Stoke-on-Trent Labour Group ““ The Shape of Things to Come?

You know me, I like to ponder on situations and then try to dissect them in public, as is my want you see?

I have to say that last week’s call to discuss the closure of the Willfield Fitness Centre at the Adult & Wellbeing Overview & Scrutiny meeting has left an nasty taste in my mouth.

I have been largely supportive of Council Leader Mohammed Pervez and his 34 strong Labour group but I hope that the actions of the Labour councillors on that particular committee and the Labour cabinet members in attendance, is not the shape of things to come.

Here we have a popular fitness centre, loved by the community, used by many from Bentilee and beyond, closed without out so much as a single comment from the Labour contingent on that committee.

Although the Labour members should not have been whipped on a scrutiny committee, by the actions of the said Labour members and the Labour cabinet members in attendance, They were absolutely told how they WILL vote.

I am in no doubt that Cllrs Sheila Pitt, Alison Wedgwood, and Matt Fry would have received a serious reprimand by the senior officers of the Labour group for, in the case of Alison and Sheila, sticking to their election pledges.

Labour whip Kath Banks had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp during that meeting and could not have looked more disinterested in proceedings if she tried.

The way the meeting was chaired by the normally amiable Cllr Bagh Ali left me in no doubt who was running the meeting, the director Tony Oakman.

He was allowed to say what he wanted, for as long as he wanted with no interruption. Cllr Dave Conway was constantly disrupted in a clear attempt to throw him off course.

Talking of the officers, the old joke of how many does it take to change a light bulb was certainly relevant here. 8 officers were present and if you were to tot up their collective salaries you would unearth a value that would give the Staffordshire Hoard a run for it’s money.

So, Labour have demonstrated that they will side with the officers over their election promises in another glaring example of taking the Cabinet dollar.

Have we been here before I wonder?

It appears not to matter who the rulers are, Labour, Conservative Independent, Liberal Democrats, or a mixture of them all, it’s the same old scene.

But what has left me even more uneasy about the situation, is the fact that not more than a week prior to the call in, CEO John van de Laarschot launched his mandate for change which placed a heavy emphasis on the Health and Wellbeing of the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent.

It isn’t that long ago that the place attracted the unfortunate label of being a “Ëœsick city’. And yet we close a facility that is proven to be making a difference in exactly the sort of area of the city that needs the most help ““ way to go!

Our CEO gave an inspirational performance at that gig. I and a good few others were taken in by the message that together we can make a difference. My plea to John van de Laarschot for the future success of the Mandate for Change project and the rejuvenation of the City of Stoke-on-Trent is – “ËœGet your officers on task!’

Here was a golden opportunity to prove to all that the council was up to working with community groups to find a way of keeping popular facilities open for business.

We are in unprecedented times, an era where it is clear, and for my part accepted, that the council cannot continue to fund everything and that there has to be painful cuts.

The officers of the council rubbished the Willfield Community Group’s business plan and then dismissed it out of hand.

Why didn’t any officer of the council make contact with the group to offer assistance in getting the business case more in line with what the council need and expect?

Where was the dialogue?

Where was the help?

Where was the commitment needed to deliver a Mandate for Change?

So again I lay down the gauntlet to the council, in a no doubt futile attempt, to change and to demonstrate that our council are serious about empowering communities.

With £20million more cuts to come in the next financial year, if there is not a drastic change in the Council, it’s CEO, directors and officers what services and facilities will be left in our city?

Our Labour Group need to LEAD and not be LED. You have the opportunity to make a difference, you have the opportunity to step up to the plate ““ Take it!

The majority of the electorate voted you in the belief that you would deliver on your election promises and to work to make our city more inclusive and more progressive. It ain’t a great start guys!

Many months ago, a politician that I respect enormously told me that the decision not to allow the building of a new academy to be on the Mitchell High School site was all about academies setting the right example to the communities in which they serve.

I was told that the powers that be, politicians, officers and sponsors wanted the buildings to be in areas that were as affluent as possible in order to raise the aspirations of the young people of the area.

They are meant to inspire the young to be more like the well to do of the areas in which an academy school is placed.

To give the little poor kids the opportunity of mixing with kids from a “Ëœbetter’ background.

I remember thinking at the time ‘isn’t that social engineering’?

It got me to thinking is this the real reason the Willfield gym is to close?

Do those in the BSF department, fellow officers and our elected politicians, want rid of the gym and the kind of folk who use it so they are not a blot on the academy landscape?

Labour Scrutiny Councillors Uphold Decision to Close Willfield Fitness Centre

Labour councillors today [Thursday] forced through the decision to close a popular fitness centre despite the gallant efforts of two of their own councillors.
The cabinet had already voted to close Willfield Fitness Centre but their decision was called in by City Independent Group Leader Cllr Dave Conway along with Cllr Lee Wanger.

