Borough will benefit from the Olympics

 Last week was extremely busy for a number of reasons, mainly being the week of Full Council and the preparation and organisation that goes into it (you would be forgiven for believing we make it up as we go along!).

It was the meeting where councillors were due to agree the joint chief executive and management team with neighbouring Rochdale Council. After weeks, and weeks, and what felt like a few more weeks, it became clear that we were not going to reach agreement and that the report would have to be taken off the agenda. Joint working with other councils is important to make savings and protect frontline services. I am confident we will work closely with Rochdale in the future, most recently entering into a joint street lighting project and despite the early set back we have built up excellent relationships with our friends across the border.

It was also the week that we presented our ‘Emergency Budget’ to council for approval. All plans in place for reversing car parking charges for disabled drivers, charges for residents’ permits and others were important to show we had taken account of what people were telling us. I am also delighted to have put the funding in place to reopen Limecroft Respite Centre, reintroduce the Junior University programme and invest in devolving services to neighbourhoods.

I hope you can see this is a sign of things to come.

One thing I have learnt is the pressure from the local media in printing every rumour, idea and suggestion as if it were ‘in the bag’. Oldham has had a lifetime of being promised things which have failed to materialise. I recently made the point to one of our local newspapers on the idea to relocate the Coliseum to the Old Library where my plea not to set it up to fail fell on deaf ears. No doubt having drafted the ‘Coliseum move failed’ story. (Question to self; it is normal to be so cynical so early on?). I accept that it was news worthy, but unless we begin to be measured in our approach and concentrate on delivery versus talk then how can we expect the people of Oldham to believe progress is being made?

Monday also saw our first ‘awayday’ out of the Civic Centre. The idea is that we meet in different surroundings and talk about progress, ideas and working together as councillors and officers in the leadership team. I was especially pleased that the host venue was the newly refurbished Failsworth Town Hall (OK, to be fair I did choose it). Not only was it a great venue it was also a very useful for the team to reflect on what has been a hectic few months, and to focus on the challenge ahead. Needless to say the ‘to do’ list got longer!

Borough will benefit from the Olympics

Jim McMahon at launch of One Future event

The 2012 London Olympics are now just one year away and last week I attended the launch of an exciting joint venture that aims to give the Borough a lasting legacy of these historic games. 

The ‘One Future’ initiative will see Oldham Council team up with local private sector organisations to look at what can be done to ensure that residents benefit from this opportunity.

To many people the London Olympics can seem far away in both time and distance but it is not an exaggeration to say that this is a once in a generation opportunity and I believe that the partnership that is One Future will be of real benefit in securing opportunities from this legacy.

At the launch that took place at Gallery Oldham I was fortunate to meet members of the One Future Steering Group from both the private and public sectors. I was impressed at how many people are genuinely interested in improving opportunities for residents and making the borough a healthier and more creative place.

One Future is not just about the ‘suits’. Local ambassadors such as Paul Scholes, cycling champion Mandy Jones, hockey player Nicola White and actress Shobna Gulati are some of the home-grown talent that will be helping to support One Future and the borough as a place of opportunity and somewhere to live, work and visit.

Some people will, inevitably, scoff at these goals and be quick to bring up reasons why it can’t be done. In many cases nothing I say or do will make them change their minds. But to those people who are committed to taking advantage of opportunities I can pledge that between now and the Olympic flame being lit in London there is a lot to do here in Oldham.

You can watch a video of the launch on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzhFLHQdLUM

Thanks for listening

Jim

Breastfeeding, council tax bills and road works – a week of rebuttals

As leader of the Council my focus is on the long term direction of the borough –  balancing increasingly limited budgets and supporting the Chief Executive to run an organisation of thousands of staff. 

As we work towards Cooperative Council status I am keen to make sure not just that people receive a good service, but that what they receive is tailored to their circumstances, compassionate and understanding. 

The recent story about breastfeeding and how it could have been offensive as the building was ‘multi-cultural’ could have been funny if the consequences weren’t so serious. This is, of course, nonsense, the fact that Oldham has a rich variety of nationalities, races and backgrounds is a strength of our borough, not something which should restrict us in this way. 

