Labour Scrutiny Councillors Uphold Decision to Close Willfield Fitness Centre

Labour councillors today [Thursday] forced through the decision to close a popular fitness centre despite the gallant efforts of two of their own councillors.
The cabinet had already voted to close Willfield Fitness Centre but their decision was called in by City Independent Group Leader Cllr Dave Conway along with Cllr Lee Wanger.

A meeting of the Adult & Neighbourhood Overview & Scrutiny Committee were told that despite the call in work was already underway to close the facility.

The pool was drained, staff had left post and 14 fitness groups had been transferred to other locations across the area.

Opposition councillors led By Dave Conway were furious that the City Council officers had broken a long standing rule of halting any work until the call in process had been exhausted.

City Independent Councillors Conteh, James and Conway were always facing an uphill battle to overturn the cabinet decision, but they were buoyed by support from Labour Cllr Sheila Pitt who with assistance from fellow Labour Councillor Alison Wedgwood tabled the following statement and proposal:

Firstly I would like to say that both myself and Councillor Alison Wedgwood worked together on this statement and these questions because we both feel that this is a very important decision we are being asked to review.

There are six points to consider. The gym receives over 70,000 visits per year from people whose only goal is to lead independent healthy lives; this is now one of the four new pillars on which the whole Mandate for Change agenda rests so closing a well used and relatively inexpensive sports facility doesn’t make sense on so many levels.

We believe the underlying reason why the Council want to close it down is because the gym is housed in a not very attractive building which will soon be situated next to a brand new academy. I think you all agree when I say that we in the Council cannot go around knocking down useful, productive buildings, simply because they are ugly. Especially buildings that the Council invested £1 million pounds in only five years ago.

The financial reasons for closing the gym do not make sense. We did not receive a full breakdown of the costs in the options appraisal, so Councillor Wedgwood asked for a breakdown and has recently received this table, which I would like to show my fellow committee members.

In TABLE 1 you will see that £133,000 is included to clad the outside of the building to make it more attractive. However, if I now draw your attention to the Public Options Appraisal report which was used to justify closing the gym which is included as Page 7 of your agenda , in the notes it says clearly that the £133,000 is not part of the £398,500 capital item.

It says “This does not include “¦ a further anticipated £133,000 to clad the building due to planning conditions”
This doesn’t make sense and understandably gives me little confidence in the rest of the figures and data presented in the options appraisal; therefore, I find it difficult to make such an important decision when I don’t trust the figures.

TABLE 1 also includes a cost of £27,000 to repair or renew windows, in this age of austerity, why can’t the gym cope with its current windows? Again I would argue that this is an unnecessary expense.

In our Agenda on page 22 we have a comparison of the number of users at the gym compared to other council sites. I think this was intended to show how little used the gym is. We think that this data actually shows how important our decision is today ““ the gym represents 5% of all sports usage in this city – all in only 398 square meters! It has the same number of users as Northwood sports stadium. I wonder if a better analysis wouldn’t be to show the number of users per square meter, or the number of users per pound subsidy?

Similarly, the table of postcodes, on page 22 was intended to show that the gym isn’t really a community gym., Well firstly as 22% of the table are invalid entries the table is deeply flawed. Secondly, the fact that there are also many users from Longton, Blurton and Meir shows that shifting these users across to the Wallace centre would not work and that this is not just an issue for Bentilee, but for many citizens of Stoke on Trent.

Is the Wallace centre really as suitable for Disabled Users? We know a disabled user went to the Wallace recently and found that it hasn’t got disabled showers like the Willfield has, what use is a gym without a shower?

Finally, and very importantly, we feel that the options appraisal should have included the business case included by other external groups or funders, such as the one presented by the Willfield Action Group. I would like to remind everyone that according to the new Localism Bill, Councils are supposed to be willing to hand over assets to the community for them to manage and run especially if this reduces the financial burden to the Council. This is a perfect example of letting our civic society, letting hard working members of the community volunteer and manages their own services. The Willfield Action Group have a former manager from Sports and Leisure at their head, they are not just a group of well meaning do-gooders.

