New Year Leader’s Message

HAPPY NEW YEAR: From Jim McMahon, Oldham Council Leader

I’D LIKE to wish all our residents a very happy New Year.

With 2012 upon us this seems a fitting time to take stock – and look ahead.

Despite the national economic picture, the New Year does promise some exciting new opportunities and positive experiences.

Thinking out loud, these include Metrolink getting up and running in our Borough; the opening of Mahdlo, our new town centre youth club, and some inspirational new Academy facilities; work commencing on hundreds of new or refurbished homes from the Gateways to Oldham project; the Olympic torch visiting town; Oldham representing the region in Britain in Bloom; and Oldham Athletic possibly visiting Wembley in the JPT Final.

But I do fully recognise how tough 2011 has been.

Economic austerity has hit every sector of society – and every area of activity – from household budgets to jobs prospects and service delivery.

These challenges will affect us for a generation and a new approach is needed.

None of us – residents, public sector and business alike – can afford to continue doing things the way we always have. So what’s the alternative?

Our ambition is to become a Co-operative Borough and the idea behind that is simple.

It’s about everybody doing their bit for Oldham – and all benefit.

It is the International Year of Co-operatives in 2012 and we want to use traditional values of that movement – fairness, openness and responsibility – to drive this change.

It starts with Oldham Council leading by example: ‘doing our bit’ by being more directly accountable to you and delivering better value for money services.

That is already happening across the whole range of our activity.

The Audit Commission has just recognised our financial arrangements as the best nationwide – giving you confidence we are prudent with your money – and our performance in key areas like children’s services, fostering and adults services, is now up there with the best.

Crucially in 2012 you’ll see us striving to end the ‘ivory tower’ approach that says ‘we know best’.

You’ll see new district town halls with staff based back in the heart of your communities: listening and responding better to your doorstep service needs.

You’ll see District Partnerships with more budget control and the ability to bid for ‘big ticket’ projects that properly reflect your aspirations.

You’ll see Council staff using leave to ‘put something back’ by assisting community groups and projects with specialist skills.

And you’ll also see us reviewing all our investments to ensure we only now deal with ethical institutions that share our vision to work in the public interest and treat you with respect – starting with bringing our bailiff service back ‘in house’.

Historically, many residents have shrugged shoulders and left it to “someone else” to sort things out in their area – whether that was a need to tackle local flytipping or litter, for example, to check on an elderly neighbour, or to speak up about community safety.

But I believe we can create a more confident and enterprising community if everyone here is contributing ‘their bit’ to making Oldham a great place to live and work.

For that to happen we need local residents to engage better with us.

We need you to think about taking more responsibility for your areas, telling us about problems, offering solutions, helping to shape services, and contributing some of your own time and energy.

Be in no doubt that we have serious work and challenges to face in the months and years that lie ahead, but I promise that Oldham Council will be listening harder than ever before in 2012.

There are some historic bridges to rebuild and lessons for us to learn – but there are also some fantastic opportunities to seize.

This is traditionally a time to reflect on the changes we all want or need to make. So what could be more positive for your neighbours and community than a New Year’s Resolution to ‘do your bit’ in 2012?

Jim

* Please note my next Leader’s Blog will be posted on Wednesday, January 11

High Street blues and queues

HIGH STREET: Oldham town centre, like others up and down the country, is struggling in the face of competition from out-of-town retail parks and Internet shopping

SHOPPING is right at the top of most people’s ‘to do’ list right now with the Christmas countdown nearing an end.

Retail matters are also on my mind following the publication of Mary Portas’ review into the future of the High Street economy.

For the uninitiated, this new report makes a series of recommendations about how to revive town centre shopping.

These include cutting regulations for traders, creating new ‘town teams’ responsible for developing business in the area, and having more affordable town centre car parking.

I wrote to Mary Portas to outline Oldham Council’s view of these challenges shortly after this review was announced.

As a starting point, I welcome this as an opportunity to take stock of where we are and identify constructive measures to help revitalise High Streets.

We’ve also bid into a scheme linked to this with the British Council of Shopping Centres. This would see some of the Portas recommendations piloted in a handful of ‘reference sites’ across the country to assess their impact.

