Potteries doing well in the Potteries

Potteries across Stoke-on-Trent seem to be doing well and increasing profits in what is thought by many to be the biggest recession since the late 1800’s.

Steelite, Churchill & Portmeirion have all reported good profits recently and Emma Bridgewater looks set to double its predicted sales this year. Continue reading

Double dip and Oatcakes

The news that Britain has slipped back into a recession should not be surprising. The economy experienced a 0.2 % fall following the decline in the figure of 0.3% in previous quarter which now puts the economy technically into a double dip recession- the first time since 1975. I would argue that the local economy has probably never recovered from the recession 4 years ago. As a guess the North Staffs economy has shrunken by about 8-10% since 2008. The signs of a turn down are everywhere most noticeably in the local jobs market. If we take the Sentinel as a guide the Wednesday section has been advertising around 300 jobs over recent weeks.

Continue reading

People do not choose poverty

I went to a conference in Manchester yesterday organised by the Church Action on Poverty. It was a worthy affair but as someone in work poverty I have a feeling that some people do not just get it. Take the assertion that poverty is more than just lack of money. Excuse me? Poverty is primarily about the lack of money. Lack of gelt, spondolies, brick, dosh whatever you want to call is central to the issue of poverty. For without money a person is excluded from the main functions of life. Life is always a series of choices, do I spend a fiver on the gas or do I use it to buy one or two provisions. But I was struck by the five words that one of the delegate uttered which should be seared on the brain of every legislator that wishes to tackle the issue of poverty who think that being poor is a deliberate act. “People do not choose poverty”

Some years ago I wrote a piece based on an essay that the 19th century writer William Hazlitt wrote called on the Want of Money. I have now updated it because my particular circumstances have not changed greatly since I originally wrote it in March 2007.

Hazlitt wrote

“It is hard to be without money. To get on without it is like travelling in a foreign country without a passport – you are stopped, suspected, and made ridiculous at every turn, besides being subjected to the most serious inconveniences”.

Hazlitt’s image of being in a foreign country is exactly right and probably magnified nearly 200 years on. Hazlitt could not have imagined the consumerist society where your social status is determined by the latest fashion you wear or the last gizmo you have acquired. I was thinking of this during a conversation I had at a Party I was invited to when one of the middle class guests made a presumptive comment about everyone being able to access the Internet; I believe that they are 13 million Britons who do not. I suspect the majority of them will be on low incomes. He was also correct about the being made to look ridiculous comment as well. A few months ago I saw a young man pay in copper at the checkout of the Coop in Picton St in Leek. He paid in the coin of the realm, but it was a protracted affair. After he left he was subject to mockery by the women in the queue as well as the shop assistant.

“The intermediate state of difficulty and suspense between the last guinea or shilling and the next that we may have the good luck to encounter. This gap, this unwelcome interval constantly recurring, however shabbily got over, is really full of many anxieties, misgivings, mortifications, meannesses, and deplorable embarrassments of every description. I may attempt (this Essay is not a fanciful speculation) to enlarge upon a few of them”.

I fall into the category of working poor. There are many of us in Britain today. Research published recently by IPPR points to more than 6 million people- over a fifth of all employees were paid less than £6.67 an hour in April 2009, this is the equivalent of £12,000 a year for 35 hour working week.

“What a luxury, what a God’s-send in such a dilemma, to find a half-crown which has slipped through a hole in the lining of your waistcoat, a crumpled bank-note in your breeches-pocket.”

Again, I know what Hazlitt means here. I found a five pound note in a coat pocket the other day. It made my day! Not as good a day as finding a tenner on the floor of Gents in a craft centre on the Wirral a few years ago or another blowing down a street in Leek. I am of the opinion that the divide that Disraeli, writing about 20 years after Hazlitt, illustrated in the novel Sybil, of two nations the rich and the poor is as palpable today and is widening. However he made be wrong in one regard, now there exists as wide a gulf between the poor white population and the poor ethnic minority population, there may be present more than two nations. The paradox is that there is a school of thought articulated by the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party John Prescott “that we are middle class now”.

“It is among the miseries of the want of money, not to be able to pay your reckoning at an inn – or, if you have just enough to do that, to have nothing left for the waiter; – to be stopped at a turnpike gate, and forced to turn back”.

I had to go to the Dentist earlier in the year. It was a NHS dentist but the bill came to £46. I had nothing in my account. I mumbled an apology to the Polish receptionist and presented her with a post-dated cheque. The real misery of being in want of money is not doing the things I enjoyed in the past

I like going to the Theatre. I have not managed it this year. I love orchestral music but the only concert that I have seen was a free concert that the RLPO gave in September. I have been to two Stoke City matches only because a friend could not use his season ticket. The holiday I have are usually down to a relative financing them.

