We don’t just empty your bins…

REGENERATION: Cllr McMahon in Royton this week with Mark Dransfield of Dransfield Properties - this new Co-operative partnership aims to revitalise the District Centre.
REGENERATION: Cllr McMahon in Royton this week with Mark Dransfield of Dransfield Properties - this new Co-operative partnership aims to revitalise the District Centre.

I’M STRUCK by the scale and range of important policy announcements either underway or pending here at present.

One of those is our new Oldham Mortgage scheme which got quite a few responses last week on this blog.

Before tackling specific points raised it’s important to note that some submitted comments weren’t published on here.

To be clear, I take personal responsibility for deciding what is published, and what is not.

Posts are filtered – they don’t automatically just appear for obvious reasons – and there can be a gap of a day or two between me checking them, so please be patient and bear with me.

It’s also important I clarify again that this blog’s function is not a battleground for party political pointscoring. I’m writing here purely as Oldham Council Leader. I’m not allowed to do that, nor do I think it would help.

I’m also not daft enough not to expect criticism, but I do just ask that it is constructive, not party political, and isn’t slanderous or offensive.

There’s plenty of discussion boards available where people can knock the town or swap conspiratorial theories about politicians of all creeds, but I’ve always maintained that’s not the purpose of this site.

Its intention – like my first-ever video blog this week about the budget – at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/budget_speech – is to try and make decision-making more transparent.

On the Oldham Mortgage itself, I first want to explain this is very different from the Government’s own scheme – which is specifically to help people to buy new build homes.

Secondly, some people said we should instead use this money to pay for more social housing.

We’re already on-site now with the delivery of 1,200 such properties, and a further 28 – at the former North House site – were also approved at Monday’s Cabinet meeting.

But we need a range of proposals here because the housing market is very complex and there are several different issues and problems to tackle.

Social housing is just one part of that jigsaw. Everyone’s circumstances are different and there’s no simple ‘one size fits all’ answer that gets the market moving again. We must look across the whole picture to find the right mix of  solutions.

I sensed that some comments submitted on here probably came from a standpoint that basically thinks Oldham Council should restrict its activity to just emptying bins and clearing litter.

But I think that is wrong.

Your Council needs to fulfil a civic leadership role that helps bring partners, businesses and residents together to act for the greater good. If it doesn’t, then who would fulfil that function?

If you look at the agreement we’ve signed with Dransfield Properties this week – in plans to regenerate Royton District Centre – you can hopefully see what I mean.

We’re working with Dransfield to aspire to improve the area and facilities for everyone.

Royton’s a good place to live but the poor quality precinct has let that community down and we have to resolve it. It is simply not fit for a modern town centre.

We’re not rolling over here for a supermarket to just ‘take over’ the centre. Instead, we’re working together with Dransfield to try and deliver a Royton that has a town hall which is a fitting community hub and a thriving market that is the jewel in the crown of a re-invigorated precinct.

Similarly, we’re working alongside the Manchester Hoteliers Association and Oldham College to provide job and training prospects at a new Hotel and Conference centre: facilities the town centre can be proud of.

That is what Oldham Council is really about – not just emptying bins. 

We’re about trying to help get the local economy moving, building a better place to live in, providing housing schemes and assistance, and helping to improve job prospects and facilities.

In some respects we’re clearly behind other places and need to catch up fast.

The speed and scale of our announcements this year may surprise some, but it’s clear we need a major spurt of activity.

Sitting back and doing nothing just isn’t an option for me. It’s not why I’m here.

But equally – to waste time continually talking the place down and knocking it – isn’t why I’m here either.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Oldham Mortgage: A hand up, not a handout

OLDHAM MORTGAGE: (L-R) Alan Kirkham (Alan Kirkham Estate Agents), Jim McMahon (Oldham Council Leader), Richard Powell (Ryder & Dutton) and Tim Haughton (Clarke & Co)
OLDHAM MORTGAGE: (L-R) Alan Kirkham (Alan Kirkham Estate Agents), Jim McMahon (Oldham Council Leader), Richard Powell (Ryder & Dutton) and Tim Haughton (Clarke & Co)

 OUR NEW Oldham Mortgage scheme launched last week – the first modern Local Authority mortgage in Greater Manchester.

