Looked after children

SAFEGUARDING: Oldham Council acts as a Corporate Parent: with a duty to act as a good parent to children and young people in our care and those in the process of leaving care.

FEW PEOPLE give much thought to safeguarding, children in care or those at risk from harm – when the system works.

The vast majority of the council’s budget is spent on services like this that most of us don’t see or use – but because they take the lion’s share of the budget when the cuts come those same areas are put under massive pressure.

This week Oldham Council’s Cabinet approved a proposal to freeze Council Tax for residents for 2014/5.

We’ve done this because we recognise that – however difficult it will be to balance our budgets with a further £60m of Government cuts in the next few years – many residents are also struggling with their finances. Average weekly wages have dropped from £437 to £417 at the same time as the costs of living, driven by items like utility bills, continue to rise.

We did not want to add to that burden or be the cause of any further financial harm to hard-pressed Oldhamers.

Like all other local authorities, Oldham Council is a ‘Corporate Parent’.

This means that when a young person in our borough is in a situation where it is unsafe and/or impossible to remain with their family, we instead take on that role of a good parent instead.

We provide residential care with experienced and trained staff, as well as working with a brilliant group of foster carers and supporting permanent adoption into new loving and supportive families.

It can be easy to think that being a Council Leader like myself is just about having an overview of big developments which take the majority of the headlines – but the truth is again that the bulk of work is going on quietly behind the scenes.

I chair the Safeguarding Accountability Board where I hold professionals and Cabinet Members to account to ensure those at risk do not fall through the net.

You can never be 100 per cent sure and you can only make judgements on the information provided. This isn’t about political interference, of course, but can be just as simple as asking an innocent question which adds value to the work of our team.

Often this means meeting frontline staff and talking through what works well and how we can help to remove any blockages which might exist.

I take that role as a Corporate Parent very seriously and when presented with an issue, problem or serious safeguarding review, I always ask myself ‘What would I want and expect for my own children?’.

It can be difficult at times to step back and take a measured professional view.

Some of the cases of abuse are harrowing and I have to say there have been times when I’ve left a meeting, or finished reading a report and had to ‘pull myself together’. I hope that just means I’m human.

There are currently nearly 400 ‘Looked After Children’ in Oldham. Their reasons for entering the care system are varied, but many have experienced significant trauma (including abuse or neglect) and need tailored specialist support to ensure that they have every chance in life – like their peers – in family care.

As well as having to cope with the upheaval of moving away from home and the emotional fallout of a troubled family history, children in care can often feel out of control.

Indeed, many are the victims of unfortunate circumstances and – although we do provide care for children on a voluntary basis – many find themselves in our care due to court orders or police intervention and feel unable to change the situation they find themselves in.

That’s why we have an Oldham Children in Care Council, which enables all looked after children to have a voice and share their ideas about how the services we provide for them could be improved.

Children as young as five years old are engaged with this and have the opportunity to regularly meet senior directors and councillors at Oldham Council to give feedback and suggestions about how their care experience could change for the better.

We also make sure to celebrate the many brilliant achievements of our Looked After Children with the ‘Stars in Our Eyes Awards’, which is now in its sixth year.

This year 267 children and care leavers were nominated for various awards which recognise their efforts at school and in extracurricular activities, developing positive social skills and healthy lifestyles, and going on to great things after leaving care, such as attending college and university.

Transition to life as an adult can be hard enough even when you have family to lean on when times get tough, which is why Oldham Council provides After Care support to ensure that our Looked After Children don’t simply ‘drop off the radar’ at 18. We work with them to assess their needs and help them to achieve the things they need to have in place to achieve their aspirations. That includes education, training, employment, mental and physical health, finances, support networks, leisure activities and family contacts: all the things that most people would say they need for a rounded and happy life.

There are many ways that each of us can all do to help create a Cooperative Oldham which supports our young people.

That ranges from looking out for our children’s friends or neighbour’s children and paying Council Tax which funds the borough’s Corporate Parenting services – right through to the efforts of our brilliant foster and adoptive families. Last month, Harold and Glenys Cockroft from Waterhead were named in the New Year honours list after fostering more than 150 children in Oldham over the last 40 years. Clearly their contributions are exemplary, but everyone can ‘do their bit’ in some way.

This isn’t big brother, this is us all working together and setting the standard of what is – and isn’t –acceptable.

It is easy to forget that it can be really difficult to work in social care at times but these people are our unsung heroes in so many ways.

As a Corporate Parent we put our trust in them and give support and challenge in the way you would expect, but we are also left with a deep respect for what they do.

I’d to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all who play a part in this vital field of our work.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Recycling flat lining while costs soar

Over the past five to 10 years a great amount of funding has been spent aimed at helping residents increase recycling rates.

This isn’t solely about caring for our environment, although that clearly is important; it’s also the financially sound way to manage the limited resources we have as a borough.

