Our new town centre – we can’t stand still

This week we made a big exciting step on our path to further regenerate our town centre and continue its transformation into a vibrant hub of leisure, culture and pride.

Along with the council’s other Cabinet members, I have voted in favour of the Oldham Town Centre Masterplan.

This is the biggest forward planning exercise we’ve ever had for Oldham town centre. It’s exciting and it’s all about creating the kind of place we want it to be in the future.

Many positive regeneration schemes are already improving our town centre – like the Old Town Hall, and plans for the Cultural Quarter with a new Coliseum Theatre, and the Independent Quarter – but we cannot make the mistake of standing still.

So I think I should start by telling you what this is all about.

In short, we want Oldham to be a vibrant place with high-quality attractions, an excellent cultural and shopping offer and a family friendly night time economy.

Ultimately, we want the town centre to be a place where more residents want to live and spend their leisure time.

To achieve this we need a plan, one that can help us turn Oldham into the place we all deserve.

We have a lot to offer in Oldham. We will be a big voice and a big attraction within Greater Manchester and this masterplan will help make us stand out as a destination of choice within the region and beyond.

With these plans we’ll show everyone just how great Oldham is and exactly what we have to offer.

We want to transform five sites in the town centre, 21 acres in total, by 2035.

The plans would deliver a new Tommyfield Market on the existing site with a new 600-capacity multi-storey car park adjacent. This aims to attract additional footfall, plus complementary new retail/leisure units and quality public spaces.

As well as a new market we want to deliver homes and town centre living, a new Civic Hub and plenty more space for other developments.

This would all bring in a projected additional £50 million a year to our economy.

There are only five local authorities to have lost a bigger percentage of their budget from the government over the last seven years than Oldham. We don’t get a fair deal from Westminster but this won’t prevent us from deciding our own future.

This masterplan is a very large scale redevelopment and we can’t fund all of this on our own.

We have a fantastic opportunity to attract partners from the private sector into a joint venture to deliver this scheme, or elements of it, and we’re confident this will be attractive to them.

We’ve already seen private retailers coming forward to invest their own money in our Prince’s Gate scheme. This is because Oldham is attractive, Oldham has potential and Oldham has great ambition.

We are now going to begin a 12-month consultation on our Town Centre Masterplan, listening to residents, partners, business and traders.

When consultation gets underway I would urge everyone to do your bit, get involved and give us your views and ideas.

We all have a stake in the future of Oldham’s town centre and this is a fantastic opportunity to transform its prospects over the next two decades.

I’m the Leader of Oldham Council but I don’t have the monopoly on the right ideas. I’ll be in touch to let you know how you can get involved. We need to hear what you think because you are at the forefront of everything we do.

People will ask questions and so they should. Because we’re a proud bunch in Oldham and we care about our future.

And there might be people who criticise these plans. I remember people doing this when we announced the Old Town Hall plans but just look at it now. We deliver.

It’s a very exciting time to be an Oldhamer and we’re just getting started.

School places: A primary and secondary concern

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NATIONAL OFFER DAY: Secondary School decision is an important milestone for every child 

YESTERDAY was an important day for thousands of parents and children across Oldham.

‘National Offer Day’, as it is now known, is when mums and dads find out which school their child will be starting their secondary education at next September.

In our borough, like everywhere else, we’ve seen a significant increase in the numbers of school age children needing places in recent years.

We take our responsibility to ensure that each child gets a school place very seriously, but it is no easy task.

Putting aside the reality that it is never possible to grant every parent’s preference, this legal duty (as the cross-party Local Government Association has warned this week) could soon become “undeliverable” in many areas.

Significant population growth means many secondary schools are now already at or above capacity nationwide.

Last year local authorities had to provide around 2.75m secondary school places, but that is set to rise to 3.28m by 2024. These are huge numbers and pressures.

Under the Government’s rules, all new schools to help cope with this demand must be “free schools”, created outside of local authority control.

And – to be clear – we are fully committed to working with Vicky Beer, the Regional Schools Commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, to help to find good quality local sponsors for new schools in our area.

But I also agree with the LGA’s call for councils themselves to be able to open new schools, and to require academies to expand to meet local demand, where necessary.

There are now fewer and fewer schools under the direct control of councils.  It’s surely common sense that local authorities are well placed to act to ensure school places can be created on time – and in the right places. If we are to be tasked with ensuring sufficient school places we need to have more flexibility and influence in the system to have any realistic prospect of delivering that capacity.

