Today Manchester, tomorrow the world!

ALL ABOARD: One of the first trams to take the journey on Oldham's new town centre Metrolink line on Monday
ALL ABOARD: One of the first trams to take the journey on Oldham’s new town centre Metrolink line on Monday

SO IT IS finally here!

After decades of planning, posturing and pain, Oldham Town Centre now has its own direct tram connection with Manchester City Centre.

And tomorrow, it’s the world!

Well, via Manchester Airport at least, when the next expansion of the network connects us to the international airport, plus the city region Enterprise Zone, where plans are in place to create more than 13,000 new jobs.

Oldham felt very different to me on Monday, and I know many people shared that sensation, but that isn’t to say we’re claiming that everything is now sorted for our town centre – far from it.

We know there remains a great deal left to do.

Metrolink is the spark for our renewal and I hope people who live and work here can see the importance that all these different schemes are going to have for our future prospects. 

This isn’t just about building a tram. It’s not just about building a cinema or restaurants – and it isn’t just about new shops, offices, a leisure centre or a college.

It’s about having the courage to hope and aspire – and to build confidence.

Even now some people remain unconvinced of our intent and I suppose that’s reasonable given the time it’s taken to see some schemes come to fruition and, let’s be honest, some over the years which haven’t come off at all.

I offer no explanation to the past, but I do take personal responsibility for what happens now.

And I do know that every member of council staff and much of the wider community are beginning to believe that Oldham is now on the verge of something very special indeed.  

You’ll probably have seen the first artist’s impressions released this week, for example, showing the stunning new leisure centre planned for the town centre.

It’s just one of many schemes on the table (of which there is more detail and announcements to come) including the cinema, new Coliseum, Heritage Centre, Hotel Future, plans for our markets plus developments to attract new retailers, both national and independent.

Put them all together and I hope you can see that Oldham is ready to come out fighting from the recession.  

Huge projects like Metrolink will, of course, involve changes and inevitably there is always a settling-in period when people have to get used to new arrangements.

That, at least, is what I hope explains the recent sheer stupidity of some drivers who think that rushing out for fried chicken or a kebab is far more important than the tram being able to drive down Union Street safely.

The Oldham Chronicle has done a fine job in helping us to raise awareness of this problem and it has prompted myself and several other residents to nip out with camera phones to snap the worst offenders.

We began enforcement action with a CCTV car on this just before the Christmas holidays.

Between December 23 and January 11, over a period of 12 days, it issued 44 enforceable Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs).

Yet the problem has worsened since then. In a five-day period from January 13 we issued a further 98 PCNs and, despite all the publicity, the problem is not abating.

In the last week before Metrolink opened on Monday another 122 PCNs were issued and sadly, this week, we are still dishing them out in considerable number. 

The offences vary from blocking the tram line, parking completely on the new (and expensive) footpaths, over double-yellow lines and mounting kerbs.

Perhaps this is proof – if it were needed – that some people need a refresher course in the Highway Code, common sense and taking responsibility for their own actions.

The Oldham Chronicle (January 29th edition) highlighted one driver who double parked and blocked the tram lines to collect his takeaway. When the tram stopped at the blockage and sounded its horn the driver reappeared – only to shout abuse and simply go back into the shop for his meal. Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes a special kind of selfish individual to behave like that.

Last Friday I witnessed similar antics as I walked down Union Street.

SELFISH: Union Street has been plagued by parking like this.
SELFISH: Union Street has been plagued by problem parking like this.

A car (pictured, right) pulled in across the parking bay and onto the footpath.

Having gone out of my way to take a photo of this stupidity, the driver asked me why I was so interested in his parking. I told him it was because he was blocking where pedestrians want to walk.

He simply put his window up and drove away, regaining his courage later on Facebook to state that he could park wherever he wanted and there was nothing the council can do about it.

He is correct in saying that the council has no powers to stop pavement parking, but the police do. They have been passed the photograph and screenshots of his Facebook comments. Let’s see if they have a word. Over the top, perhaps? You decide.

What has given me hope is that residents like myself, fed up with this selfish and inconsiderate parking, have been ‘snapping’ examples and posting them on Twitter. This is a good example where Social Media can give real ‘power to the people’.

