THE SPEED of events made it impossible to set time aside to write my blog last week.
I was preparing to put our latest budget proposals before Full Council, as scheduled, last Wednesday.
What I hadn’t expected was that I was going to end up doing that against breaking news about the Government’s latest proposals to make councils fund adult social care by ‘letting’ us put up Council Tax further for two more years…
As I left the Council Chamber completing the Blog was firmly on my to do list for first thing Thursday morning but then I awoke to the shocking scenes of the Maple Fill fire which, within minutes, had been declared a ‘major incident’. That is the kind of news you always dread as a Council Leader.
At first sight the scenes looked apocalyptic but the response work from GM Fire, GMP, Oldham Council and FCHO staff and others was fantastic and we were swiftly able to evacuate around 100 homes nearby.
To be able to then allow them all to return home permanently – just 36 hours later – was a great relief and testament to the incredible work that was done.
We’re now in the final stages of demolition and recovery at the site before the fire service hands it over and we move in to secure and seal it off.
I want to thank everyone who was involved in what was a fast-paced and ominous incident at times – but one that was also a timely reminder of the value of strong public services working to protect and serve residents and keep people safe.
The cost of maintaining those services is a huge problem though – and one that is dominating the day-to-day existence of councils like ours.
Last Wednesday night we tabled 37 proposals designed to find £6.41m toward the estimated £20.31m budget gap for 2017/8 – and the Council Chamber unanimously accepted them in a solemn mood.
As austerity cuts continue, Oldham is consistently being dealt a rotten hand by Government and we have increasingly limited choices.
Our financial planning also isn’t helped by the continued absence of an explanation about how their new financing model for Local Government – which abolishes our core grant and leaves us to rely on retained business rates by the end of the decade – is actually going to work.
More than a year since they announced it, key questions about how the system will work, and the impact on financial sustainability for councils like ours remain unanswered. That hinders our planning for the future.
We need those answers from Government. And we need to ensure Oldham gets a fair deal in the distribution of funds – we need a deal that genuinely reflects the level of need here.
Without some redistribution, areas like ours will be starved of crucial support while wealthier ones will collect all the riches.
We’ve warned for years about the growing crisis in the social care system and yet the Government’s new response to it doesn’t have a shred of credibility.
It is outrageous to portray that “allowing” local councils to raise more money from their residents is a generous move. They’re not “allowing” us to do it – they are leaving us with no choice BUT to do it.
It’s not generosity to impose the cost of funding social care on local council taxpayers – it is daylight robbery. It is disingenuous, iniquitous and downright unfair.
This is a national problem that needs a national solution funded from nationally-raised taxes. Shifting the burden of raising taxes to local government isn’t a solution: it’s a cop out.
As Council Leader I will continue to do all I can to retain the services that older and vulnerable people rely on. They deserve our support and respect.
The fight for fairness for Oldham and its people must go on – as must our ambitions to improve the place despite Government’s ambivalence.
On that topic, I had promised you an update on Prince’s Gate after Marks & Spencer’s recent withdrawal from the scheme.
I can tell you that what hasn’t changed is that this site remains a fantastic regeneration opportunity at a key gateway into Oldham town centre. What did change was M&S’ retail fortunes.
We were disappointed by their decision, of course, but are still in commercial negotiations as they continue to indicate they could open a food-only store here in Oldham.
I’ve also been asked about costs to date and ‘wasted work’ undertaken at the Oldham Mumps site. It’s a fair question, but all the physical works done there so far – including the land assembly and relocation of the Park & Ride – would have been completely necessary with or without M&S.
We’ve also been reviewing our options in light of the decision. We contacted the other parties we were talking to about Prince’s Gate and not one of them has indicated that their interest has fundamentally changed.
What might change in the long-term is the final balance of what was always a retail-led but mixed use development, or what goes exactly where on the Prince’s Gate site.
It remains key for Oldham and we still intend to develop it to deliver new opportunities for growth and jobs in the local economy. Our ambitions for it remain undaunted and we will give more progress updates as soon as we can in 2017.
Finally, this will be my last blog before the festive period.
I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you to ‘Shop Local’ and spend your money in Oldham and our district centres.
During the school holidays, we now also have the Old Town Hall development open where you can catch a film or a family meal at some of the fantastic new eateries in and around the area. Please use it and spread the word about your experiences.
I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas with your family – and please keep an eye out for any vulnerable neighbours and friends at this time.