We are getting a Mayor – Like it, or not!

DEVOLUTION: The deal to bring new powers to Greater Manchester is a decent starting point - not the end game.
DEVOLUTION: This week’s deal is a decent starting point for Greater Manchester – not the end game.

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.

RESPONSIBLE LENDERS: Oldham Credit Union offers access to fair and straightforward financial services.
RESPONSIBLE LENDERS: Oldham Credit Union offers access to fair and straightforward financial services.

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.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Back to work…

RETURN: Recess is over and it's back to serious business at Oldham Council.
COUNCIL RETURN: Recess is over and it’s back to serious business – including job creation. 

THE SUMMER recess is over and it’s back to serious business at Oldham Council.

I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a family break – just before my eldest son begins secondary school, and my youngest starts primary school(!) – which was a real tonic and gave me a much-needed change of scenery.

I kept in touch with things in Oldham during my absence, of course, including the news of our youngsters getting their latest GCSE results.

Overall the headlines were positive with most schools retaining or increasing their performance results despite national concern about grading and what is now seen as a tougher test.

I would like to congratulate all those students and wish them the very best of luck as they embark on the next chapter of their lives.

Congratulations must also go to those supportive parents and teaching staff who have helped our young people to be the best they can be.

I’m also conscious though that what we need to make sure of is that we are properly investing in opportunities that lie beyond school.

The global economy is changing at such a rapid rate that we cannot afford to be narrow in our thinking. Nor can we think or believe that we know it all.

What we can do is give young people growing up in our Borough real life skills – basic things like being confident, being able to hold a conversation, present themselves and to have a good work ethic.

In such a highly competitive post-school environment – be that work or further and higher education – we also need to develop opportunities that help our young people stand out. Volunteering and additional activities and experience are all part of that – it adds to the CV when you’re applying for the next move in life.

But our work isn’t also just about young people.

With unemployment here still at an unacceptably high rate there are many adults with good experience and much to offer who are left searching for work.

The frustration felt by many who apply for job after job and often don’t even hear back is hard to take: especially when the system often doesn’t treat people like individuals.

Our local jobs clubs, often run by volunteers, are a real lifeline for many people. These volunteers don’t get paid and certainly don’t get the bonus payments those in the private sector do, but they do see that their friends and neighbours are struggling and step in to help.

That doesn’t take away the problem of a system which isn’t fit for purpose (if that purpose is getting people into quality and sustained employment) but it is a good example of a cooperative community in action.

As part of my responsibilities with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority I lead on Employment and Skills and this means I face the challenge of trying to make sense out of some very disjointed elements that are in place to help people into work.

Having said that I’ve now visited a number of colleges and skills providers across the City Region and am impressed at how those professionals who must work within the system are finding genuinely innovative ways to get people back into employment.

The current ‘work programme’ simply has not worked for Oldham – with only 12 per cent of those going through the system having got sustained employment.

My strong belief is that we need a more local solution to getting people into work.

We need to tailor our approach better to give meaningful one-on-one support. We need a system which gives credit to those who need a hand up – and also helps to promote self-employment opportunities and new businesses.

This isn’t just a plea to give local councils more money: although we could definitely do with it.

It’s about us all being smarter about how we bring competing and complex interests together and look beyond our own organisations and budgets at the bigger picture.

This is, after all, public money.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Putting energy into things that make a difference

FAMILIES are feeling the pinch more than ever right now.

In many cases they are facing rising household costs but declining income and – very soon – thousands will also be hit by reductions in benefits.

As a Council we have been working hard to do as much as possible to try and reduce the impact of this for people.

We’ve come up with a local Council Tax discount scheme which is designed to protect the most vulnerable whilst investing in job creation – long term planning that is much-needed in Oldham if we are to turn our economy around.

We are now also looking at what we can do in other areas to help free up money and cushion your household income.

The Get Me Toasty campaign to install energy-saving measures in homes free of charge has got off to a great start, saving real money for many local people.

A few weeks ago we then also launched a new campaign to try and reduce the cost of public transport, as outlined recently on this blog by Councillor Sean Fielding.

Now we have launched another money-saving campaign for you – but from a very different angle.

Whereas those other schemes are about Oldham Council doing things for you, it is now time to do things with you in the form of our new Energy Co-operative.

By pulling together people in this Borough would have huge potential buying power as a group.

Almost 100,000 households spend many millions of pounds each year on the things we can’t do without – but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it for less money.

Oldham Council has got together with Ichoosr, a specialist in the collective buying of energy who have already run very successful schemes in the Netherlands and Belgium.

How does it work then?

The idea is simple. If you want to come together as a Borough and form a buying cooperative we will assist by taking this bulk contract to the energy companies and asking them to bid for the work in an auction.

The lowest price offered will get the contract – and you will get the saving.

On average we expect each household to save around £150 a year which, when added to our energy saving programme Get Me Toasty, means up to £500 a year back into your pocket.
Please visit the Oldham Council website now to register your interest.

Have a look at http://www.oldham.gov.uk/info/200706/fuel_co-operative for more information and note that you are under absolutely no obligation to switch suppliers.

I must close this week by saying a massive well done to everyone involved in Oldham winning the ‘Best City’ category in Britain in Bloom 2012.

This is an absolutely huge prize for our Borough and also great recognition that when the Council works closely with the local community and businesses, the end product can be truly remarkable.

I must, obviously, also highlight the work of our parks team who are a real jewel in our Civic crown and work extremely hard day in, day out.

Ours is a beautiful Borough, although not every neighbourhood has a stunning Pennine view.

When we met the RHS judges earlier in the year we told them why this competition was so important to Oldham.

But we see an award like this as another significant part of the work we are doing to attract inward investment. We need recognition like this nationally to help change the perception of our borough.

Inevitably there will be some people who will ask why Oldham Council is funding projects like this at a time when it says it has no money (indeed, some already have on Twitter in some very choice language!).

My answer to that is simple. To attract investment we need to make Oldham a place where people want to live and work – not one where people feel they have no choice but to be.

We need to showcase Oldham and prove that we invest in our Borough in order to convince others that the place is a sound investment.

Ultimately, if we are serious about creating the conditions for growth and attracting investment, we have to up our game.

A major national award like this shows we’re making good progress, but there is no room for complacency and still plenty to do.

Thanks for listening,

Jim