No excuse for not playing your part in local democracy

One of the My City, My Say debates.

One of the My City, My Say debates.

This is one of those columns which I’m going to be slated for. This is one of those columns where I can’t win.

Then again, as my forerunner – the late John Abberley – once told me, being a newspaper columnist isn’t a popularity contest.

I’ve chosen a subject where the opinions of people who may wish to comment are so polarised that they can’t even, through gritted teeth, acknowledge that maybe the other side has a point: That maybe, just maybe, there could be some common ground.

Have you heard of the My City, My Say debates taking place across Stoke-on-Trent? No?

They’ve been promoted in The Sentinel, on local radio, on social media and even on billboards and flyers.

There are 35 events taking place across the Potteries, organised by the city council, with the aim of giving local people – local taxpayers – a say in the future priorities for their communities.

When any initiative like this is announced there is an awful lot of cynicism and I can understand elements of it.

Some people will say: ‘Isn’t it funny how the council – or rather the ruling Labour group – has decided to roll out these forums in the run up to next year’s elections?’

It’s certainly no surprise to me that some opposition councillors are boycotting the meetings and presumably telling everyone they’ve ever met to do the same.

(Although I should just give a big shout out here to councillor Randy Conteh for being part of Wednesday night’s excellent debate at Thistley Hough Academy in Penkhull – irrespective of his political persuasion – having clearly seen the value of the event).

Other people say: ‘What’s the point? The council never listens anyway. This is just a PR stunt.’

I’m sorry but that’s a huge abdication of responsibility – similar to the one some people would accuse the council’s leadership of.

Even if you think it’s a PR stunt, if you’re not there voicing your frustrations then how could anyone know what they are?

All you are actually doing is perpetuating this awful apathy that pervades politics in general in this country, and our city. The apathy which sees only 20-something per cent of people turn out on polling day.

I’ve also seen people posting on forums arguing that the ‘council’ – I guess they mean the leadership of the authority – doesn’t care about their communities because they haven’t supported or funded projects that some local people are passionate about.

That is a very fair and valid point. You could certainly argue that some towns in Stoke-on-Trent (Fenton being the obvious example) seem to have been overlooked in recent years and campaigns such as the one to save Fenton Town Hall haven’t received the support from councillors, MPs and people in positions of power, that they deserve.

But not turning up to meetings and not articulating these views accomplishes nothing.

If you, for example, think the authority shouldn’t be relocating its headquarters from Stoke to Hanley then why not come along to one of these meetings and tell council leader Mohammed Pervez?
You can even come and praise him too.

If you think Hanley doesn’t need a second large retail centre called City Sentral – particularly as the other one, Intu Potteries, is expanding, then why not go along to a meeting, have your say and write your comments on a form?

If you are concerned about fly-tipping locally, or the grass needs cutting somewhere near you, or you have an issue with another council service, why not come along to one of these meetings, fill in a ‘service card’ and you’ll get a reply within two weeks (Or so I’m told).

To my knowledge the My City, My Say initiative is the first time the council has done such a public exercise – putting councillors, officers and representatives of other key partner organisations on the road for people to meet, quiz and debate with.

Despite the cynicism of some, if I was the council’s PR chief I’d be saying this was exactly the kind of initiative that’s needed at a time when the authority – like every other in England – is staring down the barrel of continuing budget cuts.

Otherwise, how can you – in all good conscience – know what the priorities of the local electorate and taxpayers are and how they want money to be spent on their communities?

I got involved in this initiative as one of several ‘independent’ people – including the Editor of The Sentinel – who host the evenings and effectively chair the discussion.

We don’t get paid (other than cups of coffee provided by the venue). I’m doing it because I care about the future of Stoke-on-Trent. I also honestly see the value in ordinary people, taxpayers and voters voicing their opinions and concerns. This is democracy.

Of course, the key now to making My City, My Say a real success is demonstrating that the priorities of local communities start to come through in the council’s policies and budget allocations.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

City councillors are on a hiding to nothing thanks to government squeeze

City councillor Anthony Munday.

