Charlie Parker: Five memorable years

CHARLIE PARKER: High standards, great work ethic and attention to detail have been instrumental in changing Oldham Council
CHARLIE PARKER: High standards, great work ethic and attention to detail have been instrumental in changing Oldham Council

AFTER five years at the helm, Charlie Parker is nearing the end of his tenure as Chief Executive of Oldham Council.

I’d like to look back today and reflect on his impact since coming to Oldham in 2008.

Firstly, it’s important to point out that if an organisation is all about one person then we would be in trouble.

A true leader of an organisation builds capacity and depth, which means that the team that supports is just as important as the person at the top.

Charlie arrived here shortly after Labour lost control of the Council to a new Lib Dem administration. There had also recently been two consecutive – and fairly negative – Audit Commission reports into the organisation and its leadership.

Having been a member of the cross party Selection Committee to choose the new Chief Executive, I recall we were being fairly thorough in our questioning. However, Charlie began with his ‘pitch’ – and it’s one that has stuck with me.

He said that if we wanted to change Oldham and had the commitment to see that through – including the tough decisions needed – that he would deliver it.

What followed was a cross-party agreement to put aside the permanent ‘election mode’ politics in favour of a mature approach. It was one which laid some very strong foundations.

The following three years was spent generally putting Oldham Council’s ‘house in order’ and ensuring a team was in place with proper financial discipline and performance management. It all sounds all very dry, I know, but it’s vital – and we also began work to change the Council’s culture.

Having been at such a low point – including being in the horrible position of having the worst resident satisfaction rate in the country – I suppose a viewpoint might have been that ‘well, it couldn’t get much worse’.

In fact on a range of issues the Borough was already making strong progress. Frontline services such as street cleaning, parks and essentials like Adult Social Care, Education and Safeguarding come to mind but, even with all those plusses, the Council just wasn’t joined up.

You have to meet and spend time with Charlie to understand what really makes him tick.

It’s easy to form an opinion after reading local press, hearing third hand stories or even being distracted by the salary figure. I’ve had an insight I suspect only a very few people have had and I’m going to share my thoughts here…

Firstly, Charlie has done well in life. His position is evidence of that, but that isn’t to say his life was either mapped out or handed to him on a plate. Coming from a hardworking working class family he has pushed himself to create a career for himself and his family.

It is fair to say that the harsh and high standards he sets for himself are also the bar he sets for others.

It would be equally fair to say that Charlie hasn’t been universally liked: although I think if the relationship has settled that way is usually because he decided that was the best outcome(!)

Loyalty? Not much to say here. If you were loyal, Charlie was fiercely loyal back. If you’re not, or lack integrity, then the best of luck to you!

Everyone has hindsight – it’s certainly the only degree I’ve got, and some people also have foresight. In my experience though, very, very few people have genuine insight.

That’s an ability not to just look deeply into something but to understand very complex issues and relationship and join the whole picture together. If you haven’t got insight as a chief executive it will be a dull career.

Charlie’s high standards, a great work ethic and attention to detail have meant that Oldham Council has changed and will continue to change for the better.

The recent Peer Review praised the relationship between leadership, members and officers now and gave credit to what has been a ‘remarkable transformation’.

However, as a Council, we know the most important quality measure is what residents believe.

Having been at a low of just 22 per cent it was a symbolic moment when resident satisfaction increased to 65 per cent. Not only did an external team see the improvement, but residents were seeing too.

We’ve set out to transform Oldham. The town centre has received much focus and praise for game-changing schemes like the Old Town Hall cinema, new leisure centres and a new Coliseum Theatre – and rightly so.

And let’s not lose sight of our position now in Greater Manchester. We are not just an active participant, we are now one of the leading authorities and don’t shy away anymore from taking on our share of the work to move the City Region forward.

Greater Manchester’s success is Oldham’s success – and Charlie has helped the political leadership to see some very important projects come to fruition.

We’ve also brought forward some vital employment opportunities and created new housing sites at the same time as fundamental change have taken place in the Council – as well as dealing with the little matter of finding £150m in savings.

The fact that most people haven’t yet seen the impact of cuts to frontline services is testament to the financial discipline of the Council, which is now recognised as being one of the most effective in the country.

I hope that the team we’ve created and the outward leadership which, I hope, I and other members have given, has meant we’ve been able to give the support, finance and vision to what has been an impressive tenure for Charlie.

I expect, of course, that this all reads as very gushing and pleasant, but if I’ve left you with the impression that Charlie wasn’t a handful at times then that wouldn’t be right, I can assure you.

If you’ve been left believing our working relationship wasn’t tense at times then that wouldn’t be correct either; but that’s natural when two strong characters are always right…

Public service can be unforgiving, it is certainly relentless, and most people don’t see the hours, energy or the hard times people put in.

So, before too long Charlie will be on the way to London. Is Charlie ready for Westminster – and is Westminster ready for Charlie? Watch this space…

This is my final posting before the festive period.

The blog will return in January 2014 , but I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Blog postponed…

EARLIER this week I had drafted my next Leader’s Blog about the forthcoming departure of Charlie Parker to Westminster Council.

On Tuesday evening, however, as news began to break about the tragic death of a local schoolgirl in Shaw, I decided to reconsider.

Annalise Holt, 12, was fatally injured following a collision with a van on Milnrow Road, Shaw and a police investigation is now underway to determine exactly what happened.

Tributes were paid at Full Council on Wednesday night and Councillor Dave Hibbert, Cabinet Member for Environment and Housing, gave a statement to the Council Chamber. You can read the full text here.

Given these circumstances, and the fact that emotions remain very raw, I decided to postpone the publication of my planned blog until Friday this week (December 20).

I’m certain you will understand.

Thanks for listening,

Jim 

Oldham Council: The past is firmly behind us

FULL SPEED AHEAD:  Jim McMahon and Charlie Parker pictured with the new report as trams are tested on Oldham’s new Metrolink line.
FULL SPEED AHEAD: Jim McMahon and Charlie Parker pictured with the new report as trams test on Oldham’s new Metrolink line.

AN INDEPENDENT Review of Oldham Council published today hails a “remarkable transformation” that has seen it become “an ambitious and effective council”.

Opening your Council up for an external assessment is a nerve racking experience.

It doesn’t matter how much preparation you’ve done, how much energy, heart and soul you’ve laid on the line, the final judgement is what really matters.

Like many in Oldham in recent years I have felt huge progress being made.

Whilst many councils are hoping the cuts go away and regeneration will come in time, we are fighting back strongly.

We’ve made the mental shift from looking inwards at the Council and its business to being far more outward-facing and taking a lead in rebuilding Oldham from the ground up.

Having the 2002 or 2008 Audit Commission assessments still hanging around as a judgement of the Council today has been a personal bugbear.

Okay, they were snapshots of moments in time they told a story. But I also know that the organisation is working hard for the town and it has its own house in order: from the nuts and bolts like finances and service delivery through to its vision and leadership.

Earlier this year the Council asked the Local Government Association to carry out a comprehensive ‘Peer Challenge’ – a voluntary assessment to check how Oldham Council is performing and to test its future plans.

A six-strong team of experienced politicians and senior officers visited Oldham in October, speaking to employees, partners, elected members and residents.

They looked at a series of guiding questions testing whether the Co-operative Council has clear priorities, a viable long-term financial plan, effective leadership, governance and decision-making arrangements, plus the capacity and resources to deliver its plans.

The new report says: “There has been a remarkable transformation in Oldham in recent years, both in terms of the place and in having established an ambitious and effective council. The authority can be proud of what has been achieved.”

Back in 2008 a highly-critical Audit Commission inspection had revealed Oldham Council “felt itself to be on the verge of government intervention” but this new report finds that provided a “wake-up call” to improve.

“The challenge of turning around the council was clearly immense with significant issues in relation to its organisational culture, ways of working, governance, financial management and the performance of its services,”  the report says.

“The council is now seen to be a disciplined organisation that is competent and effective – which in turn generates the confidence and credibility for it to do more challenging and difficult things. The organisational culture feels positive and performance management is effective. The council’s political and managerial leadership has been integral to what has been achieved. It is respected internally and externally and galvanises support from staff and partners.”

The report also highlighted that financial management within the council is now “highly effective” and has seen “dramatic improvement” and staff at all levels “have really bought into the council’s agenda – understanding and supporting its vision”.

Today’s report recognises that Oldham is now an effective, efficient and respected council. Its publication marks a new chapter in our history – the past is firmly behind us.

We voluntarily asked for an independent assessment because we wanted external validation that the progress we’re making is real – not just something we believe to be true.

The 2008 Audit Commission report was damaging, but unfortunately it was also accurate, and there was a realisation that a cross-party response was needed to put Oldham first and politics second.

I pay tribute to Councillor Howard Sykes whose time as Council Leader saw vital work done to get our house in order, especially in terms of financial organisation, and we’ve since built on those foundations to foster the credibility and confidence that is now helping us attract the inward investment we need to regenerate and create new jobs.

When we all agreed to put party politics to one side for the Borough we love, we meant it and stuck to our word – and in doing so have managed to make the changes the council so badly needed.

When I became Council Leader in 2011 there was a clear gap which needed addressing: outward leadership and a vision for Oldham which laid out the future we are now getting on with delivering.

The various regeneration schemes, new homes, transport works and employment sites as well as our ground-breaking campaigns and programmes like Get Oldham Working have taken a huge amount of time and energy to put into place.

No scheme is more iconic in our journey than the Old Town Hall. Work is now underway to convert it into a multiplex cinema with cafes, restaurants and retail outlets which will complete its transformation from a symbol of civic neglect and failure to one of hope and aspiration. That is what the new Oldham is all about.

Other headline findings from the Peer Challenge report included recognition that::

– The Local Authority is highly-valued and well-respected by partners who see “significant improvement not just in the Council but also in the Borough”;

– Oldham “is punching above its weight” as one of the most influential players in Greater Manchester;

– Significant capital investment is being made with a clear economic strategy;

– A real maturity of vision for Oldham, set by political leadership and a Co-operative approach that has “real resonance” with people with increased public satisfaction;

– A Council Leader’s style and approach which is “both exceptional and unique in nature” and a “driven Chief Executive” with an “entrepreneurial outlook”.

The full findings can now be viewed on our website at www.oldham.gov.uk

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Heating up the energy debate

ENERGY BILLS: In the national debate it is local councils taking action to help people cut them.
ENERGY BILLS: In the national debate it is local councils taking action to help people cut them.

WHILE Westminster is leading the national debate on the rising costs of energy bills it is local councils who are coming together and using ‘people power’ to cut them.

Here in Oldham we are now becoming a collective switching ‘veteran’ after a successful campaign this time last year saw more than 8,700 people signing up for cheaper energy.

The average saving made was £171 per resident, which isn’t to be dismissed and put much-needed cash back into people’s pockets.

The scheme proved such a success that a second auction was then subsequently held across Greater Manchester with other UK councils.

Now that this scheme has history and credibility local people trust it.

It wasn’t easy to get it off the ground and we had more than our fair share of hoops to jump through, but you can find out more about the next switching campaign at http://www.energyhelpline.com/betterenergydeals

We do, however, need government intervention if we stand any chance of limiting future bill increases. It feels far too often that the energy companies are playing a game and simply running rings around politicians who are struggling to get to the truth that lies behind these price hikes.

The recent decision by the Prime Minister to scrap the so-called ‘green tax’ to save households £50 a year is short-sighted in my view and it has let the big energy companies off the hook.

Calling it a green tax means many people just see another £50 back in their pockets without challenging back.

Let’s not forget here that the increase in profit made by energy companies was on average £23 per customer. This means each and every one of us now contributes £105 a year to their shareholders whilst at the same time giving them a new ‘get out of jail’ card to reduce the overall cost of energy to households.

There are two significant causes of high energy costs.

The first is high usage by individuals: mainly through living in inefficient homes which lack adequate insulation.

The second is the increasing cost of ‘wholesale’ energy on the international markets.

The  ‘green tax’ was actually designed to address those very two issues.

It has seen hundreds of thousands of homes across the UK benefiting from energy saving measures to make homes more efficient. Without these funds in place the additional cost to households is huge and we simply won’t be making the impact on fuel poverty that we clearly need to.

Without wanting to be a prophet of doom and gloom it also has to be a self-evident truth that the more people who are in fuel poverty, the higher the risks are that more vulnerable people will die of cold related illnesses. All that means is that the government pays the bill anyway, but it is normal people who are paying the ultimate price.

The increasing cost of wholesale energy was intended to be addressed by having a greater mix of energy generation rather than relying on oil, coal and gas. Without the infrastructure funding in place do we really expect energy companies will ever see the light?

It is a primary purpose of governments to provide for the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens. Energy security and a stable energy supply are also essential for any growing country. Allowing profit to come ahead of that is a failure.

If you try and make sense of the current pricing system the energy companies just respond by saying: “It’s complicated”.

You know when a relationship has gone so wrong that one partner just doesn’t want to have the conversation? Maybe it’s time for a fresh start…

Thanks for listening,

Jim