Greater Manchester has a long and strong history of working together. We’ve seen our economy grow, the creation of jobs and serious investment in transport and infrastructure which has connected us all across the region and beyond.
With all major parties in Westminster looking for ground as we consider the ‘English question’ the emerging city regions are a natural reference point. What’s the point in reinventing something which already exists and works?
In Oldham our approach is clear. We are a collection of communities in our own right, from Failsworth through to Saddleworth, as the borough of Oldham. It hasn’t been an easy marriage with many communities still harking back to the days before 1974 when each township and village was proud self-governing councils surrounding Oldham County Borough.
Politicians are delusional if they attempt to believe that lines drawn on a map for electoral convenience makes a jot of difference to the public.
The sense of belonging communities across Oldham feel can be seen across the whole of Greater Manchester. For some, it will be a discrete neighbourhood, a township or village. For others it will be historic counties such as Lancashire or West Riding of Yorkshire.
Devolution isn’t localism and it certainly isn’t about community identity and we shouldn’t pretend it is. But what we are talking about though is important in its own right.
Westminster is so disconnected from the lives of people in Greater Manchester it is a nonsense that so much is decided there. Decisions should be made by local people who they can hold to account (and they do!).
We’ve proven we can deliver public services which provide a better service and save the public purse money too. When the national Work Programme failed Greater Manchester leaders stood up to the challenge. Today we’re helping those out of work. It costs less when we do it and we help far more people.
We’ve proven we can grow the local economy by working beyond our own boundaries and understanding how micro our economy can be. We’ve invested in transport and brought together employment sites. We’ve a long way to go and local people know that all too well, but we can claim credit to being the largest growing city region outside of London.
But there is a still a huge gap. London is a powerhouse that hasn’t happened by accident. The capital we see today is the result of more than 100 years centralised government. Focusing cash on things they do see (Westminster and its surrounding areas) at the cost of things they don’t see as often.
Don’t just take my word for it. Transport and infrastructure investment which is commonly accepted as a vital foundation of economic growth is huge. Londoners enjoy more than £5,400 a year per person while the North West of England receives just £599. The same can be said of housing spend, culture and the arts and almost every other area of public spend.
We don’t want any more than anywhere else, we just want the same. Isn’t that fair?
With the prospect of further powers and control over the public purse we’ve got to get our Greater Manchester house in order.
We’ve done well but the mixture of bodies and committees which make up the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) is complex and confusing.
If we want to be a slim and efficient machine then we must be, well a slim and efficient machine. But we must also uphold the values of public service; democratic, open and transparent.
When some media outlets talk about devolution to the city region they too often have a Manchester City Council centric view, with the image of the town hall in Manchester used to represent all of us. Whilst Manchester City Council is important it isn’t the City Region alone.
We must also not fall into the trap we accuse Westminster of; not all of Greater Manchester is the same and has the same issues. In the same way we see a national ‘North-South divide’ we see the same here on our doorstep.
While the south of the city region booms we don’t see the same pace in the North, and it cannot be the case that we accept some areas just don’t do as well as others.
The post-industrial towns and boroughs must feature in a meaningful way and there must be a clear articulation of the future, and it cannot be simply a low cost commuter belt.
Whatever the reasons, of which economists and officials will give many, it is a fact that over the past decade more than 27,000 jobs have been created in the south of the conurbation with just 2,400 in the north.
Now it could be argued that aside from practical issues of land availability and the obvious point that the Combined Authority has only been in existence for three years as an authority in its own right.
But that doesn’t address where we go from here – the official forecast is that the north south dividend will continue. Over the next ten years it is forecast that over 100,000 new jobs will be created, but almost 79 per cent will be located in the south.
And it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a play for Oldham, Rochdale and Tameside. The same is true of neighbourhoods in the north of Manchester.
Until earlier this year those in the north paid 50 per cent more than their southern counterparts in bus fares. But it wasn’t Greater Manchester who tackled that. It was left to Oldham to start the campaign for fairer bus fares – which we won by working in partnership with Firstbus.
It might not be as sexy as brand new trams or national rail, but the affordability of transport for many of my constituents is an important issue, especially in connecting those in need of work with the available jobs.
Still house prices are significantly less in the north than in the south and residents in the north will be predominately paid less.
Clearly there are complex reasons. The south will see significant pockets of poverty in the same way there are areas of significant affluence in the north of the conurbation.
We should be clear and celebrate the fact that we have seen investment which was only achieved through our work with the other nine councils.
The most significant is the investment in Metrolink which will undoubtedly act as a boost to the local economy and create a ‘point of difference’ for potential investors. We’ve also worked hard to attract funding to support new businesses to set up and existing businesses to grow.
