Freedom of Information: The pros and the cons

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TRANSPARENCY: The Freedom of Information Act enables the public to access recorded information held by public authorities – but are all requests legitimate and which bodies are still able to hide?

I’VE COVERED many topics on this blog which highlight our desire to be an engaging and open council.

When I looked back, however, I realised I haven’t yet mentioned one of the most significant changes to how the public gain access to what they want to know: the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

“Are councils prepared for dragon attacks?”

“Do local authorities have the resources to cope with a zombie invasion?”

“Does the public sector provide pet exorcisms?”

Unbelievably these are all genuine requests made to councils in England and Wales under the FOI Act.

Although I’m as concerned as every council leader should be about the walking dead, I’m really not convinced that these kinds of request relate to any of the 700 services that Oldham Council or the wider public sector provides(!).

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was introduced to allow the public to access recorded information held by public authorities.

Its remit covers all recorded information held by a public authority. It is not limited to official documents and it covers, for example, emails, recordings of telephone conversations and CCTV footage.

As I’m sure you can imagine answering these requests can take a considerable amount of time and resource, especially if the request is lengthy or complicated.

Not every query is as simple as “How many people in the town have a licence to keep a tiger, lion, leopard, lynx or panther as a pet?”. That’s a genuine FOI request sent to Scarborough Council. The answer in Oldham is, of course, hopefully none – although we do have a large population of common toads!

At present the cap on the costs of complying with an FOI request, or a linked series of requests from the same person or group, is set at £450 for local authorities.

With staff time calculated at the recommended rate of £25 per hour, this equates to 18 hours work before the council can consider charging or refusing a request.

As of November 4, Oldham Council has received 1,089 FOI requests in 2014 – that’s almost three a day. This is almost double the 590 FOI requests received five years ago in 2009.

And the number of FOI requests we’ve had has increased every year since the implementation of the Act in 2005…
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The University College London now estimates that responding to an FOI costs the council an average of £293 per request.

For Oldham Council that means £319,077 has been spent responding to FOIs in 2014 alone and, since the Act was established in 2000, the total cost of responding to FOIs is probably closer to £2 million to date.

Although this is a significant amount of money, it does have a democratic purpose: it ensures that we as a public body are accountable to the electorate.

But what about when public services are delivered by the private sector?

Is open government about who allocates money or commissions services, or about those who spend public money – and how far would you go?

The FOI Act only applies to public authorities and not to private entities.

Public authorities include government departments, the NHS, police forces, schools, colleges, universities and local authorities.

But in a world where the transfer of public services to the private sector is becoming more common, I’m concerned that the delivery of public services is becoming less transparent.

If private companies deliver public services should they not be held accountable in the same way as the public sector is? How can we deliver consistently high service standards if there is not a level playing field?

The same is true about the publication of spending records, senior officer pay and other matters.

Local councils are leading the way here – but others are staying very quiet!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps: Gamechanger

GAMECHANGER: Prince's Gate at Oldham Mumps is all about our aspirations for Oldham
GAMECHANGER: Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps is all about our aspirations for Oldham

THIS IS a big week for Oldham – and one that I believe will be a significant milestone in our future success.

In recent years you’ll have already become aware of several regeneration schemes that we’ve brought forward for Oldham Town Centre.

Work is already ongoing to transform the Old Town Hall into an ODEON cinema with restaurants and a high-quality new public space at Parliament Square.

Builders are also busy finishing the bespoke FCHO headquarters on Union Street and constructing our new sports centre.

Plans for a new Coliseum Theatre and Heritage Centre are entering their crucial second bidding phase and we’ll also be making important decisions soon on the next steps to deliver a hotel and a revitalised QE Hall.

But our approach is about so much more than just dealing with individual buildings and problems.

We’ve always had a wider vision and I hope that is now becoming clearer after we finally unveiled our plans for Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps this week.

