Happy New Year for 2017…

oldham-leader-25-1-16-5277I’D LIKE to take this opportunity to wish all residents across our borough a Happy New Year.
 
This has been my first year as Oldham Council Leader. It has flown by at a rapid pace and it will be hard to forget 2016 for many reasons.
 
I would probably choose the Old Town Hall opening event in October as my personal highlight.
 
That spectacular show produced some iconic images and fantastic memories. Best of all, it showcased our ambitions for Oldham.
 
Raising the bar as the boldest outdoor event that we’ve ever put on in the town centre, it was brilliant to see and hear the excited reaction of families – especially young children – and made it a remarkable experience.
 
The opening of the ODEON cinema and restaurants – and the other businesses emerging and blossoming in our Independent Quarter – are clear signs of the transformation that’s now underway in Oldham. 
 
These aren’t just physical symbols of regeneration either. They are bringing new jobs, footfall and visitors and they are contributing towards the family-friendly environment we have needed for so long. 
 
There is also more to come.
 
coliseum-move-pr-shot-daily-issuesWe’ve recently been able to complete funding packages for our new Arts and Heritage Centre and the new Coliseum Theatre that are going to link up with Gallery Oldham and our Library to make a fantastic Cultural Quarter. 

And we continue to work up amended plans for the Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps development, which we will share as soon as we can. 
 
Our borough can’t be immune, however, from the impacts of the dramatic events we’ve seen at national and international levels in 2016.
 
Old assumptions and orders have been challenged: I can still barely believe I’m now writing in a pre-Brexit and Planet Trump era.
 
Oxford Dictionaries have named “post-truth” – which means ignoring objective facts and taking emotional decisions –  as their Word of the Year for 2016. 
 
My word for 2017 is going to be ‘fairness’. That’s because, as a place and a council, it seems to be the overriding issue on so many levels.
 
gmca-black-logo-expandedFair Growth, for example, is a key part of my new brief at the GM Combined Authority and I am leading on this agenda to make sure more of our residents share in the benefits of prosperity – not just selected parts of the south and centre of the region.
 
Oldham also needs fairness on many other levels to give our people the best chance to compete and prosper.
 
The cuts in Government funding have hit us disproportionately hard in recent years and that continues – not least with the decision to stop funding adult social care from central government budgets and hand the responsibility over to cash-strapped councils and Council Taxpayers.
 
Answers to the questions about how we are going to be funded in future when Government withdraws our core grant in 2020 – and in a way that genuinely reflects the level of need here – are also going to be vital. 

And there are other issues about our access to infrastructure and opportunities – like a direct tram link to Manchester Piccadilly, HS2 and beyond – where we will be fighting Oldham’s corner at a regional and national level in 2017.
 
The past year has seen the continuation of much unseen work that has such a positive impact on so many lives – and gives our residents a fairer chance in life.
 
hubI’m thinking of campaigns like Warm Homes Oldham, which has lifted more than 1,300 people out of fuel poverty, and our Early Help scheme, which is supporting people and families to get self-help and the skills needed to tackle their long term issues in better ways.
 
We’ve also made good progress on implementing the Oldham Education and Skills Commission’s recommendations, created thousands of new employment opportunities through Get Oldham Working, attracted more important new private investment, and begun building many of the new homes – and range of housing choice – we need as a borough.
 
In all those things, and others, our aim is to make Oldham a place where everyone can reach their potential and enjoy good quality districts, homes, transport links and life opportunities.
 
We’ll be spelling out those new priorities and our programme for the rest of this decade in the first part of 2017. None of us, however, can predict with full confidence what lies ahead.
 
At a time when the world feels as though it has been turned on its head, one undeniable truth is the value of strong public services – as shown by the response from the council and partners to the recent Maple Mill fire, or November’s flooding. 

Those services remain vital to communities and we will continue to defend them – and invest in our future –  as the next budget challenges get underway.
 
I’ve been inspired by some great local people this year.

jeannicNicola White, our Olympic gold medallist, has already made more than 60 appearances since the Rio games to inspire local schoolchildren, and she is just one high-profile example of hundreds of people who are ‘putting something back’ into our communities.
 
We still also have that great Oldham sense of humour to fall back on – as you showed in our ‘Name a Gritter’ competition that proved so popular it ended up being endorsed on the X Factor by Nicole ‘Saltslinger’ herself.
 
