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

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Don’t just sit and moan: Have your say on future of the Six Towns

The Wyg report says the city council is right to focus on Hanley as the retail centre of the city, but suggests Burslem and Fenton are downgraded.

The Wyg report says the city council is right to focus on Hanley as the retail centre of the city, but suggests Burslem and Fenton are downgraded.

It was easy to spot the killer line in the report which attempts to create a retail blueprint for Stoke-on-Trent over the next 15 years.

The reclassification – a softer term than the perhaps more honest ‘downgrading’ – of Burslem and Fenton would see them viewed as district centres, along with Meir, rather than town centres.

I can’t help it but I instinctively balk at the suggestion that the Mother Town of the Potteries along with Fenton, which successive administrations at the local authority have overlooked, should no longer be considered towns.

It may annoy planning officers and those tasked with attracting inward investment to the Potteries but, for me, Stoke-on-Trent IS the Six Towns.

The fact that we have the Six Towns, each with their own heritage and distinct identity, is one of the city’s many unique features.

After all, Arnold Bennett didn’t write a novel entitled: ‘Anna of the four towns and two or three district centres’.

The problem is, of course, that over the last 20 years or so some of the towns have benefitted from investment, time and resource and others have not. Burslem, a town I know well, has never really recovered from the closure of the Royal Doulton factory in Nile Street.

It is no longer somewhere that people go to do their shopping – like my mum did every Saturday when I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties.

It has no supermarket, no indoor market, no big chain stores. Instead it relies on craft-type shops and a night-time/weekend economy.

However, there are at least grounds for optimism in the Mother Town thanks to the advent of the Burslem Regeneration Partnership, the proposed Haywood Academy and the planned work of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust on the Wedgwood Institute – (facilitated, I should point out, by the city council). Boslem also, of course, has a League One football club.

There is, as far as I can tell, no such optimism surrounding the future of Fenton which seems to have been branded little more than a residential zone.

I suppose the devil is in the detail of this study. The sobering statistic is that 22.8 per cent of retail space in the city is empty – a figure which is twice the national average.

In simple terms, then, there isn’t the capacity to sustain all those vacant units and so we need to rethink our retail strategy and that will, inevitably, impact on other planning matters.

As I understand it, the report by Manchester-based consultants Wyg suggests that Burslem, Fenton and Meir be considered ‘local centres’ in retail and planning terms.

This is because towns such as Longton and Tunstall are seen as having a more sustainable retail base.

Meanwhile, Stoke (minus the Civic Centre) will hopefully benefit hugely from the relocation of Staffordshire University’s Stafford campus and all those students needing accommodation and shops.

But what are the consequences of a ’reclassification’ for Burslem, Fenton and Meir? Will it, for example, mean that businesses wanting to set up shop in Burslem will instead be encouraged to opt for Tunstall where the retail base is viewed as more viable?

Will chain stores looking at Fenton simply be steered towards Longton? It is vital that this is explained properly to people living in these areas.

And what exactly is the plan for Fenton over the next decade beyond it being a place where people live?

It doesn’t have Burslem’s magnificent architecture but it does have a beautiful Town Hall and square which should surely be the focal point for investment and the community.

We should remember that this report focuses purely on the city’s retail needs and, as one commentator posted on Facebook: ‘There’s more to life than shopping’.

However, Wyg’s study will feed directly into the city council’s Local Plan so its findings are significant and we should all take note and make our views known.

I believe the council is right to prioritise Hanley as a strong city centre. It is, to my mind, key to the regeneration of Stoke-on-Trent as a whole. (Note to planners: It should never be referred to as Stoke city centre because Stoke is, of course, a town).

Hanley is, after all, where the bulk of our shops are. It is also the home of three terrific live entertainment venues as well as the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

Hanley will be fine. We just need developer Realis to get their skates on and deliver what they promised in terms of an, albeit smaller, City Sentral shopping centre as soon as possible.

I can even live with the daft name if they show a little willing now by bulldozing the eyesore East/West precinct.

Likewise, I think there are also plans for Stoke, Longton and Tunstall which will ensure their viability in the medium-term.

What I would like to see now is two things. Firstly, a pledge that the local authority will put some energy and resource into the regeneration of Fenton and Burslem so that the former, in particular, does not continue to be the ‘forgotten town’.

Secondly, I‘d like as many local people as possible to be involved in a big conversation about the future of our city.

Write to The Sentinel, comment on our website, contact your ward councillor and attend meetings in your locality or at the Civic Centre.

