Crunch time for councils

CRUNCH TIME: With Local Government having experienced cuts of 40 per cent in their funding, many are now saying 'enough is enough.
CRUNCH TIME: With Local Government having experienced cuts of 40 per cent in their funding, many are looking at the stark choices left and saying ‘enough is enough.

I WRITE ahead of a Full Council meeting at which your councillors will – or at least certainly should – feel a huge weight of responsibility.

As austerity cuts continue we must proceed tonight with proposals towards reducing service budgets by £35 million for the financial year 2015/6.

To put that amount into context it’s more than we spend on waste collection, street cleaning, libraries, youth services, leisure centres and community centres – and that’s because, of course, most of the council’s budget is spent on older people and vulnerable children.

We will get through this round and then we still have a further £25m to cut in the following financial year.

Unless it is somehow agreed that all those services people ‘see’ can go completely – and that’s never going to happen – we will simply have no choice but to reduce services for older people and vulnerable children too.

Some of that can be managed. In fact, we’ve been doing that for a long time already: let’s not forget that £141m has already been culled from our budgets in the past few years.

But when you couple these cuts with the increased demand for these kind of services – which is mainly because older people are living longer and requiring more home and social care – the numbers simply just don’t add up.

In our quest to meet these financial challenges the easy savings have now gone and we all need to prepare ourselves for what is to come when we’re at this point in the budget cycle again next year.

Unless there is a change of Government and one that has a different policy on public sector cuts, or unless the current administration realises things just can’t continue on this trajectory, then I fear that the very fabric of public services will be tested to destruction.

This isn’t an argument about whether public expenditure should be cut to help reduce the deficit.

The truth is that the deficit has actually increased despite Local Government experiencing cuts of 40 per cent (which is £10 billion).

The increase in the state’s welfare bill isn’t because more people are sat at home, it’s because the economic ‘recovery’ is weak. Although more people are in work the type and quality of that work is poor. They have less job security, less money and ultimately that means more public money needs to be spent on ‘in work’ benefits.

The same is true of the National Health Service.

If prevention is better than a cure then we need to look more seriously at the state we are in.

Community services and social care are being reduced and, of course, this just adds to the queues at A&E. It is also more expensive and it fails those people who want to stay at home and be supported.

All political parties talk about public service reform but the reality is that only local government has had any sense of urgency about it.

With money coming out of the system so quickly, if we don’t modernise, become as efficient as we should be – and remove duplication – then, believe me, you, your family and neighbours would have already noticed the cuts a lot sooner.

Perhaps if we did as a sector what others do, and failed to change quickly enough and simply defend our own interests ahead of the public interest, then maybe Government would come and bail us out?

All this drives poor behaviour and councils the length and breadth of the country are now saying ‘enough is enough’.

We are in a very real danger now of foolhardy and dogmatic policy of ‘slash and burn’ and to hell with the consequences.

We aren’t interested in managing decline in Oldham. We believe the best way to recover is to invest in growth. Our solution is to have more people in work paying taxes with public services reformed across all bodies to get the best possible value.

We are investing in growth because it will mean more businesses paying business rates and more homes paying more Council Tax. With the current pipeline of projects we expect that an additional £3 million of new income will come in to help fund council services in the future.

We are also making wise investments. The collective decision to invest in expanding the Manchester Airport Group has seen an additional dividend of £1m to fund our services this year, on top of the £1.4m we’ve already received. We’ve also bought buildings in Oldham town centre at the bottom of the market to bring them back into use. With the major regeneration projects and the new Independent Quarter we’re already seeing growing demand now that will give the town a healthy return on that investment.

In many ways all this feels like ‘old news’ because we’ve been talking about cuts for a long time now.

But the difference now is that councils are saying the cuts have gone as far as they can without very significantly changing the fabric of public services in our town and others.

At tonight’s meeting, aside from the budget proposals, we’ll also be debating the proposals to introduce a Greater Manchester Mayor.

I’ve made my views about the imposition of a Mayor clear. I’m quite relaxed about the principle, but I didn’t feel Government should have made it a condition of devolution.

If we believe in having a Mayor, then surely we should make the case to the public and win support for it.

However, we also have a decision to make. Do we accept the deal as it stands?

It’s not a great deal but it’s the deal offered on devolution of powers from Government to our area and we need to take it. It’ll be for us to then make it work, though, and we will have to pedal hard to do that.

But I am also keen to see transparency in the way these new arrangements are funded.

Either Central Government will give additional cash for it or, as I suspect, each of the ten councils will be asked to fund it from their ever-diminishing budgets.

The Manchester Evening News has dubbed that a ‘Mayor Tax’ which is headline-grabbing but it misses some important points.

The first is that public services are predominately paid through taxation, so it is no more a ‘Mayor Tax’ than we have a ‘Libraries Tax’, or a ‘Street cleaning Tax’. We just call Council Tax what we do because it is delivered by a council.

The second – and probably most important point – is that Greater Manchester taxpayers already fund a great deal of activity.

You’ll see some of it already on your Council Tax bill with the Police and Fire precepts. We also pay a levy to fund Transport and Waste Disposal and contribute to other services across GM that you may not even be aware of.

In total Oldhamers paid £18m for services and functions across GM in this financial year, so it’s absolutely right that the Mayor, or even the Combined Authority, are crystal clear about how much is being passed on.

