Liberal Democrat Leader seeks Oldham Council participation in new Government initiative to Help Save Our High Streets

The Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, has asked Oldham’s Council Leader to bid for new Government money that is intended to revitalise Britain’s high streets.  Councillor Sykes also wants the Leader to invite the Communities Minister James Brokenshire MP to the Borough to showcase some of the excellent work that is being done by Oldham’s voluntary sector.

Councillor Sykes explained: “We all want to see a thriving and vibrant town centre economy and equally thriving district centres, in places such as Chadderton, Failsworth, Lees, Royton, Shaw, and Uppermill, but sadly in recent years our retail and leisure economy has been in decline, threatened by out-of-town shopping centres and the growth in online retailing.”

“Last year, I was therefore pleased to hear the Government announcing the launch of a new £675 million Future High Streets Fund.  For once, this was positive news as the fund is intended to improve transport links and amenities in our town and district centres and to bring empty spaces back into use as homes, offices or community hubs.  In December, the Government invited local Councils to bid for money from the fund before the 22 March 2019.  I believe we should do so.  At a time when Government funding for local authorities has been cut to a record low – and it will get even worse in the future – this pot of money is most welcome.”

Councillor Sykes has written to the Council Leader urging him to make an application and ensure that the needs of district centres, such as Shaw, are included in the proposal.  Councillor Sykes sees another benefit from a successful bid:

“As the fund has the potential to convert under-used town and district centre spaces into homes, it has the potential to provide finance for new accommodation on brownfield sites and so reduce the pressure on greenbelt sites currently allocated for housing under the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.”

Councillor Sykes has also suggested that the Communities Secretary James Brokenshire MP be invited to Oldham to see first-hand some of the excellent work being done by the borough’s voluntary sector in providing for the needs of the communities they serve, most especially in the provision of welfare services to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

The letter is below:

31 January 2019

Councillor Sean Fielding, Leader and Cabinet Member for Economy and Enterprise, Oldham Council

Dear Councillor Fielding,

 I am sure that like me you wish to see a thriving, vibrant retail and leisure economy in our town centre and in each of our district centres.  I am writing to you to urge this Administration to apply to join several new initiatives from the current UK Government, that for once are welcome as they are intended to revitalise our high streets.

Last month, the Government published a call for proposals for funding from the £675 million Future High Streets Fund, launched last year by Communities Secretary James Brokenshire MP. The fund will support transport and infrastructure improvements and turn under-used retail spaces into homes, offices and community hubs.

The document issued by the Government sets out how the Fund will operate, with expressions of interest from councils requested by 22 March 2019 (links inserted below refer).

As the fund has the potential to convert under-used town and district centre spaces into homes, it has the potential to provide finance for new accommodation on brownfield sites and as such reduce the pressure on greenbelt sites currently allocated for housing under the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.

Mr Brokenshire also recently announced a new Open Doors project to reduce loneliness and increase visits to high streets by linking landlords of empty premises with local groups.  This can offer services to younger and older people through the creation of intergenerational projects and pop-up galleries. The first phase inviting the participation of landlords has now closed, and I am unaware if there were any applications submitted from Oldham.  There will however be a second phase involving community groups for which we should apply.

There will be a Communities Roadshow where the Minister and his team will be visiting projects around the country to learn from schemes where local people are leading the way to improve their communities and finally the Government will work with the Prince of Wales’s charity Business in the Community, to support firms offering employees volunteering opportunities.

I would like to ask you how this Administration will be responding to these initiatives, specifically relating to the questions inserted below:

  1. Will we be submitting a proposal for consideration for the Future High Streets Fund?
  1. Will the submission confirm that the needs of our district centres, such as Shaw and Uppermill, will be considered as part of a bid?
  1. May I suggest that we invite the Ministerial Community Roadshow to visit our Borough?

As always happy to discuss and do hope we can take advantage of this fund.

