Dear Chancellor – Thoughts ahead of the budget settlement

CHRISTMAS is coming, shops are getting busier, thoughts are turning to gift-buying and snowfall – and we’re all hoping for a bumper season to help lift our economy.

Here at Oldham Council we’re preparing for an early christmas ‘present’ of our own in the form of our next budget settlement from Government. 

It’s fair to say that although we hope for a positive outcome – and perhaps even a little acknowledgement that Local Government has been one of the hardest hit by recent settlements – we are preparing for the worst.

Local Government is seen as an easy target.

Residents are quick to lay blame at the local town hall and Central Government knows the tough decisions about where savings must come will be made locally: meaning their hands are clean of any frontline pain.

Last weekend we got more direction from Government warning about councils ‘stockpiling’ of reserves – or what you and I might call “the rainy day money”.

It seems attractive doesn’t it? If a council has money in savings why not use it now to support frontline services rather than cutting them?

But there are two clear reasons why this is wrong.

Firstly, that money is in savings – not a recurring source of cash. It can only be spent once and then it is gone forever.

Secondly, the ‘rainy day’ shouldn’t be the ongoing cuts to council budgets. It should be there for genuine emergencies like a school burning down, for example, flooding, or –  more recently in Oldham – the aftermath of the Shaw gas explosion which saw significant costs in staffing, security, immediate repair and safety works which cannot be recouped. Those things do fall into the category of being a ‘rainy day’.

When Government takes money out of a council’s budget it’s not a one-off measure: it takes it out every year.

As an example, let’s say you have outgoings of £1,000 a month at home. Your wages are covering that until your employer cuts your salary. Now you only have enough money to cover £800 a month.

If you use the Government’s logic on the use of reserves as the answer to your household budget woes you could use £400 you have to hand in savings to make up the difference. But once the £200 a month shortfall is paid for the first two months, what do you then do to cover it?

Using reserves to make up cuts to council funding is short-term, misjudged and doesn’t address or reduce the pain being felt in communities across the country.

Councils deliver services that people rely on. In Oldham we have taken £100 million of cuts already. We are in the process of cutting another £31 million over the next two years – and that’s without added pain to come from the December settlement.

It’s hard enough to manage that pain without dealing with nonsensical and ill-informed direction like this from Government.

You might think that is a political point, but as far as I’m concerned it’s not. This is about being honest about the challenges we face and the views I have outlined here are shared by many council leaders nationwide, regardless of their political affiliation.

Councils also need to start being honest. The days of making savings have gone – we are just making cuts now.

The easy pickings of cutting management and procurement etc have long gone and we are at the bone. After years of ‘protecting frontline services’ there won’t be a council anywhere now that won’t be making cuts to those services.

When Lambeth Council first began their consultation on budget cuts they lead with the line “The Government has cut our budget so we are forced to cut services”, much to the annoyance of Eric Pickles. But at least it was honest and explained the situation in plain language without smoke and mirrors.

My only ‘ask’ from the Chancellor is simple: Be honest and be fair.

Be honest and clear about the total reductions upfront. Don’t hide figures or drip-feed cuts or introduce back door technical changes which combine to wipe out our budget.

One recent example of this has been in the plans for Council Tax Benefit localisation. It was said that this would ‘only’ be a 10 per cent reduction in the overall grant. That was true.

But what you didn’t say was that low-income working people and those on benefits would pay for all pensioners regardless of income (Yes, Sir Alan Sugar would also benefit under this scheme!) meaning the REAL reduction in benefit for everyone else was nearer to 25 per cent, which is both unfair and hits those who can least afford it most.

And be fair, Mr Chancellor…

Local Government has taken more than its fair share of cuts and done so whilst protecting – as much as possible – vital services that people reply on. But we cannot continue to do that and expect no one will notice the difference.

Not least of all that’s because as a council we are also a major local employer. When we make people redundant we’re simply adding to our own unemployment numbers. That isn’t good for Government and it is bad for Oldham.

