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

Councillors Act To Avert Crisis

Five City Councillors today submitted a requisition for a Special City Council to be held next week to debate the Council’s collective submission to the Local Government Boundary Commission regarding the creation of 44 new one-Member Wards to replace the current 20 three-Member Wards.

The Administration & Appeals Committee has been convened specially to consider the submission next Wednesday, 9th June 2010. Since the closing date for submissions to the Local Government Boundary Commission is Friday 11th June it is clearly vital that a Special Full Council be convened on Thursday 10th June.

Since at this very late stage no such Special Council notice has been issued I have today, with the support of Cllrs Pauline Joynson, Mike Barnes, Mick Bell and Janine Bridges submitted a requisition to the Lord Mayor requesting that a Special Full Council be called. The last date for issuing such a summons is tomorrow, Wednesday 2nd June to meet the required 7 days notice for such a meeting.

It was still unclear at the close of business today when the Report setting out the Council’s submission would be available.

However, now at least, a Special Full Council will be called thus avoiding the debacle of having no properly approved submission to make to the Bounday Commission

Common Front Coalition not Commonsense

Rumour is rife that the Leader of the City Council’s much expanded Labour Group, having won 17 of the 20 seats contested on May 6th in the last of the City Council elections by thirds, has finally been roused to recognise responsibility that goes with now being the largest political group on the Council, though with 26 of the 60 seats, a handful short of a simple majority.

The awakening extends only to seeking a coalition with the City Independents (considering their recent history their name is increasingly questionable), the Tories, and the Lib Dems, thus aiming to absorb all but the five BNP group members and the 3 Non aligned, 2 independents, 1 Libertarian.

Attempting to obliterate opposition, and thus, effective scrutiny, not to mention the political choices of the electorate, is a move well along the road to a totalitarian approach to local government.

If the “good of the City”, the cry which almost drowns out principled argument in defence of difference (once choice was the New Labour buzz word!), really is such an agreed priority then why didn’t these petty politicians seek the people’s mandate on that basis? Why did they go all out to win for their particular party?

Apart from it being a rather sordid little tactic to avoid singular responsibility and accountability it fails to command even a commonsense consensus since no one has yet begun to spell out what “the good of the City” might mean! Is there only one good? Is there only one way to the good of the City? Of course not to both questions.

Such shallow siren calls reflect an abject laziness to articulate basic principles, core values and essential policies. Instead, of tackling those tasks they wish to slither into an amorphous mass to nod through whatever the root and branch cutting machine, driven by officers and over-paid consultants, churns out.

Come the all-out City Council elections next May to herald the new smaller one-member wards (perhaps with a few anomolous 2 and 3 member wards) the electorate will be truly challenged to work out which party candidate to support. I suspect many wont even bother, safe in the knowledge that their vote will be ignored and composted into coalition

Building Schools for what Future?

This week I attended the Governors’ Finance sub-committee at Mitchell High school, one of the City’s 17 High schools.

Mitchell’s examination results were poor enough to attract over £100,000 additional funding a couple of year’s ago. Last year, Mitchell’s results shot up, so much in fact, that it was the most improved school in the whole of England.

Reward? Slashing of the additional budget to the extent that now the governors have no option but to agree a £95,000 cut in the school budget, and that after the headteacher’s line by line clipping across the board.

Sometimes I really do think there maybe something embedded deeply in some bureaucrats’ heads which rewards success with a swinging penalty. Who, with a modicum of education, not to say commonsense, would even contemplate withdrawing additional booster resources immediately success has been achieved?

Staff who have pulled out all the stops to rise to the challenge are now looking round the staff room and thinking: will it be them or me faced with the question: have you thought of early retirement/voluntary redundancy?

This is not the way to run our schools; this is not the way to treat our children; this is not the way political issues should be handled. The allocation of scarce resources is what politics is all about: we should not stand by and watch bureaucrats undermine the hardwork and aspirations of all involved with our schools.

