Oldham MPs call on Minister for 'Levelling Up' to deliver on tackling inequalities
During the Conservative Party Conference in Greater Manchester last week, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities referred to Oldham and “levelling up” in his speech.
I, along with Jim McMahon MP and Angela Rayner MP, have written to the Secretary Michael Gove MP to remind him of the innumerable occasions Oldham’s MPs have raised structural inequalities that persist in Oldham and to ask how his department will tackle these inequalities, ensuring that we are consulted throughout the process.
You can read our letter in full below:
We are writing to you in response to your recent speech at the Conservative Party Conference and in particular your comments regarding Oldham and ‘levelling up’.
As the Members of Parliament covering the Oldham borough, we welcome the Conservative Government’s recent interest in Oldham and, in particular, the structural inequalities that have plagued our borough over many years, but especially since 2010.
Over the past 11 years we have been consistently raising inequality issues with you and your ministerial colleagues. For us, levelling up is not just about tackling geographical inequalities, but socio-economic inequalities, and the inequalities that face groups with protected characteristics as well. For us, levelling up is about ensuring that public policy, especially at a national level, considers the impacts of these inequalities as they’re being developed and especially before they are implemented. For us, levelling up is woven into all policies, and is not a casual add-on to various pet projects.
We have raised the following specific issues with you and your colleagues in letters, questions and debates:
Life expectancy in Oldham
Between 2001 and 2010 life expectancy for men in Oldham increased from 73.7 years to 77 years; for Oldham women it increased from 78.6 years to 81 years.
Since the Conservatives have been in power, life expectancy for Oldham women has decreased to 80.5 years, and life expectancy for men has barely changed at 77.17 years.
This is not unique to Oldham as Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s review into health equity, ten years after his first report has shown. But it is clear that consecutive Conservative policies have failed to address this most heinous inequality – the difference in how long we’re going to live and live in good health.
As you know, our life expectancy is largely a product of our socio-economic circumstances and the risks and hazards we’re exposed to over our lifetime. As Sir Michael made clear in his analysis on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, and the ‘high and unequal death toll’, the excess deaths from Covid we have seen in Oldham and similar communities, is down to the structural inequalities across our country and austerity.
The life expectancy of Oldhamers will only increase if their socio-economic circumstances improve and living standards increase.
Education and skills in Oldham
On coming to power in 2010, the Coalition Government decided to scrap the Building Schools for the Future Programme. Although Oldham Council worked hard to attract funding for new schools, it remains the case that too many young people do not have access to Good or Outstanding schools, and that millions has been wasted on failed Free School and University Technical College which have ruined the education of young people and took vital resources from existing schools. Even today funding which would have rebuilt Hathershaw School and Royton and Crompton School has failed to be replaced.
The Education Commission that Jim McMahon established in 2014 as Leader of Oldham Council identified the extent of the education and skills challenges that our children and young people face. Despite this, there has been limited progress. There are disparities in educational attainment with our children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities being particularly let down, as are white boys.
As you will be aware, in 2017, Oldham was identified as one of twelve opportunity areas in England by the Government to raise education standards in the borough. The goal in Oldham was to ensure children and young people to get the opportunities and support they need and deserve.
Considerable work has been implemented to address this. However, Oldham is one area of the country where the effects of Covid-19 has made a significant negative impact, contrasting with other areas where there has been less impact.
During a Zoom call with headteachers from our primary, secondary and college sectors, we heard about the issues they were facing as a result of Covid, including high numbers of teaching days lost as a result of additional local Covid restrictions and concerns regarding the Government’s catch-up package.
Headteachers in the borough wanted consideration to be given to the extra resources needed to raise educational standards in order to narrow the learning gap between Oldham and those areas where there has been less disruption to learning, in recognition of the impact that this many have on our young people’s life chances.
Despite this, in April, our colleague, Kate Green revealed that the Government was failing to fully fund Oldham schools the pupil premium for those pupils who had become eligible for free school meals as a result of the pandemic. Over a thousand Oldham children missed out on this extra support worth £1,249,575.
As Sir Michael’s Covid review revealed, pre-existing poverty and inequality including the digital divide many households have experienced, has widened the learning gap still further. Although this is difficult to measure, there are a significant number of families without digital access despite the allocation of a number of devices in the borough. Headteachers would like to address the unfairness encountered in the borough to ensure that Oldham children are not disadvantaged in the long-term.
We wrote to the Chancellor calling for a differentiated response to support education in those areas which have been most adversely affected by Covid-19, to enable the levelling up the Government has committed to. This was not delivered in the then Education Secretary’s belated response.
We all do regular school visits and know how talented our children are, and the teachers that support them. They deserve better from this Government.
