New Year’s Honours list makes me think of North Staffordshire’s unsung heroes

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

It’s always nice to read about ordinary local people among those recognised in the New Year’s Honours list alongside the requisite celebrities, sporting stars and captains of industry.

By ordinary I simply mean they don’t get paid a fortune, they’re not in the public eye and they don’t do what they do for power or glory.

This time I was delighted to see that one of The Sentinel’s Our Heroes Awards winners – Maureen Upton, of Meir Heath – earned an OBE for services to the voluntary sector after racking up more than 45 years working for the St John Ambulance.

I was also pleased to see Penkhull historian Richard Talbot had made the cut.

Richard’s MBE is a reward not only for the pivotal role he played in kick-starting Hanley’s Cultural Quarter but also an acknowledgement of his fund-raising for worthy local causes and his work in the community over many years.

The publication of the honours lists always makes me think of other worthy individuals who get precious little recognition.

That being the case, I humbly offer up the names of half a dozen locals who I believe help to enrich our communities and who will continue to do so throughout 2014.

First up I’d like to doff my cap to a couple of blokes who may never have met for all I know but who have a shared passion for film-making.

The first is the superbly-talented Chris Stone who, over the past few years, has produced some sparkling movies – the scenes for many of which were shot in his native North Staffordshire.

If you’ve never seen it, search out his vampire web series Blood And Bone China which has been viewed by more than 300,000 people online.

Or if you pop in to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to view the new Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, he’s the man behind the epic movie The Last Dragonhunter which is playing in the background and includes eye-popping animation by another of my local heroes – artist Rob Pointon, of Burslem.

His kindred spirit is a film-maker who I think deserves huge recognition for his artistic endeavour.

John Williams, of Wolstanton, is currently putting the finishing touches to The Mothertown – a zombie apocalypse movie based in Burslem and involving literally hundreds of extras which is helping to raise funds for three-year-old leukaemia sufferer Frankie Allen.

Anyone who has seen John’s posts on social media and viewed his special effects handiwork can’t fail to be impressed.

But it’s his passion for the medium which inspires people and, like Chris, he’s a terrific, creative ambassador for the Potteries.

Speaking of which, I’d like to mention two other people who work tirelessly to promote their community and our city.

Alan and Cheryl Gerrard, of Fenton, were responsible for rekindling this area’s remarkable links with the Czech town of Lidice – destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War and rebuilt with the help of the people of North Staffordshire.

I first met them a few years ago when they asked for The Sentinel’s help in planning a debate to mark the 25th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. Alan and Cheryl are both passionate advocates for the people of the Potteries which often means they aren’t popular with the powers-that-be.

However, their honest and forthright approach to campaigns such as the battle to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War memorial have won them far more friends than enemies and I count myself among the former.

Another friend of mine whose work enhances our reputation is local sculptor Andy Edwards whose work you can see on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
Andy produced the nine foot statue of a Saxon warrior which takes pride of place in the foyer.

It was commissioned to celebrate the acquisition of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard and Andy is currently working on a 15 foot version, to be unveiled soon, which will stand guard outside the county council HQ in Stafford.

Andy’s other works have included statues which have been presented to Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and Desmond Tutu.

However, a more proud and passionate Stokie you could not meet and we should be incredibly proud to call him one of our own.

Please indulge me as I mention two other people who actually work alongside me here at The Sentinel.

The first is our award-winning health reporter Dave Blackhurst who has been with this newspaper for 35 years and who is planning to retire in March.

He may not have been honoured by Her Majesty but Dave’s work has won the admiration of readers, colleagues and health professionals over three decades during which he has been an unflinching champion of his patch and its people.

Finally, a quick mention for the legend that is Dianne Gibbons – our court reporter who has been with The Sentinel for 51 years and who laid on a spread, as we call it in these parts, for her colleagues unlucky enough to be working on New Year’s Day.

If only we could bottle Dianne’s enthusiasm and pride in her job and this newspaper.

I consider it a privilege to work with both Dave and Dianne.

