Shock and disbelief

I FELT a sense of utter disbelief upon learning about the tragic death of Nellie Geraghty in Shaw last week.

The callous mugging that led to this great-grandmother losing her life has stunned everyone across the Borough.

My heartfelt condolences go out to her family and friends at what must be an unbearably distressing and sad time.

This terrible kind of event often makes you instinctively think about your own family and loved ones.

It just doesn’t bear thinking about that it could have been your own grandmother who might have just been innocently going about her own business that day, at that time, on that street.

Another natural reaction to tragic news like this is also often to try and find some reason or logic behind it – to attempt to explain what happened. But in this case that’s simply a waste of effort.

This was clearly a selfish, senseless criminal act that could only have been carried out by someone detached from society.

Incidents like this are, thankfully, rare but I also understand that the sense of shock and vulnerability will affect the local area for some time.

What Shaw does have though is a close-knit community and it has been heart-warming to see local people rallying round quickly to assist the family in whatever way they can.

I only now hope that whoever is responsible for this act is swiftly brought to justice – and that the missing ashes of Mrs Geraghty’s late husband, Frank, are returned to the family as soon as possible.

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TODAY will see nationwide industrial action that will potentially affect a range of public services across the Borough.

This is, of course, a national strike and Oldham Council will – like every other Local Authority across the country – be affected to some degree.

This is about staff exercising their right to strike in the face of proposed reforms to their pensions.

Clearly both sides of the fence have well-established viewpoints that you will be reading and hearing about in the media coverage.

It’s a genuine shame that the people who will really lose out as a result of the industrial action are ordinary residents who rely on public services day-to-day. Some, for example, will have to take today off or find alternative childcare because a local school has had to close.

That’s clearly not ideal but, at the same time, public sector employees do have every right to take this action and their decision must be respected.

I do also think that in the midst of the ‘noise’ ahead of the strike it’s been disappointing that many of the real issues haven’t had closer examination.

As an example I’ve not seen it widely reported that the median average public sector pension for women is actually just £4,000: the vast majority of them are part-time workers at the bottom end of the pay-scales.

The notion chucked around that public sector pensions are ‘gold plated’ is also a very one-sided view. The starkest inequalities actually exist in the private sector where highly-paid executives get the real ‘gold plated’ pensions and other workers get a comparatively raw deal.

I’m not trying to make any political point here, but it does seem to me that in the heat of this debate some of the more salient facts are not being fully debated and some misleading assumptions peddled as ‘fact’, which is disappointing.

What is for certain about today’s action though is that it will serve to remind people how vital many public sector services are to their daily lives.

People will take their own viewpoint on whether the strike is justified or not, but the reality is that – even in 2011 – the ultimate power a worker has is to withdraw their labour.

Whilst that decision will adversely impact on many people for one day, I still firmly believe that the right to strike is an important sanction that should remain open to those who wish to take a stand.

Finally, I’d like to end on a more positive today with some good news – the return of the Beer Festival to the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2012.

I realise many people were disappointed by the recent decision of event organisers to cancel the Saddleworth Beer Walk for 2012, but this is a very different kind of experience.

This is a static event that doesn’t require huge marshalling and policing to enable it to proceed as it will all take place under one roof.

It attracts a very different set of people, an unusual demographic if you like, into the town centre – often from very far afield.

I know there will be some who disapprove of such events but I do think there’s a certain element of cultural ‘snobbishness’ in some attitudes to this kind of thing.

If real ale isn’t your ‘bag’ that’s fine – it’s not particularly mine either – but the Beer Festival event is an important part of our cultural calendar.

It doesn’t just raise glasses, it raises important funds for charities and also helps to boost our town centre’s trade and profile.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Financial tightrope: the balancing act

OLDHAM COUNCIL: The Local Authority must find £24 million in savings from its budget for 2012/3 budget
OLDHAM COUNCIL: The Local Authority must find £24 million in savings from its budget for 2012/3

A COUNCIL budget should reflect the values and priorities of your residents.

That’s a good starting point, but it doesn’t make the task any easier.

In recent days we’ve been putting the final touches on proposals to find £24m in savings from the 2012/3 settlement, and I’m the first to admit that it is a struggle.

Finding savings on that scale is demanding and I don’t kid myself it’s going to get any easier.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t be making some of the tough proposals that we are – but there simply is no hiding from them.

I’m also mindful of my responsibilities as Council Leader to produce a balanced budget. If we don’t, the Government will intervene and take decisions for us – and in a manner unlikely to take account of local sensitivities – so we must press on.

Around £70 million has already been taken out of Oldham Council’s budget in the last two years and the process gets harder each time.

