We’re fighting the cuts- really?

I went to the public meeting held in Hanley tonight on the subject of fighting the cuts in public expenditure. It was well attended meeting chaired ably by Jason Hill. If anything there were too many speakers, but that is a personal view. I did think that they were more or less saying the same thing, with the possible exception of the Stoke Councillor who represented Hartshill.

In many ways it was like a re-run of the 1980s and a number of contributions from the floor were Councillor’s from that decade. Myself, Barry Russell and Arthur Bough who I think made contributions that added to the debate.

Speaker after speaker to denounce the work of the Con Dem coalition and urged the need to resist the cuts. The need for demonstrations and the need to mobilise the trade union movement to take the battle to the enemy was a common theme. A slightly sour note was sounded by the Stoke Councillor who felt that by ducking the cut’s issue that it was playing into the enemy’s hands. Perhaps someone should lend him a copy of George Lansbury’s leader of the Labour party in the 30s biography?

The panel ended by urging the Labour establishment including the trade union leadership to take the fight into parliamentary and extra parliamentary action.

One speaker spoke of the need to increase public service investment. At this I balked. I have a problem with the no cuts at any price tocsin. I actually think that the ending of ID cards and curtailing of the Surveillance State is a good think. I deplore the target culture and if there are cuts. I am quite happy to entertain reductions in the numbers of target setter’s. Would anyone shed a tear if OFSTD ceased to be? I am slightly queasy about the slogan of increasing public investment. I would prefer the cry of more investment in people and communities. After all despite massive public investment the wealth gap has increased and social mobility widened. For me its time for a different approach. I actually think, although it was derided at the meeting, that Cameron might have touched a nerve with the “Big Society”. People seem to recoil from the bossiness that unfortunately all too frequently attends public bodies. Besides my own and my family’s experience of the public sector is less than perfect. I have had a terrible experience of Job Centre Plus, a shocking encounter with staff at Sure Start and a feeling with staff at Connexions that ticking a box was more important than dealing with me as a person. My Mother was told at a City Council Housing Office by a young female member of staff that she ought to be “grateful” at the poor level of service that she received caused me to stop breathing for a few minutes.

On the other I have had good experiences with the CAB and with the Transition Town Movement.

The argument that public is universally good and voluntary cheapskate or in the words of one contributor ” jackshit” rather rankles with me.

It does smack in an Orwelliam sense of two legs- voluntary and bad four legs public and good.

Ideally one system should augment and support the other.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we ought to resist the cuts, but the argument is rather more nuanced than any of the speakers gave credit for.

I thought of the man who made the “jackshit” comment. I presume should he go to the seaside and unfortunately fall into the sea then he would he would refuse to be rescued by the ” jackshit” volunteer crew that man all RNLI boats?

You could argue that the voluntary sector has been around far longer than the State. Thomas Coram’s Children Service was founded in the 18th century and the Salvation Army and Barnado’s predate the welfare state. Does this pedigree make it inferior?

I did make the point that it is important that the local voluntary sector in the shape manage itself carefully and should resist the idea that it replaces public services. The voluntary sector should not allow itself to be cast in the role of “useful idiot” in a cuts driven agenda.

I made a comment that it was important to build a mass campaign that included the trade unions, community, faith groups and other. If you are looking at historical precedents then the Poll Tax Campaign of 1990 is a good example. However, as I pointed out it was a “slow burner”. I recall going to a national demonstration that was poorly attended in September 1989 in Manchester. Things only took off in the spring when bills hit the doormat and there was the riot in Trafalgar Square in April 1990. When you have demonstrations in Tunbridge Wells and Frome then you know you have problems. And, of course, by November Thatcher fell.

It is also too easy and frankly negative to say what you are against. It is important to say what you are for. I would uneasy about fighting for public investment. I would want to fight for community investment. I cavil at the fight for jobs. What about fighting for a liveable income?

A campaign has to be about positive messages as well in my opinion.

I fear that some of the comments made at the meeting mean that it will end messily and in factions which is usually the case with the Left. I might be confounded however

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.

Starting a business- the North Staffs experience

I’m starting a business in the New Year. Actually that is not accurate as I’m starting three. One is the ghost tour that I do in Leek “Shriek in Leek”, the other is a life story/ biography service ” Lives that made a difference” commemorating milestones in people’s lives, and the third is a historical research service for North Staffs. I have been helping an American research the life of a early 20th century artist who had a connection with the area. I’ve posted on my blog an example of what I can do which I hope is of interest.

The three businesses have been launched with the help of Business Initiative and I am hoping to use the fairly new Government scheme called Self Employment Credit which guarantees a small income for 16 weeks.

