Why Stoke fails – Some Observations

I was turned down for a job for Voluntary Action Stoke yesterday. Pity, it was an interesting job as Strategic Development Officer in Health. I thought that I had the intelligence, experience, ideas and challenge to make a good fist of the job. I stressed “memory” pointing out that I had worked as a Community Health Council for 10 years under the Tories in the 80s and 90s and I had a good idea where the proposed health reforms might go. In fact I essayed some of these ideas in Pits and Pots. The irony was that I thought that I interviewed well and anyone who has heard me on Radio would know that I give full and informed answers. Anyway another shot down and unfortunately it follows a tradition where I have not got a job which I am very qualified to do.

I must have been interviewed over 50 times over the years for various jobs for the City Council. It may well be in all those interviews for the various jobs I have gone for in the City Council that I was beaten by more knowledgeable, intelligent, abler people, but on some occasions it was likely that I was not. I am coming to the conclusion that those qualities I have challenge, ideas, memory and intelligence might put me at a disadvantage in respect to the local job scene. And also cast a light on the recent history of the City and might offer a clue that the problem might lie with me, but the people to whom I apply for jobs.

Why Stoke fails- challenge

An outsider might conclude that this area is cursed by an unusually high number of disasters as far as local and health government is concerned. A list over the last 20 years would indicate this. Since 1990 we have had Stoke College, Worldgate, the Cultural Quarter, Gravestone Flattening Controversy, Britannia Stadium, the regular turnover of Chief Executives of the City Council, the failure of City Regeneration, Sodexho and the food issue at UHNS, the contracting fiasco and slightly further afield Stafford Hospital. And I am sure that they are more. Is there a single factor that characterises these burning hulks- like tanks after the Battle of Kursk- that litter the political scene of the area? Yes. And that is lack of challenge. And what happens when people do challenge such as the handful of City Councillors who objected to the Britannia Stadium development. Well, they get disciplined and pushed away.

If you want to see a good example of the “blame culture” in action then a reading of the report on the Cultural Quarter repays an examination particularly the closed nature and the lack of enquiry exhibited by senior Councillors. A rather unsavoury aspect of all this is the attempt to fix the blame by senior officers on a junior arts development officer who subsequently suffered a breakdown in her health. Disgusting!

Why Stoke fails- ideas.

Alan Gerrard put his finger on the problem when he pointed out the inability of the City Council to address the empty shops in Stoke creatively. Has anyone ever wondered why other towns and cities close by seem to respond to problems with more imagination than this City? Look at Derby, which seems better placed to recover than Stoke because it has addressed the changing economic circumstances. Look at Wigan, which is addressing its transport infrastructure with new rail developments. In 1984 I suggested at a City Council Highways meeting that we might look at a light rail link like Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham were doing at the time. I can still hear the laughter to this day, but imagine if in the mid 80s we had seriously addressed the traffic flow problem by using for example the old loop line.

I don’t absolve organisation like VAST from the charge of being an ideas free zone. Last September I went to the AGM held at Vale Park. The agenda was exactly the same as the agenda from the previous year. Despite the fact that we are living through the worst recession since the 1930s the VAST agenda did not seem fit to address a topic which must be having a profound impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in the community. I did ask a question on Timebanks and LETS but have not received a response to this point. What was the afternoon filled up with? Indian Head Massage Sessions. What a wasted opportunity when a large proportion of the voluntary sector were in the room. Instead purring noises made towards Joan Walley who was present and the Government. If anything the event entirely fits it with one of the central problems between the Third Sector and local Authority. The cosiness, the failure to constructively challenge and the absence of any ideas.

I am reminded of Steerpike’s dismissal of the Twins in “Gormanghast” “So limp of brain that to have an idea is to risk a haemorrhage.

Which leads me to

Why Stoke fails- intelligence.

The late Stoke Council Leader Ted Smith was generally suspicious of intelligence. The sobriquet that was usually applied to any Councillor, for example, who had a degree was “smart arse”. The Leader before him Ron Southern used to decry the influence of “intellectuals in the Labour Party”. Do you honestly think that the general dismissive attitude to people with a scintilla of intelligence has gone away? Step forward Joy Garner. April 2004 and a meeting at Joiners Square held by the Labour Party to discuss policy. Joy who is chairing dismisses the section on Culture in the papers with the suggestion ” that no one is interested in culture”. Later on I am talking about economic renewal and the short sightedness of developing retail and warehousing as the answer to the job shortage in the area. I am arguing that the jobs created are low skilled and low paid. Joy’s response is to stick her tongue out at me.

Eventually I and a local vicar who is a party member complain to a Regional Officer and she is replaced.

If only it was just the Councillors. Last February after investing a great deal of my time and effort into researching the potential for green jobs in the area. I meet with representatives of the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce. I think the meeting is going well. The Chamber of Commerce person leaves early and I hear over the other City Council Officer’s phone the other guy ringing in with the comment “is he gone now”. Here I am putting forward ideas that might provide a life line for jobs based on some pioneering work that is going on in the States to be dismissed as a nuisance.

Why Stoke fails- memory.

Since the 70s North Staffs and Stoke generally has been the recipient of something like 17 national government initiatives ranging from Quality of Life in 1974-5 right through to Renew. The journey has included 6 SRB projects, although no one can actually recall what, who or what SRB6 concerned itself with. (I am thinking that like El Dorado or Prester John it existed in the imagination only)

Memory is important to an organisation. It stops you from repeating the same mistake. A cursory glance at some of the early problems faced in attempting to regenerate the City possibly would have stopped RENEW from repeating the errors made in the SRB scheme in the 90s in Cobridge.

And perhaps a closer study procedure of would have ensured the embarrassing fiasco of the smoking ban in the City Council, which was met with national merriment.

Part of the problem must be the removal of many experienced staff in their 40s and 50s a few years ago when the collective of an organisation is cauterised. It must have an impact of the effectiveness of the Council.

Why Stoke fails- Fatal attraction.

Ok I admit I am equally at fault here as a young Councillor in 1982. I was present at a Works Committee Recruitment meeting when we appointed a senior officer from West Wales who was full of the Welsh hwyl. He gave and extremely good interview and was appointed. He turned out to be cack and caused all sorts of problems for the 12 months he was in post before being paid off. On the other hand I was on the interview panel when the excellent Ian Lawley was appointed as Social History curator against some of the wishes of the women councillors on the panel who wanted another candidate because he had ” nice blue eyes”.

Unfortunately Stoke has a history of appointing “chancers” to senior positions. Chief Executives of the Council seem to regard an appointment to lead the Council in the same light as a Wermarcht Officer might consider an appointment to Byelorussia in 1943. Something to be got through quickly but looks good on the record.

It is not only a problem with the City Council. Consider the history of Stoke College in the 90s.

From the Times Education Supplement 1997

“Britain’s second largest and most troubled college may hire a “rescue squad” to help bail it out of an Pounds £8 million cash crisis after sacking its principal and deputy.

Neil Preston, the Pounds 90,000-a-year director of Stoke-on-Trent College, and his deputy, Helen Chandler, were dismissed on Christmas Eve after a lengthy inquiry into allegations of “dictatorial bullying”. They were also said to be in breach of their contracts because they were working in a pub while on sick leave.”

Then we have Steve Robinson thinking of Stoke every second of the waking day. Presumably he will had time in the long drive from Shropshire.

We shall see whet happens with the present incumbent but excessive use of consultants does not bode well.

Why Stoke fails- missed opportunities.

This is the story of two Wise men. Cliff and Richard (not related) but on the rare occasions when people of ability and vision appear they are usually so badly treated that they leave the scene. Vision is important for without vision the people die. Clif and Richard and others such as Fred Hughes have shown the capacity for ideas, have been excellent communicators, were and are committed to the area and have “memory”. It probably contributed to their down fall

Similarly the replacement of Mike Wolfe with the Nu Labour manikin Meredith was almost certainly to the detriment of the City.

Stoke- the hope

I want to end on a positive note. It seems to me that there hopeful sign that there might be a salvation in the form of Tristram Hunt. In my estimation Tristram has ideas on the development of the City. He is open, he is willing to accept and bring people in. A group of young and intelligent Councillors have been elected but then depressingly some of the old guard still remain.

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