The challenges of uncertain times

TRITON2I’VE ALWAYS put a lot faith in the maxim that ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail’ – and that’s never more true than now.

We live in very uncertain times where the potential threats to our daily lives, institutions and basic things that we depend on come from all kinds of sources.

We have to be prepared for all manner of incidents and scenarios – some environmental and naturally occurring, others caused by accidental or deliberate human acts.

These include, amongst an almost endless and ever-growing list, incidents and emergencies related to terrorism, community tensions, flooding, gales and high winds, infectious disease, reservoirs, snow and extreme cold weather and even (I know!) heatwaves.

Only last week an important new Government report warned that the UK’s supply of food could be put at risk by climate change as droughts and storms start to devastate farmland here and abroad. It’s a chilling analysis.

As an American scientist commenting on that report put it, climate change is happening “so rapidly that people around the world are noticing the changes in global warming and extreme weather with their own eyes and skin”.

TRITON5That’s why emergency planning events like Exercise Triton II – which we played a key role in last week – are absolutely crucial to building resilience and improving our ability to cope with all kinds of incidents.

Triton was an emergency planning exercise without precedent across the Greater Manchester region and involved an incredible amount of organisation and preparation beforehand by the GM Resilience Forum and partners.

To give you an idea of how complex a task that was, we had players taking part at national level like the Government, military, the Met Office, the National Grid, HM Coastguard, Highways England, British Transport Police, the Environment Agency, NHS England, National Police Air Service, Government Digital Service and the British Red Cross.

And at a regional level all ten of the GM authorities took part alongside Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, GM Police, the North West Ambulance Service, Network Rail, Transport for Greater Manchester and Oldham Mountain Rescue – and many, many more.

Now imagine even just trying to co-ordinate everyone’s diaries for the very first meeting to agree what you are actually planning to do – and you can start to see the scale of what was eventually undertaken.

We’re not allowed to give away details of the full scenario for obvious reasons, but those people responding as if events were real were tested to the hilt.

From Monday last week they all started to get information about adverse weather and warnings of a growing risk of regional flooding.

This gradually ramped up to the main ‘play’ day on Thursday when the public will have seen a lot of activity in the Oldham area.

TRITON4Dove Stone Reservoir is a beautiful place and it provided a stunning backdrop to the dramatic sight of the Chinook helicopter dropping High Volume Pumps onsite to help stem the flow of a mythical breach in the dam that morning.

Cynics sometimes dismiss exercises like this as ‘boys with toys’, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As events unfolded during the day the scenario worsened with the dam collapsing and our response teams having to immediately put plans around floods, evacuation and the setting up of rest centres etc. into action. Their task was made even harder by constant ‘injects’ of new complicating factors like stranded animals, loss of utilities like gas and electricity and frightened people stranded on public transport.

The drama then continued to spread across the region with worsening flooding and a series of incidents that will have given the staff dealing with them a major headache.

I’d like to thank everyone from Oldham Council and our partners who took part in the planning and the playing of the exercise – and especially all the volunteers who played such key roles in making it feel real.

We hope that a day like the one depicted in that exercise will never come, of course, but recent history shows us that it almost certainly can.

No one will ever forget the scenes at Boscastle in Cornwall when torrential rain led to a 7ft rise in river levels in one hour in August 2014. Those images of cars, caravans, homes and boats being smashed into each other and washed away as people clung to trees and the roofs of buildings and cars, are a chilling reminder of us all of the fragility of our environment.

TRITON3Much will have been learnt from Exercise Triton and the analysis of all the log books of what happened, who did what and when, will teach us valuable lessons for all kinds of incidents we could face in the future.

If all that preparation and work helps to prevent just one incident, give one community an extra ten minutes’ warning or save just one life, it will surely have been worth it.

Finally, today is the first time I have blogged since the terrible terrorist attack in Nice.

Last Friday I asked for our Union and Peace flags to be flown at half-mast and invited staff to join a one minute silence in respect of the victims.

I think many of us were left to reflect not just on the senselessness of the attack – but also how often we now seem to be marking events like these.

As I said before, we really do live in uncertain times – but we should never let that stop us going about our daily lives and enjoying the freedoms that we are so fortunate to have.

Jean

Old Town Hall is the ‘reel’ deal

IMG_7169LAST WEEK I visited the Old Town Hall development – and it was an absolutely fantastic experience.

I had been really looking forward to the visit so when I left home last Wednesday morning in belting-down rain I feared I would get a phone call asking me to postpone.

It’s not even been a full month since I’ve officially been Council Leader and this was something I’d been really looking forward to since Day One.

Fortunately we are hardy folk here in Oldham and – despite near-horizontal rain and a swirling wind – myself and the Chief Executive, Carolyn Wilkins, braved the elements to walk from the Civic Centre to the site to see the progress for ourselves. And it was worth it.

I know this project is hugely significant for Oldham and that’s why we have such high expectations of it. That building is symbolic to me and it must be for so many fellow residents.

A lot of us have memories invested in the place from when it was in public use but, even if you’re not old enough to remember those days, you’ve probably despaired at its sad state of decline.

Once on-site with our brollies exchanged for hard hats and high-visibility jackets – and after a quick briefing on health and safety – we approached the building from what used to be the Clegg Street car park.

IMG_7201You may have noticed that the first of the spectacular glass panels making up the new glass extension to the side have recently been installed.