Here in Oldham we’ve been seeing a significant increase in demand for places for some time and we have taken the necessary actions.

First, we put a better forecasting method in place looking at all available data on births, housing and new arrivals so we can plan ahead.

Secondly, we got on with an expansion programme to provide extra capacity. That includes plans to boost primary places with a new three-form entry school on the former Grange School site, plus the expansion of places in Failsworth, Hollinwood and Lees.

Last week we also saw planning approval granted for a new Saddleworth School that will increase pupil numbers from 1,350 to 1,500 – and plans are also about to go out to statutory consultation to double the capacity at Greenfield primary with a new build two-form entry school.

So, how have we done this year with the provision of secondary school places?

Out of 3,468 applications received some 2,773 (80 per cent) of applicants got their first-choice school preference and, in total, 93 per cent of all applicants got one of their first three (from six) choices.

These figures are not unusual and pretty static as a trend. The number of parents applying for certain local secondary schools as their first choice exceeds the number of pupils they can take every year.

I’ve said from the outset that the education and skills offer here in the borough is a key focus for my leadership, and every bit as vital to our future as physical regeneration.

So I was interested this week when Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, warned Greater Manchester that the region’s poor performing secondaries could “choke” the Northern Powerhouse vision.

I do hope that this was at least a recognition that local authorities need to have a strong role in school improvement, whatever the type of school, because we actually have less influence than ever before.

This is not about councils wanting to directly control academies or free schools, we know that’s not going to happen, but it is about being able to intervene for the good of local communities when schools are not performing.

It cannot be right that all the responsibility for performance can fall upon councils without us having the appropriate powers to act.

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COMMISSION: Estelle Morris chaired the OESC which delivered its vital report in January.

I welcome the calls now for discussion about us having a specific GM Schools Commissioner who would work with a Further Education Commissioner to give more focus on local need and deliver closer coordination between schools and post-16 education.

We are, of course, doing everything we can to meet the challenge of ensuring no child is without a school place in Oldham – but that’s only part of the battle.

The bigger picture is to implement the recommendations of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report so that every child can not just get a place, but can get one at a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ local school – and have the best chance of fulfilling their full potential.

Jean

Oldham moving up a gear

JEANAUDIIt’s been a good week for Oldham with the news that we’ve signed another major inward investment deal – bringing yet more jobs and money to the local economy.

Landmark deals like this one are usually the result of considerable time and effort by officers and this one is no exception.

Last year the Jardine Motors Group, a major Audi dealership, approached us about the availability of the old Westhulme Hospital site off Chadderton Way.

They had identified it as a perfect fit for their plans to build a 17-car showroom with a 24-bay service workshop and to create a hub that can support all of their existing businesses across the region.

The site was owned by the NHS Trust and we knew it was surplus to requirements so officers in our regeneration team set to work with them to see what could be done.

The upshot – subject to planning permission – would be a new Audi dealership that will represent an investment of around £8 million into the borough.

Not only does that mean another major brand has chosen to have a presence in Oldham, it’s also good news in so many other ways.

It will mean the creation of around 87 new skilled jobs and Jardine have also signed up to our Get Oldham Working campaign which means they’ve committed to working alongside our colleges and supply chains to create even more new local opportunities.

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MAJOR DEAL: Artist’s impression of the proposed Audi dealership off Chadderton Way.

That makes this a ‘win win’ for everyone – and every extra bit of business rates income will, of course, also help the council in the face of our ongoing financial pressures.

That is timely as Monday saw the release of the final Local Government finance settlement, which is official confirmation of exactly what funding we will get from Government for the 2016/7 financial year.

Tomorrow night (Thursday) we will be taking the final proposed tranche of cuts for that year of around £16.1m to Cabinet.

Getting to this stage has meant making a series of tough decisions: the vast majority of which neither myself nor my colleagues would willingly want to make.

Part of the final proposals also mean that your Council Tax will increase next year.

Two per cent of that rise is because the Government – by its own admission – simply isn’t giving us enough to help tackle the spiralling costs in social care.

Their solution to this has been to conveniently give all councils a new option to put their Council Tax up by 2 per cent to fund that gap (it doesn’t do that at all, by the way).

I understand every Greater Manchester council – like the vast majority across the country – will be taking this option, but it is still a bitter pill.

Essentially the Government is passing the blame for this funding cut and problem down to us – and then leaving us to pass it on to your bottom line.

Since 2009 we’ve now had to find a total of £176 million in cuts from our budget and February has become a time of year that we all dread.

The decisions get harder each time and so, undeniably, does the impact on residents and your frontline services.

Our final proposals will go next to Full Council (Budget) on Wednesday, February 24, for approval.

The meeting will, as usual, be broadcast live on our website, but I can’t promise it will make for happy viewing(!).

Jean

The work goes on…

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NEW LEADER: Councillor Jean Stretton has replaced Jim McMahon as Oldham Council Leader

WELCOME to my first-ever blog as Oldham Council Leader – and thank you all for the many good wishes and congratulation messages that I have received.

I’m honoured to be following Jim McMahon in this role and – like him – I’ll be writing a blog each week.

I wanted this job because Oldham is in my heart and it’s in my blood.

I was born here, brought up here and have lived here most of my life.

As I explained in my first speech as Leader to Full Council last week, I’m very proud of the forward strides we have made since 2011 – and that work goes on.

There’ll be no lowering of ambitions, no slackening of effort and no settling for second best while I am at the helm in Oldham.

People want and deserve our long-standing regeneration schemes and these will continue.

But I will also be giving more focus to social regeneration: not just bricks and mortar.

A major priority in that respect is my pledge to ensure the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report recommendations are implemented.

Too many young people don’t get to reach their full potential because some of our schools are not yet up to scratch.

I’ve been asked what happens next.

Well, that document won’t be sitting on a shelf gathering dust – I won’t allow it.

Cabinet has already committed £1m to take this work forward and a meeting later this week will discuss the structure and governance arrangements that we will need to get cracking.

Parents and education partners will all want to see us get on with this work quickly.

You can rest assured I will be taking a keen interest in this – and I have high expectations of the difference that we can make by working together with those partners.

Jean

Budget Council – Video Blog – 2015/16

 

Tonight Full Council meets to agree its budget for the financial year 2015/6. Members are set to approve plans that seek a 0% rise in the amount you pay for Oldham Council services.

This week I decided to record a video blog talking about the challenges we are all facing as we seek to make Oldham a better place to live, work and do business against the backdrop of reduced Government funding.

Thanks for watching,

Jim.

Combatting cuts: Invest to grow

SPOTLIGHT: Explaining Oldham Council's 'Invest to Grow' strategy to the Financial Times this week at Gallery Oldham.
SPOTLIGHT: Explaining Oldham Council’s ‘Invest to Grow’ strategy to journalists from the Financial Times this week at Gallery Oldham.

IN LOCAL government circles the end of February always heralds the arrival of the ‘small’ tome that is the paperwork for your annual budget-setting meeting.

This means you’re finally nearing the end of a process stretching back several months and characterised by many hours of head scratching and heart searching.

Cabinet agreed our final proposals for 2015/6 on Monday and these now go forward to the annual budget-setting Full Council meeting on Wednesday, February 25 (6pm onwards) which – as ever – you can watch online via the Oldham Council website.

The dominant factor in this task for the past six years now has been balancing books in the face of significant funding reductions and rising demand – and that means there is no sense of relief as we look ahead.

I’m sorry to say this will be the same challenge next year – and in future years – which really makes you pause for thought where this may all end up.

We’ve already seen £141million removed from Oldham Council’s budget in the past five years which is equivalent to £1,566 less per household. With an extra £60m in savings to be made by 2017 that will bring the total reduction to £201m – that’s £2,232 less to spend per household.

As a local authority we’ve suffered more than most here in Oldham and I’m clear the cuts cannot carry on.

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This is not about a principled view about deficit reduction – or continuing the blame game – the issues are now about basic public service management.

Soon there simply won’t be enough money to deliver the services that are there to respond to community demand. And when I say that I’m not just talking about the things that people ‘want’, I’m talking about things that society genuinely ‘needs’.

Public sector spending has already borne the brunt of government reductions and – with the NHS and schools being protected in terms of future funding – huge pressure is again likely to fall on local government.

And even as I write there’s yet more evidence as to how widespread concerns about this are becoming.