Last week a friend of mine was elected as a city councillor. Anthony Munday is a lovely bloke and a damn fine journalist who I first had the pleasure of working with some 20 odd years ago.

I was chuffed to bits that a man who has devoted years to improving the area in which he lives had won the by-election for the Baddeley Green, Milton and Norton ward.

Party politics aside, in my opinion Ant is exactly the kind of bloke who ought to seek public office: Straight-talking, honest, reasonable and truly representative of the people in his neck of the woods.

I’m guessing he will make a terrific ward councillor but I honestly don’t envy Ant in his new role.

Someone asked me not so long ago if I would ever consider standing as a candidate in local elections.

‘No’ was the answer because I honestly think I can do more good and influence more change as a journalist working for my home city paper.

If the last few days have taught us anything it is that the current crop of councillors are, sadly, presiding over massive decline – and, in this instance, through no fault of their own.

Hands up who would have wanted to be in council leader Mohammed Pervez’s shoes on Tuesday when £20 million worth of cuts and 150 redundancies were announced?

Whatever anyone thinks of Mr Pervez, his party, or the other councillors of all allegiances, the truth is they are powerless to prevent the Coalition Government’s slash and burn policy towards public services.

The figures are stark and make you realise that Mr Pervez, or whoever is in charge at the Civic Centre next time around, is on a hiding to nothing.

In the past three years, councillors in Stoke-on-Trent have had to cut £77 million from their budgets and we know already they will have to find a further £20 million of savings during 2014/15.

Barring a change of government in Whitehall, by 2017/18 the authority estimates it will have just £35 million to spend on non-statutory services compared with £131 million three years ago.

That is a staggering reduction and even I, someone who has in the past been very critical of the bloated public sector, can see that these cutbacks are too deep and crippling.

Worryingly, the reality is that the real cuts to services here in Stoke-on-Trent have yet to happen and there is clearly a great deal of pain still to come. So we can disagree with how and where the axe falls this time around. We can, for example, argue that increasing parking charges in town centres is bonkers or make a case for keeping certain libraries open etc., etc.

However, ultimately we are simply counting the beans out in a different way – depending on our personal preferences and priorities. Anyone can do that.

The bottom line is that £20 million worth of cuts will still have to be identified next year before a General Election potentially provides any relief locally.

And who is to say that any change of government would make much of a difference?

I’ve said before that what seems to happen is that when the Tories are in power they ignore this city because it is a Labour stronghold and when Labour gets in their leadership ignores us because they know they can rely on the good people of the Potteries to vote with them come what may.

It’s a lose/lose scenario which means that the Six Towns and their unique problems tend to be overlooked by whichever party holds sway in the House of Commons.

If this all sounds desperately grim it’s supposed to.

Of course, everyone’s thoughts at this moment will be with council staff perhaps facing redundancy and those who will be directly affected by proposed changes to services.

But this week I also found myself feeling genuine sympathy towards the elected members in Stoke-on-Trent because they are overseeing an inevitable diminution of the city council’s role and influence.

I would say it’s certainly easier to be in opposition right now rather than having to set the agenda for the decimation of local services.

Some city councillors haven’t helped themselves in recent years, what with the Worldgate scandal, the Cultural Quarter overspend, the untimely sale of the local authority’s stake in the Britannia Stadium, the numerous golden handshakes for highly-paid officers, the Dimensions debacle and so on.

Money has no doubt been wasted in the past and mistakes have certainly been made locally but none of these have resulted in the cutbacks currently being forced upon the city council.

Right now my thoughts are with councillors as they battle through another round of consultation which equates to little more than a damage limitation exercise.

Whether we like it or not the size, power and remit of councils is being altered dramatically and therefore the role of elected members is changing too – perhaps focusing them more on their own wards rather than the fait accompli that is the overall budget settlement.

