Universal Credit and Sanctions – my comments from Oldham Council Meeting 13 Sept 17

Actually agree with the motion (see below), but the instances of sanctions can be reduced by our raising awareness amongst local claimants as to why sanctions occur and how they can be mitigated, in essence:

Turn up to appointments

Keep evidence of job search activity

Most claimants are sanctioned because of:

Failing to show at an interview with the Job Centre or a Work Programme provider without giving “good reason.”

Failing to demonstrate that they have carried out sufficient job search activity to meet the requirements to actively seek work.

So our front-line staff should emphasise in their dealings with claimants that:

  • They should never ignore letters from the Job Centre.
  • They should always go to appointments on time.
  • And if they cannot, they should let the Job Centre or Work Programme Provider know beforehand why they cannot go or contact them as soon as possible thereafter with their “good reason” for failing to attend.
  • They should keep any evidence relating to why they haven’t got to appointments.
  • Where claimants are struggling with job search or keeping insufficient evidence of job search they should be encouraged to
  • Book support sessions with a Work Coach at the Job Centre
  • Attend a work club or more than one regularly to get the help they need

We should build additional support for vulnerable claimants who are more likely to be sanctioned.

This is why the Liberal Democrats have been working with DWP to introduce additional safeguards for vulnerable claimants.

 These are defined as claimants with “mental health conditions or learning disabilities or any conditions affecting communication and/or cognition”.

Problems experienced negotiating the benefit system can result in them ending up destitute.

Many of these people only find out they have been sanctioned when they have checked their bank balance and found out they don’t have any money.  The number of disability claimants who have had their benefits sanctioned is soaring.

This is why we want to see the safeguarding model for vulnerable claimants in Oldham work and Oldham Council needs to be pressing and co-operating with DWP staff to make it work.

Vulnerable claimants would be encouraged to nominate a health or social worker to act on their behalf as an advocate or contact person with whom Job Centre staff will work before a sanction is considered, proactively identifying customers who may need safeguarding preventing them getting into rent arrears.

Our motion in March called for this initiative to be actively promoted by the Council and for front-line staff in a range of agencies to receive training so that they understand how they can best support these clients.

We also called for a Vulnerability Guide to be created as a ready source of information for these workers and for a liaison group to be established with representatives from all of the relevant agencies to ensure that the initiative works.

These suggestions are NOT solutions or panaceas to Universal Credit – we support the objectives of the motion – but they are practical measures that we can adopt as a Council with our social partners to reduce the incidents of sanctions amongst UC claimants in our Borough.

Labour’s Motion is below:

This Council notes that Universal Credit (UC) is a single monthly payment which replaces six working age benefits (known as legacy benefits).These are Housing Benefit (HB), Income Support (IS), Working Tax Credits (WTC), Child Tax Credit (CTC), Employment and Support Allowance (Income-related) and Job Seekers Allowance (Income-related). It supports residents on low incomes who are both in and out of work.

Oldham has been a pathfinder for Universal Credit since 2013. However, the numbers of residents moving onto Universal Credit from 2013 have been restricted to new claimants and straightforward cases. The roll out of the full service of Universal Credit which commenced in Oldham on 26 April 2017 is a new entirely online-based system and claimants must apply for and manage their claim online. It also brings in a wider range of claimants including more complex cases. It affects claimants when they make a claim for the first time or have a change in circumstances that means their existing claim for one of the legacy benefits has to be cancelled.

Oldham is one of the early boroughs subject to the rollout of Universal Credit full service. The delivery of the new service has been an area of particular concern across the country and was subject in the last parliament to an investigation by the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

As a result, and while the DWP and Job Centre Plus are the agency responsible for managing the change, the Council is committed to pro-active and continued work with key stakeholders and partners to ensure that as much support is provided to residents as possible to help achieve a smooth transition to the new service.

