Stoke-on-Trent Politics – A Current Snapshot

As Stoke-on-Trent politics is entering the summer recess, I thought I would give my opinion on the state of our City’s politics as it stands at this moment in time.

Community Voice

The new kids in town. Two groups [Potteries Alliance & Non-Aligned] amalgamated into one. They launched last week and my understanding is that they have had considerable interest through their website. They have incurred the wrath of the racist elements of the Potteries Community Federation. Craig Pond, was banned for life from this site for an outrageous slur on a member of Community Voice. This delusional racist had the audacity to suggest that Community Voice had ‘gone behind his back’ as he had, in the past, attempted to rope them into the PCF. What this one brain cell wonder did not seem to understand was that no one in their right minds would hook up with a known extreme racist, it would be political suicide!
As it stands at the moment, Community Voice have 5 councillors in the chamber. Rumours are reaching us however that there are other councillors about to join this merry band. This time the rumour is that this does not just include members of the City Independent Group. It will be a busy summer for the newbies. Whilst every other group enjoy the summer recess, Community Voice need to busy networking and building support. What they need to be conscious of is not to come across as a one trick, anti-Labour, single issue group. Reminds me of the Eagles classic – ‘New Kid In Town’

British National Party

Mike Coleman’s group, although lower in number, are still throwing themselves into ward work and worthy causes. They are perhaps not seen as the force that they once were. There was a nasty taste left In Stoke BNP by the resignation of Alby Walker that permeated at a national level. Walker was subsequently shown the door in both the local & general elections, even by his beloved followers in Abbey Green. The BNP locally and nationally has disastrous election campaigns and results in the locals and the general. There were massive scandals all the way through with the infighting, the webmaster dispute that saw the national website pulled on election day. There was also the ill-thought out election broadcast featuring the jar of Marmite which has opened up the party to possible bankruptcy through the possible legal action by Lever. Nick Griffin has always accused the government and media of trying to bring financial ruin onto the BNP, especially over EHRC ruling. He has been strangely quiet over the Marmite fiasco as it all points to him for the debacle that may result in oblivion for the far right party. All these issues have got to have an effect on the local BNP group.
Mike Coleman has a massive rebuilding exercise on his hands yet national party shenanigans may well consign the already suffering Stoke BNP to the ‘political has’ bin! Reminds me of the Clash classic ‘I Fought The Law’

Liberal Democrats

If I was to believe all I was told, the Lib Dems thought long and hard before allowing Kieran Clarke to join the ruling coalition on Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Pity Nick Clegg didn’t exercise the same caution before he leaped into a political bed in his ‘Brokeback Mountain’ moment when he consigned the national Liberal Democrats to potential political wilderness. Recent polls are suggesting support is down to an all time low of around 12%. Senior Lib Dem figures are saying it ‘doesn’t worry them’ but surely they understand that it will worry the hell out of local Lib Dem party’s, especially in areas like Stoke-on-Trent where no one ever hears from them anyway. With a party membership of around 70 in Stoke-on-Trent and a repetition of getting rid of any member that voices dissent [David Jack & Paul Billington] The Lib Dems locally are frankly a non event. Kieran Clarke and his party are desperate to cling on to the coat tails of the other mainstream parties locally, but if the poll ratings keep falling, they themselves will guilty of nailing their own coffins permanently shut. If that doesn’t work the ConDem cuts will! The local and national picture reminds me of the Godley & Creme classic – ‘Under Your Thumb’

Conservative & Liberal Alliance

The elections saw some outgoings and some in comings in this group. Abi Brown is building a great reputation for herself and will no doubt reach the top in at some point in the future. In Trentham, Mark Wright is doing very well indeed according to sources in the ward. There is a rumour of a possible defection from this group but it remains to be seen if that particular council has the balls to make the move. I get tired of people moaning and threatening all sorts. Actions speak louder than words, I say. This group are in for a difficult time in the near future. Given the fact that their group name contains the description ‘Conservative’ – every upcoming cut and there will be many, could result in the loss of support and all Abi Browns hard work to get the City of Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives looking like something of a force, will all come tumbling down. Their demise could resemble a game of Jenga.
Ross Irving is still the leader the Group and is running the City Council on a daily basis in consultation with Council Leader Mohammed Pervez. Their relationship is steadfast and they are committed to making the right decisions in these desperately difficult hard financial times under a government coalition committed to slashing funding of up to 25%. The old Nat King Cole classic springs to mind – There May Be Trouble Ahead>

