City council should forget PR gurus: A decent reputation will come by doing a good job.

The city council's headquarters in Stoke.

The city council’s headquarters in Stoke.

Sometimes I despair, I really do. The fact that Stoke-on-Trent City Council felt it necessary to commission a reputational survey in late 2012 speaks volumes about the paranoia gripping the Civic Centre.

Does anyone really believe giving a PR firm run by another local authority ‘darn sarf’ £25,000 to telephone people across the Potteries represents a sensible use of taxpayers’ money?

I’d love to know who’s idea this was. Was it prompted by a senior officer, fresh in post, trying to make his or her mark?

Was it done at the behest of councillors fixating on the odd negative headline?

Or was it suggested by a highly-paid consultant – perhaps one of the Westco brigade (yes, we still pay oodles of cash for that sort of thing).

Is it any wonder that many people have little faith in the authority when it sanctions the frittering away of taxpayers’ cash on nonsense like this?

Let’s examine the ground-breaking findings of this document which is presumably titled: ‘Stating the bleedin’ obvious’.

Yes the survey produced such telling insights as ‘the perception that the council provides good value for money, at 30 per cent, is 26 points below the national average.’

Presumably this score wasn’t helped when respondents were told how much the daft survey was costing.

My favourite paragraph, however, reads: ‘The impact of reading The Sentinel is strong. Residents who have read it are more likely to form a negative judgement of the council. This is likely in part to be the newspaper reinforcing the views of local people.’

Goodness me. Heaven forbid a local newspaper reflects the views of local people. Whatever next.

Conversely, the report found that people reading the council’s own glossy newsletter – Our City – were more likely to view the authority positively. How about that?

So the newsletter which the council pays for and fills with its own propaganda gives a more positive impression of the local authority.

Could that perhaps be because it is hugely biased and not in any way balanced?

I do wonder when the penny will finally drop for senior officers and councillors that they just can’t ‘win ’em all’.

I’ve been a journalist long enough to remember the council’s two-strong press office of the early nineties.

Now the authority has legions of communications staff and – during my 16 years at The Sentinel – has gone through half a dozen PR gurus, each with their own flawed philosophy.

One kept trying to slap injunctions on this newspaper to prevent us from publishing stories the administration at the time didn’t like.

He didn’t last long.

Then, on his arrival, another PR expert famously summoned The Sentinel’s entire senior editorial team to the Civic Centre for a dressing down.

His opening gambit was to tell our previous Editor that his newspaper was way down the pecking order behind Sky TV, ITN and all the national newspapers (because, of course, they’re here a lot).

We all walked out of the meeting and needless to say that bloke didn’t last long either.

About 10 years ago the city council audited The Sentinel over several months and found that around 74 per cent of council-related stories were positive or neutral – thus exploding the myth that this newspaper only peddles bad news.

I dare say very little has changed as we’re not in the business of turning down positive news stories as and when we are presented with them.

Thus the suggestion that the council now aims for a two-to-one ratio of positive to negative stories is nonsense because this is already happening.

The fact is this newspaper will never shy away from challenging local organisations – including the council.

If the authority has a poor reputation I would suggest there are several reasons why this is the case.

Huge PR gaffs in recent years (deciding to let TV cameras in to film the documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank was one) don’t help. Just thinking about the millions of people who watched that makes me cringe.

The camels no-show in Hanley last Christmas was yet another daft, embarrassing failure.

I could go on as there have been many.

Then there’s the trust issue. The Dimensions splash pool saga was hugely damaging to the council’s reputation – irrespective of who was involved.

As is the fact that the ludicrously-named City Sentral shopping complex still doesn’t exist despite all the hype.

You see, it’s no use blaming the developer in this situation. If you nail your colours to a mast then there’s no point trying to disassociate yourself with the ship when it flounders.

I also think that there is a perception that the leadership at the council simply doesn’t listen to ordinary people – adopting instead a ‘we know best’ approach to everything from cost-cutting to promotion of the city.

I would suggest a little humility and the occasional holding up of hands and admitting mistakes would go a long way in terms of establishing trust and credibility.

Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that many people think the council often gets its priorities wrong.

For example, it spent £800,000 on bringing a cycle race (watched by three men and a dog on ITV4) to Stoke-on-Trent.