Whenever we put rubbish into the black wheelie bin a large number of people believe the only cost incurred is that of sending the bin waggon to collect it. But of course it has to go somewhere.

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Landfill costs have increased dramatically and will continue to go up as the government use the ‘Landfill tax levy’ as a financial deterrent against local councils, to push up recycling rates. So, even if we owned our own landfill site we’d still pay the tax to government.

So, even if we were to recycle at the same rate – the cost of what we do send to landfill goes up, and up, and up. And we are not talking small sums of money.

Last year we sent 39,637 tonnes of household waste to landfill at a cost of £270 a tonne. That’s a whopping £10,701,990 – almost £11m!

To put that into context the whole ‘Neighbourhood Services’ department budget, which pays for street cleaning, libraries, community centres, parks and countryside services, street lighting, road maintenance – so everything you see – was £14m in total.

So if we increase recycling (or even just stopped producing waste in the first place) we would save the town a serious amount of money which we can use to offset the cuts to council services from central government. And that surely is a better option?

With recycling rates now at 37 per cent (down two per cent on the previous year) we can and must do better as a community. If we can increase that by just five per cent we will save more than £500,000 – and that could make a real difference. For instance it would pay for all our district libraries.

We know that the current system can take a while to understand – what exactly can you recycle? I was baffled when I was told yogurt pots couldn’t be included.

But it isn’t impossible to understand, it just takes a moment to get used to the system.

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We’ve invested in the containers – people can’t say they don’t have enough bins – and we’ve invested in a reliable collection service which aims for 100 per cent collection rates.

Clearly that isn’t always possible, due to a host of reasons, including parked vehicles or human error, but we are not far off.

We’re working with Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority to get the information out to communities and we are also taking the messages into schools so our pupils are educated from an early age.

We’ve invested in enforcement – we’re not fining people for leaving bin lids open more than 45 degrees, but persistent offenders who believe that they can fill two to three bins to the brim with waste they haven’t bothered to separate, effectively creating two or three  ‘black bins’.

We try to educate before taking enforcement action and we have seen real improvements with our ‘Changing Behaviours’ programme.

Of course not all waste has to come to the council for recycling. Increasingly the ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ message is beginning to come through more and more.

Websites like Oldham Freecycle let residents’ list items for free so that others who can get use out of them will come and collect. I’ve used the site and without fail the goods have been collected within hours – quicker than a bulky goods collection could have taken.

The government does need to do far more than simply punish communities with landfill taxes. One of the biggest generators of waste are our very wealthy supermarkets which continue to over package food.

They claim consumers now expect fruit and veg to look neat and pretty, I think that’s a poor excuse.

Perhaps a ‘landfill generator’ tax to supermarkets would focus minds?

Until then we’ve got to do what we can to reduce the cost to Oldham. Now some of course will say ‘that’s what I pay my council tax for’, which of course is true.

But it makes no more sense than it would to turn your heating on full blast and leave all your windows and doors wide open. You could do it, but it makes no sense.

If we all recycle more that will save money and that could have a big impact when we are forced to look at cutting services our communities rely on. Surely this has got to be an easy win?

You can find out more about recycling across Greater Manchester at http://www.recycleforgreatermanchester.com/

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Opening the floodgates…

FLOODY HELL: Today's floods tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations triumph over real value.
FLOODY HELL: Today’s floods tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations reign supreme.

HAVE THE floodgates just opened to expose the true impact of the Government’s cuts programme?

The wall-to-wall media coverage of events in the South West and other areas has been inescapable in recent days and, obviously, my sympathies go out to everyone affected.

But the real issues at stake here go way beyond the immediate chaos and disruption we are watching on our TV screens.

Firstly, let’s be clear that extreme weather conditions like this will always trump any human pre-planning or intervention. At best, governments can only invest to reduce the likelihood of mass damage and to limit the scale of impact.

I suspect the blame game on this will run on for some time, but it does at least appear to be commonly accepted that dredging would have given bulging rivers more capacity, thus limiting the damage and speeding up the recovery.

Interviews with local folk, who know better than any minister or quango, tell the story of their anger and sheer frustration.

That’s not because these people unreasonably believe the government could have prevented all the damage – and not because they’ve all suddenly graduated with a degree in hindsight – but the fact is clear that for many years local people have raised concerns about the lack of action by the Environment Agency in dredging these rivers.

The Environment Agency has responded in anger against ministers pointing the finger of blame at them and the media, who the board claim have whipped up this storm (yes, that pun was intended).

But a very legitimate question to the Environment Agency itself would be whether this is all about the request for funding being declined – or whether it was the case that the refusal was accepted all too readily.

Was it the case – faced with ‘know-it-all’ residents pushing professionals – that the top brass at the EA simply pulled down the shutters and ignored their concerns?

Questions also go to ministers who have undervalued public service and, worse still, offered it up almost as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.

I’m clearly old-fashioned in believing that public services are designed to serve the public interest and have developed over time to respond to better understanding of community and social need.

If the first responsibility of a government is to protect the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens then, on this occasion, it has clearly failed.

But it is the floods today that tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations triumph over real value.  In 2012, the UK had already faced significant flooding which the Environment Agency itself reported had cost the UK economy £600m.

So, what will it be tomorrow?

Could it, for example, be a crisis in adult social care where money is being ripped away from town halls with, it appears, the support of the electorate as part of a cynical attack on the ‘wasteful’ public sector?

Government has failed to address the question about the future of public services, so maybe it time’s to put it to the public. In Oldham, the cuts to YOUR council would total £201m in recent times, so what gives?

I imagine people would queue up to suggest that we sack more managers and stop councillors’ allowances. Well, we’ve already done a far bit of that, but let’s go the whole hog; that’s £5m saved. Result.

So with £196m left to cut we have taken the easier decisions, although some of those are painful.

With £60m to find in savings over the next two financial years I cannot stress enough that public service for Oldham Council will no longer be business as usual.

If you accept that a council can take that kind of money out of its budget then the government and residents must also accept that risks come hand in hand with that.

If cuts continue in adult social care then there may come a time when your friend or relative is denied care. If cuts continue in safeguarding children at risk, or drug and alcohol services, then that will also not be risk free.

Putting our next round of cuts into stark terms, of the £60m needed to balance government cuts, what will be left is absolutely critical.

The vast majority which remains is spent in safeguarding, adults and children’s’ services.

Most of those services are completely invisible to members of the public – until something goes wrong.

The services that we feel and use daily as residents actually only account for a fraction of council spend – around £14m in total.

So even if we closed every library and other public buildings, stopped cleaning the streets, stopped emptying bins, stopped routine maintenance of highways and parks, and turned off all the streetlights, we’d still have a further £46m to cut from those essential ‘people’ services.

But it is clear to me now that the tension from residents is beginning to show.

When hard-pressed staff have to decline to deal with requests my inbox is filled with complaints about how the council has failed people by saying no.

Even when officers point to the budget cuts people show little sympathy as they focus on the impact on themselves and their immediate neighbours.

Some do question whether or not our investment in regeneration at a time of cuts is the right approach – and my simple answer is yes. It’s the only approach unless we agree to accept decline and allow hope and aspiration to be the next victim of cutbacks.

Public services are here to provide a public service. When it works well, few people see the scale and impact, but when it fails it unleashes a media storm matched by public outrage.

We all have to take responsibility for speaking up and saying that we value our public services or we must accept that, when the time comes, the safety net won’t be there to catch us.

Returning to the crisis of today: not to worry?

Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles has now been put in charge and quickly travelled to the areas affected by the floods.

A bit late in the day, perhaps, but at least he’ll whip the local council into emptying the bins each week again. A flood is no excuse surely?

Thanks for listening,

Jim

The face of retail is changing

HIGH STREETS: Business rates are a major issue – we should link rateable values with rent levels or property values.

FOR MANY towns the traditional high street line-up of local family run shops is now a thing of the past.

There’s a range of reasons for this dating back to the emergence of the supermarket in the 1950s, for example, and on to large warehouse type megastores.

We’ve also seen the rise of American-style malls, out-of-town retail parks and big multiple retailers.

These are all in a position to dictate terms and push up rents in the best location: often meaning those without the means to pay big sums are pushed further out – or go out of business altogether.

Smaller firms also find themselves competing not just on rent levels but against the significant buying power the ‘big boys’ now have; retail giants like Primark can undercut any market stall trader.

But if you ask many small town centre businesses what vexes them, chances are they will say it’s the cost of business rates.

Even now with the small business rate relief in place many town centre firms simply do not benefit and the costs can be significant.

Calls for a supermarket tax have been made in response, in an attempt to get some local benefit back from national supermarket operators.

In Oldham the largest business rate payer, after the Royal Oldham Hospital, is already Tesco. Adding another small percentage on to what supermarkets like them pay would go some way – but would not generate enough money alone – to give traditional high street firms a fighting chance.

Internet retailing is also a big development. This shows little sign of slowing down in its inexorable march to take a greater share of the UK pound; although that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Over the years we’ve seen many new businesses created here in Oldham from people with a great idea and a small amount of money, but they need a helping hand.

In my view it’s time we called for a level playing field to give these high street outlets a fair shot.

The Tax Justice Network has calculated that tax evasion in 145 countries worldwide costs $3.1 trillion every year.

In the UK alone, more than £70 billion is lost, which could pay for more than half of the NHS budget. At a time of dwindling public finances and brutal cuts to services, people are beginning to wonder whether the status quo is right or fair.

Although the culprits are numerous, particular attention has been drawn to discussion of a so-called ‘Amazon Tax’ in recent months in America.

Critics of Amazon.com argue that its avoidance of paying sales tax in many states – despite having warehouses there – gives them an unfair advantage over ‘real life’ shops with storefronts. Following drawn out legal battles in courts across the country, Amazon is now forced to pay this tax in 20 American states.

But what about here in the UK?

Amazon is the UK’s leading online retailer, but it paid just £3.2 million tax on sales of over £4.2 billion last year.

Although frowned upon my many, this is totally legal at present because HMRC allows it to get away with arguing that it should be taxed in Luxembourg. This situation is similarly dismal for countless other online retail corporations.

If taxed fairly, the potential income to Britain’s economy from online sales could be transformational.

A recent Ofcom study found that Britons spend far more money online than any other nation. On average, we click and spend £1,175 per person each year. Almost three quarters of us buy goods online every month, and nearly a quarter of us do it every week.

The total revenue from UK internet sales in 2013 was £32 billion. Even if a tiny 1 per cent sales tax was applied to that, it would pump a much-needed £320 million back into the economy which could then be used to support hard working small business owners who often find themselves out-priced by e-retailers.

The Manchester Evening News last year highlighted the unfairness in the current system of business rates which sees the location of struggling ‘Class A’ high streets priced out of regenerating themselves. Notably, it showed that a Fish and Chip shop in Rochdale was paying more than Harrods and Harvey Nichols (per sq metre).

At a time when businesses are closing it isn’t just price-sensitive punters who are encouraging more charity shops to open. The huge discount they get on business rates (80-100 per cent) means that even by paying market rents they can afford to operate on the high street.

My suggested solution is simple.

I would make internet retailers pay UK tax on purchases sent to UK addresses. It’s time to end companies abusing legal loopholes by basing themselves in tax havens.

An additional 1-2 per cent ‘convenience sales tax’ should also be applied to purchases online. This is to recognise the cost savings of a non-high street presence and the fact that a great number of traders are international and providing very little local benefit.

We should also link rateable values with rent levels or property values. This would make sure that the local trader in Rochdale isn’t paying more than Harrods in Knightsbridge, and that the out of town retail shed isn’t paying less than a town centre newsagent.

These measures (or even just one) would help to fund an overhaul of business rates which could see the high street at least given a fighting chance in the future.

There will be conflict which we will need to address, however, not least of all for local councils and the move to self-financing.

If the review of rates linked to local property values wasn’t carried out properly it would simply mean more cash for wealthy councils like Kensington and Chelsea and far less cash for us here in Oldham.

I’m sure academics can make the case for or against all of these points and I suspect some might even not be possible, but many people would at least agree that the status quo isn’t really an option either.

OLDHAM: Much proactive work is done and underway to stand up for the health of the high street.
OLDHAM: Much proactive work is underway to stand up for the health of the high street.

There is still a great deal local councils can do, and in Oldham we do have a proactive story to tell on this:

– We are balancing new development evenly across the town to ensure we maintain footfall levels and don’t displace customers.

– Even though budget reductions have affected us, we’ve reviewed council-owned buildings out of town and relocated staff – around 500 extra staff are now based in the town centre as a result.

– We have also scrapped weekend car parking charges for up to three hours and on street charges for up to 30 minutes daily.

– We have worked with businesses to create a programme of events and activities as well as specialist craft and student markets.

– We have invested in a combined central library, gallery and tourist information place as we work to attract new visitors as the Gateway to the Pennines.

– We have established the Enterprise Trust to offer grants totalling £1 million to new business ideas and an additional £1 million High Street fund to create a Yorkshire Street independents quarter.

– We have acquired a significant number of buildings in the independents quarter which allows us to offer cheap and more flexible leases.

– We have invested in markets, bringing stalls onto the high street and supporting new businesses to open in Oldham, now meaning Tommyfield Indoor Market is 98 per cent full.

– We are creating a new Town Team to ensure businesses have on-site support, mentoring and access to grant funding, as well as ensuring basic maintenance is done to a high standard.

– We have invested more than £3 million to upgrade our new Metrolink stops and deliver a brighter ‘welcome’ to visitors.

– We have created a £150m capital investment fund which will add variety to the town centre in the form of a new leisure centre, cinema, restaurants, bars, shops, theatre, heritage centre, hotel and conference centre as well as the tram system and new public spaces.

– We have also supported private investment in new offices, investment in the shopping centre and new town centre residential developments.

All that – and there’s more to come – because here in Oldham we are determined to fight back and stand up for the high street.

But it’s also time the Government pitched in to help with things that lie outside of our control – and what better place to start but with unaffordable business rates?

Thanks for listening,

Jim