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.

[soundcloud id=’19496753′]

Children’s Scrutiny Chair Slams Council Report and Demands Urgent Meeting

The Chair of the Children’s & Young Peoples Overview & Scrutiny meeting Cllr Dave Conway slammed the quality of a Council report and demanded that officers present a more comprehensive and up to date document before the Cabinet meet on 25th August.

His outburst came after it was revealed that the Children’s Centres attendance figures used in the report to members of the C&YPS committee were inaccurate and substantially out of date.

It was also revealed that the £2.25million worth of cuts, which equates to 30% of the Children’s Centres income, had already been removed from the budget.

There was also confusion over staffing levels due to the way the report was written which also drew criticism from the committee chair.

The Cabinet Member with responsibility for C&YPS, Cllr Debra Gratton reminded the committee that the recent statutory public consultation was not about the £2.25million of cuts as that had already been decided and agreed by the Council executive. It was about the services and facilities that would be on offer at the Children’s Centres in the future.

The Director of Children & Young People Services told the members of the scrutiny meeting that a reduction in staff and services at the city’s children’s centres could not be avoided due to the massive reduction in her departmental budget. She told the meeting that the Children’s Centres used to offer a Rolls Royce of a service but had had to reduce the level of service provided to the equivalent of a lesser model as a result of the necessity to save £12.6milion across her department. She said that she, the assistant directors and the managers had used a RAG rating system to identity the possible savings. It had been their priority to protect the Safeguarding Children side of the department.

Both the Cabinet Member and Departmental Director reminded the committee that no officer or politician found making these cuts easy or in the least bit palatable, but there was no alternative.

Committee Chair Cllr Dave Conway revealed that following his extensive research he had established that any Children’s Centre that was closed would be subject to a financial claw back by central government of around £1million per site. He interrogated the officers to whether this had played a role in the retention of the 7 Children’s Centres originally earmarked for closure.

Cllr Conway speculated whether the Labour Party had really saved the Children’s Centre’s due to the depth of public feeling or the fact that Central Government would get to claw back much more than was potentially being saved by this reorganisation.

Cllr Conway proposed that the report presented be rejected and a more comprehensive document, including accurate and up to date figures along with extensive feedback from the recent consultation, be presented to a specially arranged meeting of the C&YPS. This must be before the Cabinet meet on the 25th August to make a decision on the reorganisation of the children’s centres.

The committee agreed with the proposal.

It was also bad news for Children in school who were deaf or had severe hearing impairment.

Despite an ePetition with 588 signatures calling on Stoke-on-Trent City Council to reverse these cuts, protect services for deaf children and ensure all deaf children in Stoke on Trent have a fair chance to achieve, the Director of C&YPS and her officers revealed that the cuts to staffing had already been implemented.

Cllr Alistair Watson told the meeting that he had calculated that there would be around a 50% reduction in staffing.

C&YPS officers assured the committee members that support for deaf children would not been adversely affected and would include:

The support comes from:-

Teachers of the deaf with specialist qualifications – There are 5 qualified teachers of the deaf (June 2011), a reduction of 2 since April 2010.

Communication Support Workers – Numbers vary according to need but all hold additional qualifications such as British Sign Language and speech and language (currently 8 in post).

Audiology – One of the teachers of the deaf will qualify as an audiologist in 2011.

After the meeting I managed to catch up with the Chair of the C&YPS Overview & Scrutiny Committee, Cllr Dave Conway.

Listen to the Audio Interview below.

Dave Conway Elected Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Independent Group

Ex Labour Group member Cllr Dave Conway has today been elected the Leader of the City Independent Group.

Cllr Conway resigned from the Labour Group in 2009 and immediately joined the City Independent Group where he has served under former Leader Brian Ward until the recent Council Elections on 5th May.

The vacancy for CIG leader was caused when Brian Ward lost his Blurton seat at the election, losing out to Labour’s Neil day in the newly formed ward of Blurton West & Newstead.

The decision to elected Cllr Conway was unanimous and was taken at a meeting of the CIG at the civic centre today.

Cllr Conway has confirmed that Cllr Ann James will be Deputy Group Leader.

Cllr James was elected to serve the Great Chell and Packmoor ward after a 12month absence from the council chamber.

CIG Leader Cllr Dave Conway also confirmed that his group had made the controversial decision to accept Cllr Lee Wanger as a group member. This takes the number of his group to 7.

Cllr Wanger was elected to serve in the Tunstall ward.

Cllr Wanger has always divided opinion among his colleagues and the electorate as to whether he should be accepted in any group on the city council. He has a past conviction for subscribing to a child porn website and had to sign the sex offenders register.

He was previously a member of the Conservative & Independent Alliance before he narrowly failed to win elected to the council in 2010.

New Conservative Group Leader Cllr Abi Brown had already ruled out offering Cllr Wanger a place in her group.

Un-aligned Councillor Paul Breeze has confirmed that he will not be joining any group on the City Council.

Listen to the Audio Interview with new CIG Leader Cllr Dave Conway below. He tells us what is priorities are and how he will go about leading the opposition to the 34 member strong Labour Group.

He also gives his reaction to the new City Council Media Protocol which was withdrawn pending further input from elected members.

Stoke-on-Trent Overview & Scrutiny Committee Re-Affirm Cabinet Decision To Bring Vanguard.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Transformation & Resources Overview & Scrutiny Committee have today [Monday] re-affirmed the Cabinets decision to endorse the overall approach to deliver transformational change.

The cabinet had also approved the appointment of Vanguard Consultants to deliver a programme of planned service interventions based on the “Ëœlean thinking’ methodology.

It was appointment of Vanguard and the lack of a procurement and tendering process that prompted the call in by the Non-Aligned Group supported by Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley.

The Portfolio Holder for Resources Cllr Kieran Clarke briefly outlined the Cabinets decision and the reasons for it. He said that the whole of the Cabinet had endorsed the overall approach to the delivery of transformational change using Vanguard’s Lean Thinking method.

Cllr Clarke said that the programme would be funded through existing budget contingency. Approval had only been given to phase 1 of the programme and that there were several more stages which would have to be approved if they were necessary.

He told the Overview & Scrutiny Committee members that the cabinet had insisted that there was a Transformation Programme Board established to include the Council leader as Chair. The board’s priority was to ensure the appropriate member engagement. The Cabinet was still to agree on the make up of the board however.

He reminded the meeting that full council had approved the need for a root and branch review and that the review had established the urgent need for transformational change.

Cllr Clarke also stated that the City Council expect large cuts in Government funding which is due to be announced at the end of this month. He was anticipating that there would be around 20% cuts following the Conservative/Liberal Democrats coalitions emergency budget.

Front-Line services were to be protected wherever possible he said.

Vanguard would provide the expertise to deliver a customer driven programme and that they would train officers who would then in turn train the the rest of the workforce where necessary.

Chief Executive, John van de Laarschott backed up Kieran Clarke’s submission and added that the authority as it stood was not just “Ëœpoorly’, it was “Ëœcritically ill’, that it had been under performing for years.

He said that transformational change would deliver a massive improvement and would turn the authority into a confident and outward looking organisation.

The Chief Executive said that he believed that the citizens of the city wanted the council to put communities first. They wanted a reliable, efficient council that would raise the aspirations of the city and its people.

He said the council must start asking the public what they want rather than telling them what they are getting and the council must change the media perception of the city.

John van de Laarschott informed the committee that Transformational Change and the use of a Company such as Vanguard would train the council to deliver highly effective services from a lower cost base.

There would be an emphasis on building strong relationships with its partners.

The Chief Executive said that the council are anticipating cuts of between £50-£60million over the next three years which equates to a 20% cut. The Transitional Change Programme, delivered with the expertise brought by Vanguard would benefit the city and help with the required budget savings.

The Committee then heard from the spokesperson for the Call-in members, Cllr Mick Salih.

Cllr Salih informed the committee that he was in agreement with the Chief Executive that there was a need for Transformational Change. He said that the call in was not about what the CE is trying to achieve, it’s about the tendering and procurement process adopted in the matter.

The call-in member felt that the appropriate procedures had been short circuited. He asked why there had not been a tendering process when there were other companies who did what Vanguard do. He reminded the committee that there was cost of around £400k of public money.

He also raised concerns about the report that went to Cabinet and he said that it was too vague to base a judgement on. He said that the report stated that Vanguard were the leaders in this field but he asked where the evidence was for this claim?

He also posed the question of why the authority employs very highly paid officers to run departments if we need to bring in consultants like Vanguard.

Cllr Salih said that the council needed to deliver change in a proper, robust and transparent way in a process that included all elected members and not just the Cabinet.

In responding to the Call-in members concerns the Chief Executive, John van de Laarschott agreed that there had been an attempt to accelerate the process after a decision on the programme was deferred by the Cabinet. He rejected the claim that the process had been short circuited.

