I HAVE spent some of this week down in Brighton at the Labour Party Conference, but my thoughts are never far from Oldham.
One of the biggest challenges we face in the borough is encouraging residents to become foster carers and open up their homes.
It is a serious struggle – especially in the case of teenagers – to find those people who can play a vital role in helping young people to get a stable life, achieve the best they can at school and prepare them for adulthood.
It requires foster carers who are prepared to get involved in the emotional development of young people – which can bring its own trials and tribulations – but the rewards for doing it can also be absolutely fantastic.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some of the many inspiring and proud people that already do this work in Oldham.
They set a fantastic example and make a great contribution to our communities which is why this week I asked our Fostering Team to ‘guest blog’ and explain more about fostering and the opportunities on offer…
Oldham Council believes that the best place for children to live is with their own family. Sadly for some children, this isn’t possible.
When a child cannot live at home, the next best alternative is usually for them to live in a foster family.
Fostering is caring for someone else’s child in your home and doing all the things any good parent would do including making sure their health is good, helping them do well at school, and to maintain links with their family and friends.
Here in Oldham we have more than 140 households that care for around 230 children and young people, each doing a fantastic job. However, our greatest challenge is finding foster families for teenagers and children with complex needs. Sadly some of these children live in residential homes or out of borough in independent foster families, away from family and friends.
In order to bring these children back into the borough we have developed a new scheme called One2One fostering. This new service is for children or young people who have experienced significant neglect or trauma; and who are in need of specialist foster care.
One2One fostering provides a child or young person with a supportive family where they can build a trusting relationship with a foster carer whilst they receive therapy to help them to overcome traumatic experiences.
This is where we need your help and support. Maybe you have been considering fostering for some time, or know others who are interested. Equally, you may have not given the matter any thought – but please do so now.
Fosters carers in Oldham consistently tell us that fostering is life changing, not just for the child or young person but for themselves too.
Here’s what local carers Danny and Marie (pictured right) have to say:
“Rather than fostering younger children we wanted to foster teenagers. Teenagers are at the most important phase of their emotional and educational development. This is a traditionally tough time for them, but more so for those in care.
“The most rewarding experience so far has been helping a teenage girl to realise her full potential. She was mixing with the wrong group of peers and she was regularly excluded from school. After spending some time with her we discovered that she was incredibly bright and with support and a lot of determination she went from achieving U grades to A’s and B’s.
“Fostering is a vital part of society and it feels good to be part of it and give something back to your community. We wouldn’t change it for the world.”
You don’t need specialist qualifications to foster. Life experience and personal qualities can make a huge difference to a young person. All we ask is that you are aged over 21 and have room in your home.
Our team works extremely hard to make sure all our carers receive specialist training and support, plus a generous financial package of up to £29,000 per year.
Finally, we want to give a quick mention to our adoption team who recently received ‘Good’ in our Ofsted inspection.
Monday 19 October marks the start of National Adoption Week and we would like to hear from anyone interested in adopting older children, brothers and sisters or children with additional needs. Sadly, there is a shortage of adoptive parents coming forward for these children.
During National Adoption Week local authorities – and everyone who works in adoption – will be working together to highlight the plight of these vulnerable children and to help them find forever families.
I HAVE written several blogs about the importance of valuing our heritage but this week the topic merits special attention.
On Monday night, Cabinet agreed to a new phased programme over 10 years to deliver our commitments to a new Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre – and to go much further and ensure a more secure future for several important heritage buildings in the town centre. Let me explain why…
I will never forget the time a few years back when I first walked around the interior of the Old Town Hall.
The building had simply gone too far. The deterioration over the past two decades had caught up with it and the mixture of damp and dry rot had eaten through most of it.
Finding a modern day use to save that building has been no mean feat. It required vision, determination and a strong stomach to say the least.
As you’d expect I’ve made it my business since then to fully understand all the land and property assets owned by the council and then to look at their long-term future: both in terms of what each is used for and the current condition and any repairs that might be required.
I’ve paid particular attention to the buildings in Oldham town centre because – if you haven’t gathered this by now – we are determined to transform it into a place we can all be truly proud of.
Heritage isn’t just about bricks and mortar, it is about culture and identity; people and society.