These look impressive enough from the outside but once we’d gone through the main entrance and up a couple of those old flights of grand stairs we were then able to enjoy the vista that people will soon be able to gaze down upon from various levels of the seven-screen ODEON cinema and the new restaurants that the “glass box” will front.

The five ground floor restaurants and the one first floor restaurant will have external seating areas and brilliant views across Parliament Square, which will be our first public space in decades: a new place where families can enjoy leisure time in the kind of environment they have long deserved.

In the original ballroom David Dobson, the project manager, explained the floor had fallen through in places here and that the huge problems they had battled with rain pouring down the walls and dry rot had been typical throughout the building.

IMG_7188The old ballroom (pictured above) has now been rebuilt and refurbished effectively as a ‘soundproof box’ ready for the final fixtures and fittings that will make it one of the smaller and more intimate cinema screens. We were told that final works start from the ceiling downwards and – with that already complete – the light fittings, screen, seats and carpets will be next.

This was one of several rooms we visited which are all in various stages of development. Each had a different past use and quality or allure – and the restoration work could be seen all around us with various groups of craftsmen painstakingly restoring frames, tiles and other delicate features (see below).

IMG_7233When we finally got to the magnificent Egyptian Room I was offered the chance to climb two vertical ladders to view the latest restorations at roof level.

This is an extremely tall and splendid place and I have to admit at this point I gave in to my vertigo. Being able to see the huge drops beneath and between my feet was already unnerving enough!  However, I will definitely want to revisit this room as it nears completion because it will be spectacular – the jewel in the crown.

Having declined the invitation to climb I looked around another of the ground floor areas that will become restaurant space and saw a young worker. I asked what he was doing.

I wanted to know what his job was, but he thought I was questioning whether he was working hard enough(!) and said he was “only taking five minutes”.

I quickly clarified and it turned out he was a labourer and clearly in one of his first-ever jobs. Having seen the progress on the development for myself it was great to listen to someone so early in their career talking about the project with such enthusiasm.

He told me he was fascinated by the work to restore the old features, which he had really come to appreciate, and that he would be bringing all his family and friends to visit the Old Town Hall as soon as it was open – such was his pride at having been personally involved. That conversation was one of the highlights of my visit.

IMG_7370Make no mistake, the Old Town Hall remains a magical venue.

There’s always great public eagerness to see the latest artists’ impressions of it but, as a politician, you always have a nagging inner fear that the reality might not match up to them. That will not be the case with this development.

We do have an opening date ‘pencilled in’ for later this year, but we won’t be going public with it until we are certain there are no unforeseen issues that might delay us on what remains an incredibly complex heritage scheme.

In a week dominated by the harsh realities of Council Tax and budget setting, this reminded me about the very best part of this job – being able to create new opportunities, improve the borough and help restore civic pride.

This project is crucial for the local economy in terms of the jobs and additional inward investment it will bring, plus enhancing our regional profile and attracting new visitors.

So much has already been said and written about the Old Town Hall that I don’t think anything I write here can possibly add any further to that growing sense of expectation.

But I do know that when those famous old doors are finally reopened this will be a place that people will want to visit again and again.

Jean

Taking Charge Together – and getting the Right Start

IT’S BEEN a really important week in terms of our latest plans to improve local health and tackle inequalities.

Firstly we have seen the launch of a vital new campaign – Taking Charge Together – with partners across Greater Manchester.

This will shape health and social care plans across our region for the next five years.

As you may already know, the ten local authorities are now in charge of the £6bn to be spent on health and social care as part of the devolution deal with Central Government.

This is a fantastic opportunity to make our own decisions about the services we deliver and need.

Our shared goal is to see the fastest improvement to health, wealth and wellbeing of the 2.8milion people living here, but to do that we need to find solutions together.

Your opinion and input really matters on this, so I’d urge you to please do your bit by helping us get a better understanding about what helps or stops you from making important choices about your own health.

Please watch the video at the top of this blog to find out more and then visit www.takingchargetogether.org.uk to fill in a quick snapshot survey for us.

Any information you give is confidential and you can even select a ‘Rather not say’ option if you prefer not to answer a particular question.

Next month we will also be hosting a community roadshow event in Oldham with Key 103 on March 7 on Albion Street (outside Tommyfield Market Hall) from 10am to 4pm. More details about this will follow soon in local media and all our usual channels.

Secondly this week, we’ve also signed a deal with Bridgewater Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to deliver services in our 16 children’s centres plus school nursing, health visiting and a family nurse partnership.

This three-year contract starts on April 1 and will be part of Right Start: an innovative new service which we’ve just launched. This will be working with families all the way through pregnancy and until a child starts school.

Right start 1
DEAL: Signing on the dotted line with Colin Scales, Chief Executive of Bridgewater Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

It’s a joined-up approach to these services and the realisation of a vision we’ve been working towards for some time.

Right Start will make it easier for families to contact professionals at every stage of their child’s development and will offer a service that is personal and tailored to their needs.

It’s about having a single service to help us to realise that ambition – recently referred to in the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report – of making sure all our children are ‘school ready’ and developing well.

Bridgewater will also be providing school nursing and oral health services – all supported by an integrated digital care record which will share information across services.

It’s an exciting development and part of that wider vision to reduce health inequalities, which is something we can all play a part in.