And when things they are very difficult to replace. When the washing machine broke down and I do not have the resources to fix it although it is compensated by the regular trip down to the laundrette and it can be a lively social gathering down there. I had a chat with an old codger about watching the antics of the Sunderland footballer Len Shackelton at Old Trafford at a memorable post war match. It is probably sounder as far as the environment is concerned as well.

“Oh! it is wretched to have to confront a just and oft-repeated demand, and to be without the means to satisfy it; to deceive the confidence that has been placed in you; to forfeit your credit; to be placed at the power of another, to be indebted to his lenity; to stand convicted of having played the knave or the fool; and to have no way left to escape contempt but by incurring pity”.

The greatest bugbear of my own position is to feel under siege and to live in a perpetual state of apprehension that the phone call or the knock at the door will be a bailiff or a collector. I have stopped answering the phone. I dial 1471 after it had rang to discover whether it is a debt collector’s number. Sometimes I answer the phone and politely inform the person that I am absolutely skint and that I am seeing the local CAB and it is all in their hands.

God bless the CAB and damn the eyes of the local District Council who want to resort to the use of bailiffs at the earliest opportunity. I have never met them as all negotiations have been through the agency of the advice bureau. I feel a sense of burning rage at the regressive nature of the Council Tax and if I had the nerve feel like burning down the offices of the Council Tax Collectors- a la Captain Swing rioters

“To feel poverty is bad; but to feel it with the additional sense of our incapacity to shake it off, and that we have not merit enough to retrieve our circumstances – and, instead of being held up to admiration, are exposed to persecution and insult – it is the last stage of human infirmity”.

Getting out of this situation dominates my waking hours. I work part time and earn £6.12 an hour working flexible hours and try to eke out a living by writing the occasional article on history for the local newspaper. It takes me 3 to 4 hours to write a 1500 word article, I get paid £70 I do some part time teaching and hopefully that might develop. I have a ghost walk in Leek which is sporadic. I apply for other jobs. I am in my 50s and lose out each time to younger people. I went for an interview where there was one other candidate and lost out. I am always told that my interview technique is excellent, which is extremely galling. It cost me £50 to catch the train down to Oxfordshire to chase up a potential franchise with a company of biography writers. They treated me to a meal in a country pub but nothing was gained. I apply for grants for start up companies for the over 50s to be informed that they have run out of money. Fortunately by inclination I am a stoic and I battle on.

I am not the only one and I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a local café who is in the same predicament. Winning a tenner on the Lottery was the cause of celebration in her house the other week.

To be in want of it, is to pass through life with little credit or pleasure; it is to live out of the world, or to be despised if you come into it; it is not to be sent for to court, or asked out to dinner, or noticed in the street; it is not to have your opinion consulted or else rejected with contempt, to have your acquirements carped at and doubted, your good things disparaged, and at last to lose the wit and the spirit to say them; it is to be scrutinized by strangers, and neglected by friends; it is to be a thrall to circumstances, an exile in one’s own country.

Hazlitt is as true now as when he penned the essay in 1827. The poor are generally despised and mocked in Britain today. How else can you account for the success of Little Britain an opportunity for two public school types’ two rich kids to make themselves rich by mocking the poor and the vulnerable? The saddest thing is that the poor often join in the laughter that is so purposely directed at them. I say that we need to fight back and at the centre of any campaign is to address the low pay culture of the area. We need to work , for example, for a Living Wage. As I see it the problem is not too high benefits it is low wages that have bedevilled North Staffordshire.
 
 

A Fairness Commission for Stoke-on-Trent?

There was an article in the Observer today by Nick Cohen on Labour rediscovering the issue of poverty mainly through the publication of the book ” The Spirit Level” which chronicles the impact of the growing inequality in Britain in the early 21st Century.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/08/equality-society-better-nick-cohen

The UK is now more unequal””in incomes, wealth, health, education, and life chances””than at any time since the beginning of the 20th century despite 13 years of a Labour Government. There are more poor children in the UK than in any other country of the European Union. Since 1973, inequality in take-home pay increased more in the UK than anywhere except the US. Most of the new jobs created in Britain in the years 1977″“2007 were at either the very high or the very low end of the pay scale. And on the radio recently the head of the Centre for Cities gave a gloomy prediction for places like Stoke and Hull, which have been loosing private sector jobs even before the recession.

The consequences are clear. There has been a collapse in social mobility: in contrast to their parents and grandparents, children today in the UK have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born. The poor stay poor. Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority translates into ill health, missed educational opportunity and””increasingly””the familiar symptoms of depression: alcoholism, obesity, gambling, violence and minor criminality. The unemployed or underemployed loses such skills as they have acquired and become chronically surplus to the economy.

