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

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It’s good that local people can be bothered to take a stand

The March on Stoke protesters.

The March on Stoke protesters.

Politically-speaking, Stoke-on-Trent has been a basket case for so long that a good many people have stopped caring about who runs the local council and don’t bother to vote.

That’s if they ever did, of course.

I’m convinced this isn’t just a case of common or garden voter apathy.

I think people are now so battered by town hall scandals and cock-ups – such as the Dimensions debacle – that they view politics locally as broken.

That doesn’t mean they think everyone who works for the city council is rubbish. Far from it.

It simply means that there is a perception that some of the people voted in to represent taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent either aren’t up to the job or have displayed self-interest time and time again.

They can’t understand why the same people – tarred with the brush of failed plans and media exposés – are still involved in local politics.

Taxpayers can’t have been too enamoured either with the bizarre decision to advertise incompetence and a simple lack of humanity via the BBC mockumentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank.

I think we can also add in to the mix a general feeling of ‘it’s pointless voting because Labour will get in anyway’ – never a healthy status quo at any level, irrespective of the party involved.

These are perhaps the reasons that an extremist group like the BNP was able to gain a foothold in recent years.

Once it did, the unpalatable truth is that some of the party’s members proved to be decent ward councillors – irrespective of what people may think of the BNP’s stated policies and aims.

Ultimately, at a local level, I can well understand why a pensioner in Longton or Meir might eschew voting for mainstream parties if someone else came along who seemed only too willing to listen to their problems and make sure his or her bin was emptied and that the street lights were working.

I don’t doubt that Ukip will be eyeing the Potteries as somewhere it can legitimately expect some success at the next elections in 2015.

But, for me, what is more significant as we look to the future is that people who have shown no interest in climbing the greasy pole before are becoming political animals.

It is perhaps this threat which the ruling Labour group would do well to heed in the coming months.

Galvanised, among other things, by the decision to relocate the city council’s Civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley, protesters are turning to the polls in order to effect change.

The Potteries Towns and Villages Group (PTAV), which will become a formalised body later this week, plans to challenge for all 44 seats up for grabs at the local elections in two years’ time.

Founded by members of the action group March On Stoke, its stated aims include: To regenerate the city more equally (rather than just focusing on Hanley); To increase the number of senior council officials with strong ties to the city; And make local government ‘more open and transparent’.

All are laudable objectives which should play well with the electorate.

The fixation of current and previous administrations with the city centre (Hanley to the rest of us) has started to grate on people across the Potteries.

Yes, they will agree, we do need to have a defined city centre – a beating retail heart with cultural gems like the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Regent Theatre, Victoria Hall, Mitchell Youth Arts Centre and Bethesda Chapel.

However, they would argue, this nurturing of Hanley need not be at the expense of Stoke-on-Trent’s other five towns.

Moving towards a situation where more of the local authority’s senior staff are born and bred Stokies, or at least have strong links with the city, is more tricky.

The idea of employing more key people who care about Stoke-on-Trent because they have a stake in it sounds good in principle but I’m not sure how this could be achieved in practice.

Making local government more transparent is an even more difficult objective but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.

Set aside for a moment the tier of bullet-proof senior officers within any local authority, the fact it is very hard to get elected members to admit mistakes or make themselves accountable for their actions.

Although perhaps this is where the members of PTAV, if enough people show interest in standing for the group, may have an advantage.

One of the reasons that local politics, and politics generally, is such a murky business, is that people are constrained by the rosettes they wear – whipped into toeing the party line.

PTAV members, you would hope, are putting their heads above the parapet precisely because they want local people to be represented by others who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

There is no guarantee that this new movement will sustain its momentum or gain enough support over the next two years to make a dent at the ballot box.

However, the fact that they care enough to mount a challenge bodes well for the future of democracy in our city and will, at least, give the mainstream parties locally food for thought.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel