General Election: Back to pounding the pavements…

PollingStationI’D ONLY just started writing this blog on Tuesday when I was informed that the Prime Minister was about to make an announcement.

There’s nothing unusual in that, but it’s not often that the PM addresses the country from the steps of Downing Street and predictions that this was going to be a significant development proved to be spot on.

As you will probably know, Parliament has now voted today to approve that a General Election will be held on Thursday, June 8.

This means that we will very quickly enter into a period known traditionally as ‘Purdah’ which enforces strict rules about publicity that must – rightly – be adhered to until after election day.

The timing of this all kicking in remains uncertain, but it means you will hear less formally from me in my role as Oldham Council Leader and this could be the last blog from me until after the votes have all been counted.

Although the timing of Theresa May’s announcement was somewhat unexpected, there had been speculation that it was in the offing for some time.

For political activists it all means full steam ahead for another round of pounding pavements, heavy wear on the shoe leather and lengthy day and night time door knocking.

My work as Council Leader will continue daily during this time but I will also genuinely enjoy the face to face engagement and the chance to discuss residents’ views about the issues affecting their lives in Oldham.

Until that General Election timetable is confirmed it’s very much business as usual, so I wanted to highlight that until April 30 we are taking part in and promoting national Adoption Fortnight.

Each year this campaign has a different focus and this time it is all about encouraging Oldham parents to come forward and create a “forever family” by adopting children from harder to place backgrounds.

These are older children, sibling groups, those from mixed heritage backgrounds and children with additional needs who typically wait much longer for adoption.

It is a huge decision to take to adopt but it can make such a massive and positive impact, not just to the child concerned, but also to the benefit of you and your family.

There are still a lot of myths and misconceptions about adoption – and particularly around who is eligible to do it – so it’s always best to get in touch with experts and people who have been through the process to learn all about the pros and cons.

You can find out more about adopting in Oldham on our website here and you can also get information about Adoption Fortnight events in the region at www.adoptnorthwest.co.uk

BOOMKARKSFinally, as mentioned last week, I just wanted to give you a quick reminder that our amazing Bookmark Festival starts on Friday.  You can have a look at all the events on offer – and book tickets – by visiting http://www.oldham.gov.uk/bookmark

And if it turns out that you don’t hear from me now until after the General Election then all I would ask is that you please take the time to get out and use your vote on June 8 – and in the GM Mayoral Election on May 4 . It’s the only way to ensure that your voice is heard.

Jean

A Spring in our step…

CORNER IMAGE_FINAL_lowresDELIVERING Oldham’s Cultural Quarter is a major priority for this administration – and we are making really good progress.

Last week we released the new designs for the Oldham Coliseum Theatre that will be built on the current Southgate Street car park site.

This will be the second time the Coliseum has moved in its 132-year history and it should really help the theatre to fulfil its undoubted potential, serving its existing audiences and opening it up to whole new ones.

The Coliseum will be located alongside our other main cultural assets in the Cultural Quarter.

It will sit alongside the new Arts and Heritage Centre in the former library building and it will be linked with Gallery Oldham, Library and Lifelong Learning Centre.

Located just yards from the Oldham Central Metrolink stop and the Old Town Hall, the Cultural Quarter will be our next crucial step in reinvigorating the town centre and visitor economy – and providing brilliant facilities for residents in the future.

Spring into OldhamBack to the present and we’re hosting our annual Easter-themed event ‘Spring into Oldham’ this Saturday in our fantastic new setting of Parliament Square.

Running from 11am to 4pm, this will be a day packed with loads of free and fun things for all the family.

You can meet Chickedy and Chick from the hit CBeebies show ‘Twirlywoos’, take part in a madcap Egg Hunt with the Easter Bunny or enjoy the visiting petting farm with rabbits, chicks and a Jersey calf.

There’s also story-telling sessions on offer inside in a giant inflatable egg, and Easter bonnet-making craft activities.

Everything finishes off with a spectacular bonnet parade around the square with the Town Centre mascots Ollie and Millie starting at 3pm.

Please send in your pictures on the day to us on Twitter @OldhamCouncil using the hashtag #LoveOldham. And don’t forget to take advantage of up to three hours of free parking in all council-owned car parks at weekends – just remember you do need to take and display a ticket.

