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 reallymatters 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
YOU MAY have already heard that the leaders of Greater Manchester’s ten councils met last week to appoint an Interim Mayor.
It was a long and involved process and I believe genuine efforts were made to try and be as open as possible in making what is an appointment for a temporary position, rather than an election by public vote of a full-time Mayor.
I have put on record before that I believe more time should have been allowed by government for there to be an early public debate about this new role and devolution from Whitehall to Greater Manchester.
But I do strongly believe that the case is compelling and that the opportunity to be the masters of our own destiny is far better than us being told what to do by civil servants in London.
Oldham’s voters haven’t been exposed to a referendum on whether or not they support the idea of a directly elected Mayor.
Some people who are against the idea of elected mayors wrongly say that “Greater Manchester rejected a mayor” but they are, of course, referring only to the City of Manchester and some other boroughs. The truth is that there hasn’t been a vote across the whole of Greater Manchester on the introduction of a GM Mayor.
This does also pose a big question for the rest of the country.
It can’t be acceptable for the Chancellor to say that the ‘old way of doing things is broken’ and then only allow a new system for some parts of the country.
Even in areas where city or county deals have been struck there is little logic in the packages being offered – a result of the closed deal making which has been the hallmark of devolution under this Government.
But I’m also a pragmatist.
I’d sooner have a directly elected mayor agreed through a negotiated package of devolution without a public referendum than just refuse the new powers. The offer on the table is significant and it shouldn’t be underestimated.
It is likely there will be limited room for the Interim Mayor to really get things going because, understandably, the public and other elected councillors will want to see who comes forward for the elected position. With an engaging debate and election period to come – including a good spread and calibre of candidates across all parties and interests – that could help to build public support and accountability.
But there is also a real job to do now – and it is vital that we get it right.
Not all powers which are due to be devolved will be handed to the Interm Mayor. Health devolution for instance – which makes up the vast majority of public spend – is being devolved to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and to each of the ten local councils. Ensuring the attention to detail, partnership and true buy in from each area will be critical to our shared success.
I’d like to congratulate Tony Lloyd who has already served us well as Police and Crime Commissioner and will continue to do so as Interim Mayor. A heartfelt thanks also goes to Lord Peter Smith as the Chair of the Combined Authority for the leadership and dedication he has shown, which has helped to get us so far.
Let’s use this time well, engage the public and show the UK that devolution can be used to create a fairer economy – and one which benefits all communities.
THE QUEEN’S Speech was laced with lots of rhetoric about devolution and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ but in reality it’s what lies beneath those top lines that will really matter to us all.
This isn’t the Queen’s Speech, of course, it is written by ministers, and it always has added significance after a General Election.
It is the list of laws that the government hopes will be passed by Parliament in the coming year and – given that we’ve all just been to the ballot boxes after months debating priorities and direction – there were few surprises.
What remains, however, are many unanswered questions not necessarily about what the government plans to do, but how it will fund it.
The General Election campaign produced a host of promises with very little clarity on exactly where cuts will be made and that detail will be the battleground for the Parliamentary year ahead.
Many of us in local government do at least welcome the appointment of Greg Clark as the new Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government – replacing Eric Pickles.
Greg is pro-devolution, sensible and will hopefully not be as keen as his predecessor to offer the sector up for deeper and harder financial hits.
But whether it is Mr Pickles or Mr Clark at the Cabinet table, the message from local government will be the same: there is simply no fat left to cut. Further reductions will have clear consequences for communities and services – and that means residents can no longer be shielded from their impact.
Since 2010 councils have had their budgets reduced by 40 per cent on average with real terms spending on service provision reduced by more than 50 per cent in some areas. Oldham has already had a £141 million cut in funding and must find another £60 million by 2017. That’s a total of £201 million – or half of our funding. That not only has serious consequences for the most vulnerable of our folk, it also puts additional strain on social care, community life and our local NHS.
Earlier this month I signed a letter to the Observer newspaper with 375 other council leaders of all political colours. We urged the new government that further cuts in our funding simply cannot be a option in the next ‘wave of austerity’ if our services are to survive a further five years.
Councils like ours can only ensure that elderly and disabled people receive the care they need, that young people are equipped with skills to find local jobs, that desperately needed homes are built, that roads are maintained and bins are collected, if they are properly and fairly funded.
