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Plea for rightsizing policy in social homes – gross mismatching ‘a scandal’ affecting children’s health and future

The focus of debate on housing issues should return to the plight of the thousands of families living with overcrowding, say Liberal Democrat councillors Lynne Thompson and John McCann.

It is not just a matter of comfort or convenience; it has a severe impact on the health and educational attainment of many of Oldham’s children.

Children sleeping in overcrowded bedrooms are more likely to get every bug going around and much less likely to have a quiet area to do homework or to read or pursue hobbies. Also common is disturbed sleep when siblings of various ages and differing bedtimes must sleep together.

It is desperately unfair when, according to the latest statistics the council has published, at least 7 individuals or childless couples appear to be living in five-bedroomed social homes, 25 in four-bedroomed homes, and no less than 341 in three-bedroomed homes.

(It could be that they have a child or children, but that means you can add extra bedrooms to the figures above.)

And that is just the tip of the iceberg – those who have been living rent-free and must now pay towards their unused bedrooms. There could be as many again over pension credit age, who are exempt from the size criteria; it is often the elderly who find themselves in unmanageably large properties when children have left. And then there are people who pay the full (subsidised) rent.

The ideal answer to overcrowding is to build more affordable homes, but that takes time and a great deal of money – up to £200,000 for the family houses which are in high demand.

With 5,555 families in priority need of a new home with 3 or more bedrooms, the majority of them overcrowded, the council should be pursuing every solution. One priority family in 15 could be rehoused if just those grossly under-occupying at public expense moved – potentially as many as one in 8 if all under-occupiers did.

Oldham had until recently an award-winning downsizing scheme which delivered over 200 larger homes for occupation quickly and for around £500 a time.

Councillors Thompson and McCann are seeking its reinstatement, along with a whole raft of other measures, in order to free up large homes for the families they were built for.

Those measures include:
• extra housing list priority for tenants seeking to downsize
• setting up a lodger scheme
• promoting the AGMA Help With Rent scheme for would-be downsizers
• improvements to the home exchange scheme
• a no-eviction policy and a hardship fund to help would-be downsizers who fall behind with rent because they under-occupy.

Councillor John McCann explains: “These are voluntary schemes we are proposing to help people who find themselves financially squeezed because they live in homes which are far larger than they need.

“Our experience with the downsizing scheme was that the big reduction in outgoings was in heating bills and running costs. The reason many beneficiaries, especially older people, had hesitated was the complexity of moving home. Our downsizing scheme’s one-to-one support made it easy and they found themselves much better off.

“We have not hesitated to make common cause with our Labour colleagues on the council in opposing the size criteria legislation where it is bad – inadequate allowance for disability, for instance, and failure to allow for the scarcity of one-bedroomed accommodation.

“However, those with two or more spare bedrooms have a choice because they are vastly outnumbered by families who want family-sized houses. It is council procedure which perversely makes a move more difficult than it need be.”

“The crunch question is whether to press people to move”, says Cllr LynneThompson. The most heart-rending casework I get is still from people living like sardines in overcrowded homes.

“I understand emotional attachments to houses but ultimately I have to question whether it is morally right to allow people to play dog-in-the-manger with publicly-provided houses they do not need and others need desperately.

“I also sympathise with young families struggling with a mortgage so they can realise the dream of a home of their own. Under-occupiers’ outrage that they must pay £21 a week to keep a four or five bedroomed house rings very hollow in their ears – and Labour’s claim they are hard-done-to even more so.

“I believe that, in the first instance, the council should leave people a choice – downsize or contribute if required to. But if selfish people dig their heels in, the council must consider tougher measures and councillors of all parties must face up to supporting that. There is nothing generous about sacrificing children’s well-being to others’ self-interest.”

Liberal Democrats to Publicly Name and Shame Pay Cheat Employers

Liberal Democrat Councillor Lynne Thompson is urging Oldham workers who believe that they are being cheated of their entitlement to the National Minimum Wage (NMW) to report their cases for investigation.

She also takes Michael Meacher to task for politicking with the information rather than using it to get workers to seek help.

Cllr Thompson says, “From now on, the government will name and shame wage cheats regularly. That will serve as a punishment and as a deterrent to those who may be tempted to follow suit.

“I hope that reporting cases will also make more workers aware of their rights and how to secure them. HMRC, the department responsible, is successful in securing back pay for workers and fining offending employers, but needs workers to report offenders for investigation.”

