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.
Tonight Full Council meets to agree its budget for the financial year 2015/6. Members are set to approve plans that seek a 0% rise in the amount you pay for Oldham Council services.
This week I decided to record a video blog talking about the challenges we are all facing as we seek to make Oldham a better place to live, work and do business against the backdrop of reduced Government funding.
IN LOCAL government circles the end of February always heralds the arrival of the ‘small’ tome that is the paperwork for your annual budget-setting meeting.
This means you’re finally nearing the end of a process stretching back several months and characterised by many hours of head scratching and heart searching.
Cabinet agreed our final proposals for 2015/6 on Monday and these now go forward to the annual budget-setting Full Council meeting on Wednesday, February 25 (6pm onwards) which – as ever – you can watch online via the Oldham Council website.
The dominant factor in this task for the past six years now has been balancing books in the face of significant funding reductions and rising demand – and that means there is no sense of relief as we look ahead.
I’m sorry to say this will be the same challenge next year – and in future years – which really makes you pause for thought where this may all end up.
We’ve already seen £141million removed from Oldham Council’s budget in the past five years which is equivalent to £1,566 less per household. With an extra £60m in savings to be made by 2017 that will bring the total reduction to £201m – that’s £2,232 less to spend per household.
As a local authority we’ve suffered more than most here in Oldham and I’m clear the cuts cannot carry on.
This is not about a principled view about deficit reduction – or continuing the blame game – the issues are now about basic public service management.
Soon there simply won’t be enough money to deliver the services that are there to respond to community demand. And when I say that I’m not just talking about the things that people ‘want’, I’m talking about things that society genuinely ‘needs’.
Public sector spending has already borne the brunt of government reductions and – with the NHS and schools being protected in terms of future funding – huge pressure is again likely to fall on local government.
And even as I write there’s yet more evidence as to how widespread concerns about this are becoming.
The Independent Commission on Local Government Finance – whose members are economists, business, finance and public service experts – says today that councils are on a ‘cliff-edge’ which means everyday services “may not be there much longer” and that “urgent devolution of powers, funding and taxes” is needed.
This comes just days after the House of Commons’ own Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published some stark findings about the financial sustainability of local authorities like ours.
They found that local services are becoming unviable and the reductions to funding are hitting the poorest areas the hardest.
The PAC report says the Department for Communities and Local Government is simply not prepared for the impact of shunting cost pressures onto other services, like the NHS, and is failing to take responsibility for the very real threats to the validity of some statutory services. And this is not a political viewpoint by the way: the PAC membership is cross-party.
The question for Oldham Council is what are we going to do about this?
How can we find the funding needed to meet our legal responsibilities and provide the services you will need in future years?
Firstly, despite the financial pressures, we know that asking local households to stump up more money isn’t realistic. Many residents are facing similar budget issues and we can’t ignore that, which is why we’re proposing to freeze the amount of Council Tax you pay for our services over the next year.
Secondly, we are trying to transform the council’s ‘fiscal base’. That basically means we need to change the sources of where our future income comes from.
We do at least have an enviable record of managing our finances here in Oldham and much work has already been ongoing to address this fiscal challenge.
Essentially we know it means us needing to work even harder and faster to make Oldham a better place to live, work and do business. It makes our regeneration programme – projects like the Old Town Hall cinema, the new Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps, the Independent Quarter, and new housing schemes across the borough – even more vital.
Schemes like this will not only help to attract new money and jobs but will also support the delivery of your local services in the future by increasing the amount of business rates and council tax we will collect.
Our work also includes a whole host of other measures across all our activity like our social value framework – designed to ensure we maximise the benefit to the local economy of every penny we spend – plus work to rewire services, examine different delivery models, and early intervention and preventative work to reduce demand for services.
When you’re on the verge of a financial tipping point like this you know even more challenging times lie ahead. Difficult decisions cannot – and must not – be avoided and we are often left as ‘arbiters in chief’ of a ‘Catch 22’ situation.
Nonetheless we are determined to stick to our core pledge to the people of Oldham.
We will not simply accept decline for the borough and just focus on implementing reduced budgets that we know will inevitably adversely affect communities.
Only by investing in growth do we know we can give ourselves a fighting chance of bringing in new income and opportunities that will give us hope for the future.
Let’s be very clear though that this approach is no silver bullet.
It won’t address the very real problems that are still hurtling down the track at local authorities unless fair funding is provided in the future.
