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

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.