The upside down week – and back again

Jim McMahon hands over the Churchill letter to Dinah Winch, Gallery Oldham
DONATION: Jim McMahon handing over the letter from Winston Churchill he has donated to Gallery Oldham

IT’S BEEN – literally – a topsy-turvy old week.

Few people reading this will have missed the story in the media about the Chadderton boundary sign being installed ‘upside down’.

Were we embarrassed? Certainly.

Do I accept this was a mistake anyone could have made? Certainly not.

My take on it is pretty straightforward. It was a cock-up and exactly the kind of mistake that Oldham Council needs to cut out to regain residents’ trust.

This should – as Michael Lawson from the Chadderton Historical Society rightly pointed out – have been the tale about a new sign that reflects what local residents want and restores a district’s proud identity. But that message was sadly lost in the fog.

The week did at least put itself the right way up eventually and end on a very bright note with recognition at North West in Bloom for some fantastic partnership working here in the Borough.

Bloom and Grow, a campaign which I credit the previous administration for putting in place, scooped the ‘Best City’ prize plus an Environmental Award.

Next we will have the honour to represent the region at Britain in Bloom 2012 and in the ‘City’ category and it’s a challenge I am certain we can meet.

Bloom and Grow has seen Council staff working with people across all sectors of the community and is a fantastic model of what I mean when I talk about our future as a Cooperative Borough.

Everyone involved here pulled together and did their bit, no matter how big or small, to deliver a common good: improving Oldham as a place to live.

Our Parks and Street Scene teams worked with residents from school age to the elderly, housing associations, local firms in our Business Improvement District, partners in health and the voluntary sectors, and many more to pull this off and I salute them all for their dedication and deeds.

Whilst writing today I have noticed that this Blog is just about to register its 10,000th hit since it was launched back in June.

Since taking office I’ve been at pains to nurture better and more regular engagement with residents and stakeholders – like the recent Question Time event, for example – because I believe it lies at the core of our approach to moving Oldham forward.

The Blog is just one small medium through which I want to make an ongoing dialogue, accountability and transparency the norm in how we operate.

Whilst I don’t kid myself that every Borough resident has read it, I think it’s important that people can read about my week and see what I am trying to do on their behalf.

An online blog like this can also theoretically live on forever in Google’s cached archives for everyone to see and read – but that’s not the case with historic documents.

That’s why this week I’ve purchased an historic note from Winston Churchill and made a personal donation to Gallery Oldham’s collection.

Regular readers here will know that I am a keen historian so, when I became aware of this document, I decided to prevent it from falling into the hands of a private collector and gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.

Whilst I’m always looking forward with our plans for the Borough I also think it’s important that we value your heritage and ensure that it can be enjoyed and experienced by future generations.

Churchill, of course, knew all about difficult topsy-turvy weeks – especially during wartime – and that’s a thought which helps me put a proper perspective on the past week’s events.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Question Time success

Question Time in the Council Chamber
DEMOCRACY: Councillor McMahon explains a point to residents at last week's special Question Time event in the Council Chamber

LAST Thursday night saw our special Cabinet ‘Question Time’ take place as part of Local Democracy Week.

Some residents were in the Council Chamber to ask questions and – thanks to live streaming on our website – we also had many submitted via email, Twitter and Facebook from people watching online at home.

When it was all over – after two-and-a-half hours that flew by – there was a general consensus that we could have gone on much longer.

I personally found it to be one of the most meaningful public debates I’ve ever attended in our Borough: far better than some of the battles we get bogged down in at Full Council.

I’m firmly committed to better and more regular engagement with the public and, as we work to devolve more power back to District Partnerships – and to raise Ward Members’ performance and profile – we simply have to do more of this kind of thing.

In 2011 everyone seems to lead a busy life and we need to offer people a range of options to communicate with us.

People no longer talk to each other in just one way using the same old methods, so we need to be flexible and adapt to that. We need lots of conversations done in different ways to match the way that people like to communicate if we are to truly capture – and respond effectively – to what people are saying.

Sitting on that kind of panel is also good for democracy – you simply cannot shy away from difficult questions. I know from experience that residents will rightly demand a straight answer and if you don’t give them one that holds water, they won’t let you off the hook. In order for politicians to start regaining trust and reconnecting to residents this form of holding us to account is vital.

