Popcorn and politics: Putting families first

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COMING SOON: The Old Town Hall will open its doors to the public on Friday, October 21

THE DRIVING ambition behind our redevelopment of the Old Town Hall was always about giving local families a town centre they can enjoy and be proud of.

That’s why I was delighted this week to be able to finally reveal the opening date for the new ODEON as Friday, October 21.

It’s the same day that local schools will break up for holidays and it would’ve been simply wrong to deny people the chance to visit their new seven-screen cinema and restaurants and have quality family time on their own doorstep.

We could’ve waited for every last paving stone to be laid on Parliament Square, of course, and fussed about other minor details – but this very definitely felt like the right timing.

I’d like to thank everyone involved for their patience in awaiting this news, and the fantastic reception they’ve given it on Social Media and elsewhere – positivity does wonders for us all!

I recently promised to spell out some of the main themes of my recent Annual Report to Full Council, so I will start this week by talking about the context we are operating in at present.

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VIDEO: Click on the banner above to watch my Annual Report in full

You can’t fail to have noticed that there’s great upheaval in British politics(!).

Following the EU Referendum – and the vote for Brexit on June 23 – we’ve also had a swift change of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

It’s claimed that we will soon see changes in the Government’s approach and key policies, away from the austerity agenda, but only time will tell on that front. We live in hope…

Clearly the Brexit vote is going to have a big impact in framing what we do – and can do – in the future as both a council and a borough.

And anyone who tells you they know what it means with any certainty is kidding both you and themselves.

The implications are going to touch every part of our work as a local authority: our budgets, community relations, our ability to invest, the strength of our local economy, and the confidence of our businesses and partners.

JeanStrettonThat’s why I am crystal clear that Oldham Council remains fully committed to stepping up and playing a leadership role, as it has done with the Old Town Hall.

I am determined that we will do that with a strong and focused Cabinet getting on with the crucial work that is needed – because the only thing we can be certain of these days is that nobody will come in from the outside and fix our problems for us.

It’s now more than five years since we started our journey as a Co-operative Council and what that period of time has shown me is a very simple lesson: Oldham only succeeds when we all pull together.

Oldham only succeeds when we all make our own very different contributions towards making it a better place – whether that is recycling well, reporting a pothole, checking on a neighbour’s wellbeing, creating new opportunities for local people or spreading good news and information.

Put simply, we can only build a better borough together.

Next week I will look at how that approach works in practice – and what we are doing next – in terms of our efforts to create a strong local economy and a place we can all be proud of.

That’s all about continuing to attract investment, regenerating our town and district centres and, crucially, building an economy that works for everyone.

Popcorn and politics may make for a curious mix, but I hope this week serves as a timely reminder of our determination to make Oldham an aspirational place to live and work.

Jean

Changing boundaries

pollingA STORM began rumbling yesterday – and I don’t mean the extreme weather that arrived in the evening.

I’m talking about the long-awaited publication of Boundary Commission proposals to redraw the Parliamentary map and cut the House of Commons from 650 MPs to 600.

The North West loses seven constituencies – the highest number in any region – and only 14 of the current 75 seats are unchanged.

So – how will it affect you?

As you know, Oldham currently has three constituencies – Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and part of Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner’s seat which includes wards in Failsworth and Hollinwood).

The new proposals would mean:

  • Most of the current Oldham West and Royton constituency would become a new Oldham seat containing Royton South, Chadderton Central, Chadderton North, Chadderton South, Coldhurst, St Mary’s, St James, and Waterhead – plus the addition of Moston.
  • Oldham East and Saddleworth would be replaced by a new Littleborough and Saddleworth constituency. This would be made up of Royton North, Shaw, Crompton, Saddleworth North, Saddleworth South, along with five Rochdale borough wards.
  • Of the remaining wards in our borough it is proposed that Werneth, Hollinwood, and Medlock Vale should join a new Failsworth and Droylsden constituency alongside Failsworth East, Failsworth West, Alexandra and Saddleworth West and Lees – plus the current Tameside wards of Audenshaw, Droylsden East and Droylsden West.
  • The Ashton-under-Lyne seat would no longer contain any Oldham borough wards.

We are told that this is all about ensuring “an equal say for each voter” by having more equal-sized constituencies – and cutting costs by £12 million – but what is the real price of these proposals?

Surely the make-up and footprint of all seats has to make geographical sense and context to the people living within them?

Many of the wards and constituencies affected have long-standing identities and associations and there’s plenty in these initial proposals to raise eyebrows…

Is it right, for example, to cut the historic district of Royton in half and move the North ward into a Littleborough and Saddleworth seat alongside Rochdale wards?

Under what rationale does Moston, currently in Manchester Central, fit into the proposed new Oldham seat?

And what reasoning lies behind splitting Saddleworth and Lees away from the rest of Saddleworth – and then planting it in Failsworth and Droylsden?