This being the case, I reckon communities have never needed the likes of Anthony Munday more.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Just look at what COULD happen in our neck of the woods in 2013

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day and a New Year to boot.
As we shrug off the hangovers and stare balefully into the slate grey skies I, for one, am determined to be positive.
You know, I think 2013 might be alright if my crystal ball is anything to go by.
Here’s what COULD happen in the next 12 months…

*Stoke City qualify for the Europa League two months before the end of the season on account of not having lost a game at the Brit since 2003.
Sir Alex Ferguson gives Tony Pulis ‘the hairdryer’ for not having the decency to sell England defender Ryan Shawcross back to him – muttering something like: “He forgets all the favours I’ve done him” and mentions Stoke being “just a wee club in the Midlands”.
Potters striker Michael Owen then wins the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. Like his three predecessors – Tony McCoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins – Owen takes the crown after spending his entire sporting year sitting down. (Joke © The Sentinel’s Sportsdesk)
*Sir Alex Ferguson is left tearing what’s left of his hair out as Tom Pope turns down a multi-million pound move to Old Trafford as a like-for-like replacement for Wayne Rooney.
Explaining his decision to The Sentinel, the Pontiff – whose 40 goals fire Port Vale to automatic promotion – said: “What’s Salford Quays got that I conna get in Sneyd Green, youth?”
Port Vale Supporters’ Club begins fund-raising for a statue of Pope, scheduled to be completed to coincide with the 27-year-old’s 40th birthday celebrations.
Meanwhile, in honour of the Burslem club’s success, the city council lifts the ban on Vale players urinating in the bushes at Hanley Forest Park.
*In a bid to save money Stoke-on-Trent City Council ditches plans to relocate its Civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley in favour of a move to neighbouring Newcastle.
Explaining the decision, council leader Mohammed Pervez said most people considered Newcastle to be in the Potteries anyway, even it was “a bit posher”.
However, councillors in the Loyal and Ancient Borough start a petition against the proposals – barricading themselves into the Guildhall until those riff-raff have gone away.
*In an attempt to improve Stoke-on-Trent’s image in the wake of the disastrous BBC documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank, council leader Mohammed Pervez agrees to star in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
After successfully completing several Bushtucker trials councillor Pervez is narrowly beaten into third place by the pretend opera singer off the Go Compare telly adverts and a kangaroo named Dave.
Mr Pervez, however, remains upbeat – claiming he has “put the city on the map” and reveals he has persuaded Ant and Dec to appear in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime.
*Buoyed by his appearance on ITV1, city council leader Mr Pervez unveils the authority’s latest cost-cutting initiatives.
These include only four out of five council workmen being allowed to loaf about for two hours at lunchtime.
*Staff at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery are put in celebratory mood once more following the discovery of a further 700 pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard in a field near Lichfield.
After farmer Fred Johnson ploughs the earth deeper than a Rory Delap throw-in, he churns up Excalibur, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail as well as the missing tail fin from the city’s Spitfire RW388.
The museum’s Principal Collections Officer Deb Klemperer tells The Sentinel that experts hope to have worked out what the new finds actually are before she retires in 2050.
*Staffordshire’s new Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis unveils his radical new idea to solve the force’s acute staffing shortage.
After appointing his sixth deputy, Mr Ellis tells the media he will be handing out police uniforms to anyone who wants one, adding: “This is the Big Society in action. The genius of the idea is that the crims won’t know who’s a real copper and who isn’t.”
The Sentinel’s crime reporter thinks he’s joking until he hands her a canister of CS spray some flashing blue lights for her motor.
*Local radio stations run another story claiming The Sentinel is closing down.
The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief responds by publishing a 148-page supplement to mark the paper’s 148th anniversary – including all the stories the paper has beaten the radio stations to during the previous week.
*Developers of the new multi-million City Sentral retail complex on the site of the former Hanley Bus Station announce they have attracted another big name store to the development.
Poundland confirms it will be employing up to six part-time staff at its new superstore.
A spokesman for the shopping complex reveals the name is also to be changed after a huge public outcry because City Sentral is “clearly a bit daft”.
Expect the new Jonny Wilkes Centre to be open in
time for Christmas.
What are your hopes for 2013?