A meeting of the Adult & Neighbourhood Overview & Scrutiny Committee were told that despite the call in work was already underway to close the facility.

The pool was drained, staff had left post and 14 fitness groups had been transferred to other locations across the area.

Opposition councillors led By Dave Conway were furious that the City Council officers had broken a long standing rule of halting any work until the call in process had been exhausted.

City Independent Councillors Conteh, James and Conway were always facing an uphill battle to overturn the cabinet decision, but they were buoyed by support from Labour Cllr Sheila Pitt who with assistance from fellow Labour Councillor Alison Wedgwood tabled the following statement and proposal:

Firstly I would like to say that both myself and Councillor Alison Wedgwood worked together on this statement and these questions because we both feel that this is a very important decision we are being asked to review.

There are six points to consider. The gym receives over 70,000 visits per year from people whose only goal is to lead independent healthy lives; this is now one of the four new pillars on which the whole Mandate for Change agenda rests so closing a well used and relatively inexpensive sports facility doesn’t make sense on so many levels.

We believe the underlying reason why the Council want to close it down is because the gym is housed in a not very attractive building which will soon be situated next to a brand new academy. I think you all agree when I say that we in the Council cannot go around knocking down useful, productive buildings, simply because they are ugly. Especially buildings that the Council invested £1 million pounds in only five years ago.

The financial reasons for closing the gym do not make sense. We did not receive a full breakdown of the costs in the options appraisal, so Councillor Wedgwood asked for a breakdown and has recently received this table, which I would like to show my fellow committee members.

In TABLE 1 you will see that £133,000 is included to clad the outside of the building to make it more attractive. However, if I now draw your attention to the Public Options Appraisal report which was used to justify closing the gym which is included as Page 7 of your agenda , in the notes it says clearly that the £133,000 is not part of the £398,500 capital item.

It says “This does not include “¦ a further anticipated £133,000 to clad the building due to planning conditions”
This doesn’t make sense and understandably gives me little confidence in the rest of the figures and data presented in the options appraisal; therefore, I find it difficult to make such an important decision when I don’t trust the figures.

TABLE 1 also includes a cost of £27,000 to repair or renew windows, in this age of austerity, why can’t the gym cope with its current windows? Again I would argue that this is an unnecessary expense.

In our Agenda on page 22 we have a comparison of the number of users at the gym compared to other council sites. I think this was intended to show how little used the gym is. We think that this data actually shows how important our decision is today ““ the gym represents 5% of all sports usage in this city – all in only 398 square meters! It has the same number of users as Northwood sports stadium. I wonder if a better analysis wouldn’t be to show the number of users per square meter, or the number of users per pound subsidy?

Similarly, the table of postcodes, on page 22 was intended to show that the gym isn’t really a community gym., Well firstly as 22% of the table are invalid entries the table is deeply flawed. Secondly, the fact that there are also many users from Longton, Blurton and Meir shows that shifting these users across to the Wallace centre would not work and that this is not just an issue for Bentilee, but for many citizens of Stoke on Trent.

Is the Wallace centre really as suitable for Disabled Users? We know a disabled user went to the Wallace recently and found that it hasn’t got disabled showers like the Willfield has, what use is a gym without a shower?

Finally, and very importantly, we feel that the options appraisal should have included the business case included by other external groups or funders, such as the one presented by the Willfield Action Group. I would like to remind everyone that according to the new Localism Bill, Councils are supposed to be willing to hand over assets to the community for them to manage and run especially if this reduces the financial burden to the Council. This is a perfect example of letting our civic society, letting hard working members of the community volunteer and manages their own services. The Willfield Action Group have a former manager from Sports and Leisure at their head, they are not just a group of well meaning do-gooders.

When Councillor Pervez visited the gym on the 8th June Mr Camellaire was asked to present a business case, and without much time he has done so, but within a few days of the 8th June a decision had already been made, and the Community Trust business case which I’m sure you have all received, has never been considered. This business case would need some firming up which can be done with more access to council data, but there is a real opportunity to let the Community run the gym, take on the financial risks and prove that they can make it work. If it doesn’t work then at least they have tried, and the Council may have lost a free opportunity to demolish a building but will have gained many supporters and democracy would have been better served.

Therefore, we urge this committee to consider this Community Trust business case. This should have been considered by the cabinet and council officers and in the interests of democracy, accountability and fair decision making, and in the interests of the health and independence of the people of Stoke on Trent I would like to recommend the gym is handed over to a Community Trust for them to run and that this decision is referred back to the Cabinet for them to amend.

Officers of the council did their upmost to prevent Cllr Pitt from sharing her documentation with other councillors at the meeting but a timely intervention by Cllr Randy Conteh who reminded officer that he had seen papers handed out on the day of the meeting many times before, soon resulted in the legal officer backing down and the papers were distributed.