However, this Council has a number of concerns about Universal Credit

  • The wait times between the date of application and date of assessment. There is a built in waiting period of 6 weeks before Universal Credit is awarded and this creates hardship for residents. Any delay in DWP processing times exacerbates this hardship still further.
  • The level of deductions applied to monthly payments to clawback advance payments and sanctions can be high leaving residents with little money to cover basic income needs for their families for the weeks ahead.
  • The high number of Universal Credit claimants that have been subject to sanctions in Oldham
  • That the provision of housing  costs support for short term temporary accommodation for Oldham’s homeless population is not an appropriate fit for Universal Credit and should be returned to and covered by Housing Benefit at the earliest opportunity

This Council resolves to:

Instruct the Chief Executive to write to the following to register these issues and request that solutions are explored which would improve the design and delivery of Universal Credit which would mitigate impacts for low- income, working age residents in the borough;

  1. The Rt. Hon David Gauke MP Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
  2. Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, Jim McMahon MP for Oldham West and Royton and Angela Rayner MP for Ashton Under -Lyne, Droylsden and Failsworth
  3. The Local Government Association (LGA)

My two allowed questions at tonight’s (13 Sept) Oldham Council meeting – Payment of Invoices and Free Bulky Waste collections

Oldham Council 12 September 2017 – Leader’s Questions

Question 1 – Invoices

Mr Mayor, my first question relates to how this Council supports small businesses in this Borough.

I am sure the Leader is aware that in April of this year the Leader of her party announced that a Labour Government would ‘declare war on late payment’ to small businesses.

Speaking at an event organised by the Federation of Small Businesses, the Labour leader called it ‘a national scandal’ that big companies were withholding more than £26 billion from suppliers, forcing 50,000 of them out of business every year.

Local Labour MP Debbie Abrahams commented favourably on this.  She has been championing a similar local campaign ‘Be Fair – Pay on Time’.

She reported at the time that over 400 businesses in Oldham East and Saddleworth have said they are struggling to pay staff because of late payments and 66 went bust.

All very commendable – I am sure we all want to see a thriving small business sector in our country and especially in our Borough – and cash flow difficulties caused by late payment kills businesses.

So why is it that Debbie doesn’t seem to have publically taken Oldham Council to task?

For the average length of time this Labour Council takes to pay an invoice was 24 days in 2015 / 2016, when it was only 15 when the Liberal Democrats ran the Council, I was Leader.

Mr Corbyn also said that a Labour government would require any company bidding for a public sector contract to pay its own suppliers within 30 days and would look at introducing fines for persistent late payers.

This Council will have to be careful that the promised legislation doesn’t extend to penalising Councils who follow the same practice – for it is likely that Oldham would have to pay a hefty fine.

For in 2015/16, the number of invoices this Council paid after 30 days was 15,247, when it was only 8,051 under the Liberal Democrats.  And the current system does not even allow us to identify which invoices are delayed because of disputes and which because of inefficiency.

This Administration makes a great play of its deal with Oxygen Finance whereby suppliers can be paid in five days instead of 30 in return for paying an ‘Early Repayment Fee’, but why should businesses pay us money to receive the money that they are owed by us more quickly?

In my day, the Liberal Democrat Administration simply placed more emphasis on paying our suppliers, especially our local suppliers promptly.

So can I ask the Leader tonight what she will now do to ensure that this Council will ‘Be Fair to our small businesses and Pay on Time’?

Question 2 – Free Bulky Bobs Collection

Mr Mayor, for my second question I would like to turn to the issue of bulky waste collections.

I was glad to see that the Council is looking to re-tender for the bulky waste collection service.

I would like to reveal what appears to be a closely kept secret – that under the current contract delivered by Bulky Bobs some residents are still able to access a free bulky waste collection services.

I say closely kept secret – because even I did not know it until recently and I am sure that many members in this Chamber will not know of it either.

For a little known fact is that when charging was first introduced by the new Labour Administration in 2012 there was, in part due to the pressure and concerns the Liberal Democrats had, an acknowledgement that certain low income groups must still be able to access a limited free bulky waste collection service.

This was to ensure that they were not “disproportionately disadvantaged” by the charge for this service, as defined by the 2010 Equalities Act.

So any customers who are – I quote – “Any customers physically disabled, infirm due to old age, or pregnant are entitled to one free collection a year.”

Interestingly this proviso is not mentioned on the Council’s website or in any public papers for the recent Cabinet meeting at which it was agreed to re-tender the contract.

Nor can the information be found on the website of Bulky Bob or on Bulky Bob’s Facebook page.

So if you were one of these eligible “disadvantaged” customers, or a carer for them, you would not know the concession existed nor how to access it.

So, Mr Mayor, my second question to the Leader tonight is.

Can she confirm that this concession exists under the current contract and that it will be maintained under the new contract?

And can she also say how this concession will be publicised to eligible customers in future?

Liberal Democrats welcome for Green Burials in Shaw and Crompton

The Leader of the Opposition, the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council and Shaw Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, has welcomed the recent adoption by Oldham Council of a proposal to provide land for green burials and celebration woodlands at Crompton Cemetery and High Crompton Park.

Commenting, Councillor Sykes said: “This is something that I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Crompton and Shaw have sought for many years.  Making land available for green burials and celebration woodlands means that those who seek a non-traditional, or non-religious funeral may be interred within the Borough, and allows their relatives to visit a local burial site or remembrance site that will remain beautiful for all time.”

The green burial scheme provides for interments at unspoiled locations that are not obviously burial sites, and where coffins or shrouds made from natural, sustainable materials are used.  There are no permanent memorials or gravestones in contrast to a conventional, regimented cemetery.

Celebration woodlands allow relatives to make donations for the planting and maintenance of trees in remembrance of a loved one.  Although no plaques or tributes are placed by individual trees, the living woodland is itself a collective, shared memorial to all of those who are remembered, and specific reference to individuals is made in a memorial book or tablet on the edge of the site.

There will also be a continued option for relatives to fund a specific tree linked to their loved one through the Life for a Life scheme.  Here cremated remains can be interred.

Councillor Sykes added: “These proposals enable a full range of options for local residents in Shaw and Crompton for traditional burials and cremations to less traditional but increasingly popular non-traditional.  The full range is now available for Shaw and Crompton citizens locally in our Borough that are personal, dignified and respectful, whilst creating sites of great natural beauty for everyone to enjoy.”

Full report: Celebration treesGreen Burials

Lib Dems urge Crack Down on Unregistered and Tax-dodging Landlords

Recent revelations about the property market in Newham, London have led the Leader of the Opposition and Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council, Cllr Howard Sykes MBE, to request an urgent review by the Council of all private landlords in the Borough in both the residential and holiday let markets.

In the review by Newham Council almost half of the private landlords in their borough were not paying tax on rental income to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (the HMRC).

Reviews of the Land Registry also revealed that significant numbers of people with buy to let mortgages were not registering as landlords with the council and so were not having their properties checked for safety requirements.

In addition, the owners of many properties registered on AirBnB were not getting the required planning permission for using the whole of their premises for year-round short term letting.

Commenting Cllr Sykes said: “The situation in Oldham may be different than that of Newham, but we need an urgent review to find out.”

“The Liberal Democrats backed the introduction of an Accredited Landlord Scheme in Oldham to weed out bad landlords and to encourage good practice so we are anxious that this is not undermined by unscrupulous landlords in this borough evading the tax and council tax that is lawfully payable or avoiding safety checks.”

“By working with HMRC, Oldham Council can ensure that safety requirements are met and that the local and national taxes that are due are properly paid. This will surely help encourage our good landlords to do better and hurt those unscrupulous landlords who evade tax and cut corners, compromising the safety of tenants”.