We’ve been able to do things which we could not achieve, or afford to do alone. The business Growth Hub is a fine example of the power we can generate together with specialist support for growth in all areas, including internationalisation and access to finance.
The story of post-industrial Britain and ‘Northern Milltown’s’ is well rehearsed. Indeed in many ways it is staggering that more than 300 mills have been decommissioned and that the manufacturing base of Oldham has so fundamentally changed that we don’t see more problems than we do.
Post war Oldham has witnessed massive improvements on housing, health and education and that shouldn’t be underestimated, but we do need to be honest and say, like many other places, we haven’t realised our full potential.
The challenge is, what are we going to do about it?
Firstly, it is for Oldham to define its own future not wait for others to do it for us. Our ambitious but very necessary investment in regenerating Oldham is an important part of that. Some will argue with cuts to the council we shouldn’t be investing in big projects like the Old Town Hall or heritage centre and theatre. My view is that now is exactly the time to invest in jobs, homes and creating the type of town where people are happy to live and raise their families.
It is also critical that we invest in education and skills if we are to succeed in giving our young people the best possible start, and to make them competitive and attractive to business – or of course the entrepreneur of the future creating jobs for others.
With greater devolution comes greater responsibility. If Westminster are willing to let go of power and resources there is a greater responsibility on the leaders/mayor and councillors who make up the combined authority.
The sales pitch to the people of Greater Manchester cannot be slightly more of the same; it’s got to be significant. We have to aim for a city region where fairness and equality is at the heart of what we do and where the dividends of growth are shared across all communities.
We’ve done wonders with relatively small amounts of funding within the constraints of national government and often at the whim of ministers.
We live in exciting times and the prospect of more say over the things that affect the people we seek to represent is critical if we are to realise our full potential.
But let’s not forget, if we only focus on Manchester we miss the GREATER opportunity.
“Someone taking advantage of you sexually, for their own benefit. Through threats, bribes, violence, humiliation, or by telling you that they love you, they will have the power to get you to do sexual things for their own, or other people’s benefit or enjoyment (including: touching or kissing private parts, sex, taking sexual photos).”
In the wake of the recent report into cases in Rotherham some very serious questions are again rightly being asked about how professionals and politicians deal with issues of CSE.
It is understandable that when something so serious happens we all question what it means for our own town.
As Chair of the local Safeguarding Accountability Board it is my job as council leader to ensure that professionals involved in safeguarding work for children and adults are held to account, challenged and supported.
I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon on this subject – and nor I am going to line up and grandstand as others have done with the benefit of hindsight.
But I do want to take a step back and give some context to this complex and difficult issue.
There is always a danger that in trying to address this topic you run the risk of over-simplifying something which is actually extremely complex.
There’s also a risk that, even with the best intentions, you find yourself making sweeping generalisations which don’t hold up to scrutiny.
But I’ve also taken the view that not writing anything about this at all is not an option.
It also goes without saying that keeping children safe is the priority and any other concern is a secondary one.
This week we invited the Oldham Chronicle along to meet our Multi Agency Solutions Hub (MASH) to talk about the work we do to prevent child sexual exploitation, to support the victims of abuse and, of course, ultimately bring offenders to justice.
Opening up like this to the media wasn’t a fanfare. We aren’t saying we are perfect here and we’re certainly not saying there have never been problems in Oldham.
What we want to demonstrate is that we take it seriously, that we learn lessons when things go wrong here or elsewhere and that we have the right policies, procedures and culture in place to make sure victims are supported and not allowed to fall through the net.
For the purposes of this blog I’ll focus on the particular issue of grooming although that does need to be put into the context of wider child protection.
As it stands most young people will be at greatest risk of harm from a family member or someone associated with the family. It is also the case that in terms of emerging danger there is growing concern about how new technology is being used by those seeking to groom and abuse; and that is more likely to be white men.
On the particular issue of grooming covered in Rotherham and other places we need to be honest. There are clear characteristics to that kind of abuse and sexual exploitation.
It’s a pattern of abuse which identifies vulnerable girls, grooms them in a very calculated and systemic way and then brings them into a circle of abusers where they are used as sex objects for the gratification of men with a sickening view of women.
Anyone who shies away from accepting that in Rotherham, Oxford, Rochdale and here in Oldham – and that this particular form of abuse is predominately Pakistani men targeting white girls – is not helping the victims, and nor is it helping the Asian community at large.
Often the word culture is used in this context and it immediately conjures up an image of multi-cultural Britain with different races of people.
