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?

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.”