I WAS fortunate to be able to spend time working with two of our most important frontline services – our Food Safety and Neighbourhood Enforcement teams – this week.
The phrase ‘unsung heroes’ is often overused, but in both of these cases it is probably an understatement.
Basically their overall remit is to ensure the borough is a safe, healthy and quality environment to live in and it’s fair to say a great majority of residents and businesses act responsibly and look after their communities and premises.
But the work these teams do often also brings them into regular contact with those people who ruin it for everyone else. That makes their work not just frontline, but frontline and then some…
Out and about with our Environmental Health Inspectors on Tuesday morning, my first task was to accompany Lauren Wood (a previous winner of Young Employee of the Year) on an unplanned visit to a local bakery.
Officers in the five-strong Food Safety team inspect all the food businesses in Oldham (nearly 2,000). They take food samples, swab food surfaces, deal with reported food poisoning outbreaks and respond to complaints.
They carry out more than 1,000 visits each year and have the ability to prosecute when conditions are very poor or where businesses are failing to improve. Last year they had eight successful prosecutions of this kind, which is more than any other Greater Manchester authority.
I joined Lauren on a routine unannounced inspection of a premises tucked away behind Huddersfield Road and operated by a brand you’ll probably know from local supermarket shelves: Country Oven Bakery.
This family firm, based in Oldham for over 30 years, has to go above and beyond the basic minimum standard because they are supplying multi-national retailers who have their own standards. That means there is a real tension between getting on with the job – in this case baking over 250,000 items a week – and managing a business.
Mario, the owner, put it best when he told me that: “The days of the council being hard have gone. Now it’s much more of a partnership with advice and support given to help businesses meet the standard.”
That was good to hear but – with our inspection complete – there was no rest for Lauren and the rest of the team who were off to inspect other premises before preparing for a Food Forum: an annual event where food businesses are invited to a Q&A and information session.
If you’d like to check out how a food business near you fared on its latest inspection by this team then you can do so on the Oldham Council website by clicking here.
From seeing food being carefully and hygienically prepared I now went to the extreme opposite – seeing it dumped in alleyways.
This was the second part of my outing: this time alongside Samantha Jackson and Gary Durkin from our Neighbourhood Enforcement Team.
We’ve boosted their numbers recently with an additional seven staff as part of our ‘Changing Behaviours’ project and the team, which is now 13 members strong, investigates a range of issues including air quality, noise, and other ‘nuisances’ such as dust and odours, plus private drainage complaints and complaints about homes with potential vermin or pest infestations.
To give you an idea of how busy they are the team received a staggering 1,053 complaints regarding noise issues alone in the past year – around three a day on average.
Our first stop on Tuesday saw us dealing with one of our perennial problems – the illegal dumping of rubbish – aka fly tipping.
Our approach to this problem is based on working with communities in the first instance to ensure they have all the right information and facilities to dispose of waste properly. This will then be backed up by strong enforcement action for those who continue to fly tip and dump their rubbish.
It really irritates me – and it should annoy every tax payer – to see the amount of litter and waste that is dumped in the borough. This filthy disrespect not only makes the town look a mess but it also costs a small fortune to clean it up and the infographic above gives you an idea of how big a problem this is for Oldham Council.
In addition to those seven new education and enforcement officers we’ve also now invested in an additional 10 street cleaners although – whilst we are happy to invest in frontline services, even in very difficult financial times – that money could be far better used on other things.
That morning we had a real live case of fly tipping to deal with.
Officers began sifting through the refuse for evidence of ownership and, under piles of children’s homework and takeaway left overs, we did actually find some information of interest relating to an address. The team will investigate this further and after bagging the waste in the pink/red enforcement bags we moved on again.
Our next stop was just a couple of streets away where we met up with officers from the team who are tackling issues regarding privately owned and rented properties.
The improvement of private sector housing is a priority for the council and this team are central to delivering that. The Selective Licensing of Private Landlords, a new scheme which was approved by Cabinet before Christmas, is just one example of the activity that the team are involved in which aims to not just improve individual properties, but the area as a whole.
There’s a lot of work going on to improve the standard of the environment and good advances have been made, but there’s no doubt that there is still a long way to go in some areas.
The filthy sight that faced us at the back of one particular tenanted property that morning was horrific. It looked like the aftermath of something apocalyptic and was obviously a health hazard.
Unfortunately it wasn’t an isolated scene and as we walked down this row a similar sight greeted us in several insecure back gardens.
The enforcement team are making inroads and work tirelessly to keep up on activity like this but things will only ever really improve when individuals change their ways and the community collectively does their bit too.
Thankfully though, it wasn’t all about muck and mice out with these teams. It’s easy to forget that the eventual outcomes from a typical morning’s unenviable tasks like this are often hugely positive for individuals, neighbourhoods and communities.
These staff are rightly proud of the difference they make, and so am I.
To these genuine unsung heroes – busy keeping our borough clean and safe and taking to task those who put it at risk – I say a huge thank you.
Thanks for listening,