I’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
Finally, 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.
TODAY is International Women’s Day 2017 – a worldwide event celebrating women’s achievements in all areas and calling for gender equality.
This has been taking place since the early 1900s and it isn’t affiliated with any one group.
It brings together women’s organisations, corporations and groups through a series of performances, rallies, networking events, conferences and marches.
I know from past experience that on this day there is usually at always at least one ‘joker’ who sarcastically asks when it is ever going to be Men’s Day.
I always delight in his embarrassment when I explain that it takes place on November 19 and – throughout my working life – I’ve encountered even less kind responses questioning what we are actually celebrating.
Debating that point reminds me of the infamous scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian when – after much arguing – it’s agreed that: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”.
The truth is that International Women’s Day is as relevant and necessary now as it has ever been.
Its original aim was to achieve full gender equality for women across the world – and that hasn’t happened.
There is still a clear gender pay gap and many areas of society where women are not proportionately represented and where we are disadvantaged.
Take a look at this week’s news if you want some depressing evidence.
On Monday an MPs investigation into work dress codes said it had found “widespread discrimination”. They heard stories about a woman who was told to dye her hair blonde, and one woman sent home from her temp job after refusing to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel”.
On the same day the Football Association was desperately trying to drag itself into the 21st Century. Faced with a threat of losing £30-£40m in funding unless it reforms, Greg Clarke had to outline ‘controversial’ plans to reserve three spaces on its board for women.
That’s just two examples from one day’s headlines.
Clearly we have some distance to go and there’s a very genuine logic as to why this all really matters.
Anyone who sees these issues as a ‘zero sum game’ – where change only benefits one gender at the necessary expense of the other – is totally missing the point.
Look at local government.
At Oldham Council I’m proud to be part of what is currently the only all-female Council Leader and Chief Executive team in Greater Manchester, but Carolyn Wilkins and I are just a snapshot of the amazing work done daily by women in our borough. Some are working at the most senior levels, some are working in finance, IT, social care, catering and as gritter drivers. Their contribution is vast and varied.
In local government we are there to work for an amazing array of people from all demographics, backgrounds, beliefs and barriers to achievement.
So if we don’t ensure they are represented when decisions are being made then it can’t be a surprise when a policy fails for them.
That then weakens trust in the institutions that are supposed to represent them, which doesn’t improve things for anyone.
I would be the first to say that there have been improvements, but when you are faced with stark reminders of how far we still have to go it’s very clear that some things haven’t changed enough.
Last month a Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester launched with an all-male line-up of 15 advertised speakers. Only 13 of 98 named speakers in total were woman and many panel sessions had no female faces at all.
The organisers’ apology was suitably unreserved and regretful, but given how many women are operating at a senior level across all sectors in Greater Manchester they should never have got into that position in the first place.
I’m not planning on being around until 2186 – which is the date when the World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap will finally close(!) – and these things matter to me now because diversity benefits everybody.
I’m proud that Oldham has been blessed with some inspiring women who have made a real difference to so many people’s lives.
One shining example, of course, is Annie Kenney. This is the Springhead woman who went on to play a key role in winning voting rights for women and that’s why I am delighted to be supporting a new campaign to raise funding to erect a permanent statue of her outside the Old Town Hall. You can find out more about that here.
We’ve had many other pioneers too – have a look at these examples on the Oldham Council website – but we can’t all make the big breakthroughs.
Small ripples – shows of compassion or empathy, incremental changes that unblock stalemate or change outlooks – are just as important in the overall picture.
Everyone can play a part, big or small, in achieving change.
We recognise that and it’s why we’re appealing for you to tell us this week about women that have made a difference in your community, your street or your home. If you want to nominate an unsung heroine like this, please email email@example.com with her name, the reason why you think she deserves recognition, and your contact details.
Finally, I’d say the real value of International Women’s Day, for me, is to serve as an annual point of reflection about where we have come from – and where we’re heading as a society.
We shouldn’t forget there has been genuine progress in many areas.
We’ve seen great changes on things like maternity rights, equal treatment for part-time workers (the majority of whom are women), and expanding career opportunities that weren’t previously open to us.
There’s also now more women in work, but they’re often still paid less than men, and in part-time jobs or informal employment with insufficient rights and protection.
Women are also still drastically under-represented in senior management roles, board positions and Parliament.
Add to that a range of societal issues, including poor access to free childcare, and you can see there’s still much to do.
Almost 64 years after her death, Annie Kenney might have been encouraged in 2017 – but she’d probably also dismay at how much remains to be done and how long it is all taking.
VOTERS across our region will soon be electing their first-ever Greater Manchester Mayor on May 4 – and, yes it doesaffect 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.
And 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.
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
CABINET has now approved our budget proposals for 2017/18 and these go to Full Council on March 1.
That will mark the end of another very difficult budget process in which we’ve had to take out £15m of funding for that financial year as a result of Government cuts.
