Leisure matters

FESTIVAL FINALE: Enjoying the wonders of a trip by barge at the Rochdale Canal Festival

MOST people reserve their Bank Holiday weekends for a spot of family fun – and I am no exception.

Despite the somewhat gloomy weather on Sunday morning, I ventured out to take part in the closing events of the annual Rochdale Canal Festival.

There has been significant restoration work along the canal in recent years and I was privileged to take a barge ride with the Mayor of Oldham, Councillor Richard Knowles, to see some of the fantastic recreational opportunities and activities this historic stretch of water has to offer.

This canal is an outstanding outdoor asset for our Borough but also one that is no doubt under-utilised by the public, so I would really encourage anyone reading this to put it down on your list of places to visit in the future.

Getting about by barge proved trouble-free for me but, regrettably, a day out is not always as simple and pleasurable as it should be for a significant minority of our residents.

My mind focussed on this after being amongst the Council team which heard a presentation from Councillor Derek Heffernan (Saddleworth North) last week.

This explained how and where disabled people are accessing Oldham town centre and I must congratulate Cllr Heffernan because it was a real eye-opener.

There are clearly certain parts of town that are very difficult for disabled people to visit and this highlighted some major difficulties with access which an able-bodied person such as myself would not immediately recognise.

Following on from that discussion we are committed to looking at this in more detail and examining what can be done to tackle these problems.

The news that Ian Kendall is stepping down as Chief Executive of Oldham Community Leisure prompts me to look ahead this week and offer some personal thoughts about the future of the Borough’s ‘Leisure Estate’.

Firstly, I’d like to pay tribute to Ian for all his hard work. During his time at the helm OCL has notched many significant improvements – particularly in terms of making the leisure estate offering more commercial and thereby also reducing the costs of this to the taxpayer.

Legally we were not allowed to extend OCL’s contract any further than we already had done, so Ian’s departure serves as a useful reflection point for us to consider what comes next and what our future leisure offering should look like.

As an example, I believe that our town centre provision really should be housed in a flagship facility. But I certainly don’t think that it is true at present, and we need to address that.

Equally we have a situation in Crompton and Royton where the swimming pools are really not fit for purpose and we need to make sure we can offer something better for local residents.

With OCL’s contract set to end I think it’s time to take a more holistic view of what we have, listen to users and look at what we need in the future.

The portion of our leisure estate which OCL is responsible for delivering is actually just one small part of what is on offer in the Borough. The estate also includes our school playing fields and facilities, for example, and I think we need to take that whole picture into account and try to apply better logic to it.

What do I mean by that? Well, I know of a situation in Failsworth which convinces me that changes are needed whereby the secondary school hires out sports pitches on one side of the road and OCL does the same on the opposite side of the street.

The two are actively competing against each other on price and fighting for the same business – from local service users – at a time when we actually have under-provision in other parts of the Borough. That just doesn’t make sense to me whichever way you look at it.

Not only is it confusing to service users but it is also inefficient and ineffective when you consider that both of these operations are subsidised by the local taxpayer.

In thanking Ian Kendall I should stress that – as a former board member of OCL – I know there is also a much wider team of very dedicated and hard-working staff on the ground who have contributed to OCL’s successes. We need to make sure they are kept fully informed and understand what will happen next as this contract goes – as it must – out to tender.

Last but not least it would be remiss of me not to mention last week’s GCSE exam celebrations. Local results have again improved for the eleventh consecutive year and I humbly salute the efforts of all involved.

On that note I’m particularly looking forward to visiting our Regional Science Centre when it opens next week to meet with new students and staff.

This venue is a significant landmark in the expansion of local education provision in this area. It will be used by primary school pupils right through to undergraduates and move our offering up to a whole new level.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

A long time in politics…

DEAL: Shaking hands on our new agreement with Chris Hamilton, Roughyeds' Chairman

THEY say a week is a long time in politics and that sentiment is ringing loud and clear as I try to catch up on everything that’s happened during the Council recess.

Whilst away I’ve been kept in touch with major developments, of course, but there’s a huge amount of work ongoing behind-the-scenes across the whole range of Council business at present and I’m conscious this will be an extremely busy period as autumn approaches.

On the subject of hard work, I firstly want to congratulate all those students across the Borough who got their A-Level results last Thursday.

It looks very much like this was the 11th consecutive year that our exam results have improved and it’s disappointing that national media was again full of people quick to use statistics like that to knock the value of these exams.

It’s a crying shame – and downright churlish, actually – to be knocking all the hard work that has been put in, not just by these young people but also their teachers, school support staff and parents, to get those grades.