City Independent Group

All has not been well in this group for a long while now. Basically it is split into two factions, those who are for the coalition and those who are against it. Leader Brian Ward is fighting to convey unity to the outside. Privately I have been told by sources that meeting are a bit fractious. The basic problem is that when you are a part of a ruling coalition, your partners want loyalty. When you campaign in elections that you are independent and then follow like sheep and show that you are independent of no one or from anything, people start to question your credibility. The CIG will be severely tested by the Budget consultations. When ‘Independent’ councillors are asked to support difficult decisions that may result in a cut of a service, they may well have a problem convincing the public that they are Independent of that decision. It is a that time I think we will see some CIG councillors walk, especially now they have a place to go to. Reminds me of the Paul Young classic – Wherever I Lay My Hat!

The Labour Group

The Labour Group are stronger, more settled and better organised than I have ever known here in Stoke-on-Trent.
The elections saw them make 12 gains and they now have 26 councillors in the chamber. This is still 5 short of an overall majority. They answered the claim that they were given a mandate by the people of Stoke-on-Trent to take power with a 4 way ruling coalition.
The Labour Group have been criticised for non attendance at meetings. There are quite a number of the Labour Group who hold full time jobs. Should we moan at them or the system? We are constantly told that we employ highly paid officers, would it be wrong to have the committee meetings after the working day as they do in neighbouring councils? Surely evening meeting is the way to go when we have single member wards, wouldn’t this be conducive to more effective ward work?
Now, during the last coalition under the elected mayor system, things went horribly wrong for Labour.
Most people put this down the fact that particular elected mayor because he was Labour.
One fact constantly overlooked was the fact that the position of Council Manager had the ultimate power and could command and force through any decision. It has been alleged that the EMB were under the constant threat by the then Council Manager that unless they did it his way and delivered his agenda, he would call government in to take the running of the council over.
The difference now is that it is the Council Leader who holds the balance of power and it falls upon his shoulders, along with his coalition cabinet, to make the right choices.
This coalition are backing CEO John van de Laarschot’s proposal to bring in Vanguard at a cost of some £190, who along with DECATS [£120k] have the task f saving some £4million. I think Pervez and his cabinet have this spot on. This has to be done before the city loses a single public service. It could be this decision that saves Shelton Pool. There are thousands of people who have signed the petition to save Shelton Pool who would agree. Time will tell if the right decisions over cuts are made. This coalition can not hide behind anyone or point the blame elsewhere, in them we have to trust and we must have our say and input.
We are part of a big society whether we like it or not.
Puts me in mind of the Beatles/Joe Cocker/Wet, Wet, Wet classic – With A Little Help from My Friends’

We have three councillors who plough a lonely furrow:

Gavin Webb [Libertarian] – Gav is a good guy, nutty as a fruit cake some say. He does is bit to free of what he sees as the oppressive regime of government and the increasing amounts of legislation. Reminds me of the Sex Pistols classic – Anarchy In The UK.

Alan Rigby [Christian Independent] – Alan has decided that party politics are not for him and questioned whether the CIG are really independent. Always speaks from the heart and is always well meaning. Reminds me of the Mario Lanza classic – I’ll Walk With God

Ellie Walker [Non Aligned] – Ellie seems a bit lost since she quit the BNP. She left and boy did she have her say. She has an excellent reputation both in her ward and in the council. There is not one person who I have met who speaks negatively about Ellie. Some say she would be better off in a group and that she needs other councillors around her. Time will tell if she seeks re-election next year. Reminds me of the Kylie Minogue classic – I’m Spinning Around

Well that’s my summer report done and dusted. The opinions expressed are mine alone. You may have yours, so feel free….

Ashley Howells ‘Apologises’ – But I’m Still Not Happy!

I was incensed to read the comments made by Newcastle-under-Lyme Councillor Ashley Howells in today’s Sentinel.

He said:

“I am extremely sorry that I made a personal response on Twitter which has been misinterpreted and then sadly misrepresented by others.

“My comments were in response to reading a highly political anti-Coalition Government comment about public expenditure cuts, which alleged that Stoke-on-Trent has been and will be disproportionately affected.

“I would say that there is indeed an obesity problem, together with a benefits dependency and worklessness problem amongst a minority ““ I stress a minority, some might call it an underclass ““ in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire which all councils and politicians of all shades are trying hard to rectify.”

Now while this may seem a grovelling apology to the people of Stoke-on-Trent, to me it is a double edged sword.

On one side, of course I accept his apology for the hurtful, inaccurate, insulting and incredibly arrogant comments he made about the people of the City of my birth.

On the other side his apology left me fuming at his insinuation that he had in some way, been ‘misrepresented’.

Our story was picked up and written by my good friend and colleague Mike Rawlins. I had the task of getting the reaction from both the public and our politicians.

Now I realise that our politicos are busy, busy people, but Mohammed Pervez [who works full time too], Ross Irving, Tristram Hunt MP [who was in a meeting when I called] all had the decency to get back to me fairly promptly. Rob Flello MP got back to me the next morning to voice his disgust and relay the hope that someone would refer the matter to the Standards Board.

Ashley Howells has not returned any of the 12 calls that I made to him and the numerous messages I left on his answering service.

At PitsnPots we pride ourselves on our balanced approach and fairness to all.

We give all parties and their politicians/representatives equal treatment, yes even the BNP.

We asked Mr Howells to give us his side of the story, we offered him, as we do with all others a completely unedited interview which would have given him the opportunity to set the record straight.

His silence is deafening!

I am left frustrated that he chose to speak to the Sentinel who picked up the story off this site and I can’t help but think that there was a veiled swipe at us in his ‘misrepresented’ comment.

I may well live Stoke-on-Trent, but I pay a substantial amount of money to Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council in business rates.

I think that puts me in a position whereby I deserve an explanation as to why this excuse of a politician is claiming that this site ‘misrepresented’ him or his comments.

Ashley Howells has now terminated his Twitter Account. I wonder if this is because he can not trust himself not to say the wrong thing.

Apparently he was once a Labour Party supporter who failed to reach the status of group leader and so defected to the Tories. Maybe he is having a problem justifying the policies of the ConDem government having seen the world through socialist eyes.

My old Dad used to say that all men make mistakes but only true men with integrity admit to making those mistakes.

His apology is of course welcome to all of us ‘unfortunate’ Stokies, but at the same time it is full of buts, misinterpretations and claims of misrepresentation that attempt to pass the blame and not accept the responsibility.

Why do some people have a problem with holding their hands up and saying ‘I screwed up and for that I am truly sorry’ – full stop.

Rob Flello MP thought that the matter should be reported to Standards and as someone who contributes to NULBC I am seriously considering whether to report it myself, for no other reason than I think that Ashley Howells has tried to shift the blame and claim that we have in some way treated him unfairly. So much so that he could not speak to us and explain his comments even though we published the matter in it’s entirety to avoid claims that we have misrepresented the issue.

It’s About Trusting The Folks

By Public Servant Magazine

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles explains how the coalition government is setting out to rebalance power and make localism a reality

A friend of mine, a former Congressman from Wisconsin, once said: “If you don’t like the folks, don’t be in our business.” When politics becomes the preserve of people who are only interested in power, the political system starts to break down. That’s what we’ve seen in the past 13 years.

The previous government didn’t like the folks. It didn’t trust them. It always believed it knew best. It left local government toothless, community groups out in the cold and residents powerless to change anything.

The result was that voting rates plummeted, especially at local government elections. There’s no point in voting for someone who can’t change anything. There was no room for creativity or innovation in public services. You followed rules and ticked boxes. And the money followed the power, so London and the South East grew at the expense of everywhere else.

