IF I TOOK my job description from the Government then being a Council Leader is supposedly like being a scout leader.
Well, after almost two years of holding onto a day job and also being Council Leader, I can say that view is so far removed from reality that you have to wonder which councils certain ministers are using as a reference point for Local Government!
Last week was my first week here as a full time leader.
I should say that, even when I maintained a day job, I still worked many more hours on Council business than a standard 40 hour week. It just meant that in total I worked around 70-80 hours over seven days each – and every week.
That isn’t good for my own sanity and it certainly wasn’t fair to my family – plus I want to give 100 per cent to Oldham. The challenges and opportunities that we face means I need total focus and energy.
It proved to be a very busy first week here as we put the finishing touches to the budget for 2013/4 – and also dealt with the latest media storm: horsemeat.
Cries from Government, the media and consumers that food standards should be monitored more closely cast the spotlight towards Local Government on this – even comments by the Chief Executive of the Iceland food store who, I wrongly assumed, might have been busy checking his own supply chains.
Nationally the questions started to arise about how many food safety inspectors have been axed as a result of budget cuts.
But not long before that it was gritting. And not long before that it was the quality home care. And then it was potholes (and still is!).
Each time the questions are now asked about whether the services above were cut.
A safe assumption, almost universally, will be “very likely”.
Of course services have been cut because the council’s budget – the cash it has to spend – has also been cut and people don’t work for free.
Some acknowledgement that Local Government delivers important services has been a long time coming. It shouldn’t take the next crisis of public confidence or frenzy to shine a light on the next service delivered by councils which the media suddenly realise was delivered by us in the first place and was actually very important.
And if you don’t believe that then think back a month ago and tell me who was talking about horsemeat – or who gave a second thought about cuts to environment health budgets?
So what will be the next focus of media and national attention, I wonder? Adoption? Road safety? Who knows?
You can see the vast range of services we deliver as a Council here – http://www.oldham.gov.uk/a_to_z
It’s well worth taking just a few moments to glance through the sheer scale of services offered.
I’m afraid the simplistic argument that “If you have less money then there’s less work to do” doesn’t hold water.
To make decisions to take money out of service budgets isn’t easy, but implementing changes and reduced budgets when, in many cases demand is increasing, is very difficult – especially if you care about quality public services.
During any budget consultation it is usual to get a series of common themes and also a great deal of contradiction. Many put forward ideas like reducing councillor allowances, reducing senior management, saving money on buildings and energy.
I can report that we have done that on all counts but even had we had sacked every manager earning above £50,000, plus every councillor, at the start of our budget process it still would have left around £135million of further cuts to find. That would have left us without anyone to actually manage what was left – or to be democratically accountable.
There are also competing interests. Non-users of libraries are happy to see libraries close, for example, but await the fury of those who do use them if you attempt to shut one down.
Those without children may also be happy to see youth centres close, but again if that happens the wave of petitions will soon follow.
And for those at the start of their adult life worries about quality home care may seem a lifetime away: until one of their own family members fall victim to changes in care criteria or budget cuts.
At the end of all this you do listen, of course, but you also have to be true to yourself and spend time understanding the real consequences of the decisions you make.
Our budget will finally be set this week and you can see the full details of it here: http://committees.oldham.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=132&MId=4337&Ver=4
The Council Tax increase will be set at 3.5 per cent with the Oldham Council element being a 2 per cent raise, plus precepts such as the police, fire and waste.
I can say that whilst an increase is not ideal I feel it is the right balance between maintaining services, creating an investment fund and not being overbearing on the public.
The increase amounts to around 60p a week for a band A property. It will see frontline services buffered and make investment possible in the town centre and key employment sites.
Oldham Council is your council and collectively Oldham is our town. If we fail to invest in growth and regeneration we fail ourselves; and that isn’t good enough even if finances are tight.
A couple of other things before I go…
I was extremely proud on Monday night when four of our councillors were given national recognition for their work at the LGiU and CCLA C’llr Achievement Awards 2013.
Jean Stretton led Oldham Council’s response to the Shaw gas blast last year and showed outstanding community leadership in her tireless work with affected residents and looking after their welfare. Small wonder she was crowned ‘Community Champion of the Year’.
Our three Assistant Cabinet Members – Amanda Chadderton, Sean Fielding and Arooj Shah – also collectively won the ‘Young Councillor of the Year’.
They had made huge contributions since being elected in May 2012, including delivering the Energy Switching scheme, the return of the Civic Bonfire, and securing a 30 per cent reduction in bus fares. They are shining examples of the really positive impact that young people can make in public life.
And finally, I must mention Oldham Athletic again.
Whilst it was a shame their FA Cup dream came to an end at Goodison Park on Tuesday night the club has so much to be proud of – and has also recieved a significant financial boost from these exploits.
The Latics and their fans have been fine ambassadors on a national stage in recent weeks and have done much to foster renewed civic pride in our town.
I sincerely hope this recent success is now a springboard to the club retaining League One status this season – and a much brighter future ahead.
Thanks for listening,