Cohen mentioned the creation of Fairness Commission in Hull and although I have not found reference to Hull one exists in Islington with a mandate to come up with policies to tackle some of the endemic problems in that part of the capital.

The concept of a Commission is not a new one and over the last 30 years a number of national and local reviews have reported on the impact of health and social welfare on the poor in Britain.

In 1980 the Black report was published followed 5 years later by a Health Education Commission review of the progress on the Black report. The Labour leader of the time in 1992 John Smith commissioned the Social Justice Commission. Locally in Stoke there was a 1989 Review of the “Sick City” which set out the history of poor health in the area many of the problems related to local industry.

Would the setting up a Fairness Commission be of any assistance to the area?

Well certainly Stoke and North Staffs generally has a major problem with poverty.

Last year according to CAB Stoke’s child poverty rate of 1 in 4 children puts it amongst the highest in the West Midlands beaten only by Sandwell and Birmingham
.
In September 2009 the Sentinel headlined with the news that now one in five people in Stoke-on-Trent are now out of work and on benefits. That month’s figure showed that the proportion of working-age people out of work in Stoke-on-Trent is now the highest in the West Midlands.

At the end of June, 29,115 adults were claiming some form of unemployment benefit, including incapacity benefit. The figure is equivalent to 19.5 per cent of the city’s workforce, or one in five people.

And from my own experience as working as a volunteer at a local CAB the increase in unemployment, debt and other poverty related matters has increased dramatically in the last year.

In other words all the gains that New Labour has made in addressing such issues as child poverty, worklessness and poor health outcomes for low earners have all been wiped out over the last few years.

How do we tackle the cycle of decline in the area that links low wages low investment, low growth and high levels of poverty and what can be done?

One thing that I am clear since the debacle of regeneration and the recent resignation of Tom McCartney I am getting weary of imposed solutions. Perhaps this is something that local people should do themselves!

A Big Society project for Leek- helping ourselves.

Like others I have doubts about the concept of the Big Society. But I am prepared to explore and develop ideas if I feel that they could be to the betterment of the people of Leek. I think that there is a great deal of potential in the town, which all too often is overlooked. And I believe that the Big Society could offer something to the locality especially if people in the town could be encouraged to support an idea that develops a service that used to exist in the town but was removed.

I should explain my idea.

It is a simple one and came me again following the front page report in a local newspaper to a young man who sat by a round about with a placard saying that he was looking for work early one morning. An employer reading the board offered him a job. I was walking down Derby St in the centre of Leek and noticed a couple of jobs in windows who were looking for people for vacancies. Now evidence suggests that many jobs are not advertised in the conventional channels through the job centre or agencies. A figure of anything between 20-80% of jobs are within this hidden jobs market and a key in finding this market is to be proactive. I felt that there ought to be some mechanism where people could advertise jobs for free or alert people to work possibilities.

The problem with Leek is that there is no job centre and has not been one since 2004. The local unemployed has to travel to the Potteries to a very inferior service. I know because in 2009 I used the service myself and as a consequence of my experience I did put forward an idea for an opportunity centre in Leek. It would a place perhaps based in an unused facility such as an empty shop where people could visit who were looking for work or self employment opportunities.

I am clear that this initiative should be concerned with employment or employment opportunities. It is not concerned with volunteering opportunities there are facilities in the town that cater for volunteering.

My original idea was that self-employment might for some people be the only route out of their predicament where people could give advice who have undertaken that journey. One aspect of using the job centre was that the staff were largely unaware of the process of the journey into self employment indeed attending the Hanley Job Centre was a process which offered no opportunity to discuss possibilities. The experience of using the job centre was a very unsatisfactory one as the objective was to move you through the system as quickly as possible without discussing options or possibilities with you.

When I suggested originally in March 2009 my first thought was to use the faith community as a catalyst for setting up something. In July 2009 I attended a meeting at the Salvation Army in Leek and the captain of the local citadel was looking at bringing an Employment Plus project which the Salvation Army run in various parts of the country. This seems to have come to nought.

Shortly after I raised the issue of there not being a job centre in Leek the town was visited by a Job Centre bus provided by the County Council. This was only a short-term measure. I did call in and the service was staffed by people from the South of the County who did not have much knowledge of the local situation.

Currently there are about 1500 people who are not economically active in Leek a high proportion of them will be young people and the numbers are bound to rise as young people leave Colleges and Schools. There is also likely to be an increase following the spending cuts to be made by national and local Government. The Government is also keen that people who are in this predicament move into work into the private sector or self employment and this idea is helpful to that objective.

There are two stages to my idea firstly the setting up of a social network page through Facebook of a Leek Job Mart where jobs that exist could be flagged up and people who are looking for work can promote themselves. This is a derivative idea and I noticed that the Oatcake Stoke City supporter site has a section that helps people who are looking for work. Obviously people who know about local jobs could post them on to the Face book site and people looking for work could use it to post their details. I have used the facebook approach in setting up the Regenerate Stoke Facebook page, which has proved to be a focus for positive ideas to develop the area.

I have had a few conversations with individuals such as Marc Briand the Vice-Chairman of the Leek Chamber of Trade. The idea falls neatly into the work that has been done in town during the Save our Leek campaign against the planning application put in by Sainsbury’s.
Campaigners have argued that businesses in the town centre could generate employment without the need for the development on the edge of the town. This initiative again helps that objective.

I have a feeling that the Chamber of Trade would be supportive of the idea.

My idea is also around the concept of self-help and last year I looked at some examples in the United States of the response to the unemployment crisis of 2009-10 especially with the development of the concept of the Laidoffcamp.. LaidOffCamp is an ad-hoc gathering of unemployed and self-employed people (including entrepreneurs and start-ups) who want to share ideas and learn from each other. They exist in a number of cities such as Detroit, San Francisco and New York as well as smaller They feature an open, participatory discussion forum designed to educate, empower, and connect community members. The various presentations, workshops, and discussions focus on topics that may include: building your personal brand, transitioning to a new industry, legal & accounting demands of launching a new business, alternative working spaces, alternative income sources, and how to become a freelancer.

I have also been drawn to a case study of a programme designed to tackle worklessness in Sunderland. NESTA in a document that looked at a radical approach to delivering public services advanced the project as an example of best practice in an area that equally has resonates in North Staffs as it does in the North East. In 2007 25% of the work force in Sunderland were economically inactive which is as near as damn it is the experience in Stoke. Sunderland like Stoke have been much exercised by this problem and all the conventional approaches to turning the tide on unemployment had failed. Sunderland therefore attempted a new approach. The organisation Livework did not win the contract by saying they had all the solutions refreshingly they said they needed to clearly understand the barriers to work faced by the unemployed. By asking people they quickly concluded that the reasons why people are unemployed for long periods is complex a fact not readily understood by job centres.

This was particularly true about hard to reach groups were the connection and involvement that they made with community organisations was often very strong. Stronger, in fact than the statutory organisations. I experienced this with the metal health organisation I worked with in Manchester. They also found that there was a lack of communication and co-ordination between community groups and statutory bodies. The importance of collaboration between the agencies especially those engaged most consistently and at an earlier stage was the key.

Livework convened a number of workshops between the long-term unemployed; employers, community groups and the council included how to deliver the long-term support that the workless required.

Lifework was able to pool the various offers from community groups into a single brochure. The community groups supported the unemployed person through and supported them in their efforts to be work ready and in this goal they were supported by Sunderland Council services. More people were able to contact the job centre because they received the support of the organisation that they were most familiar with in the community, which they lived. The community groups did the outreach and support work.

I can quite see something like this working in Leek.

Locally based initiatives seem to have worked in Sunderland.
In its first stage Make It Work supported over 1,000 people, with 238 finding work. The success of the project owed something to the risk that the Council were prepared to take in handing control over to community groups funding it properly and giving it the opportunity to grow.

It is also interesting to note that Job Clubs tend to do better if they are sited in the heart of the commercial community. All too often in my experience job clubs tend to be located in buildings on the periphery of the town while research carried out in the mid 90s concluded that buildings in the heart of commercial activities do better.

Since I was looking at this as an idea there have been a number of developments. Firstly the election of a new Government in which the Big Society was a principle idea. Last week there was an announcement that the Government was looking at 4 pilot areas in England. They were also looking into seconding civil servants to push forward potential projects. I feel that a project like the community facebook job mart as well as community support through an opportunity centre might make for an attractive package.

Potential funding for such a social enterprise will come from dormant accounts and I think it would be an advantage to Leek to develop such an idea when the Government is looking for pilot projects.

There have been other developments as well.

Vision North Staffs is holding a conference in the autumn looking at ways in which redundant heritage assets of the area could be bought back into sustainable use for the benefit of the community. The plan will be to identify a number of potential assets in the area and look at ways in which Urban Vision can work with community groups to develop a heritage project that can meet a recognised need of the community

Should the unemployed learn Mandarin Chinese?