Hundreds of other local students are now also set to get their GCSE results on Thursday and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish them all the very best of luck.

Back at my desk on Monday it was straight into meetings – and a very important one with Chris Hamilton, Chairman of the Roughyeds.

In a case not dissimilar to Oldham Athletic, this club has been battling against the odds to secure a permanent base in the Borough for nigh on 14 years.

We’ve had an agreement in place for some time for them to become tenants at the Whitebank Stadium but had to wait some time for a very complex land deal to be negotiated on the site.

I’m delighted to say that work is now complete. Chris and I had a very positive meeting and we’re now able to sign an agreement in the coming days which will confirm their tenure and enable them to finally plan ahead with confidence.

Our Borough is a Rugby League hotbed with the Roughyeds and local amateur clubs having produced an impressive conveyor belt of some of the sport’s brightest talents.

I sincerely hope this enables them to now start making the long-term plans needed that will one day return this club to a level that befits its dazzling history.

Onto other matters now and – in the coming weeks and months – work will be gathering serious pace on devolving power, influence and budgets down to your neighbourhoods.

On arriving in this role I promised it was a top priority for this administration to invest more – and do it smarter – in your local areas. That means handing back increased power to new town halls that are better responsive to residents’ aspirations, and also offer stronger and more visible civic leadership.

You will soon be seeing physical action on this front with – for example – the opening of the newly-refurbished Failsworth Town Hall in the middle of next month, but what is also key to this agenda is the next round of District Partnership meetings in September.

As part of our Emergency Budget we made improvements to DP budgets to cut red tape and allow them to bid for funding for much larger-scale projects than was previously possible.

I’d urge all residents reading this to have a think about what is a top priority where you live. Councillors certainly don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, so please attend the meetings or contact your local members with your thoughts. This is Council Taxpayers’ money being spent in your district and your voice should be heard as loudly as everyone else.

I want to end today by saying something about our heritage as a Borough.

I believe Oldham Council is spreading itself too thinly and trying to do too much on increasingly limited resources.

There are some fantastic buildings around but if our local heritage is to genuinely have a sustainable future then we need to cut the number of properties that we are maintaining as a Local Authority.

The former Town Hall has got to the state that it has, for example, because it is one of about 200 that the Council owns and maintains.

Of that huge estate it is also one of about 60 buildings that are vacant and costing us lots of money to keep safe, monitor and secure. That money could be much better spent on safeguarding frontline services.

It’s my belief that each district now needs to look at this issue and start identifying which one or two key buildings it has that are genuinely iconic. We should then prioritise the funding to ensured these are maintained properly to make them genuine ‘jewels in the crown’ for their area and a source of civic pride.

With the budget challenges that we are likely to face over the next generation, the idea of us keeping an estate with hundreds of properties – many being under-used or lying vacant – can no longer be justified.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Lest we forget…

LEST we forget: The Oldham War Memorial, outside Oldham Parish Church, honours more than 2,000 local fallen heroes

As regular readers of my blog will be aware I’m currently away enjoying a family holiday.

However, inbetween London and Ireland, I had an opportunity to visit Oldham Cenotaph to check on the troublesome pages in the book of remembrance which have begun to get stuck. This changes page each day showing the names of those who lost their lives during the war, and family members travel from some distance to see the names of their loved ones on display.

So this week I’d like to highlight the good work Oldham Council does to look after our 16 War Memorials across the Borough.

This is an issue that is very close to my heart – not only as a keen local historian and councillor but also as a resident. I’m sure many of you, who may or may not have lost loved ones in conflict, are also proud of these Civic treasures.

As chair of the Failsworth War Memorial Steering Group we raised a substantial amount of money to renovate the memorial gardens on Oldham Road. It now looks fantastic and lets everyone know that people respect those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

I also think it is vitally important that young people growing up in an increasingly ‘consumer society’ understand the social history of our Borough. Far too much is taken for granted by far too many people. Perhaps a little reflection by all of us at times will go a long way to improving our Borough in many ways.

I digress though… As a Council we do an outstanding job looking after our war memorials.

It is a year round job clearing up litter, planting bulbs, carrying out repairs and removing moss, vandalism and weeds – not just something we carry out in the run up to Remembrance Day in November.

That is why as a Council we are committed to securing the long-term future of these memorials for generations to come.

We have already cleaned up, amongst others, the Memorial Gardens, Manchester Road, Failsworth, Royton Park and the South African War Memorial in Shaw Memorial Gardens and in the coming months we will ensure all the war memorials are maintained to the high standards expected by the public.

