General Election: Back to pounding the pavements…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean

Books Glorious Books

BOOMKARKSEASTER IS upon us and it’s always a very busy time with our annual events calendar getting into full swing.

One of my favourites is the Oldham Bookmark Festival which we’re holding for a fourth time later this month. In a short space of time it has already become a mainstay of our programme and has proved hugely popular with families.

Given the countless volumes of council reports I work through each week it still amazes me that I never seem to lose any of my love for books. That’s probably because reading isn’t just something I have to do or a chore, it is a real hobby and passion for me like it is for so many others.

BOOKPILEI’ve also always believed that a child with an appetite for reading is one that is likely to have an appetite for learning – and that can give them a great start in life.

Growing up on Alt Estate, I can still clearly remember how captivated I was by reading JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the first time. I went on to read his Lord of the Rings trilogy too – and enjoyed it – but it was The Hobbit and the escapades of Bilbo Baggins that I found myself going back to time and time again.

In more recent times I became a late adopter of a Kindle e-book, so now the only books I buy in hardback are cook books – and far too many of them, according to my husband!

I know some miss the feeling of the book in their hands and the joy of storing their collection on the shelves, but for me – especially when packing for holiday – the way I can simply download a whole range of books is a modern joy.

I read across a wide range of literature, although fiction and autobiographies tend to be my favourites. One of the best books I read recently was ‘I am Pilgrim’, the debut novel by Terry Hayes. I also like Barbara Vine – a pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, well known for Inspector Wexford – and her darker, psychological thrillers. And I’ve also recently revisited John O’Farrell’s ‘Things can Only Get Better’.

Everyone has their own taste and favourite genres, of course, so the beauty of the Oldham Bookmark Festival – which runs from April 21-29 – is the sheer variety of speakers, authors, workshops and performances on offer.

AlastairThis year’s festival kicks off with a visit from Alastair Campbell who will be discussing his most recent book ‘Winners and How They Succeed’ which examines what it takes to be successful in politics, business and sport. He is, of course, better known as Tony Blair’s ex-spokesperson but since then has written six volumes of diaries, three novels and a personal memoir about depression and mental health issues.

If that’s not your cup of tea – and I realise it may not be for some(!) – then there’s a whole range of other highlights to enjoy like visits to Oldham by Guardian columnist Erwin James and blogger Emily Morris.

There’s also the opportunity to spend an evening with some of the best crime writers around, including Elizabeth Haynes and Rachel Abbott, talking about what it is like to write for a living.

Highly Suspect are also returning and taking their new murder mystery evening to Molino Lounge at the Old Town Hall with a special Harry Potter themed event.

If you’re more into classic literature then you might enjoy a special workshop exploring the writing techniques of Anthony Burgess, or the talk by Helena Kelly explaining what she believes to be the ‘secret radical’ side of Jane Austen that might just send you scurrying back to re-read her works all over again.

Bookmark Kids events Facebook 2017There’s also plenty going on to bring out the bookworm in the kids.

Popular author and illustrator Nick Sharratt – best-known for Shark in the Park and Ketchup on your Cornflakes – will be at Oldham Library, as will CBBC book club presenter Katie Thistleton who will be playing some intriguing games with her audience and talking about her new children’s book.

You can find out more about all the events – and how to book tickets – by visiting http://www.oldham.gov.uk/bookmark

Books are brilliant for so many reasons. They can give you escapism, insights into other cultures and lifestyles or places, and – best of all – expand your horizons.

We’re blessed with a brilliant library service in Oldham which isn’t just about books: they host live theatre, author visits, storytelling sessions and all manner of useful events all year round.

To keep in touch with what they’re up, follow them on twitter @oldhamlibraries and like them on facebook.com/oldhamlibrary service

Happy reading!

Jean

Bookmark Facebook Crime

Deaths in public service: Loss and hope

flaghalfmastTHE DEATHS of people in public service – known to us or not – always serve as a shock reminder of our own mortality.

Last Wednesday afternoon, whilst preparing for Full Council, I was alerted to news of the terrorist attack underway in Westminster.

Like many others I watched the horrific scene unfold as four innocent people were killed and many injured after a lone attacker drove his car at pedestrians and then into railings outside the Houses of Parliament.

The heroic actions of unarmed PC Keith Palmer, who bravely fought to stop the man entering the Palace of Westminster, touched us all.

As Full Council began at 6pm with a minute’s silence, the facts were becoming clearer. I was able to report that all three of the borough’s MPs were safe, but the atmosphere remained one of great shock and solemnity.

It soon emerged that PC Palmer’s selfless example was not an isolated act. Witnesses told how police and other emergency responders ran towards danger at the scene while directing the public in the other direction – and there were heart-warming stories of folk stopping to help those lying in distress.

PC Palmer’s efforts to protect the public were rightly highlighted, but his sacrifice also makes everyone feel uneasy and vulnerable.

It reminds us all of humanity: that no matter how healthy, professional and well-trained we are, our ultimate fate can be incredibly random.

