Devolution and local leaders: On my soapbox

DEMOCRACY: Devolution means fewer decisions will be made in the ‘ivory tower’: it’s more meaningful for local members to take the decisions about their wards.

WHEN we signed up to become a Co-operative Council we pledged to devolve more power and decision making to local communities and to promote ward councillors as Local Leaders.

We’re now in the middle of that transition and it is interesting observing how it plays out with different members.

Notably, most of the public haven’t yet seen the difference between the old local committee system and local leaders – not in a meaningful way at least.

Having said that, I’ve genuinely seen real examples of councillors working at a grassroots level to support community groups, residents association and local events in a very positive way.

This to me is what it is all about.

If all we do is just create a local committee which is insular and doesn’t engage with the community then we have failed.

With most of the District Town Halls up and running and staff now based locally in the community we have taken the first step.

Now we are reviewing which services best lend themselves to being directed at a local level. Highways, parks, youth service and community safety are some examples, but there will be others.

With the next Full Council meeting fast-approaching (November 7) some members are now requesting that we move back to the old committee system of governance.

I can see why some members want to return to the safety blanket of a system they’ve been used to (even though no member on the Council since 2001 would have experienced it!) but I do wonder what is really driving this.

Cabinet Members here can be held to account through the scrutiny system. Plus – with the new Cabinet Advisory Panels – all members can have a say on policy even before decisions are taken.

With devolution increasingly less decisions will be made in the ‘ivory tower’ so, whilst a host of internal committees may make members feel important, I think it’s much more meaningful to have local members making decisions on the issues that directly affect their constituents. That way the power is actually with the local community.

In the same way that backbench councillors can hold Cabinet to account, residents can now do exactly the same through our ‘Community Call In’ system – which is the first in the country.

We’re also the first Council nationwide to give constitutional powers to the Youth Council – and the first to give youth councillors the power to raise motions at Full Council.

For devolution to work it will, no doubt, take hard work and mean a change in culture – but it’s one that I think is absolutely necessary.

Before becoming Leader, one thing that struck me more than anything was how little the public thought of the Council. As the Audit Committee itself said in 2009: “The Council must improve people’s confidence in its ability. Public satisfaction remains the lowest in the country. Many people say the Council doesn’t listen to them or involve them in decisions enough.”

So why don’t all councillors get that and some want to change back? Back to the Future was a great film trilogy – but it’s not a great idea for Oldham Council.

With the changes we’ve made we have been judged the Most Improved Council in the country: quite a change from only a couple of years ago, but some people seem to want to reverse that.

Some fear change and we need to do more to show them their place in the future as Local Leaders who make a difference in the community they were elected to serve,

Others might perhaps believe they have done well from the Council being insular and self serving, alongside the patronage and positioning that perhaps gives a comfortable lifestyle.

I don’t want to be part of a Council which only gets noticed for being the worst and I have no interest in one purely justifying its own existence.

The Council should be an extension of the community it serves and be outward-acting as ambassadors who make a positive difference to the town and its people.

Needless to say I won’t support any move back to the outdated committee system. It’s symbolic to me of some members wanting to go back to being even more out of touch, insular and irrelevant.

There’s still a long way to go – we are not where we need to be yet by any means – but I’m determined we keep heading in the right direction.

A couple of last things before I go this week…

Last Friday I attended the reopening of the Coliseum Theatre which was a real treat and a great evening of entertainment. The refurbishment was urgently needed due to the aging heating system putting the ability for the company to remain in Oldham at serious risk.

The theatre is now secure for many years to come and will continue to bring visitors from near and far – and that can only be a good thing for our Borough.

Finally, please do two important things in the week ahead….

Firstly, take your families and friends along to enjoy a fantastic, free and safe event on Bonfire Night at Boundary Park (6pm onwards). Visit www.oldham.gov.uk/bonfire for more information.

And secondly – with winter drawing in – please join our Energy Switching Scheme. This now has more 1,000 registered residents, has been adopted by all the Greater Manchester local authorities, and could save you up to £200 on your annual fuel bills.

Find out more at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/fairenergy

Thanks for listening,

Jim

The best of times, the worst of times

INVEST: Jim McMahon, Council Leader, explains the Borough’s ambitious plans at last week’s Invest in Oldham event at South Bank, London.

THE PAST week has been frantic as we try to strike the balance between pursuing an ambitious investment plan against the challenges posed by vastly reducing service budgets.

Our investment drive is gaining real momentum and the plans, which have taken well over a year to prepare, have now been presented to leading figures in investment fund management and developers.

The London launch of Invest in Oldham was a hugely important milestone in this work because it marked a point at which all those previously separate projects were brought together as a package.

If we want Oldham to be taken seriously as a Borough we need to show that we are serious about ourselves.

We need to show we are organised – and we need to be able to demonstrate that our Borough is a wise investment.

I was pleased with the event. As a result of it we now have a series of meetings with potential investors to discuss their involvement in important projects which will redefine Oldham, but we need to move quickly.

There are plenty of councils who – when faced with budget reductions – decided to reign back and became scared to move forward.

Given our ambition for Oldham and the urgent need to create jobs and restore civic pride, we know that we can not wait a decade or more for things to happen here.

Independent estimates are that if we continue to decline at the current rate our Borough will lose 6,000 jobs in this recession. It would then take until 2030 just to recover back to our 2008 position.

That cannot be allowed to happen unchallenged and so it is now – more than ever – that we need to invest to grow.

Our place in Greater Manchester and the unique relationships within the city region will boost our success. We’re also beginning to see a real maturity and focus on inward investment which can only help Oldham.

I know some people are cynical about whether our plans will deliver a better future but it is not my job to be held back by decisions of the past: it is my job to learn, listen and give focus to the task in hand.

All I ask is to be judged on my own merits or failure, and not on decisions that were made well before I became leader – and some even whilst I was still at school!

We should keep our heads up and focus as the alternative would be doing an utter disservice to our Borough.

After a positive event in London we returned back as the consultation process began on how we are to balance our books in response to cuts in our funding from Central Government.

More than £100million has already been cut in the past four years and the easier decisions made.

It is fair to say that the options get tougher and we are now forced to consider things we wouldn’t otherwise want to do.

Job losses will be unavoidable and for the many staff who work for Oldham Council – delivering over 700 services for 250,000 residents – these are difficult times. It is worth remembering that 70 per cent of our workforce lives in the Borough, so they could be your friends, family or neighbours.

We are holding roadshows and public meetings where you can have your say and I would strongly encourage residents and businesses to take part.

It’s been interesting to see some online comments which have talked about these cuts being made “because the council can’t manage it’s money”. This is complete nonsense.

These are the result of a series of cuts imposed on us from national government year on year.

The very fact that many people are yet to really feel the impact of these cuts is a credit to all our staff who have worked so hard to be dedicated public servants and deliver alternative solutions.

Oh, to be a Council Leader today!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Under the microscope – The future of public services

THE CO-OPERATIVE DEAL: Discussing the new RSA report on Oldham Council's progess with (L-R) co-authors Atif Shafique, Ben Lucas, and Jon Cruddas MP.
THE CO-OPERATIVE DEAL: Discussing the new RSA report on Oldham Council’s progess with (L-R) co-authors Atif Shafique, Henry Kippin, and Ben Lucas.

WHAT is the future of public services?

That is the question that is vexing Council Leaders, Chief Executives, senior officers and commentators up and down the country – and keeping them awake at night. 

To manage expectations I should start by saying that I and Oldham Council certainly don’t have all the answers – but we do have a clear programme to address this agenda.

We are keen to move Oldham Council forward and to do that we’re focussing on making ourselves more accountable, more relevant and less self-focused.

The Council is, of course, here to serve all the residents of the Borough, not for self interest – although I’ll await the inevitable cries of “You must be joking…”

As part of Local Democracy Week we held an event at Oldham College with students to debate ‘the future of public service’.