This Queen’s Speech is a double-edged sword for local government and Oldham. I believe in devolution – and in more local accountability and control over the services we use – and the government’s Cities Devolution Bill will go some way to delivering decentralisation from Whitehall to big cities like Greater Manchester.
The promise of greater powers over housing, transport, planning and policing to our cities can only be positive news. We must, however, continue to work with the government to ensure this downwards trend of power sharing reaches every corner of the country.
The government has a devolution model for our cities now, but where is the plan for our non-metropolitan areas that create 56 per cent of our entire economic output? If the system is broken why keep it in those areas?
Towns like Oldham also know only too well about the need for more homes and we’ve worked tirelessly to get this moving with strong partnership schemes like those at Primrose Bank, North Werneth, St Mary’s and others to come, like the plans for the former Hartford Mill. But all councils will find it hard to play their part if the government continues to attack their capability in this area.
Disappointingly this Queen’s Speech focused not on how to spur local authorities or incentivise homebuilding, but how to encourage existing renters to buy their housing association home – a policy which has very clear echoes from another era.
The government has promised that every housing association home sold under the newly evolved ‘right to buy’ scheme will be replaced one-for-one with a new property. It is absolutely vital to places like Oldham that this promise is kept. We will be holding them to account on this because we simply can’t afford to see another generational loss of housing stock with ever-growing waiting lists.
In London, for example, there are currently 255,000 households on social housing waiting lists – slightly bigger than the entire population of our borough – and this penchant to promote private home ownership cannot be allowed to stop us delivering the next generation of affordable homes.
The government’s drive towards forced academisation of schools will also be strengthened by this Queen’s Speech with schools judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted being forced to convert and a new Regional Schools Commissioner being established.
Locally we’ve taken action to identify and tackle our education and skills challenges by setting up a special commission, chaired by Estelle Morris. We know we’re very much at the start of a long journey with that but, contrary to government thinking, I believe the support of local councils for schools is essential to their success.
Whitehall lacks the capability and local knowledge to oversee the 4,400 academy schools already established in England and councils like us need the powers to quickly hold any failing schools to account, regardless of their status.
The Queen’s Speech likely signals the start of an even tougher period for our communities, especially in the provision of services to the most vulnerable, but we must also remain positive.
Here in Oldham we have much to look forward to in the years ahead as our regeneration programme pays off – and we will continue to fight for the fair deal you deserve.
THE ELECTIONS have now finally passed and I suspect most people have now settled back into ‘normal life’.
As the dust settles we will all reflect on the campaign – nationally and locally – to understand the results and also to plan ahead for what it means to our country and, of course, to our borough.
I am fearful for what another five years of cuts might mean for Oldham and for the public services that we rely on.
But there will also undoubtedly be new opportunities for our borough too with full force devolution to Greater Manchester – in particular on health, skills and transport, with the prospect of us having much more say over the public services and investments which affect all our communities.
What we must be clear about is that while devolution is welcome it cannot be seen as a solution to deep cuts to council budgets.
With the added weight of more power and responsibilities here we must ensure that the foundations on which those opportunities are placed are strong and secure.
We must also make sure that although the pressures facing the council are significant, we do not lose our focus on regenerating Oldham, creating new jobs and providing better quality homes, schools and decent care for the elderly.
And as those candidates who were unsuccessful on May 7 are getting back to their normal lives, I can tell you that things have barely stopped since for those of us who elected.
Immediately following the elections all political groups must meet to appoint lead members for posts on the Cabinet and Committees, and then prepare for the Annual Council meeting which took place this afternoon.
That leads me to pay tribute and offer many thanks to our outgoing Mayor Fida Hussain and his wonderful wife of 25 years, Tanvir. Both came into their roles fully realising that for 12 months year they would be utterly giving themselves up to Oldham as they represented the borough.
After attending more than 500 community events, facing Fida’s fear of heights (!) and raising over £43,000 for charities including Dr Kershaws, Mahdlo, Christies and the Voluntary Action Oldham fund, they can be well satisfied with their efforts.
My very best wishes also go now to our new Mayor and Mayoress Ateeque Ur Rehman and Yasmin Toor.
