Healthcare devolution: we all have a part to play

Last week saw a major step forward in the push for decisions to be made locally.

At the start of the week the news broke that plans to devolve decisions over healthcare in the region were imminent. And then on Friday came the ground-breaking announcement of plans to bring together health and social care budgets worth £6 billion.

This puts local people firmly in control of future health and care services that suit the region.

I am clear decisions made about services which effect people should be made by, or as close to that community as possible, and have democratic accountability.

We must now use the next 12 months during the ‘transitional stage’ to involve local people, health professionals and ALL councillors in the changes that will follow.

In many respects the changes all get obsessed about (governance) but most people don’t give much attention to them, they just want it to work. When they need social care or health treatment they rightly expect the system to work.

But there are too many stories of people falling through the gaps between services, departments and the complex number of organisations. Any sense that the NHS is ‘one’ today is very far from reality. It’s complicated and while in some cases that might be for good reason, for the public they just want a system that puts them first.

We all have our own ambitions for this and together with my own desire to see services formed around people, not institutions. I also want to see an equal relationship between the government, the public, NHS staff and other public services.

Success for me would be to see the hardworking employees who provide in home care for mainly older people treated with the same respect as those caring in hospitals. Decent wages and terms and conditions will mean they can be held by members of the public in the same respect and admiration as NHS staff (quite rightly) have earned.

Here’s what the deal says:

The deal sees NHS England, 12 NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, 15 NHS providers and the 10 local authorities, including Oldham, agreeing a framework for health and social care – with plans for joint decision-making on integrated care to support physical, mental and social wellbeing.

This is an early step on the road for the devolution of decisions and budgets to regional level and it is welcome. By devolving power away from the distant Whitehall civil servants to locally accountable councillors and health and social care professionals we believe we can create a better and more efficient way to deliver services that are arranged around people, not institutional silos. Health and Social Care has some of our best and highly-regarded frontline workers and they, like us, recognise there are gaps in the current system which can only be resolved through true integration.

We need to balance this opportunity though. It is all too easy to get carried away into building more layers of bureaucracy and slowing down a system that is already under pressure to the point of breaking. It is also vital that we don’t rush into expensive reorganisations and restructures – that would be a big mistake.

We need to go into this with our eyes and ears open. We need to listen to the public and ensure that their needs and voices are part of the ongoing discussions. We also need to keep our eyes open as leaders and make sure we have the full picture so we can make vital decisions on a crucial part of people’s care – now and in the future.

There is a lot to be said for ‘better together’ and here in Greater Manchester we can be proud of what we have achieved by working together.  We have one of the best tram systems in Europe and many leading institutions such as the BBC and the Imperial War Museum have chosen to locate here.

We must be clear, however, about the major challenges still facing us.

As a conurbation our local economy under-performs compared to similar areas in the rest of Europe. We actually receive more from central government than we currently raise in taxes and too many of those who could contribute to our success choose to make their futures elsewhere.

The ongoing discussion about an elected mayor and devolution for Greater Manchester needs to be firmly focused on addressing these key concerns – and how we can help create prosperity locally.

The Combined Authority working in real partnership will have a budget of billions of pounds. It cannot be a talking shop and it has to be clearly very accountable to the public.

The real opportunity is that locally we can begin to exert more control over the billions spent in Greater Manchester by unaccountable national quangos and ensure that our housing and employment programmes can meet real local needs.

The public aren’t calling for more politicians – there’s no public appetite for that – and it’s absolutely right that we’re incorporating the existing Police and Crime Commissioner role, saving money and avoiding duplication.

With a £50 billion economy and a population of 2.7 million, Greater Manchester has led the national debate on political devolution from Westminster.

There was a tipping point on the devolution debate. A point where the assumption was in favour of devolution over Whitehall control was accepted as the norm. I believe with this announcement we’ve seen the tipping out.

And if the assumption is devolution we now need to look at other areas where Whitehall has failed to reform services. I’ll put a marker down for the Department for Work and Pensions right now.

Our task now is to take the people with us and create a city region leadership that can contribute to our economic success and a brighter future for all our residents.

More information about last week’s announcement can be viewed online at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority website at:
http://www.agma.gov.uk/gmca/gmca-devolution-agreement1/caring-for-gm-together/index

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Edited.

