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.
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.
I RECENTLY attended the annual Local Government Association Conference.
This event is always a good opportunity to meet some leading lights, hear new ideas and discuss the burning issues of the day.
The main issue focusing minds was, of course, the scale of budget cuts to local government.
There was also a stark warning that should reductions continue at the same rate then – by 2020 – councils will just about have enough money to look after the elderly and vulnerable adults and do not a great deal else.
Soon the cries that folk are paying so much Council Tax to get their bins emptied will be replaced with a more deep-seated anger that they are being short changed.
The harsh truth is though that local government and – by extension local residents – have new realities to deal with.
The frontline services that people rely on and value are clearly going to be affected.
That means the weak-sounding “We’ll do more for less” mantra that you often hear as local politicians try and manage the impact of cuts will ultimately have to be replaced with a more honest assessment of “Less for much less”.
If Councils were only responsible for service delivery that would be bad enough, but the truth is that battening down the hatch and hoping the worst will blow over leaves a gaping hole – in the local economy.
Here in Oldham we’ve been hit massively by the budget reductions and, in my view, also by the lack of a coherent national economic strategy.
But I am also determined that Oldham Council is not in the business of just managing decline. What is the point of that?
We are about improving the social and economic wellbeing of our residents – and to deliver on that we must step up and accept that the tough decisions just got tougher.
In Oldham we know we cannot afford to wait for Government to change course: estimates are that by 2020 a further 4,000 people will be unemployed if current trends continue.
So, we have taken the difficult but essential decision to reduce service budgets further in order to create an economic job creation fund that can directly boost regeneration and get people back into work.
We have begun to see the benefits of this approach already.
For example, we’ve had the relocation of a major engineering company – Monopumps – with the potential to create a further 500 jobs. We’ve also had signed up a high-end national hospitality training hotel and conference centre – Hotel Future – to come to town, creating 120 jobs and 120 apprenticeships.
In doing this we not only give people valuable job opportunities but also quicken the pace of regeneration for our Borough.
New plans for the Old Town Hall and cultural quarter will also soon go to the Planning Committee after a resounding 91 per cent of more than 500 respondents indicated they were in favour of the scheme.
We will also be bring forward ambitious plans to transform Union Street and to bring back historic statues into the town centre, such as John Platt and Blind Joe, and I’d love to hear if local people support this.
It is my firm belief that we have to turn our heritage around from being symbols of decline and into something we can be proud of.
Ultimately – regardless of where we come from, our race, our religion or age or mindset – the one thing that unites us all is the Borough of Oldham, so let’s celebrate it and get working together to improve it.