Today Manchester, tomorrow the world!

ALL ABOARD: One of the first trams to take the journey on Oldham's new town centre Metrolink line on Monday
ALL ABOARD: One of the first trams to take the journey on Oldham’s new town centre Metrolink line on Monday

SO IT IS finally here!

After decades of planning, posturing and pain, Oldham Town Centre now has its own direct tram connection with Manchester City Centre.

And tomorrow, it’s the world!

Well, via Manchester Airport at least, when the next expansion of the network connects us to the international airport, plus the city region Enterprise Zone, where plans are in place to create more than 13,000 new jobs.

Oldham felt very different to me on Monday, and I know many people shared that sensation, but that isn’t to say we’re claiming that everything is now sorted for our town centre – far from it.

We know there remains a great deal left to do.

Metrolink is the spark for our renewal and I hope people who live and work here can see the importance that all these different schemes are going to have for our future prospects. 

This isn’t just about building a tram. It’s not just about building a cinema or restaurants – and it isn’t just about new shops, offices, a leisure centre or a college.

It’s about having the courage to hope and aspire – and to build confidence.

Even now some people remain unconvinced of our intent and I suppose that’s reasonable given the time it’s taken to see some schemes come to fruition and, let’s be honest, some over the years which haven’t come off at all.

I offer no explanation to the past, but I do take personal responsibility for what happens now.

And I do know that every member of council staff and much of the wider community are beginning to believe that Oldham is now on the verge of something very special indeed.  

You’ll probably have seen the first artist’s impressions released this week, for example, showing the stunning new leisure centre planned for the town centre.

It’s just one of many schemes on the table (of which there is more detail and announcements to come) including the cinema, new Coliseum, Heritage Centre, Hotel Future, plans for our markets plus developments to attract new retailers, both national and independent.

Put them all together and I hope you can see that Oldham is ready to come out fighting from the recession.  

Huge projects like Metrolink will, of course, involve changes and inevitably there is always a settling-in period when people have to get used to new arrangements.

That, at least, is what I hope explains the recent sheer stupidity of some drivers who think that rushing out for fried chicken or a kebab is far more important than the tram being able to drive down Union Street safely.

The Oldham Chronicle has done a fine job in helping us to raise awareness of this problem and it has prompted myself and several other residents to nip out with camera phones to snap the worst offenders.

We began enforcement action with a CCTV car on this just before the Christmas holidays.

Between December 23 and January 11, over a period of 12 days, it issued 44 enforceable Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs).

Yet the problem has worsened since then. In a five-day period from January 13 we issued a further 98 PCNs and, despite all the publicity, the problem is not abating.

In the last week before Metrolink opened on Monday another 122 PCNs were issued and sadly, this week, we are still dishing them out in considerable number. 

The offences vary from blocking the tram line, parking completely on the new (and expensive) footpaths, over double-yellow lines and mounting kerbs.

Perhaps this is proof – if it were needed – that some people need a refresher course in the Highway Code, common sense and taking responsibility for their own actions.

The Oldham Chronicle (January 29th edition) highlighted one driver who double parked and blocked the tram lines to collect his takeaway. When the tram stopped at the blockage and sounded its horn the driver reappeared – only to shout abuse and simply go back into the shop for his meal. Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes a special kind of selfish individual to behave like that.

Last Friday I witnessed similar antics as I walked down Union Street.

SELFISH: Union Street has been plagued by parking like this.
SELFISH: Union Street has been plagued by problem parking like this.

A car (pictured, right) pulled in across the parking bay and onto the footpath.

Having gone out of my way to take a photo of this stupidity, the driver asked me why I was so interested in his parking. I told him it was because he was blocking where pedestrians want to walk.

He simply put his window up and drove away, regaining his courage later on Facebook to state that he could park wherever he wanted and there was nothing the council can do about it.

He is correct in saying that the council has no powers to stop pavement parking, but the police do. They have been passed the photograph and screenshots of his Facebook comments. Let’s see if they have a word. Over the top, perhaps? You decide.

What has given me hope is that residents like myself, fed up with this selfish and inconsiderate parking, have been ‘snapping’ examples and posting them on Twitter. This is a good example where Social Media can give real ‘power to the people’.