When people ask me about my priorities in government, I tell them we have three: localism, localism and localism. Because if you want to restore faith in politics, you make sure that local government is properly accountable to voters. If you want to rebuild a fragile national economy, you don’t strangle business with red tape and let bloated regional bodies make the decisions. If you want people to feel they have a stake in the future of their communities, you give them a say over what happens there.

So we are determined to rebalance power; wrest control away from bureaucrats, quangos and central departments and push it as far from Whitehall as possible. This is going to fundamentally change the nature of the constitution. It won’t be in a single action or law. It will be through dramatic actions and incremental changes. Localism is the principle that defines everything we do.

You might think all governments talk like this.
But we’re doing it. Already we’ve:
“¢ Made HIPS history and the number of homes being put up for sale has gone up by 35 per cent.
“¢ Given a lifeline to thousands of businesses in ports that had huge backdated business rates hanging over them.
“¢ Scrapped top-down housing targets and regional spatial strategies. Soon I will be announcing the full list of incentives to local authorities that will encourage development.
“¢ Put an end to unwanted “garden grabbing”, putting decisions back in local hands.
“¢ Cut ring-fencing and red tape attached to hundreds of millions pounds worth of central government grants.

Everything the coalition changed has been about giving up control, restoring the balance of power. By the time the Localism Bill is introduced later this year, we’ll have made a start to localism becoming reality. The Bill will give voters more power over local government and local spending. It will free up local government from central control, and will continue to put the community in charge of how their area develops.

What does all of this mean for those working in local government? First, if localism is going to have an effect, local government has got to be ready to seize the opportunities coming your way. Don’t wait around for us to tell you what to do. Already there are a number of councils who are stepping up: Windsor and Maidenhead, Essex, Leicestershire, North Yorkshire and Kent, to name just a few. All councils need to follow their lead and flex their muscles.

Second, localism isn’t just about giving power back to local government. It’s not a tug of war between the two of us. It’s even more important that we push power onwards, closer to people. We want to make sure people can take control and take responsibility in their street, their estate, their town. With neighbourhoods, people working together, as the basis for the big society.

There has never been a better time to be involved in local government. No one working in local government signed up to be told what to do for the rest of their lives by Whitehall. There is a real opportunity for councillors today to have far more fulfilling, rewarding careers; exercising genuine choice; changing the face of neighbourhoods.

We’ve set the scene for the most radical shake-up of power for a generation. Be in no doubt, the revolution starts here.

Shabby, Sham Consultation Quiz Launched

So, here we go again. A virtually leaderless Council trying to convince residents that their ideas are important rather than admit they have no ideas themselves!

The Council’s press statement released this morning states: “Residents are to be asked what they would like Stoke-on-Trent City Council to prioritise its spending on for the next financial year, on the back of stiff government cuts. The authority, which has a budget of £209 million, needs to save approximately £30 million next year ““ a 14 per cent reduction. The consultation which starts today and continues until 20th August will include:

â— Face-to-face surveys carried out in local centres, shopping centres, markets, libraries, museums and bus stations
â— An on-line survey via stoke.gov.uk/letstalk
â— Billboard advertising to inform people about the consultation
â— A dedicated phone line ““ 01782 235104 ““ where people can give their views in person.
It appears all very democratic and proof that we have a “listening” council. But wait a minute, just look at what people will be asked to “say what is important to them”:

â— Encouraging more jobs and businesses
â— Reducing anti-social behaviour and fear of crime
â— Looking after the environment and tackling climate change
â— Improving health and well-being
â— Repairing and maintaining roads and pavements
â— Keeping streets clean
â— Improving educational achievement
â— Supporting and protecting vulnerable adults and children
â— Increasing recycling
â— Providing sport and leisure facilities
â— Providing decent and affordable housing

This is the same list used six months ago. It was heavilly criticised then and the criticisms remain. Who would say no to any of the 11 areas? And, from the Councillor who has always maintained that redundancies and cut backs would not adversely affect front line services finally admits the truth:

“Councillor Kieran Clarke, cabinet member for finance, performance and governance, said: ‘Residents views are always important to us, but are even more so given the cuts that need to be made. Saving £30 million is a very hard task and will simply mean that we will not be able to deliver some of the services that we have been doing.

