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.
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,