservatives - have one opponent in common: voter disengagement and distrust. The Local Democracy Reporting Service headed to Middleton Gardens, in the town centre, to gauge what people were thinking ahead of this year’s ballot - and the feeling of apathy was palpable.

Initial approaches are waved off in a flurry of ‘not ar**d, mate’ and ‘not interested’ setting the tone for much of what was to come. Brian Stafford, from Langley, was among many who said they were not planning to vote this year. “I don’t vote for any of them,” he said.

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Greater Manchester’s controversial ‘Places for Everyone’ plan and its proposal to build on large green belt sites across the conurbation has been a staple of pre-election debate for nearly 10 years now. Perhaps what can often be forgotten is what smaller green spaces in estates like Langley mean to the residents there.

Brian Stafford, from Langley, Middleton. (Copyright Unknown)

Despite his indifference to local politicians, Brian has picked up on a growing row over proposals to build - some would argue much needed - social housing on a field known as The Ponderosa.

He added: “All the land is going , they are talking about building lots of houses on Borrowdale Road. You can’t move for houses, there’s nothing left. They want to build 30 houses there. It’s a shame, there’s nothing left anywhere.”

His concerns are shared by another Langley resident, who gave her name as Michelle. She will be voting for MIP on the grounds they oppose building on the Ponderosa - a scheme Labour’s Coun Sue Smith has been instrumental in bringing forward.

“I don’t think it’s fair, there’s no greenery left at all on Langley,” she says. “My son lives at the top [of the land] and my other son has kids and they say there’s nowhere for them to play. They have to go to Bowlee to play football. That’s the main issue for me.”

Elsewhere, that sense of disconnection with local democracy is inescapable.

Geoffrey Douglas, from Middleton. (Copyright Unknown)

"I don’t really bother with politicians, they don’t do owt for us to be honest,” Caroline Smith, 38, from Middleton says.

Sylivia Thornton, a practice nurse from Middleton, takes a similar view.

“I don’t really trust any of what they say, they all basically have the same aims,” says the 63-year-old. “I tend not to even listen to the mainstream media because it drives me mad, I feel we are being manipulated all the time.

“Even if I do vote it’s going to be ‘what option have I got?'.”

For her, the main issue is being able to see a GP and access medical care when she needs it. Although not something the council is directly responsible for, it’s an issue brought up time and time again whenever new housing developments are proposed.

The new requirement to show photographic ID is also excluding some voters - or at least further deepening their disconnection with the process.

“You need a picture ID, I don’t have a picture ID so that’s out of the question automatically,” one Langley resident, who asked not to be named, tells me. “It's not great if you’re me, but I can imagine most people do have IDs so they can do it. It’s not going to be for me, but that’s life.”

Middleton town centre. (Rochdale council)

He adds: “I’m not really bothered because they don’t do much for me anyway, I don’t trust politicians in general. They all say this and they all say that, but they don’t deliver. If there was a politician who told the truth for once in their life, I would vote for something.”

Some candidates are managing to cut through the suspicion that seemingly surrounds those who choose to enter the political arena, though.

Joanne Raynor, will be voting for her friend Emma Hezelgrave-Whitworth, MIP’s candidate in the South Middleton ward “I’m voting for her, she is fantastic,” says the 48-year old.

“I think it will do the area good, especially Emma. She is passionate, she has been brought up in Middleton and knows what the area needs. I think she will be perfect.”

For her the main issue that needs addressing is anti-social behaviour: “ All the kids seem to be outside McDonald’s, they seem to be causing havoc, there’s motorbikes going through the Gardens - people with masks on - I think that’s off putting,” she adds.

“I think it needs someone to care.”

She’s not the only one intending to back MIP this year.

“I’m voting for Middleton Independents Party, because it’s something fresh - see how they go,” one resident, who asked not to be named, adds. “They can’t do any worse than the others, give them a chance and see what they can come up with.”

Rochdale council leader Neil Emmott is up for election in West Middleton this year. (Alan Hamer)

Elsewhere, though, people are sticking with Labour.

Among them is ‘John D’, who will be voting to return council leader Neil Emmott in the West Middleton ward. “I’ve consistently been a voter of Labour,” he says. “Labour council as well and I think they do okay.

“I don’t think they do too bad for Middleton and it gives you consistency having the same leadership in place. The leader of the council is actually my councillor who is up this time.”

While he has had MIPs leaflets through the door, he says he’s not been convinced to move his vote. “It’s a nice idea, but even if they won every seat in Middleton they would not control the council, so what can they do?,” he says “What they can actually control if they have half a dozen seats, I’m not sure.

“I get what they want, they want more investment in Middleton - and it is coming,” he says, alluding perhaps to the town centre masterplan that was signed off in February - albeit under the caveat it could be significantly changed as proposals evolve.

While the new housing developments that have sprung up in places such as Langley Lane over recent years were met with strong local resistance, John thinks they will ultimately benefit the town.

“If you look at all the houses around Middleton, at some point that money has to filter into the town centre and there has to be a gentrification of Middleton,” he adds. "You can’t keep building five-bedroom houses and not expect the town centre to keep up.”

And, of course, there are those who are still to make up their minds - including Geoffrey Douglas, from Kenyon Lane. The retired lorry driver has quite a specific issue he wants the council to sort out - the ‘millions of pigeons’ in Middleton Gardens.

“I have not got much faith in Rochdale council, I was on to them to get rid of the pigeons. All they say is they can’t get rid of them. They are sh***ing everywhere," he says.

Middleton isn’t the only battleground at this election.

Ten miles down the road - in the Pennines town of Littleborough - former Labour councillor John Hartley is standing for the Conservatives in the Lakeside ward.