It is again about to spend a minimum £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show which none of us will ever see – the tangible benefits of which are, to date, zero.
For what it’s worth, here’s my PR advice (and it’s free):

*Stop worrying about things you can’t change and stop sulking over occasional negative headlines or readers’ letters in The Sentinel. People don’t tend to put pen to paper if they’re ‘satisfied’;

*Accept that you’re in the business of cutting services, thanks to central Government, and this inevitably makes the council unpopular. Yes, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is;

*Listen more closely to taxpayers and the things they care about. Show a little empathy when you’re cutting services rather than hiding behind economics;

*Focus on all the positive things which are happening across the city (and there are many) and start valuing the terrific staff you employ;

*Stop seeing the local media as the enemy or something which can be neutered or controlled. It can’t be and won’t be.

You see, it’s not rocket science, this PR lark – despite what highly-paid consultants might try to tell you.

It’s just about knowing how and when to roll with the punches because, frankly, some things aren’t worth going to war over.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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How many council staff should it take to change a light bulb?

Is asking council tenants to change their light bulbs a bright idea?

Is asking council tenants to change their light bulbs a bright idea?

Those who took part in the March on Stoke rally at the weekend against plans to relocate the civic centre to Hanley reckon they know just how the cash-strapped local authority can save itself pots of cash.

In their minds, it’s simple: ‘You can save £24 million by just keeping the council HQ where it is’.

As things stand, however, elected members seem hell-bent on moving council staff to the city centre to become the anchor tenants of the new Central Business District and so the bean-counters are having to look for other ways in which the authority can save a few quid.

For several years now taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent have watched as services have been cut and council-run facilities such as care homes and swimming pools have been closed down.

Now the authority has hit upon a new initiative which it hopes will save around £2 million a year.

It is an idea so staggeringly simple that I’m surprised nobody came up with it years ago – and yet it’s bound to prompt a flood of letters to this newspaper from angry tenants.

The authority wants to reduce the cost of call-outs to council homes by its contractor Kier for all sorts of routine maintenance and small jobs.

These include fixing sticking doors, filling hairline cracks in plaster and even replacing internal light bulbs.

Now, while I agree with Chell Heath Residents’ Association chairman Jim Gibson when he says that elderly and disabled people may require help with some jobs on the list, you’re not telling me that most council tenants are incapable of changing a light bulb, dealing with a stiff door or buying a bit of filler.

Even I, legendarily hopeless as I am at DIY, would be embarrassed to make a phone call to ask for help with such menial tasks.

Granted, if you’re a bit unsteady on your feet, in a wheelchair or too doddery to be climbing on a chair or ladder, then you’ve every right to ask for a helping hand.

But even then surely most people would seek assistance from a relative, friend or neighbour before ringing Kier.

This really is a case of using common sense and some people taking a bit more responsibility for their own homes.

No-one would expect 78-year-old Ethel, from Bentilee, to fix her broken boiler. But, by the same token, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of 30-year-old Daz, from Dresden, to do his bit around the house.

The council is even going so far as to spend £10,000 on an educational DVD which teaches tenants how to unblock sinks and bleed radiators.

Surely no-one can object to being given such advice. Can they? The fact is, you can easily find such information on the internet but some people with access to the web simply can’t be bothered.

I’m all for this money-saving initiative and I’m sure most council taxpayers will be too as it doesn’t have a hugely detrimental impact on people.

This is the council equivalent of the NHS asking you not to turn up at the accident and emergency unit when you need a plaster for a cut on your finger. Or the fire service asking you not to dial 999 when you need a new battery for your smoke alarm.

The very fact that the council has drawn up this list means there has been an element of mollycoddling going on with regard to council tenants that many people who don’t live in a local authority property will find baffling.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

It’s good that local people can be bothered to take a stand

The March on Stoke protesters.

The March on Stoke protesters.

Politically-speaking, Stoke-on-Trent has been a basket case for so long that a good many people have stopped caring about who runs the local council and don’t bother to vote.

That’s if they ever did, of course.

I’m convinced this isn’t just a case of common or garden voter apathy.

I think people are now so battered by town hall scandals and cock-ups – such as the Dimensions debacle – that they view politics locally as broken.

That doesn’t mean they think everyone who works for the city council is rubbish. Far from it.

It simply means that there is a perception that some of the people voted in to represent taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent either aren’t up to the job or have displayed self-interest time and time again.

