By Charlotte Green Local Democracy Reporter
A controversial decision by Oldham Council’s Labour group to abolish local democratic committees was branded ‘underhanded’ during a furious political row at annual council.
A majority of councillors voted to disestablish the seven district executives at a heated meeting, including the Royton and Shaw and Crompton District Executives.
The changes mean district areas will have to bid for cash, together with the loss of public question time and an official forum for residents’ voices.
For a decade the district executives decided how to spend money locally and were responsible for £20,000 of funding per ward a year.
But as part of the new plan they will lose individual budgets, in favour of bidding for a £500,000 central pot of cash.
The Liberal Democrat group moved amendments which argued in favour of keeping the district executives or creating district leads which retained the ward budgets.
Cllr Diane Williamson, shadow cabinet member for communities, told the chamber the proposal was ‘underhanded’.
“We all know the reason district executives are being abolished is that some are not spending all their money and others cannot control those who attend,” she said.
“The only people to benefit from this result is the administration by choking any growth in community groups and transparency. Shame on you.”
The executives used their funding to support communities, such as switch-on events, homewatch schemes, and planting flowerbeds, she added.
Lib Dem Chris Gloster, Shadow cabinet member for finance, told the meeting it was ‘poppycock’ to state they had been aware the executives could be scrapped.
But council leader Cllr Sean Fielding said the changes came as part of a review he had announced when elected last May.
He said the budgets held by district executives had often been too large to be spent, but also not enough to progress with bigger projects.
And there was a ‘significant’ amount of unspent revenue, totalling £733,000 and a similar amount of unspent capital, totalling £752,000.
“At a time when council budgets for the statutory services are under pressure, this level of underspend is unforgivable,” Cllr Fielding said.
“That is why the proposal is to remove the budgets held by district committees and claw back the underspend to support the council’s financial position.”
The move is designed to deliver £70,000 worth of savings from the town hall’s budget.
To access the new £500,000 local improvement fund, new district leads have to make an expression of interest and a formal bid with the support of a majority of councillors in that district.
But the decision about what schemes can proceed would be taken by a cabinet subcommittee, manned by Cllr Fielding and cabinet members Cllr Ateeque Ur Rehman and Cllr Abdul Jabbar.
But Cllr Howard Sykes, Leader of the Opposition and Liberal Democrat Group on Oldham Council, hit out at the plans.
He said: “The Liberal Democrats have a strong commitment to devolving power and money to local councillors and people so they can work together to address the local needs and priorities.
“District Executives were the public and accountable mechanism through which we did this.
“Instead Labour has proposed that each of the sixty councillors receives £6,000 instead of £5,000 to spend on local priorities and that a one-off £500,000 Local Improvement Fund be created into which Districts can bid for.
“Put bluntly, this means Labour will abolish local control and take a net £340,000 every year away from local communities.
“I am not opposed to the council taking back money from District Executives that remains unallocated or unspent. But this proposal seems grossly unfair to district executives which are making proper use of the money allocated.”