Subject to Cabinet approval it will give first-time buyers a real helping hand to get onto the property ladder.

I met with local Estate Agents on Friday morning to explain the scheme and their response was very positive.

The Oldham Mortgage will initially assist around 50 families to realise their dreams of buying a first home – and will have an even wider knock-on effect.

At present there are many people who want to get onto the property ladder but – even though they could afford the mortgage repayments – find themselves unable to save a big enough deposit.

By ‘doing our bit’ here – providing an indemnity in partnership with Lloyds TSB – we can reduce the typical deposit they need from 25 per cent to five per cent.

I see this initiative as a very important part of our Co-operative Council agenda because it’s about giving people a ‘hand up’, not a handout.

By providing active support like this we are enabling residents to do more for themselves and to realise their aspirations.

At the same time we are also helping to stimulate the local economy by giving new impetus to the housing market.

That encapsulates exactly what our Co-operative Council is all about.

Working with partners in the public, private or voluntary sector to empower people like this is key to putting them more actively in control of their own futures.

We have deliberately structured the Oldham Mortgage to make it as flexible as possible.

We’re encouraging buyers to purchase from the open market – which makes it different to many existing schemes across the UK which are linked to buying new build homes.

We also decided not to include ‘right to buy’ properties in the scheme for two reasons.

Firstly, we didn’t feel it was in the wider public interest to support the sale of social housing.

And secondly we believe that to do so would do anything for the local housing market.

By allowing buyers to select homes from those on the open market experts predict it could lead to a knock-on effect of about 250 sales in total because first-time buyers really help to spark the property chain into life.

The scheme is also open to people from other areas who may wish to relocate to the Borough.

We hope this makes it attractive to companies considering relocating to Oldham – and gives us another competitive edge above neighbouring towns.

The conversation I had with the estate agents about the local housing market was very informative.

They explained that things are actually beginning to pick up but that the biggest issue at present seems to be perception.

I heard that many would-be first time buyers out there seem to be sitting on their hands because they believe they simply cannot get a mortgage full stop.

Yet the estate agents believe there is actually far more willingness out there to lend than people generally perceive.

Hopefully the Oldham Mortgage will provide a spark and some much-needed assistance in tackling that ‘confidence’ issue.

There are, of course, other issues that need tackling here in the longer-term – such as the quality of the housing stock and the need to encourage more affordable social housing.

We’re committed to ‘doing our bit’ on both fronts and agreed to keep our dialogue ongoing with the estate agents to ensure we can work co-operatively together for the greater good.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Love Where You Live

LOVE WHERE YOU LIVE: Jim McMahon with local volunteers cleaning up at Moston Brook
LOVE WHERE YOU LIVE: Jim McMahon with local volunteers cleaning up at Moston Brook

YOU’RE probably starting to notice some media activity this week launching our new ‘Love Where You Live’ (LWYL) scheme.

I want to use today’s blog to explain a bit more about how this campaign epitomises Oldham Council’s new co-operative approach to public services.

In a nutshell, LWYL aims to do two key things.

Firstly, it seeks to highlight the fantastic community and volunteer spirit that already exists across all parts of our Borough.

And secondly it aspires to help that network grow further, and achieve more by encouraging even more people to ‘do their bit’.

LWYL’s starting point this week has been to highlight the fantastic work already being done by neighbourhood ambassadors like Adam Pietras from Failsworth, who built a community garden, or Malika Khatun, who runs activities for young women at her local youth centre in West Oldham.

Case studies like those are really only the tip of the iceberg of what’s going on.

You don’t often hear it shouted about, but the level of voluntary and unpaid activities in our Borough is higher than the regional and national averages.