‘The government’s emergency budget made it clear that we will not be allowed to raise council tax next year to help pay for services, so it is crucial to know what services are important to residents to help identify where the savings must be made.

‘I urge as many residents as possible to respond to the consultation. By getting a good range of views from across the city, we will be able to take their views into account when setting the budget.’

Cllr Clarke should be ashamed of himself for uttering such platitudinous rubbish. Why doesn’t he, along with his Cabinet colleagues and his near-invisible Council Leader, set out a policy framework clearly showing potential, if not already decided actual, service CUTS? They don’t because they lack the capacity and backbone to provide political leadership.

This is a shabby, sham exercise. How can anyone sensibly respond to such questions without the answers to scores of questions each of those areas raise? If I say yes to jobs, will that necessarily mean no to swimming pools? What has rasiing educational standards got to do with money? Do I know that the government expects the Council to recycle more not less so that is not an area for cuts? Who doesn’t want clean streets? What is the cost of improving health and well being?

I hope Cllr Clarke is flooded with questions demanding to know the cost of each of these areas and how the Cabinet propose to provide them more efficiently and effectively without cutting any of them. People may also like to know how responses to the questions will remotely affect the outcome of next year’s budget.

Council Consultation Failure

Stoke-on-Trent City Council launches its consultation today in attempt to get public views so that it can decide where to make the huge savings necessary to make the budget balanced next year.

On first glance this seems like a noble attempt to include the public in a very difficult exercise. Yet on closer inspection this is little more than a box ticking con, a waste of public money, and worst of all, of little value to councillors when it comes to swinging the axe on public services.

Why do I say this?

Consultation is about quality not quantity. This proposed consultation is fundamentally flawed as it will not identify residents honest views on the cuts that people are willing to accept for the benefit of the services people really want protecting.

The consultation proposes (once again!) to ask “What are your priorities?”, and the answers coming back will likely be a list, based on their experiences ““ lets say street cleaning, pot holes, etc. At the end this is what will be presented to councillors.

I have seen it done year after year. Officers will justify their proposals to close this, that and the other based on residents top ten priorities. (Remember Dimensions).
Surely what councillors want to know is what services people are prepared to sacrifice.

I want to know from residents, for example, “If your priority is potholes, would you want to see libraries closed so that we have no potholes, or are you prepared to put up with the potholes for a bit longer if we spend the money on say libraries instead?”

This is the kind of data I want so that when it comes to budget time, I have some idea what is really important to people. What would be even better is to know at a neighbourhood level. People in Longton may want their council tax spent on playgrounds, while Tunstall wants to keep its swimming pool.

I am concerned that this will be a typical consultation, simplistic and blunt, with little or no value to the budget process.

Cutting spending will be hard enough, but if we get this consultation wrong, I can see us blinded into thinking we have residents support, yet having demonstrations and campaigns galore ““ all because we asked the wrong questions.

Statement on the budget from Councillor Adrian Knapper

George Osborne says his top priority is cutting the deficit.

But in order to get the deficit down, you need to keep economic growth up and you need to keep unemployment down.

You don’t get borrowing down by pulling the plug on support for business, throwing people out of work and stifling economic growth.

The Chancellor delivered a budget that will throw people out of work, hold back economic growth and damage the public services we all rely on ““ and increased VAT from 17.5% to 20%, so that higher prices will be paid in the shops by everyone, from pensioners to the unemployed

The Tories’ cuts are unfair to families and older people: cuts to the disability living allowance, cuts to help for the jobless, cuts to tax credits, cutting back free school meals, and cuts to Child Benefit, which they have frozen for the next three years.

What the country needed was a Budget to support economic growth, protect jobs and cut the deficit fairly. Instead the Tories gave us a reckless Budget that pulls the rug out from under the recovery. And they couldn’t have done it without the support of the Lib Dems, who have let down everyone who voted for them in the election just a few weeks ago.

Where Has The Trust Gone in Stoke-on-Trent?

OK, let’s get to it, I’m about to make myself mightily unpopular once again!

You see the thing is, I trust the the Chief Executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, John van de Laarschot to deliver for us.

I trust him to do the right thing by the people of our City. I trust him to reduce the size of the workforce of the City Council, considerably.

Yes, I am aware that he has chosen to bring Vanguard in to encourage and to train the existing council staff in the methodology of ‘Lean Thinking’ and to help rid this authority of the huge amount of bureaucracy that prevents Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s customers from getting the best possible service.

We all know that bureaucracy exists, anyone who has had the mis-fortune to be put through to the Stoke On Call call centre and been asked endless amounts of meaningless and unhelpful questions, knows that. On one occasion whilst trying to get through to C&YPS I thought the operator was going to ask for my inside leg measurement, she wanted to know that much!.

John van de Laarschot is aware of many departmental failings. On Stoke on Call he said:

“The call centre is a disaster, but it is actually only one element of the disaster that needs to be sorted out. It is like TV’s The Office. If it wasn’t so terrible it would be laughable.”

He knows that the Council’s marriage to Kier was heading for divorce:

“The joint venture with Kier was not the smartest thing we have ever done. It doesn’t work for us and it doesn’t work for Kier. We had the opportunity of pulling away from the partnership, but we chose to tackle the issues and sort it out once and for all. But, if we can get it to work like a Swiss clock it will really benefit our communities.”

He knows that the Council is top heavy. He seems committed to ridding the City of those not up for the challenge to deliver change:

“I think this organisation is top-heavy with management and I can’t defend that. I will weed out those who are not up for challenge and who don’t have an appetite to serve our customers.”

He had the balls to pull out of the Strategic Partnership even though the Council had spent some £1.5million on it because in a very short time of being here, he knew it was doomed to failure.

So, are our councillors right to be wary of placing their trust in him? Yes – of course they are! Given the amount of senior officers and previous top dogs that have shown hostility to all those who seek to scrutinise, you can hardly blame them.

Previous incumbents of the top office in our city have treated those councillors outside [and some inside] the executive with complete disdain. They have been kept in the dark over many issues, they have been misled and in some cases intimidated.

Even at the call-in on the Vanguard issue on Monday 7th June, the call in councillors priority seemed to be the political direction of the Cabinet and the views of the relevant portfolio holders. They probed them to see if they really knew what the political implications were of the spending of this £400k of public money, or whether they were simply nodding through officers recommendations for the salary that comes with being a Cabinet member.

John van de Laarschot did not duck a single question, even when some rather rude member of the public barracked him as he tried to explain his reasons for wanting to press ahead at speed with his Transformational Change Programme.

When he was appointed a number of our councillors rang me and made comments like: ‘he was the man’, ‘you couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes’, ‘he’s a smart cookie with a sound business background’, ‘he’s capable of thinking out of the box’ and my very favourite ‘he’s a breath of fresh air’.

Well it’s time to back him [there’s that trust thing again] or sack him!

If he is a breath of fresh air then let’s give him the chance of rationalising the council workforce and making the services delivered the best and most efficient that they can be. Let him rid the Civic of the polluting stench of incompetence

The Transformational Change programme needs to be completed as soon as possible. When it is finished the elected members, working in collaboration with committed service driven officers, will be best placed to make the relevant and most sensitive cuts.

Every message that comes out of the national ConDem coalition government screams cut, cut, cut!

Stoke-on-Trent City Council need to be a lean, mean, first class service machine. They need fit for purpose for surely what will be one of the most difficult times that local government is facing for many, many years.

To get there, if they have to spend some £400k on companies like Vanguard who John van de Laarschot has used in the past and obviously trusts and the consultants from the Local Government Partnerships to save up to £60million in the future, then I say let him lead.

He trusts those who have delivered for him in the past and I think we should all put our trust in him to do the right thing for the City of Stoke-on-Trent.

Let’s be honest, if he fails, then we can trust our esteemed elected members of all political persuasions… To kick his ass out of the door! – Can’t we?