So whichever party – or parties – form the next government after the General Election on May 7, my message to them all will be the same: this needs sorting.
I’d like to wish all our residents a ‘Happy New Year’.
The last 12 months has been a frantic period packed with inspiring people and stories, challenges and opportunities, but I believe we end it in a positive place.
We start the new year with our strongest-ever plan for our future – and one that should ensure that, when the economic recovery finally comes, we’ll be well-placed to benefit.
We saw significant milestones reached in Oldham in 2014: starting with the opening of our new town centre Metrolink line last January.
This marked the end of the biggest infrastructure construction project in our history but was also just the start of a much wider regeneration plan.
The tramline set the tone for much of the work and news that has followed as work to grow our economy – creating new job and opportunities for residents – continues apace.
Look around you and our skyline is now happily interrupted with cranes and construction works ongoing at places like Oldham College and Oldham Athletic. That and more and more companies signing up to our Get Oldham Working campaign all reflects our growing confidence as a town.
Later this month, FCHO’s new headquarters opens on Union Street and – with steelwork now finished – a new sports centre to put Oldham on the regional and national sporting map will also open its doors next winter.
Work also continues on our flagship scheme to transform the Old Town Hall into an ODEON cinema and on the new plans for Parliament Square, giving Oldham the quality public space it has lacked for decades.
We recently unveiled the latest designs for the new Coliseum and Heritage Theatre, confirmed the next steps towards delivering a town centre hotel alongside a revitalised QE Hall and – of course – unveiled the gamechanging news that Marks & Spencer is finally coming to town.
M&S opening at Prince’s Gate at Oldham Mumps (pictured, right) is part of what will be a massive boost – psychologically and financially – to the borough.
This is a scheme that’s also about much more than new retail space. Adjacent to the Independent Quarter, it will deliver up to 800 homes – a quality town centre living offer – create up to 700 new jobs and generate up to £12 m per year to the local economy.
I’m not naïve enough though to try and kid you that everything in the garden is rosy here: far from it. Yes, we have opportunities – but, boy, I fully recognise the challenges too.
Having already made cuts of £141 million from our budgets in the past five years, we must now find a further £60 million in the next two financial years.
To be blunt, we’re now beyond the point as a council where there is any fat left to trim from services. The cuts will affect every single area – including services for older people and vulnerable children, which account for around half of our spending. It’s awful and not what I came into politics to do, but this is the reality of where we are.
I also know that many people are struggling to make their own way in life too – and have been for some time.
Whether that is the huge difficulties in balancing bills to heat your homes, feed and clothe your families, getting on the property ladder or trying to get off a zero-hour contract and into secure employment, I know the challenges are legion and unrelenting day-to-day.
That’s why my only New Year’s resolution for 2015 is pretty simple.
Our town was built on the Industrial Revolution – and our regeneration will be built on an Industrious Revolution. Sheer hard work is the only way we will make progress. Minor changes will not be enough and I’m determined to get on even faster and harder delivering the things I know will ultimately improve people’s lives and future prospects.
That means ensuring these regeneration schemes are delivered with maximum benefit to our economy and people in the shape of good jobs, opportunities and homes, and a more vibrant visitor economy.
It also means keeping focussed on attracting more private investment here. Success in that drive will give us new income from business rates and Council Tax – all money that can then be used to help protect your services from cuts.
And it also means seeing through the recommendations of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission – due to report next summer – to tackle those under-performing schools that are failing too many of our children. We will celebrate success where we see it, but equally will tackle ‘second best’ performance head on.
We have serious work ahead in 2015 and as a Co-operative Council we know we cannot find all the answers on our own.
We will again need the support of partners and residents in finding solutions to budget challenges and in helping us to tackle things, like flytipping and bad landlords, that blight our communities.
I would also say that as a council we can work to deliver new tramlines, cinemas, sports centres or whatever, but none of that will matter if we don’t also succeed in making people advocates for our borough; prepared to really stand up for the place where they live and show civic pride.
We all need to stand up for Oldham. If we see people who don’t care, let’s challenge them. If we see selfish behaviour, let’s not turn a blind eye and – above all else – when we see people playing their part and putting something back, let’s acknowledge it and say thank you.
We need you now – more than ever – to spread the word about the changes we are making and the new aspirations we all share for Oldham.
This can be our time, so please ‘do your bit’ in 2015 and help to make it a year of Industrious Revolution in Oldham.
I WRITE ahead of a Full Council meeting at which your councillors will – or at least certainly should – feel a huge weight of responsibility.
As austerity cuts continue we must proceed tonight with proposals towards reducing service budgets by £35 million for the financial year 2015/6.
To put that amount into context it’s more than we spend on waste collection, street cleaning, libraries, youth services, leisure centres and community centres – and that’s because, of course, most of the council’s budget is spent on older people and vulnerable children.
We will get through this round and then we still have a further £25m to cut in the following financial year.
Unless it is somehow agreed that all those services people ‘see’ can go completely – and that’s never going to happen – we will simply have no choice but to reduce services for older people and vulnerable children too.
Some of that can be managed. In fact, we’ve been doing that for a long time already: let’s not forget that £141m has already been culled from our budgets in the past few years.
But when you couple these cuts with the increased demand for these kind of services – which is mainly because older people are living longer and requiring more home and social care – the numbers simply just don’t add up.
In our quest to meet these financial challenges the easy savings have now gone and we all need to prepare ourselves for what is to come when we’re at this point in the budget cycle again next year.
Unless there is a change of Government and one that has a different policy on public sector cuts, or unless the current administration realises things just can’t continue on this trajectory, then I fear that the very fabric of public services will be tested to destruction.
This isn’t an argument about whether public expenditure should be cut to help reduce the deficit.
The truth is that the deficit has actually increased despite Local Government experiencing cuts of 40 per cent (which is £10 billion).
The increase in the state’s welfare bill isn’t because more people are sat at home, it’s because the economic ‘recovery’ is weak. Although more people are in work the type and quality of that work is poor. They have less job security, less money and ultimately that means more public money needs to be spent on ‘in work’ benefits.
The same is true of the National Health Service.
If prevention is better than a cure then we need to look more seriously at the state we are in.
Community services and social care are being reduced and, of course, this just adds to the queues at A&E. It is also more expensive and it fails those people who want to stay at home and be supported.
All political parties talk about public service reform but the reality is that only local government has had any sense of urgency about it.
With money coming out of the system so quickly, if we don’t modernise, become as efficient as we should be – and remove duplication – then, believe me, you, your family and neighbours would have already noticed the cuts a lot sooner.
Perhaps if we did as a sector what others do, and failed to change quickly enough and simply defend our own interests ahead of the public interest, then maybe Government would come and bail us out?
All this drives poor behaviour and councils the length and breadth of the country are now saying ‘enough is enough’.
We are in a very real danger now of foolhardy and dogmatic policy of ‘slash and burn’ and to hell with the consequences.
We aren’t interested in managing decline in Oldham. We believe the best way to recover is to invest in growth. Our solution is to have more people in work paying taxes with public services reformed across all bodies to get the best possible value.
We are investing in growth because it will mean more businesses paying business rates and more homes paying more Council Tax. With the current pipeline of projects we expect that an additional £3 million of new income will come in to help fund council services in the future.
We are also making wise investments. The collective decision to invest in expanding the Manchester Airport Group has seen an additional dividend of £1m to fund our services this year, on top of the £1.4m we’ve already received. We’ve also bought buildings in Oldham town centre at the bottom of the market to bring them back into use. With the major regeneration projects and the new Independent Quarter we’re already seeing growing demand now that will give the town a healthy return on that investment.
In many ways all this feels like ‘old news’ because we’ve been talking about cuts for a long time now.
But the difference now is that councils are saying the cuts have gone as far as they can without very significantly changing the fabric of public services in our town and others.
At tonight’s meeting, aside from the budget proposals, we’ll also be debating the proposals to introduce a Greater Manchester Mayor.
I’ve made my views about the imposition of a Mayor clear. I’m quite relaxed about the principle, but I didn’t feel Government should have made it a condition of devolution.
If we believe in having a Mayor, then surely we should make the case to the public and win support for it.
However, we also have a decision to make. Do we accept the deal as it stands?
It’s not a great deal but it’s the deal offered on devolution of powers from Government to our area and we need to take it. It’ll be for us to then make it work, though, and we will have to pedal hard to do that.
But I am also keen to see transparency in the way these new arrangements are funded.
Either Central Government will give additional cash for it or, as I suspect, each of the ten councils will be asked to fund it from their ever-diminishing budgets.
