Stoke-on-Trent Labour Group ““ The Shape of Things to Come?

You know me, I like to ponder on situations and then try to dissect them in public, as is my want you see?

I have to say that last week’s call to discuss the closure of the Willfield Fitness Centre at the Adult & Wellbeing Overview & Scrutiny meeting has left an nasty taste in my mouth.

I have been largely supportive of Council Leader Mohammed Pervez and his 34 strong Labour group but I hope that the actions of the Labour councillors on that particular committee and the Labour cabinet members in attendance, is not the shape of things to come.

Here we have a popular fitness centre, loved by the community, used by many from Bentilee and beyond, closed without out so much as a single comment from the Labour contingent on that committee.

Although the Labour members should not have been whipped on a scrutiny committee, by the actions of the said Labour members and the Labour cabinet members in attendance, They were absolutely told how they WILL vote.

I am in no doubt that Cllrs Sheila Pitt, Alison Wedgwood, and Matt Fry would have received a serious reprimand by the senior officers of the Labour group for, in the case of Alison and Sheila, sticking to their election pledges.

Labour whip Kath Banks had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp during that meeting and could not have looked more disinterested in proceedings if she tried.

The way the meeting was chaired by the normally amiable Cllr Bagh Ali left me in no doubt who was running the meeting, the director Tony Oakman.

He was allowed to say what he wanted, for as long as he wanted with no interruption. Cllr Dave Conway was constantly disrupted in a clear attempt to throw him off course.

Talking of the officers, the old joke of how many does it take to change a light bulb was certainly relevant here. 8 officers were present and if you were to tot up their collective salaries you would unearth a value that would give the Staffordshire Hoard a run for it’s money.

So, Labour have demonstrated that they will side with the officers over their election promises in another glaring example of taking the Cabinet dollar.

Have we been here before I wonder?

It appears not to matter who the rulers are, Labour, Conservative Independent, Liberal Democrats, or a mixture of them all, it’s the same old scene.

But what has left me even more uneasy about the situation, is the fact that not more than a week prior to the call in, CEO John van de Laarschot launched his mandate for change which placed a heavy emphasis on the Health and Wellbeing of the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent.

It isn’t that long ago that the place attracted the unfortunate label of being a “Ëœsick city’. And yet we close a facility that is proven to be making a difference in exactly the sort of area of the city that needs the most help ““ way to go!

Our CEO gave an inspirational performance at that gig. I and a good few others were taken in by the message that together we can make a difference. My plea to John van de Laarschot for the future success of the Mandate for Change project and the rejuvenation of the City of Stoke-on-Trent is – “ËœGet your officers on task!’

Here was a golden opportunity to prove to all that the council was up to working with community groups to find a way of keeping popular facilities open for business.

We are in unprecedented times, an era where it is clear, and for my part accepted, that the council cannot continue to fund everything and that there has to be painful cuts.

The officers of the council rubbished the Willfield Community Group’s business plan and then dismissed it out of hand.

Why didn’t any officer of the council make contact with the group to offer assistance in getting the business case more in line with what the council need and expect?

Where was the dialogue?

Where was the help?

Where was the commitment needed to deliver a Mandate for Change?

So again I lay down the gauntlet to the council, in a no doubt futile attempt, to change and to demonstrate that our council are serious about empowering communities.

With £20million more cuts to come in the next financial year, if there is not a drastic change in the Council, it’s CEO, directors and officers what services and facilities will be left in our city?

Our Labour Group need to LEAD and not be LED. You have the opportunity to make a difference, you have the opportunity to step up to the plate ““ Take it!

The majority of the electorate voted you in the belief that you would deliver on your election promises and to work to make our city more inclusive and more progressive. It ain’t a great start guys!

Many months ago, a politician that I respect enormously told me that the decision not to allow the building of a new academy to be on the Mitchell High School site was all about academies setting the right example to the communities in which they serve.

I was told that the powers that be, politicians, officers and sponsors wanted the buildings to be in areas that were as affluent as possible in order to raise the aspirations of the young people of the area.

