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?

Stoke-on-Trent Businesses Sign Up To Climate of Change

Over 200 businesses and stakeholders met at the Kings Hall in Stoke this morning [Wednesday] to help shape the future vision for the City of Stoke-on-Trent.

The Mandate for Change vision is based on four strategic aims that go wider than the city council and its services.

These are:

1) Make Stoke-on-Trent the place to bring business
2) Support and develop existing business
3) Work with people to promote independence and healthy lives
4) Make Stoke-on-Trent a great city to live in.

The meeting was positive and all those present were enthusiastic to play a part in the development of the city’s future and to help eradicate worklessness.

“I was delighted to get the opportunity to attend the meeting this morning.

“The people on our table were really positive about the project and it was very interesting to hear a diverse range of ideas.

“I thought the City Council CEO John van de Laarschot spoke well and I was impressed at how the event was managed.

“The councillor on our table was Peter Hayward and he really impressed me with his approach to the whole issue.

“It was also great to hear the vision and ideas of former Elected Mayor Mike Wolfe who clearly still has a lot to offer the City and always seems to shine at these kinds of events.

“Al in all, I thought the event was a success and to me, the proof of how serious the council are about the future of the city will be if they hold another of these meetings in the near future”.

The event was attended by many of the elected councillors and officers.

The clear message was to make Stoke-on-Trent a great working city and a great place to live.

Politicians and council officers have prioritised job and wealth creation to increase prosperity in the belief that they will have a positive effect on the reduction of the reliance on benefits. It is believed that in turn there will be a reduction on anti-social issues which will help the health and police services.

City Council CEO told the meeting that the future was in the hands of the private sector in light of recent cuts in local government.

“Of course we need to change how the council delivers it services, and we are in the middle of that process by introducing new ways of working, but this is much, much bigger than the council. This is about a one city approach. It is about the council becoming an enabler not a barrier. We want to show people that Stoke-on-Trent is a great place to come and bring businesses and that rewards can be reaped from being part of the city.

“Everything else will come in time if we sort the problem of the severe lack of jobs in the city. By being financially independent people will lead healthier and more independent lives and that in turn will generate a great city to live in.”

The Leader of the City Council Mohammed Pervez was absent from the meeting due to a recent family bereavement.

“ “The Mandate for Change is not just about the city council it is about the future success of our city.

“We know the council cannot make Stoke-on-Trent a “Ëœgreat working city’ on its own. We need the support and help from businesses, partners and residents to make Stoke-on-Trent the place to bring business. We need to promote and market the city to say on the national and international stage that Stoke-on-Trent is open for business!

“I strongly believe the best way to significantly improve the lives of our residents is to create jobs – it really is that simple. That is why we have invited businesses, third sector representatives and partners to join us on Wednesday and give us their feedback on our strategic aims. This is the beginning of a very exciting journey for the city. One I hope everyone will get involved in.”

There was an invited to all attendees to keep coming up with ideas of how to help the city attract inward investment and to encourage and support start up businesses and entrepreneurship.

The City Council also launched a video of iconic images from around the City to support the mandate.

Chief Exec Must Draw on His Experience to Generate Income for Stoke-on-Trent City Council

I thought long and hard before writing this article as I have always been a massive supporter of John van de Laarschot.

The recent settlement between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the former Director Of Housing Environment & Neighbourhood Services Jeanette McGarry has dented JVDL’s halo significantly.

It’s OK to say that the council has insurance that indemnifies them against claims of this nature, but you have to ask yourselves whether this should have been a claim at all?

Pits n Pots broke the story back in April 2010, the very next day, we received a press statement that on the first read we kind of knew it would come back and bite someone on the bum at a later stage and we guessed that somewhere along the line, it would cost the City Council a large sum of money.
This bit:

Without admission of liability, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and its insurers have paid Jeanette an undisclosed sum in settlement of her employment and libel claims. The Council wishes Jeanette well in her future career.

admits liability, if there is no liability on the Council’s part then why the hell pay it?

We pay our chief executive in the region of £195,000. I can remember the council officers and elected representatives defending this huge sum of money by saying that if we are to attract the best, we have to pay for the best.

At a time when a significant number of CEO’s across the country are taking a voluntary pay cut, highly paid public sector executives need to show that they are in touch with the reality of life in the cities in which they work.

Staffordshire Moorlands CEO has just taken a 7.5% cut in his salary; his basic salary is in the region of £45,000 less than his counterpart in Stoke-on-Trent. I think this action shows that those at the top are aware of the difficulties facing the citizens out there on the mean streets. Services and amenities are being lost, people are feeling the strain. This gesture, albeit token in nature, tells Joe Public that in a small part, he is feeling the pain too.