Just please don’t sit there and moan because this is too important for people to fall back on the old chestnut that the ‘council is rubbish and no-one ever listens’.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

City council should forget PR gurus: A decent reputation will come by doing a good job.

The city council's headquarters in Stoke.

The city council’s headquarters in Stoke.

Sometimes I despair, I really do. The fact that Stoke-on-Trent City Council felt it necessary to commission a reputational survey in late 2012 speaks volumes about the paranoia gripping the Civic Centre.

Does anyone really believe giving a PR firm run by another local authority ‘darn sarf’ £25,000 to telephone people across the Potteries represents a sensible use of taxpayers’ money?

I’d love to know who’s idea this was. Was it prompted by a senior officer, fresh in post, trying to make his or her mark?

Was it done at the behest of councillors fixating on the odd negative headline?

Or was it suggested by a highly-paid consultant – perhaps one of the Westco brigade (yes, we still pay oodles of cash for that sort of thing).

Is it any wonder that many people have little faith in the authority when it sanctions the frittering away of taxpayers’ cash on nonsense like this?

Let’s examine the ground-breaking findings of this document which is presumably titled: ‘Stating the bleedin’ obvious’.

Yes the survey produced such telling insights as ‘the perception that the council provides good value for money, at 30 per cent, is 26 points below the national average.’

Presumably this score wasn’t helped when respondents were told how much the daft survey was costing.

My favourite paragraph, however, reads: ‘The impact of reading The Sentinel is strong. Residents who have read it are more likely to form a negative judgement of the council. This is likely in part to be the newspaper reinforcing the views of local people.’

Goodness me. Heaven forbid a local newspaper reflects the views of local people. Whatever next.

Conversely, the report found that people reading the council’s own glossy newsletter – Our City – were more likely to view the authority positively. How about that?

So the newsletter which the council pays for and fills with its own propaganda gives a more positive impression of the local authority.

Could that perhaps be because it is hugely biased and not in any way balanced?

I do wonder when the penny will finally drop for senior officers and councillors that they just can’t ‘win ’em all’.

I’ve been a journalist long enough to remember the council’s two-strong press office of the early nineties.

Now the authority has legions of communications staff and – during my 16 years at The Sentinel – has gone through half a dozen PR gurus, each with their own flawed philosophy.

One kept trying to slap injunctions on this newspaper to prevent us from publishing stories the administration at the time didn’t like.

He didn’t last long.

Then, on his arrival, another PR expert famously summoned The Sentinel’s entire senior editorial team to the Civic Centre for a dressing down.

His opening gambit was to tell our previous Editor that his newspaper was way down the pecking order behind Sky TV, ITN and all the national newspapers (because, of course, they’re here a lot).

We all walked out of the meeting and needless to say that bloke didn’t last long either.

About 10 years ago the city council audited The Sentinel over several months and found that around 74 per cent of council-related stories were positive or neutral – thus exploding the myth that this newspaper only peddles bad news.

I dare say very little has changed as we’re not in the business of turning down positive news stories as and when we are presented with them.

Thus the suggestion that the council now aims for a two-to-one ratio of positive to negative stories is nonsense because this is already happening.

The fact is this newspaper will never shy away from challenging local organisations – including the council.

If the authority has a poor reputation I would suggest there are several reasons why this is the case.

Huge PR gaffs in recent years (deciding to let TV cameras in to film the documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank was one) don’t help. Just thinking about the millions of people who watched that makes me cringe.

The camels no-show in Hanley last Christmas was yet another daft, embarrassing failure.

I could go on as there have been many.

Then there’s the trust issue. The Dimensions splash pool saga was hugely damaging to the council’s reputation – irrespective of who was involved.

As is the fact that the ludicrously-named City Sentral shopping complex still doesn’t exist despite all the hype.

You see, it’s no use blaming the developer in this situation. If you nail your colours to a mast then there’s no point trying to disassociate yourself with the ship when it flounders.

I also think that there is a perception that the leadership at the council simply doesn’t listen to ordinary people – adopting instead a ‘we know best’ approach to everything from cost-cutting to promotion of the city.

I would suggest a little humility and the occasional holding up of hands and admitting mistakes would go a long way in terms of establishing trust and credibility.

Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that many people think the council often gets its priorities wrong.

For example, it spent £800,000 on bringing a cycle race (watched by three men and a dog on ITV4) to Stoke-on-Trent.