I’ve been unashamedly calling this masterplan a “gamechanger” and I don’t say that lightly because it really is all about our aspirations for Oldham.

For too long we’ve been the only town of our size without a Marks & Spencer (M&S) store and the news that we’re so close to achieving it has been very well received by people across the borough.

Prince’s Gate is a significant scheme for Oldham Mumps. This is a part of town that we know has stalled in recent years but now has a unique chance to capitalise on our long-awaited Metrolink connection.

Not only will it deliver a big M&S in a 51,000 sq ft food and clothing store, it will see them acting as anchor tenants to attract more missing retailers into an additional 66,000 sq ft of retail space.

That will all be housed in a stunning glazed development with a natural wave form roof and around 200 underground car parking spaces on what is currently the Park and Ride site at Mumps.

The first development phase will see a replacement Park and Ride facility delivered over the road before construction work then gets underway to enable the new stores’ to open their doors in 2017.

But that retail element is just one part of the work we’ve now set out to transform this area into something offering a much wider range of exciting new benefits.

VISION: CGI view from above of the Prince's Gate at Oldham Mumps site.
VISION: CGI view from above of the Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps site.

Regeneration here will establish a quality town centre living offer as well as redeveloping redundant land.

Our vision is to deliver 800 quality homes – including apartments – with a significant number provided on the former Mumps station and heavy rail line, plus a total of around 700 car parking spaces around the site.

The fine former NatWest bank building will also be refurbished to include apartments, retail and leisure units.

And there will be another new retail/residential unit on the RSPCA/Roscoe Mill site hosting a major supermarket tenant – talks are ongoing – with 50 apartments above across three storeys.

Our plans for Oldham are focussed on two key things – the place and its people – and it’s more important than ever to invest in both now.

Prince’s Gate is without doubt the most important scheme we’ve been working on and will ultimately set us apart from other towns.

But this masterplan hasn’t been developed in isolation from other projects – we’ve been talking to M&S since 2011 – and it’s integral to a much wider vision of the town centre’s future.

It will totally complement our blossoming new Independent Quarter, for example – and that’s no accident.

In that area, between Yorkshire Street, Clegg Street and Union Street [East], you can already see some of the most inspiring green shoots epitomising the spirit of what we’re trying to achieve.

Independent and niche traders are putting their life savings on the line, helped by our £1 million investment and support package, to forge a brighter future.

We’re investing something back in people here who, in turn, are investing something of themselves in Oldham’s future and that fledgling Independent Quarter will act as a natural, buzzing link from Prince’s Gate up towards the new ODEON cinema and Parliament Square, and the adjacent shopping centre.

It’s vital that we get the balance and these linkages right, which is why we’re also working closely with Kennedy Wilson, the new owners of Spindles Town Square, about how to best align our plans so that their venues – the traditional retail core of Oldham – also go from strength to strength.

In addition to all that we’re continuing to work hard on improving the town centre experience for everyone. That includes not just our plans for a new public space at Parliament Square, but further enhancements to the public realm and street furniture, the addition of a childrens’ play area, measures to attract street performers, and the fabulous WOW Bed which won Britain in Bloom.

Overarching all this we’re also striving hard to ensure we’re creating new jobs and opportunities for our residents and bringing new money into town.

An independent economic analysis of the Prince’s Gate masterplan has projected it will create more than 700 new jobs and could generate up to £21 million per year to the local economy.

In the days of shrinking local authority budgets we know that taking such an active leadership role is one hell of a challenge, but it is also one we must not shirk.

UNVEILED: The biig moment this week as we unveiled our plans to the media.
UNVEILED: The big moment this week as we revealed our exciting plans to the media.

The Prince’s Gate masterplan will bring new private investment to Oldham – and it will in turn raise the new business rates and Council Tax income needed to deliver the facilities we know the public wants.

We could, of course, follow the example of many other councils right now and just navel gaze instead.

We could continually whinge about Government funding cuts and see our future role as being to simply empty your bins and deliver statutory services.

