Cutting your coat to suit your cloth

STAFF CONFERENCE: Cllr Jim McMahon at the podium with Charlie Parker, Chief Executive of Oldham Council, at last week's internal event.

ECONOMIC concerns are again driving this week’s headlines and deadlines.

The cut in the UK growth forecast to just 1.1 per cent for 2011 is just the latest reminder, as if one were needed, of the challenges that all of us are facing.

Everyone across our Borough – residents, staff and businesses alike – are looking over their shoulders and trying to protect their bottom line.

For most people that means constantly monitoring mortgages, pensions, savings, income and bills – and looking at how to cut costs with the minimum impact on your welfare.

The challenge is exactly the same for Oldham Council.

Our balancing act is to find £24 million in savings from next year’s budget whilst continuing to invest in priority areas for residents, plan for the future and protect the frontline services that you depend upon.

This week we’ve launched our consultation exercise with the public to discuss exactly how we can achieve this.

Oldham Council’s challenges are the same as every other Authority – to wrestle with becoming a leaner organisation that will have to work very differently – and we simply can’t sit here with our fingers in our ears wishing the problems will go away.

It would also be unforgivably arrogant for us to assume that our management team and Councillors have a monopoly on good ideas or common sense – and that’s where you come in.

I’d urge everyone reading this to please take five minutes of your time to visit the new Budget Consultation pages at www.oldham.gov.uk/budgetand give us your feedback. This explains our income sources and where we are currently spending every penny of your money.

The Council administers this budget on your behalf and that’s exactly why we need to make our final decisions based on what you tell us are your priorities, – and also what is not(!).

This cycle of finding savings and reducing spending is one that Oldham Council will continually be facing for many years. But as I told employees at last week’s Staff Conference, we must stay focussed and be positive about what this will mean. It needn’t all be doom and gloom…

As we look towards launching our vision of what becoming a Cooperative Council means for Oldham next month, I want staff to start embracing the opportunities to change for the better.

With more powers and budgets being devolved downwards, the staff we are redeploying to the six new district Town Halls will work closer than ever before with residents.

That means they will no longer be shackled by a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and therefore also means they should start to feel more empowered.

It’s surely going to be better for everyone if we enable staff to proactively change the ways they work with the people they’re serving – and if they’re finally liberated to find smarter solutions with less bureaucracy that better meet the differing priorities within each district.

I also explained to Council staff about our new commitment – as part of the Cooperative approach – to enable them to invest time back into the community.

We’re going to allow staff to take three days of paid leave annually to put something back into the local area to support groups and initiatives where their expertise can make a big difference. That might be someone in our finance team helping a local charity apply for grant funding or do their books, for example, or someone from our Environmental/Parks teams assisting them with a community garden, clean-up or allotment scheme.

Essentially, this is the spirit of what a Cooperative Borough should look like. Everybody working together – public sector, hand-in-hand with residents, plus the voluntary and private sectors – to achieve a common goal that improves the place.

I also want to put improved aspirations at the top of our agenda as an Authority.

My vision from here is that every apprentice starting work at Oldham Council should be able to aspire to climb all the way up to the top, and become Chief Executive.

In a generation’s time I would like to see the majority of senior management in the Council to have been produced from – and thereby be closer to needs and aspirations of – this Borough.

Another crucial part of this Cooperative jigsaw – beyond staff and residents – will be to make Ward Members more effective.

We recently held our first session with councillors of a new Local Leaders Programme, which aims to help them become more responsive and valued community figures. 

There was a vastly differing mix of experiences and lengths of time served amongst all present at this event, but the ideas discussed were well received.

Across all the political parties it was very clear to me that our Ward Members do believe in the Borough, and that we need to do more to support them.

Giving them the powers and the budgets to do things that make a real difference in their area is key to the devolution agenda, but it’s not the whole answer.

Being a Councillor is not a profession – it’s a vocation and there is no defined ‘career path’ into it. That’s why we need to support and enable them all to perform better through appropriate training and development.

Finally today – on a very different tangent – I’m pleased to report that good progress is being made by Langtree, with whom Oldham Council recently signed a development agreement to revitalise Hollinwood.

Langtree has already moved quickly to appoint key personnel to make things happen and I’m looking forward next to seeing the architects’ Masterplan for the area.

