At the meeting of Oldham’s Full Council on 4th November 2020, Cllr Sean Fielding delivered the following Annual Statement:
When I delivered this speech last year, I started by saying that we were meeting in what for many was the most turbulent political time of our lives. We were looking at a budget decimated by a decade of austerity, a question mark over a Brexit withdrawal agreement, and a December general election.
But that looks like the understatement of the century now.
Looking back on last year, it’s easy to forget the optimism we had. Yes, nationally there were huge political questions to be answered, but locally we were seeing real improvements in education outcomes, the investments we’d made in day to day services and our roads were paying dividends, and we’d just signed up as a real living wage employer
Shortly after the statement last year we also launched our Town Centre Vision – a plan to invest in the borough to boost the local economy and make it a greener, cleaner and better place to live.
The pandemic has, of course, prompted us to revisit these plans, and the optimism of last year has been replaced by real concern about the future.
So many people have lost loved ones and, particularly tragically, haven’t always been able to be there for them at the end.
Young people have missed months of schooling, and many had to deal with huge uncertainty about qualifications.
Many residents have lost their jobs, have spent time furloughed, or are worrying about the future of their employers or businesses
We’ve gone through cycles of confusing and repeatedly changing restrictions, impacting people’s mental and physical health.
People are understandably shaken.
And twelve months on, we’re still waiting to see what the final outcome will be for Brexit, with the government so far failing to secure a deal for a future relationship, and missing it’s own deadlines (three so far) for the completion of talks.
The challenge to the Council’s revenue budget is also even worse, after another year of being told by government to do more with less. We were instructed by the Government to spend whatever it takes to tackle Covid, but now across the country we see local authorities on the brink of bankruptcy and there’s still no sign of the local government finance settlement for 2021/22 that would allow us to plan with confidence.
We’ve learned a lot in recent weeks. Let’s be very clear: from the start the Government have managed this pandemic according to the short-term best interests of Conservative donors and MPs in Southern shires, not for the people of places like Oldham.
At the start, when cases were growing in London and the South East at a higher rate than elsewhere, we went into a national lockdown. No-one round here was saying lockdown should be limited to only the worst affected places, because we recognised that we’re all connected and the best way to reduce the virus was for everyone to act.
When the first lockdown showed cases falling in London and the South East restrictions were removed, even though the virus was still very present in other parts of the country.
People were encouraged to go back to workplaces, and to Eat Out to Help Out. People were told, implicitly, that they could relax.
Then when cases in Oldham started to rise again, restrictions were re-imposed at a local level, without the supports that were deemed necessary the first time around.
With case numbers highest in the North and the Midlands, we had to wrestle with Government for help for our people and our economy. We were told that things like a furlough scheme that paid more than two-thirds wages were simply impossible.
The Government’s scientific advisors have been frank: localised Tier 3 restrictions were unlikely to work, and we’d have a better chance if the Government introduced stricter measures, at a national level.
And now here we are, with a national lockdown beginning at one minute past midnight tonight, but brought in too late, with the delay potentially costing thousands more lives, and further damage to the economy because it’s probably going to have to be longer than it would have been had it been introduced earlier.
Of course, now those Tory shires are involved again, the Chancellor has found the money for an 80% furlough scheme that was impossible two weeks ago when it was only northern workers who would suffer.
The North-South divide is never far from this Government’s mind, and not in a way that benefits Oldham. In their eyes we’re the noisy lot who don’t know how to behave.
I’m not speaking today pretending that tackling a pandemic is easy. I’m not criticising with the benefit of hindsight. There were always going to be mistakes, and issues to be ironed out along the way.
But it’s so frustrating though, because so much was foreseeable. It was clear early, and many people said at the time, that the places that would be worst affected would be those where poverty is highest.
That’s because people in areas with a lot of poverty are more likely to live in cramped or overcrowded housing, more likely to do the frontline key worker jobs that involve interaction with the public, and more likely to have other health conditions that increase the risk from Covid.
Instead of designing solutions to address this reality, there has been scapegoating of communities and blaming individuals. It’s encouraged a rise in racism which damages both society and our ability to control the virus.
So often, when I’ve posted online about work I’ve been doing on the ground as a Councillor in Failsworth, I get responses that say things like “We know where the virus is, why don’t you go and sort out those places?”. It shows ignorance of the fact that the council and public health teams are working across the borough, but more dangerously, it shows ignorance of the fact that the virus is in all of our towns and villages.
Amongst the areas of the borough with highest rates of Covid last week were Failsworth East, Royton North and South, and Crompton. But it seems there are some people who have believed the story that it’s an issue for BAME communities, or “other areas”, and that they can carry on doing what they want.
We’ve had scapegoating of communities, and Eat Out to Help Out, rather than things like proper support for those who are self-employed, resourcing for local public health teams, and a recognition that we get through this together or not at all.
It’s no wonder local people are struggling.
But while this is clearly an incredibly difficult time for the council, the borough and the country, I still see cause for hope.
We’ve seen what a united Oldham can achieve, from the mutual aid groups in the early days, to council officers and the voluntary sector out on the doorstep providing information, support and tests, to last week where the council, our partners like Mahdlo and businesses across the borough stepped in to feed young people when the Government decided not to.
I’ve been privileged to get involved in different parts, from delivering food parcels, and brewing up for rough sleepers to making up some of the sandwiches for children in need of a lunch during half term, and it’s been fantastic to see Oldham working together.
It’s the best of this borough, and it’s the spirit that will see us through.
It might seem strange to say, but the other thing that gives me optimism is some of the government interventions over recent months.
Getting through this pandemic is going to require serious, bold government intervention. It’s clearer every day that a return to how things were is no longer an option.
There’s plenty to criticise, but the crisis has at least demonstrated the impact that Government intervention can have. Our train and bus services have effectively been taken under public control, though the profits are still held privately. And the furlough and business support scheme has shown how the Government can support jobs and businesses at scale if it wishes to.
Unfortunately though, so far it’s appeared that much of the government’s activity has been about preserving the status quo and simply keeping things as they are on ice, so that we can just pick up where we left off when the coronavirus passes. The most obvious examples of this being the attempts to stop people working from home to support commercial landlords and Pret a Manger, and sending students to halls to protect the incomes of universities, and again those landlords, instead of encouraging online teaching.
Business as usual isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an option.
From Government what we really need is decisive action to take us towards a better future. People want to live in a country where older and vulnerable residents are properly looked after, and where the incredible carers that do that work are paid what they are worth. We need safe and affordable housing, a transport system that works for people rather than shareholders, and decent, well paid jobs in the industries of the future.
Matt Hancock first promised us that a green paper setting out their plans to fix social care would be coming in Summer 2017. More than three years later we’re still waiting.
We’ll never know how many lives would have been saved if our social care system was properly funded and integrated with the NHS now. We can’t turn back the clock, but better social care should be a priority for the post-Covid world.
If we didn’t already know, the pandemic has shown us the value of a good home, of being able to get together, and the importance of our green space. The planning system needs to change, but current proposals could lead to shoddier building, less democratic control and more threat to the greenbelt. That’s not what people wanted before Covid, and it’s certainly not what they want after.
We’ve seen how Government can intervene to protect industries or help them grow. But rather than limiting that intervention to protecting Pret and their mate in charge of Wetherspoons while independent pubs are closed, let’s support independent businesses, let’s invest in green infrastructure and technology, and let’s bring the buses and trains under public control properly.
These kind of policies are the building blocks of a better tomorrow, but to get there we need the Government to act now. They’ve shown that they can do it if they want to.
But there’s plenty we can do locally as well, despite the huge budget challenge we face.
It was fantastic to be able to announce our purchase of the Spindles shopping centre recently. While we were told initially that we weren’t allowed to reveal the price for legal reasons, I’m delighted that we’ve now been given permission to confirm that, while it was bought by previous owners for over £40m, we managed to get the whole centre for just £9.5m.
At that price getting public control of such a central, strategically important site rather than let it go into managed decline really was a no brainer.
I know spending money when times are so tight raised some eyebrows, but as well as getting it at a knock down price, it is an investment that will actually save the council a lot of money. It’s been bought with cash rather than taking on additional external debt, so there’s no loan to pay back or interest payments. And it’s self-financing, with income from the centre being sufficient to cover management and maintenance costs.
I don’t claim to be an expert shopping centre manager, but I was sold on the potential of the site for our borough. We’ll be able to revitalise it by moving the Tommyfield Market traders in, bringing our retail offer into one place in a way that will help the traders and the existing shops, as well as making a better experience for shoppers.
We’ll also open up opportunities to create a brand new linear park in the town, build more homes on brownfield sites to protect the greenbelt, and eventually have the council staff working there too, so we don’t need to spend money on a shiny new council building.
It’s a win on several levels, and is the kind of proactive move that will set Oldham up to flourish on the other side of the pandemic. Northern Roots is another great example of this approach.
We can be under no illusion though – there’s a long fight ahead before we get to that possible brighter future.
Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen most success when we’ve pulled together, when we’ve looked out for each other, and when we’ve spoken with one voice.
As individuals, it remains incredibly important that we continue to follow the guidance, particularly around social distancing and personal hygiene. I know how tired people are of the sacrifices we’ve had to make, but the best chance we’ve got is if we keep following the rules closely.
And as a community, we can’t stop speaking loudly about what we want, now and in the future. We’ve seen how loud our voice can be in Greater Manchester. We need the people in Westminster to know that we’re not going to sit quietly and let them decimate northern towns in the same way they did in the 80s.
In the summer we launched a Save Oldham’s Services campaign to highlight the impact of Covid on the services we can provide. Nearly a thousand residents have chosen to co-sign the letter, which will go to the Prime Minister this evening. A strong, united message that Oldham won’t be ignored.
I’m proud to lead this council, and I’m proud of our borough. We’ve shown real fight this year. Covid has knocked us to the deck a few times, and we’ve suffered losses that we’ll never be able to get back. But there’s plenty of fighting left to do, and if we keep supporting one another I know it’s one we can win.