I’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.
We’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.
Fair 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.
I’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.
Nicola 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.
THIS IS my third of four blogs about our future priorities and I want to discuss how we’re improving education, plus backing business and workers.
Firstly, I want us to deliver a high-quality education system for all and the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report is a roadmap to get us there.
Changes were already being made before the final report was published in January and we’ve had a good start.
Our GCSE and A Level results improved this year, bucking the national trends.
GCSE (A*-C) results went up five per cent, closing the gap on the national average to seven per cent, and in A Levels 99 per cent of our pupils achieved the A*-E pass rate, again up three per cent.
Our Ofsted inspections are also improving fast – especially in schools where intervention was needed. We have taken action to tackle underperformance.
This time last year just 39 per cent of our secondaries were rated either ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. That’s now already around 74 per cent, which is great progress towards one of our key targets: that every Oldham pupil should attend a school of that calibre by 2020.
I also know there’s much more that needs to be done, however, and our Key Stage 2 results were not good enough. Even though Ofsted rates 90 per cent of our primaries as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ our results mirrored a national drop and we’re now examining them to understand exactly why.
Whilst it’s true this was a whole new national curriculum and marking scheme, we can’t use excuses. Our target is for all performance indicators like this to be at or above the national average by 2020, so this will be urgently addressed.
Beyond the education system it’s a major priority for us to back our businesses and workers.
Get Oldham Working has been a huge success and we’ve just launched phase two of the campaign. The team has already created 3,750 employment opportunities in less than three years and has now moved to Metropolitan House – around 100 steps away from JobCentre Plus – to make them accessible on a ‘drop in’ basis for jobseekers.
By 2020 the Get Oldham Working team is now looking to help 6,000 more residents and fill more than 5,000 work-related opportunities.
I’m very proud of the interventions this team has made and the difference they’re making to people’s lives. They’ve just worked with ODEON and Costa so that 80 per cent of their new roles at the Old Town Hall went to local residents, for example – and that came just weeks after they ensured every single person made redundant by the closure of BHS in Spindles got new employment.
We’ve recently just published two key new documents that chart our future strategic path to deliver employment sites and improve prospects.
Our Strategic Investment Framework sets out how we will seek to develop important sites across the borough – like Broadway Green and Hollinwood Junction – and our Work and Skills Strategy sets out how we will raise aspirations through measures like working to deliver high-quality careers advice, improving links between local schools and industry, and promoting opportunities in regional and local growth sectors.
Our key motivation is to reduce the number of low-paid and low-skill industry jobs we have at present – including zero hours contracts – that make life so insecure and demoralising for too many families.
We also want to do all we can to help people already in work to progress and improve their prospects.
That’s why we’re about to launch an exciting new initiative – the Career Advancement Service – in Oldham. This will help an initial 400 employed residents to understand what support they might need to get an in-work promotion and improve their incomes. That won’t just ultimately help them and their families, it also creates mobility in the labour market and new chances for others to find work. It’s a pioneering pilot scheme and could be a gamechanger for many local people.
We also recognise that people in work have other priorities that help them settle and live in the borough.
We’ll continue lobbying hard at Greater Manchester level for even better transport links – like our long-promised direct line to Manchester Piccadilly, for example, and Metrolink extensions with an Ashton loopline to Oldham Mumps, and a Middleton spur from Westwood through Middleton and on to the Bury line to connect the north-east Greater Manchester conurbation.
These will give all residents even better access to future job and training opportunities, and we’re also determined to build the new homes that people need.
Several housing schemes finished in the past year and work has also started on the £15m development of 135 new homes in Limehurst Village, new homes at High Barn Street, Royton, at Greenhurst Crescent on Fitton Hill, and on the former St Augustine’s School and the Lancaster Club sites. We are also advancing well with taking the ex-Counthill and Kasknemoor school sites to market soon.
This isn’t just about just boosting the number of homes here, its about giving people a wider choice of homes that are attractive, affordable and energy efficient.
