Stoke-on-Trent School of Scrutiny

Although I was one of the three councillors who signed the Call-In of the Cabinet decision to engage consultants at an initial price of some £400,000 to come into the City Council and sort out the mal/administration.

As a Member of the Scrutiny Committee considering the call-in I was able to take a more active role than is permitted for the councillor presenting the case for the call-in.

That said, however, I singularly failed to gain the slightest insight into the thinking of the Cabinet that led them to apporove the engagement of expensive consultants without going out to tender. A Certificate of Exemption permits the “usual” tendering process to be circumvented. And for good reason according to the Chief Executive. The root and branch change required is not tinkering around the edges of myriad hierarchies but major heart surgery. “Would you consult the Yellow Pages if you wanted the best heart surgeon?” asked the Chief Executive. Well, of course not, we were told, because we would want to be sure of the very best and the best is sought by personal recommendation and personal knowledge of the person weilding the knife. So that disposed of the usual tendering process. Fine. So far so good, for the Cabinet decision.

But why the need for external consultants to tell us, basically how to best organise to deliver the best services?

Some of us can’t understand why our highly paid directors and heads of services haven’t got it sorted already; after all, when they were appointed we were assured they were the best people for the jobs with proven track records of delivering.

Our problem is that we have limited imaginations. We have failed to appreciate that in fact without the insights of jargon ladened oragnisational management speak of a Tory supporting professor our City Council can never “move forward”.

So again, so far so good for a management driven decision which still left me puzzled about the political thought processes of the Cabinet. The Cabinet member for Resources cut a lonely figure under sustained questioning about the Cabinet’s political strategy. His fellow Cabinet member for Transformation did not speak at all. She left him floundering without a paddle.

At one point it seemed that the root and branch exercise was about saving money so that it could be invested in front line services. Asked what wold happen to staff de-jobbed, well they could be re-deployed in the front line. It was as though the Cabinet member had forgotten that the whole exercise is geared towards cutting £20m or more a year from the City Council’s annual £200m budget. When probed, the response was that we didn’t know how much we had to cut until the government told us! So what on earth the Cabinet think they are dong is anyone’s guess.

The Council Leader might, if his full-time employment allows him sufficient time to devote to his Council Leader’s responsibilities, ponder a Cabinet reshuffle. Surely a quadruple party alliance of Labour, Tory, Lib Dems and City Independents is able to develop some political analysis, strategy and leadership.

Anyway, after three hours, the Labour Chair called the vote and the 3 Labour councillors supported the Cabinet decision with the one City Independent and my Unaligned self voting against. One Labour member had left early to avoid a tangle with the whip; quite astute considering the Labour chief whip was present in the form of the silent Cabinet portfolio holder.

However, it’s not only about winning or losing votes. That is a forgone conclusion given that scrutiny committee has an inbuilt majority of the quadruple coalition. It is about keeping scrutiny alive…just. With only five unaligned councillors a heavy responsibility for scrutiny rests on a handful of people.

Councillors Act To Avert Crisis

Five City Councillors today submitted a requisition for a Special City Council to be held next week to debate the Council’s collective submission to the Local Government Boundary Commission regarding the creation of 44 new one-Member Wards to replace the current 20 three-Member Wards.

The Administration & Appeals Committee has been convened specially to consider the submission next Wednesday, 9th June 2010. Since the closing date for submissions to the Local Government Boundary Commission is Friday 11th June it is clearly vital that a Special Full Council be convened on Thursday 10th June.

Since at this very late stage no such Special Council notice has been issued I have today, with the support of Cllrs Pauline Joynson, Mike Barnes, Mick Bell and Janine Bridges submitted a requisition to the Lord Mayor requesting that a Special Full Council be called. The last date for issuing such a summons is tomorrow, Wednesday 2nd June to meet the required 7 days notice for such a meeting.

It was still unclear at the close of business today when the Report setting out the Council’s submission would be available.

However, now at least, a Special Full Council will be called thus avoiding the debacle of having no properly approved submission to make to the Bounday Commission

Stoke-on-Trent City Independents Split Over Coalition Involvement

The City Independent Group on Stoke-on-Trent City council have been left reeling at the news that 2 of their high profile councillors have have walked out of the group following their decision to join the new 4 party ruling coalition.

Alan Rigby left the group on Tuesday to sit as an unaligned councillor because he was vehemently opposed to the CIG being a part of a Labour Group led coalition.

Cllr Janine Bridges decided to quit today [Wednesday] for the same reasons. She has joined the Non-Aligned Group with immediate effect.

It has been disclosed that CIG Leader Brian Ward was not aware of her decision at the time that PnP recorded an interview with him at the City Council press conference.

There are rumours that other CIG members may leave in protest ant their group’s participation in the coalition.

Listen to the Audio Interviews below. The first is with Cllr Brian Ward who attempts to display a calm exterior during the Interview. He was wearing some cool looking shades in an attempt to cover up an eye condition.

The second interview is with Non-Aligned group member Cllr Mike Barnes who gives his reaction to Cllr Bridges decision to join his group.He also confirms that there are rumours doing the rounds at the Civic that there could be more defections and not just from the City Independents.

We are going to keep track of the make up of the council chamber, you can see the latest make up by clicking on the graphic below or by selecting The Chamber from the menu at the top of the screen.

Common Front Coalition not Commonsense

Rumour is rife that the Leader of the City Council’s much expanded Labour Group, having won 17 of the 20 seats contested on May 6th in the last of the City Council elections by thirds, has finally been roused to recognise responsibility that goes with now being the largest political group on the Council, though with 26 of the 60 seats, a handful short of a simple majority.

The awakening extends only to seeking a coalition with the City Independents (considering their recent history their name is increasingly questionable), the Tories, and the Lib Dems, thus aiming to absorb all but the five BNP group members and the 3 Non aligned, 2 independents, 1 Libertarian.

Attempting to obliterate opposition, and thus, effective scrutiny, not to mention the political choices of the electorate, is a move well along the road to a totalitarian approach to local government.

If the “good of the City”, the cry which almost drowns out principled argument in defence of difference (once choice was the New Labour buzz word!), really is such an agreed priority then why didn’t these petty politicians seek the people’s mandate on that basis? Why did they go all out to win for their particular party?

Apart from it being a rather sordid little tactic to avoid singular responsibility and accountability it fails to command even a commonsense consensus since no one has yet begun to spell out what “the good of the City” might mean! Is there only one good? Is there only one way to the good of the City? Of course not to both questions.

Such shallow siren calls reflect an abject laziness to articulate basic principles, core values and essential policies. Instead, of tackling those tasks they wish to slither into an amorphous mass to nod through whatever the root and branch cutting machine, driven by officers and over-paid consultants, churns out.

Come the all-out City Council elections next May to herald the new smaller one-member wards (perhaps with a few anomolous 2 and 3 member wards) the electorate will be truly challenged to work out which party candidate to support. I suspect many wont even bother, safe in the knowledge that their vote will be ignored and composted into coalition