Perhaps some of these motorists will now be reflecting whether a £70 ticket was really worth them not bothering to park for free around the corner and walk a few yards? I hope so.

But even those minor hiccups can’t be allowed to take the gloss off the arrival of Metrolink this week, which is a game-changing new opportunity for Oldham.

Metrolink is here to stay – and you can’t block progress!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Town centre plans coming together

REGENERATION: Metrolink coming into the town centre is just one part of massive physical regeneration planned in Oldham
REGENERATION: Metrolink coming into the town centre is just one part of the  massive physical regeneration planned in Oldham.

TOWN centres are hugely important.

They attract a great deal of public and media interest and are representative of the general health of a community in many different ways.

When the community changes either in demographic, cultural or consumer terms, the High Street also changes and reflects that.

As we embark on one of the most comprehensive town centre redevelopment schemes in Oldham’s history it is rewarding to see the pieces coming together – especially when other parties also take a lead.

The new owners of the Spindles/Town Square shopping centre have just announced plans to redevelop it and link in better with our plans for a new cinema and restaurant complex in the Old Town Hall.

The news means the new glazed extension on the Clegg Street side of that building is now set to be mirrored by a redeveloped Town Square shopping centre. That would see the huge former TJ Hughes unit remodelled to include more restaurants and attract more of the kind of stores into our town that people have been asking for.

We haven’t gone public on everything just yet – and there’s a good reason for that.

We made a pledge not to make promises until we were sure we could deliver them and we’re sticking by that.

We’ve done everything possible to ensure that what we have announced to date for the town centre has funding in place so it will actually happen. Although you can never account for a third party changing their mind it is ‘so far, so good’ on that front.

Our vision for Oldham town centre is clear. We believe we can be the strongest in North Manchester and are determined to lay the foundation stones that will make that happen.

Accessibility and transport is vital.

Although the Metrolink tram works have taken their toll on businesses the long term prize is one which will connect us with more than a million people who will have easy access into the heart of Oldham.

“They’ll just go to Manchester”, I hear you say. Well, true – some will and that’s fine.

But our compact size gives us a real advance over Manchester in my view. Yes, Manchester is accessible but it’s also a large city centre which can take time to navigate and, depending on which stores you want to visit, they can be some distance apart.

We aren’t trying to be Manchester either: we simply want to be the best Oldham we can be.

Free parking is a major boost to our plans. It does cost us money in terms of lost income, but it also brings more people in.

If we are going to compete with out-of-town retailers we need to fight them on the same ground by offering this.

Equally when I visit the Cheshire Oaks outlet I don’t just go for the shops (not least of all because shopping isn’t one of my favourite pasttimes!) but I do like the overall experience. Aside from it taking too long to find a parking space, once you are walking around there are little touches that make all the difference. As a parent, for example, the free outdoor playground for children to burn up all their energy while you drink coffee is great – and there’s no reason we couldn’t have the same in Oldham.

Our market could also be thriving again. The Council’s Market Team has done wonders in attracting new traders into the indoor market, but it can be a real struggle for small businesses to make ends meet.

We now need to look at how we can support businesses to be more viable in the longer term, not simply put pressure on to generate income for income’s sake.

Clearly our outdoor market does struggle at times. If I’m honest I don’t think it is as a bad as some people might say, but I do think we can do better. I’m just not sure it is in the right place – at the back of town where people have to go out of their way to get to it.

We are also blessed with some really fantastic buildings in our town centre. Some hark back to our days as a productive town generating wealth and building structures which made a statement. There are some really interesting buildings which tell their own stories too.

But to be honest my patience is now at an end for seeing old buildings being bought cheaply and then totally abused by developers who clearly have no idea about design, heritage or how they impact on the feel of a place.

Ripping out Georgian windows and doors in one property on King Street was vandalism, for instance. Installing cheap and poorly designed uPVC windows on the historic Mess House on Yorkshire Street and decades of horrendous roller shutters is also killing the identity of our town centre. Planning controls and rules and regulation do fail us. It’s frustrating because we have little existing powers, but we do need to act when we can

I will be consulting all political groups in Oldham and businesses to seek support to remove permitted development rights in the town centre.