I have supported John on bringing Vanguard into the City Council to implement their “ËœLean Systems Thinking’ model which will reduce the layers of bureaucracy and increase efficiency. This simply had to be done, had it not been, the recent cuts would have been far harsher.

I don’t think that the 700 job losses are the last either. With £20million worth of cuts still to come in the next financial year, even more council employees will be for the push. I have said before on this site that I can see the council workforce 20% lighter than before JVDL started here in Stoke-on-Trent.

That said; JVDL needs to start delivering more than just cut, cut, cut for this city. We could well do with no more loose tongue mentality [or should that be loose keyboard syndrome?] that don’t result in another astronomical pay out to a disgruntled officer of the council.

I think I am more upset that the media release about the recent pay out didn’t contain anything that acknowledged any regret for the release of a statement that cost our council dear. Moreover, Mr van de Laarschot has not come out with any statement either apologising or expressing regret to our elected members. He had the perfect opportunity at the annual council meeting.

Our council leader or the leader of the opposition did not broach the subject either, now maybe that was because the Annual Council tends to be a ceremonial event as opposed to a full blown political debating opportunity. Time will tell as the next full council meeting is scheduled for early July and Dave Conway may choose to land a few telling jabs and a right hook during the exchanges.

The reason that I am calling for John van de Laarschot to draw on his considerable experience to help the City generate income is , as the ex head of Coca Cola Europe, he will have the ideas and commercial experience to help the council maximise their revenue potential.

An example is the number of commercial council properties that are lying empty across the city. Can these be used by people who want to start up businesses but may have a problem finding the funding or getting the banks to lend? Leases can contain rent free periods and certain other inducements, but if we have someone who has commercial experience and can think out of the box, instead of chargeable rent maybe there could be a share of profit with the council instead.

That way empty units can be filled. Revenue could be earned. Business start ups can get the help and support they need and more importantly cash could be rung through the council till.

Real entrepreneurial skill is required to facilitate the kind of regeneration that is needed in a city like Stoke-on-Trent. Fill those empty units, help the 6 towns to regenerate and to become more vibrant, encourage money to stay within the local town centre economy.

The city council needs to encourage social enterprises and to transfer assets to worthwhile, credible ventures.

I believe that in a City that is lacking in skilled job opportunities, those at the top of the City Council including the CEO, the council leader and his cabinet have to meet the challenge to get people back into work head on.

Other cities have proven officer type, career public servants at the top of their authorities. We chose to employ someone with a different skill set, with more to offer and a real commercial brain to head up our authority.

That person needs to step up to the plate and deliver now.

Pervez and his cabinet think that they have a mandate to carry on cutting ““ they don’t!

They have a mandate to bring wealth creation, prosperity and opportunities to our city over the next few years.

Yes there may be a few difficult decisions to make along the way, but the city and more importantly the electorate, will judge them on their achievements.

I believe that cuts are not an achievement – bringing a brighter future, full of hope to our citizens, is.

Tony Walley – On My Stoke-on-Trent Soapbox 16/05/2011

As the red & white half of Stoke-on-Trent comes to terms with their loss in the FA Cup final the political potteries is as flat as boring nil nil draw.

It’s a bit like “Ëœafter the Lord Mayors show post election.

To Speak or Not To Speak

The only sexy story was the attempt at gagging our new crop of councillors with a “Ëœmedia protocol’ that circumnavigated democracy.

The document that was slipped in the new councillors pack was tantamount to a biblical commandment ““ “ËœYou shall not criticise the council, its officers or the executive ““ no matter the size of the monumental cock up or who was responsible!’

More worrying for me was the fact that there were councillors who were queuing up to sign this attack on freedom of speech.

One of them was Paul Breeze, a man who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. He works tirelessly for his community and he has taken a principled stance in not aligning himself with any group in the council chamber.

Paul was quick enough to remind us that he is a free spirit, but his complicity in this matter showed that whilst he is his own man in the political sense he was all too ready to do his masters bidding and put officers before the representation of the people that elected him.

The “Ëœgagging order’ has received a fair amount of political commentary and rightly so. But so far the facts of the matter have been inaccurately reported.

It has been alleged that the individuals responsible for this have been the press and communications team, Mohammed
Pervez and CEO John van de Laarschot.

My information leads me to believe that it was actually Pervez who suggested that the protocol be withdrawn from the councillors’ pack when he read it the weekend before declarations were taken and was unaware of its contents beforehand.

Sources have indicated to me that it was in fact Members Services who directed that this protocol be drawn up and the press team were directed to draft it up.

The bit that is shrouded in uncertainty is how much involvement CEO John van de Laarschot had in the issue.

Who Will Be The Trophies on The Cabinet

Now that it has been confirmed that Pervez will be Council Leader with Paul Shotton as his Deputy Council Leader, the labour Group will tonight [Monday] decide who will make up the remaining 8 places on this the first totally Labour cabinet.

