In minority but making a difference

Jack BreretonYoung people are often seen as disengaged in politics. However Jack Brereton is different. Rochelle Owusu-Antwi speaks to one of the only two Conservative councillors on the city council, and he is the youngest at just 20 years old

Stoke-on-Trent’s youngest ever councillor Jack Brereton is encouraging more young people across the city to get involved in politics.

The 20-year-old politician believes the council should be a diverse mix of younger and older generations working together to form a more representative and democratic body. Some of the 44 councillors Jack works alongside are three times his age. Continue reading

Life As A Stoke-on-Trent Councillor – So Far, So Good

By Cllr Abi Brown [Meir Park & Sandon]

If a week is a long time in politics, then six weeks seems like a lifetime.

I’ve attended two full Councils, made my first speech and started to get into the routine of Council work, though I still don’t feel any surer about the answer to the most asked question of, “So what’s it like being a councillor?”

Although I have some experience in local government and politics, I didn’t expect to be quite so busy ““ I am a fairly well organised person, but trying to run my council diary and fitting in ward work alongside my work diary and family commitments is tough at times. Prioritising what needs doing can also be difficult ““ a few weeks ago, I had to send apologies to a committee meeting as I feel that important ward meetings should take precedence. I will now never get a gold star for 100% attendance, however I was able to have a big input into the priorities for my ward over the next 12 months.

The amount of paper arriving for me has diminished, though I am still trying to get my head round the system for council post. I aim to nip into the Civic Centre at least once a week to empty my pigeon hole, yet almost without fail an envelope of council post arrives either the night before or the morning after. It is interesting to see which departments and organisations are now almost entirely paper-free, using e-bulletins for briefings, and contrast to those who must be almost solely responsible for the eradication of a rainforest each every month. Most annoying are those who email me a letter, then post it to me themselves (rather than in a bundle with other post) and finally put a copy in my pigeon hole too for good measure. I am considering setting up a system of fines for the worst offenders.

One of my election commitments was having a regular surgery, which starts in July. I’ve also set up a blog (www.abibrown.wordpress.com) and you can follow me on Twitter too (@abibrown1), though I’ve also been getting out and about at various groups. I’m still deciding whether it’s a good thing to be told, “We thought you’d turn up,” when you arrive at a small community event. I suspect some think this enthusiasm will trail off, but as Conservative members will tell you, I am this enthusiastic all the time about being out in all weathers, chatting to people and campaigning.

My family are getting used to it ““ my parents are very proud, as are the rest of my family, however for my 4 year old son, it’s just another job Mummy does, albeit one that sometimes requires him to be dragged along to strange events with strange people who want to talk to him (he is quite shy). At times, it does require some juggling and I can’t always attend things, so instead I prioritise what I go to and get individual briefings where necessary, but then the same is the case for any working councillor.

The second most asked question at the moment is, “But are you enjoying it?” Without a moment’s hesitation, the answer to that is yes. Making a difference in your community is what does it for me

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Near-Unanimous Support For Single Member Wards

I was delighted that Full Council at its Special meeting last Thursday overwhelmingly approved, 31-6, the Council’s response to the Boundary Committee’s Draft Recommendations, namely that there should be 44 single member wards.

I made three main points in my speech in support of the Council’s response:

i) I have a long standing commitment to the proposals. In my re-election manifesto three years ago I set out the case for a reduced number of councillors and single member wards with the commitment to work for the change.

ii) I had wondered if the somewhat idiosyncratic Draft recommendations consisting mainly of single member wards but including four 2 member wards and one 3 member ward was the Boundary Committee’s test to see if the Council were still alive and active, following our failure to make an initial submission several months ago!

iii) Such a mixed outcome would be detrimental for several principal reasons:

a) There would be a danger that the public would think that the Council were incapable of producing a straightforward, uniform system of representation. Of course it is the Boundary Committee that makes the final decision but our united view is important evidence for the decision making process.

b) Many residents who favoured the status quo with 3 member wards or the revised 2 member wards would feel aggrieved if they were in the new 1 member wards. It would be building in from the start a sense of unfairness and blatant inequality;

c) Such a mixed system would necessarily mean many residents were denied the direct accountability of thier councillor that a one member per ward affords;

d) Such a mix would create an inequitable system for candidates’ electioneering costs in terms of both time and money and grossly unequal areas and populations for councillors;

e) Contrary to a widespread belief amongst residents that 1 member wards mean an increased workload for councillors, in fact less geographical area and fewer residents reduces the workload for councillors.