This year has been the most difficult to date and the next couple of years will just be even harder. There are no easy options left.

We must simply try to do the best that we can to stay true to our priorities and values in what we choose.

Rather than just salami slicing the budget – i.e. telling each area to shave the same amount from each of their services – we’re trying be holistic.

That means reviewing absolutely everything the Council does and changing the way that it does business, but it’s a lengthy process.

There is, for example, a lot of joint-working across AGMA authorities to find savings from economies of scale. If done properly these will deliver significant savings in the long run.

But dealing with nine other authorities is complex. It requires detailed planning and negotiations, and won’t happen overnight.

We’re also looking at all our contracts and procurement but – again – unravelling existing arrangements cannot happen quickly and we’re also mindful that rushing the process could mean your final savings are potentially much smaller and important opportunities are lost.

The financial climate has changed beyond all recognition and we’re going to have to be extremely creative in how balancing budgets and yet still ‘pump-priming’ to translate our ambitions to be a Co-operative Council so that it genuinely enables residents to help themselves do more in their areas, makes resources available to communities – and businesses – and properly supports those people who want to do more.

Even in the national days of comparative ‘milk and honey’ of the previous decade Oldham’s economy failed to achieve significant growth.

Now that the days of grant funding and big European cheques are well and truly gone the only body able to take up the cudgel of regeneration is Oldham Council.

We can’t do it alone, of course. We need to act alongside local businesses and partners to find mutually-beneficial schemes and purpose, but fundamentally that’s why we’re reserving some budget funding to help big projects get started.

I make no apologies for that because if your focus is narrowly obsessed with just balancing a budget then you offer little – if any – hope for the future.

Last week we took our budget plans to a cross-party scrutiny panel and they came back with no single recommendation for change.

The most contentious of the proposals was to revise Council staff terms and conditions of employment. This has been developed through our ongoing budget consultation with employees and Trade Unions.

We’re proud of the positive dialogue we’re having with them and the reason for looking at Ts and Cs – and, for example, whether we should end sick pay for the first three days – is straightforward.

Staff themselves told us that if this is the alternative to making further job cuts then it must be considered. 

At that cross-party meeting I was quizzed about the hypothetical process ahead if employees rejected the changes to their Ts and Cs. The answer I gave – that you would need to dismiss and re-engage staff – was completely theoretical. At no point did I say that this is what we intend to do.

Politicians try to pre-empt what people will think and want, but it’s not an easy science.

In these budget proposals there are measures which I openly admit to being nervous about.

But for this to be a genuine consultation we must include measures like this – which may be unpalatable to some – at the earliest possible stage. If we didn’t do that, the process would neither be honest nor fair.

We’ll continue to face similar challenges in the coming years and I’m not prepared to hide budget options and then sneak them through a back door at the eleventh hour. That’s not my style.

Staff at the Council have already been through difficult enough times and I want to continue engaging by being able to look them squarely in the eyes.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Oldham’s leisure estate – Have your say

Oldham Sports Centre
FIT FOR PURPOSE?: Under the current proposals the existing Oldham Sports Centre would be refurbished or replaced

TIME IS running out to have your say on Oldham Council’s proposals for the future of our Leisure Estate.

I’m using the Blog this week to urge residents to ensure your views are heard before the consultation period ends on November 20 – this Sunday – and also to take this opportunity to address a few myths about this process.

There have been accusations made that the consultation is “a sham” because decisions have already been made; that Oldham Council is cutting funding to sports and leisure; and that we’re rejecting a ‘viable option’ to keep Royton and Crompton pools open.

Let’s start with the consultation which – since its launch on September 23 – has gathered feedback via our website, District Partnership debates, meetings for user groups, drop-in sessions, plus 8,000 leaflets.

A “sham” consultation is one that is neither inclusive nor responsive – both charges cannot be levelled at this process.

To date more than 1,000 people have already responded which is a high rate of public response and engagement.

All of this feedback will be central to shaping the final proposals and, indeed, we’ve already changed the initial proposals in response to the public by adding Shaw to the list of potential sites for a new facility.

Secondly, it has been wrongly asserted that Oldham Council is “cutting” sports and leisure funding. This is simply not the case.

Despite our well-documented budget challenges Oldham Council is committed to NOT cutting funding in this area. 

In agreeing a new contract with a future operator, we will make the running of leisure services more efficient.

This will enable us to reduce the subsidy required but all the savings made via this new contract – and by closing unfit facilities – will not be swallowed up by the Council’s corporate budget. It will instead be re-invested to deliver new fit-for-purpose facilities in Shaw or Royton, plus either a new/refurbished ‘hub’ sports centre in Oldham town centre.

