Devolution and local leaders: On my soapbox

DEMOCRACY: Devolution means fewer decisions will be made in the ‘ivory tower’: it’s more meaningful for local members to take the decisions about their wards.

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.

Before becoming Leader, one thing that struck me more than anything was how little the public thought of the Council. As the Audit Committee itself said in 2009: “The Council must improve people’s confidence in its ability. Public satisfaction remains the lowest in the country. Many people say the Council doesn’t listen to them or involve them in decisions enough.”

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.

Find out more at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/fairenergy

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Love Where You Live

LOVE WHERE YOU LIVE: Jim McMahon with local volunteers cleaning up at Moston Brook
LOVE WHERE YOU LIVE: Jim McMahon with local volunteers cleaning up at Moston Brook

YOU’RE probably starting to notice some media activity this week launching our new ‘Love Where You Live’ (LWYL) scheme.

I want to use today’s blog to explain a bit more about how this campaign epitomises Oldham Council’s new co-operative approach to public services.

In a nutshell, LWYL aims to do two key things.

Firstly, it seeks to highlight the fantastic community and volunteer spirit that already exists across all parts of our Borough.

And secondly it aspires to help that network grow further, and achieve more by encouraging even more people to ‘do their bit’.

LWYL’s starting point this week has been to highlight the fantastic work already being done by neighbourhood ambassadors like Adam Pietras from Failsworth, who built a community garden, or Malika Khatun, who runs activities for young women at her local youth centre in West Oldham.

Case studies like those are really only the tip of the iceberg of what’s going on.

You don’t often hear it shouted about, but the level of voluntary and unpaid activities in our Borough is higher than the regional and national averages.

But years before even coming into office here I was aware that Oldham Council has historically often been seen as putting barriers in the way of activities like this – and I’m determined that has to change.

What we need to do in the future is to become ‘enablers’. The Council needs to actively assist and work in partnership with communities on projects that will deliver social good.

As an example of what I mean here, I went along to Wrigley Head at Moston Brook on Monday to help a gang of 40 volunteers who want to improve the local environment.

CIVIC PRIDE: A team of 40 volunteers are 'doing their bit' to improve the Wrigley Head site
CIVIC PRIDE: A team of 40 volunteers are 'doing their bit' to improve the Wrigley Head site

These residents pledged to do their bit through unpaid activities like litter-picking and tree-planting at the site.

In return, Oldham Council has now invested some money to make it more secure and paid for bigger improvements like graffiti removal works.

The end result works for everyone.

It’s just one small example of this new approach, but the overriding message here is crystal clear.

Oldham Council doesn’t own this Borough. It belongs to the people who live here – and only if we work better in partnership can we make significant improvements to it as a place.

LWYL aims to encourage more people to get actively involved again in their communities and you can do that in many ways.

‘Doing your bit’ in your area doesn’t necessarily mean you have to set up a huge project or break your back digging a community garden.

Your contribution can be as simple as checking on elderly neighbours, offering to take their wheelie bins out, reporting grot spots to us, or attending local meetings to have your say and play a more active part in decision-making.

A key part of LWYL is the new website we’ve set up at www.oldham.gov.uk/love

I’d urge people to pay this – and our new Facebook pages – a visit.

We hope these will eventually be used as a hub where residents can talk about what they’re doing in the area, what opportunities and events they have planned, and even just share ideas about how things can be improved.

As part of all this Oldham Council’s staff are also going to be doing their bit.

We’re now encouraging staff to spend three days a year working with local communities where their skills and input can make a really positive difference.

It’s clear to me now that our responsibilities as a Local Authority go way beyond just service delivery.

They include providing civic leadership and helping the growth of pride and engagement in your neighbourhood.

If we are to meet the public sector financial challenges that we’re facing, we have to be firmly on the side of residents.

And we now must demonstrably start to show what that means – to explain how working smarter alongside you can benefit everyone.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Back to school…

BACK TO SCHOOL: Jim McMahon with his new friends from Higher Failsworth Primary School

I WENT back to school last week with a visit to Higher Failsworth Primary.

Rebecca Eade, a teacher at Stansfield Street, invited me along and I’m indebted to her and all the staff there because it proved an inspiring experience.

I was asked to talk about Oldham Council and what Ward Members do.

My audience was 25 children who were all Year Five pupils, aged just nine.

Even at that relatively tender age they were far less apathetic than those sweeping generalisations you often hear made about young people being “uninterested” in current affairs and finding politics a total “turn-off”.

You simply can’t stereotype young people as a uniform group like that and I was astonished by some of the topics they asked me about.

This particular group has been doing a project which seeks to work out – by pitting politicians against pop stars – who has the most influence in the world today?

It’s an interesting question and one they’ve taken to with relish.

I was shown letters they’ve sent to the Prime Minister and other politicians, which I sincerely hope they’ll get answers to.