However, two other widespread fears are legitimate and we need to be mindful of them and work to eliminate them: a) provision must be made for councillors absent through holidays and illness via a dedicated telephone line and officer at the Civic Centre; b) Residents are justifiably worried that if their 1 councillor fails to fulfil their needs that they would be disadvantaged for some years.

Debate at last Thurday’s Special Council showed widespread potential support for my proposal that we should explore the introduction of the power of recall and seek the support of the three City MPs to lobby government for the necessary legislative change

The Diary Of The Life Of A New Stoke-on-Trent City Councillor – Matt Wilcox

Pits n Pots are pleased to bring you a diary of the first two weeks in the life of Matt Wilcox, one of the Labour Party’s twelve new Stoke-on-Trent City Councillors.

Matt was elected to serve the good folk of the East Valley ward.

We get a great insight into life as a serving Councillor. We start with the most recent entry and work back to Election Day.

21/5/10
Attended my first mentoring session with a great guy in the scrutiny office called John Ross, we had a good chat and he showed me around. Discussed some of my concerns and also bounced some ideas off him, told him I was disappointed that there was no real milk in the councillors room which was a bit of a let down!

In the evening I nipped past a really busy event at the Sneyd Green community centre where John from the residents association’s was hosting a night of clairvoyance with a local medium. When I got there it was already packed with more arriving in a steady stream by the minute. Managed to speak to lots of local people and find out some of the issues locally one lady told me about the local kids ripping the trees to bits, another about parking issues by the local primary.

I’ve got the feeling many of these residents and their views had been neglected over the past few years and they seemed really happy to see a local councillor take the time to come and say hello. If I want to be elected again next year these are the places I need to come to, places where the community congregate and places where I can meet the community and be seen to be active. I’m hoping to set up a surgery here soon so that they have a regular place where people can come and air their views about services, something which is very important in an area so dominated by social housing.

20/5/10
Watched an interesting question time tonight, lots of people not happy with the national governmental coalition. Its actually quite funny seeing the tories and lib dems sitting next to each other backing each other up as opposed to the traditional 3 way argument that normal ensues.

19/5/10
I take a call about an elderly lady who hasn’t had any central heating all winter and is very frustrated with the local council, I promise her that I will do my utmost to find out what is happening. Some of the things I’ve seen in just one week are amazing from crazy planning consent through to elderly with no heating in freezing cold winters. I hope that these are isolated incidents and there are logical explanations for them.

18/5/10
A day away from politics sees me getting some great work done at the youth project where I am the strategic development manager. Over the past week if I’m honest I may have neglected my duties so get there very early in order to catch up. The role of councillor can be quite time consuming but I believe if you can effectively manage your diary its easy to get a good balance between being active in the ward you represent and keeping the day job going to pay the bills! As an example I am writing this in bed!

Today is also the day of the learn more awards where Unity is nominated for 3 awards, “Most active in the community”, “Best use of technology” and my business partner Israel is nominated for “Community Champion”.

I’m pleased to say we won 2 awards and came second in the best use of technology one, I’m very proud that the staff team have been rewarded for their efforts and am proud that from an idea we had 5 years ago we now offer so many fantastic services and have such a great team of practitioners who work hard to improve outcomes for the young people we work with.