Finally, on the subject of the little ones, we’re looking for the views of all parents or carers of children aged four years and under about the forthcoming introduction of 30 hours of free childcare in the borough.

From September this year, eligible parents will be able to access this offer – double the current amount – for 38 weeks of the year.

We want to hear your views to help us anticipate how many people are likely to take this up so that we make sure everyone’s needs are met.

All the answers and information you provide are confidential and won’t be shared with any third parties.

To take part, please visit www.oldham.gov.uk/30hrparent survey and fill in the form before Friday, April 21.

Jean

Giant strides forward for Oldham

illuminate1ILLUMINATE – the first-ever late night arts festival we’ve held in Oldham town centre – was a sparkling success.

Now that the Old Town Hall is back in business and revitalising the area, exciting new opportunities are opening up that enable us to offer completely different types of events for the public.

And Parliament Square – the new public space adjacent to it – is a perfect new location to host these events given its central location, street furniture, space and vistas.

It just gives us a whole new civic focal point where families can gather and be entertained.

illuminate3Illuminate was the first of our new regular events designed to capitalise on this and we were delighted by the public reaction.

Even though it was a four-hour long ‘drop in’ show, it was busy throughout the evening as hundreds of people braved the wintry showers. The Old Town Hall and its Lightbox made the perfect backdrop for the array of spectacular performances of drumming, lighting, choreography and dance.

A major highlight was the children’s lantern parade and there were some great street arts to see including the Spark! illuminated drummers, Global Grooves’ carnival arts version of The Tempest and The Bureau of Silly Ideas.

Gallery Oldham held an installation of ‘Shakespearian curiosities’ in its gardens, plus a visit from an illuminated vintage bus and a Stomp to the Light dance display from Oldham Theatre Workshop. It stayed open late and it was great to see so many people milling around it on an evening.

illuminate2It was also fantastic to see Oldham Parish Church playing a central part.

In recent times this Grade II* listed church – which dates back to 1830 in its current form – has felt somewhat ‘left out of things’ on the periphery of a quiet area, but not now.

For Illuminate it was beautifully lit up with spectacular 3D projections accompanied by a bells and pipes soundtrack from the church itself. Outside an installation of sound, water and mechanics by Oldham artist Mike Green added to the ambience, and I know many people kept going back up for another look.

Tours were also held in the crypt beneath the church and there was a real sense that this jewel has finally re-entered the town centre ‘scene’.

illuminate5In that crypt, of course, lies the Oldham Giant, whose five-metre puppet persona was a main attraction for the evening.

Earlier that day I had the great pleasure of meeting Tom Scholes-Fogg and his granddad, John, who had travelled from London and Slaithwaite respectively to see Illuminate.

Tom had contacted me via email after the Old Town Hall opening event last year when he was astonished to hear how his sixth great grandfather – Joseph Scholes – had been brought back to life in puppet form.

Known as a “gentle giant”, ‘Dody’ was said to have been around 6ft 7in tall and 37 stones when he died in 1814. Instantly recognisable for obvious reasons, he was probably the best-known Oldhamer of his time: especially given his work as a military recruiting sergeant and his time as governor of the Oldham weavers’ workhouse where he stood up for the rights of underfed local apprentices.

Tom showed me some of the research he has been doing into this story and shared some fascinating anecdotes.

There were thousands of people at Dody’s funeral – he’s been buried three times, which is another story in itself(!) – but it was only able to take place after the windows of his Henshaw Street home were removed once the funeral director realised he just couldn’t get his casket outside. Once on the streets it had to be carried by several groups of 12-strong coffin bearers who constantly rotated, such was the weight of the task at hand.

illuminate4The Scholes family are rightly proud that their ancestor’s story is finally getting a wider audience and it was a wonderful moment on Friday night when Tom and John met up with locally-based Debbie and Amelia Scholes – four generations of the family – to have a unique ‘selfie’ with the Oldham Giant puppet.

Tom continues to research this story further so, if you have any information or anecdotes passed down amongst your family about him, then please get in touch and let us know via an email to presspr@oldham.gov.uk with the subject ‘Oldham Giant’.

