A controversial decision by the ruling Labour group to abolish local democratic committees was branded ‘underhanded’ during a furious political row at annual council.
The changes to Oldham’s democratic process will see district areas having to bid for cash, together with the loss of public question time and an official forum for residents’ voices.
A majority of councillors voted to disestablish the seven district executives at a heated meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
For a decade they had been the public committees which decided how to spend money locally, and had been 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 powers held by the executive will be given to individual councillors under the role of ‘district leads’.
They would represent Chadderton, East Oldham, Failsworth and Hollinwood, Royton, Saddleworth and Lees, Shaw and Crompton, and West Oldham.
The Liberal Democrat group moved amendments against the proposal which argued in favour of keeping the district executives, or creating district leads which retained the ward budgets.
Councillor 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.
“We know our areas, we know our residents – you don’t.”
The executives used their funding to support communities, such as switch-on events, homewatch schemes, and planting flowerbeds, she added.
Fellow Lib Dem, Coun Garth Harkness said the decisions on local areas should be made in public and not ‘behind closed doors’.
New Failsworth East independent, Coun Brian Hobin added: “At this point in time when politicians are seen as disenfranchising people from them, why are we taking away an opportunity to involve ourselves more with the local community?”
Shadow cabinet member for finance, Lib Dem Chris Gloster told the meeting it was ‘poppycock’ to state they had been aware that the executives could be scrapped.
But council leader Sean Fielding said the changes came as part of a review he had announced when elected leader 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 £733k and a similar amount of unspent capital, totalling £752k.
“At a time when council budgets for the statutory services are under pressure, this level of underspend is unforgivable,” Coun 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.”
He added there was ‘much frustration’ about the format of district executive meetings which did not deliver ‘meaningful public engagement’.
“It is a step forward for better public engagement in districts, and it is a step forward for empowering and supporting local leaders to be more available to and deliver quickly on the priorities of local residents,” he said.
The move is designed to deliver £70,000 worth of savings from the town hall’s budget.
To access the new £500k local improvement fund, new district leads would 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 ultimately be taken by a cabinet subcommittee, manned by the council leader Sean Fielding, and cabinet members for neighbourhoods; Ateeque Ur Rehman, and finance; Abdul Jabbar.
Councillors’ individual annual budgets, which can be used to support resident and community groups, will be increased from £5,000 to £6,000.