They are meant to inspire the young to be more like the well to do of the areas in which an academy school is placed.

To give the little poor kids the opportunity of mixing with kids from a “Ëœbetter’ background.

I remember thinking at the time ‘isn’t that social engineering’?

It got me to thinking is this the real reason the Willfield gym is to close?

Do those in the BSF department, fellow officers and our elected politicians, want rid of the gym and the kind of folk who use it so they are not a blot on the academy landscape?

Blue Bins For The Enhanced Recycling Scheme Purchase Or Lease That is The Question

After doing some further investigation in to the Enhanced Recycling trial we have turned up yet another anomaly with the blue bins that leads us to believe the Elected Members were not furnished with the full facts when scrutinising the results of the Enhanced Recycling trial.

The EMB appear to have nodded the Enhanced Recycling Scheme through at the meeting 3 December 2008 only to have it called in by the Improving Communities Overview & Scrutiny committee on 24 December.

The O&S Committee approved the recycling trail with the following recommendations

  1. that following the train and before consideration of the rolling out of the enhanced recycling scheme, a detailed and evidence based evaluation of the trail be submitted to a future meeting of the committee
  2. that all members are kept informed of the relevant progress, reports and meetings are given formal opportunity to participate and give feedback

On 21 May 2009 the O&S Committee sat and heard the the detailed evidence based evaluation of the trial (all 6 pages of it) from Interim Assistant Chief Executive Mike Maunder and other officers.

that he had concerns with regard to the Executive Summary of the report and questioned whether the recyclable value was being maximised and why we needed to wait until the end of the year in order to ascertain the financial aspects of the scheme as he felt that an independent assessment should be carried out immediately. He felt that the decision to go down this route had been decided before the trial was even undertaken and that, even though there was no going back from this position, he was still not convinced that it was the most appropriate way to deal with the issue. He felt that a number of issues had not been given due consideration such as the cost of kerbside versus co-mingled collection and that no detailed analysis of cost had been undertaken. He asked what independent assessment of the current system had taken place and asked whether it was proposed to have one in the future.

Indicated that details of the savings etc. had been set out in the report which had been considered as part of the call-in. He indicated that it had been understood at the start of the trial that there would be a large take up but what was uncertain was the subsequent level of “tail off” that would occur. At the end of the year it would be possible to give members a better feel for that in terms of the trial areas. In addition, the other uncertainty was regarding the value of recyclables, which had therefore not been incorporated into the budget arrangements.
In response to a previous question about the costs associated with the provision of bins etc., he indicated that this had been part of a leasing arrangement and that it had been clear that as part of this agreement that, if we did not make this provision we would not have been in a position to proceed with enhanced recycling this year. If the trial had not been successful, we would have been able to recover the money for the bins because of the current national demand for them.

Which appears to indicate that he was telling the O&S Committee that the blue bins were leased rather than purchased which is in direct opposition to what Jane Forshaw said in her interview with Pits n Pots and which has been confirmed by the council, that the bins were indeed purchased.

So the question is, were to O&S committee able to make a qualified decision on the Enhanced Recycling trial without being aware of the full facts?

The O&S Committee members at the meeting were:

  • David Conway – Chair
  • Randolph Conteh – Vice Chair
  • Michael Barnes
  • Michael Coleman
  • Rita Dale
  • John Daniels
  • John Davis
  • David Sutton

The WRAP report commissioned in 2007 which was as far as we can tell ignored and not put before the EMB at the time was also mentioned in the meeting by one of the officers present.

In terms of the independent report, the national organisation WRAP had carried out a review.

Image used under license

Stoke-on-Trent School of Scrutiny

Although I was one of the three councillors who signed the Call-In of the Cabinet decision to engage consultants at an initial price of some £400,000 to come into the City Council and sort out the mal/administration.

As a Member of the Scrutiny Committee considering the call-in I was able to take a more active role than is permitted for the councillor presenting the case for the call-in.

