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.
I PROMISED to blog more about our key priorities in the years ahead – as outlined in my recent Annual Report to Full Council.
As I said last week, Oldham only succeeds when we all make our own efforts towards making it a better place – we can only build a better borough together.
That’s the spirit of co-operative working, but what does it really mean and how does it work in practice?
Put simply, it means everyone with a vested interest in a scheme contributes their own ‘bit’ towards making it a reality, whatever that might be.
And that involves all of us – not just public sector partners and investors putting in funding or sharing resources – but also residents doing simple but important things, like getting behind a plan, being an ambassador for it and using a new facility when it is built.
At the heart of this co-operative work lies our drive to create a strong economy here – and a place that we can all be proud of.
For Oldham Council that means a clear commitment from us to continuing to work hard to attract outside investment.
We’re still having good success on that front. Take last week’s deal for a new DPD Depot at Chadderton last week creating up to 350 new local jobs, for example.
It’s a commitment from us that the regeneration of our town and district centres – like the new Lidl which opened in Royton this month – will go on and that we’ll carry on striving to build a more balanced and stronger economy that works for everyone.
The Old Town Hall will open on October 21 and that’s a flagship project that makes a clear statement about where we are heading as a place.
It says everything about our intent to have a thriving and confident Oldham town centre where families and communities can enjoy quality time. And it’s about banishing those bad old days when the ‘Wild West’ culture of cheap booze offers around Yorkshire Street blighted our reputation.
But as I’ve outlined in earlier blogs, the Old Town Hall will be just the heartbeat of that new town centre and there will be other important developments taking shape around it.
Funding is in place now for our new Arts & Heritage Centre in the old library on Union Street, for example, and next year we can lay the foundations on the Prince’s Gate scheme, including that much-awaited Marks & Spencer store.
You should also have noticed major improvement works going on to highways and pedestrian areas around the town centre.
That’s not just our new Parliament Square, it’s the ongoing upgrades to Yorkshire Street and the Campus Oldham part of town, along the King Street corridor linking Oldham College, the new Oldham Leisure Centre and Oldham Sixth Form College.
All of this is being done to improve the experience for motorists, cyclists, shoppers, visitors, residents and business.
The progress on schemes like this – and the new Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre at the Royal Oldham Hospital – is helping to move Oldham to the next level with better opportunities and jobs and one we can finally market as a visitor destination in its own right.
We’ve worked with so many partners on those schemes I’ve just mentioned: including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Stoller Trust, Arts Council England, NHS Oldham, Marks & Spencer, Transport for Greater Manchester and the GMCA, to name just a few.
But successful co-operative working also works at all ends of the spectrum – and it’s just as important when it delivers great outcomes at a smaller level.
A shining example of that is the Independent Quarter.
Doing our bit as the local authority has been to put up a £1m package of comprehensive support to help existing or start-up businesses.
For others, their bit as traders has been to put life savings, hard graft and vision into a new venture, or as residents it’s been just to go and use these new shops and support the traders in their new home.
The result to date is that we have seen 30 new specialist traders move in, plus three new quality restaurants and 50 buildings refurbished.
We’ve got a waiting list of applications and people wanting to relocate there – including a new Digital Enterprise Hub that will help new enterprises grow across the digital, technology and creative sectors.
Between all of us we’re transforming what was a run-down area strewn with vacant units into a place that is changing by the day, providing a specialist offer for customers and businesses, creating new jobs and blossoming in confidence.
I believe it could well rank as the best £1 million this local authority has ever spent – and that’s because other people have bought into the vision and backed it.
That is very powerful. That’s the difference we can make together. That’s an economy that works for everyone.
Next week I’ll be explaining the growing importance of social regeneration for this administration.
These are existing and new schemes that are just as important as new facilities and buildings to people.
We want to restore pride – not just in Oldham as a place – but also in people and communities by helping to change their daily lives for the better and improve their prospects.