But what I’m talking about here – and what has been evidenced in all those places – are toxic cultures that develop within communities and institutions and influence how often those involved or connected act when the behaviours of those people are challenged. I’m talking about how groups of people, communities, organisations and institutions set their own behaviours, rules and develop accepted norms.
This has happened in Rotherham and other places previously mentioned, but the same was true of some people in the Catholic Church which institutionally covered up child abuse for decades.
The same was true of some people of the media industry who used and abused their position and celebrity status while others seemingly looked on.
The same was true of some parliamentarians – and the same is true of some teachers, some social workers, some health workers, some community workers, some family members and any other profession, race or religion or community you care to mention. You get the point.
The thing that ties them all together is that some people will abuse children – and they will appear in all walks of life and come from all backgrounds.
But the challenge here is that regardless of cultures which develop or concerns about what going public might mean for wider community relations, the public should be able to expect that those placed in positions of authority – and those tasked with protecting vulnerable people – rise and act above it.
The challenge is ensuring the right checks and balances are in place and that we don’t allow complexities to be a reason to explain away the issue without tackling it and putting victims first.
Oldham is a large town in a large city region. With a population of more than 227,000 people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds coming together across different communities, groups and institutions.
It is fact of life that some of our residents will seek to harm and abuse. That can’t really be news to news to anyone. And is there a problem of abuse here which has the same characteristics as highlighted in Rochdale, Oxford and Rotherham?
Well, today I can tell you that we have 230 children with Child Protection Plans in place that cover a range of concerns about the potential welfare of the child. It’s important to note that covers a wide range of harm and is clearly not just potential sexual abuse. The plans can be in place to ensure children are healthy and well cared for, as an example, or if we are concerned they might be exposed to domestic violence.
In terms of the particular form of abuse I’m discussing on the blog, I can tell you that we are currently supporting a total of 70 young people identified as potential victims with plans in place to protect and assist them with a range of partner organisations. Of those, 45 are seen as low-risk, 9 as medium risk and 16 as high risk. These are people who, without support and intervention could potentially become victims – and that could be because of the social groups they mix in or their friendships. But these figures and the levels of risk individuals are at can also change from day to day, so whatever data we give is simply a snapshot of one moment of time.*
Do we have a culture in Oldham of hiding from the truth or are we fearful of upsetting people with it? No. But that isn’t to say we are careless either and I hope this blog has given an honest assessment to tackle head on some of the issues local people have raised.We are mindful of the impact that what we do can have on community relations, of course. But we want to bring criminals to book and in doing so we also want to make sure that those who are innocent aren’t tarred with the same brush.
Our own experience is that when we do see this kind of crime brought in front of the court, very shortly afterwards far right groups will jump on it to try and tar a whole community.
That, however, isn’t an excuse not to do something – it’s actually even more of a reason to ensure that we act.
If we don’t tackle wrongdoing we give more oxygen to those who seek to gain politically by accusing those in authority of cover-ups and failures. You can’t beat that world view with more cover ups. You beat it with honesty and by acting responsibly.
As I write this Greater Manchester Police (GMP) – working with local councils across the city region – are proactively trying to raise awareness of CSE through community activity, roadshows and by speaking to young people. This was the result of work undertaken in April 2012 by the Greater Manchester Safeguarding Partnership.
The Phoenix Project is work ongoing across the region to provide advice, support and guidance to these teams to ensure that all professionals are working to the best standards and to improve the services offered to victims and those at risk of child sexual exploitation.
GMP are also in the middle of investigations which will soon see some suspected offenders arrested and presented to court; although it is right to point out that this is predominately focused on historic cases of abuse.
We see this problem as complex and one with a number of aspects which must be addressed.
Too often young girls are targeted and even they themselves don’t see or understand the early signs of grooming. Through the hard hitting play “Somebody’s Sister; Somebody’s Daughter” we work in schools and communities to educate our youngsters and make them aware of the early warning signs of grooming.
You might question the value of performing a play? Many people did, but I can tell you that 35 young people came forward to discuss concerns they had last year alone as a result of seeing it.
We work closely here with different agencies now through the MASH, which is where professionals work alongside each other to review cases that come in, share information and ensure that victims don’t fall through gaps between different agencies.
So, do we have the right checks and balances in place here then in Oldham? We strongly believe so, but we cannot be complacent nor can we ever believe that we are perfect.
We treat all those identified in this work as victims. Regardless of their background or their previous behaviour we do not allow that to be used to explain away a problem and ignore it.