They can’t understand why the same people – tarred with the brush of failed plans and media exposés – are still involved in local politics.

Taxpayers can’t have been too enamoured either with the bizarre decision to advertise incompetence and a simple lack of humanity via the BBC mockumentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank.

I think we can also add in to the mix a general feeling of ‘it’s pointless voting because Labour will get in anyway’ – never a healthy status quo at any level, irrespective of the party involved.

These are perhaps the reasons that an extremist group like the BNP was able to gain a foothold in recent years.

Once it did, the unpalatable truth is that some of the party’s members proved to be decent ward councillors – irrespective of what people may think of the BNP’s stated policies and aims.

Ultimately, at a local level, I can well understand why a pensioner in Longton or Meir might eschew voting for mainstream parties if someone else came along who seemed only too willing to listen to their problems and make sure his or her bin was emptied and that the street lights were working.

I don’t doubt that Ukip will be eyeing the Potteries as somewhere it can legitimately expect some success at the next elections in 2015.

But, for me, what is more significant as we look to the future is that people who have shown no interest in climbing the greasy pole before are becoming political animals.

It is perhaps this threat which the ruling Labour group would do well to heed in the coming months.

Galvanised, among other things, by the decision to relocate the city council’s Civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley, protesters are turning to the polls in order to effect change.

The Potteries Towns and Villages Group (PTAV), which will become a formalised body later this week, plans to challenge for all 44 seats up for grabs at the local elections in two years’ time.

Founded by members of the action group March On Stoke, its stated aims include: To regenerate the city more equally (rather than just focusing on Hanley); To increase the number of senior council officials with strong ties to the city; And make local government ‘more open and transparent’.

All are laudable objectives which should play well with the electorate.

The fixation of current and previous administrations with the city centre (Hanley to the rest of us) has started to grate on people across the Potteries.

Yes, they will agree, we do need to have a defined city centre – a beating retail heart with cultural gems like the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Regent Theatre, Victoria Hall, Mitchell Youth Arts Centre and Bethesda Chapel.

However, they would argue, this nurturing of Hanley need not be at the expense of Stoke-on-Trent’s other five towns.

Moving towards a situation where more of the local authority’s senior staff are born and bred Stokies, or at least have strong links with the city, is more tricky.

The idea of employing more key people who care about Stoke-on-Trent because they have a stake in it sounds good in principle but I’m not sure how this could be achieved in practice.

Making local government more transparent is an even more difficult objective but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.

Set aside for a moment the tier of bullet-proof senior officers within any local authority, the fact it is very hard to get elected members to admit mistakes or make themselves accountable for their actions.

Although perhaps this is where the members of PTAV, if enough people show interest in standing for the group, may have an advantage.

One of the reasons that local politics, and politics generally, is such a murky business, is that people are constrained by the rosettes they wear – whipped into toeing the party line.

PTAV members, you would hope, are putting their heads above the parapet precisely because they want local people to be represented by others who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

There is no guarantee that this new movement will sustain its momentum or gain enough support over the next two years to make a dent at the ballot box.

However, the fact that they care enough to mount a challenge bodes well for the future of democracy in our city and will, at least, give the mainstream parties locally food for thought.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

I’m proud of the latest piece in Hanley’s jigsaw puzzle

Hanley's new bus station.

Hanley’s new bus station.

In April 2001 Stoke-on-Trent was branded the worst place to live in England and Wales in a survey of hundreds of towns and cities.

The Potteries was placed at the bottom of a quality of life league table covering more than 370 council areas.

This damning judgement was made by researchers from global information solutions consultant Experian who pulled together data for the Sunday Times on subjects ranging from housing, jobs, traffic congestion and schools to crime and even shopping.

Other national newspapers then followed this up – with one tabloid even using a picture of Hanley Bus Station at its most depressing to reinforce the report’s findings.

While there was understandable outrage here in the city over the study’s findings, few could argue with the choice of image used by that one paper to represent our city centre.

The bus station looked like what it was – a grim, decaying, concrete carbuncle blighted by vacant shops.

If nothing else it backed up what most people in these parts had been saying for 20 years about the need for a new bus station.

I wonder what picture the red tops would use to show Stoke-on-Trent in a grim light in 2013?