17/5/10
This morning involves a “Ward Walk” with the AIT and the chief executive around East Valley. We begin at the recently regenerated Spa shop and flats on Community drive, make our way through Smallthorne up to Sneyd Green where I meet many of the resident committee chairs and then onto investigate ongoing issues of parking in Milton and a business with no planning permission.

Sneyd Green community centre was an interesting visit where I met a gentleman called John who was the chair of the residents association and had been responsible for the building of the play area on repington road and the asset transfer of the community centre from city council ownership into ownership by the community. He tells me that he is successfully making it financially viable after taking it over when it had only previously made a £13 profit for the year. Its certainly a great community asset, looks like it is well looked after and offers some fantastic community activities such as sequence dancing, troupe, keep fit and dieting groups.

Milton seems to have real problems with parking and there is some land which with a little money from the ward budget could certainly help towards easing the issue but there are some issues over development and ownership which may, or may not be resolved. Its something I’m eager and hopeful I can help solve during the next 12 months.

I finish off my day of council duties with lunch with the neighbourhood manager at the civic where I sample Cumberland sausage with veg which actually turned out to be beans and chips! We discuss many things but the transition into councillor feels like a very natural one, I’m familiar with much of the terminology used and its just getting the hang of the processes involved to really create better communities.

One thing that is becoming apparent is the amount of people I’m meeting who have said they are here to make a change, I’m not here to make a change I’m here to make a “Positive difference” I think that’s an important thing for all councillors to remember.

The evening turns to a very important Labour party meeting where we are to decide what to do with the situation we find ourselves in and the control of the council. After much discussion and some amazing speakers we find ourselves voting to seek an alliance with the other parties, I myself have reservations on both this and taking control as a minority administration but I join the group decision. Its one of those circumstances which doesn’t have a right or a wrong answer you have just got to go for it!

One thing to take away with me is the realization that the chamber even when your own party is inside can become a place of heated debate, a place of comedy but overall a place to stand in awe of passionate local people who speak their thoughts so eloquently.

15/5/10
Central labour party meeting at 10am, my first venture into the council chamber greeted by a massive piece of artwork by Burslem based painter Rob Pointon, I wonder how much longer it will be until this very talented guy is catapulted to artistic greatness on a worldwide scale. His work is fantastic and how he twists the subject matter into the “Spherical” image on canvas is mind boggling, I take a closer look and find Pervez and Adrian Knapper, its amazing how realistic but abstract it is.

I take a seat next to Joan Walley and sit back to listen to the party members discussions around what decision we take in regards to our position of 26 Labour councillors and taking control of the council.

Part way through the meeting I get a drink from the drinks machine, it takes me 5 minutes to work out how to use it and then another 5 to realise there is no milk and the powdered variety will have to do!

Some interesting opinions are given and I am still not sure what decision is for the best, only time will tell! One thing I’m certain of is that we all need to be out there in our wards, meeting residents and putting in a significant effort over the coming year if we want to maintain and build on our current foothold within the council.

The members vote on the way forward in preparation for the councillors meeting on Monday night. We as councillors now know what our members want, we just need to finalise and agree everything on Monday night at our AGM part 2.

14/5/10
Popped down to Smallthorne community centre for an hour to see the results of the respect week and the improvements in Smallthorne including the creation of a football pitch, the regeneration of community drive shops and gated access to the bungalows. I thought there were some excellent results in improving the local area and great ideas all from the residents that the local council officers implemented. Met Neil from the resident association again and the local police officers, it felt good to be meeting people in the ward and surprisingly I felt like I had been doing it for years! Got a labour party meeting for the north later, will be good meet more labour supporters in the area and gauge their reaction to our success in the locals.

13/5/10
My first call from a resident about problems with a dance troupe and venue in my ward of all things! The role of councillor can be more of mediator at times I’m finding but I have the skills so its all good! Lets hope Smallthorne Diamonds can keep slapping those thighs! I had a great time when I joined in leading in my campaign leading up to the elections”¦.all 2 minutes of it!