But years before even coming into office here I was aware that Oldham Council has historically often been seen as putting barriers in the way of activities like this – and I’m determined that has to change.

What we need to do in the future is to become ‘enablers’. The Council needs to actively assist and work in partnership with communities on projects that will deliver social good.

As an example of what I mean here, I went along to Wrigley Head at Moston Brook on Monday to help a gang of 40 volunteers who want to improve the local environment.

CIVIC PRIDE: A team of 40 volunteers are 'doing their bit' to improve the Wrigley Head site
CIVIC PRIDE: A team of 40 volunteers are 'doing their bit' to improve the Wrigley Head site

These residents pledged to do their bit through unpaid activities like litter-picking and tree-planting at the site.

In return, Oldham Council has now invested some money to make it more secure and paid for bigger improvements like graffiti removal works.

The end result works for everyone.

It’s just one small example of this new approach, but the overriding message here is crystal clear.

Oldham Council doesn’t own this Borough. It belongs to the people who live here – and only if we work better in partnership can we make significant improvements to it as a place.

LWYL aims to encourage more people to get actively involved again in their communities and you can do that in many ways.

‘Doing your bit’ in your area doesn’t necessarily mean you have to set up a huge project or break your back digging a community garden.

Your contribution can be as simple as checking on elderly neighbours, offering to take their wheelie bins out, reporting grot spots to us, or attending local meetings to have your say and play a more active part in decision-making.

A key part of LWYL is the new website we’ve set up at www.oldham.gov.uk/love

I’d urge people to pay this – and our new Facebook pages – a visit.

We hope these will eventually be used as a hub where residents can talk about what they’re doing in the area, what opportunities and events they have planned, and even just share ideas about how things can be improved.

As part of all this Oldham Council’s staff are also going to be doing their bit.

We’re now encouraging staff to spend three days a year working with local communities where their skills and input can make a really positive difference.

It’s clear to me now that our responsibilities as a Local Authority go way beyond just service delivery.

They include providing civic leadership and helping the growth of pride and engagement in your neighbourhood.

If we are to meet the public sector financial challenges that we’re facing, we have to be firmly on the side of residents.

And we now must demonstrably start to show what that means – to explain how working smarter alongside you can benefit everyone.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Back to school…

BACK TO SCHOOL: Jim McMahon with his new friends from Higher Failsworth Primary School

I WENT back to school last week with a visit to Higher Failsworth Primary.

Rebecca Eade, a teacher at Stansfield Street, invited me along and I’m indebted to her and all the staff there because it proved an inspiring experience.

I was asked to talk about Oldham Council and what Ward Members do.

My audience was 25 children who were all Year Five pupils, aged just nine.

Even at that relatively tender age they were far less apathetic than those sweeping generalisations you often hear made about young people being “uninterested” in current affairs and finding politics a total “turn-off”.

You simply can’t stereotype young people as a uniform group like that and I was astonished by some of the topics they asked me about.

This particular group has been doing a project which seeks to work out – by pitting politicians against pop stars – who has the most influence in the world today?

It’s an interesting question and one they’ve taken to with relish.

I was shown letters they’ve sent to the Prime Minister and other politicians, which I sincerely hope they’ll get answers to.

They also clearly pay keen attention to what their Mums and Dads are talking about at home.

You could almost hear their parent’s own voices and phrases in the room as they stepped up to quiz me about Oldham town centre, or the disruption caused by Metrolink roadworks.

It wasn’t just local issues that interested them either.

I was astonished when one boy asked me what I thought about Government proposals to increase the Motorway speed limit – and blow away when another then asked me to explain more about Scottish independence might mean!

The work they’d all done beforehand was a real credit to them, the school and their parents, and I was mightily impressed.

Although I am now Council Leader, I also remain a Ward Member and think visits like this are hugely important.

Getting out regularly to see a range of people in your area should be the bread and butter through which Councillors engage with residents. It’s how we take the pulse of the public and provide visible civic leadership – and we should do it across all age ranges.

The evening before my ‘school trip’, I had attended Full Council at which we did our first ever live Public Question Time – taking questions via email, Twitter and Facebook.

I thought this was a huge success as the pace of the meeting and calibre of the questions was markedly better than any I can recall before it.

It was also much more of a test for Members, as it should be, and a huge step forward in making our meetings more accessible, accountable and relevant to the public.

I must close this week by paying tribute to Ken Hulme, whose death I was shocked to hear about last Friday.

As a resident, and then later as a Saddleworth Parish Councillor, Ken was often a critical thorn in the side of Oldham Council –  but that is no bad thing for democracy.

Ken engaged with decision-makers rather than sniping from the sidelines. He put people on the spot and fought with tireless energy for causes, so the people of Delph have lost a real community champion.

My thoughts are with his family and friends at what must be a very difficult time.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Taxing matters

 

Taxing Matters: Council Tax Benefit
TAXING MATTERS: Government proposals to localise Council Tax Benefit are going to be a big issue for all Local Authorities in the coming months

NEW Government proposals to localise Council Tax Benefit (CTB) are going to prompt plenty of debate in the coming months.

The Department for Communities and Local Government wants the plans – which would see different rates of CTB paid in different parts of the country – to come into force from April 2013.

So what will it mean for Oldham residents?

For the uninitiated, Council Tax Benefit is a national pool of money that Government makes available to enable each Local Authority to give discretionary relief to people in their area.

Key components of this are, for example, the Single Person Discount and discounts for pensioners.

The Government now wants this benefit to be administered locally by Councils. Each would need to set and introduce their own eligibility criteria – but only after the money given to us has also been cut by ten per cent.

At the same time it is also proposed that pensioners should continue to get total protection from this reduction – i.e. their discretionary relief must remain untouched.

In Oldham our support for pensioners makes up about 60 per cent of our total CTB funding. Another group of recipients – about 25 per cent – would also be exempt from reductions in their support because of our duties to tackle child poverty and support vulnerable groups.

What this all then means is that most of that 10 per cent budget cut is likely to fall on the remaining recipients of CTB – typically the support we provide to low-income families or people in receipt of the Single Person Discount.

This would potentially impact on a smaller number of people much harder and the question now for us – and every other Local Authority – is exactly where and how to reduce relief in a manner that is as fair as possible.

We’re already debating these issues internally and there are no easy answers: especially when you consider that the existing Single Person Discount doesn’t take into account an individual’s actual ability to pay.

Difficult decisions like this require leadership and I’m determined that we must first undertake a thorough consultation exercise with our residents.

We need to explain these issues with clarity and listen to what you think it is fair and right to do.

Despite what the Sunday Express wrongly claimed at the weekend, no decisions have been made here in Oldham, and your responses to that consultation will be absolutely key to shaping what we introduce in April 2013.

Returning to more immediate concerns this remains an extremely busy time at Oldham Council.

At Cabinet on Monday we agreed to look at plans to form a new company that would deliver our social care services in the future.

If these plans proceed it could see up to 500 staff forming a ‘trading arm’ in which the Council would own a majority stake and a minority stake would be owned by an employee co-operative. I’ll return to this topic as the scheme makes more progress at a later date.

Tonight (Wednesday) we also have Full Council – including our pilot ‘Public Question Time’ – and you can now watch the whole meeting online for the first-time ever at www.oldham.gov.uk from 6pm.

February is also Budget-setting time too, of course. The opposition outlined their alternative budget last night and our own final proposals are undergoing final tweaks before going to Full Council on February 22.

I’m also looking forward to paying a visit to Higher Failsworth Primary School tomorrow. I’ve been asked to explain to young people there what Oldham Council is, what we do, and what it means to their daily lives.

That won’t be an easy task and I know from past experience it could yet turn out to be my toughest grilling of the week!

Thanks for listening,

Jim