They also clearly pay keen attention to what their Mums and Dads are talking about at home.

You could almost hear their parent’s own voices and phrases in the room as they stepped up to quiz me about Oldham town centre, or the disruption caused by Metrolink roadworks.

It wasn’t just local issues that interested them either.

I was astonished when one boy asked me what I thought about Government proposals to increase the Motorway speed limit – and blow away when another then asked me to explain more about Scottish independence might mean!

The work they’d all done beforehand was a real credit to them, the school and their parents, and I was mightily impressed.

Although I am now Council Leader, I also remain a Ward Member and think visits like this are hugely important.

Getting out regularly to see a range of people in your area should be the bread and butter through which Councillors engage with residents. It’s how we take the pulse of the public and provide visible civic leadership – and we should do it across all age ranges.

The evening before my ‘school trip’, I had attended Full Council at which we did our first ever live Public Question Time – taking questions via email, Twitter and Facebook.

I thought this was a huge success as the pace of the meeting and calibre of the questions was markedly better than any I can recall before it.

It was also much more of a test for Members, as it should be, and a huge step forward in making our meetings more accessible, accountable and relevant to the public.

I must close this week by paying tribute to Ken Hulme, whose death I was shocked to hear about last Friday.

As a resident, and then later as a Saddleworth Parish Councillor, Ken was often a critical thorn in the side of Oldham Council –  but that is no bad thing for democracy.

Ken engaged with decision-makers rather than sniping from the sidelines. He put people on the spot and fought with tireless energy for causes, so the people of Delph have lost a real community champion.

My thoughts are with his family and friends at what must be a very difficult time.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

The upside down week – and back again

Jim McMahon hands over the Churchill letter to Dinah Winch, Gallery Oldham
DONATION: Jim McMahon handing over the letter from Winston Churchill he has donated to Gallery Oldham

IT’S BEEN – literally – a topsy-turvy old week.

Few people reading this will have missed the story in the media about the Chadderton boundary sign being installed ‘upside down’.

Were we embarrassed? Certainly.

Do I accept this was a mistake anyone could have made? Certainly not.

My take on it is pretty straightforward. It was a cock-up and exactly the kind of mistake that Oldham Council needs to cut out to regain residents’ trust.

This should – as Michael Lawson from the Chadderton Historical Society rightly pointed out – have been the tale about a new sign that reflects what local residents want and restores a district’s proud identity. But that message was sadly lost in the fog.

The week did at least put itself the right way up eventually and end on a very bright note with recognition at North West in Bloom for some fantastic partnership working here in the Borough.

Bloom and Grow, a campaign which I credit the previous administration for putting in place, scooped the ‘Best City’ prize plus an Environmental Award.

Next we will have the honour to represent the region at Britain in Bloom 2012 and in the ‘City’ category and it’s a challenge I am certain we can meet.

Bloom and Grow has seen Council staff working with people across all sectors of the community and is a fantastic model of what I mean when I talk about our future as a Cooperative Borough.

Everyone involved here pulled together and did their bit, no matter how big or small, to deliver a common good: improving Oldham as a place to live.

Our Parks and Street Scene teams worked with residents from school age to the elderly, housing associations, local firms in our Business Improvement District, partners in health and the voluntary sectors, and many more to pull this off and I salute them all for their dedication and deeds.

Whilst writing today I have noticed that this Blog is just about to register its 10,000th hit since it was launched back in June.

Since taking office I’ve been at pains to nurture better and more regular engagement with residents and stakeholders – like the recent Question Time event, for example – because I believe it lies at the core of our approach to moving Oldham forward.

The Blog is just one small medium through which I want to make an ongoing dialogue, accountability and transparency the norm in how we operate.

Whilst I don’t kid myself that every Borough resident has read it, I think it’s important that people can read about my week and see what I am trying to do on their behalf.

An online blog like this can also theoretically live on forever in Google’s cached archives for everyone to see and read – but that’s not the case with historic documents.

That’s why this week I’ve purchased an historic note from Winston Churchill and made a personal donation to Gallery Oldham’s collection.

Regular readers here will know that I am a keen historian so, when I became aware of this document, I decided to prevent it from falling into the hands of a private collector and gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.

Whilst I’m always looking forward with our plans for the Borough I also think it’s important that we value your heritage and ensure that it can be enjoyed and experienced by future generations.

Churchill, of course, knew all about difficult topsy-turvy weeks – especially during wartime – and that’s a thought which helps me put a proper perspective on the past week’s events.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Question Time success

Question Time in the Council Chamber
DEMOCRACY: Councillor McMahon explains a point to residents at last week's special Question Time event in the Council Chamber

LAST Thursday night saw our special Cabinet ‘Question Time’ take place as part of Local Democracy Week.

Some residents were in the Council Chamber to ask questions and – thanks to live streaming on our website – we also had many submitted via email, Twitter and Facebook from people watching online at home.

When it was all over – after two-and-a-half hours that flew by – there was a general consensus that we could have gone on much longer.

I personally found it to be one of the most meaningful public debates I’ve ever attended in our Borough: far better than some of the battles we get bogged down in at Full Council.

I’m firmly committed to better and more regular engagement with the public and, as we work to devolve more power back to District Partnerships – and to raise Ward Members’ performance and profile – we simply have to do more of this kind of thing.

In 2011 everyone seems to lead a busy life and we need to offer people a range of options to communicate with us.

People no longer talk to each other in just one way using the same old methods, so we need to be flexible and adapt to that. We need lots of conversations done in different ways to match the way that people like to communicate if we are to truly capture – and respond effectively – to what people are saying.

Sitting on that kind of panel is also good for democracy – you simply cannot shy away from difficult questions. I know from experience that residents will rightly demand a straight answer and if you don’t give them one that holds water, they won’t let you off the hook. In order for politicians to start regaining trust and reconnecting to residents this form of holding us to account is vital.

As expected, there were several Shaw residents in the Council Chamber protesting about the current consultation on plans for our Leisure Estate.

These include proposals – and I again stress they are only that at present – to close Royton sports centre and the Crompton Pool and fitness centre, and replace them with a new facility in Royton.

As I stated at the meeting, this review is about looking to the future and ensuring that each district has a flagship facility that is fit-for-purpose.

We have three options as I see it…

Firstly, we do nothing. We could simply leave these two existing facilities to deteriorate to such a state where we’d inevitably end up having to close them on public health and safety grounds.

Secondly, we could invest some money in the short-term to keep these two facilities open a while longer – say another five years – and defer tackling this dilemma to 2016.

The third option is to invest now and deliver a replacement flagship facility for the area in line with our aspirations for better provision for those communities.

I listened to the points residents made and, believe me, I fully ‘get’ the strength of feeling. But what I would say again to them is that for this consultation to be effective we need more than the pure objections – we need your input on possible solutions to find the best outcome.

Question Time in the Council Chamber
DEMOCRACY: Councillors Shoab Akhtar, Jim McMahon and Dave Hibbert responding to questions coming in live from Social Media

Another major talking point at Question Times was the economic viability of the town centre – and our new free parking scheme on Saturdays.

Oldham Council doesn’t, of course, have the overriding power and responsibility to change this alone. But it’s clearly in everyone’s interests for the town centre to thrive and we all have a part to play – including local businesses, our partners, and even residents by choosing to ‘Shop Local’.

I visited Oldham town centre on Saturday to shop and it certainly did feel busier. But I also hear what people are telling us about the range of shops on offer and I see this free parking scheme as only the first step.

I took a wander around the indoor market, for example, and whilst it was busy, I wasn’t convinced many people were actually spending money.

I think we need to look at our markets again – to examine the rent levels, look at what they’re offering, how we market them, and also even consider the comparatively small size of the units which I think might actually be restricting traders’ ability to offer or display what shoppers want.

We also need to continue to raise the bar on our wider regeneration planning to ensure the town centre can capitalise on the arrival of Metrolink.

As a Council, the money we could bring in from increased business rates with less empty shop units in our town centre would completely outstrip what we ‘write-off’ from any free car parking offer, so there’s plenty to ponder for the future when this trial period ends.

In terms of everyone playing their part, I’d also like thank the Oldham Evening Chronicle for their coverage of the free parking scheme. They’ve given it great support and prominent column inches and – in an age when bad news sells – their willingness to back this is refreshing.

Finally regarding the town centre I’m hosting a further consultation event with businesses next Tuesday at the Civic Centre.

Our traders on the ground know the issues even better than we do, and I’ve invited a cross-section of the business community to meet myself and Charlie Parker, the Chief Executive, where I look forward to gaining more insights.

Aside from Question Time it’s been another busy diary week which included a couple of days in London on a whistle-stop itinerary.

I spoke at the Boundary Commission about Oldham Council’s cross-party submission on their initial plans to redraw our Parliamentary constituencies, and once more stressed the vital importance of protecting the historic district identities of Chadderton and Royton in any final proposals.

I’d again like to thank everybody – from across the political divides – who have worked together and given time, input and support to compile what I believe is a very strong case. It proves that our Borough always works best when we all work together.

Whilst in London I also grabbed some time with Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities Secretary, and attended a cross-party meeting with Greg Clarke, the Government’s Decentralisation and Cities Minister.

Future growth will be driven by our cities and major urban centres, and Mr Clarke now provides a central contact for all Local Authorities to work alongside Government on this agenda.

It was stressed that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach won’t work here and that each area will need bespoke policies, solutions and support to meet their different challenges.

Overall, it proved a positive information-sharing exercise. Mr Clarke seemed to understand the issues well and take our comments on board, so it will be very interesting to see how this relationship will develop in the future.

Thanks for listening,

Jim