Finally – and also looking to the future – I will be going on-site at the Old Town Hall development to check on progress later this week.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been in the building so I’m really looking forward to seeing the work that is going on. I will share some photographs, updates and thoughts with you all on that next week.

Jean

Show there is a GM difference on Sunday trading

SUNDAY TRADING: Should opening hours be extended on ‘the day of rest’?
SUNDAY TRADING: Should opening hours extend on ‘the day of rest’?

SUNDAY IS a special day for the British public.

Although the day of rest had its origins in religion many people with no creed at all greatly value the time they get to spend with their families – or simply to relax away from the pressures of work.

The devolution of Sunday trading powers was a surprise to those of us involved in Greater Manchester’s deal with government.

We hadn’t asked for it and therefore we couldn’t carry out any kind of local consultation about how the power might be used before the announcement came.

With the devolution machine moving quickly the range of powers, responsibilities and the very important fair funding settlement hasn’t been clearly laid out.

The speed and nature of devolution locally has also led many people to ask who is making these decisions and what say do they actually have in it?

Extending Sunday trading opening times has the potential to be contentious even though, by and large, it has not been much of an issue over the last decade.

When council leaders met to discuss the proposed devolution of Sunday trading there wasn’t a big appetite for change, but there was an agreement that the economic case must be clearly demonstrated: as well as taking into account the wide range of views for and against.

This could be a good opportunity for Greater Manchester to show that there is a real difference when powers are devolved away from Whitehall to a more local level.

So what might that difference be?

Well, GM has already begun the process of commissioning independent research to explore the economic case of extended Sunday trading. It would have made sense for this to be a wider review from the outset, but it still isn’t too late to build on this.

There’s a chance the review will simply conclude that there isn’t a compelling economic argument to extend trading hours at all. In which case I suspect the matter won’t go any further.

But there is also a chance, of course, that the review will suggest there are economic benefits and those need to be considered.

TownCentre
WEEKEND: Do we really want shopping to become an almost 24/7 habit?

The GM difference, however, must be that we fully consider community, society and the rights of workers in this debate. This is not part of the assessment remit so far, but it simply cannot be ignored.

Usdaw, the respected trade union which represents many shopworkers the length and breadth of the country, is keen to make sure that those people working in shops have a voice in the debate too.

They have carried out important surveys which show the strength of feeling of many staff who don’t want to be pressured into working hours which will further impact on family life.

There’s a real opportunity here for Greater Manchester to show that there is a positive difference in how we tackle important issues and decisions like this.

Why don’t we set up a GM Sunday Trading Commission with representation from all of those who are affected by it? By including civil society, religious groups, trade unions and other retailers – like convenience store operators – we would have a much more active and representative debate: and better decision making.

We can’t go on repeating the mistakes already made by a disconnected – and often disinterested – Whitehall.

We can and must show that we will involve all those affected by the decisions we take and will give people a genuine voice in debates like this.

That should be the GM difference.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Courting controversy: Is there a Northern Powerhouse difference?

THE BENCH: Oldham Magistrates Court could close under the proposals.
THE BENCH: Oldham Magistrates Court could close under the proposals from the Ministry of Justice… 

PUBLIC sector cuts are biting and hurting the very fabric of our community.

When all that drives decisions is the rush to cut costs there will be consequences for residents and other public services.

Consultation has now ended on the Government’s proposals to close 91 courts and merge a further 31 across England and Wales.

This includes plans to close both Oldham Magistrates Court and Oldham County Court.

The rationale is narrow and focused solely on the departmental budget of the Ministry of Justice with little or no thought given to the knock-on effects this will have.

Firstly, access to justice and the right to be judged by our peers is a fundamental right of British citizens.

The more that the legal system removes itself from the communities it is there to serve the less likely you will be judged by your peers.

Secondly, the cost of our justice system is not met solely by the Ministry of Justice.

The judges and courts might be the supporting infrastructure but the impact is far wider.

For the police and local councils supporting victims, giving evidence and delivering well-informed and fairly balanced verdicts, the costs are considerable.

THE END? Oldham County Court is also under threat.
JUSTICE: Oldham County Court is also under threat.

Relocating the court from Oldham to Tameside or Manchester adds significant travel and waiting times.

This is not free time but a real cost to the public purse. It also means officers will be tied up longer meaning either more resources will be required or cases and investigations backlog – or even worse cases begin to collapse.

Looking at a judicial system solely from an estates point of view is wrong and misjudged.

Group Leaders in Oldham across all political parties have come together to fight the proposal.

We don’t believe that closing the two courts has been properly considered and of course we have an eye on the wider economic impact: the loss of public facilities, the loss of footfall in the town centre and the potential that some legal firms may also choose to relocate.

We know more than most about the pressures to balance your books and that’s why we offered a counter proposal, which you can read here.  

By bringing together the County and Magistrates courts into one building they can reduce operating costs and dispose of the redundant building but continue to offer access to justice to our communities.

We hope this plan is considered properly, but I fear it may not be.

Will a Whitehall official really take the time to look at a little town like Oldham?

Will we get lost in the consultation that covers the whole of England and Wales?

If the consultation is a genuine one then our counter proposal should hold weight.

We aren’t being stubborn here – we are showing maturity.

There is a wider question that in the new ‘Northern Powerhouse’ surely we locally should be making these decisions, not someone locked away in Whitehall?

Devolution can only work if it rests on strong foundations. With the cuts coming much quicker than the cash promised through devolution the very foundations it relies upon may quickly give way.

Is there a Northern Powerhouse difference?

The jury is well and truly out!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Old Friends returning – New friends found

SmokeYard 1
SMOKIN’: The newly-opened Smoke Yard restaurant on  Church Terrace, just opposite the Old Town Hall, is run by Ata Mubeen and Luke Rafferty who were schoolmates at St Augustine’s  

OLDHAM town centre is continuing to grow in confidence with an impressive and growing range of new shops, restaurants and attractions for people of all ages.

If Marks & Spencer signing the deal to come to Oldham last November was a symbolic pointer towards a brighter future then T J Hughes’ welcome return is another big boost to our morale.

For too long local people could only watch on helplessly in recent times as the town centre they knew started to change and the doom and gloom of decline set in.

As with many other towns, the new world of online retail, changing shopping habits  and national economic pressures meant far too many stores were closing and leaving large gaps on our High Street.

RenoavteShops
NEW LIFE: Renovated shops on Yorkshire Street

I’m not trying to suggest that Oldham is sorted yet – not at all – but I do think there is enough happening now to give us all grounds for hope.

This all makes me think back to the time when I visited a small town on holiday and started speaking enthusiastically about it to a local resident.

I began the conversation by saying how envious I was of them having the view they enjoyed every time they open their front door.

But the conversation quickly turned into a busman’s holiday as he began telling me all the problems he perceived with the place: from bins not being emptied to the water charges soon to be introduced.

I have the same perspective problem myself at times; and perhaps more than most given the job I do.

I too tend to notice the shop that has closed, rather than the surrounding units which are open. I also tend to notice the broken paving slabs, not the metres of perfectly finished surface I’ve just unconsciously strolled across.

Taking time to pause and reflect on that can be good for the soul. It gives you a clearer sense of perspective about what is good and clarity about what actually needs to improve.

TJ Hughes
BACK: T J Hughes has re-opened in Oldham

Last week I joined the hundreds of folk who visited the re-opened TJ Hughes and – yes, after leaving with the mandatory Vax Carpet Cleaner (!) – thought to myself that I hadn’t seen the shopping centre feel that busy for a long time.

TJ’s are also not alone in showing faith is what is now happening in our town centre.

We’ve recently welcomed the likes of the Entertainer Toy Store, Warren James Jewellery, Pep & Co and Ethel Austin in joining our line-up of main brand shops – and that’s as well as fantastic new independent retailers such as Suits Scoots and Boots.

The thing that excites me most though is when Oldhamers themselves set up shop here.

They know more than most people about our town centre and clearly many are recognising that something really positive is happening.

Right now we have potential clients literally queuing up for assistance to join the Independent Quarter – to the extent that we need extra staff just to deal with the enquiries and grant support.

JacksSmoke
HOT: Jack’s Smokehouse is proving popular on Yorkshire Street

Newly-opened restaurants like Jack’s Smokehouse and The Smoke Yard are the latest additions heading what is going to be an impressive list of people who believe that now is the time to invest here.

I can also tell you that ahead of the opening next year of the Old Town Hall with its seven cinema screens we’re getting some fantastic interest from national and local restaurant operators. Watch this space…

What I hope everyone will do in the meantime is to continue to get behind Oldham town centre and back it: from our indoor market with over 100 stalls, to the traditional outdoor market – and from our High Street to our Independent Quarter. And when people moan to you that “there’s nowt in Oldham”, please challenge them back.

We’ve already got big names like Debenhams, Next, River Island, H&M, BHS and others – and we’re soon to welcome a new M&S.

The town centre is now clean and well cared for, it has improved facilities like our play area where you can spend family time – oh, plus up to three hours of free parking on weekends – so why not give us a go?

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Fostering: Fantastic people – great rewards

2110416C-106
FOSTER CARE: Could you provide a young person with a supportive family environment?

I HAVE spent some of this week down in Brighton at the Labour Party Conference, but my thoughts are never far from Oldham.

One of the biggest challenges we face in the borough is encouraging residents to become foster carers and open up their homes.

It is a serious struggle – especially in the case of teenagers – to find those people who can play a vital role in helping young people to get a stable life, achieve the best they can at school and prepare them for adulthood.

It requires foster carers who are prepared to get involved in the emotional development of young people – which can bring its own trials and tribulations – but the rewards for doing it can also be absolutely fantastic.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some of the many inspiring and proud people that already do this work in Oldham.

They set a fantastic example and make a great contribution to our communities which is why this week I asked our Fostering Team to ‘guest blog’ and explain more about fostering and the opportunities on offer…

Oldham Council believes that the best place for children to live is with their own family. Sadly for some children, this isn’t possible.

When a child cannot live at home, the next best alternative is usually for them to live in a foster family.

Fostering is caring for someone else’s child in your home and doing all the things any good parent would do including making sure their health is good, helping them do well at school, and to maintain links with their family and friends.

Here in Oldham we have more than 140 households that care for around 230 children and young people, each doing a fantastic job. However, our greatest challenge is finding foster families for teenagers and children with complex needs. Sadly some of these children live in residential homes or out of borough in independent foster families, away from family and friends.

In order to bring these children back into the borough we have developed a new scheme called One2One fostering. This new service is for children or young people who have experienced significant neglect or trauma; and who are in need of specialist foster care.