Like most other councils we have, regrettably, included a proposed 3.99 per cent rise in Council Tax – although this is less than the 4.99 per cent rise most are introducing.
This is made up of a 1.99 per cent increase for Oldham Council services and an additional two per cent levy that Government say they are “allowing” councils to raise to help support under-funded adult social care services.
This means an increase of just below £5 per month for a Band D property and you can find out more about the measures we’ve taken to balance the budget proposals this time here.
It’s important to note that we withdrew some options as a result of our consultation with the public – including the proposed closure of the Link Centre and introducing charges for residents’ car parking permits.
This all means, however, that we’ve also had to propose taking £5.483m from our reserves this time.
As an administration we’ve always prided ourselves on our financial prudence and we know that this is not a sustainable policy to adopt in the medium-term.
Your reserves are there for a ‘rainy day’ – like dealing with major civil emergencies – but, sadly, that’s exactly where we are right now with the funding of adult social care.
Those services are by far our largest cost and they will continue to suffer unless this Chancellor listens to what everyone is now telling him – that social care is in crisis now. That it is a national issue that should be funded from the taxes he raises nationally. And that it is simply unfair to force councils to plug that gap by adding 2 per cent to Council Tax.
This inevitably means that poorer areas like ours are able to raise less in this way than richer ones like Surrey. Hence we have been forced to take money out of reserves this time.
Already this month the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has called for emergency government funding of £1bn for 2017-18 just to stabilise a care market it believes to be on the edge of collapse.
The Local Government Association has also warned that the severe underfunding is putting councils in peril of not being able to provide the help that older and disabled people need with basic tasks – and it is also impacting on frontline NHS services.
It also can’t be right that councils do not appear to be treated equally by Government…
You may recall that Tory-run Surrey Council announced it was planning a local referendum on a proposed 15 per cent rise in Council Tax, blaming cuts and the demand for their services, including adult social care.
Suddenly, however, it dropped the plans and the council instead then voted through a 4.99 per cent increase thanks, it seems, to a so-called ‘sweetheart’ funding deal with Government.
That is just the latest slap in the face to councils like ours. And it comes after we’ve been forced to plug their adult social care funding shortfall by imposing a tax on our residents based on local property values – rather than on the basis of need.
Unless the government address this inequity sooner rather than later ultimately this will lead to the level of service people get being decided by where they live.
Postcode lotteries should never be how our society looks after its most vulnerable people – that’s simply unacceptable.
Mr Hammond needs to start listening, and listening now!
Finally this week, you may have seen media coverage about allegations of a Trojan Horse plot in an Oldham primary school.
I am unable to add to what has already been publicly said by Oldham Council at this stage. However, I am assured that we have acted properly and responsibly in fully investigating these serious claims, which it was right and proper to do.
You can view our full press statement on those matters here
ILLUMINATE – 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.
Illuminate 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.
It 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’.
In 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.
The 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
OLDHAM 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).
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.
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.
Finally 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.
WINTRY WEATHER is forecast in the next 48 hours or so – and that will probably mean more pressure on local services.
We’re hardened to dealing with snow, icy roads and winds here in Oldham, of course, and it’s important to stress that we’re not unusually concerned by anything in the forecasts at this stage.
It can’t have escaped your attention in recent days, however, that the pressures on the NHS are at a critical point right now up and down the country.
It was alarming to read the British Red Cross’ claims last weekend that our NHS is facing a “humanitarian crisis” as hospitals and ambulance services battle to match rising demand.
The reality is we all know that the winter can traditionally be an extremely challenging time, especially for urgent care services like A&E.
These months always see an increase in hospital admissions and can inevitably lead to breaches of the ‘urgent and emergency care standard’ – which is that 95 per cent of patients should be seen, treated, admitted or discharged within four hours of presenting at A&E.
But whatever the political arguments about targets and the funding of the NHS there are some things that all of us can and should do to help to reduce unnecessary demand.
As a council we work actively with partners to help ensure those people most at risk of preventable emergency admission to hospital are and helped to take the necessary actions to avoid that happening.
By avoiding going to A&E unless a medical condition is a genuine emergency – and by using local pharmacies and NHS 111 for medical advice – we can all significantly help to cut non-urgent demand.
For our loved ones and others there are other things to consider…
Winter conditions can be bad for anyone’s health; especially those people aged 65 or over, and those with long-term health conditions.
That’s why keeping warm is absolutely vital. It can prevent colds, flu and more serious health problems like heart attack, strokes, pneumonia and depression.
If you are struggling to heat your home then Warm Homes Oldham can help you with things like insulating your property, replacing broken boilers, advice on debt, benefit entitlements and cutting bills through energy efficiency measures. You can find out more at www.warmhomesoldham.org or by calling 0800 019 1084
Another step you can take is to make sure your family have had the flu jab.
This is free for pregnant women, the over-65s, people with long-term health conditions and children aged 2 to 4 years. Ask at your GP if you’ve not had this.
You should also act quickly when you are feeling unwell. Speak to your pharmacist at the first sign of winter illness or call 111 for medical advice, assessment and direction to the best medical treatment for you.
All of Oldham’s GP practices are open from 8am to 6.30pm (Monday to Friday) as a minimum.
The Walk In service at the Integrated Care Centre (right) is open from 8am to 8pm every day of the year.
It’s also vital that we look out for our neighbours, friends and family members at these times.
Icy pavements and roads can stop people from getting out and about which might mean they miss out on vital medicine or food. A friendly face just popping round to have a brew can also work wonders for isolated people – and it costs you nothing other than just a few minutes of your time.
Don’t forget that the ‘Winter’ section on the Oldham Council website here contains all the information you will need about local school and children’s centre closures, gritting routes, bins and travel updates, local support services such as drop-in centres, shelters and food providers; and advice on winter health, affordable warmth grants and flood relief.
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.
THE 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.
At 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.
We’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.
Finally, 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.
BUSINESSES of all shapes and sizes are the lifeblood of our local economy; the dynamo that can power the place and people forward.
Oldham Council is often the first point of access – especially for smaller ventures – when they’re seeking support to get ideas and plans off the ground.
We know local firms are the engines of social mobility and potential gamechangers to the status quo in creating new products, services and, ultimately, jobs.
That’s why we take our role in championing, supporting them and encouraging growth in every area so seriously and this week I visited two great examples of how we are succeeding.
On Monday I went down to Chadderton Way to meet Stephen Pettyfer, Group Property Director of the Jardine Motors Group who are bringing an Audi dealership to town.
Builders are now six weeks into the construction of a huge showroom on the former Westhulme Hospital site in what represents an £8 million investment for the firm.
They’d approached us last year with plans to base their Northern hub at the five-acre site and, although the land is not council-owned, we worked with NHS bosses to broker the deal and bring the site forward quickly for development.
It will see the creation of around 90 new skilled jobs and is a high-end global brand that we are proud to see investing here.
With most of the steel infrastructure already in place, I’m really looking forward to revisiting the site to see the finished development next year.
I also had the great pleasure to open another new business right in the heart of Oldham town centre yesterday.
Attracted by the Old Town Hall cinema and restaurants scheme, this is just the latest local venture to benefit from our Independent Quarter scheme.
Ross McGivern has taken advantage of our business support, advice and a Building Improvement Grant to make his dream a reality.
He also liked our plans for Parliament Square so much that he’s even named his new delicatessen and cafe after it as ‘The Parliament SQ’.
Ross’ enthusiasm already seems to have been instilled in his friendly team and – after linking up with our Get Oldham Working campaign – he will initially be employing up to 18 new staff.
It’s great to see this site, the old Santander building, back in use after three years of being vacant and I was really impressed by the stylish interior and glass frontage which gives fantastic views across Parliament Square and over to the Old Town Hall.
This is yet another different addition to the fast-growing dining and entertainment offer in Oldham and I am sure – especially given Ross’ focus on great customer service – that it will be a big hit with locals and visitors alike.
Part of the new attraction to Oldham is, of course, the Metrolink line. We unashamedly set out to use its arrival as a catalyst for our own regeneration programme and to attract more private investment.
We know that transport is vital to our future growth prospects. Strong connectivity is important to make sure that all our residents, partners and businesses – and those we hope to attract in the future – have a level playing field in terms of access to new opportunities.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with Richard Farnell, Rochdale Council Leader, in urging Transport for Greater Manchester to deliver on giving our Oldham-Rochdale line a direct link to Manchester Piccadilly, rather than people having to change tram at Manchester Victoria.
It can’t be right that our line will be the only branch of the network without an unbroken link to that transport hub with its important strategic links to London and beyond.
The justification we’ve been given is based on the current levels of demand on our line. But that doesn’t take any account of future growth and – by denying us that extension – it actually hampers the prospects of that future growth happening.
Both Oldham and Rochdale are positive partners in Greater Manchester devolution who are investing in our boroughs through physical and social regeneration schemes. We are asking for that to be recognised and supported, and we look forward to productive talks soon about this with Tony Lloyd, the Interim Mayor, and Andrew Fender, Chair of the TfGm committee.
I always like to end my blogs on a positive note so there’s two final things I’d highlight this week…
The first is the astonishing national public reaction to our ‘Name a Gritter’ competition with local primary school children. Spurred on by the infamous ‘Boaty McBoatface’ saga earlier this year, it has really caught the imagination with more than 2,500 entries to date – and a lot by adults that simply can’t be included(!)
The great thing is this all helps us to raise awareness of the vital work our gritting teams do. It’s also a fun way to teach young people about road safety and winter weather.
The competition closes at 5pm today (Wednesday) and we’re hoping to announce the much-anticipated winner later this week.
And finally, I did promise you some really positive news would be coming this week, and it will.
Watch our Twitter feed and local media from 7am on Friday and you will be the first to read all about it…