Councils on the brink | Time for Fair Funding

FCOUNCIL2FULL Council meets tonight to consider our budget proposals for the 2018/9 financial year.

This marks the end of a process that officially started last April and has seen a huge amount of work carried out examining all kinds of financial options and projections.

Given the huge pressures we face, it has also inevitably meant a lot of soul-searching as we strive to balance the books and protect vital services.

Since 2009 Oldham Council has now lost more than a third of its workforce and more than £200 million in Government funding – with up to another £20 million in savings to potentially find again next year.

Nobody goes into politics to put Council Tax up or to make cuts to key services but for the past decade these have been the pressures driving much of our deliberations.

We manage this challenge well in Oldham and have so far avoided some of the more drastic cuts that other authorities have made in areas like children’s centres, libraries, leisure centres and parks – but you can only dodge a bullet for long.

Councils up and down the country like ours also know that the tax rises they have planned won’t offset the cuts they are experiencing.

stackAcross England extra Council Tax will bring in an estimated £1.1bn in the next financial year which nowhere near covers the £1.4bn cut in central government funding.

These austerity-led cuts are not sustainable and the difficulties at Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire County Council – which essentially declared itself bankrupt earlier this month – shows that none of us are exempt from the strain.

What is happening there is just a snapshot of the difficulties all councils are facing: a growing population and one that lives longer, children that need more care and people that are struggling to get on in life, get on the property ladder, and have falling living standards and incomes. Rising demand, falling budgets.

Adults and children’s services are particularly underfunded with no clear solution in sight. We have an £8m pressure on the children’s’ services budget this year alone and councils can’t just keep dipping into reserves or selling buildings and land to get by.

The Government’s ‘answer’ to all this is to make councils rely in future on their Business Rates income, but as things stand that system will simply perpetuate inequalities and make them worse.

Areas with bigger business rates are already better funded and places with smaller business rate bases, like Oldham, will get poorer by comparison.

Next year, for the very first time, our Business Rates will constitute more of our income than what we get from Central Government support and that is a watershed moment.

We urgently need fair funding from Westminster and clarity about the future funding model for local services. There are few commitments on what lies ahead and finance settlements are typically thrown to us at the very latest possible moment, which also hampers our medium and long-term planning.

Here at Oldham Council what we must focus on is what we can influence and do ourselves to tackle this crisis.

CONSULTPOSTERWe are, for example, working hard to transform our ‘fiscal base’ – changing the sources of where our future income comes from – and that’s why the Oldham Town Centre Masterplan is so important with the boost to the economy, jobs and Business Rates it will produce.

But what is most frustrating about all this is the effect on residents. People in places like Oldham are being told to pay more, but also to expect to get less for their money. That doesn’t bode well for democracy, trust or local services.

The Government’s current stance on funding points to a bleak future where councils like ours would only be able to deliver statutory services – those we are legally obliged to.

Oldham has suffered more than most areas from the cuts and it’s time the Government put real measures and funding behind its rhetoric about preventing people being ‘left behind’.

I want to close today by thanking Councillor Abdul Jabbar, our finance team and all those members and officers involved in the difficult task of preparing this budget.

There is little sense of relief as we’re already thinking hard about what happens next year and beyond, but I promise that our work to try and increase our income and the prospects of local people will continue.

It is needed now more than ever.

Jean

Better roads for Oldham – £6.2m investment starts now

THE LATEST wintry weather is a stark reminder of the challenges we face in keeping local roads to a good standard of repair.

Ask any Council Leader about this subject and I would confidently bet that most will tell you that potholed roads is the top cause of the complaints they get from the public.

And I do sympathise – I am a driver after all!…

I can’t deny I get as irked as anyone else does after driving over one – although it is also true that nobody ever notices driving over roads where no bumps occur, for obvious reasons.

To try and address the pothole problem we’ve announced a new £6.2 million investment programme in Oldham’s roads this week.

This new money is funding a 12-month programme of works to get more streets into shape with a high-quality and durable surface that supports residents, motorists and business and keeps the borough moving.

This is really positive news, but we’ve also got to be realistic about the scale of the problem.

OMBC HighwaysRoad surfacing is a constant ongoing battle and the significant funding cuts from Government leave us with far less to spend on it than we would ideally put in.

In recent years we’ve also had some very harsh winters and wet summers which have had a significant impact on the 856 kilometres of roads we maintain.

This – and increased traffic levels – means many road surfaces are in need of repair or resurfacing. That £6.2 million commitment means specialist teams are out on the roads as you read this right now and getting on with that job.

There’s two key issues at play when it comes to road surfacing.

