Budget Day looming large… 

oldham-leader-25-1-16-5277IT’S AN important few weeks for Oldham Council – and all local authorities nationwide.

We’re now in the final stages of agreeing how to balance the books for the next financial year here and we must bridge a £24.8million funding gap.

This has been our toughest budget process to date because we’re way beyond looking for easy cuts – they’ve all long gone – and are literally now being squeezed down to the pips.

Like all council leaders I’ll have a keen eye on the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, when delivers his latest budget to Parliament next Wednesday (November 22).

This will, he has stated, set out the Government’s thinking “on how to keep the economy strong and resilient and fair – an economy that works for everyone.”

They’re fine words, but will that be what he deliver in practice? I’m very clear about what I want for Oldham Council…

As I said in my Annual Statement at Full Council last week, the landscape for Oldham remains a challenging one.

As a place, we are facing unprecedented uncertainties as a result of several complex inter-playing factors including Brexit, the future of local government funding, Welfare Reform, Business Rates, Adults and Childrens’ Social Care funding, and many more.

We’ve now spent several years since 2010 under a regime of so-called economic ‘austerity’; a phrase I dislike to hear because it is a benign term for a regime that is actually having savage consequences for so many people across our communities.

It became the dominant fiscal ideology in Westminster after the Greek financial crisis and weaponised the dangers of ‘deficits’ and ‘debts’ to attack the welfare state and justify punitive measures like increased cuts in benefits.

Government seems to have ditched concerns about things like unemployment and the viability of public services, including the NHS and has focussed instead on an obsession with massive spending cuts.

This must now come to an end. It has not delivered. It was not necessary at the time and what our economy needs now is the prioritisation of investment, stimulus and inclusive growth.

What we need from the Chancellor – and the Local Government Finance Settlement that follows in December – is a dose of reality and a clear plan.

If he is really serious about Government delivering “for everyone” then he cannot ignore the obvious fact that local government must be fairly and adequately funded and given the powers to help to deliver those outcomes.

Depressed elderly woman sitting at the table

I’m going to be particularly interested in what Mr Hammond says about social care.

The Local Government Association recently calculated than an extra  £1.3 billion is needed from the Treasury just to plug funding gaps in this area of local government funding over the next financial year.

And here’s a frightening thought. By 2020 almost 60p in every £1 people pay in Council Tax may have to be spent caring for children and adults. With a population in which people are living longer than ever before, there’s a very clear challenge to both sustainability and the dignity we give our most vulnerable residents.

Social care isn’t the only area of concern either. What measures will the Government bring forward to tackle the housing crisis or address how we help young people to achieve their ambitions without saddling themselves with huge debt?

There is also the massive unresolved question of how local government is to be financed in future.

By 2020 this sector will have lost 75 pence out of every £1 it got from the Revenue Support Grant in 2015 and almost half of all councils will no longer get any of this core central government funding by 2019/20.

The Government previously said it was committed to letting local authorities keep all of their business rates income by 2020, yet even that is now in doubt after the Local Government Finance Bill failed to re-appear in the Queen’s Speech after the General Election.

There’s now a real fear and lack of clarity about our future funding and I know it’s something that keeps colleagues awake at night.

ABDULMBEAt Oldham Council finance is the portfolio of my Deputy Leader, Abdul Jabbar, and it is an unenviable task.

I was delighted to see him receive his MBE at Buckingham Palace this week because anyone handling that kind burden must be worthy of a medal!

Seriously though, Abdul has been a great ward member, community leader and Cabinet Member for around a quarter of a century – and he is a great ambassador for Oldham.

His persistent and patient approach has helped to steer our finances through some very choppy waters in recent years and we’re all delighted to see that recognised with this honour.

Finally this week, I want to pay tribute to all those Royal British Legion personnel, local volunteers and residents who helped to make Remembrance Sunday such a poignant occasion.

I attended the service in Oldham town centre. The weather conditions were perfect – if a tad chilly(!) – and it was heartening to be part of such a huge crowd stretching across Parliament Square and down High Street all paying their respects to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Thank you all.

Jean

Hooray for Hollinwood

HollinwoodGREAT NEWS for Oldham’s regeneration programme this week as we took a vital step towards unlocking the development and employment opportunities at Hollinwood Junction.

This site at junction 22 of the M60 has long had great development potential, but with one major stumbling block.

Following Cabinet approval on Monday we will now buy the redundant gas holder from National Grid Property Holdings – who weren’t scheduled to remove the structure until 2023 at the earliest – and get on with demolition to spark regeneration and create new jobs.

We’d signed a Strategic Partnering Agreement with developers Langtree Group PLC some time ago, and are now working with them – and the Hollinwood Partnership – to regenerate the area.

Hollinwood Junction has significant parcels of public and private sector-owned land all boasting great transport links which could make it a regionally important employment zone at a major gateway, boosting the local economy and improving the environment.

After a lengthy process this is a real boost for our plans and we’re ready to get on with the job. We’ve already got planning permission to demolish and can start on-site this summer to remove the gas holder by early 2018.