Best wishes, Howard Sykes

Liberal Democrats find more cash for Highways and Environmental Improvements, and to build a New Health Centre for Shaw and Crompton by cutting Civic Centre waste

In their budget proposals for the coming financial year (2019/20), the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council have found more than £2 million more to invest in front-line services over the next three years largely by identifying more ways to save money at the Civic Centre.

This money would be used to pay for a further £5 million investment in the Borough’s highways, including a £1 million fund dedicated to restoring pedestrian footways; create a new Environmental Task Force to respond quickly and effectively to instances of fly-tipping, dog-fouling and littering; and pay to build a new health centre for patients in Shaw and Crompton.

The Liberal Democrats also want to reverse Labour’s proposals to cut the local budgets of Ward Councillors and Parish Councils to keep more money available locally to tackle the priorities of residents in the districts.

The Liberal Democrat proposals will be considered by the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Performance and Value for Money Committee (PVFM) on Tuesday 5 February.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition and of the Liberal Democrat Group, Councillor Chris Gloster, who is Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance said:  “Our amendment to the Administration budget reflects the concerns that members of the public have expressed to Liberal Democrat Councillors for better highways and safer footways; action to deal with the anti-social nuisance such as fly-tipping, dog fouling and littering that blights our local communities; and more money directed through Ward Councillors and Parish Councils to meet the priorities of local communities.”

“It is good that the Labour Administration has finally decided to adopt a previous Liberal Democrat budget proposal to fund an extra £18 million in highway improvements, but we have once more gone one better and found the means to finance £5 million more spending, and to earmark a £1 million budget to also improve our footpaths.  It is good too that Labour decided recently to follow a past Liberal Democrat proposal to invest more in additional street-cleaners, but again we have done one better in finding money for a new responsive Environmental Task Force.”

He added:  “I am especially pleased that in our budget proposals we have also found money to build a new replacement health centre for the people of Shaw and Crompton; this is long-overdue.  Liberal Democrat Ward Councillors have been calling for a new health centre for many years.  The present building is falling apart at the seams, and increasingly unfit-for-purpose.  It is inadequate to meet the current health-care needs of our constituents, let alone those of the thousands of new residents that we will see if the Labour Council approves the thousands of new homes that the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework threatens Shaw and Crompton with.  Royton and Werneth have bespoke all-singing, all-dancing health centres, and it is about time Shaw and Crompton did too.”

The Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader fully acknowledges that Conservative government funding cuts have made balancing the Council’s budget an increasingly difficult proposition so the party’s spending plans have been financed by extra saving cuts and revenue-raising in ways that do not increase the Council Tax.

In response, Councillor Gloster said:  “I do not envy the lead Cabinet Member for or our officers in the Treasury team their task.  Government funding shortfalls mean that once more £22.7 million in savings must be found from the Council’s budget in the next financial year.  Current estimates are that in subsequent years the budget will need to be trimmed by £22.883m for 2020/21, £10.889m for 2021/22, £6.859m for 2022/23 and £4.160m for 2023/24.  So the Liberal Democrats will, with great regret, support Labour’s proposal to increase Council Tax bills by 3.99% to help balance the books, but, because we know many of our residents are hurting financially, we will not add to their burden with our plans.”

Once again the Liberal Democrat Group has found the money to pay for their extra investments through taking a scythe to back-office administration and bureaucracy.

This year’s ‘War on Waste’ has yielded over £1 million in additional savings without having a negative impact on front-line services.

Councillor Gloster explained some of the additional reductions the Liberal Democrats are proposing:  “Many of our proposals have been consistent in recent years, but this year we have discovered one or two new sources of waste.  Our cuts focus on several core areas – better workforce management practices, a reduction in the number of councillors and reduction in expenditure on communications.”

“We believe that Labour is not being ambitious enough in its proposals to manage the recruitment and retention of staff, especially agency staff and consultants.  We want to place increasingly ambitious targets year-on-year upon managers to manage their workforces more efficiently.  This year we estimate this could yield an additional £550,000 in savings.  We also want again to look at how sickness is managed in this authority”.