Presumably one of the many areas of cleared land where the RENEW North Staffordshire Pathfinder project bulldozed scores of terraced homes.

Or perhaps some of the emails that were flirting about when certain people wanted to close Dimensions…

It certainly wouldn’t be our brand spanking new £15 million bus station which officially opened this morning.

I, for one, love this iconic piece of architecture which gives a nod to our heritage through the use of materials used in its construction but is also bold and modern in its design.

It’s the kind of development that makes a welcoming statement to visitors as they arrive in Hanley – irrespective of how far they have travelled.

Like I did when the enormous new Tesco opened up, I Tweeted proudly about the new bus station – having driven past it the other night when it was all lit up.

I was inevitably met with derision from those who simply couldn’t understand what I was getting excited about.

That’s because they aren’t from this neck of the woods.

Anyone who travelled on a PMT or Sammy Turner’s bus during the Eighties and Nineties and either arrived at or left from Hanley Bus Station will tell you they couldn’t wait to get out of there.

It was dark, dirty and graffiti-strewn and only the smell of freshly-baked bloomer loaves from the bakery in the underpass could hide the smell of urine.

The bus station, shopping area (I use that term loosely) and the multi-story car park were well past their use-by date and we could all see it.

Yes the powers-that-be have gone and called it Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Bus Station in their quest to airbrush one of the Six Towns out of history but we locals will all still refer to it as Hanley Bus Station.

Whatever its name, we should be proud that another piece of the jigsaw puzzle has fallen into place.

First Tesco. Now the bus station. If we can: Revamp the Potteries Museum to better showcase the Staffordshire Hoard, our Spitfire and our pots; Finish the restoration of Bethesda Chapel; Find a new use for the old Town Hall and secure that oddly-titled new shopping complex we will genuinely have a city centre worthy of the name.

In the meantime, I’m sure Ambassador Theatre Group – which operates The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall – along with other city centre businesses must be chuffed to bits that a) the bus station work is complete and b) that the new main terminus is hi-tech, clean and safe.

There’s an awful lot of negativity about the city centre at the moment – especially from those campaigning against the council moving its Civic Centre to the new Central Business District.

There are those who feel that Hanley (or the city centre as we’re supposed to start calling it) gets all the cash and all the effort at the expense of Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

While I would agree that more needs to be done to help each of the towns develop its own unique selling point I can also understand what the city council is trying to do up ’Anley.

The ambition is to create a powerful brand and, like it or not, Hanley has been the beating heart of the Potteries for many years.

To that end I’m genuinely thrilled to see the new bus station open and I am now looking forward to the completion of the City Sentral shopping centre.

Even if it is a daft name.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

I understand city council move but Hanley cannot succeed in isolation

As someone who is very passionate about the Mother Town of the Potteries I can well understand the incredulity, the anger and the fear felt by some in the wake of the city council’s decision to transfer its workforce from Stoke to Hanley.

It is impossible to escape the comparison between this move and the bombshell closure of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory in 2005 which ripped the heart out of Burslem.

The decision will rankle even more with taxpayers because it presents us with a back to the future scenario.

Twenty years ago I recall the uproar when the powers-that-be at the council decided to move its employees from Hanley to a new, purpose-built Civic Centre in Stoke.

Now an entirely different administration – and that is an important distinction to make – thinks it is a good idea for the authority’s 2,000 or so staff to go back to Hanley again.

Personally, I think the logic behind the move is sound – and not just because, ultimately, it will save money.

Let’s face it, however much we bang on about the unique nature of our Six Towns every city worth the name has a city centre recognised by shoppers, tourists and businesses alike.

Like it or not, by quirk of history, Hanley has for decades been the beating heart of Stoke-on-Trent – albeit sometimes beating more weakly than we would perhaps have liked.

It has the most shops of any of the towns, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the city’s finest theatre, and other cultural gems such as the Mitchell Arts Centre, Bethesda Chapel and the Town Hall.

Very soon, after decades of delays, it will also have a brand new bus station to go with the enormous Tesco store which has tidied up the bottom end of the town.

Then we have the absurdly-named but undeniably exciting prospect of the new City Sentral shopping complex together with the planned expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre.

There can be no denying that Hanley is ‘on the up’ and this is something we should all be pleased about.

In the past various schemes and visions have faltered at the eleventh hour because of the local authority’s inability to secure a so-called ‘anchor tenant’.

