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.”
Thanks for listening,