My two allowed questions at tonight’s Oldham Council meeting – 12 December 2018 – Who decides on the GMSF Plan and Coping with Brexit

Q1 Oldham Council Leaders Questions – Who decides on the GMSF Plan?

Mr Mayor, my first question to the Leader tonight returns to a subject that I asked him about in September – who will be responsible for taking the decision in this Council whether to adopt the final proposals for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.

I make no apology for asking this question again as circumstances seem to have changed on this issue since we last spoke in this Chamber about it.

On 1 October 2018, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the ten Council leaders who are the Greater Manchester Combined Authority issued a media release which stated categorically that:

Leaders also commit to ensuring that the formal draft plan is put before each Council to ensure real democratic debate and scrutiny.

The draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework must be approved by each and every local council next summer.

 The Mayor and Leaders have today made clear that regardless of the requirements, they are committed to ensuring that the formal draft Plan is put before each Council to ensure real democratic engagement, debate and scrutiny.

 Local ward councillors will have their say on this plan

 Throughout this process we have always committed to taking the GMSF through local councils.

On 30 November 2018, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority issued a further statement which stated categorically that:

  “Before we go out to consultation for a second time (in the summer of 2019) the revised Greater Manchester Spatial Framework will be taken to all the local authorities and councils within the city-region for discussion, debate and ultimately sign-off.”

As I read these two statements, they would appear to imply that all Greater Manchester local authority leaders, including yourself, have agreed to bring the draft GMSF plan before a full meeting of their local Council for scrutiny and debate and for ward members to vote on whether their local Council chooses to adopt the plan?

This appears to be a contrary position to the one that you outlined in your response to my question on the matter at the September meeting of full Council.  Here you indicated that you as Leader would make the final decision.

Please can I ask the Leader of the Council to clarify the current position as he sees it?

Q2 Oldham Council Leaders Questions – Coping with Brexit

Mr Mayor, for my second question to the Leader tonight I would like to turn to Brexit, more specifically the serious threat a No-Deal Brexit will pose.

The last Council presented a report which stated that: “It is looking increasingly likely that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is the most likely outcome…”

This would result in a downturn in economic productivity and growth in our region as the EU accounts for almost sixty percent of our export market.

The cost of imported raw materials and components are already increasing, in part because of the falling value of the pound.  This will also impact on employment and on wage rates which will be devastating as Oldham working families are already amongst the poorest in the UK.

But this is NOT the worst of it.  Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab admitted the Government was preparing to stockpile food.

Health Secretary Matthew Hancock admitted discussions on building up NHS reserves of vaccinations, blood products and medical supplies had been held.

But it is impossible to stockpile advance supplies of fresh food, as by their nature they are perishable, and many patients rely of medicines with a short shelf-life.

Essentials will therefore have to be flown into the UK at great expense, while stuff rots at our ports which become gigantic truck parks with no drivers to drive them!

I say flown, but this is of course assumes that the Government can obtain the necessary export permits, complete the necessary new bureaucracy and obtain the flight-certified aircraft to do the job.

Frankly this sounds like a scenario akin to the Berlin Airlift of 1948 rather than Great Britain in 2018.

Seventy years ago, the Western allies had to overcome the Communist Soviet military blockade of that city to prevail.

Here common-sense has yet to prevail against the bigotry, narrow-mindedness of Little Englanders and the swivel eyed loons determined to break faith with our European neighbours.

Mr Mayor, this is frightening stuff, made more so in a borough where we already have so many poor citizens reliant on emergency Food Bank supplies, a great many with chronic and long-term health conditions.

I am sorry to say that this is not the script of a post-Apocalyptic movie this is just weeks away.

The people in charge of this mess and our country; in the middle of the most important constitutional change since Henry 8 or Oliver Cromwell; now decide to have a leadership contest and oust the Prime Minister!

They have done more to damage our reputation in the world; and the Union that is the United Kingdom; at a single stroke than any event in modern history!

Words fail me.

Firstly please could the leader tell us what is being done by this Council, in conjunction with our partners in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, to plan measures to mitigate for a possible No-deal Brexit?

Secondly would he be willing to join with me in sending a joint letter to the three Members of Parliament who represent our Borough asking them to support a second people’s referendum, with the option on the ballot paper to remain in the European Union and retain the many benefits accruing from membership, before any move by this Government to take our nation over the abyss into Brexit?

Liberal Democrat Plan to make Oldham Town and all District Centres Safer at Night

Liberal Democrat Councillors Hazel Gloster and Howard Sykes MBE will be proposing a motion at the next full meeting of Oldham Council (Wednesday 12 December) calling for the establishment of Safe Zones and for the ‘Ask Angela’ scheme to be adopted to help make Oldham town and district centres in the borough safer for night-time revellers.

Commenting Councillor Gloster said: “When the Liberal Democrats were in power, we tackled the anti-social issues that resulted from problem drinking in Oldham town centre, issues that attracted lots of unwanted media attention with Yorkshire Street being dubbed ‘the  Wild West’ and I am pleased to say that things are now a lot quieter.  However, people do sometimes have too much to drink or they can feel threatened late at night, and we should take action to ensure that young people and vulnerable people who get into difficulty are able to find help when they need it.”

The Liberal Democrats are calling for a Student Safe Spot / Zone scheme and an ‘Ask Angela’ scheme to be established in Oldham and in other district centres across the borough, as they are in other places with student populations such as Bradford and Manchester.

Councillor Gloster added: “Although ours is not a big university town, we do have the Oldham Sixth Form College, the Oldham College and University Campus Oldham in our town centre.  Safe Spots are designated venues where staff offer support to students who feel unwell or unsafe late at night by phoning for a taxi, a friend or the emergency services. These venues display a prominent sticker in their window and new students receive information about the scheme as part of their induction. In Bradford, there is also an arrangement with a local taxi firm to transport students home who find themselves without money, with the bill later being settled via the university authorities.”

“The Ask Angela scheme is operated nationwide in many pubs and clubs. Like Student Safe Spots, staff will swing into action to help when someone who feels vulnerable or threatened ‘asks for Angela’ at the bar. This scheme is primarily, though not exclusively, aimed at lone women, who may for instance meet someone new for a date and find they feel increasingly uncomfortable or unsafe and want to leave discreetly. Premises promoting the scheme display posters, which are usually placed in the toilets of those establishments to be discreet.”

Councillor Gloster concluded: “These ideas are common-sense suggestions that will help people feel safer when they go out for a drink or a meal in the evening. They complement other excellent initiatives, such as the Street Angels scheme. The Liberal Democrats would like to see the Council work with the licensed trade, the Police and our social partners to introduce these measures in our town centre and in our district centres, for example in Shaw, and I do hope that Council will support them.”

Improving Public Safety in Oldham’s Night time Economy

Council notes that:

  • In Bradford and Manchester local businesses and community groups have joined with local colleges and universities to establish Student Safe Spots / Zones; these are premises self-identifying as havens for students who are being followed, or are feeling vulnerable or unwell.

Staff at these venues offer assistance in booking taxis home; in contacting the emergency services if their assistance is required; or offer a temporary safe haven until a problem has passed. Venues signed up to the scheme receive a sticker to place prominently to advertise their involvement and a list and map of venues is published on line for students to access.

  • In Bradford, there also exists an agreement with local taxi businesses that students without money but presenting with a valid student ID badge will be offered carriage and the bill is then sent to the student for payment, via the relevant college and university authorities.
  • The ‘Ask for Angela’ scheme is operated nationwide in many pubs and clubs.

If a member of the public who feels vulnerable or threatened ‘Asks for Angela’ of the on-premises staff they know to take that person to a safer location and offer them assistance, such as calling a taxi, contacting friends or in certain circumstances ringing the police. Premises promoting the scheme display posters, which are usually placed in the toilets of those establishments to be discreet.

Council believes that establishing such schemes in our borough would help safeguard vulnerable people in our Borough, especially students and women enjoying our night time economy, and would complement the excellent work being done by the Oldham Street Angels.

Council therefore resolves to ask the Overview and Scrutiny Board to examine in conjunction with relevant partners, including the Oldham College, Oldham Sixth Form College, University Campus Oldham, schools with post-16 provision, licensed premises and public and private hire taxi businesses, the practicality of establishing such schemes as soon as possible in our town and district centres.

Proposed Councillor Hazel Gloster, Seconded Councillor Howard Sykes

Liberal Democrats Opposed to Fast-Track Fracking

The Oldham Liberal Democrats are submitting a motion to the next full meeting of Oldham Council opposing Government changes to planning procedures on fracking matters.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Dave Murphy is proposing the motion and Councillor Derek Heffernan is seconding it.

