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!

A focus on our future – and the past

IT’S ANOTHER busy week and one in which we are looking to the future – and remembering our past.

I was delighted to attend a launch event on Monday for Open Future_North and to welcome Prince Andrew, The Duke of York, on Monday.

Open Future_North will be new tenants – alongside local social enterprise, Hack Oldham – at the digital enterprise hub we are currently refurbishing in the ex-Wahoo nightclub and Kiss bar buildings on Yorkshire Street.

Located right in the heart of our Independent Quarter, this hub will be supporting grassroots entrepreneurs and bringing the necessary talent, inspiration and investment together to help them flourish. It will be a launch pad where creatives can collaborate, learn and unlock each other’s potential.

On the ground floor and in the basement, Hack Oldham will offer access to low-cost and flexible workspace – plus equipment geared to individual entrepreneurs and Small to Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) in the digital and creative sectors.

Open Future_North will occupy the first and second floors of the old Wahoo bar as part of the work by Wayra UK (part of Telefónica Open Future) to revitalise entrepreneurial ‘ecosystems’, energise local economies and democratise entrepreneurship across the UK.

What struck me about the launch, held at the Old Town Hall, was how upbeat and positive the mood was among all present with a fantastic exchange of opinions and viewpoints.

As I told the audience in one of the new cinema screens, the venue they were sat in is stunning, but regeneration isn’t just about architecture and iconic buildings. To transform a local economy you also have to empower people and nurture a culture that enables success.

It’s about people and prospects. It’s about opportunities, networks, ideas and environment. It’s about social regeneration.

Instead of giving people a ‘handout’, we’re trying here in Oldham to give them a ‘hand up’ by working with partners across every single sector – and this new digital enterprise hub is just one part of our action on that front.

We’re trying to address clear and ingrained disadvantages, social and financial exclusion by backing businesses, enterprises and workers and the talented people we know we have here and want to retain.

Open Future 40.jpgAt Open Future_North two groups of five start-ups will get access to a state-of-the-art co-working space, each for a period of six months in 2017, as well as support like mentoring, access to Wayra UK’s network and knowhow, plus training in business skills.

The best performers will be asked to join the full acceleration Wayra UK programme, where they could receive up to £34,000 in investment, and it was particularly inspiring to hear the pitches from budding start-ups.

Local firm OfferMoments, founded by Abdul Alim and Shahzad Mughal, explained their billboards that change with information tailored towards your profile, based upon your social media activity, as you walk towards them.

And the husband and wife team behind JobSkilla – Chris and Lisa Hughes from Shaw – talked passionately about how their online service can bridge the gap between job-seekers, training providers and training advisers.

Oldham has a proud history of innovation and has led the world at times, so there’s no reason why we can’t be the birthplace of one of the next big ideas.

Through his ‘Pitch at the Palace’ initiative, the Duke of York is backing efforts like this to help support entrepreneurs to accelerate and grow their plans.

cwilkoContinuing on a royal theme I was delighted to see Carolyn Wilkins, our Chief Executive, visit Buckingham Palace on Tuesday for her investiture after being made an OBE in June for her services to Local Government and Public Sector Reform.

It is an award that is richly deserved and I know that the Council team and all partners will join me in congratulating Carolyn.

Later today (Wednesday) I am also looking forward to the ceremony at which Nicola White will be confirmed as a freewoman of the borough.

Based on local press and social media, our star Olympic hockey player appears to have been in incredibly high demand since Rio, and small wonder as she is an outstanding ambassador.

I am excited to be welcoming her to the Council Chambers today and celebrate a special moment with so many of her family and friends present. You will also be able to watch this live from 4pm onwards on our website – and tweet your own congratulations into the room.

Finally the week will, of course, end on a very poignant note as crowds fall silent across the borough on Sunday to remember the fallen who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, peace and security.

Residents, uniformed services and representatives of all organisations are encouraged to attend these services and I would also ask people to again support the Royal British Legion’s annual campaign and wear a poppy with pride.

Full details of all the events taking place can be found here and our website also features an online ‘Roll of Honour’ containing the names of all borough residents who lost their lives serving their country from the First World War onwards at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/remembrance

Jean

The balancing act: Budgets, services and aspirations

Old Town Hall, Oldham, September 7, 2016
LABOUR OF LOVE: Around 200 contractors are on-site at the Old Town Hall daily putting finishing touches to the flagship development 

I’M PREPARING to deliver my first ever Annual Report to Full Council as I write – and it’s been a very busy few days.

Firstly, I know many of you are hoping for an update on the opening of the Old Town Hall, so here’s where we stand right now…

I chaired a meeting with the regeneration team here at the Civic Centre last week where we discussed this matter at length and I’m continuing to personally monitor progress on the development.

You can’t see them from outside, but there are currently more than 200 contractors working daily inside the Old Town Hall right now – drilling, preserving, painting and finishing off what has been a mammoth task and a labour of love for many craftspeople.

But the issue here isn’t just about progress on the old Grade II-listed building itself, it’s also about us being confident that the improvements we’re making to the surrounding environment and highways, and especially the new public space at Parliament Square, will also be ready.

It’s important that we have a date that will enable the maximum number of spectators to enjoy the public opening events and get in and out of the area safely and quickly: so please just bear with me just a little while longer for that announcement.

On Friday, I caught the early train down to London to take my place on the Local Government Association’s City Regions Board for the first time.

That might not mean much to you, but it’s crucially important that as key partners in Greater Manchester devolution we are at the centre on this issue, ensuring we get the best deal for our region, and for Oldham.

jeannic
GOLDEN GIRL: Nicola White

That appointment meant I couldn’t be at Oldham Leisure Centre for the homecoming event for Nicola White, our Olympic Gold medallist, but I’m happy to report that I made it back in time to meet and talk to Nicola at a celebration at the Oldham Event Centre later that night.

This evening it will be my absolute pleasure to introduce an agenda item which (subject to approval!) will see her nominated for the title of ‘Freewoman of the Borough’.

Nicola is our first Gold medal winner since Henry Taylor in 1908. Her achievement is historic and it’s only right we mark that by bestowing upon her the highest honour that we can as a council.

When I deliver my Annual Report at that same meeting tonight (more about that in next week’s blog) I’ll be setting out the progress we’ve made in the past year and what our clear priorities are for the borough looking ahead.

This is an administration that is ambitious for Oldham – for its people, for its businesses and for the local economy – but that continues to be hampered by reductions in Government funding and these amount to a further £20 million next year.

Getting that balance right between delivering good services, defending vulnerable residents and giving people the new opportunities and facilities they deserve is an incredibly hard challenge.

That’s why we launched our budget consultation yesterday on a series of proposals to help us balance those priorities – and the books.

This will be the eighth consecutive year when we’ve been hit by a significant fall in our funding and we don’t have a monopoly on the answers or bright ideas.

We’re facing some incredibly tough decisions, so we need your input and views more than ever before.

Much of the proposed budget reductions could come from changing internal processes and how we deliver services and share resources in ever-closer partnership with other equally hard-pressed public bodies. Examples of that are our work with the NHS and Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group on social care, health and children’s services – and with neighbouring councils on some back office functions.

Inevitably, however, after eight years of cuts it is increasingly difficult to absorb these without directly having some impact on residents.

The more contentious ones include proposals to close the Link Centre on Union Street, reduce top-up funding to Parish Councils, introducing a charge to cover the cost of producing residents’ parking permits and more rigorously enforcing fines to drivers who ignore bus lane restrictions.

I don’t believe any member of Oldham Council, regardless of their politics, sought office to take decisions like these, but we simply have no choice and must balance the budget.

Please take a few minutes to tell us what you think about these proposals – and give us your own ideas – at the online consultation at www.oldham.gov.uk/budget

budget
Your feedback about possible alternative savings, or steps we could take to mitigate the impact of these proposals, would be particularly welcome.

It’s a harsh fact that when this latest budget process is complete we’ll have lost £212m from budget savings requirements and the Government’s funding reductions since 2009.

That is a huge hit to our income and resources. And it is not a burden which is being shared proportionately across the country.

That’s why – as I will explain in my Annual Report this evening – it’s more vital than ever that Oldham Council continues to provide the civic leadership and direction needed to make this a better borough by working with you to get results.

If you don’t want to wait until next week’s blog to see my Annual Report, you can watch it live on our website here from 6.05pm tonight (Wednesday, September 7).

A video replay will also be posted online separately by the end of the week and I will post that link on here when it is available.

Jean

Success breeds success

nwhitegold2
GOLDEN GIRL: Our very own Nicola White before and after Team GB’s Olympic Hockey final

WATCHING Nicola White play a starring role in last Friday night’s Team GB Women’s Hockey final was truly inspiring.

The performances of so many of our athletes in Rio have been a source of national pride to everyone but, of course, it’s always even better when you’re actually cheering on one of your own.

My husband went out to play snooker and I settled down to watch the drama unfold.

It turns out I was one of nine million people watching live in the UK and BBC One even took the highly unusual step of postponing ‘News at Ten to show the whole game.

To the undisguised disgust of my cat Mitzy, it was not long before I found myself shouting encouragement at the television.

Many moons ago, I used to play a bit of hockey myself. That was down on the red clay pitches at Hathershaw School where you usually had to pick bits out of your knees after the game, but this Olympic surface and the quality of play were in a totally different league.

The Dutch team dominated at times but you couldn’t fail to admire the guts and tenacity our team displayed throughout.

Twice they hauled themselves level but still looked to be heading for defeat until our Nicola swooped to equalise: taking the game into that dramatic shootout, won by Hollie Webb’s decisive penalty.

TeamGB
Team GB: What made the difference?

It was one of many magic moments for Team GB and not surprisingly their spectacular achievements – their best medal tally in 108 years – has prompted a wider debate about exactly how it was achieved, and whether anything can be learnt from it in other areas of public life.

Some have suggested it proves the merits of central planning and the benefits of Lottery investment. At a cost of £1.09 to each resident per year, it certainly represents great value, but surely picking ‘winners’ from, say, entrepreneurs and businesses would be much more problematic.

Some have also highlighted the ‘detail’ element – the idea that this success has been down to a team, making painstaking ‘marginal gains’ which left absolutely nothing to chance. Again that clearly has had a positive effect.

But I’d also put the triumphs down to something else that’s rather simple: the fact that success often breeds success.

As in sport, the most difficult part in tackling major issues as a Council Leader (especially when trying to transform performance) lies in the hard work that goes into researching and defining your plan. But if you get that right and capitalise on early wins it can lead to momentum and a snowball effect.

It’s a lesson that we try to apply in Oldham, and with some success.

One example is education where our ‘central planning’ and detailed approach in tackling underperformance in local schools was launched with the publication of the Oldham Education and Skills Report back in January.  Already we’re seeing a pay-off.

The number of secondary school pupils attending a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school is now more than 70 per cent, compared with just 39 per cent last year – and last week’s A-level results also showed improvements across the board.

Part of that new approach encourages successful schools to share their best practice and data with others, which helps to raise the bar across the board, not just at one school.

As I said, success breeds success…

LCENTREOn a final note, I’m sure that Team GB’s exploits have motivated many people to get involved in new sports, or just to get fit and active again, which is brilliant.

The power to inspire others is a truly rare and wonderful gift, and we are blessed to have role models and ambassadors like Nicola White for our borough.

When we first set out to build two new leisure centres in Oldham, some scoffed at our stated aim to capitalise on an Olympics legacy.

Perhaps they might view that a little differently now.

Jean