If you want to call that a “Mayor Tax”, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend it’s something new or unreasonable.

This is my final blog before the festive break, so I’d like to take this opportunity to urge you – in those frantic final shopping days – to remember to ‘Shop Local’ and spend your cash in Oldham and your district centres.

Above all I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas with your family and friends.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Looked after children

SAFEGUARDING: Oldham Council acts as a Corporate Parent: with a duty to act as a good parent to children and young people in our care and those in the process of leaving care.

FEW PEOPLE give much thought to safeguarding, children in care or those at risk from harm – when the system works.

The vast majority of the council’s budget is spent on services like this that most of us don’t see or use – but because they take the lion’s share of the budget when the cuts come those same areas are put under massive pressure.

This week Oldham Council’s Cabinet approved a proposal to freeze Council Tax for residents for 2014/5.

We’ve done this because we recognise that – however difficult it will be to balance our budgets with a further £60m of Government cuts in the next few years – many residents are also struggling with their finances. Average weekly wages have dropped from £437 to £417 at the same time as the costs of living, driven by items like utility bills, continue to rise.

We did not want to add to that burden or be the cause of any further financial harm to hard-pressed Oldhamers.

Like all other local authorities, Oldham Council is a ‘Corporate Parent’.

This means that when a young person in our borough is in a situation where it is unsafe and/or impossible to remain with their family, we instead take on that role of a good parent instead.

We provide residential care with experienced and trained staff, as well as working with a brilliant group of foster carers and supporting permanent adoption into new loving and supportive families.

It can be easy to think that being a Council Leader like myself is just about having an overview of big developments which take the majority of the headlines – but the truth is again that the bulk of work is going on quietly behind the scenes.

I chair the Safeguarding Accountability Board where I hold professionals and Cabinet Members to account to ensure those at risk do not fall through the net.

You can never be 100 per cent sure and you can only make judgements on the information provided. This isn’t about political interference, of course, but can be just as simple as asking an innocent question which adds value to the work of our team.

Often this means meeting frontline staff and talking through what works well and how we can help to remove any blockages which might exist.

I take that role as a Corporate Parent very seriously and when presented with an issue, problem or serious safeguarding review, I always ask myself ‘What would I want and expect for my own children?’.

It can be difficult at times to step back and take a measured professional view.

Some of the cases of abuse are harrowing and I have to say there have been times when I’ve left a meeting, or finished reading a report and had to ‘pull myself together’. I hope that just means I’m human.

There are currently nearly 400 ‘Looked After Children’ in Oldham. Their reasons for entering the care system are varied, but many have experienced significant trauma (including abuse or neglect) and need tailored specialist support to ensure that they have every chance in life – like their peers – in family care.

As well as having to cope with the upheaval of moving away from home and the emotional fallout of a troubled family history, children in care can often feel out of control.

Indeed, many are the victims of unfortunate circumstances and – although we do provide care for children on a voluntary basis – many find themselves in our care due to court orders or police intervention and feel unable to change the situation they find themselves in.

That’s why we have an Oldham Children in Care Council, which enables all looked after children to have a voice and share their ideas about how the services we provide for them could be improved.

Children as young as five years old are engaged with this and have the opportunity to regularly meet senior directors and councillors at Oldham Council to give feedback and suggestions about how their care experience could change for the better.

We also make sure to celebrate the many brilliant achievements of our Looked After Children with the ‘Stars in Our Eyes Awards’, which is now in its sixth year.

This year 267 children and care leavers were nominated for various awards which recognise their efforts at school and in extracurricular activities, developing positive social skills and healthy lifestyles, and going on to great things after leaving care, such as attending college and university.

Transition to life as an adult can be hard enough even when you have family to lean on when times get tough, which is why Oldham Council provides After Care support to ensure that our Looked After Children don’t simply ‘drop off the radar’ at 18. We work with them to assess their needs and help them to achieve the things they need to have in place to achieve their aspirations. That includes education, training, employment, mental and physical health, finances, support networks, leisure activities and family contacts: all the things that most people would say they need for a rounded and happy life.

There are many ways that each of us can all do to help create a Cooperative Oldham which supports our young people.

That ranges from looking out for our children’s friends or neighbour’s children and paying Council Tax which funds the borough’s Corporate Parenting services – right through to the efforts of our brilliant foster and adoptive families. Last month, Harold and Glenys Cockroft from Waterhead were named in the New Year honours list after fostering more than 150 children in Oldham over the last 40 years. Clearly their contributions are exemplary, but everyone can ‘do their bit’ in some way.

This isn’t big brother, this is us all working together and setting the standard of what is – and isn’t –acceptable.

It is easy to forget that it can be really difficult to work in social care at times but these people are our unsung heroes in so many ways.

As a Corporate Parent we put our trust in them and give support and challenge in the way you would expect, but we are also left with a deep respect for what they do.

I’d to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all who play a part in this vital field of our work.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Recycling flat lining while costs soar

Over the past five to 10 years a great amount of funding has been spent aimed at helping residents increase recycling rates.

This isn’t solely about caring for our environment, although that clearly is important; it’s also the financially sound way to manage the limited resources we have as a borough.

Whenever we put rubbish into the black wheelie bin a large number of people believe the only cost incurred is that of sending the bin waggon to collect it. But of course it has to go somewhere.

