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

Rubbish news is just great!

vfm-59I WANT to talk rubbish news this week – and I don’t mean the ‘fake news’ we’re all hearing so much about at the moment…

As you know, Oldham Council started its new waste collection arrangements in October.

The changes were designed to cut the amount of waste being sent to landfill and to promote more recycling across the borough.

This working pattern is now well-established as the norm and our first set of figures has just landed.

I wanted to share these and also take the opportunity to say thank you to people for ‘doing your bit’ – because this success is down to the effort of residents.

Changes to kerbside collection arrangements are never easy.

It’s the one service that every single household relies upon, so we worked very hard on explaining why we were doing this and how the changes would affect everyone.

tidyoldhamThe first comparable set of data shows that our household recycling rate has gone up significantly.

Comparing the third quarter of 2016 with the same period in 2015 we can see that the amount of household waste being recycled has gone up from 36.8 per cent to 43.6 per cent.

Given current trends we now expect this year’s overall recycling rate to average out somewhere between 45 and 47 per cent, which is really good progress – and it’s all down to you.

The public response to the changes – ordering extra blue, brown and green bins, for example – shows you’ve been recycling more and doing it smarter.

This really matters because our future has to be about less waste and more recycling. The costs to us of disposing of grey bin waste is hundreds of pounds per tonne, whereas we actually get a small income for each tonne that we recycle.

Since announcing that changes were on the way in July, we’ve sent out more than 25,000 recycling bins to local residents. Previously around 15,000 bins were requested over a 12-month period.

We’ve also had more than 1,700 applications for extra grey bins, compared with the 300 we would usually get.

These are requests from households with extra waste that they cannot recycle: such as where more than five people are living in one home, for example, or a household has two or more children in nappies.  Where households can demonstrate a genuine need for an additional bin for waste that cannot be recycled, we will provide an additional bin.

All the information you need about your household waste – including what you can and cannot recycle, and tips to manage your rubbish – can be found on our website here.

doorstep009

Some predicted the adoption of the new collection system would mean a significant rise in fly tipping.

But the fly tipping we all see in local media is not what responsible households dispose of in the bins provided.

I’m pretty sure that the mattresses, the fridges and the sofas that are reported as fly tipped across Oldham would never have fitted into the grey bin anyway(!). The trade waste that gets dumped is also something we are working hard to address.

I understand the misery and blight this kind of dumping causes to lives and communities and you may have seen our latest batch of prosecutions on this last week: all in incidents that happened before the new collection arrangements started.

We’ll be continuing with a ‘zero tolerance’ stance on this kind of behaviour and there’ll be more prosecutions to come, for which we make no apologies.

It’s not Oldham Council that dumps this waste, but it does fall to us to clean it up – and at a cost of almost £1m a year to you, the local taxpayer.  That is £1m that could be spent providing services to residents instead of cleaning up after people who do not respect our neighbourhoods.

It’s your neighbour – be that a home or business nearby – or somebody who has come into your area that dumps the stuff. And that is why we need your help.

If you see anyone fly tipping or dumping waste like this, then please do your bit and let us know using the online form here or by calling 0161 770 2244.

illuminate

Finally, I must take this chance to urge you not to miss out on a fantastic arts festival that we’re hosting in Oldham town centre on Friday this week.

‘Illuminate’ is a family friendly event that will feature carnival performances, a river of illuminated paper lanterns, an illuminated vintage bus, a new youth dance piece, LED electronics workshops by Hack Oldham and much, much more.

Attractions and workshops will be taking place at Oldham Parish Church, Parliament Square and Gallery Oldham from 5pm to 9pm that evening.

giantWe’re also bringing back, by popular demand, the Oldham Giant from the Old Town Hall opening ceremony last year (pictured right) and there will be some amazing 3D projections from Illuminos.

This is the first time we’ve ever held a late-night arts festival in the town centre.

It is going to be spectacular, so read more about it here and, please, help us spread the word amongst your friends and family.

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

Independent Quarter: As one door closes…

tooth1
NEW TENANT: The Tooth Place is bringing the Old Mess House back to life

I WAS in the Independent Quarter last week to welcome our latest new tenants to the area.

The Tooth Place has just moved into the Old Mess House building on Yorkshire Street after this local business had got too big for their previous home on Rhodes Street.

I took a tour of the practice, managed by Dr Amjad Chaudhary, and could not fail to be impressed with what they have had done to the place.

There’s been extensive refurbishment internally and to the exterior of the building. It has all taken around 18 months and it has scrubbed up incredibly well.

The design and layout meant that finding a new tenant for this building would always be problematic but it works really well for their four new dental surgeries – and with another yet to come that will mean extra capacity for more local patients.

tooth2This is just another great sign of renewal in the area. We’ve removed the historic issues of anti-social behaviour at this premises dating back to the ‘Wild West’ days and revived it for a new use in a way that completely respects the heritage of the building.

It’s also another great example of the Co-operative ethos combining investment from Oldham Council to initially purchase the building with a local business prepared to take a personal stake in its future and invest their livelihood.

I also took the chance to call into Scoots, Suits and Boots to see Mick Harwood while on Yorkshire Street.

He was the first-ever recipient of an Independent Quarter grant and – along with his wife Jo – blazed a trail for others to follow.

Sadly, Mick recently took the decision to close his shop but he is going to continue trading online – at least for the time being – at www.scootssuitsandboots.com

We all wish him the very best with his new plans but he’s been such a hit in the area with shoppers and other traders that we simply didn’t want the partnership to end.

scoots-boots-07
AMBASSADOR: Mick Harwood of Scoots, Suits and Boots

Mick has been a great ambassador for everything we are trying to do in the IQ and popular with shoppers and traders alike.

His innovation has ranged from putting an eye-catching installation in his shop window, to organising vintage markets attracting people from as far afield as Wrexham on scooters, to launching his own record store….

That’s why I am pleased to report that he has accepted an invitation to become a voluntary mentor for future independent businesses opening in the town.

Mick is the certainly the right man for that job and we’re delighted to be able to keep his passion and knowledge on-board for others to benefit from in future.

Finally this week an update on the future of the Link Centre.

Budget-making is never easy. It’s something few of us enjoy in any walk of life and for local authorities like ours it has been an ever-increasing nightmare for the past eight years.

More than £200m has been taken from our funding since 2009 and an impact on public services is unavoidable.

I wish it were different but the harsh reality is that – other than statutory services which Government requires us to provide – practically nothing can be exempt from consideration as we try to find huge savings.

linkcentre
LINK CENTRE: The facility will remain open but with a new operating model

The Link Centre offers a large number of services, support groups and signposting facilities for residents with a disability, carers and others with additional needs, but it has also had low footfall for a period of time and it was right to consider the options.

When the option to close it first came onto the agenda we knew it would inevitably cause concern, and I’d like to thank everyone who took part in the public consultation on this.

It has now been decided that the centre will remain open, but with the caveat that it will have a different operating model to help find the necessary savings.

It was obvious from the consultation that there is still a need for the Link Centre in Oldham. You shared your views, concerns and suggestions and we listened to them.

The best way forward is for communities to take control of the services provided and for the centre to be run in a different way that makes it more financially viable. To that end we intend to allow a third sector organisation to run the building and let space.

What’s important is that it means our residents will still be able to access and develop the services that they want to see at the centre.

Jean

How we can all ‘do our bit’ in wintry weather

Snow removalWINTRY WEATHER is forecast in the next 48 hours or so – and that will probably mean more pressure on local services.

We’re hardened to dealing with snow, icy roads and winds here in Oldham, of course, and it’s important to stress that we’re not unusually concerned by anything in the forecasts at this stage.

It can’t have escaped your attention in recent days, however, that the pressures on the NHS are at a critical point right now up and down the country.

It was alarming to read the British Red Cross’ claims last weekend that our NHS is facing a “humanitarian crisis” as hospitals and ambulance services battle to match rising demand.

The reality is we all know that the winter can traditionally be an extremely challenging time, especially for urgent care services like A&E.

These months always see an increase in hospital admissions and can inevitably lead to breaches of the ‘urgent and emergency care standard’ – which is that 95 per cent of patients should be seen, treated, admitted or discharged within four hours of presenting at A&E.

But whatever the political arguments about targets and the funding of the NHS there are some things that all of us can and should do to help to reduce unnecessary demand.

snow2As a council we work actively with partners to help ensure those people most at risk of preventable emergency admission to hospital are and helped to take the necessary actions to avoid that happening.

By avoiding going to A&E unless a medical condition is a genuine emergency – and by using local pharmacies and NHS 111 for medical advice – we can all significantly help to cut non-urgent demand.

For our loved ones and others there are other things to consider…

Winter conditions can be bad for anyone’s health; especially those people aged 65 or over, and those with long-term health conditions.

That’s why keeping warm is absolutely vital. It can prevent colds, flu and more serious health problems like heart attack, strokes, pneumonia and depression.

If you are struggling to heat your home then Warm Homes Oldham can help you with things like insulating your property, replacing broken boilers, advice on debt, benefit entitlements and cutting bills through energy efficiency measures. You can find out more at www.warmhomesoldham.org or by calling 0800 019 1084

Another step you can take is to make sure your family have had the flu jab.

