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.

We must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now

The injuries suffered by Staffordshire Moorlands soldier Anthony Lownds are a grim reminder that, on a daily basis, somewhere in a foreign field there is generally a British serviceman or woman risking life and limb for Queen and country.

The 24-year-old Grenadier Guard was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban.

He is currently receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has so far had four operations for injuries to his right hand and legs.

My thoughts are with Anthony and his family and friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.

While most of us have been enjoying the patriotic fervour generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, to a lesser extent, the Olympic Torch Relay, Anthony and his comrades have been unable to relax and join in the celebrations.

As we settle down to watch England’s exploits in Euro 2012, spare a thought for the almost 10,000 members of the British Armed Forces who are demonstrating incredible bravery and commitment day-in, day-out in Afghanistan.

To date, since 2001, 417 British personnel have been killed in operations in the place they called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

It is a total that, heart-breakingly, is as sure to rise as the sun over that troubled land.

There are, of course, some who would argue that we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place – in the same way that we should have kept our noses out of Iraq’s business.

But Britain’s Services personnel don’t have that luxury and always deploy and do their duty, regardless of any personal misgivings they may have, which is what makes them such remarkable people.

That is exactly what they are doing right now in Afghanistan and we should be immensely proud of their efforts in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I wonder how Anthony Lownds and his mates felt when they learned a few days ago of more proposed cutbacks to the regular Army?

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of ‘difficult decisions’ ahead as the standing Army is reduced from 102,000 personnel to just 82,000.

If you know your military history then you will know that this is significant because an Army used to be defined as being 100,000 strong. Anything less than that figure wasn’t considered an Army.

While the regimental system will not be abolished, Mr Hammond said it was inevitable that some units would be lost or forced to merge.

If the national papers are to believed, one of those units could be our own 3 Mercian – or the Staffordshire Regiment in old money – along with such prestigious names as The Coldstream Guards.

I have to say that, for me, enough really is enough.

For years now I have watched Defence Secretaries slash and burn as they have wittered on about making our Armed Forces more ‘mobile’ and ‘adaptable’.

Always the end result is the same: Fewer boots on the ground; Less hardware; More reliance on reservists or other nations; And, ultimately, less ability to react to crises around the world.

Britannia once ruled the waves. Now we will have to hope we don’t need an aircraft carrier until 2020.

The RAF was once the only thing preventing the whole of Europe from falling under Nazi occupation.

But in Afghanistan it was a chronic shortage of helicopters which actually added to the number of UK casualties.

I could go on. The bottom line is that penny-pinching at the MoD over the last two decades, at the behest of various administrations, has significantly undermined the ability of the UK’s Armed Forces to do its job.

This has happened at a time when the actual number of global conflicts involving British Services personnel has risen.

Where is the logic in that?

Whatever we think of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, there is no denying the world is becoming a more dangerous place – with revolutions and the rise of extremism fanning the flames of conflict.

Add to this the ever-increasing economic uncertainty and inevitable shortage of natural resources such as fuel, food and water in the coming years, and you have a recipe for decades of instability.

So what does Whitehall do? Continue to reduce the number of Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

This is madness.

I believe caution should be the watch-word with regard to the future of our military. We only have to look to history for guidance.

Infantry battalions that were mothballed after the end of the Cold War had to be reconstituted for service in Northern Ireland.

Having scrapped Harrier Jump Jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal we realised both would actually have been quite handy for the Libyan crisis.

Yes, times are tough and each Government department has to make savings and each will plead it deserves protection.

But the MoD really is a special case involving tens of thousands of special people who do a very special and specialised job.

The UK’s Armed Forces personnel are our ‘go-to’ guys and gals at home and overseas for everything from industrial unrest and disaster relief to frontline warfare and their importance simply cannot be over-stated.

I firmly believe that for Britain to remain safe and secure and for our country to retain its position as an effective, relevant and respected player on the global stage then we must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now.

Common sense is the best vaccine for latest flu scare

Oh how the media loves a good outbreak of illness. Apocalyptic predictions abound and you can’t turn on the TV or radio or pick up a newspaper without being bombarded with a case study of some bloke who has whatever illness it is or advice from an expert in something-or-other.

In 2007 it was bird flu. Do you remember all of those awful images of scientists in China wearing biohazard suits sticking needles into various birds?

Now it’s swine flu. Only this time we face a global pandemic and everyone’s running scared.

Hand-cleaning gel dispensers – the likes of which most of us only normally clap eyes on in hospitals – have appeared in workplaces and public buildings.

Their effectiveness is, of course, tempered by the fact that very few people actually use them.

A quick peek on the internet and you’ll find headlines ranging from “Global swine flu deaths top 1,000” and “Swine flu victims could get 14 days off without sick note” to “Pregnant women are at greater risk from swine flu” and the bizarre “Teddy bear picnics banned as swine-flu rules hit nurseries”.

Finally, after we’ve been swamped with information about the virus (much of it contradictory) for months by the national media, health chiefs in the Potteries are preparing a mass immunisation programme.

The entire population of Stoke-on-Trent – some 240,000 people – is to be offered swine flu jabs as local healthcare workers prepare for a surge of cases in October and November.

In many ways, it’s a blessed relief to hear that the city’s Primary Care Trust is gearing up for a blanket vaccination programme.

It’s decisive and there’s no ambiguity – everyone will be offered the jab.

Ageing local hacks like myself know that when someone of the standing of public health director Dr Giri Rajaratnam advocates an immunisation scheme that is “bigger and quicker than anything we’ve had before” it’s time to take heed.

There will still be the inevitable debate about the safety of the vaccine itself – with parents like myself wondering about the effects of the cocktail of drugs potentially being administered to our offspring.

But it will be a brave mum or dad who says no to a free jab which could, potentially, save the life of their child.

The trick is to be well-informed – to be able to separate the facts from the scaremongering.

It might also help to act quickly if and when you, or someone you know, exhibits the telltale symptoms.

Unfortunately, many of the symptoms are common to ordinary flu and various other bugs and ailments which afflict us all – such as the sudden onset of fever, a cough or shortness of breath, a headache, sore throat, tiredness, aching muscles, chills, sneezing, runny nose or loss of appetite. Government advice has barely changed in recent months.

Crucially, we must keep a sense of perspective or we risk talking ourselves into a panic.

To date, in England, 27 people have died. Each one is a tragedy but most had some form of underlying health problem which contributed to their death.

Some doom-mongers on The Sentinel’s letters pages would have us all quarantined until 2010 and see Christmas cancelled.

However, no-one from Whitehall has yet told us to cease going about our daily lives and, in the end, it boils down to common sense.

We all fervently hope that the bleak estimates of the number of cases the UK may be facing this winter are over-exaggerated and that the death toll can be kept to a minimum.

And we can all play our part by taking sensible precautions, maintaining our basic levels of hygiene and keeping an eye on the more vulnerable members of our society such as children, pregnant women and those with underlying health problems – such as asthma.

Despite the fact that it will inevitably create a malingerers’ paradise, we should also follow Dr Rajaratnam’s advice to stay off work for seven days if we exhibit swine flu symptoms.

Yes, even if it means those who will do anything for a duvet day again dumping their colleagues in the mire at the first sign of a sniffle. You know who you are.

High time decision-makers rewarded incredible service

If you ever want some perspective; if you are ever having a terrible day at work or your football team has been beaten (again) or you just feel stuck in a rut – then simply log on to the internet and Google Treetops hospice.

Better still, take a drive or a walk down to Trentham Lakes and look for the place.

Nestling amid a modern housing estate is the children’s hospice which is home to the Donna Louise Trust (DLT).

The place itself is state-of-the-art, colourful and impressive – the staff warm and welcoming.

It feels more like a newly-refurbished youth club than a place where seriously-ill youngsters and their families receive care and support that is, quite simply, humbling to behold. Care and support which reminds us what life and love is all about.

A decade ago it didn’t exist. Yet now it is difficult to imagine North Staffordshire without this remarkable charity – in the same way that the Dougie Mac at Blurton has become a blessed part of the furniture locally.

Indeed, it is hard to believe we didn’t have a facility like Treetops on our doorstep long before this newspaper was approached in 1999 to begin publicising the fund-raising initiative to build the hospice.

I remember those early meetings and how eagerly both Sentinel journalists and our readers embraced the concept.

To get it up and running so quickly was testament to the generosity of spirit which sets the people of the Potteries apart.

Now here we are, 10 years on, and the DLT, which provides care and support for children who have life-limiting illnesses and their families, is struggling.

Its latest fund-raising drive, the Save Our Services (SOS) campaign, is an attempt to raise £300,000 to prevent further cutbacks during the current recession.

This appeal continues despite last month’s announcement that the Government is spending an additional £30 million on so-called palliative care across England.

At first glance this seems like wonderful news for children’s hospices up and down the country.

However, there is no guarantee that this extra money will find its way into the coffers at the DLT.

Whether or not Treetops receives additional money is entirely at the discretion of local Primary Care Trusts (PCTs), who will decide how best to deliver care to children with shortened lives.

At present, the level of funding the DLT receives from the PCTs locally varies depending on the worth each attaches to the hospice when they review its performance annually.

For the record, it costs around £2 million each year to run Treetops. At the moment 85 per cent of this funding comes from charitable donations with only 15 per cent provided as statutory funding.

In contrast, hospices for adults receive, on average, 31 per cent of their funding from Whitehall. Why the disparity? Your guess is as good as mine.

The fact is, many of us tend to take charities for granted.

It is only when we ourselves, or our relatives and friends, have reason to call upon their expertise that their true value becomes apparent to us.

We rely on the likes of the DLT and the Dougie Mac to provide essential care at crucial stages in the lives of our loved ones.

The scandal is that these incredible organisations have to rely so heavily on public goodwill.

Let us simply hope that the decision-makers at the PCTs recognise the true value of the DLT and the quality of the service it provides when slicing up the pie.

If they don’t, and they need some perspective, I suggest they pay a visit to Treetops.