Nominate a locally listed building

By Nicky Davis

I first mentioned that Stoke-on-Trent City Council are looking for nominations for buildings for local listing when I wrote about my historical walk around Longton.

They are still wanting nominations, by December 31st.

Whilst locally listed buildings are not listed as protected by government the council says that “if changes to a locally listed building require planning permission, care will be taken to ensure that any work carried out will either conserve or enhance its appearance”.

My suggestion for local listing is the Thomas C. Wild & Sons, St. Mary’s Works, Uttoxeter Road, Longton.  Thomas C. Wild, the china manufactuter, was a councillor of the old Borough of Longton and became the first Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent in 1928.  The original building is dated 1862 and there is an extension built in 1888, giving two in one with different styles.  The original building has attractive features at the roof line and wonderful arched windows and doorway, including a typical group of three windows in the centre. Â  The 1888 extension is very lovely to look at, ornate with some most decorative terracotta features including on the pediment.  This is an excellent example of beautiful heritage.

Nominations can be made using the council’s form.

Which building will you be nominating?

John van de Laarschot appointed as Chief Executive

By Tony Walley & Mike Rawlins

The elected members of Stoke-n-Trent City Council, sitting in this afternoons full council meeting have voted unanimously  to appoint John van de Laarschot as Chief Executive.  The motion was proposed by Paul Shotton Chair of the HR Committee and seconded by Council Leader Ross Irving.

Paul Shotton paid a warm tribute to Chris Harman saying his professionalism and enthusiasm were his best attributes during a difficult time for our City.

New versus traditional media – and plain old spin!

Comment By Tony Walley updated by Mike Rawlins

Comment by - Tony Walley

Comment by - Tony Walley

As you know this site has come in for a fair bit of praise recently at national levels.

This coming weekend we have been invited to a conference to discuss how to advance new media technology.

A week later we have been invited to take part in another high profile conference with some serious hitters and we will give you the details as soon as we can.

I know certain people may accuse us of ‘banging our drum’, and to a point that is fair. You see we know that there is a real prejudice against this site and the type of media we present and to be honest it’s all something of a pain and is most certainly frustrating!

Don’t get me wrong here, this site has a healthy relationship with our local paper the Sentinel and it’s editor Mike Sassi [in my humble opinion he has saved it from closing]. We have a lot of respect for their reporters, who do a great job in what is at the moment, a difficult industry. Newspaper sales are falling and titles are dropping out of existence. I don’t think this will happen to the Sentinel though as many people [me included] still buy and support our local paper and long may that continue.

I get asked the question ‘are you trying to replace the printed press?’ often and the answer is straightforward and honest, – no we are not. We see ourselves as an alternative, a kind of citizen news source. People these days access the news on their terms and want to take part in online discussions and voice their opinions and I feel that sites like these are ideal for that.

We would welcome a better relationship with the communications department at Stoke-on-Trent City Council but fear it will not happen. We get regular feedback that this site is not popular with the head of communications and that he rolls out the old chestnut about us being un-regulated press.

We always strive to write our articles within the guidelines of the Press Complaints Commissions  ‘Editors’ Code of Practice’ and the funny thing is the PCC and the code, bangs on about being self regulatory. I think we regulate ourselves extremely well, that is to say that Matt Taylor does as he has the remit of keeping us on the good side of being naughty. Matt has a journalism degree and a press card and yet it is likely that if he went to a press conference organised by the communications department at SOTCC he would be refused entrance because he would be representing us – pathetic!

The editors code of practice does not cover user content [i.e your comments] yet this is what we get criticised for the most.

Today we have printed an article about Staffordshire County Council streaming their council debate live on the Internet this coming Thursday. Their press department is a lot more inclusive too, as is Newcastle-under-Lyme’s.

Here in Stoke we are lucky if we turn up to a full council meeting where all the microphones in the chamber are in working order!

Why is our local council and in particular the communications department so out of touch and behind the times? Why, in a time when the government wants more community engagement, must we rely on a comprehensive report on this site and an article in our local paper to see whats going on in our city and within our council chamber?

As Pits’n’Pots moves forward and the new site is ready for release [coming soon guys!] we will have the technology to stream live audio over the Internet and possibly video too. We would love to see the council embracing this initiative and to work with us as a partner to get the council debates out to a wider audience. We would also provide a listen/watch again option for people who can not watch or listen live.

Yes it would cost the council some money but nowhere near what it would cost to bring in a film company to do the job for them.

Could I see the council going for this idea? The councillors yes, they would welcome it. The communications department? No definitely not – no way! They have set their stall out on this issue that is for sure.

