Keep up the fight for new schools

SADDLEWORTH: We cannot 'make do' with existing site and must unite around a solution for the sake of young people.
SADDLEWORTH SCHOOL: We cannot ‘make do’ with the existing site and must unite around a solution for the sake of young people.

WE HAVE a great story to tell about new school buildings in our Borough.

Many fantastic new facilities which have created a first class learning environment for so many of our young people in recent times.

Clearly it takes more than just a shiny new building to provide good education.

But poor quality buildings can also hamper good teaching and learning, especially in terms of getting from classroom to classroom.

Oldham did well from the previous PFI and Building Schools for the Future (BSF)  programmes which gave us new schools at Failsworth, Radcliffe, Oldham North Academy, Oasis Academy, Blessed John Henry Newman, Waterhead Academy and at North Chadderton.

But that now leaves Hathershaw, Saddleworth and Royton & Crompton without new facilities due to the cancellation of the BSF programme mid-stream.

Worse than that it leaves two of those schools with completely substandard buildings. Great teaching and aspiration being let down by poor facilities.

We now have a chance with Saddleworth School to right that wrong.

Is this without challenges? No.

We have a number of important issues to address to make sure the scheme works, but it is interesting to see how the supporters and objectors are beginning to settle.

I pay tribute to those Councillors, residents and the school itself for riding the storm of initial objection to get behind the scheme although clearly – given Saddleworth Parish Council’s decision this week to back a group of opposing residents – much still remains to be done to forge a united front.

I wouldn’t say that those people opposed to these proposals don’t have genuine concerns, because they do.

Clearly there are issues about the impact of the school on Diggle, including highways and transport concerns as well as other practical considerations.

Concerns have also been raised about the funding being made available by Government and we take those comments on board too.

It has been a difficult process for all concerned and it is far from over.

The timescales have been tight and until we had secured an option to purchase the Diggle site we were caught up in commercial negotiations which restricted our ability to publicly confirm the site.

It did feel odd a few weeks ago to be attending a public meeting about the new school when we couldn’t confirm the site – and where most of the questions, understandably, were directly related to the suitability of the site.

It hasn’t been easy to get to this stage.

It’s taken a great deal of Council resources to get Saddleworth School onto the Government list for consideration. We’re now within months of final approval and must remain united in doing what is right for our young people.

Any suggestion that we can wait for more money to magically appear, or that a change of government might transform the situation, or that we can just ‘make do’ with the current site would be a failure too far.

If you need proof of that you need only look at the local example of Royton & Crompton.

This is a fantastic school for teaching and learning but is set in a building which lets the Borough down.

It was due to be replaced as part of the BSF programme but fell victim to government cutbacks.

Now the Borough is dealing with the real cost of that: a building that requires £2m of urgent works just to repair the roof and electrical system.

All of that £2m spend will be hidden, of course. It will do the minimum required to keep the building usable but for the young people and teachers the school will look and feel exactly the same – and that just isn’t good enough.

We need to fight for a new school for Royton & Crompton and this Council is committed to securing the best deal for all our young people.

Education is the greatest investment any community can make in its future.

We’ve made good progress to date but there is still much to do and – as we create the new Oldham – first-class schools and education are central to that vision.

Thanks for listening,


Education: Learning to Co-operate

EDUCATION: The Oldham Co-operative Learning Partnership aims to bring everyone involved in learning, education and employment together to ensure residents are supported as they climb each rung of the ladder.
EDUCATION: The Oldham Co-operative Learning Partnership aims to bring everyone involved in learning, education and employment together to ensure residents are supported as they climb each rung of the ladder.

LAST WEEK we launched the new Cooperative Learning Partnership to an audience of more than 100 head teachers, principals and business leaders.

The aim of this initiative is simple: to have a collective responsibility between all of us for self-improvement and lifelong learning from the cradle to the grave.

At one time that would have been the responsibility of Oldham Council, but the world is moving on at a rate of knots and our ambition to ‘fix Oldham’ means we need everyone to step up and say ‘it’s my job’.

Enscribed on the foot of the statue of Failsworth born Lancashire dialect poet Ben Brierley in Queens Park, it says: “If we wanted to climb we had first to build our own ladders”.

Well, that’s exactly what we intend to do.

For once here through the Co-operative Learning Partnership we can have a true partnership of equals where everyone involved in learning, education and employment will come together to ensure that – regardless of institution or organisation – Oldham residents are supported as they climb each rung of the ladder.

For too long the system has, to be honest, promoted insular behaviour.

We judge people on attainment and exams but there is not enough recognition for where people actually end up in life.

Each organisation will look at its own ‘follow on’ rates, but when people leave them it then becomes “‘someone else’s” responsibility.

If, say 80 per cent of students leave school to go into further education, training or employment that’s good news – but then what next? What if just 70 to 80 per cent succeed from that original 80 per cent?

I think that’s partly why we have so many young people unemployed because as they pass through the system those left behind end up with nowhere else to go.

I could very easily have been one of those young people.

Careers advice in my school amounted to little more than a threat that if we didn’t pass our exams we would be destined to ‘Pandora Pickles’: the location pickle packing factory. Hardly inspiring stuff!

That is simplistic and clearly we need to ensure job and training opportunities are made available – and that we enable individuals, parents and communities to make a conscious choice about their own futures.

And it is wider than education too.

The value of hard work, being trustworthy and taking responsibility for yourself is also vital to creating a solid employment base. Coupled with higher skills the town’s offer to potential employers could be fantastic.

That’s why the link to the Oldham Business Leadership Group “Enterprise Trust” is so important here.

Already they are establishing Enterprise Hubs in schools and youth centres as well as leading the Primary Engineers programme and bringing together more than £1.2m in funds to help establish new business ventures in Oldham.

When you put this together with the fantastic Junior University, which aims to spark interest in the sciences, you can see how – by joining all those interests – we’re beginning to present more and more opportunities to young people in Oldham.

Mark my words. There’s absolutely no reason why the next world-changing invention or innovation could not come from Oldham.

It’s time to aim for the stars!

Thanks for listening,


Steadying the ship: Full steam ahead

Charlie Parker
CHIEF EXECUTIVE: Charlie Parker will leave “big shoes to fill” when he leaves Oldham for Westminster City Council early in 2014

FOLLOWING the news that Charlie Parker is to become the new Chief Executive at Westminster Council there has inevitably been speculation about who might come in to fill those big shoes.

We are currently in both uncertain and exciting times in Oldham.

Right now we’re on the verge of delivering successful regeneration that will lay the foundations for our recovery and prosperity for the next generation.

That might feel like an overstatement but I believe it – not least of all because not achieving it would be a failure too far.

But that ambition for the future is also being delivered in the context of unprecedented budget cuts to Oldham Council.

After the £150m we’ve already taken out we are now tasked with finding a further £60m in savings by the end of the financial year 2016/17.

To put that into perspective our total staffing budget is £96m with health and adult social care contracts following behind.

That means our room for manoeuvre is limited at a time when most members of the public don’t see or recognise the full range of services (more than 700) which local councils are delivering.

In fact, the services which people closely relate us to – such as waste collection, street cleaning and libraries – amount to a very small part of our budget. The vast majority is spent looking after people at risk of harm and abuse or those vulnerable people not able to fully take care of themselves.

At this time of enormous change here we needed to steady ‘the good ship Oldham’ and ensure that our 3,000 members of staff are supported through this period.

It’s worth remembering, after all, that more than 70 per cent of our workforce lives in Oldham – so they are also your friends and neighbours.

Our guiding principle in reacting to Charlie Parker’s departure – likely to be in or around mid-January – was to provide stability rather than rush into a lengthy and distracting recruitment process.

We have a great senior management team here who will continue to deliver for people in Oldham and, although Charlie is a big personality and a great public servant, the council isn’t just about one person at the top: it works because of everyone doing their bit.

The timetable that has been recommended to members will see a permanent appointment confirmed (subject to finding the right candidate) in Summer 2014.

CarolynWilkinsDuring the interim period Carolyn Wilkins, Deputy Chief Executive (pictured, right), will be stepping up as Interim Chief Executive and provide the management leadership for the council.

Clearly that sorts our internal business out, but we have also set out on an exciting journey to regenerate our town and we must not lose momentum.

That’s why I’m delighted that Sir Howard Bernstein has agreed to work alongside our Development Team to support our on-going commercial negotiations and give ongoing strategic guidance to those plans.

Sir Howard is a major player in regeneration and together with Sir Richard Leese is widely credited for rebuilding Manchester city centre following the IRA bombing.

This arrangement will be with Manchester City Council (MCC), not Sir Howard personally. We have agreed to pay MCC for his services in supporting our plans and are currently working through the detail of this.

The public will rightly want to know the cost and salary details for these arrangements and, although we’re still in discussions with MCC, I am in a position to confirm the other details around this interim period.

The salary for the Interim Chief Executive will be £154,143. This compares to the current Chief Executive’s salary of £177,364 which means a pro-rata saving of £23,221 on the post.

In addition the Deputy Chief Executive’s salary of £130,000 will be available during the interim period to provide additional support inside or outside the council or as a cash saving. We’re currently reviewing any knock on changes which may be required when Carolyn Wilkins ‘steps up’ and those will be confirmed at December’s Full Council when members will vote on the package.

During our discussions about senior officer salary levels we are always keen to ensure that the right balance is struck between paying the ‘market rate’ and also recognising that whatever is agreed meets public expectations.

On that basis it’s worth noting that the ratio of the highest to the lowest paid staff  applied here was within a range of 10:1 and 14:1: both are well under the Hutton Review recommendation of a 20:1 limit.

The salary for the Interim Chief Executive is therefore around 11:1 on that ratio. It sounds technical and I know it is still a big salary to all Oldhamers, so we neither expect nor seek praise for it.

This whole process did make me think back to a few years ago when the current Chief Executive’s salary was the topic of much debate.

I was door-knocking during an election and a voter began to challenge my allowance and expenses.

He believed that as Council Leader I was being paid circa £200,000 a year and raking in expenses – and I suspect he isn’t alone in that misunderstanding.

To put the record straight, the total allowance for the leader in Oldham is £41,170 and I also don’t claim expenses but instead ‘live within my means’.

Again that is not stated to seek either comment or praise because £41,170 is well paid. It is, however, way off that £200,000 mark that is often quoted back to me on the doorsteps.

On a final point there is still much important work for Charlie Parker to finalise before his departure from here.

In a future blog I will be reflecting in more depth on his five-year tenure here at Oldham Council.

Thanks for listening,


‘Elf and safety ? The Council hasn’t gone mad

War Memorial
REMEMBRANCE: By 2014 we’ll have spent £350,000 upgrading every local memorial – and have a full calendar of educational events in place to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

‘POPPYCOCK’ declared the front page of the Oldham Evening Chronicle on Monday.

The story – about Royal British Legion members being asked to fill out risk forms for Remembrance Sunday parades – drew many comments from readers, so I’m sure nobody would deny the chance to do the same.

The article talks about red tape and I actually agree: because compensation culture is out of control.

Long gone are the days when people took responsibility for their own actions. Nowadays ‘where there’s blame, there’s a claim’.

I’m in a minority, it seems, who think that if you trip over a curb you probably should have been looking where you were going. Unfortunately for me solicitors have made a great deal of money proving me wrong…

For several years I was the organiser for the Failsworth Remembrance Sunday service and parade, so I write here not as someone defending the indefensible, but as someone who has seen ‘on the ground’ what can go wrong when hundreds and thousands of people go to the same place at the same time.

And that is the point. When you take away the emotive headlines here and look at the facts – nothing unreasonable was being asked for at all.

During my years as an organiser we never put in writing what we did to prevent accidents, nor the stewarding arrangements etc – we just got on with what we had to do.

In fact, I remember one year playing hell with the then Police Inspector who asked for a formal road closure order to be made to allow the parade to go ahead.

Guess what? It turned out he was right and I had got it wrong.

Many motorists believed that getting to the supermarket was more important than waiting for the parade to pass and then put at risk all those who attended.

Had an accident occurred – and it came within inches of doing so – a solicitor wouldn’t have refused to take the case because it was a Remembrance Parade. They would have asked for all the paperwork and procedures to find any error or oversight.

During my time as organiser I also once had to deal the angry relatives of an elderly lady who collapsed during the service.

We provided around ten chairs for those with mobility problems which would have usually been enough, but on this particular day she arrived late and couldn’t get through the 2,000 strong crowd. Standing took its toll and her legs gave way.

The following week the first thing asked from us was our insurance details.

During my time arranging the Failsworth service we raised more than £136,000 to renovate the cenotaph and worked hard to increase attendances from around 800 to now over 2,500 each year.

The work we did to raise the profile and meaning of the cenotaph paid off and we now have one of the largest services in the borough as a result.

When I became Council Leader I wanted to achieve the same for every cenotaph in the Borough, so two years ago we set about refurbishing each and every memorial.

By the time we reach 2014 and the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War we will have spent approaching £350,000 on this work – and we will also have a full calendar of educational events in place to tell the story of Britain’s fight for freedom.

When I was organising those Remembrance Sunday services I always had the support of the Mayor’s Office, which is known as the single point of contact in the Council for all organisers.

It would’ve made sense for the organisers who did have concerns this week just to pick up the phone and ask them for help. Instead it made a front page story.

I personally find that sad and I don’t doubt it was more than a little wound up by others who might have better used their time to simply help fill out the form on behalf of the ex-servicemen instead. It is simple to do and takes five to ten minutes.

When I used to do this I actually found it helpful in considering all that needed to be thought about in organising the event.

A Co-operative Council is not one which has no rules, nor is it exempt from legislation, nor does it turn a blind eye – and nor can it fail in protecting the public.

I also felt it unhelpful for this week’s article to claim that the request to complete the event form ‘threatens to cast a shadow’ over the Remembrance Service. It should do that no more than any other arrangements that any organiser would have to complete.

Great play was also made about 70 to 80-year-old people being asked to go online to fill out a form.

I know many people of that age group who would actually be offended at any suggestion they weren’t able to do that. And in any case my own experience is that organising an event is never all down to one person – it is a community event.

In Failsworth I found that just as many young people played their part in the service: from cadets to uniform groups such as Scouts and Guides, plus volunteers from the local youth centre who assist in stewarding.

I’m more than happy to defend Oldham Council’s record here on supporting our ex-servicemen and in remembering those who gave their life fighting for our freedom.

My ‘common sense’ view is that everyone knows what time of year these parades take place and such a large number of people is impossible not to notice, so what’s the problem? Not everyone has common sense clearly.

But if you don’t like the ‘Elf and Safety’ approach in this tale, don’t blame the Council: blame a culture of blame.

Oh, the irony! The world might be going mad but perhaps we all play our part in that…

Thanks for listening,


Getting our development house in order

PLANNING: Oldham has a clear problem when it comes to development land – there isn’t much of it that is ready to use.

FOXDENTON and Hollinwood have been put forward as ‘strategic development sites’ in the Borough.

This basically means they are both developable locations which have an importance that stretches beyond their immediate area.

There has been a lot of concern and interest in the plans at Foxdenton in particular recently with some searching and important questions rightly being asked about potential impact of the scheme.

As we work through this process we will seek to address those specific concerns but for the purpose of this blog I want to focus on explaining our challenges and the strategic vision for employment sites like this.

As a starting point, it’s important to recognise that we are not an island.

Greater Manchester is one of the fastest growing regions in the country and we are part of that growth – or at least we should be.

But Oldham has a problem when it comes to development land – there isn’t much of it that is ready to use.

There are several reasons for that, so I’ll try to explain some of them…

Firstly, many of the clean sites here have simply already been developed and are taken.

Secondly, the size and location of former mill sites doesn’t often lend itself to modern industrial commercial uses where the requirement is often for single-storey, high bay units with access from a main road. Mills were also tightly packed in with terraced housing, so the alternative use for such a site is often now housing as it fits better with the surrounding uses.

Another issue concerns lower value brownfield sites which contain what you might call ‘dirty industrial’ uses. These could collectively be developed – but they often take many years to acquire and decontaminate.

A good example of this is the former Broadway power station which is now the Broadgate Business Park. In total it took around 15 years from closure to bringing in the first new business.

More recently a new agreement in Hollinwood with Langtree will see the removal of a gas holder which itself has taken more than eight years to get to a stage where it can be decommissioned.

Ultimately any new development also has to be a commercial success. If it doesn’t pay for itself then it would require significant taxpayer funding. In reality some element of taxpayer assistance in the form of European or UK Government funding is usually required, but it is not easy to come by – and it takes time to get it too.

Our strategy here in Oldham has to be to try to bring forward sites today that will create jobs in the next three to ten years.

We must have an active brownfield strategy to start acquiring and preparing those low-quality sites in different ownerships now to address the requirements beyond the 10-year period.

We must also work with existing businesses to support their expansion plans. Not all of Oldham’s employment growth will come in the form of large new commercial or industrial units, but we are working hard to attract funding for expansion where possible.

We’ve had some great recent successful examples of this.

Sidcot Investments, owners of the successful tissue converting business Matryx and Negociar, put in a Regional Growth Fund bid supported by Oldham Council and were awarded around £6m to help install new state-of-the-art machinery at their base in Royton.

We also provided support to James Briggs, a firm supplying aerosols and speciality chemicals, in an application to the GM Investment Fund which has since seen them get a substantial loans and grants package enabling them to make huge improvements to their manufacturing efficiency and Research and Development operations

.And let’s not forget Monopumps, the industrial pump manufacturer, who we’ve been helping to relocate at Chadderton. That firm is now about to conclude a major £3m grant deal with the GM Investment Fund that will keep it the region and expand its operations at Greengate.

We’re working hard to ensure vacant units like that can be given a new lease of life and this support means engineering will now continue at the former BAE Systems site. It will create new jobs as well as ensuring we make the best use of what we already have.

We recognise in 2013 that the days of a handful of large employers giving work to a whole town are long gone – so we have to support small businesses and self-employment to succeed too.

But let’s be clear: cases like Foxdenton and Hollinwood are not about ‘development for development’s sake’.

It is equally vital though that in a desire to strengthen our employment base we also insist on quality.

And when consulting the public we also have to be crystal clear about exactly what is up for discussion – and which elements are simply outside of our control.

The alternative here is that we fail to grow and that we fail to create the infrastructure that a Borough with a population of 225,000 people both needs and deserves.

That, for me, would be failure too far.

Thanks for listening,