Redeveloping the key sites in question here – alongside Metrolink’s arrival – can help us strengthen Hollinwood’s identity and secure its position it as a destination of regional importance.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Meetings of minds

Surveying the new Failsworth Town Hall with architect Ken Waddington of Hall Needham and Associates
REOPEN FOR BUSINESS: Cllr McMahon touring the new Failsworth Town Hall with architect Ken Waddington (Hall Needham and Assocs)

THIS WEEK I’ve been attending a series of events to explain and listen to views about our vision for Oldham to become a Cooperative Borough.

That started as I attended the reopening of Failsworth Town Hall last week alongside David Heyes MP.

This is a very positive regeneration scheme that has revived important local facilities and will provide a new community hub or ‘one stop shop’.

The Town Hall will enable residents to carry out tasks like reporting environmental problems and paying bills, and – in time – other functions that local people identify as genuine need.

This is the first of our new district town halls to open across the Borough and is – crucially – designed to bring Oldham Council closer to the people it serves.

That theme is principally what I spoke about at a conference on Cooperative Councils at the People’s History Museum in Manchester last Saturday, which was attended by many Local Authorities from up and down the country.

The majority were positive, and some admittedly remain to be convinced, but the reception left me feeling very confident that this ‘Oldham model’ –changing our values, behaviours and ethics to work closer with residents than ever before – is really gaining momentum.

A Business Breakfast event at Fresca in Delph this morning then enabled me to share that vision further with the private sector.

I went along to start a conversation with the business community about how they can play their part, and the ways in which Oldham Council can support and assist them to get a business dividend in testing economic times.

There are many strands to this – which include our input into AGMA’s strategy for inward investment, and our support to local firms in Regional Growth Fund bids – and they also had plenty to say.

Businesses said they would like more dedicated support and one interesting suggestion was to have a Cabinet Member devoted solely to business. That’s certainly something I will consider as I want to ensure our interaction with them is more cohesive.

There was, of course, some talk over breakfast about Warburton’s announcement today that up to 170 jobs may go at their Shaw site.

This is clearly devastating news for the staff affected – and their families.

Whilst we work hard to ensure Oldham gets a fair crack of the whip, we will never be immune to national companies making decisions like this.

Our job is not to dwell on being glum about it, but to try and help find practical solutions.

The Council is setting-up a dedicated team that will go and speak to staff and offer them one-to-one help in CV writing and job matching, for instance, and also to potentially find employment opportunities which might even lie across our boundaries in neighbouring authorities.

To my mind the most important thing is that we assist these people, wherever we can, in ensuring they will be able to pay their mortgages. That is everyone’s bottom line.

Later today I’m looking forward to having tea with members of Oldham’s Youth Council and discussing plans with them to start a new ‘Young Cooperators’ programme.

The idea here is to promote a sense of civic pride and community responsibility from an early age.

The reason I’m doing this relates to a realistic assessment of what Oldham Council can do in 2011 and beyond.

We currently have a relationship with residents where the demand and dependency on our services has never been higher – and at a time when budgets are shrinking. That poses serious questions about the future of this relationship.

In street cleaning, for example, we’ve got a clear duty to keep roads clean and safe. But also we spent a huge amount of extra money trying to keep them litter-free – which is a very different thing.

Picking up crisp packets and cans that somebody couldn’t be bothered putting into a bin costs us a small fortune annually. If I piled that money up in the Civic Centre car park and burnt it there would rightly be outrage – but we’re effectively doing the same thing here.

It’s easy for a resident to see the litter and say ‘I pay my Council Tax – sort it’, but there is a perception problem here that can only be tackled by behavioural and cultural change on all sides.

Put simply, Oldham Council is here to administer the money that you pay, on your behalf.

With our gross revenue budget soon set to be around 50 per cent of what it was five years ago, we simply can’t continue to ‘do what we have always done’ and need people to start thinking differently about responsibilities.

This is exactly why I want the Youth Council to become ambassadors for this ‘Young Cooperators’ scheme.

Getting people to become champions for their area rather than expecting the Council to do everything for them is a big part of that process.

I want to help young people understand what the public sector is and its function and relationship to them.

The Youth Council already does do some excellent work so I’m going to be really interested to hear their ideas about how we can engage with young people and start to make this happen.

Finally, I must mention the recent announcement from the Boundary Review which proposes significant changes to our Parliamentary constituencies.

These proposals would see four MPs with responsibility for different bits of the Borough ‘chiselled’ off to each new constituency – and also means that Royton and Chadderton would be split apart on that map.

Following Full Council last Wednesday a working group with cross-party membership has now been set up to examine this matter as there are clearly serious questions to ponder.