We also don’t pigeonhole victims. Although the majority of known victims of CSE are white girls, not all of them are. Increasingly vulnerable boys are groomed on line by older men, for example, and youngsters from all backgrounds, including the Asian community, are vulnerable. Abusers will seek out opportunities to exploit whoever, wherever and whenever they can in society.
I have focused in this post-Rotherham blog on one particular form of abuse for obvious reasons, but there are many others. Their methods and characteristics evolve over time which is why we must innovate and work differently every day.
Ultimately though, we also need a community response.
You know what is happening in your area – and you are our eyes and ears. We need you to report any concerns so they can be looked into.
MY BLOG this week is the draft text version of my Annual Statement which I delivered – not word for word(!) – In the Council Chamber on September 10…
“My Annual Statement to Full Council is traditionally a time to reflect on the past year and look at our achievements and challenges.
But I want to use it as an opportunity this year to look at what is really important to residents – our basic services – to show where we have gone even further than just delivering those and to look forward at what lies ahead for the borough.
Oldham is a place that has been on an improvement journey for some time and is now ambitious and growing in confidence about where it is going.
I could simply opt to rattle off a stream of good news stories – and I wouldn’t be short of material.
I could point to the deal struck with Odeon to bring a new seven-screen cinema and restaurants to the Old Town Hall, something that is long overdue.
I could point to the 24 per cent fall in the number of 16-18-year old NEETs, the St Mary’s Housing scheme being named the Best Social and Affordable Homes project at the Building Excellence Awards, the record SATs results that saw our young people surge ahead of national averages in the basics of English and maths.
Or I could refer to the building work that is underway around the borough right now.
I could point to the impressive new Oldham College facilities rising out of the ground, the new FCHO headquarters on Union Street, work underway on the new Oldham Sports Centre, or the fantastic new stand taking shape at Oldham Athletic.
Or I could navel gaze and talk about the Peer Review which found that Oldham Council had undergone a “remarkable transformation” that has seen it become “an ambitious and effective council”, or that we were highly commended in the LGC’s ‘Best Council of the Year’ award for 2014.
But I’m not going to do that.
Instead I’m keeping it real for the people whose opinions really matter and the people who pay our wages – the residents. I want to talk about their priorities, because these are also our own. And I want to show what we are doing to get the basic stuff right and to deliver so much more.
Another year of tough decisions
It has been a challenging year again. Like everyone’s household budget the past year sits against the backdrop of tough financial choices and decisions.
Having already taken £141m out of our budget in the past five years we must now find a further £60m in savings in the next two financial years.
To put that in context it’s half our original budget. It’s devastating – but there’s just no point in me moaning about it.
As a Council and as a Borough we must meet those challenges. That is what every resident would expect us to do. We’re not going to let them down.
We’ve got our building blocks in order. Our financial arrangements are spot on. We filed our final accounts this year faster than any public sector body in the country, breaking a half-century old record, and doing it faster than 45 per cent of FTSE 100 companies.
And that is a vital foundation if we are to realise our ambitions on dwindling budgets.
We’ve said all along that we’re not interested in managing decline – we’re about finding solutions and we are firmly on with that job.
I know the budget challenge is difficult for people to understand. The numbers involved are so enormous that the figures almost seem meaningless, the funding issues are complex and – frankly – I know that even the most sympathetic of residents will still demand that we get the basics right.
In the past year our staff have worked incredibly hard on doing just that.
Officers and politicians alike know that local people depend on Oldham Council’s 700-plus services to help them on a daily basis.
The way these are delivered or funded is fast-changing in so many areas, but there’s also a consistently clear set of priorities that people hold dear.
Residents expect their bins to be emptied, their streets to be cleaned, the grass verges near their homes to be cut, their library to be open – and they expect high standards in those vital services to help and protect vulnerable people of all ages: work that accounts for more than half of what we spent last year.
Getting the basics right in this financial climate is tough – and it is only going to get harder – but we’re rising to that challenge by targeting and prioritising what residents tell us really matters.
Let’s hit the road by starting with highways. It’s residents’ Number One priority. It causes the most telephone calls, Tweets, letters, emails and doorstep exchanges. It always has.
Across the borough right now you cannot fail to have seen major improvement works either completed or underway on your roads.
You can’t fail to have noticed the Metrolink-related highways and footways works in Oldham town centre this year which are moving us ever closer to the high-standard destination we aspire it to become when our regeneration projects are delivered and the doors are open to the public.
But the highways improvements are also underway across every part of the borough.
We are undertaking a huge programme of works to tackle the important gateways and corridors, the busiest routes in the borough like the A62, the A627 and the A669.