The Manchester Evening News has dubbed that a ‘Mayor Tax’ which is headline-grabbing but it misses some important points.
The first is that public services are predominately paid through taxation, so it is no more a ‘Mayor Tax’ than we have a ‘Libraries Tax’, or a ‘Street cleaning Tax’. We just call Council Tax what we do because it is delivered by a council.
The second – and probably most important point – is that Greater Manchester taxpayers already fund a great deal of activity.
You’ll see some of it already on your Council Tax bill with the Police and Fire precepts. We also pay a levy to fund Transport and Waste Disposal and contribute to other services across GM that you may not even be aware of.
In total Oldhamers paid £18m for services and functions across GM in this financial year, so it’s absolutely right that the Mayor, or even the Combined Authority, are crystal clear about how much is being passed on.
If you want to call that a “Mayor Tax”, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend it’s something new or unreasonable.
This is my final blog before the festive break, so I’d like to take this opportunity to urge you – in those frantic final shopping days – to remember to ‘Shop Local’ and spend your cash in Oldham and your district centres.
Above all I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas with your family and friends.
THIS MORNING I spent time talking to Oldham Council employees at our staff conference.
We hold these events twice a year and invite up to 400 people from across the organisation – including binmen, highways and environmental teams, dinner ladies and social workers alike.
It’s really important to give staff time out from their day job to attend an even like this. It’s a great opportunity to talk with them about our ambitions and about how they can all play a part in delivering them.
It’s also important to thank them for the hard work that they do day in, day out delivering vital services for the people of Oldham.
Today we talked about how we can work together to build a co-operative borough – how we can all make small changes to the way we work to transform the relationships we have with residents, businesses and other organisations.
This is vital because we know – given the budget cuts the government has already imposed – that we can’t continue to improve our borough without working even more closely together.
We also talked about the work we’re doing to bring new growth, investment and jobs to Oldham.
This includes the major regeneration activity in Oldham town centre and our district centres, our investment in new schools and the improvements we’re making to our transport infrastructure, including Metrolink and the focus on fixing our major roads.
We are making a difference – and people are sharing our positivity and ambition.
Education is improving, jobs are being created, good quality family homes are being built and we are re-inventing the best town centre in the area. We should rightly be proud of what we are achieving.
If you believe what much of the national media tells you, you may think that council workers have it easy with their flexible working and ‘gold plated’ pensions.
But in reality our staff do very difficult jobs. They are helping the most vulnerable people in our society, keeping our streets clean, feeding children in our schools, working with young people, gritting the roads and so on.
They also do those jobs in increasingly difficult circumstances – facing year on year reductions in budgets at the same time as demand for many services is actually rising.
I often write about the great work of our services and teams but what most people don’t see is the additional effort that our staff give – that extra mile they go for Oldham.
As a co-operative council we ask more from our people. We challenge them to give something back to the borough, and so many of them are delivering just that.
Last year hundreds of council employees used their time to volunteer for voluntary organisations and communities across the borough. Examples of what they did include painting community centres, acting as stewards for community events and giving advice about finances or websites to help community groups flourish.
They also raised thousands of pounds for the Action Oldham Fund (previously the Co-operative Oldham Fund) by taking part in events like half-marathons, cross -country bike rides, abseils and cake sales.
That money was all used to fund community activities and organisations like Keep Our Girls Safe – a fantastic local group that works with young women to increase their confidence and self-esteem.
More than 70 per cent of our 3,000 staff live here in the borough. They use our local services and many have chosen to bring up their own families here.
I know they share my ambitions for Oldham and care deeply about making it a better place and improving the lives of residents. As advocates for Oldham they are a truly powerful team.
My plea to you is to share that belief that our staff have – and to be ambassadors for Oldham. Tell people about the good things that are going on here, and what it has to offer people who may want to live, visit or do business.
That doesn’t, of course, mean closing our eyes to the work that we still need to do, the huge challenges we face and the improvements we know we must make.
But you should also always take some time on that journey to appreciate what has already been achieved and celebrate the excellent work that is being done.
Greater Manchester has a long and strong history of working together. We’ve seen our economy grow, the creation of jobs and serious investment in transport and infrastructure which has connected us all across the region and beyond.
With all major parties in Westminster looking for ground as we consider the ‘English question’ the emerging city regions are a natural reference point. What’s the point in reinventing something which already exists and works?