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Landfill costs have increased dramatically and will continue to go up as the government use the ‘Landfill tax levy’ as a financial deterrent against local councils, to push up recycling rates. So, even if we owned our own landfill site we’d still pay the tax to government.

So, even if we were to recycle at the same rate – the cost of what we do send to landfill goes up, and up, and up. And we are not talking small sums of money.

Last year we sent 39,637 tonnes of household waste to landfill at a cost of £270 a tonne. That’s a whopping £10,701,990 – almost £11m!

To put that into context the whole ‘Neighbourhood Services’ department budget, which pays for street cleaning, libraries, community centres, parks and countryside services, street lighting, road maintenance – so everything you see – was £14m in total.

So if we increase recycling (or even just stopped producing waste in the first place) we would save the town a serious amount of money which we can use to offset the cuts to council services from central government. And that surely is a better option?

With recycling rates now at 37 per cent (down two per cent on the previous year) we can and must do better as a community. If we can increase that by just five per cent we will save more than £500,000 – and that could make a real difference. For instance it would pay for all our district libraries.

We know that the current system can take a while to understand – what exactly can you recycle? I was baffled when I was told yogurt pots couldn’t be included.

But it isn’t impossible to understand, it just takes a moment to get used to the system.

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We’ve invested in the containers – people can’t say they don’t have enough bins – and we’ve invested in a reliable collection service which aims for 100 per cent collection rates.

Clearly that isn’t always possible, due to a host of reasons, including parked vehicles or human error, but we are not far off.

We’re working with Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority to get the information out to communities and we are also taking the messages into schools so our pupils are educated from an early age.

We’ve invested in enforcement – we’re not fining people for leaving bin lids open more than 45 degrees, but persistent offenders who believe that they can fill two to three bins to the brim with waste they haven’t bothered to separate, effectively creating two or three  ‘black bins’.

We try to educate before taking enforcement action and we have seen real improvements with our ‘Changing Behaviours’ programme.

Of course not all waste has to come to the council for recycling. Increasingly the ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ message is beginning to come through more and more.

Websites like Oldham Freecycle let residents’ list items for free so that others who can get use out of them will come and collect. I’ve used the site and without fail the goods have been collected within hours – quicker than a bulky goods collection could have taken.

The government does need to do far more than simply punish communities with landfill taxes. One of the biggest generators of waste are our very wealthy supermarkets which continue to over package food.

They claim consumers now expect fruit and veg to look neat and pretty, I think that’s a poor excuse.

Perhaps a ‘landfill generator’ tax to supermarkets would focus minds?

Until then we’ve got to do what we can to reduce the cost to Oldham. Now some of course will say ‘that’s what I pay my council tax for’, which of course is true.

But it makes no more sense than it would to turn your heating on full blast and leave all your windows and doors wide open. You could do it, but it makes no sense.

If we all recycle more that will save money and that could have a big impact when we are forced to look at cutting services our communities rely on. Surely this has got to be an easy win?

You can find out more about recycling across Greater Manchester at http://www.recycleforgreatermanchester.com/

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Opening the floodgates…

FLOODY HELL: Today's floods tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations triumph over real value.
FLOODY HELL: Today’s floods tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations reign supreme.

HAVE THE floodgates just opened to expose the true impact of the Government’s cuts programme?

The wall-to-wall media coverage of events in the South West and other areas has been inescapable in recent days and, obviously, my sympathies go out to everyone affected.

But the real issues at stake here go way beyond the immediate chaos and disruption we are watching on our TV screens.

Firstly, let’s be clear that extreme weather conditions like this will always trump any human pre-planning or intervention. At best, governments can only invest to reduce the likelihood of mass damage and to limit the scale of impact.

I suspect the blame game on this will run on for some time, but it does at least appear to be commonly accepted that dredging would have given bulging rivers more capacity, thus limiting the damage and speeding up the recovery.

Interviews with local folk, who know better than any minister or quango, tell the story of their anger and sheer frustration.

That’s not because these people unreasonably believe the government could have prevented all the damage – and not because they’ve all suddenly graduated with a degree in hindsight – but the fact is clear that for many years local people have raised concerns about the lack of action by the Environment Agency in dredging these rivers.

The Environment Agency has responded in anger against ministers pointing the finger of blame at them and the media, who the board claim have whipped up this storm (yes, that pun was intended).

But a very legitimate question to the Environment Agency itself would be whether this is all about the request for funding being declined – or whether it was the case that the refusal was accepted all too readily.

Was it the case – faced with ‘know-it-all’ residents pushing professionals – that the top brass at the EA simply pulled down the shutters and ignored their concerns?

Questions also go to ministers who have undervalued public service and, worse still, offered it up almost as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.

I’m clearly old-fashioned in believing that public services are designed to serve the public interest and have developed over time to respond to better understanding of community and social need.

If the first responsibility of a government is to protect the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens then, on this occasion, it has clearly failed.

But it is the floods today that tell the tale of ill-thought through budget decisions where cost considerations triumph over real value.  In 2012, the UK had already faced significant flooding which the Environment Agency itself reported had cost the UK economy £600m.

So, what will it be tomorrow?