Finally, as part of the business at Annual Council, we confirmed our commitment to meeting our firm election pledges which have now been incorporated into a new Corporate Plan for Oldham Council which you can now view or download from our website by clicking here.
Last week saw a major step forward in the push for decisions to be made locally.
At the start of the week the news broke that plans to devolve decisions over healthcare in the region were imminent. And then on Friday came the ground-breaking announcement of plans to bring together health and social care budgets worth £6 billion.
This puts local people firmly in control of future health and care services that suit the region.
I am clear decisions made about services which effect people should be made by, or as close to that community as possible, and have democratic accountability.
We must now use the next 12 months during the ‘transitional stage’ to involve local people, health professionals and ALL councillors in the changes that will follow.
In many respects the changes all get obsessed about (governance) but most people don’t give much attention to them, they just want it to work. When they need social care or health treatment they rightly expect the system to work.
But there are too many stories of people falling through the gaps between services, departments and the complex number of organisations. Any sense that the NHS is ‘one’ today is very far from reality. It’s complicated and while in some cases that might be for good reason, for the public they just want a system that puts them first.
We all have our own ambitions for this and together with my own desire to see services formed around people, not institutions. I also want to see an equal relationship between the government, the public, NHS staff and other public services.
Success for me would be to see the hardworking employees who provide in home care for mainly older people treated with the same respect as those caring in hospitals. Decent wages and terms and conditions will mean they can be held by members of the public in the same respect and admiration as NHS staff (quite rightly) have earned.
Here’s what the deal says:
The deal sees NHS England, 12 NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, 15 NHS providers and the 10 local authorities, including Oldham, agreeing a framework for health and social care – with plans for joint decision-making on integrated care to support physical, mental and social wellbeing.
This is an early step on the road for the devolution of decisions and budgets to regional level and it is welcome. By devolving power away from the distant Whitehall civil servants to locally accountable councillors and health and social care professionals we believe we can create a better and more efficient way to deliver services that are arranged around people, not institutional silos. Health and Social Care has some of our best and highly-regarded frontline workers and they, like us, recognise there are gaps in the current system which can only be resolved through true integration.
We need to balance this opportunity though. It is all too easy to get carried away into building more layers of bureaucracy and slowing down a system that is already under pressure to the point of breaking. It is also vital that we don’t rush into expensive reorganisations and restructures – that would be a big mistake.
We need to go into this with our eyes and ears open. We need to listen to the public and ensure that their needs and voices are part of the ongoing discussions. We also need to keep our eyes open as leaders and make sure we have the full picture so we can make vital decisions on a crucial part of people’s care – now and in the future.
There is a lot to be said for ‘better together’ and here in Greater Manchester we can be proud of what we have achieved by working together. We have one of the best tram systems in Europe and many leading institutions such as the BBC and the Imperial War Museum have chosen to locate here.
We must be clear, however, about the major challenges still facing us.
As a conurbation our local economy under-performs compared to similar areas in the rest of Europe. We actually receive more from central government than we currently raise in taxes and too many of those who could contribute to our success choose to make their futures elsewhere.
The ongoing discussion about an elected mayor and devolution for Greater Manchester needs to be firmly focused on addressing these key concerns – and how we can help create prosperity locally.
The Combined Authority working in real partnership will have a budget of billions of pounds. It cannot be a talking shop and it has to be clearly very accountable to the public.
The real opportunity is that locally we can begin to exert more control over the billions spent in Greater Manchester by unaccountable national quangos and ensure that our housing and employment programmes can meet real local needs.
The public aren’t calling for more politicians – there’s no public appetite for that – and it’s absolutely right that we’re incorporating the existing Police and Crime Commissioner role, saving money and avoiding duplication.
With a £50 billion economy and a population of 2.7 million, Greater Manchester has led the national debate on political devolution from Westminster.
There was a tipping point on the devolution debate. A point where the assumption was in favour of devolution over Whitehall control was accepted as the norm. I believe with this announcement we’ve seen the tipping out.
And if the assumption is devolution we now need to look at other areas where Whitehall has failed to reform services. I’ll put a marker down for the Department for Work and Pensions right now.
Our task now is to take the people with us and create a city region leadership that can contribute to our economic success and a brighter future for all our residents.