The City Council’s cabinet member for schools needs to get a grip on the situation to make sure young people in some of the most economically deprived areas of our city are not being penalised.

Be warned all who crave elected mayors

Stoke-on-Trent got rid of its notoriously undemocratic elected mayor and council manager system last June.

The abysmal legacy of that ruinous system will blight the City for some time to come. Effectively totalitarian in practice, M&M survived within a culture of secrecy and a public diet of misinformation if not at times downright lies.

The latest costly legacy of that system to be exposed in all its expensive incompetence is the so-called “strategic partnership”. In fact it was never strategic nor a partnership! The notion was to outsource, privatise, off-load hundreds of our staff into a private company whom we would pay to run our key services.

Why would we want to pay a profit to a private company to do something we should be able to do perfectly well ourselves?

Well, we were supposed to believe that we couldn’t afford to purchase vital, modern IT but that a private company would do it for us! Also, getting rid of our staff to a private company, relocating them in a brand new office block on the site of Unity House in Hanley, envisioned as the “business district”, would in fact kick-start the developement of that vision.

In other words, we could only have a business district if we sacrificed public servants in a public service on the altar of private enterprise.

Some of us said at the time that these two issues had nothing in common and that the whole sorry business was a mismanaged fudge. Interestingly now, those very same councillors supported the elected mayor and council manager’s push for privatisation are now agreeing that the farce has gone far enough!

The farce? Almost £2m of Council money spent on a series of teams of consultants who have actually produced nothing wothwhile except the very first consultant’s report back in 2005 which concluded that privatisation would at the very best POSSIBLY produce savings of 3% at the END of 15 years!

So why did the M&M, with the support of the pseudo-cabinet members force the Council coffers to hand over a further £2m to consultants? Those councillors who are in the present Cabinet should resign immediately and the others kept well away from key decision making.

Who said volunteering was dead?

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley has been overwhelmed by volunteers who have offered more than 5,000 hours to help steward the exhibition of unique Anglo-Saxon treasures. Within just a week of issuing the public appeal, more than double the amount of support needed to steward the exhibtion had been pledged. The exhibtion of the gold and silver trasure opens on 13th February and runs until 7th March.

The seventh century treasure is the largest and most valuable collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever discovered and new items from the 1,500-piece hoard will be displayed at the museum for the first time ever. It is also the first time the treasure will be exhibited in Staffordshire, the county in which it was found.

The museum’s volunteer co-ordinator Andrew Watts said:

“We have also had offers of help from Anglo-Saxon re-enactor groups. On the first day of the exhibition we will now be joined by King Raedweld of Sutton Hoo, some of his warriors, craftsmen and other folk. They will show how gold items, similar to those in the hoard, were worn and made. Other volunteer Anglo-Saxons will be with us during the display. The response has been overwhelmingly generous. Many of the applicants that we haven’t been able to accommodate in the hoard exhibition are interested in other volunteering opportunities and will become part of the museum service volunteer programmes later in the year.”

Les Higgins, 67, a retired archaeologist from Norton-in-the-Moors, will volunteer on eight exhibition days added: 

“I hope as many people as possible come to see it. It is very exciting to be a part of the display and the volunteers are extremely keen to help – the fact that the call for voluntees was so over-subscribed proves how the treasure has struck people’s imagination.”

A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR.

I stop short of adding anything about prosperity for clearly we are going to start paying very dearly for the greedy mistakes of the relatively small handful of financiers.

Peter Pan is playing to packed theatres around the country, and deservedly so. It is an innocent and entertaining story with wide appeal. Peter Pan council budgets on the other hand are neither innocent nor entertaining. Deceitful and demeaning are more accurately their principal characteristics.

The City Council’s Tory Leader and his Cabinet have put out a Budget Consultation Pack devoid of political leadership and economic reality. There is also a marked absence of commonsense on a number of the proposed cuts.

Under the guise of consultation the Leader and Cabinet have abdicated responsibility for preparing a framework for the Budget, preferring to leave it to emerge from the consultation process! Leader Cllr Ross Irving has been around long enough to know jolly well that budgets are not stitched up patchworks from a range of consultations!

