Oldham is leading the way…

Snow-clearing at Boundary Park
TRUE GRIT: An army of volunteers showed real community spirit to clear the Boundary Park pitch before Oldham Athletic’s FA Cup heroics last weekend.

THE OUTDATED municipal councils would fail most communities today.

We now live in a complex world and the local council is rarely the dominant power it might have been in the past when it could rely on the weight of spending power to get others to listen.

The Co-operative Council agenda provides an opportunity to look at things differently.

The place – defined in different ways to different people – is the starting point of this. And the place belongs to the people, not the council.

What the council can do is provide leadership, marshal resources and bring different interests together.

The way Oldham came together during the snowfall last week gave a real feeling of community.

Yes, some people did complain – but then that’s life – but most mucked in together: including a strong army of volunteers who helped to clear the snow from the Boundary Park pitch on Saturday.

Leaders also present themselves in many guises at different times.

Oldham Athletic themselves did it for our Borough with a storming performance in the FA Cup on Sunday.

Many fans had hoped to try and force a draw beforehand – that in itself would have been a victory with huge financial rewards.

But to actually then humble the giants of Liverpool sent this team to the heights of fantasy and wrote their names into football folklore.

On that day Oldham was truly led by the Latics as an audience of millions watched across the world. And whilst I may suffer from being sentimental at times, even the sternest cynic would have felt immense pride to witness it.

This week also saw a second energy switching auction close with a staggering 30,000 households signed up.

To think that all started here in Oldham and is now a national scheme is another great credit to our Borough.

Oldham can lead the way and can do it by listening to the ideas of people like you. So, if you have the next great idea, send me an email and we’ll look into it. You never know it may be the next ‘Made in Oldham’ success story.

Last week we announced our proposals to increase Council Tax from April 1.

I’m one of a handful of people, it seems, who believe that modest increases – inline with or below inflation – are acceptable in most circumstances.

If you don’t increase in line with inflation yet your operating costs are going up – energy bills for instance – then you simply have to make cuts somewhere else.

That isn’t about playing fast and loose with your money: it’s the pragmatic reality of life.

Prior to Christmas I thought we could be in a position where an increase might not have been needed.

We’re only too aware that families are feeling the squeeze and went into the December meeting of Full Council with almost all of the £31 million needed to be found in savings identified. It hadn’t been easy but, unlike many areas, we didn’t propose library closures or children’s centres locking the doors for good.

Interestingly when you don’t close facilities the vocal minority shout that they should actually cut because they personally don’t use them.

Unfortunately we live in the real world where we must think about the community as a whole – not just the interests or opinions of a minority. We also have to keep an eye on future generations: those who had nothing to do with the financial crash or the credit crunch.

But just before Christmas the Chancellor sent Oldham an early present – no wrapping paper or fancy bows – just another £7.5m of cuts to find. That’s actually the minimum we must find because the Government figures can’t be relied on at this stage as they’ve often been found to be incorrect or incomplete.

So with our budget cut now increased from £31 million to around £38.5 million we have a choice. It’s not a great choice, but it is a choice of some sorts. We either cut or we cut(!).

Believe me, after already taking more than £131million from the Council’s budget, that extra £7.5m will affect frontline services – the more palatable options have long gone.

The rise you will pay for Oldham Council’s services will be 2 per cent, which is within the Government limit, and when Police, Fire and other precepts are included the increase will be 3.5 per cent overall.

Cries from Eric Pickles, the Minister for Local Government, that Councils like ourselves who increase Council Tax (including precepts) by more than 2 per cent are ‘cheating Councils’ is outrageous and a cheap attack.

It does beg the question: If we weren’t allowed to increase within the law then why does the law itself allow it?

Could it be that Councils are acting within the law – or perhaps that some highly-paid civil servant has messed up by creating a loophole?

We play by the rules. If the Government wants to move the goalposts on a whim then they can’t be too surprised if Councils stop listening.

Unlike the Government department concerned we have real work to do in providing essential services to our residents – and that has to take priority.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Keeping Oldham moving in the snow

Oldham in the snow
WHITE OUT: It causes problems but Oldham looked stunning in this week’s snow as this shot of Friarmere, Delph, illustrates.

WE DIDN’T get a White Christmas but the long-awaited snow finally arrived across the Pennines this week.