The Independent Commission on Local Government Finance – whose members are economists, business, finance and public service experts – says today that councils are on a ‘cliff-edge’ which means everyday services “may not be there much longer” and that “urgent devolution of powers, funding and taxes” is needed.

This comes just days after the House of Commons’ own Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published some stark findings about the financial sustainability of local authorities like ours.

They found that local services are becoming unviable and the reductions to funding are hitting the poorest areas the hardest.

The PAC report says the Department for Communities and Local Government is simply not prepared for the impact of shunting cost pressures onto other services, like the NHS, and is failing to take responsibility for the very real threats to the validity of some statutory services. And this is not a political viewpoint by the way: the PAC membership is cross-party.

The question for Oldham Council is what are we going to do about this?

How can we find the funding needed to meet our legal responsibilities and provide the services you will need in future years?

Firstly, despite the financial pressures, we know that asking local households to stump up more money isn’t realistic. Many residents are facing similar budget issues and we can’t ignore that, which is why we’re proposing to freeze the amount of Council Tax you pay for our services over the next year.

Secondly, we are trying to transform the council’s ‘fiscal base’. That basically means we need to change the sources of where our future income comes from.

We do at least have an enviable record of managing our finances here in Oldham and much work has already been ongoing to address this fiscal challenge.

Essentially we know it means us needing to work even harder and faster to make Oldham a better place to live, work and do business. It makes our regeneration programme – projects like the Old Town Hall cinema, the new Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps, the Independent Quarter, and new housing schemes across the borough – even more vital.

Schemes like this will not only help to attract new money and jobs but will also support the delivery of your local services in the future by increasing the amount of business rates and council tax we will collect.  BudgetInfog2

Our work also includes a whole host of other measures across all our activity like our social value framework – designed to ensure we maximise the benefit to the local economy of every penny we spend – plus work to rewire services, examine different delivery models, and early intervention and preventative work to reduce demand for services.

When you’re on the verge of a financial tipping point like this you know even more challenging times lie ahead. Difficult decisions cannot – and must not – be avoided and we are often left as ‘arbiters in chief’ of a ‘Catch 22’ situation.

Nonetheless we are determined to stick to our core pledge to the people of Oldham.

We will not simply accept decline for the borough and just focus on implementing reduced budgets that we know will inevitably adversely affect communities.

Only by investing in growth do we know we can give ourselves a fighting chance of bringing in new income and opportunities that will give us hope for the future.

Let’s be very clear though that this approach is no silver bullet.

It won’t address the very real problems that are still hurtling down the track at local authorities unless fair funding is provided in the future.

So whichever party – or parties – form the next government after the General Election on May 7, my message to them all will be the same: this needs sorting.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Day in the life: Keeping us safe

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FOOD SAFETY: Ready to assist on my first ever food safety inspection with Lauren Wood at Country Oven Bakery, Oldham.

I WAS fortunate to be able to spend time working with two of our most important frontline services – our Food Safety and Neighbourhood Enforcement teams – this week.

The phrase ‘unsung heroes’ is often overused, but in both of these cases it is probably an understatement.

Basically their overall remit is to ensure the borough is a safe, healthy and quality environment to live in and it’s fair to say a great majority of residents and businesses act responsibly and look after their communities and premises.

But the work these teams do often also brings them into regular contact with those people who ruin it for everyone else. That makes their work not just frontline, but frontline and then some…

Out and about with our Environmental Health Inspectors on Tuesday morning, my first task was to accompany Lauren Wood (a previous winner of Young Employee of the Year) on an unplanned visit to a local bakery.

Officers in the five-strong Food Safety team inspect all the food businesses in Oldham (nearly 2,000). They take food samples, swab food surfaces, deal with reported food poisoning outbreaks and respond to complaints.

They carry out more than 1,000 visits each year and have the ability to prosecute when conditions are very poor or where businesses are failing to improve. Last year they had eight successful prosecutions of this kind, which is more than any other Greater Manchester authority.

I joined Lauren on a routine unannounced inspection of a premises tucked away behind Huddersfield Road and operated by a brand you’ll probably know from local supermarket shelves: Country Oven Bakery.

This family firm, based in Oldham for over 30 years, has to go above and beyond the basic minimum standard because they are supplying multi-national retailers who have their own standards. That means there is a real tension between getting on with the job – in this case baking over 250,000 items a week – and managing a business.

Mario, the owner, put it best when he told me that: “The days of the council being hard have gone. Now it’s much more of a partnership with advice and support given to help businesses meet the standard.”