Today, Councillor Sykes has written to Councillor Barbara Brownridge, who as the Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Cooperatives has responsibility for private-sector rented housing, outlining his concerns and asking for an urgent review.

Asking your views

As Liberal Democrats, we listen to your views and concerns on local and national issues.  Your views matter to us.  We are here to represent you and to achieve the best deal for Shaw and Crompton, so it is important that we understand what issues matter to you and what things can be done to keep our area a great place to live.

Please take a few minutes out of your day to fill in this survey, to let us know what matters most to you.

You can access the survey at www.shaw.residentssurvey.co.uk

As always, let us know if there are any issues that need resolving in the local area and we will do our best to help with these.

Local Plan consultation – Liberal Democrat response – make sure you make your voice heard

The consultation started on 10 July and ends of 21 August.

Details of the local plan can be found at https://www.oldham.gov.uk/info/200585/local_plan

Responses can be submitted online at http://oldham-consult.limehouse.co.uk/portal/oc/planning/spi or emailed to spi@oldham.gov.uk or returned by post to: Strategic Planning and Information, Economy, Skills and Neighbourhoods, Room 310, Level 3, Civic Centre, West Street, Oldham OL1 1UH.

Below is the letter the Liberal Democrats have submitted.

Strategic Planning & Information, Economy, Skills and Neighbourhoods, Room 310 Level 3, Civic Centre, West Street, Oldham OL1 1UH

15 August 2017

Re: OLDHAM COUNCIL LIBERAL DEMOCRAT GROUP – RESPONSE TO CONSULTATION ON THE OLDHAM LOCAL PLAN

The Oldham Council Liberal Democrat Group; the official opposition, comprising of nine elected members of the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council wish to make this collective submission in response to the consultation on the Oldham Local Plan.

Given that the Oldham Local Plan “will form an integral part of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF)” our response mirrors that made to the consultation on the GMSF.

In the GMSF, the ten local authorities in Greater Manchester have drawn up plans to meet the projected future need for 4,000,000 m2 of industrial and warehousing premises and 227,000 new homes in the county by 2035.  The vision projects a population growth of 294,800 and 199,700 additional jobs across Greater Manchester.

In our view, the GMSF consultation document provided insufficient analysis of how these deductions for population and economic growth were made and was therefore devoid of justification for the additional land demands.

The GMSF plan requires 690,000 m2 industrial and warehousing space and 13,700 homes in Oldham Borough.

Housing

Referring first to housing, the monitoring report identifies that there has been a shortfall in recent years in the completion of new dwellings against expected targets and that there is a need to complete an additional 3,560 dwellings by 31 March 2021 to meet the original projections.

Our worry is that the situation may present the danger of unwanted housing development on Oldham’s Green Belt and OPOL (other protected open land).

Under the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework proposals of the 13,700 new homes proposed for Oldham approximately 3,000 will be located on sites in Shaw and Crompton and other tracts of land are designated for industrial development.

To the Liberal Democrat Group, and too many of our constituents, these plans represent a massive and inequitable land grab in Shaw and Crompton with the devastation of our local Green Belt and OPOL (other protected open land).

Under GMSF, it is proposed that new properties will be built at Cowlishaw, in the Beal Valley, Rushcroft, the Whitfield Farm area over to Newhey and around Gravel Hole and Low Crompton.

Adjacent sites at Broadbent Moss (Oldham), Hanging Chadder (Oldham) and land East and West of the A627M (Rochdale and Oldham) if developed would also see a significant erosion of the Green Belt land in the so called “Northern Gateway”.

The Oldham Local Plan monitoring report has a target that 80% of new residential development will take place on previously developed land, yet in 2015/16, 96% of new or converted dwellings were located on this land.

It is the view of the Liberal Democrat Group that there is no justification for reducing our aspiration and effort to build on previously developed land.

