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.

Where is the leader capable of inspiring Stoke-on-Trent?

BNP leader Nick Griffin launches his election manifesto in Stoke-on-Trent.

BNP leader Nick Griffin launches his election manifesto in Stoke-on-Trent.

The more time goes on, the more unlikely it seems the Government will intervene directly in the running of Stoke-on-Trent.

Councillors and MPs alike are doubtless starting to breathe a little easier, but while they may be quietly humming the tune of the Great Escape, I’m starting to wonder whether or not this is actually an opportunity missed.

Let’s face it, the city is a rudderless ship at present – lacking any real direction and buffeted by the winds of fate.

The man who is currently the city’s most senior local politician is Mohammed Pervez, the Deputy Elected Mayor.

Except that he wasn’t actually elected to that role at all. He is simply a ward councillor who finds himself on the bridge of the aforementioned vessel staring bleakly into the fog.

Mr Pervez is also, with all due respect, a relative newcomer to the civic centre and I wonder just how equipped he is to steer us through the treacherous waters we currently find ourselves in.

Around him sits a coalition of convenience – a damned alliance of politicians of different hues which simply allows the local authority to function rather than make any real progress.

Hovering in the background, like the proverbial spectres at the feast, are nine democratically-elected BNP members.

Their party’s national leader, Nick Griffin, describes Stoke-on-Trent as the jewel in his crown. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

From this sea of mediocrity, I’m struggling to see who will rise up to champion Stoke-on-Trent.

The Whitehall-appointed Governance Commission itself stated that: “The evidence presented to us clearly questioned the capacity of the current members to carry out the role of a modern-day councillor.”

Note that the commission was simply referring to the role of a councillor – never mind someone equipped to lead a place that the naked eye can see lags about 20 years behind other comparable cities.

When a depressing 19 per cent of the electorate bothered to turn out to axe the elected mayor system, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Through the 1990s, as a city we lurched like a punch-drunk boxer from one crisis to another (the Cultural Quarter, Worldgate, etc) until the electorate finally said enough was enough and we scrapped the old council leader system in favour of having an elected mayor.

A few years down the line, and it’s Back To The Future time.

Instead of simply voting out two unpopular elected mayors, we’ve gone and killed off the one post that gave the safe-as-houses Labour stronghold that is Stoke-on-Trent the chance to have a national figurehead who wasn’t constrained by party politics.

All this may sound cynical, but, as someone who cares passionately about North Staffordshire, I’d prefer to think of it as me being realistic.

The electorate may be overwhelmingly apathetic when it comes to local politics, but the majority of voters aren’t stupid.

The fact is, the city has been poorly served in recent years by its elected leaders.

By the same token, no current sitting councillor stands out as someone who is going to do what needs to be done – namely, to grab the city by the scruff of its neck, give it some direction and, crucially, restore some public confidence into the much-maligned city council or, indeed, the role of public office locally.

All this makes me wonder if it may not have been better for the city to have been declared the basket case it so obviously is and for the Government to have placed us into special measures.

There is some wonderful work going on to help regenerate the Potteries, but over and above this we desperately need some strong leadership and radical thinking to banish the parochialism that continues to frustrate us at every turn.

It’s all well and good trumpeting the fact that we have “the most improved local council”, but when that improvement is from such a low starting point and we are still miles behind other comparable cities then it’s hardly time to break out the Moet, is it?