And another constant, which I’ve seen in countless examples this year, is the fact that Oldham only succeeds when we all pull together in the same direction. 
 
Only by all of us making our own contributions to shared aspirations and goals, can we build a better borough together.  
 
That was true in 2016 – and it remains more vital than ever for 2017 and beyond. 
 
Happy New Year!

The value – and funding – of good public services

xmascardTHE 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.

mmillgmfrsAt 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.

careringWe’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.

othFinally, 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.

Jean

Culture: A force for entertainment, education and growth

coliseum-move-pr-shot-daily-issues

IT’S VITAL that the ongoing regeneration of Oldham town centre has a strong cultural element – our history demands it and so does our future.

As a town we’ve got an enviable tradition of producing and playing host to scores of fantastic actors, comedy, drama, dance, music and pantomime performances and we must ensure that can continue.

Arts, culture and heritage all matter and they must be at the heart of the revival of Oldham.

These activities give fantastic life opportunities to people of all backgrounds and levels of talent – whether that is by taking part, spectating or benefiting from some of the educational and learning spin-offs.

They are also important because modern town centres no longer simply work as a cluster of retail outlets. To be successful they need to be a destination: and one with a wide enough offer to appeal to all kinds of tastes and needs.

Lifestyles and shopping habits have changed beyond all recognition so you need a range of attractions that can attract footfall of all kinds and cater for the ‘leisure pound’.

That’s why we’ve delivered the ODEON cinema and restaurants at the Old Town Hall, where Gourmet Burger Kitchen opened this week. It’s also why we have worked so hard on our Independent Quarter and our Digital Enterprise Hub – and it’s why we are committed to a phased programme that will bring our new Cultural Quarter together.

The brilliant news this week that Arts Council England has confirmed a £7.1m grant towards a new Oldham Coliseum Theatre means those plans can now progress from paper to bricks and mortar.

The vision is to move the Coliseum into a new building located just yards from the Oldham Central Metrolink stop, and alongside the new Heritage and Arts Centre which will tell the story of our borough’s past through a series of displays, installations, archives and artefacts.

Both will also be next to Gallery Oldham, which hosts an excellent range of travelling exhibitions and events, and Oldham Library which boasts some of the highest visitor numbers across the region.

Together these assets will create a fantastic new cultural hub for Oldham, strengthening the facilities our residents can enjoy – and our visitor economy.

Getting to where we are today with the Coliseum Theatre project has required a great deal of co-operative working and shared vision on all sides.

I am proud of the work that has been done on the project and the backing of the Arts Council England shows that we must be doing something right. It is not every day that ACE invests such a significant sum in a theatre in the North of England; let alone one that is not in a city centre.

The Coliseum has long been a jewel in our borough’s crown, but it’s also been clear it was not viable to stay at its creaking Fairbottom Street home.

I know that some people will think that’s a shame and I understand that. Regular visitors will obviously have a natural affection for the current building that holds so many great memories for them.

Places are important to us all, of course, but they are nothing without the people that make the experience special. The quality of a night at the theatre, after all, depends upon both the players and the audience.

This new home will still boast that same warm and authentic welcome that people have come to expect, but it will instead be in state-of-the-art facilities – including a 550-seat main auditorium and a 170-seat studio theatre – and will offer a wider programme of activities with greater benefit to our communities and people.

The new plans that are due to be submitted next year shouldn’t be seen as a sad break with the past, but simply as the next chapter in the Coliseum’s long-running success story.

This is actually the second time in their history that the theatre has moved. They left their first home on Henshaw Street in 1887 to make way for Tommyfield Market..

They’ve been in this business since 1885 now and their timeline is littered with appearances by the likes of Eric Sykes, Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Cribbins, Dame Thora Hird, Anne Kirkbride, Kathy Staff, Claire Sweeney and Kenneth Alan Taylor.

We must preserve that legacy for future generations to build the next list of stellar names – and the beauty of the plans is that the Coliseum can continue to run with a full programme at Fairbottom Street right until they move in 2020.

There’s a lot of work to do before then but Union Street is going to be a fantastic new venue and the Cultural Quarter a unique asset for Oldham.

Next week, as I prepare for the final Full Council meeting of 2016, I will be blogging with an update on progress on our latest budget proposals and the plans at Prince’s Gate.

Jean