As expected, there were several Shaw residents in the Council Chamber protesting about the current consultation on plans for our Leisure Estate.

These include proposals – and I again stress they are only that at present – to close Royton sports centre and the Crompton Pool and fitness centre, and replace them with a new facility in Royton.

As I stated at the meeting, this review is about looking to the future and ensuring that each district has a flagship facility that is fit-for-purpose.

We have three options as I see it…

Firstly, we do nothing. We could simply leave these two existing facilities to deteriorate to such a state where we’d inevitably end up having to close them on public health and safety grounds.

Secondly, we could invest some money in the short-term to keep these two facilities open a while longer – say another five years – and defer tackling this dilemma to 2016.

The third option is to invest now and deliver a replacement flagship facility for the area in line with our aspirations for better provision for those communities.

I listened to the points residents made and, believe me, I fully ‘get’ the strength of feeling. But what I would say again to them is that for this consultation to be effective we need more than the pure objections – we need your input on possible solutions to find the best outcome.

Question Time in the Council Chamber
DEMOCRACY: Councillors Shoab Akhtar, Jim McMahon and Dave Hibbert responding to questions coming in live from Social Media

Another major talking point at Question Times was the economic viability of the town centre – and our new free parking scheme on Saturdays.

Oldham Council doesn’t, of course, have the overriding power and responsibility to change this alone. But it’s clearly in everyone’s interests for the town centre to thrive and we all have a part to play – including local businesses, our partners, and even residents by choosing to ‘Shop Local’.

I visited Oldham town centre on Saturday to shop and it certainly did feel busier. But I also hear what people are telling us about the range of shops on offer and I see this free parking scheme as only the first step.

I took a wander around the indoor market, for example, and whilst it was busy, I wasn’t convinced many people were actually spending money.

I think we need to look at our markets again – to examine the rent levels, look at what they’re offering, how we market them, and also even consider the comparatively small size of the units which I think might actually be restricting traders’ ability to offer or display what shoppers want.

We also need to continue to raise the bar on our wider regeneration planning to ensure the town centre can capitalise on the arrival of Metrolink.

As a Council, the money we could bring in from increased business rates with less empty shop units in our town centre would completely outstrip what we ‘write-off’ from any free car parking offer, so there’s plenty to ponder for the future when this trial period ends.

In terms of everyone playing their part, I’d also like thank the Oldham Evening Chronicle for their coverage of the free parking scheme. They’ve given it great support and prominent column inches and – in an age when bad news sells – their willingness to back this is refreshing.

Finally regarding the town centre I’m hosting a further consultation event with businesses next Tuesday at the Civic Centre.

Our traders on the ground know the issues even better than we do, and I’ve invited a cross-section of the business community to meet myself and Charlie Parker, the Chief Executive, where I look forward to gaining more insights.

Aside from Question Time it’s been another busy diary week which included a couple of days in London on a whistle-stop itinerary.

I spoke at the Boundary Commission about Oldham Council’s cross-party submission on their initial plans to redraw our Parliamentary constituencies, and once more stressed the vital importance of protecting the historic district identities of Chadderton and Royton in any final proposals.

I’d again like to thank everybody – from across the political divides – who have worked together and given time, input and support to compile what I believe is a very strong case. It proves that our Borough always works best when we all work together.

Whilst in London I also grabbed some time with Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities Secretary, and attended a cross-party meeting with Greg Clarke, the Government’s Decentralisation and Cities Minister.

Future growth will be driven by our cities and major urban centres, and Mr Clarke now provides a central contact for all Local Authorities to work alongside Government on this agenda.

It was stressed that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach won’t work here and that each area will need bespoke policies, solutions and support to meet their different challenges.

Overall, it proved a positive information-sharing exercise. Mr Clarke seemed to understand the issues well and take our comments on board, so it will be very interesting to see how this relationship will develop in the future.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Democracy then and now

DEMOCRACY: Councillor Jim McMahon speaking at the launch of the ‘Local Democracy Exhibition’

THE TOPIC for today’s blog picks itself with ‘Local Democracy Week’ now underway across the Borough.

I attended and spoke at the launch of the new ‘Local Democracy Exhibition’ at Gallery Oldham on Friday night to help kick-start our series of local events.

This is a genuinely fascinating exhibition which charts the history of democracy in our Borough and tells the stories of local people and their involvement in politics and change.