I’m also working part time for a supermarket part time which will guarantee me at least 14 hours a week as well as doing a environmental course at Keele called “Project Green” in which I am researching the possibility of developing “green collar” jobs in North Staffs.

I am also applying for the Small Business Grant that the District Council do as well as having good links with Prime- a part of the Princes Trust that supports over 50s in setting up a business.

I would be also interested in hearing what people reading this think

In embarking on this path I will admit to having had conflicting messages and levels of knowledge from different sources. I cannot praise “Business Initiative” too much. They certainly have a good and realistic grasp of what is on offer. The local Job Centre has a less sure grasp of the essentials. I have found the level of knowledge exhibited by Job Centre staff to be very poor- I guess it is because they are overwhelmed by the number of claimants. I have heard that some advisers have being seen 60 clients a day in these circumstances any individual work is an impossibility.

But this journey which I have been pondering for some time now lead me to think about the difficulties that people especially if they have been long term unemployed will have in becoming self employed.

Their experience was graphically bought home to me by a programme on BBC on the experiences of the long term workless. It followed a middle aged woman on a South Yorkshire council estate as she tried to set up a sole trader business selling children’s clothes locally. She received a great deal of help from her New Deal adviser but the whole enterprise collapsed as the woman was unable to obtain credit because of a poor credit history.

This must be a major problem to those living in Stoke who are interested in escaping poverty by becoming a single handed business, but have little or no capital and a bad credit history because of long term unemployment.

Information from the authorities however about new business start up seems encouraging and a few years ago the area was credited with having one of the highest new business start up in the country which must be all to the good.

However my hunch is that those individuals who do have access to resources and support are making a success of becoming self employed. A good example was provided at the AGM of Voluntary Action Stoke last September when a young Asian woman who was studying to be a doctor had set up a prescription service. She had been helped by her wealthy farther who had provided her with free office and financial support. Her efforts are to be obviously commended but how could say a long term unemployed person living on Chell Heath wanting to set up as self employed have access to such advantages?

Personally, I am interested in micro credit as a help in the situations I have outlined and I did approach the City Council via Adrian Knapper to see how susceptible the Council were to my ideas as I wanted to link micro credit and credit unions to developing LETS in Stoke on Trent. I reply I got from Colin Hunton was a very positive one

I got an e-mail in April which read

” micro credit is a project that I have been looking into with Business Initiative and a few years ago we had a scheme that did just that. The micro credit scheme had a ceiling of £5,000, not a fortune I agree, but with some wise planning it enabled many applicants’ to get on their feet and become independent. An application had been submitted to renew this funding and I hope to hear very soon of its success.

There are other forms of funding in Stoke as I am sure you are aware of e.g. Michelin Loans, BIC “pristine grants”, Equity Funding- North Staffs Capital Risk (CDFI), UK Steel fund, Coal Enterprise, EFG, etc. These are just some of the funding without factoring, personal equity and community funds.

One of the problems that seems to arise though is that many businesses will apply for the incorrect type of finance assistance which can wear the applicant down, because the need does not always fit the criteria of the financial assistance on offer.

Collateral, whether it exposes equity or a sound business plan and a very good product or service to reduce the risk of exposure is an essential factor when applying for financial assistance. No fund holder will want to grant assistance to a product which carries too high a risk.

Micro credit is a good instrument, and one the Princes Trust uses and certainly one that I have favoured when young people have been through a Young Enterprise scheme at school, after being fired up by running their own business. It seems a pity that there is little access to ‘ high risk’ financial assistance. Equally in later life there needs to be access to relatively easier funding regime that can be tapped into.”

That was in April so I don’t know whether a micro credit scheme was funded. It would be a pity if it was not. Micro credit seems to me from the reading that I have done to be a very successful way to lift the poor out of poverty. Created in Bangla Desh by the Nobel prize wining Mohamed Yunnis it has allowed people in poverty to access small amounts of money as a business start up. What is remarkable is the high repayment rates of the loan both in Bangla Desh but in other countries where small business enterprises in deprived areas have been funded by micro credit. News night last year ran an item on a Micro credit project in New York which had a repayment rate of 96%, higher than through the conventional banks.

I have to say that the picture locally is mixed. I attend seminars run by Business Initiative. Everyone I meet is usually scathing of Job Centre Plus and not particularly thrilled by the involvement of the City Council. The comment that I got was that :Local Authorities in the area are generally unsympathetic especially when their Council Tax arrears.

I am also confident that the newly self employed are lacking in knowledge about funding streams as well as the opportunities offered by alternative models such as Social Enterprises, etc.

I would be interested in any constructive comment back.