On Wednesday 12th February Oldham hosted “Growing the New Economy” – a conference exploring how different approaches to economic growth can better improve people’s lives.
Cllr Sean Fielding, leader of Oldham Council, opened the conference speaking to more than three hundred delegates about Oldham’s approach. His speech was as follows:
Welcome to Oldham.
We’re delighted to have you here for what promises to be an inspiring day, and I hope a day that we’ll look back on as a defining moment on the journey towards a new economy.
My ambition for Oldham is for it to be at the forefront of this agenda – I believe it has to be.
The old ways of thinking about economics no longer work here: focusing purely on the choices that maximise revenue in the short term; getting out of the way of private enterprise; driving “efficiency” by squeezing as much as you can out of people at the lowest possible cost.
We have to do something different.
Oldham’s story is like so many other places around the country. Oldham had King Cotton, a mill for every day of the year. It wasn’t a golden age, but several generations had secure and consistent work close to home, a sense of identity and strong social networks.
Even as these jobs started to go, there was a safety net to help people get back on their feet.
But most of these industrial jobs have gone now, with production moving overseas. For many people, employment now is increasingly insecure and low paid. At the same time a decade of austerity has stripped out services that people rely on, making life ever more precarious.
The story of deindustrialisation has been well documented. But what has been less visible is the way people are fighting back. Across Oldham we’re seeing community groups working together to help each other and improve their neighbourhoods, from litter picks, to foodbanks, to parents closing down streets so children have space for play.
These efforts from residents are crucial if we are to overcome the challenges we face, but they won’t be enough on their own.
In this room we have senior figures from councils, education, the voluntary sector, business, co-ops, social enterprises and funders.
Between us we have the tools to make places like Oldham the best they can be. We have the tools to revitalise our economies, to distribute wealth more fairly, to tackle wage stagnation and underinvestment, and to do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable.
It starts with understanding the value of the social economy in all its forms. By recognising the difference employee or community ownership can make, or the benefits of encouraging businesses that are focused on delivering more than profit, we can start shifting the way in which we support people to create and access great jobs.
By changing our procurement practices, spending more with local firms, Oldham Council is already keeping more than £4 million in the borough every month compared to a couple of years ago, and we can go further. We’re also looking harder at the social value element, making sure we’re squeezing every drop out for local people, and giving firms that understand their social mission an edge.
When we think about procurement, the bottom line is important, but spending with a local firm and with those who contribute to the local community means more jobs and wealth in the borough. This has a knock-on effect, reducing demand for council services like health care and employment support.
The same is true with the living wage. Oldham Council became an accredited living wage employer in November. It’s a hard decision to increase pay in times of austerity, but we felt it was the right thing to do. It’s also something that we expect to boost productivity, retention and recruitment and, as with local procurement, will reduce demand for our services. I hope we can encourage others to take a similar approach.
Ultimately, we need our councils and other major employers to be putting people first. By putting a focus on improving lives as the key to our decisions, and building on our existing assets, we can grow something sustainable.
Growing our assets and supporting our people only happens when we understand them. So it’s vital that the council reflects the population. Our best staff are people from the community, who understand Oldham, its strengths and weaknesses. The same would be true in the local hospital, bank or pub. We need to employ local people at every level of our organisations, and ensure we are providing the skills development and training so they can thrive.
And all this has to happen in the context of the urgent climate crisis. In Oldham we’ve committed to making the borough carbon neutral by 2030, with the Council itself hitting that target by 2025. Our Oldham Green New Deal will be about creating a greener and more sustainable future. The new economy we’re discussing today fits right alongside that.
So that’s Oldham’s approach, and my commitment to you. We’re going to:
Increase the size of the social economy, supporting social businesses and cooperatives to be resilient, thrive and grow.
Keep more wealth in the borough through smarter procurement, and placing a stronger emphasis on social value.
Pay a real living wage, and encourage others to do the same.
Recruit local people, and put the time and effort into boosting skills so they can get ahead.
And do all this as part of a Green New Deal strategy that safeguard’s the borough’s future.