The sad point in all of these issues is that we as a site could quite easily make the small step to being the online media outlet for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. An alternative news source [which is what we do now], a community radio station with massive local content managed by local people and a video news/feature option too.

We involved in this site have a clear vision of where we want to be, we could use some help, advice and support from our local authority but I can’t see it appearing on our horizon can you?

Our local authority are not allowed to discriminate against anyone, yet the management of our communications department may discriminate against who the hell they like and for no good reason.

While this is allowed to continue this city will witness all those around us to flourish and embrace new media with it’s technology, while we all stand still and watch all that is new, pass us by.

Update 29 September

I thought it prudent to update this post rather than detract from the good news the the City Council has chosen a new Chief Executive.  Once again the Press & Communications department have shown their true colours and not published a press release about John van de Laarschot. Granted the full council need to ratify the decision but non the less the news is out there that Stoke-on-Trent City Council have found a new Chief Executive.  How did the news get out there?  Our sources inside the Civic Centre have told us that the Sentinel were given a private briefing on this story this afternoon.

So once again an officer of the council is allowed to discriminate against us as a news outlet.

Has it stopped us? No, will these childish outdated views about ‘new media’ and in particular our site stop us from providing and alternative source for council news? No, we will continue to do this in spite of the Press & Communications department.

Schools told to “throw away” recycleable waste

A Pits’n’Pots Exclusive!

By Matt Taylor

Schools in Stoke-on-Trent have been told to throw away scrap paper because there is no longer a service to collect it.

One school was collecting over a dozen bags of paper ready to be taken by the council refuse collectors every week, only to be told that the service which had been provided was no longer available last week.

Staff were then told that they would simply have to throw the paper away.

Dumbfounded by the news, administrators are now making arrangements for teachers and other staff to take the waste home so that it can be taken along with their domestic recycling collections.

If you add up the number of bags of recyclable paper across the high schools in the area then you’re suddenly into figures of a couple of hundred bags a week now going straight into the bin rather than being recycled.

The City Council seems to be doing a good job of rolling out recyclable collections in the city for households. But it really is about time that it got its finger out with regard to the bigger producers of such reuseable waste.

Not long ago I talked about the fact that there is no service for recycling in place for businesses, which means that thousands of tonnes of glass from pubs goes straight into landfill rather than back to the bottle-makers.

If we are going to head for becoming a city which is responsible when it comes to recycling, then it is imperative that systems are in place for the heaviest producers of suitable waste, as well as paying lip-service to the cause by collecting the comparatively small amounts we produce at home.

We are awaiting a response from the press office as to why this service is no longer available to schools, a decision which to anyone with a bit of sense as backward rather than forward thinking.

Council approves plans to reduce the number of councillors

By Mike Rawlins

At todays council meeting councillors voted to reduce the number of councillors from 60 to between 52 & 56.  The recommendations are part of the first stage of the Stoke-on-Trent Electoral Review which will reshape the governance of the city. The decision today in full council will now go to the Boundary Committee for consultation. The decision was passed by 23 votes in favour to eight against with one abstention.

Our reporter was at the meeting and will be posting a full report shortly

Council offers help to businesses – but is it just a gimmick?

By Matt Taylor

Thousands of businesses in Stoke-on-Trent have received letters telling them they can get help paying their business rates bills during this difficult economical period.

The correspondence sent from Stoke-on-Trent City Council reassures traders, shopkeepers and manufacturers alike that “there is new help available to lighten the load”. “Great news,” I am sure most of the entrepeneurs of the city thought as they ripped open the envelope. But on delving deeper into the facts it seems is that rather than being “helped” to pay their bill, business owners are simply now allowed to defer a small percentage of the money and pay it over the next three years.

What the city council is actually proposing is that, not a portion of the actual bill, but that the amount by which the bill rose from last year to this, can be financed over the next three years. Which means that they’ll still have to pay the same as last year and, since the document states that the help is only available this year, pay next year’s bill including the annual increase, as well as the cost of the deferred amount from this year!

So, I really can’t see many business people thinking this generous offer is worth even bothering with.

Surely, considering the difficult economic times, what would have been a much more useful offer would be not to have any increase in business rates at all this year?

But don’t worry! If you don’t want to take advantage of this, you can also apply for small Business Rate Relief (SBRR), say the letters. If your business has a rateable value below  £15,000, y0u may qualify for this discount on your bill. Fantastic, you might think, and yes, you’d be right. However, this is nothing new, as the SBRR has been available since March 2005.

