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.
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,