Buildings are just an articulation of that but they are important because long after their uses have changed and people have moved on they still tell a story: a nod to our past, if you like.
Walking around the town centre you find that some of our best buildings are just self-selecting. They stand prominently. They demand attention.
That’s why it is vital that in developing our flagship Heritage Centre we will also secure the future of the Grade II-listed Old Gallery on Union Street.
In finding a new use for it, that also has the consequence of leaving the Old Post (and Telegraph) Office, the former museum, empty.
And while thinking about future uses it became clear to me that we need to think and plan differently.
If the experience with the Old Town Hall has taught me anything it is that the cost of doing nothing is very expensive. Eventually you are forced to take action and the longer that takes the more expensive it will be to put it right, or to demolish.
We’ve now outlined a list of the heritage buildings we want to help secure the future of and I personally see these as essential if we are to have the town centre we aspire to have.
What makes Oldham stand out is that it is Oldham.
We don’t want or need an ‘off the shelf’ out of town retail park that feels like a chicken shed to replace our town centre. We want character and experience that gives people a reason to keep coming back.
We have now agreed that will we be paying particular attention to the following buildings:
Old Bank at Mumps;
Former Post Office and museum, Union Street;
Conservative Club, Union Street;
Masonic Hall, Union Street;
The Prudential Building, Union Street (pictured right);
The Town Centre Conservation Area – which includes the Parish Church and War Memorial.
In deciding to expand the Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre project to include a vision for our other heritage buildings, I hope the people of Oldham can see that we are serious about our obligations.
We are committed to making sure our future is built on solid foundations; our past.
I DELIVERED my Annual Report at last week’s meeting of Full Council.
I reflected on the eventful year we have had and the many challenges that lie ahead at local, regional and national levels – whether that is cuts to our funding as a council, Greater Manchester devolution or the state of the economy and the new measures introduced in the recent Emergency Budget.
You can watch my speech on a video link by clicking here and will need to fast forward the clip to 1 hr, 8 minutes and 30 seconds.
Alternatively, below is a summary of some of what I said about the huge amount of work Oldham Council has done in the past 12 months to help ordinary residents deal with the issues that affect them. .
We knew we needed to step up and help local residents with the financial challenges so many are facing on a daily basis.
If you doubt that assistance is needed, think again. In the year to June, Oldham Foodbank has provided food for 3,716 adults and 1,620 children which shows that the pips are already squeaking in many family homes
New cuts announced in the Emergency Budget will also mean that benefit changes, changes to tax credits, thresholds, housing benefits and social housing payments and others will cost our local economy more than £58 million over the next four years. The worst-affected 2,000 families here will lose, on average, more than £3,800 a year.
We invested in our Welfare Rights Service Invested ahead of the implementation of Welfare Reform because we understood the huge impact this was going to have in Oldham.
In the last year that team has helped more than 1,100 residents with benefits advice, filling in forms, submitting appeals and representing them at tribunals.
This support saw a massive £2.3m extra brought into the borough’s economy during 2014/15 either through an increase in benefits for clients or backdated and one-off payments.
EMPLOYMENT AND INCOME
In the past year we’ve been doing our bit to stand up for people trying to find work and extra income.
Our Get Oldham Working campaign – an unprecedented scheme with partners across all sectors – smashed its original target to create 2,015 jobs, apprenticeship and trainee opportunities, and did it nine months ahead of schedule.
To date 3,025 opportunities have been created, which includes 1,672 jobs and 475 apprenticeships. More than 2,200 of these opportunities have been filled, including 1,226 jobs, 286 apprenticeships and 162 traineeships.
We were again ahead of the curve – and Government – in introducing the Living Wage at Oldham Council. We gave a new £7.86 minimum hourly rate to 540 employees from April 1. The majority of those staff are Oldham residents in cleaning and catering posts and this was worth more than £800 a year to full time employees. Even at a time of severe budget challenges we recognise those people play an important role in delivering our services and deserve the respect of being paid a fair wage for it – which will also benefit the local economy.
We also recognised that Getting Oldham Working isn’t just about the number of jobs created – it’s about the quality of them.
