My two allowed questions at tonight’s Oldham Council meeting – 7 November 2018 – Tommyfield Market and challenge to build some council houses

Q1 Leaders Question – Giving Certainty to Tommyfield Traders

Mr Mayor my first question tonight concerns people living with great uncertainty; they are nervous about their future; or indeed if they have a future; and a Leader who is promising a plan that will deliver a ‘New Jerusalem’…

But in this case I am not talking about the people of the United Kingdom, Theresa May and Brexit, but rather the traders of Tommyfield Market, our new Council Leader, and the revised (yet again) Oldham Town Centre Masterplan.

We all know that the Leader tore up the old £350 million masterplan – not good enough said he; it ‘falls far short of what is required to give a compelling vision for Oldham.’

I am sure the traders at Tommyfield were at that time grateful that he described the market as ‘much-loved’ and ‘a significant feature of Oldham town centre…in need of investment.’

It must have filled them with hope for the future.

But since that time the same traders have been living with more uncertainty, made worse by the fact that the new revised, better-than-the-old-one masterplan is now not scheduled to be unveiled until at least March 2020.

Yes not March 2019, but March 2020 – in at least 18 months-time. 

Most citizens of this Borough will wonder why it will take so long and why urgency is not put into the process!

With our recent experience of town centre regeneration projects falling behind schedule or just failing to happen; think Hotel Futures and Princes Gate.

Traders are right to ask questions and they deserve some answers.

At present traders report that when their leases are up for renewal they are being offered new agreements in which they could be given as little as three months’ notice to quit.

Many of these traders have been in the market for decades, with a loyal customer base to match, and one – Levers – has its own blue plaque celebrating Oldham as being the historic home of fish and chips!

So how can it be right that they can be out on their ear in only 12 weeks?  I ask you is this any way to treat traders who were recently described as ‘much loved’!

Giving them so little notice means they have no incentive to invest in their business or premises.  Some say that in any case a three month notice period makes their business now practically worthless.

It causes difficulties with recruiting and keeping staff and impacts on the well-being of the owners and their families let alone their pockets!

So I would like to ask the Leader tonight if he will rethink the Council’s offer to the traders.

Will he do the right thing and agree to requests that they be at least granted five-year automatically renewable leases as a way to guarantee them some future for their businesses and staff?

Will he promise traders that they will be consulted regularly as stakeholders as plans for the new market hall (or not) develop and be offered spaces in or around the new market hall which meet their needs and on terms that are affordable to them?

Q2 Leaders Questions – Can We Build It?  Yes We Can!

Mr Mayor, for my second question to the Leader tonight I would like to look at another important issue – the shortage of social and rented housing in our Borough.

In Oldham, we have a huge housing waiting list.  We have a particular shortage of larger houses, as these are the homes most frequently lost due to sales under the misguided policy of Right to Buy.

We are also desperately short of homes that are built to meet the needs of disabled people or future proofed for an ageing population.

I know that the Leader will join me in welcoming the announcement by the Prime Minister that, for once, represents good news for this Borough – the lifting of the borrowing cap which has prevented Councils from investing in much needed social and affordable housing.

Following pressure from many voices speaking common sense, including those of myself and my fellow group leaders in the cross-party Local Government Association, the cap on the Housing Revenue Account is finally being abolished.

In their hey-day, councils were building four in every 10 of the nation’s homes – we will now need to see a Council house building revival to build affordable and social housing if we are to meet the shortfall in new homes that we will need in the future.

Decent homes improve health and well-being, educational performance and many, many other factors other than just a decent roof over people’s head.

We need to get on with it now – with more haste than it took this Administration to recently adopt the idea of establishing an arms-length housing development company that the Liberal Democrat Group first suggested three years ago.

The children’s TV character, Bob the Builder, famously said: ‘Can we build it?  Yes we can!’

Mr Mayor, I would like to ask the Leader tonight if he is going to adopt Bob’s mantra by ensuring the Council works with our social housing partners and supportive housing developers to quickly rise to this challenge and build the affordable homes that we so desperately need as soon as possible.

In short, have we got a plan in place, have we got sites ready to build on and will we see diggers on the ground very soon?