It is great to hear that the council is offering help to the private sector to aid its survival through the troubled times, but unfortunately, this is pretty much an empty gesture which will, in reality, help very few struggling enterprises.

Weekend Comment – “ËœMayor Quimby’ should go!

Comment by Nicky Davis

I would love to know who invented the name “ËœSpringfield’ for the site in Adderley Green at Short Bambury Street where SERCO and the council leader and cabinet all of a sudden want to put a school.  This faces huge local opposition with the formation of the Springfield Action Group.  The Adderley Green community do not want a school there!  I expect the planning application (number 50070) will receive some negative responses.

Meanwhile the Community School Action Group for Mitchell and Berry Hill schools are constructively campaigning for a school on a site where it is actually very much wanted, the Mitchell High School site in the heart of their community.  The very obvious solution to this is of course to satisfy both groups and to site a school where it is wanted rather than where it isn’t wanted, but mayor Quimby and his sidekicks have some trouble seeing this.

We have the NIMBYs and the YIMBYs (yes in my back yard) but QUIMBY won’t listen!

From the word go, the communities of Berry Hill, Townsend and Bentilee, which are currently served by two high schools, have sensibly and cooperatively suggested a merger of Berry Hill and Mitchell high schools to give them one new build school on the Mitchell site.  They have been persistently ignored, by the former mayor and his board, by SERCO and by the current leader and cabinet.

The myth is perpetuated that central government restricts the number of schools allowed and demands a certain number of academies, but ministers and Partnerships for Schools insist this is not the case.  Mayor Quimby can not reference a document which states any facts to back up this case.

Ripping the two schools out of the community would leave no high schools over a wide area of the centre of the city flanked by Birches Head High School to the North and St. Peter’s High School (new site) to the South.  The bizarre argument has been made that Mitchell and Berry Hill must go because of the close proximity of Birches Head and Holden Lane high schools.  What to eachother?  Or to the communities to be deprived of a high school?  Birches Head and Holden Lane are 1.0 (0.5) miles apart (walking distance quoted with straight line distance in brackets).  Birches Head and Mitchell are 2.0 (1.4) miles apart.  Birches Head and Berry Hill are 2.6 (1.6) miles apart.  So the Birches Head and Sneyd Green communities get to keep two high schools in close proximity (which I am not at all suggesting they shouldn’t) whilst the Berry Hill, Townsend and Bentilee communities have to drop from two high schools to zero!  Dropping from two to one as they suggested seems far more sensible.

Examining SERCO’s Strategy for Change Part 1 (as they have not yet seen fit to publish Part 2) reveals that “Ëœcurrent’ (January 2008) pupil numbers are 605 for Berry Hill and 581 for Mitchell, totalling 1186.  The plans are for Holden Lane to have a capacity of 1050, for 1058 pupils.  It can therefore be concluded there is no spare space at Holden Lane.  The plans are for Birches Head to have a capacity of 900.  As there are currently 742 pupils this means 158 places are available at Birches Head.  OK so 158 of the Berry Hill and Mitchell pupils could go there (leaving aside travel difficulties), but what about the other 1028?  So that’s that red herring dealt with.

SERCO’s plans are that Berry Hill should be served by St. Peter’s academy.  Adding Berry Hill’s pupils to the 704 at St. Peter’s gives 1309.  The plan is for the new St. Peter’s to have 1200 places.  So there are 109 places too few.  I know there will be a commitment to shoehorn in all pupils from the predecessor schools who want to go to the new school, but there is no commitment for ongoing service to the community, so younger pupils could face difficulties.  Furthermore it is admitted that St. Peter’s could fill their new academy without needing to take pupils from Berry Hill at all.

SERCO’s plans are that Mitchell and Edensor should be served by the 20:20 Discovery academy in “ËœSpringfield’.  Adding Mitchell’s pupils to the 1029 at Edensor gives 1610.  The plan is for the new 20:20 Discovery academy to have 1200 places.  So there are 410 places too few.  The same argument regarding  predecessor schools applies.

Someone is bound to point out that I am comparing current pupil numbers with planned school places, which is a fair point.  The Strategy for Change Part 1 says that there are currently (January 2008) 13,113 pupils in Stoke-on-Trent, that this will decline to 11,790 by 2013/14, around the time the new schools will be completed, but also that this will rise to 14,642 by 2019/20.  So as a rough guide if I assume the initial fall is in the same proportion across the city, then only 734 pupils from Mitchell and Berry Hill couldn’t get in to spare places in Birches Head and Holden Lane on that red herring.  Or only 225 couldn’t get in to St. Peter’s or the 20:20 Discovery academy.  So that makes it a whole lot better then?  Needless to say if I look ahead to 2019/20 it gets a whole lot worse.  The Strategy for Change Part 1 plans 13,050 high school places for 14,642 pupils by then.  Of course that was written before the decision to retain Trentham High.  My best estimate of the current situation is that SERCO are now planning about 13,820 high school places, but because of lack of up do date information and some inconsistent information this may actually be inaccurate by about 300 pupils either way.  So I’m estimating an under-provision by 2019/20 of ~822, but in the best case this may be only ~522.

