Shaw: One year on

ONE YEAR ON: The tragic scene at Buckley Street, Shaw, following the blast that killed Jamie Heaton
DEVASTATION: The scene at Buckley Street, Shaw, last year after the blast that killed Jamie Heaton

This week’s blog is a guest blog from Councillor Jean Stretton, who led Oldham Council’s response to the Shaw gas explosion on June 26 last year. 

TODAY marks the one year anniversary of the shocking explosion that killed little Jamie Heaton in Shaw.

That morning I remember taking a phone call from Jim McMahon, Council Leader.

He was at the Local Government Association Conference in Birmingham and called to ask me to get to Buckley Street in Shaw quickly because there had been an unexplained explosion.

Details at that stage were scarce, but my heart sank as Jim told me the blast had destroyed three houses and that reports were suggesting that a child was trapped in one of the properties, and an adult in another.

I had no idea what to expect as I drove to Shaw.

When I arrived a large area of terraced streets was already cordoned off.

Some of the residents had been taken to an initial rest centre set up at Crompton House school.  Others stayed at the cordon hoping for news of their homes, which were out of sight from where we stood.

I have to say that – despite being in the middle of an Ofsted inspection – the response from that school community was fantastic as staff, volunteers and local firms all began pitching in to support the people affected.

I overheard a fire service officer who had actually been close to the blast site being interviewed and he likened it to the site of the Manchester bomb.

Later that evening Jim McMahon and I were escorted around the site. We were greeted by a scene of utter devastation: deserted and eerie. The only sounds were of glass crunching under our feet. It was only then that the sheer scale of the blast became apparent.

As the day drew on it was confirmed that two-year-old Jamie had tragically lost his life in the blast.

There are simply no words to convey the effect of that news on all concerned, nor the anger that people felt as the puzzle of what had actually happened slowly unraveled thanks to a painstaking police investigation which took weeks.

The perpetrator, we now know, was the man trapped in another house.  Andrew Partington was convicted of manslaughter in February this year and sentenced to ten years in jail.

He had cut through gas pipes and let his property fill will fumes overnight. The following morning he lit a cigarette, igniting the gas and causing an explosion.

When I think back now – one year on – and reflect on that day’s events what stands out most is the community response.

After the initial shock and sympathies our thoughts had to turn to what needed to be done to help people.

Residents began arriving at the rest centre with clothes and food and items that could in some way help people to set up home again. A small child came with her parents because she wanted to give some of her toys to the children who had lost all of theirs.

During the first few weeks after the explosion I was regularly in Shaw as the recovery phase got underway.

The vast majority said they felt lucky to be alive and we had to move fast to ensure they all got temporary accommodation, either with housing associations or with friends and family.

I met people who were distressed and frustrated about not being able to get back to their homes. I met people angry or worried about pets that were still inside the cordon.

In the days and weeks that followed council staff, partners and volunteers did their level best to support people and to get them the very latest information as the investigation – and unsafe condition of many buildings – made progress slow.

Many of those people affected were eventually able to return to their homes after the police work finished, but other properties suffered considerable damage and needed significant repair.

We knew that many residents would suffer serious financial hardship as a result of the blast. We set up the Distress Fund which, to date, has committed about £243,000 to affected residents.

Thanks to donations of £100,000 from Oldham Council, £125,000 from the charity Forever Manchester, individual donations and dozens of fundraising events held by residents and groups across the Borough, a safety net was put in place that has now helped 91 local families.

In the first few weeks we met daily. Throughout all the Distress Fund’s work and deliberations, I must pay tribute to the support that was given at all times by the Shaw ward councillors. I feel that we have worked well together to make these meetings effective, putting people first and acting consistently and fairly in each case.

We removed security from the blast site in March this year, leaving only robust fencing around 1-13 Buckley Street.

Repairs to some homes are still underway and, whilst we have no direct control over this, we try to use what influence we have to encourage an approach that minimises disruption to other residents.

The latest updates on properties, and the background to all Oldham Council’s work in the aftermath of the blast, can be read here.

I am very proud of the work our staff and all the partner organisations undertook in Shaw, and we also learned some important lessons for future emergency response situations.

Above all I am proud of the incredible spirit shown by the people of Shaw in rebuilding their community and their lives.

Today, of course, our thoughts must simply focus on the memory of little Jamie, whose life was so cruelly taken away.

This will be an incredibly difficult time for his parents, Michelle and Kenny, and I know that no words I can say are likely to be of comfort to them.