Could it, for example, be a crisis in adult social care where money is being ripped away from town halls with, it appears, the support of the electorate as part of a cynical attack on the ‘wasteful’ public sector?

Government has failed to address the question about the future of public services, so maybe it time’s to put it to the public. In Oldham, the cuts to YOUR council would total £201m in recent times, so what gives?

I imagine people would queue up to suggest that we sack more managers and stop councillors’ allowances. Well, we’ve already done a far bit of that, but let’s go the whole hog; that’s £5m saved. Result.

So with £196m left to cut we have taken the easier decisions, although some of those are painful.

With £60m to find in savings over the next two financial years I cannot stress enough that public service for Oldham Council will no longer be business as usual.

If you accept that a council can take that kind of money out of its budget then the government and residents must also accept that risks come hand in hand with that.

If cuts continue in adult social care then there may come a time when your friend or relative is denied care. If cuts continue in safeguarding children at risk, or drug and alcohol services, then that will also not be risk free.

Putting our next round of cuts into stark terms, of the £60m needed to balance government cuts, what will be left is absolutely critical.

The vast majority which remains is spent in safeguarding, adults and children’s’ services.

Most of those services are completely invisible to members of the public – until something goes wrong.

The services that we feel and use daily as residents actually only account for a fraction of council spend – around £14m in total.

So even if we closed every library and other public buildings, stopped cleaning the streets, stopped emptying bins, stopped routine maintenance of highways and parks, and turned off all the streetlights, we’d still have a further £46m to cut from those essential ‘people’ services.

But it is clear to me now that the tension from residents is beginning to show.

When hard-pressed staff have to decline to deal with requests my inbox is filled with complaints about how the council has failed people by saying no.

Even when officers point to the budget cuts people show little sympathy as they focus on the impact on themselves and their immediate neighbours.

Some do question whether or not our investment in regeneration at a time of cuts is the right approach – and my simple answer is yes. It’s the only approach unless we agree to accept decline and allow hope and aspiration to be the next victim of cutbacks.

Public services are here to provide a public service. When it works well, few people see the scale and impact, but when it fails it unleashes a media storm matched by public outrage.

We all have to take responsibility for speaking up and saying that we value our public services or we must accept that, when the time comes, the safety net won’t be there to catch us.

Returning to the crisis of today: not to worry?

Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles has now been put in charge and quickly travelled to the areas affected by the floods.

A bit late in the day, perhaps, but at least he’ll whip the local council into emptying the bins each week again. A flood is no excuse surely?

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Time for some acknowledgement

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TAXING DECISIONS: Taking money out of services isn’t easy – and you must understand the real consequences of the decisions you take.

IF I TOOK my job description from the Government then being a Council Leader is supposedly like being a scout leader.

Well, after almost two years of holding onto a day job and also being Council Leader, I can say that view is so far removed from reality that you have to wonder which councils certain ministers are using as a reference point for Local Government!

Last week was my first week here as a full time leader.

I should say that, even when I maintained a day job, I still worked many more hours on Council business than a standard 40 hour week. It just meant that in total I worked around 70-80 hours over seven days each – and every week.

That isn’t good for my own sanity and it certainly wasn’t fair to my family – plus I want to give 100 per cent to Oldham. The challenges and opportunities that we face means I need total focus and energy.

It proved to be a very busy first week here as we put the finishing touches to the budget for 2013/4 – and also dealt with the latest media storm: horsemeat.

Cries from Government, the media and consumers that food standards should be monitored more closely cast the spotlight towards Local Government on this – even comments by the Chief Executive of the Iceland food store who, I wrongly assumed, might have been busy checking his own supply chains.

Nationally the questions started to arise about how many food safety inspectors have been axed as a result of budget cuts.

But not long before that it was gritting. And not long before that it was the quality home care. And then it was potholes (and still is!).

Each time the questions are now asked about whether the services above were cut.

A safe assumption, almost universally, will be “very likely”.

Of course services have been cut because the council’s budget – the cash it has to spend – has also been cut and people don’t work for free.

Some acknowledgement that Local Government delivers important services has been a long time coming. It shouldn’t take the next crisis of public confidence or frenzy to shine a light on the next service delivered by councils which the media suddenly realise was delivered by us in the first place and was actually very important.

And if you don’t believe that then think back a month ago and tell me who was talking about horsemeat – or who gave a second thought about cuts to environment health budgets?

So what will be the next focus of media and national attention, I wonder?  Adoption?  Road safety?  Who knows?

You can see the vast range of services we deliver as a Council here – http://www.oldham.gov.uk/a_to_z

It’s well worth taking just a few moments to glance through the sheer scale of services offered.

I’m afraid the simplistic argument that “If you have less money then there’s less work to do” doesn’t hold water.

To make decisions to take money out of service budgets isn’t easy, but implementing changes and reduced budgets when, in many cases demand is increasing, is very difficult – especially if you care about quality public services.

During any budget consultation it is usual to get a series of common themes and also a great deal of contradiction. Many put forward ideas like reducing councillor allowances, reducing senior management, saving money on buildings and energy.

I can report that we have done that on all counts but even had we had sacked every manager earning above £50,000, plus every councillor, at the start of our budget process it still would have left around £135million of further cuts to find. That would have left us without anyone to actually manage what was left – or to be democratically accountable.

There are also competing interests. Non-users of libraries are happy to see libraries close, for example, but await the fury of those who do use them if you attempt to shut one down.

Those without children may also be happy to see youth centres close, but again if that happens the wave of petitions will soon follow.

And for those at the start of their adult life worries about quality home care may seem a lifetime away: until one of their own family members fall victim to changes in care criteria or budget cuts.

At the end of all this you do listen, of course, but you also have to be true to yourself and spend time understanding the real consequences of the decisions you make.

Our budget will finally be set this week and you can see the full details of it here:  http://committees.oldham.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=132&MId=4337&Ver=4

The Council Tax increase will be set at 3.5 per cent with the Oldham Council element being a 2 per cent raise, plus precepts such as the police, fire and waste.

I can say that whilst an increase is not ideal I feel it is the right balance between maintaining services, creating an investment fund and not being overbearing on the public.

The increase amounts to around 60p a week for a band A property. It will see frontline services buffered and make investment possible in the town centre and key employment sites.

Oldham Council is your council and collectively Oldham is our town. If we fail to invest in growth and regeneration we fail ourselves; and that isn’t good enough even if finances are tight.

A couple of other things before I go…

I was extremely proud on Monday night when four of our councillors were given national recognition for their work at the LGiU and CCLA C’llr Achievement Awards 2013.

Jean Stretton led Oldham Council’s response to the Shaw gas blast last year and showed outstanding community leadership in her tireless work with affected residents and looking after their welfare. Small wonder she was crowned ‘Community Champion of the Year’.

Our three Assistant Cabinet Members – Amanda Chadderton, Sean Fielding and Arooj Shah – also collectively won the ‘Young Councillor of the Year’.

They had made huge contributions since being elected in May 2012, including delivering the Energy Switching scheme, the return of the Civic Bonfire, and securing a 30 per cent reduction in bus fares. They are shining examples of the really positive impact that young people can make in public life.

And finally, I must mention Oldham Athletic again.

Whilst it was a shame their FA Cup dream came to an end at Goodison Park on Tuesday night the club has so much to be proud of – and has also recieved a significant financial boost from these exploits.

The Latics and their fans have been fine ambassadors on a national stage in recent weeks and have done much to foster renewed civic pride in our town.

I sincerely hope this recent success is now a springboard to the club retaining League One status this season – and a much brighter future ahead.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Balancing the books: Cracking-down on crooks

QUESTION TIME: Residents get the chance to quiz councillors again at Full Council on December 12 via Social Media and email
QUESTION TIME: Residents get the chance to quiz councillors again at Full Council on December 12 via Social Media and email

THIS week Cabinet discussed a set of proposals to help us save around £31 million from Oldham Council’s budget over the next two years.

I want to start by saying something about the language we use when talking about this as it can be misleading.

When we say ‘savings’ we don’t mean an amount of money we’ve decided not to spend that will not be put away in a bank or spent on something else.

What we actually mean is there is going to be £31 million less to spend – forever – on services like social care, parks, street cleaning and libraries. The unfortunate truth is there is no fat left to cut.

Oldham Council is a service business, so when the money is cut the services must be cut. That is inevitable.

We cannot escape that and people will start to feel the impact of the decisions we’re making now in the coming years.

We also spend most of our money on people – the staff delivering those services – and with cuts so deep it means we will employ fewer people.

These cuts may also not be the final picture. As mentioned last week, we’re set to hear from the Government about our financial settlement later this month and may be facing even more tough decisions as a result.

Like all Oldham households we must our cloth according to our means, although I am confident that the difficult decisions we will take will be the best that we can for residents given the resources and options we have. 

The fact that we are in a position to agree 95 per cent of our budget proposals at this early stage –  well before other local authorities – means we’re well placed to face any additional challenges to the budget that may come our way. 

These budget proposals go to Full Council for debate next Wednesday (December 12) and a Public Question Time section will again be part of that meeting. You can submit questions on Twitter, Facebook or via an email to localdemocracy@oldham.gov.uk by 6pm on the day.

Whilst we are on the subject of budgets I must take this opportunity to highlight our crackdown this Christmas on loan sharks who are causing misery for countless families across the Borough.

This is a stressful enough time without families fearing extra amounts and hidden interest payments that will put them in a never-ending spiral of debt.

We’ve had complaints from many victims in recent months after people took what seems like a small loan to tide them over and have then found the eventual repayment costs – and the effects on their families – to be horrific.

Oldham CAB have reported a doubling in the number of debt issues raised through them in the last year and a high percentage of those is about credit card debt and unsecured loans, including payday loans.

In Oldham the number of people struggling to pay off debts between £5,000 and £15,000 are also double the national rate.

We have a long-term campaign to help tackle this problem and this week you’ll hopefully start to see some publicity as we raise awareness of the alternatives open to them, like the Oldham Credit Union.

On Saturday some of our team will be in Oldham Town Centre to promote the Credit Union.

Following on from the recent success of our Fare’s Fair campaign, which saw significant reductions in Oldham bus fares, First Bus has now also agreed to a 30 per cent discount for members of the Oldham Credit Union on a weekly ticket for travel from December 3. This deal can be used right across the First Bus network

If you’re not going to be around in the town centre on Saturday, then I would urge you to go and find out some more information about the Oldham Credit Union on our website at:
http://www.oldham.gov.uk/creditunion

Oldham Council’s task is to steer the Borough through these difficult economic times. Central to that is investing in our future – creating jobs, regenerating and encouraging external investment – but we also have a key role to play in helping residents experiencing difficulties now.