Littleborough. (Paige Oldfield)

He wore the red rosette while representing Lakeside for nine years - only standing down at last year’s local elections to take ‘a few years break’. The Tories have welcomed ‘Mr Littleborough’ to their ranks - but his decision infuriated his one-time allies who accused him of trading his Labour principles.

Despite the town’s idyllic reputation - it’s home to the stunning Hollingworth Lake beauty spot and no shortage of fascinating heritage - the political climate here is often on the stormy side. Plans for 500 new homes here in the region’s Places for Everyone strategy have generated plenty of controversy, as has a recently approved scheme for 126 houses on the former Akzo Nobel chemical factory.

Littleborough Civic Trust has become almost perpetually at loggerheads with the Labour-run council, taking issue with the town centre masterplan and proposals for a new community centre among other things.

But not all voters share that entrenched opposition to the direction the council is taking.

“I’m all for rehousing here in Littleborough and building and regenerating the village, absolutely,” Lisa Giddins, from Calder Avenue tells the LDRs, stopping for a chat on the corner of Hare Hill Road and Victoria Street.

“But then again, lots of people that have lived here all their lives think house prices are far too high and it drives a lot of people into leaving the area because they can’t afford to live here anymore.”

Lisa Giddins, from Littleborough. (Copyright Unknown)

“I like Littleborough, I think it should be under development. I think there’s a lot more that can be done to it."

There is no doubt the town is becoming more gentrified, driven by commuters lured by the quick train link to Manchester or even Leeds. Lisa moved here 18 years ago ‘before house prices went crazy’. She acknowledges that may not be good news for those brought up here.

"It must be difficult for people especially for young adults waiting to move out of home, I appreciate that,” she adds. "I work hard in my job to get to a good level where I’m paid well. I’m one of the lucky ones, maybe.”

But she believes Littleborough should be developed further, adding that ‘there’s a lot more that can be done to it’. The recently adopted station area masterplan - another source of much debate - also gets the thumbs up.

“I have seen the proposals and I really like it, I really do,” she says. “I think they will keep some of the natural features here, of course they will, they don’t want to change it completely.

“It needs a bit of sparkle adding to it. Regeneration is good but, like I say, for some people that have lived here all their lives, change is difficult.”

Lisa is also unfazed by the new housing proposed for the town.

“I think the new ones they are putting in are very discreetly put in amongst us in spaces that need building on anyway,” she says. “I know there’s a big hoo ha about Akzo Nobel, but it’s a site that’s there. It just freaks people out, doesn’t it?”

Hollingworth Lake, Littleborough. (Copyright Unknown)

Andrew Ashton, who will ‘probably’ vote Labour, takes a similar view - particularly on the station area masterplan. “They are thinking of making a lot of changes for the centre around the arches,” says the 37-year-old nurse.

“I know there’s a lot of resistance towards it but I’m actually all for it. I just think it’s going to make the area more desirable than it already is anyway. They are going to turn it into an Uppermill type of place, anything that attracts more money to the area isn’t going to be a bad thing”.

If there’s one issue everyone seems to agree on, however, it’s that traffic congestion is a big problem. “It’s all the time, the traffic is horrendous here,” says Joanna Ejsmont, a 46-year-old office worker and a floating voter.

“But they are still building new houses, so it’s not really good with that. After 5pm it’s impossible to go anywhere in that direction. It starts at the roundabout by the fire station. It starts there, it’s coming from Rochdale and you are stuck for ages.”

Another resident, who asked not to be named, agreed. “The main issue? Traffic. I’m pretty sure a lot of people have said that. I have to set off an hour earlier for work at times due to the traffic congestion and roadworks.”

Peter Butterworth, from Littleborough. (Copyright Unknown)

An undecided voter, she says that a candidate that promised to prioritise the issue could win her backing at the ballot box.

Plans for a new 750-place secondary school on Littleborough Playing Fields - albeit ‘paused’ for now - also spark congestion concerns.

“What the traffic is going to be like with the new school that’s being built, I don’t know,” one potential voter tells the LDRS. “I want to know If they have any plans about what the traffic is going to be like, because it’s bad enough as it is on Calderbrook Road.”

Party loyalties die hard here, as much as anywhere, however.

“I don’t think the Conservatives are for us, plus I have been brought up with a dad that was anti-Conservative,” one Labour voter tells me. “He was always Labour, he was a union man.”

On the other side of the coin, however, are Peter and Valerie Butterworth, who live in the Wardle, Shore and West Littleborough ward. The pair are in no doubt they will be voting Conservative at this election.

David Dearden, from Littleborough. (Copyright Unknown)

“I would not give Labour the time of day,” says Peter, who praises former leader Coun Ashley Dearnley, who has served the area since 1982.

Meanwhile, David Dearden says he has never voted Labour since Tony Blair took the country into the Iraq war - and it still dictates how he votes locally.

"I had always voted Labour, but not anymore," he says.

But just as in Middleton, there is disillusionment with the democratic process here, too.

Jack McLaughlin, a 26-year-old restaurant manager, says he’s unlikely to vote. “I don’t think I am, no one is doing anything right at the moment,” he says.

"Everything in Littleborough has stayed exactly the same, nothing has changed in years.”

Maureen Miskella, from Littleborough. (Copyright Unknown)

For others, like Maurenn Miskella, it’s all about the younger generation. “I’m 82 and I have a family, so what I do is I see how they vote, because it’s their lives, not mine it’s going to affect,” she says.

“I usually go with what they think is the best, because it’s their generation that’s coming up now.”

This year’s Rochdale council elections take place on Thursday, May 4. For more information visit the council website.

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