We do not believe that there is any need for the construction of a large number of properties (or indeed any properties) on Green Belt or OPOL land.  New homes should first be built on Brownfield sites, on sites where planning permission for housing development has already been granted and upon the many derelict and the unloved sites in our town centres and districts.

Furthermore it is our view that conversions should take place so every empty mill and factory, where viable, is utilised for housing and that the large number of empty homes should be brought back into use.

It is our view that the Oldham Local Plan should make plain that these will be tenets upon which housing development will take place in this borough. We should work on the belief that our Green Belt and OPOL sites remain protected.

It is also unfortunate that the GMSF consultation document does not identify the many such sites that are available across the Borough other than those that currently sit outside Oldham’s Local Development Framework (formerly the Unitary Development Plan).

It is our view that the Oldham Local Plan should ultimately list these sites and that team of officers working on the Oldham Local Plan should work with Ward Members and the public to identify appropriate sites with potential for development for inclusion.

Within the Local Plan, housing development should also be apportioned across the whole borough rather than disproportionately in Royton, Shaw and Crompton as the GMSF does at present.

It is our view that the Oldham Local Plan should include a commitment to proportionality so that any one or two districts in the borough are not overwhelmed with new housing, and in order that new householders may have a greater choice of the area in which they wish to live.

Transport

It is important too that the Oldham Local Plan addressed the need for very significant investment in transport infrastructure.  Improved transport is a critical obstacle to be overcome to ensure the success of the expansion desired in the GMSF.  Many of the strategic allocations are sited near our motorway corridors, ostensibly to take advantage of existing networks.

However, our existing motorways are frequently constrained by high levels of congestion resulting in unacceptable journey times and additional traffic jams on feeder and local roads. The projected growth of industrial warehousing, office space and new homes will require monumental investment in transport infrastructure.  It is of paramount importance to ensure that the transport infrastructure is in place before other building takes place.

All the sites identified, especially those in Shaw and Crompton are devoid of good vehicular access and there is no obvious way to make the necessary improvements.

Cowlishaw has no acceptable roads leading into the proposed site.  The topography around the Whitfield farm area makes it difficult to envisage an elegant solution to site access.  Similarly the Beal Valley site is currently served only by a narrow road and the desire to facilitate access to this site by enhancing links to Shaw and Crompton Metrolink Station seem incredulous; the only current access, via Beal Lane, is saturated with existing traffic and HGV movements to and from existing businesses which are large distribution centres.

Other Infrastructure

The increase in population will necessitate provision of additional services.  It is vital that the Oldham Local Plan addresses these needs and the GMSF fails to do so.

In Shaw and Crompton, the necessary infrastructure to support even our existing population is lacking.  We have primary schools that are already overcrowded and full; a secondary school that is falling apart; a dilapidated Health Centre that is near cardiac arrest; no swimming facilities or dry leisure provision; precious few youth facilities and no municipal tip.

Under the proposals, 3,000 homes will be built in Shaw and Crompton for growing families.

These new residents will need more primary and secondary school places; more GPs and dentists; leisure and shopping facilities; and new highways and more buses and trams to get them there.

And Oldham Council’s decision to close and not replace the Crompton Pool and Gym now looks a little short-sighted given the number of new young residents that will need to learn to swim and the number of adults that will want to keep fit.

The Environment

It is vital that the Oldham Local Plan contains a strong commitment to retaining and enhancing our local beauty spots and sites of biological and scientific importance.

An important vision of the GMSF is that Greater Manchester becomes as well known for the quality of its environment as for its economic success.

Green Belt plays a role in this but there are important green spaces, parks, rivers and canals in the heart of our urban communities which are equally valuable. The protection and enhancement of our blue and green infrastructure should be a central theme of our local strategy.

In view of the above aspiration, it was frustrating and difficult to understand why the specific green sites in Shaw and Crompton were proposed with the GMSF.  There was been a lack of balance in the review and failure to give necessary weight to environmental and quality of life issues.

