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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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