Residents’ needs and leisure usage are fast-changing and we need to offer high-quality facilities that better reflect that.

We’re often criticised for not planning for the future, yet that is exactly what we are doing here. Even during an economic downturn we are seeking to invest and improve the leisure estate – not make cuts.

It’s been disappointing that much of the debate has centred on Shaw and Royton – especially as a lot of that has sidetracked into wider problems about Shaw town centre rather than addressing how we can deliver a better leisure solution in the area.

It’s also been wrongly suggested that keeping both Royton and Crompton pools open is a viable option.

Both were built more than 100 years ago, their usage is lower than other facilities and neither meets their running costs. If we kept them open – even with no improvements made – it would cost Council taxpayers more than £800,000.

These buildings don’t meet modern requirements – let alone disabled accessibility – and cannot be made fit for purpose.

How short-sighted it would be for us to continue pouring money into this black hole and waiting for that inevitable day – not far hence – when Health and Safety simply insist the venues are shut.

This debate shouldn’t just be about Royton and Shaw – it’s about the future of leisure provision across all our Borough. It’s also about ending the current inequality whereby some residents have access to fantastic facilities whilst others have relatively poor provision.

The final solutions here need to offer all residents the activities and facilities they need. By creating a more efficient operation and reinvesting our savings we can do that.

This bold programme reflects our vision to improve the health and wellbeing of all the Borough and we welcome your input.

Please take time to return one of the forms we have distributed or visit http://www.oldham.gov.uk/future_oldham_leisure before November 20.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Lest we forget…

POTS AND PANS: On a recent trek up to Saddleworth's magnificent war memorial with Councillor Adrian Alexander (Saddleworth West and Lees)

AS WE HEAD towards Remembrance Sunday I’m unashamedly putting thoughts about politics and local government to one side this week.

This year is the Royal British Legion’s 90th anniversary as the custodians of remembrance for our nation’s war dead so I simply must start by stating the obvious and paying tribute to the fantastic work they do.

The RBL – not just through its annual poppy appeal but also through activities all year round – does an amazing job as the UK’s leading charity for servicemen and their families.

Their efforts make a huge difference to the lives of thousands of ex-service people and their dependants, and it is a national institution that we can all be proud of.

On Sunday I will be just one of the thousands of Borough residents doing their bit by attending the annual Remembrance parades which are organised in conjunction with the dedicated people at our local RBL branches.

But it’s important we also recognise that the British Legion can’t do everything in ensuring that that we honour the fallen in a fitting manner.

I believe Oldham Council has a very obvious civic leadership role to fulfil here.

I was reminded of this on a recent fact-finding visit up to the Pots and Pans memorial in Saddleworth with Councillor Adrian Alexander (Saddleworth West and Lees).

This is a fantastic, iconic location and, in fact, standing at 1,200 feet above sea level it might possibly be the highest war memorial in the country – unless anyone can tell me otherwise?

As anyone who has visited it will know, it is quite a trek to get up there.

Whilst you are most certainly rewarded with a jaw dropping view of the surrounding villages it was also very clear on the journey up that vital repair works are needed on steps and railings to make it accessible for all of the public to enjoy.

This work will now be done as part of a new investment we recently agreed to make of an additional £50,000 – on top of the existing maintenance budget – to fund much-needed improvements at all sites across the Borough.

As part of this, we will also be able to get cracking on vital work at the Oldham Cenotaph once Sunday’s events are over.

This is the most prominent memorial in the town centre and a large chunk of that new investment – around £15,000 – is going to be used to point and/or replace all of the stone paving, plus carry out important works to repair the memorial itself.

The Council has also now signed up to a fantastic new scheme – ‘In Memoriam 2014’ – which is designed to protect all memorials up and down the country ahead of the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

Our officers have registered all our sites with this scheme and are now getting free SmartWater to protect each of them against unscrupulous thieves who seek to make small personal financial gain by removing bronze, copper and other metals from memorials to sell on for scrap.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence. I note that – just miles outside our Borough – heartless thieves stole bronze remembrance plaques from Blackley Cemetery only last week.

This kind of act is utterly deplorable – words fail me, frankly – and it’s important as custodians of these sites that Oldham Council does all it feasibly can prevent it happening here: or at least ensure we can trace stolen items back to the perpetrators.

You may also have noticed in recent days that the Council is now using all of its media channels, including Twitter and Facebook, to publicise all the local commemorative events at our libraries and also carry an online Roll of Honour for the Borough at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/remembrance

These are all, naturally, branded with traditional poppy imagery.

Whilst I started out here by saying that I was putting politics to one side, I must say that have found it odd to hear in recent days – notably in the debate about FIFA’s refusal to let the England football team wear poppy-emblazoned shirts on Saturday – that wearing a poppy is somehow a “political” statement.

I would never impose wearing a poppy on somebody, of course, but equally I don’t think its right to prevent anyone from doing so if that is their choice.

The poppy, for me, is just not about politics. It’s simply a mark of respect and I will continue to wear mine with pride.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Working together works

FIRST STEPS: Jim McMahon signs the Co-operative charter with Councillor Barbara Dawson, Cabinet Member for Co-operatives and Community Development

THE FIRST step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you’re not going to stay where you are.

Oldham Council did just that with the adoption of a new Co-operative Charter and Ethical Framework on Monday night.

This is only the start of a long journey and I don’t kid myself this news means an awful lot to Joe Public at all just yet.

What we are trying to do here – in the face of the serious financial challenges we are all facing – is to embrace change and develop a Co-operative future.

The process is about setting out our ambitions for the Borough and a framework of values for how we will operate in the future: how we will do business and work with our residents, businesses and the third sector.

What’s driving it is a realisation that Oldham Council and public service delivery cannot stand still.

We found £40 million in savings last year and need to shave £24 million from our budget for 2012/3.

That’s one almighty ‘haircut’ and in the face of this we need to regroup, refocus, look at our services and find a new approach.

Since coming to office it’s taken us around five months to have initial discussions about an ‘Oldham model’ for Co-operative working and formulate what it means.

The Co-operative Charter is a statement of ambition about citizens, staff and partners working together for mutually-beneficial goals, but adopting it is only the start.

A policy paper doesn’t automatically ‘make’ us a Co-operative Council, so it’s now our challenge to use practical actions to show what it will mean to services and relationships at the grass roots of our communities.

The time to judge whether it is working will be three or five years down the line, but we’ve already used this process to start redefining our relationship with residents.

We’ve had a range of discussions across the Borough to find out why people don’t believe we always act in their interests, how they would like us to act in future, and what practical changes can empower communities.

That is now resulting in significant powers, budgets and influence being handed back down to District Partnerships and a programme to help Ward Members step up to the plate.

Going forward the Charter will now act as our guide in how we will deliver future services, commission, invest, and treat our residents.

Monday night’s TV viewing – ITV1’s ‘Exposure: Bailiffs’ – gave a timely practical example of what this will mean.

This programme (filmed by an undercover reporter being ‘trained’ to become a bailiff) highlighted all kinds of practices that are simply unacceptable.

It showed a bailiff at Rossendales, a debt collection firm that works for around 150 Councils – and yes, that includes Oldham – who repeatedly broke national guidelines.

He approached debtors at anti-social times, like at night and on Sundays, charged them for the pleasure, and even threatened violence.

COMMITMENT: Co-operative Commission members, including partners and Oldham Youth Council, sign up to the Co-operative Charter

I’ve long been concerned about such practices and there is clearly no place for them in an Authority with a Co-operative Charter that values respect, responsibility and fairness. 

It’s fundamentally right, of course, that we recover money owed by third parties to ensure law-abiding citizens and residents don’t have to fund the shortfall for public services.

But it’s equally wrong when vulnerable people and residents suffering genuine financial hardship are unfairly harangued – and even see their debt spiralling as a result of dubious practices.

It’s clear we must end the exposure of residents to this kind of behaviour and that’s why a report outlining options to bring Oldham Council’s debt recovery service back ‘in house’ will come forward later this month.

An in-house debt collection service will have direct accountability to the Council, so high ethical standards should be maintained, and fairness promoted, while still ensuring debts are collected.  

That’s just one example – but an important one – of how Co-operative working will ensure we are setting new standards in dealing with residents.

You’ll see more examples of all this translated into action as new pilot schemes – and our Budget proposals – start to emerge early in 2012, so watch this space.

To close today, I’m aware that people are keen for an update on our bid to bring Royton Assembly Hall back into public ownership.

After Whispers Developments went into administration this property was put on the open market to secure the best possible deal for their outstanding creditors.

Sealed bids were submitted last week but at this stage we don’t know the outcome.

As a Local Authority we’re only legally able to pay what an independent valuer deems to be a fair market rate for the site.

We also must be financially prudent about purchases like this – a good example being the Taj Mahal site on Union Street, which we recently bought at the right time i.e. when the property market is at the bottom.

We know how important it is to local residents that Royton Assembly Hall is restored from its current ‘shell’ and put back to proper use.

It’s imperative this venue becomes a source of pride and amenity again to Roytonians, rather than simply an eyesore and cause of frustration.

Rest assured that if our bid hasn’t been successful we will still be taking a keen interest and seeking to hear the new owner’s plans.

Thanks for listening,

Jim