The Leader of the Council, Councillor Arooj Shah, delivered her first Annual Statement.
The Leader reminded the Council of her priorities, as set out in May 2021.
· Getting back to basics by investing in cleaning up streets, taking action on littering and flytipping and restoring a sense of pride in neighbourhoods.
· Steering the town’s economic recovery from the impact of the pandemic – supporting local businesses, creating jobs and attracting investment and funding. At the heart of this was the delivery of key regeneration schemes, both in the town centre and elsewhere.
· Reconnecting with local people, to acknowledge that many residents felt distant from the decisions made about their area and from how their local services were run, and to do something to put that right.
· Continuing to support the most vulnerable and to drive out inequality and unfairness wherever it existed.
The recruitment of a new Chief Executive, Harry Catherall, had made a real difference to the culture and approach in the organisation. He shared the Leader’s passion for putting residents at the centre of everything the Council did and for providing great quality local services and was already working to drive that culture through every council service and to every council employee. Thanks were given to the Chief Executive for what he had already done for Oldham and for the amazing things he would continue to achieve for local people.
The scale of the challenges that Oldham and its people faced and the role of elected members in addressing those challenges was acknowledged
The Leader referred to the difficulties of the last eighteen months. Many local people felt the impact of the pandemic on their jobs and their wages as well as their health, and rising costs for basic necessities like food and fuel were pushing more people into poverty. The recent cut to universal credit had served to push people further towards financial crisis. Young people had seen their education significantly disrupted by the pandemic, and more disrupted in Oldham than other areas of the country. Public services had been stretched to breaking point through sheer demand– hospitals, ambulance service and GPs and also services like welfare rights and other support teams. The pandemic had increased the number of young people and families needing support from safeguarding services to keep them safe.
The Leader highlighted that, at such times, Councils and the services they provided were vital and mattered more than ever to local communities. To support them, the Council needed fair funding through sustainable levels of funding that acknowledged the level of need in different areas. It was not true levelling up to ask local council-tax payers to bear the brunt of the impact of the pandemic on local services like adult social care through increased ‘precepts’. It was not levelling up to ensure that areas with high levels of need were left with the stark choices of cutting local services, selling off local assets or heaping the financial burden onto already struggling local taxpayers. There could be no levelling up until there was acknowledgement of the huge impact that ten years of government cuts had on services. In Oldham that amounted to nearly £200 million of funding stripped from local services since 2011.
The Leader referred to her top priority of in the last few months, listening to residents to make sure the nature of the challenges they faced was understood. As part of this, meetings would be held in each area, to give people the chance to ask questions and raise local issues with the Leader and the Chief Executive. These sessions were open to everyone and were a real opportunity for people to share their views and ask anything they needed to of the Council.
A Big Conversation would be held with local people about the town centre regeneration plans. The Leader was excited about the prospects for Spindles, for the new housing planned for the area, for the fantastic new town centre park, for our new events space, new theatre, for a new improved home for Tommyfield Market and for the plans for the Egyptian Rooms. This investment was crucial to create a new future for the Town Centre as shopping and leisure habits changed even more in light of the pandemic. The purchase of Spindles was a vital step in delivering this future and a planning application was expected to be submitted before the end of the year, with work on site starting soon after.
The town centre belonged to the people of Oldham and would not thrive without their support, so the plans needed to reflect their thoughts, their wishes and their concerns through open discussion. The Big Conversation was happening now and residents could add their thoughts online if they were unable to make the events.
The Leader highlighted the need for innovation and fresh thinking to shape our own economic destiny as a town. She had asked Alun Francis to lead an Independent Economic Review, with a group of experts – everyone from national think tanks, academics and local business people - to hear evidence on how best to create economic growth in Oldham in a way that genuinely worked for local people. What was required were great jobs and Oldham people in those jobs to get on in life. The Review would be making its recommendations early next year.
The Leader informed the Council she had invited levelling up minister Michael Gove for a visit and that invitation remained open but believed the Government would not be coming to help Oldham.
The Leader highlighted that there was much to do to tackle the inequalities and injustices that continued to shame society. She was determined to use her time as leader to make a difference for those who experienced discrimination and unfairness on a daily basis. She had recently launched the Oldham Women’s Taskforce, with a group of truly inspiring women from across the borough who had given up their time to highlight and tackle the issues that made women’s lives most difficult. Issues that particularly affected women could be missed or treated as an afterthought and the taskforce would put them front and centre. An Equality Strategy had been published, and with the Women’s Taskforce, the Poverty Truth Commission, and work at Greater Manchester with the Cooperatives and Inclusion portfolio, there would be a lot more to come on this agenda in the weeks and months ahead. A programme with local businesses to create jobs for people who have been in the criminal justice system or are at risk of becoming involved in crime was due to be launched very soon.
The Leader referred to her desire for Oldham to be a place people were really proud to call home. She highlighted the work of Councillor Amanda Chadderton in bringing forward a solution to litter issues. £1.27m would be invested to enhance street cleaning and the fly-tipping enforcement budget. This had been used to increase permanent street cleaning and enforcement staff, work more closely with local communities and voluntary groups and instigate a deep clean of the whole borough. In the first month of the deep clean the team picked up 17 tonnes of litter. Since May there had been 84 community litter picks, and fly-tipping prosecutions were way up.
The Leader referred to the murder of Sir David Amess MP and the risk taken by Councillors in representing their communities. She expressed the wish that this tragic incident would act as a catalyst for change in Oldham and elsewhere. Councillors regularly faced abuse, harassment and intimidation online and in person. She was seeking less hatred and less personal abuse, most of which was fuelled by lies and misinformation, and by the colour of her skin, her religion and the fact that she was a woman.
The Leader highlighted that, over the last few months, she had faced regular death threats, had been approached and verbally attacked in the street and, on a small number of occasions, physically threatened by people. She urged Councillors to collectively agree not to fuel mistrust and division, to address misinformation rather than use it for political gain, and to publicly condemn those who sought to spread hate and incite abuse. The best way to combat the hate and vitriol seen online and in real life was by working well together and with mutual respect. The contribution of the whole Council was needed to meet the ambitious plans for the borough and the aim to improve local people’s lives.
RESOLVED that the content of the Leader’s Annual Statement be noted.