That was good to hear but – with our inspection complete – there was no rest for Lauren and the rest of the team who were off to inspect other premises before preparing for a Food Forum: an annual event where food businesses are invited to a Q&A and information session.

If you’d like to check out how a food business near you fared on its latest inspection by this team then you can do so on the Oldham Council website by clicking here.

From seeing food being carefully and hygienically prepared I now went to the extreme opposite – seeing it dumped in alleyways.

This was the second part of my outing: this time alongside Samantha Jackson and Gary Durkin from our Neighbourhood Enforcement Team.

We’ve boosted their numbers recently with an additional seven staff as part of our ‘Changing Behaviours’ project and the team, which is now 13 members strong, investigates a range of issues including air quality, noise, and other ‘nuisances’ such as dust and odours, plus private drainage complaints and complaints about homes with potential vermin or pest infestations.

To give you an idea of how busy they are the team received a staggering 1,053 complaints regarding noise issues alone in the past year – around three a day on average.

Our first stop on Tuesday saw us dealing with one of our perennial problems – the illegal dumping of rubbish – aka fly tipping.

Stopping this is a major priority for the council and these staff are involved in a borough-wide project to tackle it alongside our waste and street scene teams.
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Our approach to this problem is based on working with communities in the first instance to ensure they have all the right information and facilities to dispose of waste properly. This will then be backed up by strong enforcement action for those who continue to fly tip and dump their rubbish.

It really irritates me – and it should annoy every tax payer – to see the amount of litter and waste that is dumped in the borough. This filthy disrespect not only makes the town look a mess but it also costs a small fortune to clean it up and the infographic above gives you an idea of how big a problem this is for Oldham Council.

In addition to those seven new education and enforcement officers we’ve also now invested in an additional 10 street cleaners although – whilst we are happy to invest in frontline services, even in very difficult financial times – that money could be far better used on other things.

That morning we had a real live case of fly tipping to deal with.

Officers began sifting through the refuse for evidence of ownership and, under piles of children’s homework and takeaway left overs, we did actually find some information of interest relating to an address. The team will investigate this further and after bagging the waste in the pink/red enforcement bags we moved on again.

Our next stop was just a couple of streets away where we met up with officers from the team who are tackling issues regarding privately owned and rented properties.

The improvement of private sector housing is a priority for the council and this team are central to delivering that. The Selective Licensing of Private Landlords, a new scheme which was approved by Cabinet before Christmas, is just one example of the activity that the team are involved in which aims to not just improve individual properties, but the area as a whole.

There’s a lot of work going on to improve the standard of the environment and good advances have been made, but there’s no doubt that there is still a long way to go in some areas.

The filthy sight that faced us at the back of one particular tenanted property that morning was horrific. It looked like the aftermath of something apocalyptic and was obviously a health hazard.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an isolated scene and as we walked down this row a similar sight greeted us in several insecure back gardens.

The enforcement team are making inroads and work tirelessly to keep up on activity like this but things will only ever really improve when individuals change their ways and the community collectively does their bit too.

Thankfully though, it wasn’t all about muck and mice out with these teams. It’s easy to forget that the eventual outcomes from a typical morning’s unenviable tasks like this are often hugely positive for individuals, neighbourhoods and communities.

These staff are rightly proud of the difference they make, and so am I.

To these genuine unsung heroes – busy keeping our borough clean and safe and taking to task those who put it at risk – I say a huge thank you.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Cancer: Prevention, diagnosis and treatment in Oldham

140820 Preventable Cancers SimpleDOORSTEP conversations are the lifeblood of local politics and always give the best insight into the issues that are really affecting communities.

One issue that comes up an awful lot is the impact that cancer has on families.

Whether talking to someone who is fighting cancer themselves or caring for someone with the disease, it’s clear that either way it can put people under incredible pressure.

The scale of the problem was only further highlighted with the publication of new analysis this week by Cancer Research UK which suggests that one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.

This estimate uses a new calculation method that replaces the previous well-known forecast of more than one in three people developing the disease.

Longer life expectancies mean that increasing numbers of people are now going to be affected unless preventative measures are taken to improve lifestyles.

Like most people I’ve lost friends to cancer and have also seen others taking on the fight of their lives only to come out the other side never quite being certain it won’t ever return.