It looks at local political parties, social and Trade Union movements, and acts of individual and collective action – and there is a very rich and powerful tapestry here of inspiring stories.

But I see the purpose of this exhibition not just about being there to educate our young people or entertain history buffs – it’s more fundamental than that.

I want to use Local Democracy Week as a whole as an opportunity to engage with residents. I also want to look at our place in history and seek to learn from it as we move our Borough into the future. 

As part of that tomorrow night (Thursday from 6pm to 8pm) we are holding the first-ever live Question Time event for Cabinet Members. This is a chance for the public to engage and ask your burning questions – either in person, or from the comfort of your armchair. 

This will be the first event to ever be streamed live on the Oldham Council website and – linked to various social media activity on Facebook and Twitter – is designed to encourage people to participate.

Please do take this opportunity now to submit questions – or apply for tickets to attend this event – by emailing localdemocracy@oldham.gov.ukor calling 0161 770 1975/5696. 

You can also tweet questions and comments to @oldhamQT or visit us on Facebook www.facebook.com/oldhamcouncilquestiontime

There are further events also taking place this week around the districts – including one on a barge in Saddleworth(!) – and you can find out more about these by visiting
www.oldham.gov.uk/local_democracy_week_2011

What I think is important about all these events is that they give us an opportunity to reflect on where we are in 2011. 

By that I mean looking at this subject in the context of what people fought for in the past, and what the quality of our modern democracy really is today. 

If you look back to August 1819 in this exhibition you’ll see men and women from our Borough famously marching to Peterloo to fight for ‘One Man, One Vote’. 

In what became a defining moment of its age, cavalry then charged into the crowd that had gathered at St Peter’s Field killing 15 people – five from our Borough – and injuring up to 700. 

You can only imagine what the coverage of such an event would be like now in our age of 24/7 rolling news channels but – more importantly – I wonder if, in 2011, we as a society still hold true to the legacy of the causes that these protesters held dear? 

Is what people fought for what we have ended up with?

The battle for ‘one man, one vote’ was hard fought but today some people think they can cast more than one vote by attempting to undertake postal vote fraud– or to dictate how others in their household will vote.

We also have thousands of people who don’t even use their right to vote. The 65 per cent turnout in the 2010 General Election was up four per cent on 2005 – but it still means one in three people actively declined to vote.

At the exhibition opening we were treated to a fantastic preview of a play by Oldham Theatre Workshop, performed brilliantly by Scott McDowell and Olivia Cooke from Royton.

This harked back – amongst other episodes in our history – to Annie Kenney and her infamous heckling of Winston Churchill at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1905. 

Again it made me wonder what Springhead’s Kenney – our very own leading figure in the Suffragette movement, who served 13 stints in prison for her cause – would think about democracy in 2011. 

Specifically, I wonder how she would feel – having fought for the right of women to vote – to learn that in households today some women do not exercise this right, and in certain cases even pass it on to the ‘man of the house’?

Equally what would those Free Liberals and Trade Unionists who fought for working class representation in Parliament think about our House of Commons today?

Allowances originally brought in to help working class people become Members of Parliament have to my mind since been abused. 

Would these erstwhile campaigners think that the current Commons membership – of which 35 per cent were privately educated, and three in ten went to Oxbridge – is really the representative chamber they fought so hard for?

My essential point here is this: That if we forget how hard-fought democracy was, we are in danger of becoming nothing more than a throwback to the old Rotten Boroughs – the product of a system that did not want to change. 

This is all – again – part of that wider ‘disconnect’ I’ve referred to in earlier blogs about the relationships between decision makers and those affected by decisions. 

And if we neglect these problems at a local and national level – by failing to engage citizens in debate and discussion – then they are simply only going to get worse. 

Staying on the theme of democracy I want to close today with a further update on Oldham Council’s response to the recent proposals to completely redraw the map of Parliamentary constituencies in our Borough.

Following the setting-up of a working group, a response to this has now been agreed by all three political group leaders. 

We reject the suggestion that historic townships should be broken apart and believe it is unacceptable that Chadderton and Royton would be split across two constituencies.

Dispersing Oldham across four constituencies is also not a viable option. Oldham itself would lose its identity, with none of the three proposed constituencies bearing any reference to its presence within them.

We also believe there is genuine support from the electorate and historic groups for no more than three constituencies to represent the Borough – and to maintain our townships as they stand.