That said, however, I singularly failed to gain the slightest insight into the thinking of the Cabinet that led them to apporove the engagement of expensive consultants without going out to tender. A Certificate of Exemption permits the “usual” tendering process to be circumvented. And for good reason according to the Chief Executive. The root and branch change required is not tinkering around the edges of myriad hierarchies but major heart surgery. “Would you consult the Yellow Pages if you wanted the best heart surgeon?” asked the Chief Executive. Well, of course not, we were told, because we would want to be sure of the very best and the best is sought by personal recommendation and personal knowledge of the person weilding the knife. So that disposed of the usual tendering process. Fine. So far so good, for the Cabinet decision.

But why the need for external consultants to tell us, basically how to best organise to deliver the best services?

Some of us can’t understand why our highly paid directors and heads of services haven’t got it sorted already; after all, when they were appointed we were assured they were the best people for the jobs with proven track records of delivering.

Our problem is that we have limited imaginations. We have failed to appreciate that in fact without the insights of jargon ladened oragnisational management speak of a Tory supporting professor our City Council can never “move forward”.

So again, so far so good for a management driven decision which still left me puzzled about the political thought processes of the Cabinet. The Cabinet member for Resources cut a lonely figure under sustained questioning about the Cabinet’s political strategy. His fellow Cabinet member for Transformation did not speak at all. She left him floundering without a paddle.

At one point it seemed that the root and branch exercise was about saving money so that it could be invested in front line services. Asked what wold happen to staff de-jobbed, well they could be re-deployed in the front line. It was as though the Cabinet member had forgotten that the whole exercise is geared towards cutting £20m or more a year from the City Council’s annual £200m budget. When probed, the response was that we didn’t know how much we had to cut until the government told us! So what on earth the Cabinet think they are dong is anyone’s guess.

The Council Leader might, if his full-time employment allows him sufficient time to devote to his Council Leader’s responsibilities, ponder a Cabinet reshuffle. Surely a quadruple party alliance of Labour, Tory, Lib Dems and City Independents is able to develop some political analysis, strategy and leadership.

Anyway, after three hours, the Labour Chair called the vote and the 3 Labour councillors supported the Cabinet decision with the one City Independent and my Unaligned self voting against. One Labour member had left early to avoid a tangle with the whip; quite astute considering the Labour chief whip was present in the form of the silent Cabinet portfolio holder.

However, it’s not only about winning or losing votes. That is a forgone conclusion given that scrutiny committee has an inbuilt majority of the quadruple coalition. It is about keeping scrutiny alive…just. With only five unaligned councillors a heavy responsibility for scrutiny rests on a handful of people.

BSF scrutiny postponed

By Nicky Davis

There was a Children and Young People’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting scheduled for today (Friday 8th May) and due to consider the call-in of the EMB’s latest BSF decision.  I had planned to attend but received a tip-off it would be postponed so I didn’t go.  My recent priority has been Trentham High School but I am interested in the plight of schools across the city.  The meeting was indeed postponed.  This was despite an un-named council spokesman insisting in the Sentinel yesterday (Thursday)  that it would go ahead.

The reason for the postponement is because there are certain rules that must be followed concerning the scrutiny committee receiving the relevant papers sufficiently in advance of the meeting.  But Cllr Mike Coleman who chairs the committee said that documents had not been passed on in time.

Cllr Ann James led the call-in with other City Independent councillors for many good reasons which include properly addressing the wishes of the communities of Blurton, Mitchell, Berryhill and Heathfield schools and clarifying the refurbishment of Trentham High, given the odd position it was placed in by the EMB ‘outside’ BSF.

Regarding Trentham, I have confidence that Rob Flello and Jim Knight will now ensure some refurbishment funding.  In fact I have heard that Partnerships for Schools is liaising with the council to alter it’s strategy for change to include Trentham.  So despite Cllr Pervez harping on at length about 13 schools in BSF, it seems the strategy will, in fact, include 14 schools.

The Children and Young People’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee will now take place on Monday 11th May at 9am in the Windsor Room.  It is open to the public to observe but not speak.