Embracing digital – Improving services

IN YOUR HANDS: Residents will soon to be able to engage with many of our services online at the Oldham Council website.  Oldham Council's website
IN YOUR HANDS: Residents will soon to be able to engage with more of our services online 24/7.

TECHNOLOGICAL advances in recent times, and particularly in the last decade, have transformed every aspect of our day-to-day lives.

Statistically 86 per cent of adults in the UK have now used the Internet – and why not? There’s more reason to do so now than ever before.

We can manage our money, order groceries and takeaways, download music, books, games and films, book a holiday, compare insurance prices and even find a date online. If you need something, there’s almost certainly a way to do it or find out how to on the internet.

The rise of ‘apps’ (software for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets) and wireless technologies like 3G, 4G, 5G (and probably several other Gs by the time you’ve finished reading this blog) mean we’re all able to do a bewildering array of tasks online and can also do them ‘on the go’.

More than half of UK adults now own a ‘smartphone’ and take-up of mobile internet was up to 49 per cent in 2013, which has more than doubled since 2009.

You’ll also have noticed that most of the innovations in what we can do have so far been driven by the private sector. For all the examples just cited it’s easy to name a brand or company associated with them be that the likes of Barclays, Tesco, iTunes, Amazon or LoveFilm.

Businesses of all sizes have now recognised they simply must offer services online through simple apps that allow customers to engage with them around the clock from any location.

The public sector, however, has a fair bit of catching up to do to match the kind of digital advancements that people have come to see as the standard in almost every other area of their lives.

Online services in local and central government are pretty patchy at present: available for some services, or in some areas and not others, and of varying quality and usability depending on where you live and what you need.

Wanting to be on the front foot and not left behind we’ve been looking at how we can transform residents’ experiences of interacting with us here at Oldham Council – and in ways that don’t merely treat people as consumers but in a way that fits our ambitions to be a co-operative borough.

That’s why we’ve been hard at work for many months now developing our own online customer service platform, called MyAccount.

Within weeks a phased launch will begin and once the full roll-out of components is completed, residents will be able to engage with many of our services online including Environmental Health and Environmental Services, Pest Control, Revenues and Benefits.

This means tasks like paying your Council Tax, organising Housing Benefits, reporting graffiti or litter – many of the most common interactions with us – will be possible anytime and anywhere.

MyAccount will allow you to securely store all your personal details, such as your address, Council Tax account, direct debit instructions, previous and current interactions with us, and check the status of them.

This can be done from the comfort of your own home, out and about using a mobile device, at the council’s Access Oldham contact centre, any of our 13 libraries, or at 15 other locations with free public access computers across the borough.

The beauty of the technology is that it will help to make tasks less complicated.

As an example, if you’re out and spot fly-tipping that you want to report to us then you can do so and – using a mobile device – enable GPS mapping to pinpoint your location. You can also upload a photo which helps us by giving us more exact information so we can deal with the problem more effectively.

In time not only should your experience of our services be more convenient, but it will also help to save money in a time of greater need as local authority faces unprecedented change.

It’s estimated that MyAccount will save us around £800,000 a year as it will cost an average of 15p per interaction compared with traditional methods like face-to-face (£8.62) and telephone (£2.63).

Whilst those savings aren’t to be sniffed at, this isn’t about just money.

This represents a fantastic opportunity to improve our services and target particular help to those who need it – and it is about your council better reflecting the needs of the communities it serves.

People want convenience, ease of use, and open access to information 24/7. We can give them that and also map data and service requests to target issues quickly.

As each service prepares to go online we will publicise the details fully, so keep your eyes on our website, local press and our Social Media accounts for more details in the coming months.

Digital offers huge potential benefits and it can be used to make a real difference to people’s lives.

As a local authority we must embrace it and use it as a tool that drives service innovation, changes the way we engage with you and explores how we can all better achieve the outcomes we seek.

Digital also perfectly complements our co-operative ambitions by looking at how we deliver your services in a more holistic way and with a focus not just on convenience, but also on how residents themselves can contribute and ‘do their bit’.

When you consider how quickly digital has transformed our lives and expectations it’s clear that we simply must move with the times – and the future possibilities are very exciting.

You may start off using MyAccount to pay your Council Tax and report a pothole on your street in 2014, but a few years hence who knows what might be possible?

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Looked after children

SAFEGUARDING: Oldham Council acts as a Corporate Parent: with a duty to act as a good parent to children and young people in our care and those in the process of leaving care.