Getting back to the situation the Berry Hill, Townsend and Bentilee communities would find themselves in, within a large triangle flanked by high schools outside their community at Birches Head, Fenton and Adderley Green.  Ordinarily, in the good old days when schools were nestled in their communities, it would be expected that distance to school would and should be important in the list of admissions criteria.  This is perfectly reasonable, a school should be providing a service to its local residents as a high priority but may spread its intake wider if it has available places.  So if distance to school remains important does this not mean that the residents of Townsend in particular will be way down on all the “Ëœtriangle’ schools priority lists?  How fair is that?  I would suggest not at all fair, especially after the bulldozing of both the school right in their back yard and the nearby one also.  What is the chance of applicants putting these three schools on their forms and not being offered a place at any of them?  I don’t actually know the answer to this.  St. Peter’s and 20:20 Discovery will be academies so the sponsors have total control over admissions and I don’t know what line they will take.  Birches Head as a foundation/trust school will have some control over admissions but will need to reasonably cooperate with the local authority.  But if they were to prioritise placing pupils from Townsend, where do the pupils from Birches Head go?  It just seems to me that the residents of Berry Hill, Townsend and Bentilee may well lack both provision and choice if the disastrous plans proceed.

I have concentrated on my pet topic, schools, but across the board I have been unimpressed by the council leader and think we could do better.  Besides, what is more important for our city’s future than it’s children and surely important to them is their education, their schools, their communities and their pride of place within them?

I am hopeful that our councillors may instigate a vote of no confidence in the leader very soon and install someone better.

“ËœMayor Quimby’ ““ it’s time to go!

Free Swimming for adults during August

By Pits n Pots Reporter

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is offering free swimming lessons for all adults until March 2010.

Tunstall Pool and James Brindley are to host the first of these free courses starting on Saturday 15 and Monday 17 August respectively.  Each course will comprise of six one hour lessons, taught by an experienced and qualified swimming teacher.

Lessons are designed to help adults who can’t swim or who lack the confidence to swim on their own.  Tunstall Pool will be focusing specifically on helping those over the age of 60.

Funds have been allocated from the National Free Swimming Initiative and the Amateur Swimming Association. The money has also helped to finance other free swimming courses aimed specifically at helping those with learning difficulties and clients who are engaged in the Lifestyle Support Programme.

Councillor Derek Capey, cabinet member for sport and leisure, said: “This is a great initiative for people who aren’t confident swimmers or who never learned when they were younger to learn now. Â Ã‚  It’s fantastic we have the funding to do this and we’re hopeful as many people as possible can take part.”

Anyone aged over 16 who wishes to take part in the free swimming lessons must pre book by calling Louise Smith on 01782 234957 or emailing Louiseann.smith[@]stoke.gov.uk.  Places are limited to 12 adults on each course so you are advised to book in advance.

Unanimous Council Chamber Demands Review Of Neighbourhood Services.

At today’s extraordinary council meeting, city councillors voted unanimously to set up a Task & Finish Working Group to undertake a review of the proposed re-structuring of ‘Neighbourhood Services’

The substantive motion was put forward by Cllr Dave Conway and was massively supported from councillors from all political persuasions.

The original report [linked at foot] was heavily criticised from all sides of the chamber with many stating that the 5 page document ‘had no meat on the bones’. Others said that the report asked for comments but had no substance, detail or costings. It was also suggested that the report insulted councillors intelligence and was the worse report that had ever been presented to the chamber. One councillor suggested that secondary school pupils could have produced a better report.

Right at the start of the debate Council Leader Ross Irving tabled an amendment to the motion offering to set up a cross party working group to review the proposals and to then report back to FULL council before going before the Cabinet for consideration. The amendment was lost by 41 votes to 9. The amendment angered many of the councillors and the Council Leader was criticised for not discussing his intentions to table a motion with other group leaders. 4 members of his cabinet also voted against the amendment as they had no prior knowledge about it.

The debate then started in earnest on the substantive motion.