Finally, if you want to see ‘Dody’ and others there are now regular public openings of the Oldham Parish Church and the crypt on every second Saturday of the month from 9.30am to 1pm. Group/party visits can be made by prior arrangement with the church, and light refreshments are also available. I can highly recommend a visit.

Next week, I’ll be returning to more serious matters as I blog about our final Council Tax proposals for 2017-8 and the continued crisis in national underfunding for adult social care.

Jean

Rubbish news is just great!

vfm-59I WANT to talk rubbish news this week – and I don’t mean the ‘fake news’ we’re all hearing so much about at the moment…

As you know, Oldham Council started its new waste collection arrangements in October.

The changes were designed to cut the amount of waste being sent to landfill and to promote more recycling across the borough.

This working pattern is now well-established as the norm and our first set of figures has just landed.

I wanted to share these and also take the opportunity to say thank you to people for ‘doing your bit’ – because this success is down to the effort of residents.

Changes to kerbside collection arrangements are never easy.

It’s the one service that every single household relies upon, so we worked very hard on explaining why we were doing this and how the changes would affect everyone.

tidyoldhamThe first comparable set of data shows that our household recycling rate has gone up significantly.

Comparing the third quarter of 2016 with the same period in 2015 we can see that the amount of household waste being recycled has gone up from 36.8 per cent to 43.6 per cent.

Given current trends we now expect this year’s overall recycling rate to average out somewhere between 45 and 47 per cent, which is really good progress – and it’s all down to you.

The public response to the changes – ordering extra blue, brown and green bins, for example – shows you’ve been recycling more and doing it smarter.

This really matters because our future has to be about less waste and more recycling. The costs to us of disposing of grey bin waste is hundreds of pounds per tonne, whereas we actually get a small income for each tonne that we recycle.

Since announcing that changes were on the way in July, we’ve sent out more than 25,000 recycling bins to local residents. Previously around 15,000 bins were requested over a 12-month period.

We’ve also had more than 1,700 applications for extra grey bins, compared with the 300 we would usually get.

These are requests from households with extra waste that they cannot recycle: such as where more than five people are living in one home, for example, or a household has two or more children in nappies.  Where households can demonstrate a genuine need for an additional bin for waste that cannot be recycled, we will provide an additional bin.

All the information you need about your household waste – including what you can and cannot recycle, and tips to manage your rubbish – can be found on our website here.

doorstep009

Some predicted the adoption of the new collection system would mean a significant rise in fly tipping.

But the fly tipping we all see in local media is not what responsible households dispose of in the bins provided.

I’m pretty sure that the mattresses, the fridges and the sofas that are reported as fly tipped across Oldham would never have fitted into the grey bin anyway(!). The trade waste that gets dumped is also something we are working hard to address.

I understand the misery and blight this kind of dumping causes to lives and communities and you may have seen our latest batch of prosecutions on this last week: all in incidents that happened before the new collection arrangements started.

We’ll be continuing with a ‘zero tolerance’ stance on this kind of behaviour and there’ll be more prosecutions to come, for which we make no apologies.

It’s not Oldham Council that dumps this waste, but it does fall to us to clean it up – and at a cost of almost £1m a year to you, the local taxpayer.  That is £1m that could be spent providing services to residents instead of cleaning up after people who do not respect our neighbourhoods.

It’s your neighbour – be that a home or business nearby – or somebody who has come into your area that dumps the stuff. And that is why we need your help.

If you see anyone fly tipping or dumping waste like this, then please do your bit and let us know using the online form here or by calling 0161 770 2244.

illuminate

Finally, I must take this chance to urge you not to miss out on a fantastic arts festival that we’re hosting in Oldham town centre on Friday this week.

‘Illuminate’ is a family friendly event that will feature carnival performances, a river of illuminated paper lanterns, an illuminated vintage bus, a new youth dance piece, LED electronics workshops by Hack Oldham and much, much more.

Attractions and workshops will be taking place at Oldham Parish Church, Parliament Square and Gallery Oldham from 5pm to 9pm that evening.

giantWe’re also bringing back, by popular demand, the Oldham Giant from the Old Town Hall opening ceremony last year (pictured right) and there will be some amazing 3D projections from Illuminos.