But I don’t believe that is what you want and I am certainly not the man to sit here and do that.

I’m not interested in a continual pathway of further decline for Oldham and simply drifting along as a satellite town to Manchester. What would be the point?

This borough deserves better and that’s why we are tackling this huge programme to try and improve people’s lives, facilities and prospects.

These are bold plans for Oldham that will need external partners and investors to get on board – many of whom we are already talking to.

But equally we will also need advocates like you to act as positive ambassadors for our future and help to spread the word.

To ‘do your bit’ I would ask you to please take the time to visit the Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps webpage by clicking this link.

Here you can watch a video blog from myself (don’t worry, it’s short!), and a stunning 3D animation of our plans. You can also read more about the scheme, including a list of Frequently Asked Questions.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Honouring the fallen: Oldham’s WWI centenary efforts

Oldham-Remembers

 

OUR BOROUGH fell silent on Sunday as we remembered service personnel killed during conflicts across the globe.

This year’s remembrance events were even more poignant, however, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One.

It is also 70 years since the D-Day landings and the year that Britain ended its role in Afghanistan after 13 years of fighting.

Repair works to war memorials across the borough had been undertaken to help mark the WWI centenary, but that has been just one part of what has been a really extensive local effort.

This week I’ve invited Councillor Cath Ball, Assistant Cabinet Member for World War One Centenary, to guest blog here and explain some of the fantastic work done – and some of the fascinating stories that local organisations have uncovered…

The commemoration of the start of the First World War has been treated with great respect by the people of Oldham.

To everyone who has organised or attended an event or service, we thank you all. 

Our four year programme of commemorative activities began with a civic procession and a service at Oldham Parish Church in July, followed by the unveiling of a tree and a bench. These were in memory of not just those who died during the First World War, but also those who remained at home and supported the war effort. This was organised by the Oldham Liaison of Ex Service Associations.

We have just held the first commemoration of our three Oldham soldiers who won the Victoria Cross – the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of enemy”.

Sergeant John Hogan who won his VC on October 29
FOR VALOUR: Sergeant John Hogan who was awarded the VC after his death on October 29, 1914.

The opening event was for Sergeant John Hogan, who won his VC on October 29, 1914. One hundred years on – to the day – we held a service in Royton Memorial Park, which was attended by members of his family. His great grandson read a very moving poem, Spirit, by Geoffrey Kennedy, also known as Woodbine Willie.

Earlier this year Oldham Council received Heritage Lottery Funding to research and display the history of the Oldham Pals Battalion in the First World War.

An exhibition, town centre trail and ‘living history’ performance are the result of this funding and of several months’ research by local volunteers. The exhibition runs until April 2015 and special living history tours by youngsters from Oldham Theatre Workshop are taking place on Saturday, November 15 at 10am, 12noon and 2pm. Places are limited so please book on 0161 770 4654.

Last Friday evening saw the emotive Festival of Remembrance at the QE Hall, where the Standards were paraded and poppies fell.

On Remembrance Sunday at the War Memorial in Oldham crowds were bigger than last year and our two Chelsea pensioners again did us proud. They tour the town and this year even appeared on the pitch a day earlier at Oldham Athletic as the club and supporters held a moving ceremony and minutes’ silence before their FA Cup tie.

That evening I also went to a lovely service at St Thomas’ Church, Moorside, where soldiers’ letters were read, Abide with Me was played on hand bells, and there was a beautiful rendition of The Last Post.

One of our aims during this programme has been to try and put together a comprehensive list of people from Oldham who not only died but fought as well.

We also want to collect stories about the people who served their country – not only from the First World War but in later conflicts.

In 25 years’ time we will be commemorating the start of the Second World War and there will be no one around who will have been present to tell us about it, so we want to collect their stories now.

Many fascinating tales have already come to light.