Obviously I have my own personal views on the proposals and I will be discussing these with councillors across all parties in the coming weeks.

I am more inclined to support proposals that would allow Oldham to be a borough that has two constituency MPs, has none of our wards in another constituency and no wards from outside of the borough in either of our constituencies. That’s common sense.

partner-resource-poster-212x300There are other issues too…

The Boundary Commission set a ‘quota’ size which aims for each constituency to represent around 74,769 voters, but that figure is based on the electoral register as it stood on December 1, 2015.

Since then we know that a further two million people have also registered to vote – many signed up to take part in the Brexit referendum – and they simply haven’t been taken into account in these calculations and proposals.

That’s just a smattering of the issues at stake here and a public consultation on the plans is now under way.

Although final proposals will not be made until 2018 you have just 12 weeks to put your views forward.

If agreed by Parliament the new boundaries would be in place by the 2020 general election.

I would urge everyone reading this to take the time to look at the proposals and have your say on them. Visit here to find out how.

Two more vital points this week…

Firstly, I can reveal that we will be announcing the opening date for the Old Town Hall next Monday – and I will comment further on that next time.

And last but not least, I must pay tribute to another remarkable athlete, and a former Oldham resident, Sascha Kindred OBE.

The 38-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, has been a household name in Paralympics for the past two decades and is one-half of a ‘golden couple’ with his wife and celebrated fellow swimmer Nyree Lewis.

Although he now lives in Herefordshire, Sascha is an ex-Kaskenmoor School pupil who moved here from Germany as a young boy.

On Monday he marked the last-ever appearance of his Paralympic career by setting a new world record time to win his seventh gold medal since his first games in 1996.

Sacha’s positive attitude and determination also shines in his work as a motivational speaker and this is a fitting final chapter of what has been a truly glittering career.

Jean

The balancing act: Budgets, services and aspirations

Old Town Hall, Oldham, September 7, 2016
LABOUR OF LOVE: Around 200 contractors are on-site at the Old Town Hall daily putting finishing touches to the flagship development 

I’M PREPARING to deliver my first ever Annual Report to Full Council as I write – and it’s been a very busy few days.

Firstly, I know many of you are hoping for an update on the opening of the Old Town Hall, so here’s where we stand right now…

I chaired a meeting with the regeneration team here at the Civic Centre last week where we discussed this matter at length and I’m continuing to personally monitor progress on the development.

You can’t see them from outside, but there are currently more than 200 contractors working daily inside the Old Town Hall right now – drilling, preserving, painting and finishing off what has been a mammoth task and a labour of love for many craftspeople.

But the issue here isn’t just about progress on the old Grade II-listed building itself, it’s also about us being confident that the improvements we’re making to the surrounding environment and highways, and especially the new public space at Parliament Square, will also be ready.

It’s important that we have a date that will enable the maximum number of spectators to enjoy the public opening events and get in and out of the area safely and quickly: so please just bear with me just a little while longer for that announcement.

On Friday, I caught the early train down to London to take my place on the Local Government Association’s City Regions Board for the first time.

That might not mean much to you, but it’s crucially important that as key partners in Greater Manchester devolution we are at the centre on this issue, ensuring we get the best deal for our region, and for Oldham.

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GOLDEN GIRL: Nicola White

That appointment meant I couldn’t be at Oldham Leisure Centre for the homecoming event for Nicola White, our Olympic Gold medallist, but I’m happy to report that I made it back in time to meet and talk to Nicola at a celebration at the Oldham Event Centre later that night.

This evening it will be my absolute pleasure to introduce an agenda item which (subject to approval!) will see her nominated for the title of ‘Freewoman of the Borough’.

Nicola is our first Gold medal winner since Henry Taylor in 1908. Her achievement is historic and it’s only right we mark that by bestowing upon her the highest honour that we can as a council.

When I deliver my Annual Report at that same meeting tonight (more about that in next week’s blog) I’ll be setting out the progress we’ve made in the past year and what our clear priorities are for the borough looking ahead.

This is an administration that is ambitious for Oldham – for its people, for its businesses and for the local economy – but that continues to be hampered by reductions in Government funding and these amount to a further £20 million next year.

Getting that balance right between delivering good services, defending vulnerable residents and giving people the new opportunities and facilities they deserve is an incredibly hard challenge.

That’s why we launched our budget consultation yesterday on a series of proposals to help us balance those priorities – and the books.

This will be the eighth consecutive year when we’ve been hit by a significant fall in our funding and we don’t have a monopoly on the answers or bright ideas.

We’re facing some incredibly tough decisions, so we need your input and views more than ever before.

Much of the proposed budget reductions could come from changing internal processes and how we deliver services and share resources in ever-closer partnership with other equally hard-pressed public bodies. Examples of that are our work with the NHS and Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group on social care, health and children’s services – and with neighbouring councils on some back office functions.

