Green spaces and great places

NATURAL BEAUTY: No community in Oldham is more than two miles away from open countryside.
GREAT OUTDOORS: Lying within the Peak District National Park and South Pennines, our borough boasts picturesque villages, woods, reservoirs, moors, meadows – and more.

DID YOU know that no community in Oldham is more than two miles away from open countryside?

Our borough has a real wealth of green space and countryside and we are rightly very proud of it, but we also have an ambition to bring green spaces even closer to our communities by enabling them to do things for themselves.

From greening alleyways to growing fruit and veg to planting trees, I am committed to making Oldham a greener place and I want to use this week’s blog to share with you a number of exciting initiatives that will help us to achieve this. 

There’s already lots of evidence that access to green space has real benefits for physical and mental health; whether that is in reducing stress or increasing physical activity.

Food growing, for example, is a fantastic way of engaging and inspiring people of all ages, increasing access to fresh food, reducing isolation, improving health, as well as developing a whole range of really useful skills.

Get Oldham Growing has all these goals at its heart. Key to its success are the Growing Ambassadors, a team of community food growing champions using their skills and local knowledge to support their own communities.

It’s a programme that encourages residents to look at their area in a different way and consider how some spaces could be used differently to benefit local people. Whether it’s a back alleyway, a grass verge or a disused bowling green, Get Oldham Growing supports people to transform spaces through activity, enterprise and learning.

WHeadPark1

One great example is at Waterhead Park (pictured above).

An initial enquiry from a community group about the use of a small piece of land there has now led to the transfer of a 1,600 sq m disused bowling green. ‘Veg in the Park’, as it is known, is now a district food growing hub, managed by local people for the benefit of all. It has the potential to not only engage people of all ages and abilities, but also to generate income which will be reinvested back into the community in the years ahead. 

Building on the success of Get Oldham Growing, I am also pleased to announce that we are establishing a Green Dividend fund. This aims to spark and support community action and initiatives to make places right across the borough greener through gardening and landscaping projects.

In total £100,000 of funding will be available as grants to community groups and residents, with a further £100,000 to be used to create green spaces in the areas where we have recently introduced Selective Licensing for private landlords.

Green Dividend funding could help you to green your back alley, run a hanging basket workshop for your street or create a community garden for your neighbourhood.

We’re looking for really creative ideas here, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box!

GalleryRoof1If you want some inspiration why not visit the WOW bed in the town centre and see the taxi centrepiece of our display – or nip along to Gallery Oldham and see the fantastic green roof that is currently adorned with flowers (pictured above). Both really do prove that urban greening can happen in the most unlikely of places. 

Our partners at Voluntary Action Oldham will be managing the Green Dividend, and you can find out more at: http://www.vaoldham.org.uk/

I’m also pleased to announce that we will soon be launching a £100,000 fund for urban street tree planting across Oldham.

Aside from their obvious aesthetic value, trees have many environmental and ecosystem benefits ranging from pollution control to reducing the effects of climate change, and carbon storage.

Over the last two years I have been involved in a pilot scheme in areas of my ward in Failsworth East, where we’ve introduced more than 100 new street trees into places previously lacking in meaningful tree cover.

GrowingHub1Communities have embraced the projects by rallying neighbours, undertaking consultations, deciding on locations and tree species and, ultimately, joining in the immediate aftercare of the trees even decorating them at Christmas time with their children.

I want to empower more communities to make decisions on where and what types of trees are planted and take a leading (or should I say ‘weeding’[sorry!]) role in their aftercare.

So as we all look to the skies wistfully awaiting that next glimpse of summer, I invite you all to consider what community growing schemes, green space initiatives and tree planting could be undertaken in your neighbourhood. Through working together we can make Oldham a green and pleasant land.

This is my last blog before the traditional council recess break, but I will return again with my next post on Wednesday, August 26.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Housing in Oldham – History and hopes

ASPIRATIONAL LIVING: St Mary's is a fantastic example of the kind of housing Oldham needs
ASPIRATIONAL LIVING: The award winning affordable homes at St Mary’s are a fantastic example of the kind of housing Oldham needs for future generations. 

HOUSING is a hugely-important issue that affects every resident, family and community across our borough.

This week I’d like to share my thoughts on the history of Oldham’s housing and look at what needs to be done next to fulfil our plans to build thousands of aspirational properties and meet new demands.

In its heyday Oldham’s skyline was dominated by 365 mills: a time when our town became the most productive cotton-spinning town in the world. With the mills came the industry, the people and the homes.

The smoking chimney stacks have now gone, along with a great number of those homes, as more modern housing has replaced the back-to-back terraced streets.

But the people are very much still here and, despite a dip in population, Oldham is now growing again and has new housing needs.

Long before my time local leaders and decision-makers recognised that the place which had developed so quickly, at times feeling like a ‘pop-up town’, had left a deep legacy of poor urban planning, poor quality open space and little relief from red brick rows and cobbled alleyways.

Successive clearance programmes over decades have undoubtedly gone a long way to addressing this and – although some of these design and social experiments haven’t stood the test of time – many provided decent homes for new generations.

In more recent times the last Labour government understood that if we wanted to address urban decline and poverty then decent homes are essential. We know that if you live in a damp and draughty home this affects your children and their education, it affects family life and can leave long-lasting health problems.

More recently with the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme from 2001 onwards many homes were improved and terraced housing given a new lease of life, but it was recognised that a healthy housing market also needs variety and choice as well as decent bricks and mortar.

RENEWAL: Granville Mill in Derker was one of the HMR sites
RENEWAL: The former Granville Mill in Derker was one local site to benefit from HMR

The Housing Market Renewal (HMR) programme was set up in 2004 to tackle this head-on. It wasn’t without pain because, unlike many places, Oldham didn’t have street after street of empty houses. We had lots of homes in a very poor state of repair with low sale and value demand: effectively propped up by private landlords relying on the lack of choice to drive demand.

The process of clearance is never an easy one but it’s hard to disagree that difficult decisions sometimes have to be made for the long term good of the community.

In 2010 the country then awoke to a Tory-led coalition government.

We knew housing investment would slow down, but few could have foreseen just how cruel the cuts would be. With a day’s notice the HMR programme was binned and barren swathes of land within old street grids were left as a stark reminder that the new government had seemingly written off towns like Oldham.

Over the past five years, despite this, our council has worked tirelessly to get these areas moving again – and enjoyed remarkable success. It is still very much work in progress but new homes have been built, friends reunited and many families given the chance to have a stable ‘forever home’.

Our house-building programme will eventually see thousands of new aspirational homes built to give choice and variety to our communities.

The word ‘aspirational’ conjures up an image for many people of big executive homes for private sale, but my view is different. If people are willing to do their bit and contribute to our community through work, volunteering or caring, then a fair town should offer good opportunities to all residents, regardless of income, tenure or circumstance.

That isn’t to say that a four-bedroom detached home complete with garage awaits everyone, but it’s got to be more than a substandard terraced house with no outside space and little parking.

EmptyHomes#
SUBSTANDARD: Poor housing affects your children and their education, family life and health.

It’s got to be something like our new St Mary’s Estate in Oldham, for example, a multi-award winning affordable housing development that has provided 90 new high-quality family homes on the cusp of the town centre, all built to the highest specification and green standards.

The Tory/Lib Dem Coalition failed to address our housing crisis and the new government is already sending ominous signals just weeks into the job.

On headline policies alone such as the relaxation of inheritance tax – which the IFS predicts will push prices and retention rates higher – or the expansion of the Right to Buy to our social housing market – which is predicted to slow social house building – the early signs are not good.

The government must work with councils and towns like Oldham to inspire and properly fund house building if we’re serious about addressing our needs going forward.

Indeed, to match current year-on-year demand Greater Manchester must build 10,000 homes a year – we currently only achieve around 4000.

NorthWernethNewBuildAll the major parties pledged to build more than 200,000 homes a year at the last general election, but we must recognise that the UK has only ever historically broken the 200,000/250,000 homes a year mark through clear government intervention and initiative.

We need government to acknowledge our concerns and make new house-building a top priority: including through major capital investment.

That means a determined effort to fund urban renewal in areas like Oldham and similar towns and cities across the north.

We are a proud town that played our part in contributing to the wealth of this nation when times were good – now we need help to rebuild and contribute again.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Bloom and Grow: Our driving ambition

THE WOW FACTOR: The town centre showcase for Bloom and Grow 2015
THE WOW FACTOR: The town centre showcase for Bloom and Grow 2015

LIKE MANY residents and visitors I’ve been amazed and delighted by the sight of the ‘WOW’ bed in Oldham town centre in recent years.

This is the floral centrepiece of our annual Bloom and Grow campaign which sits outside the shopping centre on High Street and always grabs attention.

Its’ installation usually heralds the height of summer (or at least it does when sun comes out!) and it creates a real sense of community as people stop to enjoy the display and use the chance to chat with friends and strangers alike.

It was a political priority to continue supporting this campaign and that’s because we believe the prizes won to date at Britain in Bloom and North West in Bloom, whilst great, are only part of the lasting legacy it creates.

What’s really important about this project is how it encourages people to take pride in our town and the places that we all share.

It’s also a terrific way of bringing residents and businesses together who are all doing their bit in creating beautiful community gardens, growing schemes, allotments and private gardens.

BlackCab9_aThe North West in Bloom judges visited Oldham yesterday (Tuesday) to view our latest collective efforts.

Their whistle-stop tour took in a wide range of fantastic activities by a whole range of contributors across the borough. This included, for example, visits to growing hubs at Waterhead Park and Stoneleigh Park, a nearby ‘Secret Garden’ residential and community group gardening scheme, our ‘Best Blooming Business’ at the Black Horse on Ripponden Road, and viewings of planting and environmental work by pupils from Holy Cross primary and Mayfield schools.

The tour closed in the town centre at this year’s latest WOW bed creation where, it may surprise you to learn, my own efforts were to be put under the judges’ expert scrutiny…

Inspired by others’ creativity I had decided last summer that really wanted to get involved this time and do something more rather than just support the campaign from afar – so I decided to get my hands dirty and ‘do my bit’.

After considering what I could offer, and what I love most about Bloom and Grow, I decided to do something that is a bit different because, for me, it’s the quirkiness of the displays which always raises a smile from passers-by.

I also wanted to do something which meant my two sons, Harry and Jack, could help and we could use it as quality time together.

ARRIVAL: The old black cab ready and waiting for the start of its dramatic transformation

First of all, we came up with the idea of using an old black cab and finding a way to use it to show how we are driving change in Oldham. I also liked the ‘Best of British’ feel that this and a red telephone box gives.

The work began with a quick browse and hopeful bid on an auction website where I was later delighted to find that I’d won the bidding for an old cab – there was no going back now…

I then set about collecting it from a breakers yard near Derker before we could really start to think about the task that lay ahead.

I should say from the outset that I had plenty of help with this project; not least of all from the council mechanics at Moorhey Street depot who removed the cab’s engine and gearbox – it’s not your typical automotive issue, but these get in the way of the planting tub(!).

Having stripped out a full skip’s worth of the taxi’s interior it was then time to get out the metal grinder and cut out holes in the roof and bonnet to create the shell.

Next I removed the glass after taking a template with old wallpaper cut to size.

Then it was off to see the good folks at Plastics Direct in Derker who provided me with plastic inserts to replace the windows.

With the car now stripped back and the holes cut out it was time to finally cover it with something….

Originally I’d wanted to decorate the cab in vinyl graphics of the old Mumps Bridge (and that may yet happen one day if this ends up being the first of many?!?), but for this one the bodywork was pretty rough, so it was time for a rethink.

In the end I chose grass. Well, almost – it was artificial grass from a local company in Lees.

After a few attempts at trying to stick it, glue it and hold the ‘turf’ in place, I ended up using a combination of carpet tape to hold the edges and glue with self-tapping screws to get each piece secured.

One of my favourite features of the finished cab that you can now see on display – apart from the inspired graphics our in-house design team created – is the mock licensing plate, which symbolically claims it is licensed to carry 227,000 people (the population of our borough when the project started) on its future journey.

The traditional British phone box that stands by it in the WOW bed was another bargain buy – from eBay – and complements to the display theme.

BlackCab6You might think it slightly odd that a Council Leader decided to spend more than 60 hours over a five month period on this project but in the end, I confess, it became something of a labour of love.

I am grateful to others for sharing my passion to get this done. I’ve done far less in reality than many of our parks team and volunteers, but I like to think I’ve done my bit.

At Oldham Council, I’d like to thank people in the Parks, Licensing and the design team in our Communications unit for letting me loose and giving me a helping hand when I really needed it.

I’d also like to thank Plastics Direct for providing the plastic window inserts and the Stoller Charitable Trust who reimbursed the £2,700 spent on the taxi and phone box as a contribution to the community project.

BlackCab7When setting out on this I had just two simple aims here – to make people smile and to spend some quality time with my two sons.