This is free for pregnant women, the over-65s, people with long-term health conditions and children aged 2 to 4 years. Ask at your GP if you’ve not had this.

You should also act quickly when you are feeling unwell. Speak to your pharmacist at the first sign of winter illness or call 111 for medical advice, assessment and direction to the best medical treatment for you.

All of Oldham’s GP practices are open from 8am to 6.30pm (Monday to Friday) as a minimum.

iccThe Walk In service at the Integrated Care Centre (right) is open from 8am to 8pm every day of the year.

It’s also vital that we look out for our neighbours, friends and family members at these times.

Icy pavements and roads can stop people from getting out and about which might mean they miss out on vital medicine or food. A friendly face just popping round to have a brew can also work wonders for isolated people – and it costs you nothing other than just a few minutes of your time.

Don’t forget that the ‘Winter’ section on the Oldham Council website here contains all the information you will need about local school and children’s centre closures, gritting routes, bins and travel updates, local support services such as drop-in centres, shelters and food providers; and advice on winter health, affordable warmth grants and flood relief.

You can also stay informed through live winter updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/oldhamcouncil and facebook www.facebook.com/loveoldham

Our updates will also be publicised to local media, including radio and newspapers.

Here’s hoping that the impact of this week’s weather turns out to be nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year – but please note this information and make sure you are prepared, just in case.

Jean

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

Culture: A force for entertainment, education and growth

coliseum-move-pr-shot-daily-issues

IT’S VITAL that the ongoing regeneration of Oldham town centre has a strong cultural element – our history demands it and so does our future.

As a town we’ve got an enviable tradition of producing and playing host to scores of fantastic actors, comedy, drama, dance, music and pantomime performances and we must ensure that can continue.

Arts, culture and heritage all matter and they must be at the heart of the revival of Oldham.

These activities give fantastic life opportunities to people of all backgrounds and levels of talent – whether that is by taking part, spectating or benefiting from some of the educational and learning spin-offs.

They are also important because modern town centres no longer simply work as a cluster of retail outlets. To be successful they need to be a destination: and one with a wide enough offer to appeal to all kinds of tastes and needs.

Lifestyles and shopping habits have changed beyond all recognition so you need a range of attractions that can attract footfall of all kinds and cater for the ‘leisure pound’.

That’s why we’ve delivered the ODEON cinema and restaurants at the Old Town Hall, where Gourmet Burger Kitchen opened this week. It’s also why we have worked so hard on our Independent Quarter and our Digital Enterprise Hub – and it’s why we are committed to a phased programme that will bring our new Cultural Quarter together.

The brilliant news this week that Arts Council England has confirmed a £7.1m grant towards a new Oldham Coliseum Theatre means those plans can now progress from paper to bricks and mortar.

The vision is to move the Coliseum into a new building located just yards from the Oldham Central Metrolink stop, and alongside the new Heritage and Arts Centre which will tell the story of our borough’s past through a series of displays, installations, archives and artefacts.

Both will also be next to Gallery Oldham, which hosts an excellent range of travelling exhibitions and events, and Oldham Library which boasts some of the highest visitor numbers across the region.

Together these assets will create a fantastic new cultural hub for Oldham, strengthening the facilities our residents can enjoy – and our visitor economy.

Getting to where we are today with the Coliseum Theatre project has required a great deal of co-operative working and shared vision on all sides.

I am proud of the work that has been done on the project and the backing of the Arts Council England shows that we must be doing something right. It is not every day that ACE invests such a significant sum in a theatre in the North of England; let alone one that is not in a city centre.

The Coliseum has long been a jewel in our borough’s crown, but it’s also been clear it was not viable to stay at its creaking Fairbottom Street home.

I know that some people will think that’s a shame and I understand that. Regular visitors will obviously have a natural affection for the current building that holds so many great memories for them.

Places are important to us all, of course, but they are nothing without the people that make the experience special. The quality of a night at the theatre, after all, depends upon both the players and the audience.

This new home will still boast that same warm and authentic welcome that people have come to expect, but it will instead be in state-of-the-art facilities – including a 550-seat main auditorium and a 170-seat studio theatre – and will offer a wider programme of activities with greater benefit to our communities and people.

The new plans that are due to be submitted next year shouldn’t be seen as a sad break with the past, but simply as the next chapter in the Coliseum’s long-running success story.

This is actually the second time in their history that the theatre has moved. They left their first home on Henshaw Street in 1887 to make way for Tommyfield Market..

They’ve been in this business since 1885 now and their timeline is littered with appearances by the likes of Eric Sykes, Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Cribbins, Dame Thora Hird, Anne Kirkbride, Kathy Staff, Claire Sweeney and Kenneth Alan Taylor.

