Behind the headlines: The truth about deprivation in Oldham

BBC HEADLINEIT HURT like hell to see news stories labelling Oldham as the ‘most deprived town’ in England this week.

As a proud resident and Council Leader, that’s one of the ‘top five’ headlines you never want to read.

My instinct was to defend the area because, hand on heart, I genuinely don’t believe Oldham is the most deprived town – and I don’t say that with my head in the sand either.

Many shocked people got in touch asking me how this survey could have reached that conclusion, so I did some fact-finding…

It turns out the Office for National Statistics (ONS) looked at one part of our borough – focussing just on centrally-located wards near Oldham town centre.

Big districts like Royton, Shaw, Failsworth, Chadderton and Saddleworth (just named one of the best places to live in the UK) weren’t included, which explains a lot.

The part of Oldham surveyed was those wards we historically know to have socio-economic problems, like Alexandra, Coldhurst, St Mary’s, Waterhead and Werneth. They’ve long been our areas of highest deprivation and we’ve never denied that.

Like many parts of towns and cities or large urban conurbations, these areas of Oldham are still undergoing economic restructuring after the decline of manufacturing. It’s a legacy many places are still dealing with and we’ve not been sat here waiting for some report to point that out.

ONS-logoThis ONS survey is based on data from the 2011 Census, which is five years old. We’ve been on a dramatic journey since then.

In 2011 we had no Metrolink extension. All of our major regeneration plans and social regeneration initiatives that can make a real difference to deprivation were, at best, at initial planning stages.

Oldham Council and its partners recognised, however, that if we shirked the challenges, nobody else would come along and rescue us and, since then, we’ve been recognised nationally as having made major improvements.

Together we’ve worked incredibly hard to change Oldham’s story.

Get Oldham Working, for example, has created more than 3,700 new work-related opportunities for residents. Warm Homes Oldham has lifted more than 3,300 residents out of fuel poverty and we now have a range of partners committed to working together to improve school results through the Oldham Education and Skills Commission.

The ONS survey doesn’t recognise any of that. It comes from researchers interrogating spreadsheets rather than (perish the thought) actually coming to visit the place. And all of the place too – don’t redraw the boundaries of what those who actually live here recognise as Oldham(!).

One quick trip here would’ve confirmed the story for them that our renewal is real.

OTH2We’re attracting major new retailers and investment, including Marks & Spencer and a regional Audi dealership. We’ve created a blossoming Independent Quarter that will soon have a Digital Enterprise Hub, and only this week Nandos and Gourmet Burger Kitchen agreed to join ODEON in our flagship Old Town Hall cinema development.

We haven’t got everything right and there’s a long way to go in tackling some issues linked to deprivation. But we also know it can’t change overnight and the battle is hardly helped by slamming a town and publicly crushing its confidence.

There’s also many things you cannot measure on a spreadsheet. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” and you’d struggle to tell partners like Voluntary Action Oldham, the Oldham Foodbank and charity workers that their outstanding work in those communities is somehow not relevant to the true picture.

That’s not to say, however, that statistics aren’t useful – so let’s look at those that explain how deprivation is being perpetuated in Oldham.

Since 2009, Government has reduced our funding by £192 million – more than 40 per cent. By 2017 we’ll have £2,015 less to spend on services per household.

british pound currency symbol made in 3d over a white backgroundOn top of that, the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 caused an estimated £90.1m loss to the borough and last year’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill will see a cumulative loss of another £58m over the next four years. These are huge amounts to take out of people’s pockets and the local economy.

Oldham is also not alone or unique in these challenges: we’re part of a bigger geographical club.

The ONS survey said that five of the ten most deprived towns and cities are from the North West, and those with the least deprived areas are mainly in the South East – and that shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

I’d be much less annoyed about this survey if I thought it was ultimately going to lead to action. I’d personally hand deliver it to the Chancellor myself if I thought he would use it to help Oldham, but he won’t, so I do question what the merit of it is.

Here in Oldham we know that only we can help ourselves by pushing forward with our regeneration plans, raising aspirations and creating new jobs, opportunities and homes. That work goes on.

And although Mr Obsorne claims that places like Oldham and our neighbours are all part of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the necessary funding to turn that rhetoric into reality is yet to materialise.

Believing in Oldham is not just about words, it is about deeds.

PollingStationFinally, this is my last blog before the local elections period officially starts and council publicity is restricted.

On Thursday, May 5 a third (20) of the total 60 council seats – one in each ward – is up for election.

I won’t use my blog to solicit support for any particular party or cause, but I would ask that you do please use your vote.

To check if you are registered to vote or find out more information, visit the Elections page on the Oldham Council website by clicking here.

I hope you all have a fantastic Easter Weekend and my blog will return in May.


Young runaways so vulnerable to exploitation

Child-Sexual-Exploitation-Leaflet-Greater-ManchesterAWARENESS of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) has never been higher than it is today – and we know more about the issues as a society than we ever did before.

The media contains stories about cases on a daily basis such that the topic at times almost feels like it has lost its ‘shock value’ to the reader.

Complacency is an enemy to keeping our young people safe, which is why we must guard against that all times and never stop trying to promote a better understanding of the warning signs.