If you are an avid reader of the Oldham Chronicle you’ll no doubt have been following first-hand the experiences of its editor, Dave Whaley, in recent months.

Dave has been describing in detail his roller-coaster emotional journey as he battles throat cancer – right from the initial diagnosis through to some incredibly tough decisions and his latest complex operation.

It takes a great deal of courage and personal resilience to lay out so starkly and publicly the human impact of his experiences at this time but, in doing so – and using his family motto ‘Keep Smiling’ – I believe he has inspired and helped far more people than even he realises.

It’s interesting to look at the available data on the impact of cancer in Oldham.

In our borough we have a higher rate of new cases of cancer at 399 per 100,000 residents, compared to 393 per 100,000 (England) with breast, prostate, lung and bowel being the most common types.

One of the starkest facts I’ve learnt whilst researching this subject is that in the last five years almost 600,000 cancer cases in the UK could have been prevented.

This particularly interests me as local authorities like Oldham Council now have responsibility for Public Health.

The evidence suggests though that around half of all cases of cancer diagnosed in the UK could be avoided if people made changes to their lifestyle, such as not smoking, having a healthy diet and doing regular exercise.

Smoking, for example, is the largest single cause of cancer in the UK, linked to an estimated 19 per cent of cancer cases nationally each year, with lung cancer having the highest proportion of smoking-linked cases.

The infographic (see above) shows how adopting a healthier lifestyle can reduce a person’s chances of developing cancer.

As a co-operative borough, Oldham is focused on developing an approach to health and wellbeing that is centred around prevention because it not only promotes healthier and less dependent communities but also saves money on high cost treatments further down the line.

For all those cases that can be prevented there are also, of course, those that can’t.

Cancer3Whilst cancer survival rates in the UK have doubled in the last 40 years (see right) it’s clear that, when the unthinkable happens, getting support is vital.

We are really very fortunate here in Oldham to have a comprehensive support network for those diagnosed with cancer – and their family members. It reminds me that whilst cancer shows how fragile human beings are it also reveals their inner-strength and deep compassion.

The Christie at Oldham, opened in 2010, is the first in a unique network of its radiotherapy centres where patients can access first-class treatment from experts. The site, which treats the more common forms of cancer such as breast and prostate, allows patients to receive the same renowned care that they would get at the main Christie site in Didsbury, whilst also being able to stay closer to home.

The Christie at Oldham is also where the Macmillan Cancer Information Centre is located. This is staffed by specialists who offer a wide range of information on all aspects of cancer and free confidential advice for anyone affected.

Macmillan also provides the Oldham Community Specialist Palliative Care Team, which helps patients and families to live as well as possible by providing high-quality pain and symptom control, as well as practical and psychological support.

The Oldham Cancer Family History Service based at Failsworth Health Centre offers high-quality personalised risk assessments for those who are concerned or have been identified by a health professional to be at an increased risk of developing certain inherited cancers. The primary focus is for breast, bowel, womb and ovarian cancers where faulty genes have been identified.

Failsworth is also where Oldham Cancer Support Centre is based. This patient-led initiative, working in partnership with Oldham Primary Care Trust, offers help to patients, carers and family members. Amongst the support on offer is specialist benefits advice, complementary therapies, counselling and opportunities to chat through needs and concerns relating to any aspect of cancer.

Last but not least there is the renowned Dr Kershaw’s Hospice in Royton which is Oldham’s only specialist care facility for adults with life limiting illnesses. The care the hospice provides is free of charge and set within beautiful grounds that create a peaceful environment for patients and families to enjoy.

As residents and neighbours we also all have a part to play in helping those dealing with the effects of cancer. Whether that is offering to help them to keep on top of their cleaning or gardening, getting some shopping in for them, raising money for one of the local or national cancer charities, or just taking time to listen to them over a brew, please show your support in whatever way you can. Together, we can beat cancer.

For more information, please visit the Cancer Research UK site

If you want to speak to someone about cancer, or need support for yourself or a family member, you can also visit the Macmillan website for details on how to get in touch.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Making youth votes count

Youth-Council-logoIT’S OFTEN labelled a political ‘giveaway’ – winter fuel allowances, free bus passes and other initiatives – all aimed at the most important constituency of all: those people who actually vote.

Many young people might question why the introduction and then trebling of tuition fees wasn’t considered as politically risky as removing pension aged benefits, for example, or why the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) went through without comparatively much of a backlash.