Cllr Mick Salih said he was angered and did not trust the report. He said that the consultation period had started in November 2008 but he had not met anyone who had actually been consulted. He criticised officers for sending a press release to the press before the cabinet or chamber knew anything about the proposal. He said that he had attended a consultation meeting with Residents Associations and the Director of Housing this week and commented how constructive it had been and he stated that the consultations should be run again and in the same vain as the one that he had attended.
Cllr Tom Reynolds told the chamber that Neighbourhood Services is a front line service that should be preserved and enhanced. Services such as this should be localised not centralised. He believes that the setting up of a task & finishing group is essential to the consultation process.

Alan Joynson was angry that the report had stated that consultation with elected members and residents HAD taken place. He said that he had spoken to some 30 councillors and many residents associations and had not found one person who had been consulted. He slated the report as ‘lies, lies & more lies’.

Roger Ibbs urged the councillor to back the substantive motion, but he also pointed out that he thought Ross Irving amendment was a better option because it gave all 60 councillors a say on the issue. He insisted that the Task & finishing group needs to be large in numbers and should at least have one councillor from each ward. He also said the group needed to move quickly as some council employees connected with Neighbourhood services had been told they were to lose their jobs.

Mike Barnes attacked the council leader for suggesting that any task & finishing group report would sit on a shelf and be forgotten, ‘Not on my watch it won’t’ insisted Barnes. He also informed the chamber that he had been speaking to an officer who said that the decision to call an extraordinary meeting was ridiculous because the issue was not serious enough. He also urged the council leader to ‘get a back bone’ and he posed the question ‘who is leading and who is being led?’

Peter Kent-Baguley told the council leader that he needs to wake up and realise that he is the leader of the council and he should start to do just that – lead! He also called for the officer who had written the original report to come down from his ivory tower and apologise to council staff, elected councillors and city residents for the poor quality of the report. He reminded the council leader that it was his duty to protect the elected councillor from reports like the one in question.

Brian Ward stated that he believed that residents of our city had been ‘consulted to death’ over various issue but he reminded the chamber that he believed that some areas needed neighbourhood centres. They needed face to face contact and he was concerned that if some centres were lost that the cost implications on some vulnerable residents may put off some from using the services.

There were also telling contributions to the debate by Hazel Lyth, Debra Gratton, Terry Follows, Roy Naylor and especially Mohammed Pervez who very eloquently savaged the report and dissected the implications of the closing of these much needed centres in deprived communities.

John Daniels promised the chamber that as the portfolio holder with the responsibility of neighbourhood services that no decision would be made without scrutinising all the evidence.

In summing up the debate council leader Ross Irving told the chamber that politics was the art of what is possible. He noted that every councillor who had spoken in the debate had been in favour of the substantive motion calling for a task & finishing group. He asked whoever was on the task and finishing group to deal with the matter quickly. He also reminded the council chamber that they are duty bound to deliver services that are best value for money. He also warned his fellow councillor from being overly critical of council officers and reminded them that they should refrain from naming officers during heated debates.

The motion was then voted upon and was carried unanimously.

It was notable that the Interim Chief Executive made absolutely no contribution to the debate what-so-ever. In fact he spent the biggest part of the meeting looking down at the bench. He did not defend his officers from attack or rebuke those councillors who spoke out against officers and in particular his assistant who came in for a considerable amount of flak.

Listen to the following audio interviews and after meeting reaction:

Lets get digital at city museum

By Pits n Pots Reporter

Children will have the opportunity to create their own films, soundtracks and artwork at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery’s popular digital drop-in sessions this August.

Visitors will be shown how to create digital art and animation using typical household computers and other readily available software.

The free digital drop-in sessions will run on Tuesdays and Fridays throughout August between 1pm and 4pm. Children will be able to explore a different theme and skill each week, with the first session taking place on Tuesday August 12.

The weekly programmes are:-

  • Tuesday 12 and Friday 15 August. Using the museum’s popular Magnificent Minibeast Safari for inspiration, visitors can learn how to combine a number of images with sounds to create a unique soundtrack.
  • Tuesday 19 and Friday 22 August. Continuing to be inspired by the Magnificent Minibeast Safari, visitors can learn how to create short stick figure animations.
  • Tuesday 26 and Friday 29 August. With inspiration from the museums Inspiring Art Exhibition Visitors can try their hand at creating their own unique artwork using painting software and graphics tablets.

Councillor Hazel Lyth, cabinet member for economic development and culture, said: “These are fun activities for children to experience. Workshops like this provide our residents with a unique opportunity to explore their creativity. Â  With computer technology as advanced as it is these days our city’s children have the fantastic chance to experiment with a variety of media to create professional looking and sounding work.”