Effectively that would mean ANY alternation would require planning permission – or if they fail to apply, we would have powers to take action.

This isn’t itself the full answer though. We need to improve our guidance and support for developers and businesses who do want to play their part in this too.

We also need to bring about real change to the Mumps area. As a gateway it is embarrassing and not good enough for the town centre that we aspire to be.

We’re currently developing proposals for a new development there which, if approved in the future, will create a real gateway from east Oldham and Saddleworth.

I also believe Yorkshire Street could be very special. That’s why we’re developing plans to invest in independent businesses there and breathe new life back into empty units.

On top of this activity the overall scale of our town’s physical regeneration programme is huge and it will set us apart. T here’s the new college to come, new HQ offices on Union Street for FCHO, the new hotel and conference centre at Hotel Future, a new leisure centre, new shops, bars and restaurants with a cinema, plus a new Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre and much more.

HISTORY: This isn't the first set of plans for Oldham town centre - we aim to deliver
HISTORY: This isn’t the first set of plans for Oldham town centre – we aim to deliver

On my desk at the moment there’s an old dusty document dating back to 1946-7.

It is called the ‘Oldham Town Centre Plan’ and sets out ambitious plans to create a new Oldham.

Guess what? It didn’t happen.

I also know that countless other grand visions and schemes since then haven’t happened either – so I fully accept the right of people to say: “I’ll believe it when I see it”.

But I do like a challenge.

Thanks for listening.

Jim

Summer is here…

SUMMER IS HERE: This blog will be taking a short break for the Council recess period – and will return on Wednesday, September 5.

AS WE HEAD into Oldham Council’s summer recess this seems an appropriate moment to reflect on the past year.

I believe we have moved forward with plans on several fronts in that time.

From the outset it was our intention to modernise the Council and important steps have been taken to make it more relevant to local people.

Internal changes made to our constitution, for example, are now enabling the public to grill Cabinet Members – and watch it live on the Internet. More outward changes have also been made in supporting our Councillors to be better local leaders with greater devolution of power and influence.

In March we won the prestigious ‘Most Improved Council’ accolade at the Local Government Chronicle awards and we were also later shortlisted for the MJ’s ‘Best Achieving Council’ award.

Whilst I’m not one to chase ‘gongs’, I do think both make a statement about the direction we are taking this Council in.

More importantly to me there is evidence – anecdotal and from face-to-face discussions on doorsteps – that our reputation is steadily improving with at least some residents: although we know much remains to be done to regain trust and build confidence.

Despite the backdrop of the recession we also embarked on an ambitious journey to create jobs, attract inward investment and show Oldham has still got what it takes to be great and proud.

The confirmation that Monopumps is relocating to the former BAE Systems site at Chadderton was a huge achievement and a very positive start, but we still need to do much more to make up for the 2,000 local jobs lost in the last two years alone. No stone is being left unturned in this respect.

Our plans to create a new complex at the Old Town Hall – and address the lack of a cinema and family entertainment venue – have now been submitted and will go before the Planning Committee in September.

Agreements have also been reached with partners that could see up to £25 million invested in Royton Town Centre, and to realise the delivery of Hotel Future – the country’s first national hospitality training academy.

We’re also working at a rate of knots to ensure Oldham town centre improves as a shopping venue and we are – touch wood – within weeks of making a major announcement about a new anchor tenant.

We now have 90 per cent occupancy at Tommyfield Indoor Market and are putting plans in place for a bold new approach to offer two hours of free parking, every day of the year. More on that soon.

Whilst it is often never easy to make progress in these financial circumstances, we are doing our bit and getting some very tangible results. 

As we look forward I know we must ensure that roadworks associated with the next phase of Metrolink are handled in a more co-ordinated way. We can see the difficulties that local businesses are facing – and we are determined to work with them and do all we can to help.

A reflection on the past year wouldn’t be complete, of course, without mention of the tragic recent events in Shaw.

