When is a Free School not a ‘free’ school?

FREE SCHOOL: Regeneration plans and lost economic activity are a heavy price to pay for a new Free School.
FREE SCHOOL: Regeneration plans and lost economic activity are a heavy price to pay for a new Free School.

OLDHAM Council got a letter last week from Lord John Nash, Education Minister, informing us of the Department for Education’s final ruling on the future of the former South Chadderton School site.

It gave us just 48 hours to transfer this land over to the ownership of the Collective Spirit Trust, a new secondary Free School which plans to open this September.

All the lobbying from our MPs on our behalf, plus the months of negotiations and protests by residents had officially fallen on deaf ears.

It frustrates me how the Government claims to support localism in one breath but then swoops in like this to snatch powers away from Local Authorities when they disagree with them – although that’s not my main concern in this particular saga.

Mostly I am left wondering how “free” this Free School actually is when you consider that the costs to Oldham’s economic development, plus the potential costs to young people’s education, are incredibly high.

What happened here was that, several months ago, Collective Spirit had put in a request to us to take on the former South Chadderton School site.

Instead, the Council offered them several alternative sites like the Groundwork building on Shaw Road: a handsome Victorian school building.

We did this because we realised that for a ‘Free School’ – funded by taxpayers and free to attend – this represented much better value for public money.

The South Chadderton site they wanted had already been identified as a crucial component of our Borough’s future.

By selling it to developers we knew we could generate significant income to help fund the exciting regeneration projects we have planned around town – plus deliver a new and much-needed set of high-quality homes for local people. It looked to be a ‘win win’ scenario for taxpayers.

Now that the Secretary of State has ordered us to give part of the site away for free, we are all simply left footing the bill.

It means millions lost from our budget in terms of the estimated land value, plus the lost Council Tax and economic activity that this important asset represented for the Borough.

Even more disturbing here though are the potential repercussions this Government decision may have on the education of our young people – something you cannot put a price on.

We already have 16 secondary schools with ample provision of places here in Oldham. But with Collective Spirit’s plans to attract 300 of these students to their own facility, this could mean a loss of approximately £1.3 million in per-pupil Government funding to our existing schools. That could be a huge hit to their finances and plans.

As a final word on this matter – and to put the record straight – Oldham Council does not want Collective Spirit to fail.

To make sure that doesn’t happen we will be monitoring their progress very carefully and offering support to them as part of our wider school network, if they choose to work with us.

Overall I believe the education offer in Oldham is good and making great progress at present.

Across our Borough many pupils are now reaping the benefits from studying in state-of-the-art facilities.

We’ve invested in additional places at Blue Coat, plus a range of primary schools. We also have approval for a replacement secondary school at Saddleworth and remain fully committed to Royton and Crompton school, which is in need of serious investment (a much wiser use of limited taxpayers’ money).

This will be my last blog now before the summer recess starts.

Looking back on the past year I find myself reflecting on how much Oldham is changing – both physically and psychologically.

Other people are spotting it too. A visitor from Derby this week, for example, told me she was staggered and inspired by how much construction and regeneration was underway or planned around our town centre.

I also think that increasing numbers of people and partners here are rising to the challenge and now prepared to stand up and fight for Oldham, which bodes well for our future.

Thanks to you all and – if you’re taking a summer holiday – I hope it is enjoyable and relaxing.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Oldham Council: Annual Report

ANNUAL REPORT: It isn't possible to take £200 million from the Council's budget and expect that everything will carry on as usual.
ANNUAL REPORT: It isn’t possible to take £200 million from the Council’s budget and expect that everything will carry on as usual. We’ve trimmed many services – some now to the bone.

LAST WEEK I delivered my ‘Annual Report’ at the Full Council meeting.

I also recorded a video-blog immediately afterwards which summarises the main points, and you can view that by clicking here.

My first task was to reflect on another testing year with cuts continuing to bite hard and changes in Government policy meaning that the Council is in a state of constant change.

I paid tribute to those staff that have gone the extra mile and continued to work extremely hard to provide more than 600 excellent services to the people of Oldham.

The Council will, of course, change even further with less money in future and we have trimmed many services – some now to the bone.

We’re in a position where we will simply have to stop delivering some services altogether and that’s why I want a meaningful consultation with you, the people who use those services, about what you need and what you expect for the Council Tax you pay.

It just isn’t possible to take £200m from the Council’s budget and kid oursevles that everything will carry on as usual.

I’m acutely aware that these are also uncertain times outside of the Council. We know that many people are really feeling the pressure in terms of unemployment, for example, and changes to the welfare system.

If you accept the scale of the challenge is big there are, I suppose, three options…

The first would be to accept further decline as being inevitable and simply to ‘try and get by’ and muddle through.

The second would be to defer responsibility – knowing that the problems will continue – but reverting to blaming someone or something else.

The final option – my ‘call to arms’ – is that instead we use our collective energy and power in Oldham to do all that we can: so the Chronicle headline last Thursday ‘We’re all in this together’ was accurate.

That article subsequently met with some criticism on the Chronicle’s own online forum. What appeared to spark that was a reference in my report to ‘armchair critics’ and I’d like to explain exactly who and what I mean by that.

If you are someone who complains about real problems and are even cynical and uncertain about the future then – actually – I’m not talking about you.

If you blame the Council for part of Oldham’s decline and don’t yet believe things are going to change, I don’t mean you either. I understand that viewpoint and, although I hope people can already see improvements, I know we need to deliver what we have promised and, until then, I accept it takes time to build confidence and trust.

The group of people I was referring to though are those who seemingly make a hobby out of talking the town down for enjoyment’s sake, spending hours and hours on forums, on Social Media and on email in this sport. So, perhaps, ‘armchair critics’ wasn’t right. Maybe ‘keyboard warriors’ would have been more fitting?

I can’t tell you how dispiriting it is to make small steps towards improving our Borough only for any progress to be immediately slammed on message boards.

I’m always happy to accept strong alternate views, and we can learn from them, but I must admit to being baffled by the logic that the town where you choose to live is so bad you must attack it at every opportunity. If it was so unbearably bad, surely you’d just move?

This band of people often email me too. Not to complain or to offer a constructive course of action – but simply to fire me a single line of abuse about Oldham and its future.

A simple question: If the people of Oldham don’t believe in our town then why on earth should an outside investor? Online forums are universally accessible and inevitably now something of a ‘shop window’ to people researching the place, so the negative external impact this kind of mindset can have is pretty clear.

I know that most people genuinely don’t behave in this way – and no way would I advocate censorship – but it is unfortunate that the silent majority are often drowned out by a highly vocal minority.

I’ve learned to avoid being distracted by them and lose focus – but have also now learned a personal lesson to be careful about broad statements which others could feel was targeted at them.

I do believe that the majority of residents are behind what we are trying to do – and the vision we want to deliver – but also are perhaps cynical that they’ve heard it all before when it comes to regeneration.

I understand that and it’s my job to do all I can to show real improvement. I can give you my personal assurance that I’m doing all that I can around the clock, but that task would be a lot easier with the whole Borough pulling together behind that work.

The challenges we face are big: so let our response be even bigger and let’s come out fighting.

I have seen first-hand the truly inspiring work done by individuals, community groups, organisations and business leaders who are going above and beyond the call of duty across the Borough.

As a Cooperative Council we’re about bringing all that energy and drive together. Already the town has responded to the Get Oldham Working campaign and our ambition to regenerate our town centre. We’ve already made far more progress on those fronts than if it was just the Council trying to doing it all alone or to dictate the approach. We know that doesn’t work.

I do hope you take time to view the video on my Annual Report and listen first-hand about the challenges and opportunities ahead.

If you wish, you can also view the full speech which I gave on this to Full Council. Click here to watch this – and then fast-forward the clip (using the slider at the bottom of the video player) to 49 minutes and 15 seconds.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Michael Meacher: Freedom of the Borough

ACCOLADE: I was honoured to speak at this week's ceremony to award Michael Meacher the Freedom of the Borough.
ACCOLADE: I was honoured to speak at this week’s ceremony to award Michael Meacher the Freedom of the Borough.

THIS WEEK I took part in a very important and historic ceremony in the Council Chamber.

I was delighted to be asked to say a few words at this in support of a man that I know very well indeed – Michael Meacher MP.

This event saw him bestowed with the highest honour that the Council can give: Freeman of the Borough of Oldham.

This is, rightly, a rare accolade and one that is given neither lightly nor often.

In becoming only the 25th person or organisation to receive it, Michael has joined esteemed ranks that include the likes of the 75th Engineers Regiment, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir William Walton.

Michael is a truly rare breed and I don’t think we will see his like again.

You do have to wonder if any future MP will serve for more than 40 years. It is easy to imagine him now serving for a half-century and beyond, which is both humbling and impressive.

What is equally striking is that his long-running campaigns for fairness and for a balanced economy, which have earned him many followers over those years, are probably even more relevant today in 2013 than ever before.

Indeed, he is such a long-standing part of Oldham life that it is difficult to imagine politics here without him playing a central role.

If anyone deserves to be recognised with this accolade, then it’s certainly Michael.

He is held in high regard by his constituents – almost as a star by some – and then there are also well-recanted stories about his visits to engineering works, mills and public houses where people remember someone “who spoke for us”. That is a very special thing to have said about any politician.

His ability to connect with the public is quite something – believe me, I’ve seen it first hand while out campaigning alongside him – but it does also have its drawbacks…

For those of us who knock on doors with him to canvass potential voters, we know only too well how this plays out.

Usually people recognise and know Michael, and the response is mixed.

Some dismiss (very, very few), some are overwhelmingly positive, and some are keen to enter into a debate. That’s when we know he’s going to be ‘some time’.

It is common to begin canvassing with him only to lose him mid-flow. As you move onto the next street you realise the MP hasn’t caught up, so you go in search.

You trace back your steps and don’t see him on the last street, so you move back to the previous one…

Usually he can be found back at the very first door where the debate started and, as he walks back to us, we’ll ask “Labour?”. Often they are, but sometimes he will say, “No, they’re Tory!”.

Whereas most of us would have likely said thank you and left quickly, Michael feeds off the interaction and debate. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if his opponents have a secret agreement just to keep him talking as long as possible to prevent him speaking to potentially Labour-minded supporters.

It’s not just locally that Michael has made his mark either – he’s also had a big impact on national and international stages.

As Minister for the Environment he oversaw many positive changes which still enhance our lives. I know he still holds one of these, the Right to Roam Act, as his greatest achievement in that it enables us all to enjoy our beautiful countryside today.

His list of achievements is too long to list here, but on behalf of all residents I sincerely congratulate Michael on this honour – and thank him for his support as an ambassador in helping to make Oldham the best that it can be.

Following the ceremony to bestow this honour upon Michael, I then attended Full Council where it was time to deliver my annual report on the state of the Borough.

Rather than expect you to read through a lengthy document, I have recorded a special video-blog explaining where we are in 2013, and the big challenges that lie ahead for us all.

This can be found on the Oldham Council website or you can watch it by clicking here.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Buyer beware on reservoirs

WATER BARGAIN? Reservoirs are costly structures to maintain and failure to maintain them could have serious consequences.
WATER BARGAIN? Reservoirs are costly structures to maintain and failure to maintain them could have serious consequences.

ROLL UP! Roll up! There’s a bargain to be had…

For just £5,000 you could soon own a piece of Oldham’s beautiful countryside – and a little piece of history dating back to 1860.

That’s because United Utilities (UU) is sending both Brushes Clough reservoir, on Crompton Moor, and Besom Hill reservoir, off Grains Road, off to auction this month – but I won’t be joining the queue.

Why would a water company sell a reservoir?

Five thousand pounds is a metaphorical ‘drop in the ocean’ in financial terms, so it can’t be about money.

Nor do I think this move is about a tidying-up exercise whereby surplus property UU no longer require is simply being disposed of.

But their spokesperson said it all for me when he referred to the need to keep costs down for customers and therefore to dispose of expensive reservoirs.

These aging water structures are not maintenance-free and our own experience as a Council is that the associated costs are actually very expensive.

In my own ward the former Hollinwood Branch Canal aqueduct loses water and it requires repairs running into tens of thousands of pounds on a regular basis just to keep it safe.

It’s my belief that former nationalised industries which are now in private sector hands should have to take the good and the bad – not cherry pick.

The reality is that should someone acquire the liability and subsequently fail to maintain these structures to retain the body of water then it could have very serious implications for our Borough.

In the paperwork issued by United Utilities it makes it clear that the buyer here will take on all health and safety responsibilities and that currently, in order to comply with these, UU undertake a weekly inspection plus an annual engineer survey.

Failure to ensure the land and any structures are safe could create all sorts of legal headaches.

To be fair, UU have been upfront about this. The auction documents are detailed and clear about those responsibilities, but it really is a case of ‘buyer beware’ here.

Having resisted water-based puns (mostly) I now move on to the growing independent retail offer that is breathing new life into our market scene.

The monthly O Project students market continues to boom and there is now also a new Crafts Market giving another great reason to visit Oldham town centre.

It is vital that local people get behind these new ventures and spend cash.

It’s easy to sit at home and mourn the passing of Tommyfield in its heyday but what we’re beginning to see now is a new type of market offer in Oldham – and it needs your backing.

The O Project hosts its specialist teenage market in the Hilton Arcade on the last Saturday of every month between 10am and 4pm.

This boasts a range of stalls selling clothing, jewellery, accessories, cakes, handmade goods, crafts and beauty therapies. For more information call 0161 770 4516 or you can find OProject on Facebook or follow @OProject1 on Twitter.

There is also a new Crafts Market now being held every second Saturday in the Hilton Arcade. This features local craftspeople selling gifts, cards, soaps, cushions and all sorts of wares.

Don’t forget, of course, that you can take also take advantage of our parking offer at weekends.

You can park for free for up to three hours on all Council-owned car parks in Oldham town centre. To take advantage of this you must take a ticket from the pay and display machine.

You can also park free of charge for up to 30 minutes on-street seven days a week – again just be sure to take a ticket from the machine first,

More information about the free parking offer – with details of the sites – can be found here

Ventures like these in the Hilton Arcade could be the foundation for a whole new market offer in Oldham. Please support them and take the time to give them a try for yourselves.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

The challenges mount

CHALLENGES MOUNT: It is time for a new settlement for Local Government in England.

THE COMPREHENSIVE Spending Review delivered a nasty surprise for Local Government.

The headline cut of a further 10 per cent in our funding hides a multitude of other changes which will see many councils across the UK unable to meet their statutory (legal) requirements.

And you don’t have to take my word for that.

The respected cross-party Local Government Association (LGA) has revised its (unpublished) list of Local Authorities under threat – which now stands at more than 50 across the country.

Speaking at the LGA conference in Manchester this week, Sir Merrick Cockell, the former Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea, outlined in stark terms the cliff edge now facing local councils.

Perhaps as a member of the public you don’t fully see first-hand the range of services that are delivered by your local council – nor the legal responsibilities that we have to meet and maintain.

But increasingly a Central Government stranglehold is now constraining us to such an extent that local variation, even local decision-making, has been centralised.

We can’t even decide for ourselves, for example, if we want or need another secondary school.

Any random group can now apply to Government for council-owned land and buildings. This can put other regeneration plans at serious risk without any meaningful consultation, let alone allowing those of us who are elected by the public to make the decision.

We now also hear those small groups will be given the power to sell off public land that has been forced out of council (public) control for development.

Public services are under increasing scrutiny but a frank and honest debate about the true cost and value for money has not been forthcoming. Instead lazy production companies and their researchers will trawl councils with FOIs and detailed queries looking for any evidence of waste.

In any industry or service on such a scale you will always find examples of waste. But surely the answer is to deal with that isolated example, not to cast a shadow on the whole sector? 

The truth – as highlighted by review after review – is that Local Government (councils) is actually the most efficient arm of government.

But with the Government having already taken more than over 33 per cent in funding from councils this additional 10 per cent will be a step too far.

Even the most cynical observer surely wouldn’t believe that councils can take a 40 per cent-plus cut without that affecting the services people rely on.

And it’s time to say enough is enough.

We are sick and tired of being beaten up, lambasted and slurred by ministers who clearly have little idea what councils actually do.

Across all political parties councils are now standing up and demanding an adult conversation about the future of public services.

We are sick of the petty sound bites, token hand-outs before an election and the deep misunderstanding of the importance of local people being able to shape the services delivered to them through those people they directly elected.

The demand we are making is for is a new settlement.

It is not tenable for devolved areas such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be treated differently than England – we’ve had disproportionate cuts with no one fighting our corner.

It is also not tenable for other public agencies that are not democratically accountable spending many billions of pounds where the service users – you and I – are seen as the problem to be dealt with using an out of date ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

There IS waste in the system, duplication and poor service standards. 

Give councils control over the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, and see real savings (as opposed to cuts) with a better service for residents that delivers a welfare and benefits system which is fit for purpose and gets those people out of work back into the job market.

As it stands there are more than 900 apprenticeship providers operating in Greater Manchester and over 300 training providers – does that seem like a streamlined approach?

And what about health? Giving over control to GP’s with little reference to the wider social care system is bizarre. Surely we should be focusing on prevention?

I bet most people reading this will know the pay of your council’s Chief Executive and Council Leader, but you probably have no idea how much senior civil servants are paid – nor the people leading other public agencies, such as those in education and health. Whether you agree with the amounts being paid is another thing, but at least Local Government is transparent.

The way that local services are funded is also no longer fit for purpose. 

Council Tax is now based on property values from the 1990s and that means areas like Oldham with a low tax base (more low-value properties) have to charge higher Council Tax just to get level with more affluent areas of the UK.

Those are just some of the reasons why I fully endorse the ‘Rewiring public services’ report launched at the LGA conference. 

For the first time in ages there is now a coherent argument for a serious review of public services in this country and I’d urge you to watch a video clip which shows the funding black hole in stark reality here.

Please also take the time to read the full conference address here – it’s worth it. 

Demand is now outstripping the funds available. 

People are living longer but they also have more health and social care needs – and that costs serious money.

Our young population in Oldham is increasing in size, which is good news, but they also need educating well and deserve to grow up in good-quality housing and clean, safe neighbourhoods. 

And they deserve a better future than just ‘getting by’.

I’d simply say this to the public: If you value public services at all, it’s time to get behind the work of your local councils.

We might not be perfect but the alternative is having Whitehall civil servants swinging the axe with a distant minister doing little more than rubber stamping more and more cuts.

We need a new settlement and the time is now.

Thanks for listening, 

Jim