This submission has been signed by myself along with Councillors Howard Sykes and Jack Hulme, and sent to the Boundary Review.

In the interests of protecting local identity and strong democratic representation for residents we sincerely hope these views will be taken on board and these flawed proposals substantially amended. 

Thanks for listening,

Jim

‘Use it or lose it’

COUNCILLOR McMahon: ‘Use it or lose it’ is a burning topic for public services, amenities and choice.

‘USE IT or lose it’ is an old maxim but it’s one that couldn’t be more relevant right now to the future of your public services, amenities and choice.

It’s been at the forefront of my mind in recent days when holding discussions on Oldham town centre, and about Greater Manchester Police’s plans to close station front desks across the region.

Hopefully you’ll have read elsewhere by now about our plans to introduce what is effectively three months of free parking on Council-owned car parks on Saturdays from mid-October to mid-January, 2012.

After listening to the many concerns expressed to us in recent weeks this is a move unashamedly designed to boost town centre trade during a critical period.

For Oldham Council it’s also about showing leadership to help businesses and residents feeling the pinch.

To my mind all town centres – not just Oldham – still haven’t found answers to the questions posed about their futures since out-of-town retail parks and super/mega-markets began sprouting nationwide in the 1990s.

However, according to a recent survey, Oldham town centre – with a 16 per cent rate of vacant shop units – is actually performing better than its North West neighbours (who average 19 per cent).

I also genuinely believe our town centre offering (i.e. not including retail parks) is better than the likes of Rochdale and Tameside, and that if it was a retail park the brand names you’d see on the billboards – ‘Debenhams, H&M, Topshop, River Island, Primark, Next etc’ – would have traffic queueing in a snake like it usually is at Elk Mill on Saturdays.

But I’m also a realist. We can’t sit here and fiddle.

I know that a town centre affected by the Metrolink roadworks, and where you must also pay to park, isn’t a good mix at present. And although the Council does rely on that car parking revenue, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.

What I’m equally clear about is that we need to measure the true value of this ‘free parking’ pilot when it ends next year.

The question will be: Did this significantly boost trade or would that same money have been better spent on other methods to promote the town centre, like hosting festival events and on-street entertainers, or better marketing?

The unavoidable bottom line here though is that if residents want a viable town centre then they have to take advantage of this offer and visit it to do their shopping.

If they don’t then the implications for traders in this climate are pretty clear and there’s no politician alive – however much energy they might expend – who can shield businesses from what their spreadsheets and bank managers are telling them.

So with Oldham town centre, I’d say it’s very much up to you: ‘Use it or lose it.’

That simple choice is also relevant (in the past tense) to the recent debate about GMP’s proposals to close police station front desks across Greater Manchester to save £1.5m a year.

These counters serve two purposes right now – acting as a practical reporting point for the public, and providing visible reassurance of policing activity in our communities.

But the public can’t reasonably demand that something is kept open if – as GMP’s figures suggest – they’re not actually using it.

GMP’s survey showed a fall in desk visits from 1 million to around 500,000 in the past two years. They also estimated that 47 per cent of visits were generated by the police themselves – e.g. pre-arranged appointments that could be diverted elsewhere.

In Oldham – at opposite ends of the Borough – the case to keep the desks open was unconvincing. Failsworth station in 2009, as an example, was getting 1.7 visitors per hour, and none on the day surveyed in 2011.

Up in Saddleworth the Uppermill front desk this year was only averaging 1.13 visits per hour and – for that one visitor – these desks cost about £100 per visit to accommodate. Clearly the reassurance provided to the community can’t be quantified just in visitor numbers and I have made that point to GMP during a meeting with Greater Manchester leaders last week.

Right now we’re in discussions with GMP to mitigate these closures in our Borough and see how we might use our six new district town halls to fill some of this gap: enabling people to report crimes, for example.

But in the financial climate that all public services are now operating in, ‘Use it or lose it’ remains a burning topic for us all.

There’s a debate to be had here about how much value something genuinely adds to your day-to-day life as a resident – and it applies now to so many things that we’ve all grown to take for granted over the years: like police station front desks, libraries, and recycling centres, for example.

So, a busy week all in all. Not least because my son Harry turned three on Tuesday focusing my mind on why I joined the Council in the first place – to make our Borough the best it can be for the next generation and beyond.

Thanks for listening,

Jim