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. 

________________________________________________________________________

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

7 thoughts on “Breastfeeding, council tax bills and road works – a week of rebuttals

  1. Independent Councillor Ken Hulme

    mmmm – are these incidents of poor ‘customer relations’ really so isolated Jim ?. After over 8 years as a Saddleworth Parish Councillor I have to say that in my experience Oldham Council is by far the worst I have known in my 61 years. I have worked for the GLC, been a Camden Borough Councillor, lived in Islington & Hackney and before moving back North lived in Buckinghamshire where both the Chiltern District and Bucks County Council were so much better then OMBC in dealing with the public.

    The Council has a dreadful attitude to consultation and involvement of the public and under the last administration standards sank to a very low level indeed.

    I welcome your approach, especially re Co-operative Councils, but I believe you have a mammoth task ahead of you to change the political and officer culture in the Borough. I see little sign that senior council officers have ‘bought into’ the idea of a Co-operative Council and remnants of the old Labour ‘ municipal Stalinism’ still linger on in the background

    I wish you luck and hope you don’t run out of energy and determination – which is what I suspect some in the higher echelons of the Civic Centre are waiting for.

    Ken

  2. You state that bad planning is not the problem as far as road delays are concerned, am I misguided in believing that all non-emergency roadworks must be approved by the local authority?

    If my understanding is correct, then the ultimate responsibility lies with the council officers who give permission for road closures or restrictions.

    A case in point for poor planning is one of the key alternative routes – Egerton Street – is also to be closed for 5 weeks from 1.8.2011 in addition to the poorly organised lane restrictions around the Mumps roundabout area, surely leading to total gridlock for all traffic trying to get from one side of Oldham to the other.

    Whilst I appreciate the fact that work is no doubt “essential”, surely there could be a delay to the Egerton St works until the lane restrictions around Mumps are removed.

  3. Billy1830

    Whilst I appreciate the colossal amount of works going on around Mumps. As a driver who has to negotiate this twice a day can I please request the following. When approaching Mumps from Sainsbury’s could you PLEASE improve the road signage. The lane restriction notices only appear when you are almost upon the lane which is closed! and they are confusing to say the least – example showing three lanes of traffic and which lane is closed, we haven’t had the luxury of three lanes approaching the roundabout for quite some time.
    Give us plenty of notice of which lane to get in and you may alleviate some of the road rage I witness on a daily basis.

  4. ‘the authority carries out millions of transactions … without error’

    perhaps you could enlighten me as to what comfort this provides in cases where people have been humiliated, lied to, or suffered financial losses because of Oldham Council?

    my experience has been that you cannot tell council staff anything – and if you try, you’ll be ignored, or more and more ‘inexplicable’ errors will occur until you shut up and comply.

    JIM’S RESPONSE: If you have a specific complaint please forward to me at leadersoffice@oldham.gov.uk and I will be happy to look into it on your behalf.

  5. “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.”

    Not so much a case of a ‘week being a long time in politics’, but rather, several uncomfortable and deeply embarrassing days, thrust into the unforgiving spotlight, of a national and international media, brimming with apoplectic sentiment.

    I think we can all be guilty at times (myself included) of, having read a particularly emotive piece in the Chronicle – indeed any newspaper – of allowing that initial, gut-reaction, to define thereafter ones position in relation to the story: the more thoughtful, reflective and considered attitude, giving way to a ‘click of the fingers’ judgement.

    As the searing embers cooled a little, allowing some perspective upon the incident, what if anything was actually left? To be honest…very little, save for the less sensational and more prosaic reality, of a council employee making an “isolated mistake”. As Councillor McMahon stated in Thursday’s Chronicle:

    “…in the grand scheme of things of what we do, unless the people of Oldham are willing to elect 1,000, there will never be a councillor to stand over the shoulder of every member of staff within the organisation.”

    As if all this wasn’t enough, I was deeply shocked and appalled, to read of the racist emails, that Councillor Akhtar was the unfortunate recipient of – Murdoch’s delightful little rag, with the headline “Don’t breastfeed in here, you’ll upset Muslims” no doubt giving the Neanderthal’s responsible for this odious correspondence, all the incentive and justification, their warped little minds required.

    On a final note: I have to say, just how disappointed I was, with the brazen, political point scoring, that Councillor Sykes and several others, engaged in – unashamedly opportunistic, with not the slightest consideration for the damage, their ill-advised comments might have had.

    At a time when ‘political unity’ should have been the watchwords – standing shoulder to shoulder, against the media onslaught – there were those in Oldham’s ranks, only too willing to gift its critics the ammunition needed.

  6. Cllr Kaiser Rehman

    Jim and Shoab have done an excellent job and this is a point worth noting, Cllr McMahon is the first leader in Oldham that is putting power into the hands of the people, it is not mere rhetoric. Within two months plans are already under way to set up hubs in communities for people to be able to access council facilities.
    The Cooperative Council status will give people the ownership that they did not have before and get involved in the community which will bring about a more of a community feel, unity and social integration at the same time benefitting the Borough. The public sector is responsible for employing a third of the people in employment in Oldham, the Labour administration has delivered our promise on the Living Wage which will be introduced.
    Cllr McMahon is showing great leadership and is serious about giving more leverage powers to the people of Oldham. I am certain he will continue to put the people of Oldham first.
    As far as the Opposition Leader’s comments are concerned about our Deputy Leader, this was political point scoring and I believe the hate mail that he recieved was disgusting for someone who came out and said we support breastfeeding.

  7. Dr Zahid Chauhan

    I think we are missing the point.We always gonna have hick ups, mistakes, but in my view its important to rectify mistakes and take step so they are not repeated which clearly has been done.
    It amazes me why national media never publishes anything good about Oldham. News headline could have been ” True multicultural town” “co operative council” Youngest council leader” “amazing high achieving six form college with Beacon status” or 18 year old Oldhamer proving a knockout in boxing to win a senior ABA title.Why always only bad news from oldham makes headline in national news paper? I am sure we got plenty to be proud of.
    ” Multicultural” means every one got the right does not matter its breast feeding or wearing Hajab. Oldham is true multicultural town. We need to make Oldham place where we want to live NOT have to live which we can do only buy turning hatred into love, love for Oldhamers despite their colour, race , religion or origin of name.
    WHY WE CANT LIVE AS ONE COMMUNITY with different cultural backgrounds and religions? Why we cant work towards common good? which should be to make our borough better place to live and work.
    Henry Fosdick said hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat. Please do not burn our own house “Oldham”.

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