This was a source of inspiration for a political geek like myself – great contributions and an insight into the issues facing young people growing up in Oldham.

Balancing competing interests is the constant struggle here.

With almost any decision or policy you may well get majority support but it is unfortunate that the majority are usually silent about it – and the minority of those disgruntled all too vocal.

Keeping your head up so that you retain focus on the task ahead can be difficult when a tiny few won’t accept that councillors have the right to an opinion that differs from their own.

We also have to balance competing interests – the individual versus the collective; the long term versus the short term; and, of course, all this against what is:  publicly acceptable, affordable and actually possible.

One thing which is clearer than ever before is that we need to redefine the relationship so that the public service is owned by the public.

That is especially true in the same week as Ben Gummer, the Conservative MP for Ipswich says that many local councils are “self-governing oligarchies of mediocre”. Pot, kettle and black perhaps coming from a Westminster politico, but unfortunately most residents think the same.

In the same week we also received our long awaited report from the RSA on our progress towards Oldham becoming a Cooperative Council – working with the community, being firmly part of the community and having an equal relationship.

This report – see http://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2012/10/oldham-shows-how-co-op-councils-can-work-says-think-tank/– was an honest assessment of where Oldham Council is up to right now.

We have great ambition but we do need to move quicker to devolve services, to empower ward councillors to be the community leaders they have been elected to be, and to adapt our approach in the way we deliver council services.

It is clear we have set the foundations for a new approach and I am pleased that has been recognised, but as a Council we also accept the challenges moving forward.

By sheer coincidence I attended the first module of the Local Leaders course last week.

This is a programme of training and support for local councillors designed to give them the skills, knowledge and information to help them to help their constituents.

The world is changing and councillors need to change too.

We need to keep them fully up to date on changes, for instance, to benefits, Council Tax localisation, and debt advice. These are all areas where they need to know the facts before they can properly serve the public and understand their difficulties.

So as we try to change Oldham the challenge is on all of us – residents and Oldham Council – to pull together.

If we have any chance of emerging from this recession in a decent state of health we must focus our energy on the things that matter.

Equally we need to listen more and act on what we hear.

We also need to accept that at times the noise is loud simply because we’ve got it wrong – and it does seem like politicians saying sorry is all the rage nowadays.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Putting energy into things that make a difference

FAMILIES are feeling the pinch more than ever right now.

In many cases they are facing rising household costs but declining income and – very soon – thousands will also be hit by reductions in benefits.

As a Council we have been working hard to do as much as possible to try and reduce the impact of this for people.

We’ve come up with a local Council Tax discount scheme which is designed to protect the most vulnerable whilst investing in job creation – long term planning that is much-needed in Oldham if we are to turn our economy around.

We are now also looking at what we can do in other areas to help free up money and cushion your household income.

The Get Me Toasty campaign to install energy-saving measures in homes free of charge has got off to a great start, saving real money for many local people.

A few weeks ago we then also launched a new campaign to try and reduce the cost of public transport, as outlined recently on this blog by Councillor Sean Fielding.

Now we have launched another money-saving campaign for you – but from a very different angle.

Whereas those other schemes are about Oldham Council doing things for you, it is now time to do things with you in the form of our new Energy Co-operative.

By pulling together people in this Borough would have huge potential buying power as a group.

Almost 100,000 households spend many millions of pounds each year on the things we can’t do without – but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it for less money.

Oldham Council has got together with Ichoosr, a specialist in the collective buying of energy who have already run very successful schemes in the Netherlands and Belgium.

How does it work then?

The idea is simple. If you want to come together as a Borough and form a buying cooperative we will assist by taking this bulk contract to the energy companies and asking them to bid for the work in an auction.

The lowest price offered will get the contract – and you will get the saving.

On average we expect each household to save around £150 a year which, when added to our energy saving programme Get Me Toasty, means up to £500 a year back into your pocket.
Please visit the Oldham Council website now to register your interest.

Have a look at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/info/200706/fuel_co-operative for more information and note that you are under absolutely no obligation to switch suppliers.