There was Leonard Albinson, a 17-year-old from Royton, who enlisted in the Cycling Corps in the First World War. His mum spent months writing to his commanding officers, even sending his birth certificate, trying to convince them that he was underage. But by the time she got someone to listen, he had already been sent to the front. Tragically, Leonard was injured and died before he could be sent back home. Her letters can be found in his service records which are available online.

The relatives of Charles Frederick Kilroy brought in a collection of postcards and letters that he had sent back to his family whilst serving in Gallipoli. The family told us that they discovered his medals had been sold on the internet. They contacted the person who had bought them and he returned the medals to them.

I was also shown a lovely letter written by Captain Fred Hardman, who worked at Hardman and Ingham in Royton. His letter has been published in Joanna Lumley’s book, Forces Sweethearts.

Oldham War Memorial
LEST WE FORGET: Oldham War Memorial

Last week we heard the D Day memories of Captain John Cleverley, from Greenfield. These were read beautifully by Jabaz from Oldham Theatre Workshop. Councillor Riaz Ahmad also spoke at this event about how his father had escaped from the Japanese and spent three months making his way back home.

Sailor James Boon was 19 when he died in the Second World War. He was serving on SS Cerinthus when it was sunk on November 9, 1942. He was in one of the two lifeboats that were launched but died on January 12 – 64 days after the sinking. His lifeboat was later found on February 24 with one survivor on-board.

Maggie Hurley from Age UK Oldham is researching men who returned home injured from the First World War and died from their injuries, but whose names are not officially recognised.

Age UK are also holding a production of “Home for Christmas” on December 7 in conjunction with the Coliseum at the former Methodist George Street Chapel. Tickets cost just £5, which includes a donation to charities caring for both retired and injured service men and women, and you can find out more by clicking here.

Just before Christmas, on December 20, a plaque will be also unveiled that commemorates the V1 bombing on Abbeyhills Road on Christmas Eve 1944.

Please continue to join in our remembrance efforts and, if you know of someone who died or fought, do send us the details.

To submit your tales and keep up to date with what is happening, visit www.Oldhamremembers.org.uk or contact us via email to oldhamremembers@oldham.gov.uk

Councillor Cath Ball
Assistant Cabinet Member for World War One Centenary
Oldham Council

We are getting a Mayor – Like it, or not!

DEVOLUTION: The deal to bring new powers to Greater Manchester is a decent starting point - not the end game.
DEVOLUTION: This week’s deal is a decent starting point for Greater Manchester – not the end game.

DEVOLUTION to Greater Manchester has not arrived overnight.

This has truly been a hard fought process, so it would be churlish of me not to reflect, first of all, that this is a momentous week.

As the great and good – and myself(!) – travelled to Manchester Town Hall on Monday we were still reviewing the very last minute details of the ‘deal’ with Government which was to go before us all for final agreement.

For Greater Manchester this means more power will now be in the hands of those who directly represent the community.

For local government it also means that the devolution debate has now finally moved on.

My own view is this package of £1 billion pounds of financial devolution across a range of responsibilities represents good progress.

But it should really only be considered a decent starting point – and it is certainly not the end game.

Why? Well, it’s important to put that £1bn into context for starters.

Over the life of the current settlement this is actually less than the budget cuts that are faced by Greater Manchester councils, which will stand at around £1.2bn.

The package of new powers coming down to us on housing, transport, skills and the economy – as well as health – is also a good foundation to build on.

But that, of course, is only the case provided that this is genuine devolution and not some poisoned chalice whereby cuts coming further down the line are a sweeter pill for the Treasury to swallow because someone else now has to make the tough decisions needed.

I’m thinking, as an example, about the funding of adult skills: an area where colleges are already struggling incredibly hard to balance the books in the face of constant change.

Since the establishment of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011 it has become apparent that simply bolting on new structures, committees and changing job titles is not the way for us to run an efficient organisation.

But in a drive to remove layers and modernise we must also not create a distant elite.

The role of all councillors in Greater Manchester in contributing and holding to account the work of the City Region is especially vital if we are to get more responsibilities.