I also believe everyone has the right to live in a good neighbourhood and we make no apologies for tackling people who don’t ‘do their bit’ where they live or operate.
Our Private Sector Landlords scheme has had good early success in prosecuting practices that have blighted communities in places like St Mary’s, Hathershaw, Waterhead, Hollinwood, Primrose Bank and selected parts of Coldhurst, Alexandra and Oldham Edge.
Decent landlords back us because they know the rented sector in Oldham has to improve. But those who don’t think the law applies to them should be in no doubt that we’ll prosecute anyone failing to meet the required homes standard: a crime that has such a terrible impact on the health and welfare of tenants and the wider community.
Tenants and businesses also need to act responsibly and show respect for their neighbours, which is why we’ll carry on cracking down hard on flytipping, littering, dog fouling and other selfish behaviour. In the last year 867 fixed penalty notices and 122 prosecutions were completed on fly-tipping and littering offences: a zero tolerance stance that we won’t be changing.
Next week I’ll finish this series of blogs about our priorities by looking at how we can make Oldham a more caring place to live – and supporting healthier lifestyles.
It will also be just a few days before the opening of the Old Town Hall (Friday, October 21) so I will be sharing some more information with you about that too.
WATCHING Nicola White play a starring role in last Friday night’s Team GB Women’s Hockey final was truly inspiring.
The performances of so many of our athletes in Rio have been a source of national pride to everyone but, of course, it’s always even better when you’re actually cheering on one of your own.
My husband went out to play snooker and I settled down to watch the drama unfold.
It turns out I was one of nine million people watching live in the UK and BBC One even took the highly unusual step of postponing ‘News at Ten to show the whole game.
To the undisguised disgust of my cat Mitzy, it was not long before I found myself shouting encouragement at the television.
Many moons ago, I used to play a bit of hockey myself. That was down on the red clay pitches at Hathershaw School where you usually had to pick bits out of your knees after the game, but this Olympic surface and the quality of play were in a totally different league.
The Dutch team dominated at times but you couldn’t fail to admire the guts and tenacity our team displayed throughout.
Twice they hauled themselves level but still looked to be heading for defeat until our Nicola swooped to equalise: taking the game into that dramatic shootout, won by Hollie Webb’s decisive penalty.
It was one of many magic moments for Team GB and not surprisingly their spectacular achievements – their best medal tally in 108 years – has prompted a wider debate about exactly how it was achieved, and whether anything can be learnt from it in other areas of public life.
Some have suggested it proves the merits of central planning and the benefits of Lottery investment. At a cost of £1.09 to each resident per year, it certainly represents great value, but surely picking ‘winners’ from, say, entrepreneurs and businesses would be much more problematic.
Some have also highlighted the ‘detail’ element – the idea that this success has been down to a team, making painstaking ‘marginal gains’ which left absolutely nothing to chance. Again that clearly has had a positive effect.
But I’d also put the triumphs down to something else that’s rather simple: the fact that success often breeds success.
As in sport, the most difficult part in tackling major issues as a Council Leader (especially when trying to transform performance) lies in the hard work that goes into researching and defining your plan. But if you get that right and capitalise on early wins it can lead to momentum and a snowball effect.
It’s a lesson that we try to apply in Oldham, and with some success.
One example is education where our ‘central planning’ and detailed approach in tackling underperformance in local schools was launched with the publication of the Oldham Education and Skills Report back in January. Already we’re seeing a pay-off.
The number of secondary school pupils attending a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school is now more than 70 per cent, compared with just 39 per cent last year – and last week’s A-level results also showed improvements across the board.
Part of that new approach encourages successful schools to share their best practice and data with others, which helps to raise the bar across the board, not just at one school.
As I said, success breeds success…
On a final note, I’m sure that Team GB’s exploits have motivated many people to get involved in new sports, or just to get fit and active again, which is brilliant.