Above all, it’s about ensuring that, in Oldham, nobody is left behind.
I’M COMMITTED to Oldham Council fighting to make a positive difference with partners to real people’s lives – and that starts in our local economy.
The sad case of the end of the iconic retail empire that was once British Home Stores is just one example where we’ve done that.
Last weekend saw the doors closed for the last time on the 88-year-old firm’s operations nationwide.
When BHS first collapsed in April, it still had 163 stores that were trading but the final 20 have now shut.
Included in that tragic tale, of course, was the Oldham outlet in Spindles, which had only been open since November 2012.
The BHS closure hit 11,000 jobs nationwide, sparking a parliamentary inquiry and – with 22,000 people’s pensions affected by a reported £571 million black hole in funding – its a story that will run and run, possibly even into a criminal investigation.
When it was first confirmed that the Oldham store was under threat we were clear that the remaining 25 or so local workers would need help and we had to act. That’s when our excellent Get Oldham Working team swung into action to find out what could be done and intervene where help might be needed.
Working with partners like JobCentre Plus they arranged one-to-one advice sessions with all staff so that they could get any information they needed quick about forthcoming employment opportunities, how to improve CVs, plus their rights and benefits etc.
We put several staff in contact with potential employers and outlined their options to them. Some wanted to stay in retail, return to previous careers or look for something completely different.
The team also offered the safety net that – if people were still seeking work later in the year – we could guarantee them, through GOW partners, an interview for positions that would be coming up at the Old Town Hall and other tailored recruitment options we had put together.
By the time the Oldham outlet closed on August 3, I am pleased to report that every single member of staff affected had found new employment.
It’s small comfort for the disruption that BHS’ collapse has caused generally, of course, but it does show yet again how effective and important the Get Oldham Working (GOW) team’s efforts have become.
That’s also why the team’s move to a new premises in Oldham town centre last week is vital and makes so much sense: making it even easier for people to access job information and advice.
The GOW team has already supported our objectives in creating 3,750 employment opportunities in less than three years since it was formed, but the work can’t stop there.
They’ve now moved out of the Civic Centre and into a new base on the first floor of Metropolitan House, Hobson Street, Oldham – which is just across the road from JobCentre Plus.
I visited the new set-up last week and saw for myself how the new location – and the team’s ‘open door’ policy – can be essential help to anyone seeking work, apprenticeships, traineeships and experience.
Anyone of working age can now simply turn up – without an appointment – and speak to a careers advisor on weekdays from 9am until 4pm.
Given the success of GOW, which is a fantastic example of Oldham Council working cooperatively with partners for everyone’s benefit, we’re keen to see the scheme help even more people.
Now we are embarking on Phase 2 of the scheme, which has new targets.
Over the next four years GOW is looking to assist and guide 6,000 more residents and fill 5,000 work-related opportunities.
This October the team will also launch a new Career Advancement Service (CAS). The CAS is focussed on helping an initial 400 employed local residents to understand what additional support they might need to get an in-work promotion (including advice and support to increase their skills and salary levels).
That won’t just ultimately help them and their families, it also serves to increase upward mobility in the local labour market and create new opportunities for others.
As our major regeneration projects, like the Old Town Hall, Prince’s Gate and the Independent Quarter continue attracting more large, medium and small-sized businesses to invest in our borough, I believe GOW will go from strength to strength.
The same also goes for that big vacant unit that BHS has left behind at Spindles.
We know that the shopping centre owners, Kennedy Wilson, are working hard to attract the right tenant and will do all we can to support them in that search.
It’s a chilling thought that former BHS staff in other parts of the country might not have been as fortunate as those in Oldham have been and could actually be joining the dole queue this week, but we’re determined to make a difference here, wherever we can, to support local people and business.
The doors at Metropolitan House are now open to everyone of working age – young people and adults alike – and that means you can get a dedicated learning mentor, access to training, experience and help to find secure employment.