2015: The year of the Industrious Revolution

HappyNewYearI’d like to wish all our residents a ‘Happy New Year’.

The last 12 months has been a frantic period packed with inspiring people and stories, challenges and opportunities, but I believe we end it in a positive place.

We start the new year with our strongest-ever plan for our future – and one that should ensure that, when the economic recovery finally comes, we’ll be well-placed to benefit.

We saw significant milestones reached in Oldham in 2014: starting with the opening of our new town centre Metrolink line last January.

This marked the end of the biggest infrastructure construction project in our history but was also just the start of a much wider regeneration plan.

The tramline set the tone for much of the work and news that has followed as work to grow our economy – creating new job and opportunities for residents – continues apace.

Look around you and our skyline is now happily interrupted with cranes and construction works ongoing at places like Oldham College and Oldham Athletic. That and more and more companies signing up to our Get Oldham Working campaign all reflects our growing confidence as a town.

Later this month, FCHO’s new headquarters opens on Union Street and – with steelwork now finished – a new sports centre to put Oldham on the regional and national sporting map will also open its doors next winter.

Work also continues on our flagship scheme to transform the Old Town Hall into an ODEON cinema and on the new plans for Parliament Square, giving Oldham the quality public space it has lacked for decades.

We recently unveiled the latest designs for the new Coliseum and Heritage Theatre, confirmed the next steps towards delivering a town centre hotel alongside a revitalised QE Hall and – of course – unveiled the gamechanging news that Marks & Spencer is finally coming to town.

M&S-from-Yorkshire-StM&S opening at Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps (pictured, right) is part of what will be a massive boost – psychologically and financially – to the borough.

This is a scheme that’s also about much more than new retail space. Adjacent to the Independent Quarter, it will deliver up to 800 homes – a quality town centre living offer – create up to 700 new jobs and generate up to £12 m per year to the local economy.

I’m not naïve enough though to try and kid you that everything in the garden is rosy here: far from it. Yes, we have opportunities – but, boy, I fully recognise the challenges too.

Having already made cuts of £141 million from our budgets in the past five years, we must now find a further £60 million in the next two financial years.

To be blunt, we’re now beyond the point as a council where there is any fat left to trim from services. The cuts will affect every single area – including services for older people and vulnerable children, which account for around half of our spending. It’s awful and not what I came into politics to do, but this is the reality of where we are.

I also know that many people are struggling to make their own way in life too – and have been for some time.

Whether that is the huge difficulties in balancing bills to heat your homes, feed and clothe your families, getting on the property ladder or trying to get off a zero-hour contract and into secure employment, I know the challenges are legion and unrelenting day-to-day.

That’s why my only New Year’s resolution for 2015 is pretty simple.

Our town was built on the Industrial Revolution – and our regeneration will be built on an Industrious Revolution. Sheer hard work is the only way we will make progress. Minor changes will not be enough and I’m determined to get on even faster and harder delivering the things I know will ultimately improve people’s lives and future prospects.

That means ensuring these regeneration schemes are delivered with maximum benefit to our economy and people in the shape of good jobs, opportunities and homes, and a more vibrant visitor economy.

It also means keeping focussed on attracting more private investment here. Success in that drive will give us new income from business rates and Council Tax – all money that can then be used to help protect your services from cuts.

IMG_6732And it also means seeing through the recommendations of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission – due to report next summer – to tackle those under-performing schools that are failing too many of our children. We will celebrate success where we see it, but equally will tackle ‘second best’ performance head on.

We have serious work ahead in 2015 and as a Co-operative Council we know we cannot find all the answers on our own.

We will again need the support of partners and residents in finding solutions to budget challenges and in helping us to tackle things, like flytipping and bad landlords, that blight our communities.

I would also say that as a council we can work to deliver new tramlines, cinemas, sports centres or whatever, but none of that will matter if we don’t also succeed in making people advocates for our borough; prepared to really stand up for the place where they live and show civic pride.

We all need to stand up for Oldham. If we see people who don’t care, let’s challenge them. If we see selfish behaviour, let’s not turn a blind eye and – above all else – when we see people playing their part and putting something back, let’s acknowledge it and say thank you.

We need you now – more than ever – to spread the word about the changes we are making and the new aspirations we all share for Oldham.

This can be our time, so please ‘do your bit’ in 2015 and help to make it a year of Industrious Revolution in Oldham.

With hard work and determination we can do this.

Jim

Crunch time for councils

CRUNCH TIME: With Local Government having experienced cuts of 40 per cent in their funding, many are now saying 'enough is enough.
CRUNCH TIME: With Local Government having experienced cuts of 40 per cent in their funding, many are looking at the stark choices left and saying ‘enough is enough.

