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,