Time for some acknowledgement

Image
TAXING DECISIONS: Taking money out of services isn’t easy – and you must understand the real consequences of the decisions you take.

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,

Jim

Housing mix needs to be just right

HOUSING MIX: New developments like this one at St Mary’s are part of the complex range of measures needed to create the right housing offer.

FIRSTLY this week, I must start by again congratulating Oldham Athletic – and their iconic FA Cup hero Matt Smith.

Last Saturday’s thrilling 2-2 draw at Boundary Park earned the Latics yet another lucrative televised replay at Goodison Park.

It was another proud evening for Oldham on a national stage – and also brings the financial prospects for a new stand potentially even closer for the club.

Ironically, the topic of having a ‘suitable home’ is what I want to focus on this week. 

Any strong community needs balance and one area where this is particularly true is housing.

Oldham isn’t one uniform place. Its’ districts have developed in very different ways and the look and feel of each is different: from the urban ‘city’ life of Failsworth on the doorstep of Manchester City Centre to the rural idyll of Saddleworth, increasingly an affluent commuter belt for those wanting the convenience and opportunities of a major city region with a quality lifestyle.

Areas of significant architectural interest at Werneth and Coppice are once again becoming home now to a new generation of middle class families and the demand for larger quality homes is evident.

The housing offer has changed over time, particularly in Oldham itself where there are areas within areas. Decades of clearances and rebuilding have changed the landscape and it is fair to say that the quality of housing is far better and increasingly more attractive.

Work at St Marys and Primrose Bank, to name just two developments, show quality design and good environmental credentials that give a new offer.

Building work here is generally taking place at an impressive rate when the national housing market is taken into account. Developers are on-site building in every district across the Borough with a healthy mix of private, equity share and social housing, and everything in-between.

We also have an opportunity to create something very different on a number of sites freed up through our new schools programme. There is a temptation to follow the pack but – let’s be honest – the quality of newer estates can be limited and I believe one area of newer housing which needs exploring is not just for quality homes, but also areas which create quality environments and quality lifestyles.

So, could Oldham become home to a new generation of Garden Suburbs – in many ways co-operative communities in their own right? Having personally delivered leaflets throughout most areas in Oldham I must admit to always enjoying getting the Hollinwood round, which includes our very own Garden Suburb.

Housing isn’t all about new build and grand plans, though – it’s also about supporting families and just recognising what a property essentially is: a home for the occupant.

To that end we’re working hard to ensure the established housing market functions as well as it can.

Our Local Authority mortgage scheme will help 50 first-time buyers get a foot on
the housing ladder, for example, and we’re also assisting people who find themselves in financial difficulties on a daily basis. To date we’ve helped more than 450 families stay in their homes and have an officer based in the County Court to help people facing repossession.

Clearly though, not everyone facing financial woes is in a mortgaged property and our support programme for those in rented accommodation has kept around 1,300 families in their homes.

We’re also aware of the blight that empty homes causes to communities and have already brought over 75 such properties back into use through our strong partnerships with social landlords.

Working with tenants in larger homes we’ve also successfully supported over 250 households through our downsizing scheme. Not only does this give the individual or couple more suitable accommodation – and cuts their bills – it also frees up much-needed family homes for others.

We have yet to see the effects of Welfare ‘Reform’ kick in and we don’t yet know how the bedroom tax will affect families in real terms. What we do know, however, is that 2,600 households will be affected with a collective loss of £1.7 million a year to the Borough – and exactly how families will make good this loss of support remains to be seen.

Clearly we’re working closely with those affected and have funded extra welfare advisors to assist but – as April 1 gets closer when all the benefit changes start – many families will realise that, despite it being April Fool’s day, this government is deadly serious.

Finally, a time to reflect…

Andrew Partington has now been sentenced to ten years in jail for the manslaughter of two-year-old Jamie Heaton in the Shaw gas blast last June.

Reading through the events of the day in national media again this week – accompanied by a photo of Jamie eating his ice cream –  was hard to do.

Life is cruel and to think that the actions of a selfish bully made all this happen does make you question society.

If you dwell on that too long it fills you with anger and, whatever sentence was imposed, nothing can ever make good what has happened to the Heatons.

My thoughts are with Michelle, Kenny and their family and friends as they try to make sense of a senseless loss and to begin rebuilding their lives: accepting it will never be the same.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Pride in Oldham – we have lots to shout about

11th Pride in Oldham awards
PRIDE IN OLDHAM AWARDS -which were held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week.

Firstly I’d like to say well done to the winners and shortlisted nominees at the 11th Pride in Oldham awards which were held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week.

The awards celebrate the great work of volunteers, community workers and businesses who are working to improve the borough. Each year the awards gets higher recognition and I know from speaking to many just how firm a fixture it has become in the calendar of community life in Oldham.