Perhaps some of these motorists will now be reflecting whether a £70 ticket was really worth them not bothering to park for free around the corner and walk a few yards? I hope so.

But even those minor hiccups can’t be allowed to take the gloss off the arrival of Metrolink this week, which is a game-changing new opportunity for Oldham.

Metrolink is here to stay – and you can’t block progress!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Council Tax freeze – Doing our bit

COUNCIL TAX: Our proposal to freeze it next year recognises residents' battle with rising costs of living.
COUNCIL TAX: Our proposal to freeze it next year recognises residents’ battle with rising costs of living.

LAST WEEK we announced plans to freeze Oldham Council’s element of Council Tax.

This is a key plank of our final budget proposals for the next financial year, and is designed to do our bit to help hard-working families.

I know from speaking to residents last year that the way this information is presented is often confusing so, before I talk about that decision, it’s worth explaining exactly what components make up your final Council Tax bill.

As well as setting the level of its own Council Tax, Oldham Council must also act as the collector of other parts of your bill from different authorities that also provide services for you.

We collect Council Tax on behalf of the Greater Manchester Police Commissioner, the Fire and Rescue Service, plus Parish Councils in Shaw and Crompton, and Saddleworth, and these shares – known as ‘precepts’ – are all itemised separately on your final Council Tax bill.

At the same time we must also pay levies to the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority and Greater Manchester Combined Authority for services provided across our region.

Where some confusion arises is that these levies are included in the ‘Oldham Council Tax’ figure which will appear on your bill, but they are not shown separately.

In the case of both precepts and levies these are simply collected by us and passed on – they are not used to fund services directly provided by Oldham Council.

In deciding to freeze Oldham Council’s element of your Council Tax bill for next year we were fully aware that we face continuing pressures on our budgets and services.

However it was also important to show the public that we are on your side – that we ‘get’ the financial pressures all residents are facing at this time.

We know people are facing an ongoing battle with basic costs of living.

Energy bills continue to soar, as does the cost of food, fuel and other necessities which all make household budgets a real struggle. Some figures I recently saw estimated that the average weekly household income in Oldham has dropped from around £437 to £417 this year.

Lower income and rising costs is an unhealthy combination and we simply couldn’t ignore that fact.

We needed to do whatever we could to try and help and that’s why we have also appealed to the other precepting and levying authorities to follow our lead in not putting up your bill.

There’s no official confirmation of their final proposals yet, but we certainly put our case strongly and hope they listened.

That focus continues the theme of much of the campaigning work we’ve done in recent times, which has been designed to put money back in local people’s pockets.

A good example is Fare’s Fair, our campaign for cheaper public transport, which saw First giving Oldham residents a 28% saving on daily and weekly bus fares – an offer so successful it has now been rolled out across the rest of Greater Manchester.

Another is Our Fair Energy campaign which saw us promote collective energy switching, bringing 8,700 local residents together to get a cheaper energy deal and deliver an average saving of £171 per household. Again it was so successful it now encompasses all the Greater Manchester authorities.

Standing up for residents like this is what a Co-operative Council should do and that work continues daily in many other areas: including our Get Oldham Working and Fair Credit campaigns.

I want to say a little here about the Council Tax system itself now which was once much higher up the national political agenda than it is at present.

Politicians now appear to generally have got into a cycle whereby it is seen as unquestionably ‘bad’ to put Council Tax up – and unquestionably ‘good’ to freeze or cut it.

To me that is over simplistic and wrong.

Council Tax is there to help provide public services that meet the changing demands of the public – and those setting it every year face their own challenges.

Oldham Council has already delivered £118 million in savings in the last five years, and the 2014-5 budget will see another £23 million taken out. Looking ahead we know we must then also find an estimated £60 million in savings over the next two financial years after that (2015-7). The budget cycle simply gets tougher and tougher each time.

Just like a household budget we’re also seeing rising costs in terms of the increased demand for our services from vulnerable people, plus inflation and costs passed on by service providers to us.

All that requires tough decisions and choices to be made.

If we don’t increase Council Tax to keep pace with those rising costs – plus the well-documented and continuing reductions in Government grants – then, clearly, we have to find even more savings and take that out from what we are already responsible for delivering.