If our bid is successful, such a scheme is likely to spark some additional interest in Oldham from retailers – so fingers crossed on that one.

The Portas report itself is, obviously, correct in its assessment that all town centres, including Oldham, are struggling in the face of growing competition from out-of-town retail sites and internet shopping.

The report is also right when it says that tackling this change represents a major strategic problem for all concerned.

However, I look forward to contributing further to this review in 2012 because – whilst there are measures and findings in the initial report which I firmly agree with – I also think more consultation with Councils would have been hugely beneficial.

Some of the recommendations made here are ones that I, and many other Local Authority leaders, believe are simply not realistic enough about the issues we are facing.

I don’t think, for example, that the report at all grasps the sheer power that a handful of ‘anchor retailers’ – like Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, and Debenhams – hold over our High Streets.

These players hold incredible power and influence over the market.

If your town centre does not have them, then it will simply never be full – it will always have vacant units. This is a stark reality which I believe hasn’t been fully recognised here, and it is clearly part of the problem.

The Portas report also recommends that Councils remove regulations around market stalls to make it easier for people to become market traders.

My fear with this is that it could be counterproductive by helping to nurture a ‘Del Boy’ economy on our High Street.

Consumers need a basic level of assurance and confidence about who they are trading with and the quality of the goods they are buying.

This would put that under threat and potentially even discourage people from spending in our town centres. It would also encourage rogue traders who – worst of all – prey upon and take advantage of cash-strapped families.

The Portas report also recommends cuts in business rates to encourage more retail into the town centre.

Business rates are calculated by multiplying the rateable value of a property by a ‘multiplier’ that is set nationally by the Government.

Simply slashing them across the board will only serve to further benefit out-of-town sites which are much more attractive to retailers because they will remain cheaper – and they are easier to build upon.

All of which brings me on to my final point.

We are willing as a Council to do whatever we can to help the High Street. Indeed, we moved fast to introduce free-parking on Saturdays, in line with what the report recommends, to attract shoppers back to the town centre.

However, what this report doesn’t examine is what all these suggested measures would cost Local Authorities.

We could, for example, make all market rents cost a pound, and make all our car parking free forever – but with that comes a significant impact on your revenue. How do you then decide which library or care home has to shut down as a result?

Local Authorities aren’t just responsible for town centres. Whilst their viability and strength is key, it can not sit in splendid isolation from all our other duties to local communities.

I think the Portas report could go much further. In its present form it appears to simply blame councils for the decline of the High Street without empowering us to actually tackle the issues head on.

The solutions will require serious partnership working and investment across the board – and residents also have a crucial role to play.

A ‘fixed’ town centre would, of course, be one with much greater footfall and a wider shopping offer that enables people to purchase more of their general needs, plus specialist goods.

If we could achieve that in Oldham we would have every major retailer fighting to just have a presence here.

But, as the Portas report rightly says, a sense of ‘belonging’ to your local high street is also fast-diminishing.

That is a major part of the problem and it’s why I am again, unashamedly, urging residents reading this to ‘Shop Local’ – and to spread that message.

Our free car parking scheme continues in the town centre on Saturdays until January 14. We’re already evaluating its impact and the options include considering whether to extend or change the scheme in 2012, so watch this space for news on that front.

By opting to spend your cash in Oldham, and in your district centres, you can actually make a huge impact on the future viability of your own High Street.

Please consider that again in the frantic final few days of festive shopping and – above all – have a fantastic Christmas with your family and friends.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Home truths in Oldham

Before and after: Vacant properties in Oldham
ACTION: Just four examples of previously vacant properties which Council action has brought back into use at (clockwise from top left) Salford Street, Roundthorn, Wimpole Street, Higginshaw, Broadway, Chadderton, and Selkirk Road, Chadderton.

IT’S HARDER than ever right now to get a foot onto the first rung of the property ladder – whether you are looking to buy, or even just rent.

This issue has again been highlighted in recent days by Channel 4’s ‘The Great British Property Scandal’: a two-part documentary which identified that there are around two million families who can’t find a home at a time when there are also roughly a million empty homes in the UK.

That has prompted me to use this week’s Blog to explain what is being done to assist people in securing homes for their families here in Oldham.