I WRITE ahead of a Full Council meeting at which your councillors will – or at least certainly should – feel a huge weight of responsibility.

As austerity cuts continue we must proceed tonight with proposals towards reducing service budgets by £35 million for the financial year 2015/6.

To put that amount into context it’s more than we spend on waste collection, street cleaning, libraries, youth services, leisure centres and community centres – and that’s because, of course, most of the council’s budget is spent on older people and vulnerable children.

We will get through this round and then we still have a further £25m to cut in the following financial year.

Unless it is somehow agreed that all those services people ‘see’ can go completely – and that’s never going to happen – we will simply have no choice but to reduce services for older people and vulnerable children too.

Some of that can be managed. In fact, we’ve been doing that for a long time already: let’s not forget that £141m has already been culled from our budgets in the past few years.

But when you couple these cuts with the increased demand for these kind of services – which is mainly because older people are living longer and requiring more home and social care – the numbers simply just don’t add up.

In our quest to meet these financial challenges the easy savings have now gone and we all need to prepare ourselves for what is to come when we’re at this point in the budget cycle again next year.

Unless there is a change of Government and one that has a different policy on public sector cuts, or unless the current administration realises things just can’t continue on this trajectory, then I fear that the very fabric of public services will be tested to destruction.

This isn’t an argument about whether public expenditure should be cut to help reduce the deficit.

The truth is that the deficit has actually increased despite Local Government experiencing cuts of 40 per cent (which is £10 billion).

The increase in the state’s welfare bill isn’t because more people are sat at home, it’s because the economic ‘recovery’ is weak. Although more people are in work the type and quality of that work is poor. They have less job security, less money and ultimately that means more public money needs to be spent on ‘in work’ benefits.

The same is true of the National Health Service.

If prevention is better than a cure then we need to look more seriously at the state we are in.

Community services and social care are being reduced and, of course, this just adds to the queues at A&E. It is also more expensive and it fails those people who want to stay at home and be supported.

All political parties talk about public service reform but the reality is that only local government has had any sense of urgency about it.

With money coming out of the system so quickly, if we don’t modernise, become as efficient as we should be – and remove duplication – then, believe me, you, your family and neighbours would have already noticed the cuts a lot sooner.

Perhaps if we did as a sector what others do, and failed to change quickly enough and simply defend our own interests ahead of the public interest, then maybe Government would come and bail us out?

All this drives poor behaviour and councils the length and breadth of the country are now saying ‘enough is enough’.

We are in a very real danger now of foolhardy and dogmatic policy of ‘slash and burn’ and to hell with the consequences.

We aren’t interested in managing decline in Oldham. We believe the best way to recover is to invest in growth. Our solution is to have more people in work paying taxes with public services reformed across all bodies to get the best possible value.

We are investing in growth because it will mean more businesses paying business rates and more homes paying more Council Tax. With the current pipeline of projects we expect that an additional £3 million of new income will come in to help fund council services in the future.

We are also making wise investments. The collective decision to invest in expanding the Manchester Airport Group has seen an additional dividend of £1m to fund our services this year, on top of the £1.4m we’ve already received. We’ve also bought buildings in Oldham town centre at the bottom of the market to bring them back into use. With the major regeneration projects and the new Independent Quarter we’re already seeing growing demand now that will give the town a healthy return on that investment.

In many ways all this feels like ‘old news’ because we’ve been talking about cuts for a long time now.

But the difference now is that councils are saying the cuts have gone as far as they can without very significantly changing the fabric of public services in our town and others.

At tonight’s meeting, aside from the budget proposals, we’ll also be debating the proposals to introduce a Greater Manchester Mayor.

I’ve made my views about the imposition of a Mayor clear. I’m quite relaxed about the principle, but I didn’t feel Government should have made it a condition of devolution.

If we believe in having a Mayor, then surely we should make the case to the public and win support for it.

However, we also have a decision to make. Do we accept the deal as it stands?

It’s not a great deal but it’s the deal offered on devolution of powers from Government to our area and we need to take it. It’ll be for us to then make it work, though, and we will have to pedal hard to do that.

But I am also keen to see transparency in the way these new arrangements are funded.

Either Central Government will give additional cash for it or, as I suspect, each of the ten councils will be asked to fund it from their ever-diminishing budgets.

The Manchester Evening News has dubbed that a ‘Mayor Tax’ which is headline-grabbing but it misses some important points.

The first is that public services are predominately paid through taxation, so it is no more a ‘Mayor Tax’ than we have a ‘Libraries Tax’, or a ‘Street cleaning Tax’. We just call Council Tax what we do because it is delivered by a council.

The second – and probably most important point – is that Greater Manchester taxpayers already fund a great deal of activity.

