Why all this ‘woe is us’ when the glass is actually half full?

Bethesda Chapel in Hanley.

Bethesda Chapel in Hanley.

If I had a quid for every time someone had written Stoke-on-Trent off, put us down, belittled us, taken the mickey out of us or moaned about our lot during my time at The Sentinel then I’d be a very rich man.

There is one letter writer who starts every missive with ‘It beggars belief’ (honestly) while another uses every possible obtuse angle and off-beat topic as a stick to beat ‘lazy Civic Centre staff’ with.

If you believe the doom-mongers then Whitehall always ignores us, the city council is utterly hopeless and beyond redemption and even our professional, showpiece pantomime is a second class affair.

I’ve come to the conclusion that our default position here in the Potteries is ‘woe is us’.

What’s worse is that we cast around looking for scapegoats while waiting for someone else to ride to the rescue of our economy/local services/The Regent Theatre panto – insert as applicable.

(I am currently picturing one of the Chuckle Brothers or Russ Abbott passing through Hanley on a white horse).

Well, as a journalist for 20 years, I have more right than most to be cynical.

After all, I’ve read and written about the unfairness of central Government funding and the ineptitude of local authorities many times.

As for the aforementioned Christmas show, I grew a beard for it and embarrassed myself in front of 25,000 people and so I know exactly what goes into it.

Today I’m going to set the record straight.

Firstly, there is no cavalry coming over the hill any time soon to create tens of thousands of new jobs to replace those lost in our traditional industries.

By the same token, there is no quick fix to the problem of our sink estates, our poor housing, our obesity problems, our teenage pregnancy rate, our low aspirations or even our propensity to wallow in self-pity.

Basically, to all intents and purposes, we’re on our own and it is therefore time we rolled our sleeves up and started dealing with our own problems.

Gloomy as that sounds, I’m also here to tell you that, despite what others may think, the glass here in North Staffordshire is actually half full.

I believe we stand at a crossroads. We are just a few jigsaw pieces away from the great economic, social and cultural renaissance of our area.

For example, we are only a new bus station, a Bethesda Chapel restoration and a Staffordshire Hoard exhibition away from having a Cultural Quarter worth the name.

I sense a growing momentum for change borne out of decades of frustration and a long-overdue acknowledgement that North Staffordshire has many strengths which are ripe for exploitation.

Yes, occasionally, organisations or individuals must be held to account when they drop a clanger.

But now is definitely not the time to stick the knife in or to be perpetuating this myth that somehow anything and everything that happens in the ST postcode area is either doomed to failure or second rate.

I’m fed up of hearing the negativity and reading about all the things we can’t do.
What about the things we can do?

On Saturday my day spent at the Victoria Hall was filled with pride and optimism in North Staffordshire – or should I say its people?

I watched all ages overcome their nerves and try their very best to reach the finals of this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition.

The sheer joy in the faces of the dancers from The Masque Theatre Company summed up just how inspirational this aspirational event, championed by Jonathan Wilkes, truly is.

After judging Stoke’s Top Talent I headed over to a marquee in the Italian Gardens of the Trentham estate for another equally uplifting occasion.

It was the launch of the Realise Foundation – a new regeneration charity backed by Aspire Housing – which, among other things, aims to give young people the skills they need to find jobs while improving the local environment.

If any charity sums up the ethos required to break the cycle of apathy and to get North Staffordshire off its backside then the Realise Foundation is it.

What’s more, it’s a local charity run by local people.

Its patron? Jonny Wilkes.

Yes, our Jonny: The oft-maligned stage star who has single-handedly rescued The Regent Theatre’s Christmas show in the last five years – yet someone who still cops flak from the lazy and ill-informed who are happy to ignore cold commercial reality and the wishes of the majority of paying theatre-goers.

Oh well, you can’t win ’em all.

My mantra these days is pretty simple: Ignore the vocal minority. Stoke-on-Trent is going places – with or without the whingers.

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Why no inquiry into the wasted £1.5 million?

The Civic Centre in Stoke.

The Civic Centre in Stoke.

Pretend for a moment that you are in charge of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Let’s assume that you are aware of the fact that, as with all local authorities, money is too tight to mention.

Bear in mind that you have already had to get rid of several hundred staff to help balance the books.

So what would you do with an additional £1.5 million?

Would you plough it into improving frontline services? Would you use the money to save jobs?
Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t – it’s all gone.

Gone where?, you might ask.

Well, I’m sorry to say that it has been frittered away on consultants assessing a scheme that will now never happen.

I know. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

New city council Chief Executive John van de Laarschot has stunned elected members by telling them that a plan to privatise up to 800 council jobs now “isn’t deliverable”.

As a result, the council’s cabinet will tomorrow decide whether or not to ditch the £250 million ‘strategic partnership’ scheme.

Two firms had been bidding for the contract to take on hundreds of council staff and become the so-called ‘anchor tenant’ for the proposed business district to the south of Hanley.

But the scheme now looks dead in the water after Mr van de Laarschot told councillors the plan would only save the authority three per cent over the life of the contract – compared with the cost of employing the existing staff.

Now, let’s be clear – public/private partnerships like this are nothing new.

Other councils in the UK have transferred staff to the private sector and still more are planning to go down this cost-cutting route.

Thus I’m not saying that the powers-that-be at the Civic Centre were wrong to consider the move in the first place.

However, I’m staggered that it has taken four years and £1.5 million of public money before someone finally realised it was a rubbish idea.

One could argue that this is simply a case of Mr van de Laarschot coming in with new ideas and doing what many bosses do – stamping his authority and putting the previous regime in a bad light.

I don’t buy that. Surely someone at some point since this process began should have stuck up their hands and said: “I don’t think this is going to work”.

If they had have done they would have saved the long-suffering taxpayers of the Potteries an awful lot of money. Money this city can ill-afford to waste.

Still, at least we’ve kept someone in a job. At least the consultants have done well out of this fiasco.

Yes, the public sector’s antidote to its own ineptitude – those unaccountable, faceless leeches – will have made a pretty penny out of this non-event.

The bottom line is this: £1.5 million (not £10,000 or £100,000 but £1.5 million) has been wasted – along with years of work.

And what do we have to show for it? Absolutely nothing.

In addition, the business district is still pie in the sky and hundreds of council employees with families and mortgages have been messed about and worried unnecessarily.

I’d like to see anyone from the council try to spin this exercise as “value for money”.

Indeed, this is so bad you could argue it warrants another Audit Commission investigation.

Heads should roll, according to councillor Mick Salih.

He’s absolutely right, of course. Just don’t hold your breath, Mick.

‘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.

Harman’s pay-off would be better spent securing jobs

Former city council Interim Manager Chris Harman.

Former city council Interim Manager Chris Harman.

It’s enough to make us weep – or certainly question why we bother getting up every morning, going to work and then paying our taxes.

Last week I likened the events at the Civic Centre to a pantomime.

I apologise. I was wrong.

There is nothing remotely funny about the scandalous way in which Chris Harman’s absence has been handled by the powers-that-be at Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Rarely do those running the largest local authority in our circulation area cover themselves in glory.

But just occasionally, every now and then, something happens which is so very strange, so patently wrong, that it beggars belief.

It is the kind of something which is so unusual that it merits this columnist returning to the same topic.

The fact is, right now there is only one story in town.

A cursory glance at the letters pages of The Sentinel in recent weeks or the comments on our website will tell you what is exercising the residents of the Potteries.

The poor, long-suffering taxpayers of this city are so angry that they’ve run out of adjectives to describe both Mr Harman’s behaviour and the apparent impotence of his colleagues and councillors alike to end this farcical stand-off.

They want to know how it is that a bloke can get away with not showing up for work for weeks on end (even if he does work in the public sector).

They want to know why his period of sick leave coincided with him being told he hadn’t got the job he wanted.

They want to know who has been running the city for the last three weeks.

They want to know why it is that we are even entering into discussions with Mr Harman regarding a pay-off, given that the bloke has a perfectly good job to be getting on with.

In other words: Isn’t it about time he just knuckled down and started doing it?

Mr Harman’s contention that his position at the authority has been made somehow untenable because he was unsuccessful in his bid for the top job is as absurd as it is insulting to our collective intelligence.