I can assure you as a Co-operative Council it’s not a responsibility we will shy away from.

We’ve already ‘done our bit’ on cheaper energy bills and bus fares, and more will follow on this campaigning agenda as we try to help you through tricky waters ahead in 2013.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Dear Chancellor – Thoughts ahead of the budget settlement

CHRISTMAS is coming, shops are getting busier, thoughts are turning to gift-buying and snowfall – and we’re all hoping for a bumper season to help lift our economy.

Here at Oldham Council we’re preparing for an early christmas ‘present’ of our own in the form of our next budget settlement from Government. 

It’s fair to say that although we hope for a positive outcome – and perhaps even a little acknowledgement that Local Government has been one of the hardest hit by recent settlements – we are preparing for the worst.

Local Government is seen as an easy target.

Residents are quick to lay blame at the local town hall and Central Government knows the tough decisions about where savings must come will be made locally: meaning their hands are clean of any frontline pain.

Last weekend we got more direction from Government warning about councils ‘stockpiling’ of reserves – or what you and I might call “the rainy day money”.

It seems attractive doesn’t it? If a council has money in savings why not use it now to support frontline services rather than cutting them?

But there are two clear reasons why this is wrong.

Firstly, that money is in savings – not a recurring source of cash. It can only be spent once and then it is gone forever.

Secondly, the ‘rainy day’ shouldn’t be the ongoing cuts to council budgets. It should be there for genuine emergencies like a school burning down, for example, flooding, or –  more recently in Oldham – the aftermath of the Shaw gas explosion which saw significant costs in staffing, security, immediate repair and safety works which cannot be recouped. Those things do fall into the category of being a ‘rainy day’.

When Government takes money out of a council’s budget it’s not a one-off measure: it takes it out every year.

As an example, let’s say you have outgoings of £1,000 a month at home. Your wages are covering that until your employer cuts your salary. Now you only have enough money to cover £800 a month.

If you use the Government’s logic on the use of reserves as the answer to your household budget woes you could use £400 you have to hand in savings to make up the difference. But once the £200 a month shortfall is paid for the first two months, what do you then do to cover it?

Using reserves to make up cuts to council funding is short-term, misjudged and doesn’t address or reduce the pain being felt in communities across the country.

Councils deliver services that people rely on. In Oldham we have taken £100 million of cuts already. We are in the process of cutting another £31 million over the next two years – and that’s without added pain to come from the December settlement.

It’s hard enough to manage that pain without dealing with nonsensical and ill-informed direction like this from Government.

You might think that is a political point, but as far as I’m concerned it’s not. This is about being honest about the challenges we face and the views I have outlined here are shared by many council leaders nationwide, regardless of their political affiliation.

Councils also need to start being honest. The days of making savings have gone – we are just making cuts now.

The easy pickings of cutting management and procurement etc have long gone and we are at the bone. After years of ‘protecting frontline services’ there won’t be a council anywhere now that won’t be making cuts to those services.

When Lambeth Council first began their consultation on budget cuts they lead with the line “The Government has cut our budget so we are forced to cut services”, much to the annoyance of Eric Pickles. But at least it was honest and explained the situation in plain language without smoke and mirrors.

My only ‘ask’ from the Chancellor is simple: Be honest and be fair.

Be honest and clear about the total reductions upfront. Don’t hide figures or drip-feed cuts or introduce back door technical changes which combine to wipe out our budget.

One recent example of this has been in the plans for Council Tax Benefit localisation. It was said that this would ‘only’ be a 10 per cent reduction in the overall grant. That was true.

But what you didn’t say was that low-income working people and those on benefits would pay for all pensioners regardless of income (Yes, Sir Alan Sugar would also benefit under this scheme!) meaning the REAL reduction in benefit for everyone else was nearer to 25 per cent, which is both unfair and hits those who can least afford it most.

And be fair, Mr Chancellor…

Local Government has taken more than its fair share of cuts and done so whilst protecting – as much as possible – vital services that people reply on. But we cannot continue to do that and expect no one will notice the difference.

Not least of all that’s because as a council we are also a major local employer. When we make people redundant we’re simply adding to our own unemployment numbers. That isn’t good for Government and it is bad for Oldham.

The price of failure might be embarrassment at the growing cost of unemployment and slow economic growth.

But the cost of failure for town like Oldham is a generation left behind and that is a cost too high.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Taxing matters

 

Taxing Matters: Council Tax Benefit
TAXING MATTERS: Government proposals to localise Council Tax Benefit are going to be a big issue for all Local Authorities in the coming months

NEW Government proposals to localise Council Tax Benefit (CTB) are going to prompt plenty of debate in the coming months.

The Department for Communities and Local Government wants the plans – which would see different rates of CTB paid in different parts of the country – to come into force from April 2013.

So what will it mean for Oldham residents?

For the uninitiated, Council Tax Benefit is a national pool of money that Government makes available to enable each Local Authority to give discretionary relief to people in their area.

Key components of this are, for example, the Single Person Discount and discounts for pensioners.