Inevitably, however, after eight years of cuts it is increasingly difficult to absorb these without directly having some impact on residents.

The more contentious ones include proposals to close the Link Centre on Union Street, reduce top-up funding to Parish Councils, introducing a charge to cover the cost of producing residents’ parking permits and more rigorously enforcing fines to drivers who ignore bus lane restrictions.

I don’t believe any member of Oldham Council, regardless of their politics, sought office to take decisions like these, but we simply have no choice and must balance the budget.

Please take a few minutes to tell us what you think about these proposals – and give us your own ideas – at the online consultation at www.oldham.gov.uk/budget

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Your feedback about possible alternative savings, or steps we could take to mitigate the impact of these proposals, would be particularly welcome.

It’s a harsh fact that when this latest budget process is complete we’ll have lost £212m from budget savings requirements and the Government’s funding reductions since 2009.

That is a huge hit to our income and resources. And it is not a burden which is being shared proportionately across the country.

That’s why – as I will explain in my Annual Report this evening – it’s more vital than ever that Oldham Council continues to provide the civic leadership and direction needed to make this a better borough by working with you to get results.

If you don’t want to wait until next week’s blog to see my Annual Report, you can watch it live on our website here from 6.05pm tonight (Wednesday, September 7).

A video replay will also be posted online separately by the end of the week and I will post that link on here when it is available.

Jean

Making a difference: BHS and Get Oldham Working

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GONE: The former BHS unit in Spindles shopping centre which closed on August 3

I’M COMMITTED to Oldham Council fighting to make a positive difference with partners to real people’s lives – and that starts in our local economy.

The sad case of the end of the iconic retail empire that was once British Home Stores is just one example where we’ve done that.

Last weekend saw the doors closed for the last time on the 88-year-old firm’s operations nationwide.

When BHS first collapsed in April, it still had 163 stores that were trading but the final 20 have now shut.

Included in that tragic tale, of course, was the Oldham outlet in Spindles, which had only been open since November 2012.

The BHS closure hit 11,000 jobs nationwide, sparking a parliamentary inquiry and – with 22,000 people’s pensions affected by a reported £571 million black hole in funding – its a story that will run and run, possibly even into a criminal investigation.

When it was first confirmed that the Oldham store was under threat we were clear that the remaining 25 or so local workers would need help and we had to act.  That’s when our excellent Get Oldham Working team swung into action to find out what could be done and intervene where help might be needed.

Working with partners like JobCentre Plus they arranged one-to-one advice sessions with all staff so that they could get any information they needed quick about forthcoming employment opportunities, how to improve CVs, plus their rights and benefits etc.

We put several staff in contact with potential employers and outlined their options to them. Some wanted to stay in retail, return to previous careers or look for something completely different.

The team also offered the safety net that – if people were still seeking work later in the year – we could guarantee them, through GOW partners, an interview for positions that would be coming up at the Old Town Hall and other tailored recruitment options we had put together.

By the time the Oldham outlet closed on August 3, I am pleased to report that every single member of staff affected had found new employment.

It’s small comfort for the disruption that BHS’ collapse has caused generally, of course, but it does show yet again how effective and important the Get Oldham Working (GOW) team’s efforts have become.

That’s also why the team’s move to a new premises in Oldham town centre last week is vital and makes so much sense: making it even easier for people to access job information and advice.

The GOW team has already supported our objectives in creating 3,750 employment opportunities in less than three years since it was formed, but the work can’t stop there.

They’ve now moved out of the Civic Centre and into a new base on the first floor of Metropolitan House, Hobson Street, Oldham – which is just across the road from JobCentre Plus.

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NEW HOME: On a visit to see the GOW team at their new Metropolitan House base 

I visited the new set-up last week and saw for myself how the new location – and the team’s ‘open door’ policy – can be essential help to anyone seeking work, apprenticeships, traineeships and experience.

Anyone of working age can now simply turn up – without an appointment – and speak to a careers advisor on weekdays from 9am until 4pm.

Given the success of GOW, which is a fantastic example of Oldham Council working cooperatively with partners for everyone’s benefit, we’re keen to see the scheme help even more people.

Now we are embarking on Phase 2 of the scheme, which has new targets.

Over the next four years GOW is looking to assist and guide 6,000 more residents and fill 5,000 work-related opportunities.

This October the team will also launch a new Career Advancement Service (CAS). The CAS is focussed on helping an initial 400 employed local residents to understand what additional support they might need to get an in-work promotion (including advice and support to increase their skills and salary levels).

That won’t just ultimately help them and their families, it also serves to increase upward mobility in the local labour market and create new opportunities for others.

GOWLOGOAs our major regeneration projects, like the Old Town Hall, Prince’s Gate and the Independent Quarter continue attracting more large, medium and small-sized businesses to invest in our borough, I believe GOW will go from strength to strength.

The same also goes for that big vacant unit that BHS has left behind at Spindles.

We know that the shopping centre owners, Kennedy Wilson, are working hard to attract the right tenant and will do all we can to support them in that search.

It’s a chilling thought that former BHS staff in other parts of the country might not have been as fortunate as those in Oldham have been and could actually be joining the dole queue this week, but we’re determined to make a difference here, wherever we can, to support local people and business.

The doors at Metropolitan House are now open to everyone of working age – young people and adults alike – and that means you can get a dedicated learning mentor, access to training, experience and help to find secure employment.

Anyone who needs support should visit the team or look at  www.oldham.gov.uk/gow as a starting point.

You can also email GOW at employability@oldham.gov.uk or call 0161 770 4674 and you can even follow the team on Twitter @EmployOldham or “like” www.facebook.com/getoldhamworking

It goes without saying that we’re also very interested in hearing from even more local businesses and organisations that are interested in providing traineeships, apprentices or jobs for local people.

Many have already stepped forward, but more are always needed.

Please do your bit and get in touch to help us make a genuine difference to people’s lives – and the local economy.

Jean

Success breeds success

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GOLDEN GIRL: Our very own Nicola White before and after Team GB’s Olympic Hockey final

WATCHING Nicola White play a starring role in last Friday night’s Team GB Women’s Hockey final was truly inspiring.

The performances of so many of our athletes in Rio have been a source of national pride to everyone but, of course, it’s always even better when you’re actually cheering on one of your own.

My husband went out to play snooker and I settled down to watch the drama unfold.

It turns out I was one of nine million people watching live in the UK and BBC One even took the highly unusual step of postponing ‘News at Ten to show the whole game.

To the undisguised disgust of my cat Mitzy, it was not long before I found myself shouting encouragement at the television.

Many moons ago, I used to play a bit of hockey myself. That was down on the red clay pitches at Hathershaw School where you usually had to pick bits out of your knees after the game, but this Olympic surface and the quality of play were in a totally different league.

The Dutch team dominated at times but you couldn’t fail to admire the guts and tenacity our team displayed throughout.

Twice they hauled themselves level but still looked to be heading for defeat until our Nicola swooped to equalise: taking the game into that dramatic shootout, won by Hollie Webb’s decisive penalty.

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Team GB: What made the difference?

It was one of many magic moments for Team GB and not surprisingly their spectacular achievements – their best medal tally in 108 years – has prompted a wider debate about exactly how it was achieved, and whether anything can be learnt from it in other areas of public life.

Some have suggested it proves the merits of central planning and the benefits of Lottery investment. At a cost of £1.09 to each resident per year, it certainly represents great value, but surely picking ‘winners’ from, say, entrepreneurs and businesses would be much more problematic.

Some have also highlighted the ‘detail’ element – the idea that this success has been down to a team, making painstaking ‘marginal gains’ which left absolutely nothing to chance. Again that clearly has had a positive effect.

But I’d also put the triumphs down to something else that’s rather simple: the fact that success often breeds success.

As in sport, the most difficult part in tackling major issues as a Council Leader (especially when trying to transform performance) lies in the hard work that goes into researching and defining your plan. But if you get that right and capitalise on early wins it can lead to momentum and a snowball effect.

It’s a lesson that we try to apply in Oldham, and with some success.

One example is education where our ‘central planning’ and detailed approach in tackling underperformance in local schools was launched with the publication of the Oldham Education and Skills Report back in January.  Already we’re seeing a pay-off.

The number of secondary school pupils attending a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school is now more than 70 per cent, compared with just 39 per cent last year – and last week’s A-level results also showed improvements across the board.

Part of that new approach encourages successful schools to share their best practice and data with others, which helps to raise the bar across the board, not just at one school.

As I said, success breeds success…

LCENTREOn a final note, I’m sure that Team GB’s exploits have motivated many people to get involved in new sports, or just to get fit and active again, which is brilliant.

The power to inspire others is a truly rare and wonderful gift, and we are blessed to have role models and ambassadors like Nicola White for our borough.

When we first set out to build two new leisure centres in Oldham, some scoffed at our stated aim to capitalise on an Olympics legacy.

Perhaps they might view that a little differently now.

Jean

Oldham’s changing skyline: The need for a plan

SKYLINE1OLDHAM’S skyline and environment are changing fast – and the best is yet to come.

That transformation has been steadily accelerating since the opening of our town centre Metrolink line in 2014.

Walking around Oldham now you can’t fail to notice many new or improved buildings, plus new views and vistas, and the green shoots needed to improve our local economy.

You can see it clearly in areas like the Independent Quarter – where we are co-investing with people putting their life savings, daily graft and faith into breathing new life into the area – and it is steadily being replicated across the town centre.