The power to inspire others is a truly rare and wonderful gift, and we are blessed to have role models and ambassadors like Nicola White for our borough.
When we first set out to build two new leisure centres in Oldham, some scoffed at our stated aim to capitalise on an Olympics legacy.
Perhaps they might view that a little differently now.
TODAY WAS our Annual Council meeting which is a great opportunity to reflect on the past year and look ahead to the future.
Our new Cabinet line-up for 2016/7 was approved as part of the usual order of business.
That means myself and Abdul Jabbar will continue as Council Leader and Deputy Leader and – amongst the other main changes – sees the return of Amanda Chadderton and new portfolio areas for Shoab Akhtar and Fida Hussain.
You can read all about the full line-up and those new roles and responsibilities here: http://bit.ly/1Xmq1aD
As part of the tradition of Annual Council I also spoke this afternoon to explain this administration’s priorities as we enter a ‘fallow’ period with no local elections scheduled until May 2018.
To give you a summary of what I said, I reflected on the fact that it is now five years since we became a Cooperative Council.
I believe that approach has delivered – and will continue to do so – for the borough.
We remain committed to that approach in order to deliver our key priorities.
Put simply, those are to improve the prospects of all our people, all of our business communities and the whole of the borough.
It means doing all that we can as a council – alongside partners – to attract new investment, jobs, skills, economic growth and homes for our residents.
A good example of how that co-operative approach works – where everyone does their bit, and everyone benefits – is the Independent Quarter.
This is flourishing thanks to the £600,000 we’ve already granted to existing and new independent businesses.
We now have 27 new independent firms trading in that area who have created more than 150 new jobs and invested £1m of their own money. We expect a further nine companies with another 50 jobs to come during this year.
There’s also been improvements to 40 buildings and 35 more are set to complete in 2016. And this area – which many people had stopped visiting because of too many takeaways, cheap booze offers and vacant run-down units – is now home to some fantastic new restaurants, traders, professional services and even social enterprises.
Tackling areas of deprivation and helping people who are both in and out of work is also a key priority.
Get Oldham Working has been a great pathway into employment for more than 2,550 people but we know too many residents are in low-paid and low skilled jobs with little job security. That has to change.
We must prioritise giving those people new opportunities to get better skills and make progress in their careers that earn more money for their families. That will not only push local wages higher but it will also create mobility in the labour market and encourage more new people into work.
And we are fully committed to implementing the findings of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report. A new Education Partnership Leader is to be appointed soon and good progress is already being made.
Around 63 per cent of our children now attend ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools, which is a big improvement in a short space of time.
We must also focus on playing a proactive role in the Greater Manchester devolution agenda.
I want us to be a positive partner in that project while also trying to strike the best deal for our residents and businesses. I see no contradiction in that stance because devolution will only truly work if everyone sees and shares the benefits.
It makes sense for all GM authorities to work together. We share similar challenges and interests in getting better results in health and social care, nurturing business growth and equipping residents with the skills and life chances they deserve.
But we also must ensure that devolution doesn’t just deliver for core areas around Manchester city centre. We need a strong settlement for our towns and districts too. We need inclusive growth.
My final – but very important – priority is to continue to focus on getting your basic services right.
There’s no point me moaning that we have to find another £67m in savings over the next two years. We just have to get on with it.
We have to respond and innovate and work harder than ever to protect your essential local services. And we will.
Finally this week, I must mention the ‘Mayor making’ ceremony which took place earlier today in the Council Chamber.
I was delighted to join all members in unanimously selecting Councillor Derek Heffernan, who has been a ward member for Saddleworth since 1995, as our new first citizen.
Derek is held in high regard across all parties for his dedication to public service and unstinting work for local organisations.
He and his wife, Di, will be splendid ambassadors for Oldham and both deserve this very special honour.
We also gave thanks to the departing Mayor, Ateeque Ur-Rheman and his Mayoress, Yasmin Toor.