DEVOLUTION to Greater Manchester has not arrived overnight.
This has truly been a hard fought process, so it would be churlish of me not to reflect, first of all, that this is a momentous week.
As the great and good – and myself(!) – travelled to Manchester Town Hall on Monday we were still reviewing the very last minute details of the ‘deal’ with Government which was to go before us all for final agreement.
For Greater Manchester this means more power will now be in the hands of those who directly represent the community.
For local government it also means that the devolution debate has now finally moved on.
My own view is this package of £1 billion pounds of financial devolution across a range of responsibilities represents good progress.
But it should really only be considered a decent starting point – and it is certainly not the end game.
Why? Well, it’s important to put that £1bn into context for starters.
Over the life of the current settlement this is actually less than the budget cuts that are faced by Greater Manchester councils, which will stand at around £1.2bn.
The package of new powers coming down to us on housing, transport, skills and the economy – as well as health – is also a good foundation to build on.
But that, of course, is only the case provided that this is genuine devolution and not some poisoned chalice whereby cuts coming further down the line are a sweeter pill for the Treasury to swallow because someone else now has to make the tough decisions needed.
I’m thinking, as an example, about the funding of adult skills: an area where colleges are already struggling incredibly hard to balance the books in the face of constant change.
Since the establishment of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011 it has become apparent that simply bolting on new structures, committees and changing job titles is not the way for us to run an efficient organisation.
But in a drive to remove layers and modernise we must also not create a distant elite.
The role of all councillors in Greater Manchester in contributing and holding to account the work of the City Region is especially vital if we are to get more responsibilities.
For me, the move to a directly-elected mayor with responsibility for the whole of the city region is not an answer in itself. But if this is used to clean up a confusing and disjointed system then it could well give the people of Greater Manchester the ability to hold those making decisions on their behalf to account.
We must be very clear, however, to all members of the public about what this organisation does and how much it costs too.
People know how much the police costs them because, like the Fire and Rescue Authority, it appears on their Council Tax bills.
They also know how much the Waste and Transport Authorities cost because they also appear as a levy to each council.
Each body knows its budget and sticks to it.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, operating through the Combined Authority, needs to have that same level of accountability and openness about the true cost of this new layer of local government.
And it cannot be right that to fund this new office each council should have to cut their own budgets further to fund a whole new army of civil servants, special advisors and the like.
Equally there will also be understandable fears that the identity of each district may be diluted – Manchester Borough of Oldham anyone? – or the different needs of each town may be lost in a bid to bring us all closer together.
That’s why I believe that protection of the sovereignty of each council is absolutely vital here if we’re serious about this being a process that sees powers drawn further down, rather than each council giving power up and taking it even further away from the communities it serves.
Personally I remain unconvinced there is a public appetite for another politician, directly elected or otherwise, to take charge across the City Region.
I also take exception to the imposition of this deal by an appointed Chancellor who, let’s not forget, controls £732 billion and is forcing a directly-elected Mayor on Greater Manchester for a price of just £1bn, which is 0.13 per cent of UK Government spend.
The real battle here though isn’t about convincing politicians of the merits of this deal, it’s about explaining it and showing the merits to the public.
I’d say that will only happen if we show what good can be achieved as the answer to the ‘so what?’ question.
For this deal to ultimately succeed we must build on it very quickly and continue the fight to get as much fiscal devolution as possible – because power without resources is actually no power at all.
There’s no denying these are fascinating times, however, and there’s little doubt that the prospect of being the Mayor of Greater Manchester with its £50 billion economy and its 2.5 million people represents a fantastic role which should attract a credible field of potential candidates.
But, please, let’s hear no more of this talk about GM getting our own ‘Boris’. That,
I suspect, could put off even the most harded supporter of regional mayors.
To finish on a different note, I also wanted to let people know about the activity taking place across our borough this week to tackle the problem of illegal money lenders (aka loan sharks) in the run up to Christmas.
Oldham Council is working with Greater Manchester Police and the England Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT) encouraging people of all ages to celebrate the festive season without falling prey to local loan sharks.
We want to raise awareness of the dangers borrowers face, not only in terms of the high interest repayments, but also the all-too-often extreme collection methods that are used, including violence, threats and intimidation. These illegal lenders are a blight on our neighbourhoods and communities – and are not welcome in a co-operative borough like Oldham.
