Council Leader: New Year Interview

January 2, 2008 12:00 AM

Rochdale Council Leader Councillor Alan Taylor talks to Rochdale Online reporter Jan Harwood about council housing, alternate weekly bin collections, Rochdale's people's champion, boroughwide housing, the prospects for Heywood and Middleton in 2008, the Council's New Years' resolution and reacts to Labour accusations that the Rochdale Liberal Democrats are in turmoil.

Before the interview began Councillor Taylor wanted to clarify one of his answers in his previous interview with Rochdale Online, which made out that trams could run on existing train track between Heywood and Castleton. This should have read that tram/trains could run on the existing track. "They are not trams," said the Council leader. "They are new tram/trains, which can run on train track as far as, say, Manchester Victoria but can then go on the streets like trams can. They are already being used in parts of Greater Manchester and I wanted to highlight that they could be used on the existing track in Heywood."

This year Rochdale will build its first council housing for a decade, why is that so important?

One of the big problems in the borough is access to Council housing. With the right to buy legislation introduced 20 years ago we are now down to 15,000 council houses from 20,000, making it difficult for people who need council housing. Choice Based Lettings is the current system used by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to assign council houses but this is not working as there are not enough houses available to give people a choice. Buying council houses is not the best solution for everyone, some people prefer to rent.

Housing Market Renewal are busy trying to bring new people and new money into areas to improve the area but providing houses that cost a quarter of a million pounds to buy is not really helping people in need. Building the new bungalows on Croft Street is a first step but we do hope to build many more and to take advantage of any new initiatives the government may introduce.

What does 2008 hold for alternate weekly bin collections?

By the end of this month they will be rolled out in the rest of the Rochdale township area. Each successive roll out in different areas has been more successful and comes more trouble free than previous ones. The council is learning by any mistakes it makes. The final rollout will be in Middleton in the summer.

We will get to the stage were we provide a service suited to the individual household. A one person household is different to a five person household, it is different if a person is housebound or able-bodied and our bin service will provide for that.

What progress has been made with the post of people's champion and what can we expect from the position in 2008?

The people's champion is now in place. She joined the council in September. The first issue to look at was to see how the different departments dealt with complaints because it seemed that each system just evolved over the years. Most departments have their own method for dealing with complaints so people would have to start again with each department they were dealing with. The departments have been pulled together so that there is a set complaints procedure. People will have more confidence in the way their complaint is being treated.

We are now at a stage where this new service will be available to all people in the borough. It has taken longer than I had hoped but then we are creating something completely new, which is similar to a Rochdale council ombudsman without all the difficulties that people encounter when going to see a local government ombudsman.

We want people to feel that if they have a complaint they are being listened to and if there is substance to their complaint the way the council works will be changed because of that complaint. Using the people's champion would, ofcourse, be a last resort because I would expect people to have made their complaint to the relevant council department first and only then would this new department step in if necessary.

Unfortunately we only have the power to deal with complaints about Rochdale council. We can not deal with complaints about utility servicesor government departments but perhaps when people see our success here it might be picked up on a national level.

How did you respond to news that Rochdale Boroughwide Housing's structures for tenant involvement have been claimed to be poor by independent experts and what can be done to resolve the issue?

Boroughwide housing is an arms length organisation and I am sure that they are satisfied with their tenant participation. I do not recognise any of the criticisms. I think Boroughwide Housing are doing a good job and they certainly have my confidence.

In a nutshell what have the people of Heywood and Middleton got to look forward to in 2008?

Middleton are well ahead of the rest of the borough in redeveloping their town centre. By the end of the year a lot of progress will have been made on the Middleton Arena. Like the rest of the borough they will have new look libraries and I expect that the increased importance in our children's education will continue throughout the year.

Heywood is in the beginning of a new town centre development and they will be getting the Heywood Sports Village.

Both townships will have a doubling of funding that they can spend on things they want to spend it on rather than what the borough council decides. We have had a year of devolution to the townships and we are still learning as we go on. This is only the beginning but I do believe that local people know what is best for local areas and that applies across the borough.

Should the Council have any New Year's resolutions?

As far as the Council is concerned I keep saying it is an exciting time and it is. I hope that we can do things quicker and that people do think that we are listening to their aspirations because before I came back on the council only three years ago I did not feel that Rochdale council was listening.

Labour this week accused the Rochdale Liberal Democrats of being in turmoil. How would you respond to those claims?

Local Liberal Democrat politicians are quite often accused of spin but everyone should remember that New Labour developed political spin into an artform; if you are in a mess claim that your opponents are in a mess. The Liberal Democrats are supposed to be in turmoil when we all know that the three factions in the local Labour Party have difficulty in communicating with each other. The meetings of Labour councillors are badly attended. The Rochdale constituency Labour party were suspended over allegations about the conduct of selecting a parliamentary candidate. Members were expelled and suspended and that ill feeling is still there.

It is not only the Labour party. The Conservative leader recently announced a bad week for the Liberal Democrats. That was because we only had a 21% swing and failed by 36 votes, coming from third place, to take one of the safest Labour seats in Rochdale [in Middleton North, following the recent by-election]. If you were to extend those figures we would have 54 Liberal Democrat councillors, six Labour and no Conservatives, so the Conservative leader must have nightmares about what he considers a good week for the Liberal Democrats.

I want people to be reminded of these because I still believe that the Liberal Democrats are united. These are exciting times in Rochdale and we are changing the way the council is seen by the public. We do not need to spin like the other two parties because everything is going well and if you look at other areas of the country where Liberal Democrats control councils they keep control because people see the difference between us and the two old parties.