Whilst most normal people look forward to the prospect of a day off work or a quick snowball fight with the kids, I’m usually left wondering how much the extra grit and catch-up bin collections will cost the council purse – not that we are cutting corners, of course!

I do find it slightly odd how countries that see regular snowfall just accept it as a part of life but, when it comes to Britain, the whole country seems to more or less grind to a standstill with trains, planes and automobiles all seemingly unable to cope.

As a Council the part we play is important and, after a few bumpy experiences in the past I think it is now true to say that Oldham is one of the best performing local authorities for ‘winter maintenance’.

Our approach isn’t to grit everyway highway and byway – that’s just not possible – but instead we focus on main routes to keep the economy moving i.e. cash and food delivery routes, and those key to emergency services.

After that we move onto bus routes and heavily-used secondary routes plus town centre footpaths and pavements, as well as footpaths near hospitals and health centres.

We also keep almost 600 grit bins shocked across the Borough, giving priority to areas on higher ground or with steep inclines.

What sometimes doesn’t get appreciated is the sheer amount of planning needed across all Council services: schools, social services, environmental services such as waste collection, as well as all the clearing and gritting.

If you need grit for your own use, such as on driveways, you can also purchase supplies from Moorhey Street Depot (subject to availability).

The most important thing which stands out for me at times like this is communication – not least of all as a parent when you’re never sure until the last minute whether a school will be open or closed. 

Not all of our schools shared that information with the Council this year in as timely a fashion as we would have liked and that is frustrating. Having one place to go to for that information is vital – particularly if you have children at different schools – and I hope that will improve in future.

We all have a duty to act in a responsible way in bad weather, of course. That means not making unnecessary journeys or putting yourself at risk, and also being prepared – as well as checking on elderly family members and neighbours.

And finally, despite cries of compensation culture and the ‘world going mad’ you are more than welcome to clear snow outside your property. All I’d say is just use some common sense and don’t create a hazard for other people – like shifting a huge pile of snow and plonking it in front of your neighbour’s driveway…

If the snow returns in the days and weeks ahead, you can find out more information about all our winter maintenance arrangements here  

Whilst our Borough looks beautiful in this type of weather I do also know the thought of the additional heating costs keeps many people awake at night.

If that applies to you – or if you just like a good deal – please remember that the Fair Energy scheme is now UK-wide with a host of councils joining up to the successful Oldham scheme that is now running across Greater Manchester.

The average saving first time round was £171 with one local family saving more than £700. This enlarged scheme could net you a saving of up to £250 as the energy suppliers compete for your custom as a huge group. Clearly not everyone will save, so there are no guarantees, but many will – so why not give it a shot? 

Registration for this auction round, under no obligation to switch later, ends next week on Monday, January 28 at 11pm. For more information click here

And finally…

News that the Arts Council has granted £5 million towards our flagship theatre and heritage centre plans is a real boost this week to our regeneration plans. It’s also recognition that the Coliseum is a national treasure as well as an Oldham success story.

That project is really gaining momentum now following the award of a Lottery grant before Christmas and this latest contribution means our fundraising task is well and truly on track.

It just goes to show that fighting for the best sometimes pays off – and it’s certainly better than settling for what we’ve always known.

Last this week – but certainly not least – I want to wish good luck to Oldham Athletic in their FA Cup Fourth Round tie against Liverpool on Sunday. 

The game is being televised live on ITV1 at 4pm and is a sell-out at Boundary Park.

Here’s hoping the Latics will again do us proud as they represent the Borough on a national stage.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Child poverty

Oldham Foodbank
OLDHAM FOODBANK: More than 700 local families have now used this facility in Clegg Street since it’s launch in September.

AS WE ENTERED the New Year my mind was occupied by the number of people forced to go to Oldham Foodbank for supplies simply to feed their families.

More than 700 local families have now used the Foodbank and with that will come a similar number of individual stories of struggle, desperation and need: and in most cases the responsibility to feed young children.

This isn’t an academic view of poverty; I’m like most people in Oldham and have seen firsthand the struggle.

Luckily my father was in work for most of my childhood and, although we lived in areas which some might consider to be poorer (maybe the name Tripe Colony – Miles Platting wasn’t the best address in town), we did have food on the table and were able to afford more than many including good clothes, toys and the occasional holiday to Pontins or Ireland.

And that begs the question which has divided policy makers and ‘thinkers’ (as oppose to doing) about what poverty actually is.