The vast majority of sites are notably attractive open spaces that provide pleasure, relaxation, and health benefits to local residents as well as our wider community.  The sites include public footpaths enjoyed by many dog-walkers, ramblers and walking groups.  Many of the Public Rights of Way are important to the historic Shaw and Crompton Beating of the Bounds walk and Crompton Circuit walks.  These locations also provide one of the few opportunities for people to undertake horse riding in safety which is particularly of concern for young and inexperienced riders.

These sites are further enhanced by a diverse range of flora and fauna and importantly provide those ‘green lung’ areas which minimise urban sprawl between built up conurbations.

Two of the sites include small but nevertheless important rivers within their boundaries; the Rivers Irk and Beal (Cowlishaw and Beal Valley respectively) help to prevent flooding and are attractive features of the two sites.

Additionally the Cowlishaw site is renowned for upwell of numerous local springs and given to serious flooding. The area has deep unstable subsoil that will require significant pilings leading to excessive construction costs.

Cowlishaw and Beal Valley also contain Sites of Biological Importance and these must be retained.

In regards to Saddleworth there is only one Strategic Site in the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan, which is Robert Fletcher’s in the Greenfield valley, which has long been seen as needing a strategic view and plan to avoid piecemeal development.  Indeed the Parish Council presented an outline plan for the valley some years ago and has done so again in response to the spatial proposals.

The plan proposes some 120 houses and 100 ‘lodges’ which one assumes, given past happenings, would become houses for some 220 residences.

These houses given the lack of public transport or facilities and the preference for high value housing would do nothing to lessen the need for affordable housing in the area.

The topography and lack of transport links and the high value of local scenery makes other large sites hard to find in Saddleworth especially given the presence of the Peak National Park there.

Saddleworth is, however, very vulnerable to the number of other smaller sites, some of them astoundingly unsuitable, offered for development in addition to those in this strategic framework.

The Green Belt and open spaces within Oldham are areas of pleasant natural beauty that make us unique in Greater Manchester.

Conclusion

The key point in our submission is that the Oldham Liberal Democrat Group firmly believes that in the Oldham Local Plan our precious Green Spaces should be protected.

We strongly advocate that no building on Green Belt or OPOL be undertaken until developments are first undertaken on Brownfield sites, on sites where planning permission for housing development has already been granted, and upon the many derelict and the unloved sites in our town centres and districts; and also after the conversion of every mill and factory into housing use and after every empty home has been brought back into use.

Only when all of these things have been done should we then, and only then, consider developing any part of our precious Green Belt.

This must be the central tenet and heavily emphasised as Council policy in the finalised Oldham Local Plan.

If this runs contrary to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework then, in our view, so be it. It is important that our Oldham Local Plan emphasises what is right for Oldham, its environment and its people, not what other parties across Greater Manchester might think is right in development terms for our Borough.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Howard Sykes MBE

Crompton War Memorial and Gardens

Following very strong representations for your Liberal Democrat Councillors we have now been assured the Memorial Gardens grass will be cut as a minimum every two weeks and this should ensure that a higher standard is achieved.

We have also been informed the flagged areas are treated on a regular basis and therefore they should not pose a problem (being slippy).  We are not convinced about this and continue to pursue it.

Also as people may have noticed we have asked that the memorial wreaths from November be removed in line with the clear wishes of the many residents who have contacted us about this matter.

Former Cricketers PH to provide much needed homes

This has be the site of anti-social behaviour and a blot on the landscape since it closed.

I have written to the previous owners and also the current ones urging them to develop the site for much needed local housing.

I am now very pleased to report it is being demolished which should take about three weeks.

Clements Court Properties are the owners and have moved very quickly with the site and met me at it only the other day.

They are keen to work with local councillors and the community and it is a refreshing change compared to the usual, which is the first you get to know is when they submit a planning application.

They are building 8 much needed 3 bedroom houses and two apartments on the site which are 2 bedroom.