When Councillor Pervez visited the gym on the 8th June Mr Camellaire was asked to present a business case, and without much time he has done so, but within a few days of the 8th June a decision had already been made, and the Community Trust business case which I’m sure you have all received, has never been considered. This business case would need some firming up which can be done with more access to council data, but there is a real opportunity to let the Community run the gym, take on the financial risks and prove that they can make it work. If it doesn’t work then at least they have tried, and the Council may have lost a free opportunity to demolish a building but will have gained many supporters and democracy would have been better served.

Therefore, we urge this committee to consider this Community Trust business case. This should have been considered by the cabinet and council officers and in the interests of democracy, accountability and fair decision making, and in the interests of the health and independence of the people of Stoke on Trent I would like to recommend the gym is handed over to a Community Trust for them to run and that this decision is referred back to the Cabinet for them to amend.

Officers of the council did their upmost to prevent Cllr Pitt from sharing her documentation with other councillors at the meeting but a timely intervention by Cllr Randy Conteh who reminded officer that he had seen papers handed out on the day of the meeting many times before, soon resulted in the legal officer backing down and the papers were distributed.

After a long and at times heated debate, the proposal to recommend that the Willfield Fitness Centre be retained on its present site and for the Council to work with the Willfield Centre Trust to taken over the costs and running of the Centre was voted on and narrowly defeated.

Labour Councillor Sheila Pitt voted with the opposition, whilst her fellow group councillors Pender, Wheeldon, Banks and Fry contributed nothing to the debate during the entire meeting.

Cllr Bagh Ali used his casting vote to ensure that the cabinet decision to close the Willfield Centre was upheld.
It was obvious that the Labour Group had the whip on.
Cllrs Hamer, Rosenau and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Group Paul Shotton were dotted about the Windsor Room to ensure that there were no dissenters.

There may be trouble ahead for Cllrs Pitt & Wedgwood. The Labour Group often takes a dim view on councillors who break the whip.

Talking to Willfield supporters after the meeting the actions taken by the two labour Councillors were very much appreciated and went a long way to convince the electorate in their ward that Cllrs Pitt and Wedgwood stayed true to their election pledge to fight to keep the popular fitness centre open.

After the meeting I managed to catch up with Cllr Randy Conteh whose contribution throughout the meeting was outstanding.

Listen to the Audio Interview below.

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March in Support of Willfield Gym

There was a protest march on Tuesday 28th June 2011 against the planned closure of the Willfield gym, fitness centre and swimming pool.

I have blogged before (see links below) about Labour outrages in Bentilee and the fate of the Willfield gym.
I was very pleased to see a huge turnout at this protest, organised by the City Independent Group of the council alongside gym campaigners.

We were led by Vance Reardon and his splendid contingent of bagpipers in a well organised and marshalled march from the Bentilee Neighbourhood Centre along Dawlish Drive to the Willfield gym. There was much support along the way, people at home came to their doorsteps to watch, some joined in and traffic stopped without animosity. There was some talk along the way about who voted Labour in the ward. There seemed to be very little knowledge of many who did.

Prominent gym user and campaigner Carol Harrison took part with a multitude of other gym users including Lisa Hulme and her very vociferous group of children and parents from Bentilee Happy Feet who use the building for their dance classes. The crowd also included residents’ association members and many others who care about their community facilities.

Councillors Dave Conway and Ann James joined the march as did former local councillors Steve Batkin, Rita Dale and John Davis. Current Bentilee and Ubberley councillors Sheila Pitt and Alison Wedgwood did not join the march but Sheila attended the rally afterwards outside the Willfield gym.

Cabinet are sure to vote today 30th June 2011 to close the Willfield gym. Dave Conway’s City Independent Group are sure to call in the decision but to no avail as Labour scrutinising their own decisions are bound to apply the final axe to the gym and swimming pool.

Stoke-on-Trent Planning Councillors Flex Their Collective Muscles

The eight elected councillors who sat in the meeting of the Development Management Committee this week sent a very clear message out to those who fail to meet their planning conditions.

Planning decisions can often be terse affairs and I am sure that everyone who is reading this article has themselves, or know of others, who have affected by a planning decision. Indeed some people only get to witness the city council at work when they become embroiled in a planning application.

The outcome can sometimes go your way if you are objecting but more often decisions go the way of the applicant.

This week though our elected members who sit on the Development Management Committee showed that they are not for being pushing around, either by applicants or by planning officers.

The issue involved a complaint that a development had taken place without complying with a number of planning conditions.