One2One fostering provides a child or young person with a supportive family where they can build a trusting relationship with a foster carer whilst they receive therapy to help them to overcome traumatic experiences.

This is where we need your help and support. Maybe you have been considering fostering for some time, or know others who are interested. Equally, you may have not given the matter any thought – but please do so now.

Fosters carers in Oldham consistently tell us that fostering is life changing, not just for the child or young person but for themselves too.

Foster3Here’s what local carers Danny and Marie (pictured right) have to say:

“Rather than fostering younger children we wanted to foster teenagers. Teenagers are at the most important phase of their emotional and educational development. This is a traditionally tough time for them, but more so for those in care.

“The most rewarding experience so far has been helping a teenage girl to realise her full potential. She was mixing with the wrong group of peers and she was regularly excluded from school. After spending some time with her we discovered that she was incredibly bright and with support and a lot of determination she went from achieving U grades to A’s and B’s.

“Fostering is a vital part of society and it feels good to be part of it and give something back to your community. We wouldn’t change it for the world.”

You don’t need specialist qualifications to foster. Life experience and personal qualities can make a huge difference to a young person. All we ask is that you are aged over 21 and have room in your home.

Our team works extremely hard to make sure all our carers receive specialist training and support, plus a generous financial package of up to £29,000 per year.

If you would like to find out more, call 0161 770 6600 or go to http://www.oldham.gov.uk/fostering

Finally, we want to give a quick mention to our adoption team who recently received ‘Good’ in our Ofsted inspection.

Monday 19 October marks the start of National Adoption Week and we would like to hear from anyone interested in adopting older children, brothers and sisters or children with additional needs. Sadly, there is a shortage of adoptive parents coming forward for these children.

During National Adoption Week local authorities – and everyone who works in adoption – will be working together to highlight the plight of these vulnerable children and to help them find forever families.

If you could offer that gift to someone then please call 0161 770 6605 or go to www.oldham.gov.uk/adoption

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Heritage: A nod to our past

Lyceum 01
CHARACTER: Buildings like the Oldham Lyceum (above) are what gives a town centre a unique identity.

I HAVE written several blogs about the importance of valuing our heritage but this week the topic merits special attention.

On Monday night, Cabinet agreed to a new phased programme over 10 years to deliver our commitments to a new Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre – and to go much further and ensure a more secure future for several important heritage buildings in the town centre. Let me explain why… 

I will never forget the time a few years back when I first walked around the interior of the Old Town Hall.

The building had simply gone too far. The deterioration over the past two decades had caught up with it and the mixture of damp and dry rot had eaten through most of it.

IMG_9214_5_6_tonemapped (1)
CREST: A wonderful artefact from the Old Town Hall

Finding a modern day use to save that building has been no mean feat. It required vision, determination and a strong stomach to say the least.

As you’d expect I’ve made it my business since then to fully understand all the land and property assets owned by the council and then to look at their long-term future: both in terms of what each is used for and the current condition and any repairs that might be required.

I’ve paid particular attention to the buildings in Oldham town centre because – if you haven’t gathered this by now – we are determined to transform it into a place we can all be truly proud of.

Heritage isn’t just about bricks and mortar, it is about culture and identity; people and society.

Buildings are just an articulation of that but they are important because long after their uses have changed and people have moved on they still tell a story: a nod to our past, if you like.

Walking around the town centre you find that some of our best buildings are just self-selecting. They stand prominently. They demand attention.

Old Library 04
GEM: The old library building, Union Street 

That’s why it is vital that in developing our flagship Heritage Centre we will also secure the future of the Grade II-listed Old Gallery on Union Street.

In finding a new use for it, that also has the consequence of leaving the Old Post (and Telegraph) Office, the former museum, empty.

And while thinking about future uses it became clear to me that we need to think and plan differently. 

If the experience with the Old Town Hall has taught me anything it is that the cost of doing nothing is very expensive. Eventually you are forced to take action and the longer that takes the more expensive it will be to put it right, or to demolish.

We’ve now outlined a list of the heritage buildings we want to help secure the future of and I personally see these as essential if we are to have the town centre we aspire to have.

What makes Oldham stand out is that it is Oldham.

We don’t want or need an ‘off the shelf’ out of town retail park that feels like a chicken shed to replace our town centre. We want character and experience that gives people a reason to keep coming back.

We have now agreed that will we be paying particular attention to the following buildings:

DCIM101GOPRO

Oldham Lyceum;

Old Bank at Mumps;

Former Post Office and museum, Union Street;

Conservative Club, Union Street;

Masonic Hall, Union Street;

The Prudential Building, Union Street (pictured right);

The Town Centre Conservation Area – which includes the Parish Church and War Memorial.

In deciding to expand the Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre project to include a vision for our other heritage buildings, I hope the people of Oldham can see that we are serious about our obligations.

We are committed to making sure our future is built on solid foundations; our past.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Leader’s Annual Report: 2014/5

ANNUAL REPORT: Staff have worked incredibly hard to make a difference to people's lives.
ANNUAL REPORT: Staff have worked incredibly hard in the past year to make a difference to people’s lives.

I DELIVERED my Annual Report at last week’s meeting of Full Council.

I reflected on the eventful year we have had and the many challenges that lie ahead at local, regional and national levels – whether that is cuts to our funding as a council, Greater Manchester devolution or the state of the economy and the new measures introduced in the recent Emergency Budget.

