Taking power is a sobering experience for any Labour councillor. Not only do you have responsibilities to your own communities, but for the party nationally for the next four years you are also the public face of Labour in power.
As part of our back-to-the-floor initiative I spent a morning on the switchboard here in Oldham made me realise the scale of our interaction with the public. Over 9,500 calls are received every week, each with the potential for either a satisfactory outcome or an aggrieved citizen.
The scale of the reductions in our funding (over £25 million this year) means it cannot be ‘business as usual’. More fundamentally as Labour politicians we have to recognise that the last years have brought a growing disconnect between our councils and residents – a feeling that the local authority is distant and that elected members don’t listen to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
To make progress both now and the long term we need a new settlement between elected members and new citizens – and it starts at the top.
To this end I’ve rejected the use of council credit cards and civic cars, cut the cost of councillors’ allowances by 10 per cent, reduced the size of the cabinet and the numbers entitled to special responsibility allowances and cut the leader’s office staff from four to two – as well as scrapping the chauffeur driven car for the leader and cutting up the council credit card.
All represent significant savings to the public purse. I have made sure that despite all the financial pressures we have kept to our manifesto commitment of introducing the living wage – a policy which will make a big difference to some of our working households.
Equally important to tackling that disconnect is how we can improve the quality of and rebuild public trust. Ward members can – and must – do more to become the respected leaders in their communities again. We have started this process by revitalising our six district partnerships with bigger budgets (devolving in the first year over £2 million to deliver services). They will have frontline staff redeployed to their areas and proper control over local investments.
In a town with as much history as Oldham local pride in our heritage is strong. That’s why resolving the long-term futures of Oldham Athletic and Oldham Rugby League Clubs were vital after years of uncertainty. Conscious, too, that 2014 brings the 100th anniversary of the first world war I have made it a priority to ensure that all our numerous war memorials are maintained to a fitting standard.
From day one I’ve also been clear that regeneration is critical to our long term-future in Oldham. Important infrastructure projects agreed already include a new high-speed broadband link, the conurbation’s first electric car showroom/charging point, and work undertaken to secure the borough’s Olympic legacy with the Halford’s Tour visit.
However, it is not enough to provide a competent administration – we also want to be part of creating a new direction and future for Labour local government. I am particularly excited about our work to become a cooperative council. Although we are in opposition nationally we cannot simply protest and object to the government – we must show there is a real alternative.
This will develop a proper ethical framework for how we operate and will define our future relationship with the voluntary sectors, our partners, local businesses and critically our citizens. This will form a part of our activity with the development of a ‘community dividend’ to fund and promote community activity and association throughout the borough. Over the next few years we in Labour local government have to develop our version of the ‘cooperative society’ to contrast with the Tory-promoted ‘big society’. It’s fundamental to our beliefs and the difference between a community that helps and respects each other and one that just looks after itself – or, even worse, is dumped.
Jim McMahon is leader of Oldham council
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