Larkin TIn very different circumstances, Oldham Council has sadly also lost two highly-dedicated public servants – one elected member, and one senior officer – in recent days.

Councillor Tony Larkin had been known to be seriously ill for some time but that doesn’t make his departure any less sad.

A staunch and campaigning trade unionist, Tony was originally from Manchester but he took Royton to his heart and local people did the same: re-electing him to serve to them several times since 1996.

He was incredibly passionate about where he lived and, believe me, Tony never passed up an opportunity to lobby for a local cause on his residents’ behalf.

He was also a great listener and a man who saw representing people as a very serious public duty.

I know how difficult this time must be right now for his wife Penny, their three children and their family and friends. My heart goes out to them all.

CSUTTONIn contrast, the loss of Carrie Sutton, Oldham Council’s director of Education and Early Years last weekend, was completely out of the blue and has stunned everyone.

Carrie joined us in August 2015 and impressed many people, myself included, from day one.

Honest, passionate and no-nonsense in the pursuit of the right outcome, I knew almost instantly that she was someone I was going to enjoy working with.

Carrie had such determination and drive and worked tirelessly with partners like school heads and governors to improve young people’s prospects.

And she will be equally fondly remembered here for her personality as well as her work ethic. My sincere condolences go to her family and anyone fortunate enough to have known her.

At a time when we’re repeatedly told that people trust their public institutions and personnel less than ever before, examples of good public service like these – their values and  behaviours – shine light on the best path towards us regaining that trust.

Jean

Hooray for Hollinwood

HollinwoodGREAT NEWS for Oldham’s regeneration programme this week as we took a vital step towards unlocking the development and employment opportunities at Hollinwood Junction.

This site at junction 22 of the M60 has long had great development potential, but with one major stumbling block.

Following Cabinet approval on Monday we will now buy the redundant gas holder from National Grid Property Holdings – who weren’t scheduled to remove the structure until 2023 at the earliest – and get on with demolition to spark regeneration and create new jobs.

We’d signed a Strategic Partnering Agreement with developers Langtree Group PLC some time ago, and are now working with them – and the Hollinwood Partnership – to regenerate the area.

Hollinwood Junction has significant parcels of public and private sector-owned land all boasting great transport links which could make it a regionally important employment zone at a major gateway, boosting the local economy and improving the environment.

After a lengthy process this is a real boost for our plans and we’re ready to get on with the job. We’ve already got planning permission to demolish and can start on-site this summer to remove the gas holder by early 2018.

DFESTIVALAnother development much closer to fruition is our Digital Enterprise Hub which opens this summer on Yorkshire Street.

This will support grassroots entrepreneurs and bring together the talent, inspiration and investment needed to create a launch pad where digital creatives can collaborate in the heart of our Independent Quarter.

Hack Oldham will be offering low-cost and flexible workspaces there and fellow tenants Open Future North will be leading the regional arm of Wayra UK’s work to grow entrepreneurial ‘ecosystems’ and energise local economies.

As we now look to promote our growing offer in this sector for residents and businesses, Oldham Library will be hosting our first-ever Digital Festival this Saturday.

This free event has all kinds of opportunities for people to improve their digital skills through advice, workshops and tips to get on in work and life with new technology.

The line-up includes explorations and experiments with some of the best professional digital artists around, plus chances to start your micro:bit adventure with BBC Make it digital, draw in virtual reality with Google Tilt Brush, make your own video game characters or learn how to repair digital equipment.

Hack Oldham will be on hand offering advice on coding, making, tech, gaming and devices, and you can also join in some retro games or just find out more about online banking and Smartphone apps first-hand from the experts.

There will also be workshops for writers, a University Campus Oldham stall with advice on digital careers, and a demonstration of free and interactive business resources.

People of all ages and experience are welcome and you can find out more about the Digital Festival at www.oldham.gov.uk/oldham_library

CTAX
And finally this week – as I prepare for this evening’s Full Council – some Council Tax news…

First, we’re giving all residents a chance to win a share of £1,000 as part of our drive to encourage more people to use direct debit and online services.

All you have to do is sign-up to pay your Council Tax via Direct Debit by Friday, April 28 and you’ll be entered into a free draw to win one of five cash prizes. To register, just have your bank details and Council Tax account reference ready and log onto www.oldham.gov.uk/ctcomp or call 0161 770 6622.

Last but not least, we’re proposing to increase our support for young people leaving care by making them exempt from Council Tax for a three-year period.

Under the proposals, which go to Cabinet next month, all care leavers aged 18, 19 and 20 would benefit from a move backed by the Children’s Society which found that this is a particularly vulnerable group for Council Tax debt.

This measure is just one way we can do ‘our bit’ and ensure we continue helping young people trying to adapt to living on their own, managing their finances and finding work for the first time.

Jean

Credit Unions: Needed more than ever in 2017

OCU - Logo
I CHAIRED the Annual General Meeting of the Oldham Credit Union (OCU) last night.

I’ve been chair of the OCU for around 12 years now and I’ve seen its offer change significantly in that time.

In 2017, Britain continues to face a mounting debt and savings crisis and Credit Unions can help with the issues faced by many individuals and families.

