The future of our pubs

CHEERS? Half of "tied pubs" in the UK earn less then £15,000 a year. So what can be done to help them survive?
CHEERS? Half of “tied pubs” in the UK earn less then £15,000 a year. So what can be done to help them survive?

OLDHAM Council has agreed to carry out a review of pubs across the Borough to address growing concerns from people about the rapid pace of local closures.

Pubs are important to the fabric of our town, and also our nation.

Many overseas visitors look forward to sampling a ‘good British pub’, such is their symbolic place in our cultural history – and as part of our national identity.

But rose-tinted views of the perfect British pub fall some way off the mark when you compare them with the reality of our changing towns in 2013.

There are many varied and complex reasons why pubs are struggling but the sheer number of closures should raise the alarm with anyone who recognises that pubs are not simply a place to buy a pint, but also a vital community asset.

In many villages the shops have closed and post offices are gone, but the humble pub remains – for now.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is estimating that around 1,000 more pubs will close in the next 12 months.

In Oldham itself we have seen 50 licences for bars and clubs surrendered from January 2008 to date – and there will be some premises that still have licences in force that have also closed but are not yet counted.

So, if pubs are such a vital part of our fabric, why are they under so much threat?

Nationally consumer trends are leaning towards more and more people drinking socially at home.

It’s cheaper and couples can also have a drink together without worrying about childcare.

Increasingly the pubs which do well are those that are serving good quality food but – for an average couple with two children – that is a rare treat, given the cost.

Here in Oldham and many other places the cultural mix has also changed.

In many places the community doesn’t drink alcohol and therefore simply wouldn’t use a pub as a matter of course.

And I suppose if we class pubs as community assets the community also has to want them and use them –  and if they don’t then that’s fine too.

The Government has just announced proposals for a new code of conduct on the issue of abuse of the ‘beer tie’: whereby landlords are forced into only buying supplies from the pub companies that own the venues, and often at high prices.

It will apply to those companies owning more than 500 pubs – targeting the area where it says 90 per cent of complaints are received.

But taxation is also a large part of the issue here – and successive governments have failed to address the impact of this on what are very low margin sales.

The Government did freeze the beer duty increase in this year’s Budget, saving 1p off the price of a pint, but that measure from Mr Osbourne, I’m afraid, completely missed the scale of the challenge.

Based on my own modest intake of a couple of pints a week it would take me almost five years before I earned back my first free pint – Cheers, George!

Breweries themselves have to take a long hard look in the mirror too.

Not all of them are the same, but it’s clear that some in the industry are pricing themselves out of the market. High rents and expensive ‘ties’ on stock mean it is very difficult for a landlord to make any kind of a reasonable wage to live on.

The pressure to ‘realise a return’ on assets sees many landlords paying rents as high as £77,000 a year – the rate for one Oldham pub currently being advertised (The Grapes, Lees).

That is also on top of your Business Rates, staffing and running costs – plus the small matter of stock.

The best way to protect your local pub as a resident for now is, quite simply, to use it.

But I am looking forward to seeing what the cross-party Overview and Scrutiny Committee examining this issue in Oldham comes up with.

Let’s hope they can offer some real practical solutions that can help our landlords and communities alike.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Facilities for our future

Mahdlo Awards
INSPIRING: Council Leader Jim McMahon at last week’s Mahdlo Youth Zone annual awards event with POINT (Parents of Oldham In Touch) members who won the ‘Working in Partnership’ award.

I HAD THE pleasure and humbling opportunity to attend the Mahdlo Youth Zone’s annual awards last Saturday.

As Council Leader I get many invites to events and functions and – almost without exception – they are enjoyable and give me a great chance to meet different residents and community groups.

When Mahdlo first opened in March 2012 there were some concerns expressed.

It was suggested that because the facility was going to be based in the town centre, some young people wouldn’t want to travel to it.

If this was just a standard youth centre I perhaps might have agreed with those fears.

The scale of this building, however, with its first-class sporting and performance equipment, coupled with dedicated staff and volunteers, makes it one of the best facilities not just here in Oldham, but in the country – and I don’t say that lightly.

What is most impressive is that from a small idea this has developed into a leading facility which is already clearly making a huge difference to young peoples’ lives.

When talking about life chances and opportunities I don’t generally believe it is as simple as looking at someone’s financial situation and ability to access things.

More often it is about someone believing in you, investing time and supporting you through life’s ups and downs as a youngster which actually moulds you as a person.

What stands out at Mahdlo is the variety of young people using the centre from all different backgrounds and the varying interests that are so readily accommodated.

During the awards event I was moved by the young people and volunteers who spoke about what they have achieved.

I reflected afterwards on whether some of those people would have had the same opportunities and confidence had it not been for Mahdlo, and concluded the answer is ‘probably not’.