You’ll see some of it already on your Council Tax bill with the Police and Fire precepts. We also pay a levy to fund Transport and Waste Disposal and contribute to other services across GM that you may not even be aware of.

In total Oldhamers paid £18m for services and functions across GM in this financial year, so it’s absolutely right that the Mayor, or even the Combined Authority, are crystal clear about how much is being passed on.

If you want to call that a “Mayor Tax”, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend it’s something new or unreasonable.

This is my final blog before the festive break, so I’d like to take this opportunity to urge you – in those frantic final shopping days – to remember to ‘Shop Local’ and spend your cash in Oldham and your district centres.

Above all I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas with your family and friends.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

‘Generation Oldham’: A community approach to green energy

GENERATION OLDHAM: Councillor Abdul Jabbar guest blogs this week to explain our new community energy campaign.
GENERATION OLDHAM: Councillor Abdul Jabbar guest blogs this week to explain our new community energy campaign.

WITH WIND speeds of up to 70mph forecast to batter the region it really does feel like a tempting time to batten down the hatches…

Earlier this week, Cabinet approved budget savings worth £24.47m as part of our ongoing battle to find a massive £60m in savings over the next two years.

I said at that meeting – and I make no apologies for repeating it now – that the only people who will be able to help Oldham is Oldhamers, and we need to come together now.

With that in mind, one way people can do their bit and help in facing up to our challenges is through our newly-launched Generation Oldham scheme.

I’ve invited Councillor Abdul Jabbar, Cabinet Member for Finance and Human Resources, to guest blog here this week and explain more about how we’re asking local community groups to ‘go green’ and create their own energy…


“As the holiday season approaches and with winter weather patterns firmly setting in, the subject of energy use is once again making headlines.

Whether it is stories about families having to choose between buying a hot meal and a keeping their homes warm, forecasts of more flooding misery for homeowners and businesses in low-lying areas, or warnings that the National Grid is nearing the point of blackouts due to the closure of power stations, it seems clear that energy is something we can neither do without nor continue to be able to afford on our present course.

The publication of each new report from the scientific community continues to sound ever louder warning bells about the connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the increasingly extreme weather we’re experiencing with our changing global and local climate.

But for so many of us, the more pressing issue is whether we are going to be able to afford our lighting and heating bills when they finally land on the doormat – and whether we’re at risk of losing the valuable contents of our freezer if there is a power cut.

The ‘Big Six’ energy companies don’t seem to have any answers. We only seem to hear about more price rises, and plans to burn more fossil fuels through new, controversial extraction techniques like “fracking”, so it’s hard to agree they have our best interests at heart.

At Oldham Council we believe that by working together in a cooperative effort across our borough, we have the power to take collective action to solve our energy problems, improve our buildings and keep all the benefits that come from generating energy within our own communities.

We can take ownership of our own energy supply and reduce our dependence on the ‘Big Six’.

Through our new ‘Generation Oldham’ initiative, the council will actively support communities to improve their buildings with solar panels, new heating systems and better insulation, to make them fit for decades to come.

The scheme will also support young people – the next generation – into training and employment opportunities, and engage with local ‘green’ businesses to ensure this crucial sector of Oldham’s economy can see strong growth in the future.

The continuing commitment of the council and our partners to the award-winning ‘Warm Homes Oldham’ scheme will also ensure that the most vulnerable households have access to the best possible support to enable them to get through the winter staying happy and healthy.

We also know that Oldham Council has to lead by example, so we’re aiming to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 48 per cent in the next six years – and our aspiration is to be completely self-sufficient in energy by 2020.

To do that we must find new ways to cut our own energy use even further. That’s why surveys are now underway on our buildings, schools and publicly-owned land, which will tell us what potential there is to build our own renewable energy generating infrastructure, to cut our energy bill, become more self-sufficient and safeguard our environment for the next generation.

Here in the UK we have been very lucky. The North Sea has given us plentiful supplies of cheap oil and gas for decades, but supplies are now running low.

There has never been a better time to make the shift to cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy and this is not ‘pie in the sky’ thinking: far from it.

Around 5,000 community groups in the UK have already set up their own energy projects: proving you don’t have to be one of the Big Six to generate your own energy and make money to invest back into your community.

Generation Oldham held its first information event last week and there was a fantastic turnout with more than 40 people, including seven community groups like Oldham Credit Union, Greenacres Community Centre and St Pauls Church.

Those present got to see presentations about hydro technology (Saddleworth Hydro), solar energy generation ( St. John’s Sunshine), biomass energy (Biomass Energy Co-op) and energy efficiency measures (Carbon Co-op).

There were some interesting discussions afterwards about what schemes might potentially best fit with existing community assets with ideas ranging from installing solar panels on church roofs to retrofitting community buildings.