“Lastly we want this Administration to live up to the promise it made to review car allowances and cut lump sum payments to staff using their vehicles very infrequently on Council business.  If, as we propose, the automatic entitlement to a £500 payment is withdrawn from the 100 or so staff who use their vehicles to make journeys amounting to 100 miles per year or less – an average of less than two miles per week – we can realise a saving of at least £50,000 per annum when fully-implemented.  We also want the Administration to look again at expenditure on air travel for staff, which seems grossly excessive when compared to that of our neighbours.”

The Liberal Democrats are mindful that it is only fair that Councillors too share the pain with staff.  Councillor Gloster explained how:  “Once more, we are calling for a reduction in the number of Councillors by 20 (a third) and for a reduction in the number of local elections to two every four years.  This is consistent with our proposals in recent years.  If approved by the Boundary Commission, these changes would release a £290,000 saving in 2020-21 to spend on front-line services.”

Councillor Howard Sykes, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council along with his Liberal Democrat colleagues also want to revisit expenditure on marketing and communications.  He explained:  “We would cull all non-statutory spending.  There is a requirement to publish certain statutory notices to inform the public and invite comments, but there is no legal requirement to publish ‘propaganda on the rates’ like Borough Life.  We want to scrap it and in our view every penny spent on this and another staff conference is another one denied to vulnerable people receiving social care.  We want to see a saving of £150,000 on marketing this year and a further £100,000 in each of the next two financial years.  Information and messages can now be delivered almost cost free via social media, and printing less is good for our environment.”

Councillor Sykes concluded:  “Although the Liberal Democrat proposals are modest when compared to the financial challenge faced by Oldham Council, they do nonetheless achieve real savings that can be put back into front-line services that matter to people, and they are reflective of the Liberal Democrat approach to public finance – to apply common sense, an innovative approach and tough love to cut waste and squeeze the most out of every penny of our finances to deliver the best services that we can for our hard-pressed Council Tax payers.”

“I would like to thank my colleague, the new Deputy Leader and Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance, Councillor Chris Gloster, and the Council officers who have supported him, for their hard-work and commitment in putting this budget amendment together.  In the current challenging financial situation it is difficult to create a balanced budget, whether in the Administration or in Opposition, and anyone involved in this process deserves full credit for their efforts.”

A summary of the Liberal Democrat savings and spending proposals and the agenda for PVFM follow the link: Agenda details on public web site

Petrol filling station – for Asda Supermarket, Greenfield Lane, Shaw, – appeal again refusal has now been granted

The Planning Inspector has just published his decision (see link below) to grant the above filling station.  This is despite representations by local residents, local Councillors, and Oldham Council.

Below is the decision in full:

ASDA Appeal Decision – 3195812

Despite the application initially being refused by the Oldham Council Planning Committee due to the disturbance this development will cause to residents who live directly opposite, the recommendation by Council Highways Officers of  the potentially dangerous effect this development  would have on Shaw’s road system, and the loss of recycling facilities which Asda made no provision for, the Inspector has decided to allow the appeal, but has strengthened and enhanced the planning  conditions proposed  including timing and junction alterations as well as maintaining the provision of a  recycling facility.

Having spoken to local residents to inform them of the news, they are bitterly disappointed and believe that this development will undoubtedly affect their quality of life being only some 13 metres away from their homes.

The communities of Shaw and Crompton were always divided on this application, whereas some welcomed the likelihood of cheaper fuel, others recognised the detrimental effect to the neighbours and road system, as well as increased congestion at peak times.

Although Liberal Democrat Shaw Ward councillors  are disappointed at the outcome of the appeal, they are pleased that the Inspector has retained and increased the planning conditions imposed upon Asda before the development can begin.

Liberal Democrats vow to continue to fight to save Oldham’s Greenbelt from massive land grab for housing and industrial use

The Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council is gearing up for the next round in its fight to save Oldham’s Greenbelt and green spaces.

