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!

Pre-Council Meeting Demo ““ A Peaceful Protest

A peaceful protest outside the Civic Centre in Stoke yesterday was a far cry from the scenes witnessed in London.

A group of about 60 turned out in support of the Save Our Children’s Centres group who were protesting at the councils proposals to close 7 of the 16 centres which could potentially realise a saving of £750,000 to the Local Authority.

Over 200 hundred staff have already been told whether their posts have been “Ëœsaved’, “Ëœpooled’ or indeed “Ëœdeleted’ should the council choose to proceed with the proposals.

Council chiefs still insist that no final decisions have been made and that a city wide consultation is still on-going. The final outcome will not be known until the council learn the true extent in the cuts in funding handed down from central government following their recent Comprehensive Spending Review.

Roy Naylor, the former City Independent Councillor now Non-Aligned, is fighting the Group’s cause within the civic and was in attendance to lend his support at the protest yesterday [Thursday]. He gave us an Audio Interview which can be heard below this article.

Millissa Beydilli from Blurton is the Leader of the Save Our Children Centres Campaign explained why it is vital that these centres are saved from closure and how they have been a lifeline for so many families across the city’s communities. Listen to the Audio Interview below.
Council Leader Cllr Mohammed Pervez met with the campaigners along with several cabinet members and received a 6,500 strong petition against the closure proposals.

There was also a small group of students protesting outside the Civic. They were expressing their opposition to the rise in tuition fees and against cuts in services generally.

The North Staffs Pensioners Convention were also in attendance protesting against any cuts which will impact upon the elderly.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Meeting 21/10 – Lidice, Loans and Battles!

The Full Council Meeting opened with the sad news that Cllr Randy Conteh has had to step down as Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s representative on the Police Authority due to health reasons.

Randy is facing a very serious operation on his brain in the not too distant future and has been advised to slow his pace of life down. Anyone who knows Randy would confirm that he gives 100% as a councillor and as a member of the Police Authority.

I have spoken to Randy today [Friday] and he has asked me to pass on his thanks to all who have contacted him with messages of support which include fellow members of the Police Authority, high ranking Police Officers, Council Colleagues and members of the public.

Randy wants everyone to join him for the Soul Night that he has organised in aid of The Firefighters charity and the Lodge Road Park play area on October 30th. There are still tickets available for the event which includes a host of top DJ’s and as is typical for Randy he was more concerned about pushing this event than talking about the difficulties he will face in the future.

I’m sure that you will join with Pits n Pots and send your best wishes to a top bloke and fine servant of our city. We look forward to speedy recovery and to seeing Cllr Conteh back on the beat as soon as is possible.

The City Council has voted Cllr Brian Ward as their replacement for Cllr Conteh which came as a surprise to me given the tremendous amount of collaborative work with the Police undertaken by Cllr Roy Naylor.

Councillor Ward will have to juggle his cabinet work with his group leaders and ward work which makes his proposal even stranger.

For once there was some good news to come out of the meeting yesterday.

The City Council voted unanimously to accept a recommendation to explore links with the Czech Republic town of Lidice.

The Council accepted the following recommendations:

1. Members agree to work with the Lidice Gallery to explore the feasibility of an exhibition
and associated programme of work and an EU funding bid to support this.
2. That Members approve a commitment of £10,000 as seed funding towards such a
funding bid to be made from existing resources.