You can watch my speech on a video link by clicking here and will need to fast forward the clip to 1 hr, 8 minutes and 30 seconds.

Alternatively, below is a summary of some of what I said about the huge amount of work Oldham Council has done in the past 12 months to help ordinary residents deal with the issues that affect them. .

RESIDENTS’ FINANCES

We knew we needed to step up and help local residents with the financial challenges so many are facing on a daily basis.

If you doubt that assistance is needed, think again. In the year to June, Oldham Foodbank has provided food for 3,716 adults and 1,620 children which shows that the pips are already squeaking in many family homes

New cuts announced in the Emergency Budget will also mean that benefit changes, changes to tax credits, thresholds, housing benefits and social housing payments and others will cost our local economy more than £58 million over the next four years. The worst-affected 2,000 families here will lose, on average, more than £3,800 a year.

We invested in our Welfare Rights Service Invested ahead of the implementation of Welfare Reform because we understood the huge impact this was going to have in Oldham.

In the last year that team has helped more than 1,100 residents with benefits advice, filling in forms, submitting appeals and representing them at tribunals.

This support saw a massive £2.3m extra brought into the borough’s economy during 2014/15 either through an increase in benefits for clients or backdated and one-off payments.

EMPLOYMENT AND INCOME

In the past year we’ve been doing our bit to stand up for people trying to find work and extra income.

Get Oldham Working TargetOur Get Oldham Working campaign – an unprecedented scheme with partners across all sectors – smashed its original target to create 2,015 jobs, apprenticeship and trainee opportunities, and did it nine months ahead of schedule.

To date 3,025 opportunities have been created, which includes 1,672 jobs and 475 apprenticeships. More than 2,200 of these opportunities have been filled, including 1,226 jobs, 286 apprenticeships and 162 traineeships.

We were again ahead of the curve – and Government – in introducing the Living Wage at Oldham Council. We gave a new £7.86 minimum hourly rate to 540 employees from April 1. The majority of those staff are Oldham residents in cleaning and catering posts and this was worth more than £800 a year to full time employees. Even at a time of severe budget challenges we recognise those people play an important role in delivering our services and deserve the respect of being paid a fair wage for it – which will also benefit the local economy.

We also recognised that Getting Oldham Working isn’t just about the number of jobs created – it’s about the quality of them.

That’s why we’ve been signing up businesses to our Fair Employment Charter. This campaign encourages local firms to commit to creating job opportunities that are fair, ethical, responsible and sustainable – not zero hours contracts, for example – and to give people good training support and prospects. We have several big local employers already on board including FCHO and Emmanuel Whitaker.

Another vital thing we’ve been doing is to embed ‘Social Value’ into all our activity.

To make every pound of the £225m we spend go even further we demand that contractors show how they will actively support the local economy in their bids, including sub-contracting.  This goes from the biggest to the smallest contracts we do. Barclays, as an example, now have our banking contract and provide social value through schemes like Life Skills and Money Skills projects – all aimed at helping young people to become more employable and manage money better.

We also know that even if you are in stable employment none of us are immune to a financial ‘rainy day’.

That’s why we launched Our House in June: the country’s first-ever payment store run by a not-for-profit business. This offers fair credit to families needing to buy important goods like furniture, appliances and electrical items. The FRC Group reinvests all profits back into business and weekly prices are up to 50 per cent lower than other high street rent-to-own stores.

HOMES AND GOOD PLACES TO LIVE

We’ve introduced a licensing scheme for private landlords to stamp out the letting of poor quality accommodation. Landlords must become licence holders and meet certain standards to rent properties out.

This is to challenge poor standards and management practices, including tenants’ anti-social behaviour. Four out of five of around 3,700 respondents to our consultation on these plans said it will improve their areas.

Another issue for tenants and homeowners is Fuel Poverty. Our national award-winning scheme, Warm Homes Oldham, has now lifted more than 1,900 people out of fuel poverty in its first two years. This is a full support package that includes energy efficiency and bill advice, grants for heating updates and insulation, energy switching, emergency heating, and benefit checks.

We have plans in place for thousands of aspirational homes to be built here that give real choice and variety to communities. When I talk about aspirational homes, I mean like those on the new St Mary’s Estate – our multi-award winning affordable housing development of 90 high quality homes built to highest specification and green standards. I mean something that offers a decent opportunity to residents regardless of income, tenure or circumstance.

Through ‘Working Extra’ we now give housing priority to people in work, volunteering or caring. This is to support residents’ who ‘do their bit’ and 80 per cent of homes at a new Keswick Avenue development, Fitton Hill, were recently allocated to people on that basis.

Through the Action Oldham Fund we’ve used dormant trust funds in excess of £1 million to let them be used for grassroots activities to improve neighbourhoods; like community growing schemes and projects to tackle ASB.

There is also our new Green Dividend scheme which funds allotments and tree planting projects to make communities better places to live through collective action.

THE FUTURE: YOUNG PEOPLE AND EDUCATION

Last summer I asked Estelle Morris to chair our new Oldham Education and Skills Commission. This has been looking at how we realign our education offer across the board with what the local economy needs, and testing whether what we’re doing is really supporting people into meaningful employment or future education.

Their final report is due soon and will set out a new Oldham Offer outlining what every pupil, parent, governor, teacher, business and partner should expect – and what each themselves needs to do – to contribute to improvement in young people’s prospects.