Unfortunately what was an isolated mistake that was dealt with quickly soon turned into national news with newspapers like The Sun declaring in their usual way “Don’t breastfeed in here, you’ll upset Muslims” and putting my deputy Councillor Akhtar in the firing line for racist emails for the rest of the week with cries of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and a few telling him to go back home… to his family home in Werneth I presume? 

So what should have been dealt with as a normal complaint directly to the council became a circus for the country. As the Leader of the council I am unhappy about our borough being in the news for this kind of thing – but also realistic enough to understand that at times you can’t pre-empt everything, nor can you micromanage every member of staff. Though far from ideal, you have to accept that at times these things happen. 

Shoab attended a meeting of mums on Monday to talk through the council’s position and by all accounts things went very well. 

Next was the case of a lady suffering dementia who moved into a care home. Following the move the family home was rented out for a period before becoming empty. The family did all the right things and told the council tax office. 

Unfortunately the change wasn’t registered and so bills continued to arrive causing genuine anxiety to the family. This could have been avoided and again the Council is in the press for the wrong reasons. 

Whilst neither of these stories put Oldham Council in the best light it is worth thinking that the authority carries out millions of transactions and provides services to thousands of people each year without error, misjudgement or fuss. So to everyone who just got on and did their job without any media attention this week – thanks! 

The now weekly coverage of roadworks in Oldham continues to occupy people, especially around Mumps. Although this is not the Council undertaking the works, it goes without saying that we end up in the firing line. 

I do appreciate the frustrations felt by motorists who end up late for work or dropping their kids off at school, but we do need to bear in mind what Transport for Greater Manchester and the Council are trying to achieve here; we are rebuilding the town’s infrastructure which impacts on most routes into the town centre. 

Residents have suggested that bad planning is the cause of traffic delays, but I have to disagree. With all but one or two exceptions the works are being handled well so far, the delays are in the main unavoidable given the scale of works and the timetable for completion. 

If you are affected by road works you have my sympathy, but please bear with us while we work hard to rebuild Oldham. 

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Launch of Cooperative Councils Network 

Finally, last week was the launch of the Cooperative Councils network whereOldhamis working with 14 other local authorities across the country to work to change the role and perception of local government and communities for the better. 

Ed Milliband MP and Michael Stephenson, General Secretary of the Cooperative Party visitedRochdale– birthplace of the Cooperative movement – to have a roundtable discussion on what was working well, and the future direction of Cooperative Councils. 

I highlighted our work throughOldham’s Cooperative Commission chaired by Councillor Barbara Dawson. We have been fortunate to build a strong relationship with Lambeth Council inLondonwhich has been leading the way on cooperatives for some time. Lambeth’s leader Councillor Steve Reed has been inspirational in spreading the benefits of cooperatives in service delivery and in empowering the community to take the lead to improve their area. 

We have agreed to lead on a number of themes; the first being the creation of an Ethical Framework, the establishment of a Community Dividend Scheme and building a network of young co-operators across our schools to promote volunteering and civic pride. We will also be working hard to transform backbench councillors into Local Leaders through our plans to devolve decision making.

It was fantastic to hear of projects ongoing across the country and encouraging that Ed Milliband has given us his backing. 

We have an opportunity to create something really special here, not just within the council – if that’s all we achieve then we have failed – but with the whole community across the borough. 

Kind regards,
Jim

Everybody needs good neighbours…

PRIDE: Opening the first 'Good Neighbour Day' event at Walton House, Failsworth

A PERSONAL highlight of the past week was being invited to open a ‘Good Neighbour Day’ event in Failsworth.

I’ve already previously talked on here about Oldham becoming a Cooperative Borough and this initiative – involving a range of partners and local residents – is a great example of what that actually means in practice.

The event, at Walton House on Grafton Street, was part of ‘Pride in Failsworth’: a new scheme which the Council is helping Housing 21, as the lead Housing Association, to develop alongside partners like the Failsworth and Hollinwood policing team.

The initiative can not – and indeed would not – succeed without input, ‘buy in’ and effort from local residents.