Firstly, there just isn’t enough Government funding to help local authorities like ourselves get on top of the problem.  Last year a survey by the Asphalt Industry Alliance estimated that councils are fixing 1.75 million potholes a year, which is one every 19 seconds, and sounds impressive. But the scale of the issue is such that the Local Government Association believes there is an astronomical national funding gap of £12 billion to be plugged and it would still take more than a decade – even with all that money provided – just to catch up with the backlog.

Although we’re not unique in terms of the funding challenges we face, a second issue for Oldham lies in the topographical nature of where we live.

Snow and ice causes the vast majority of pothole cracks and are much more likely to be on higher ground.  That’s because the higher you are, the colder it tends to be, which explains why the Saddleworth Moors always appear to be hit first. Height is also crucial because just a small change in temperature can mean the difference between rain and snow (which melts at 0 degrees C or above) and the Highways team tell me that 99 per cent of our borough lies at least at a height of 100 metres above sea level.

POTHOLES2We know it is vital that we continue to invest in our key infrastructure, like the road network.

In addition to this new investment we’re continuing to give overall priority to our main roads (A and B roads). These are our Priority Routes because the majority of the public use them each day – and you can help us to keep them well maintained.

We operate a 24 Hour Repair Promise on these roads (you may have noticed the road signs indicating this) so, if you see a defect, then please report it to us so we can take action immediately. Find out more here.

Obviously, we cannot go out driving every stretch of our roads checking for defects like this every day, so we rely on your help as our ‘eyes and ears’ by reporting problems as they arise.

Finally, I want to stress that this £6.2million investment is new money and it is in addition to the regular and scheduled work that our Highways Team are already carrying out, such as other reactive pothole repairs.

You can find out more about which roads will be improved in the first three months of this programme here.

Please do #yourbit and report any pothole problems to us online.

Jean

 

 

The hidden costs of false economies…  

poundcoins2WE’VE ALL probably made false economies in our time – and it’s a life lesson we often learn the hard way.

In striving to make an apparent financial saving it can actually cost you more in the long run: like buying cheap batteries or shoes, or not servicing the boiler just to have it fail on the coldest night of the year.

The same can be said of the public sector pay freeze introduced by George Osbourne in 2010 – a seven-year squeeze that has hit workers, families and communities hard in the name of economic austerity.

What did it gain in the short-term? Well, attacking the public sector may have gained some populist headlines and made marginal savings on Treasury spreadsheets but the opportunity costs – what could have been achieved with that money instead – weren’t considered because of political dogmatism.

Real median household incomes today are just five per cent higher than in 2007 and the UK is now in the worst period of pay growth in 150 years, affecting both the public and private sector. Clearly, George’s marvellous medicine didn’t work.

Public sector incomes have fallen way behind inflation and as the cuts bit deeper it meant people working even harder for less money.

It hit the lowest-paid frontline workers in the most vital services – health, education, police and care – disproportionately hardest. And it has lowered morale, increasing the problems of staff retention at a time of rising demand, which can mean having fewer colleagues to share the work around.

Worried Senior Woman Sitting On Sofa Looking At Bills

The impact has been equally bad for household budgets. ‘In work’ poverty is now at the point where a recent TUC survey found that one in seven public sector workers were forced to skip meals this year and almost a quarter reported they would not be able to pay an unexpected bill of £500.

And there’s been a much wider impact on the local economy…

By significantly eroding the value of public sector pay through this freeze – with frontline staff earning around £2,000 less than if their pay had risen in line with inflation – it’s meant workers have cut back on their spending. That has hit local high streets hard to the tune of an estimated £48bn less spent in shops since 2010.

Council employees last week were offered a two-year pay increase of 2 per cent with more, rightly, for the lowest-paid such as staff in children’s centres, school support, parks, libraries and those who keep vulnerable children and elderly people safe.

But it’s a long way back and only the first step in any kind of serious attempt to tackle national issues around pay and productivity.

Crucially it also needs extra funding from Government to help local authorities deliver it, not just placing even more burden on our budgets and putting more services and jobs in peril.

Another part of the ‘austerity’ agenda has been cuts to welfare that have gone hand-in-hand with demonising some of our most vulnerable people.

UCREDITAs the cruel winter frost blew our way last weekend I found myself again fearing for those families facing hardship through Universal Credit (UC).

As the national rollout for the new benefit continues many thousands of families are still enduring the in-built six-week wait for help.

Yes, the Chancellor did reduce this wait to five weeks in the budget – a very small step in reducing the pain, in my view – but this does not start until February 2018.

Many others are also facing a difficult time because around 67,000 UC claimants are paid weekly and 25,000 might be affected over the festive season because of when their assessment periods fall.

