Petitions are democracy in action – unlike modern-day elections

There is nothing more depressing than reading the turn-out statistics for local elections here in North Staffordshire.
When only 20-something per cent of the electorate in certain wards can be bothered to vote it leads me to the inevitable conclusion that most of our communities have been disenfranchised.
The questions are: Who is at fault and what can we do about it?
Plenty of people are only too quick to moan about how useless their local council/councillors are but then they refuse to get off their backsides to vote to change anything.
Over the years I’ve heard all the excuses under the sun…
“They’re all the same anyway.” “Councillors are only in it for themselves.” “What’s the point? Nothing ever changes.”
Others have no excuse. They simply can’t be bothered and I find this complete abdication of responsibility breathtaking.
I can’t help but feel that more needs to be done to engage young people in politics because the current system patently isn’t working and isn’t representative of the population as a whole.
Thankfully, as evidenced by a story in yesterday’s Sentinel, democracy is alive and well in the ST postcode area.
The lead story on P13 won’t perhaps have been the most read item in yesterday’s editions of the paper.
However, its significance should not be underestimated as it clearly demonstrates how ordinary people really can influence change – if they can be bothered to try.
Our story revealed that more than half of all petitions submitted by campaigners during the last 12 months led to the city council back-tracking on controversial decisions or taking action to appease residents.
The figures showed that more than 16,000 people signed 33 petitions which were presented to the local authority on a range of issues.
Some were very parochial – such as a successful 53-signature petition calling for parking restrictions on Tunstall High Street to be relaxed.
But other petitions, such as those calling for a full review of care services delivered in elderly people’s homes or fighting to save the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor, transcended geographic boundaries and attracted the support of thousands of people.
The city council, and its elected members, are often criticised for not listening to taxpayers and for wasting money or making bizarre decisions.
But when so few people can be bothered to vote at election time and engage with the political process or those prepared to stand for office then I think they can be forgiven for, at times, seeming out of touch.
The city council’s petitions scheme really is democracy in action.
It represents council officers being forced to listen and take note of the concerns of ordinary people – most of whom pay towards their wages.
Only people living or working in a particular area can really know what affect a new building, new road, new business or changes to traffic regulations will have.
Only people using a particular service can truly gauge its worth.
That is why petitions are so important as a barometer of public feeling and why I believe they have, in many ways, become more important than polling day.
The Sentinel itself, in its role as champion of the communities it serves, is no stranger to petitions and every so often will support a particular cause.
Very often, with petitions, it is all about timing.
It certainly was back in January 2001 when the then Editor accompanied five-year-old patient Jacob Bradbury down to Downing Street to present 19,000 signatures from Sentinel readers calling for a new superhospital for North Staffordshire.
The presentation was timed just a few months before the country went to the polls and the then Labour Government wasn’t minded to ignore the plea by thousands of potential voters.
I’m hoping our current petition to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment amid Army cutbacks is equally successful.
The sheer amount of correspondence from the public and the fact that we already have in excess of 12,000 signatures underlines quite clearly the strength of feeling.
I’ve never seen so many letters and so many personal stories on one topic – from people who have served with the Staffords or whose relatives have or still are.
Even in an age when traditional elections are unpopular and perhaps even scorned by many people, petitions offer us all the chance to genuinely influence things which affect our everyday lives.
They give us all a voice which we are comfortable in raising and perhaps point the decision-makers to what we, the general public, think are the most important issues – rather than what we are told are.
*Sign The Sentinel’s petition by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com or filling in the coupon which appears in the paper daily

Advertisements

New superhospital puts an end to a local healthcare scandal

Truly we are living through historic times: Days that many of us doubted we would ever see.
For decades the people of North Staffordshire have waited, moaned, campaigned and then waited some more for two major regeneration projects.
The first is the demolition of the great carbuncle that is Hanley bus station.
Well, many of us may have no time for the name City Sentral but what is surely more important is that a developer has finally committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds creating a new shopping complex which will transform the city centre.
The second project was a new hospital, fit for the 21st Century, to replace the horrible hotch-potch of antiquated buildings which made up the Royal Infirmary and City General sites.
It is not over-egging the pudding to say that, for generations, the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Staffordshire Moorlands have been the poor relations to NHS patients in other areas with regard to hospital treatment.
For as much as the care offered by staff up at Hartshill may have been first class, the outdated buildings which they have been forced to operate from and the very nature of the sprawling sites means that they have, effectively, being toiling with one hand tied behind their backs.
Ignored by successive Tory administrations and often overlooked by their Labour counterparts, the people of the Potteries have for too long been forced to put up with a second-rate hospital.
I distinctly recall the day – January 3, 2001 – when The Sentinel’s then Editor and a little lad by the name of Jacob Bradbury went down to 10 Downing Street to present a petition calling for a new hospital.
Yours truly was on the Newsdesk at the time and I remember how we chose smiley, five-year-old Jacob to become the poster boy for our Caring For Tomorrow campaign.
The little lad, from Madeley, was one of those who had suffered as a result of inefficiencies up at the Hartshill complex – waiting years for treatment on his deformed jaw.
Thus it was Jacob who delivered the 19,000-plus petition of Sentinel readers, demanding a new hospital, to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We deliberately timed the visit for maximum impact – just four months before the General Election.
Looking back now, it seems scandalous that the people of North Staffordshire had to ‘campaign’ at all for the same kind of hospital facilities that other towns and cities simply take for granted.
Hospitals are sacred places to us all. Places where we are born and often where we and our loved ones die. Places where we experience the whole range of human emotions – hope, fear, relief, sorrow.
They are simply too important to be neglected which is why the scandal of North Staffordshire’s wait for a hospital which is fit for purpose reflects so poorly on politicians of all colours.
Thankfully, this Saturday the long wait will be over when the first 80 patients move into our new superhospital.
Let us not forget the long and rocky road which we have travelled.
There were many setbacks and times, with costs spiralling out of control, when it seemed that the dream of ultra-modern hospital care was again to be denied to the people of the Potteries.
Therefore, we should not underestimate the significance of the hospital’s doors opening for the first time this weekend or the effect this building will have on North Staffordshire’s psyche.
Round here we often have to settle for second best, to make-do and mend and to live with half-finished projects and promises broken.
However, the unveiling of the new superhospital genuinely gives us a state-of-the-art building to be proud of as opposed to facilities to be embarrassed about which wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian novel.
There will be teething troubles, no doubt, as with any major building project of a scale such as this.
For me, the proof of the pudding will be in whether or not community facilities can cope in the coming years in the light of our new ‘cathedral to healing’ having 290 fewer beds than its predecessors.
But, for now, let us celebrate this long overdue milestone in local healthcare.