Chancellor promises end of austerity, but no end to Oldham Council funding cuts

The Leader of the Opposition and of the Liberal Democrat Group, Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, has welcomed the promise by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in today’s Budget that ‘austerity is coming to an end’ and his recognition that local authorities have ‘significantly contributed’ towards the UK Government in addressing austerity, albeit through being forced to accept swingeing general cuts to their funding.

Councillor Sykes has also welcomed the promised extra funding to tackle potholes across the country and for new services to help those in mental health crisis, contemplating suicide, or living with infirmity or disabilities; however the Chancellor was short on detail when it came to rolling back the massive funding cuts that local authorities have faced since 2010.

“Some of this so called funding will not happen for a couple of years so is very much a promise of jam tomorrow,” stated Councillor Sykes.  “Also all bets are off budget wise if Brexit negotiations do not go well.”

He added:  “It is easy to promise an end to austerity, but the ‘hard working British public’ that Mr Hammond spoke so warmly of rely on the council services that have been cut to the bone, and in some cases just stopped providing them under this Conservative Government.”

“Our green spaces, cemeteries, parks and alike will continue to look even more unloved.  Streets will be dirtier, basic maintenance stopped in places our libraries and community centres some time ago.”

“The Chancellor failed to pull out a ‘promised rabbit’ for local government and other public services like police and fire.  He talked a lot about councils gaining ‘greater control’ over finances by allowing them to retain business rates and by lifting the housing cap, but the rate support grant that councils rely upon is being phased out by 2020.  For us, austerity does not seem to be coming to an end anytime soon in fact it just took a turn for the worse in our Borough.”

Liberal Democrats propose radical measures to tackle air pollution

Air pollution is estimated to cause 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, making it the biggest environmental killer.  It also results in health costs of between £8.5bn and £18.6bn a year, according to Public Health England (PHE) and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).

The Oldham Liberal Democrats are particularly concerned at the impact of air pollution in the Borough, especially amongst the young, the elderly and those residents who have heart conditions or respiratory illnesses.  In a Borough like Oldham air pollution is a major contributory factor in the premature deaths of some residents and in the recurrence of poor respiratory health in many others.

Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group and Leader of the Opposition, has raised this issue before in the Oldham Council Chamber and has demanded the Council take action to tackle this problem.  He said: “In November 2017, the Council finally agreed to establish an Air Quality Sub-Group from the Health and Well-being Board to look at measures to reduce air pollution.  No one from the Liberal Democrat Group has been invited to join despite our obvious interest in this issue and nothing has so far come of it, so eleven months on I have made my own proposals for action.”

Councillor Sykes has written to the Chair of the Health and Well-being Board, Councillor Jenny Harrison, proposing:

  • Taking action on vehicles idling, particularly outside schools, at bus stops and at taxi ranks
  • Piloting road closures outside schools during school drop off and pick up times
  • Promoting Walking to School schemes
  • More air pollution monitoring, with at least one fixed monitor in every electoral ward across the borough and mobile monitors for use in monitoring air pollution at schools
  • A campaign to raise public awareness of the dangers of exposure to air pollution
  • More electric vehicle charging points across the borough
  • More tree planting, and
  • The installation of anti-pollution bus stops like in central London

Councillor Sykes said: “All these measures are yet more examples of the common-sense proposals that the Oldham Liberal Democrat Group provides in response to the problems our Borough, and its citizen’s face.  Air pollution represents a real danger to public health, and it is only getting worse.  Why it has taken eleven months so far without a plan of action being produced by this sub-group is beyond me.  The Council asked them to ‘move as quickly as possible to produce an Air Quality Improvement Plan’, this is movement at a snail’s pace.  I only hope that Councillor Harrison and this Labour Administration will take these proposals on board, as the time to act is now.”

Notes to Editors:

From: Howard Sykes
Sent: 11 October 2018 17:37
To: Cllr J Harrison <CllrJ.Harrison@oldham.gov.uk>
Cc: howard.sykes@oldham.gov.uk
Subject: The Development of an Oldham Air Quality Improvement Plan

To Councillor Jenny Harrison

Chair of the Health and Well-being Board

Dear Jenny,

The Development of an Oldham Air Quality Improvement Plan

 In November 2017, Council passed a resolution which included a proposal:

‘To ask the Health and Well-being Board Air Quality Sub-Group to move as quickly as possible to produce an Air Quality Improvement Plan which should include what we as individuals can do, as well as by Oldham Council and Greater Manchester bodies.’