It has failed, for example, to attract a big name retail store or employer that has been prepared commit to investing in an area in order to tempt other businesses to follow suit.

One of the main reasons for this has been that Hanley has been viewed as saturated in terms of its retail offer.

In other words, developers thought there simply weren’t enough people in the city centre to justify further investment and expansion.

Of course, this all changes if the local authority switches its entire workforce to Hanley and becomes the ‘anchor tenant’ for the proposed ‘business district’.

Suddenly, the city centre is a far more attractive proposition for all concerned.

I think that a popular, successful and economically-viable Hanley is a must if Stoke-on-Trent is to drag itself out of the doldrums in these most austere times. But I’m afraid this will require radical and sometimes painful decisions and just a little bit of that horrible phrase: ‘thinking outside the box’.

But what of Stoke, and indeed, the other seemingly-forgotten towns?

The worst-case scenario here is that the city council’s decision to relocate turns Stoke into a ghost town of empty office buildings and condemns businesses who have relied on city council workers for custom to a slow death.

The idea of pulling the Civic Centre building together with the former Spode site and the Kingsway car park and offering that up as a package sound reasonable – so long as the long-term viability and care of the King’s Hall can be assured.

However, we mustn’t forget that this a vision.

It is the small print on the master plan to inject fresh life and impetus into the city centre.

What is needed now is a genuine concerted effort to find a new purpose for those key sites in Stoke.

Perhaps the expansion of the University Quarter (UniQ) development across the A500 and into the town of Stoke proper is the best way of filling the vacuum that will be left by the city council’s relocation.

What is certain is that it will take years for the benefits of a thriving city centre to trickle down to the other five towns.

In the meantime, it is vital the local authority puts as much energy into find unique selling points for Stoke, Burslem, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall as it has done into aiding the city centre in order that Hanley’s poor relations don’t become poorer still.

Stoke-on-Trent desperately needs a successful city centre but, by the same token, it cannot succeed in isolation.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

‘I don’t mind what they pay councillors… if they’re good enough’

There is understandable anger at proposals to give a pay rise to city councillors who are overseeing sweeping cutbacks and hundreds of redundancies.

Indeed, the idea is so barking mad I did half wonder whether or not it had been floated by a quick-thinking Stoke City employee to divert attention away from Tony Pulis escaping a driving ban with the most ludicrous of defences.

Talk about trying to defend the indefensible…

It certainly seems to be plain daft that anyone would advocate increasing the allowances for members during a public sector pay freeze.

The fact the pay rise has been recommended by an independent panel comprising three local taxpayers won’t cut any ice in the Potteries.

If everyone is else is being forced to tighten their belts and other local authorities such as Staffordshire County Council are freezing their expenses, then it seems absurd for city councillors to be treated any differently.

I’m sure, when it meets this week to discuss the proposals, the ruling Labour group will also be mindful of the fact that their basic allowance is already higher than the average paid by 15 other similar councils while their leader’s is substantially more.

The suggestion to increase allowances seems tactless and ill thought-out given the current climate but, to be honest, I’m not that fussed about what city councillors are paid.

Why not? Well, in the grand scheme of things, the budget for members’ allowances is chicken feed.

What concerns me more, and always has done, is the calibre of the individuals who put themselves forward for public office and the guidance they receive when they are elected.

Not so long ago I had a very enlightening chat with a city councillor who told me in no uncertain terms what they (I won’t say he or she) thought was wrong with their colleagues.

Basically, this councillor felt it boiled down to the fact that ordinary people are thrust into positions of power and influence and have no idea how to handle it.

“Out of their depth” and “poorly trained” were the phrases used.

You see, councillors may be wonderful spouses, parents, carers, business people and employees but very few of them will ever have worked in an environment quite like the one down at the Civic Centre in Stoke.

It’s the equivalent of you or I being elected to the board of a multi-national firm and being asked to help shape company policy and decide how multi-million pound budgets are spent.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t know where to start: I sometimes struggle with our Asda shopping list.

What’s more, local government is an environment which is: a) notoriously bureaucratic;

b) unionised to within an inch of its life; and c) one in which certain individuals (senior officers) wield extraordinary power and tend to run rings around everyone else.

I admire anyone who is prepared to jump into the viper’s nest that is local politics – even more so in Stoke-on-Trent which is the local government equivalent of a poisoned chalice.