Oldham’s local economy
Oldham is a predominantly low skill, low paid economy. Oldham’s economy was historically built upon manufacturing, chiefly within textiles and mechanical engineering. Like many other former industrial towns across the UK, Oldham’s economy experienced large scale deindustrialisation and as a result has undergone significant economic restructuring.
Oldham’s business base is primarily made up of small- or medium-size enterprises, and over time has become more reliant on public sector employment, particularly within the Local Authority and NHS which together provide more than 20% of jobs in the district.
Oldham’s economy still remains dependent upon relatively low-skilled, low-wage, insecure work. Over the last decade, new jobs have been created, but the majority of these have been in service or health occupations.
We share your ambition for a high skill, high pay economy. But the Conservatives have been in power since 2010. How many more years will it take for this to happen given consecutive Conservative administrations have failed to act on socio-economic inequalities over so many years?
In the meantime, while Oldhamers try to upskill and get better paid jobs, how are the 11,000 currently in low paid work reliant on Universal Credit able to avoid debt, rent arrears and worse as on 6th October the Government reduce this by £20 a week, the biggest overnight cut in social security support ever, according to the Resolution Foundation? How will the 22,500 children in these families reach their potential if they’re hungry?
You met with Debbie Abrahams recently to discuss late payments to small businesses where 45% of UK workers are employed. Late payments are one of the major issues for small businesses and currently stand at £50bn. Why have you not implemented Debbie’s Project Bank Account Bill to protect small businesses not only from late payments but also bankruptcy should Tier 1 suppliers collapse, as we saw with Carillion? Ironically, Debbie’s late payment campaign started because an Oldham haulier was going out of business because of these late payments!
During Covid we were overwhelmed with contacts from our self-employed businesses, many of whom received no support whatsoever. Why was the Chancellor so intransigent on this issue leaving hundreds of Oldham’s self-employed and 3 million across the country, without any support whatsoever?
Housing in Oldham
As with local school funding, it was one of the first acts of the 2010 Government to cut the Housing Market Renewal project which left streets of derelict homes and ruined sites, some of which took a decade to bring to the market after that decision was made. Derker in St James was just one area that was badly affected by this.
Reflecting on the low-income issues in Oldham, despite housing costs being lower than the England average, a recent survey from our main social housing provider showed that 19% of Oldhamers can’t afford a social rent.
There are also 6,000 on the waiting list for housing, including people who have been forced into sofa surfing, living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary housing. Again, how do the children in these families reach their potential with nowhere to study or having to share a bed?
The cuts to Brownfield remediation must be reversed to allow industrial sites, of which we have many, to be properly decontaminated and for social housing development, including family homes, to be a viable option for the development of these sites.
On top of this, the failure of the Government to tackle the standard of housing in the private rented sector is a disgrace. Put bluntly there are far too many low-quality terrace homes which serve as little more than a cash cow for private landlords who do not value or invest in the properties. Because of the saturation in places coupled with high tenancy turnover too much of Oldham is in constant churn, blighted and taxpayers out of pocket as a result.
We have numerous examples of poor housing conditions in the private rented sector (which so many people have to rely on given the social housing shortage) which are run by exploitative landlords and are yet another health hazard for families forced to live in appalling conditions. The Selective Landlord Licensing Scheme has helped, but the delays in rolling out as Oldham Council provides the necessary evidence to seek your Government’s permission, is frankly unacceptable. We urge you to get a grip of this.
Transport in Oldham
Other cost pressures for Oldham people include transport costs as well as poor connectivity, inaccessibility and a failure to join up public transport modes into a modern, integrated system. It is clear that the current bus system does not work for passengers and has done very little to increase the use of public transport.
Many of our residents have told us fares are too high (in particular single tickets), routes don’t meet their needs and on too many occasions buses are late or do not turn up without any explanation as to why. This is leading to real world consequences, making people late for work, school, doctor and hospital appointments. It’s simply not good enough and our constituents deserve better. It’s time we put them first, something that has been lacking under the current de-regulated system. The inequality that the current unfair system is driving, is unacceptable.
We are contacted regularly by constituents concerned about their services being cut back. Under the current system there is a lack of accountability as services are cut and local leaders are able to do very little to halt these changes. This will only encourage more journeys by car, for those that can afford to, and cause real hardship for those who can’t.
We welcome the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s reform on bus franchising option. A de-regulated system introduced under another Conservative administrations, has not created competition instead it has allowed private monopolies to be created with 3 or 4 companies retaining the largest number of operations across Greater Manchester. We also share his ambition for cheaper, cleaner transport across the conurbation – it can’t be right that a single bus fare is £1.50 in London but £4.40 across Greater Manchester, including areas of multiple deprivation.