Liberal Democrat Employment Relations Minister Jo Swinson has taken a lead on this, introducing new rules from October 1st allowing more frequent public ‘naming and shaming’ of employers who fail to pay the National Minimum Wage.

It is now much simpler for Government to ‘name and shame’ non-compliant employers. Previously employers had to meet one of seven criteria and owe their workers an average of £500 and at least £2000 in total before they could be named. The revised scheme will remove these restrictions so that any employer who breaks minimum wage law can be named.

The new rules are part of government efforts to toughen up enforcement of the NMW and increase compliance. Naming employers creates bad publicity for their businesses and may deter customers. Employers also face financial penalties, and possible prosecution, if they fail to pay NMW.

In 2012 to 2013 HMRC identified 736 employers who had failed to pay the national minimum wage leading to the recovery of £3.9 million in unpaid wages for over 26,500 workers.

Jo Swinson said: “Paying less than the minimum wage is illegal. If employers break this law they need to know that we will take tough action.

“This is why I’m making changes so it is easier to name and shame employers who break the law. This gives a clear warning to rogue employers who ignore the rules, that they will face reputational consequences as well as a fine if they don’t pay the minimum wage.

“If workers feel they aren’t getting the minimum wage that they are legally entitled to then they should contact the free and confidential Pay and Work Rights Helpline on 0800 917 2368. Calls will be referred to HMRC to actively investigate any suspected non-payment of national minimum wage.”

Councillor Lynne Thompson adds, “Michael Meacher’s intervention in this debate – in the local press this week – would be laughable if it were not so counter-productive for those he purports to help.

“He called for costly prosecutions. By his own admission, HMRC routinely collects a 50% fine as well as the back pay (to pass to the victims), and will now name and shame as a deterrent – a constructive, quick and economical solution.

“At least he’s woken up. The new naming and shaming rules went live over two months ago. The original ‘name and shame’ rules in 2010 weren’t sharp enough, but were better than no provision under Labour.

“His solution is the living wage. Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly back that too, but do not live in the cloud-cuckoo-land where employers who cheat on the minimum wage will reform by magic.

“Mr Meacher paints the emotive picture of the man having to ‘beg on the streets’ but only offers him ‘his day in court’. Jo Swinson and I offer him a helpline number to do something about it and a prospect of his back pay.

“I know which I’d find more useful”, Lynne concludes.

Questions to the Leader of Oldham Council – from the Leader of the Opposition – Cllr Howard Sykes – 18 Dec 13

Honouring our Spanish Civil War Dead

I was pleased to see that as part of Democracy Week an exhibition was staged in Gallery Oldham about the ten men from the Borough of Oldham who fought as part of the International Brigades against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

April 2014 will mark 75 years from the ending of the war – the tragedy for Spain is that the Fascists won, immersing the country in a stifling dictatorship that only ended in 1975.

Oldham has recently rightly honoured its dead from both World Wars with a refurbished war memorial.

It would therefore also seem appropriate to ensure that the men who served in this lesser known, but critical, conflict receive their due recognition.
In 1986 former Mayor Alwyn McConnell unveiled a memorial plaque to these unsung heroes in the Local Studies Centre.

Unfortunately this is now sadly languishing somewhere in the vaults – available for inspection only upon request to the curator.

Can I therefore ask the Leader if he will commit himself to ensuring that this plaque is placed on display in a prominent position in a town centre public building as was intended in time to mark the 75th anniversary of the ending of the war?

And can I also ask him to ensure that there will be a re-dedication ceremony to be held on a date agreed with the International Brigade Memorial Trust to which relatives, representatives from the Trust and veterans organisations, and local civic leaders can be invited?

Public Investment in Renewables

Climate change is of increasing concern to the public – as inhabitants of this Earth every one of us has a personal responsibility for ensuring we cause no harm to the planet – but as local leaders, elected members also have a collective responsibility for showing the way.

I was therefore very pleased to hear that the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities has set ambitious targets for reductions in carbon emissions for each of the ten authorities and that Cabinet has recently discussed how Oldham Council will contribute to these targets.

One way that other local authorities have done this is by supporting the development of local renewable electricity generation schemes, whether hydro, solar or wind, often in conjunction with a specialist commercial operator, and these schemes have been part-financed through a community share offer to the public.