It would be nice to explore the rich analysis and research behind all this, but the answer is as simple as the power of the ballot box. It would, after all, be a foolish politician who messes with the biggest group of people who actively turn out to vote.

At the last General Election more than 74 per cent of over 65s voted – compared with just 51 per cent of people aged 18-24. Even when turnout amongst young people fell to just 38 per cent in 2005, candidates could still rely on the over 65s: of whom 74 per cent cast their votes.

This week I’ve invited Oldham Youth Council to blog about this issue. I’ll now hand over to them to make the case for engaging young people and the importance of voting.

It’s true that voter apathy is a term often associated with young people.

In England, the youngest age group to be given the civil right to vote are the 18-24s. This demographic has the lowest voter turnout in the UK compared to an already poor turnout in general elections.

It’s unfair to assume young people are the only politically disengaged members of society as voter apathy is an issue affecting everyone. However, the low voter turnout does confirm youth disengagement within politics is a more urgent matter for us to address as a nation – because young people are the future of democracy. If we’re not engaged now, where does that leave the democratic processes the UK prides itself with in 20 years’ time?

The first steps in tackling this problem would be to lower the voting age and allow 16 and 17 year olds to have the right to vote in democratic elections within the UK.

There are more than 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds who are currently denied the right to vote. Young people all over the UK have been campaigning for this to change since 2003. The main arguments in favour of lowering the voting age are as follows: 

  • You can be taxed as young as 16 to fund a government you aren’t able to vote into power
  • This government will make decisions on our behalf. That affects our future and our generation more than it ever will theirs
  • At 16, young people are already given many responsibilities in our society, like paying income tax and National Insurance, gaining welfare benefits, consenting to sexual relationships and joining the armed forces – yet we can’t vote for a party or politician to represent us in Parliament.

Those against the idea of lowering the voting age often pose the argument, how young is too young? Why 16, why not 12?

The simple answer is the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’. As pointed out earlier, 16 is already seen as a milestone in a young person’s life. We’re given so many responsibilities, so why aren’t we also given the right to be able to vote?

DaisyMurphyPic
YOUNG AMBASSADORS: Oldham has had a Youth Mayor since 2009 – the latest is Daisy Murphy

Another argument against the cause states that young people aren’t wise enough to make sound decisions on their own and that parents can represent their views effectively. This was the same argument posed to the suffragettes (i.e. men can make decisions on behalf of women) when they fought for the right to vote. Frankly, there is no difference between the intellect or competence of a 16-year-old vs an 18-year-old. Therefore, it’s unfair to disenfranchise a part of society when we’ve so clearly learnt it’s not democratic or inclusive.In the recent Scottish referendum 16 and 17-year-old young people were given the right to vote. Many of them used that right and the world didn’t end(!), so it’s time all the UK’s young people enjoyed the same right to vote in all elections.

Locally, Oldham Council has pledged their support to the Oldham Youth Council’s campaign for votes at 16. In 2013, the youth council posed a motion at Full Council around this issue and gained a positive pledge of support. Since then local authorities all over the UK have been inspired to do the same. This is an example of local democracy at its finest.

We have been involved in a lot of work around reviving the British youth vote through the ‘league of young voters campaign’. This aims to increase voter turnout in democratic elections for 18 to 24 year olds. So far we’ve been to colleges, schools and carnivals encouraging young people to get on the electoral register and make their mark.

Furthermore, last November saw Oldham Council as a local authority and Oldham Youth Council take part in the first meeting for the “Inter-cultural Dimension for European Active Citizenship” (IDEA-C).  This is a response to the low voting turnout rate in EU elections, suggesting some European countries may face, or soon face, a democratic deficit.  The project aims to restore electoral faith among EU citizens and chose 13 organisations/institutions each from different EU countries to take part. Oldham Council was able to share their best practice as a cooperative borough and Oldham Youth Council was used as an example of how local democracy can and will engage young people to be active citizens. We’re looking forward to organising and delivering an event for Oldham’s young people that will focus on reviving their participation in democracy and we need your help to do this.

The Youth Council strongly believes that young people and adults in our borough actively engaging in politics is the first step towards making the UK a more democratic place.

We urge all Oldham’s young people to get involved, get on the electoral register as soon as you are eligible, go to the polling stations and vote – have your say!