This month we have just delivered on another flagship pledge – the Oldham Youth Guarantee. That means for the first time here that every 18-year-old leaving school can access either continued education, training, apprenticeship, a job opportunity or be supported into self-employment.

We have also seen the expansion this year of Enterprise Hubs: a brilliant collaboration  with schools, students, businesses and other partners to stimulate entrepreneurship and create vital networking opportunities.

SUPPORTING BUSINESS AND SKILLS

Our strategy for Oldham is ‘invest to grow’ and businesses are hugely important partners in all our plans.

Successful regeneration and a growing economy will mean that more businesses will be paying business rates and more residents in work will be paying Council Tax. This will help us to protect frontline and vital services that people depend on.

Some examples of how we’re helping local firms include:

Warehouse to Wheels: The Logistics industry faces a national shortage of drivers with only a third of the numbers needed being trained each year, so we approached and co-invested money with European Social Fund and the Skills Funding Agency. Many warehouse staff or others want to get the Category C LGV licence but can’t afford the £2,000 costs. This month more than 50 of our first trainees will graduate from this scheme – and their success promotes further mobility and new opportunities for others in labour market.

IQuarterlogoIndependent Quarter: By investing £1m we are supporting a range of businesses – from bedroom start-ups to independent firms and social enterprises – into the blossoming new IQ in Oldham town centre. More than 60 applications have already been approved with a fast-growing range of shops breathing new life into the area. The scheme has been so successful that it now being rolled out to help revive district town centres in Failsworth, Shaw and Lees.

Oldham Enterprise Fund: This £1m cashpot has now processed more than 90 applications giving a range of practical funding help and expert support to start-ups and existing businesses.

THE VULNERABLE AND ELDERLY

Last October we spun out our Adult social care operation into two services.

Oldham Care and Support now delivers adult care services bought by the council on residents’ behalf and Oldham Care and Support at Home is now actively taking on and competing with private sector companies in the home care and personal assistance market. By bringing in additional business from self-funders, people who have the Independent Living Fund, and work from the health service and people switching from other private home care providers, we are protecting staff and ensuring the quality of the care they receive.

This year we’ve launched ‘Volunteering for All, a new project for residents who want to meet new friends or need help with daily tasks. This includes befriending, help with technology, shopping and everyday tasks, community clubs and travel companions. It’s a vital voluntary contribution to improving lives for all who take part in it.

And there can be few better examples of co-operative working than the Oldham Dementia Action Alliance. We teamed up with more than 30 organisations to create a scheme which had a target to sign up 500 people to agree to learn more about dementia in 45-minute training sessions.

After just three months it had created an astonishing 2,592 Dementia Friends in the borough prompting Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, to visit Oldham to see our pioneering work.

HEROES

War-MemorialOur town is full of inspiring and amazing people that include our regular national headline grabbers like Kevin Sinfield, Nicola White, Brian Cox or Simon Wood: all of whom deserve every plaudit they receive.

But we also have so many unsung heroes in our borough. People here are industrious and selfless.

For every one flytipper or rogue landlord or tenant we have dozens of fantastic people who deserve better and will play their part in improving the place.

That’s why we’re working so hard to help them – and why we’ll continue to leave no stone unturned in making 2015/6 another successful year for Oldham.

Thanks for listening,

Jim McMahon

One week on from Aylan Kurdi: What needs to change?

TRAGIC: every now and then in history a certain photograph captures the spotlight, makes the world think or leads to social changes – and we must seize this moment.

IT IS TIME to step up to our international and domestic responsibilities – and make fundamental changes to how we handle asylum seekers and refugees.

During the remarkable last few days – when one story has completely dominated the media – I have reflected long and hard on what it all tells us about the UK, our place in the world, and how our government deals with asylum seekers and our own communities.

Images of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi finally began to shake politicians and people across the world from a collective state of apathy on September 2.

His mother and five-year-old brother also drowned when their boat capsized as they tried to make a 13-mile journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. It instantly became the iconic depiction of the true impact of what is probably the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

I am both ashamed and embarrassed at this country’s continuing failure to show leadership and play its part in giving safe refuge to people fleeing such unimaginable danger.

I also have to be honest and say I’m equally frustrated by the fact that tens of thousands of other men, women and children who have already lost their lives in current conflicts haven’t had the same attention as Aylan’s story. How many thousands of equally harrowing images of refugees don’t go viral?

However, every now and then in history a certain photograph captures the spotlight, makes the world think or leads to social changes – and we must seize this moment because, while we cannot bring that little boy back, we can do much more to ensure others don’t die while the world watches on.

A picture paints a thousand words and like many others I was haunted and distressed at the images of Aylan face down in the water. I simply couldn’t get it out of my head and, on reflection, that is not a bad thing.

You cannot look away or be distracted by rubble, bombed out buildings or explain it away through the complexities of war and politics. And when public reaction becomes so strong, politicians pay attention.

I’m sure we can all agree that we need to work to find a better solution but while the international community continues to squabble the human cost – more senseless deaths – it’s one we cannot afford.

David Cameron was initially right to say that unless we deal with the conflict which is putting lives at risk we won’t solve the problem which leads to people fleeing their homeland. But he is also wrong to ignore the calls for us to step up and do what’s needed now.