For many people the strong belief is that if you have food on the table and the basic essentials then you aren’t living in poverty at all. For many that is a state of mind from the war years perhaps – when very little was plentiful and you made do.

For others poverty is when a person isn’t able to ‘live’, to enjoy life and take part in society in an active way including socialising.

And poverty – the causes and circumstances – divides politics.

Is poverty self inflicted? Does society keep some people in poverty? Is the gap between poverty and a better standard of life too big for most to make the leap? And what are reasonable wants and needs?

I don’t have a defined answer to any of those questions but I do have a view I’d like to share about Oldham in 2013 and the challenges and opportunities we face.

For the purposes of comparisons and use of available data I am using official figures in this blog which express poverty as households earning less than 60 per cent of the median income, which in Oldham is £32,000 a year.

As I write this 15,865 children are living in poverty in Oldham, that’s 27.4 per cent of our young population.

That, of course, isn’t evenly spread across the Borough where significant pockets of poverty exist with stark contrasts. In Coldhurst almost half of all children live in poverty (47.2 per cent) and Hollinwood (40.6 per cent) compared with Saddleworth South at 4.2 per cent.

Those figures don’t just tell a story solely of income and the “haves and have not’s” they highlight the vast differences in life chances on housing, education, job opportunities, health and life expectancy.

In 2010 the Child Poverty Bill was given Royal Assent with an ambitious target of eradicating child poverty by 2020. That bill also gave Local Authorities the responsibility to carry out a local needs assessment.

Marginal progress was made between 2007 and 2010 with a 5.6 per cent reduction in the number of children living in poverty in Oldham, a larger decrease than the average in England.

Clearly the Council can make some changes and work to improve the circumstances and life chances of young people. The huge investment in education from Children’s Centres to adulthood will begin to pay dividends in time, although it does feel as though we could be facing a cliff edge.

In April this year thousands of people in receipt of benefits will see major changes come into force. For the vast majority that will mean a decrease in income and, for some, by a great deal.

Whether you believe in the need to reduce benefits or the need to reduce the national deficit isn’t for this blog, but the question which needs to be asked is how can the Government hope to meet the target of eradicating child poverty when all the signs say even more families are living on the breadline – and that’s before the changes take effect.

Impact Residents Affected Loss to Oldham
Disability Living Allowance 4,000 lose entitlement £11m per year in DLA
Work Capability Assessment 1,665 move from Incapacity Benefit to Jobseekers Allowance £2.1m per year (once transfers complete, assuming jobs not found)
Housing Benefit/ “Bedroom Tax” 2,637 social tenants lose out due to under occupancy £1.7m per year
Council Tax Benefit (devolution, 10% cut) 16,814 households potentially directly affected – subject to consultation £1.7m per year
Benefit Cap-interim 124 households with children have housing benefit reduced. (£351k per year)
Benefit Cap-full Not known. Occurs once transfer to Universal Credit. £464k per year

It is self evident that the best way out of poverty is work – but the answer isn’t to make benefits send more people to the Foodbank.

Going to work has to pay and that will only happen if we tackle unethical work practices such as zero hour contracts, payments below the National Minimum Wage and work towards a living wage.

If all we can hope for as a society is just to get by then what does that say about us in 2013?

Surely quality of life and life chances with the opportunity to do better than the last generation is the hallmark of a civilised society and unless we assert that as our starting point we would have failed those 15,865 children who deserve better.

So what are we going to do about it?

– Regenerate Oldham and create quality job opportunities – the best way out of poverty is work which pays fairly;

– Give every child growing up in Oldham a route to success through further and higher education, training, work placements and apprenticeships;

– Review our agency and procurement contracts to ensure we promote quality jobs and take out unethical work practices including zero hour contracts and positively promote the Oldham Living Wage;

– Continue to invest in education as the best route into quality employment;

– Continue to invest in quality housing and environmental standards – quality of life;

– Ensure public health focuses on education and prevention to stop the cycle of poor health in a way which meets local variances and issues at a district level;

– Continue to campaign on issues which have a disproportionate effect on poorer families including Fair Energy, Fair Fares bus ticket pricing for affordable travel;

– Continue to campaign against unethical or unfair practices across financial services, welfare and social exclusion;

– Invest in welfare and benefit advisors to link income with expenditure and promote financial education through the Credit Union.

Thanks for listening,

Jim