No winners – only losers as Whitehall punishes Stoke-on-Trent

If you were harbouring any ambitions to go into local politics, then BBC4’s excellent documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank should have disabused you of the notion.
It’s one thing to be an MP, working much of the time in Westminster and somewhat shielded from your constituents by the fact that a) you are just one of 652 decision-makers and b) you may well be in opposition so can blame controversial decisions on those in power.
But when you dip your toe into the murky waters of town hall politics, the fact is there’s every chance you’ll have it bitten off if those who can be bothered to vote don’t like what’s happened in the previous 12 months.
Thursday’s programme, the first of three focusing on Stoke-on-Trent City Council, cleverly combined a behind-the-scenes look at the powers-that-be with some incredibly emotive footage of real people affected by unprecedented public-sector cuts.
It was the kind of documentary which reminds us that the BBC still does solid, fly-on-the-wall journalism. The only shame is that it was broadcast on BBC4.
The fact that the first episode was set in 2010 and early 2011 made it an even more gripping watch because we knew what was coming. It was akin to seeing a car crash in slow-motion and being unable to tear your eyes away.
I can’t think of another occasion where, in the space of 60 minutes, I’ve felt sympathy for so many people from different walks of life – from dementia sufferers and young mums to the rabbits in the headlights that were the elected members of the city council facing multi-million cutbacks early last year.
Sadly, at times the programme didn’t portray the city’s leaders in a great light.
The way in which the dementia sufferers at the Heathside House elderly care home, and their families, were treated by the city council was shabby, to say the least.
It felt very much as though they were an after-thought.
Even the whistle-stop visit to the place by council leader Mohammed Pervez – on the day politicians voted to shut it down – felt like a token gesture.
One can certainly argue that operating such care homes isn’t cost-effective and that the services they provide don’t fit with the council’s future care strategy. The problem is that we saw the human face of Heathside House, which made one question why anyone would ever want to fix something which clearly wasn’t broken.
What we saw was very frail and vulnerable people being looked after with great compassion and devotion by staff who had come to regard them as family.
What we saw were relatives driven to despair by the local authority’s callous disregard for ordinary people’s lives.
It left me thinking that surely the inevitable closure could have been handled better, perhaps phased over time, with more sensitivity and delivered with a more humane approach.
Perhaps the fact that the residents of Heathside House didn’t have a vocal campaign group collecting thousands of signatures and making life uncomfortable for the city council’s leadership was what did for the home in the end.
In sharp contrast, the mums who mobilised themselves to save seven of the city’s 16 children’s centres made themselves quite simply impossible to ignore.
With elections looming, it looked very much like the closure of the children’s centres was a bridge too far for some politicians.
Mr Pervez said the about-turn was because of a ‘moral duty’ to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities.
This, of course, begged the question why Heathside House was even considered for closure. Clearly, moral duty was on annual leave the day that decision was taken.
The truth is that in an ideal world, none of the council-run facilities would have been shut down and nobody would have been made redundant.
However, the maths simply didn’t add up and Mr Pervez and his colleagues faced some very unpalatable decisions.
That the children’s centres were spared offers one glimmer of hope because they are exactly the kind of invaluable learning resources that people with young families need in a city with desperately low levels of academic achievement and an aspirational vacuum.
These centres may help some families to escape the poverty trap that many now find themselves in.
They may also help other families to recognise that there is a cost to society when you have excessive numbers of children – something the couple in Meir with seven kids seemed oblivious to.
Set against the backdrop of a budget settlement which necessitated cuts totalling £36 million, Thursday’s programme underlined one thing: there were no winners round here – only victims and messengers to be shot.
Meanwhile, the real tragedy is that just over 130 miles away in Westminster where Stoke-on-Trent’s measly and unfair budget settlement was decided, none of this even registers.
Part two of The Day The Town Hall Shrank airs on BBC4 tonight at 9pm.

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?