These were highlighted by a new survey into personal finances this week.

The research, by MoneySuperMarket, showed many people are getting into even more debt – and the vast majority blame the rising cost of living.

Studio Shot Of Worried Couple Looking At BillsMore than a third of adults said their debt is going up because of rises in transport costs, household bills and grocery costs.

Another issue now is that whilst inflation is slowly rising – up to a 32-month high in February – most people’s salaries are continuing to flatline. This means their spending power is steadily declining.

Inflation is expected to hit 2.4 per cent later this year, mostly because of the weakness of the pound, and this means people who are already in debt will find it even harder to ever get back into the black.

With the possibility of interest rate rises to come, these are very hard times for many people.

The average debt per person in the North West is £5,811 – just below the UK average of £6,372 – and its known that younger people (in the 18-34 age bracket) are racking up debt much quicker than those nearing retirement age.

A third of people surveyed admitted they rely on cards and loans just to get by from month to month, so it’s clear this is a widespread problem in the context of an insecure labour market where zero hours contracts also mean a steady, predictable income is a pipedream for many.

Good Bad Credit Signpost Showing Customer Financial RatingSo, what can Oldham Credit Union do to help?

OCU is a not-for-profit, democratic co-operative owned and controlled by its members. Its philosophy is about mutual self-help and it is not run on the same basis as lenders like banks and building societies.

Their services are there for anyone aged over 16 living or working in our borough. They try to promote the savings ‘habit’, provide fair loans at competitive interest rates, and provide advice on managing finances. They have a range of services on offer for different circumstances.

Imagine, for example, being hit with an unexpected car repair bill that needs doing immediately so you can get to work. In this scenario, some people without access to affordable credit end up falling prey to high-interest lenders or loan sharks.

OCU works with Greater Manchester Police and the Illegal Money Lending Team to keep people away from loan sharks because borrowers don’t just risk high interest repayments. Sharks often also employ extreme collection methods that include intimidation, threats and violence.

That kind of behaviour isn’t welcome here and we want people to know there is a responsible alternative in Oldham.

OCU offers access to fair and straightforward financial services, including secure savings and affordable loans. It works closely in neighbourhoods offering Junior Savings clubs and Community Collection Points in some areas.  Members include people who cannot access a bank account and don’t have any substantial kind of savings buffer – and it continues to develop partnerships with organisations like Regenda, Great Places, First Choice Homes Oldham – and Oldham Council – to tackle financial exclusion.

An example of how OCU can help is a Jam Jar budgeting account. This is a simple way of ensuring key bills like Council Tax and rent get paid. When opening an account, people agree how much they will pay towards each key bill per month and the OCU does the rest. Any surplus left over is then available in your OCU Savings Account. A Jam Jar account is free (subject to a one-off £1 joining fee) and you can also have benefits paid directly into the account.

Worried Senior Woman Sitting On Sofa Looking At BillsDespite the clear need for Credit Unions – there are about 350 across the UK – we’re small compared to this sector in other countries. UK Credit Unions have assets worth around £1.32bn and 1.2m members, but globally we’re small players in a sector boasting more than 208m members and assets worth $1.7tn.

That’s why UK Credit Unions are trying to raise their profile now through increasing awareness and getting more members from all income groups – and the OCU is no exception.

This all needs to be done at a sustainable pace. A three-year business plan has seen OCU grow in recent times and the range of services is now expanding.

A new Engage Pre-paid Visa Card and E account offer members modern online payment services and, in the year head, OCU will launch a new loan offers and an automated Lending Decision system for members.

MAServiceIf you’re facing any kind of financial difficulties or issues, I’d also recommend the Money Advice Service, which is a not-for-profit government organisation set up solely to advise people on their finances. You can find it at: https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en

Credit Unions provide a public good filling an important gap in the market: and not just for people who are rejected by High Street banks. Many join because they want their money to be used to support the principles of ethical lending.  If you want to find out more, visit the OCU website at www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk or call 0161 678 7245.  If you don’t already have an account, why not open one now?

OCU needs to appeal to that wider audience in future but our overriding goal – offering Simple Affordable Fair and Ethical financial services – has never changed, and it never will.

Jean

“What did the women ever do for us?”#IWD2017

IWDTODAY 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?”.

jean
DELIGHTED to have been named in GM Business Week’s ‘100 Inspiring Women’ on #IWD2017

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.

BoldForChangeAt 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.

kenneyOne 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 marketing@oldham.gov.uk 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.

Jean

Why the new GM Mayor matters to Oldham

4may
VOTERS across our region will soon be electing their first-ever Greater Manchester Mayor on May 4 – and, yes it does affect 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.

gmca-black-logo-expandedAnd 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.

greater-manchester-devolution

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

Jean

Vulnerable people will pay the price for government underfunding of adult social care

stackCABINET 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.

Depressed elderly woman sitting at the tableThose 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.

poundcoins2Unless 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

Jean

Giant strides forward for Oldham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean

Oldham Foodbank: Waste not, want not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean