Oldham council truly remarkable - report

Reporter: Richard Hooton
Date published: 11 December 2013

AN independent review has hailed Oldham Council’s “remarkable transformation” that has seen it become “an ambitious and effective council”.

The local authority asked the Local Government Association to carry out a comprehensive “Peer Challenge” — a voluntary assessment to check how it is performing and to test its future plans.

A six-strong team of experienced politicians and senior officers visited Oldham in October, speaking to employees, partners, elected members and residents.

They looked at a series of guiding questions testing whether the Co-operative Council has clear priorities, a viable long-term financial plan, effective leadership, governance and decision-making arrangements, plus the capacity and resources to deliver its plans.

The report says: “There has been a remarkable transformation in Oldham in recent years, both in terms of the place and in having established an ambitious and effective council. The authority can be proud of what has been achieved.”

Back in 2008 a highly critical Audit Commission inspection had revealed Oldham Council “felt itself to be on the verge of government intervention” but the new report finds that provided a “wake-up call” to improve.

“The challenge of turning around the council was clearly immense with significant issues in relation to its organisational culture, ways of working, governance, financial management and the performance of its services,” the report says.

“The council is now seen to be a disciplined organisation that is competent and effective — which in turn generates the confidence and credibility for it to do more challenging and difficult things.

“The organisational culture feels positive and performance management is effective.

“The council’s political and managerial leadership has been integral to what has been achieved. It is respected internally and externally and galvanises support from staff and partners.”

Council leader Councillor Jim McMahon said: “The report recognises that Oldham is now an effective, efficient and respected council. Its publication marks a new chapter in our history — the past is firmly behind us.

“We voluntarily asked for an independent assessment because we wanted validation that the progress we’re making is real - not just something we believe to be true.

“The 2008 Audit Commission report was damaging, but unfortunately it was accurate, and there was a realisation that a cross-party response was needed to put Oldham first and politics second.

“I pay tribute to Councillor Howard Sykes whose time as council leader saw vital work done to get our house in order, especially in terms of financial organisation, and we’ve since built on those foundations to foster the credibility and confidence that is now helping us attract the inward investment we need to regenerate and create new jobs.

“No scheme is more iconic in our journey than the old town hall.

“Work is now under way to convert it into a multiplex cinema with cafes, restaurants and retail outlets which will complete its transformation from a symbol of civic neglect and failure to one of hope and aspiration. That is what the new Oldham is all about.”

Oldham Council chief executive Charlie Parker said: “This report recognises Oldham Council has successfully risen to the challenge of transforming itself at a time of great change across the public sector.

“The financial challenges will get harder and harder, but it’s clear that we can never go back to the days of being an inward facing organisation lacking the vision to lead on behalf of our residents and business.

The report — and Oldham Council’s response to it — will be discussed at the next meeting of full council on Wednesday.

ON LEADERSHIP “THE leader’s style and approach is both exceptional and unique in nature and the council has benefited enormously from having a driven chief executive with an entrepreneurial outlook and who has provided strong corporate direction and achievement around organisational change and improvement. There is also good managerial leadership at executive director and assistant/associate executive director level.”

“The ability of the council to secure the involvement of Sir Howard Bernstein to advise on and support the authority’s regeneration and economic development activities and projects is both extremely positive and a reflection of how far the authority has come in recent years.”

ON STAFF “THE staff that we met at all levels of the organisation demonstrated passion, enthusiasm and commitment, are really bought in to the council’s agenda and both understand and support the vision that has been established. The council is now ‘punching above its weight’ and is one of the most highly respected and influential in Greater Manchester.”

ON THE ECONOMY “GETTING people into employment is recognised by the council as the key to turning round the fortunes of the borough. Oldham is a place with a proud history and industrial legacy that is seeking to create a new and more vibrant economic future. There is a clear and balanced economic strategy — connecting Oldham to the wider city region as a source of employment and enabling local people to gain the capabilities, through education and training, which are necessary to secure those employment opportunities.”

ON FINANCE “FINANCIAL management within the council is seen to be highly effective, with a dramatic improvement. The council has secured £100million savings since 2009/10, with a further £20million on track to be delivered in the current financial year.”

THE CO-OPERATIVE “THE concept of a co-operative approach has a real resonance among the people we spoke to, both within and outside the council. The approach can be seen to be concerned with a spirit or ethos regarding the way citizens conduct themselves and the contribution they make to society. There are still significant challenges in linking the Cooperative concept to the wider public service reform agenda.”

THE DISTRICTS “THE emphasis placed on districts within a borough context is valued by many of the people we spoke to. Examples include an increased responsiveness on the part of council officers and more engagement by citizens. Ward councillors are seen to be more involved and demonstrating increased leadership. We would suggest that any further development requires careful consideration. It could become a source of tensions as resources are reduced in line with the need for the council to address the budget gap.”

The Peer Review team were: Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham; Councillor Sharon Taylor, leader of Stevenage Borough Council and elected member on Hertfordshire County Council (Labour); Councillor Paul Tilsley, Birmingham City Council (Liberal Democrat); John O’Brien, chief executive of London Councils; Andrew Lewis, assistant chief executive of Newcastle City Council and Chris Bowron, Peer Challenge manager of the Local Government Association.