And if you’re reading this and thinking you don’t ‘do politics’, you do.

From the tax you pay on your trainers to the exams you have to sit, or the fact that there is no Education Maintenance Allowance and down to your views on the provision of youth facilities – that’s all politics and your voice counts.

If you want to learn more or get involved in the campaign please visit http://www.votesat16.org/

Thanks for listening,

Jim 

 

 

First Place – Made in Oldham

FIRST PLACE: The stunning interior of FCHO's new headquarters on Union Street.
FIRST PLACE: The stunning interior of FCHO’s new headquarters on Union Street.

IT’S JUST under a year ago now since I took part in a steel signing session at the site of the new First Choice Homes Oldham (FCHO) offices – how time flies!

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to get an early peek at the inside of the new building on Union Street, which is to be known as First Place.

I was there to attend an Oldham Leadership Board event – and I have to say what I saw was very impressive.

With office and meeting space over four floors, this building will now be home to more than 250 employees and provide an improved Customer Zone with free access to online services, free phones and better interview facilities.

Its’ completion is a real landmark in our regeneration agenda and it was a fantastic vote of confidence that FCHO chose to invest in Oldham and remain in the town centre.

Their investment in Oldham doesn’t stop there either…

Eleven local apprentices have been employed on this construction project across a number of trades including heating engineers, electricians, dry liners and painters and decorators.

In addition to creating local jobs and apprenticeships, this project has also put money back into the local economy with the overall spend with local suppliers currently standing at more than 55 per cent.

fcho3The new building has also particularly boosted one of our existing small businesses.

Local entrepreneur Gordana Nield who owns Café 22 on Clegg Street, is set to run the new onsite café at First Place.

Her venue – to be named Café 22 @ FCHO – will be open to onsite staff and visitors. Café 22 was recently named as one of the top 10 independent coffee shops in Greater Manchester by readers of the Manchester Evening News, so everyone should be in for a real treat.

As you can see then, First Place is quite literally ‘made in Oldham’ right down even to its purple paint and its cupcakes!

Quality housing is key to the regeneration of the borough and the visit to the new FCHO building caused me to reflect on how far we’ve come since the transfer of the housing stock to FCHO in February 2011.

FCHO taking on responsibility for around 12,000 homes from Oldham Council enabled them to unlock £149 million worth of funding for carrying out vital home improvements.

They are well on with the improvements programme which since 2011 has seen 5,799 new kitchens, 4,817 new bathrooms, 3,018 new boilers, 2,953 new front doors and 1,374 thermal improvements…a hugely impressive list.

FCHO and partners are also underway on a £10 million Eco scheme in central Oldham, with a further £11 million of investment in local properties and the environment.

The B Green project is a partnership between FCHO, Oldham Council, British Gas, Forrest and Savills, to install energy efficiency improvements for around 2,400 residents.

These improvements are important if we are to build strong communities in Oldham. We want people to aspire to live here which means offering good quality housing – and that applies to all homes regardless of whether they’re rented or privately owned.

Oldham Council is also now cranking up the pressure on those people who provide homes that are not fit to live in.

Just this week we successfully prosecuted a private landlord for failing to ensure his properties were safe. Two of the homes did not have any fire detection systems and both the electricity and gas supplies had been tampered with. In total there were 13 breaches of the law. This is simply not acceptable and we will not let our residents be ripped off and put in danger in this way.

That’s why last December we approved our Private Landlord Selective Licensing Scheme – to stamp out the letting of poor quality accommodation.

This will be introduced from May 1 across eight areas in our borough. The aim is to improve the management of privately-rented properties to ensure they have a positive impact on the area. We will not put up with poor practice in Oldham – our residents and communities deserve better.

And finally – and talking of standing up for residents – it would be very remiss of me not to mention how very sad it is that Harry Burns will not be there to see the official opening of First Place on Friday.

The chairman of FCHO from 2004 until the time of his death late last year, Harry was a champion for improving social housing.

He was a proper Oldhamer who told it how it was – and he was a man of real conviction and dedication.

In 2012 Harry also became the first-ever person to be presented with the Civic Appreciation Award.

So whilst he may not be there in person, I’m certain Harry will be there in the hearts and minds of those attending: particularly his wife Louise, who will be opening the building. It will make for a fitting tribute to a man of the people.

Thanks for listening,

Jim