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

Who is to blame for the city council’s debt mountain?

They called it the ‘credit crunch’, didn’t they? A snappy little soundbite which attempted to explain to the masses that the bubble had finally burst and the Western world’s economy was going to hell in a handcart.

Cue businesses going bump left, right and centre, horrific job losses, a housing market slump and a global financial crisis the like of which hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

We can blame big city bankers for playing God all we want and, yes, they played their part.

But the truth is that – for years – individuals, families, groups, businesses and even nations had been living on the never, never: Borrowing, taking out loans and living beyond their means.

Then suddenly it was time to settle up and lots of people, many companies and even some countries simply couldn’t pay their debts.

The pain of the credit crunch has lingered since 2008 and shows no sign of abating.

Every aspect of our lives has been affected as a result of rising unemployment, the collapse of pension funds, the increased cost of living and the sweeping cutbacks in the public sector enforced by a Coalition Government desperate that we deal with our debt and don’t ‘do a Greece’.

Caught up in this financial maelstrom, the NHS, the emergency services and local authorities are battling desperately to deliver vital public services with ever shrinking budgets.

Local authorities like Stoke-on-Trent City Council which a few weeks ago confirmed cuts of £24 million on top of similar, city-wide belt-tightening amounting to savings of £35.6 million the previous year.

The figures involved are truly mind-boggling. I guess once you get past the first £10 million it’s all just numbers, isn’t it?

Unless, of course, those numbers meant you were one of the 300 people to lose their job with the council.

Or you were one of the thousands who suffered as a result of the many cutbacks to services across the board.

Well here we are, less than two months after those savings were announced it seems the city council is suffering a credit crisis all of its own making.

New figures show the authority is owed a staggering £8.6 million.

This debt mountain has accumulated from relatively minor bills which have gone unpaid by thousands of people.

It covers all sorts of services from room hire, skip hire and licensing fees through to commercial rent, market stall rent and even rubbish collection.

Yes, that’s right. The city council, which has been forced to make people redundant and make cutbacks on everything from allotments to swimming pool subsidies should be millions of pounds better off than it actually is.

Now I could understand an organisation the size and scope of a unitary local authority being owed substantial sums of money. Maybe several hundred thousand pounds.

Perhaps even a million.

But £8.6 million in unpaid bills because the council allowed people to use services without settling the bill until a later date is beyond a joke.

One of the key reasons businesses go bump is because of cash-flow problems. In other words, they fail to get what is owed to them quickly enough.

Councils don’t generally go bump – they just share the pain – which is exactly what has happened here in the Potteries.

We are told that new policies have now been introduced to avoid such problems in the future but, in all likelihood, the authority will end up writing-off the bulk of this debt and so questions surely remain.

Questions like: Why was the debt mountain allowed to accumulate in the first place? How come no-one saw this coming? Which officers are at fault, here? Why weren’t there procedures put in place long ago to avoid such a fiasco?

It wasn’t so long ago that the powers-that-be at the city council were considering doing away with the vital role of Lord Mayor to save just tens of thousands of pounds.

Meanwhile, there has – understandably – been much gnashing of teeth over the cost to taxpayers of the Port Vale bail-out which was crucial to the Mother Town of Burslem.

The fact is if the authority had had procedures in place to collect in some of the millions of pounds it was owed this year’s cutbacks would surely not have had to be so harsh, so painful and so wide-ranging in the first place.

Councillor Sarah Hill, cabinet member for finance, says: “It’s now about how we manage it from here on in.”

I beg to differ, Sarah. Just because the horse has bolted doesn’t mean you can’t examine the stable door to find out how it got out in the first place.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Hands-off the Lord Mayor… it’s too important a role for us to cast aside