Air pollution is estimated to cause 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, making it the biggest environmental killer.  It also results in health costs of between £8.5bn and £18.6bn a year, according to Public Health England (PHE) and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).

In a Borough like Oldham air pollution is a major contributory factor in the premature deaths of some of our residents and in the recurrence of poor respiratory health in many others.  Accordingly, the Liberal Democrat Group was pleased to support the motion, in the hope that we could work on a cross-party basis to agree some early action.

Despite enquiries lodged with several officers, including the Chief Executive, I have been unable to establish who constituted the Sub-Group, when it actually met, and what its findings have been.  I have also been disappointed that, given the cross-party support for the motion, that the Liberal Democrat Group was never invited to contribute to its deliberations.

After eleven months, no proposals appear to have come forward for consideration by the Board; a rate of progress that, I would suggest, is hardly ‘moving’ as quickly as possible.’

There are plenty of positive ideas for tackling air pollution from other local authorities, and here are some that I would like the Board to consider:

Action on Idling:

 New guidance issued from PHE and Nice recommends that no idling” zones should be used outside schools, care homes and hospitals.

We could look to copy ideas proposed by my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Bury to:

  • Introduce, over the next two years an enforceable ‘no-idling’ zone outside every school in the Borough, with at least four pilot zones in the next year.
  • Where practical, to extend the number of ‘no-idling’ zones to cover areas outside children’s play areas where parked traffic is an issue.
  • To work with our NHS partners, to look at extending ‘no-idling’ zones outside Medical Centres, and in hospital ‘pick up’ areas

We could also:

  • Discourage, through our licensing powers, idling by taxis and private hire vehicles, using enforcement powers when necessary.
  • Require drivers of Council operated vehicles not to idle, and ask the same of our public sector partners and our public transport providers with respect to their own vehicles.
  • Conduct an information campaign to influence driver behaviour by urging motorists to turn off their engines if they think they are not going to move for around two minutes and asking them not to manually override ‘stop-start’ systems.  These are fitted to some vehicles to automatically switch off the engine when the vehicle is stationary and restart it as soon as the accelerator is pressed.

Shutting Off Streets Outside Schools:

 Like Hackney, with its School Streets pilot, we could initiate some trial projects to shut off streets outside schools to traffic at morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up times, with the imposition of a fine of up to £80 for those caught on camera flouting the ban.  In this scheme, local residents and businesses will be able to apply for an exemption, free of charge.

  • Other local authorities are introducing ‘bus gates’ outside schools to reduce vehicular through traffic to cycles and local buses with a fixed penalty for transgressors.

Walking to School Schemes: 

  • We should be encouraging every school whenever practical to establish Walk to School initiatives in conjunction with Living Streets to discourage school drop offs / pick-ups and to promote walking for personal health.

More Air Pollution Monitoring: 

  • Can I suggest this Council looks to investigate the introduction of air pollution monitors in each and every ward throughout our borough, and particularly as a priority introduce mobile monitors for testing each and every school, especially nursery and primary schools?

Raising Public Awareness of Air Pollution: 

  • We can look to get children involved in air quality monitoring as part of Science curriculum.
  • Healthcare professionals should be encourage to routinely advise vulnerable patients to reduce strenuous activity when air pollution is high and to use less polluted routes in our borough.

More Electric Vehicle Charging Points: 

Let’s set some challenging targets for installing charging points in our Borough as the reality is that electric or hybrid electric vehicles are the future.

Practical ideas proposed by my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Bury that we might adopt are:

  • Establishing an initiative to identify suitable locations for additional charging points within the borough.
  • Ensuring we have at least one electric vehicle charging point in every electoral ward by the end of calendar year 2018, and that this target be ambitiously reviewed every year.
  • Seeking further funding from GM Mayor Andy Burnham to seek extra money to meet this ambition under TfGM’s GMEV scheme.

 More Tree Planting: 

The Oldham Liberal Democrats have over several years made various proposals relating to the preservation and promotion of tree cover as it is undoubtedly the case that trees absorb pollution and improve air quality.  We will therefore commend any efforts that the Administration will make to reduce tree loss and to plant more trees and it would be helpful if we had a specific Tree Strategy as we have suggested with ambitious targets for tree planting, especially in our urban streets.  This is something that any planning gain that results from the Community Infrastructure Levy could be used to support.

Introduce Anti-Pollution Bus Stops: 

Lastly, I wonder if Oldham might become the location for some anti-pollution bus stops similar to those that have been trialled in London on New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and High Holborn –

http://www.jcdecaux.co.uk/news/body-shop-introduces-anti-pollution-bus-stops-london

https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/these-antipollution-bus-stops-in-london-let-you-breathe-in-clean-air-a3554676.html

I do hope that the Health and Well-being Board will be able to look at and adopt many of these proposals to reduce the impact of air pollution on the residents of this Borough, and I will look forward to the Board’s deliberations.

Best wishes.

Howard

Liberal Democrat Leader’s Plea to help make Car Washes Slavery Free

On the eve of Anti-Slavery Day (18 October 2018), Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group and Leader of the Opposition, is urging local drivers, and their passengers, to be vigilant for the presence of modern slavery when they use local car washes.

Councillor Sykes said: “We have recently debated at the Council the existence of modern slavery in British society, and politicians of all parties are determined to see an end to it.  Slavery in all of its forms is totally abhorrent, but it still exists even in Britain and it is often occurring right under our noses.”

The National Crime Agency has indicated that they are thousands of people being exploited in this way in the UK, often working long hours for little or no pay, in the most atrocious conditions and with scant regard for health and safety legislation.  Some of these individuals are being coerced to work with the threat of violence.

Councillor Sykes added: “Although we may think that such exploitation may be limited to unscrupulous gang-masters herding their workers to carry out endless, menial tasks in agriculture, modern slavery is on our streets and one of the places it can be seen is amongst the many thousands of on-street hand car washes that have been established in our communities.”

The Church of England has launched a Safe Car Wash app that can be downloaded by the general public to their smart phones and devices to help the police tackle the problem.  Users are asked to open the app and complete a short survey about the working conditions for staff that they observe whilst using the car wash.  The data is anonymised and then shared with the National Crime Agency and the Labour Abuse Authority.

Councillor Sykes concurs: “Put simply, the Safe Car Wash app is one way that each of us as individuals can make a real difference.  I would urge everyone to use Anti-Slavery Day to resolve to download this app and to complete the questionnaire every time they use a car wash to help to bring the scourge of modern slavery to an end.”

The app can be found at https://www.theclewerinitiative.org/safecarwash/

Liberal Democrats Suggest New Measures to Address Speeding

Saddleworth North Councillor Garth Harkness has written, on behalf of his colleagues in the Oldham Council Liberal Democrat Group, to the Deputy Leader of the Council, Councillor Arooj Shah, with some suggestions to help tackle speeding in the Borough.

Councillor Harkness said:

“Many residents contact me about speeding concerns. In Saddleworth myself and Derek Heffernan have arranged for a number of surveys across some of the Saddleworth villages and it is clear in a number of places there is a problem

“Speeding is one of those issues that every ward councillor receives complaints about on a regular basis.  At the last Council, several members representing different parts of the Borough raised their concerns about speeding. Like them, I too receive complaints about speeding in Saddleworth North, and as this is a non-party political issue I wanted to make some practical suggestions to the Labour Administration to help tackle this blight. I hope that they will be taken up.”

Councillor Harkness has put forward a number of suggestions:

  1. To purchase and deploy mobile speed cameras to catch offenders.  Such a measure will, I believe, pay for itself very quickly and will help change driver behaviour and improve road safety.
  2. That we look to work with community and residents’ group to establish Community Speed Watch schemes in the Borough https://www.communityspeedwatch.org/
  3. Other local authorities are introducing ‘bus gates’ outside schools to limit vehicular through traffic to cycles and local buses at the start and end of the school day, with a fixed penalty for transgressors. This would reduce the likelihood of other traffic speeding past schools when pupils are entering or exiting schools.
  4. Increase Community Concern speed enforcement sites.

Oldham Liberal Democrats say food premises should be required to display hygiene certificates by law

Recent revelations from the Food Standards Agency show that eleven food premises in Oldham were given a 1 rating for hygiene, yet over half of food business in England do not even display their food hygiene ratings certificates on their premises or online.

Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, who is the Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council, is giving the backing of his Group to the campaign by the Food Standards Agency and the Local Government Association for the Government to change the law so that all food businesses are obliged to display their ratings.

Council environmental health officers award a score of zero to five to food outlets, based on factors such as kitchen cleanliness, cooking methods and food safety management. The ratings are intended to inform customers when they are choosing to purchase a meal about the hygiene practices in that business, but only 49 percent of businesses in England display their rating.

Councillor Sykes, who is also the Leader of the Liberal Democrat councillors’ group on the Local Government Association, said: “We have all heard the horror stories about unhygienic food outlets with kitchens over run with vermin, filthy work surfaces and dirty cooking implements.  Sometimes inspectors are forced to immediately close food premises because their practices are so bad and in Oldham we are active in prosecuting offenders.  Customers need reassurances that any premises are safe for them to purchase food from.”

The Local Government Association is calling for the Government to change the law so that the display of hygiene ratings becomes mandatory on premises or on on-line apps, as it is in Wales and Northern Ireland, with offenders who fail to do so being prosecuted.

Councillor Sykes added: “Food hygiene inspections clearly help drive up standards and protect people from being served unsafe food.  Isn’t it common sense then to have the ratings that result from these inspections on display?  It is only right that customers can see these ratings as they enter a premises or order food online in order that they can make informed choices.  I would ask customers to question why a food business does not have its rating on display – I would never purchase food from an outlet which fails to do so.”

NOTES

According to the 2018 Food Standards Agency report, ‘Display of food hygiene ratings in England, Northern Ireland and Wales’, the rating is visible outside 49 per cent of premises in England, compared to 84 per cent in Wales and 82 per cent in Northern Ireland.

Under the food hygiene rating scheme, a business is given one of the six hygiene ratings from 0-5 as follows: 5 (very good); 4 (good); 3 (generally satisfactory); 2 (improvement necessary); 1 (major improvement necessary); 0 (urgent improvement necessary).

Mandatory display of food hygiene ratings is supported by The Food Standards Agency, consumer organisation Which? and the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health.

Environmental health officers can serve enforcement notices, prosecute and close food establishments where conditions are found to be poor.

Oldham Liberal Democrats call for End to Bailiff Action against Poorest Council Tax Debtors

The Deputy Leader of the Oldham Liberal Democrat Group, and Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance, Councillor Chris Gloster, has today written to the Council Deputy Leader, Councillor Abdul Jabbar, asking the Council to sign up to best practice standards in debt collection identified by the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and Money Advice Trust. These include ending the use of bailiffs and enforcement agents to collect debts from the poorest Council Tax payers.

Councillor Gloster explained: “on the 6th September 2018 the National Audit Office published a report highlighting the fact that the debt collection practices in local and central government fall in many instances well behind the standards applied in the commercial lending sector. I want to see Oldham Council become a standard bearer for good practice in this field, especially as many of our residents are amongst the poorest in the country, being forced to live on a very limited income day-by-day whilst facing multiple debt problems.”

He added: “We all want to ensure that the Council’s Council Tax revenue is collected, but aggressive Council Tax collection practices have a cost to local authorities and to the individuals concerned. The use of bailiffs and collection agents rapidly add costs to debts and debtors are then likely to experience a decline in their mental or physical health, which in turn means they are more likely to call upon local authority or public health services. They are also increasingly likely to resort to more risky behaviours to settle the debt, for example, by taking out costly payday or door step loans.”

Councillor Gloster is asking Oldham Council to sign up to Citizen Advice Bureaux’s and LGA’s Council Tax Protocol to reduce the use of bailiffs and improve collection practices, and also to the ‘six steps for local authorities’ outlined in the Stop the Knock campaign of the Money Advice Trust.

Councillor Gloster has also asked Councillor Jabbar to look specifically at the example of best practice set by Lambeth Council when dealing with the debts of its poorest residents.

“In 2015/16, Lambeth chose not to use bailiffs or enforcement agents where debtors were in receipt of Council Tax Support.  In 2016, a report from the Child Poverty Action Group found that Lambeth’s collection rate for Council Tax Support claimants went up by 13%, taking Lambeth from being a borough with one of the lowest collection rates to one of the highest!”