I admire them for setting up their charity and wanting to do something to help others in response to the tragedy they have suffered.

The Jamie’s Something Special memorial fund aims to raise funds to buy some new play equipment for Bullcote Park, Heyside, where Jamie took his first steps. It is also raising money for children with special needs.

You can find out more – and donate – to the charity here.

No parent should ever have to bury their child – let alone in circumstances as devastating as this – and all our thoughts are with them today.

Jean Stretton

Opening up democracy? We’re well on the way

Question Time
DEMOCRACY: Members quizzed via Social Media

ERIC PICKLES has issued new guidance on local democracy this week.

This aims to clarify what should be the norm in terms of media and public access to executive and council meetings.

Here in Oldham, however, we’re already well on the way to opening up our Council to local people.

That’s not for the sake of it, nor to simply comply with guidelines.

We’re ahead of the game because we want to engage better with residents and ensure that our communication with them is a genuine two-way exchange.We’ve also taken action to help all our councillors become better local leaders at the forefront of community activity.

Upon first becoming a councillor in 2003, I was somewhat taken aback by how insular some of our debates could be.

The Council Chamber was good political fun, granted, but I wouldn’t say that it represented local views and issues.

Debate usually consisted of attacking the opposition of the day and sending motions to Government for them to ‘file’ away. Public questions were often the result of an individual on a personal mission, a political party member or election candidate, or in some cases a campaign being run against a Council scheme.

I appreciate that is a generalisation – some very genuine residents turned up too – but not many. The public gallery was often bereft of their faces.

The format of how we operate as a Council is also important.

Many councillors look back with fondness at the old ‘committee system’ whereby they would sit on a themed committee such as housing or environment. Most members were involved and took part in decision-making.

That was then replaced with the ‘cabinet system’. The idea was simple: to create a smaller executive to ensure decision-making was streamlined and not held up in an internal bureaucracy. Examination of those decisions is now carried out by a group of councillors through the Overview and Scrutiny system.

I like the cabinet system. Clear lines of accountability and quicker decision-making are great, but it did pose the question of what you do with the 50 councillors who aren’t Cabinet Members?

My thoughts are that Ward Members are not ‘backbench’ members at all. They are actually on the frontline – not as the public face of Oldham Council, but as community leaders who represent local residents’ views and channel them back to us.

For that to work though the Council Chamber also has to be the bona fide debating chamber of the Borough and its people – not just Oldham Council PLC operating like a board of directors.

To be fair, most local councillors already have the required passion to work for local people, regardless of party politics, in their blood.

And that’s why a desire to move the debate beyond the Council Chamber into the community was the driver behind our decision to ‘go online’ and web stream our council meetings live before most other Local Authorities dared to.

It’s both staggering and quite scary in equal measure that around 300 people now watch our Full Council meetings. Our new audience is global with viewers – some even as far away as New Zealand – all tuning in. Compare that to the empty public gallery of the past!

If this was just as passive process I don’t think we would have so many people watching these proceedings. And I believe making the meeting as interactive as possible was crucial to this work to connect better with people.

We now take questions live on Facebook, Twitter and email during the meeting. We can have anywhere between 20-30 public questions each time. The public can also join the debate via Twitter with each comment and question showing up on the big screen in the Chamber. You’d be surprised how the debate has changed here over the past couple of years. There’s much more talk about the Borough and its people –and that can only be a good thing.

But we’ve also gone even further…

Having reached out to the public we also had to show councillors that we took their roles seriously too. So, as part of our ‘Open Council’ session, we allocate time for Ward Member questions. This is empowering for them and we actively encourage them to raise issues of local concern in their ward.

This has led to members in my own group raising concerns about the performance of the Council (on street lighting, for example) and holding it to account on behalf of their residents. Even better, the councillor asking the question can now tell their constituents to tune in and watch it being debated on their behalf.

And we didn’t stop there.

Youth Council
YOUTH COUNCIL: Josh Hudson handing over Youth Mayor duties to Emma O’Donnell.

We value our Youth Council and believe they are an inspiring voice for democracy in Oldham. After changing the constitution and meeting format to allow modernisation it seemed like a natural next step to engage better with them too.

Oldham Youth Council now has constitutional power in Oldham – and that is a first in the country. They have their own section on the Full Council agenda to raise issues, debate and hold us to account. So far they have used that time to raise important issues, like bullying.

I believe our Council Chamber in Oldham is now one of the most progressive and inclusive nationwide.