Such schemes are revenue-raising as they provide a long-term income stream to the authority, but they also embody the co-operative agenda as local authorities and communities work together to achieve a common goal.

There are some factors in Oldham’s favour.

We have a track record with the establishment of a community-owned hydro scheme at Dovestones Reservoir, new Passivhaus carbon-neutral homes at St. Marys, and our electric-charging points.

We also have local expertise in this field – a splendid Regional Science Centre and The Oldham College Green Technology Centre.

So there is no reason why Oldham cannot be ambitious.

Can I therefore please ask the Leader if he will agree to convene a renewable energy think-tank – rather along the lines of the recent successful Feeding Oldham Event – with key partners and players, to identify future renewable energy projects for our borough?

Developing a Municipal Bond Market

Given the significant level of public investment proposed by this Council in the coming years, I am sure that the Leader and the Cabinet Member for Finance would welcome any opportunity to access cheaper money to finance infrastructure projects.

The Chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, has recently stated that the revival of a municipal bond market would help local Government access finance at a lower cost than the Public Works Loan Board.

It was Sir Merrick’s view that this would also provide local Government with greater independence from central Government.

Sir Merrick has issued an invitation to Councils to participate as partners in a new agency to work up a practical proposition for municipal bonds and so far 18 Councils have expressed an interest in joining such an agency.

Given that this proposition could save our Borough’s hard pressed Council tax payers money from servicing reduced interest payments, can I ask the Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance to consider taking up Sir Merrick’s invitation, or can they inform Council that they have already done so?

Milnrow Road Zebra Crossing tragedy – statement given at Full Council 18th Dec – posted for information purposed only

18 December, 2013
OLDHAM COUNCIL: STATEMENT TO FULL COUNCIL

A statement was given at tonight’s Full Council meeting about the tragic death of a local schoolgirl in Shaw.

Annalise Holt, 12, was fatally injured following a collision with a van in the incident on Milnrow Road, Shaw, at about 4.30pm on December 17.

Full Council observed a minute’s silence as a mark of respect at the start of proceedings.

Councillor Dave Hibbert, Cabinet Member for Environment and Housing, then gave the following statement to the Council Chamber:

“I am sure that everyone here tonight in the Council Chamber and people from across our Borough are united in a sense of sadness and shock after hearing news of yesterday’s tragic events”, he said.

“We have had a number of public questions submitted for our Question Time event this evening about this tragedy and that is only right because we all want information and answers.

“Firstly, I want to pay tribute to the emergency services who responded to last night’s incident in a typically professional manner and did all they could to assist.

“At present we are now assisting the police investigation which aims to find out exactly what happened. That means we are somewhat restricted in what we can say because we must take very great care not to prejudice the outcome of that investigation in any way.

“There have been some misleading reports about the crossing site which I would like to correct. Some of the data that has been quoted in relation to accident figures does not refer to this site at all. They refer to a stretch of Milnrow Road (A663) running north towards Milnrow.

“Our records at this crossing site since 1999 show that – prior to yesterday – there have been three incidents in 14 years. Two of these simply involved ‘shunting’ – where one vehicle has gone into the back of another giving way to pedestrians.

“The other case was the tragic incident in January 2012 when Lynn Steele was one of two pedestrians hit by a car and subsequently died.

“The police report into that accident stated that the glare of the sun low in the winter sky was a contributing factor in this incident – not the condition of the highway or the crossing. We understand the Coroner held an inquest in late-October but the Council was not called as an interested party and nor has the Coroner’s report been released to us.

“Some reports have also speculated that the lack of a school crossing patrol may have been a contributory factor in yesterday’s incident. It is true that this crossing used to have a patrol for two local primary schools, but at the time of day when this incident happened the patrol would not, in any case, have still been on duty given that they finish at around 4pm.

“We fully recognise that a petition that has been launched by the public asking the Council to consider replacing the zebra crossing with a pelican crossing and we understand the concerns being raised.

“This site is eligible for either a zebra, pelican or puffin crossing. Although we are still far from a conclusion to the police investigation, what I will say is that we will consider this in consultation with the local community when we have the full facts before us. We are certainly not dismissing this request, but the existing zebra crossing does meet all our highway safety obligations.

“That is as much as we can say at this stage without prejudicing the ongoing investigation. We all have a duty to allow that to proceed in a fair and responsible manner.

“In that context I have tried to address as many of the questions submitted to us as possible by the public as we can but we must now wait for the police to report their findings to us.

“I pledge to continue to liaise with local Ward Members, who have raised this issue as a matter of urgency, as we get more information in the coming days. The Council is also supporting Royton and Crompton school in their efforts to deal with these tragic events.

“I will issue a further public update on this matter as quickly as I am able to do so.

“Finally, I would again like to express my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Annalise Holt, and also to wish her school friend a full recovery.

“I know I speak for the whole Council Chamber when I say that they are all in our thoughts and prayers.”

Milnrow Road Zebra Crossing tragedy

I am horrified as others have been about the most recent accident on the Milnrow Road Zebra in Shaw.

As you can appreciated lots of people have been in touch about this matter and this email will attempt to cover the points people have raised.

Obviously this is extremely devastating for the families especially at this time of year.

There are people to consider here – the family of the young girl who sadly died the family of the young girl who has been seriously injured and the driver and his family.

Local Councillors have for more years than we care to remember been asking for this crossing to be made safer and traffic signals (pelican) be provided.

Only a couple of weeks ago Highway Engineers stated that apart from some re-lining and improving the lighting, there was nothing else they were prepared to do.

Concern about this crossing has, and is, regularly and continually expressed by local elected Councillors (in meetings and via direct correspondence).

There is a meeting today at 4.15pm about this matter.

There is a meeting of the full Oldham Council tonight at 6pm when depending upon the outcome of the 4.15pm meeting, this matter will be raised again if we are not satisfied or assured enough by the earlier 4.15pm meeting.

If you have not already done so please sign the petition:

This will help me and other local Shaw and Crompton Councillors press home the case.

As you will appreciate matters concerning this tragedy are moving quickly, others will and are planning things to again demonstrate our community’s anger about this matter and to ensure something gets done about it, and quickly.

Hopefully by working together we will get some action.

Many thanks for contacting me about this matter.

I can assure you I share your frustrations and concerns. My family and I use that crossing and that stretch of road on a daily basis.

As and when I or my colleagues have any updates I will attempt to share them with fellow concerned residents as soon as we can: http://howardsykes.mycouncillor.org.uk

Once again thanks you for contacting me about this issue.

Liberal Democrats welcome increase in support for poorest Oldham Council Tax Payers

Liberal Democrats welcome increase in support for poorest Oldham Council Tax Payers

The Oldham Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council welcomes the recent recommendation outlined in a report to next full Council on Wednesday 18th December 2013 to increase the level of support from 75% to 80% that will be made available to the poorest Band A Council Tax payers in our borough. (Presently this is capped at 75% of a bill for Band A payers).

This is line with the one of the recommendations made by Leader of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Group, Cllr Howard Sykes, in a letter to Borough Treasurer Steven Mair in October of this year.

Cllr Sykes said: “The Liberal Democrats have always believed that the original discount scheme was not generous enough. It was based on what we felt was an overly pessimistic projected collection rate of only 50%.”

“Whilst the increase from 75% to 80% is modest, to the poorest Council Tax payers every penny saved will make a big difference so the Liberal Democrats are happy to endorse this.”

The Liberal Democrats now hope that the level of support for the poorest will increase further in line with increased collection rates.

“We would support further increases in line with improvements in the collection rate, added Cllr Sykes, “so long as the overall scheme remains affordable.”

However, disappointingly, the report’s recommendations do not include establishing a discretionary hardship fund rather like that of other Greater Manchester Councils, as suggested by the Lib Dems.

Cllr Sykes said: “The hardship fund was one of a set of practical measures that the Oldham Liberal Democrats proposed to the Council to support the poorest citizens of our borough, particularly those who are disabled or other vulnerable. Gratifyingly, after talking with us, the Labour Administration has taken up many of our suggestions – but in this particular case they have chosen not to do so”.

“The hardship fund would have been used to support first time Council Tax payers in arrears who are making some payment, yet face, because of exceptional circumstances, undue hardship in discharging their total debt. Liberal Democrats wanted particularly to target this help to claimants with disabilities and long-term debilitating health conditions.”

Cllr Sykes added: “I suggested to the Leader at September Council that the bumper Manchester Airport Group dividend could have be used to support the establishment of this fund – but Labour have chosen not to do so. So my overall verdict of the performance of the Administration on this issue is – making progress but could do better”.