THIS WILL be my final ‘Leader’s Blog’ before the Local Elections that are taking place on May 3.
It seems a fitting point then to reflect a little on what’s happened since my first-ever blog last June: a whopping 41 posts ago(!).
My first musings came just a few days after officially taking the reigns at the Civic Centre, and that almost feels life a lifetime ago already.
The pace of change feels like it’s been continually cranking up each month since then and – in fact – has got to a point where the last few weeks have felt like something of a madcap blur.
I reflect too that, upon taking control of Oldham Council, I had set myself two key goals. Those haven’t changed.
The first was to take whatever action possible, working co-operatively with partners, to stimulate the creation of jobs, new opportunities and regeneration.
My starting point in all this was a belief that strong leadership, allied to good groundwork from officers, can breed stability, which then builds confidence and civic pride.
Regeneration was always going to be a tricky task given the national economic context – and at the same time there’s been no easy way around making some very tough budget decisions – but I do think foundations are starting to bear fruit on this front.
Deals, for example, to deliver the Hotel Future project in the town centre, new development schemes for Hollinwood, Royton, and the old Town Hall, plus initiatives like our recent Invest in Oldham pitch to investors, the ‘Get Oldham Working’ campaign – and getting work underway on 1,200 new homes – are all parts of a huge Borough-wide jigsaw.
In recent weeks I’ve also been taking the Council’s key messages on this agenda out to the wider business and investor community and have been reassured by what I’ve heard.
That kind of audience can bring unique demands of its own, yet I can honestly report their mood is far more upbeat about the Borough’s future than you would probably expect given the current national economic climate.
The other main target I set coming into office was – as stated in that first-ever blog – to tackle the “serious disconnect between Oldham Council and local residents”.
We’ve started to do that by trying to re-engage with people and have been leading the national agenda in recent times on this.
Measures like streaming Full Council live on the Internet, and letting people submit questions via Twiter and Facebook, plus this blog (with 17,000 visitors to date) are all part of that wider process of ‘opening up’ to try and regain your trust.
Equally important has been the moves to devolve power and budgets back to local neighbourhoods with new district Town Halls, and to offer training to enable Ward Members to step up and become more active and effective leaders in their communities.
We’re delivering on that agenda, but I know this is only a start.
Oldham Council won the ‘Most Improved Council’ 2012 title at the Local Government Chronicle Awards last week, but I don’t kid myself that means we have somehow finally ‘made it’ as an Authority by any stretch of the imagination.
It’s important to say that the award wasn’t about chasing a pointless ‘gong’ and that recognition from your peers is, clearly, a very good thing.
I do also genuinely believe that this was deserved recognition for the incredibly hard work of staff across all levels to achieve positive change in recent years – a process that was already underway before I first sat down in this chair.
But equally I know that, whilst Local Government circles may admire our intentions and deeds, it still remains our biggest challenge to convince our own residents about that. And it’s going to be a long journey.
You can’t ‘reconnect’ with alienated residents inside a few months, and it’s more likely (even with a huge concerted effort) to take between five and ten years to achieve it.
I also know the bottom line is that trust in politicians and institutions depends on results – so we really must deliver what we’re aspiring to do here for the Borough.
For now at least this must be my final blog now before the period known as ‘Purdah’ – the six-week period before polling day – gets underway.
I’ve decided to temporarily suspend this blog during that time. Although this facility is hosted independently of the Council, I’ve been writing it purely from my standpoint as a Council Leader and it would – probably rightly – be challenged if I continued to update it during an election period.
And I’m not, of course, going to close today by even daring to suggest which candidate or party you should vote for on May 3.
But I would make one final plea. Please ensure that you get out and use your vote.
In democracy, it’s your vote that really counts – and apathy is no good to anyone.
If you don’t think you are registered to vote – or want to check – then please have a look at www.oldham.gov.uk/elections for further information.
Just make sure your voice is heard.
Thanks for listening,