He agreed that there are other companies out there who do what Vanguard do and he went on to use an analogy. He said that if you needed open heart surgery, you wouldn’t use the “ËœYellow Pages’ to find a surgeon, you would get a referral by a Doctor to someone that he trusted to do the job properly. He said that he trusts Vanguard to deliver the programme because he has had experience of their services in the past as had many other local authorities.

John van de Laarschott said the there was a need for speed in this matter as delay could impact on the council’s budget for next year. He said that officers had negotiated a competitive rate which ensured value for money for the fees.

He said that the Transformational Change programme would show the authority what they need to do more of and what they need to do less of.

The use of Vanguard and their recommendations would assist the elected members to make the right decisions based on their finding ahead of the need to reduce the council budget.

One example that the Chief Executive gave to the committee was in one instance highlighted by the ongoing Kier/Vanguard initiative where from the first point of contact from the customer, to the solution of the problem, there were 290 steps of which all but 9 could be removed. He described the example of a bureaucratic Spaghetti Bolognese.

He reminded Elected Members that they have an obligation to produce a budget based on fact and that the Transformational Change Programme with the appointment of Vanguard would enable the council to do just that.

Members of the committee then asked the Officers, Portfolio Holder and Chief Executive questions relating to the call in.

Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley gave the Portfolio Holder Kieran Clarke a particularly hard time as he strove to get an insight into the Political Strategy of the Cabinet relating to the Transformation Change Programme.

Cllr Dave Conway also voiced concerns relating to the Procurement and Tendering process.

Eventually the Committee moved to vote on re-affirming the Cabinets decision to move forward with the Programme and the appointment of Vanguard.

The move was proposed by Cllr Tony Fradley [Labour] and seconded by Cllr Mohammed Matloob [Labour], they along with the Chair Cllr Joy Garner [Labour] voted for. Cllr Dave Conway [City Independent] and Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley [Un-Aligned] voted against. The motion was carried by 3 votes to 2.

Cllr Olwyn Hamer left the meeting early way before the vote. She had questioned the Chief Executive extensively on the appointment of Vanguard. She had some previous knowledge of them in another authority and was critical of the fact that they did not produce written reports on their work and findings that could be put before elected members.

Please listen to the Audio Interviews below. The first is with Portfolio Holder for Resources Cllr Kieran Clarke and Chief Executive John van de Laarschott.

The second Audio Interview is with Call-in member Cllr Mick Salih.

City Independent Group Change Their Leadership Team As They Look To Swell Their Numbers

The City Independent Group on Stoke-on-Trent City Council have changed their leadership team as the also look to swell their numbers.

Cllr Brian Ward is to remain as Group Leader but Cllr Dave Conway has been voted in as Deputy Group Leader.

Cllr Conway replaces Cllr Terry Follows who has stepped down to take a break from leadership duties.

The CIG also has the opportunity to swell their number in the wake of losing 3 of their members, Derek Capey, Ian Mitchell and Ann James at the recent local elections.

They are currently considering applications to join from Potteries Alliance Leader Cllr Peter Kent”“Baguley and former BNP group member Cllr Ellie Walker.

Cllr Kent-Baguley lost the other member of his group Geoff Knight at the election and Ellie Walker is looking for a new home following the shock defeat of her husband and former BNP Group Leader Alby Walker in the Abbey Green ward.

Their appointments would increase the number of CIG councillors from 11 to 14.

Sources suggest that the CIG are about to pull away from their coalition with the Conservative & Independent Alliance as they expect the Labour Group to make a bid for the Leadership of the Council.

The CIG are expecting today’s Cabinet meeting to be the last the are involved in.

If the current administration does dissolve, it could lead to a period of uncertainty on the City Council as Pits n Pots sources are suggesting that Labour are favouring continuing in opposition.

Conway calls for an inquiry into Ibbs arrest.

Leading Independent Councillor Dave Conway has today called for an independent inquiry into the arrest of fellow Councillor Roger Ibbs.

Cllr Ibbs was the first arrest of three centred around allegations of political corruption. Former Elected Mayor Mark Meredith was the second and local millionaire businessman Mo Chaudry was the third.

All three arrests made headline news locally but all three men faced no charges as the CPS claimed there was insufficient evidence to secure prosecution.

A later Standards Committee meeting accepted a report which completely exonerated Cllr Ibbs. This report also stated that Cllr Ibbs should have been classed as a victim rather than an accused.

Councillor Dave Conway has submitted a written motion to council officers which will be put to all 60 elected members at the next full council meeting on January 28.

Watch the video below, Cllr Conway explains his reasons..