They may not have a gong (yet) but, like the others on my little list, they remain an inspiration to me and, I’m sure, many others.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Advertisements

My hopes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2014

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

Frankie Allen with her mum Karen and Vale legend Peter Swan.

As we approach December 31, it’s a time to reflect but also to look forward to what 2014 may bring.

Top of my wish list for the New Year is a hope that a little girl from Burslem will move further down the road to recovery.

I’ve not met Francesca Allen but I’m one of the hundreds of people locally who’s done a little bit of fund-raising for her.

In August she was diagnosed with leukaemia and since then her courage and beautiful smile have inspired many of us.

Whatever 2014 brings, let’s hope it is a happier and healthier one for a three-year-old who has touched the hearts of people across the Potteries.

In February pop superstar Robbie Williams turns 40 and here in his home city we’re having a bit of a do to celebrate.

RWFanFest is a month-long festival which honours the achievements of Britain’s top-selling music artist and someone who has given £5 million of his own money away to worthy causes here in North Staffordshire.

There’ll be an exhibition of never-before-seen memorabilia and photographs at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, a charity gig in aid of the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice, a fans’ art exhibition at Burslem School of Art and bus tours around the ‘Robbie trail’.

That’s not all. Expect a lot more too as Stoke-on-Trent finally embraces its celebrity son. Watch this space…

This year Sentinel readers campaigned hard to help save the name of their local regiment.

The Staffords, or 3Mercian as they are now known, had been under threat from Ministry of Defence cutbacks.

But a 17,000-strong petition taken to 10 Downing Street showed the strength of feeling locally and Army top brass gave a commitment to preserve the name.

Our boys are currently on active service out in Afghanistan so spare a thought for them as you tuck into your left-over turkey and mince pies.

Here’s hoping they can complete their final tour as 3Mercian successfully and ALL return home to their loved ones safely.

Sticking with the military theme, 2014 promises to be a big year for commemorating conflicts.

It marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and events and initiatives are being planned all over the country.

The Sentinel has a number of special supplements planned – including the re-publishing of interviews with First World War veterans as well as letters from The Front.

We will also be working with a variety of organisations to ensure that the county’s rich military heritage is celebrated.

On that note, June marks 70 years since D-Day and world leaders, veterans and tourists will gather in Normandy to pay tribute to the fallen of arguably the greatest invasion the world has ever seen.

The Sentinel has interviewed surviving veterans from all three branches of the services – both for the newspaper and on film for our website – and will be producing a souvenir pull-out to coincide with the anniversary.

Regular readers of this column will know I’m a big believer in celebrating our heritage and so I’ll be supporting Fenton residents in their campaign to save Fenton Town Hall and its unique Great War Memorial.

The fight has already received the backing of celebrities including Stephen Fry, and thousands of people have signed a petition calling for the building to be returned to public ownership rather than sold off to a private buyer by the Ministry of Justice.

Let’s hope justice prevails and the people of Fenton are allowed to retain this civic gem in 2014.

I’ll also be doing my bit in the New Year to help raise the profile of RW388.

That’s the serial number of the city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, housed in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which is in urgent need of some tender loving care.

Here in the birthplace of its designer Reginald Mitchell, I think it’s vital we do all we can to help restore and conserve this wonderful aircraft for future generations.

Expect plenty of coverage of the battle to save RW388 in The Sentinel and, if you want to make a contribution, you can pick up a copy of a fund-raising Spitfire calendar comprising terrific archive photographs from our reception, priced at £7.99.

If you do pop up to Hanley you’ll notice that work on the much-maligned Central Business District continues apace.

Given that I can’t see the powers-that-be at the council changing their mind about plans for the city centre, I just hope the CBD progresses quickly and there is movement on the long-awaited City Sentral shopping development.

I’m not holding my breath for the latter, given the delays and curious lack of communication from the developers but perhaps we will see a scaled-down version of the original plans. Anything would be better than nothing at this stage.

Turning to sport, I’d like to wish Peter Coates and Stoke City all the best for the remainder of the season.

