By Professor Mick Temple writing in Public Servant Daily
Prof Mick Temple
Stoke-on-Trent does not deserve its reputation as a hotbed of racism (it’s said the city has ‘embraced’ the BNP), blighted by poor government and under-achievement, writes Professor MickÃ‚ Temple
On the surface, things could hardly be more rotten in the state of Stoke-on-Trent. A city once renowned worldwide for the quality of its pottery is now better known, at least in Britain, as a hotbed of racism, poor government and under-achievement.
Consider a few recent events.
The city council, a unitary authority, was seen as so incompetent that education and children’ services were taken over by a private company on central government orders. That company, largely under central direction but with support from the ruling local ‘cabinet’, proceeded with a controversial restructuring of the city’s secondary education. After local protests and central government’s fear of dire electoral consequences, they were forced to modify their proposals.
A special commission set up by the minister for local government produced a highly critical report, citing a ‘deep-seated malaise’ in the city’s government and insisting on a raft of reforms by 2011, including a reduction in the number of councillors and a four-yearly electoral cycle. There is still no agreement on how (or whether) those reforms will be implemented. The council then decided to cancel the scheduled 2010 elections by thirds, an unpopular decision recently overturned by central government.
In a referendum, the electorate voted to end the post of directly elected mayor, creating further uncertainty about the future political structure of Stoke.
The special commission argued that the failure of the mainstream political parties to work together was a contributing factor to public disengagement and the rise of extremist politics.
A decade ago, Labour held all 60 council seats and seemed inviolate. Following a series of financial disasters and well-publicised splits they now have only 16 councillors and there are at least eight different ‘groups’ on the council. The BNP has nine seats, prompting a major article in the Guardian which called Stoke-on-Trent the city that ‘embraced’ the BNP. It may be journalistic hyperbole, but such stories stick in the public mind.
A manslaughter trial with racist overtones ““ a BNP supporter was killed by his Muslim neighbour ““ appeared to offer more evidence of serious racial problems in the city. BNP leader Nick Griffin attended the funeral and the victim’s coffin was carried by BNP members.
Most recently, a corruption inquiry involving former elected mayor Mark Meredith, leading councillors and a prominent local businessman generated more negative headlines. Despite the CPS’s eventual decision not to prosecute anyone involved, the affair has left a sour legacy.
It is not surprising that the widely held view, outside of Stoke, is of a rotten place to live, rife with sub-standard housing, low-paid jobs and racist attitudes.
Stoke-on-Trent does not deserve this reputation. The city has been badly run and there are low levels of educational achievement by comparison with similar cities. But despite the BNP’s success the city is no more racist than any other and its streets are not teeming with racial tensions.
There are certainly problems which no amount of positive public relations can hide. Unemployment is high and with around 45,000 people dependent on benefits there is a desperate need for the long-promised regeneration of the city. Recent factory closures by famous pottery firms such as Royal Doulton and redundancies at JCB have put more locals out of work.
Poor housing, schooling and employment prospects mean that some sections of the population feel undervalued and disenfranchised. A complacent local Labour party failed to respond in any meaningful manner and the BNP concentrated on the predominantly white working-class wards where discontent with both local and national government is rife. The party’s ‘pavement politics’ have been rewarded with electoral success in traditional Labour areas.
Urgently needed and long-promised regeneration depends on private sector investment and the economic recession means many potential investors are feeling the pinch. Big companies may not be attracted to investing in a city seen, however unfairly, as ill-educated and racist. The consequences of a failure to regenerate Stoke would be more BNP gains and that really would be a disaster for a population that deserves so much better.
The quality of the city’s administrative leadership has also been criticised. As one respected councillor noted, ill-considered internal reorganisation has contributed to ‘bureaucratic and organisational mayhem’. A succession of officers have come into the city and quickly moved on to ‘pastures greener’: a recently appointed chief officer and five heads of department have left in the last year.
How do we replace all this ‘expertise’? My suggestion, unlikely to be popular with the readers of Public Servant Daily, I suspect, is that all senior appointments be made from within the city’s ranks whenever possible. I want the chief officers of my city to care and have a stake in its future. They should have direct experience of the services they administer. Their families should live here, go to our schools, use our medical services and ‘enjoy’ all the resources senior officers (who have tended to live outside the city) have historically felt are good enough for the people of Stoke. We might see some improvements then.
Stoke-on-Trent urgently needs to confront growing electoral alienation and disenchantment in order to reinvigorate local politics and attract investors.
The government’s ‘preventing violent extremism’ programme is targeted solely at Britain’s Muslim communities and its annual budget of £5m spreads thinly. Stoke’s white working class communities are clearly attracted to the BNP’s message. Perhaps we need to spend some of that money to engage with such communities, especially their young people. Indeed, Communities Secretary John Denham has just announced that white working-class areas will be targeted by the government in a bid to counter far-right extremism. It may be too late.
For now, my city remains in limbo, its political and administrative future unclear. Its future success depends on all parties working together to tackle the problems outlined here and, most importantly, engaging citizens in the process. I hope it will happen. The people of Stoke-on-Trent deserve much better government than they’ve known.