Some basic facts:

The government’s grant confirmed: £127.293m. If there is no increase in Council Tax it will yield the same as the current year: £79.008m. Thus, total income: £206.301m

But,  

Expenditure based on the current year would be £222.811m so CUTS of £12.397m have been proposed.

That would reduce the bill to £210.414m, Still MORE than the projected income so what to do? INCREASE Council Tax or more CUTS?

Answer, more cuts via Voluntary Redundancies plannedto save £4.300m. That reduces the bill to £206.114m., so hey presto, income balances expenditure. Job done and no increased Council Tax!

Before we get over-excited at the seemingly harmless balancing act don’t let’s forget that a balanced budget was claimed to be on the table this time last year. Apart from the fact that a few officers “forgot” to implement the necessary increased charges there’s more than a hint that the “balanced budget” was based on a wing and a prayer. So, no change there.

Of the 128 proposed cuts, some are plainly unachievable. Review of Community Halls (£50,000). This is a long-running saga and most unlikely to be sorted in the short term. Reduction in opening times snd reduced menu choice at the three City-run cafes (£77,000) Daft idea considering thousands of visitors will be pouring in to see the Gold Hoard at the Museum. Publishing the Council’s Our City paper monthly instead of alternate months (£147,000). Highly contentious issue and unlikely to get approval.   

Removal of 14 posts within Chief Executive’s directorate, including that of the assistant chief executive would save nearly £500,000! This is an easy one, however: they’re all vacant anyway!

Review of management of Integrated Youth Support Services (£400,000) That’s a big chunk of saving but would anyone be left to run the integrated youth services?

Assess how to improve the viability of Stanley Head Outdoor Centre (£80,000) Viability? Or profitability? This is well used, popular centre for thousands of City school children every year.

Review of gritting service (£100,000) “There may be an impact on users of the road network during adverse weather conditions.” Really?

Considering the absolute debacle this year over car parking income some brave soul has dared to suggest that £253,000 could be saved by re-introducing charges for evening parking (if they remember to actually do it!) and to stop the mamby-pamby 10 minute period of grace for cars with expired tickets and the 5 minutes grace for those without tickets. That should be a number one hit  with the beleaguered motorists!

Transfer City Farm to a Trust. (£80,000) Is that it? Which Trust? So a trust will take it on without any City Council funding?

Apart from the easy half a million pounds hit (the 14 vacant posts) you can see how difficult it is to confidently notch up another £1m. Let’s not forget, £12m cuts are planned. Next time, why no increase in Council Tax will further impoverish the City.

How many consultants does it take to work out how many consultants the City Council employs?

As the first decade of the C21st century slides its way into history, a Freedom of Information (F.O.I.) question directed to Stoke-on-Trent City Council is stonewalled on the trumped up excuse that “we estimate that the cost of complying with your request would be more than £450.”

Most people, I am sure, will be amazed that a City Councillor was obliged to submit a F.O.I. question anyway!

So what was this ever so difficult data requested that would cost far too much to locate?

Cllr Michael Barnes’ questions were:

1. How many Consultants currently work for Stoke-on-Trent City Council, including NSRP?

2. How much is the total estimated cost of these consultants for this financial year 2009/10?

3. How many individual consultants or interim officers are currently paid more than £500 per day (or equivalent based on a normal officer hours) by the Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the NSRP? Please include those employed for doing only 1 day (example) per week and earning more than £500 for that week.

4. How many individual consultants or interim officers have been paid more than £500 per day (or equivalent based on a normal officer hours) by the Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the NSRP and have now left, and what is their total cost?

Part of the officer’ response states: “Information currently held by the finance department only relates to September 2009 and will not provide an accurate account of the costs…”

If it were the case that the finance department held the information only for September 2009, then obviously it would be useless for Cllr Barnes’ questions but how can it be possible that the statement is accurate. Of course it is not.