We also want to ensure people know that there are responsible lenders available out there, such as the Oldham Credit Union (OCU).
Anyone can sign up to the OCU which offers residents access to fair and straightforward financial services, including secure savings and affordable loans.
This week also sees the start of two exciting new OCU initiatives. In partnership with Villages Housing, it will be launching a Community Collection Point at Fitton Hill and also a Junior Savings Club at Beever primary school.
I wish both schemes the best of luck and strongly encourage people in those communities to get behind them. For more information about OCU log onto www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk or call 0161 678 7245.
Please don’t get bitten this Christmas. And if you think a loan shark may be operating in your area call the confidential hotline on 0300 555 2222.
And finally – just a quick reminder…
Please get yourself and your loved ones along to The Big Bang on Oldham Edge for a real treat on Bonfire Night. This is a great free family event for Oldham and you can find all the information you need by clicking here.
WHEN we signed up to become a Co-operative Council we pledged to devolve more power and decision making to local communities and to promote ward councillors as Local Leaders.
We’re now in the middle of that transition and it is interesting observing how it plays out with different members.
Notably, most of the public haven’t yet seen the difference between the old local committee system and local leaders – not in a meaningful way at least.
Having said that, I’ve genuinely seen real examples of councillors working at a grassroots level to support community groups, residents association and local events in a very positive way.
This to me is what it is all about.
If all we do is just create a local committee which is insular and doesn’t engage with the community then we have failed.
With most of the District Town Halls up and running and staff now based locally in the community we have taken the first step.
Now we are reviewing which services best lend themselves to being directed at a local level. Highways, parks, youth service and community safety are some examples, but there will be others.
With the next Full Council meeting fast-approaching (November 7) some members are now requesting that we move back to the old committee system of governance.
I can see why some members want to return to the safety blanket of a system they’ve been used to (even though no member on the Council since 2001 would have experienced it!) but I do wonder what is really driving this.
Cabinet Members here can be held to account through the scrutiny system. Plus – with the new Cabinet Advisory Panels – all members can have a say on policy even before decisions are taken.
With devolution increasingly less decisions will be made in the ‘ivory tower’ so, whilst a host of internal committees may make members feel important, I think it’s much more meaningful to have local members making decisions on the issues that directly affect their constituents. That way the power is actually with the local community.
In the same way that backbench councillors can hold Cabinet to account, residents can now do exactly the same through our ‘Community Call In’ system – which is the first in the country.
We’re also the first Council nationwide to give constitutional powers to the Youth Council – and the first to give youth councillors the power to raise motions at Full Council.
For devolution to work it will, no doubt, take hard work and mean a change in culture – but it’s one that I think is absolutely necessary.
So why don’t all councillors get that and some want to change back? Back to the Future was a great film trilogy – but it’s not a great idea for Oldham Council.
With the changes we’ve made we have been judged the Most Improved Council in the country: quite a change from only a couple of years ago, but some people seem to want to reverse that.
Some fear change and we need to do more to show them their place in the future as Local Leaders who make a difference in the community they were elected to serve,
Others might perhaps believe they have done well from the Council being insular and self serving, alongside the patronage and positioning that perhaps gives a comfortable lifestyle.
I don’t want to be part of a Council which only gets noticed for being the worst and I have no interest in one purely justifying its own existence.
The Council should be an extension of the community it serves and be outward-acting as ambassadors who make a positive difference to the town and its people.
Needless to say I won’t support any move back to the outdated committee system. It’s symbolic to me of some members wanting to go back to being even more out of touch, insular and irrelevant.
There’s still a long way to go – we are not where we need to be yet by any means – but I’m determined we keep heading in the right direction.
A couple of last things before I go this week…
Last Friday I attended the reopening of the Coliseum Theatre which was a real treat and a great evening of entertainment. The refurbishment was urgently needed due to the aging heating system putting the ability for the company to remain in Oldham at serious risk.
The theatre is now secure for many years to come and will continue to bring visitors from near and far – and that can only be a good thing for our Borough.
Finally, please do two important things in the week ahead….