The historic links between Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice were brought into the public arena by Alan & Cheryl Gerrard of the Art Bay Gallery in Fenton.
Alan & Cheryl put a massive amount of effort into bring the story of Sir Barnett Stross to the current Stoke-on-Trent public and in particular the youngsters of our city.
Lidice is a village in the Czech Republic just north-west of Prague. It is built on the site
of a previous village of the same name which was completely destroyed by German
forces in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in the spring of 1942. All
192 men over 16 years of age from the village were murdered on the spot by the
Germans and the rest of the population were sent to Nazi concentration camps where
many women and nearly all the children were killed.
In September 1942, coal miners in Stoke-on-Trent, led by local Councillor Barnett
Stross, founded the organisation Lidice Shall Live to raise funds for the rebuilding of the
village after the war.
Barnett Stross was elected to Stoke-on-Trent City Council in 1937 and served until
1952 (during the later part of this period he was an Alderman). At the 1945 general
election Barnett Stross was elected as Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent’s Hanley division.
He received a Knighthood in the New Years’ Honours list of 1964.
Sir Barnett Stross KBE was honoured by the Czechoslovak government for this work
with the White Lion of Czechoslovakia, and became Chair of the British-Czechoslovakia
Society. He stood down at the 1966 general election, and died just over a year later.

Cllr Mick Salih [Community Voice] moved the motion to accept the recommendations and in doing so he said that it was a pleasure to move what was a positive story for the city. He said that it was vital to explore cultural and economic links with towns across Europe as it put our city on the map. He told the chamber that out of the tragedy of what one group of people could do to another back in 1942 some good could come from it with this linking arrangement.

Cllr Mike Barnes [Community Voice] said that he supported this motion whole-heartedly. He told the chamber that the story of Lidice highlighted that even out of extreme adversity success can be born. He hit out at Cllr Hazel Lyth[CIA] for doing nothing until the deadline for acceptance had nearly passed and only then did she act when he had made phone calls to the officers. He said that Cabinet members had to be more motivated than that.

Cllr Joy Garner [Labour] said that she was happy to support this motion and that it was important to remember the past and to never forget. She informed the chamber that there are 2 street in her ward that were named after Sir Barnett Stross. She said that through the Art side of this link he would never be forgotten.

Cllr Brian Ward [CIG] said that he too was happy to support this kinking arrangement. He said that £10,000 was a small price to pay.

I’m really pleased that Alan & Cheryl were present in the chamber to hear the debate and to see the motion passed with no one voting against. I was disappointed that no councillor mentioned the hard work that they put into this linking arrangement as I know it was not plain sailing.

Message to Councillors: Members of the public who work tirelessly for the city in which they live in and love, deserve your support and praise occasionally and is something that doesn’t cost any money!

Cllr Mervin Smith [Labour] moved the following motion in relation to a loan from the City Council to Galmor Investment SA:

That, subject as hereinafter provided, Stoke-on-Trent City Council provides a Term Loan
Facility of up to £1.2 million to Galmor Investment SA repayable over 10 years for the
refurbishment of the Angel Business Centre, Westport Road, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.
That the Director of Regeneration (in consultation with the Director of Central Services) is
authorised to negotiate and agree the final terms of the loan. Such terms to be
substantially in the form of the draft Provisional Offer of Loan Facilities attached.

Cllr Smith said this loan would enable the company to redevelop to former Wade Pottery site in Burslem. Upon completion it is expected that 168 new jobs would be created for the city. He gave assurances to all sides of the chamber that there would be a comprehensive period in which thorough Due Diligence would take place.

This process would cost in the region of £20,000 which would be paid by the company even if the loan arrangement did not commence should the due diligence highlight something untoward.

Cllr Smith reassured elected members that this loan agreement was viable and that Galmor had undertaken work for companies such as HSBC, NHS North Staffs & The Highways Agency.

The details of the loan are as follows:

4.1. A copy of the proposed Provisional Offer of Loan Facilities is attached to this report.
The key terms of which are set out below:-
Purpose of Loan development of a mixed use scheme
Facility Amount £1,000,000
Repayment Term 120 months from practical completion of the building works
Drawdown in instalments of not less than £250,000 against agreed
drawdown profile and on satisfactory completion of agreed
milestones. Final drawdown on practical completion of the
building works.
Security a charge will be required against the development and a
floating charge will be required over Dransfield’s remaining
assets
Interest Fixed at 6% above the base lending rate for the time being
of the Co-operative Bank Plc
Default Interest Rate Lending Rate plus 5%
4.2. Drawdown of the loan would be in instalments of not less than £250,000 against an
agreed drawdown profile and on satisfactory completion of agreed milestones, with the
final drawdown being made on practical completion of the building works.
4.3. If Stoke-on-Trent City Council agree to provide the required loan facility, the loan will be
repayable by Dransfield over 10 years in 120 monthly instalments in accordance with a
repayment profile which reflects Dransfield’s cash flow forecast.
4.4. Interest will be applied to the loan at 6% per annum above base rate (i.e., a commercial
rate). The rate will be fixed at the date the loan agreement is signed. Therefore State
Aid will not be an issue. In addition, a monthly monitoring fee would be charged to this
facility.
4.5. In advance of the emerging City Council policy for providing assistance to private
companies and due to the absence of a dedicated budget this matter is required to be
considered by full Council Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s role in providing this loan
would be as a “Ëœlender of last resort’ as all opportunities for securing borrowing from a
commercial bank and other external funding opportunities have been exhausted.

The report detail and the assurances given by officers were commended by Cllrs Salih & Kent-Baguley [Community Voice] and that they were happy to support the motion.

Cllr Kent ““Baguley said that he celebrated this king of initiative by the City Council as it sent out a different message to that of the banks that we as a city are open for business unlike them.

Cllr Pervez [Labour] said that it was important that this deal go ahead. He said that this showed that the council was demonstrating that it could go forward with complete member involvement. He reminded the chamber that the government were relying on private sector jobs in the wake of the announcement that 500,000 public sector job losses over the coming few years. He said that Stoke-on-Trent City Council could lead the way and that this arrangement showed that it was serious about regenerating the city and the Mother Town of Burslem.

Cllrs Barnes, Ward and Shotton all spoke in favour of the motion.

Cllr Shotton [Labour] suggested that 50% of the cost of the Due Diligence should be paid up front by the company as it would be a devil of a job to get the whole amount if the agreement collapsed as a result. He said that the 168 jobs that this development created would help to support around 700 children of the families employed.

The vote was carried unanimously.

Last but by no means least , as the meeting was drawing to a close a political argument broke out between members of the Community Voice group and Council Leader Mohammed Pervez [Labour] and Deputy Leader Ross Irving [CIA].

Cllr Pervez was questioned by Cllr Barnes abouyt what he was doing to oppose the government cuts imposed on LA’s as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review on Wednesday.

Cllr Pervez said that he was working very hard and had written to Local Goverment Minister Eric Pickles to make a special case for the City of Stoke-on-Trent. He also said that he would be consulting with unions and he would carry on talking to residents to gauge their concerns about unavoidable cuts. He did confirm that there would be some loss of service and that his job was now more difficult as the government announced cuts of 28.4% over the next 4 years as opposed to the expected 25% cut.

Cllr Salih rounded on the Council Leader and said that he needed to do more than just write letters. He said that
Cllr Pervez ought to join up with other Labour led authorities and to take direct action as they had in France.

Cllr Barnes entered the debate and remonstrated with the Council Leader and said that the cuts were a devastating attack on the poor and most vulnerable in our city.

Cllr Pervez argued that he was already talking with other Labour led authorities and that they were working together to reduce the impact of the cuts and to maximise any opportunity that may arise to gain extra funding. He went on to attack the Community Voice for petty headline grabbing and he said that he would not take advice from former disgruntled Labour members.

Cllr Irving [CIA] defended his party’s position of implementing widespread cuts and said that to do nothing would almost certainly confine the country to bankruptcy. He said that the opposition remarks were a throwback to 1984. He attacked the Community Voice councillors for having nothing positive to contribute and he said that the public would not support the type of action that we have seen in France.

Cllr Pervez said that he would try his best to bring private sector jobs by working with businesses like Galmor which would get people off benefits an into work.
He finished by attacking the negativity of the Community Voice councillors and their endless search for cheap headlines.

“We will show you how it’s done” ““ he said in his closing statement.

Well Pervez let’s hope you are right ““ your city awaits…..