It is again about to spend a minimum £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show which none of us will ever see – the tangible benefits of which are, to date, zero.
For what it’s worth, here’s my PR advice (and it’s free):

*Stop worrying about things you can’t change and stop sulking over occasional negative headlines or readers’ letters in The Sentinel. People don’t tend to put pen to paper if they’re ‘satisfied’;

*Accept that you’re in the business of cutting services, thanks to central Government, and this inevitably makes the council unpopular. Yes, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is;

*Listen more closely to taxpayers and the things they care about. Show a little empathy when you’re cutting services rather than hiding behind economics;

*Focus on all the positive things which are happening across the city (and there are many) and start valuing the terrific staff you employ;

*Stop seeing the local media as the enemy or something which can be neutered or controlled. It can’t be and won’t be.

You see, it’s not rocket science, this PR lark – despite what highly-paid consultants might try to tell you.

It’s just about knowing how and when to roll with the punches because, frankly, some things aren’t worth going to war over.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Let’s view Tour of Britain miss as an opportunity for our city

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

I wonder how many taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent will be genuinely disappointed that the Tour of Britain isn’t coming to the Potteries this year.

The cycle race’s organisers have decided against returning to the city again and instead will host a charity ride for amateurs here in the Six Towns on October 5.

That means we won’t see the likes of Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medalist Sir Bradley Wiggins in Hanley alongside dozens of other pro riders.

To be honest, cycling isn’t my bag. A few of my friends – even some of my colleagues – have taken to two wheels since the London Olympics and I do appreciate the health benefits for them and their kids. All that wind-in-your-hair, outdoors business sounds good.

But as a spectacle, standing for several hours waiting to catch a glimpse of 30-odd blokes who you can’t name whizz past in a nanosecond isn’t my idea of good day out.

I remember being in Hanley on a drizzly afternoon a couple of years ago when The Tour came to town and recall the paved area outside the old Woolies store being cordoned off.

I’m being generous when I say there were perhaps a couple of hundred spectators within sight of Sir Stan’s statue and most people, like me, just seemed frustrated that the crash barriers meant they couldn’t cross the street to get to Marks & Sparks.

I confess I would never consider tuning in to ITV4 or whatever channel The Tour of Britain is broadcast on to catch up with the action – even if for one day you might spot the odd Potteries landmark in the background.

It’s not that I don’t applaud the city council for trying to attract big events to Stoke-on-Trent. I guess cycling as a sport is just a bit niche for me.

Given the viewing figures the Tour of Britain receives, however, I don’t believe I’m alone.

Yes, cycle nerds, cycle shop owners and a few traders in Hanley may have had a good day but I’m not sure hosting the race justified the £820,000 of taxpayers’ money spent since 2008 and all the associated mither of road closures.

Senior councillors have confirmed they did want the Tour of Britain here this year and would like to see it return soon.

This means there must be a pot of money that would have been spent on the race in 2014 – perhaps £120,000 plus – going spare.

That being the case why don’t we look to organise some other events which will help to raise the city’s profile and boost the economy?

For example, given the fact that we are the undisputed darts capital of the world and have been for more than a decade, I’ve always wondered why Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t look to stage a tournament.

If it’s because some people are a bit sniffy about it not being a proper ‘sport’ then I suggest they get over themselves and pop in to a few pubs across the Potteries to see how healthy local leagues are.

Darts is hugely popular – that’s why it’s broadcast on Sky TV – and in Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis and Andy ‘The Hammer’ Hamilton, we have three home-grown ambassadors who would themselves be a big draw. We could stage it at the King’s Hall in Stoke or the Victoria Hall in Hanley over a weekend.

We’ve also got a couple of world class pool players living locally so perhaps that’s another sport we can look to in order to raise our profile.

Of course, events which bring people into the city and get them spending money in shops, pubs and restaurants don’t necessarily have to be sports-related.

Take the recent Robbie Williams fans’ festival, tourist trail and exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, for example. They cost a few thousand pounds to stage but the benefits were huge in terms of helping local businesses, attracting visitors and boosting the city’s profile.

Let’s not forget that neighbouring towns like Stone and Leek, which have much smaller populations, stage hugely successful food and drink and arts festivals, respectively.

Meanwhile, Newcastle is about to put on its jazz and blues festival.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent we struggled to get a few camels up Hanley for the Christmas lights switch-on. What’s all that about?

We should have more farmers’ markets, continental markets or perhaps stage a huge garden and local produce show which highlights the best our farmers, bakers and brewers have to offer.