It is also important to point out here that – despite what the Department for Communities and Local Government claims – the Freeze Grant it offers us to not to put your Council Tax up simply does not cover the whole cost i.e. the income we would have got from putting your bills up. In Oldham’s case it will still leave us with a significant shortfall to find again from somewhere next year.

We will, nevertheless, take that on the chin and stick by our guns in the belief that not putting your Council Tax up is clearly the right thing for residents at this time.

However, I also think we must not lose sight of the bigger picture here, which is that Council Tax is actually a very unfair system.

Here in Oldham our residents can pay almost four times as much in Council Tax as people in Westminster in the same property band – and yet they are also living in homes worth significantly less on the property market. Can that really be fair?

For me, the focus in the national debate really shouldn’t be on whether Council A has put Council Tax up by X amount, frozen or cut it by Y. It should be about how we address that kind of discrepancy in the system.

And at a time when we see ongoing debates about the future of Local Government in Scotland and Wales and how they are funded it is also – for me – high time that English authorities started looking at how they ensure they get a better deal, and looking at a system that is also fairer to all our taxpayers.

For next year then, in Oldham, the Council Tax will (subject to approval by Full Council) be frozen, although we can’t make any clear promises about future years given the landscape that I’ve just outlined.

As the pressure to find even more savings cranks up – and with no fat left to cut – it means we will soon need a very honest conversation with communities about what your priorities are from us.

We will need to know what you expect your council to deliver, what you think can manage without, what you can do to help find new solutions and drive costs down, and – crucially – how we balance all of that so we can still invest in projects that create a better Oldham both as a place and for its people.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

More powers needed to tackle private rented accommodation

PRIVATE RENTING: A combination of bad landlords and bad tenants can bring down an area together. How do we tackle this?

PRIVATE landlords divide opinions.

To some they’re the saviour of the state which has failed to build enough social homes for rent. To others they’re money grabbing opportunists who lord over substandard properties while pocketing the cash.

As with most things I suspect people with any knowledge or experience of the private rented sector could make an argument either way – and both statements could be evidenced as truth when a specific example is used.

Clearly the story also varies depending on which part of the UK you come from, your social standing (or ability to pay for choice) and the state of your local housing market.

I should start out here by being clear that the majority of private landlords are good and the majority of private tenants are also well behaved.

The private rented sector in Oldham has grown by a third in 10 years (now over 12,000 homes accounting for 13.6 per cent of the market) and many people clearly see private renting as a necessary affordable option. Of these 12,000 homes, around 55 per cent have tenants claiming some form of Housing Benefit.

One conclusion I’ve reached, however, is that an unhealthy cycle of bad landlords and bad tenants can begin where they bring down an area together – and that particular problem is what I want to focus on in this blog.

Let’s look at things from a landlord’s point of view, first.

Bad tenants? Well, they are a liability, can cost a significant amount of money and put at risk the ability of a landlord to pay their own mortgage – aside from the impact they have on neighbours. With direct payment of Housing Benefit and those on low incomes now forced to pay some element of Council Tax, the rent sometimes comes second place. And, of course, some will just not plan their income and expenditure well and get into debt unwittingly.

What about from a tenant’s point of view?

Bad landlords? Well, they’re in it for the short-term. They’ve bought a property cheaply and just want the maximum return in the shortest time without forking out on anything ‘unnecessary’: even if that is something fundamental to a healthy home, like good heating, water and the property being a decent state of repair. There are sometimes reports of bullying, intimidation and the feeling of being trapped in a property which isn’t decent but where the tenant has little choice. They might not have good credit, for example, or may rely on Housing Benefit and are restricted by rent levels without the means to top up their Housing Benefit entitlement.

In isolation a good housing team would deal with both sides of this issue because – of course – neither is acceptable. A good approach to the private rented sector should address bad tenants and landlords and at the same time support those genuine landlords and tenants who respect their homes and neighbourhoods.

But what do you do when a whole neighbourhood is caught up in this kind of cycle of decline? Poor properties in an area with poor environmental standards will inevitably reach a certain point when those who do have a choice simply decide to leave. Over a period of time the concentration of properties like this ultimately means a concentration of social problems.

Up and down the UK, pockets exist like this which tell the story of a cycle of decline. For decision makers, policy officers and the community this poses a real problem – so what is the solution?