This facility would not exist at all had it not been for the vision and leadership of various members of our business community working in partnership with Oldham Council and other funders to make it a reality.

We all aspire to make a difference in what we do – and Mahdlo does just that, so it’s a big ‘well done’ to Team Oldham.

Staying on the subject of local facilities you will no doubt be aware that we have now signed a ten-year contract with Oldham Community Leisure to manage our leisure centres until at least 2013.

After a highly competitive process, the best bid won.

Going through that whole procedure is a big undertaking in itself and that was made even weightier by all the added discussions about potential costings and scope for the new leisure facilities in Oldham and Royton.

As we move forward with these plans it is absolutely clear that we couldn’t please everyone, but I can assure you that it wasn’t for the want of trying.

We went through absolutely painstaking reviews, business planning, revised plans and timetabling to see if we could accommodate all the various interest groups.

But I was also clear that the Oldham facility had to leave a legacy and be a truly Borough-wide centre that offered facilities which complement – not simply duplicate – our existing leisure centres.

The end result will see a flagship facility complete with bowling and an eight-court indoor sports hall that will enable us to hold regional televised competitions that have previously been off limits to us across a whole range of popular sports.

What we couldn’t balance and factor in was a diving facility.

When considering diving we worked very hard to see if we could retain the facility in the Borough.

But we are also mindful that Oldham isn’t an island and facilities for this are also available in neighbouring towns within easy driving distance.

If money were no object then, of course, physically it would have been possible to include diving provision. But with so many differing interests and users to balance here it is inevitable that not everyone can be accommodated.

On balance I believe we have given proper scrutiny to the plans, challenged back and ensured that the end product will be something our Borough can be proud of – but we have also been realistic and pragmatic.

The editor of the Oldham Chronicle has rightly held us to account throughout this process and I think we are all at least clear and agreed on one thing.

Oldham needed to significantly improve its sporting provision. Now that we have a plan to do that we must focus and crack on with getting these facilities built.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Potholes and financial holes

Potholes
POTHOLES: Oldham Council has made repairs to  more than 4,500 highways defects like this in the last year alone.

SOME MONTHS ago I reported on the work that we are doing to address the number of potholes on our Borough’s roads.

Since becoming Leader I have been determined to drive forward our regeneration agenda, but I am also a stickler for getting the basics right too – the everyday things that you and I are paying our Council Tax for.

It’s no surprise whatsoever that potholes continue to dominate any survey that we do of local concerns.

Why? Well, we all feel them. Whether you’re a driver or passenger the smallest bump can irritate and larger ones can drive people mad: myself included.

I’ve made it my business to find the money needed to help us catch up on this, but also to find out why the Council does some things which to normal folk seem, well, odd.

On the money front we knew we needed to find extra funding because the number of potholes has been growing, not reducing – especially with the extreme winter weather we’ve been having.

To address this we made an extra £2 million available. That hasn’t been easy but it was the right thing to do if we were to stand any chance of catching up.

In the past 12 months we’ve now carried out repairs to more than 4,500 highways defects.

That says two things to me. The first is the sheer scale of the challenge, with even more to do, and secondly that our investment is slowly beginning to pay off.

But we also need to be realistic.

We simply don’t have the money to keep throwing millions at potholes.

Once we get on an even kneel with this we need to give more clarity on what we can and cannot do with the dwindling resources available.

As it stands we try and please everyone everywhere – even if it doesn’t feel like that sometimes – but spreading limited resources so thinly that nobody sees the benefit doesn’t help anyone.

So as we work to get even on the potholes situation we’re now looking at a new approach whereby we give overall priority to main roads (A and B roads) as our Priority Routes.

The level of service on these routes should be first class because the vast majority of the public are using them on a daily basis.

But I also know that we shouldn’t just be looking at potholes. We should include in this programme works to signage, road markings and street furniture, including basic maintenance like painting and replacing damaged sections. These roads are our ‘shop window’ and we need to get them right.

We will then ensure those potholes which are causing a danger or could give rise to a compensation claim are prioritised. It makes no sense to ignore those potholes which cost us far more in the end through other costs.

We will, of course, aim to repair all potholes. We can’t just leave roads in a state of disrepair, but if we do prioritise main routes we will need to accept that smaller roads and cul de sacs will take longer to sort. That’s not ideal, but it is sensible and it makes the most of a limited budget.

We also know that residents get infuriated when reporting a series of potholes only for the Council to come out and just repair one or two; leaving others which don’t quite meet the required size or depth to warrant immediate action.

I’ve been firm that this is neither efficient nor good for the Council’s reputation and have been assured that staff are now directed to use their discretion and ensure we don’t tie ourselves in rules and red tape when residents simply want a smooth road to drive on.

We’re also not going to let the utility companies off the hook here. Most of them do a good job in fairness, but a sizeable minority don’t and the reinstatement works they leave behind can often cause angst to motorists.

