Too many Councillors?

ASPIRATION: I met fellow Councillors (left to right) Steven Williams, Jean Stretton and Barbara Dawson at the Albert Street site, Hollinwood, to celebrate news of the Langtree deal last week.

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!
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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.

Jim

Train of thought

SUPPORT: Ex-servicemen, the Mayor of Oldham and Members unfurl the flag for Armed Forces Day

AS ANOTHER week passes by at a rate of knots a train journey to London gives some thinking (and typing) time…

I believe we are making good progress since gaining control of Oldham Council officially in May with a great deal of attention being given to the preparation of an ‘emergency budget’.

There are no blue lights or sirens, as the name might suggest, but a good way of putting our plans into actions – most things cost money!

One thing which has received some attention – for and against – is our proposal to introduce a living wage.

Most people, I guess, aren’t too sure what it is, so I’ll try and explain it quickly.

Rather than simply paying a minimum wage we make an assessment of the actual cost of living in the local area and match our payscale to it. The principle being that, as a good employer, you should at least pay your employees enough to pay for the basics like utilities, food, transport and housing costs.

We gave this a great deal of thought. Was now the right time to raise the pay bill when we are facing reductions on a scale not seen since the Second World War?

On balance we felt, regardless of that backdrop, that we have a social and ethical responsibility to enable our employees – the vast majority of whom are Oldham residents – to cover the cost of living by earning an honest wage.

Often headlines are dominated by talk of public sector waste, mega-pensions and high salaries but it is helpful to reflect that thousands of our staff working to make our Borough a better place don’t fall into this category at all.

On Monday this week I attended the raising of the Armed Forces Day flag at the Civic Centre. This is designed to raise awareness and support for Britain’s soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.

This is an important event on the annual calendar and an excellent opportunity for us all to pay tribute to – and support – our armed forces past, present and future.

I think I speak for all residents when I say that we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

I was particularly looking forward to a visit this week to unveil a huge art wall on Hollins Road in Hollinwood. This was part of the new school building works at the Oasis Academy Oldham.

Aside from it being a much-needed respite from back-to-back meetings in the Civic Centre, it also allowed me to reflect on the young people who were present with proud parents – and what I want for my own two boys growing up in our Borough.

I want all children to enjoy a safe place, great schools and a caring community, but more importantly to also have good future prospects. We have done wonders rebuilding our schools and creating a ‘University Town’ but Oldham needs good jobs if we want people to stay once they are educated.

Today I met with Local Government Minister Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, a meeting I had been warned about. My view was that regardless of party politics my job is to represent Oldham in the best way I can. Part of that is to meet national decision makers to get the best deal.

It was encouraging to hear words of support for local government and reflections that some good things are being delivered in challenging economic times.

But there was still an air of cynicism about the ‘value’ of councillors in general – too many – paid too much – doing very little etc.

I can no doubt hear a round of applause from some readers… which leads very nicely onto the review I am carry out about the role of councillors in Oldham.

It will be interesting to hear from residents about their own experiences, expectations and needs from their elected representatives. Watch this space for more information on how to take part in the debate!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

WHAT IS A CO-OPERATIVE COUNCIL?

Chantel Birtwistle and Liam Turner
Ambassadors: Chantel Birtwistle and Liam Turner

THE PAST week has provided some poignant moments.

To see about 40 members of the public turn up to our first Cabinet Meeting away from the Civic Centre was heart-warming last Monday. Clearly they’d specifically come to hear us discuss plans to reopen the centre – and it was very important to them.

This is a good lesson for the future – that we should hold these kind of discussions, wherever possible, in front of the communities directly affected.

I also attended the annual Youth Mayor-making Ceremony on Thursday to see Chantel Birtwistle take the chains from Liam Turner.

What really struck me at this event was how much humility was on show in the Council Chamber. There was such genuine affection and respect between the Youth Council members that, to be frank, it put the usual Full Council rabble to shame. Another lesson learnt.

That evening I also had the privilege of attending the Halfords Series Tour cycle races.

I was astonished when I saw the scale of it all and thought it was a fantastic event. My sincere congratulations go to all involved.

To host a showcase family leisure event like this gave us all a glimpse of what we want Oldham town centre to become as a place for residents – and an attraction to visitors.
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I PROMISED last week to explain more about what my aspiration for Oldham to become a Co-operative Council actually means.

This topic is the one I’ve been quizzed about most so far by staff and residents.

The Co-operative Council vision is about recognising that – in the context of the budget reductions we are facing – staying the same is not an option.