At Oldham Council our Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) has the statutory responsibility for our overall CSE strategy.

And it is our Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), which has the job of identifying children at risk and helping those who become victims.

We are proud of their work and committed to helping them by keeping these issues in the public eye.

That’s why, for the fourth year running, we’ve again joined forces with our partners in Project Phoenix – Greater Manchester’s multi-agency response to the problem –  in a ‘Week of Action’.

The focus this time is on the strong link between young people who run away or go missing from home and cases of exploitation.

Regional statistics show that this connection is irrefutable and needs more attention drawn to it.

‘Going missing’ has several variants, of course – including bunking off from school, staying out overnight or running away for a few days or longer.

But the chilling truth is that 95 per cent of those children who are judged to be at risk from CSE have all gone missing at least once.

In 2014, a total of 4,226 young people went missing in Greater Manchester. Of those 44 per cent only went missing once – but 43 children went missing more than 100 times.

Child-sexual-exploitation-poster-he-says-he-loves-meThose young people who run away tend to do so regularly and that exposes them to increased risk of coming to harm.

Part of the problem is that they are often simply unaware of the dangers that they may place themselves in when they stay away from home.

Those who go missing are amongst the most vulnerable children around us, however, and there are many reasons why this might happen.

It could be neglect or abuse at home.

It could be drug or alcohol misuse by their parents or family members.

And it could also be that they are under the influence of predatory adults.

In cases like these it’s absolutely vital that young people get support at the earliest possible stage so that we can help to address the issues – whatever the context – and protect them from becoming a victim of CSE or other crimes.

About 18 months ago we launched the ‘It’s Not Okay’ campaign as part of Project Phoenix’s work with public and voluntary sector partners to protect young people together.

This joined-up approach is proving effective in raising awareness and having direct contact and discussions with children and those who care for them. This has meant that hundreds more young people have been identified, educated and helped than ever before.

This work is absolutely vital and Oldham Council will continue to play a leading role with our partners in highlighting the issues.

We all have a part to play in helping to spot this and to help keep young people safe.

You should, of course, always urge your own children to keep in touch when not at home:  whether that is through a relative or a friend, or someone they trust.

But even if you are not a parent, you too have an important role to play as our ‘eyes and ears’ on these matters because vigilance cannot just be left to our childcare professionals or the police.

I would be grateful if you would take just a few minutes today to visit the website at to learn more about the early signs that a child in your community could be at serious risk.

Child-sexual-exploitation-poster-he-gives-me-beerIt’s important to point out that it will often be the case that several small pieces of information from different sources will contribute to the full picture of what is really going on in a vulnerable young person’s life.

By providing information confidentially you could play an invaluable part in safeguarding a young person – and others – by sharing it and letting the professionals investigate.

Changes in the way that a child appears, behaves or communicates can often be key and you can report concerns in several ways in Oldham.

If you suspect someone is in immediate risk of harm then you should always call 999 and speak to the police.

All calls will be treated seriously and confidentially.

To report information contact Oldham’s MASH team between 9am and 5pm on 0161 770 3790 or 3791.

You can also report concerns online at

Outside office hours you can call the Emergency Duty Team on 0161 770 6936 or the police on 0161 772 5050.

Please never put off those concerns. Don’t leave that call to someone else.


The hidden impact of winter weather

WINTRY weather can have a huge impact when it hits the borough – not just the immediate inconvenience it causes, but on people’s long-term health.

Even though we’re hardened to bitter Arctic winds and freezing fog in Oldham it was something of a surprise to get a blast of up to 30cm of snow (in higher areas) so late in the season last Friday.

The scale of that snowfall was dramatic and I’m always thankful we can rely on our brilliant gritting team who, once again, helped keep the borough moving and cleared our primary routes round the clock.

But when a cold spell like that hits us my thoughts also turn to people on low incomes, behind with their bills and struggling with basics like fuel and food costs.

It’s easy to forget that weather conditions like those don’t just affect schools, bus services and local events, they also pose a serious threat in terms of ill health.

One key reason for that is fuel poverty.

This is defined as spending more than 10 per cent of your income on heating – and it remains a sad reality for more than two million people in the UK.

The facts are (literally) chilling.

Data shows that one older person dies every seven minutes during the winter – almost 120,000 from cold weather or associated factors over the last four winters alone.

And if you compare that with Nordic countries, such as Sweden, which have much harsher conditions in the cold months, you find their mortality rates are lower than ours.

IMG_5256So when the mercury plummets like it did last week many of us take for granted being able to just turn up the heating at home, but that isn’t such a simple choice for some.

That’s why, as a Co-operative Council, we set up the Warm Homes Oldham service to help.

This is jointly funded by ourselves, Oldham NHS Clinical Commissioning Group and the Oldham Housing Investment Partnership. It brings health and housing bodies together to address that direct link between fuel poverty and illness.

It’s also recognised by all partners that no single organisation is solely responsible for the health of our residents – we all are. It delivers a joined-up approach that will ultimately cut the numbers of people admitted to hospital and deliver other wellbeing benefits that will cut costs for all partners and, more importantly, improve the quality of life for the people helped by the scheme.

The help on offer from Warm Homes Oldham includes the fitting of home improvements, energy efficiency and switching advice, plus support for claiming benefits, getting off prepayment meters and clearing fuel debt.

In the last three years we’ve now fitted the second highest number of home improvements and new energy saving measures – like boilers, loft insulation and cladding – in the country.

Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change show that 170 out of every 1,000 households in Oldham have now benefitted from an Eco grant and our scheme has helped lift more than 3,300 homes out of fuel poverty.

We’ve got many fantastic case studies of the positive impact this had for local people and you can see some of these by watching the video at the top of this page.

So when I think about great examples of what we mean by living in a Co-operative Borough, the Warm Homes Oldham scheme is always high on my list.

I also know that many of you ‘do your bit’ during the bad weather – like checking on your elderly and vulnerable neighbours to make sure they are okay or clearing their paths – and that is fantastic to see.

But I would ask you all to please take a moment today to consider if you know anyone who might benefit from the Warm Homes Oldham service.

It’s already been so successful that it has been able to secure more than £3.5 million in funding from external sources. We want that success to continue.

And although you may think winter is almost behind us, I would urge you to take action now whilst this is fresh in your mind.

Cold homes are currently a bigger killer across the UK than road accidents, alcohol or drug abuse – which is shocking.

Please help us spread the word about the scheme and to improve the lives and health of people in your community.

For more information, or to book a free home visit to find out exactly how we can help, visit or call 0800 019 1084.


School places: A primary and secondary concern

NATIONAL OFFER DAY: Secondary School decision is an important milestone for every child 

YESTERDAY was an important day for thousands of parents and children across Oldham.

‘National Offer Day’, as it is now known, is when mums and dads find out which school their child will be starting their secondary education at next September.

In our borough, like everywhere else, we’ve seen a significant increase in the numbers of school age children needing places in recent years.

We take our responsibility to ensure that each child gets a school place very seriously, but it is no easy task.

Putting aside the reality that it is never possible to grant every parent’s preference, this legal duty (as the cross-party Local Government Association has warned this week) could soon become “undeliverable” in many areas.

Significant population growth means many secondary schools are now already at or above capacity nationwide.

Last year local authorities had to provide around 2.75m secondary school places, but that is set to rise to 3.28m by 2024. These are huge numbers and pressures.

Under the Government’s rules, all new schools to help cope with this demand must be “free schools”, created outside of local authority control.

And – to be clear – we are fully committed to working with Vicky Beer, the Regional Schools Commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, to help to find good quality local sponsors for new schools in our area.

But I also agree with the LGA’s call for councils themselves to be able to open new schools, and to require academies to expand to meet local demand, where necessary.

There are now fewer and fewer schools under the direct control of councils.  It’s surely common sense that local authorities are well placed to act to ensure school places can be created on time – and in the right places. If we are to be tasked with ensuring sufficient school places we need to have more flexibility and influence in the system to have any realistic prospect of delivering that capacity.

Here in Oldham we’ve been seeing a significant increase in demand for places for some time and we have taken the necessary actions.

First, we put a better forecasting method in place looking at all available data on births, housing and new arrivals so we can plan ahead.

Secondly, we got on with an expansion programme to provide extra capacity. That includes plans to boost primary places with a new three-form entry school on the former Grange School site, plus the expansion of places in Failsworth, Hollinwood and Lees.

Last week we also saw planning approval granted for a new Saddleworth School that will increase pupil numbers from 1,350 to 1,500 – and plans are also about to go out to statutory consultation to double the capacity at Greenfield primary with a new build two-form entry school.

So, how have we done this year with the provision of secondary school places?

Out of 3,468 applications received some 2,773 (80 per cent) of applicants got their first-choice school preference and, in total, 93 per cent of all applicants got one of their first three (from six) choices.

These figures are not unusual and pretty static as a trend. The number of parents applying for certain local secondary schools as their first choice exceeds the number of pupils they can take every year.

I’ve said from the outset that the education and skills offer here in the borough is a key focus for my leadership, and every bit as vital to our future as physical regeneration.

So I was interested this week when Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, warned Greater Manchester that the region’s poor performing secondaries could “choke” the Northern Powerhouse vision.

I do hope that this was at least a recognition that local authorities need to have a strong role in school improvement, whatever the type of school, because we actually have less influence than ever before.

This is not about councils wanting to directly control academies or free schools, we know that’s not going to happen, but it is about being able to intervene for the good of local communities when schools are not performing.

It cannot be right that all the responsibility for performance can fall upon councils without us having the appropriate powers to act.

COMMISSION: Estelle Morris chaired the OESC which delivered its vital report in January.

I welcome the calls now for discussion about us having a specific GM Schools Commissioner who would work with a Further Education Commissioner to give more focus on local need and deliver closer coordination between schools and post-16 education.

We are, of course, doing everything we can to meet the challenge of ensuring no child is without a school place in Oldham – but that’s only part of the battle.

The bigger picture is to implement the recommendations of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report so that every child can not just get a place, but can get one at a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ local school – and have the best chance of fulfilling their full potential.