All that can be said about this scenario probably already has been, but I do think it is important to reflect on the positives – on the strength of a community which rallied around when it needed it to most. That brings some small comfort in what was a truly devastating scenario which saw Jamie Heaton, an innocent child, lose his life.

Whatever the cause of this incident, and we should not speculate on that at this stage, my only hope is that justice will be done which adequately reflects the scale of what occurred.

Looking forward overall, I’m confident our Borough can hold its own even in the choppy waters that surround us.

Like every other town and Local Authority we have our challenges, of course, and there will be more to face down. Will it be easy? No, far from it, but failure is not an option.

We have a fantastic place with enterprising and selfless people here. And I am clear in my mind that the Council’s role is to provide energetic leadership and a genuine commitment to work alongside you to take our Borough forward.

My blog will now be taking a short break for the Council recess period, but it will return on Wednesday, September 5.

Finally, if you have also holidays planned in the weeks ahead – or are just hoping to take in the sunshine at home – enjoy them and take care.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

All aboard for regeneration

IT’S HERE: Metrolink services between Oldham Mumps and Manchester Victoria are finally open

IT’S BEEN a long time coming – but it’s finally here.

Today sees the official launch to the public of the new Metrolink 3A line from Oldham Mumps to Manchester Victoria.

Its arrival has – as we all know – suffered from delays.

It’s also a fact that construction work on this, the biggest infrastructure project ever undertaken in our Borough, has caused unavoidable delays and inconvenience for many motorists, residents and traders alike.

We are continuing to work hard to mitigate those problems as best we possibly can, but I also do firmly believe that the overall prize at stake here is worth it.

I see today’s opening as being just the first major step on a very important journey towards transforming Oldham town centre.

I had the privilege of going on a ‘preview’ run of the tram on Monday alongside local and regional media, and the shared feeling from all present was that what we experienced was very impressive.

This new service – running every 12 minutes from the off, and with a pledge to increase to every six minutes as demand increases – offers a slick journey in a modern and comfortable environment.

The stations along the new seven-mile line have all been completely revamped and fantastic new ones added at Freehold, South Chadderton, Central Park and Monsall.

Having used the old rail line in the past, it was also striking how quiet the new tram system actually is: no more of those ear-piercing screeching sounds you used to experience as carriages pulled in and out of stations.

ALL ABOARD:(L-R) Charlie Parker (Chief Executive, Oldham Council), Jim McMahon, (Council Leader), Dave Hibbert (Cabinet Member for Transport) and Andrew Fender (Chair of TfGM Committee)

The 3A line is excellent facility. I think it will be well received by those who use it, but it is far from the end game here.

What we are really focussed on now is the delivery of 3B – Oldham’s town centre extension – which is due in 2014. 

So many of the regeneration plans which we are currently working hard on are predicated on that town centre extension being delivered, and making the maximum benefit from having trams in future running from Mumps, down Union Street and on to new stops at Oldham Central, Oldham King Street and Westwood.

That line will be the real catalyst for several of the regeneration schemes we have outlined in recent months – such as our plans to turn the Old Town Hall into a cinema and restaurant venue, for example, and Hotel Future, the country’s first National Hospitality Training Academy, adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

These schemes are all about transforming Oldham town centre and getting people to see it differently.

Our vision is to deliver facilities that will not only serve our own residents better, but also attract new visitors by making it a family-friendly destination where people can spend their ‘leisure pound’, as well as doing their shopping. 

The 3A line is a vital starting point in all this and, crucially, now links Oldham not just back up to Manchester Victoria, but also into a growing regional Metrolink network.

When all the network extensions are finished it will in future mean that you can travel from Oldham Mumps to Manchester Airport in the south, for example, or onto Media City, Bury, Eccles and Altrincham.

The construction work for 3B continues at pace and we fully recognise that it will continue to cause disruption as we head towards 2014.

Believe me, I’m as impatient as anyone when I am stuck in traffic queues and delays, but we must also all look forward.