Now I’ve followed the scene in the political Potteries for years and, as all good commentators should, I will make my predictions as follows.

The 8 cabinet places will go to, in no particular order:
Mark Meredith, Tom Reynolds, Sarah Hill, Debra Gratton, Olwyn Hamer, Ruth Rosenau, Janine Bridges and either Bagh Ali or Adrian Knapper.

My guess is that the cabinet will reflect the Labour Party desire to have a 50/50 men/woman split.

We will know soon enough I suppose, but my guesses are more down to instinct as opposed to education.

You may have your own ideas?

S.O.C.C Get a Helping Hand From Former Councillor

The nationally recognised Save Our Children’s Centres campaign has received a boost recently with the news that former Longton South Councillor Mike Barnes has joined their team to advise them on council procedures and future strategies.

S.O.C.C has reignited their fight and will present a massive petition to the council opposing the 30% budget reduction which equates to a huge cut of £2.25million.
The council are embarking on a formal consultation over their proposals.

What is 100% clear to me, having met and held discussions with S.O.C.C leaders, is that their battle lines have been drawn and they are prepared to mount a sustained and aggressive challenge to these savage cuts. The campaign team feel that the services that are on offer will be decimated beyond all belief if these cuts go through.

The election gave the Labour Party 34 councillors and a healthy majority with little opposition in the chamber.
S.O.C.C are more than prepared to take up the opposition role.

Their campaign has gone viral and there are S.O.C.C groups appearing all over the country. They also have the support of Netmums which has a phenomenal web presence.

Stoke-on-Trent has had effective campaign groups in the past like the Trentham Action Group who managed to reverse the decision to close their high school by facilitating government involvement.

S.O.C.C has the potential to make the TAG look like a meeting of the Salvation Army!

They are very angry people at the moment but they are channelling that anger and are using it as a motivational tool.

They are angry about the Labour Party’s campaign leaflet claims that they have saving the children’s centres but failed to mention the proposed budget cuts.

They are angry at the lack of support from the three city MPs’ Joan Walley, Rob Flello and Tristram Hunt who they have described as “Ëœthe invisible man’.

One of the Children’s Centres that is most under threat from these cuts is in Fenton, in fact is virtually next door to the constituency office of Rob Flello.

It could see the services that it offers cut from 5 days down to one half day.

Given that Sure Start centres were the flagship of the last Labour Government, S.O.C.C are expecting, no make that demanding that all 3 Labour MP’s support their campaign.

The case of Fenton’s children’s centre puts Rob Flello in an unenviable predicament as he sees the work they carry out at close hand and his partner Karen Clarke has just been elected as Councillor for ““ yeah you guessed it, Fenton West & Mount Pleasant!

I’m surprised that there is a negative view of Tristram Hunt and I share the view of the S.O.C.C leaders that all our MPs need to back this campaign with every ounce of their moral fibre.

I urge the Labour Group councillors, the newly appointed cabinet, Council Leader & Deputy and the 3 Labour MPs’ ““ do not underestimate this group.

S.O.C.C Hull are about to force a judicial review the same is 100% on the cards here in Stoke-on-Trent.

Our City Council are proposing the severest cuts in Chidren’s Centres budgets nearly anywhere in the country.

Communities will not take this lying down, S.O.C.C will not take this at all and in the words of one of their main players ““ “You have been warned!”

Stoke-on-Trent Councillors Asked To Sign “ËœGagging Order’

Newly elected councillors in Stoke-on-Trent are being asked to sign what is effectively a gagging order that prevents them “Ëœcriticising’ the City Council.

A document in the new “Ëœcouncillor pack’ is a protocol preventing electing members from speaking out against the council on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and on community blogs.

All 44 councillors are being asked to inform the press and communication department when they become aware of any controversial matter that arises.

They are also being asked to speak to the relevant departmental director with any concerns and to inform the Chief Executive and council leader should they have any concerns about any issues.

The protocol has outraged both old and new councillors.
Sources have told Pits n Pots that a number of councillors have refused to sign the new media protocol.

One elected member told us that they had been told by the council that signing the protocol was voluntary.

A previously elected experienced councillor said:

“There is absolutely no way that I will sign any protocol that is tantamount to a gagging order.

“This country has been built upon certain values such as freedom of speech and a free press.

“To sign this protocol would have a serious impact on the electorate and when it comes down to it, they vote us in and they must be our priority.

“Councillors are responsible to the people in their wards, not to the press department, the council leader of even the Chief Executive.

“I urge all councillors old and new to refuse to sign this document as it is an attack on democracy itself.”

Pits n Pots believes that the media protocol has now been withdrawn from the councillors’ pack.

New elected members are to be given more time to read, comment and to make suggestions before the protocol is implemented.