In Oldham our approach is clear. We are a collection of communities in our own right, from Failsworth through to Saddleworth, as the borough of Oldham. It hasn’t been an easy marriage with many communities still harking back to the days before 1974 when each township and village was proud self-governing councils surrounding Oldham County Borough.
Politicians are delusional if they attempt to believe that lines drawn on a map for electoral convenience makes a jot of difference to the public.
The sense of belonging communities across Oldham feel can be seen across the whole of Greater Manchester. For some, it will be a discrete neighbourhood, a township or village. For others it will be historic counties such as Lancashire or West Riding of Yorkshire.
Devolution isn’t localism and it certainly isn’t about community identity and we shouldn’t pretend it is. But what we are talking about though is important in its own right.
Westminster is so disconnected from the lives of people in Greater Manchester it is a nonsense that so much is decided there. Decisions should be made by local people who they can hold to account (and they do!).
We’ve proven we can deliver public services which provide a better service and save the public purse money too. When the national Work Programme failed Greater Manchester leaders stood up to the challenge. Today we’re helping those out of work. It costs less when we do it and we help far more people.
We’ve proven we can grow the local economy by working beyond our own boundaries and understanding how micro our economy can be. We’ve invested in transport and brought together employment sites. We’ve a long way to go and local people know that all too well, but we can claim credit to being the largest growing city region outside of London.
But there is a still a huge gap. London is a powerhouse that hasn’t happened by accident. The capital we see today is the result of more than 100 years centralised government. Focusing cash on things they do see (Westminster and its surrounding areas) at the cost of things they don’t see as often.
Don’t just take my word for it. Transport and infrastructure investment which is commonly accepted as a vital foundation of economic growth is huge. Londoners enjoy more than £5,400 a year per person while the North West of England receives just £599. The same can be said of housing spend, culture and the arts and almost every other area of public spend.
We don’t want any more than anywhere else, we just want the same. Isn’t that fair?
With the prospect of further powers and control over the public purse we’ve got to get our Greater Manchester house in order.
We’ve done well but the mixture of bodies and committees which make up the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) is complex and confusing.
If we want to be a slim and efficient machine then we must be, well a slim and efficient machine. But we must also uphold the values of public service; democratic, open and transparent.
When some media outlets talk about devolution to the city region they too often have a Manchester City Council centric view, with the image of the town hall in Manchester used to represent all of us. Whilst Manchester City Council is important it isn’t the City Region alone.
We must also not fall into the trap we accuse Westminster of; not all of Greater Manchester is the same and has the same issues. In the same way we see a national ‘North-South divide’ we see the same here on our doorstep.
While the south of the city region booms we don’t see the same pace in the North, and it cannot be the case that we accept some areas just don’t do as well as others.
The post-industrial towns and boroughs must feature in a meaningful way and there must be a clear articulation of the future, and it cannot be simply a low cost commuter belt.
Whatever the reasons, of which economists and officials will give many, it is a fact that over the past decade more than 27,000 jobs have been created in the south of the conurbation with just 2,400 in the north.
Now it could be argued that aside from practical issues of land availability and the obvious point that the Combined Authority has only been in existence for three years as an authority in its own right.
But that doesn’t address where we go from here – the official forecast is that the north south dividend will continue. Over the next ten years it is forecast that over 100,000 new jobs will be created, but almost 79 per cent will be located in the south.
And it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a play for Oldham, Rochdale and Tameside. The same is true of neighbourhoods in the north of Manchester.
Until earlier this year those in the north paid 50 per cent more than their southern counterparts in bus fares. But it wasn’t Greater Manchester who tackled that. It was left to Oldham to start the campaign for fairer bus fares – which we won by working in partnership with Firstbus.
It might not be as sexy as brand new trams or national rail, but the affordability of transport for many of my constituents is an important issue, especially in connecting those in need of work with the available jobs.
Still house prices are significantly less in the north than in the south and residents in the north will be predominately paid less.
Clearly there are complex reasons. The south will see significant pockets of poverty in the same way there are areas of significant affluence in the north of the conurbation.
We should be clear and celebrate the fact that we have seen investment which was only achieved through our work with the other nine councils.
The most significant is the investment in Metrolink which will undoubtedly act as a boost to the local economy and create a ‘point of difference’ for potential investors. We’ve also worked hard to attract funding to support new businesses to set up and existing businesses to grow.
