Stoke-on-Trent City Council – A Long Week Ahead!

I must be really sad me! But, I have to say I’m really looking forward to this week and reporting on the shenanigans of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Thursday’s Annual Council meeting should be a belter.

The first task is to confirm Cllr Denver Tolley as the new Lord Mayor. I have known Denver for a few years and I can honestly say I have yet to meet a single person who has anything bad to say about the guy.

Denver serves the Longton North ward and is respected by all. His wife Lynne will be Lady Mayoress and I have no doubt that she will prove to be one of the most glamorous the City has had for years.

They are both brilliant with people ans will be a massive hit whatever functions they are requested to attend.

The main event on Thursday however, is the election of the new Council Leader.

I think it is widely expected to be Labour Group Leader Mohammed Pervez. I tip his deputy to be Cllr Ross Irving, the current Leader of the council and Leader of the Conservative & Independent Alliance.

This will mean that there will be at least a two party coalition.

Which means that we may not get the four party coalition that Pervez had hoped for last week.

You see, it’s all about cabinet places and portfolio positions.

For a four party coalition to work, I estimate that the Labour Group will want to retain at least 5 cabinet places.

This will leave 5 cabinet places to be divvied up between the CIG, CIA and Lib Dems.

Kieran Clarke has been made to play the Hokey Cokey by his group as he has been in/out a few times all he needs to do now is to shake it all about. My sources tell me he is in at the moment.

It is known that the Lib Dem group were hesitant about Kieran carrying on the cabinet portfolio for resources given the amount of cuts that are set to bite hard.

The Conservative were very reluctant to enter into another coalition with the City Independents, But as I understand it today there are a couple of cabinet positions on offer to the CIG and the CIA groups.

Whether the CIG accept these is another matter and is very much down to what portfolios are up for grabs. I understand it that the CIG will be unwilling to accept the more controversial portfolios such as Children & Young Peoples Services, which has been something of a poisoned chalice.

The Labour cabinet members are being held closely under wraps. But, I expect a mixture of experience and new blood on there.

So you can see that negotiations will be ongoing throughout the coming week.

At Pits n Pots we are keeping our ears close to the ground and we will be covering the Annual Council live on Thursday.

Council agrees 2010/11 budget

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has approved its 2010/11 budget at a meeting today.

The increase in council tax will be 2.89 per cent and will mean residents of Stoke-on-Trent continue to pay the lowest council tax in Staffordshire.

Council tax for Band A homes, which make up 61 per cent of properties in the city, will be £925.87 a year, including the contributions towards the costs of the police and fire service. The increase will be 41p a week for Band A properties.

The council has carried out extensive consultation on its budget proposals since the autumn, including a public survey which produced nearly 900 responses and detailed scrutiny by a series of overview and scrutiny committees.

To deliver a balanced budget this year the council has identified savings of £9.8m, resulting in a net budget of £209m for 2010/11.

A range of savings have been made, including:

* allowing 140 staff to leave through voluntary redundancy and deleting vacant posts that are no longer required
* reorganisation of the way adult social care services are provided
* increasing fees and charges
* recruiting more local foster carers, to reduce the cost of using outside fostering agencies
* reducing maintenance on IT systems following installation of new equipment.

A series of more controversial proposals, including the closure of two swimming pools and a gymnastics centre, have been shelved.

However, the council will now begin a “root and branch” review of all services to identify how to make much greater savings over the coming three to five years.

All councils are expected to receive much less funding from central government over the coming years, because of the effects of the recession and the need to tackle borrowing by central government.

In addition the city council has been hit by the effects of the recession because it has received less income and because demand for services has increased.

The council also set its capital budget for 2010/11 at £141m. This will allow Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire to continue to invest in major regeneration programmes, including redevelopment of the city centre, the University Quarter, town centres, building of new housing and the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Council leader Ross Irving said:

“This year’s budget setting process has been difficult. We have had to make substantial cuts, we have reduced staffing by 140 people and we face a big fall-off in the income we generate.

“We have consulted extensively with the public, with partners and with councillors to come to the proposals we have agreed today.

“We have managed to avoid implementing the most controversial cuts this year, but there will certainly have to be much greater savings next year.

“There will be much less money for local government in the next few years. We will have to change the way we do things, employ fewer people and stop delivering some services. We will have to make radical changes and make lots of tough choices.

“Councillors will begin that root and branch review immediately and get us ready for the lean years ahead.”

Press Statement From The Community Schools Action Group

Community School Action Group Press Statement

Following an encouraging meeting with Education Minister, Vernon Coaker yesterday, five members of the Community School Action Group, Margaret Lowe(Chair), Pat Smith (Head of Governors, Mitchell High School), Terry Crowe (Head of Governors, Berry Hill High School), Mick Stone (parent of Mitchell High School) and Graham Lowe (member of the group)) met with Cllr Ross Irving and Cllr Ian Mitchell with a view to trying to resolve their differences over the siting of the 20:20 Discovery Academy.