I met with representatives from our armed forces ex-service personnel who are keen to see Oldham cenotaph returned to its glory. It needs a fair amount of work to repair the mechanism inside and to make the whole structure watertight.

There are also other sites – such as Pots and Pans and Bardsley – which need improving. As a council we already spend in the region of £100,000 a year on maintenance of war memorial grounds and I am pleased to announce that ahead of November’s Remembrance Sunday services we will be allocating a further £50,000 for improvements in district memorials. We will also use the time to begin on Oldham after November (it’s a big job and we have to make provision for the book of remembrance to be moved during the work).

I’m sure anyone who attends any of the services held at the various memorials will agree with my sentiments.

Last but not least, with the dust beginning to settle following the civil disturbances across the country, the focus is rightly on those towns and cities recovering and getting back to normality.

Without wishing to jinx matters here I will say how proud I was that Oldham escaped disturbances. We never truly let our guard down, and you wouldn’t forgive us if we did, but now and again it is worth saying to Government – look at Oldham for the right reasons.

I know many of you, like me, are on holiday so I hope you enjoy the rest of your break. I return back in Oldham next week and its straight back to it – see you then.

Thanks for listening

Jim

Postcard from London

REGULAR readers of my blog will be aware that I’m currently away enjoying a family holiday during the Council recess.

However, I usually find it almost impossible at these times not to be keeping at least sporadically in touch with my office – and with the national news.

And as you would expect being the Leader of the Council means that although you may have time out of meetings, you are never truly ‘off’. Thankfully my family are supportive and excuse my phone being on call 24/7.

I have just arrived in London and watching the scenes of rioting and devastation on our TV screens in recent days here has been a shocking and sobering experience for everyone.

The perpetrators of these criminal acts must be brought to justice. That is something all communities can play a key role in as there should be no harbouring of – nor hiding place for – those involved in mindless looting and violence.

Longer-term the even more difficult challenge in the areas affected will be to rebuild: not in terms of just bricks and mortar, but also to heal wounds and restore trust and confidence on the streets.

It became clear with the huge police clampdown on Tuesday in London that things would either get significantly worse, or much calmer. Thankfully it was the latter in the capital, but with mindless violence again breaking out in other areas of the country.

I felt sick to the stomach to see Manchester, which recovered following the IRA bombing, being torn apart by its own people – as a Mancunian born and bred I have to admit feeling a real sense of anger. I felt Manchester Councillor Pat Karney made an excellent point when he said that these people were not “real Mancunians” – well said!

This is a constantly moving situation across the country, however to date – although there have been some minor incidents in the Borough – there is no evidence that these are anything more than bad behaviour which, although far from ideal, is not a civil disturbance by any stretch of the imagination.

We are working closely with the emergency services and with colleagues across Greater Manchester as you would expect. We are also giving support to town centre businesses and have plans in place should anything occur.

My message to anyone who wants to rip Oldham apart is simple. If you have so little faith in our Borough you are willing to destroy it, then there is no place here for you.

ONE FUTURE: Cllr Jim McMahon with actress Shobnah Gulati and local youngsters at Old Trafford

ON A MORE positive note, I had the privilege to attend Paul Scholes’ testimonial match at Old Trafford last Friday.

I was with a party of around 200 local young people who were enjoying a free night at the event as part of ‘One Future’: a project designed to ensure London 2012 leaves the Borough with a lasting legacy.

This is a joint scheme backed by Oldham Council plus leading figures from the private sector and well-known sporting and home-grown personalities. The tickets were given to a range of schools, individuals and organisations across the Borough who have shown dedication and commitment to their sporting pursuits at all ability levels.

The night proved to be a fantastic event and it was great to see our young people enjoying themselves watching – and being inspired by – the major sporting stars on show as Manchester United took on New York Cosmos.

In an era where football stars often hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Paul Scholes has been an absolute credit to this town. I sincerely hope this experience helps to further motivate and focus these youngsters on becoming the future stars and ambassadors of our Borough.

One Future will be championing more projects that will include the arts, sport, health and economy over the coming year, so watch this space and the http://www.oldham.gov.uk website for further updates.

LAST but not least this week I just wanted to take this opportunity to pass on my sincere congratulations to Oldham Council’s Finance team.

This is an area which is absolutely critical to what we do as a Local Authority and this week we became one of the first in the country to close off last year’s accounts.

Finance staff have worked incredibly hard in the past couple of years to improve the pace and accuracy of their reporting and this has now put them amongst the best nationwide.