This is the first time we’ve ever held a late-night arts festival in the town centre.

It is going to be spectacular, so read more about it here and, please, help us spread the word amongst your friends and family.

Jean

Oldham Foodbank: Waste not, want not

oldhamfoodbankOLDHAM Foodbank are moving into their new town centre premises this week and planning to offer an even wider range of support.

I’ve been a keen supporter of their efforts for many years and cannot praise highly enough the volunteers behind it; and the generosity of local people, partners and businesses that enable them to help local people in crisis.

Yet that pride still never hides a sense of despair at how we got to a situation in 21st century Britain where people still struggle to put food on the table, and are making a choice between heating their homes and feeding their kids.

And at a time when we’re repeatedly told that the British economy is defying all expectations – that every major sector grew last year and that it is fundamentally strong and resilient – you are left wondering how on earth we got here?

It was the Rev David Hawthorn, the vicar of St Margaret’s and St Chad’s Church in Hollinwood who decided to set up Oldham Foodbank in 2012.

What prompted him to do it was that he noticed the growing numbers of people coming to his vicarage asking for help in crisis – and increasingly for food.

While many had been made redundant, had little savings, or had hit short-term financial problems, he was concerned that many of these people were also actually in work. The profile of those suffering was widening.

Oldham Foodbank gives people three days’ worth of non-perishable food as long as they have been referred by agencies, social services, GPs or charities. It’s run by local churches and am amazing army of volunteers who also direct people to other organisations for any additional help they need.

In 2011, the Trussell Trust which runs the largest foodbank network, including Oldham, gave out 129,000 food parcels. Last year that number had shot up to 1.1 million, of which Oldham Foodbank gave out 5,005 emergency food parcels to help 3,317 adults and 1,688 children (March 2015 to April 2016).

newfoodbank
NEW HOME: Oldham Foodbank’s new premises at the former Three Crowns pub

After four years at Clegg Street we’ve now finished repair works, agreed a lease and handed over the keys to Oldham Foodbank for the former Three Crowns pub in Manchester Street as their new permanent home.

This building is four times the size of their old premises and it means Andrew Barr, the manager, and his team can offer so much more.

As well as emergency food parcels, they aim to help people get out of poverty with access to other support services, free internet access for jobs searches and online applications, and free use of a telephone to contact agencies and employers. There is even a fuel bank scheme offering vouchers for foodbank users with pre-payment meters for gas or electricity to prevent them struggling with the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma.

They’ve also just had a massive success which, thanks to their campaigning and your generosity, means that new home will soon boast a new community kitchen.

Initially they had hoped to raise £13,850 to create a kitchen preparing hot and fresh meals using surplus food that supermarkets and producers would otherwise have thrown away.

Yet now – with exactly a week still left until fundraising closes – they have already reached £22,950 and are hoping to hit £26,000 by February 8.

Please visit the website at http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/oldham-food-bank-community-kitchen to find out more and donate before that closing date.

I still get asked what reasons drive people to use foodbanks and they are – of course – complex and different in every case, and often the subject of heated debate.

Interestingly, the Trussell Trust commissioned a study last year by the Oxford University to look into what is causing increased food bank use.

It tells us that since the start of Welfare Reform and the introduction of ‘benefits sanctions’ the use of foodbanks has rapidly accelerated.

They found that for every 10 extra benefit sanctions imposed between one three-month period and the next, five more emergency food parcels were given out. Food for thought, clearly.

If you are facing difficulties, Oldham Council has a team of dedicated Welfare Rights officers to help.

They can give you independent, impartial and free advice on benefit issues to ensure you are claiming what you are entitled to, assistance with forms and appeals and ways to save money. To get in touch, call 0161 770 6655 between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday or click here for more information.

livethelibraryFinally this week I want to mention our excellent new season of live@thelibrary which offers comedy, drama, new writing and storytelling.

Running until April this programme has become a central and much-loved part of our library offer.

Libraries don’t just lend you books, they can give you inspiration, entertainment and activities for everyone and our Performance Space at Oldham Library has become regionally recognised for its innovative arts and community work.

