City councillors are on a hiding to nothing thanks to government squeeze

City councillor Anthony Munday.

Last week a friend of mine was elected as a city councillor. Anthony Munday is a lovely bloke and a damn fine journalist who I first had the pleasure of working with some 20 odd years ago.

I was chuffed to bits that a man who has devoted years to improving the area in which he lives had won the by-election for the Baddeley Green, Milton and Norton ward.

Party politics aside, in my opinion Ant is exactly the kind of bloke who ought to seek public office: Straight-talking, honest, reasonable and truly representative of the people in his neck of the woods.

I’m guessing he will make a terrific ward councillor but I honestly don’t envy Ant in his new role.

Someone asked me not so long ago if I would ever consider standing as a candidate in local elections.

‘No’ was the answer because I honestly think I can do more good and influence more change as a journalist working for my home city paper.

If the last few days have taught us anything it is that the current crop of councillors are, sadly, presiding over massive decline – and, in this instance, through no fault of their own.

Hands up who would have wanted to be in council leader Mohammed Pervez’s shoes on Tuesday when £20 million worth of cuts and 150 redundancies were announced?

Whatever anyone thinks of Mr Pervez, his party, or the other councillors of all allegiances, the truth is they are powerless to prevent the Coalition Government’s slash and burn policy towards public services.

The figures are stark and make you realise that Mr Pervez, or whoever is in charge at the Civic Centre next time around, is on a hiding to nothing.

In the past three years, councillors in Stoke-on-Trent have had to cut £77 million from their budgets and we know already they will have to find a further £20 million of savings during 2014/15.

Barring a change of government in Whitehall, by 2017/18 the authority estimates it will have just £35 million to spend on non-statutory services compared with £131 million three years ago.

That is a staggering reduction and even I, someone who has in the past been very critical of the bloated public sector, can see that these cutbacks are too deep and crippling.

Worryingly, the reality is that the real cuts to services here in Stoke-on-Trent have yet to happen and there is clearly a great deal of pain still to come. So we can disagree with how and where the axe falls this time around. We can, for example, argue that increasing parking charges in town centres is bonkers or make a case for keeping certain libraries open etc., etc.

However, ultimately we are simply counting the beans out in a different way – depending on our personal preferences and priorities. Anyone can do that.

The bottom line is that £20 million worth of cuts will still have to be identified next year before a General Election potentially provides any relief locally.

And who is to say that any change of government would make much of a difference?

I’ve said before that what seems to happen is that when the Tories are in power they ignore this city because it is a Labour stronghold and when Labour gets in their leadership ignores us because they know they can rely on the good people of the Potteries to vote with them come what may.

It’s a lose/lose scenario which means that the Six Towns and their unique problems tend to be overlooked by whichever party holds sway in the House of Commons.

If this all sounds desperately grim it’s supposed to.

Of course, everyone’s thoughts at this moment will be with council staff perhaps facing redundancy and those who will be directly affected by proposed changes to services.

But this week I also found myself feeling genuine sympathy towards the elected members in Stoke-on-Trent because they are overseeing an inevitable diminution of the city council’s role and influence.

I would say it’s certainly easier to be in opposition right now rather than having to set the agenda for the decimation of local services.

Some city councillors haven’t helped themselves in recent years, what with the Worldgate scandal, the Cultural Quarter overspend, the untimely sale of the local authority’s stake in the Britannia Stadium, the numerous golden handshakes for highly-paid officers, the Dimensions debacle and so on.

Money has no doubt been wasted in the past and mistakes have certainly been made locally but none of these have resulted in the cutbacks currently being forced upon the city council.

Right now my thoughts are with councillors as they battle through another round of consultation which equates to little more than a damage limitation exercise.

Whether we like it or not the size, power and remit of councils is being altered dramatically and therefore the role of elected members is changing too – perhaps focusing them more on their own wards rather than the fait accompli that is the overall budget settlement.

This being the case, I reckon communities have never needed the likes of Anthony Munday more.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Reversing dwindling attendances is Keith Ryder’s main priority

Sighs of relief all round then after a full meeting of the city council voted to write-off a large chunk of the Vale debt and accept Keith Ryder’s bid and the CVA was secured.

Grateful as I am, in the end I would like to think the decision was something of a no-brainer for officers and councillors alike.

I can’t imagine anyone was seriously advocating liquidating the business which is the heart-beat of Burslem.

By the same token, going back to the bids process because two men and a dog were picking holes in Keith Ryder’s offer (which had previously been agreed by the council’s cabinet) was presumably not tempting neither.

All in all, I think the local authority is worthy of praise as it has managed to walk that fine line between balancing what is best for the public purse and the long-term future of Port Vale.

Having met Mr Ryder privately for the first time this week I have to say I was impressed with both his candour and his willingness to listen.

There is more to this unassuming businessman than meets the eye and I am starting to feel quietly optimistic that he has the will, the expertise and the financial clout to turn things around at Vale Park.

What is clear is that Keith Ryder understands what has gone on in recent years and his priority is, quite rightly, to get more bums on seats in our 20,000-seater stadium by restoring some pride in the club.