The Community School Action Group offered the solution of an academy in the Longton area, to serve Longton, Adderley Green, Weston Coyney and Meir, whilst asking for a refurbishment of Mitchell High School to enable it to
merge with Berry Hill High School, only a mile away, instead of Edensor High School and Technology College.

This was not accepted by the Council Leader, who insisted that this would ‘put the whole BSF programme back 18 months’ and they would have to “Ëœreconsult on the whole programme’.

Yet, Minister Vernon Coaker yesterday suggested that the council proceed without delay, with the academies which were unopposed. The Council Leader stated that this would not be possible without delaying the whole project.

The Council Leader also stated that the Minister had said during his talks with him, that the only issue yet to be resolved is the site for the 20:20 Discovery Academy and that he had stated that the suggestion of an extra
school would not be considered.

However, during talks with the Minister, the Community School Action Group felt that the Minister was very responsive to the idea of a new academy in the Longton area and a refurbishment of Mitchell High School. The Minister also stated in an interview with the “ËœSentinel’ that he “did not rule out the possibility of keeping an extra secondary school”.

The Council Leader did offer a glimmer of hope in that they would “Ëœat great expense’ carry out feasibility studies on all the sites being considered, namely: Springfield, Mossfield, Willfield, Park Hall and Mitchell High
School.

Mitchell High School has never been included in the feasibility study previously. The Community School Action Group, while feeling this was a step in the right direction, were disappointed to be told that the
feasibility study would be carried out by the Project Director of the Building Schools for the Future project, who has admitted to “Ëœforgetting’ to record the result of a vital vote in the minutes of a meeting, and not
carried out by an independent body, as they requested.

The Community School Action Group are now looking into further studies being undertaken to ensure that the feasibility study by the City Council is carried out and reported on fairly.

BSF Gets Boost With Approval Of OBC

Stoke-on-Trent’s contentious and hard fought Building Schools for the Future programme has been given a major boost with the announcement that the project’s Outline Business Case (OBC) has been approved.

Confirmation of the approval means government funding is now confirmed in principle for the £250m programme, which will see all secondary and special schools in the city rebuilt or refurbished between 2010 and 2014.

Council leader Cllr. Ross Irving, said, ‘What it effectively means is that Partnerships for Schools ““ who control the purse strings ““ have agreed the overall plan for our BSF programme. It means we can move the programme forward safe in the knowledge that the government agrees with our proposals.’

Cabinet member for children and young people’s services, Cllr. Ian Mitchell, said, ‘this is excellent and significant news. With six out of seven planning applications now given outline approval, the overall plan is taking real, tangible shape. The final element is to secure planning permission for the new Discovery Academy, which we hope to do later in the year, so that the pupils of Mitchell and Edensor schools are not left behind the others. We want to ensure continuity for the programme so that no one is left out.’

Deputy council leader and cabinet member for regeneration, Cllr. Brian Ward, said, ‘The BSF programme is key to the regeneration of the city and confirmation that we’ve had approval for the Outline Business Case is a crucial development in moving the programme forward. We still have a lot of work to do, but it won’t be long before parents, staff and most importantly children start to see new schools being built and major improvements made to other secondary and special schools in Stoke-on-Trent.’

The new proposed ‘family’ of schools in the city will include five brand new academies, six proposed foundation or trust schools, three voluntary aided schools, four special schools and a ‘hub’ for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.

Norsheen Bhatti fighting Stoke Central for the Conservatives launches her website

Norsheen Bhatti, the recently selected Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Stoke Central has today launched her campaigning website www.norsheen4stoke.com

 The website is also a chance for local people to get in touch with Norsheen to tell her about the issues that affect them and about their experiences of living in Stoke Central.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Conservative Association fully supports their prospective parliamentary candidate for Stoke Central, and has the complete backing of Association Chairman, Abi Brown, and also Ross Irving, Conservative Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

The Conservative Party Chairman, Eric Pickles MP, has already enthusiastically endorsed Norsheen as someone who will make a great MP, and the Association are proud to have such a willing and enthusiastic campaigner join our team in engaging with the voters of Stoke-on-Trent.

In conversation – Ross Irving – The New Year Special

Well here we are at the start of a new decade.

Many people would say that we are at the begining of a new year and a new decade, but we’ve still got the same old problems.

A significant budget deficit, possible council tax rises, and accusations of being an officer led authority.

In our latest episode of our ‘In Conversation’ specials, Council Leader Ross Irving, give us his views on the year past and the year ahead.

Click on the video below…

Meadow Lane Estate ““ the residents speak out on ward boundaries

The Meadow Lane estate is in Trentham, just North of Longton Road, at the border with the current Blurton ward, separated from it by the railway line.

On 4th January 2010 a public meeting was held at Trentham High School, organised by ordinary residents in the Meadow Lane area of Trentham, about the council’s views on new ward boundaries.

I was so heartened to see this happen, an issue crops up in the community and I counted about 70 of us who were concerned enough to turn out on a very cold evening to discuss it. Many were from the Meadow Lane estate most affected but I noticed a fair few of us there from other parts of Trentham.

Dan Jordan, chair of the Save Trentham High Action Group, spoke first and said that after saving our high school, local residents remain concerned about the whole community.

Ward councillor Terry Follows attended the meeting and conveyed apologies for absence from the other ward councillors Ross Irving and Roger Ibbs.

The council’s initial proposal had been for the Meadow Lane estate to become part of the new Blurton Farm, Newstead & Trentham Lakes ward, in order to get the right number of electorate in each single member ward. The council would have then recommended that the rest of the current Trentham & Hanford Ward be split into two; Hanford & Trentham Ley and Trentham South. Terry reported that the transition board had been brought in to gerrymander the wards and that he and our other ward councillors all agreed on not wanting the Meadow Lane Estate left out. Following consultation the current council recommendation is to keep the Trentham & Hanford boundaries as they are now but have it as a two member ward rather than a three member ward.

Grace Jordan explained that we should all submit our views direct to the Boundary Committee by January 11th, because they look at all the submissions they receive, including the council’s and ours, deliberate for 14 weeks, then publish their proposal. They may visit. At that stage we can comment again on their proposals. Tim Bowden from the Boundary Committee is aware of our discussions. The Boundary Committee will make the final decision in October.

A resident stressed the importance of individual letters to the Boundary Committee.

Terry suggested that the Meadow Lane area may wish to form a residents’ association and could contact him if they would like to.

A resident complained that he had requested maps from the council but these had not been provided.

Dan, despite “not trying to get too political about it” said that we need to be careful about our future, the transition board including Mike Tappin had wanted to socially engineer us by trying to combine two schools. Dan also said though that under the council’s proposal we would get double the number of councillors we currently have in the ward, given what Ibbs and Irving are like.

An individual in the know who shall not be named said that only 170 people had responded to the council consultation, consultations tend to be run over the holidays for very short time periods. He pointed out that officers run Stoke-on-Trent council and that Roger Ibbs and Ross Irving had been instrumental in devolving council powers to the officers.

The meeting voted on the council proposal for a two member ward retaining the current Trentham & Hanford boundaries. A large majority voted for this, nobody voted against.

The council will consider and vote on their submission to the Boundary Committee, which includes this recommendation, at the meeting at the Civic Centre at 2.30pm on Thursday 7th January. I pointed out that the public may observe this meeting if they are available at that time.

A show of hands indicated that about 60 of us intend writing individual submissions to the Boundary Committee.

A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR.

I stop short of adding anything about prosperity for clearly we are going to start paying very dearly for the greedy mistakes of the relatively small handful of financiers.

Peter Pan is playing to packed theatres around the country, and deservedly so. It is an innocent and entertaining story with wide appeal. Peter Pan council budgets on the other hand are neither innocent nor entertaining. Deceitful and demeaning are more accurately their principal characteristics.

The City Council’s Tory Leader and his Cabinet have put out a Budget Consultation Pack devoid of political leadership and economic reality. There is also a marked absence of commonsense on a number of the proposed cuts.

Under the guise of consultation the Leader and Cabinet have abdicated responsibility for preparing a framework for the Budget, preferring to leave it to emerge from the consultation process! Leader Cllr Ross Irving has been around long enough to know jolly well that budgets are not stitched up patchworks from a range of consultations!

Some basic facts:

The government’s grant confirmed: £127.293m. If there is no increase in Council Tax it will yield the same as the current year: £79.008m. Thus, total income: £206.301m

But,  

Expenditure based on the current year would be £222.811m so CUTS of £12.397m have been proposed.

That would reduce the bill to £210.414m, Still MORE than the projected income so what to do? INCREASE Council Tax or more CUTS?

Answer, more cuts via Voluntary Redundancies plannedto save £4.300m. That reduces the bill to £206.114m., so hey presto, income balances expenditure. Job done and no increased Council Tax!

Before we get over-excited at the seemingly harmless balancing act don’t let’s forget that a balanced budget was claimed to be on the table this time last year. Apart from the fact that a few officers “forgot” to implement the necessary increased charges there’s more than a hint that the “balanced budget” was based on a wing and a prayer. So, no change there.

