There’s an enterprising life after the dole queue

A Tunstall couple’s new business is booming – just two years after they were both left without jobs.

Andrew Fisher was unemployed for six months before enrolling on the Stoke-on-Trent City Council funded Test Trading scheme to help the city’s jobless start up their own business.

The 38-year-old, who runs motor electronic control unit supply business ECU-Express with his wife Sarah, is now looking to expand and take on extra staff as turnover increases by 30 per cent. Continue reading

Tax Freedom Day & The Cost Of Government Day

Some sobering thoughts for you this morning.

According to calculations made by the Adam Smith Institute in London it is expected that Tax Freedom Day for the average worker in the UK will be 30 May in 2012. That means that for the first 149 days of the year, you will be earning for the taxman. Only on May 30 will you start earning for yourselves.

The Tax Payers Alliance take this calculation a step further and provides The Cost of Government Day. This is the date in the calendar year on which the average person is calculated to have earned enough gross income to pay for their share of the cost of government spending and regulation.

In 2012 The Cost of Government Day is calculated to be 26 July.

This means the average person must work for 208 days in the coming year to pay for their share of government spending and regulation combined. Out of the 208 days,the average person must work for 179 days (27 June) in the coming year to pay for their share of the cost of government spending and then work a further 29 days (26 July) of the year to pay for their share of the cost of government regulation.

Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said,

Taxpayers should be looking forward to toasting in the New Year, instead the enormous cost of Government spending and regulation means they will effectively be working for the Government until the summer. Government spending and expensive regulations are costing more than half of ordinary people’s income and this simply cannot go on. The Government needs to cut spending, get rid of burdensome regulations and cut taxes to get the economy going and leave more taxpayers’ money in their own pockets.


W(h)ither Trade Unions?

This week sees the start of the Trade Union Conference in Manchester where the debate will be formed around the campaign to fight the cuts. The plans that the Trade Union Movement have to resist the Coalition plans will be fleshed out but a campaign built resistance and strikes is likely to be agreed.

I also noticed a news item in the membership of Unity in North Staffordshire the main pottery union which for many years was known as the Ceramic and Allied Trade Union (CATU) and was one of the principle trade unions in North Staffordshire.

For the first time a figure of under 5,000 members was reported in the Sentinel for 2009. In less than 6 years the membership of Unity has halved.

Nationally membership of trade unions peaked in the late 70s and suffered a long decline in the 1980s levelling out at around 8 million.

A Labour Force Survey of 2004 showed union density in autumn 2003 was 29 per cent for both men and women. It also shows that union density is higher among older employees. Just over a third (35 percent) of employee’s aged 50 and over were union members compared with only 11 per cent of employee’s aged 1624 and 25 per cent of employees aged 25 to 34. Full-time employees are more likely to be union members than part time employees. In 2003, 32 per cent of fulltime employees were union members compared with 21 per cent of part-time employees. Union density for full-time men in 2003 was 31 per cent (3 percentage points lower than for fulltime women whose union density was 34 per cent). Part-time women were almost twice as likely to be union members as part-time men (23 per cent compared with 12 per cent for male part-time employees).

A table shows union density by government office region and country for employees in both full-time and part-time employment. Within England, union density by government office region ranged between 21 per cent in the South East and 38 per cent in the North East. Wales (38 per cent), Scotland (35 per cent) and Northern Ireland (39 per cent) all had higher levels of union density than England, which averaged 28 per cent.

From a personal perspective the supermarket I work in has a trade union membership of around 40%. When I joined the company in November the trade union rep gave a talk to new employees. Of the 12 workers who joined that day on 2 took up trade union membership and significally we were the two oldest workers. My own view is that trade union membership especially working in a strictly regimented environment low paid environment like a supermarket is essential. I would go so far as to say that you would be foolish not to take up trade union membership. Trade union representation can vary but I found that the USDAW reps working in the sore are very good and benefit from the very good training programme offered by USDAW.

But membership and the activities of trade union remain under attack and over the weekend I heard a report from a right wing think tank Policy Exchange.

It recommended that the ballot paper for strike action should contain more information concerning the nature, frequency and length of industrial action to be authorised, including identifying a
specific grievance. At present it need not do so, and material is often circulated alongside the ballot which refers to a whole range of grievances and authorises a range of unexpected industrial action options

Require that a majority of employees in the balloted workplace vote, and/or require that a minimum of 40% of the trade unionised workforce vote in favour of strike action, in addition to a majority of the votes cast. This would avoid strikes based on very low percentage turnouts when only very small numbers of workers are members of a union

Employers should be permitted to use agency staff to carry out the duties which striking employees would otherwise have performed. This would undo restrictions introduced in 2004.

