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

One thought on “Devolution and local leaders: On my soapbox

  1. Keith

    Dear Jim
    Keep fighting for real democracy. Oldham’s past problems are partly to do with a self valueing system perpetuated by councils more concerned with their own importance than serving a community.

    Also have faith in outside organisations that could create dynamic change. Don’t stick with the fossils- you still have some left.

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