We are concerned about Government funding cuts to schemes aimed at introducing London style smart ticketing across buses, trams and trains in the North and the impact this will have on our local economy and infrastructure.
We urge you to support the Mayor’s Levelling Up Deal which is a serious, positive offer to Government to deliver a London-style transport network with affordable London-level fares, accelerating Greater Manchester’s plans for a net zero future with better, greener homes and communities: and better jobs and skills.
Rail fares have increased exponentially since 2010. Regulated rail fares are up by an average of 43% since 2010 and if the Government continues to use RPI plus 1% as its basis for ticket price increases average fares will rise to 50.35% more than they were in 2010.
Our constituents were hit by the September 2014 decision by the Department for Transport to introduce a new evening peak period in metropolitan areas on the Northern franchise, including Greater Manchester, which raised the cost of travel by up to 162%.
The electrification plans for transpennine routes are being announced piecemeal and don’t include key stations like Greenfield, which will also delay increasing the accessibility of the station. Currently, only one platform is accessible to people with mobility issues or families with children. We need full electrification on the line, it will bring environmental benefits, taking polluting diesel vehicles off the tracks. Electrification will also improve punctuality and reliability for passengers as well as making stations accessible for all.
Our communities want action, not just warm words and re-announcements from a Government that dithers and delays. We need the integrated rail plan to be published now and it must involve a rolling programme of electrification, including for Greenfield, not delivering in dribs and drabs, which ends up costing the British taxpayer more.
Oldham Council has had to make savings of more than £200m from their Budget over the last 10 years, halving its budget. Over the next two financial years, it is looking at having to cut another £30m in further budget savings. A decade of austerity has seen Oldham Councillors placed in the unenviable position of cutting or reducing local services as a direct result of Government cuts to local authority funding.
And yet when independent analysis from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Centre for Cities reveals that it is metropolitan councils like Oldham that experienced the biggest funding gaps. Recent analysis of these cuts also suggests a link to the declining life expectancy of areas like Oldham.
Local authorities stepped up in response to the Covid pandemic, administering the local response including support grants, isolation payment schemes, financial support to local people and businesses, local Test and Trace, management of covid-19 outbreaks as well as continuing to deliver essential services and meet their statutory duties. However, they have been chronically underfunded and undervalued by central Government.
We went into the coronavirus crisis as one of the most unequal countries in Europe, and the pandemic has only made that worse. The Levelling Up Fund’s piecemeal funding does not make up for failure over the past decade, which has seen services decimated as £15 billion of cuts have been made to local government.
The Government must not repeat the mistakes of last year by largely predicating any increase in local authority budgets on an assumption of a rise in council tax and the social care precept. This tax is highly inappropriate in the current circumstances as our residents face significant cost of living increases, including fuel, energy and food prices as well as the NICs increase which will fail to fix the crisis in social care but will hit lower income workers hardest.
Northern local authorities have faced disproportionate Government funding cuts over the last 10 years and if you are serious about levelling up, you must rectify this.
You rightly highlight that community tensions remain a constant source of strain across our borough. Too often it feels like the learning from the 2001 riots has been forgotten. We believe our borough is richer from our diversity. But some seek to divide us. They point their fingers and spread rumours that generates anger, fear and hate. Social media provides no censure. There is overwhelming evidence that the inequality that your Government has exacerbated also creates a lack of trust between communities. Simply observing the obstacles that we face without recognising the Government’s culpability or offering support to put right is a dereliction of your responsibility. What is taking place could have serious implications for us all. We want to work with all partners, and we will show the leadership required, but you need to step up.
Crime and justice
Cuts to policing has taken a serious toll on the town. Today there is not a single custody cell operational in our borough of 228,000 people. The last decade has seen countless police stations and police counters close completely including in Failsworth, Chadderton, Royton, Hollinwood and Uppermill. The decision to then close both the County Court and consign the Magistrates Court to demolition leaves hardworking people feel as though justice has left the town. We urgently need resources above and beyond the current settlement to reinstate local custody cells and bring back a court so that justice can be delivered and seen in the borough.
These are just some examples of the structural inequalities that have plagued our borough over many years, but especially since 2010. You may wish to review Sir Michael’s recent analysis of the inequalities across Greater Manchester compared with England, and the report from the Independent Greater Manchester Inequalities Commission.
As we await the Budget, we look forward to hearing from you on how your Department will tackle not just geographical inequalities, but socio-economic inequalities, and the inequalities that face groups with protected characteristics. We also would like to hear from you on how you will ensure that public policy at a national level, considers the impacts of these inequalities as they’re being developed and most certainly before they are implemented.
This letter will be put in the public domain.
Debbie Abrahams MP Jim McMahon MP Angela Rayner MP
Oldham East & Saddleworth Oldham West & Royton Ashton-u-Lyne