This year the council sponsored the Love Where You Live award for those making a difference to community and cooperation in the borough. The winners were the Friends of Crompton Moor for their work to improve Crompton Moor for future generations but in reality any of the individuals or groups nominated would have been worthy winners.

One notable new addition to the Oldham community scene is Oldham Foodbank who won the Community Group award. The Foodbank, set up on Clegg Street last year, has so far helped 700 Oldham families and local people have really got behind the great work they do.  Although it is shameful that Britain in 2013 needs food banks let’s not take away from the volunteers the sheer amount of work that goes into making the Foodbank work.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the event this year as I was speaking at the Local Government Conference on a number of issues facing local government. I find conferences boring and usually avoid at all costs, but after a five year absence this conference was the tonic I needed. Hearing about so much good work from other local councils has given me some ideas to bring back to Oldham.

I was really encouraged to hear from the Leader of Plymouth Council about the work being done to set up economic community development trusts to regenerate areas of the city. The approach of bringing community and voluntary representatives together to bring about economic benefit in their area  – putting the future of those areas in the hands of those affected – makes complete sense.

I also heard from the Deputy Leader of Liverpool about their work to boost local credit unions in order to  tackle doorstep lenders in the city. This is work we need to take on board in Oldham on the back of our campaign against illegal loan sharks – although unfortunately not all sharks are illegal.

During my contribution I spoke about the work we are doing on campaigns such as Fair Energy and Fairs Fare. We have made great progress on those – delivering savings on energy bills and bus travel – but we have more to do including our plans to take on high interest retailers such as Brighthouse and Perfect Home and offer a real alternative in the borough.

The lesson from our campaigns is that when we listen to people and take action on things that strike at the heart of fairness we begin to make a real difference.

The proof of that is in our residents satisfaction levels which will be published next week in full. In 2008 Oldham ranked as the worst performing council in the country with just 22% of residents believing the council provided good services and good value for money.

I believe that the increase which you will see next week is a direct result of our ambition to become a cooperative borough with an outward and challenging council.

We often have to make tough and unpopular decisions and that can mean we are put in difficult situations we’d rather not be in, but I believe, today more than ever, that after a decade of disconnect the people of Oldham are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.

With that comes a great responsibility and one that I take on personally.

Thanks for listening.

Groundwork: changing places changing lives

Image
WELCOME TO OLDHAM: Greeting Tony Lloyd the new Police and Crime Commissioner during his visit to Oldham.

THIS WEEK sees the Civic Appreciation Award given to former Groundwork Chief Executive Cliff Ellison. Cliff worked here in Oldham for over five years but has a wealth of experience in the public and voluntary sector and can take great credit for working in some very challenging areas with some equally challenging individuals who others had written off.

During my time as a council-nominated Director of the charity I saw firsthand the real difference that can be made with the right people constantly looking for new ways to change places and change lives as the charity proudly display as their motto.

One such project in St. Marys worked with a cohort of 100 young people to try and break the cycle of youth offending. Over two years Groundwork worked intensively with those young people to understand the pressures and drivers for crime and anti-social behaviour and the results spoke for themselves.

Of the 100 young people who passed through the programme 76% went on to live life without reoffending – a truly great result not just for them, but for the whole community.

Cliff brought great financial and managerial discipline to Groundwork with a firm view that although they were a charity, they had to be financially sound to deliver the activity on the ground and make such a difference.

Groundwork was also one of the very few organisations where as Leader of the Opposition I worked alongside Howard Sykes as Council Leader.  Many commented on how, although we had clear differences in our political beliefs we worked for the good of Oldham and put politics to one side. When you look around the country I think Oldham is lucky as, despite what the public may think when reading the local press and council reports, members from all sides of the political divide work for the good of Oldham.

Also this week you may have seen the news in the local press that the lease the council has at Acorn Business Centre is due to end and that the council is giving notice to tenants to vacate the premises.

As part of our review of premises we are looking closely at a range of leased buildings and, where possible, terminating the lease in favour of occupying council-owned facilities. We have to ensure best value for money on all of our property and in this case the cost of the lease and investment needed in the site is not covered by the income from tenants.

This does not mean that we won’t support the businesses based there – we will. We are, as always, keen to support businesses and I am confident that the vast majority will be accommodated elsewhere.

Getting the balance right between revenue spend and supporting local businesses is sometimes difficult but where we have empty council-owned buildings we should look to fill those before paying out for additional buildings on lease.

Last Monday we welcomed Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd to Oldham during his ‘round the world tour’ or around Greater Manchester to be more accurate. It is early days for the newly created role but I know Tony is really keen to continue the good work of neighbourhood policing and work closely with the council for the good of Oldham.

Thanks for listening