At Oldham’s Annual Council on 19th May 2021, Cllr Arooj Shah was formally appointed as Leader of Oldham Council. Upon accepting the position she delivered the following speech:
Thank you Madam Mayor.
It is with great pride and, I admit, some trepidation that I take on the role of Oldham Council Leader this afternoon. As a council we’ve never had a greater challenge, nor a greater responsibility, to the people of Oldham as we make our way out of restrictions and strive for a recovery for people and businesses.
Before I talk about the commitments I want to make to the borough, and local people, I’d like to pay my tribute to my friend and the outgoing Leader, Sean Fielding.
It has been an honour to serve as deputy for Sean for the last three years.
Working alongside Sean throughout the pandemic I witnessed first-hand his commitment to the people of Failsworth and to all of the residents of Oldham. While leading our local response and representing the borough’s interests and concerns at regional and national levels he also found time to stay connected to what mattered most to people – volunteering regularly at the foodbank delivering vital food parcels to those isolating or struggling financially and, later on in the pandemic volunteering as a marshall at a vaccination clinic.
Those actions show the true measure of Sean’s dedication to his role and to local people. He never lost sight or shirked his share of the hard work we were asking council staff and volunteers to undertake – in fact he relished it.
We will also miss his steadfast ambition for Oldham and his absolute drive to see it improved for future generations. I am lucky to be taking up this role with a clear plan for the regeneration of Oldham Town Centre already in place, and its delivery well underway. Sean’s masterplan will deliver quality housing alongside an attractive shopping, hospitality and leisure offer and provides a clear future at a time when many Town Centres are struggling.
We will miss Sean, personally and politically but his leadership leaves an incredible legacy for our town.
As we move forward our priorities for the next year are clear.
We’ve set ourselves a clear plan to drive recovery from the pandemic – one that focuses on creating jobs and supporting businesses, on education and skills, on ensuring quality housing, making the most of our green space, and improving the health of local people. Dedicated activity in these areas of focus will help the borough bounce back as quickly as possible from the economic, social and health impacts that Covid 19 has caused.
Alongside this though, we need to retain focus on the things people tell us are important to them. Their message is clear – we want to live in a town we can be proud of. One where our neighbourhoods are clean, green and safe.
So, I want the hallmark of my leadership to be this:
That we get stuff done – we’ll be cleaning up our streets and getting tougher on flytipping and littering.
That if you need help, we’ll be here to help you.
That if you’re doing great work in the community, we’ll work alongside you and support you every step of the way.
But, if you’re bringing our borough down, whether that’s littering, fly tipping or being a bad landlord, we’re coming after you with everything we have.
To make sure this happens we’re promising additional investment in our street scene and enforcement teams.
These may feel like simple things, but they are vital, the contract we have with our community is built on us ensuring their neighbourhoods are places they are proud to live. If local people are to trust us to run their public services, to plan for the future of our town and to advocate for them nationally and regionally then we need to deliver on these basics.
Alongside this focus on cleanliness and enforcement we will invest time, both as Labour councillors and as an organisation, to listen more to local people, to talk to them about their concerns, to take on board their suggestions and to have open, honest conversations about the issues facing the town.
That means a real commitment to getting out in our communities, to better communicating our plans and to getting real input as we shape them. This has to be our key role as community representatives
And that role becomes more important in speaking to, and speaking up for, those that are struggling. My role leading the covid response over the last year has highlighted even more strongly the deep inequalities existent in Oldham and in wider society – it has shown that some of our communities have been affected more than others – with more cases of covid, more deaths or serious health impacts, more business closures and more job losses.
The impact of covid has not been felt equally because life was already harder and more challenging for some in our communities – because of poverty, because of underlying health conditions, because of their age, because of their lack of support network.
If we are to succeed as a town it has to be on the basis that we’ve brought everyone with us, that everyone has benefited from our success and to do that we have to have greater focus on those who need the most help.
I will continue to make driving equality an absolute priority in this town – whether that’s through tackling poverty, increasing opportunities for improved education and skills, creating jobs and supporting businesses or through targeting our support services at those who need them most. We will deliver services that work for everyone but that reach out to those most in need.
I’d like to finish by stating clearly that everyone in this chamber, regardless of political party allegiances, have more in common with each other than that which divides us. We all stood for election to improve the areas we live in and to improve the lives of Oldhamers in whatever way we could.
We may disagree on the best way to achieve those aims but I know that we all want the best for our town, whether that’s cleaner streets and green spaces, caring and effective social services or thriving town and district centres. Sometimes the political processes can give the impression of greater and more personal divides than exist in reality.
Opposition and scrutiny are a vital part of democracy and I know, from experience in some cases, that the councillors in this chamber will work hard to make sure I keep my promises. I know that we will continue to hold each other to account, to debate and discuss our work and our priorities in a respectful way that recognises our shared commitment to the people of this town. I truly believe that is what the people of Oldham want, expect and deserve.
Like most in this chamber I entered politics with a real desire to make things better – for the place I was born and grew up but also for the people who live here alongside me.
Becoming Leader at this time is a huge responsibility given the challenges that the last eighteen months has presented for the town but its one I am absolutely committed to.
My drive to improve my town, to work hard and to keep going despite any barriers and challenges put in my way, comes from my parents, who came from Pakistan in the 1960s and built a fantastic life in Oldham for themselves and for me and my siblings. They pushed us always to do our best, to strive for greater things and to respect and care for others. The values they instilled in me have led me to where I am today and I will forever be grateful for their guidance and support.
As an Oldhamer, I want what’s best for Oldham and I’ll never stop striving for that while in this role. In twelve months time let me be judged on my actions, on what I have delivered – or, in a phrase borrowed from a hero of mine, Emmeline Pankhurst – deeds, not words.