We have to see the bigger picture and ensure that we capitalise fully on the fantastic opportunities that Metrolink is going to offer – not just to us but also to future generations.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Focus and delivery: Building a better future

EXPANSION: Paul Naylon, NOV Mono's Managing Director, shakes on the Greengate deal with Jim McMahon, Council Leader
EXPANSION: Paul Naylon, NOV Mono’s Managing Director, shakes on the Greengate deal with Jim McMahon, Council Leader

WITH THE start of the new Civic Year this week it is vitally important that Oldham Council’s focus and agenda are clear from the outset.

I make no apologies for reiterating that this means we need to send out the clearest possible message that Oldham is not just open for business, but also deadly serious and proactive about attracting inward investment.

Our focus in these times as a Co-operative Council is simple. It’s about doing our bit on regeneration, job creation and delivering real opportunities that improve people’s lives and help them into work.

That’s why I was delighted to be able to confirm today a deal that sees Nov Mono – an internationally recognised pump manufacturer – relocating here to Oldham.

The firm, currently based in Audenshaw, is taking the former BAE Systems site at Greengate, Chadderton, in a move that will see it expand and increase its manufacturing capacity with the potential for it to be home to more than 1,000 jobs.

That site has a proud history – not least as the production line of the Lancaster Bomber – and it was absolutely vital that it remained an industrial hub.

Oldham Council has worked proactively within the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) to pull together a package that ensures this could be done quickly.

This was crucial work not just for our Borough but also in terms of ensuring this firm and its jobs were not lost to the region.

This news also comes just days after Global Draw, one of the biggest global gaming machine operators, announced it is planning a major expansion at Broadway.

Deals like this are just the start, of course, but they are clear indications that businesses are starting to see Oldham as a place to invest.

Our new Cabinet line-up, approved by Annual Council on Wednesday, is another important step in this work.

Crucially it sees Councillor Shoab Akhtar becoming the new dedicated Cabinet Member for Business, Skills and the Town Centre. This is a new portfolio and he is the ideal person with the energy and commitment to make a vital contribution.

Shoab’s task is to not only ensure we capitalise on Metrolink but also to drive the business and employment agenda, work to promote the Borough’s markets, and oversee the vital offer we provide in terms of post-16 education.

As Council Leader I will continue to direct our national and city relationships and our overall regeneration strategy but having this new support will undoubtedly assist me in bolstering our focus on these clear priorities across all that we do.

We know from ongoing conversations with potential investors and business outside our Borough that they believe it is vital they can see our commitment to this agenda – and that they can deal quickly and directly with dedicated people to get results.

Finally – continuing on that regeneration theme – there is a hugely important event taking place next Tuesday (May 29) at which residents can go back into the Old Town Hall for the first time in almost two decades.

Back in March we appointed BDP to come up with a scheme to bring this building back into use. This is the first result of that work.

You can come along on the day at any time between 12.30pm and 7pm to view and comment on the new drawings and proposals that they have come up with.

This is a really fantastic opportunity for us to correct two things that people have rightly moaned about for years on doorsteps across the Borough – the desperate need for a cinema facility, and to transform the Old Town Hall back to a symbol of civic pride rather than neglect.

By using this historic Grade-II listed building for this purpose (plus restaurants) we have a great chance here to create something so much better than those out-of-town developments elsewhere that lack character.

The potential impact of delivering this for our town centre – making it a destination for families to visit and enjoy leisure time – is clear to everyone.

There is a lot at stake here in terms of our future. That’s why I would urge as many of you as possible to please take a few minutes next Tuesday to come along and give some serious feedback and momentum to these plans.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Leadership in today’s economy

Councillor Jim McMahon
ECONOMY: Councillor McMahon believes investment by Local Authorities must be focussed on job creation and schemes that can attract additional inward investment.

AS SEVERAL EU countries, including France, see their credit rating downgraded it does focus the mind again on economic matters – and in particular here in Oldham.

Expert assessments are that it will take until 2032 – that’s another 20 years – to return to our 2008 economic position.

The problem with that for Oldham is twofold.

Firstly, 2008 might have been better for us – but it still wasn’t great.

Secondly, waiting another 20 years just to be back at a standstill simply won’t move our Borough forward.

In that context the challenge for all Council leaders is to understand their local economy, understand the national direction and assess the UK’s position in the global economy – not an easy task.

We can learn a lot from the last decade.

