No winners – only losers as Whitehall punishes Stoke-on-Trent

If you were harbouring any ambitions to go into local politics, then BBC4’s excellent documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank should have disabused you of the notion.
It’s one thing to be an MP, working much of the time in Westminster and somewhat shielded from your constituents by the fact that a) you are just one of 652 decision-makers and b) you may well be in opposition so can blame controversial decisions on those in power.
But when you dip your toe into the murky waters of town hall politics, the fact is there’s every chance you’ll have it bitten off if those who can be bothered to vote don’t like what’s happened in the previous 12 months.
Thursday’s programme, the first of three focusing on Stoke-on-Trent City Council, cleverly combined a behind-the-scenes look at the powers-that-be with some incredibly emotive footage of real people affected by unprecedented public-sector cuts.
It was the kind of documentary which reminds us that the BBC still does solid, fly-on-the-wall journalism. The only shame is that it was broadcast on BBC4.
The fact that the first episode was set in 2010 and early 2011 made it an even more gripping watch because we knew what was coming. It was akin to seeing a car crash in slow-motion and being unable to tear your eyes away.
I can’t think of another occasion where, in the space of 60 minutes, I’ve felt sympathy for so many people from different walks of life – from dementia sufferers and young mums to the rabbits in the headlights that were the elected members of the city council facing multi-million cutbacks early last year.
Sadly, at times the programme didn’t portray the city’s leaders in a great light.
The way in which the dementia sufferers at the Heathside House elderly care home, and their families, were treated by the city council was shabby, to say the least.
It felt very much as though they were an after-thought.
Even the whistle-stop visit to the place by council leader Mohammed Pervez – on the day politicians voted to shut it down – felt like a token gesture.
One can certainly argue that operating such care homes isn’t cost-effective and that the services they provide don’t fit with the council’s future care strategy. The problem is that we saw the human face of Heathside House, which made one question why anyone would ever want to fix something which clearly wasn’t broken.
What we saw was very frail and vulnerable people being looked after with great compassion and devotion by staff who had come to regard them as family.
What we saw were relatives driven to despair by the local authority’s callous disregard for ordinary people’s lives.
It left me thinking that surely the inevitable closure could have been handled better, perhaps phased over time, with more sensitivity and delivered with a more humane approach.
Perhaps the fact that the residents of Heathside House didn’t have a vocal campaign group collecting thousands of signatures and making life uncomfortable for the city council’s leadership was what did for the home in the end.
In sharp contrast, the mums who mobilised themselves to save seven of the city’s 16 children’s centres made themselves quite simply impossible to ignore.
With elections looming, it looked very much like the closure of the children’s centres was a bridge too far for some politicians.
Mr Pervez said the about-turn was because of a ‘moral duty’ to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities.
This, of course, begged the question why Heathside House was even considered for closure. Clearly, moral duty was on annual leave the day that decision was taken.
The truth is that in an ideal world, none of the council-run facilities would have been shut down and nobody would have been made redundant.
However, the maths simply didn’t add up and Mr Pervez and his colleagues faced some very unpalatable decisions.
That the children’s centres were spared offers one glimmer of hope because they are exactly the kind of invaluable learning resources that people with young families need in a city with desperately low levels of academic achievement and an aspirational vacuum.
These centres may help some families to escape the poverty trap that many now find themselves in.
They may also help other families to recognise that there is a cost to society when you have excessive numbers of children – something the couple in Meir with seven kids seemed oblivious to.
Set against the backdrop of a budget settlement which necessitated cuts totalling £36 million, Thursday’s programme underlined one thing: there were no winners round here – only victims and messengers to be shot.
Meanwhile, the real tragedy is that just over 130 miles away in Westminster where Stoke-on-Trent’s measly and unfair budget settlement was decided, none of this even registers.
Part two of The Day The Town Hall Shrank airs on BBC4 tonight at 9pm.

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