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,