11/5/10
A day of training is facilitated to induct the new councillors, there is some discussion about the lack of WIFI in the Civic (I cant believe there is no wireless Internet in the building)! And I meet some of the managers including Ged Rowney director of children’s and young peoples services who I’m sad to hear is leaving as he has been very supportive of my work over the years previously with young people.

10/5/10
The first labour party meeting of the councillors, in fact its the AGM, it gives me a good insight into the running’s of a political party and I do my best to get my view across as and when I feel confident.

7/5/10
The day of the count I get to the civic very unprepared and apprehensive as to what is about to unfold, I watch eagerly as piles begin to build as the counters flick the papers through their fingers. The two piles that begin to build strongly are mine and the conservative pile of voting slips, as the counting continues it becomes just about clear that I have won. The independents in particular the sitting councillor is upset about losing his seat, I feel sorry for him but its out of my hands, the people in the area have made the decision and not me.

I’m pretty relaxed I check my phone as my friends continue to tweet, facebook, text, email and BBM me in between looking over shoulders at whose pile is bigger, someone tells me I’ve won unofficially, all the other candidates are there with their pads and paper writing down numbers, I’m chilled if its me its me, writing down numbers isn’t going to change anything.

Its official we go through the spoilt papers, 2 votes for mickey mouse and a love heart (not by my name!) are among them and then I’m told I have won. The “Young” conservative, as a fellow labour candidate coined him, accepts defeat and I’m handed my pack by one of the council officers. I feel very proud and happy that I’ve managed to become a councillor and make my way downstairs to see the results read out in the kings hall. It seems Labour have done very well, we will go on to find that we now have 26 seats 12 gains and 5 holds a very good day indeed.

6/5/10
All the leafleting, meeting, speaking and door knocking is done there is nothing more that can be done but sit back and wait, I’m told the polling stations are busy and I begin to think about finding out the results tomorrow. After a hectic day at work and an evening game of football I sit back and watch the national situation unfold until the early hours. The exit poll doesn’t surprise me although I hold out hope that Labour will do better than expected.

New Feature – A Week In The Life Of A New Councillor – Abi Brown

We are pleased to bring you the first in what will be a regular feature. A week in the life of a new councillor, will hopefully give us an insight into the way a Stoke-on-Trent City Councillor juggles their civic duty with their everyday lives.

This week we hear from the newly elected Conservative Councillor for the ward of Meir Park & Sandon, Abi Brown.

I don’t think it was my imagination, but a quiet murmur went round the room when I entered my first induction session as a new City councillor. The “ËœMissing Councillor’ had arrived. My notoriety spreads, though as I assured my new colleagues, I wouldn’t have gone quietly!

The “ËœMissing Councillor’ story began as I was the only new member not to have signed their Declaration on Monday, as I had family commitments. Suddenly landed with a never ending pile of paperwork and a long list of meetings, seminars and training sessions, it’s easy to see how the Council could take over your life, however as we were reminded, we need to have lives too. And for me, life revolves around my husband and 4 year old son.

I’ve been involved in politics since my late teens, so my family are quite used to the demands that activism makes, however I think being a councillor is going to take a bit of getting used to. The paper trail around the house that came with the general and local elections has ended, only to be replaced with a new one. There has been a trickle of Council post all week, topped by a big bundle collected from the pigeon holes on Friday, with just a little bit more arriving Saturday morning for good measure. I’d like to think this deluge is all because a) there is a lot for new councillors to know, and b) we don’t all yet have Council email up and running, so paper copies are being provided of everything. There is another option, that councillors just receive loads of paperwork every week… I will keep you informed.

Being called “Ëœcouncillor’ is also something that will take a bit of getting used to. I’m plain Abi to everyone normally and to be honest, I am more used to calling others “Ëœcouncillor’ having worked for several years in local government myself. My son is just at the stage of realising that I have a name other than “Ëœmummy’, and having just grasped that my name is Abi to other grown-ups, this should totally confuse him again!