DFESTIVALAnother development much closer to fruition is our Digital Enterprise Hub which opens this summer on Yorkshire Street.

This will support grassroots entrepreneurs and bring together the talent, inspiration and investment needed to create a launch pad where digital creatives can collaborate in the heart of our Independent Quarter.

Hack Oldham will be offering low-cost and flexible workspaces there and fellow tenants Open Future North will be leading the regional arm of Wayra UK’s work to grow entrepreneurial ‘ecosystems’ and energise local economies.

As we now look to promote our growing offer in this sector for residents and businesses, Oldham Library will be hosting our first-ever Digital Festival this Saturday.

This free event has all kinds of opportunities for people to improve their digital skills through advice, workshops and tips to get on in work and life with new technology.

The line-up includes explorations and experiments with some of the best professional digital artists around, plus chances to start your micro:bit adventure with BBC Make it digital, draw in virtual reality with Google Tilt Brush, make your own video game characters or learn how to repair digital equipment.

Hack Oldham will be on hand offering advice on coding, making, tech, gaming and devices, and you can also join in some retro games or just find out more about online banking and Smartphone apps first-hand from the experts.

There will also be workshops for writers, a University Campus Oldham stall with advice on digital careers, and a demonstration of free and interactive business resources.

People of all ages and experience are welcome and you can find out more about the Digital Festival at www.oldham.gov.uk/oldham_library

CTAX
And finally this week – as I prepare for this evening’s Full Council – some Council Tax news…

First, we’re giving all residents a chance to win a share of £1,000 as part of our drive to encourage more people to use direct debit and online services.

All you have to do is sign-up to pay your Council Tax via Direct Debit by Friday, April 28 and you’ll be entered into a free draw to win one of five cash prizes. To register, just have your bank details and Council Tax account reference ready and log onto www.oldham.gov.uk/ctcomp or call 0161 770 6622.

Last but not least, we’re proposing to increase our support for young people leaving care by making them exempt from Council Tax for a three-year period.

Under the proposals, which go to Cabinet next month, all care leavers aged 18, 19 and 20 would benefit from a move backed by the Children’s Society which found that this is a particularly vulnerable group for Council Tax debt.

This measure is just one way we can do ‘our bit’ and ensure we continue helping young people trying to adapt to living on their own, managing their finances and finding work for the first time.

Jean

Credit Unions: Needed more than ever in 2017

OCU - Logo
I CHAIRED the Annual General Meeting of the Oldham Credit Union (OCU) last night.

I’ve been chair of the OCU for around 12 years now and I’ve seen its offer change significantly in that time.

In 2017, Britain continues to face a mounting debt and savings crisis and Credit Unions can help with the issues faced by many individuals and families.

These were highlighted by a new survey into personal finances this week.

The research, by MoneySuperMarket, showed many people are getting into even more debt – and the vast majority blame the rising cost of living.

Studio Shot Of Worried Couple Looking At BillsMore than a third of adults said their debt is going up because of rises in transport costs, household bills and grocery costs.

Another issue now is that whilst inflation is slowly rising – up to a 32-month high in February – most people’s salaries are continuing to flatline. This means their spending power is steadily declining.

Inflation is expected to hit 2.4 per cent later this year, mostly because of the weakness of the pound, and this means people who are already in debt will find it even harder to ever get back into the black.

With the possibility of interest rate rises to come, these are very hard times for many people.

The average debt per person in the North West is £5,811 – just below the UK average of £6,372 – and its known that younger people (in the 18-34 age bracket) are racking up debt much quicker than those nearing retirement age.

A third of people surveyed admitted they rely on cards and loans just to get by from month to month, so it’s clear this is a widespread problem in the context of an insecure labour market where zero hours contracts also mean a steady, predictable income is a pipedream for many.

Good Bad Credit Signpost Showing Customer Financial RatingSo, what can Oldham Credit Union do to help?

OCU is a not-for-profit, democratic co-operative owned and controlled by its members. Its philosophy is about mutual self-help and it is not run on the same basis as lenders like banks and building societies.

Their services are there for anyone aged over 16 living or working in our borough. They try to promote the savings ‘habit’, provide fair loans at competitive interest rates, and provide advice on managing finances. They have a range of services on offer for different circumstances.

Imagine, for example, being hit with an unexpected car repair bill that needs doing immediately so you can get to work. In this scenario, some people without access to affordable credit end up falling prey to high-interest lenders or loan sharks.

OCU works with Greater Manchester Police and the Illegal Money Lending Team to keep people away from loan sharks because borrowers don’t just risk high interest repayments. Sharks often also employ extreme collection methods that include intimidation, threats and violence.

That kind of behaviour isn’t welcome here and we want people to know there is a responsible alternative in Oldham.

OCU offers access to fair and straightforward financial services, including secure savings and affordable loans. It works closely in neighbourhoods offering Junior Savings clubs and Community Collection Points in some areas.  Members include people who cannot access a bank account and don’t have any substantial kind of savings buffer – and it continues to develop partnerships with organisations like Regenda, Great Places, First Choice Homes Oldham – and Oldham Council – to tackle financial exclusion.

An example of how OCU can help is a Jam Jar budgeting account. This is a simple way of ensuring key bills like Council Tax and rent get paid. When opening an account, people agree how much they will pay towards each key bill per month and the OCU does the rest. Any surplus left over is then available in your OCU Savings Account. A Jam Jar account is free (subject to a one-off £1 joining fee) and you can also have benefits paid directly into the account.

Worried Senior Woman Sitting On Sofa Looking At BillsDespite the clear need for Credit Unions – there are about 350 across the UK – we’re small compared to this sector in other countries. UK Credit Unions have assets worth around £1.32bn and 1.2m members, but globally we’re small players in a sector boasting more than 208m members and assets worth $1.7tn.

That’s why UK Credit Unions are trying to raise their profile now through increasing awareness and getting more members from all income groups – and the OCU is no exception.

This all needs to be done at a sustainable pace. A three-year business plan has seen OCU grow in recent times and the range of services is now expanding.

A new Engage Pre-paid Visa Card and E account offer members modern online payment services and, in the year head, OCU will launch a new loan offers and an automated Lending Decision system for members.

MAServiceIf you’re facing any kind of financial difficulties or issues, I’d also recommend the Money Advice Service, which is a not-for-profit government organisation set up solely to advise people on their finances. You can find it at: https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en

Credit Unions provide a public good filling an important gap in the market: and not just for people who are rejected by High Street banks. Many join because they want their money to be used to support the principles of ethical lending.  If you want to find out more, visit the OCU website at www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk or call 0161 678 7245.  If you don’t already have an account, why not open one now?

OCU needs to appeal to that wider audience in future but our overriding goal – offering Simple Affordable Fair and Ethical financial services – has never changed, and it never will.

Jean

Vulnerable people will pay the price for government underfunding of adult social care

stackCABINET has now approved our budget proposals for 2017/18 and these go to Full Council on March 1.

That will mark the end of another very difficult budget process in which we’ve had to take out £15m of funding for that financial year as a result of Government cuts.

Like most other councils we have, regrettably, included a proposed 3.99 per cent rise in Council Tax – although this is less than the 4.99 per cent rise most are introducing.

This is made up of a 1.99 per cent increase for Oldham Council services and an additional two per cent levy that Government say they are “allowing” councils to raise to help support under-funded adult social care services.

This means an increase of just below £5 per month for a Band D property and you can find out more about the measures we’ve taken to balance the budget proposals this time here.

It’s important to note that we withdrew some options as a result of our consultation with the public – including the proposed closure of the Link Centre and introducing charges for residents’ car parking permits.

This all means, however, that we’ve also had to propose taking £5.483m from our reserves this time.

As an administration we’ve always prided ourselves on our financial prudence and we know that this is not a sustainable policy to adopt in the medium-term.

Your reserves are there for a ‘rainy day’ – like dealing with major civil emergencies – but, sadly, that’s exactly where we are right now with the funding of adult social care.

Depressed elderly woman sitting at the tableThose services are by far our largest cost and they will continue to suffer unless this Chancellor listens to what everyone is now telling him – that social care is in crisis now. That it is a national issue that should be funded from the taxes he raises nationally. And that it is simply unfair to force councils to plug that gap by adding 2 per cent to Council Tax.

This inevitably means that poorer areas like ours are able to raise less in this way than richer ones like Surrey. Hence we have been forced to take money out of reserves this time.

Already this month the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has called for emergency government funding of £1bn for 2017-18 just to stabilise a care market it believes to be on the edge of collapse.

The Local Government Association has also warned that the severe underfunding is putting councils in peril of not being able to provide the help that older and disabled people need with basic tasks – and it is also impacting on frontline NHS services.

It also can’t be right that councils do not appear to be treated equally by Government…

You may recall that Tory-run Surrey Council announced it was planning a local referendum on a proposed 15 per cent rise in Council Tax, blaming cuts and the demand for their services, including adult social care.

Suddenly, however, it dropped the plans and the council instead then voted through a 4.99 per cent increase thanks, it seems, to a so-called ‘sweetheart’ funding deal with Government.

That is just the latest slap in the face to councils like ours. And it comes after we’ve been forced to plug their adult social care funding shortfall by imposing a tax on our residents based on local property values – rather than on the basis of need.

poundcoins2Unless the government address this inequity sooner rather than later ultimately this will lead to the level of service people get being decided by where they live.

Postcode lotteries should never be how our society looks after its most vulnerable people – that’s simply unacceptable.

Mr Hammond needs to start listening, and listening now!

Finally this week, you may have seen media coverage about allegations of a Trojan Horse plot in an Oldham primary school.

I am unable to add to what has already been publicly said by Oldham Council at this stage. However, I am assured that we have acted properly and responsibly in fully investigating these serious claims, which it was right and proper to do.

You can view our full press statement on those matters here

Jean

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