When is fare not fair?

Councillor Sean Fielding, Failsworth West
FARES FAIR: Councillor Sean Fielding wants to secure a better deal for bus fare paying passengers in Oldham

AS PART OF our drive to become a Cooperative Council we’re also gearing up to be a campaigning council.

This is about using our weight to fight on behalf of the people of Oldham on the issues that you say matter.

A number of campaigns are coming up and I’m excited by the potential for the Council to make a real difference for people on a range of issues from the cost of energy, to the growing presence of payday lenders and log book loan shops, to high street banks failing small businesses in our Borough.

The first campaign – recently endorsed by all political parties at Full Council – is our ‘Fares Fair’ campaign which seeks to end the unfairness in the high cost of public transport in the North East conurbation of Greater Manchester.

I invited Councillor Sean Fielding, Ward Member for Failsworth West, to pen a few words on this for me.

Sean introduced this motion to Council and explained the issues very eloquently, so it’s over him to explain more:

“Metrolink is now up and running providing a frequent and efficient link connecting Oldham to the wider Greater Manchester area.

Whilst this is certainly something to celebrate, it would be foolish of anybody to simply sit back and assume all of our public transport problems are now solved.

At Full Council I proposed a motion calling on members  to agree to lobby Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM)  to secure a better deal for bus fare paying passengers in Oldham.

Currently in Oldham there is one company – FirstBus –  which has a near-monopoly on bus service provision. 

The situation is much the same in Boroughs in the South of Greater Manchester, although their principal provider is Stagecoach, but the difference in costs to use the services of these two companies is stark.

Taking a weekly ticket as an example, First charges £18 for a week’s bus travel – Stagecoach charges just £12.

In this case then, Oldham bus passengers are paying 50 per cent more for travel than residents in the South of Manchester. How can that ever be described as fair?

This situation has arisen since the de-regulation of bus services outside Greater London in 1986. 

This was 26 years ago – four years before I was even born – but I simply don’t accept that as a Council we can let this disparity in fares continue unabated for another quarter of a century. 

At a time when many Oldhamers’ incomes are being squeezed in so many other ways, expensive bus travel is just another unwelcome and unfair burden. 

This campaign is borne from our ambitions to become a Co-operative Council. Rather than being a Local Authority that just empties your bins and sprays your weeds, we want  to be more relevant to residents’ lives by finding ways we can improve their lot. That’s not just because we have to, but because we can. 

I believe that this campaign is a great example of that and hope that by working together we can improve public transport in a way that will have a big impact for many residents.”

I would echo everything that Sean says.

I’d also point out that when this story ran on the BBC website, FirstBus responded saying: “We have a standard fare structure across our whole Greater Manchester network and so our customers in Oldham pay the same as customers across the region.”

That might be true, but it simply doesn’t address the large discrepancy between FirstBus and Stagecoach fares, nor the lack of meaningful competition.

We’ll work constructively with FirstBus and other Councils on this campaign, but our stance is clear. Oldham residents deserve to access job opportunities across our region – and that means that the cost of public transport must be reasonable and fair.

If you have any suggestions or would like to have your say on this topic then please contact Sean Fielding direct via an email to sean.fielding@oldham.gov.uk

Moving onto other matters, we met last week to discuss the implications of the budget settlement and the effect of the forthcoming Council Tax Benefit localisation scheme on our residents.

The poorest members of society face being hit hardest under these Government proposals, even though pensioners and those in receipt of single person discount are protected.

The 10 per cent cut in this money from Government isn’t actually 10 per cent when it filters down and those protected by Government are taken to one side. The reality actually is that this could be as much as a 30-45 per cent cut, or £400 a year to those who can least afford it. How can that be fair?

The scale of this challenge will also mean that it can not be business as usual for Local Authorities. By the end of this financial settlement, the Councils’ budget from government will have been cut in half.

Setting the budget for services going forward we must therefore decide whether we do a lot of things in average or slightly below average fashion – or whether we stop doing some things altogether to ensure that vital services are maintained, especially social services and those for young people.

Against this context the only way our area can be resilient to this economic storm is for individuals to do more and take collective responsibility for the area where they live.

Fine words – and many people do it – but we also know that a minority do not and the cost – in littering, for example – is then picked up by all of us, and increasingly at the expense of important services.

A Cooperative Borough is a place where everyone does their bit, and if there was ever a time Oldham needed everyone to pull together this is it.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Power to our young people

INFLUENCE and power: Oldham Youth Council now has a constitutional right to present motions and reports to Full Council
INFLUENCE and power: Oldham Youth Council now has a constitutional right to present motions and reports to Full Council

WE HAD a number of things which set alarm bells ringing at last week’s Full Council meeting.

The first, of course, was the unplanned activation of the security system which protects the Borough’s silverware cases – often referred to as the family silver.

A recent upgrade of security lead to the installation of vibration-activated smoke machines which flood the chamber and reception area with thick smoke in around three seconds.

Whilst this was an impressive and reassuring demonstration it caused a delay of almost an hour before the meeting could resume after the building had been cleared.

The second cause for alarm was – thankfully – planned. As part of our move to modernise Oldham Council and its ageing constitution (don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the detail) we’ve made a series of changes to allow ward councillors the opportunity to raise concerns.

For example, we’ve introduced a leader and cabinet question time so that the opposition can hold us to account in a meaningful way – and we’ve opened up Full Council meetings to the public through web streaming and live question feeds via social media.

One member questioned these changes saying it ‘challenged custom and practice’. My response is simple – great!

The next natural step in this process was to enshrine the role of Oldham Youth Council in our constitution so that it can have a more direct influence on the council.

With immediate effect the role of the Youth Mayor is now a formally recognised civic position and, importantly, now supported in its work by the Mayor’s Office.

Secondly, the Youth Council now also has a constitutional right to present motions and reports to Full Council, giving them real control of the debate and providing direct influence over decision-making. Last week’s meeting was also the first since tragedy hit the people of the Shaw.

As prayers were said for the family of Jamie Heaton it was for many of us the first time the scale of the loss actually hit home. Being so frantically busy trying to help and support local people in so many ways served as a distraction from the real pain and suffering.

On the day of this incident Councillor Jean Stretton and I walked the inner cordon within metres of the homes which had fallen just hours earlier.

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t admit that it has been emotionally challenging and draining to see the heart of a community hit so hard.

What we must continue to do now is support those in most need. As a Council I am proud of how we stepped up when people needed us, but I also know that some feel we could have done more.

Perhaps hindsight is a wonderful thing at times like this, but I can say with full heart that we moved mountains to help, threw out the rulebook and for once enabled the Council to be human and caring.

If that meant some things didn’t go quite as well as they could in an ideal world, I still think what was better than to have pulled down the shutters and defaulted to being a distant uncaring bureaucracy.

For the people of Shaw – and those who will be affected for many months to come – we’re here to help. And if you feel as though we should do more, then work with us and talk to us about it.

This week is a dark one for our Borough as family and friends of two-year-old Jamie Heaton send their little man to rest on Thursday.

Our thoughts are with you all.

Thanks for listening.

Jim

What does Local Government look like in 2020?

FUTURE VISION: We have taken the difficult but essential decision to reduce service budgets to create an economic job creation fund that can boost regeneration and get people back into work.

I RECENTLY attended the annual Local Government Association Conference.

This event is always a good opportunity to meet some leading lights, hear new ideas and discuss the burning issues of the day.

The main issue focusing minds was, of course, the scale of budget cuts to local government.

There was also a stark warning that should reductions continue at the same rate then – by 2020 – councils will just about have enough money to look after the elderly and vulnerable adults and do not a great deal else.

Soon the cries that folk are paying so much Council Tax to get their bins emptied will be replaced with a more deep-seated anger that they are being short changed.

The harsh truth is though that local government and – by extension local residents – have new realities to deal with.

The frontline services that people rely on and value are clearly going to be affected.

That means the weak-sounding “We’ll do more for less” mantra that you often hear as local politicians try and manage the impact of cuts will ultimately have to be replaced with a more honest assessment of “Less for much less”.

If Councils were only responsible for service delivery that would be bad enough, but the truth is that battening down the hatch and hoping the worst will blow over leaves a gaping hole – in the local economy.

Here in Oldham we’ve been hit massively by the budget reductions and, in my view, also by the lack of a coherent national economic strategy.

But I am also determined that Oldham Council is not in the business of just managing decline. What is the point of that?

We are about improving the social and economic wellbeing of our residents – and to deliver on that we must step up and accept that the tough decisions just got tougher.

In Oldham we know we cannot afford to wait for Government to change course: estimates are that by 2020 a further 4,000 people will be unemployed if current trends continue.

So, we have taken the difficult but essential decision to reduce service budgets further in order to create an economic job creation fund that can directly boost regeneration and get people back into work.

We have begun to see the benefits of this approach already.