That’s why we’ve been signing up businesses to our Fair Employment Charter. This campaign encourages local firms to commit to creating job opportunities that are fair, ethical, responsible and sustainable – not zero hours contracts, for example – and to give people good training support and prospects. We have several big local employers already on board including FCHO and Emmanuel Whitaker. Another vital thing we’ve been doing is to embed ‘Social Value’ into all our activity.
To make every pound of the £225m we spend go even further we demand that contractors show how they will actively support the local economy in their bids, including sub-contracting. This goes from the biggest to the smallest contracts we do. Barclays, as an example, now have our banking contract and provide social value through schemes like Life Skills and Money Skills projects – all aimed at helping young people to become more employable and manage money better.
We also know that even if you are in stable employment none of us are immune to a financial ‘rainy day’.
That’s why we launched Our House in June: the country’s first-ever payment store run by a not-for-profit business. This offers fair credit to families needing to buy important goods like furniture, appliances and electrical items. The FRC Group reinvests all profits back into business and weekly prices are up to 50 per cent lower than other high street rent-to-own stores.
HOMES AND GOOD PLACES TO LIVE
We’ve introduced a licensing scheme for private landlords to stamp out the letting of poor quality accommodation. Landlords must become licence holders and meet certain standards to rent properties out.
This is to challenge poor standards and management practices, including tenants’ anti-social behaviour. Four out of five of around 3,700 respondents to our consultation on these plans said it will improve their areas.
Another issue for tenants and homeowners is Fuel Poverty. Our national award-winning scheme, Warm Homes Oldham, has now lifted more than 1,900 people out of fuel poverty in its first two years. This is a full support package that includes energy efficiency and bill advice, grants for heating updates and insulation, energy switching, emergency heating, and benefit checks.
We have plans in place for thousands of aspirational homes to be built here that give real choice and variety to communities. When I talk about aspirational homes, I mean like those on the new St Mary’s Estate – our multi-award winning affordable housing development of 90 high quality homes built to highest specification and green standards. I mean something that offers a decent opportunity to residents regardless of income, tenure or circumstance.
Through ‘Working Extra’ we now give housing priority to people in work, volunteering or caring. This is to support residents’ who ‘do their bit’ and 80 per cent of homes at a new Keswick Avenue development, Fitton Hill, were recently allocated to people on that basis.
Through the Action Oldham Fund we’ve used dormant trust funds in excess of £1 million to let them be used for grassroots activities to improve neighbourhoods; like community growing schemes and projects to tackle ASB.
There is also our new Green Dividend scheme which funds allotments and tree planting projects to make communities better places to live through collective action.
THE FUTURE: YOUNG PEOPLE AND EDUCATION
Last summer I asked Estelle Morris to chair our new Oldham Education and Skills Commission. This has been looking at how we realign our education offer across the board with what the local economy needs, and testing whether what we’re doing is really supporting people into meaningful employment or future education.
Their final report is due soon and will set out a new Oldham Offer outlining what every pupil, parent, governor, teacher, business and partner should expect – and what each themselves needs to do – to contribute to improvement in young people’s prospects.
This month we have just delivered on another flagship pledge – the Oldham Youth Guarantee. That means for the first time here that every 18-year-old leaving school can access either continued education, training, apprenticeship, a job opportunity or be supported into self-employment.
We have also seen the expansion this year of Enterprise Hubs: a brilliant collaboration with schools, students, businesses and other partners to stimulate entrepreneurship and create vital networking opportunities.
SUPPORTING BUSINESS AND SKILLS
Our strategy for Oldham is ‘invest to grow’ and businesses are hugely important partners in all our plans.
Successful regeneration and a growing economy will mean that more businesses will be paying business rates and more residents in work will be paying Council Tax. This will help us to protect frontline and vital services that people depend on.
Some examples of how we’re helping local firms include:
Warehouse to Wheels: The Logistics industry faces a national shortage of drivers with only a third of the numbers needed being trained each year, so we approached and co-invested money with European Social Fund and the Skills Funding Agency. Many warehouse staff or others want to get the Category C LGV licence but can’t afford the £2,000 costs. This month more than 50 of our first trainees will graduate from this scheme – and their success promotes further mobility and new opportunities for others in labour market.