Potters manager Mark Hughes is lucky to have such a passionate and reasonable bloke at the helm – one who will give him the time and resources to mould his own team in the hope of taking them to the next level.

Meanwhile, at my beloved Port Vale my only wish is for a period of stability – or rather, an end to any financial uncertainty.

Fingers crossed Micky Adams signs a new deal, anyone who is owed any money by the club gets paid, and Vale fans are given closure with regard to the activities of certain individuals who brought the club to its knees in 2012.

I know I speak for The Sentinel when I wish chairman Norman Smurthwaite and his team all the best for a successful and prosperous 2014 – hopefully free of media bans and full of goodwill to all fans… and journalists.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Don’t take school league tables at face value

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

I felt very honoured when I was recently asked to say a few words at an awards evening for students at my former school held up at the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

It was an historic occasion as it marked the last prize-giving for young people at Holden Lane High which is currently being demolished to make way for the new buildings of the Excel Academy.

Sad as this may be for former pupils like me, I can’t help but be excited for the children who will benefit from the new state-of-the-art facilities – including my nephew.

There is no doubt that, at the age of 50, my old school is past its use-by date and, frankly, it was no longer possible to paper over the cracks.

Education has evolved beyond all recognition since I left Holden Lane in 1988 and the classrooms and corridors yours truly was once anonymous in are simply no longer fit for purpose.

I’m a firm believer that children learn better if they have decent facilities.

That, of course, is what the city council’s Building Schools for the Future programme is attempting to create: Stimulating learning environments for children of the digital age.

As the programme rolls out across Stoke-on-Trent it is clear that this investment in future generations is desperately needed.

Yesterday we learned that, by Ofsted’s measures at least, the Potteries is the third worst area in England in terms of secondary school education.

Just 34 per cent of pupils in the city attend a good or outstanding secondary school which means that the other 66 per cent are being failed by their schools and teachers.

Or does it?

Personally, I don’t believe that it’s as simple as saying two-thirds of the secondary schools in Stoke-on-Trent aren’t up to scratch.

Yes, of course, the standards of teaching and leadership at these schools is a key component in a child’s education.

But, speaking as a school governor myself, I know there are many factors which influence how a school performs in terms of Ofsted ratings and exam results.

I understand that we need benchmarks but many teachers will tell you that Ofsted inspections are rather one-dimensional in that they do not take into account external factors which influence how a school, its staff and its students are graded.

For example, a school in a leafy Cheshire suburb with healthy finances and a stable teaching staff simply cannot be compared fairly with its cash-strapped equivalent in a deprived area of Stoke-on-Trent.

By the same token a school with an active PTA and strong governing body clearly has a distinct advantage over a comparable school where apathy reigns and only a minority can even be bothered to turn out for parents’ evenings.

With the best will in the world, all teachers can do is create a quality learning environment for their charges.

If little Johnny hasn’t had any breakfast and is falling asleep in class because he sat up ’til 3am playing on his X-Box then clearly his teachers will have a struggle to engage with him.

It is churlish to simply blame schools or teachers, the council or even the current government for the fact that Stoke-on-Trent ranks so poorly in the latest standings.

Here in our city there are some terrific schools and many examples of teachers who are making a huge difference to the lives of young people in their care.

Take my old school – now the Excel Academy – which has jumped from ‘special measures’ to ‘good’ thanks to the vision and hard work of its teaching staff and governors.

But they can only do so much because, ultimately, educational attainment goes to the heart of complex societal problems.

The poor performance of schools goes hand-in-hand with levels of deprivation, worklessness and poor health.

In homes where adults who feel failed by the system themselves devote little or no time to helping their children with homework and consider the TV or games console a baby-sitting service then it is a given that youngsters will struggle academically.

In some secondary schools, the sad fact is that – for many teachers – simply keeping the peace and maintaining a reasonable level of discipline is almost a full-time job in itself, because the behaviour of certain pupils is so poor.

I recently gave a talk to a group of retired headteachers and they spoke passionately about what was wrong with schools today.

Some blamed poor standards of teaching.

Others said Ofsted inspectors weren’t necessarily qualified to run the rule over proper teachers.

Some blamed successive governments for constant tinkering with the curriculum.

Others argued that far too many students were going on to further education and that only the cream should go on to university.

The one thing these retired school leaders did agree on, however, was that none of them envied today’s teachers and they agreed that the job is more difficult in 2013 than it was five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Time to back sure-fire winners which matter to our Six Towns

The Sentinel's front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

The Sentinel’s front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

When you’re staring down the barrel of £20 million cuts, every penny really does count.

The truth is that because of the way the squeeze is being applied to local authorities, in a few short years practically all they will be responsible for will be the most basic of statutory services.

What that means is the non-essential stuff inevitably diminishes or is lost altogether.

Departments such as sport and leisure and facilities like museums and libraries will see their budgets scaled back enormously as councillors focus on what they have to deliver by law.

So the street lights will stay on, bins will be emptied, children’s services and adult social care will be ring-fenced. But in all honesty virtually everything else local authorities are responsible for will be up for discussion.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent, where the public sector cutbacks are being felt as keenly as any other city in the UK, councillors have attempted in recent years to protect frontline services as Whitehall has slashed and burned.

Now there’s very little wriggle-room left and how the comparatively small amount of money which doesn’t cover the costs of essential services is spent, will come under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Things like the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), hosting the Tour Series cycle ride events, the staging of summer pop concerts or the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards will all have to be carefully considered.

The problem is they cost money. Some cost a lot more than you’d think. And taxpayers will want to know there is a tangible benefit to the city in staging or hosting such events.

They will want to know what is gained from them. They will ask about the benefits of having highlights of a bicycle race which starts in the city being shown on ITV4. Does it really boost trade in the city centre and has there been a huge spike in the numbers of people cycling locally?

Is it better instead to continue with a 39-year tradition of honouring local sportsmen and women and inspiring future stars from our patch with an event which is a fraction of the cost?

Taxpayers will want to know how the BCB, an event which most people in the city don’t understand, don’t know is happening and will never attend, helps to raise the profile of the city.

More to the point, they will ask how pottery manufacturers who employ local people benefit from it in terms of increased sales and new contracts.

They will want to know if it really is worth paying hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the cost of a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Does it really help to attract investment? If so, they will say, then show us the money.

We really will have to get down to brass tacks now because the time for gambles and indulgences is over.

It is time instead to back sure-fire winners and to protect the things which really matter to people here in the Six Towns. It is time to safeguard things like free admission to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which houses exhibits such as the priceless Staffordshire Hoard, the city’s Spitfire and an unrivalled, world-class collection of ceramics.

Now isn’t the time to start charging admission fees for somewhere like this. Instead, let’s make the museum the best it can possibly be – somewhere tourists marvel at and people boast about.

Let’s put in place plans to protect the fabulous Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, The Regent theatre, the Victoria Hall and Bethesda Chapel because, let’s face it, without them there would be no such thing as a ‘Cultural Quarter’.

Let’s protect the libraries which have chronicled local life for decades – places where the less well-off, the students and mums with young children can congregate to laugh and learn.

Let’s invest in the people of the Potteries – from better pitches for the Ladsandads leagues and better facilities for am-dram productions to making the tradition that is the Potters’ Arf bigger and better.

Let’s shout about Robbie Williams and Sir Stan and Reginald Mitchell and Arnold Bennett and all the greats our city has produced.

Let’s be proud of our history and heritage and fight to protect buildings like the deteriorating Wedgwood Big House in Burslem or the under-threat Fenton Town Hall with its unique Great War memorial.

Personally, I‘d far rather money be spent on giving the people of Fenton a focal point for events in their town than paying a company from outside the city to create a short-lived garden in London that none of us will ever see.

To my mind, if we want others to invest in our city then we need to polish what we have across the Six Towns rather than putting all our eggs in Hanley’s basket and spending money on vanity projects which yield little in the way of results.

It’s time we started looking after our own and trumpeting the wonderful assets Stoke-on-Trent has which other cities would be making a virtue of.