That’s a bold statement, but I believe the evidence backs it up. Our actions and the public response says we are making progress – and we didn’t need a Westminster Secretary of State to tell us to do it.

As we move forward we’re keen to devolve more power to Ward Members by boosting our District Partnerships.

Councillors are no longer backbench scrutineers in Oldham – they’re at the frontline of getting things done. What’s more they shout it from the rooftops thanks to our new system which sees each of them filing annual reports. You can view each member’s annual report by clicking here and find out exactly what they’re doing in your area.

Finally, next week will be the first anniversary of the Shaw gas explosion.

I know the community is still recovering and the events of that day have left a very deep pain and I include myself in that.

The loss of Jamie Heaton and the circumstances around the explosion have caused great suffering and anger, but they have also shown our community to be strong and united when it most needed to be resilient.

Next week Councillor Jean Stretton will be my guest blogger as she reflects on Shaw one year on.

Jean was the first member of the Council leadership team on the scene that day and she dealt with many issues on the ground. From handling media enquiries, helping residents who were displaced and – still today – supporting those in need.

Since setting up the Distress Fund with great cross-party support from local councillors she has helped distribute around £250,000 to those who have suffered, as well as working hard to help support people to get their lives back on track.

Jean was subsequently given the national ‘Community Champion of the Year’ award in recognition of the work and leadership that she showed.

She is an inspiring woman, but also very modest, so I thought I would set the scene about her role myself in proper context before you read her guest blog next week….

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Museum threat is threat to our future

WONDER: MOSI has an incredible capacity to inspire youngsters and expand their horizons. Can we really afford to close it?

WHEN I HEARD the news that funding changes could see Greater Manchester lose the Museum of Science and Industry I had to double-take in astonishment.

As a key part of our region’s social and educational fabric, MOSI – as it is now known – has been much more than a traditional museum.

In fact, there is very little that is traditional about it at all.

Growing up, I had found a lot of my own schooling and education experiences boring, to be honest, with one or two exceptions.

I loved art and design: perhaps, I’m a frustrated architect or town planner now, who knows? But I was also fascinated with engineering and science, in particular the solar system.

MOSI was one of two places where I felt truly engaged and inspired; the other being Jodrell Bank.

Last week we were told that the Science Museums Group which runs MOSI – together with the Bradford’s National Media Museum and York’s National Railway Museum – is citing Government cuts to its budget as the catalyst for a review that could see closures.

Government funding currently makes up around 65 per cent of the group’s funding so any cut will clearly be painful.

Here in Local Government we have become so used to funding cuts now that it is simply an accepted part of our day job (albeit the worst aspect, I should add).

So far, however, many other areas of Government funding have been left comparatively unscathed by cuts.

So you might therefore think that a Council Leader like me would say that every area of Government funding should share the pain. But I don’t.

I disagree that cutting the public sector, plus the arts and culture is the right response because it fails to understand the economic impact that this will have.

Increasingly the major UK towns and cities which thrive do so because they have a good mix of retail, entertainment, culture and the arts, together with good transport links and good quality public spaces.

Britain is struggling to find its way in the global economic race in 2013.

We have lost ground to many emerging markets and we’ve lost huge parts of our manufacturing and industry sectors.

For some people, investment in a museum like MOSI may thus appear to be a misguided ‘nod to the past’ and fail to see its real value: its ability to inspire.

If we want to be a player in that global race we simply can’t afford not to invest in understanding where we have come from and, even more importantly,  helping to inspire that next world-changing inventor, engineer, scientist or pioneering thinker to have their ‘Eureka’ moment.

The closure of MOSI wouldn’t just be a setback for Manchester, it would be a blow for the whole country.

In the past, Greater Manchester has led the world in many fields of science, engineering and industry, but we also haven’t given up on producing the next world-changing innovation – and nor should the Government.

By sheer chance my 11-year-old son spent yesterday on a school trip to MOSI.

Afterwards I listened to him excitedly explain what he had seen and learned.

I remembered feeling just the same way at his age about the potential of discovery and having an awareness that our world – our universe, even – was so much bigger and boundless than we could even conceptually grasp.

It would be absolutely criminal if he isn’t also able to have the same discussion in the future with his own son, my grandson, because of a short-sighted decision now to save a few pounds.

As I write more than 40,000 people have already signed an online petition urging the Science Museums Group to think again and save MOSI.

If you get the chance, please take a few moments to visit the online petition here and add your name to those fighting to keep this inspiring and vital facility open for generations to come.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

When the circus came to town…

Greater Manchester Police
CIRCUS: Greater Manchester Police working to disperse the protest from Oldham town centre

IT WAS a glorious day in Oldham town centre last Saturday.