Or how about an annual Spitfire Day here in Stoke-on-Trent, based around trying to raise funds to restore our own RW 388 in the Potteries Museum – complete with wartime music, re-enactors in period costume, military vehicles and a fly-past?

We are a big enough city to be staging a major public event once a month and they could be shared around our Six Towns so that each one enjoys the economic boost – rather than just Hanley being the beneficiary.

When you think about it, we are only limited by our imaginations.

I’m pretty sure all of the above could be staged for less than the £120,000 or more it cost us to host the Tour of Britain each year – and certainly a lot less than the minimum £250,000 of taxpayers’ money we are spending on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

There is simply no need to put all our eggs into a couple of baskets.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Stoke-on-Trent’s HS2 bid may be a gamble too far…

An artist's impression of Stoke-on-Trent's proposed HS2 hub station.

An artist’s impression of Stoke-on-Trent’s proposed HS2 hub station.

I’m not a gambler but, if I was, after this week I’d put money on Crewe getting a HS2 hub station ahead of Stoke-on-Trent.

I hope I’m wrong. I really do. It’s not that I have anything against Crewe, but a lad from Sneyd Green is always going to bat for his home city.

To my mind the endorsement for the railway town’s bid by HS2 Chairman Sir David Higgins has derailed the city council’s proposals.

Whilst it is the Government that will ultimately decide on plans for the new high-speed rail network, I can’t believe that ministers will not be guided by recommendations from the man who delivered the hugely-successful London Olympics.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who listened with frustration as Transport Minister Baroness Kramer talked in platitudes about Stoke-on-Trent’s bid still being in the mix.

It was a typical politician’s interview – even worse because it was given during the countdown to the next election. No straight answers and full of clichés about ‘communities in the North and Midlands coming together’ – whatever that means.

Could you vague that up for me a little more, Minister?

About the best thing she could say was that she ‘appreciated the city council’s commitment’ to the project and claimed ‘Stoke’s bid hasn’t been discarded’.

She also talked about the importance of making sure that services to Stoke weren’t diminished – irrespective of what happens with HS2.

Well cheers, duck, but forgive us if we don’t put up the bunting just yet.

Perhaps senior city council officers and elected members have been given a steer to the contrary but you’d have to say it doesn’t look good for our bid right now.

I’m not a transport expert but the city council’s HS2 bid seemed to be compelling when it was first unveiled in The Sentinel.

It is cheaper, would have a reduced impact on the environment – compared to other proposals – and could be delivered more quickly.

The elephant in the room, however, is that our bid arrived at the table very late (about 18 months too late) and – irrespective of what people say about the consultation process – that will surely have a bearing on the final decision.

I don’t really understand why we were so late to the party. You’d have to have been living on Planet Zog not to have seen all the fuss about HS2 when it was first announced.

I’m not being negative but I do think you have to read the runes sometimes and, following Sir David Higgins’s press conference on Monday, I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of the city council spending a further £800,000 plus of taxpayers’ money on what has become, to all intents and purposes, an outside bet.

No-one minds a bit of ambition, but sometimes I have to question the way money is spent by the local authority.

We’re flogging off beautiful buildings like Fenton Library at auction and doing nothing to protect Fenton Town Hall and its unique Great War memorial but we can somehow find £1 million for this grand HS2 vision.

By the same token we’re again spending an eye-watering minimum of £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show – something which has, to date, yielded no tangible benefits other than giving an elite few a nice day out. You know who you are.

I think it’s crazy. If we’ve got a quarter of a million pounds to spend then let’s spend it here where local people will benefit – rather than on a jolly aimed at ‘raising the city’s profile’.

We could stage about five huge, great garden shows of our own here in Stoke-on-Trent for that sort of money. Such events would not only attract tourists and businesses to the city but would engage thousands of local people, foster a love of the outdoors and gardening and could be used to help to emphasise the importance of healthy eating to school-age children.

Last month, for about £3,000 (about one per cent of what the Chelsea Flower Show presence will cost) we created a Robbie Williams tourist trail and launched a hugely successful exhibition based around Rob’s life at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which attracted 17,000 people in its first month.

This generated more than 70 positive national and international news stories which showcased the city and gave a big boost to businesses over the weekend of RWFanFest. Now that’s what you call money well spent.

I dare say the forthcoming ‘Hot Air’ Literary Festival will also do more for the city’s profile than a presence at the Chelsea Flower Show will – and at a negligible cost to taxpayers.