Councillor Murphy explained: “The Conservative Government is quite simply trying to circumvent established local planning procedures because they know that fracking is simply not popular with either Councils or the public.  Recent fracking activities on the Fylde Coast have demonstrated that there are public health issues with fracking activities, such operations involve many vehicle movements, ground disturbances that have led to earth tremors, and the real danger that fracking could lead to the pollution of local water supplies. It is only right that where such operations are contemplated that local people and their elected Councillors are able to properly consider them under established planning procedures.”

He added: “And this is not simply about fracking.  There is a danger that the government could decide that other contentious planning issues, such as building new nuclear power plants or housing on the green belt, could be considered at national level, denying local people and local Councillors any say in what goes on in their area.  At the end of the day they are the people who have to live with the consequences.  This goes completely against the grain of localism, which is about divesting power to local communities, and it is fundamentally undemocratic, and this is why as Liberal Democrats we are opposed to these changes.”

Changes to the Planning System to Fast-track Fracking

 Council notes:

  • With concern that the government is proposing two major changes to the planning system as it applies to shale gas extraction (or fracking) by:
  • Granting automatic planning permission for exploratory drilling prior to fracking, using ‘permitted development’ rules. This would remove the need for companies to submit a planning application and so also reduce local democratic scrutiny.
  • Including shale gas production projects in the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime. This would take decision-making powers on shale gas production away from local councils and hand it to central government.
  • That wherever fracking has been proposed, it has been opposed by the public and local authorities because of real fears about noise, traffic, air pollution, the impact on the countryside, and the effects on climate change.
  • That the Cardiff Business School has produced a report that reveals that to replace 50% of the UK’s projected future gas imports for 2021-2035 would in the most likely scenario require around 6100 fracking wells to be built on well pads that could cover the area of 4900 football pitches. This would require the equivalent of drilling and fracking one well every day for fifteen years.

Council believes that:

  • The Government’s proposals completely contradict the principles of localism and set a dangerous precedent for planning authorities in denying them the right to determine certain types of planning applications locally and in denying members of the public and communities their say during the planning process.
  • ‘Permitted Development’ – the category of planning that the government wants to move shale gas exploration drilling into – which was designed for developments with a low environmental impact and is an inappropriate category for drilling which has such wide-reaching implications for local communities and climate change.
  • Bringing fracking applications under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime will be harmful to local communities.
  • Local authorities and local people are best placed to continue to make decisions throughout the planning process on matters that affect their locality, including fracking.

Council therefore resolves to ask the Chief Executive to:

  • Write to the relevant government ministers outlining this Council’s objections to the proposed changes and requesting that fracking applications, or indeed on any other planning matter relating to our locality and its people, be determined locally.
  • Copy in our three local Members of Parliament and the Mayor of Greater Manchester and ask for their support on this issue.

Proposed Councillor Dave Murphy, Seconded Councillor Derek Heffernan.

Liberal Democrat Leader welcomes Government Retreat on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals

Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group and Leader of the Opposition on Oldham Council, has welcomed the Prime Minister’s change of heart on the timescale for the introduction of the promised £2 maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in betting offices.

In last week’s budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond decided to put off the introduction of the changes until October 2019.  This decision caused the resignation, in disgust, of Sports Minister Tracey Crouch MP and criticism from Nicky Morgan MP, Chair of the Commons Treasury Committee.

Councillor Sykes said: “Only in July Oldham Council supported a Liberal Democrat motion calling on the Government to introduce a £2 fixed stake.  These machines, which are often located in the high streets of Britain’s most deprived towns and cities, are destroying lives, destroying relationships and, in some cases, literally killing people.”

A threatened rebellion by backbench Conservative Members of Parliament over the issue has forced Prime Minister Theresa May, already beleaguered over her Brexit plan, to backpedal on the introduction date and the £2 stake will now be introduced in April of next year.

Councillor Sykes added: “The Chancellor said that he made his decision because of his concern for the impact on bookmakers’ jobs, but I think this was more a case of the Chancellor not wanting to give up the tax raised by this activity.  I am glad that Mrs May has changed her mind and said that the £2 stake will now be introduced in April 2019 as the change cannot come soon enough.”

“An estimated two people take their own lives every day because of problem gambling,” said Councillor Sykes.  “We need to put more resources into gambling addiction treatment rather than squeezing yet money from problem gamblers, who are often amongst the vulnerable people in our society.”

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?