Inside the Civic

Those who thought all out elections would bring some stability to our Council must be feeling embarrassed this week as Council Leader Mohammed Pervez took a scalpel to his cabinet, cutting out the disobedient Gratton and challenger Hill, and carving up the other portfolios in what is quite clearly more than the ‘tweaking’ he described it as.

The introduction of Platt and Dutton is seen as a nod to the left wingers in the group, who re-emerged in 2011 to rival the modernisers who were in danger of taking over Labour. Continue reading

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

Tories’ flaunt their true colours and trample over the exploited

The Vulture Funds Bill was blocked at its third reading by a single Conservative MP in the House of Commons on Friday.

It’s not clear which of three MPs, including deputy Chief Whip Andrew Robatham, shouted “Ëœobject’ to block the bill. They were huddled together, but refused to admit which of them it was. There is now unlikely to be time to pass the bill before the general election.

The Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill is intended to help some of the poorest people in the world receive the full benefits of debt relief, and it was thought to have reached cross-party agreement after weeks of discussion. We should all be outraged that a Conservative MP has blocked it today. The block may have come from the top of the party.

Email David Cameron, leader of the Opposition, and demand he clarifies which MP blocked the Bill, and whether they had his party’s support.

Once the Private Member’s Bills session began, it seemed that Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch, was determined to make sure there was no time left for the Vultures Bill, speaking for over an hour on the Sunbeds Bill and speaking at length on the Local Authorities Bill. Today’s result is a major setback but all who want to rid the world of nasty grubby money makers who feed on the debt-ridden developing countries should email David Cameron and ask him to clarify the Conservative Party’s position on the Vulture Funds Bill. Also, email Harriet Harman, Leader of the House, and ask her to make more parliamentary time for the Vultures Bill before the general election.

Earlier this week the Jubilee debt Campaign received a message of support from former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. He joins global figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in backing a Vulture Funds Bill.

Jubilee Debt Campaign, The Grayston Centre, 28 Charles Square, London. N16HT telephone: 0207 324 4722 email: info@jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk and the web: http://www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk/

Students show taste for Fairtrade

A school is to serve a special Fairtrade lunch and open a Fairtrade shop in support of a national campaign.

Pupils at Haywood Engineering College, Burslem, are opening “ËœHaywood High Fairtrade shop’ which will sell a selection of Fairtrade products every Thursday.

On Wednesday 24 February the school students will welcome Lord Mayor Jean Bowers and Councillor Peter Kent-Baguley to a Fairtrade lunch.

The council guests will be served a lunch of Fairtrade products including chicken fillet in bbq sauce, vegetable curry, chilli con carne.

The event is being held as part of Fairtrade Fortnight.

Student mentor Fred McCarthy, who has worked with the pupils on their Fairtrade Committee, said: “The students have been learning about Fairtrade and they wanted to help to make life better for farmers in the developing world by get a fair price for their products.”

Councillor Kent-Baguley added: “It is really very encouraging to meet students who are so committed to Fairtrade. They have worked hard drawing up a school Fairtrade policy and motivating staff and fellow students to support it. They are well on the way to gaining Fairtrade School status.”

Encouraging more jobs and businesses in Stoke-on-Trent

Almost 96% of the 790 people who responded to the City Council’s Public Consultation on the Budget said that encouraging more jobs and businesses in Stoke-on-Trent was an important service the council should provide. In fact, of the 12 service areas presented to the interviewees, this was considered to be the most important.

Perhaps a similar result would be obtained in Birmingham, but as Kraft’s £11.9bn debt financed take-over bid for Cadbury demonstrates, whatever local councils may do to increase the attractivenes of their patch to entice businesses and jobs, it is the big boys and girls who are the real players, the international financiers, who couldn’t care less about the local work forces they invade.

Hardly had the Cadbury board of directors rolled over and accepted the bid (and no surprise there since they will each make millions!) than their chair, Roger Carr, bluntly declares that his prime concern was the interest of shareholders and that job losses would be inevitable! Yes, but if the chief executive, Todd Stilzer, loses his job, for example, he stands to receive a bumper pay-off, comprising a year’s pay of £985,000, bonus of £2m and £12m in cash and shares.

Meanwhile, the workers who produce the value, face the trauma of being amongst those who will be sacrificed in what will certainly be a Kraft imposed cost cutting exercise.

This is the reality of international capitalism. The people of Stoke-on-Trent know all about it. They are grappling with the legacy of international financiers who have plundered our once great ceramic industry.  

The motor of capitalism is growth, based on invasion; invasion of companies, cultures and countries. Exploitation of the majority of people and the environment is not only unavoidable it is the essence of the system. This is the reality which people, and increasingly of recent years, government, expect local councils to combat. Really? What could Birmingham City Council have done to prevent the Kraft take-over and the consequent forthcoming job losses? What could Stoke-on-Trent City Council have done to prevent the attack on the potteries and the transfer of manufacturing to the Far East?

Even a postcard is too big for, nothing.

Confidence is all

Without confidence in the people running the show, whatever the show is, whether it is the government, a major bank, the village football team or the local council for example, the show will be dysfunctional, mired in crises and finally failure.

Before Christmas a senior officer under questioning at a scrutiny committee gave assurances that the voluntary redundancy process would slice off £4.3m from the 2010/2011 budget. There were no doubts.

However, because substantially fewer than the planned 250 staff signed up for voluntary redundancy (probably largely due to not wishing to sign the gagging order that was suddenly imposed on them) only £1.2m will be sliced off the 2010/2011 budget instead of the planned £4.3m.

So, will the £3.1m not to be saved on VR after all mean more cuts? Not according to portfolio holder for resources, Cllr Kieran Clarke. In response to my questions, he told the Group Leaders’ meeting on Monday, now that the government has limited pay rises for public sector workers to 1%, the excess amount in the draft budget for pay rises will cover the VR shortfall.

But in fact, there is only £1.4m saved as a result of the pay rise cap. Somewhat different from the confidently asserted £3.1m!

Instead of adding the planned £1.5m to the Council’s pitifully low reserves only £0.5m will be added, thus leaving another £1m to help plug the missing £3.1m. That makes £2.5m to plug the gap but what about the remaining £0.6m?

Maybe wondering about a mere £600,000 is being side-tracked by detail. Although, with confidence in the Cabinet and senior officers being at an all-time low, quite clearly if we are not to be duped into voting for a budget in six weeks time that simply does not add up, we cannot afford (literally!) to leave any kind of detail to those in whom we lack confidence.

“It ticks all the boxes…”

Source: PKB Blog

…was the essence of Cllr Derek Capey’s presentation to Full Council yesterday as Cabinet member for sport, parks and leisure of the City Council’s new 2009-2016 Sport & Physical Activity Strategy which apparently embraces government targets. I felt a tiny bit sorry for the Cabinet with the urgency for a new policy framework to be approved, saddled as they were with the strategy developed under the Elected Mayor and Council Manager system which we only got rid of earlier this year in June. It has been developed during the past two years by consultants Nortoft, for an as yet undiclosed cost, in consultation with a number of bodies, community groups and residents.

However, it’s strategic value is severly undermined by the total absence of any criteria by which we may begin to guess which of the vast number of potential projects on its wish list will ever be implemented. Worryingly, in fact, the portfolio officer’s report admits: “Adoption of the strategy does not constitute a firm commitment to deliver…” and in fact goes on to admit that they haven’t got a clue about what to do next: “A process will also need to be developed to help prioritise the objectives and supporting projects…” Two and a half years should have provided sufficient time and opportunity to have addressed these issues.

Not that I was surprised that the childlike Santa wish list is countered by an abject admission of inability to deliver. After all, the financial report to the 11th November Adult & Older People’s Wellbeing overview and scrutiny committee declared: “Due to the delay in appointing to the Football Development Officer post it is unlikely that the £0.84m in relation to football pitches will be utilised in 2009/10.”

No explanation for the delay in appointing the officer nor any explanation why that should prevent investment in the lamentable provision of football pitches across the city.

I inspired an amendment which was proposed and seconded by the Labour Group because I had already spoken that would have referred the strategy document back to the Cabinet for priorities, costings and time lines to be included for its next presentation but that was lost by 16 to 19, the BNP voting with the Tory-led Cabinet.

Unfortunately, all those people consulted (the majority) who regarded upgraded provision of swimming pools and football pitches as priorities will be no clearer now than they were before the debate about future provision. Once thing is pretty clear, however, if the Tory-led cabinet continues, whatever provision there is in the future will most likely be by the private sector. With the profit motive to the fore, accessibility and affordability of sports facilities that the strategy considers important will be very much open to question.