I finished the week attending my first Residents Association meeting, which was quite nice if a bit daunting. Luckily, my fellow ward councillor Clive Brian was there to ease me into the process and happily we came out of it with a few issues for me to cut my teeth on. My diary has also started to fill up, local meetings with strange acronyms, community events, and requests to meet with people ““ we haven’t even been allocated Council committees or outside bodies yet! Being self employed, I am pretty good at time management, but adding Council duties into that will be interesting ““ though I’ve always loved a challenge!

5oo Words – Ruth Rosenau, Labour Candidate for Weston and Meir North

My name is Ruth Rosenau; I was born and bred in Stoke on Trent, and have spent the biggest part of my life in Meir and Weston Coyney.

I recall a happy carefree childhood, with lots of free time spent in and around Meir and Caverswall; sadly children today haven’t the same freedom, not through their own behaviours, but the behaviour of others. As adults it is our duty to protect them but also to provide for them.

It is obvious from the rounds that I have taken of the areas covered by the ward that there is little available for children to take part in that is safe and sociable.

There is less for older children, and this can lead to the anti-social behaviour that has blighted our area, whilst fully supportive of the extra man hours of the police and the CCTV, what I feel would be more beneficial would be to find constructive and interesting activities for the youth element of the area, for us all to be proactive in gaining accessible and acceptable activities and not reactive to
existing problems, to build a strong community.

My memory reminds me of the elderly people of the ward standing and talking to everyone that passed them, not fearful of any groups of youngsters, not feeling that they were unable to ask for help.

That should be exactly the same today, we should not have pensioners afraid to leave their homes or to ask for help, I feel that community cohesion needs to be addressed, reality is that the pensioners today are the people who fought for our country and fought for the freedom of others so that we could all enjoy the freedom that we enjoy today.

My wish is to see community centres that are used by the whole of the community, from pre-school groups to pensioners’ tea dances. Theatre/sports groups for teenagers, activity groups for after school, keep fit sessions that could be for all ages….the list goes on.

I have lots of ideas, but more importantly so do the residents of Weston and Meir North, and it’s engaging and empowering them that interests me, to encourage and assist residents in building a cohesive ward.

There are lots of issues around the upkeep of the area that need to be addressed, and in the past few months I have steadily been increasing my work load, taking on residents complaints and issues and dealing with them, things that should have been dealt with but haven’t, uneven pavements, lack of bins, anti-social behaviour.

Whilst I accept that as a working mother I have responsibilities elsewhere, I will promise to contact anyone who asks me for help, I am happy to respond in person, telephone, text or email.

I will readily attend any residents meeting that I am invited to and would have regular surgeries which will be publicised.

My belief is “ËœTogether we can make a difference’. Let’s make Weston and Meir North a better place to live.

Is the future Parish & Town Councils

Better Local Governance with Power to the People

Recommendations to reduce the number of Councillors upon Stoke-on-Trent City Council to 45 members will result in increased demands on time. The role of an elected member is to balance the role within the community and role of work at the Civic Centre.

The fourteen recommendations from the governance report include the need for devolved governance and more local engagement.

Since the City Council became a Unitary Authority, there as been a lack of understanding that the role of being an elected member at this level of local government is about giving clear strategic direction.

It’s my belief that this is down to the fact that Stoke-on-Trent has the missing link of Parish/Town Councils that with devolved (ward) budgets and local neighbourhood management teams can address the needs of local communities. There is a need for a lower tier of governance arrangements that address local issues and problems, at present local concerns are addressed via AIT/DDG but its clear that their is a need to review these arrangements with some element of an elected role/position to neighbourhood boards.

Parish/Town/Neighbourhood Councillors (unpaid) working in partnership with other agencies and neighbourhood management teams could then deal with local issues such as fly tipping, cleansing of community streets, maintaining public space and other local devolved solutions.

This will then allow elected City Councillors to be more engage in moving forward such issues as Regeneration, Education and more strategic issues needed to progress the City forward.