The Old Town Hall is, of course, the flagship project and it’s already become a tourist attraction in its own right.

Every day you see people stopping to stand around the Cenotaph and the Greaves Arms sneaking a peek at the site and taking snapshots.

Although you cannot yet see inside the grand old building, I can confirm that work is well advanced and we now have a provisional handover date from our contractors.

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Following that there will then be a ‘fit out’ period when the new tenants’ own contractors move into the units to install their own fittings and train staff. I can’t yet confirm the opening date publicly but your new ODEON cinema and restaurants remain on track to open later this year.

And it was great this week – before we’ve even opened the doors – to see the Old Town Hall scheme nominated for a major award.

The GM Chamber of Commerce has shortlisted it for ‘Building of the Year 2016’ and that’s a promising early indication of the kind of impact we’re expecting from a new regional destination that will put us firmly on the map.

If you can’t wait to glimpse that future then I’d recommend a visit to the new ‘Revival’ exhibition which opened at Gallery Oldham this week.

REVIVALThis looks at the Old Town Hall and the iconic old Library and Art Gallery building, which will become our new Heritage Centre, showcasing images and objects belonging to both as they are adapted for their new future uses.

Looking at that Old Town Hall site you can also see work is progressing well on Parliament Square, our new public space, and other much-needed improvements being made to the surroundings of the Yorkshire Street/Union Street area.

Important work has also just got started in the ‘Campus Oldham’ part of town along the King Street corridor linking Oldham College, the new Oldham Leisure Centre, and Oldham Sixth Form College

This will see better highways and pedestrian areas and an improved cycle infrastructure leading into the town centre.

That will make a significant difference to the appearance of that area, which will also be boosted by the new-build three-form academy primary school set to open at the former Grange School site in September.

Just down the road from there I had the honour of attending the official groundbreaking ceremony for Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre at Royal Oldham Hospital on Monday.

This will provide a fantastic place offering free practical and emotional support in an environment that will make a huge difference to the quality of care for local patients. The plans show it set in a sloping garden with trees growing up through the buildings – accessed over a bridge – with views down to a garden pool. It’s just the latest life-changing project to be funded by the generosity of the Stoller Charitable Trust.

But what goes up must also come down – and that’s another way in which regeneration is changing the skyline.

Earlier this year we pulled down the former Oldham Sports Centre on Lord Street which means residents on the new St Mary’s Estate (for now at least) can enjoy a more splendid view of Oldham Parish Church.

A couple of weeks ago I also pressed the button to demolish the seven-storey council-owned car park at Hobson Street which, let’s face it, has been an eyesore for many years and its demise clears that site again for a brighter future.

This was a cold, brutalist structure which, like the old St Peter’s Shopping Precinct (or ‘Windy City’ as many of us called it!) will surely not be missed by even the most nostalgic of residents.

In looking positively to the future like this, I’m also very conscious that we’re living in incredibly uncertain times.

The UK is in a difficult and challenging environment on so many levels at present and, as a mere Council Leader, I don’t for one moment pretend to have a crystal ball about what that lies ahead.

What I do know, however, is that having a long-term regeneration plan – both physical and social – is crucial to anchoring your confidence (and that of others) in your place and its ability to improve people’s prospects.

These latest signs of progress in Oldham’s skyline and environment show that we have that plan. Without it we would surely be exposing ourselves to even greater uncertainty.

This is my final blog now before the traditional Council recess break, but it will return on August 24.

Many of you will have holidays planned soon, so I hope you all enjoy fine family times and weather – and stay safe.

Jean

 

The challenges of uncertain times

TRITON2I’VE ALWAYS put a lot faith in the maxim that ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail’ – and that’s never more true than now.

We live in very uncertain times where the potential threats to our daily lives, institutions and basic things that we depend on come from all kinds of sources.

We have to be prepared for all manner of incidents and scenarios – some environmental and naturally occurring, others caused by accidental or deliberate human acts.

These include, amongst an almost endless and ever-growing list, incidents and emergencies related to terrorism, community tensions, flooding, gales and high winds, infectious disease, reservoirs, snow and extreme cold weather and even (I know!) heatwaves.

Only last week an important new Government report warned that the UK’s supply of food could be put at risk by climate change as droughts and storms start to devastate farmland here and abroad. It’s a chilling analysis.

As an American scientist commenting on that report put it, climate change is happening “so rapidly that people around the world are noticing the changes in global warming and extreme weather with their own eyes and skin”.

TRITON5That’s why emergency planning events like Exercise Triton II – which we played a key role in last week – are absolutely crucial to building resilience and improving our ability to cope with all kinds of incidents.

Triton was an emergency planning exercise without precedent across the Greater Manchester region and involved an incredible amount of organisation and preparation beforehand by the GM Resilience Forum and partners.