Services are going to be affected – that is a fact.

My focus here is on looking at how and where we spend money and re-examining it to find new ways of doing things. It’s about bringing people together to do their bit.

For example, Oldham Council spends about £2m each year picking up litter on your streets. About half of that is wasted cleaning up stuff that people could have removed themselves – like stray children’s toys, empty food packets, discarded leaflets etc – and that’s before we get started on fly-tipping and graffiti.

But if we all started to think about what being a ‘good neighbour’ is and make little selfless changes we can really help make our local communities better places. Not only that, we can reduce Council spending in that area and free it up to invest in quality frontline services, and ensure there is no Council Tax rise.

Another part of this vision is the role of the voluntary sector.

I believe this Borough is already blessed with an outstanding ‘third sector’ but that the Council hasn’t done enough to assist and work together with it. I want to see that sector supported, nurtured and encouraged to make it sustainable.

As I said when launching this blog, this ‘disconnect’ in the relationships between the Council, residents, communities and voluntary groups is exactly what I am seeking to address.

Rather than Oldham being about ‘Us and Them’ I want to see us all working together to redefine our relationships. I want each person to do their own bit – big or small – in their own different roles and responsibilities. All united together in one purpose: to improve our Borough

I recognise that a massive part of that picture is about your local ward councillors. And I want members that step up to the plate more for the people they serve.

I want to support and promote ward members – including training them, if necessary – to do their jobs more effectively. Local councillors should be beacons of support, confidence and aspiration to their communities.

Finally, we will also support Council staff and groups who want to set up their own co-operatives and start delivering things differently in a way that better reflects what people want.

All this isn’t about passing the buck away from the Council to somebody else on service delivery. It’s about residents and groups working alongside us in difficult economic times and us, in turn, offering guidance and sometimes even financial support.

I hope you’ll be able to see more clearly how this all works in practical terms as we announce the details of our first Co-operative pilot schemes later this year.

But it is crucially important to note that a Co-operative is not something people can be coerced into. It has to be a voluntary decision to join in: people have to want to do this.

I may be relatively young to lead a Local Authority, but I’m not naive. I know that Oldham won’t become a Cooperative Council overnight.

It will take time for people to understand such a bold transition, see how it works in practice, and then decide to ‘buy in’.

I do hope though that by 2012 – which is the United Nations’ International Year of Cooperatives – we’ll be in a position to say that Oldham is making great strides towards becoming a Co-operative Borough. And a better place for all.

Thanks for listening.

Jim

Why a blog?

 
 
WELCOME to my first blog as Oldham Council Leader.
 
You’re probably wondering why I am blogging? There’s a simple answer – but it’s also very important.
 
For too long I think there’s been a serious ‘disconnect’ between Oldham Council and local residents.
 
I’ve had my ears boxed on doorsteps for several years about this. People say the Council is too distant, its members sit in an ivory tower (i.e the Civic Centre), and are not listening to the concerns of ordinary folk.
 
This blog is just one part of a much wider programme that is trying to bring your Council back closer to you – the people we are here to serve.
 
So, in later blogposts, I’ll be explaining more about how other changes we’re planning – like devolving power back to local neighbourhoods with district offices – will do just that.
 
As I write I’m reflecting on my first full week in office. It is humbling that people gave myself and colleagues their electoral support, and taking office was a big day for me personally. But there’ll be no point in any of that if we don’t now make a positive difference.
 
I want to have a ‘common sense’ approach in all that we do here, which is why one of my first decisions was to decline the offer of a Leader’s credit card.
 
At a time when ordinary residents are struggling to pay household bills I think it sends out the wrong message for an elected politician to have this facility. It was a ‘no-brainer’ for me.
 
Another part of our new approach started on Monday.
 
We took Cabinet out of the Civic for the very first time and approved plans to re-open Limecroft Day Centre in that very same building.
 
The reason for doing this is that if we’re discussing matters that affect local people we should, whenever possible, visit their neighbourhoods to listen and engage with them.
 
Finally today, I’d like to say that without the support of my family I wouldn’t be able to commit the hours and effort that are going to be needed to make this Borough a better place.
 
I’m conscious then that if I am to deny them that time – as a partner, and a Dad – it would be pointless if I do not make this work. That is a determination that will spur me on to get things right for residents.
 
That’s all for my first post, but I’ll be back next week.
 
Don’t forget: if you’ve got any questions, comments, or topics you would like me to cover in future blogs, then please email
 
Thanks for listening.
 
Jim