For example, we’ve had the relocation of a major engineering company – Monopumps – with the potential to create a further 500 jobs. We’ve also had signed up a high-end national hospitality training hotel and conference centre – Hotel Future – to come to town, creating 120 jobs and 120 apprenticeships.

In doing this we not only give people valuable job opportunities but also quicken the pace of regeneration for our Borough.

New plans for the Old Town Hall and cultural quarter will also soon go to the Planning Committee after a resounding 91 per cent of more than 500 respondents indicated they were in favour of the scheme.

We will also be bring forward ambitious plans to transform Union Street and to bring back historic statues into the town centre, such as John Platt and Blind Joe, and I’d love to hear if local people support this.

It is my firm belief that we have to turn our heritage around from being symbols of decline and into something we can be proud of.

Ultimately – regardless of where we come from, our race, our religion or age or mindset – the one thing that unites us all is the Borough of Oldham, so let’s celebrate it and get working together to improve it.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Olympic and Jubilee events review

TORCH OF CHEER: Olympic torchbearer Moira Kelly on her way through High Street, Oldham, cheered by thousands of specators.

EVENTS overtook my plans for last week’s blog entry as news broke of the tragic explosion in Shaw.

It was only right at the time to turn my attentions to that – and Oldham Council remains focussed round the clock on assisting the affected residents and the local community to recover. For latest updates visit www.oldham.gov.uk

The following text is what I had originally planned to post about the previous weekend’s activities, which had seen the visit of the Olympic Torch to Oldham, plus the final regional service to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee…

LAST weekend saw Oldham at its best with some fantastic events that not even the torrential rain we endured could dampen.

I went to see the much-awaited Olympic Torch make its way into our little part of the world on Sunday – and I was hugely impressed.

I’m told there were around 20,000 people who made their way out to line the route from Ashton Road to Prince Street and the genuine sense of anticipation – and community spirit – was there for all to see.

The Olympics is a fabulous event which at its best showcases outstanding personal achievement and maximising your potential.

The torch itself has come to symbolise that endeavour for perfection and it certainly seems to capture the public’s imagination wherever it goes.

I went to see its arrival in the town centre and you could barely move in some quarters with, I understand, up to four thousand people there alone. Many had also been there from very early on in the day just to ensure they got a front row seat.

What was really striking was seeing all different schools and community groups from across the Borough: many with homemade banners specially crafted for the event.

There was a real buzz about the place and it was fantastic to see so many families there to enjoy it.

I thought the event was brilliantly organised, which is no mean feat given the numbers of people attending and the physical length of the route.

I’d particularly like to thank all those residents and Oldham Council staff who volunteered their time and commitment to help out on the day.

We had around 100 volunteers come forward and the police said that was by far the biggest in Greater Manchester and they were fulsome in praise of their efforts.

On a sadder note, I was disappointed that the People’s Carnival had to be cancelled on Friday but I totally sympathise with the dilemma the organisers faced given the changeable nature of the weather.

Later on Sunday I also attended a special service at Oldham Parish Church to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Now, putting my cards on the table, I must confess that I’m not a monarchist – however, I do respect the position of the Queen and her contribution to public service.

This service was the final one of ten held across all Greater Manchester authorities and was attended by civic dignitaries, councillors, schools, businesses, volunteers from around the community and members of the public. 

A lot of thought had clearly gone into it all – including the presentation of a series of gifts to represent Oldham’s heritage such as a model Lancaster Bomber, a bowler hat, a (Winston Churchill) cigar, a test tube and a computer chip.

I presented a trowel from the 1870s that was used to lay the first foundations of Oldham Parish Church itself.

So the whole weekend really showed to me how the people of Oldham had really got ‘on board’ with these important national events and were extremely proud to be involved. 

Whether or not you agree with having a Royal Family or the hosting of the Olympics – and both have their critics, especially during tough economic times –  it was hard not to be swept along by the positive vibe and the great sight of seeing so many people enthused by it  all.

And on that theme it would be remiss of me to close this week without mentioning the fantastic new ‘Bloom and Grow’ display in the town centre which celebrates both these events.

The spectacular display in Market Place has a huge ‘diamond’ – made from 16 mirrored glass panels – as its centrepiece which also uses the colours of the Olympic flag.

I’m told the bed is made up of 4,899 flowers and that it took 120 hours to grow, construct and plant.

It’s a fantastic piece of work from our Environmental Services team and I’m sure that when the judges for North West in Bloom and Britain in Bloom visit later this summer they cannot fail to be impressed.

If you haven’t seen it yet, please do pay a visit to the town centre to have a look – it is well worth the effort.

Thanks for listening,

Jim