The sun was shining and the high street was packed with shoppers and families enjoying an all-too-rare glimpse of some great British summer weather.

Sadly, however, there were also dark clouds in the offing.

During last week we’d become aware of several protests being organised in a number of towns in response to the horrific murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

With emotions running high we learned that several groups across our region – including the EDL, the National Front and the North West Infidels – appeared to be looking to use the incident as an opportunity to provoke unrest.

It’s my firm belief that most people in all communities are fair-minded and were appalled by that prospect.

When I say “fair-minded”, I don’t mean that in a political sense at all.

By “fair-minded”, I mean people from across all communities, backgrounds and, indeed, opposite ends of the political spectrum.

By “fair-minded” I mean someone who would never seek to defend acts of terrorism, and who has respect for others and a sense of community.

I mean people who oppose extremists in all shapes or forms.

I think any fair-minded person reacted to the killing of Lee Rigby with utter shock and horror. They would have also been outraged by so-called ‘hate preachers’ on television declaring the lost soldier would ‘burn in hell’.

And equally, any fair-minded person who sees a group using the death of an innocent man as a platform to attack a whole community, would also see that as an insult.

Our sunny Saturday was going well until a small group of people – many from the National Front, some from other groups – turned up to ‘protest’.

They then decided to march, although that is not to suggest it was either organised or uniform, up our high street and into main shopping areas.

If you’re a decent law-abiding member of society who also happens to be Muslim you may well have taken offence to seeing banners demanding ‘No More Mosques’ on Oldham’s streets.

You have every right to feel that way in my view, but I don’t suppose those doing it really cared – it was probably what they actually wanted.

But I’m also pretty certain that most other people in Oldham just want to be left to live in peace – and that they judge people by their individual actions, and not simply the colour of their skin or religion.

I would’ve hoped those protestors might have also paid attention to the grieving family of Lee Rigby who – ahead of last weekend – had issued a statement calling for calm.

They said Lee “had many friends from different walks of life – some with different religious beliefs and cultures. But this made no difference to Lee – he always treated others with the greatest of respect.”

They added: “We would like to emphasise that Lee would not want people to use his name as an excuse to carry out attacks against others.”

“We would not wish any other families to go through this harrowing experience and appeal to everyone to keep calm and show their respect in a peaceful manner.”

Almost everybody in Oldham heeded this advice and stayed calm: refusing to rise to any bait, and continued about their business as normal. Long may that continue.

But some that marched in our high street ignored that plea. That wasn’t just disrespectful, it showed me that some weren’t protesting in grief at all: it was just a convenient new hook to hang their hate on.

There’s also conflict between what some groups say they are fighting for, and their actions.

They claim to be patriotic, for example, yet seem happy to deface the Union Jack with offensive comments and to mount them on the railings of cenotaphs across the country.

It’s painfully ironic that cenotaphs – erected to remember those who died fighting against extremism – should be used as a symbol of division by others, but I also find it offensive.

I also don’t like to see large groups gathering and sometimes even clambering onto cenotaphs as if they’re getting over-excited on a football terrace.

The truth is that community cohesion and race relations, or however you like to define it, isn’t a neat and perfect thing.

In a world where some 214 million people are international migrants who live in a different country from the one in which they were born, there are problems in every society.

Oldham has never claimed to be a shining example or model that others should follow. It wouldn’t be realistic for us to say that: there are issues, and we know it.

We have come some distance since 2001, however, and we don’t need a travelling circus of any guise swooping into town to try and divide us.

The Government says it now sees extremism as something that needs a new approach and I agree with that. I just hope that there is a fair and balanced approach that deals with everyone who trades in hatred, regardless of their race or religion.

Here in Oldham we are showing what real respect is for our war dead.

We’re now into the second year of a renovation programme whereby every war memorial in the Borough will be fit for heroes by 2014 as we reflect on the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.

As part of that programme we’re currently renovating the town centre cenotaph at a cost of £130,000, in addition to £100,000 spent across the Borough last year.

Creating cenotaphs of quiet reflection and unity is respectful – and I think that’s a lesson others could learn from.

When pondering Saturday’s events in our town centre I recalled a very simple but poignant inscription on my local cenotaph in Failsworth.

It reads: “They died in many lands so we may live here in peace”.

To our recent unwelcome visitors, I say now – please – leave us alone to live here in peace too.

Thanks for listening,

Jim