We’ve been able to do things which we could not achieve, or afford to do alone. The business Growth Hub is a fine example of the power we can generate together with specialist support for growth in all areas, including internationalisation and access to finance.
The story of post-industrial Britain and ‘Northern Milltown’s’ is well rehearsed. Indeed in many ways it is staggering that more than 300 mills have been decommissioned and that the manufacturing base of Oldham has so fundamentally changed that we don’t see more problems than we do.
Post war Oldham has witnessed massive improvements on housing, health and education and that shouldn’t be underestimated, but we do need to be honest and say, like many other places, we haven’t realised our full potential.
The challenge is, what are we going to do about it?
Firstly, it is for Oldham to define its own future not wait for others to do it for us. Our ambitious but very necessary investment in regenerating Oldham is an important part of that. Some will argue with cuts to the council we shouldn’t be investing in big projects like the Old Town Hall or heritage centre and theatre. My view is that now is exactly the time to invest in jobs, homes and creating the type of town where people are happy to live and raise their families.
It is also critical that we invest in education and skills if we are to succeed in giving our young people the best possible start, and to make them competitive and attractive to business – or of course the entrepreneur of the future creating jobs for others.
With greater devolution comes greater responsibility. If Westminster are willing to let go of power and resources there is a greater responsibility on the leaders/mayor and councillors who make up the combined authority.
The sales pitch to the people of Greater Manchester cannot be slightly more of the same; it’s got to be significant. We have to aim for a city region where fairness and equality is at the heart of what we do and where the dividends of growth are shared across all communities.
We’ve done wonders with relatively small amounts of funding within the constraints of national government and often at the whim of ministers.
We live in exciting times and the prospect of more say over the things that affect the people we seek to represent is critical if we are to realise our full potential.
But let’s not forget, if we only focus on Manchester we miss the GREATER opportunity.
LAST WEEK we announced plans to freeze Oldham Council’s element of Council Tax.
This is a key plank of our final budget proposals for the next financial year, and is designed to do our bit to help hard-working families.
I know from speaking to residents last year that the way this information is presented is often confusing so, before I talk about that decision, it’s worth explaining exactly what components make up your final Council Tax bill.
As well as setting the level of its own Council Tax, Oldham Council must also act as the collector of other parts of your bill from different authorities that also provide services for you.
We collect Council Tax on behalf of the Greater Manchester Police Commissioner, the Fire and Rescue Service, plus Parish Councils in Shaw and Crompton, and Saddleworth, and these shares – known as ‘precepts’ – are all itemised separately on your final Council Tax bill.
At the same time we must also pay levies to the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority and Greater Manchester Combined Authority for services provided across our region.
Where some confusion arises is that these levies are included in the ‘Oldham Council Tax’ figure which will appear on your bill, but they are not shown separately.
In the case of both precepts and levies these are simply collected by us and passed on – they are not used to fund services directly provided by Oldham Council.
In deciding to freeze Oldham Council’s element of your Council Tax bill for next year we were fully aware that we face continuing pressures on our budgets and services.
However it was also important to show the public that we are on your side – that we ‘get’ the financial pressures all residents are facing at this time.
We know people are facing an ongoing battle with basic costs of living.
Energy bills continue to soar, as does the cost of food, fuel and other necessities which all make household budgets a real struggle. Some figures I recently saw estimated that the average weekly household income in Oldham has dropped from around £437 to £417 this year.
Lower income and rising costs is an unhealthy combination and we simply couldn’t ignore that fact.
We needed to do whatever we could to try and help and that’s why we have also appealed to the other precepting and levying authorities to follow our lead in not putting up your bill.
There’s no official confirmation of their final proposals yet, but we certainly put our case strongly and hope they listened.
That focus continues the theme of much of the campaigning work we’ve done in recent times, which has been designed to put money back in local people’s pockets.
A good example is Fare’s Fair, our campaign for cheaper public transport, which saw First giving Oldham residents a 28% saving on daily and weekly bus fares – an offer so successful it has now been rolled out across the rest of Greater Manchester.
Another is Our Fair Energy campaign which saw us promote collective energy switching, bringing 8,700 local residents together to get a cheaper energy deal and deliver an average saving of £171 per household. Again it was so successful it now encompasses all the Greater Manchester authorities.
Standing up for residents like this is what a Co-operative Council should do and that work continues daily in many other areas: including our Get Oldham Working and Fair Credit campaigns.