One thing’s for sure: If we don’t, no-one else will.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday.

Mission accomplished: It seems there really is no place like home…

mina

I’ve learned a thing or two in the last three months. Firstly, The Sentinel’s Managing Director has something of an eye for (obsession for) interior design.

Thus I have been forced to sit through discussions involving feature walls, carpet colours, kitchen splash backs and dishy chairs (I confess I had to look the last one up).

Choosing the decor and the furnishings was, of course, a very small but important part of the process of relocating to our new offices in Hanley – which we finally did over the weekend.

I’ve lived and breathed this project since July.

It’s the reason calls to my phone have gone unanswered, emails still await replies, meetings have been cancelled and I’ve dodged catch-ups with my best contacts.

It’s also the reason I’ve had precious little dad time which was why on Saturday I made sure my girls were among the first to see The Sentinel’s new home.

Apologies to all. I’ll make it up to you. Promise.

I’ve been well and truly out of my comfort zone and up to my eyes in seating plans (changed eight times), parking permits, grant applications and all manner of stuff involved in moving more than 100 staff (including almost 50 journalists) and a seven-day a week business into the heart of the city centre.

In truth there are still bits ‘n’ bobs to do. Some furniture and white goods have yet to arrive, there’s more carpentry and painting to do, we’re missing some plastic cups. A couple of the screens in the newsroom aren’t yet showing the digital analytics we’d like them to do. But, to borrow one of the gaffer’s phrases: ‘It’s just detail’.

He’s right. To all intents and purposes The Sentinel is up Hanley, duck, and fully operational.

As I sit here now looking out over a newsroom that you can’t help but feel proud of, there’s an enormous feeling of satisfaction and relief.

The move had to be completed over a weekend – four days technically – without any disruption to the newspaper or our website.

In that regard it’s mission accomplished. But what went on during those four days will long live in the memory.

Things such as my dad fixing shelving and coat hooks and making benches and desks for our precious archive room.

Or the sight of The Sentinel’s Editor manfully carrying an extremely heavy ceramic wall bust of this newspaper’s founder across the newsroom to see where it would sit best.

Or our MD carefully placing lime green coasters and purple cushions in offices and break-out areas.

Or yours truly lugging furniture around and unpacking crate after crate of beautiful leather bound volumes of The Sentinel and creating an impressive new library in the newsroom.

Plenty of people played their part in an exercise which showed that this is far more than just a workplace – it’s the home of a heritage brand that we’re all extremely proud to be associated with which has just refurbished a landmark.

In six years’ time the former Bethesda Sunday school which we now occupy will celebrate its 200th anniversary and it’s more than appropriate that ours is the business which has breathed new life into such an historic and iconic building.

Indeed the man who designed the interior of our new offices described it as the most satisfying (if stressful) project he has ever worked on – and the best building.

It’s easy to see why. Two of my colleagues told me, unsolicited, on Sunday that they came into work with a spring in their steps having seen the completed ground floor a few days earlier.

Even the most cynical, hard-bitten hacks in the newsroom struggled to grumble when they saw the beautiful sash windows, the high ceilings, the plasma screen and – yes – the lovely new carpets and furnishings.

It’s certainly a more inspirational place in which to work than our former home at Etruria and in keeping with a business that’s almost 160 years old itself.

It goes without saying that working for a newspaper (I’m supposed to say digital publishing business) isn’t a nine to five, Monday to Friday job and it doesn’t half help when your working environment is stunning and the front of your building looks like a Victorian postcard scene.

It’ll be nice to be able to wander over to the Potteries Museum to view the Staffordshire Hoard and the Spitfire gallery of a lunchtime. (Occasionally we have one).

It’ll be nice to stroll up Piccadilly to see my mum on the oatcake stall in the market or to have a coffee with Jonny Wilkes and Christian Patterson during rehearsals for panto at The Regent. It’ll be nice to be able to do a bit of Christmas shopping when we’re working late one night.

Most importantly, of course, we hope our readers and customers like the new place too.

