THE ‘INCLUSIVE Growth’ agenda is going to be absolutely central to my work as Council Leader.
What I mean by that it is that it’s vital we ensure that Greater Manchester devolution isn’t just delivering for core areas around Manchester city centre, but also for all our towns and districts.
The importance of that – as if we needed reminding – was highlighted again when the All-Party Group of Social Inclusion met in Parliament on Monday.
The group warned that Britain is becoming more ethnically segregated – with widening “cracks in our communities” because lessons haven’t been learned.
Their deliberations coincided with the unhappy anniversary of it being 15 years since the Oldham riots and I was, as you can imagine, asked to give my thoughts by several media sources.
Those scenes on our streets in 2001 were ones none of us will forget. Since then they’ve remained at the forefront of all our minds in everything we do to improve the prospects of our people, business and places.
I welcomed the fact that these issues were being discussed in the context of being matters for Britain as a nation this week. It’s important to do that rather than treating those disturbances as somehow being a defining and unique feature of Oldham.
Rising immigration has produced a national debate that is primarily focussed on numbers and sensational headlines; risking a response where communities blame each other and heightening the appeal of simplistic ‘Donald Trump’ solutions.
I want to talk about Oldham’s experiences since 2001 – and where we go next on this agenda.
Much hard work has been done by Oldham Council and partners across all sectors to provide stronger civic leadership here that can tackle the problems that can lead to communities living “parallel lives”.
We’ve made significant investments in landmark regeneration schemes designed to boost Oldham’s confidence, make it family-friendly, improve residents’ prospects and spark the local economy by attracting major inward investment deals to helping small independent traders.
There’s also been significant investment in housing, work to reduce the segregation of students from different ethnic backgrounds in schools, plus the Oldham Education and Skills Commission, which is striving to improve standards and encourage schools to work better together to raise them across the borough.
We’re not complacent but we’ve seen success in several areas. There’s less hate crime happening, for example, and the far right has still never had a single candidate elected here. Our neighbourhood teams working closely within communities also find that people much more prepared to acknowledge and discuss difficult issues.
But seeing these issues simply through the prism of race is too narrow a focus that offers few solutions.
Drill deeper and you can see that social integration and economic inclusion and prosperity go hand in hand, which is why I’m concentrating on three key areas for Oldham.
Firstly, as a partner in Greater Manchester devolution, I’ve made the ‘inclusive growth’ agenda my top concern.
New research from the independent Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit (run by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and University of Manchester) rightly challenges the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to ensure the proceeds of growth are shared by all people and places in their regions.
Looking at key indicators like income, living costs, labour market exclusion, employment and human capital we can see that while Manchester city centre and Salford have seen growth in their prosperity, the GM region overall sits in the bottom half of the index for inclusion. That has to change or devolution will fail – and communities will divide.
Secondly, we must not lose sight of the importance of our key services. We cannot forget or underestimate the impact these targeted interventions can have in changing peoples’ lives. Initiatives like Get Oldham Working and Warm Homes Oldham have helped thousands of people into employment and out of fuel poverty – key interventions which can make a huge difference. Delivering them won’t be getting any easier, however, as the Government continues to slash our funding and offer measures like business rate redistribution, which won’t mitigate long-term risks to councils like ours. Westminster can and must do better.
And thirdly, I believe more should be done to include women in the GM devolution agenda and in finding solutions to these challenges.
We’ve underplayed the contribution women can make and haven’t engaged them well in this process so far: the devolution deal photocall was a very telling image filled entirely with men in suits. That matters for reasons of justice, legitimacy and efficiency.
I’m the first female leader of Oldham Council and it’s one that has strong cabinet and ward member representation of women. But I’m also now the only female leader in GM and I will push for that voice to be heard better in policy-making and helping to tackle entrenched divisions and inequalities.
As a Co-operative Council we work hard with partners in every area and sector of our borough. All of us recognise that we have our own roles to play in tackling deep-seated social, economic and cultural forces that can drive our communities apart.
We share those challenges with many other places and cannot ever ignore them.
What’s important about Oldham though is not that we had a riot – London and Manchester had them much more recently, remember – but that we have a plan, a partnership and the determination to tackle these issues head on.
Leader of Oldham Council