Reduce the period of protection from unfair dismissal during a strike, for example from twelve back to eight weeks, as per the Employment Relations Act 1999, undoing changes made by the Employment Relations Act 2004. This protection should be limited to selective dismissal, as before 1999.

Do Trade Unions have a future? I believe that they have and I will cite one area where the trade union movement has had an impact on the work place and that is in work based learning. One of the things that I do is that I have volunteered as a learning rep for USDAW at the supermarket on individual rights at work and in developing skills I believe that thet trade union movement does have a future.

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.

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!

What’s wrong with aspiration?

I spent some of last week pushing leaflets for a Labour Council Candidate in which the word “aspiration” was prominent. The major political parties all emphasis the need for people to get on.

Take one Conservative website, which had the following statement

“Hence, why the Conservatives campaign must now focus on Aspiration not Austerity.
When people aspire to something better, they work harder”¦.they have a motivation, an inspiration”¦.an aspiration.
That is the “ËœPromised Land’. The dream of a better tomorrow.
This is the vivid, bright picture that Cameron must now paint in the hearts and minds of the British electorate.
The people are ready to be inspired. They are listening.
What will Cameron’s Britain look like in 5 years. In ten? What’s the journey? How will people’s lives be better?”

There is a problem here, which I thought about as I was pushing the increasingly sodden leaflet through the wet streets of Stoke last Thursday. By the way I have to say the leaflet was full of other words such as “creativity” and the hope that potential voters could contact the candidate via Twitter. I wondered how many voters in that part of town would avail themselves of the opportunity?

The problem is this. Suppose the person does not want to aspire? I will use a case in point from a person who works at the supermarket I work at. She is an extraordinary happy person with a really sunny disposition. She has a psychological and sociology degree from Leeds. I asked her what she wanted to do with her newly acquired degree. She did not know exactly but she was happy with what she was doing as a checkout operator and absolutely no intention of moving into management.

Could she be considered a failure for not wanting to aspire? Or indeed the other people who work in the supermarket. And anyway what about all those people who for whatever reason have no desire, intention or wish to get on.

There was a time not to long ago when we had a society where people essentially were allowed to get on with their lives and were allowed to. Potbanks employed people in menial jobs. People just wanted to do a honest day’s work for a honest day’s pay. They wanted to live within a recognised structure. I guess what people expected from authority was security and the wish to live their lives in whatever way they wanted without being thought of as somehow deficient.

I don’t deny that there is a problem with educational qualifications in the area, but I would hope that political parties recognise that there will be a body of the population where aspiration is a meaningless concept who do not want to be written off by the governing classes.

Radio 4 in Stoke for the last leaders debate on the economy- help needed

Radio 4 are hosting the last of the Leaders Debates from Stoke tomorrow night and I as one of the 4 locals who will be asked their opinions on the answers that the political leaders will give to questions on the economy. I feel very honoured to be asked and I am very thrilled at the prospect. However, as I believe that this is a great opportunity for the contributors to Pits and Pots to raise points that I will try to make in the contribution I hope to make tomorrow at the Baddeley Green Working Men’s Club.

I suppose the most important question to ask is the question on the national debt. The FT yesterday calculated that the debt stood at £37 billion. The papers today criticise the political parties for the lack of putting forward a programme for tackling debt and I imagine that a bulk of the questions tomorrow will be directed at this vexed topic. Of course there still remains an alternative view that looks at the debt in a historical context pointing out that the national debt has been as high in the past most noticeable when Britain came out of the Second World War. However there will be questions and answers around the timing and the balance of reducing the debt.

Secondly how do you ensure that the burden of the cuts does not fall on the most vulnerable? The area is a low wage area where the average income falls well below the national mean. If there are tax rises and certainly some commentators have raised the possibility of a rise in VAT. How do you ensure that increases in indirect taxation do not have an adverse impact on the poor?

There has been some question on parts of the UK, which are most dependent on Government spending and on Newsnight a few days ago. There were examples of parts of the UK, which are heavily dependent on the taxpayer for jobs and welfare support. The examples of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as some of the English regions such as the North East were given where over half the jobs in the economy were public sector. I do recall an article in the Observer some years ago that looked at tax take and government spending. Given that Stoke is a low-income area there was evidence that Stoke is a net gainer in terms of receiving more than it pays into the national economy. How will cuts in public spending impact upon the area?

Worklessness is another issue. The Sentinel reported last September that nearly 1 in 4 of the population of Stoke were reliant on benefits. What reforms of the Welfare State need to be made to encourage people back to work?

Given what has happened in the financial sector in the last year how do you reform the banking system? How do you ensure that banks function less as a casino and more as a support to local industry and jobs? Is splitting the large banks the answer? What about regulation?

How do we rebuild an economy that puts manufacturing back at the heart? The record of government in the last 30 years has been very poor. This area has lost many jobs in the traditional industries. I would calculate since 1960 there has been something like 120,000 job losses in the pottery, mining steel and manufacturing industry. In Leek the last textile mill is threatened with closure. Where do the new jobs come from? Is an economy based on retail and warehouses enough? Do we need to specialise in terms of the things we make?

Finally a subject that I find very interesting. The functioning of an economy in a time when climate change is forcing itself on to the political agenda. How do we build an economy that is a low carbon economy? What about Green Jobs?



By Matt Taylor

“I’m fine,” says 72-year-old Ray, as he puts down the phone to the latest official telling him the council can’t help him, “I like a good fight.”

Ray Steels is just one of many residents in the area around Butler Street and North Street in Stoke who have been adversely affected by the transformation of the A500, which began back in 2004.

Whilst work was being carried out, homeowners who lived directly adjacent to the carriageway near the site of the old Victoria Ground had to put up with dust and noise pollution, as well as the unsightly and annoying presence of heavy plant machinery passing by their doors daily.

But now, with the works on the road completed, these unlucky inhabitants are finding cracks in the plaster and bricks of their properties, as well as gaps developing between door and window frames, showing evidence of serious damage.

Although the project involved the city council, officers assert that the problems are nothing to do with them. And Nuttall, which carried out construction work, as well as the Highways Agency, which oversees such improvements to trunk roads as a whole, are also reluctant to be held to account. Ray Steels, who lives in Maclagan Street, Stoke, said:

“Things were terrible for local residents while work was being carried out, with dust and deafening noise from ground-working machines. It made our lives a misery, absolute hell. And it lasted two-and-a-half years. During the pile-driving, the vibration was so bad one day my wife had to stop the microwave falling off the worktop. And we had to pad the radiator with bubble-wrap the noise was so unbearable.

“When they moved the river, you had the additional joy of pumps going night and day. They hit a water table which caused all sorts of problems. People even had to move out of their homes.

“Now there are cracks all over the place. And that’s without taking off the wallpaper, which I’m sure would reveal much more.”

Ann Bellfield, 63, of Selwyn Street said:

“Some people’s houses are much worse than mine. One neighbour, Paul, went through his insurance company and they assessed the damage at £22,000. But people have only been offered between £50 and £300 for the damage.

“One house collapsed and now the next door one is being propped up. Denton is living in the one next to that and it has been the same for three-and-a-half-years. He has massive cracks in his house. I feel very sorry for him.

“All we want is fair play – they fix the damage and put it right. We are not liars or gold-diggers. It is damage done by the work they did.”

The campaigners say that if things had been done correctly, there should have been surveys done of houses in close proximity to the road, before and after the work, so that any consequences could be ascertained. Ann added:

“Homes were supposed to be surveyed before and after the work to make sure that they remained in the same condition. Nuttall say they did do it. But we had nothing.

“We handed out some leaflets asking if other people’s property hadn’t been surveyed before or after the A500 work. And we had a big response.”

The residents have now organised a petition to get something done and have formed the Butler Street Action Group, chaired by Ann, who also runs a local community centre. She said:

“At the moment we are going around in circles. I am going to pick up the petition and take it to London to Highways head office myself.”

Some claims for environmental pollution during the works have been settled. But the activists say that any offers which have been made to rectify damage to the properties have been “an insult”.  Julie Wilshaw, 51, of North Street, has been there for 20 years. She claims that not only was damage done, but that her life now with the widened road is a misery:

“We are right next to the A500, possibly the closest of all the houses here. And my bedroom faces the wall that blocks the road.

“We have applied for compensation but have got nothing. There are cracks in the walls, and now the traffic comes down our road because the new junctions are so bad people use our street as a short-cut. The whole house vibrates.

“We have a lot of damage from when the work was going on. We had to put a new bathroom floor in because it had lifted through vibration and we were fed up of waiting for them to sort it out. They offered us £50, which is an insult. And they all keep passing the buck.

“Another thing is, if you try to sell your house here now, you will really struggle, with the damage, plus the noise from the bigger road is terrible.”

The Action Group has the support of Stoke Central MP Mark Fisher. He said:

“We have contacted the Highways Agency and Nuttall and asked them to agree on liability and settle this matter for the residents. The residents affected by the road have lived with these problems for years.”

We are awaiting a response from the Highways Agency press department and will publish this as and when it is received.

Pictures © 2009 Mike Rawlins /