They have been one of the busiest duos ever to hold that office and made a really big impact across the borough – especially in our schools.
Their excellent year finished with a Zip Wire event last weekend which raised more than £17,000 for local good causes. That is, I believe, a record total raised by a Mayoral event in one day.
I know lots of people have enjoyed meeting them and have sent in many letters of thanks and appreciation.
On behalf of them, the borough and the council, I would like to thank Ateeque and Yasmin for their fantastic efforts.
YESTERDAY was an important day for thousands of parents and children across Oldham.
‘National Offer Day’, as it is now known, is when mums and dads find out which school their child will be starting their secondary education at next September.
In our borough, like everywhere else, we’ve seen a significant increase in the numbers of school age children needing places in recent years.
We take our responsibility to ensure that each child gets a school place very seriously, but it is no easy task.
Putting aside the reality that it is never possible to grant every parent’s preference, this legal duty (as the cross-party Local Government Association has warned this week) could soon become “undeliverable” in many areas.
Significant population growth means many secondary schools are now already at or above capacity nationwide.
Last year local authorities had to provide around 2.75m secondary school places, but that is set to rise to 3.28m by 2024. These are huge numbers and pressures.
Under the Government’s rules, all new schools to help cope with this demand must be “free schools”, created outside of local authority control.
And – to be clear – we are fully committed to working with Vicky Beer, the Regional Schools Commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, to help to find good quality local sponsors for new schools in our area.
But I also agree with the LGA’s call for councils themselves to be able to open new schools, and to require academies to expand to meet local demand, where necessary.
There are now fewer and fewer schools under the direct control of councils. It’s surely common sense that local authorities are well placed to act to ensure school places can be created on time – and in the right places. If we are to be tasked with ensuring sufficient school places we need to have more flexibility and influence in the system to have any realistic prospect of delivering that capacity.
Here in Oldham we’ve been seeing a significant increase in demand for places for some time and we have taken the necessary actions.
First, we put a better forecasting method in place looking at all available data on births, housing and new arrivals so we can plan ahead.
Secondly, we got on with an expansion programme to provide extra capacity. That includes plans to boost primary places with a new three-form entry school on the former Grange School site, plus the expansion of places in Failsworth, Hollinwood and Lees.
Last week we also saw planning approval granted for a new Saddleworth School that will increase pupil numbers from 1,350 to 1,500 – and plans are also about to go out to statutory consultation to double the capacity at Greenfield primary with a new build two-form entry school.
So, how have we done this year with the provision of secondary school places?
Out of 3,468 applications received some 2,773 (80 per cent) of applicants got their first-choice school preference and, in total, 93 per cent of all applicants got one of their first three (from six) choices.
These figures are not unusual and pretty static as a trend. The number of parents applying for certain local secondary schools as their first choice exceeds the number of pupils they can take every year.
I’ve said from the outset that the education and skills offer here in the borough is a key focus for my leadership, and every bit as vital to our future as physical regeneration.
So I was interested this week when Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, warned Greater Manchester that the region’s poor performing secondaries could “choke” the Northern Powerhouse vision.
I do hope that this was at least a recognition that local authorities need to have a strong role in school improvement, whatever the type of school, because we actually have less influence than ever before.
This is not about councils wanting to directly control academies or free schools, we know that’s not going to happen, but it is about being able to intervene for the good of local communities when schools are not performing.
It cannot be right that all the responsibility for performance can fall upon councils without us having the appropriate powers to act.
I welcome the calls now for discussion about us having a specific GM Schools Commissioner who would work with a Further Education Commissioner to give more focus on local need and deliver closer coordination between schools and post-16 education.
We are, of course, doing everything we can to meet the challenge of ensuring no child is without a school place in Oldham – but that’s only part of the battle.
The bigger picture is to implement the recommendations of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report so that every child can not just get a place, but can get one at a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ local school – and have the best chance of fulfilling their full potential.