I must close this week by saying a massive well done to everyone involved in Oldham winning the ‘Best City’ category in Britain in Bloom 2012.

This is an absolutely huge prize for our Borough and also great recognition that when the Council works closely with the local community and businesses, the end product can be truly remarkable.

I must, obviously, also highlight the work of our parks team who are a real jewel in our Civic crown and work extremely hard day in, day out.

Ours is a beautiful Borough, although not every neighbourhood has a stunning Pennine view.

When we met the RHS judges earlier in the year we told them why this competition was so important to Oldham.

But we see an award like this as another significant part of the work we are doing to attract inward investment. We need recognition like this nationally to help change the perception of our borough.

Inevitably there will be some people who will ask why Oldham Council is funding projects like this at a time when it says it has no money (indeed, some already have on Twitter in some very choice language!).

My answer to that is simple. To attract investment we need to make Oldham a place where people want to live and work – not one where people feel they have no choice but to be.

We need to showcase Oldham and prove that we invest in our Borough in order to convince others that the place is a sound investment.

Ultimately, if we are serious about creating the conditions for growth and attracting investment, we have to up our game.

A major national award like this shows we’re making good progress, but there is no room for complacency and still plenty to do.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

To protect and serve

Flag flying at half mast outside the Civic Centre in Oldham.
NEVER FORGET: The Civic Flag flies at half-mast in memory of Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes who were killed in Tameside last month

THE TRAGIC shooting of two police officers in Hattersley has brought home to the public the everyday danger faced by officers of the law working hard to protect and serve.

As the funerals take place this week it would be remiss for me not to pay tribute to PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, a resident of Diggle.

I know from speaking to rank and file officers locally in recent days that this has had a huge impact on the force.

The deaths of two friends in service not only brings its own sense of loss but also heightens the fear from their own family members that their loved ones – however well trained, organised and professional – may find themselves involved in such a random incident with such horrendous consequences.

We work with Greater Manchester Police on a daily basis and have a very positive relationship with them.

Last weekend we liaised closely as Oldham played host to a protest from the combined Ex-Forces group in the town centre.

Whilst this passed off peacefully, I do find it slightly ironic that a group of people from all over the country feel they can come to a town and tell us how we should live as a community.

Do we have issues here? Yes. We know that more than anyone. But do they have the answers? No!

We all know that the Borough as a whole community needs to do more to pull together.

It can be all too easy in times of economic hardship to look at your neighbour to blame, but that just isn’t the answer.

It wasn’t anyone in Oldham who created the economic crisis, but it is fair to say we are feeling it more than many other areas.

The answer to bringing the community together for me is about giving everyone a sense of hope, optimism and a sense that they have a stake in a better future.

That would be hard enough in the best of times, but it feels like a mountain today.

However, it’s vitally important that we do not lose sight of where we are going as a Borough, despite them gloom that some would like to focus upon.

That includes:

– Planning permission secured for our new cinema and restaurant facility in the Old Town Hall;
– An excellent site secured for our new town centre leisure centre (an announcement is imminent on this);
– Metrolink taking shape through the town centre – and, yes, I do know the roadworks are terrible(!);
– Hotel Future on the way providing the first national hospitality training academy with 120 new jobs and up to 100 apprenticeships;
– Monopumps moving to the old BAE site at Chadderton, potentially bringing up to 1,000 jobs and already taking on Oldham apprenticeships;
– New secondary schools open providing first-class education facilities for our young people;
– The work underway to build around 2,000 new homes and creating mixed communities of social rent, shared equity and owner occupiers;
– Our first homeowner getting the keys to the house of their dreams thanks to our local authority mortgage scheme;
– The opening of Mahdlo, our new state-of-the art youth centre;
– A campaigning Council leading the way on energy – reducing your bills by potentially over £300 a year through our new collective buying scheme and ‘Get Toasty’ insulation offer.

There is plenty of great work underway – and a lot more to come.  As a Council and a Borough we are fighting for jobs and for our future: and we need to pull together.

Thanks for listening,

Jim