FEW PEOPLE give much thought to safeguarding, children in care or those at risk from harm – when the system works.

The vast majority of the council’s budget is spent on services like this that most of us don’t see or use – but because they take the lion’s share of the budget when the cuts come those same areas are put under massive pressure.

This week Oldham Council’s Cabinet approved a proposal to freeze Council Tax for residents for 2014/5.

We’ve done this because we recognise that – however difficult it will be to balance our budgets with a further £60m of Government cuts in the next few years – many residents are also struggling with their finances. Average weekly wages have dropped from £437 to £417 at the same time as the costs of living, driven by items like utility bills, continue to rise.

We did not want to add to that burden or be the cause of any further financial harm to hard-pressed Oldhamers.

Like all other local authorities, Oldham Council is a ‘Corporate Parent’.

This means that when a young person in our borough is in a situation where it is unsafe and/or impossible to remain with their family, we instead take on that role of a good parent instead.

We provide residential care with experienced and trained staff, as well as working with a brilliant group of foster carers and supporting permanent adoption into new loving and supportive families.

It can be easy to think that being a Council Leader like myself is just about having an overview of big developments which take the majority of the headlines – but the truth is again that the bulk of work is going on quietly behind the scenes.

I chair the Safeguarding Accountability Board where I hold professionals and Cabinet Members to account to ensure those at risk do not fall through the net.

You can never be 100 per cent sure and you can only make judgements on the information provided. This isn’t about political interference, of course, but can be just as simple as asking an innocent question which adds value to the work of our team.

Often this means meeting frontline staff and talking through what works well and how we can help to remove any blockages which might exist.

I take that role as a Corporate Parent very seriously and when presented with an issue, problem or serious safeguarding review, I always ask myself ‘What would I want and expect for my own children?’.

It can be difficult at times to step back and take a measured professional view.

Some of the cases of abuse are harrowing and I have to say there have been times when I’ve left a meeting, or finished reading a report and had to ‘pull myself together’. I hope that just means I’m human.

There are currently nearly 400 ‘Looked After Children’ in Oldham. Their reasons for entering the care system are varied, but many have experienced significant trauma (including abuse or neglect) and need tailored specialist support to ensure that they have every chance in life – like their peers – in family care.

As well as having to cope with the upheaval of moving away from home and the emotional fallout of a troubled family history, children in care can often feel out of control.

Indeed, many are the victims of unfortunate circumstances and – although we do provide care for children on a voluntary basis – many find themselves in our care due to court orders or police intervention and feel unable to change the situation they find themselves in.

That’s why we have an Oldham Children in Care Council, which enables all looked after children to have a voice and share their ideas about how the services we provide for them could be improved.

Children as young as five years old are engaged with this and have the opportunity to regularly meet senior directors and councillors at Oldham Council to give feedback and suggestions about how their care experience could change for the better.

We also make sure to celebrate the many brilliant achievements of our Looked After Children with the ‘Stars in Our Eyes Awards’, which is now in its sixth year.

This year 267 children and care leavers were nominated for various awards which recognise their efforts at school and in extracurricular activities, developing positive social skills and healthy lifestyles, and going on to great things after leaving care, such as attending college and university.

Transition to life as an adult can be hard enough even when you have family to lean on when times get tough, which is why Oldham Council provides After Care support to ensure that our Looked After Children don’t simply ‘drop off the radar’ at 18. We work with them to assess their needs and help them to achieve the things they need to have in place to achieve their aspirations. That includes education, training, employment, mental and physical health, finances, support networks, leisure activities and family contacts: all the things that most people would say they need for a rounded and happy life.

There are many ways that each of us can all do to help create a Cooperative Oldham which supports our young people.

That ranges from looking out for our children’s friends or neighbour’s children and paying Council Tax which funds the borough’s Corporate Parenting services – right through to the efforts of our brilliant foster and adoptive families. Last month, Harold and Glenys Cockroft from Waterhead were named in the New Year honours list after fostering more than 150 children in Oldham over the last 40 years. Clearly their contributions are exemplary, but everyone can ‘do their bit’ in some way.

This isn’t big brother, this is us all working together and setting the standard of what is – and isn’t –acceptable.

It is easy to forget that it can be really difficult to work in social care at times but these people are our unsung heroes in so many ways.

As a Corporate Parent we put our trust in them and give support and challenge in the way you would expect, but we are also left with a deep respect for what they do.