Ultimately, I believe the HS2 bid and Chelsea Flower Show investment are the kind of decisions which will come back to haunt politicians at the next local elections. As central government squeezes local authorities more and more to the extent that they are in a position where they are only able to deliver essential services, we have to be more careful than ever before about how, where and why we spend taxpayers’ money.

It seems to me that Hanley and, to a lesser extent, Burslem and Tunstall, are being nurtured but the other three towns which make up the Potteries are being neglected.

How can we possibly maintain or nurture a sense of community when our communities have nowhere to call their own – nowhere to meet, congregate or work together?

It means local people have no focus and nowhere to be proud of.

Perhaps it is time we stopped gambling on long-shots and started looking at a little closer to home when spending what little money we have because if the city’s HS2 is unsuccessful then it’s £1 million wasted – pure and simple.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

It’s good that, at last, we are giving due recognition to our Armed Forces

Mercian Regiment emblem.

Mercian Regiment emblem.

I don’t have a personal connection with 3Mercian, or The Staffords, as we call them in these parts.

Not unless you count the fact that my great-grandfather was with the North Staffords, fighting in France during the First World War.

Or the fact that the last commanding officer of The Staffords, before they became 3Mercian, is a mate of mine.

But I’ve always felt an enormous sense of pride in our local regiment, in its history and honours, and in the lads who don the uniform and do what must be one of the toughest jobs imaginable.

That was why I thought it was so important that we fought to save the name of The Staffords earlier this year when Ministry of Defence (MoD) cutbacks almost led to the name being erased from the Army’s Order of Battle.

During the summer I took my girls to the Staffordshire Regiment Museum at Lichfield.

We enjoyed looking at all the exhibits – from Great War machine guns, Waterloo colours and battle dioramas to medals for valour and the terrific Coltman VC Trench – a faithful recreation of a WWI frontline British trench, complete with sound effects.

What came across to me during that visit was that The Staffords is, and always has been, a collection of remarkable individuals, rather than simply a regiment or a unit – each man as important as the next.

When the news broke on Tuesday evening that one of the lads from 3Mercian had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan I experienced a strange mixture of emotions.

I found it incredible that anyone would be mad enough to do such a thing.

I felt desperately sad about such a tragic waste of life and the heartache that it will bring to the soldier’s family and friends.

I also felt enormous pride at being reminded that the fallen Stafford and his comrades have been out there in Helmand again, gutsing it out, and under no illusion that they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for Queen and country.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Ian Fisher, who lived in Werrington, was killed doing the job he loved in the certain knowledge that his family and friends were justly proud of the man he was.

The loss of any British soldier is an absolute tragedy but it will always be felt more keenly in the areas where recruiting for his unit is strongest and that bond with a city, town or county will, to my mind, always be priceless.

That we view them as ‘Our Boys’ (or girls) has to be a good thing.

It is good to know then that this newspaper has always supported our troops – from as far back as the Zulu Wars to last week’s update on operations in Helmand province.

I’m told that soldiers on operational tours love to hear news from back home, whether that’s Stoke and Vale results or the stuff of day-to-day life that fills the column inches of The Sentinel Monday to Saturday.

By the same token, our readers – not simply relatives and friends of services personnel – are genuinely fascinated by the work they do and love to read about local lads ‘doing their bit’, as we say round here.

It’s a mutually-beneficial relationship and one which I value enormously. Long may it continue.

Last night I was asked to officiate at the signing of the local Armed Forces Community Covenant at the in Stoke.

This is an MoD initiative whereby local authorities across the country pledge to do more, in conjunction with other organisations (and, ultimately local businesses), to offer help and support to ex-services personnel who settle in the area.

This help and support can include guarantees to give job interviews, provide assistance with benefits and housing needs and generally help ease the transition from military life to a civilian one.

It was pleasing to see so many people at the King’s Hall last night and to hear that so many local organisations are prepared to give a virtual hug to some very worthwhile individuals who have served their country.

It is well documented that ex-services personnel, given the demands of their unique roles, often find it hard to adjust from military to civilian life, put down roots or start a new career.

In my view the least we can do, as a society and – more pertinently – as a city and county, is to offer them our full support and acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe for the job they’ve done.

I’ve always felt that we should be more like America in our attitude towards services personnel.

The job they do is extraordinary and it is one which, in truth, very few of us are cut out for.

Perhaps, at last, we are starting to recognise this.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday 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