Later this week (Friday 11 January 19) Labour’s Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and the 10 Council Leaders will agree the latest proposals for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) which identifies where future houses will be built and industry based.

Last year, public opposition, backed by support from Liberal Democrat Councillors across Greater Manchester, forced the Mayor to withdraw the original proposals to build homes on greenbelt across the county, including many thousands in Shaw, Crompton, Saddleworth, Chadderton and Royton.

The so called new proposals are now in the public domain and according to Shaw Councillor Howard Sykes MBE, Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council very little has changed in terms of Oldham Borough and especially Shaw and Crompton.

“The Liberal Democrats recognise that we shall need more homes, including affordable housing for first-time buyers and renters and homes for people living independently with disabilities,” said Councillor Sykes.  “But our Greenbelt is irreplaceable so we will continue to oppose any plans to build there when there are unused brownfield sites that can be built on and empty mills which can be converted into residential accommodation.”

The Oldham Liberal Democrats wanted to see a plan for the Oldham Borough where new housing development takes place first:

  • on brownfield or derelict sites
  • on sites with existing planning permission for housing
  • by converting long-term empty mills, shops and offices into homes
  • by bringing existing long-term empty homes back into use

The Liberal Democrats also want to see firm commitments made to invest in those areas where new housing is to be built to provide better roads, improvements in public transport, more school places, and increased capacity in local doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries and health centres.

Councillor Sykes said: “In Shaw and Crompton, we already have primary schools which are bursting at the seams and an overburdened and run down health centre; without more investment in our transport infrastructure and better, new public facilities we simply cannot cope with any more people.”

“The Liberal Democrats made our position crystal clear in response to the so called earlier consultation – NO building on our Greenbelt.  These pleas have been ignored and therefore we will redouble our efforts in opposing these plans that will concrete over and change the character of our Borough and especially Shaw and Crompton.

To the Liberal Democrat Group and many of our constituents, these plans represent a massive and inequitable land grab in Royton, Shaw and Crompton with the devastation of our local Green Belt and OPOL (Other Protected Open Land).

It is proposed that new properties will be built at Cowlishaw; in the Beal Valley; Rushcroft; the Whitfield Farm area over towards 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’.

It is the view of the Liberal Democrat Group that there is no justification for the construction of a large number of properties (or indeed any properties) on Green Belt or OPOL before new homes are first built on Brownfield sites, on sites where planning permission for housing development has already been granted and upon the many derelict and unloved sites in our town centres and districts.

Furthermore it is our view that conversions should take place so empty mills and factories can be used for housing (buildings and/or sites); as can land marked for industrial/commercial use; and bring the large number of empty homes back into use.

All this should be done before any consideration is given to future development on Green Belt or OPOL and this development for Oldham should, in our view, be apportioned better in the Metropolitan Borough rather than disproportionately in Royton, Shaw and Crompton as at present.

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 Royton, 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 National/European distribution centres.

The increase in population will necessitate provision of additional services.  The GMSF does not appear to adequately address available funding to deliver on these requirements.

In Shaw and Crompton, the necessary infrastructure to support even our existing population is lacking.  We have primary schools that are already overcrowded or 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 Royton, 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.

Now doesn’t Oldham Council’s decision to close and not replace the Crompton Swimming Pool and Gym look 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.

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 is a central theme of the strategy.

In view of the above aspiration it is difficult to understand why the specific green sites in Royton, Shaw and Crompton have been proposed.  There has 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’ 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 Spatial Plan, Robert Fletcher’s in the Greenfield valley, which has long been seen as needing a strategic view and plan to avoid piecemeal development.  Indeed Saddleworth 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 175 houses and 10-15 ‘lodges’ which one assumes, given past happenings, would become houses.  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.

The Oldham Council Liberal Democrat Group firmly believes that our precious Green Spaces should be protected.

The Group strongly advocates 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 unloved sites in our town centres and districts; and also after the conversion of mills and factories 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.