We have to face facts: Port Vale has lost a significant number of fans in recent years due to a) the quality of the product and b) the conduct of previous boards of directors which has led to supporter unrest.

It is this loss of customers which is the single most important issue facing our club at present.
Forget which players stay and go this summer. Leave that to the manager.

We should be discussing the fact that we have a club which, despite being in deep financial crisis, is only managing to attract crowds of 4,000 for home fixtures – even after the despised previous board has left the building.

That tells me we have a hardcore of around 3,800 fans who will be at Vale Park come hell or high water and that is a figure which we must look to increase dramatically in the near future to make the club sustainable.

It is high time that we all united behind the preferred bidder and started pulling in the same direction.

That includes Mo Chaudry whose comments of late have been unhelpful and, I would suggest, more about saving face than saving the Vale.

If you want to invest, Mo, then I am sure Mr Ryder will be keen to listen to your proposals.

But now really is the time to put up or shut up.

Gagging councillors? You’ve got to be joking…

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the story tucked away on page 19 of today’s editions of The Sentinel.
It seems the city council has done a u-turn and ditched plans for a so-called ‘media protocol’ which would have limited elected members as to what they could say to the media.
The gagging policy – because, dress it up however you like, that’s what it was – was aimed at preventing councillors speaking independently to the likes of The Sentinel and BBC Radio Stoke.
Laughably, details of this nonsensical document were leaked to the newspaper for which I work from the colander that is the Civic Centre.
Clearly many councillors were unhappy with the idea and so they should be.
This kind of draconian measure, drawn up by someone who believes it is possible to have 44 elected members ‘speaking with one voice’ and never criticising the local authority, is an embarrassing attempt to somehow dictate what the media can and cannot report on.
Let me say this to whoever came up with this bright idea: It’s never going to happen and you need to do your homework.
The fact is, despite what certain people may think, the vast majority – around 75 per cent of the stories relating to, for example, the city council – which are published in The Sentinel – are either positive or neutral.
Thus this idea that the council only ever gets negative publicity is just plain wrong.
More to the point, surely it is in the best interests of council taxpayers for elected members to be able to speak their minds.
I’m not surprised the council refused to discuss the reasons for the withdrawal of the ‘media protocol’. Whoever came up with the idea ought to hang his or her head in shame.

Back to the future for city politics

Judging by the city council election results some people in Stoke-on-Trent have obviously got short memories.
Presumably they have forgiven Labour for the excesses of Worldgate and the Cultural Quarter which confirmed Stoke-on-Trent’s status as a political basket case – a city incapable of governing itself.
Yet here we are in 2011 and familiar faces are returning to haunt us.
The old adage that you could put a monkey in a suit and stick a red rosette on it and it would be voted into power in the Potteries still rings true.
To be fair, I’d prefer one party to have overall control rather than have some sort of coalition of convenience where nowt gets done.
The problem is that, without an effective opposition, there is nothing to prevent the self-interest and internal party politics which was the hallmark of previous Labour administrations from returning.
Make no bones about it: This latest election landslide – which leaves Labour with 34 of the 44 seats on the city council – is a reflection of people’s dissatisfaction with the coalition government’s national cuts.
It is also a result of your average Stokie (who can be bothered to vote) reverting to type.
Someone once asked me if I would be prepared to stand for election as a city councillor.
“God no,” I replied. “I can make more of a difference working for The Sentinel.”
Nothing has changed.

The city council has fudged £35 million cuts

I CERTAINLY don’t envy the chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the councillors themselves at present.
Handed the hospital pass of administering £35 million of cutbacks, they all knew they were on to a hiding to nothing.
To be fair, had half a dozen Sentinel readers sat around a table to discuss where the axe should fall, I suspect the headlines would have been little different.
For example, there were some utter no-brainers in the review, such as the closure of that huge white elephant Ceramica.
Common sense has prevailed at last with regard to Burslem’s most iconic building.
The trick now is to find a new use for the beautiful, Grade-II listed Town Hall which has depreciated in value year-on-year since that glass and metal monstrosity was tacked on to the end of it.
Meanwhile, the closure of City Farm in Bucknall was never going to raise too many eyebrows.
By the same token, there will be few tears from taxpayers over the decision to slash £360,000 from the authority’s public relations and communications budget.
The closure of municipal pools in Shelton and Tunstall may have stirred a few dissenting voices but, in truth, both pools are well past their prime and swimmers have other options.
Protecting around-the-clock CCTV coverage in the city also makes sense and so that’s another tick for the powers-that-be.
I also support the decision to continue to fund Stoke Speaks Out, which works with young people to address speech and language problems. However, I do worry that the causes of such issues – such as children being parked in front of the TV all day – need to be addressed at source with a much broader strategy of parental education.
So far so good, but then I start to come over all cynical.
Stanley Head Outdoor Education Centre, Ford Green Hall, the Etruria Industrial Musuem and Northwood Stadium have each been given a six-month reprieve.
The idea is that, by September, a trust comprising local people will have been formed to run each of these venues.
Is that a pig I see flying over the Civic Centre?
If I was being charitable I could say that councillors were giving these facilities a chance and perhaps embracing our PM’s Big Society idea. But the truth is that it is highly unlikely that groups of people with the time, expertise and enthusiasm to take on these centres will be found in six months. Both Ford Green Hall and the Etruria Industrial Museum are wonderful pieces of the city’s heritage and deserve to be saved.
The outdoor education centre at Stanley Head has been a vital resource for generations of city children and we will be all the poorer without it. As for Northwood Stadium – it may be an ageing facility, but as I sit down today at the judging of the 37th City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards I wonder at the future of sports provision in our city if we were to lose the old girl.
It seems to me that by giving each of these centres a six-month stay of execution, the politicians have simply postponed the grim announcement.
The same could also be said for the way in which they have treated the thorny problem of the children’s centres threatened with closure.
Council leader Mohammed Pervez said members had listened to the public outcry over the proposed closure of seven of the city’s 16 centres and were not going to close any “at this stage”.
Those three little words should have sent chills down the spines of campaigners who last Thursday were slapping each other on the back thinking their battle was won.
In other words, not only have councillors cut funding for 25 posts which will make the centres less viable, they have cleverly left the door ajar to alter policy once the small matter of that pesky election is out of the way in May.
The decision-makers in this process knew full well that their immediate political future could rest on the public reaction to the cutbacks.
So, call me cynical if you like, but I can’t help but feel that our elected members have rather fudged these cuts – putting off the less palatable decisions until after polling day.
We may think we’ve seen the worst of the cuts but, in truth, this is just the beginning and we shouldn’t be conned into taking the initial announcements at face value.