Having a roof over your head is, of course, of paramount importance to every resident and it sits at the top of our priority list for action as an administration.

Housing need represents a massive challenge for every Local Authority and we are being proactive to meet it.

We currently have a significant number of new build properties under construction or set to get underway across the Borough.

Over the next three years an estimated 1,190 new homes will be built through a variety of schemes with – crucially – 670 of these to be made available for affordable rent.

Just last week we signed the contract for four new public housing sites at Crossley and Primrose Bank estates, and on brownfield sites in Westwood and Fitton Hill. Together these will see more than 700 new homes built or refurbished.

There are also several important programmes being implemented which are designed to ease local housing waiting lists.

Oldham Council recently commissioned Aksa Housing to develop a social lettings agency that will seek to increase the supply of good-quality private rented accommodation available.

The recent passing of the Localism Act also means the private rented sector could be used to assist in tackling homelessness and the Oldham Bond Scheme – funded by the Council – now links into this by enabling households to access the private rented sector where they currently don’t have the financial means to do so.

Our pioneering Downsizing Scheme is also making important headway and creating ‘room’ on the housing register.

This supports people living in family accommodation within the social rented sector. It is delivered with a range of housing associations and is making a real difference in helping people find more suitable accommodation that is smaller, easier and cheaper to run. To date, the scheme has already helped more than 200 different households in the Borough.

The Council now has a Nominations Agreement in place with all registered providers of social housing in the Borough. This works to cut the numbers on the waiting list by increasing the number of properties they potentially have access to – and we’re also developing a solution with providers which could see the creation of just one unified housing register (or waiting list) for all in need of social housing.

An Instant Homes scheme managed by First Choice Homes Oldham has properties that are immediately available, and details can be found on the FCHO website at www.fcho.co.uk

For disabled residents we’ve also now provided funding for a member of staff to develop an Accessible Housing Register to promote their needs within the social rented sector.

The Channel 4 programme rightly identified the waste caused by long-term empty properties.

As of October this year our figures show we had 1,642 long-term empty properties across the Borough – either privately or publicly-owned.

We’re proposing to increase the resources dedicated to bringing these back into use with the recruitment of two dedicated empty homes officers.

The way that this will work is that properties can either be returned to use voluntarily by influencing the owner to realise their potential – or by us increasing enforcement activity on the most persistent of problem properties that blight neighbourhoods.

A key part of that now sees us working with AKSA who will offer their services to absent owners to encourage them to put vacant properties back into use.

I did find the Channel 4 programme somewhat misleading in how it appeared to selectively film streets of homes left unoccupied, it seemed, either as a result of a wider regeneration programme, or the end of funding for the Housing Market Renewal (HMR) scheme. 

In our own HMR areas we are very active on work to complete a programme of 193 demolitions across Werneth and Derker. Whilst we recognise that this will still leave some Werneth residents living adjacent to boarded-up properties we are working hard with Ward Members to develop a plan to hopefully resolve some of the issues this means for them.

Where properties can feasibly be brought back into use, we are also not sitting on our hands. One small example is a recent deal we’ve made to sell seven homes that were formerly acquired through HMR. As part of that we insisted vital works are carried out to bring them back to a habitable standard – as a condition of sale – to bring them back into use.

There are no easy answers to the nation’s housing problems, particularly during what is now widely accepted to be an ‘Age of Austerity’.

It’s also a sad fact that the current national levels of home building, against that backdrop of economic recession, are inadequate to meet the demand.

More innovation and funding will need to be found to tackle this situation nationwide but we remain fully committed – wherever possible – to act to bring vacant properties back into use and boost our housing stock.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Being a good neighbour in winter

Oldham town centre in winter - 2010
WINTER weather means difficulties for everyone - so it's not just our gritting team that we're asking to go the 'extra mile' to help residents.

AN ICY chill has blown across Oldham this week reminding us all that wintry weather is looming over our shoulders.

Temperatures dropped considerably in recent days and, whilst the prospect of snow can obviously be great fun for young families, it does also have a very serious flip side.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we are striving towards new ways of working and becoming a ‘Co-operative Borough’ where everyone does their bit to achieve positive outcomes – Council, residents and partners alike.

The question I am most frequently asked though is how that works in practice.