Make no bones about it, the only person making his position untenable here is Mr Harman himself as he appears to squirm his way out of his contractual obligations.

There are two scandals being played out here.

The first involves the unwillingness of a man to accept that he didn’t get the rub of the green and move on.

The second, arguably more alarming situation, is the staggering ineptitude of both senior officers and leading councillors who once again seem unable to champion the taxpayers they are supposed to serve.

I have a horrible feeling that we are about to be soft-soaped. Again.

I worry that we are about to be spun a line about how paying Mr Harman off and getting new chief executive John van der Laarschot to take over the reins at the council as quickly as possible was the best outcome for the city.

I have a suggestion. It’s just a thought, mind. How about we don’t pay Mr Harman a bean and, if he wants to quit his job, we point him in the direction of the A500?

Personally, I’d rather we used some of the tens of thousands of pounds it will cost this city to get shot of another high-roller to secure the jobs of a couple of decent, hard-working council employees.

Maybe it could be spent on saving a few of the 430 positions at the city council that are about to be axed through the process of asking for voluntary redundancies.

I’m sure there are many staff employed by the council for whom the threat of losing their job in the current economic climate represents a very dark cloud indeed.

Not everyone is in the fortunate position of being able to bail out when something doesn’t quite go their way.

Mr Harman, and those sitting down to debate his pay-off with public money, would do well to remember that.

Civic Centre panto continues to amaze – oh yes it does…

There’s never been a better time to visit Stoke, proclaimed the headline.

The journalist who wrote it can perhaps be forgiven for missing the -on-Trent off the end of the sentence.

After all, it is not often a national broadsheet devotes a double-page spread to the Potteries.

Granted, it was tucked away in the weekend travel section, but the feature was – nonetheless – a glowing tribute to the fact our city’s proud industrial heritage has become a key weapon in the battle to attract tourists.

Strangely, the Daily Telegraph’s travel hack did not include the Civic Centre on her list of must-see attractions in the Six Towns.

This is surely something of an oversight for, as we hurtle towards the festive season and various theatres begin parading their stars, the longest-running pantomime in the city continues to amaze us all.

Is it any wonder the members of the Governance Commission were left scratching their heads over how to engage with the taxpayers of Stoke-on-Trent?

With about 12,000 staff, Stoke-on-Trent City Council is the biggest employer in the area by a long way.

The vast majority of those staff may well do a decent job, but it is a fact that, in recent years, they have been badly let down by both senior officers and councillors alike.

So much of politics these days is based on perceptions.

And the perception on the streets of this city right now is that there has been no-one in charge at the Civic Centre for some time and that many of our councillors couldn’t be trusted to run a bath.

Chris Harman, the authority’s interim chief executive, has not been seen in work since around the time he discovered he had been pipped for the full-time job by John van de Laarschot on September 30.

Now it may be simply a coincidence that Mr Harman’s absence coincided with the announcement that he hadn’t been successful. He may well be owed annual leave that he’s entitled to take.

And he may have perfectly valid reasons for being out of the office for more than a week.

However, the perception is that he’s thrown his toys out of the pram, because he didn’t get the job.

Certainly, his absence was unexpected – catching both councillors and fellow officers by surprise.

But the thing that will gall taxpayers most is that when our elected members asked the questions: “where’s he gone and who’s in charge?” – no-one would give them straight answers.

One wonders whether or not the fact Mr Harman is currently the top man at the council means no-one felt able to question him.

Can you imagine this scenario playing out in your workplace?

Would your gaffer be happy with you taking time off at such short notice? Enough said.

Aside from this bizarre turn of events we have the strange case of Mike Barnes.

The former city council Labour group leader has resigned from both the group and the party following allegations that he impersonated a journalist.

Mr Barnes appears to be dancing on the head of pin, vehemently denying that he posed as a BBC reporter when he supposedly rang the press office at Cheshire West and Chester Council and made inquiries concerning Steve Robinson, its chief executive.

Mr Robinson, of course, used to be the chief officer at Stoke-on-Trent City Council – and he did not perhaps endear himself to all the elected members in the Potteries.