0844 ““ Stoke-on-Trent Housing Repair Number ““ What’s The Point?

Pits n Pots broke the news last week that the council were to change the housing repair report telephone number from the area STD code 01782 to a non-geographical 0844 number.

Nearly a week later, and we are no closer to understanding the reason for this change.

The council claim that neither themselves, nor Kier are making any money from this change. Indeed it is costing Stoke-on-Trent City Council £400 per month just to have the privilege of having and 0844 number.

This after an initial set up cost of £700, which includes £200 worth of training and some £650 spent on producing 30000 leaflets informing tenants of the change.

£200 worth of training?

What is the training for? Answering the telephones? I guess the council staff would know how to do that already.

I really cannot see why the council would need to implement staff training just for the sake of a phone number change. For the members of staff concerned nothing has changed, the phone rings just the same.

There should be no need for training unless a new phone system [hardware], or a new call handling system [software] has been installed.

In a notice to elected members, the council claim:

As a part of the on-going series of improvements to the Housing Repair Service the City Council is setting up a dedicated team to handle repair requests from our tenants. The team will be working in a location designed for the purpose. They will be able to focus on the task of handling repair requests and managing the communications with the repair operatives across the city. By bringing the essential elements under one roof we will be able to bring further improvements to our customers.

The new service will also have a new dedicated phone number which will be available for our customers to use 24 hours a day seven days a week.
0844 894 0145

The new service and the dedicated phone number will be available for our customers from 8am on February 10 2011.
Calls to the new number will cost approximately 3 pence per minute *from a BT residential line*.

One of the key benefits from the new service will be that calls can be handled quickly minimising the time and costs to our customers. Previous improvements have seen the length of time that customers spend on the telephone reducing steadily. Many repair enquires are now completely dealt with within 4 minutes and the launch of the new service will enable us to make further improvements.
Our free-phone service in One Stop Shops will also continue to operate. Customers can visit during opening hours and use a dedicated phone to contact the repairs service.

Later this year we will be making some improvements to our e-mail and web based reporting facilities which will bring further ways to make it simple and quick to contact the repairs service.

(*Call charges for mobile phones and for other networks will vary)

It is that last line that concerns me and should strike fear into all our elected members:

*Call charges for mobile phones and for other networks will vary*

Those responsible for implementing this change should realise that not all council house tenants have a BT landline, in fact as a councillor representing a large council house tenant estate commented to me yesterday, residents prefer mobile as they struggle to find the money when billed quarterly.

During a conversation with Mike Rawlins last week, the cabinet member with responsibility, Cllr Brian Ward informed him that the majority of callers to the housing repair service use mobile phones.

Ka-Ching!

Another elected member told me yesterday that he had spent 29mins holding for Kier through the 01782 number. From Thursday, if he was calling on an Orange pay as you go mobile phone, that call would have cost him £11.60.

If that call had been made on a Virgin landline service there would have been a connection charge of 12.24p and then 7.13p per minute giving a total of £2.19.

These charges are totally unacceptable to a council tenant who is on benefits and for families where money is scarce.

The council claim that this change will not make money for either them or Kier so why the need to change at all?

I can understand the changes if the council were gaining revenue from this venture, understand that is, but not agree!

This change, if we are to believe what we are being told, will cost the council £400 per month. So why the hell pay out money that you don’t need to in these times of austerity?

This service is being offered to council tenants 24/7 these lines have to be manned, so if there is revenue made by the council from this 0844 number, will it be used to offset the cost incurred by operating 24/7?

Our Chief Executive Officer John van de Laarschot is all
for openness and transparency. Recently I admit that I feel quite sorry for the guy.

He must wonder if a skeleton is going to leap out of every cupboard he opens and shout Boo! Relating to something that happened before he got here.

Well John, this is most definitely on your watch!

Some head of service has made a decision to change a strategic service within the council and then claim that no revenue will be realised from that change. In fact it will incur extra costs to this city council at this time of unprecedented cuts.

I can [because I have] set up a 0844 number at my company for no charge. I certainly did not pay an amount up front and neither is the service costing me every month.

What I do get is a rake off on all incoming calls. This is used to give me a rebate on my monthly phone bills, meaning that I spend less on outgoing calls effectively.

I sense a closing of the ranks on this matter.

There seems reluctance in divulging the true extent of the deal surrounding the decision to implement a 0844 number which will mean a massive increase to the majority of residents who use this service unless you are lucky enough to have a BT landline.

Every 0844 number has a standard number attached to it.

When i received complaints off some customers that it was costing them more than a local rate call because they happened to have a different provider or were using a mobile, I decided to give out the 01782 number. I did this because I did not want to lose my customers business.

I don’t think that this will happen at the City Council, for as much as council tenants are described as customers, they have no alternative provider.

Like it or lump it is the phrase that springs to mind…