I want to say a little here about the Council Tax system itself now which was once much higher up the national political agenda than it is at present.
Politicians now appear to generally have got into a cycle whereby it is seen as unquestionably ‘bad’ to put Council Tax up – and unquestionably ‘good’ to freeze or cut it.
To me that is over simplistic and wrong.
Council Tax is there to help provide public services that meet the changing demands of the public – and those setting it every year face their own challenges.
Oldham Council has already delivered £118 million in savings in the last five years, and the 2014-5 budget will see another £23 million taken out. Looking ahead we know we must then also find an estimated £60 million in savings over the next two financial years after that (2015-7). The budget cycle simply gets tougher and tougher each time.
Just like a household budget we’re also seeing rising costs in terms of the increased demand for our services from vulnerable people, plus inflation and costs passed on by service providers to us.
All that requires tough decisions and choices to be made.
If we don’t increase Council Tax to keep pace with those rising costs – plus the well-documented and continuing reductions in Government grants – then, clearly, we have to find even more savings and take that out from what we are already responsible for delivering.
It is also important to point out here that – despite what the Department for Communities and Local Government claims – the Freeze Grant it offers us to not to put your Council Tax up simply does not cover the whole cost i.e. the income we would have got from putting your bills up. In Oldham’s case it will still leave us with a significant shortfall to find again from somewhere next year.
We will, nevertheless, take that on the chin and stick by our guns in the belief that not putting your Council Tax up is clearly the right thing for residents at this time.
However, I also think we must not lose sight of the bigger picture here, which is that Council Tax is actually a very unfair system.
Here in Oldham our residents can pay almost four times as much in Council Tax as people in Westminster in the same property band – and yet they are also living in homes worth significantly less on the property market. Can that really be fair?
For me, the focus in the national debate really shouldn’t be on whether Council A has put Council Tax up by X amount, frozen or cut it by Y. It should be about how we address that kind of discrepancy in the system.
And at a time when we see ongoing debates about the future of Local Government in Scotland and Wales and how they are funded it is also – for me – high time that English authorities started looking at how they ensure they get a better deal, and looking at a system that is also fairer to all our taxpayers.
For next year then, in Oldham, the Council Tax will (subject to approval by Full Council) be frozen, although we can’t make any clear promises about future years given the landscape that I’ve just outlined.
As the pressure to find even more savings cranks up – and with no fat left to cut – it means we will soon need a very honest conversation with communities about what your priorities are from us.
We will need to know what you expect your council to deliver, what you think can manage without, what you can do to help find new solutions and drive costs down, and – crucially – how we balance all of that so we can still invest in projects that create a better Oldham both as a place and for its people.
To some they’re the saviour of the state which has failed to build enough social homes for rent. To others they’re money grabbing opportunists who lord over substandard properties while pocketing the cash.
As with most things I suspect people with any knowledge or experience of the private rented sector could make an argument either way – and both statements could be evidenced as truth when a specific example is used.
Clearly the story also varies depending on which part of the UK you come from, your social standing (or ability to pay for choice) and the state of your local housing market.
I should start out here by being clear that the majority of private landlords are good and the majority of private tenants are also well behaved.
The private rented sector in Oldham has grown by a third in 10 years (now over 12,000 homes accounting for 13.6 per cent of the market) and many people clearly see private renting as a necessary affordable option. Of these 12,000 homes, around 55 per cent have tenants claiming some form of Housing Benefit.
One conclusion I’ve reached, however, is that an unhealthy cycle of bad landlords and bad tenants can begin where they bring down an area together – and that particular problem is what I want to focus on in this blog.
Let’s look at things from a landlord’s point of view, first.
Bad tenants? Well, they are a liability, can cost a significant amount of money and put at risk the ability of a landlord to pay their own mortgage – aside from the impact they have on neighbours. With direct payment of Housing Benefit and those on low incomes now forced to pay some element of Council Tax, the rent sometimes comes second place. And, of course, some will just not plan their income and expenditure well and get into debt unwittingly.
What about from a tenant’s point of view?
Bad landlords? Well, they’re in it for the short-term. They’ve bought a property cheaply and just want the maximum return in the shortest time without forking out on anything ‘unnecessary’: even if that is something fundamental to a healthy home, like good heating, water and the property being a decent state of repair. There are sometimes reports of bullying, intimidation and the feeling of being trapped in a property which isn’t decent but where the tenant has little choice. They might not have good credit, for example, or may rely on Housing Benefit and are restricted by rent levels without the means to top up their Housing Benefit entitlement.