If your community group owns a site or building that you want to improve – and you want to find out more about Generation Oldham – you can contact Andy Hunt by calling 0161 770 6587 or sending an email to andrew.hunt@oldham.gov.uk

Without the basics like heating, lighting and transport that we all take for granted, our way of life simply could not continue.

We hope you will join us in affirming our commitment to clean, affordable energy for everyone in Oldham and ‘do your bit’.”

Councillor Abdul Jabbar
Cabinet Member for Finance and Human Resources
Oldham Council

We mean business…local business

IQuarterlogoA COUPLE of weeks ago I was able to announce the arrival of big business in Oldham in the shape of Marks & Spencer.

High quality national retailers like this are clearly good news for the borough’s economy and regional profile, but this week I want to turn my attention to those small businesses and independent retailers who provide colour and interest to our High Street and collectively can do as much for our economic growth as any retail giant.

We’ve put our money where our mouth is on this.

With £1 million allocated to support independent traders to set up shop in the new Independent Quarter area (between Yorkshire Street, Clegg Street and Union Street [East]) we’re already seeing some amazing results with plenty more interested parties in the pipeline.

It’s fitting then that this Saturday (December 6) is Small Business Saturday, a national event that aims to support, inspire and promote small businesses and also to encourage people to ‘shop local’.

All our independent businesses are already getting into the spirit of Christmas by giving their customers some fantastic offers and incentives to shop local over the festive season.

This will hopefully encourage more people into the town centre to see our eclectic independent shopping offer for themselves.

From the latest fashions, to hair and beauty, photography packages and food and drink, there’s something to suit all tastes and budgets.

Look out for our new Christmas campaign called ‘24 Days of Christmas’. An ‘offer-a-day’ will be announced via Facebook between 1 – 24 December and if you see one you like, simply mention ‘24 Days of Christmas’ to the retailer to claim the offer.

The ‘Shop Local’ message is one that has always been at the forefront of my mind and is something that I have pursued passionately.

It is a vital ingredient in regenerating our economy and our borough and I am proud of what we have done so far to support our local businesses and retailers.

That includes setting up the Independent Quarter – visit http://iqoldham.co.uk/ to find out more – and investing £1 million in a fund to improve the shop fronts and help retailers; investing a further £200,000 into the high streets of Shaw and Lees; and, of course, extending FREE parking in the Town Centre for up to three hours at weekends into 2015.

While you are in the town centre this weekend you can also take a break from the shopping (or carrying the shopping, in my case) to be entertained by the latest offering from our packed Christmas programme which includes a Brass Monkeys live music event on December 6 and also sees the return of our popular Victorian Weekend on December 20 and 21 all offering fun family activities to soothe the stress of those last-minute shopping expeditions.

One of Oldham’s ‘quirkier’ small businesses is also worth a special mention here this week.

Swirly Twirly Sweets is a traditional American Sweet Shop based in Manchester Chambers and it has been selected in the Small Biz 100, which showcases 100 of the top small businesses in the UK. A huge well done to Swirly Twirly Sweets and make sure you take time to visit them in the run-up to Christmas for some special treats.

Talking of the entrepreneurial spirit, I felt very fortunate this week to attend an event marking the first anniversary of the Oldham Enterprise Fund.

With it’s £1 million cashpot already being used to support new businesses the cheer was spread even further as Honorary Freeman Norman Stoller announced a further £1 million of his hard-earned money will be going into the fund.

Norman is a wonderful ambassador and an inspiration to so many people, including myself, who has helped so many Oldhamers some of whom now trade online and, of course, in our town centre.

NOISY NEIGHBOURS? Oldham Youth Council members moving into their new base at the Civic Centre.
NOISY NEIGHBOURS? Oldham Youth Council members moving into their new base at the Civic Centre with Barrier Breakers.

I’d like to finish this week’s blog with a welcome to some new neighbours of ours here at the Civic Centre the Oldham Youth Council and also Barrier Breakers, which is our forum for young people with additional needs and disabilities.

This move has been on the cards for some time following a pledge I made in the summer to invest in facilities for the Youth Council and support the invaluable work that they do.

I believe it is important to invest in these young people.

They do a great job as ambassadors for the borough and I was proud that Oldham was the first council in the country to formally recognise its Youth Council by enshrining power for them into our council’s constitution.

What difference does that make? Well, it means the Youth Council is written into our decision-making processes, enabling them to put motions to us on key issues such as anti-bullying, reserving time at Full Council meetings for Youth Council business and requiring us to receive and consider their Annual Report.

Having the youth councillors here in the Civic Centre hopefully shows how much we value them and will give them a resource base from which they can continue to go from strength to strength.

Just one request though keep the noise down!

Thanks for listening,

Jim