We have full confidence in the data that they provide us with and that ultimately can help us make better-informed decisions that deliver value for money for you, the Council Taxpayer.

Sincere congratulations go to Steven Mair and all his team.

Thanks for listening,

 Jim

Council agrees historic deal with Oldham Athletic

Cllr Jim McMahon and Simon Corney, Chairman of OAFC shake on the groundbreaking deal
Cllr Jim McMahon and Simon Corney, Chairman of OAFC shake on the groundbreaking deal (Photograph courtesy on Oldham Evening Chronicle)

As you may have seen already in the press, this week I was delighted to be able to announce that the Council and Oldham Athletic are on the verge of signing a deal that secures the club’s future and benefits the Borough and its residents. 

The agreement was not reached overnight and it is the result of weeks of negotiations between officers, councillors and representatives from Latics. 

I will not go into all the details as it would take up this entire blog and probably next week’s, but I think it is fair to say all the hard work has paid off and the parties involved have ‘had a result’, to coin a football themed phrase. 

The headline grabbing news is that Latics are staying in the Borough, at their historic home of Boundary Park. I’m positive this was the outcome the majority of fans, residents, and even those who have had just a passing interest, would have wanted.

Under the proposals, which are subject to contract following Cabinet’s decision, Boundary Park will be regenerated and vital community schemes run by the club can continue. 

Another successful spin off for residents is that the Council has acquired the Lancaster Club site in Failsworth. 

This could see the development of a football centre with six-a-side pitches, plus the provision of additional leisure-oriented retail and community facilities. 

This fits in with our plans for the Borough as a destination in its own right and as a place people want to live and work.

This latest announcement means the long term future of Latics is now secure and it could not have come at a better time with the new football season just days away. 

Let’s hope they can now use this platform to push on and once again reach the highest tier of English football and make us all proud. 

___________________________________________________________________________

Councillor Shoab Akhtar, Peter Studd and Andrew Kendall
Oldham Council’s Deputy Leader, Councillor Shoab Akhtar and Mouchel’s Shared Services Director Peter Studd at Mouchel’s new Shared Service Centre, with Andrew Kendall, Managing Director of the Council’s Unity Partnership

I was pleased to welcome judges from the North West in Bloom competition to the Civic Centre last week. 

The duo was in town to assess if our latest ‘Bloom and Grow’ entry has flower power.

They were taken on a three-hour tour of the Borough and I’m not beating about the bush but they must have been impressed by our efforts to retain our ‘Best City’ title. 

All the displays are eye catching and the Past, Present and Future themed garden in the Town Centre looks stunning. 

I welcomed the judges alongside Councillor Richard Knowles, the Mayor of Oldham. I was keen to get across that the decision to proceed with our entry, despite the budget pressures faced by the Council, was because of our desire to build the Borough’s confidence. 

The Bloom and Grow team has once again excelled themselves and I hope their efforts are duly rewarded when the results are announced later in the year. 

I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Credit Union last week which was not just a routine meet, but also recognition that the CU is now stronger than ever with a healthy membership list and good financial management. 

I am keen for the CU to become more involved in tackling financial exclusion. We have done well at providing an alternative to doorstep lenders but there is still a lot to do. If you are interested in becoming a member of the CU go to www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk  

This Wednesday I am meeting with representatives from BAE Systems to discuss the future of the Greengate site at Chadderton. 

I share everyone’s concern about the loss of BAE from our Borough, but we also need to make sure that this strategic site is not left to mothball and instead is used for employment growth. 

In these hard financial times it is always very welcome news when we hear of more than 50 jobs being created in the Borough.

Mouchel, whose joint venture Unity Partnership with Oldham Council runs a number of the Authority’s services, has relocated to a new Shared Services Centre in the Oldham Business Centre, Cromwell Street.

The good news is local people have been recruited to fill many of the new posts. Twenty of the roles were filled following a successful recruitment day in the Council’s offices open to local residents, Council and Unity Partnership staff. 

Over the coming weeks it is going to be a quiet time around the Civic Centre as the Council is officially in recess – a sort of summer holiday – until August 19. 

This means there will be no Council meetings for the next two weeks or so. But as far as the services we provide to you it is business as usual. 

As my diary won’t be as cluttered it will give me a chance to take stock of what has been a very busy time since May 5 and do some forward planning.

For me it gives me time with my family for a week’s holiday in the UK before a short break visiting my mum over in Ireland. And it couldn’t have come too soon! 

Kind regards,

Jim