I’d to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all who play a part in this vital field of our work.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

Recycling flat lining while costs soar

Over the past five to 10 years a great amount of funding has been spent aimed at helping residents increase recycling rates.

This isn’t solely about caring for our environment, although that clearly is important; it’s also the financially sound way to manage the limited resources we have as a borough.

Whenever we put rubbish into the black wheelie bin a large number of people believe the only cost incurred is that of sending the bin waggon to collect it. But of course it has to go somewhere.

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Landfill costs have increased dramatically and will continue to go up as the government use the ‘Landfill tax levy’ as a financial deterrent against local councils, to push up recycling rates. So, even if we owned our own landfill site we’d still pay the tax to government.

So, even if we were to recycle at the same rate – the cost of what we do send to landfill goes up, and up, and up. And we are not talking small sums of money.

Last year we sent 39,637 tonnes of household waste to landfill at a cost of £270 a tonne. That’s a whopping £10,701,990 – almost £11m!

To put that into context the whole ‘Neighbourhood Services’ department budget, which pays for street cleaning, libraries, community centres, parks and countryside services, street lighting, road maintenance – so everything you see – was £14m in total.

So if we increase recycling (or even just stopped producing waste in the first place) we would save the town a serious amount of money which we can use to offset the cuts to council services from central government. And that surely is a better option?

With recycling rates now at 37 per cent (down two per cent on the previous year) we can and must do better as a community. If we can increase that by just five per cent we will save more than £500,000 – and that could make a real difference. For instance it would pay for all our district libraries.

We know that the current system can take a while to understand – what exactly can you recycle? I was baffled when I was told yogurt pots couldn’t be included.

But it isn’t impossible to understand, it just takes a moment to get used to the system.

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We’ve invested in the containers – people can’t say they don’t have enough bins – and we’ve invested in a reliable collection service which aims for 100 per cent collection rates.

Clearly that isn’t always possible, due to a host of reasons, including parked vehicles or human error, but we are not far off.

We’re working with Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority to get the information out to communities and we are also taking the messages into schools so our pupils are educated from an early age.

We’ve invested in enforcement – we’re not fining people for leaving bin lids open more than 45 degrees, but persistent offenders who believe that they can fill two to three bins to the brim with waste they haven’t bothered to separate, effectively creating two or three  ‘black bins’.

We try to educate before taking enforcement action and we have seen real improvements with our ‘Changing Behaviours’ programme.

Of course not all waste has to come to the council for recycling. Increasingly the ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ message is beginning to come through more and more.

Websites like Oldham Freecycle let residents’ list items for free so that others who can get use out of them will come and collect. I’ve used the site and without fail the goods have been collected within hours – quicker than a bulky goods collection could have taken.

The government does need to do far more than simply punish communities with landfill taxes. One of the biggest generators of waste are our very wealthy supermarkets which continue to over package food.

They claim consumers now expect fruit and veg to look neat and pretty, I think that’s a poor excuse.

Perhaps a ‘landfill generator’ tax to supermarkets would focus minds?

Until then we’ve got to do what we can to reduce the cost to Oldham. Now some of course will say ‘that’s what I pay my council tax for’, which of course is true.

But it makes no more sense than it would to turn your heating on full blast and leave all your windows and doors wide open. You could do it, but it makes no sense.

If we all recycle more that will save money and that could have a big impact when we are forced to look at cutting services our communities rely on. Surely this has got to be an easy win?

You can find out more about recycling across Greater Manchester at http://www.recycleforgreatermanchester.com/

Thanks for listening,

Jim

The challenges mount

CHALLENGES MOUNT: It is time for a new settlement for Local Government in England.

THE COMPREHENSIVE Spending Review delivered a nasty surprise for Local Government.

The headline cut of a further 10 per cent in our funding hides a multitude of other changes which will see many councils across the UK unable to meet their statutory (legal) requirements.

And you don’t have to take my word for that.

The respected cross-party Local Government Association (LGA) has revised its (unpublished) list of Local Authorities under threat – which now stands at more than 50 across the country.

Speaking at the LGA conference in Manchester this week, Sir Merrick Cockell, the former Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea, outlined in stark terms the cliff edge now facing local councils.

Perhaps as a member of the public you don’t fully see first-hand the range of services that are delivered by your local council – nor the legal responsibilities that we have to meet and maintain.

But increasingly a Central Government stranglehold is now constraining us to such an extent that local variation, even local decision-making, has been centralised.