Those include how we can best protect our local identity, and also how we ensure that change does not lead to poorer democratic representation for our residents.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Looking to the future

TALENT: Students explained to me how Oldham's new Regional Science Centre matches their ambitions and aspirations

MY THOUGHTS are dominated at present by next year’s Budget challenge and possible job losses at Oldham Council.

You’ll no doubt have read the stories in the press this week that up to 400 posts could go: and nobody enjoys reading those less than myself.

No Leader, of whatever political persuasion, ever wants to have to take steps like these but the simple truth is that the grant settlement from Government leaves us – like every other Local Authority nationwide – facing tough decisions that we cannot shy away from. Staying the same is not an option.

We are a long way yet from making any final decisions and a 90-day consultation period is now underway with our staff and Trade Unions.

I am determined that during this process we must stay true to our values and objectives – and ensure that cuts are made in non-priority areas.

We must also keep our staff fully informed and listen to their good ideas about shredding bureaucracy and unnecessary work. That is the only way that we can protect the frontline services and reduce waste.

This is a financial tightrope – and not an easy one to walk – but as a Council we also have to be mindful that we do far more than just emptying bins.

We have a crucial strategic role to fulfil that ensures we can attract future investment into the Borough.

To do that we need to have the capital funding available for ‘big ticket’ projects to get things moving forward, and we must therefore strike a balance that also allows us to continue investing in these clear priority areas for the future.

A good example of an excellent regeneration scheme is the Regional Science Centre Oldham – our partnership venture with Oldham Sixth Form College – which opened its doors for the very first lessons last week.

I paid a visit to Kings Point last Wednesday and had a fantastic discussion with staff – and some student ambassadors. Many had chosen to come to Oldham from Ashton, Rochdale and Manchester.

No doubt they were attracted by what are clearly first-class facilities, but they also came here because of the reputation of our Borough for science results, and the RSCO’s aspirations.

It was inspiring to hear young people striving to become the scientists, dentists and doctors of the future who have chosen to come here to Oldham to do it.

My whistle-stop diary continued the next day with a ‘back to the floor’ visit to see the Unity-run call centre in Rochdale in action for myself.

Staff here were transferred from Oldham last year and I was keen to see their working environment and learn more about the day-to-day nature of their work.

I have to say that I was very impressed by what I saw. This is a team dealing with around 9,500 calls a week (!) and clearly boasts very dedicated, enthusiastic and experienced staff.

The queries they deal with cover an incredibly wide range from bins not being collected to complex benefits claims.

It was a pleasure to talk with staff and listen to their ideas – and particularly reassuring to hear they do follow-up calls with residents to ensure their issues have been resolved.

My travels around the Borough continued last night as I attended a meeting of the Greenfield and Grasscroft Residents’ Association to discuss our plans for a Co-operative Council with residents.

This was just the start of an ongoing series of discussions I want to have across the districts and was a very positive event. I was given a warm welcome, and thought the level of debate was excellent.

For many years communities like these have been challenging us to listen more. And, for me, the most important thing is that Oldham Council starts becoming an ‘enabler’ of things rather than being seen as a dead-handed bureaucracy.

There were a lot of residents telling me what we had not done – or where we had gone wrong in the past. I am asking for a clean slate looking forward and that can only work if there are no ‘hangovers’ from the past – on all sides.

Some people at the meeting were definitely enthused by this and some, clearly, will remain sceptical at least for now. 

I’m conscious that it’s my job to convince them all that we mean business. I’m also confident that some people who were present will come back with some really good ideas.

For this to work it has to be a two-way process we all participate in – listening and contributing – so I look forward to hearing what they come up with.

Finally, tonight sees a meeting of Full Council and one that will, no doubt, see at least a temporary outbreak of unanimity across all party benches as we confer the title of Honorary Alderman on two former Mayors.

David Jones and Christine Wheeler are outstanding examples of people who have made a significant contribution to the Borough through public service.

David’s passion was for education and he was instrumental in leading the opening of Oldham Sixth Form College, which is now one of the country’s leading Further Education establishments.

Through her work as a nurse, and as a Ward Member, Christine has always helped people and her work on the Adoption Panel has seen hundreds of children benefit by settling into suitable families.

I’ve talked in past blog postings about the need for all Ward Members to become respected community leaders. David and Christine are excellent examples of exactly what that means.

Both have shown the kind of dedication and leadership that should be a role model for all elected members to aspire to emulate.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

100 Days of change

100 DAYS IN OFFICE: Time to reflect and refocus on moving the Borough forward

I WANT to use today’s blog to reflect on my first 100 Days in office.

It’s been a frantic period since I first sat in this chair and this seems an opportune moment to reflect on what has already been achieved.

The following isn’t an exhaustive list of everything that’s been done but I hope it gives a flavour of what has been driving the activity…

I came into this post with my eyes wide open and clear priorities for action.

I recall my first blog referring to the ‘disconnect’ between Oldham Council and its residents: a feeling that the Local Authority is distant, that members sit in an ivory tower and don’t listen to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

That requires a new settlement between elected members and citizens – and it starts at the top.

To that end I’ve rejected the use of Council credit cards and civic cars, cut Councillors’ allowances by 10 per cent, reduced the size of Cabinet and the numbers entitled to allowances, and cut the Leader’s Office staff from four to two. All represent significant savings to the public purse.

Equally key to tackling that disconnect is work to improve the quality of local democracy and rebuild trust. Ward Members can – and must – do more to become respected leaders in their communities again, making decisions that properly reflect their area’s genuine needs and aspirations.

How we start that is by revitalising and empowering six new district town halls. That means more powerful District Partnerships with bigger budgets (we’re devolving more than £2 million) to deliver services. These will have frontline staff redeployed to their areas and proper control – instead of competing to a central pot – on investments on play areas and Britain in Bloom activities, for example.

I’ve also long believed that how you treat your older and vulnerable residents really defines what kind of community you are – especially during an economic downturn. That’s why funding was prioritised to reopen Limecroft day care centre. It’s also why we assisted in establishing a new specialised service for young people with complex needs at Boston House, Hathershaw, and why Council car parks are once again free for Blue Badge holders.

From Day One I’ve also been clear that regeneration activity is key to our future and how this Borough will fare when the upturn arrives. If we’re not prepared then we won’t capitalise and will miss another generation of economic opportunities.

That’s why resolving the long-standing uncertainty about Oldham Athletic and securing Oldham Roughyeds’ future at Whitebank Stadium were top priorities.

Other important infrastructure projects have now seen funding agreed for a new high-speed broadband link for Oldham; a project for Hollinwood to host the region’s first electric car showroom/charging point; contracts signed on a major Streetlighting programme with Rochdale; an underused town centre building revitalised as a new home for Oldham Boxing Club; and work undertaken to secure the Borough’s Olympic legacy with the Halford’s Tour visit, plus a series of community programmes.

We’ve also shaken hands with Langtree on a deal for Hollinwood Junction to be developed for leisure and business use, confirmed vital refurbishment works at Stoneleigh school, and – in housing – agreed plans for 100 new properties in Freehold, signed-off the Primrose Bank/Crossley Estate PFI scheme to build 700 new homes, and cut the first sod on 50 new properties for St Mary’s.

Looking ahead, I’m particularly excited about our work to become a Co-operative Council taking shape in the coming months. This will develop a proper ethical framework for how we operate and will redefine our future relationships with the voluntary sector, our partners, local businesses, and you, the Council taxpayer. There will be more on this in future blogs.

If you ask me right now what my immediate priorities are I’d say they are dominated by a need to find £24m in savings from next year’s budget. Finding efficiencies on that scale won’t be easy, but I’m determined we will take them from non-priority areas.

At the same time, however, my role isn’t just about the day-to-day running of Oldham Council’s budget; it’s about planning for how we move this Borough on. Away from the spreadsheets and ‘Star Chamber’ sessions, I must retain focus on resolving key strategic problems.

Local Government finance, organisation and service provision is a fast-changing kaleidoscope.

You can never take your eye away from the looking glass and, if we simply wait for the pieces to fall, we will miss vital opportunities to shape our future.

So, with Metrolink due to arrive in 2012, I’m working on putting the funding together for much-needed improvements that will make Union Street a proper gateway to the town centre. 

I’m also very concerned about the recent closures of some businesses in Oldham, and our district shopping areas, and we are currently looking at this very carefully to assess what action might feasibly be taken to promote the health of the High Street in difficult trading times. This isn’t just an Oldham Council problem, of course. It will also require input from private businesses and organisations to address this and we’re committed to working in partnership with them to identify any strategic action that can be taken to attract investment and promote those vacant units in the coming months. 

Finally, I’m also conscious, as before, that definitive solutions are still needed – and are at the top of my ‘pending tray’- on quandaries like the future of Royton Assembly Hall and (of course) the Old Town Hall building.

Thanks for listening,

Jim