The Government now wants this benefit to be administered locally by Councils. Each would need to set and introduce their own eligibility criteria – but only after the money given to us has also been cut by ten per cent.

At the same time it is also proposed that pensioners should continue to get total protection from this reduction – i.e. their discretionary relief must remain untouched.

In Oldham our support for pensioners makes up about 60 per cent of our total CTB funding. Another group of recipients – about 25 per cent – would also be exempt from reductions in their support because of our duties to tackle child poverty and support vulnerable groups.

What this all then means is that most of that 10 per cent budget cut is likely to fall on the remaining recipients of CTB – typically the support we provide to low-income families or people in receipt of the Single Person Discount.

This would potentially impact on a smaller number of people much harder and the question now for us – and every other Local Authority – is exactly where and how to reduce relief in a manner that is as fair as possible.

We’re already debating these issues internally and there are no easy answers: especially when you consider that the existing Single Person Discount doesn’t take into account an individual’s actual ability to pay.

Difficult decisions like this require leadership and I’m determined that we must first undertake a thorough consultation exercise with our residents.

We need to explain these issues with clarity and listen to what you think it is fair and right to do.

Despite what the Sunday Express wrongly claimed at the weekend, no decisions have been made here in Oldham, and your responses to that consultation will be absolutely key to shaping what we introduce in April 2013.

Returning to more immediate concerns this remains an extremely busy time at Oldham Council.

At Cabinet on Monday we agreed to look at plans to form a new company that would deliver our social care services in the future.

If these plans proceed it could see up to 500 staff forming a ‘trading arm’ in which the Council would own a majority stake and a minority stake would be owned by an employee co-operative. I’ll return to this topic as the scheme makes more progress at a later date.

Tonight (Wednesday) we also have Full Council – including our pilot ‘Public Question Time’ – and you can now watch the whole meeting online for the first-time ever at www.oldham.gov.uk from 6pm.

February is also Budget-setting time too, of course. The opposition outlined their alternative budget last night and our own final proposals are undergoing final tweaks before going to Full Council on February 22.

I’m also looking forward to paying a visit to Higher Failsworth Primary School tomorrow. I’ve been asked to explain to young people there what Oldham Council is, what we do, and what it means to their daily lives.

That won’t be an easy task and I know from past experience it could yet turn out to be my toughest grilling of the week!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Financial tightrope: the balancing act

OLDHAM COUNCIL: The Local Authority must find £24 million in savings from its budget for 2012/3 budget
OLDHAM COUNCIL: The Local Authority must find £24 million in savings from its budget for 2012/3

A COUNCIL budget should reflect the values and priorities of your residents.

That’s a good starting point, but it doesn’t make the task any easier.

In recent days we’ve been putting the final touches on proposals to find £24m in savings from the 2012/3 settlement, and I’m the first to admit that it is a struggle.

Finding savings on that scale is demanding and I don’t kid myself it’s going to get any easier.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t be making some of the tough proposals that we are – but there simply is no hiding from them.

I’m also mindful of my responsibilities as Council Leader to produce a balanced budget. If we don’t, the Government will intervene and take decisions for us – and in a manner unlikely to take account of local sensitivities – so we must press on.

Around £70 million has already been taken out of Oldham Council’s budget in the last two years and the process gets harder each time.

This year has been the most difficult to date and the next couple of years will just be even harder. There are no easy options left.

We must simply try to do the best that we can to stay true to our priorities and values in what we choose.

Rather than just salami slicing the budget – i.e. telling each area to shave the same amount from each of their services – we’re trying be holistic.

That means reviewing absolutely everything the Council does and changing the way that it does business, but it’s a lengthy process.

There is, for example, a lot of joint-working across AGMA authorities to find savings from economies of scale. If done properly these will deliver significant savings in the long run.

But dealing with nine other authorities is complex. It requires detailed planning and negotiations, and won’t happen overnight.

We’re also looking at all our contracts and procurement but – again – unravelling existing arrangements cannot happen quickly and we’re also mindful that rushing the process could mean your final savings are potentially much smaller and important opportunities are lost.

The financial climate has changed beyond all recognition and we’re going to have to be extremely creative in how balancing budgets and yet still ‘pump-priming’ to translate our ambitions to be a Co-operative Council so that it genuinely enables residents to help themselves do more in their areas, makes resources available to communities – and businesses – and properly supports those people who want to do more.

Even in the national days of comparative ‘milk and honey’ of the previous decade Oldham’s economy failed to achieve significant growth.

Now that the days of grant funding and big European cheques are well and truly gone the only body able to take up the cudgel of regeneration is Oldham Council.

We can’t do it alone, of course. We need to act alongside local businesses and partners to find mutually-beneficial schemes and purpose, but fundamentally that’s why we’re reserving some budget funding to help big projects get started.

I make no apologies for that because if your focus is narrowly obsessed with just balancing a budget then you offer little – if any – hope for the future.

Last week we took our budget plans to a cross-party scrutiny panel and they came back with no single recommendation for change.

The most contentious of the proposals was to revise Council staff terms and conditions of employment. This has been developed through our ongoing budget consultation with employees and Trade Unions.

We’re proud of the positive dialogue we’re having with them and the reason for looking at Ts and Cs – and, for example, whether we should end sick pay for the first three days – is straightforward.

