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,