The site in question is that of the former Eagle Pottery, Ivy House Road, Hanley . Redrow Homes gained outline planning permission in 2005 for a residential development subject to a number of conditions.

The owners of the adjacent Goodwin Steel Foundry alleged that work has commenced without the developer complying with a number of the conditions imposed.

Goodwin’s have been involved throughout the process and are keen to ensure that the developer complies especially in relation to noise, odours, air quality, HGV parking and turning.

In addition to the allegations made by Goodwins, investigations have revealed that some of the works have taken place that are not in accordance with the approved permission. This includes works adjacent to the canal, surfacing and boundary treatment and landscaping.

The report prepared by the planning officers and presented to our councillors at the meeting recommended that the committee “Ëœnote’ the nature of the allegations and that they also “Ëœnote’ that there are ongoing negations with Redrow. Finally it was also recommended that members “Ëœagree’ that it would not be expedient to take enforcement action with respect to the breaches of the planning conditions.

Well let me tell you, the elected members present neither agreed nor noted the officers’ recommendations. They were not of a mind to be directed by the legal officer present either.

Cllrs Paul Shotton and Cllr Ann James in particular demonstrated that this committee was not for steering and would make its own decisions and come to its own conclusions.

Cllr Shotton proposed that enforcement action be taken against the developer for failure to comply with the planning conditions attached to the outline permission.
This was met with a worried look by the planning officers and an attempt at watering down the proposal by the legal officer.

She was concerned that the council would incur costs if the developer chose to fight the enforcement and she also feared that it would not be looked on favourably if the council took enforcement action against the developer on all of the conditions as negotiation were underway to resolve some of the issues.

Not to be deterred Cllr Shotton used the planning officer to help and advise on the wording of a proposal that allowed the committee to impose enforcement on the developer for the conditions they had neglected to adhere to.

The proposal to take enforcement action was unanimously voted through. All 8 councillors present were united and stood firm against the officers’ recommendations demonstrating that the allegations that councillors are led or directed by officers are unfounded.

Cllr Paul Shotton, the deputy leader of the council along with Cllr Ann James’s steely determination sent a very loud warning across to the officers that although Labour have a large majority on the council, when needed councillors will unite to ensure the right decisions are made.

This will not be an officer – Labour Party love-in as some administrations have been in the past.

This was an encouraging start to the ongoing fight to prove that true democracy is alive and kicking in the City of Stoke-on-Trent.

Tony Walley – On My Stoke-on-Trent Soapbox

Politics ““ It’s a Dirty Job But Someone Has To Do It ““ Don’t They? Part 2

Ahead of last Thursday’s Full Council meeting I got the chance to interview Cllr Roy Naylor, until recently a full and active member of the City Independent Group, now non-aligned.

I have always been impressed by Roy, he’s a man of principle and not a harder working councillor can be found.

Roy dedicates his life to his Blurton ward and is committed to helping the residents of the area.

He has embraced new media and the people of Blurton are regularly updated on his activities through his impressive blog site, FaceBook and his informative Twitter feed.

The ward of Blurton used to be represented solely by members of the City Independent Group until the surprise election of Labour’s Margaret Barber this summer.

There is no doubt following my discussions with people who live in the area of Blurton that Roy is the man on the beat, which is understandable given his former Group Leader’s Cabinet responsibilities.

The duo complemented each other until their recent parting of the ways.

Cllr Roy Naylor was unceremoniously booted out of the City Independent Group for being in arrears with his council tax and the rent on his council home.

Roy doesn’t deny the claim, far from it, he openly admits to having financial problems. I myself have been aware of rumours surrounding Cllr Naylor’s financial predicament for some 12 months now.

Those rumours have been circulating around the corridors of the Civic Centre for even longer according to some sources.

So it really does beg the question, why expel him from the group now, after all this time? Other members of his group knew that Roy had difficulties, including Group Leader Cllr Brian Ward.

The answer may lie in the fact that just before his undignified expulsion; Roy informed his Group leader that it was intention to fight the election in the newly formed Blurton West & Newstead Ward, an area that he is both known and enormously well respected.

This has allegedly angered Cllr Ward who wants to fight the ward himself and sources have informed me that as Group Leader, he believes that the “Ëœpecking order’ allows him first choice.