Its focus is on trying to improve everyday lives and – amidst a whole series of fun events at this garden party – we started the ball rolling by consulting residents on a range of issues about where they live. This included asking them what they liked about Failsworth, for example, how they thought it could be improved, and what they might be prepared to do in order to make that happen.

Ultimately, Pride in Failsworth wants to establish a network of volunteers and neighbourhood champions to take this forward.

By encouraging people to come together and talk more about the issues affecting their communities this can help people to become better neighbours who support each other and make a real difference.

Saturday’s event was an excellent first meet-up and thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended. It was particularly heartening to see that there were many older people present and I am sure the feedback received will lead to some interesting and innovative future developments of activities and services in the area.

A website for the scheme is currently being developed. But anyone reading this missed out on the event and is interested in getting involved, then please contact Mike Beaman at Housing 21 on 0370 192 4352.

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Local Identity

LOCALISM: I've met Parish Council, Historical, Civic and Family History Societies this week

 

WAY BACK in 1974 – before I was a twinkle in my father’s eye – a major reorganisation of Local Government gave birth to Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council. 

It has since become clear that it also unwittingly unleashed something of an identity crisis.

In the intervening years there has been an ongoing debate about the relationships between different townships and districts – and more specifically about Oldham seen to be domineering at the centre.

Barring another unforeseen shake-up, which I’m not expecting, Oldham will remain a Borough. It is here to stay and that strength in unity is central to our collective success.

But not everyone feels comfortable with how we are and relate to each other: a fact that was highlighted by the research behind the Council’s rebranding exercise in 2008 (the very same one which gave us the ‘polo mint’ logo!).

That study confirmed that local folk from Failsworth to Saddleworth remain very proud – or certainly identify strongly – with their own district. It also confirmed the persistence of tensions and suspicion between the districts and Oldham. The report was clear that strong local identity is a real strength and should be valued, and used as a foundation to build community pride.

The creation of ‘One Oldham’ was never intended to be about having to have your local identity subsumed to that of Oldham. Indeed, for those residents who actually lived in the Town Centre areas, the ‘shotgun marriage’ of 1974 could equally be seen as an unwanted dilution of their own heritage as ‘Oldhamers’ with their own rich heritage and rightful place in history.

What I think got lost in translation since 1974 was that the rush to ‘One Oldham’ somehow got confused with a need to subsume, hide and even airbrush local identities away.

For example, people were told they were now ‘Oldhamers’ – there was even a car sticker campaign to hammer that message home – but many residents couldn’t identify with that and resented it. It was counterproductive.

The reason for that is that local identity is a very personal and subjective thing which we all interpret in very different ways.

Let’s fast-forward to where we are now in 2011.

I believe the strong local identity which exists across our borough is the civic foundation on which we will build a Borough we can all be proud to belong to.

As Leader my approach will be that Oldham Council recognises that its role is not to dictate to districts: it is to reflect their wishes.

A mutually-beneficial relationship sees the Council recognising those townships and villages and listening to them. It allows them to celebrate and display their own heritage and crests, for example, but also brings them all together as a progressive force for the common good of the Borough.

I would say that if you consider yourself a genuine Oldhamer, then be proud of that. Equally, if you identify with Failsworth, Royton, Shaw, Chadderton, Saddleworth, Lees or wherever – you should also be rightly proud.

Through our devolution plans we will be opening district town halls, creating local telephone numbers, area teams and investing in local identity – starting with welcome signs which respect the distinct identity of each of our districts, rather than try and blur into one ‘brand’.

I have had a number of meetings this week including some with representatives from our two Parish Councils at Shaw and Crompton, and Saddleworth. I also met with representatives from our local historical societies, civic society and the family history society to talk about how we can use this strong identity to bring all communities together.

Whilst there has been a huge focus on diversity over the past decade we have missed a real opportunity to build on what brings us all together regardless of our backgrounds – the Metropolitan Borough of Oldham.

Thanks for listening.

Jim

LGA Conference Diary

MEETING of minds: Chatting with Cllr James Alexander, York Council who is officially the youngest Council Leader in the country

THE LOCAL Government Association is an all-party group representing local government across the country.

Its annual meeting provides an important opportunity to meet other leaders and to debate/discuss new ideas, and challenge Government, if required.

Following a day of back-to-back meetings I left for Birmingham immediately after Cabinet at 7pm on Monday night. However, as with all the best laid plans, things didn’t quite work out….

As part of our cost-saving drive we’d decided to travel by carshare – a great plan if had the car been big enough to take all of us (myself and councillors Akhtar, Sykes, Beeley and Hulme, plus associated luggage). In the end Cllr Akhtar and myself were left to travel by train, arriving at 10pm.

The first day of conference is a chance to find your way around and arrange meetings for the remaining two days.

The morning saw a round of political group meetings which are closed and not for reporting here, but I did want to let you know that I have been elected as ‘North West Member at Large’ for the Local Government Labour Group representing councillors across the region.

I’m mindful that my focus is rightly on Oldham but I’m also keen to speak to people outside our Borough about new ideas for local government. When people talk about Oldham in the future I want them to be as positive about the Borough as I am – not stuck in the past.

I met with Cllr Steve Reed, Leader of Lambeth Council, to talk through our proposal to become a Cooperative Council.

Lambeth are the first true ‘Cooperative Council’ and have made great strides in modernising to make their council more relevant to the community it serves.

Interestingly a number of our suggestions about developing councillors as local leaders, devolving services and the creation of a community dividend scheme seemed of real interest. From here we are now working towards creating a Cooperative Council Network to share ideas, learn from others and make sure that this ‘brand’ is protected by introducing a criteria for entry in to this scheme.

I next met with Caroline Flint MP, the Shadow Minister for Local Government, to discuss our policy programme for Oldham. We outlined our vision for a Cooperative Borough, discussed the potential to work with neighbouring Rochdale and other Greater Manchester councils to meet the budget challenge (£54million in Oldham alone) but also protect frontline services.

We also took the opportunity to talk to Cllr Richard Williams from Southampton, who is National Chair of the Association of Public Service Excellence (ASPE), about his work on renewable energy.

Oldham is leading on this in Greater Manchester and I’m keen to ensure that the business and cost benefits to renewable energy are promoted. Not only could we save serious money from our £14 million energy bill, but we can also help residents out of fuel poverty: if we get it right.

Back into the main hall next to hear the Prime Minister, David Cameron, address the conference.

His speech focused on the current pension reform proposals and strike action. Mr Cameron was firm in his view that local government needed to reform and – although this isn’t the right forum for a political comment – my observation would be that to avoid conflict everyone must feel as though they can have their voice heard and concerns addressed. It isn’t in the interests of our workforce or taxpayers to be pitted against each other when more often than not they are one and the same. In Oldham around 80 per cent of our workforce are local residents and contribute significantly to the local economy.

I had a brief catch up with Councillor James Alexander. At the age of 29 he is officially the youngest Council Leader in the country at York. Having had this title attributed to me for a short time I must say it is something of a relief to know that I can now say “Actually, I am not the youngest” and instead be judged on what I do. Talking with James was good and I expect York will be in for some interesting times under his leadership.

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, gave his address to conference, which I found to be as I had expected. He is without doubt a skilled public speaker and gave the audience a good show with some interesting announcements, such as the proposal to select two pilot projects to lead on public sector spending – maybe one for Oldham?

I also used the time in Birmingham to meet with our partners Mouchel – joint-owners of the Unity Partnership here in Oldham. I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about how we can use Unity to attract new jobs into the Borough. With so many councils considering outsourcing I do often think we should be out there bringing in work and not simply standing by and watching on.

During the meeting I talked through our plans for Oldham to become a Cooperative Borough and explained how I thought Unity was central to this scheme working. If we are able to get agreement for Unity to sign up to our ethical framework, pay a living wage and buy into our idea to create a Dividend Fund to benefit Oldham, we would set the benchmark for other partners too.

The final day of conference was a ‘day to far’ for me(!) We had a full afternoon and evening booked in with leading members from Rochdale Council to discuss next steps for our joint working programme.

It was also an important opportunity to meet with Trade Union representatives from both Boroughs to explain the progress to date. For joint working to deliver we need to work with them in order to get the best possible outcome for all concerned.

Thanks for listening.

Jim