I’ve already promised two readers who used to attend Bethesda Sunday School a personal tour of the building to stir the memories.

A few readers popped in at the weekend – past the crates and the teams of removal people – to have a nosey before we’d even opened. It was great to see their enthusiasm.

One couple said they were delighted we were back in Hanley as they’d now only have to catch the one bus from Trentham to come and see us. It seems there really is no place like home…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Archive is a treasure trove which reminds us where we’ve come from and who has gone before

The Sentinel microfilm archive.

The Sentinel microfilm archive.

Myself and three colleagues have just completed what, for me, has been something of a labour of love.

In case you don’t know, in less than two weeks’ time The Sentinel will relocate from its home of more than a quarter of a century to new, or perhaps I should say ‘old’, premises in Hanley.

From September 16 our new home will be the Grade II-listed Bethesda Sunday School building.

It’s in a great location for a local newspaper: Opposite the library and Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, just down from the Victoria Hall, Regent Theatre and new bus station, and over the road from the police station and crown court.

An awful lot of money has been spent transforming the interior of this impressive, ocean liner of a two-storey building into a modern media hub.

But alongside the funky furniture, brightly-coloured feature walls and the hi-tech kit you’d expect to find in any newspaper HQ, there’s plenty to remind us of what’s gone before.

This is something I, personally, am very keen on as someone who grew up reading the paper, then delivering it and now having the privilege of writing for it.

As you can imagine, a newspaper accumulates quite a lot of stuff over 159 years and my office has, for several weeks now, resembled an antique shop.

By rummaging through the MD’s office, various locked cabinets and darkened storerooms I have unearthed all kinds of treasures.

Gems such as a former Editor’s dictionary from the 1930s and a solid gold Sentinel cricket competition medal from the same decade.

Then there’s the documents relating to the company being created back in 1854 or the grubby and soot-blackened Wedgwood white ware unearthed when the foundations were laid at our present site in Etruria back in 1986 (the site of old Josiah’s former factory, of course).

Or how about the dozen or so black and white photographs of our former offices in Trinity Street, Hanley, when it first opened its doors 80-odds years ago?

Or the Royal Doulton figurines of newspaper sellers, or detritus from the press from the days of hot metal, or copies of Sentinel football annuals dating back to the 1920s.

Or the copy of the programme from the provincial premiere of the the 1952 movie The Card, based on Arnold Bennett’s novel of the same name.

Or the 100-year-old poster promoting a boxing match between Newcastle’s Billy Gerkin and Hanley’s Jack Matthews.

Some of these items will go on display in cabinets for the benefit of visitors to our new offices.

Others will be safely stored in the new home of our archive which yours truly and friends have spent the past three months auditing and indexing.

It saddens me to think that some of my colleagues have never experienced the sheer frustration of trawling through cuttings, old prints or negatives to find information and the simple joy of a successful hunt.

Many among the Google and Wikipedia generation believe the world started in the mid-1990s and all useful data is freely available at the touch of a button. Rest assured that I do my best to dispel this myth at every opportunity.

I tell people that our microfilm archive, for example, dates to 1854 and runs until around the year 2000. That’s every page of every Sentinel edition – Weekly and Evening – for 140 odd years.

Then there’s the leather-bound copies of every Sentinel produced since the day we stopped archiving editions on microfilm.

Finally there’s our cuttings and prints archive – all 195 box files. This contains everything from historic editions of the paper through to royal visits, all our coverage of the notorious Black Panther murders, all the pit closures and pottery firm redundancies as well as black and white and colour prints of Stoke City, Port Vale and Crewe Alex players dating back to the 1930s.

The importance of a newspaper’s archive cannot, in my opinion, be overstated – especially when it is as old and extensive as The Sentinel’s.

It is little wonder that historians revel in it, our readers continue to call upon it and that local lads like me, and Abbo before me, enjoy bringing some of it to light.

Our archive is an acknowledgment of who and what has gone before and a reminder that we journalists are in an extremely privileged position – simply the latest caretakers of an enduring brand.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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