That simply isn’t fair and it means Foodbanks – like the fantastic one in Oldham – will be strained to their limit again.

None of the above feels very festive, I know, but we can all do #ourbit by bearing in mind those less fortunate than ourselves at this time of year and also by ensuring our neighbours and relatives are safe during wintry weather.

This will be my last blog before the holidays but I will return with a New Year’s Blog on January 1 looking ahead to the opportunities, landmarks and challenges that lie ahead for 2018.

In the meantime I want to wish you all a happy Christmas blessed with great quality family time and memories.

Jean

Budget Day looming large… 

oldham-leader-25-1-16-5277IT’S AN important few weeks for Oldham Council – and all local authorities nationwide.

We’re now in the final stages of agreeing how to balance the books for the next financial year here and we must bridge a £24.8million funding gap.

This has been our toughest budget process to date because we’re way beyond looking for easy cuts – they’ve all long gone – and are literally now being squeezed down to the pips.

Like all council leaders I’ll have a keen eye on the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, when delivers his latest budget to Parliament next Wednesday (November 22).

This will, he has stated, set out the Government’s thinking “on how to keep the economy strong and resilient and fair – an economy that works for everyone.”

They’re fine words, but will that be what he deliver in practice? I’m very clear about what I want for Oldham Council…

As I said in my Annual Statement at Full Council last week, the landscape for Oldham remains a challenging one.

As a place, we are facing unprecedented uncertainties as a result of several complex inter-playing factors including Brexit, the future of local government funding, Welfare Reform, Business Rates, Adults and Childrens’ Social Care funding, and many more.

We’ve now spent several years since 2010 under a regime of so-called economic ‘austerity’; a phrase I dislike to hear because it is a benign term for a regime that is actually having savage consequences for so many people across our communities.

It became the dominant fiscal ideology in Westminster after the Greek financial crisis and weaponised the dangers of ‘deficits’ and ‘debts’ to attack the welfare state and justify punitive measures like increased cuts in benefits.

Government seems to have ditched concerns about things like unemployment and the viability of public services, including the NHS and has focussed instead on an obsession with massive spending cuts.

This must now come to an end. It has not delivered. It was not necessary at the time and what our economy needs now is the prioritisation of investment, stimulus and inclusive growth.

What we need from the Chancellor – and the Local Government Finance Settlement that follows in December – is a dose of reality and a clear plan.

If he is really serious about Government delivering “for everyone” then he cannot ignore the obvious fact that local government must be fairly and adequately funded and given the powers to help to deliver those outcomes.

Depressed elderly woman sitting at the table

I’m going to be particularly interested in what Mr Hammond says about social care.

The Local Government Association recently calculated than an extra  £1.3 billion is needed from the Treasury just to plug funding gaps in this area of local government funding over the next financial year.

And here’s a frightening thought. By 2020 almost 60p in every £1 people pay in Council Tax may have to be spent caring for children and adults. With a population in which people are living longer than ever before, there’s a very clear challenge to both sustainability and the dignity we give our most vulnerable residents.

Social care isn’t the only area of concern either. What measures will the Government bring forward to tackle the housing crisis or address how we help young people to achieve their ambitions without saddling themselves with huge debt?

There is also the massive unresolved question of how local government is to be financed in future.

By 2020 this sector will have lost 75 pence out of every £1 it got from the Revenue Support Grant in 2015 and almost half of all councils will no longer get any of this core central government funding by 2019/20.

The Government previously said it was committed to letting local authorities keep all of their business rates income by 2020, yet even that is now in doubt after the Local Government Finance Bill failed to re-appear in the Queen’s Speech after the General Election.

There’s now a real fear and lack of clarity about our future funding and I know it’s something that keeps colleagues awake at night.

ABDULMBEAt Oldham Council finance is the portfolio of my Deputy Leader, Abdul Jabbar, and it is an unenviable task.

I was delighted to see him receive his MBE at Buckingham Palace this week because anyone handling that kind burden must be worthy of a medal!

Seriously though, Abdul has been a great ward member, community leader and Cabinet Member for around a quarter of a century – and he is a great ambassador for Oldham.

His persistent and patient approach has helped to steer our finances through some very choppy waters in recent years and we’re all delighted to see that recognised with this honour.

Finally this week, I want to pay tribute to all those Royal British Legion personnel, local volunteers and residents who helped to make Remembrance Sunday such a poignant occasion.

I attended the service in Oldham town centre. The weather conditions were perfect – if a tad chilly(!) – and it was heartening to be part of such a huge crowd stretching across Parliament Square and down High Street all paying their respects to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Thank you all.

Jean