There was an item on Newsnight last night spelling out in bald terms how the Western Economies are increasingly reliant on China to pull it out of the economic mire. Setting aside the irony that capitalist economies require a Communist state to save them, the documentary rather pointed to the growth of the state led enterprise and at the same time the eclipse of the Anglo-American free market model.

The figures for growth are the most startling with China racking up 10% growth rates compared with the minuscule rates experienced in the UK. In fact the People’s Republic that was responsible for over half the global growth rate last year.

China, helped by a huge fiscal stimulus from Beijing last year, is roaring ahead and helping to drag the rest of Asia and countries such as Germany, which exports a lot of machine tools to China, out of recession too. China is one of the key reasons the world did not experience an even worse 2009 than it actually did.

China is not alone; other Asian countries that are booming include Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan. But in terms of sheer size and importance, key emerging economies now include Brazil, India and Russia with China; these are known as the Brics to denote their growing economic importance.

The Newsnight item also reported on impressive growth rates for India at 8% also noting the strong relationships historical and cultural with the UK.

Their rising power stands in sharp contrast to struggling European economies such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, known collectively, if unkindly, as the Pigs.

The Brics now account for 15% of the global economy, more than half of the size of the US. As Newsnight pointed out, China has overtaken Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy and is likely to move into second place, ahead of Japan, over the next year or so.

By 2030 it is likely to have eclipsed the US as the world’s top economy. Brazil will overtake France and Britain to become the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2025 at the latest. Along with India and Russia, it has overtaken or is about to overtake Canada, a member of the G7 leading economies. No wonder the G20, which includes the Brics, has been recognised as the primary forum for global economic discussions.

All the Brics are set to grow lays to rest the myth that Americans are the world’s “consumers of last resort”, forecasting that the Brics, rather than simply being huge exporters, are likely to account for almost half of global consumption growth in 2010 and beyond.

One aspect of the increased desire for consumption and increased leisure time is the increase in strikes and industrial disputes in China where workers have learned the value of collectivist action. They are looking to raise living standards in a time of boom increasing union activity is a manifestation of that.

Where does this leave Stoke well the programme said that China was looking for investment opportunities in the west. Perhaps we should look at where local manufacture especially in niche and specialised areas could meet the increasing consumer demand?

Coals to Newcastle, Pots to China?

Men at Work

I noticed this young woman smirking and looking at me while I was standing beside the bar. She was saying “ping, ping”. I had no idea what she was saying although her mockery was directed at me. The group of other women joined in making the same noise” ping, ping”. I was perplexed that for some reason I was a figure of fun. It was not until a few days later that the enigma was solved. They were referring to a army recruitment film in which the young man who joins the Army recalls the automaton nature of his previous job as a Check out Operator. “Ping, Ping”

( I suppose I could argue that unlike a member of the armed forces I am unlikely to be blown up by a customer or shot at from behind the tins of peas)

Shortly after I started at the supermarket a red faced farmer type angrily say that I was taking a woman’s job. He in turn was rebuked by the supervisor who was training me for his attitude.

On another occasion when I was leading a party around Leek on the Shriek in Leek ghost walk. A young man shouted from a car “get a proper job”

This lead me to think as a middle aged man what exactly is a proper job?

Once a upon a time it was easy enough. The majority of men of working age were in employment. They were employed in manufacturing, mines, shipbuilding, haulage, steel making and the other myriad jobs that made up British industry. In 1975 over 95% of men aged 16-64 were in work :by the end of the 90s this figure had fallen with the fall particularly sharp in older men.

Years ago, women were a small percentage of the work force (outside the home). During much of the 20th century – especially the 1980s – women’s share of the labour force increased. By 1990, the work force was 47 percent female and 53 percent male, according to the ONS.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and until this recession, women remained less than 49 percent of the work force. However, that percentage has now passed 49 percent and may cross the 50 percent threshold for the first time.

In November 2008, the female work force shrank more in percentage terms than it ever has in any one month – and more than ever over any single year – since 1964, if not longer. Nevertheless, the drop in the number of women working so far in this recession is smaller than the decline for men – even when measured in percentage terms.

On an anecdotal level this is evident if you see the claimants signing on at Hanley Job Centre. Men outnumber women claimants by a factor of 5-1. The recession has hit industries such as haulage and construction traditionally male dominated especially hard..

If the pundits are right that this recession will be long and severe, then women may gain the 0.9 percentage points from November 2008 that would push them past the 50 percent milestone. Important milestones will remain to be achieved, but women’s surpassing 50 percent of employment is something that historians will note for years

In some ways the change in the feminisation of the work force is evident all around you. When I take my daughter to school in the morning, with the exception of one all the staff are women.