In isolation a good housing team would deal with both sides of this issue because – of course – neither is acceptable. A good approach to the private rented sector should address bad tenants and landlords and at the same time support those genuine landlords and tenants who respect their homes and neighbourhoods.
But what do you do when a whole neighbourhood is caught up in this kind of cycle of decline? Poor properties in an area with poor environmental standards will inevitably reach a certain point when those who do have a choice simply decide to leave. Over a period of time the concentration of properties like this ultimately means a concentration of social problems.
Up and down the UK, pockets exist like this which tell the story of a cycle of decline. For decision makers, policy officers and the community this poses a real problem – so what is the solution?
There’s something instinctively wrong for me when public funds are used to pay for private housing in substandard properties. There’s no argument that there isn’t money in poorer areas to pay for property improvements: quite the opposite.
Let’s do some sums…
Let’s suppose that you pick up a cheap terrace house at auction from around £40,000. In Oldham a two-bed terrace house will usually fetch around £395 a month rent in those areas (although examples of particularly poor properties are readily available for much less).
At £395 a month, an annual return of £4,740 on an investment of £40,000 represents a return approaching 12 per cent. That isn’t bad at all when you consider the national average ‘yield’ is 6 per cent. Any suggestion then that in areas of low rents there isn’t the money to invest in creating decent homes is simply untrue.
Clearly there will be cases of accidental landlords who might inherit a property from a relative, or perhaps someone who bought at the very top of the housing market (and that seems like a long time ago now).
It’s more likely to be a statement of attitude about ‘worth’ than any business case. Landlords either feel as though they don’t have to invest because the supply of tenants is strong, or they feel somehow the tenants who do appear will make do, or even unworthy as “they’ll only wreck it”.
My answer would be simple. Don’t allow Housing Benefit to be paid on properties which fail to meet the Decent Homes standard.
I accept there’s a major problem with this approach if done in isolation, however, as there isn’t the supply of decent stock in some areas to house those in receipt of Housing Benefits, which represents a huge failure by successive governments to address the lack of investment in social housing.
If my proposal were implemented in isolation it would clearly have a damaging effect. Landlords unable to carry out the necessary repairs would be stuck with a property they cannot rent to those without the ability to pay themselves.
Perhaps then the solution is for a targeted intervention to take place where there is evidence of poor housing conditions, low rents and property values, and a high turnover of tenancies – plus associated environmental issues.
As it stands, to have any chance of introducing a Licensing Scheme requires evidence of high crime rates linked directly to private rented properties. But the two do not always go together and, if the need is a housing one, then the measure of need should be housing-related.
With a targeted intervention there has to be something in it for everyone if we are to win hearts and minds and make genuine progress.
So, the deal should be two-way, I suggest. If landlords step up and invest to make their homes decent then they should receive more protection from bad tenants too.
You could perhaps go even further. In many countries the relationship is between the state and the landlord with the former paying slightly less in rent in return for taking on responsibility for repairs and maintenance, tenant turnover and vacant periods.
If we accept that part of the reason ‘subprime renting’ takes place is due to the lack of decision makers investing in a sufficient number of decent homes then perhaps this could work. It happens on a smaller scale already in the UK.
We should do far more to encourage good landlords and good tenants than we do. Then, hand in hand, we can have a meaningful system that protects tenants from poor landlords and protects landlords from poor tenants.
As a Council, we are taking tough action on poor-quality privately rented homes and dealt with 279 cases in 2012/13, with 95 per cent of landlords immediately complying.
We’re reviewing our options around selective landlord licensing and are looking to start consultation on specific areas in spring.
We’ve also just launched ‘LetsHelpYou’ – an award-winning free self-service website to support households to access the Private Rented Sector. This encourages better quality properties to be advertised and allows tenants and landlords to match up. It complements our co-operative principles. Click here to find out more.
The Council is also in discussion with the National Landlords Association about how we can encourage smaller-scale landlords who need their advice or support
In spite of our efforts though, it’s clear that councils can’t act alone on this: we need a strong approach from Government on this issue too.
And – just perhaps – when the national media finishes its obsession with negative headlines about benefits claimants it might also get around to shining a clearer light on this issue in a more meaningful way?