Ripponden Road is currently undergoing works to bring it up to scratch right now, for example, as part of this massive targeted spend to sort our priority routes.
Not only will we lift them back up to a good standard but, for the first time ever, we’re also offering a 24-hour repair promise on those roads. A firm pledge to keep them fully repaired and refurbished, and in a good condition that we can all be proud of.
We’re not stopping there either.
For the next financial year, we’ve already planned in and approved major works on the A62 right up to the Pennines, serious repair works to unclassified roads, secondary corridors and minor works in Saddleworth, plus improvement to retaining structures in Greenfield and Denshaw – all worth around £800,000.
In the last year the Department for Transport has rewarded us with significant additional grants. Why is that?
It’s because the Dft recognises our commitment to getting the roads right. Our 24-hour priority route pledge, our rapid response to repair reports and our commitment to investing in value for money equipment means we continually punch significantly above our neighbours’ weight when bidding for Government funding.
Even with the budget challenges we’re much more proactive in managing highways maintenance work than before.
No longer is reactive repair the way we work – the guiding principle now is that prevention is better than cure.
The DfT like that approach – and it’s one we’re determined to stick to.
Often, of course, the media can be your biggest critics on services like this. Pick up the Daily Mail and every day there’s a headline about a council failing to fill in a pothole for years, or residents labelling their street ‘Britain’s Worst’.
But when ITV’s John Stapleton recently spent a day doing his old road repair job with Oldham Council, he got to see our commitment in action and deeds.
He saw how much the job has changed and the commitment of his workmates for the day, Geoff Munroe and Peter Smith, to the job – dedicated staff who’ve been with us for many years.
This potholing team isn’t just one that goes the extra mile – it scampers across the borough daily looking after more than 500 miles of roads.
It is back-breaking work that never stops. The team fills in around 15,000 potholes a year which – even with the state-of-the-art equipment we’ve invested in – is done at a pace which John Stapleton himself admitted left him “absolutely cream-crackered.” after just one afternoon.
In the last year, Geoff, Peter and their colleagues repaired around 27,000 square metres of highways and responded to around 130 rapid response incidents a month, using 14 tonnes of tarmac a day.
Highways is what most people mean when they talk about getting the basics right – and it’s why we’ve invested £14.5m in this year alone to help that team fix the roads.
But reduced budgets also mean less staff and having to find ways to become more effective. In the 1990s the highways team used to be around 140 staff. Now there are just 33 of them – but we’ve spent money on new machines to make repairs quicker and cheaper than ever – like the Jet Patcher and the Multihog – so that jobs that used to take 20 minutes, filling a pothole by hand, now take five minutes.
Ninety-five per cent of that highways team is from Oldham. Their managers have now served more than 107 years’ between them – 39,000 work days – and they live here. Believe me, they get more annoyed than anyone when they drive over a pothole and they live the values by reporting what they see to help us get it fixed. We hope more and more residents ‘do their bit’ and follow that example.
We also know, of course, that Oldham’s roads present greater difficulties than those in the majority of other local authorities.
As one of the highest places in England – and with two-thirds of our Borough being rural roads – we suffer potholes badly after winter weather.
But even when the snow inevitably falls the highways team doesn’t down tools and boil the kettles. It picks up shovels and jumps into gritters to get the borough moving again. It works with our fantastic First Response team and our dedicated adult social care services staff to ensure vulnerable people are not cut off and helps to keep them smiling, warm and safe. It gives their family and friends comfort that they will not be alone.
That’s why we continue to invest heavily in those basics too – making sure they have all the salt stock and equipment they will need to battle whatever the elements throw at us.
And aside from all the essential repair works, we’re also conscious that residents expect a basic standard of what the place should look like. Again, we get that and we’re on with that work. Only last week we approved another £200,000 from our airport dividend to repaint road markings all across the borough.
It would be wrong of me though just to focus on road repairs and emptying bins.
Our environmental services staff cleaned up around 100,000 miles of streets in the last year – removing just a mere(!) 4,000 tonnes of rubbish that blights people’s daily lives and communities. And they cleared 5,700 sites of all manner of waste.
It’s also easy to forget how they worked tirelessly after major events to return districts to normal as soon as possible. A major case being Saddleworth band Contest where they liaised closely with community groups prompting the Dobcross Whit Friday committee to write in saying the team “surpassed themselves (and) did a great job removing all the litter” and a Diggle resident to say “ we couldn’t have asked for more”.
I dread to imagine how many acres of grass verges and parks we are still cutting. We can’t continue to do them all – and we are open to talking to residents groups about this to share costs or find new uses for some of them – but again it is a basic service we know the public values.
