On 26th February 2020, members of Oldham Council met to agree a budget for the municipal year 2020/21. Cllr Sean Fielding, Leader of Oldham Council, proposed the administration’s budget with a speech setting out the impact of a decade of austerity on the borough, and how a Labour budget will overcome the challenges faced. He said:
Madam Mayor, I’m very sad to have to give this speech this evening.
Last year our budget saw the cuts since 2010 reach £208 million – 60% of our total budget gone thanks to austerity introduced by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, and then continued by Theresa May.
Last year I had to stand up and explain which new services would be cut, which opportunities would be missed.
The scale of cuts here in Oldham is not comparable to every other Council. Oldham has been specifically targeted for deeper cuts than many other places by the Government. Out of 343 Councils in England only 5 have had more money taken from them as a proportion of their budget than us.
The council is responsible for social care, for educating our children, and for looking after our roads and parks, amongst many other things. Every year of cuts from central government makes that more and more difficult.
Every year of cuts makes life harder for the people of Oldham.
I was hoping that this would be the year that things started to change. We’ve heard so much about “levelling up”. It was going to be a new era under Johnson, with fairer funding and proper investment.
Instead, we’re now £215 million down on 2010, and hearing plans to cut more from places like Oldham through the so-called “fair funding review” so southern shires can have extra cash.
It will take a lot more than warm words and a colourful turn of phrase to overcome our current situation. Just yesterday there were two reports published that show the stark reality we face.
Sir Michael Marmot conducted a review in 2010 into health inequalities in England. The review highlighted the link between health and wealth. Sir Michael set central government, local government and wider society several challenges to tackle the inequalities he found. They were things we should all be aspiring to:
Give every child the best start in life
Enable young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives
Fair employment and good work for all
A healthy standard of living for everyone
Healthy and sustainable places and communities
And better ill health prevention
Yesterday, ten years on, he published a new report assessing progress and the findings made for grim reading.
For the first time in more than 100 years, life expectancy across the country has stopped increasing. The north/south divide on health has gotten worse. The poorest 10% of northern women are actually seeing their life expectancy fall!
As Sir Michael observes in his new report, “austerity will cast a long shadow over the lives of the children born and growing up under its effects.” It has taken its toll in all the areas set out by the original review, weakening health and weakening society.
Addressing this is everybody’s business. Alongside his new report yesterday, Sir Michael highlighted the work that Greater Manchester has done to improve health locally. From the GM Good Employment Charter to the place-based approach we pioneer in Oldham that he described as “essential to effectively tackle … health inequalities”, Greater Manchester is held up as a case study of local government and communities making a difference.
And I want to pay tribute to the work that colleagues in this room and elsewhere have done. It was great to see Richmond Academy showcased on the BBC News last night for the brilliant work they’re doing taking a whole-family approach to health and nutrition.
But only so much can be achieved while nationally we’re being held back.
The second report published yesterday was the Office for National Statistics’ quarterly economic review. It shone a light on the impact of poverty on educational attainment, showing that nationally pupils entitled to free school meals have made less progress in recent years than their wealthier peers.
Oldham again has something to be proud of here, because unlike many areas the gap in attainment here between rich and poor is closing. But the national picture still sounds a loud warning.
A very dry and technical part of the ONS report mentioned that they’ve been miscalculating the wealth of the richest 1% in recent years. It turns out that the top 1% have quite a bit more money than we thought, and so, despite government claims to the contrary, inequality nationally has risen through the austerity years.
People are right to be angry. They see a country that is becoming more unequal in terms of wealth, in terms of health, and in terms of opportunity. They see a country more divided.
Here in Oldham there have been consequences for our staff. Many of those that are employed to deliver services for our communities are doing jobs alone that would previously have been shared between two, three or even more people.
We’ve also seen Councillors stepping in to the space previously filled by officers, because the cuts mean that we have fewer people to deliver the services on which local people rely.
As an example, a few months ago, I found myself acting as a welfare and benefits advisor to a local resident living in fuel poverty. A constituent of mine in Failsworth, was attempting to apply for a grant for a new, more efficient, boiler through warm homes Oldham. He had lived with his mother for many years but when she passed away without having left a will, he had difficulty navigating the system that would see the home transferred in to his name. As the house was not considered his in the eyes of the law, he could not make an application for a grant.
He approached me for assistance and, in the absence of specialist advice to go through the legal process, it was me who printed off the forms from the Government website, completed them, and attended court with him.
Fortunately the issue with the ownership of his property was resolved, he got his new boiler, and he has now been lifted out of fuel poverty.
This is a great outcome for my constituent but it’s not really my role to provide legal advice or support in this way. And this only happened because my constituent had the confidence to approach me and ask for support.
Most members in this chamber will have similar stories of where they have had to step in to spaces that Councillors wouldn’t normally.
But the more worrying thing is how many more people like my constituent might be out there? People who need help from public services but don’t have the confidence to come forward and seek it, instead suffering in silence because austerity has gutted the services that used to be there to proactively help them.
I wish austerity was truly over, and that government had returned even some of the money Oldham needs to be able to push on. I would love to be able to stand up today and announce no rise in council tax, because I know how hard it is for families who are struggling.
Council tax is unfair. It can’t be right that someone in Oldham on the lowest council tax band pays more than twice as much as someone on the same band in Westminster, just because Westminster has so much more money from business rates. It can’t be right that poor people pay 8% of their income as council tax, while for the rich it’s 1%.
This happens because it’s easier for government to make councils responsible for more services, and encourage them to increase council tax to pay for it, rather than take tough funding decisions themselves and be held accountable.
Council tax, and the value of your home in the early 1990s, shouldn’t be the thing that determines how much money is available for adult social care or looking after vulnerable children.
As a council we have to weigh up the tension between funding services properly and keeping money in people’s pockets. We’ve made the decision not to increase council tax as much as we could, because it’s not fair to residents. But there is a rise, because without it we can’t take Oldham where it needs to be.
We have a fantastic borough, with wonderful committed people, great businesses and beautiful countryside.
This budget enables us to take Oldham to the next level. Not “levelling up” as if all we can aim for is to be more like Reading or Guildford but making Oldham the place we want it to be.
This budget allows us to deliver our bold Creating a Better Place plan, building 2,000 new homes, creating 1,000 jobs and 100 apprenticeships, green regeneration and a revitalised night-time economy.
It’s another step towards establishing Oldham as the leading green borough in Greater Manchester. We’ll be carbon neutral as a council by 2025, and as a borough by 2030. And with Northern Roots, we’ll be known around the country. Not as “the poorest borough”, or a grim northern town, but as a pioneering place, like we were in the days of King Cotton.
We’re still battling every day to stretch a little further: boosting education while schools are under-funded; improving social care while the government dithers over how to pay for it properly; keeping the streets clean and prosecuting the fly-tippers that choose not to do their bit.
This budget allows us to take more control in our own hands. With this budget we’re standing up for Oldham. Our opposition choose to tinker round the edges but that’s not good enough.
Every decision in this budget reflects a determination to deliver value for money to our residents, to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and to give them an Oldham to be proud of.
And it’s a budget that includes no compulsory redundancies.
Every part of Oldham has something to celebrate in this budget. We’ll build the Oldham we want by working hard together as a borough, not sniping from the sidelines or playing one area off against another.
That’s what Labour is offering here: a budget for the whole of Oldham, and a plan for a bright future.