Firstly, take your families and friends along to enjoy a fantastic, free and safe event on Bonfire Night at Boundary Park (6pm onwards). Visit www.oldham.gov.uk/bonfire for more information.
And secondly – with winter drawing in – please join our Energy Switching Scheme. This now has more 1,000 registered residents, has been adopted by all the Greater Manchester local authorities, and could save you up to £200 on your annual fuel bills.
‘USE IT or lose it’ is an old maxim but it’s one that couldn’t be more relevant right now to the future of your public services, amenities and choice.
It’s been at the forefront of my mind in recent days when holding discussions on Oldham town centre, and about Greater Manchester Police’s plans to close station front desks across the region.
Hopefully you’ll have read elsewhere by now about our plans to introduce what is effectively three months of free parking on Council-owned car parks on Saturdays from mid-October to mid-January, 2012.
After listening to the many concerns expressed to us in recent weeks this is a move unashamedly designed to boost town centre trade during a critical period.
For Oldham Council it’s also about showing leadership to help businesses and residents feeling the pinch.
To my mind all town centres – not just Oldham – still haven’t found answers to the questions posed about their futures since out-of-town retail parks and super/mega-markets began sprouting nationwide in the 1990s.
However, according to a recent survey, Oldham town centre – with a 16 per cent rate of vacant shop units – is actually performing better than its North West neighbours (who average 19 per cent).
I also genuinely believe our town centre offering (i.e. not including retail parks) is better than the likes of Rochdale and Tameside, and that if it was a retail park the brand names you’d see on the billboards – ‘Debenhams, H&M, Topshop, River Island, Primark, Next etc’ – would have traffic queueing in a snake like it usually is at Elk Mill on Saturdays.
But I’m also a realist. We can’t sit here and fiddle.
I know that a town centre affected by the Metrolink roadworks, and where you must also pay to park, isn’t a good mix at present. And although the Council does rely on that car parking revenue, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.
What I’m equally clear about is that we need to measure the true value of this ‘free parking’ pilot when it ends next year.
The question will be: Did this significantly boost trade or would that same money have been better spent on other methods to promote the town centre, like hosting festival events and on-street entertainers, or better marketing?
The unavoidable bottom line here though is that if residents want a viable town centre then they have to take advantage of this offer and visit it to do their shopping.
If they don’t then the implications for traders in this climate are pretty clear and there’s no politician alive – however much energy they might expend – who can shield businesses from what their spreadsheets and bank managers are telling them.
So with Oldham town centre, I’d say it’s very much up to you: ‘Use it or lose it.’
That simple choice is also relevant (in the past tense) to the recent debate about GMP’s proposals to close police station front desks across Greater Manchester to save £1.5m a year.
These counters serve two purposes right now – acting as a practical reporting point for the public, and providing visible reassurance of policing activity in our communities.
But the public can’t reasonably demand that something is kept open if – as GMP’s figures suggest – they’re not actually using it.
GMP’s survey showed a fall in desk visits from 1 million to around 500,000 in the past two years. They also estimated that 47 per cent of visits were generated by the police themselves – e.g. pre-arranged appointments that could be diverted elsewhere.
In Oldham – at opposite ends of the Borough – the case to keep the desks open was unconvincing. Failsworth station in 2009, as an example, was getting 1.7 visitors per hour, and none on the day surveyed in 2011.
Up in Saddleworth the Uppermill front desk this year was only averaging 1.13 visits per hour and – for that one visitor – these desks cost about £100 per visit to accommodate. Clearly the reassurance provided to the community can’t be quantified just in visitor numbers and I have made that point to GMP during a meeting with Greater Manchester leaders last week.
Right now we’re in discussions with GMP to mitigate these closures in our Borough and see how we might use our six new district town halls to fill some of this gap: enabling people to report crimes, for example.
But in the financial climate that all public services are now operating in, ‘Use it or lose it’ remains a burning topic for us all.
There’s a debate to be had here about how much value something genuinely adds to your day-to-day life as a resident – and it applies now to so many things that we’ve all grown to take for granted over the years: like police station front desks, libraries, and recycling centres, for example.
So, a busy week all in all. Not least because my son Harry turned three on Tuesday focusing my mind on why I joined the Council in the first place – to make our Borough the best it can be for the next generation and beyond.