Both banks I visit in Leek have predominately female staff, its the same with the Post Office. I call into the District Council offices again 100% women “front line” advisers and finally into the Library where there is only one young man on the staff.

I also suspect that the shift in the balance of gender at work may well be down to recruitment practices and the role of HR which is itself female dominated. In my experience, again anecdotal, there is a tendency for women to recruit other women. The last job interview I went to for a Housing Charity the interview panel was entirely female. I have been interviewed about 25 times since January 2009 and only on a handful of occasions have there been a male presence on the interviewing panel. And the jobs I have applied for without exception have gone to young females.

The decline of men in the work force has policy implications. Firstly the need to reduce the numbers of people on incapacity benefit. It is significant that the towns with the highest proportion of people on long term benefit are the old industrial areas where the decline in working men has been most marked. I believe the record is held by Merthyr Tydfil.

Moving people onto the lower rate JSA without providing job opportunities in a recession will just condemn people to greater poverty and a lower life expectancy.

The answer for me is to tap into the skills that many older workers have by developing LETS or Timebank opportunities with the possibility that self employment opportunities will develop.

Why Stoke fails – Some Observations

I was turned down for a job for Voluntary Action Stoke yesterday. Pity, it was an interesting job as Strategic Development Officer in Health. I thought that I had the intelligence, experience, ideas and challenge to make a good fist of the job. I stressed “memory” pointing out that I had worked as a Community Health Council for 10 years under the Tories in the 80s and 90s and I had a good idea where the proposed health reforms might go. In fact I essayed some of these ideas in Pits and Pots. The irony was that I thought that I interviewed well and anyone who has heard me on Radio would know that I give full and informed answers. Anyway another shot down and unfortunately it follows a tradition where I have not got a job which I am very qualified to do.

I must have been interviewed over 50 times over the years for various jobs for the City Council. It may well be in all those interviews for the various jobs I have gone for in the City Council that I was beaten by more knowledgeable, intelligent, abler people, but on some occasions it was likely that I was not. I am coming to the conclusion that those qualities I have challenge, ideas, memory and intelligence might put me at a disadvantage in respect to the local job scene. And also cast a light on the recent history of the City and might offer a clue that the problem might lie with me, but the people to whom I apply for jobs.

Why Stoke fails- challenge

An outsider might conclude that this area is cursed by an unusually high number of disasters as far as local and health government is concerned. A list over the last 20 years would indicate this. Since 1990 we have had Stoke College, Worldgate, the Cultural Quarter, Gravestone Flattening Controversy, Britannia Stadium, the regular turnover of Chief Executives of the City Council, the failure of City Regeneration, Sodexho and the food issue at UHNS, the contracting fiasco and slightly further afield Stafford Hospital. And I am sure that they are more. Is there a single factor that characterises these burning hulks- like tanks after the Battle of Kursk- that litter the political scene of the area? Yes. And that is lack of challenge. And what happens when people do challenge such as the handful of City Councillors who objected to the Britannia Stadium development. Well, they get disciplined and pushed away.

If you want to see a good example of the “blame culture” in action then a reading of the report on the Cultural Quarter repays an examination particularly the closed nature and the lack of enquiry exhibited by senior Councillors. A rather unsavoury aspect of all this is the attempt to fix the blame by senior officers on a junior arts development officer who subsequently suffered a breakdown in her health. Disgusting!

Why Stoke fails- ideas.

Alan Gerrard put his finger on the problem when he pointed out the inability of the City Council to address the empty shops in Stoke creatively. Has anyone ever wondered why other towns and cities close by seem to respond to problems with more imagination than this City? Look at Derby, which seems better placed to recover than Stoke because it has addressed the changing economic circumstances. Look at Wigan, which is addressing its transport infrastructure with new rail developments. In 1984 I suggested at a City Council Highways meeting that we might look at a light rail link like Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham were doing at the time. I can still hear the laughter to this day, but imagine if in the mid 80s we had seriously addressed the traffic flow problem by using for example the old loop line.

I don’t absolve organisation like VAST from the charge of being an ideas free zone. Last September I went to the AGM held at Vale Park. The agenda was exactly the same as the agenda from the previous year. Despite the fact that we are living through the worst recession since the 1930s the VAST agenda did not seem fit to address a topic which must be having a profound impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in the community. I did ask a question on Timebanks and LETS but have not received a response to this point. What was the afternoon filled up with? Indian Head Massage Sessions. What a wasted opportunity when a large proportion of the voluntary sector were in the room. Instead purring noises made towards Joan Walley who was present and the Government. If anything the event entirely fits it with one of the central problems between the Third Sector and local Authority. The cosiness, the failure to constructively challenge and the absence of any ideas.