Even when needs must and belts have to be tightened, I would suggest there are certain things that ought to be sacrosanct.
In our house it’s Heinz Baked Beans and my monthly copy of The Wisden Cricketer magazine. Everything else is up for discussion as far as I’m concerned.
This, admittedly simplistic approach to thrift, is how I believe Stoke-on-Trent City Council should approach its cost-cutting measures.
Make no bones about it, the situation is grim. Council tax will rise and 358 jobs will be made redundant as the local authority attempts to find savings of £24 million.
The public consultation is already underway on a sweeping cuts package which could see the axe fall on care homes, lead to fewer bin collections and result in reduced opening hours for the city’s libraries and museums.
Amid this financial carnage, I was heartened to read that the council’s business services scrutiny committee had refused to endorse another money-saving suggestion: Getting shot of the Lord Mayor.
Apparently, doing away with the ceremonial role – complete with car, chauffeur, hospitality, allowances and a secretary – would save around a £130,000 a year.
However, by my reckoning, dumping 83 years of heritage simply isn’t worth the cost saving.
Frankly, I’d rather see the back of another highly-paid senior manager than have Stoke-on-Trent lose its first citizen.
Better still, we could save tens of thousands of pounds by doing away with the six-week British Ceramics Biennial funded by local taxpayers who haven’t a clue what it actually is.
My friend and fellow Sentinel columnist Fred Hughes said recently: “I’m in favour of the mayoralty but there are question marks over the value it holds in times like these.”
Unusually, I have to disagree with Fred this time.
In my book, if we want to be a city worth the name then we have to draw a line somewhere when it comes to cutbacks and, for me, that line starts with the Lord Mayor.
During my 20-odd years as a hack I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and working with many of the city’s first citizens during that period.
In my opinion you simply cannot put a price on having a figurehead travelling around the Potteries bringing gravitas to so many occasions.
I think of the numerous picture requests The Sentinel’s photographic department receives from people eager to tell us ‘We’ve got the Lord Mayor coming to open it (whatever it happens to be).
People care about this role. It means something. Having the Lord Mayor attend your do – whether it be a charity gig or a more formal occasion – is hugely significant.
Simply having the Lord Mayor there in his/her civic regalia adds a touch of class and raises the profile of thousands of events and makes people feel they, and their do, are a bit special.
In my role at The Sentinel I work closely with colleagues from the city council and help to organise major public ceremonies such as The City Of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
As well as a host of sporting personalities from our neck of the woods such as Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and Gordon Banks OBE, in recent years this event has attracted the likes of Lord Coe and Stuart Pearce OBE.
I simply can’t envisage organising such events without planning for having our first citizen on the red carpet to greet the VIPs – and the hundreds of local people for whom such nights are a treasured memory.
It was certainly no surprise to me that when the 10 contenders for Stoke-on-Trent’s Citizen of the Century Awards were chosen last year they included Doug Brown.
Doug, perhaps best known as the founder of Ladsandads, is the only person to have been Lord Mayor of our city twice.
As well as being a thoroughly nice and genuine bloke, he was also an outstanding ambassador for our city – something which was only made possible by his role as first citizen.
For me, the Lord Mayor is a position to which we should aspire and a role to be cherished.
It is one piece of the family silver which should not be tinkered with.

We’ll lose honesty by asking councillors to mind Ps and Qs

Part of me quite likes the fact that our first citizen chided his fellow councillors the other day for their language and behaviour in a meeting.

On the one hand, it is nice to know that the Lord Mayor, councillor Denver Tolley sees his role as more than simply ceremonial and is prepared to take such a stand.

However, I suspect he has his work cut out in trying to stop elected members in the council chamber from “airing their dirty linen in public”, as he put it.

In other words – preventing them from speaking their minds in the presence of Her Majesty’s press.

Apparently, councillor Tolley was annoyed and embarrassed at the way in which some of his colleagues were conducting themselves and their outspoken criticism of council officers.

The Lord Mayor didn’t appreciate hearing planning officers described as “worse than tadpoles” at negotiating funding from developers.

Mr Tolley is quite right to be annoyed – it’s an awful slight against tadpoles.

You see, the language of the council chamber may be colloquial, ill-judged or misinformed at times.
But it has been this way in Stoke-on-Trent for the 20 years that I have been a journalist.

At least they are flagging up issues that matter to the taxpayers of our city rather than trying to score points like our Honourable Friends on either side of the House of Commons.

We can quibble about the calibre of local councillors until the cows come home but there is something refreshingly honest about an elected member venting his or her spleen in the presence of the media.

Granted, some are playing to the gallery, but many are simply attempting to articulate their frustrations, and the concerns of the people in their ward, against a local authority where for many years senior officers have been a law unto themselves.

The Lord Mayor’s attempt to sanitise debate in the council chamber has echoes of wider efforts by the public sector to control the flow of information to the press and media in the mistaken belief that they can somehow dictate the news agenda.

This is because some councillors and council staff feel that local newspapers – like the one employing yours truly – treat them unfairly and only report bad news.

It is rubbish, of course – a misconception built up over time among people who aren’t very good at handling criticism.

The truth was borne out by the city council’s own audit of The Sentinel’s coverage a couple of years ago which stated that more than 70 per cent of articles were either positive or neutral towards the authority and its services. Argument settled then.

However, this doesn’t prevent nonsensical edicts being delivered to my colleagues here at Sentinel HQ. Such as the one earlier this month which told our reporters they were no longer allowed to telephone cabinet members directly and had to go through the council’s Press Office.

“Control-freakery beyond belief” was how councillor Mike Barnes described the policy. He’s spot on.

When will the powers-that-be realise that they can’t gag councillors and they can’t prevent local papers from championing the communities they serve?

Surely it is part of the job of a councillor to communicate with taxpayers and, by the same token, it is the job of the local press to challenge, inform and educate their readership.

To that end, how pleased I was to read that the new Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has pledged a crackdown on council-funded free newspapers and magazines.

He slammed “town hall Pravdas” as he called them – labelling council newsletters “propaganda on the rates dressed up as local reporting”.

Too right. I should know – I worked as a cub reporter writing for the city council’s own newspaper for five years and let me say that is remarkable how you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Thankfully, most taxpayers see straight through the spin and the soft soap routine peddled by such publications.

The fact is, ordinary people rely on local journalists – independent of party politics and free of red tape – to tell them the bad news when it needs telling.

Just as they rely on their councillors to speak their minds without fear of censorship by other politicians or interference from suits in the Press Office.

Eminent British publisher Lord Northcliffe once wrote: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Amen to that.