The price of failure might be embarrassment at the growing cost of unemployment and slow economic growth.

But the cost of failure for town like Oldham is a generation left behind and that is a cost too high.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Investing in the past = Investing in our future

CULTURAL REVOLUTION: A cross-sectional image of the proposed new Oldham Heritage Centre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre.
CULTURAL REVOLUTION: A cross-sectional image of the proposed new Oldham Heritage Centre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre.

TIME IS flying this year but it does also feel as though a lot of positive things are coming together right now.

Without wanting to jinx anything, of course, I do think we have positive progress starting to be seen on several important fronts.

One regular criticism I am hearing from residents, however, is about the perception of Oldham town centre, and I must say I feel some of that is unfair.

It’s all too easy to make throwaway comments and I got some undue criticism last week on Twitter for daring to defend the town centre…from Oldhamers themselves.

That’s not because I am blind to the problems people see with our High Street. It’s because it’s my job to sort it out: not just complain from the sidelines.

I can assure you it‘s a task that I and other team members are taking very seriously, but there’s also a real danger that – in a bid to reassure people that something is happening – we listen too much to ‘knee-jerk’ comments and rush into spending our limited money on things that will actually make no real difference.

I am very clear that we have to be focussed on a long-term rebuilding plan here – and the town centre is central to that.

One thing Oldham has got, and not many would argue about this, is a rich heritage and history.

The Borough’s current form is quite young in historical terms and was transformed from a collection of small hamlets and villages of around 14,000 people to what it became during the industrial revolution when we were an absolute powerhouse.

I believe we need to use this heritage as the foundation stone upon which we build our future and focus on the thing which, regardless of background or ethnicity, brings us all together: Oldham the place.

We’re currently working up plans for public consultation on how best to incorporate heritage in our regeneration and got a welcome boost this week with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to support a landmark project to unite the town centre’s cultural jewels; including plans for a new Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre.

This looks to complement Gallery Oldham, Library and Lifelong Learning Centre and bring them together with new arts, heritage and leisure facilities in one totally integrated facility.

The plans would see a new Oldham Heritage Centre housed in the refurbished ex-Oldham Library and Art Gallery building on Union Street.

This is an opportunity to create a museum that tells our story: the richest and most productive cotton town in the world; the first seat of Sir Winston Churchill; the home of the Lancaster Bomber; Oldhamers marching to Peterloo; Annie Kenny fighting for women’s right to vote; the parts for the world’s first computer being made right here etc. The list goes on and on.

Redeveloping the Old Town Hall is symbolically important, but so is that Old Library venue as we prepare for Metrolink in 2014/15.

These are two really fantastic Grade II buildings and when that new town centre line arrives we will need a proper launch – brass bands and all.

As part of these plans, a separate application to Arts Council England Fund is also seeking a grant towards a new-build Oldham Coliseum Theatre, including a state-of-the-art auditorium. This we see as the theatre’s long-term future having already funded works to ensure it can continue in the medium term at Fairbottom Street.

If people reading the latest news still don’t believe what you’re seeing then I would ask just one thing: please at least give us a chance to deliver on it.

Within less than two years real progress is now visible on our regeneration vision.

Is there work still to do? Of course there is and just because we haven’t gone public with something yet that doesn’t mean we’re not working on it behind-the-scenes.

We’ve always said that we’d only go public when a project or good news is confirmed. I’m fully aware that people have been promised the earth before and feel let down when it hasn’t materialised. I do not intend repeating that cycle of ‘emotional boom and bust’.

Finally, you may have seen the Oldham Chronicle’s report last week about the delays people affected by the Shaw gas blast are still facing as a result of insurance companies reviewing claims.

Although the Council often gets the blame for delays and frustrations I can say that we’re working hard to keep people informed. Ultimately, however, the insurers’ relationship is with the insured – not us.