I am reminded of Steerpike’s dismissal of the Twins in “Gormanghast” “So limp of brain that to have an idea is to risk a haemorrhage.

Which leads me to

Why Stoke fails- intelligence.

The late Stoke Council Leader Ted Smith was generally suspicious of intelligence. The sobriquet that was usually applied to any Councillor, for example, who had a degree was “smart arse”. The Leader before him Ron Southern used to decry the influence of “intellectuals in the Labour Party”. Do you honestly think that the general dismissive attitude to people with a scintilla of intelligence has gone away? Step forward Joy Garner. April 2004 and a meeting at Joiners Square held by the Labour Party to discuss policy. Joy who is chairing dismisses the section on Culture in the papers with the suggestion ” that no one is interested in culture”. Later on I am talking about economic renewal and the short sightedness of developing retail and warehousing as the answer to the job shortage in the area. I am arguing that the jobs created are low skilled and low paid. Joy’s response is to stick her tongue out at me.

Eventually I and a local vicar who is a party member complain to a Regional Officer and she is replaced.

If only it was just the Councillors. Last February after investing a great deal of my time and effort into researching the potential for green jobs in the area. I meet with representatives of the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce. I think the meeting is going well. The Chamber of Commerce person leaves early and I hear over the other City Council Officer’s phone the other guy ringing in with the comment “is he gone now”. Here I am putting forward ideas that might provide a life line for jobs based on some pioneering work that is going on in the States to be dismissed as a nuisance.

Why Stoke fails- memory.

Since the 70s North Staffs and Stoke generally has been the recipient of something like 17 national government initiatives ranging from Quality of Life in 1974-5 right through to Renew. The journey has included 6 SRB projects, although no one can actually recall what, who or what SRB6 concerned itself with. (I am thinking that like El Dorado or Prester John it existed in the imagination only)

Memory is important to an organisation. It stops you from repeating the same mistake. A cursory glance at some of the early problems faced in attempting to regenerate the City possibly would have stopped RENEW from repeating the errors made in the SRB scheme in the 90s in Cobridge.

And perhaps a closer study procedure of would have ensured the embarrassing fiasco of the smoking ban in the City Council, which was met with national merriment.

Part of the problem must be the removal of many experienced staff in their 40s and 50s a few years ago when the collective of an organisation is cauterised. It must have an impact of the effectiveness of the Council.

Why Stoke fails- Fatal attraction.

Ok I admit I am equally at fault here as a young Councillor in 1982. I was present at a Works Committee Recruitment meeting when we appointed a senior officer from West Wales who was full of the Welsh hwyl. He gave and extremely good interview and was appointed. He turned out to be cack and caused all sorts of problems for the 12 months he was in post before being paid off. On the other hand I was on the interview panel when the excellent Ian Lawley was appointed as Social History curator against some of the wishes of the women councillors on the panel who wanted another candidate because he had ” nice blue eyes”.

Unfortunately Stoke has a history of appointing “chancers” to senior positions. Chief Executives of the Council seem to regard an appointment to lead the Council in the same light as a Wermarcht Officer might consider an appointment to Byelorussia in 1943. Something to be got through quickly but looks good on the record.

It is not only a problem with the City Council. Consider the history of Stoke College in the 90s.

From the Times Education Supplement 1997

“Britain’s second largest and most troubled college may hire a “rescue squad” to help bail it out of an Pounds £8 million cash crisis after sacking its principal and deputy.

Neil Preston, the Pounds 90,000-a-year director of Stoke-on-Trent College, and his deputy, Helen Chandler, were dismissed on Christmas Eve after a lengthy inquiry into allegations of “dictatorial bullying”. They were also said to be in breach of their contracts because they were working in a pub while on sick leave.”

Then we have Steve Robinson thinking of Stoke every second of the waking day. Presumably he will had time in the long drive from Shropshire.

We shall see whet happens with the present incumbent but excessive use of consultants does not bode well.

Why Stoke fails- missed opportunities.

This is the story of two Wise men. Cliff and Richard (not related) but on the rare occasions when people of ability and vision appear they are usually so badly treated that they leave the scene. Vision is important for without vision the people die. Clif and Richard and others such as Fred Hughes have shown the capacity for ideas, have been excellent communicators, were and are committed to the area and have “memory”. It probably contributed to their down fall

Similarly the replacement of Mike Wolfe with the Nu Labour manikin Meredith was almost certainly to the detriment of the City.

Stoke- the hope

I want to end on a positive note. It seems to me that there hopeful sign that there might be a salvation in the form of Tristram Hunt. In my estimation Tristram has ideas on the development of the City. He is open, he is willing to accept and bring people in. A group of young and intelligent Councillors have been elected but then depressingly some of the old guard still remain.