The problem is that last City Council meeting demonstrated the breakdown of politics and that more work needs to be done to rebuild confidence that in future years an improved system of governance arrangements are in place for Stoke-on-Trent.

My own private view is that this can only be achieved by the development of two tier governance arrangements of Community Neighbourhood Boards and a Strategic City Council.

Let’s debate does Stoke-on-Trent need Parish/Town Councils (local neighbourhood boards).

You can now follow me on Twitter @adrianknapper

School children’s hoarding designs to be unveiled at Christmas event

Hoardings designed by local school children will be put up this Saturday (December 12) on empty properties as part of a Christmas event.

The art work has been completed by school children from The Crescent School in Meir, for a project organised by Renew, Great Places and Meir Community Steering Group.

The hoardings will be unveiled on two properties in The Square during the Christmas event for the local residents. The event is run by The Square Community Centre and will include Santa’s grotto and a raffle.

Councillor Brian Ward, cabinet member for regeneration, said: “These children have put in a great deal of hard work to design this fantastic artwork which will replace the temporary hoardings already in place. This event will provide the perfect backdrop for the unveiling as all the local community can come and see the work while enjoying the festive atmosphere.”

The celebration event takes place between 3pm and 6pm and is open to everyone.

Standards Committee Clears Ibbs!

A Standards Committee has today accepted a report which completely exonerates Cllr Roger Ibbs from any wrong doing during the investigation into the Dimensions fiasco.

The report provided the Committee with an opportunity to consider whether there any Standards issues remaining following the conclusion of the Staffordshire Police Investigation.

There had been a number of allegations concerning the proposed closure of the Council run splash pool facilty at Dimensions Leisure Centre, Burslem. The report also confirms that the original fact finding exercise had being extended to include the removal of Cllr Roger Ibbs from the portfolio holder for Regeneration in the then Elected Mayor’s Executive and Members’ Board.

In a statement released today, Mr Ibbs said:

“I am delighted that at today’s Standards Committee meeting my name has been totally cleared of any wrongdoing regarding the ongoing saga of the Dimensions Leisure Centre. On the 27th. February of this year I was arrested by Staffordshire Police in connection with enquiries regarding Dimensions and to date I have received no explanation as to why I was arrested. I was never charged with any offence and subsequent to the conclusion of the police enquiries no charges were ever suggested. I am pleased to have been recognised "AS A VCTIM" and that I should "NOT HAVE BEEN TAINTED" by events surrounding the Dimensions saga I have today written to the Chief Constable, Mike Cuthbertson, demanding to know why I was arrested when there was not a shred of evidence against me. I was one of the leading City Councillors opposing the partial closure of Dimensions and I would have been happy to co-operate with the police and answer any questions voluntarily. The torment I have faced over the last ten months and the considerable expense I have had to face clearing my name, I would not wish on anybody, particularly on the basis that I had done absolutely nothing wrong. I have also been extremely disappointed by the way several current and past senior officers within the City Council, have dealt with matters and trust that any future report or inquiry into the Dimensions saga will show up the inadequacies of performance. I will of course be more than happy to present evidence to such an inquiry.”

 

SAD NEWS – DEATH OF CHRISTINE FOLLOWS

By Alison

Pits n Pots are saddened to learn of the sudden death of Christine Follows, wife of Trentham Councillor Terry Follows.

The Sentinel is reporting today that Christine died at her home on Thursday morning, following emergency surgery for a growth in her neck. Christine suffered breathing difficulties, and died in Terry’s arms before paramedics were able to attend.

Christine was herself a hard working and well respected councillor for the Meir Park and Sandon ward until as recently as May last year.

The funeral service will take place on 1st April at Stoke Minster, in Glebe Street, Stoke. Terry and Christine have one son, David.

Everyone at Pits n Pots offer deepest condolences to Terry and David, at what is a very difficult time for the family. We are sure Nicky and other TAG members, who Terry has dedicated so much time to helping over the past year or two, will want to add their own messages of condolence.