But as a Co-operative Council it’s not just about getting it done – it’s about doing the job right.
A Limehurst resident recently contacted us to ask for her thanks to be passed onto “Paul” who was cutting grass near her home. “He did a thorough litter pick of the grass prior to mowing”, she writes. “It was raining hard so it would have been easy for him to stay put on his machine but he didn’t – all he wanted to do was a good job. Paul was very enthusiastic about his work – he seemed really dedicated in doing the best he could and presenting our area in the best possible light”. Well done to Paul.
Away from the maintenance side our basic services teams are also fantastically creative – they have done things this year that really made a difference in our communities.
We’ve been overwhelmed again, for example, by the positive reaction to this year’s Bloom and Grow campaign which routed from Oldham town centre out into the villages of Saddleworth and the district of Royton.
This project is a brilliant example of the Co-operative Council in action – working with local residents and community groups to create beautiful displays that lift the feel of our borough, that make people smile and encourage them to ‘love where you live’. The value of the civic pride we’re fostering can never be itemised on a financial spreadsheet, but we know exactly how important it is to confident communities.
Bloom and Grown isn’t just the Wow bed in the town centre, it’s the legacy it leaves – the ongoing projects on wildflower meadows in districts, the stunning use of planters across the borough, the little projects with elderly people in residential homes, and the by-products of other schemes like Get Oldham Growing.
Community projects and staff volunteering
And being Co-operative in everything we do this year while delivering those basic services has also been about schemes which staff undertake – often in a voluntary capacity – to help communities to help themselves, or to help others.
I think, for example, of Ian Meynell and Saddleworth colleagues who helped residents set up an environmental community group offering what they tell us was “extremely helpful and invaluable experience” – or the work recently featured on BBC One’s Countryfile by Greg Cookson and members of our Dovestone Rangers Group to nurture and conserve the area – or our All Age Disability team which recently hosted an overseas visit from severely visually impaired Japanese students at Castleshaw prompting one to later say of their trip that “We loved London, but we long for Oldham”.
And it’s also just as much about the small – but so vital – gestures as we deliver the basics for people. Like our street cleaner who found a lady’s bus pass in Shaw in July, put it in his pocket and posted it straight back to her that same day.
Services for vulnerable people
As I mentioned earlier, more than half of what we spent goes on services for adults and children’s services. Those basics don’t touch every resident’s lives directly – but when you do need them, their importance can become absolutely critical on a daily basis.
As budgets dwindle we are working incredibly hard to ensure that vulnerable people are protected and that where possible people continue to live independent lives in their own homes, and are looked after with the respect and dignity that they all deserve.
Again, this is a basic service – but again we have added value in the last year.
Working co-operatively with our partners has seen some major success stories that have changed people’s lives for the better.
Our Fuel Poverty Investment Agreement, for example, has lifted 1,000 local families out of fuel poverty. I think here of people like Alison Isaccs whose 12-year-old son Darryl is an asthma sufferer whose condition was made worse by cold conditions in their family home in Fitton Hill. A new boiler and solid wall insulation fitted through the Warm Homes Oldham scheme means his health should improve and there will be less pressure on the NHS. A great example of how different partners can do their bit, and everyone benefits.
I also think here of our work on dementia – that tragic health timebomb which is set to affect so many more hundreds and thousands of people in the years ahead.
Working with NHS Oldham CCG, Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust and Age UK Oldham we are now delivering an enhanced memory service for local people suffering the condition.
A £400,000 investment means memory clinics are now held in GP practices with mental health staff and GPs working together to assess their needs and develop a care plan that supports people with dementia, and their carers and families on an ongoing basis. An early beneficiary has been Pamela Bartlett, a 63-year-old Oldham resident who was frightened when diagnosed in February this year, but is now just one of many people being helped to come to terms and cope with the condition.
Opportunities and aspirations
As a Co-operative Council then, Oldham has worked hard to get your services right in the last year.
But where we differ from many other authorities is in our belief that creating opportunities and raising aspirations is also part of those basics.
And in the last year we’ve been doing that for businesses – from the back-room trader to the external investor – and for our young people.
We’ve worked hard to ensure that the Oldham of the future – with the Old Town Hall cinema, with a new Hotel, with a new Coliseum and Heritage Centre – is a place with that will attract more visitors, more jobs, and a thriving local economy.
But I know we can’t just hang our coat on a few regeneration projects and a tram and expect everything to work out. That’s lazy and it’s short-sighted.
Opportunity needs nurture across all levels of the economy and again we’ve innovated in the last year to tackle this.