We must preserve that legacy for future generations to build the next list of stellar names – and the beauty of the plans is that the Coliseum can continue to run with a full programme at Fairbottom Street right until they move in 2020.

There’s a lot of work to do before then but Union Street is going to be a fantastic new venue and the Cultural Quarter a unique asset for Oldham.

Next week, as I prepare for the final Full Council meeting of 2016, I will be blogging with an update on progress on our latest budget proposals and the plans at Prince’s Gate.

Jean

Business and Transport: Our Economic Engine Room

jardine-audi-site-oldham-57BUSINESSES of all shapes and sizes are the lifeblood of our local economy; the dynamo that can power the place and people forward.

Oldham Council is often the first point of access – especially for smaller ventures – when they’re seeking support to get ideas and plans off the ground.

We know local firms are the engines of social mobility and potential gamechangers to the status quo in creating new products, services and, ultimately, jobs.

That’s why we take our role in championing, supporting them and encouraging growth in every area so seriously and this week I visited two great examples of how we are succeeding.

On Monday I went down to Chadderton Way to meet Stephen Pettyfer, Group Property Director of the Jardine Motors Group who are bringing an Audi dealership to town.

Builders are now six weeks into the construction of a huge showroom on the former Westhulme Hospital site in what represents an £8 million investment for the firm.

They’d approached us last year with plans to base their Northern hub at the five-acre site and, although the land is not council-owned, we worked with NHS bosses to broker the deal and bring the site forward quickly for development.

It will see the creation of around 90 new skilled jobs and is a high-end global brand that we are proud to see investing here.

With most of the steel infrastructure already in place, I’m really looking forward to revisiting the site to see the finished development next year.

parliamentsq1I also had the great pleasure to open another new business right in the heart of Oldham town centre yesterday.

Attracted by the Old Town Hall cinema and restaurants scheme, this is just the latest local venture to benefit from our Independent Quarter scheme.

Ross McGivern has taken advantage of our business support, advice and a Building Improvement Grant to make his dream a reality.

He also liked our plans for Parliament Square so much that he’s even named his new delicatessen and cafe after it as ‘The Parliament SQ’.

Ross’ enthusiasm already seems to have been instilled in his friendly team and – after linking up with our Get Oldham Working campaign – he will initially be employing up to 18 new staff.

It’s great to see this site, the old Santander building, back in use after three years of being vacant and I was really impressed by the stylish interior and glass frontage which gives fantastic views across Parliament Square and over to the Old Town Hall.

This is yet another different addition to the fast-growing dining and entertainment offer in Oldham and I am sure – especially given Ross’ focus on great customer service – that it will be a big hit with locals and visitors alike.

Part of the new attraction to Oldham is, of course, the Metrolink line. We unashamedly set out to use its arrival as a catalyst for our own regeneration programme and to attract more private investment.

We know that transport is vital to our future growth prospects. Strong connectivity is important to make sure that all our residents, partners and businesses – and those we hope to attract in the future – have a level playing field in terms of access to new opportunities.

That’s why I’ve teamed up with Richard Farnell, Rochdale Council Leader, in urging Transport for Greater Manchester to deliver on giving our Oldham-Rochdale line a direct link to Manchester Piccadilly, rather than people having to change tram at Manchester Victoria.

It can’t be right that our line will be the only branch of the network without an unbroken link to that transport hub with its important strategic links to London and beyond.

The justification we’ve been given is based on the current levels of demand on our line. But that doesn’t take any account of future growth and – by denying us that extension – it actually hampers the prospects of that future growth happening.

Both Oldham and Rochdale are positive partners in Greater Manchester devolution who are investing in our boroughs through physical and social regeneration schemes. We are asking for that to be recognised and supported, and we look forward to productive talks soon about this with Tony Lloyd, the Interim Mayor, and Andrew Fender, Chair of the TfGm committee.

I always like to end my blogs on a positive note so there’s two final things I’d highlight this week…

gritterThe first is the astonishing national public reaction to our ‘Name a Gritter’ competition with local primary school children. Spurred on by the infamous ‘Boaty McBoatface’ saga earlier this year, it has really caught the imagination with more than 2,500 entries to date – and a lot by adults that simply can’t be included(!)

The great thing is this all helps us to raise awareness of the vital work our gritting teams do. It’s also a fun way to teach young people about road safety and winter weather.

The competition closes at 5pm today (Wednesday) and we’re hoping to announce the much-anticipated winner later this week.

And finally, I did promise you some really positive news would be coming this week, and it will.

Watch our Twitter feed and local media from 7am on Friday and you will be the first to read all about it…

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