I certainly achieved the latter and only hope I’ve also managed to produce something that lives up to the fantastic standard of the Bloom and Grow displays over recent years.

Whatever the case, it always feels good to put something back into your community.

When winter comes and the bed is packed away I’d like to see the taxi reused, perhaps in the grounds of a local school or community facility.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Emergency Budget: Impact on Oldham

EMERGENCY BUDGET: The famous red box is likely to reveal an estimated £12bn in welfare reform cuts in the years ahead
EMERGENCY BUDGET: The famous red box is likely to reveal an estimated £12bn in welfare reform cuts in the years ahead – with a big impact on our communities.

THE CHANCELLOR is delivering the Government’s ‘Emergency Budget’ in Parliament today.

It feels a little odd that George Osborne feels the need to change the previous budget, which he had also set, but what is certain is that it won’t be good news for many people.

The budget detail is likely to include further welfare reform changes which won’t just hit those of our residents who are most in need, but will also have a big impact on our overstretched public, voluntary and community sector partners.

With that in mind I invited three important players in our area – Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), Oldham Foodbank and our own Welfare Advice Service – to guest blog this week about their experiences and the impact of welfare reform already in our borough…

cabLOGOCitizens Advice Bureau

“Citizens Advice has been an integral part of Oldham communities for more than 75 years and in the last month alone we’ve helped more than 900 residents with 1,600 enquiries.

Welfare reforms are having a large impact on families and are generating the majority of issues.

Debt and housing problems also account for a high proportion of our work. Benefit sanctions, Universal Credit and delays in processing claims and appeals are having severe knock-on effects for families such as not having any food to eat, falling behind with rent payments and potentially being homeless.

In total last year we helped 9,000 people and increased income in Oldham by £4,443,572 and rescheduled or wrote off £5,200,000 of debt.

People are often in a high state of stress and desperation by the time they seek our help – and we have seen a definite increase in those suffering from mental health issues as a result of their problems.

We work closely with a number of partner agencies such as the Food Bank, First Choice Homes, Age UK and the Welfare Rights service to ensure the best possible remedies that look to alleviate the longer-term issues as well as short term need.

We also work hard to raise awareness of current and future issues in order to prevent or at least minimise impact. We campaign to change laws and policies and their application where we realise they are unfair. Recently this has resulted in changes in the regulations for pay-day lenders and greater scrutiny of how sanctions are applied to job seekers. Since April we’ve been working with Channel 4, providing evidence of our experience with Universal Credit and had our work praised by Oldham MP Debbie Abrahams.

There are always new issues arising for us to concentrate on. The prevalence of scams in the wake of pension law changes is becoming increasingly concerning and is now a national awareness campaign.

If you have an issue that is likely to get worse if you continue to leave it, please contact us. We can be reached on our Adviceline on 03444889622, or you can access our advice and self-help tools on our website oldhamcab.org.uk where you can also find details of our many drop-in surgeries that are available across Oldham in community locations and most libraries. You can also phone our Adviceline service from the Council’s Freephone access points in libraries and Access Oldham at the Civic Centre.”


oldhamfoodbankOldham Foodbank

“Last year saw yet another increase in the use of Oldham Foodbank. We provided food for 3,716 adults and 1,620 children (Whilst the majority of people only access the Foodbank once, this figure does include people who may have needed our help on more than one occasion).

The people who use the Foodbank are from every ward across the borough. The major reason for people needing the service is because of benefit changes and delays – few people realise that a new claim for the new Universal Credit takes five weeks before the first payment is made(!).

We also have families who struggle to make ends meet during school holidays and to this end we work with other groups providing holiday meals.

In addition to providing food and some essential toiletries, we also signpost clients to other agencies who may be able to help solve problems in the longer-term. For example, we are shortly starting a basic course to help people learn to eat healthily and cook simple dishes from scratch.

We continue to be grateful for the support from across the community, individuals, schools, faith groups and the local supermarkets.

For more information, please see our website: http://oldham.foodbank.org.uk/

Welfare Advice Service

“Oldham Council’s Welfare Advice Team was initially established in 2011. The team of four works primarily to support vulnerable residents with welfare rights advice to reduce poverty and improve wellbeing.

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 brought many challenges for our residents including the introduction of Universal Credit, the benefit cap, the size criteria (restricting the amount of benefit to be claimed if there is a spare room) and Local Welfare Provision.

Additional reforms were also made to Employment Support Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and the delivery of the Council Tax Reduction Scheme.