At a time when the rest of the UK was growing significantly Oldham stood still.

Worse still, when you unpick our numbers, it tells a tale of private sector decline and public sector boom with roughly the same numbers of private sector jobs lost here as were created in the public sector.

That’s all well and good but we’re also now experiencing massive public sector cuts that affect the Local Authority, NHS, Police and Fire services to name but a few. A rapid increase in public sector jobs simply isn’t going to happen.

As political leaders we naturally also might become more cautious about embarking on ‘big ticket’ projects when finances are tight. But at the same time, our aspirations for the future of the Borough shouldn’t diminish. Our challenge is to marry these two instincts and get the big decisions right.

Even when times are tough there’s usually some money to invest, but clearly less. It’s therefore vital we focus on any investment on job creation and schemes that will attract inward investment.

We must also be clear that at times it is not best for us as a Council to deliver development. What we can do though is provide leadership, corral resources and ensure any effort or investment is used to the best effect.

We must also accept that although we aspire for and demand high-quality jobs, for many people ‘a job is a job’ and we shouldn’t be snobbish about new jobs being created. Clearly there needs to be a mix.

We should also recognise that growth might not now necessarily mean a shiny new building: it might mean using what facilities we already have in a better way.

We also need to recognise that the type of jobs available is changing across the UK, which also competes in a global market. Science, new technologies and creative industries will grow, but not at the rate needed in Oldham – so what else is going to help us expand?

Investing in education has paid dividends for Oldham and this surely cannot be faulted. We have an outstanding College and Sixth Form, for example. We are also home to a University Centre and schools that are improving across the board. These factors will undoubtedly assist in attracting investment in higher skilled jobs in the future.

As a Council we also have a large land bank which we can release for investment. This might be for housing or commercial properties and without a doubt will make an investor look at Oldham with interest.

Improving our infrastructure – to which Metrolink is central with routes to Manchester Airport and Media City – will also aid recovery, as will pursuing an investment strategy that is focused on job creation.

We must ensure too that when we talk about development plans they are real opportunities. For instance, if we say we have a development site, it has to be just that: not simply a vacant piece of land. Planning permissions, other formal permissions and associated infrastructure should be in place now so that any would-be investor can get going straight away.

Ultimately the recovery will be private sector-led. We can’t fight against the way in which Government funding and policy leans towards that, and nor should we.

But that also does not mean the private sector will simply ‘sort it’ for Oldham.

For us to defy the critics and prove we can do better than 20 years of drag we have to show clear leadership and – most importantly – provide real opportunities for growth; not just warm words and artists’ impressions.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

‘Use it or lose it’

COUNCILLOR McMahon: ‘Use it or lose it’ is a burning topic for public services, amenities and choice.

‘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.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Breastfeeding, council tax bills and road works – a week of rebuttals

As leader of the Council my focus is on the long term direction of the borough –  balancing increasingly limited budgets and supporting the Chief Executive to run an organisation of thousands of staff. 

As we work towards Cooperative Council status I am keen to make sure not just that people receive a good service, but that what they receive is tailored to their circumstances, compassionate and understanding. 

The recent story about breastfeeding and how it could have been offensive as the building was ‘multi-cultural’ could have been funny if the consequences weren’t so serious. This is, of course, nonsense, the fact that Oldham has a rich variety of nationalities, races and backgrounds is a strength of our borough, not something which should restrict us in this way. 

Unfortunately what was an isolated mistake that was dealt with quickly soon turned into national news with newspapers like The Sun declaring in their usual way “Don’t breastfeed in here, you’ll upset Muslims” and putting my deputy Councillor Akhtar in the firing line for racist emails for the rest of the week with cries of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and a few telling him to go back home… to his family home in Werneth I presume? 

So what should have been dealt with as a normal complaint directly to the council became a circus for the country. As the Leader of the council I am unhappy about our borough being in the news for this kind of thing – but also realistic enough to understand that at times you can’t pre-empt everything, nor can you micromanage every member of staff. Though far from ideal, you have to accept that at times these things happen. 

Shoab attended a meeting of mums on Monday to talk through the council’s position and by all accounts things went very well. 