We try hard to get information and it’s fair to say that some insurance companies are better than others. Our officers share these frustrations.

We do not and should not ever underestimate the pressure and stress on those people and families still living this scenario day in and day out.

But we said at the outset that we would see the task through and stand by the people of Shaw. We will stick to that pledge.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Spreading the word – and fares are now fairer

FUTURE PROSPECTS: Jim McMahon, Oldham Council Leader, talks with Year 10 pupils from Failsworth School about the future of our Borough.

THIS week sees the start of my ‘around the Borough’ tour visiting each of our secondary schools to speak to students about the future of our town.

I know from previous sessions held at Oldham College and the Regional Science Centre that students have some mixed views about growing up in Oldham – and there is a real need to empower our young people to see that future of our Borough is firmly in their hands.

The first session is being held today at Failsworth School with Year 10 and 11 students.

My message will be simple – believe in yourself and if you have fire in your belly you can achieve all that you want.

We want to help you succeed and – just as importantly – Oldham can and should be the home of opportunity for those who work hard.

We will also show young people some of the highlights of our regeneration activity, which it is important that they see.

I am delighted to also be joined on this visit by the Youth Mayor, Josh Payne, who can give a great perspective from the next generation growing up in Oldham.

We have just had an incredibly busy week…

The first mention has to go to our ‘Fare’s Fair’ campaign  – our work to deliver more affordable bus travel for residents across the Borough.

This is a major block to accessing jobs for many people, although it’s reasonable to say that when we started this campaign we weren’t overwhelmed with support, so instead we met directly with First Bus.

I have to say that I was impressed by their approach. They get what we are trying to do in Oldham and expressed a wish to work alongside us.

The end result – announced last week – is a whopping 28 per cent reduction across the weekly ticket going from £18 to £13 a week. And there will be further discounts for Credit Union members (more on that next month).

We’re also now working to support students in higher and further education here with other discounts. So it’s a big ‘well done’ to First Bus – and to Councillor Sean Fielding who led this campaign – for making a real difference.

Last Wednesday saw the latest meeting of Full Council with many questions again coming from the public and ward councillors about local issues.

Since our webstreaming of these meetings began in October 2011 the interest in them has clearly increased.

I must admit to being somewhat surprised (and slightly taken aback) at the number of people who mention either watching the live stream or hearing it through Oldham Community Radio (OCR) and the interaction via  Twitter and Facebook also really adds a whole new dimension to it.

OCR also rightly pointed out, in a question to that meeting, that they have been broadcasting the Full Council meetings for some time now – and a good job they do too. (Having now given them that unashamed plug, I’m assured my future place on their Desert Island Discs slot is now secure).

I also delivered my second ‘Annual Report’ on the Borough at Full Council and recorded a summary to camera afterwards, which you can view online now here: http://www.oldham.gov.uk/boroughreport As I say, this was filmed immediately after a near four-hour meeting: hence my blurry eyes!

Last Friday evening I then attended a party fundraiser which raised more than £500 for Dr Kershaws Hospice.

Many people have come into contact with the hospice, of course, and I know it is dear to so many people.

My own recent experience was in visiting my friend, Barbara Dawson, in her final days. The staff and volunteers down there do make a huge difference to families at what is an extremely difficult time and their efforts are greatly appreciated.

On Saturday I attended the traditional Reindeer Parade through Oldham town centre. With the free car parking offer now in operation the place was jam packed with traffic queues for all the right reasons – volume of traffic, not simply traffic cones.

It was great to see people getting behind the town centre and local businesses in this way and we must continue doing that to ensure they have a strong Christmas trading period after enduring the traffic chaos caused by Metrolink works.

The week ended with a pause for reflection as Remembrance Sunday services took place across the Borough.

This year I opted to attend the Oldham service for the very first time. Previously I had been the organiser of the Failsworth Remembrance Sunday service after fighting alongside local residents to upgrade the cenotaph.