‘Overpaid, bullet-proof, and they don’t seem to care…’

Go For Broke by MB Games.

Go For Broke by MB Games.

I remember one Christmas receiving a board game called Go For Broke from my parents.
I came across it in a cupboard at my mum’s house the other night.

If you’ve never heard of it, the aim of the game is to lose a million dollars as quickly as possible.

The first person to fritter away this enormous sum of money is declared the winner.

As I recall, methods of wasting your dough included donating to the poor, playing the stock market and visiting the casino.

I have a theory that senior officers and some elected members at the city council wasted their youth on this game.

Although, if memory serves me correctly, ‘giving a £65,000 golden handshake to the council’s chief executive for doing precisely nowt’ was not an option when I played Go For Broke.

Maybe they were playing the advanced version.

You can almost hear the groans from the Civic Centre, can’t you?

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. He’s not still whining on about the Chris Harman pay-out, is he? Change the record, Tideswell.”

Actually, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not.

Because just when I thought the whole outrageous affair couldn’t annoy me any more I read some of the comments to come out of the council’s burgeoning press office and from our elected members as they attempted to spin and defend the indefensible.

So as much as it would perhaps please the likes of council leader Ross Irving and the members of the nine-person human resources committee which approved this deal if myself and many, many Sentinel readers just let it lie, I feel there are a few things still worth saying before this sorry episode is swept under the carpet.

Firstly, I was struck by a quote from an unnamed council spokesman when details of the pay-out were first publicised.

He said: “In leaving now, Chris (Harman) has agreed to waive his notice in his current role, delivering a saving for the council.”

Hmmm. Or he could just have left, seeing as how he was so unhappy, and not taken any money from the taxpayers of Stoke-on-Trent.

Of course, no-one has yet answered the pretty straightforward question as to why Mr Harman was paid anything at all – given that it was him who decided to leave the authority.

According to that clever old political fox Mr Irving, the legal confidentiality (AKA a gagging clause) was necessary to prevent sensitive personal information about Mr Harman being made public.
How very convenient.

Mr Irving told fellow councillors: “The money paid to Mr Harman was nothing more than the entitlement under his contract.”

One wonders just how many Sentinel readers – or city council employees, for that matter – are enjoying the comfort of such marvellous contractual security in this harsh economic climate.

“I have enjoyed my time with Stoke-on-Trent and have made many new friends,” said Mr Harman, by way off signing off.

Yes, well don’t be expecting too many Christmas cards from the Potteries, old fruit.

How refreshing it would have been if Mr Irving et al had said “no” to any suggestion of a pay-out to a bloke who patently doesn’t deserve a bean having “had a cob on”, as we say around here, since he didn’t get the job he wanted.

However, I have long since lost faith in local politicians in positions of any real influence to stand up for taxpayers.

The fact is, no matter what fiascos The Sentinel uncovers, there is an elite tier of ludicrously overpaid senior officers within local government who don’t seem to care about the taxpayer and are bullet-proof – despite their eye-wateringly poor performances.

Indeed, one wonders what these people are being paid for at all when PR disasters like the Dimensions debacle and the sale of the council’s stake in the Britannia Stadium are allowed to happen in the first place.

I actually feel sorry for a few elected members who freely admit that they are better informed by their local newspaper as to what is going on at the Civic Centre than by the senior officers who are supposed to guide them.

Such officers may appear untouchable, but some councillors will hopefully find that voters have long memories and that their handling of Chris Harman’s departure hurts them at the polls.