The recently announced Localism Bill, which promises to return powers to local communities and councillors, has set me thinking a bit about the actual powers local councillors have already, particularly in Stoke-on-Trent.
I think I’m probably not alone in entering the Council and giving off an “ËœI’m going to change the world!’ vibe to everyone I met, though I did know before being elected that it’s not quite that simple. There are systems and processes, and committees and portfolio holders to work with to achieve change, and sometimes it does seem that the wheels of change turn so so slowly. And yes, it’s frustrating at times, but for me personally, I draw a great deal of satisfaction of making small but significant changes in my ward and AIT area (the larger Meir area), which helps me keep plugging away at the bigger things I want to see happen City-wide.
A lot of residents are aware that local councillors countrol pots of money to spend in their areas, and this represents where Stoke-on-Trent is already having a go at localism, though by no means do I think we’ve cracked it totally! For example, in Meir we have quite a lot of discussions about what people think of the area. I’m not going to perpetuate the myths that surround Meir by repeating them, but I’ve lived here for nearly 10 years and to be honest I can’t think of many areas of Stoke-on-Trent I’d rather live. However, to help improve the imagine of Meir, the local councillors have been working together with partners, local residents associations and businesses, to make Meir look nice. The flower baskets on the roundabout and in Weston Road all came about following a discussion one afternoon about making Meir better for everyone, and have been paid for from the ward budgets. They also present an attractive “Ëœgateway’ into the City from those entering along the A50 or A520.
So if we are already doing localism, what is this blog about? We are often criticised for being parochial as a council, where councillor fights councillor over which area “Ëœdeserves’ investment, all based on our belief that we are more deserving than our City-wide colleagues, and in a way that does happen, but really as councillors we already have that “Ëœmuscle’ ourselves. We already have access to a considerable amount of money in our ward budgets, but do we really spend it as we should?
I can’t comment on what other councillors spend their ward budget on, each area has its own priorities and needs, however I do think we sometimes lose perspective on the influence we have through the ward budget. I asked a friend who is a councillor on another Council what he would need to do if he wanted to get a new litter bin sited in his ward. After having to persuade his fellow ward councillors to support him, he would then need to persuade the portfolio holder and also the officer responsible for litter bins ““ not a quick and easy process. Contrast that to Stoke-on-Trent councillors ““ in my ward, we have already agreed a general “Ëœpot’ for additional litter bins and all I need to do is submit the location to our Local Office and wait for the bin to arrive. Even if we hadn’t already agreed a general fund for litter bins, I would only need to persuade my fellow councillors.
A small example maybe, but how about a bigger one? Allotments. We have a waiting list locally and few rarely become available, so we’re investigating creating some more. This goes hand in hand with the Healthy Eating project (run by a local health worker and Neos520, the Bethel Church community cafe) to encourage local residents to rely less on processed foods and takeaways, and cook healthy meals for themselves. Our local schools and residents associations are also involved.
How about Youth facilities? The ward budget helped fund several projects over the summer holidays, and we have also recently agreed funding for equipment for the Christian Growth Centre (CGC), based in Meir Park, to help with the sessions they already run in local schools, alongside the Council’s Uth Service.
Community Safety? Fear of crime and anti social behaviour (again linked to myths about the area ““ the crime rate in Meir is much lower than many people believe) led us to work with the Longton NPU in a project to supply residents with simple crime prevention equipment. We paid for the equipment, the police provided it and in some cases fitted it too. In Meir Park, a simple thing such as cutting back groundcover in ASB hot spots following a discussion with local officers and an impromptu site visit, has not only improved the appearance of the area but also hopefully helped the police tackle what I hope is a decreasing level of ASB in those areas.
But all this relies on councillors getting out there, and “Ëœdoing’ localism with residents, partners and the community at large. We don’t have millions to spend, but we can make a difference with what we have, we just need to realise it.