Report on Overview and Scrutiny Management Meeting”¦

Audio Interviews Now Online!

Today I attended a meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee and in a kind of sad way, I really enjoyed it.

It was great to see the scrutiny process in full swing. The meeting was excellently chaired by Cllr Mark Davis and there were telling contributions for Cllr Paul Shotton, Cllr Mick Salih, Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley, Mike Coleman & Cllr Tom Reynolds. Cllr John Davies was also in attendance and there were late appearances by Cllr Dave Conway and Cllr Kieran Clarke.

The officer core was represented by Tom Macarntey the Acting Chief Executive and Paul Simpson, Director of Central Services.

The meeting got off to a controversial start with the elected members expressing their disgust at the fact that they were waiting for requested information from officers that had not been forth coming for the last two months. Paul Shotton was particularly critical of this as was Cllr Mick Salih and Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley. You can here more about this in the Audio Interview below.

City Farm

Cllr Tom Reynolds and Cllr John Davies both voiced concerns over the future of the City Farm. This popular facility is under threat despite being the subject of a review and a subsequent recommendation to explore ways of helping the City Farm to be more self funding. It had also been agreed that it should be helped to generate more income. Both councillors expressed concerns that once again there is a possibility that this popular attraction is a target for even more cuts or could ultimately be closed and they proposed a further review to see if more help could be given before the executive of the council get the chance to wield the axe. Tom Reynolds pointed out to the meeting that many of the officers who had worked on the original proposal regarding the City Farm and how it should be financed had now left the authority. This “Ëœnest flying’ reared it’s head on more than one of the topics discussed at the meeting.

Burslem.

The mother town came in for a fair amount of discussion at today’s meeting. Cllr Mick Salih raised concerns at the dilapidated state of what is said to be the most historical of the six towns. All elected members were disappointed at the fact that Burslem’s Indoor Market was still closed and was in a terrible state of repair. Questions were asked at why nothing had been done to get the market repaired and re-opened. Cllr Paul Shotton said that revenue from the other successful indoor markets across the city should have been directed towards Burslem Market instead of being used on “Ëœother council projects’. He pointed out that Hanley Market had not been redecorated since it was first opened.

Tender For the appointment of an Agency to oversee the recruitment of Agency staff!

No you haven’t read that wrong! Council officers are looking to put out to tender for the appointment of an agency to oversee the recruitment of agency staff. This is despite the Council Leader and his Executive stating publicly that the city council must cut down on the use of consultants and agency staff. Elected members questioned why, when the council have a procurement department should there be a need to employ the use of such an agency. Surely this issue must be the responsibility of the said Procurement Department. I think all the elected representatives present were quite surprised at what could be described as a classic contradiction.

Transition Board

There was a really interesting discussion on the Governance Transition Board. All the elected members present asked if the TB were obliged to publish minutes. Cllr Salih stated that as a public body, that are paid £4000 in allowances from the public purse, they should be forced to publish the minutes so that they can be scrutinised by the elected members of the council and indeed members of the public should they wish to. Cllr Conway urged his fellow councillors not to get to excited as he thought that it would be easier getting minutes fro the Freemasons or indeed “ËœCommon Purpose’ meetings. Cllr Kent-Baguley informed the meeting that as support staff from the council were used in relation the the TB it was essential that elected members are informed of the progress this body of people are making in relation to the brief that they have.