Tackling the North Staffs low wage economy

The DWP has recently released data on the impact of the recession on the low waged.

The number of children in poverty in working households has increased in recent years. In part, this is the effect of the recession. The employment statistics show a big increase in part-time working up by 45%, and it is such part-working families ““ where either no one is working full-time or where one adult is staying at home ““ that are usually the ones who are both in work and in poverty. I suspect that the problem which I recently wrote about is a dilema faced by an increasing number of households in North Staffs.

Of course North Staffs has historically been a low wage economy but there is evidence that even with the existence of the National Miminum Wage poverty in work remains an intracable problem.

The recession, though, is only part of the story here. With the exception of the period 1999-2004, in-work poverty has been on a rising trend since at least as long ago as the late 1970s. It was the return to rising in-work poverty after 2004-05 that destroyed the last Government’s objective of halving child poverty by 2010.

The way the DWP reports this statistic, six in every 10 children in poverty now belong to a working household. This proportion is broadly similar for the 7.8 million working-age adults in poverty. The increase in this number over 10 years, of 1.1 million, would be seen as a huge policy failure had the previous government ever shown the slightest interest in adults without children.

And perhaps this in truth is why the DWP has said so little about these figures. For it suits politicians of all parties to claim that work is the route out of poverty. But clearly, myself included work, does not necessary end the slipping into poverty.

The truth is very different. Work that does not provide a sufficient income is now much more to blame for poverty than worklessness. One question that has to be addressed is whether wages have been surpressed by the influx of immigrant labour from Eastern Europe.

If the new government is serious about poverty reduction, it will need to direct its reform efforts not just at the world of welfare but at the world of work.

A de regulated economy with a emasculated trade union movement has had a devastating impact upon the working poor of North Staffs.

Personally the solution must lie in building into the tax and benefit system a security that makes work pay and as a Green Party member I am drawn to the Citizens Income model

Hello Workfare

I went to an event organised by the Council for Voluntary Service in Hanley this week. The CVS are looking to recruit about 15 “Community Buddies” to do something to tackle worklessness in the 40 odd wards in Staffordshire where the unemployment rate is over 23%. This is a Staffordshire project as Stoke is considering another approach. 17 people attended and there will be other recruitment events held elsewhere in Staffs. The approach of Community Buddies is essentially a softly softly one where people who have been on incapacity benefit will be encouraged to re join work by trying voluntary work or undergoing training.

I did manage to speak to some of the others who were interested in becoming a buddy. Most of the people there were unemployed and some had been on incapacity benefit themselves. Generally the opinion of the Job Centre service was a poor one. I was told for instance of a “Pauline and her pens” moment where the Job Centre criticised a woman for missing some Job Centre appointment when the woman went off for a hurriedly arranged interview which she was successful at. My informant said that the woman was puce with anger at the way in which she was treated.

Of course the whole approach of Community Buddies is a gentle one as I know from experience unemployment can erode self-confidence. One contributor spoke of the process of retreat that the person who looses their job experiences. But it did make me think about the future of such services. There was a discussion on Radio 4 this morning on the likely impact of the cuts in welfare.

Given that pensions are projected to rise, and the link with earnings eventually restored, the main brunt of any cuts will probably fall on benefit claimants, whether they are on job-seekers allowance or employment support allowance. The Liberals and Tories have agreed on bringing forward workfare proposals. At the moment, private companies are given lucrative contracts to pressurise the unemployed back to work on the assumption that unemployment is voluntary and results from some moral failing. (This attitude, it has to be said comes through at Hanley Job Centre. I was asked why I was restricting my work search by putting down a 9 am start on my contract. I aid that I had to take my daughter to school in the morning. The Job Centre worker suggested that I ask a neighbour to take my daughter to school. I recall feeling outraged as I had applied for about 80 jobs unsuccessfully by that time)

. Such schemes, its was suggested on the radio this morning would begin within 12 months of one having been on the unemployment rolls, as things currently stand. The new government will ensure that people are immediately transferred to one of these schemes, as soon as they start to claim. As I understand the Tories’ policies on workfare, they intend to build on New Labour projects which in turn are based on American models which hounded the disabled and single mothers to seek work, and force those on job seekers allowance to perform menial labour for private contractors so that they remain ‘in the habit’ of working.

(Of course, those doing the work won’t be entitled to the minimum wage, much less the ‘Living Wage’, or employee protections). In the long run, the Tory-Lib coalition anticipates a reduction in benefits due to these measures. So, I would guess we’re talking about a serious attack on the welfare state, an attempt to force more and more people off welfare rolls we do live in interesting times