We can’t even decide for ourselves, for example, if we want or need another secondary school.

Any random group can now apply to Government for council-owned land and buildings. This can put other regeneration plans at serious risk without any meaningful consultation, let alone allowing those of us who are elected by the public to make the decision.

We now also hear those small groups will be given the power to sell off public land that has been forced out of council (public) control for development.

Public services are under increasing scrutiny but a frank and honest debate about the true cost and value for money has not been forthcoming. Instead lazy production companies and their researchers will trawl councils with FOIs and detailed queries looking for any evidence of waste.

In any industry or service on such a scale you will always find examples of waste. But surely the answer is to deal with that isolated example, not to cast a shadow on the whole sector? 

The truth – as highlighted by review after review – is that Local Government (councils) is actually the most efficient arm of government.

But with the Government having already taken more than over 33 per cent in funding from councils this additional 10 per cent will be a step too far.

Even the most cynical observer surely wouldn’t believe that councils can take a 40 per cent-plus cut without that affecting the services people rely on.

And it’s time to say enough is enough.

We are sick and tired of being beaten up, lambasted and slurred by ministers who clearly have little idea what councils actually do.

Across all political parties councils are now standing up and demanding an adult conversation about the future of public services.

We are sick of the petty sound bites, token hand-outs before an election and the deep misunderstanding of the importance of local people being able to shape the services delivered to them through those people they directly elected.

The demand we are making is for is a new settlement.

It is not tenable for devolved areas such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be treated differently than England – we’ve had disproportionate cuts with no one fighting our corner.

It is also not tenable for other public agencies that are not democratically accountable spending many billions of pounds where the service users – you and I – are seen as the problem to be dealt with using an out of date ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

There IS waste in the system, duplication and poor service standards. 

Give councils control over the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, and see real savings (as opposed to cuts) with a better service for residents that delivers a welfare and benefits system which is fit for purpose and gets those people out of work back into the job market.

As it stands there are more than 900 apprenticeship providers operating in Greater Manchester and over 300 training providers – does that seem like a streamlined approach?

And what about health? Giving over control to GP’s with little reference to the wider social care system is bizarre. Surely we should be focusing on prevention?

I bet most people reading this will know the pay of your council’s Chief Executive and Council Leader, but you probably have no idea how much senior civil servants are paid – nor the people leading other public agencies, such as those in education and health. Whether you agree with the amounts being paid is another thing, but at least Local Government is transparent.

The way that local services are funded is also no longer fit for purpose. 

Council Tax is now based on property values from the 1990s and that means areas like Oldham with a low tax base (more low-value properties) have to charge higher Council Tax just to get level with more affluent areas of the UK.

Those are just some of the reasons why I fully endorse the ‘Rewiring public services’ report launched at the LGA conference. 

For the first time in ages there is now a coherent argument for a serious review of public services in this country and I’d urge you to watch a video clip which shows the funding black hole in stark reality here.

Please also take the time to read the full conference address here – it’s worth it. 

Demand is now outstripping the funds available. 

People are living longer but they also have more health and social care needs – and that costs serious money.

Our young population in Oldham is increasing in size, which is good news, but they also need educating well and deserve to grow up in good-quality housing and clean, safe neighbourhoods. 

And they deserve a better future than just ‘getting by’.

I’d simply say this to the public: If you value public services at all, it’s time to get behind the work of your local councils.

We might not be perfect but the alternative is having Whitehall civil servants swinging the axe with a distant minister doing little more than rubber stamping more and more cuts.

We need a new settlement and the time is now.

Thanks for listening, 

Jim

Time for some acknowledgement

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TAXING DECISIONS: Taking money out of services isn’t easy – and you must understand the real consequences of the decisions you take.

IF I TOOK my job description from the Government then being a Council Leader is supposedly like being a scout leader.

Well, after almost two years of holding onto a day job and also being Council Leader, I can say that view is so far removed from reality that you have to wonder which councils certain ministers are using as a reference point for Local Government!

Last week was my first week here as a full time leader.

I should say that, even when I maintained a day job, I still worked many more hours on Council business than a standard 40 hour week. It just meant that in total I worked around 70-80 hours over seven days each – and every week.

That isn’t good for my own sanity and it certainly wasn’t fair to my family – plus I want to give 100 per cent to Oldham. The challenges and opportunities that we face means I need total focus and energy.

