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'All the fluff is gone': Oldham Council leader on debts crisis

Councils across the UK are doing everything they can to balance their budgets after years of brutal cuts and slashing of services. 

Greater Manchester town hall leaders, once again, face difficult decisions. In Oldham, the situation is no different.

The council must fill a £20.7m hole in the next budget and almost £30m over the next two years. 

Council leader Arooj Shah previously told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “All the fluff is gone and now we’re facing really difficult decisions to balance the books.”

Everything is on the table, she noted, including senior management positions.

The current leader was first elected to the chamber in 2012 representing Chadderton South. She became the first Muslim woman to take charge of a council in the north after a local election in 2021, but lost her seat in 2022 to Conservative Robert Barnes. 

But after winning the vote in St Mary’s last year, she was back in the leader’s chair of the council. 

This week, Cllr Shah took to her blog to share her thoughts on the challenges facing Oldham’s future. She invited residents to weigh in on the council’s budgeting priorities.

She said: “The facts are stark. Our income in real terms has halved over the past decade, but prices have kept rising and the demand for services is growing.

“How we spend our money, what the priorities must be, and where we can make savings is what we are asking Oldham residents and businesses over the coming weeks.

“Council budgeting must reflect the challenges households are facing. Heating and energy bills are soaring, food prices and rent are higher than ever, and high interest rates have added more cost to mortgages, car loans or any credit card payments we all may have.

“For us at Oldham Council, this creates a ‘double whammy’ – our grants and funding from central government have been slashed year over year, and as residents struggle to deal with the cost-of-living crisis more families need our support and services to make ends meet.

“As leader of Oldham Council, we will set a budget which assigns the available resources we have to the priorities we share. I have always been clear – our top priority has to be to protect our most vulnerable residents. If not us, who?

“Today, around two thirds of our entire budget goes on providing services and support for young people, the elderly, those with disabilities or families who find themselves in a crisis situation.

“And as the challenges facing households across the borough continue to increase, understandably more and more people are turning to the council and our partners for help.

“We also want to protect the physical environment and infrastructure we all value here in Oldham. We want to ensure our parks and public spaces are inviting places for residents and visitors to the borough.

“We want to provide sports facilities, leisure activities and resources to enrich all our lives. And we know maintaining the roads, emptying the bins, removing rubbish, fixing street lamps and filling potholes is a job residents expect the council to stay on top of too.

“Delivering all these services is made even more difficult when grants and funding councils like Oldham rely on have been slashed. Some of that money, unfairly in my opinion, has been diverted to other local authorities which Conservative ministers have deemed more important.

“Thankfully – or perhaps because we have such low trust in our current government to step up and help – over the years, we have carefully budgeted and applied stringent checks and balances to manage the resources we do have access to.

“Other councils have not fared so well. Councils across the country have declared themselves effectively bankrupt and with no relief in sight, more may follow.

“Oldham Council will not follow that route.

“We fully reject this failed government’s austerity agenda of ‘cuts, cuts, cuts’ because we know that when families and residents are struggling to pay bills, put food on the table or adequately heat their homes, they deserve our support, not to see us pull the rug from under their feet in their time of need.

“In this election year, we don’t expect any late support from the Conservatives in Westminster who continue to prioritise austerity to fund tax cuts and other sweeteners over support for local services and families struggling to get by.

“Despite their failings, it is our responsibility to balance the books. We have to use our available resources wisely not just to meet the immediate needs of our residents but to lay the foundations for a better future for Oldhamers.

“We will crack on with our ambitious plans for Oldham, to attract new investment, support local businesses and provide a town centre residents can be proud of. We must encourage and deliver new homes, new education and training opportunities and make services easier to access in our communities, online and by working closely with our partners.

“It is a difficult balance, meeting the immediate needs of residents while also planning for the future. It means we need to make bold decisions.

“In this economic climate, there are difficult choices to make, so today, we are sharing our budget proposals here with residents for their input.  

“Some proposals mean some roles and positions within the council will change or go away. We will look at our management structures and try to find efficiencies in our operations while limiting the impact on front line services as much as possible.

“Together, we have to decide how we balance the books, meet the needs and wishes of Oldham residents and work together to build a better future.”

The council is inviting the public to have their say on the budgeting decisions.

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