I’VE ALREADY been in office long enough to know there’s no such thing as a ‘quiet week’ at Oldham Council – even when the phone lines are out of action!
This week’s headlines have, of course, by dominated by the news of a delay in bringing Metrolink to the town centre until February/March 2012.
As I said in the local press, it’s disappointing but not devastating.
In the long-run the benefits to the Borough from Metrolink are potentially enormous but it’s not the whole picture.
As an administration we are focussed right now on trying to attract and deliver major improvements to the town centre because – without them – the tram line will simply take people out of Oldham, not bring them in.
On a more upbeat note I was also privileged this week to see young musicians take part in a performance at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.
About 1,300 children – including my son, Jack – took part in the sessions with industry professionals from the Halle Orchestra and others.
The aim is to get young people involved in music at an early age and the enthusiasm on show was infectious.
I was left to reflect again on the fact that if we don’t deliver for Oldham we will be failing in delivering a better future for all these fantastic young people.
I also attended the monthly meeting of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority with the nine other Council Leaders where we discussed our submission for the Regional Growth fund. Here in Oldham we are supporting five local business in applying for more than £10million in potential grants to expand and create new jobs.
I also need to mention of our agreement with Langtree to develop Hollinwood Junction for leisure and business. It is early days and we will need to work hard to attract end users but having a developer in the current climate is a real boost and hopefully a sign of things to come!
I’VE TALKED on here before about what I see as the future role of elected ward councillors.
On that theme I want to return to recent proposals to reduce the number of Oldham councillors by a third.
These were rejected by Full Council in April with predictable comparisons being made that expecting councillors to vote to reduce their numbers was like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
I see that as a somewhat cynical viewpoint – and one that actually misses the point.
As I’ve previously stated, I’m concerned about addressing the ‘disconnect’ between local citizens and their ward councillors.
Whilst this proposal clearly echoed that problem– we all know people are cynical about politics and politicians in general – it didn’t provide an answer.
Why? Because simply cutting the number of Ward Members to 40 still does nothing to actively address that disconnect. You would continue to have disgruntled residents simply represented by less councillors.
I do also wonder if we really are ‘over-represented’ with 60 members – because that’s not what the evidence suggests.
Stats from the Local Government Association recently indicated that UK residents are actually badly under-represented.
The UK has the lowest number of councillors per 100,000 voters in the whole of Europe with – on average – one ward member per 2,605 people.
Compare that with our neighbours. In France there is one elected ward member per 116 residents, for example. In Spain it’s 597; in Italy 580; and in Sweden its 667 and so on.
Second lowest on the list (after the UK) comes Denmark. The Danes have one elected member for every 1,084 residents. That is still twice as many councillors per 100,000 than us.
When discussing this topic the matter of councillors’ allowances usually also comes to the fore.
The allowance system takes into account the average household wage in Oldham, and the amount out of pocket expenses and time taken to carry out council business.
The starting point is that councillors are lay people, put forward by their communities to represent and serve them.
Should Ward Members be compensated a reasonable amount for their time, responsibility and out-of-pocket expenses? If the answer is no, then the solution is easy: simply stop paying allowances and only rely on those with independent incomes such as pensions or family wealth to step forward.
Unfortunately for most people this would mean becoming a Councillor was not an option. Whilst many might say it should be done on a voluntary basis, this is not an argument that washes with mortgage providers or utility companies who expect bills will be paid in cash – not in kind.
Our new Emergency Budget proposes to cut special responsibility allowances for key posts by 10 per cent. For myself that means a reduction of about £2,600 – no complaints here, I assure you – and we’ve also modernised the system by reducing the number of posts entitled to receive this payment and deleted a host of ‘add on’ benefits such as meal and fuel allowances, meaning what members receive in allowances will be all they get – no expenses.
We haven’t put forward the reduction because we felt the allowances were high, but because we felt that in the current budget round we are making reductions in every other area and councillors should not have a special exemption.
When compared to other authorities in Greater Manchester Oldham usually sits in the middle. Although councillors vote on allowances, the amounts put forward are recommended by a panel of independent members of the public who meet and review allowances, often asking for copies of diary appointments, statements and interviews with councillors holding various positions on the Council.
The reductions are also being made as an acknowledgement that councillors can – and must – do more to become respected figures in their communities that work closer and respond to residents.
To help them do that we’re working hard on plans to revitalise and empower your district town halls: more powerful District Partnerships with bigger budgets to provide services that are shaped by what local people see as local priorities. It’s about nurturing politics to produce community leaders – not Town Hall voting fodder.
If we’re at the point (and it appears we are) where people start questioning the cost of something then that’s usually because they don’t appreciate the value of it anymore.
The only way to tackle that is for people to start seeing and feeling their councillors are engaged with them – a real voice for their community.
Elected members have to work hard to win that trust back – and their value will rise.
Being leader of the Council is a great honour, but being a ward councillor is what makes it all fall into place, by making a difference to constituents, my neighbours, and to my area.
The idea of a Co-operative Borough is that everyone will work together – residents, ward members, voluntary groups, and staff. But the public also have a role to play in that, to participate in the democratic process, or it will not work.
Being elected might give you a mandate, but it does not automatically make you the voice of your community. To become that you have a responsibility to engage and listen to views other than those of your own party members and followers.
It’s time to move the debate on from the cost of councillors to the actual value of them.
Thanks for listening.