But why on earth Mr Barnes took it upon himself to make the call at all, and then give press officers a false name, is beyond me.

His actions have tarnished the office of councillor for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Again.

Unsurprisingly, he’s been unavailable for comment while the storm he’s kicked up further damages the reputation of those working hard at the Civic Centre.

Meanwhile, the intriguingly colourful Mr van de Laarschot has declared his intention to turn the authority around in just three years.

That’s a bold claim and, to be honest, I’d be happy if we found a chief executive who hung around for that long.

No offence, John, but the taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent have seen more than their fair share of false dawns and I suspect you’ve got your work cut-out, mate.

Whatever you do, don’t be ringing up Cheshire West and Chester Council and asking for pointers from Mr Robinson.

You know what curiosity did to Labour’s top cat.

Are these six-figure salaries really such a great surprise?

Members of the Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) knew they were on to a sure-fire winner when they circulated details of the salaries paid to top executives at local authorities across the UK.

The information was released in the wake of mounting public anger at the obscene bonuses paid out to bankers who failed so miserably to keep trusted high street names on the straight and narrow.

Thus it was the press release equivalent of throwing a kitten out of a tenth storey window. You just sit back and wait for the howls of outrage.

If we are honest, the gut reaction of most people when they see the sums of money involved is a mixture of shock, anger and jealousy.

When the average annual pay for a full-time worker in the Potteries is around the £22,000 mark, salaries of almost £160,000 per annum seem absurd.

Yet that is what Steve Robinson, former Stoke-on-Trent City Council manager was earning before he jumped ship at the end of last year.

According to the TPA, Mr Robinson was being paid the princely sum of £157,661. Having said that, his replacement – the new permanent chief executive – will earn up to £195,000 a year. Nice work if you can get it.

Indeed, 23 senior officers at councils across North Staffordshire and south Cheshire collected salaries of more than £100,000 last year.

These included RENEW North Staffordshire director Hardial Bhogal on £129,685; regeneration director Tom Macartney on £124,449, and the city council’s former director of community services, Julie Seddon, on £123,220.

According to one national newspaper, salaries of forty, fifty and sixty thousand pounds a year plus are ten-a-penny at local authorities across the country.

Yes, and I saw a pig flying over the Civic Centre last Tuesday evening.

While it may be true to say that a few thousand people working for councils across the UK earn substantially more than the local or national average salary, the fact is the pay of the vast, vast majority of local authority employees is pretty ordinary. Yes, some are able to work flexible hours and they all receive decent pension contributions.

But to suggest that our councils are chock-full of Bentley-driving flash-Harrys with two homes and a yacht moored at Westport Lake is something of an exaggeration.

The fact is, as with most private companies, the pay of local authority employees is dictated by seniority and is commensurate with responsibility.

And, as with all firms in the private sector there will be those who earn their money because they are committed and talented and others who you wouldn’t pay in washers but who have, by some twist of fate, risen to the dizzy heights of senior management and are taking home very good wages for doing… well, not very much.

Look at it this way: If you’re the managing director of a company employing 500 people with a turnover running into several million pounds then you would expect a six-figure salary, a decent pension and your own parking space out front.

Likewise, if you’re the top man or woman at a council employing 10,000 people and are responsible for everything from keeping the parks free of dog poo to helping to maintain standards at local schools, then you should also expect to be handsomely rewarded.

After all, if – God forbid – you have a Baby P-type scandal happen during your watch, then you are there to be shot at.

The difference is, of course, that it’s public money we are talking about. And taxpayers quite rightly want to know their cash is being spent wisely on people who are doing a good job.

Most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such salaries if their council was super-slick, never made a mistake and their bins were always collected courteously and on time.

But show them a busted street light and suddenly something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

So long as they do a decent job, I have no problem with the top executives at local authorities being well-rewarded.

Given the fact that the Potteries has become the political equivalent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in recent years, one could argue that senior officers of this rudderless ship earn every penny.

So you may or may not think Steve Robinson, for example, or his predecessor Dr Ita O’Donovan did a good job during their time in charge at Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Frankly, I’ve no idea. None of these high-rollers seems to hang around long enough for us to judge.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel