Localism in Stoke-on-Trent ““ An Underworked Muscle?

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.

Tony Walley ““ On My Stoke-on-Trent Soapbox

Government Cuts Threaten Community Stability

The recent Government announcement that there will be a 4% cut in Police Funding is something that worries me greatly.

Staffordshire Police have the responsibility of keeping all 238,000 of the population of Stoke-on-Trent safe in an area of 36 square miles.

The forces Neighbourhood Policing Units [NPU] have proved to be a major success. They have brought a sense of good old fashioned policing [minus the clip “Ëœround the back of the ear] back onto the streets of our sometimes troubled City.

NPU’s have had a massive impact on reducing Anti Social Behaviour [ASB] across the city, in fact this year there has been a reduction of 20% in ASB incidents.

I have seen at first hand the way these NPU’s work, and the effect that they have on ASB. PCSO’s and PC’s patrol all areas in particular problem estates. They get to know the faces of the movers and shakers. They gain the trust of the young people and help them to find places like youth clubs so that they can hang out together safely and take part in a variety of activities provided by the Local Authority and the Police.

The partnership working between the council and the police has yielded dividends.

Area Implementation Teams working together with Ward Councillors and the NPU’s meet regularly and listen to the concerns of Resident Association representatives. This helps the Police to target areas where incidents of ASB are affecting the life of the residents of a particular area.

In the area that I live in, Rob Flello MP along with our ward councillors, the AIT and the Police worked together to snuff out what was a considerable amount of ASB that absolutely blighted the lives of the residents of Meir Hay and the surrounding areas. A Section 30 dispersal notice was implemented for a period of 6 months and complete calm was restored to the area.

Two years on and although there are a few isolated incidents, the area is relatively ASB free.

The impact of the cuts in funding to the Police as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the very recent announcement that Stoke-on-Trent City Council are looking to save £33million this year and the same for the next 3 consecutive years, will no doubt have a significant effect of the Policing and the services provided by our City Council.

If youth funding is cut and NPU’s are affected by cuts in Police funding, ASB could become a real problem for every community in the City.

Our NPU’s here in Stoke-on-Tent have played a prominent part in the success of the celebrated Operation Nemises. Cllr Abi Brown’s blog tells the tale, so does the number of cannabis factory closures across the city, including one on the corner of the cul de sac where I live.

David Cameron is always banging on about the big society. Well young people are a major part of our society. We must provide activities which are aimed towards their age groups and keeps them engaged. It is only when youth becomes disaffected that ASB pushes it’s self to the fore.

The big society would encourage the residents of the communities to provide the activities that would engage the youth of today.

But, a progressive society needs, in my opinion, services like the City Council’s Uth Service.

They get out there on the streets and they deliver the kind of activities that the youth of today want. If we cut this service, there will be, in all probability, a rapid rise in the number of reported ASB related issues.

If there are any changes to the way the NPU’s are run, or a reduction in the number of PCSO’s and PC’s on the beat, who will deal with the increased number of ASB incidents?

Furthermore, what impact will this reduction in funding have and will it result in the loss of youth services and an end to successful policing initiatives?

The answer is on that is quite simple and very probable, the lives of everyone who lives in all the communities across the 6 towns of Stoke-on-Trent will take a turn for the worse and ASB will become even more prominent on our streets.

I sympathise with Cllr Adrian Knapper who is fighting hard to keep the City Farm afloat in one guise or another. But I do wish our councillors would fight to keep our children’s centres and our youth services open and funded to a level where the services they provide can continue without a reduction.

Above all I appeal to all 60 elected representatives to fight to keep our celebrated and successful Police Force fully funded which will allow for the NPU’s to continue their invaluable work on the streets of our communities and our old people safe in their homes.