Next was the case of a lady suffering dementia who moved into a care home. Following the move the family home was rented out for a period before becoming empty. The family did all the right things and told the council tax office. 

Unfortunately the change wasn’t registered and so bills continued to arrive causing genuine anxiety to the family. This could have been avoided and again the Council is in the press for the wrong reasons. 

Whilst neither of these stories put Oldham Council in the best light it is worth thinking that the authority carries out millions of transactions and provides services to thousands of people each year without error, misjudgement or fuss. So to everyone who just got on and did their job without any media attention this week – thanks! 

The now weekly coverage of roadworks in Oldham continues to occupy people, especially around Mumps. Although this is not the Council undertaking the works, it goes without saying that we end up in the firing line. 

I do appreciate the frustrations felt by motorists who end up late for work or dropping their kids off at school, but we do need to bear in mind what Transport for Greater Manchester and the Council are trying to achieve here; we are rebuilding the town’s infrastructure which impacts on most routes into the town centre. 

Residents have suggested that bad planning is the cause of traffic delays, but I have to disagree. With all but one or two exceptions the works are being handled well so far, the delays are in the main unavoidable given the scale of works and the timetable for completion. 

If you are affected by road works you have my sympathy, but please bear with us while we work hard to rebuild Oldham. 

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Launch of Cooperative Councils Network 

Finally, last week was the launch of the Cooperative Councils network whereOldhamis working with 14 other local authorities across the country to work to change the role and perception of local government and communities for the better. 

Ed Milliband MP and Michael Stephenson, General Secretary of the Cooperative Party visitedRochdale– birthplace of the Cooperative movement – to have a roundtable discussion on what was working well, and the future direction of Cooperative Councils. 

I highlighted our work throughOldham’s Cooperative Commission chaired by Councillor Barbara Dawson. We have been fortunate to build a strong relationship with Lambeth Council inLondonwhich has been leading the way on cooperatives for some time. Lambeth’s leader Councillor Steve Reed has been inspirational in spreading the benefits of cooperatives in service delivery and in empowering the community to take the lead to improve their area. 

We have agreed to lead on a number of themes; the first being the creation of an Ethical Framework, the establishment of a Community Dividend Scheme and building a network of young co-operators across our schools to promote volunteering and civic pride. We will also be working hard to transform backbench councillors into Local Leaders through our plans to devolve decision making.

It was fantastic to hear of projects ongoing across the country and encouraging that Ed Milliband has given us his backing. 

We have an opportunity to create something really special here, not just within the council – if that’s all we achieve then we have failed – but with the whole community across the borough. 

Kind regards,
Jim

Too many Councillors?

ASPIRATION: I met fellow Councillors (left to right) Steven Williams, Jean Stretton and Barbara Dawson at the Albert Street site, Hollinwood, to celebrate news of the Langtree deal last week.

I’VE ALREADY been in office long enough to know there’s no such thing as a ‘quiet week’ at Oldham Council – even when the phone lines are out of action!

This week’s headlines have, of course, by dominated by the news of a delay in bringing Metrolink to the town centre until February/March 2012.

As I said in the local press, it’s disappointing but not devastating.

In the long-run the benefits to the Borough from Metrolink are potentially enormous but it’s not the whole picture.

As an administration we are focussed right now on trying to attract and deliver major improvements to the town centre because – without them – the tram line will simply take people out of Oldham, not bring them in.

On a more upbeat note I was also privileged this week to see young musicians take part in a performance at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.

About 1,300 children – including my son, Jack – took part in the sessions with industry professionals from the Halle Orchestra and others.

The aim is to get young people involved in music at an early age and the enthusiasm on show was infectious.

I was left to reflect again on the fact that if we don’t deliver for Oldham we will be failing in delivering a better future for all these fantastic young people.

I also attended the monthly meeting of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority with the nine other Council Leaders where we discussed our submission for the Regional Growth fund. Here in Oldham we are supporting five local business in applying for more than £10million in potential grants to expand and create new jobs.