Staff themselves told us that if this is the alternative to making further job cuts then it must be considered. 

At that cross-party meeting I was quizzed about the hypothetical process ahead if employees rejected the changes to their Ts and Cs. The answer I gave – that you would need to dismiss and re-engage staff – was completely theoretical. At no point did I say that this is what we intend to do.

Politicians try to pre-empt what people will think and want, but it’s not an easy science.

In these budget proposals there are measures which I openly admit to being nervous about.

But for this to be a genuine consultation we must include measures like this – which may be unpalatable to some – at the earliest possible stage. If we didn’t do that, the process would neither be honest nor fair.

We’ll continue to face similar challenges in the coming years and I’m not prepared to hide budget options and then sneak them through a back door at the eleventh hour. That’s not my style.

Staff at the Council have already been through difficult enough times and I want to continue engaging by being able to look them squarely in the eyes.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Cutting your coat to suit your cloth

STAFF CONFERENCE: Cllr Jim McMahon at the podium with Charlie Parker, Chief Executive of Oldham Council, at last week's internal event.

ECONOMIC concerns are again driving this week’s headlines and deadlines.

The cut in the UK growth forecast to just 1.1 per cent for 2011 is just the latest reminder, as if one were needed, of the challenges that all of us are facing.

Everyone across our Borough – residents, staff and businesses alike – are looking over their shoulders and trying to protect their bottom line.

For most people that means constantly monitoring mortgages, pensions, savings, income and bills – and looking at how to cut costs with the minimum impact on your welfare.

The challenge is exactly the same for Oldham Council.

Our balancing act is to find £24 million in savings from next year’s budget whilst continuing to invest in priority areas for residents, plan for the future and protect the frontline services that you depend upon.

This week we’ve launched our consultation exercise with the public to discuss exactly how we can achieve this.

Oldham Council’s challenges are the same as every other Authority – to wrestle with becoming a leaner organisation that will have to work very differently – and we simply can’t sit here with our fingers in our ears wishing the problems will go away.

It would also be unforgivably arrogant for us to assume that our management team and Councillors have a monopoly on good ideas or common sense – and that’s where you come in.

I’d urge everyone reading this to please take five minutes of your time to visit the new Budget Consultation pages at www.oldham.gov.uk/budgetand give us your feedback. This explains our income sources and where we are currently spending every penny of your money.

The Council administers this budget on your behalf and that’s exactly why we need to make our final decisions based on what you tell us are your priorities, – and also what is not(!).

This cycle of finding savings and reducing spending is one that Oldham Council will continually be facing for many years. But as I told employees at last week’s Staff Conference, we must stay focussed and be positive about what this will mean. It needn’t all be doom and gloom…

As we look towards launching our vision of what becoming a Cooperative Council means for Oldham next month, I want staff to start embracing the opportunities to change for the better.

With more powers and budgets being devolved downwards, the staff we are redeploying to the six new district Town Halls will work closer than ever before with residents.

That means they will no longer be shackled by a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and therefore also means they should start to feel more empowered.

It’s surely going to be better for everyone if we enable staff to proactively change the ways they work with the people they’re serving – and if they’re finally liberated to find smarter solutions with less bureaucracy that better meet the differing priorities within each district.

I also explained to Council staff about our new commitment – as part of the Cooperative approach – to enable them to invest time back into the community.

We’re going to allow staff to take three days of paid leave annually to put something back into the local area to support groups and initiatives where their expertise can make a big difference. That might be someone in our finance team helping a local charity apply for grant funding or do their books, for example, or someone from our Environmental/Parks teams assisting them with a community garden, clean-up or allotment scheme.

Essentially, this is the spirit of what a Cooperative Borough should look like. Everybody working together – public sector, hand-in-hand with residents, plus the voluntary and private sectors – to achieve a common goal that improves the place.

I also want to put improved aspirations at the top of our agenda as an Authority.

My vision from here is that every apprentice starting work at Oldham Council should be able to aspire to climb all the way up to the top, and become Chief Executive.

In a generation’s time I would like to see the majority of senior management in the Council to have been produced from – and thereby be closer to needs and aspirations of – this Borough.

Another crucial part of this Cooperative jigsaw – beyond staff and residents – will be to make Ward Members more effective.

We recently held our first session with councillors of a new Local Leaders Programme, which aims to help them become more responsive and valued community figures. 

There was a vastly differing mix of experiences and lengths of time served amongst all present at this event, but the ideas discussed were well received.

Across all the political parties it was very clear to me that our Ward Members do believe in the Borough, and that we need to do more to support them.

Giving them the powers and the budgets to do things that make a real difference in their area is key to the devolution agenda, but it’s not the whole answer.

Being a Councillor is not a profession – it’s a vocation and there is no defined ‘career path’ into it. That’s why we need to support and enable them all to perform better through appropriate training and development.

Finally today – on a very different tangent – I’m pleased to report that good progress is being made by Langtree, with whom Oldham Council recently signed a development agreement to revitalise Hollinwood.

Langtree has already moved quickly to appoint key personnel to make things happen and I’m looking forward next to seeing the architects’ Masterplan for the area.

Redeveloping the key sites in question here – alongside Metrolink’s arrival – can help us strengthen Hollinwood’s identity and secure its position it as a destination of regional importance.

Thanks for listening,

Jim