However, there is a world of difference between wanting to do good work in your community and having the intelligence, the strength of character and the communication skills to mix it with a handful of career politicians and all-powerful council officers.

On the one hand it is wonderful for democracy that ordinary people from all walks of life can enter politics at this level and seek to make a contribution to local life.

But I do wonder how many of these are simply pawns of the party machine or cannon fodder for experienced council officers.

How many times have you heard an elected member give a public speech or listened to them on the radio and winced with embarrassment?

This may seem like a hatchet job but it truly isn’t.

I’d like to see councillors empowered through better training so that we can have faith that they will stand up to the unelected officers who really run the show and have the nous to properly scrutinise decisions.

Indeed, I’d be happy to pay them twice what they get now if I thought they were doing a fantastic job. Wouldn’t we all?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

No-one in their right mind wants to attend council meetings

As a trainee hack you have to do things which aren’t particularly pleasant or exciting. It’s sort of a rite of passage.
Contrary to popular misconception, it’s not all stalking Cheryl Cole when you’re a cub reporter.
In actual fact, it’s more likely to be death knocks, covering the magistrates’ court, attending inquests or – if you’ve really upset the News Editor – you might find yourself sitting in a full council meeting. Otherwise known as purgatory.
You see, nobody in their right mind wants to attend council meetings (except perhaps the odd councillor, that is).
They are often the equivalent of going to watch the Vale. In other words you’ll never get those fruitless hours of your life back again.
Council meetings involve paperwork so tedious they make A-Level mathematics papers look sexy.
Officers asked to speak at these chuckle-fests talk in a language that no-one other than their fellow council employees actually understands.
I think it is a hybrid of the language that coppers speak – using three words when only one is needed and so full of jargon as to render it incomprehensible to other mortals.
Council meetings also veer from the sublime to the ridiculous because officers are often followed by elected members giving their two-penneth.
This is akin to watching your drunken uncle embarrass himself in front of the vicar.
At this juncture I should point out that not all councillors are clueless.
Over the last 20 years I’ve met some fine, erudite elected members who have worked their socks off for the people they represent.
They entered politics not because they were after the expenses but because they genuinely wanted to make a difference to their communities.
Unfortunately, I’ve also met a lot of smarmy career politicians who linger like a bad smell long after their uselessness has been exposed.
Then there are others simply so unsuited to the decision-making role that you wonder how they manage to dress themselves in the morning.
Yes, there is no hiding place in the council chamber and often it cruelly exposes the ineptitude and prejudices of ordinary people given a modicum of power and influence.
Mercifully, this is only usually witnessed by other elected members, council officers and journalists.
Generally speaking, to get Joe Public to attend a council meeting it would have to involve a vote on an issue very important to him or her personally.
You know the sort of thing: Can I open the 12th kebab shop in that row? Will you please stop unnecessarily bulldozing our homes? Etc., Etc.
Thus the decision to switch the start time of all full city council meetings from 2.30pm to 5.30pm in order to persuade more members of the public to attend just doesn’t add up to me.
I reckon you would have to be stupendously bored to be motivated enough to drive to the Civic Centre after getting in from work in order that you can “see democracy in action” as one councillor put it.
To illustrate just how dull and uninteresting such meetings are I will use the example of another local authority which – in a desperate attempt to appear interactive – has taken to ‘live-streaming’ its meetings via the internet.
When I asked how many taxpayers had actually watched these broadcasts I was told: “Counting our I.T. bods? Probably about five.”
Not a scientific study, granted, but you get the picture.
Sadly, apathy rules in this country when it comes to politicians and I’m afraid that goes for national as well as local politics.
You only have to look at the shameful turnout at the polls to see how disengaged with politics the majority of the population are.
One councillor pooh-poohed the idea of trying to attract more members of the public to council meetings by saying people would rather watch paint dry.
He’s got a point – Dulux do some lovely colours these days.
Unfortunately, until we find a way of improving the calibre of the people who stand for public office and popularising the soul-crushingly dull nature of the work they do, I would suggest the public gallery in council meetings is likely to remain sparsely-populated.
In the meantime we will have to leave coverage of these weighty matters to quite possibly the dullest people on the face of the Earth – municipal correspondents at local newspapers.
At least they get paid for sitting through it.