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.

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

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

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

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.

Audi
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

New Year Leader’s Message – 2016

newyear2016I’D LIKE TO wish all our residents a ‘Happy New Year’ for the last time in my capacity as Oldham Council Leader.

Later this month I’ll be stepping down to focus on my new role as the MP for Oldham West and Royton, but this does not mean I am moving on.

Instead I see this as ‘stepping up’ to represent the borough in a different way – championing your interests at Westminster, where we need a strong voice now more than ever.

I’ve also agreed to take on a new ambassadorial role to continue giving leadership on the regeneration programme here which will be entering a very exciting period in 2016.

We’ve had plenty of milestones in the last year with the opening of new Leisure Centres in Oldham and Royton, the North Stand at Oldham Athletic, FCHO’s new headquarters on Union Street, plus the blossoming of new businesses and creative ventures in the Independent Quarter, and much more.

In the coming months you’ll continue to see even further progress on projects that are there to ensure Oldham – and above all, its people – can prosper.

The developments I just mentioned are important parts of our ‘invest to grow’ programme of physical regeneration, but none are more symbolic of our aspirations than the Old Town Hall.

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FLAGSHIP: Contractors working to transform the Old Town Hall.

This is our flagship scheme and the sense of anticipation is growing with every new steel strut, column and window.

When work to rejuvenate this venue is complete, when families are queuing to end a decade-long wait for cinema tickets, when doors open at its six new restaurants, and when the first cappuccinos are frothed for visitors to the adjacent Parliament Square, it will be a hugely-significant moment for Oldham.

This is a development to put the town centre back on the map: to reawaken this grand old building and its surrounds and restore it to its rightful place as a symbol of civic pride.

That will be a powerful moment in 2016, but I know it really only marks the end of the beginning of the longer journey that lies ahead.

Much remains to be done because we’re still facing a range of challenges to our future prosperity and wellbeing.

In 2015 at Oldham Council we finalised the process of finding £35m in cuts for our 2015/6 budget and then almost immediately set about finding a further £18m of savings for 2016/7. We know these cuts are having a real impact on residents and services – and our partners – despite our determination to continue delivering and supporting people.

BudgetInfog1The cuts – more than £200 million since 2010 – have been accompanied by rising demand for help from our most vulnerable residents and will be further compounded by new Government plans to remove central funding that will effectively leave towns like ours to ‘sink or swim’ on our own resources.

That’s why so much hard work has already being going on in key projects that aren’t about bricks and mortar, but about social regeneration.

When I say that I’m thinking of schemes like Get Oldham Working, which beat its original target to create 2,015 jobs, apprenticeship and traineeships with nine months to spare this year.

I’m also thinking about the introduction of the Living Wage for council staff, the new Fair Employment Charter, which is designed to tackle issues like ‘zero hour’ contracts, and our work to put social value – ensuring contractors support our local economy – at the heart of every pound we spend.

Another huge challenge is providing people with homes and good places to live. This year we began our licensing scheme for private landlords to stamp out the letting of poor quality accommodation, and continued to fight fuel poverty through projects like Warm Homes Oldham, from which around 2,000 homes have benefited.

Construction has also begun on new homes at sites across the borough and we’ve introduced a Green Dividend scheme to help fund tree planting and other projects to make neighbourhoods better places to live.

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ESTELLE MORRIS: Launching the Oldham Education and Skills Commission at Stoneleigh Primary School.

Crucially, the focus will turn to our future – young people and education – later this month when the Oldham Education and Skills Commission (OESC) delivers its landmark report.

We’re working hard to deliver better facilities like the new Hollinwood Academy, Saddleworth School and the new three form entry primary school currently under construction on the former Grange site, but education isn’t just about an inspiring learning environment: it’s about every child getting the best chance to fulfil their potential.

We know we can – and must – do better here because successful schools and training underpins all our ambitions to become a place where people want to live and work.

The new OESC report will clearly set out the challenge that lies ahead: how to ensure our young people are school ready, work ready and life ready and we all have a part to play in that.

JimMcMahonOBEFinally, I give you my word that as an MP I will be retaining as close an interest as ever in our progress on education and many other areas – including to ensure that we benefit fairly from devolution to Greater Manchester.

I’m determined to continue to help drive things forward in our borough and make sure that we continue to innovate and change so we can deliver for tomorrow’s generation.

Councillor Jim McMahon OBE
Leader of Oldham Council
MP for Oldham West and Royton

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