For independent traders we’re offering a hand-up that has already seen about a dozen new and existing businesses benefit from our £1m investment to improve the town centre’s independent retail offer in a new Independent Quarter.
Firms like Scoots, Suits and Boots, Illumina Hair Salon and Kahmir Bakery are already part of that revolution – with news of more on the way imminently taking up building improvement grants and a whole range of support and advice to help them thrive.
And we’re now extending that out to the districts, to help the start up traders in the districts of Shaw and Lees do just the same because our aspirations as for all parts of the borough, not just a select few.
And what about our biggest asset – our people? The provision of education is a basic service – granted – but again we’re going further.
Unfulfilled talent is a tragedy. The long-term impact of a young person not in education, employment or training is a waste of potential, not to mention public money.
To prevent another lost generation we launched Get Oldham Working. This is going above and beyond what’s ever been done before – an unprecedented partnership between Oldham Council and partners across all sectors including local businesses and organisations of all sizes, JobCentre Plus, job clubs, work providers, schools, colleges and the voluntary sector.
We all share one target – to create 2,015 new employment opportunities by 2015, which we are well on course to meet with more than 1,100 already created.
We also commissioned Positive Steps to work with young people to target NEETs on a ward and school basis, working alongside them one-to-one to identify and address barriers holding them back and point them towards new opportunities.
We’ve many case studies showing this works. There’s Shanice, who dropped plans to enrol at a college despite good GCSEs but has since been helped to become a business administration apprentice. And there’s people like Muhammad, who threatened to quit school after his father’s death to be “the man of the house” but has now just started an engineering apprenticeship.
And then there’s the work we’ve been doing to deliver the fantastic Oldham Youth Guarantee. This will mean no young person here will leave school at 18 without the guarantee of a job, education, apprenticeship or support towards self-employment.
We want to show young people that Oldham is town which believes in them. We want to say to every young person – if you’re willing to roll your sleeves up and get on in life you will have the full support of your town behind you.
That’s a big ambition – unique in fact – and the first in the country.
And we’ve spent considerable time in the last year looking even further ahead now to how we can help future generations.
Setting up the new Oldham Education and Skills Commission this summer is so vital.
We’ve made progress in recent years in education but we can and must do better. The commission is there to raise standards and aspirations by looking at education from 0 to 19 years. It will identify underachievement and set out a shared vision and standard for young people. It will realign education with our economy and test whether it really supports people into meaningful employment or further education.
We must equip people with the right skills, experience and opportunities to prosper – and we’re very clear we don’t just want someone off the unemployment or neets register for the sake of it. We don’t want people simply taking casual, low-paid jobs. We want them to access good and fair employment.
That’s also why this year we’ve started signing up local companies and organisations to a new Fair Employment Charter which commits them to paying a living wage, fair contracts and stability of employment, access to training, support and development, and encourages staff to volunteer and give something back to the borough.
So – to conclude – we’re getting the basics right and we’re investing in them where more needs to be done . We’re fixing your roads, stocking your libraries with books, emptying your bins and looking after your grandma.
The Co-operative difference
But in the last year Oldham Council has gone beyond that basic service delivery with a vision.
In that time we’ve taken the next important step from sticky-back plaster approaches to problems to the strategic – to define exactly what we want Oldham to be and how we will get there.
We believe we are playing our part in defining a bright new future for local authorities. Less top-down governance. More local leadership. More genuine co-operation. More collective action. More empowerment and more enterprise.
This Co-operative Council doesn’t now just simply empty the bins, sweep the street in your neighborhood and disappear for a few days.
It works with your community groups to make your local environment better – and it encourages people to take care and pride in the place they live.
It looks after the vulnerable people in your street and works with partners to keep them warm and healthy.
It fixes that pothole outside your door at low cost and keeps your main road up to a better standard.
It sets up a selective licensing scheme to clamp down on rogue landlords and tackle anti-social behaviour in your area.
It works to give you a better Oldham town centre – one where children can enjoy a play area and you can do things together as a family again.
It works side by side with investors and businesses to understand their needs.
It helps to give your children the skills they will need to flourish and find work in a local climate where businesses feel confident to invest.
And it helps budding entrepreneurs – our next generation of Norman Stollers – to get into premises and start building the next big business idea.
All this and why? Simply because we know that people in Oldham deserve better.
Yes, the past year one was one of many challenges – but look at the difference this Co-operative Council is now really making.
‘Do your bit’
Finally I would urge everyone to think about how you can do your bit to help.
The £60m budget challenge means we have £2,232 less per household to spend on delivering services.
