Allow Bloggers & Citizen Journalists In To Council Meetings

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has said today that Councils should open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency.

To support this Bob Neill Local Government Minister, has today written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers can get the same level of access as the traditional media. The letter also reminds councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred.

The letter also reassured councils that giving greater access will not contradict data protection law requirements following concerns over personal information.

Fifty years ago, Margaret Thatcher changed the law to make councils open their meetings to the press and public. This principle of openness needs to be updated for the 21st Century. More and more local news comes from bloggers or citizen journalists telling us what is happening at their local council.

In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings.

Councils need to genuinely engage their communities and giving wider access to their meetings through these technologies is one way they can do this.

Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don’t seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in.

With local authorities in the process of setting next year’s budget this is more important than ever. Opening the door to new media costs nothing and will help improve public scrutiny. The greater powers and freedoms that we are giving local councils must be accompanied by stronger local accountability.

We are in the digital age and this analogue interpretation of the press access rules is holding back a new wave of local scrutiny, accountability and armchair auditors.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Cabinet Propose Retention of All Children’s Centres

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Cabinet are proposing the retention of all 16 Children’s Centres after listening to public concerns and the 6000 strong petition organised by the Save Our Children Centre’s group headed by Millissa Beydilli.

Whilst the Cabinet are proposing to save the Children’s Centres, the award winning Stoke Speaks Out service, short breaks for the disabled and carers, the Merit Pupil referral service and 24/7 CCTV coverage, they have also confirmed their intention to close several key facilities.

Although the Children’s Centres have been saved Council Leader Mohammed Pervez would give no guarantee that staff jobs would be saved. He also gave an indication that there may be a reorganisation of the Children’s Centres management structure.

The decision to close Shelton and Tunstall pools, Fenton and Burslem Libraries and the Heathside and Eardley Care Homes was also announced.

There is a six month stay of execution for education establishments Ford Green Hall, Etruria Industrial Museum and Stanley Head whilst the council explores the possibility of the transferring them to a community trust or social enterprise.

The future also looks brighter for Meir Community and Education Centre and for Northwood Stadium.

The Meir looks set to retain their community centre after the council leader announced that the council was looking to transfer more services into the popular facility.

The popular service Shopmobility, located at the Potteries Shopping Centre, will also be saved.

Mohammed Pervez confirmed that users have offered to pay for the service and the council are happy to go along with that proposal.

Northwood Stadium is not closing at this stage.

The Future of the City Farm looks bleak however. The Council Leader, Mohammed Pervez confirmed that the council did not consider the farm as a priority and indicated that the council had no statutory obligation to deliver such a service.

The tender to transfer the farm to an independent operator was suspended amidst a dispute over the ownership of the land. Whist the tender is likely to be re-instated at some stage, the feeling is that there would be a lack of interested parties coming forward to take over what was consider by the Guardian Newspaper a top 10 free attraction in the country just a few years ago.

There was also good news for every household in the City.
The Council Leader announced that Council Tax will be frozen for the next year.

The City Council will take up the governments offer a 2.5% grant which will realise £2million to the local authority.

Mohammed Pervez said that this decision was taken because the Cabinet considered that families were already under pressure following the impact of the recent VAT rise to 20%.

In presenting these proposals, the council leader said that he and his cabinet, along with the CEO John van de Laarschot and his officers, had listened to feedback from the public, elected members and members of the City Council’s staff.

Despite today’s announcements it is still expected that 700 staff will leave the employment of the City Council over the next few months through voluntary or compulsory redundancies.

The City Council are facing a gap in funding of £35.6million for the next financial year.

The national coalition government implemented cuts of 8.1% upon the City of Stoke-on-Trent which when the council factored in the reductions in area based and other grant funding, actually resulted in a bigger percentage cut.

Mohammed Pervez was keen to point out that he had pleaded the case that Stoke-on-Trent was a special case with the government but in his words “Ëœthose pleas fell on deaf ears’.

Pervez said that he had written to government on numerous occasions, he had visited London and held talks with a junior minister working in Local Government and Communities Minister Eric Pickles’s team and had joined forces with other authorities namely Blackpool, Blackburn, Hull and Torbay, but to no avail. Stoke-on-Trent was still one of the worse hit areas for cuts in funding.