The information for questions 1 & 2 was recently provided for the Member/Officer Working Group on Consultants. I am a member of that group. The names of consultants was included in the spreadsheet circulated at the meeting but officers insisted, with the support of the Council Leader (who chairs the group), that all names be deleted from the spreadsheet we were allowed to keep. So, I cannot say how many consultants were listed but the point is that information would cost little more than 20p of some officer’s time to retrieve!

The total forecast cost for the current financial year (2009-2010) is £2,310,324.

This information related only to consultants paid via the Council’s General Fund, ie the main Revenue Budget. We requested information about all other consultants employed but paid for by various grants. That information should be presented at our next meeting in January.

Employment of consultants is not, in every case, avoidable and unnecessary but on the vast scale that the City Council employs them it is entirely avoidable and totally unnecessary.

Far from admitting or pretending that the data requested is so scattered, deeply embedded and practically impossible to collate the senior officers should be making sure that such data is gathered together, regularly updated, monitored and available for scrutiny and analysis.

By the way, the best answers to this end of decade festive time question title of this posting will be in line for a very tasty Co-op Fairtrade chocolate torte.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s voluntary redundancy mayhem

I have argued repeatedly, at group leaders’ meetings, Overview & Scrutiny Management Committee and in Full Council, that the Cabinet’s approach to voluntary redundancies is absolutely the wrong approach.

Proof of that is already seeping out! Already, several staff have contacted me to voice their serious concerns about various aspects of the process.

Officers within the Neighbourhood Management structure have been given volunary redundancy, or more precisely, their posts have been declared redundant, qualifying the post holders for voluntary redundancy.

Full Council recently agreed that no further action should be taken on the ill-conceived restructure of Neighbourhood Management until the specially established Task & Finish Scrutiny group researched the issue and made its report.

Yet, in full contradiction to that decision officers within that area have received formal approval of their voluntary redundancy! But the mayhem doesn’t stop there.

Suddenly, on Thursday when officers began to have individual sessions to discuss their voluntary applications, they were presented with a compromise agreement to sign: in plain language, a gagging order!

"You undertake that you have not already and will not, whether directly or indirectly: a) make any statement about the Council, or any of their officers or members to the press, broadcasting media or any other person for publication;

or b) make, publish or communicate to any person any disparaging, derogatory or negative statements, whether in writing or otherwise, concerning the Council or any of its or their officers or employers. (sic)

This is quite outrageous. Setting aside "disparaging" and "derogatory" why on earth shouldn’t a former employee make a negative statement if they can justify it? More importantly, who decides what is precisely a negative statement? On the face of it this is an extremely worrying attempt to control the lawful democratic rights of former employees.

Secondly, has someone decided (officer/s and/or Leader/Cabinet Member/s?) that if an officer is deemed to have made a "negative" statement about the Council that their post cannot be considered for voluntary redundancy? Sadly, things are every bit as topy-turvey as I had perceived them to be.

Thank goodness the Council Leader agree to my request on Friday that an urgent group leader’s meeting be called this week so that this seriously worrying issues can be sorted out.

We will remember them

Source: PKB Blog

Those four words, the final line of the verse which is read at war memorials annually, conclude the 7-verse poem, For The Fallen, which was read by the Head Girl and Head Boy of Brownhills High School, Tunstall this afternoon during the hour-long unveiling ceremony of the new commemorative wall in Tunstall Memorial Gardens.

Joan Walley MP for Stoke North (centre), the Lord Mayor, Cllr Jean Bowers, the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, the Leader of the City Council, Cllr Ross Irving and several hundred people attended the unvieling of the granite plaques bearing the names of those who lost their lives serving their country in the First World War. The finely proportioned 21′ high memorial obelisk in the centre of the Gardens was unveiled in 1928. Built of Hollington stone the obelisk does not carry any names so nearly three years ago the Friends of Tunstall & District War Memorial Group was formed to campaign for an additional memorial which could carry the names of all those  from the area who gave their lives in the Great War.