It felt odd not to be in Failsworth after so many years, but it’s also right as Council Leader that I alternate my attendance between the Failsworth and Oldham ceremonies – both are very poignant and touching events.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Back with a bang!

FANTASTIC FIREWORKS: This display was the highlight of Bonfire Night at Boundary Park – an event attended by an estimated 14,000 people.

I WAS hugely proud of our civic Bonfire Night event at Boundary Park on Monday.

We said this was coming ‘back with a bang’ – and I really think we delivered on that promise.

After an absence of more than ten years we were confident the public would support what we were trying to do, but you can never be certain.

To attract a crowd estimated at 14,000 was a staggering response and a clear endorsement of the decision to put this back on the civic calendar.

As a project it was also a great example of what a Co-operative Borough can do as we worked with a whole raft of partners to deliver mutual benefit for everyone.

We worked with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and Greater Manchester Police to put on a safe event that would reduce the strain on their services.

We also worked hard with local media to promote this and, of course, with Oldham Athletic who were perfect hosts.

With no prior experience of running this event we’re happy with how it all went and the public feedback has generally been inspiring.

We didn’t get everything right – the fire performers needed a higher stage, for example – but some of the niggles, like big food queues, were also down to the incredible numbers of people who turned up.

This event was also about so much more than just lighting a bonfire and letting off a few fireworks. It was about providing an occasion that should be a foundation stone for bringing communities together and making them stronger.

It was similar to funding the refurbishment work that has just completed at the Oldham Coliseum. In that case it was vital to keep a community institution open and thriving because its success is absolutely crucial to our own confidence as a Borough.

We need to deliver great family events like Bonfire Night because they can make a huge difference to community spirit. They offer unique opportunities for people to come together, celebrate and actually feel proud about the place where they live.

Bringing the event back also ties in closely with what I’ve previously blogged about in terms of Oldham being a Campaigning Council.

Our Energy Switching collective, which is now fast approaching 4,000 sign-ups, and our campaign for fairer bus fares are wider strategic campaigns to make a difference to residents’ bottom line.

But at the same time we must also deliver ‘feelgood’ activities that people value – and rightly expect – to see in our Borough.

There are serious everyday issues in Oldham and it’s crucial that people can tangibly see that Oldham Council and its partners are on your side. You need to see that we’re fighting to deliver things that you value as residents, families and neighbourhoods.

After all, we can only reasonably ask you to act as good ambassadors for the Borough if we are also ‘doing our bit’ by delivering on that agenda.

I’d like to thank everyone who played a part, no matter how big or small, in making Bonfire Night happen.

You can also take it as read that this will return again in November 2013. Having tested the water and proven the public appetite for it is firmly there, we’d be absolutely mad to stop it again.

I should make some mention today of Full Council this evening, where there are a couple of notable things to highlight.

Firstly, Richard Knowles will get the title of Honorary Alderman at this meeting in recognition of his service and dedication to the local community as a councillor for 36 years in total.

During that time Richard has served not only as Group Leader but Council Leader and, most recently, Mayor of Oldham for 2011-2. We may not share the same political allegiances, but he is a fine example of people who dedicate their lives to public service and this is a very fitting tribute for him.

Secondly, in an historic move, we will also become the first Local Authority in the country to receive a resolution from our Youth Council.

This is an important step that furthers the work we’re doing in other areas – like devolving services to districts and webcasting our meetings – to become a Council that is relevant to all whom we serve, and not just a few.

I now hold regular meetings with the Youth Council and look forward to them. Not only are they a credit to their peers, but they also always help to ground me with a real insight into what young people are concerned about.

Finally, I’ve just agreed to take on a new role for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) as part of changes to how we work regionally.

This is about us trying to deliver more practical leadership on key issues and I have been given the Skills and Employment portfolio.

This means I will get a much closer view on all the projects planned across the City Region – and also get a useful insight on potential new job and training opportunities for all our residents.

Thanks for listening,

Jim.