I also need to mention of our agreement with Langtree to develop Hollinwood Junction for leisure and business. It is early days and we will need to work hard to attract end users but having a developer in the current climate is a real boost and hopefully a sign of things to come!
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I’VE TALKED on here before about what I see as the future role of elected ward councillors.

On that theme I want to return to recent proposals to reduce the number of Oldham councillors by a third.

These were rejected by Full Council in April with predictable comparisons being made that expecting councillors to vote to reduce their numbers was like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

I see that as a somewhat cynical viewpoint – and one that actually misses the point.

As I’ve previously stated, I’m concerned about addressing the ‘disconnect’ between local citizens and their ward councillors.

Whilst this proposal clearly echoed that problem– we all know people are cynical about politics and politicians in general – it didn’t provide an answer.

Why? Because simply cutting the number of Ward Members to 40 still does nothing to actively address that disconnect. You would continue to have disgruntled residents simply represented by less councillors.

I do also wonder if we really are ‘over-represented’ with 60 members – because that’s not what the evidence suggests.

Stats from the Local Government Association recently indicated that UK residents are actually badly under-represented.

The UK has the lowest number of councillors per 100,000 voters in the whole of Europe with – on average – one ward member per 2,605 people.

Compare that with our neighbours. In France there is one elected ward member per 116 residents, for example. In Spain it’s 597; in Italy 580; and in Sweden its 667 and so on.

Second lowest on the list (after the UK) comes Denmark. The Danes have one elected member for every 1,084 residents. That is still twice as many councillors per 100,000 than us.

When discussing this topic the matter of councillors’ allowances usually also comes to the fore.

The allowance system takes into account the average household wage in Oldham, and the amount out of pocket expenses and time taken to carry out council business.

The starting point is that councillors are lay people, put forward by their communities to represent and serve them.

Should Ward Members be compensated a reasonable amount for their time, responsibility and out-of-pocket expenses? If the answer is no, then the solution is easy: simply stop paying allowances and only rely on those with independent incomes such as pensions or family wealth to step forward.

Unfortunately for most people this would mean becoming a Councillor was not an option. Whilst many might say it should be done on a voluntary basis, this is not an argument that washes with mortgage providers or utility companies who expect bills will be paid in cash – not in kind.

Our new Emergency Budget proposes to cut special responsibility allowances for key posts by 10 per cent. For myself that means a reduction of about £2,600 – no complaints here, I assure you – and we’ve also modernised the system by reducing the number of posts entitled to receive this payment and deleted a host of ‘add on’ benefits such as meal and fuel allowances, meaning what members receive in allowances will be all they get – no expenses.

We haven’t put forward the reduction because we felt the allowances were high, but because we felt that in the current budget round we are making reductions in every other area and councillors should not have a special exemption.

When compared to other authorities in Greater Manchester Oldham usually sits in the middle. Although councillors vote on allowances, the amounts put forward are recommended by a panel of independent members of the public who meet and review allowances, often asking for copies of diary appointments, statements and interviews with councillors holding various positions on the Council.

The reductions are also being made as an acknowledgement that councillors can – and must – do more to become respected figures in their communities that work closer and respond to residents.

To help them do that we’re working hard on plans to revitalise and empower your district town halls: more powerful District Partnerships with bigger budgets to provide services that are shaped by what local people see as local priorities. It’s about nurturing politics to produce community leaders – not Town Hall voting fodder.

If we’re at the point (and it appears we are) where people start questioning the cost of something then that’s usually because they don’t appreciate the value of it anymore.

The only way to tackle that is for people to start seeing and feeling their councillors are engaged with them – a real voice for their community.

Elected members have to work hard to win that trust back – and their value will rise.

Being leader of the Council is a great honour, but being a ward councillor is what makes it all fall into place, by making a difference to constituents, my neighbours, and to my area.

The idea of a Co-operative Borough is that everyone will work together – residents, ward members, voluntary groups, and staff. But the public also have a role to play in that, to participate in the democratic process, or it will not work.

Being elected might give you a mandate, but it does not automatically make you the voice of your community. To become that you have a responsibility to engage and listen to views other than those of your own party members and followers.

It’s time to move the debate on from the cost of councillors to the actual value of them.

Thanks for listening.

Jim