The council leader also said that this budget consultation had been the most thorough than any before. He and his cabinet claim that they had taken into consideration the feedback from the “ËœLet’s Talk’ consultations and the comments made during his live web debate exclusively on Pits n Pots when making these difficult decisions.

Members of the City council staff had also been given the opportunity to have their say as a part of the “ËœTell John’ exercise held by the CEO John van de Laarschot.

These proposals will now be put in front of all the political groups and presented to all elected members ahead of the Budget Meeting of the Full City Council to be held on the 24th February.

The meeting will be webcast on the Council Website.

After the briefing Council Leader Mohammed Pervez and CEO John van de Laarschot gave their views.

Listen to the audio below.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Publish Spending Data Over £500

Just scraping through inside the 31 January deadline imposed by Eric Pickles, Stoke-on-Trent City Council have published spending data over £500 on-line.

The data for December is available in .csv format and .pdf.

We have not had time to delve too deeply in to the data yet, but have noted that Kier Stoke have been paid £2,962,255.49 mainly billed as Private Contractors and Vanguard Consulting £68,696 billed as miscellaneous expenses & services

Before you get too excited about the data and what you can find out, be aware that you will have to enter a FOI request for each invoice you wish to find out more information about.

Tony Walley – On My Stoke-on-Trent Soapbox

Stoke-on-Trent City Council have had their funding cut by £22.5million by this national coalition government.

Next year our city council are likely to face further cuts of around £20million.

The ConDem coalition always rolls out the old nugget of “Ëœwe’re dealing with the mess left by the last Labour government’, every time they are challenged on the severity of their austerity measures.

I wish Stoke-on-Trent City Council had £1 for every time that old nugget is used by coalition members in interviews with the media. You never know we might have even been able to save the City Farm.

Of course there has been no explanation forthcoming as to why the traditional Labour led authorities have had to bare the brunt of these cuts.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent some 800 City Council employees have applied for the Voluntary Redundancy programme currently in operation.

The programme is offering an enhanced redundancy package of 1.5 weeks salary for every year worked as the finance chiefs encourage as many carcasses as possible, out of the front door of the Civic.

Now it is unlikely that all 800 applications will be accepted, indeed my information is that some 600 will be nearer the number that will be able to take the money and get the hell out of Dodge.

A Sentinel article claimed this week that the City Council had spent some £17.7million on making 599 people redundant since 2007. This is an average pay out of around £29500 per person.

This figure is likely to include payouts made under Compromise Agreements. Some of which would have been paid to expensive senior officers who would have been “Ëœencouraged’ to leave the employment of the City Council. They would have had to sign confidentiality clauses under the terms of their Compromise Agreements.

But if, as the Sentinel article claims, an employee who earns £15000 per year with 10 years service will receive an enhanced package of just £4350. That does indeed give you an indication of some of the ludicrous amounts that have been paid out to rid the City of some big earners who have simply failed in their duties and as a result of their failure have walked away with a small fortune.

I am no stranger to compromise agreements; I have come across them in my professional career. They are used as a tool when an employer and an employee come to the end of a relationship where there needs to be a parting of the ways but there is no case for terminating the employment or a desire just to walk away from the employment.

Under these circumstances the pay out is a generous one and the employee, after taking legal advice, is happy with the settlement and signs a confidentiality agreement preventing him/her from disclosing the details of the said agreement.

I believe that a confidentiality clause is necessary in the private sector but I have my reservations whether it can ever be so in the public sector.

Furthermore I was astounded to discover this week that all City Council employees that are granted Voluntary Redundancy are being forced to sign confidentiality clauses or they will not be eligible for the VR scheme.

I ask, why the need for a veil of secrecy for these employees of the council to sign away their right of free speech without having the benefits of the kind of pay outs that some failed senior executive officers of the council have been awarded under compromise agreements in the recent past?

It begs the question of the kind of service we can expect from a City Council with 600 employees less over the coming financial year. It also worries the heck out of me what our city council infrastructure will look like in the financial year 2012/2013.

If government, as expected, reduce the City council’s funding by another £20million for the next financial year we could see a similar amount, or even possibly more, council employees shown the door and a further massive hit to front line services. More popular attractions will be forced to close down and life will be a miserable one for the people of this fine City.

This national coalition government have stuck the proverbial two fingers up to the local coalition. The Leader of the Conservatives in Stoke Ross Irving and his Lib Dem counterpart Kieran Clarke must be feeling a little more unloved by their national party hierarchy. They must also be bracing themselves for oblivion at the ballot box in May.

Ross and Kieran, along with Labour leader Pervez made a trip to London to plead Stoke-on-Trent’s case. Local Government and Communities Minister Eric Pickles couldn’t be bothered to even meet up with them and his underling showed what an impression they had made by refusing their request for a £4.5million loan to help towards the cost of making 600 council employees redundant.

Yes folks, the ConDem Government have shown their love for the good people of Stoke-on-Trent by granting the City Council the grand sum of a £1.5million loan to help with the costs incurred by the forced reduction of the Council workforce and the instruction that the difference can be made up out of the reserves held for PFI initiatives [this money must be put back at some time] for the City.

Our local politicians are fearing a backlash in May. Sources are telling me that Tories are preparing for the loss of a number of their group. The Lid Dems are fearing oblivion and the City Independents are in total melt down at the fear that they are being tarred by the Coalitions brush. The CIG leader is refusing to play ball over the budget not for fear of doing the right thing however hard it may be, but for the fear of how that looks politically to the electorate.

There is even talk of a new group to challenge those who purport to be standing on and Independent basis. This group will include prominent ex councillors and are expected to feature a couple of current Labour Councillors in their ranks as well as a former councillor who is big in stature if not big in reality.

Community Voices preparations are going well according to sources. But whether they can muster the necessary number to be considered major opponents remains to be seen.

So finally the Governance Transition Board can be rightly proud that they made a difference to what the Government of the day considered to be a “Ëœpolitically fragmented council’ ““ with the realisation that there will be candidates from Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems, City Independents, BNP, Community Voice, New Independent Group, English First, Non ““ Aligned and Libertarian ““ they did a job well done!

Welcome to the “ËœPolitically Fragmented’ Stoke-on-Trent circa 2011!

Local Councillors and MP’s Take Stoke-on-Trent’s Budget Cut Plight to Westminster

Councillor Mohammed Pervez, Leader of Stoke-On-Trent City Council will today accompany the regions three MP’s (Tristram Hunt, Joan Walley and Rob Flello) to Westminster to meet Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Andrew Stunell.

The meeting is a result of the MPs and the council lobbying Westminster to make a special case for Stoke-on-Trent to reduce the extent of the government imposed cuts through this years Financial Settlement.

“These cuts will be painfully hard for all council’s but for Stoke-on-Trent with our dependency on public sector jobs, the high level’s of people on long term benefits and the deprivation factors in the city, our resilience to these cuts is extremely low as indicated by an independent report last year.

“We know cuts need to be made, and we have already made significant progress to identify savings but we need Andrew Stunell to listen to us and present our case to Eric Pickles. Stoke-on-Trent should be an exception, a special case due to the combination of factors that contribute to the impact of these cuts being greater and unfair compared to most other council’s.

“These cuts are supposed to be fair but to me they do not seem fair for Stoke-on-Trent. I want to make sure central government is aware that these cuts will directly affect the most vulnerable in our city. We cannot continue to deliver all the services we currently deliver due to these unfair government cuts. There will be wide scale closure and reduction in service and facilities used by the young and old on our city.”

The meeting will take place today (Wednesday 12 January 2011) at 1:15pm at Portcullis House, Westminster, London. Councillor’s Kieran Clarke, Cabinet member for Finance, Performance and Governance and Ross Irving, Cabinet member for Community Safety, Partnerships & LSP for Stoke-on-Trent City Council will also attend the meeting.

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.

Open Finances From Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Service

Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Service announced today that they have published details of their finances inline with the new transparency recommendations from Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP.

This makes Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Service the first fire service in the country to do this.

Chairman of the Fire and Rescue Authority, Cllr Len Bloomer added, ‘We are fully committed to openness and transparency in all that we do and believe that we should respond to the Government’s wishes and make available as much information as we can as soon as possible. We will now publish details of all of our invoices paid, which total more than £500, on a monthly basis.’

Chief Fire Officer/Chief Executive Peter Dartford said, ‘We owe the people of Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire a great debt for the way they support their fire and rescue service on an ongoing basis. With this in mind, we are keen to make sure we give them all the information that we can to allow them to help us move forward.’

The information can be accessed in the About Us section of the Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Service website, under “Our Finances.”