Independent Quarter: By investing £1m we are supporting a range of businesses – from bedroom start-ups to independent firms and social enterprises – into the blossoming new IQ in Oldham town centre. More than 60 applications have already been approved with a fast-growing range of shops breathing new life into the area. The scheme has been so successful that it now being rolled out to help revive district town centres in Failsworth, Shaw and Lees.
Oldham Enterprise Fund: This £1m cashpot has now processed more than 90 applications giving a range of practical funding help and expert support to start-ups and existing businesses.
THE VULNERABLE AND ELDERLY
Last October we spun out our Adult social care operation into two services.
Oldham Care and Support now delivers adult care services bought by the council on residents’ behalf and Oldham Care and Support at Home is now actively taking on and competing with private sector companies in the home care and personal assistance market. By bringing in additional business from self-funders, people who have the Independent Living Fund, and work from the health service and people switching from other private home care providers, we are protecting staff and ensuring the quality of the care they receive.
This year we’ve launched ‘Volunteering for All, a new project for residents who want to meet new friends or need help with daily tasks. This includes befriending, help with technology, shopping and everyday tasks, community clubs and travel companions. It’s a vital voluntary contribution to improving lives for all who take part in it.
And there can be few better examples of co-operative working than the Oldham Dementia Action Alliance. We teamed up with more than 30 organisations to create a scheme which had a target to sign up 500 people to agree to learn more about dementia in 45-minute training sessions.
After just three months it had created an astonishing 2,592 Dementia Friends in the borough prompting Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, to visit Oldham to see our pioneering work.
Our town is full of inspiring and amazing people that include our regular national headline grabbers like Kevin Sinfield, Nicola White, Brian Cox or Simon Wood: all of whom deserve every plaudit they receive.
But we also have so many unsung heroes in our borough. People here are industrious and selfless.
For every one flytipper or rogue landlord or tenant we have dozens of fantastic people who deserve better and will play their part in improving the place.
That’s why we’re working so hard to help them – and why we’ll continue to leave no stone unturned in making 2015/6 another successful year for Oldham.
IT IS TIME to step up to our international and domestic responsibilities – and make fundamental changes to how we handle asylum seekers and refugees.
During the remarkable last few days – when one story has completely dominated the media – I have reflected long and hard on what it all tells us about the UK, our place in the world, and how our government deals with asylum seekers and our own communities.
Images of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi finally began to shake politicians and people across the world from a collective state of apathy on September 2.
His mother and five-year-old brother also drowned when their boat capsized as they tried to make a 13-mile journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. It instantly became the iconic depiction of the true impact of what is probably the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
I am both ashamed and embarrassed at this country’s continuing failure to show leadership and play its part in giving safe refuge to people fleeing such unimaginable danger.
I also have to be honest and say I’m equally frustrated by the fact that tens of thousands of other men, women and children who have already lost their lives in current conflicts haven’t had the same attention as Aylan’s story. How many thousands of equally harrowing images of refugees don’t go viral?
However, every now and then in history a certain photograph captures the spotlight, makes the world think or leads to social changes – and we must seize this moment because, while we cannot bring that little boy back, we can do much more to ensure others don’t die while the world watches on.
A picture paints a thousand words and like many others I was haunted and distressed at the images of Aylan face down in the water. I simply couldn’t get it out of my head and, on reflection, that is not a bad thing.
You cannot look away or be distracted by rubble, bombed out buildings or explain it away through the complexities of war and politics. And when public reaction becomes so strong, politicians pay attention.
I’m sure we can all agree that we need to work to find a better solution but while the international community continues to squabble the human cost – more senseless deaths – it’s one we cannot afford.
David Cameron was initially right to say that unless we deal with the conflict which is putting lives at risk we won’t solve the problem which leads to people fleeing their homeland. But he is also wrong to ignore the calls for us to step up and do what’s needed now.
On Monday the Prime Minister finally announced the UK will accept up to 20,000 people from camps surrounding Syria over the next five years, with priority given to vulnerable children.
Yet an estimated 340,000 asylum seekers have already arrived in Europe so far this year – most having taken that awful sea journey from North Africa and Turkey.
What about those refugees already here in Europe? Do we not have a moral responsibility to help out partners like Germany who have committed to taking in far more? To put it in context, around 18,000 new asylum seekers arrived in Munich last weekend alone.
The German Government says it will spend an extra £4.4bn to cope with this year’s record influx and – as part of that settlement state and local governments will get £3bn to help them house the 800,000 people expected to arrive there in 2015 and deal with the impacts of this.
The contrast with our own position could not be greater.
Our country and my town has a long and proud history of helping those escaping their own homeland in search of safe refuge. Those who came to Britain generations ago are now just as much part of Britain as the Prime Minister himself and contribute to our economic and social wellbeing.
But in stepping up and playing our part more actively in the international efforts we should also ensure the management and coordination of refugee and asylum seeker placements in the UK are done in an equitable way.
By any measure of success our current system is not working and the Home Office should in my view now end its contract with Serco, which places asylum seekers in homes on their behalf.
Serco is a private company with its own financial pressures and, as a result, it looks to place asylum seekers in the cheapest available housing.
Little or no regard is given to the impact from the moment new arrivals move in – in terms of ongoing costs to vital local support services, like schools and GPs – or the impact on the neighbourhood.
We know that when unmanaged and not properly understood, community change of any kind can lead to tensions which affect both the area hosting the new arrivals and those seeking safe refuge themselves. If government fails, they fail us all.
The current system is now broken. The Home Office and Serco are either incompetent, indifferent – or both – and they’ve lost the confidence of many local authorities they deal with.
It’s clear that the Prime Minister is being heavily influenced by concerns that ‘Britain can’t take any more’ but frankly I’d be amazed if the senior civil servants, Home Secretary or Mr Cameron himself have any understanding of the real situation on the ground.
The prime concern of the bean counters is to get this done as cheaply as possible and housing costs represent a significant part of the bill from accepting asylum seekers.
So when costs come ahead of community cohesion it is the case that Serco – aided and supported by the Home Office – simply focusses on areas with low housing costs.
This isn’t just about the national differences in rent levels because we are a diverse economy – it’s because demand is low, wages are low and those with choice opt to live in other areas.
The UK is not distributing asylum seekers evenly or fairly.
Some regions take far more than others and some take almost none.
Within regions some cities and towns take far more than others and again some will take almost none.
And within cities and towns some wards take more than other wards in the same city or town – bear with me…
And within wards some communities take far more than other parts of the same ward.
The reality is that the concentration of placements is neither evenly distributed nor does it take any account of pre-existing community tensions. For example, these same areas will already be changing because of economic migration, the changing face of the employment market and inherent low skills and low wages.
That’s why the North West is far more likely than the South East to take asylum seekers. Within the North West some cities take far more than others, and within those cities placements will be concentrated in a small part of the community.
But how can it seriously be justified that Oldham and Rochdale with a combined population of around 450,000 accommodate more asylum seekers than the whole of London and the South East combined, which is home to more than 17 million people?
As the world looks on to Britain’s response to this crisis it is important that we are seen to be part of the international community and filling a role as a moral and social conscience. And when we do that it is vital that we then implement it in a fair, equitable and competent way.
Local councils across the country know their communities best and can do more, but only if they are allowed to by government.
I can’t be the only council leader that is sick of the Home Office and Serco paying lip service to community need and seeking the best for those in desperate need of safe refuge.
So to summarise there are – to me – five key lessons to learn here:
1). People, not numbers
It shouldn’t take a public campaign, event or movement for the UK to be humane. Every country in Europe should take its fair share and we should step up.
We should ensure that applications for asylum are dealt with in a timely way and that they are properly considered the first time round, not refused for little reason only for the applicant to secure leave to remain on appeal.
2). Region, Town or City doing their bit
Every town and city in every region of the UK should take its fair share of asylum seeker placements to ensure these are evenly distributed.
3). Local accountability
Local councils should be given the responsibility to place their allocation of asylum seekers. The funding currently given to Serco should be handed over direct to local authorities to cover the additional staff and services needed.
Councils should also be open and transparent about the number and distribution of asylum seekers they have – and be clear about the support provided to both asylum seekers and local communities where they are placed.
4). Fair Funding
We’ve been clear that Oldham will play its part but adequate funding should be provided to ensure every region can afford to place its share of asylum seekers.
The true cost of support, education and healthcare should be covered by Government.
Housing costs in some areas will be much higher than others, but that is the reality of our unbalanced national economy and the failure to build enough homes, particularly social housing, over decades. Government should ensure that the budget for housing asylum seekers allows for all areas to play their part.
5). A long term solution
The use of temporary accommodation such as hotels and former care homes should be a last resort and only used when there is a genuine and unforeseen large intake of asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers should be given ongoing support, advice and guidance to help them to settle into the local community and see through their asylum application. We cannot just dump them here and abandon them until that process is complete.
My call is clear: Let’s fix the broken system which undermines community confidence.
Let’s remember the needs of people and communities should be central to decision making, not an afterthought.
And let us step up and be a good international neighbour.
MY THOUGHTS always turn to local families at this time each year as so many of them start adjusting their lives for ‘back to school’.
With A-Level and GCSE results revealed over the summer, the focus now shifts to those thousands of school children – all kitted out in their fresh gear – who are about to join new classes and schools across the borough.
I know from personal experience that this can be a very tense time for children, parents, staff and governors alike.
That’s not just about the challenges of dealing with new changes to daily life that are getting underway – or learning new faces and building new relationships.
There’s also the very natural nagging hopes and fears that the correct choices have been made for the long-term prospects of a child and that everything will work out right.
Here in Oldham we all want the very best possible start to life for all our children and last year we recognised that there are many education issues which all parties can work on better together to ensure a brighter future.
So as those shiny new shoes are taking those first steps and those smelly new textbooks are being opened by their first readers this week, it felt like the right time to ask Estelle Morris – who is chair of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission (OESC) – to guest blog for me as the body prepares to unveil its final recommendations in October.
Over to Estelle now to explain more…
Many families throughout Oldham will be getting ready for going ‘back to school’ right now.
For some, it will be a big change – starting school for the first time, moving to secondary school, college or university – and for others it will be returning to a familiar place.
Whatever the situation, education is one of the things that we share in common.
Every parent wants their child to do well, children dream of what they might become, adults want to update their skills, people learn because they want to know and understand more.
Although that personal commitment to learning is at the core of achievement and progress, we also need other people to help us achieve it.
That’s the importance of schools and colleges and those who work in them and why, in so many ways, the future prosperity of Oldham and its residents depends on the quality of what they deliver.
Jim McMahon, the Leader of Oldham Council, asked me to chair a commission to consider how we might improve the education system in the borough – for children and adults and for learners and teachers.
The OESC has been meeting for the last year and will present its report in the next few weeks. Our membership has included school and college leaders as well as teachers, university lecturers, business people and governors.
Oldham has some excellent schools and some outstanding teachers and many young people develop into confident adults with the qualifications they need.
However, if you compare the overall results in the town, particularly in secondary schools, they are not as good as they should be.
Making sure that more schools deliver a high standard of education has been the main focus of the commission.
We need to make it possible for schools to work together so they can learn from each other and so that we can spread the good practice that exists in the town to all our schools.
Investing in the skills of our teachers and making sure we attract and retain the best in the profession will be part of our recommendations.
However, although we all know the importance of teachers they can’t bring about the improvement we need by themselves. We have to harness the energies and skills of others in the community.
Parents are key partners. Not only are those first years before a child starts school so vital for their future education success, the support and encouragement they continue to give can make all the difference.
There are other partnerships that are also important.
The hundreds of residents who volunteer to be governors, local businesses who offer work experience, cultural institutions and sporting facilities that can work with schools to deliver a more exciting curriculum – all make a difference.
Most of all, Oldham has to believe that more of its residents can achieve at a higher level; it has to be ambitious for the town and for all its people.
One of the reasons, I was eager to take on the role of chair of the OESC is that I know that the leadership of the council shares that ambition and is determined that Oldham should have an education system that will help deliver transformation across the borough.
All of us on the commission hope we can play a part in making this happen.
We’re due to deliver our final recommendations next month, but if you want to find out more about the work the OESC has already been doing, then please visit our website by clicking here.
Estelle Morris (Baroness Morris of Yardley) Chair of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission