Oldham Council Chamber
Oldham Council Chamber

Cllr Sean Fielding delivered the following address to Oldham Council at a meeting on 4th March to confirm the council budget for 2021/22:

The pandemic has shone a light on the importance of public services, and why they must be properly resourced.

When we set the budget last year, we had no idea the extent of the challenges to come – the scale of demand, and the need to rapidly, and radically, change what we were doing to respond to the crisis.

Council staff have shifted into new roles, whether creating and stocking a PPE hub when the Government failed to provide frontline workers with the necessary protection, whether checking on vulnerable residents, creating testing centres, delivering food packages, or managing vaccine logistics.

Even those still doing broadly the same work as before have seen big changes, whether that means redesigning services like bin collection so that they’re Covid secure, or reprioritising workplans so our staff could rapidly switch from office working to home working.

When we look back on this period, it will be with incredible sadness for all the people we’ve lost. But I hope we’ll also remember and draw strength from the amazing achievements, and the resilience shown by our community.

While acknowledging and celebrating those achievements, however, we can’t ignore that this has been so much worse in the UK than it could have been.

Many more people have lost their jobs or businesses. People have spent more time stuck indoors, unable to see their loved ones. Many more people have died.

As this is a meeting to discuss the Oldham Council budget, I don’t want to use this moment to pick over individual errors from ministers over the last year, although there have been many, from skipping meetings about the danger of the virus at the start of last year, to being too slow to act, to giving out buckets of public money to friends and donors rather than people who knew what they were doing.

Instead I want to reflect on the impact of the systematic defunding of public services, and particularly local government, that has taken place over the last decade.

Since the coalition government was formed in 2010 capacity has been steadily stripped out of our public services.

In local government that has meant we’ve had fewer staff available to help residents, fewer community venues available to act as testing centres, and less chance to mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic.

When Labour was last in Downing Street, councils like Oldham’s had twice the budget. Since then, three Conservative Prime Ministers in a row have told local government to do more with less.

Three Conservative Prime Ministers have told councils to stop doing the things that make places better, to instead focus just on the very core statutory services that they couldn’t get away with cutting.

We’ve been told to leave the rest to the market. Which doesn’t work, as shown by years of rising inequality, rising child poverty, and rising disillusionment.

And it really doesn’t work when a crisis strikes and you need a strong, unified response.

I’m so proud of our council staff over the last year, as well as the incredible community groups who have stepped up to keep people as safe as possible.

But we can’t get away from the fact that a decade of austerity left the UK completely unprepared for this crisis, and with one of the worst death rates in the world.

And here we are again.

Once again we’re looking at a council budget that requires significant cuts compared to the year before.

We were told by government we’d be reimbursed for the cost of Covid – we haven’t been.

We were told that austerity was over – clearly, it isn’t.

We were told loudly by the Chancellor that there would be more money for local government, while he whispered that it would have to come from raising council tax by 5%.

Treasury forecasts are assuming that council tax will rise by 20% over the next five years, so the Chancellor’s future plans are clear.

I said it at last year’s budget, but it bears repeating: Council tax is arguably the most unfair tax we have.

It hits poorer people so much harder than the rich.

If you live in a borough like Oldham, where demand for services is much higher than in a place like the Prime Minister’s Uxbridge constituency, your council tax is going to be much higher, even if your earnings are significantly lower.

And yet the Chancellor cheerfully instructs us to raise council tax by 5% if we want to recoup our Covid losses.

When people have had such a hard year, that just doesn’t feel like an option in Oldham. We have a responsibility as a council to ask for the absolute minimum we can afford from people.

So we’re raising council tax by 2.99%. That’s the lowest increase of any council in Greater Manchester, but I know it will still hurt.

And it still means we’re having to make some really tough decisions about how we cut our cloth further in the year ahead.

The process of deciding on budget cuts this year has been harder than ever. We’re way past the point of being able to remove things that people won’t miss.

I think that’s reflected in the Liberal Democrat budget proposals too. There aren’t many concrete proposed cuts, because you can’t cut more without causing pain.

I’m sure the Conservatives or Independent councillors would have found the same if they’d taken the time to make proposals of their own.

But while the cuts we’re making are difficult, and I’m particularly sorry that once again we’re being forced into redundancies after so many people have sacrificed so much, I believe this budget also sets Oldham on a path to recovery.

Inevitably the last twelve months have been focused on dealing with the pandemic. But we’ve also set the ground for the future, and this budget is another step towards a better Oldham.

We’re doing everything we can to fill the gaps left by the Government. The Chancellor’s speech yesterday was as notable for what it didn’t mention as for what it did.

There was nothing in the budget on the public health grant to councils for the next financial year, which begins in three weeks’ time, and nothing on social care, which has been ignored by the Conservatives for years despite repeated promises that a new plan to treat carers properly was just around the corner. As the Conservative-led Local Government Association has said, and I quote: “The lack of new funding for public health runs contrary to the aim of addressing the stark health inequalities exposed by Covid-19 and levelling up our communities.”

The LGA analysis highlights that social care is quite simply not sustainable while the Conservatives refuse to address it. I’m proud that as an accredited real living wage employer we’re working to ensure all our carers are earning enough to live on. That’s the absolute minimum our carers deserve. It’s a sector the Government can’t keep ignoring.

There was nothing in the Chancellor’s speech about how we build the houses people need. It’s all very well extending the stamp duty holiday for those who can already afford to buy, but what we really need is more homes – more affordable homes. Despite so much talk locally about the importance of building on brownfield land to protect green space, there was nothing in the budget about what the Tories will do to make that happen. We estimate that a little over £100 million is what it would take to prepare all of Oldham’s brownfield land for housing. That’s the scale of the challenge, but what’s on offer from the Conservatives doesn’t scratch the surface.

To counter their inaction, locally we’re looking to establish a housing company to build the genuinely affordable homes the private sector doesn’t want to focus on. While the Government hesitates, we’ll also keep working to find any way possible to release brownfield land for homes so we can protect our green spaces from Tory planning reforms and housing targets.

There was nothing in the speech about levelling the playing field between the high street and online retail that has done so well out of the pandemic. Our towns will never be what they were in the pre-internet age, but I think the last year has shown us all that there’s real value in getting out, mixing with people, and doing a bit of shopping before stopping off for some lunch with a friend or catching a film. We don’t want to lose that, but the impression from the Chancellor’s speech was that it’s an after-thought unless you have a Tory MP they want to protect.

Under Labour Oldham Council is committed to investing in our places, our businesses, and our people.

We’ve done that in recent months not only by ensuring business support grants and support for individuals got to people as quickly as possible.

We’ve also continued our focus on spending council money with local businesses wherever we can, and placed even more emphasis on the impact businesses have on the local community when deciding who wins tenders.

With the purchase of Spindles, and other exciting projects like the Egyptian Rooms food hall, we’re in position to give the Oldham economy a real push as we emerge from lockdown. These investments will also generate income and reduce the Council’s property costs, releasing more money to protect the frontline services we provide to our most vulnerable.

The future of our towns won’t just be retail, and our budget sets us up to create a thriving mix and places that people really want to visit.

Young people have been hit as hard as anyone by the pandemic, so this budget has to be about young people’s futures across the borough.

Our schools and colleges have done a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. And I believe the new structures we’ve created to enable school leaders to support one another to learn and improve will be crucial to giving every young person in Oldham a good start.

Within this budget is a commitment to doubling the number of apprenticeships the council provides, as well as creating 50 new “Kickstart” work opportunities with our partners. Young people are worrying about their futures, and it’s important that we lead the way in creating pathways to great careers.

Finally, the budget is about building a healthier borough, and a stronger community. The impact of health inequalities has never been clearer, so we have to use the resources we have to make Oldham as healthy as it can be.

That’s already started with projects like Northern Roots, which will be the UK’s largest urban farm and eco park, and ongoing work using Green Homes funds to make houses warmer and greener.

Next steps include refreshing our landlord licensing scheme so that we can be confident private rented homes are up to standard, and work to bring decisions about health services much closer to communities, so that areas get the support that is right for them.

Working together with residents to solve problems has been a big area of success in the last year.

We all want Oldham to be a place where residents feel healthy and supported, where businesses flourish, and where every young person can get a good start.

This budget, while challenging, sets the stage for the council to work with our partners, and most importantly our residents, to make that vision a reality.

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