Budget Shortfall

The most interesting agenda item was the report given to the meeting by Central Services Director Paul Simpson. The good news was that the shortfall in the budget had reduced from £17million to just short of £11million. Many departments still faced a substantial overspend but through the non delivery of certain budget plans and strategic savings in various areas across the council, Mr Simpson was able to report on what is a healthy amount to come off the budget deficit. He also informed the meeting that officers were already working on the budget for the next financial year. Acting Chief Executive Tom Macartney stated that he was more confident with the figures for the new budget than he had been the previous ones. He voiced concerns over some department and their failure to stay on budget and he reminded the meeting that in the private sector this would result in heads of department loosing their jobs. Cllr Conway informed the meeting that the council were currently owed some £2.5million in council house rents and he warned Paul Simpson that there was no way he would support a rise in council house rents for the next financial and penalise those who were willing to pay, to subsidise those who would not pay. There was a long discussion about car parking charges across the city. Cllr Kieran Clarke, the cabinet members for resources came in for some criticism but in fairness he did not give an adequate response when questioned about his press release ragrding both the car parking issue and the voluntary redundancy programme. You can hear more about the issue of car parking in the audio interview below. The elected members scrutinised the officers on the proposed voluntary redundancy programme. In excess of 500 council employees have expressed an interest in taking this option. Departmental heads along with the various cabinet members with responsibility for those departments have assessed where positions can be cut without an impact on front-line services. The councillors present wanted assurance that services would be protected. There is a report going to cabinet this week with a recommendation that 243 council employees be offered a voluntary redundancy package and if it is agreed at cabinet, departmental heads can start to discuss the details with those employees. This scheme will only save the authority some £600,ooo in the present financial year. Cllr Shotton voiced his concerns that there was still a long way to go to achieve financial stability within the authority, a view shared by Paul Simpson the Director for Central Services and Tom Macartney the acting Chief Executive.

I was impressed with all the elected representatives present. The meeting was thorough and the officers present were questioned and their decisions scrutinised. Our council often gets criticised for being poor and fragmented, but here was an example of how good the process can be. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the elected representatives who were present at that meeting. This was local government working in all it’s full glory.

For more detail on some of the issues raised in this article, please listen to the following Audio Interviews with Cllr Mick Salih & Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley:

Councillors’ credibility confirmed

Source PKB Blog

Outraged by the shoddiness of his report and the authoritarian manner in which it was presented with planned compulsory redundancies, councillors called an Extraordinary Full Council meeting on 6th August to to express their opposition to the Interim Assistant Chief Executive’s totally inappropriate report that planned the destruction of effective local neighbourhood management. Members unanimously agreed:

“to establish a Task and Finish group to consider the implications of the report and to review options for the structure of neighbourhood management and community engagement and requests the Cabinet not to implement the proposals until the Task and Finish group have reported their findings.”

Several weeks ago the Interim Assistant Chief Executive left the Council. That Task & Finish Group has made an excellent start on its work. It has been greatly encouraged today with the announcement by Denise Grant, Head of Neighbourhood Services, that the whole sorry saga has been ended:

“Having considered the feedback from staff and customers submitted in response to the restructure proposals and as there can be no implementation of the proposals while they are being reviewed by the Task and Finish Group, we believe that the best course of action is to withdraw the current restructure proposals. Therefore, a Chief Officer Report has been submitted to withdraw the proposals and the report has been agreed and signed by Jeanette McGarry (Director – Housing, Environmental & Neighbourhood Services).  This means that the threat of compulsory redundancies, as detailed in the proposals, is removed from all staff within Neighbourhood Services.”

So, congratulations for commonsense, and increasingly, councillors’ control.

In Conversation: PKB & Walley – The Leadership Special.

By Tony Walley & Mike Rawlins.

Tony Walley & Peter Kent-Baugley in conversation

Tony Walley & Peter Kent-Baguley in conversation

The final interview of this particular series, today we are ‘In Conversation’ with Peter Kent-Baguley.

PKB is widely recognised as one of the best orators in the council chamber.

Peter has been described by many as a ‘peoples champion’ of a councillor.

He is a former Labour Group Deputy Leader and he held that position until a well documented parting of the ways which saw Mick Salih and Reg Booth leave the Labour Party at the same time.

PKB is a self confessed left wing socialist politician, he also runs his own blogsite in which he gives his opinion on a wide range of topics.

Peter is also a champion of ‘Fair Trade’ products.

In this interview Peter speaks on the pressing issues facing our city and why he has decided to stand for Council Leader.

As usual the interview is split into several parts to make it easier to listen to:

Part 1

[audio:http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/audio/0609/pkb/pkb-p1.mp3]

Part 2

[audio:http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/audio/0609/pkb/pkb-p2.mp3]

Part 3

[audio:http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/audio/0609/pkb/pkb-p3.mp3]

Part 4

[audio:http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/audio/0609/pkb/pkb-p4.mp3]

Part 5

[audio:http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/audio/0609/pkb/pkb-p5.mp3]