On Monday the Prime Minister finally announced the UK will accept up to 20,000 people from camps surrounding Syria over the next five years, with priority given to vulnerable children.

Yet an estimated 340,000 asylum seekers have already arrived in Europe so far this year – most having taken that awful sea journey from North Africa and Turkey.

What about those refugees already here in Europe? Do we not have a moral responsibility to help out partners like Germany who have committed to taking in far more? To put it in context, around 18,000 new asylum seekers arrived in Munich last weekend alone.

The German Government says it will spend an extra £4.4bn to cope with this year’s record influx and – as part of that settlement state and local governments will get £3bn to help them house the 800,000 people expected to arrive there in 2015 and deal with the impacts of this.

The contrast with our own position could not be greater.

Our country and my town has a long and proud history of helping those escaping their own homeland in search of safe refuge. Those who came to Britain generations ago are now just as much part of Britain as the Prime Minister himself and contribute to our economic and social wellbeing.

But in stepping up and playing our part more actively in the international efforts we should also ensure the management and coordination of refugee and asylum seeker placements in the UK are done in an equitable way.

hOMEoFFICEBy any measure of success our current system is not working and the Home Office should in my view now end its contract with Serco, which places asylum seekers in homes on their behalf.

Serco is a private company with its own financial pressures and, as a result, it looks to place asylum seekers in the cheapest available housing.

Little or no regard is given to the impact from the moment new arrivals move in – in terms of ongoing costs to vital local support services, like schools and GPs – or the impact on the neighbourhood.

We know that when unmanaged and not properly understood, community change of any kind can lead to tensions which affect both the area hosting the new arrivals and those seeking safe refuge themselves. If government fails, they fail us all.

The current system is now broken. The Home Office and Serco are either incompetent, indifferent – or both – and they’ve lost the confidence of many local authorities they deal with.

It’s clear that the Prime Minister is being heavily influenced by concerns that ‘Britain can’t take any more’ but frankly I’d be amazed if the senior civil servants, Home Secretary or Mr Cameron himself have any understanding of the real situation on the ground.

The prime concern of the bean counters is to get this done as cheaply as possible and housing costs represent a significant part of the bill from accepting asylum seekers.

So when costs come ahead of community cohesion it is the case that Serco – aided and supported by the Home Office – simply focusses on areas with low housing costs.

This isn’t just about the national differences in rent levels because we are a diverse economy – it’s because demand is low, wages are low and those with choice opt to live in other areas.

The UK is not distributing asylum seekers evenly or fairly.

Some regions take far more than others and some take almost none.

Within regions some cities and towns take far more than others and again some will take almost none.

And within cities and towns some wards take more than other wards in the same city or town – bear with me…

And within wards some communities take far more than other parts of the same ward.

The reality is that the concentration of placements is neither evenly distributed nor does it take any account of pre-existing community tensions. For example, these same areas will already be changing because of economic migration, the changing face of the employment market and inherent low skills and low wages.

That’s why the North West is far more likely than the South East to take asylum seekers. Within the North West some cities take far more than others, and within those cities placements will be concentrated in a small part of the community.

But how can it seriously be justified that Oldham and Rochdale with a combined population of around 450,000 accommodate more asylum seekers than the whole of London and the South East combined, which is home to more than 17 million people?

As the world looks on to Britain’s response to this crisis it is important that we are seen to be part of the international community and filling a role as a moral and social conscience. And when we do that it is vital that we then implement it in a fair, equitable and competent way.

Local councils across the country know their communities best and can do more, but only if they are allowed to by government.

sERCO1I can’t be the only council leader that is sick of the Home Office and Serco paying lip service to community need and seeking the best for those in desperate need of safe refuge.

So to summarise there are – to me – five key lessons to learn here:

1). People, not numbers

It shouldn’t take a public campaign, event or movement for the UK to be humane. Every country in Europe should take its fair share and we should step up.

We should ensure that applications for asylum are dealt with in a timely way and that they are properly considered the first time round, not refused for little reason only for the applicant to secure leave to remain on appeal.

2). Region, Town or City doing their bit

Every town and city in every region of the UK should take its fair share of asylum seeker placements to ensure these are evenly distributed.

3). Local accountability

Local councils should be given the responsibility to place their allocation of asylum seekers. The funding currently given to Serco should be handed over direct to local authorities to cover the additional staff and services needed.

Councils should also be open and transparent about the number and distribution of asylum seekers they have – and be clear about the support provided to both asylum seekers and local communities where they are placed.

4). Fair Funding

We’ve been clear that Oldham will play its part but adequate funding should be provided to ensure  every region can afford to place its share of asylum seekers.

The true cost of support, education and healthcare should be covered by Government.

Housing costs in some areas will be much higher than others, but that is the reality of our unbalanced national economy and the failure to build enough homes, particularly social housing, over decades. Government should ensure that the budget for housing asylum seekers allows for all areas to play their part.

5). A long term solution

The use of temporary accommodation such as hotels and former care homes should be a last resort and only used when there is a genuine and unforeseen large intake of asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers should be given ongoing support, advice and guidance to help them to settle into the local community and see through their asylum application. We cannot just dump them here and abandon them until that process is complete.

My call is clear: Let’s fix the broken system which undermines community confidence.

Let’s remember the needs of people and communities should be central to decision making, not an afterthought.

And let us step up and be a good international neighbour.

Thanks for listening,

Jim