Please visit the website at www.oldham.gov.uk/liveatthelibrary to find out more and take advantage of what is on offer.

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!

Oldham’s changing skyline: The need for a plan

SKYLINE1OLDHAM’S skyline and environment are changing fast – and the best is yet to come.

That transformation has been steadily accelerating since the opening of our town centre Metrolink line in 2014.

Walking around Oldham now you can’t fail to notice many new or improved buildings, plus new views and vistas, and the green shoots needed to improve our local economy.

You can see it clearly in areas like the Independent Quarter – where we are co-investing with people putting their life savings, daily graft and faith into breathing new life into the area – and it is steadily being replicated across the town centre.

The Old Town Hall is, of course, the flagship project and it’s already become a tourist attraction in its own right.

Every day you see people stopping to stand around the Cenotaph and the Greaves Arms sneaking a peek at the site and taking snapshots.

Although you cannot yet see inside the grand old building, I can confirm that work is well advanced and we now have a provisional handover date from our contractors.

OTHBlog

Following that there will then be a ‘fit out’ period when the new tenants’ own contractors move into the units to install their own fittings and train staff. I can’t yet confirm the opening date publicly but your new ODEON cinema and restaurants remain on track to open later this year.

And it was great this week – before we’ve even opened the doors – to see the Old Town Hall scheme nominated for a major award.

The GM Chamber of Commerce has shortlisted it for ‘Building of the Year 2016’ and that’s a promising early indication of the kind of impact we’re expecting from a new regional destination that will put us firmly on the map.

If you can’t wait to glimpse that future then I’d recommend a visit to the new ‘Revival’ exhibition which opened at Gallery Oldham this week.

REVIVALThis looks at the Old Town Hall and the iconic old Library and Art Gallery building, which will become our new Heritage Centre, showcasing images and objects belonging to both as they are adapted for their new future uses.

Looking at that Old Town Hall site you can also see work is progressing well on Parliament Square, our new public space, and other much-needed improvements being made to the surroundings of the Yorkshire Street/Union Street area.

Important work has also just got started in the ‘Campus Oldham’ part of town along the King Street corridor linking Oldham College, the new Oldham Leisure Centre, and Oldham Sixth Form College

This will see better highways and pedestrian areas and an improved cycle infrastructure leading into the town centre.

That will make a significant difference to the appearance of that area, which will also be boosted by the new-build three-form academy primary school set to open at the former Grange School site in September.

Just down the road from there I had the honour of attending the official groundbreaking ceremony for Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre at Royal Oldham Hospital on Monday.

This will provide a fantastic place offering free practical and emotional support in an environment that will make a huge difference to the quality of care for local patients. The plans show it set in a sloping garden with trees growing up through the buildings – accessed over a bridge – with views down to a garden pool. It’s just the latest life-changing project to be funded by the generosity of the Stoller Charitable Trust.

But what goes up must also come down – and that’s another way in which regeneration is changing the skyline.

Earlier this year we pulled down the former Oldham Sports Centre on Lord Street which means residents on the new St Mary’s Estate (for now at least) can enjoy a more splendid view of Oldham Parish Church.

A couple of weeks ago I also pressed the button to demolish the seven-storey council-owned car park at Hobson Street which, let’s face it, has been an eyesore for many years and its demise clears that site again for a brighter future.

This was a cold, brutalist structure which, like the old St Peter’s Shopping Precinct (or ‘Windy City’ as many of us called it!) will surely not be missed by even the most nostalgic of residents.

In looking positively to the future like this, I’m also very conscious that we’re living in incredibly uncertain times.

The UK is in a difficult and challenging environment on so many levels at present and, as a mere Council Leader, I don’t for one moment pretend to have a crystal ball about what that lies ahead.

What I do know, however, is that having a long-term regeneration plan – both physical and social – is crucial to anchoring your confidence (and that of others) in your place and its ability to improve people’s prospects.

These latest signs of progress in Oldham’s skyline and environment show that we have that plan. Without it we would surely be exposing ourselves to even greater uncertainty.

This is my final blog now before the traditional Council recess break, but it will return on August 24.

Many of you will have holidays planned soon, so I hope you all enjoy fine family times and weather – and stay safe.

Jean