I promise that Oldham Council will continue innovating and going the extra mile on your basic services in the ways I’ve outlined tonight – and more.
I promise we’ll continue to work hard to save money, and to raise extra money from new homes and businesses that bring in additional Council Tax and business rates.
But my message is that we simply can’t do this alone.
Small changes that you can make as an individual resident in your daily lives can all add up to making a huge difference.
To help us make the most from every penny we ask that you recycle more and recycle right – that alone could save us up to £5m a year in landfill costs.
If nobody flytipped or littered we would save £1m a year – and if we recruited 25 more foster carers we could save £1m a year on residential placement costs for children.
An extra £1m could be saved annually if we help another 100 older people continue to live independent lives in their homes – and if everyone used online council services, where available, rather than calling or visiting, we could save another £1m.
And I would urge you to all to please support your local economy. Use your local shops and facilities to keep them viable and help them grow. That’s what our free car parking offer of up to three hours at weekends is there for.
Supporting your local businesses can have a huge impact – every £1 spent in Oldham delivers £4 of value to our economy – creating more jobs and growing businesses, and employing more people.
That is what a Co-operative borough is all about.
Residents, businesses and organisations all pulling together and doing their bit so we can all make Oldham a great borough to live, work and invest – and one that has a much brighter future.”
IT WAS back to school this week for students and teachers across the borough.
The outstanding – and in many cases national-average smashing – results in our SATs, GCSEs and A-levels last year have set a really high standard for the next group of students coming through the system.
The importance of having well-educated, literate young people cannot be underestimated for Oldham.
But for some schools serious questions remain about the pace of their improvement and the quality of education they are providing – especially because most young people get just one chance for a decent education and to set themselves up for adult life.
The education offer to our young people now has to build on these basics. It needs to ensure that it is flexible enough to provide the right type of support for a group of people that has vastly differing learning abilities, styles and preferences and skills.
We recognise this in Oldham and that’s why we are committed to a number of innovative programmes and initiatives to ensure that everyone can succeed.
We are determined that our new Education and Skills Commission should not and will not be a pat on the back or so superficial that it fails to get to the root causes of education outcomes.
It will reflect and shine a light on success and good practice (and we have plenty of that) but it will also lay the foundations to build on and challenge underachievement. The objective is to deliver a great education where every young person realises their full potential.
One area where Oldham is leading in this is the newly-established Enterprise Hubs within our secondary schools. So far 11 secondary schools and Oldham Sixth Form College have signed up to the scheme and recruiting continues in earnest.
These hubs are developed and managed by our private sector partner, the Oldham Business Leaders Group, and aim to stimulate a culture of entrepreneurship amongst our young people: giving them skills and networking opportunities that will ensure they’re well placed to compete in the future jobs market.
The hubs offer activities designed to inspire, encourage and support pupils ranging from helping to set up and running their own businesses for a year, providing a variety of employability events and giving them early access to businesses and employers through channels like the Youth Employability and Enterprise Network.
This is time and money well spent. Giving Oldham’s young people the best possible chance of success is essential to them being resilient and confident as adults.
That is the basis on which the Education and Skills Commission is now operating and I look forward next year to learning how it believes we can improve further.
Our commitment to young people also remains strong once they have left school.
A few weeks ago, for example, we learned that the Government was stopping funding its Youth Contract Wage Incentive scheme.
This had already been successful in placing 70 young people in Oldham, so the removal of funding came as a real blow to our aspirations to Get Oldham Working –and that’s why Oldham Council has stepped in.
At Cabinet last week I was very proud to be able to commit £182,000 from our Manchester Airport dividend monies towards extending this scheme so that it can continue and another 80 young people can benefit from those opportunities.
On the subject of employability it would be seriously remiss of me not to mention Oldham’s Festival of Work which will run from Monday, September 8 to Friday, September 12.
This week the Council’s Employability team is already out and about in the Town Centre offering advice on jobs, apprenticeships and internships and in the week of the festival itself there are two key events taking place – the Oldham Jobs Fair (September 10) and the Get Ahead Jobs and Skills Fair (September 12).
Last year more than 1,500 residents attended the festival, which shows that local people are ready and willing to work. This – plus initiatives like Get Oldham Working, Enterprise Hubs, traineeships and Warehouse to Wheels, which I blogged about last week – all show that Oldham as a place is responding to the challenge.
Finally, this week also sees the start of Oldham’s Heritage Open days.
A whole host of our buildings will be throwing open their doors to the public from September 6 to 21 so we can all appreciate our fine architectural heritage up close and encounter our past in new ways.
For more information about the events please click here.