In the last 12 months we have helped more than 1,100 residents. We have provided benefits advice, helped to fill in forms, submitted appeals and also represented them at tribunals. This support saw £2.3m brought into the borough’s economy in 2014/15 either through an increase in benefits for clients supported by the service or through backdated and one-off payments.

And it isn’t just the financial benefit that the service is concerned with – improving health and wellbeing is also an important part of our work.

Having worries about money can be particularly detrimental to someone’s mental health and not having enough money to feed a family or buy healthier foods can have a similarly devastating effect on physical health. No matter what the client’s needs we will do all we can to ensure that they are treated fairly.

It is widely expected that further welfare reforms will take place over the next parliamentary period and we will again be ready again to help ensure that people are supported to receive the benefits that they are entitled to.

You can contact the Welfare Rights Service on 0161 770 6655 to make a referral

Or follow this link to go to the online form

https://www.oldham.gov.uk/forms/form/227/en/welfare_rights_service_referral_form

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Armed Forces Day 2015: Why it matters

ArmedForcesDay2015ARMED FORCES Day gives focus to those men and women who commit themselves to defending our hard-fought freedoms each year – and none more so than in 2015.

Here in Oldham we’re proud as a community to have signed the Armed Forces Covenant where we pledge to do our bit to support and honour those who are serving our country.

We work hard to ensure that those who stepped forward to fight for us are given the support and respect that they deserve.

But in the year that has already seen us mark the 70-year anniversary of VE Day, I am conscious that there’s a danger that the huge impact of any battle or struggle on our society is forgotten, or at best diluted with each passing generation.

That’s a consideration when we talk about the great post war housing boom, for example, or the creation of the National Health Service and the development of the Welfare State: all of which were borne from a common need and a belief in making things better.

Unless you’ve personally served in the armed forces or have a relative or close friend who has spoken of their experiences the truth is that most of us will go about our normal lives blissfully unaware of the day-to-day fight against those who seek to destroy society as we know it.

But on the same weekend as Armed Forces Day this year the horrific events that began unfolding on our TV screens from Tunisia, France and Kuwait brought this reality home again.

It was particularly sickening and frightening to watch as the death toll continued to rise in Sousse and individual stories about the victims began emerging from what is the biggest terrorist attack on British people since the bombings of July 7, 2005.

The fight that continues around the world against ISIS may seem distant and not relevant to some. As we are a free society many will perhaps also challenge and question why Britain gets involved in matters which seem disconnected from our national interest.

Looking back a few years it also felt very much like there was a time we didn’t feel publicly comfortable in thanking our armed forces. Perhaps we didn’t want to mirror the intense nationalism seen in places like America, or perhaps it just wasn’t very British to talk about these things.

Whatever the case, I’m pleased we do now show our thanks and appreciation to those who are no longer with us, and those who continue to put themselves forward to protect us.

The battle currently being played out across the media undoubtedly focuses on a narrative about the West versus extreme Islamic terrorists, but I don’t see it like that.

I see good and bad. I see politics and power battles being played out under the cover of religion combined with a divide-and-rule propaganda.

We’ve seen people in our own country radicalised and we’ve also seen non-Muslims turning on an entire religion as a whole community is unfairly held to blame for the actions of others.

In a community as mixed as Oldham with a large Muslim population I have the benefit of seeing how religion and tradition can be used in a positive way. I get to see the strength of family units, for example, the value of education and the immense fundraising that takes place to help those in need.

WW1 CentenaryDuring our reflections last year on the Centenary of the outbreak of the First World War I heard stories of Indian and Pakistani servicemen fighting for our (then) King and country, some never to return home as they made the ultimate sacrifice – and you can read these at the fantastic Oldham Remembers website.

They fought side by side with British soldiers to stop the advance of the Nazis. They didn’t fight for hatred, they fought against it and it is important that in this new fight we are very clear that we remember that.

Finally this week, I must say a huge congratulations to Oldham branch of the Royal British Legion volunteer fundraisers who have managed to collect £95,126.91 (if I missed off the penny, I wouldn’t be forgiven!).

Our air cadets also won the Lord Lieutenant’s award for the most amount of money collected – including the 2200 (Oldham) Squadron based on Wellyhole Street who alone raised £15,014.30.

Added to the money raised through other local branches at Chadderton, Shaw and Lees our borough has raised a total of £133,000 – which is a truly tremendous effort. Well done to all concerned.

Thanks for listening,

Jim