To give you an idea of how complex a task that was, we had players taking part at national level like the Government, military, the Met Office, the National Grid, HM Coastguard, Highways England, British Transport Police, the Environment Agency, NHS England, National Police Air Service, Government Digital Service and the British Red Cross.

And at a regional level all ten of the GM authorities took part alongside Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, GM Police, the North West Ambulance Service, Network Rail, Transport for Greater Manchester and Oldham Mountain Rescue – and many, many more.

Now imagine even just trying to co-ordinate everyone’s diaries for the very first meeting to agree what you are actually planning to do – and you can start to see the scale of what was eventually undertaken.

We’re not allowed to give away details of the full scenario for obvious reasons, but those people responding as if events were real were tested to the hilt.

From Monday last week they all started to get information about adverse weather and warnings of a growing risk of regional flooding.

This gradually ramped up to the main ‘play’ day on Thursday when the public will have seen a lot of activity in the Oldham area.

TRITON4Dove Stone Reservoir is a beautiful place and it provided a stunning backdrop to the dramatic sight of the Chinook helicopter dropping High Volume Pumps onsite to help stem the flow of a mythical breach in the dam that morning.

Cynics sometimes dismiss exercises like this as ‘boys with toys’, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As events unfolded during the day the scenario worsened with the dam collapsing and our response teams having to immediately put plans around floods, evacuation and the setting up of rest centres etc. into action. Their task was made even harder by constant ‘injects’ of new complicating factors like stranded animals, loss of utilities like gas and electricity and frightened people stranded on public transport.

The drama then continued to spread across the region with worsening flooding and a series of incidents that will have given the staff dealing with them a major headache.

I’d like to thank everyone from Oldham Council and our partners who took part in the planning and the playing of the exercise – and especially all the volunteers who played such key roles in making it feel real.

We hope that a day like the one depicted in that exercise will never come, of course, but recent history shows us that it almost certainly can.

No one will ever forget the scenes at Boscastle in Cornwall when torrential rain led to a 7ft rise in river levels in one hour in August 2014. Those images of cars, caravans, homes and boats being smashed into each other and washed away as people clung to trees and the roofs of buildings and cars, are a chilling reminder of us all of the fragility of our environment.

TRITON3Much will have been learnt from Exercise Triton and the analysis of all the log books of what happened, who did what and when, will teach us valuable lessons for all kinds of incidents we could face in the future.

If all that preparation and work helps to prevent just one incident, give one community an extra ten minutes’ warning or save just one life, it will surely have been worth it.

Finally, today is the first time I have blogged since the terrible terrorist attack in Nice.

Last Friday I asked for our Union and Peace flags to be flown at half-mast and invited staff to join a one minute silence in respect of the victims.

I think many of us were left to reflect not just on the senselessness of the attack – but also how often we now seem to be marking events like these.

As I said before, we really do live in uncertain times – but we should never let that stop us going about our daily lives and enjoying the freedoms that we are so fortunate to have.

Jean

Every step counts…

Strinesdale Reservoir
THIS WEEK I have a confession to make – and it’s about a new addiction I have.

It all started last month when I took to the stage at the council’s Staff Conference with Carolyn Wilkins to talk about the theme of the event: which was the health and wellbeing of all our staff.

This is part of a new drive within the council and it has obvious merit.

A huge amount of credit for many of the achievements here in recent years is down to our staff, be they frontline, back office or managerial, and that’s something I am keen to recognise.

Despite the ongoing cuts, reductions in their teams and rising demand for our services, so many of them have kept focussed on doing their bit towards continuing our improvement journey.

But we also recognise that for our staff to continue getting better at what they do – and having the drive to do so – we also need them to be in good shape.

Put simply, to serve our residents well we need our employees to be ‘fit for purpose’, both physically and mentally.

FITBITTo help them achieve that we’ve put together a comprehensive programme that signposts them to help, inspiration and whatever else they might need to make important life changes for themselves and their families.

Happy staff are productive staff, after all. They take less time off, their morale is good – and that means they deliver for residents.

Let’s face it though, very few of us these days have the time to lead perfect lifestyles.

And if you’re anything like me you’ve probably become expert at always finding an excuse or a reason why we can’t make that healthy change ‘just now’.

But I knew it would be utterly pointless that day if I stood there in front of staff urging them to make a change if I didn’t try it myself. “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t a great mantra for any politician…

That’s why I agreed to take on a ‘Fitbit challenge’, which basically means agreeing to use a tracker to monitor your daily physical activity and see how it compares to others.

This has proved to be a fantastic ‘lightbulb’ moment for me (so far!) as I have been more active in recent weeks than for many more years than I can care to admit.

The standard target is for people to try and do 10,000 steps daily, so I set out determined to achieve that and, I will admit, my natural competitive streak didn’t take long to kick in.

LGFW logo and bootsI really don’t have time to start planning routines so I just decided to use the fantastic walks from our ‘Let’s Go For a Walk’ campaign and see how it went.