For me, the move to a directly-elected mayor with responsibility for the whole of the city region is not an answer in itself. But if this is used to clean up a confusing and disjointed system then it could well give the people of Greater Manchester the ability to hold those making decisions on their behalf to account.

We must be very clear, however, to all members of the public about what this organisation does and how much it costs too.

People know how much the police costs them because, like the Fire and Rescue Authority, it appears on their Council Tax bills.

They also know how much the Waste and Transport Authorities cost because they also appear as a levy to each council.

Each body knows its budget and sticks to it.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, operating through the Combined Authority, needs to have that same level of accountability and openness about the true cost of this new layer of local government.

And it cannot be right that to fund this new office each council should have to cut their own budgets further to fund a whole new army of civil servants, special advisors and the like.

Equally there will also be understandable fears that the identity of each district may be diluted – Manchester Borough of Oldham anyone? – or the different needs of each town may be lost in a bid to bring us all closer together.

That’s why I believe that protection of the sovereignty of each council is absolutely vital here if we’re serious about this being a process that sees powers drawn further down, rather than each council giving power up and taking it even further away from the communities it serves.

Personally I remain unconvinced there is a public appetite for another politician, directly elected or otherwise, to take charge across the City Region.

I also take exception to the imposition of this deal by an appointed Chancellor who, let’s not forget, controls £732 billion and is forcing a directly-elected Mayor on Greater Manchester for a price of just £1bn, which is 0.13 per cent of UK Government spend.

The real battle here though isn’t about convincing politicians of the merits of this deal, it’s about explaining it and showing the merits to the public.

I’d say that will only happen if we show what good can be achieved as the answer to the ‘so what?’ question.

For this deal to ultimately succeed we must build on it very quickly and continue the fight to get as much fiscal devolution as possible – because power without resources is actually no power at all.

There’s no denying these are fascinating times, however, and there’s little doubt that the prospect of being the Mayor of Greater Manchester with its £50 billion economy and its 2.5 million people represents a fantastic role which should attract a credible field of potential candidates.

But, please, let’s hear no more of this talk about GM getting our own ‘Boris’. That,

I suspect, could put off even the most harded supporter of regional mayors.

RESPONSIBLE LENDERS: Oldham Credit Union offers access to fair and straightforward financial services.
RESPONSIBLE LENDERS: Oldham Credit Union offers access to fair and straightforward financial services.

To finish on a different note, I also wanted to let people know about the activity taking place across our borough this week to tackle the problem of illegal money lenders (aka loan sharks) in the run up to Christmas.

Oldham Council is working with Greater Manchester Police and the England Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT) encouraging people of all ages to celebrate the festive season without falling prey to local loan sharks.

We want to raise awareness of the dangers borrowers face, not only in terms of the high interest repayments, but also the all-too-often extreme collection methods that are used, including violence, threats and intimidation. These illegal lenders are a blight on our neighbourhoods and communities – and are not welcome in a co-operative borough like Oldham.

We also want to ensure people know that there are responsible lenders available out there, such as the Oldham Credit Union (OCU).

Anyone can sign up to the OCU which offers residents access to fair and straightforward financial services, including secure savings and affordable loans.

This week also sees the start of two exciting new OCU initiatives. In partnership with Villages Housing, it will be launching a Community Collection Point at Fitton Hill and also a Junior Savings Club at Beever primary school.

I wish both schemes the best of luck and strongly encourage people in those communities to get behind them. For more information about OCU log onto www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk or call 0161 678 7245.

Please don’t get bitten this Christmas. And if you think a loan shark may be operating in your area call the confidential hotline on 0300 555 2222.

And finally – just a quick reminder…

Please get yourself and your loved ones along to The Big Bang on Oldham Edge for a real treat on Bonfire Night. This is a great free family event for Oldham and you can find all the information you need by clicking here.

Thanks for listening,

Jim