ECONOMIC concerns are again driving this week’s headlines and deadlines.
The cut in the UK growth forecast to just 1.1 per cent for 2011 is just the latest reminder, as if one were needed, of the challenges that all of us are facing.
Everyone across our Borough – residents, staff and businesses alike – are looking over their shoulders and trying to protect their bottom line.
For most people that means constantly monitoring mortgages, pensions, savings, income and bills – and looking at how to cut costs with the minimum impact on your welfare.
The challenge is exactly the same for Oldham Council.
Our balancing act is to find £24 million in savings from next year’s budget whilst continuing to invest in priority areas for residents, plan for the future and protect the frontline services that you depend upon.
This week we’ve launched our consultation exercise with the public to discuss exactly how we can achieve this.
Oldham Council’s challenges are the same as every other Authority – to wrestle with becoming a leaner organisation that will have to work very differently – and we simply can’t sit here with our fingers in our ears wishing the problems will go away.
It would also be unforgivably arrogant for us to assume that our management team and Councillors have a monopoly on good ideas or common sense – and that’s where you come in.
I’d urge everyone reading this to please take five minutes of your time to visit the new Budget Consultation pages at www.oldham.gov.uk/budgetand give us your feedback. This explains our income sources and where we are currently spending every penny of your money.
The Council administers this budget on your behalf and that’s exactly why we need to make our final decisions based on what you tell us are your priorities, – and also what is not(!).
This cycle of finding savings and reducing spending is one that Oldham Council will continually be facing for many years. But as I told employees at last week’s Staff Conference, we must stay focussed and be positive about what this will mean. It needn’t all be doom and gloom…
As we look towards launching our vision of what becoming a Cooperative Council means for Oldham next month, I want staff to start embracing the opportunities to change for the better.
With more powers and budgets being devolved downwards, the staff we are redeploying to the six new district Town Halls will work closer than ever before with residents.
That means they will no longer be shackled by a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and therefore also means they should start to feel more empowered.
It’s surely going to be better for everyone if we enable staff to proactively change the ways they work with the people they’re serving – and if they’re finally liberated to find smarter solutions with less bureaucracy that better meet the differing priorities within each district.
I also explained to Council staff about our new commitment – as part of the Cooperative approach – to enable them to invest time back into the community.
We’re going to allow staff to take three days of paid leave annually to put something back into the local area to support groups and initiatives where their expertise can make a big difference. That might be someone in our finance team helping a local charity apply for grant funding or do their books, for example, or someone from our Environmental/Parks teams assisting them with a community garden, clean-up or allotment scheme.
Essentially, this is the spirit of what a Cooperative Borough should look like. Everybody working together – public sector, hand-in-hand with residents, plus the voluntary and private sectors – to achieve a common goal that improves the place.
I also want to put improved aspirations at the top of our agenda as an Authority.
My vision from here is that every apprentice starting work at Oldham Council should be able to aspire to climb all the way up to the top, and become Chief Executive.
In a generation’s time I would like to see the majority of senior management in the Council to have been produced from – and thereby be closer to needs and aspirations of – this Borough.
Another crucial part of this Cooperative jigsaw – beyond staff and residents – will be to make Ward Members more effective.
We recently held our first session with councillors of a new Local Leaders Programme, which aims to help them become more responsive and valued community figures.
There was a vastly differing mix of experiences and lengths of time served amongst all present at this event, but the ideas discussed were well received.
Across all the political parties it was very clear to me that our Ward Members do believe in the Borough, and that we need to do more to support them.
Giving them the powers and the budgets to do things that make a real difference in their area is key to the devolution agenda, but it’s not the whole answer.
Being a Councillor is not a profession – it’s a vocation and there is no defined ‘career path’ into it. That’s why we need to support and enable them all to perform better through appropriate training and development.
Finally today – on a very different tangent – I’m pleased to report that good progress is being made by Langtree, with whom Oldham Council recently signed a development agreement to revitalise Hollinwood.
Langtree has already moved quickly to appoint key personnel to make things happen and I’m looking forward next to seeing the architects’ Masterplan for the area.
Redeveloping the key sites in question here – alongside Metrolink’s arrival – can help us strengthen Hollinwood’s identity and secure its position it as a destination of regional importance.