Now, if as the CIG claim, that the reason that Roy was shown the door was down to his financial differences, why did his group not do their best to help their mate and valued group member out?

Cllr Randy Conteh has recently vacated the Police Authority Committee, a position that pays handsomely, why was Cllr Naylor not considered for this position? Surely the financial reward would have help his position greatly and would enable him to clear his arrears faster.

Cllr Naylor liaises with the police particularly well and has a great understanding of how the Police operate within our city.

So, who did replace Cllr Conteh on the Police Authority? Non other than CIG Group Leader, Cabinet Member and fellow ward Councillor Brian Ward. How much does all that earn Cllr Ward?

Over £33,000 per year. Not bad all things considered.

How much does Cllr Naylor now earn for holding the fort in the Blurton ward and working tirelessly for the residents of his ward?

Just over £11,000 per year.

I feel a little uncomfortable talking about another man’s finances, but do you know what? Not as uncomfortable as Cllr Ward should feel for disclosing a fellow councillors personal circumstances to the media.

A council source has informed me that the matter may be referred to the Standards Committee and that it doesn’t have to be Cllr Naylor that makes the initial report.

As the same source said to me on the phone this week, “Ëœwith friends and colleagues like that, who needs enemies’?

It has also been suggested to me that Cllr Naylor may well be priced out of fighting the next election due to the cost of mounting a campaign.

I have been assured by a number of sources that Roy will not be short of offers to help, or indeed of offers of membership to other groups.

Now that would be an interesting ““ top of the bill clash ““ between Roy and his former group leader Brian Ward.

Especially if the full weight of a mainstream party is behind the former CIG member. But that is just me speculating, although, I may just nip to the bookies to put a couple of quid on.

What isn’t speculation however is the rise and substantial fall of the City Independent Group.

Once the second biggest group in the chamber with some 16 councillors and now reduced to just 8 and 1 of those constantly rumoured to be on the move.

There are those in the city that champion Independent politicians/groups, but the present crop isn’t that independent when you consider that they are part of a 4 way ruling coalition.

There is no doubt that the CIG are in political melt down and with the election campaign season about to start more divisions could come to light.

As for Cllr Roy Naylor, I’m sure he will keep on doing what he does best and that is to passionately represent the area of Blurton and to continue to champion causes like the Save Our Children’s Centre campaign as the kind of true Independent we can all remember.

Where’s Ann James’s number…..

Full Council Report – Ibbs, Dimensions and the Withdrawn Motion!

One of the most interesting topics on Thursday’s full council meeting was the motion tabled By Cllr Dave Conway.

The motion had called for the following:

“That this Council resolves that an inquiry be established into the conduct of the internal investigation of the proposed closure of the splash pool at Dimensions Leisure Centre, Burslem, with the following remit:

·Ensuring that all elected members have been, and will in future be, treated fairly and properly in relation to this and similar matters; and

·Establishing a formal process to ensure fairness and openness in all dealings with elected members, such process to be incorporated in the Local Code Governing Relations between Elected Members and Council Employees set out in the City Council’s Constitution.”

When the agenda reached this item however, the motion was withdrawn by Cllr Conway and with the permission of the seconder, Cllr Ann James.

The reason for the withdrawal of the motion was because Cllr Ibbs had been advised that the quickest way of reaching a conclusion in this matter was for the new Chief Executive to undertake an independent inquiry into the conduct of the council and it’s officers into the circumstances which led to the arrest of Cllr Ibbs following a complaint that he made in relation to the proposed closure of the Dimensions Leisure Centre.

Listen to the Audio Interview with Cllr Roger Ibbs where he gives us his reasons for making a formal complaint against an officer of the City Council.

The Silver Fox has the Indies Nomination!

By Tony Walley.

Brian Ward

Brian Ward

Pits’n’Pots can tonight exclusively reveal that the City Independent Group have voted unanimously for Brian Ward to be their Council Leader candidate.

AT the group AGM tonight Brian received 10 votes  out of the 14 councillors in attendance.

The other Independent candidate Ann James received 4 votes.

Brian will become the group leader with immediate effect.

Cllr Terry Follows will become the City Independent Group’s Deputy Leader.

We will bring you a comprehensive audio interview with Brian on Wednesday when he will share his vision for our city should he become the Council Leader.

Alan Rigby decided not to stand.