My followers on Twitter may have noticed me tweeting away with pictures lately as I have been doing these routes.

I have walked around sites like Daisy Nook, Strinesdale (five times!) and Dove Stone Reservoir with plenty more yet to have a go at.

This is such an easy way to get active.

It removes the bother of working out what to do or where to go and I’ve also enjoyed seeing some fantastic scenery across the borough.  Some of it was already familiar, but I’d never been to Strinesdale before and there are other walks that I’ve yet to do that will be new to me.

I started out on this mission on June 22 and I am still going strong, touch wood.

In the first full week I did 60,000 steps, which I was pretty pleased with. I then managed 90,000 steps the next week due, at least partly, to being at a local government conference where I used this as a perfect motivation to get around and see everything.

As I mentioned, other colleagues at the council have also been getting involved and you really do become competitive (in a nice way) when checking the latest data to see if you’ve just managed to overtake a hardened walker/runner’s efforts for the day.

We are, of course, all doing this mainly in our own time but the habit is now quickly spreading around the organisation and it has become a great talking point amongst staff. Some are even having ‘walking meetings’.

I’d encourage anyone reading this blog to visit the Let’s Go For a Walk section on our website here, have a look at what’s on offer and consider having a go.

DNOOKIt’s all totally free. These walks take you around some of the most beautiful parts of our borough and you can also use them as a great way to get quality time with family and friends.

So, that’s it. My new addiction is steps and physical activity and it feels a good one to have right now – so long as I don’t start getting obsessed to the point where I’m deliberately getting up during meetings and pacing around the tables…

This has all even culminated in a new delivery at home this week.

To even my own astonishment I have just taken delivery of a shiny new treadmill.

I’m not naive enough to think it will ever has as many miles on it as my car does, but I am hoping I can really stick to this and that it won’t be going on e-Bay any time soon!

Jean

Three-weekly bins – Why, how and when

Grey bin with bags 2 flippedYOU’VE PROBABLY read by now about plans for a new waste collection system to be introduced across the borough in early October.

Put simply, it means a move from two-weekly to three-weekly collections of your grey, general waste bins – plus other measures to help people recycle.

I must stress that we haven’t done this lightly – and also that we did our research first.

I know kerbside collection is the one service that every single resident relies upon. That means making changes to it is a big deal and that we must get it right.

After weighing up all the options the decision boiled down to some inescapable facts.

At present, the cost to Oldham Council for disposing of grey bin waste comes to hundreds of pounds per tonne. Yet for every tonne we recycle, we actually get a small income.

That means our future simply has to be about less waste and more recycling – which are environmental and economic ‘wins’ for everyone.

The more money that we can save by doing this, the more funds we can then put back into protecting vital frontline services as Government continues to slash our funding.

We’re not unusual in making this change. Across Greater Manchester there is now only Wigan that still has fortnightly collections of the standard 240-litre grey wheelie bins.

Other authorities have all either introduced three-weekly collections – or moved to 140-litre versions of the general waste (grey) bins, which are 40 per cent smaller than the standard containers.

By not changing bin sizes we don’t have to spend money on replacing all your bins, which is a considerable cost. It’s been reported that Manchester’s switch to slimmer bins, for example, will cost them around £1.8m.

We’ve also looked closely at how three-weekly collections are working in other areas.

Bury were the first to introduce them and faced a storm of national headlines about fears of overflowing bins and infestations of rats and insects.

In the first year of the new scheme thousands of tonnes of general waste – a drop of 16 per cent – were no longer sent to landfill.  Bury’s recycling rate jumped by nine per cent and they saved hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In Oldham we estimate we can increase our recycling rate by 12 per cent through these changes which – over the next two years – would save us up to £3 million during a time when we need to find £37 million in savings.

I’ve heard it said this move will lead to a more flytipping here, and I understand that concern.

3WK1However, our experience with flytipping – as detailed in my blog two weeks ago – is that the majority of it isn’t down to selfish residents. It’s lazy trade waste discarded to avoid costs/responsibility, and bad landlords dumping items left by departed tenants.

The new collection regime will be a simpler one.

Grey bins for general rubbish will be collected one week. Blue bins for paper and card the week after, and then brown bins for glass, plastic and tins in the third week.

We’ll also continue collecting all garden and food waste on a weekly basis. That’s to stop the potential for bad smells and flies/insects, especially during the summer.

Households with extra waste they cannot recycle could be entitled to an extra grey bin and they should contact us to discuss the options. And we’re also offering – free – any extra blue, brown and green recycling bins you need, or upgrades to bigger recycling bins if you have the smaller ones.

Before the new system starts I’ve been very clear that we must contact every resident with information packs that explain your options and help with the changes.

Those will include new collection calendars, plus information about how to recycle more effectively. I’m sure the Stretton household isn’t alone in having had many debates about what can and can not be recycled, and exactly how(!).

You can read about the new arrangements on our website at www.oldham.gov.uk/waste or find out more by calling 0161 770 6644.

Rubbish HouseChange brings challenges and I can moan as much as the next person when asked to do something a different way after years of habit.

But we also know doing things differently is our best chance to help find the savings we need to provide good services here.

For now all I ask is that you give the new arrangements ‘a go’ as others have elsewhere.

Please do ‘your bit’ and get behind our mission to recycle as much as we possibly can.

‘Our bit’ is a pledge to monitor this scheme.

We will test how it is working on an ongoing basis and, if something is wrong, we will try to fix it.

Together we can make this work for Oldham.

Jean

3WK4

Brexit should unite – not divide – us

referndumvbenueI WONDER what Harold Wilson – the PM who coined the phrase “a week is a long time in politics” – would have thought about the last few days.

The EU Referendum last Thursday has sent the UK into a tailspin and its impact is being felt across every walk of life and community.

It’s been an unprecedented and extraordinary time – with things happening at such breakneck speed that you can barely dare to take your eyes off the news.

I reflected last Friday night how tumultuous the times are when the Prime Minister’s resignation is not even the lead story on the TV news.

The frenzy of resignations, shifts in stance, fluctuating financial graphs and political horse-trading has been dizzying – and it is far from over yet.

As this is an apolitical blog it’s not the appropriate place for me to address my feelings about the rights and wrongs of either the Remain or Leave cases in the referendum.

Nonetheless I do want to make some general observations about the campaign which apply to both sides because, at times, it was an unedifying spectacle.

The debate was often heated, misleading and negative. The language was often aggressive, barking and divisive.

I’ve heard many people on either side refer to “scaremongering” and that is something we should all be very worried about. That simply fosters distrust for politicians, important institutions and, worst of all, disrespect for other peoples’ views.

I still believe the public is capable of weighing up a rational argument with the facts laid out fairly before them, but that isn’t really what happened is it?

When people are saying days after the result that they now regret how they voted, that they were oblivious to certain consequences, or that they now feel like the final outcome will not be what they were promised, then we have surely failed to deliver a mature and informed debate.

This referendum was the most serious decision of our time yet it was conducted in an atmosphere that was consistently adversarial. It was yah-boo politics at its worst and that has continued since the result came in.

Exaggeration, hyperbole and speculation poisoned the atmosphere and that impacted negatively on voters too.

And I do think that the sensationalist tone used for several months by some elements in the media around the issues also helped to create that climate.

ReferendumThere are at least some plusses…

People got actively involved and interested in the debate, which is all too rare. You could not walk through a shop, café or street without hearing people talking about the issues – and that led to the biggest turnout in history last Thursday.

The challenge for politicians on all sides next is to try and maintain that level of interest and engagement – although that will not be easy given the mistrust that has been stimulated.

Following the result we have, regrettably, seen some instances of hate crime – although thankfully none have yet been reported in Oldham, and I hope that prevails.

This frenzied national climate has raised tensions and anxieties within and between communities.

I was shocked yesterday to see the footage of the vile racist abuse hurled by youths on a tram at Market Street in Manchester.

That kind of behaviour has no place in our society and we will not tolerate hate crime here. We didn’t tolerate it before the referendum and we won’t tolerate it now.

Whatever individual decisions people took we have to respect that and not jump to misguided conclusions about their motivations.  We have to respect the vote and the decision.

And we should also bear in mind the uncertainty this has created for many people, like EU nationals who currently live here.

To read interviews in the MEN on Monday where local Polish people said their community is now ‘terrified” was chilling.  Some have said they are staying at home because they have been subjected to taunts of ‘go home’

FLAGSIt’s bad enough for people having to cope with the uncertainty that all this brings – imagine your own family having to cope with that – but to be facing such ignorance in the places where you live and work is completely unacceptable.

I would urge anyone who experiences or witnesses hate crime like this to report it immediately to the police by dialling 101 – or contact the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

We all now await the triggering of Article 50, the ‘sandtimer’ that starts exit negotiations with the EU, and then there is at least two years of those talks to endure.

Ultimately it will be for the Government negotiators to agree those deals and clarify the long term impact on people. However, the impacts of Brexit are likely to be felt for a very long time by us all – whatever happens next.

This period of uncertainty will mean further challenges to the national economy and that obviously raises the prospect of more cuts to public services that are already decimated – plus questions about where this all leaves the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ project and others.

I don’t have a crystal ball and I have no idea how all these pieces will fall at present.

My focus, as always, will be to continue standing up for the people, communities and interests of Oldham to ensure we are not big losers from the fallout.

Following last week’s result there was much talk about the links between deprivation, cuts to public services and the alienation of communities.

None of us should forget that.

National Government now – and in the future – must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Jean