After a long and at times heated debate, the proposal to recommend that the Willfield Fitness Centre be retained on its present site and for the Council to work with the Willfield Centre Trust to taken over the costs and running of the Centre was voted on and narrowly defeated.

Labour Councillor Sheila Pitt voted with the opposition, whilst her fellow group councillors Pender, Wheeldon, Banks and Fry contributed nothing to the debate during the entire meeting.

Cllr Bagh Ali used his casting vote to ensure that the cabinet decision to close the Willfield Centre was upheld.
It was obvious that the Labour Group had the whip on.
Cllrs Hamer, Rosenau and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Group Paul Shotton were dotted about the Windsor Room to ensure that there were no dissenters.

There may be trouble ahead for Cllrs Pitt & Wedgwood. The Labour Group often takes a dim view on councillors who break the whip.

Talking to Willfield supporters after the meeting the actions taken by the two labour Councillors were very much appreciated and went a long way to convince the electorate in their ward that Cllrs Pitt and Wedgwood stayed true to their election pledge to fight to keep the popular fitness centre open.

After the meeting I managed to catch up with Cllr Randy Conteh whose contribution throughout the meeting was outstanding.

Listen to the Audio Interview below.

[soundcloud id=’19496753′]

Traveller Gypsies Vandalise Park Hall Beauty Spot

Park Hall is one of the city’s areas of outstanding natural beauty. The rolling hills to one side of Park Hall Road, the lake and open green space to the other side.

The residents of the area, old and young, respect the area totally.

Park Hall hills draw visitors from far and wide. The area offers moments of tranquillity and an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Dog walkers enjoy the hills, the lake and green space alike and always clean up the mess their canine friends produce.

To me Park Hall is the jewel in the south of the city’s crown.

However in the past week the area came under attack [I consciously use the word attack] from a group of gypsy travellers who absolutely vandalised the area.

About 30 vans arrived on Saturday 2nd July. They bumped their caravans over a curb and decided to set up camp on the green space next to Park Hall lake.

As is customary the travellers showed no respect to the area, the land, or the residents.

They left exactly one week later leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Rubbish was strewn all over the green space. Garden rubbish, rubble, tarmac, clothing general household rubbish, used nappies was discarded without a care.

I visited the area yesterday [Sunday 10th] and took the pictures below on my phone. The damage the caravans had done to the land will take time to repair.

The poor council workers who will undoubtedly be left to clean up after these vandals will also have to deal with an amount of human excrement left as a present by these gypsy travellers.

So, they were there for a week, how come it took so long to get rid of them? Who is to blame? How much will the cleanup operation cost?

The ward councillor Matt Fry was onto the problem almost immediately. In turn Rob Flello, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South was alerted, who in turn put pressure on the council officers and the police.

The hold up, and it happens in every case where gypsy travellers invade an area, is solely down to the time it takes to get the necessary paperwork to and through the courts. The courts give the police permission to evict the travellers on a certain date usually within two weeks of the arrival of the caravans.

Matt Fry, Rob Flello, the police and in particular the officers of the council, cannot be faulted in this case. They worked as a team for the good of the residents and the community to rid the area of this blight on the landscape.

Rob Flello was in constant communication with the police on the matter and as a result of an appeal by the senior officer in charge to the leader of the travellers, the area was eventually evacuated on Saturday 9th.

Cllr Matt Fry along with Rob Flello MP are now in discussions with the relevant officers of the council to ensure there is a thorough cleanup operation and measures taken to prevent any return including a fence or bollards.

I don’t want to turn this into a race issue, to me this is about respect, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof.

People say that gypsies get a rough deal, I just don’t buy that.

Anyone who watched the recent TV series “ËœMy Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ would have observed that there is arrogance within the travelling community.

They demand respect but the travellers rarely show respect for people or the land they so often mistreat and vandalise.

The programme showed that the caravans in which they live are kept spotlessly clean. The permanent gypsy sites sited around the country are also well kept and the land tended.

But their good housekeeping is limited to their own vans and sites. They do not care a jot about taxpaying communities who are trying their best for the areas in which we live.

They are classed as an ethnic minority and I have no issue with that whatsoever.

What I do care about is that our City Council are left to foot the bill for cleaning up the mess that these people leave behind them.

I was told over the weekend that the cleanup will cost the city council in the region of £5000 plus the cost of ensuring that gypsy travellers cannot access the land in the future.

In an era when we are losing facilities, services and leisure amenities through cuts it is an outrage that these people are allowed to carry on inflicting mess and disruption to areas of our city.

The penalties for the vandalism that gypsy travellers inflict on our communities and areas of natural beauty need to be a whole lot tougher. If they were locked up until they were forced to pay for the cleanup following one of their uninvited stays, they may think twice about how they treat the land in the future.

As my old dad used to say “Ëœrespect is earned not demanded’.