Well, there simply cannot be a better example of what it means than that of a resident checking on a neighbour during a wintry spell to ensure they are keeping safe and warm.

The sad truth is that more people are at risk of illness and death during winter than at any other time of the year and I want to use this week’s blog to raise awareness of how we can all play our part to prevent that happening.

I would urge everyone to please look out for those people who may need extra help if and when a cold snap arrives.

That doesn’t mean just your own family members, it also means your neighbours and people you may only be on nodding terms with.

It’s too easy to not recognise that people living on your street might need help and – given the British trait of the ‘stiff upper lip’ – they’re also unlikely to actively seek out your assistance.

The fact is that a whole raft of things can go wrong during this kind of weather which many of us take for granted as being a minor inconvenience because we are able to sort them out for ourselves.

However, in bad conditions an elderly neighbour might be unable to get to the pharmacy to pick up a vital repeat prescription, or even just to get a loaf of bread or stock up on food to keep them going.

Their boiler might fail and leave them wrapping up in multiple layers of clothing just to keep warm – or they might simply just need a hand to clear and grit their path to prevent them being housebound.

There are some very simple tell tale signs to look out for that often indicate something is wrong.

You might spot that a neighbour still has milk out on their doorstep, for example, or newspapers and post are stuck in a letterbox, or their bins are not put out on collection day.

You may also spot curtains drawn during the day and lights on – or a home in darkness when there is usually somebody there.

It’s not just the icy conditions and freezing temperatures that makes things bad either – it can also be the terrible sense of isolation and loneliness that people feel stuck in their homes without human contact.

We know from talking to residents that if they’re not able to get out and about then it hits them particularly hard. It’s vitally important they at least feel they can stay in contact somehow with neighbours, friends and family – that they know someone is concerned for their welfare.

Bodies like Oldham Council, Age Concern and NHS Oldham do as much as they can during these times but everyone can help us out by going that little ‘extra mile’.

Just knocking on a neighbour’s door to check they are okay, or nipping round for a brew with them can make the world of difference.

It only takes a couple of minutes to call round and – just by offering help – that little bit of caring human contact can make an enormous difference to someone’s wellbeing and morale.

Oldham Council's fleet of gritting lorries at work
GRITTING: Last year our fleet drivers clocked more than 70,000 miles to keep roads safe, spreading 2,300 tonnes of grit during the worst week alone.

When snowfall does arrive Oldham Council also has a huge task to undertake in trying to keep the Borough moving, so I also want to take this opportunity to briefly draw people’s attention again to our gritting arrangements.

Our highways team does a magnificent job in trying to keep the roads clear but – obviously – it’s simply not possible to clear every road. Like every other Local Authority, we have to prioritise.

Our role, as far as reasonably possible, is to keep the primary highway network free of ice and snow and ensure a safe journey for commuters and – crucially – access for emergency vehicles.

In Oldham this means our resources are targeted at seven priority routes and most of the principal, classified and major bus routes in the Borough. If you want to find out more about this then please have a look at the Council website at: http://www.oldham.gov.uk/transport_streets_1/gritting_routes.htm

The main page at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/winter also contains all the up-to-date news on any road and school closures, keeping your home warm, winter driving and transport, keeping your home warm, plus looking out for other people.  

 To return to that theme of being a good neighbour and Co-operative working, I just want to finish by mentioning our Budget measures which were approved by Cabinet on Monday.

Times are tough and budgets are tight as we all know, but even when you need to find £24 million in savings you also must keep clear priorities.

Whilst some measures we’ve had to look at are not what I’d want to do in an ideal world, I’m also conscious that some services are more crucial than others. 

In particular, I’ve always believed that how you treat the most vulnerable members of society is a very firm measure of the kind of place you are living in: and the values of the administration running it.

That’s why I’m determined that Adult Social Care – which is 28 per cent of our spending – is prioritised. I know how important home care is and – whilst we are looking to remodel how we deliver some services – this will not result in a dilution of what we know to be vital provision to so many residents.

But with that in mind, please do take a little time to play your part and think about your neighbours when the wintry weather arrives.

Between us all we can help to ensure that snowfall doesn’t have to mean misery and isolation for those who fear it most.

Thanks for listening,

Jim