It proved to be a very busy first week here as we put the finishing touches to the budget for 2013/4 – and also dealt with the latest media storm: horsemeat.

Cries from Government, the media and consumers that food standards should be monitored more closely cast the spotlight towards Local Government on this – even comments by the Chief Executive of the Iceland food store who, I wrongly assumed, might have been busy checking his own supply chains.

Nationally the questions started to arise about how many food safety inspectors have been axed as a result of budget cuts.

But not long before that it was gritting. And not long before that it was the quality home care. And then it was potholes (and still is!).

Each time the questions are now asked about whether the services above were cut.

A safe assumption, almost universally, will be “very likely”.

Of course services have been cut because the council’s budget – the cash it has to spend – has also been cut and people don’t work for free.

Some acknowledgement that Local Government delivers important services has been a long time coming. It shouldn’t take the next crisis of public confidence or frenzy to shine a light on the next service delivered by councils which the media suddenly realise was delivered by us in the first place and was actually very important.

And if you don’t believe that then think back a month ago and tell me who was talking about horsemeat – or who gave a second thought about cuts to environment health budgets?

So what will be the next focus of media and national attention, I wonder?  Adoption?  Road safety?  Who knows?

You can see the vast range of services we deliver as a Council here – http://www.oldham.gov.uk/a_to_z

It’s well worth taking just a few moments to glance through the sheer scale of services offered.

I’m afraid the simplistic argument that “If you have less money then there’s less work to do” doesn’t hold water.

To make decisions to take money out of service budgets isn’t easy, but implementing changes and reduced budgets when, in many cases demand is increasing, is very difficult – especially if you care about quality public services.

During any budget consultation it is usual to get a series of common themes and also a great deal of contradiction. Many put forward ideas like reducing councillor allowances, reducing senior management, saving money on buildings and energy.

I can report that we have done that on all counts but even had we had sacked every manager earning above £50,000, plus every councillor, at the start of our budget process it still would have left around £135million of further cuts to find. That would have left us without anyone to actually manage what was left – or to be democratically accountable.

There are also competing interests. Non-users of libraries are happy to see libraries close, for example, but await the fury of those who do use them if you attempt to shut one down.

Those without children may also be happy to see youth centres close, but again if that happens the wave of petitions will soon follow.

And for those at the start of their adult life worries about quality home care may seem a lifetime away: until one of their own family members fall victim to changes in care criteria or budget cuts.

At the end of all this you do listen, of course, but you also have to be true to yourself and spend time understanding the real consequences of the decisions you make.

Our budget will finally be set this week and you can see the full details of it here:  http://committees.oldham.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=132&MId=4337&Ver=4

The Council Tax increase will be set at 3.5 per cent with the Oldham Council element being a 2 per cent raise, plus precepts such as the police, fire and waste.

I can say that whilst an increase is not ideal I feel it is the right balance between maintaining services, creating an investment fund and not being overbearing on the public.

The increase amounts to around 60p a week for a band A property. It will see frontline services buffered and make investment possible in the town centre and key employment sites.

Oldham Council is your council and collectively Oldham is our town. If we fail to invest in growth and regeneration we fail ourselves; and that isn’t good enough even if finances are tight.

A couple of other things before I go…

I was extremely proud on Monday night when four of our councillors were given national recognition for their work at the LGiU and CCLA C’llr Achievement Awards 2013.

Jean Stretton led Oldham Council’s response to the Shaw gas blast last year and showed outstanding community leadership in her tireless work with affected residents and looking after their welfare. Small wonder she was crowned ‘Community Champion of the Year’.

Our three Assistant Cabinet Members – Amanda Chadderton, Sean Fielding and Arooj Shah – also collectively won the ‘Young Councillor of the Year’.

They had made huge contributions since being elected in May 2012, including delivering the Energy Switching scheme, the return of the Civic Bonfire, and securing a 30 per cent reduction in bus fares. They are shining examples of the really positive impact that young people can make in public life.

And finally, I must mention Oldham Athletic again.

Whilst it was a shame their FA Cup dream came to an end at Goodison Park on Tuesday night the club has so much to be proud of – and has also recieved a significant financial boost from these exploits.

The Latics and their fans have been fine ambassadors on a national stage in recent weeks and have done much to foster renewed civic pride in our town.

I sincerely hope this recent success is now a springboard to the club retaining League One status this season – and a much brighter future ahead.

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