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!

The value – and funding – of good public services

xmascardTHE 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.

mmillgmfrsAt 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.

careringWe’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.

othFinally, 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.

Jean

It’s been one of those days – All week(!)

BEING Council Leader can sometimes feel like a roller coaster ride and I will admit this has felt like a very tough week.

Since my last blog I’ve barely had time to catch my breath as a series of challenging events unfolded.

We started off by dealing with the winter’s first deluge of snow, then moved on to internal building problems that caused Access Oldham to be closed and relocated to the Civic Centre.

Then we had the terrible severe rainfall and flooding, and then came a phone call from Marks & Spencer…

You probably already know that M&S informed us yesterday they won’t now be taking up their option on retail space at Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps.

As commercial discussions remain ongoing with them, I can’t add much to my original response statement in the media, but I do want to reassure people.

Was it disappointing news? Yes, of course it was.

But in context it is also not a major shock and we should see this as more of a fork in the road rather than some dramatic reversal of Oldham’s forward direction.

We knew M&S had been experiencing problems driven by global economic and trade factors that are completely outside of our control.

They recently confirmed they are shutting 30 UK clothing and homeware shops and will convert dozens more into food stores as part of a business restructuring. Against a backdrop of falling sales and profits the Oldham decision was, no doubt, one of many tough ones that they are still yet to take.

M&S also made it clear to us, however, that they aren’t necessarily closing the door on coming to Oldham – it just won’t be at the Prince’s Gate site.

We are continuing to have discussions with them about that and hopefully work towards a positive outcome. It’s not the end of that road: it just means we may take a different path.

I want to be clear when I say that what remains unaltered and undiminished are our ambitions for the town.

othWe’ve seen only recently through the opening of the Old Town Hall what it is possible to achieve in Oldham, so we must reflect on this, regroup and then push forward again and deliver with the same determination as before.

Despite the M&S decision it’s clear that Oldham town centre’s fortunes are actually on the up. We’re already seeing increased footfall, trade, new investment and visitors here and I’ve been inspired by many recent chats with partners and residents.

We remain in positive discussions with several partners to capitalise further on that success – and we do also have some good news to announce on another front next week. Watch this space…

Now onto other choppy waters – the flooding that hit several parts of the borough this week…

It was heartbreaking to see those people and businesses who suffered damage and loss on Tuesday night and, as I write, our highways team are still working as fast as they can to help get things back to normal.

Some people have questioned whether more frequent clearing of our drains would have prevented the damage. But this was caused by extreme rainfall. Oldham was not the only place affected and we weren’t caught napping.

Weather experts say we had more than a month’s rainfall in one night and we also saw local rivers, like the River Tame, rising to unprecedented levels.

All drains across the borough are cleared on a cyclical rota and – as an example – the gulleys on Station Road, which was badly flooded at one point, were cleaned on September 27.

Road gulleys are there for surface water only and each year we clean more than 44,000 on a rota basis.

We recently introduced new software which maps all our gullies and shows us what their condition and status is.  That means we can identify those that may need more – or less – cleaning than the current schedule suggests.

We also use a high pressure-jet machine to clear  blockages. There is a high demand on this machine so we prioritise sites that may cause flooding of properties and areas with high footfall or busy traffic.

Road flooding is usually caused by rainwater from the surrounding area flowing downhill to a low point on the road and overwhelming the drains. The problem is normally due to the volume of water rather than a blockage.

Heavy rain also washes debris like soil and stones into drains which means that some which were initially clear can quickly get clogged and struggle to drain water away.

You can find more information about gullies and flooding in the latest edition of Borough Life and if you need to report a blocked gulley, please email highways@oldham.gov.uk or call 0161 770 4325.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to everyone that played a part in the response work on Monday night/Tuesday.

When the deluge of rain hit the area our staff came in at short notice to work overnight through atrocious conditions alongside brilliant partners like the GM Fire and Rescue Service and local police, and some fantastic local residents.

At the worst of times like this you can often see the very best in our communities: people mucking in selflessly together and helping out alongside official and emergency services.

That’s a spirit that is clearly still afloat in Oldham – and one that makes me very proud.

Jean