Why the new GM Mayor matters to Oldham

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VOTERS across our region will soon be electing their first-ever Greater Manchester Mayor on May 4 – and, yes it does affect you.

First things first. If you’re already registered to vote in Oldham Council local elections than you are also automatically eligible to vote on that day.

But I also know that many people are still unclear or confused about what the Mayoral post is all about, what he or she will or won’t be able to do, and how it all works.

This Mayor will not just be some sort of meaningless figurehead, it will be a role that will have significant impact on the future of Oldham, our services and prosperity.

Whoever wins the contest – and this blog isn’t the place for me to talk about candidates and policies – will be taking on a profile of regional and national importance.

The Mayor is tasked with working with the ten Leaders of Greater Manchester, including myself.  We are effectively the Mayor’s Cabinet for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA).  The Mayor and the Cabinet will then work together with local services, Government and others to progress shared ambitions and opportunities and to tackle problems on a level of devolution unmatched anywhere else in England.

The Mayor will take on all the responsibilities of  the GM Police and Crime Commissioner post (which will no longer exist).  This will include setting the budget and preparing the Police and Crime Plan that sets priorities for Greater Manchester Police.

The Mayor will also take on responsibility for the functions of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority and will have new powers on housing and planning.

gmca-black-logo-expandedAnd in terms of transport, the Mayor will be responsible for controlling the budget devolved from Government and new initiatives like re-regulating bus services and smart ticketing.

The post can easily be compared to that of the Mayor of London in terms of its standing – and that’s why it is vital that our borough continues to punch above its weight at Combined Authority level.

I’ve blogged before, for example, about the importance of the Inclusive Growth agenda at Greater Manchester level: striving to create an economy where everyone can share the benefits of growth no matter what the background is, where they live or who they are.

One way we are already doing this is by us all increasingly using our purchasing power as councils to collectively shift towards a consensus which no longer measures success solely by GVA (Gross Value Added to the economy) or a ‘fast buck’ return on investment.  Instead we focus on spending as much as possible in our own boroughs or within GM – supporting and helping local businesses to deliver genuine social value for our own areas and people.

The Health devolution deal is another great opportunity in that regard, putting us in charge of a £6bn budget which, if spent mostly across Greater Manchester, could make a huge difference to the local economy.

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This Inclusive Growth approach could also be spearheaded by a strong Mayor, putting Greater Manchester’s values and approach firmly on the agenda at a time when it seems it isn’t shared at a national level.

I am proud that our region has such a great history of working together but I also know from talking to people on doorsteps everywhere that there is still a lot of work for us to do.

Politicians of all persuasions must continue working hard to make the case for the elected Mayor and devolution to all our residents between now and May 4 – and beyond – to help encourage participation and understanding across the region about these new arrangements.

That’s not an easy task, given the subject matter, but I do hope people will engage with us and listen to the debates that will be had.

Finally, if you want to find out more about the powers the Mayor will have, registering and how to vote, and the work of the GMCA then visit the new information website just launched at www.gmelects.org.uk

Jean

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

Social Regeneration: Fair Growth Vs Donuts

oldham-leader-25-1-16-5277THIS IS my second blog explaining our key priorities in the coming years – and this time I’m talking about social regeneration.

We have many important physical regeneration schemes complete or underway in Oldham, but there’s more to transforming the prospects of a place, people and business than just that.

New facilities are always good news but ‘build it and they will come’ is not going to work on its own – it’s just one part of the wider battle and you can’t just do it in isolation.

Social regeneration is the other work that is needed to tackle the problems that lead to deprivation, lack of aspiration and underachievement in an area.

These are schemes you must carry out side by side with residents, community groups, community organisations, businesses, schools, all public services and the voluntary sector if you are to succeed.

They can be labour-intensive, unglamorous and lack ‘quick wins’, especially as they often mean engaging with people who are hard to reach. But if you do have the right initiative, the impact of social regeneration – starting from a sound evidence base, which is always key – can be radical and life-changing.

Social regeneration schemes seek to address clear and ingrained disadvantages, social and financial exclusion. They look to give people a ‘handup’, so they can start helping themselves.

People can be materially deprived – like having little/no disposable income, no transport or Internet access, for example – and also non-materially deprived: in bad health or held back by negative experiences from living in a poor area.

warmhomesoldhamIn this respect, schemes like Warm Homes Oldham – which has seen us work with partners to lift 1,300 people out of fuel poverty and removed the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma – are prime examples of how lives can be changed.

Another is our Early Help scheme, which has totally redesigned and integrated our support services for individuals, households and families of all ages with problems who need support to stop them getting worse or reaching crisis point.

This is helping to get positive outcomes for people struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, adult mental health issues, school attendance and behaviour, housing, diet and health, and children’s mental wellbeing. It helps people to help themselves and addresses all the issues a person or household presents to us with, rather than passing them around a complex system where duplication frustrates the purpose.

But allied to local initiatives like this I know we must also deliver on what some call ‘Inclusive Growth’, although I prefer the label ‘Fair Growth’.

In my new portfolio at Greater Manchester level of Fairness, Equality and Cohesion, I am determined to build our profile as a strong and influential voice on this agenda.

I intend to use our influence to continue shifting the focus of that debate and action towards practical and specific steps that include more and more of our residents in the benefits of prosperity.

To that effect our officers are already working closely with the Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit at Manchester University, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and other partners to develop that evidence base and formulate answers.

It’s great that Manchester’s economy is prospering – we all welcome that – but there’s no evidence at all to support the assumption that the benefits will simply ‘trickle down’ across the region. That hasn’t worked in other regions and countries, and it isn’t happening here.

Look at jobs. The south of GM has gained 60,000 jobs since 2008, yet the number of jobs in the north has remained essentially static. And our average weekly gross wage in Oldham is £444, the lowest in the region: that must change.

gmca-black-logo-expandedFor the GM project to succeed, we need prosperity to be spread wider through targeted investment and intervention. Around 620,000 people in the region are estimated to live in poverty and the benefits of growth need to spread to people and businesses in the donut – or ring – around Manchester to ensure places like Oldham, Rochdale, Tameside, Bolton and Wigan also get their share.

At a Government level the commitment to the Northern Powerhouse, which we’re hearing reiterated this week at Tory Conference after a recent wobble, must also go further.

Government investment is sorely needed in key areas like transport, homes, work and skills – not just more devolution of responsibility passed on with much smaller budgets. That is just devolution of blame and problems. It won’t change the story.

Social regeneration and fair growth will give people new opportunities to succeed and enjoy a better quality of life.

Although few were surprised, the Brexit voting patterns showed that our national and regional economy is not delivering for many residents. We all ignore that at our peril and must not leave people behind.

Next week – continuing on this social regeneration theme – I will look at our future priorities in delivering a high-quality education system for all, and how we will continue to back the unemployed, those people already in work, plus local businesses.

Jean

Inclusive growth – what it is and why it matters

JeanStrettonTHE ‘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.

wordpress-gmcaFirstly, 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.

Jean Stretton

Leader of Oldham Council