There’s something instinctively wrong for me when public funds are used to pay for private housing in substandard properties. There’s no argument that there isn’t money in poorer areas to pay for property improvements: quite the opposite.

Let’s do some sums…

Let’s suppose that you pick up a cheap terrace house at auction from around £40,000. In Oldham a two-bed terrace house will usually fetch around £395 a month rent in those areas (although examples of particularly poor properties are readily available for much less).

At £395 a month, an annual return of £4,740 on an investment of £40,000 represents a return approaching 12 per cent. That isn’t bad at all when you consider the national average ‘yield’ is 6 per cent. Any suggestion then that in areas of low rents there isn’t the money to invest in creating decent homes is simply untrue.

Clearly there will be cases of accidental landlords who might inherit a property from a relative, or perhaps someone who bought at the very top of the housing market (and that seems like a long time ago now).

It’s more likely to be a statement of attitude about ‘worth’ than any business case. Landlords either feel as though they don’t have to invest because the supply of tenants is strong, or they feel somehow the tenants who do appear will make do, or even unworthy as “they’ll only wreck it”.

My answer would be simple. Don’t allow Housing Benefit to be paid on properties which fail to meet the Decent Homes standard.

I accept there’s a major problem with this approach if done in isolation, however, as there isn’t the supply of decent stock in some areas to house those in receipt of Housing Benefits, which represents a huge failure by successive governments to address the lack of investment in social housing.

If my proposal were implemented in isolation it would clearly have a damaging effect. Landlords unable to carry out the necessary repairs would be stuck with a property they cannot rent to those without the ability to pay themselves.

Perhaps then the solution is for a targeted intervention to take place where there is evidence of poor housing conditions, low rents and property values, and a high turnover of tenancies – plus associated environmental issues.

As it stands, to have any chance of introducing a Licensing Scheme requires evidence of high crime rates linked directly to private rented properties. But the two do not always go together and, if the need is a housing one, then the measure of need should be housing-related.

With a targeted intervention there has to be something in it for everyone if we are to win hearts and minds and make genuine progress.

So, the deal should be two-way, I suggest. If landlords step up and invest to make their homes decent then they should receive more protection from bad tenants too.

You could perhaps go even further. In many countries the relationship is between the state and the landlord with the former paying slightly less in rent in return for taking on responsibility for repairs and maintenance, tenant turnover and vacant periods.

If we accept that part of the reason ‘subprime renting’ takes place is due to the lack of decision makers investing in a sufficient number of decent homes then perhaps this could work. It happens on a smaller scale already in the UK.

We should do far more to encourage good landlords and good tenants than we do. Then, hand in hand, we can have a meaningful system that protects tenants from poor landlords and protects landlords from poor tenants.

As a Council, we are taking tough action on poor-quality privately rented homes and dealt with 279 cases in 2012/13, with 95 per cent of landlords immediately complying.

We’re reviewing our options around selective landlord licensing and are looking to start consultation on specific areas in spring.

We’ve also just launched ‘LetsHelpYou’ – an award-winning free self-service website to support households to access the Private Rented Sector. This encourages better quality properties to be advertised and allows tenants and landlords to match up. It complements our co-operative principles. Click here to find out more.

The Council is also in discussion with the National Landlords Association about how we can encourage smaller-scale landlords who need their advice or support

In spite of our efforts though, it’s clear that councils can’t act alone on this: we need a strong approach from Government on this issue too.

And – just perhaps – when the national media finishes its obsession with negative headlines about benefits claimants it might also get around to shining a clearer light on this issue in a more meaningful way?

We live in hope!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

2014: The year ahead

I WOULD like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a – slightly belated – happy New Year for 2014.

In the spirit of moving with the times I decided this year that I would record a New Year’s message just before the holiday period as a video blog.

In this I look back on the challenges we faced as a Borough in 2013 and set out our focus for the year ahead.

Metrolink is set to arrive in Oldham town centre later this month and we are expecting great progress across the range of our regeneration programme.

The purpose of these projects is not just to create employment opportunities and reinvigorate our town’s economy, it is also about social investment.

Only by addressing the symbols of decline that people still use a reference point for Oldham can we hope to get even more residents, businesses and partners behind us.

If you’ve not already seen this on the Oldham Council website, then please click the link below to watch my video message.

New Year Leader’s message

Thanks for listening,

Jim