We’re well on with tackling this now with them and have undertaken a system of ‘core sampling’ whereby we drill the repairs to ensure it was completed to the required standard. If it isn’t, we do take action.

I’ll continue updating you on the battle with the potholes in the coming months as we have more information and news on what is a massive national problem.

Study Money
STUDY MONEY: Jim McMahon, Oldham Council Leader pictured at the launch of Oldham College’s excellent ‘Study Money’ scheme

Finally this week I wanted to welcome a fantastic new initiative by Oldham College called Study Money.

This means that from September students from the poorest families will be able to claim £20 a week to help them study and pay for equipment, travel, lunches and stationery.

Since the Education Maintenance Allowance was scrapped we know that young people are finding the costs of education increasingly prohibitive – especially in the current economic climate.

The Study Money offer gives children from low-income families another affordable route into education that otherwise would not have been there for them.

Oldham College is a great partner in terms of our ambitions for Oldham – and how we are actively trying to improve access to the best education opportunities for all our residents – and this is an excellent scheme.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Taxpayers continue to fund school crossing patrols – in some places

School Crossing Patrols
FUNDING: School Crossing Patrols are now funded directly by schools – rather than by Oldham Council.

SCHOOL CROSSING patrols in Oldham will soon be funded directly by schools rather than by the council.

For parents and carers there could have been a simple ‘paper exercise’ here whereby one public body pays instead of another – it’s all taxpayers’ money after all.

Unfortunately it has become the subject of media attention with some rather misleading and emotive stories. And why not, I suppose? It sells papers and there isn’t the room to get bogged down in the detail…

One local paper had led with the headline ‘Lollipop axe is crossing’ at least five months before schools across the Borough had decided whether or not to support the funding of their crossing patrols – and, to be fair, they weren’t alone in doing so.

The issue here isn’t just the £160 million in savings we’ve had to make from the council budget which has affected how we use the money coming into Oldham.

Under existing funding arrangements we received all school money and then allocated it out to schools, holding some centrally for services to be delivered across the ‘family of schools’.

The new funding arrangements for 2013/4 ensure that the maximum amount of money is passed on to schools as each Local Authority sees fit. Schools are responsible for buying in extra services or – in the case of some schools – joint funding projects and staff posts, or even establishing their own traded services.

School crossing patrols was a service that Oldham Council couldn’t afford to fund itself, but we wanted to see if there was another way to finance them.

The benefit to the public would be that instead of simply scrapping the patrols we would have found a way to protect a service that people value by working cooperatively with the wider community.

Thankfully the vast majority of schools recognised that funding cuts to local councils were beginning to bite – and also that they had a responsibility to support parents too.

To those schools I want to put on record my appreciation. As with all these things those who do their bit are often forgotten in the hype.

Interestingly some schools which do not currently have school crossing patrols also decided to ‘buy in’ the service.

The facts are these;

  • 22 of the 37 schools approached did agree to fund school crossing patrols;
  • Seven new patrols will be funded by schools who do not currently have a patrol;
  • 15 school crossing patrols have not been funded by schools and will cease.

School crossing patrols in Oldham

As a council we were also keen to ensure we did our bit.

Not only did we agree to coordinate these crossing patrols on behalf of schools, but we are also upping our enforcement action where parents, or the school itself, have reported problems with motorists.

Too many drivers think that getting as close to the school gate as possible is far more important than the safety of all other children.

As a parent I see drivers and delivery vehicles on the school zig zags every week (yes I do report it), and that’s why we’ve invested in school safety vehicles to record evidence of those breaking the law and take action.

Of those schools who decided not to have crossing patrols – and, clearly, they have the right to do so – some chose to write to parents outlining their reasons. Whilst I’m not going to pass individual judgement on this, I will put the record straight on two matters…

Some schools have claimed they cannot afford the cost because of cuts. I’m afraid that doesn’t hold water.

During the period from 2009/10 to 2013/4, Oldham Council’s budget has seen savings of around £160 million made while schools budgets as a whole have not had cuts.

It’s true to say that schools have financial pressures in the same way other organisations do – some have seen the impact of reducing pupil numbers, for example – but headline cuts to budgets for their sector as a whole is not one of them.

It is also true that schools collectively held about £11.5 million in unspent balances at the last year end, so there is money available.

Some have refused to accept the principle here by putting the onus back onto Oldham Council, but in doing so they miss the point.

It is not the Local Authority who has requested school crossing patrols – it is parents. By refusing to contribute here schools haven’t failed to support the council, but perhaps they have failed others.

It is a shame to me that what appeared to be a logical solution has since ended up becoming such a bone of contention.

Unfortunately this is also not likely to be last time that the council gets the blame for Government cuts.

But, surely, in the face of huge cuts to the public sector everyone – including schools – has to play their part in ensuring the effect on our communities is minimised?

Thanks for listening,

Jim