Of the 128 proposed cuts, some are plainly unachievable. Review of Community Halls (£50,000). This is a long-running saga and most unlikely to be sorted in the short term. Reduction in opening times snd reduced menu choice at the three City-run cafes (£77,000) Daft idea considering thousands of visitors will be pouring in to see the Gold Hoard at the Museum. Publishing the Council’s Our City paper monthly instead of alternate months (£147,000). Highly contentious issue and unlikely to get approval.   

Removal of 14 posts within Chief Executive’s directorate, including that of the assistant chief executive would save nearly £500,000! This is an easy one, however: they’re all vacant anyway!

Review of management of Integrated Youth Support Services (£400,000) That’s a big chunk of saving but would anyone be left to run the integrated youth services?

Assess how to improve the viability of Stanley Head Outdoor Centre (£80,000) Viability? Or profitability? This is well used, popular centre for thousands of City school children every year.

Review of gritting service (£100,000) “There may be an impact on users of the road network during adverse weather conditions.” Really?

Considering the absolute debacle this year over car parking income some brave soul has dared to suggest that £253,000 could be saved by re-introducing charges for evening parking (if they remember to actually do it!) and to stop the mamby-pamby 10 minute period of grace for cars with expired tickets and the 5 minutes grace for those without tickets. That should be a number one hit  with the beleaguered motorists!

Transfer City Farm to a Trust. (£80,000) Is that it? Which Trust? So a trust will take it on without any City Council funding?

Apart from the easy half a million pounds hit (the 14 vacant posts) you can see how difficult it is to confidently notch up another £1m. Let’s not forget, £12m cuts are planned. Next time, why no increase in Council Tax will further impoverish the City.

Another example of officer incompetence!

Hot on the heels on the failure to implement a rise in car parking charges, which would have netted our local Authority a substantial sum of money, we have another fine example of officer incompetence.

Today’s fine Iain Robinson article in the Sentinel highlights another member decision that has not been implemented.

Result? Another failure to boost the council coffers!

I refer of course to the proposed installation of bus lane camera’s that should have been covering many of the city’s bus only lanes.

The camera’s needed to have the Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology, costing £140,000, following a successful trial period, using standard CCTV.

Now, this was originally agreed back in 2003 and this failure has cost the city in the region of £300,000.

It has to be a total priority for the incoming chief exec John Van de Laarschot to ensure that all decisions that are passed by elected members are implemented in the correct time frames.

This latest cock up is another slap in the face to us, the council tax paying public of the city.

We are constantly told that our council must save in the region of £45 million of the next three years and that there can be no guarantee that front line services will not be affected.

And yet here we have yet another blatant example of the sort of incompetence that angers the public to the core.

I would place a hefty bet that the officer that is responsible is no longer working for this authority. But assurances must be given via our city’s leading politician that cock ups like this are a thing of the past.

Ross Irving must take a political stance over issues like this article by Robbo raises. It is not acceptable for Ross to keep jumping to the defence of officers who fail in their duties just because it isn’t the done thing to criticise in public.

Well let me remind you Ross, It is the PUBLIC that bare the brunt of such incompetence and it is our pockets that are stretched to cover the shortfalls that short comings of certain officers create.

 

 

Council to be asked to retender contracts

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s cabinet is to be asked to retender two demolition contracts following an internal review.
 
A report to the cabinet meeting of 23 December recommends retendering the contracts for the demolition of Westcliffe Hospital and Hamilton House.
 
It also recommends that a full review is carried out into the council’s procurement procedures and that appropriate training is made mandatory for all staff involved in the production and evaluation of tenders.
 
The recommendation follows a review into the application of the council’s procurement procedures when evaluating tenders for the demolition of Westcliffe Hospital, Chell, and Hamilton House, Fenton.
 
The report to cabinet says there is:
    • Significant scope for improvement in the application of the council’s procurement processes
    • An urgent need to improve the application of the council’s procurement processes by providing staff with appropriate guidance and training.

 
The report says Stoke-on-Trent City Council has a robust procurement strategy and process which is in line with those used by other local authorities and public bodies.
 
However, the report says there were a number of areas where those processes were not applied as well as they could have been in the case of the two demolition contracts. Areas of concern included:
    • The “price” element of the bid was not clear when assessing the Westcliffe tender submissions
    • The way the “quality” element of the bid was evaluated for one company which bid a significantly lower sum than the others for the Westcliffe contract
    • Mistakes made in the assessment of the “price” element of the score for the Hamilton House contract.

 
Ross Irving, Stoke-on-Trent City Council leader, said:
 
“It is important that the council applies its procedures correctly.
 
“Businesses need to have confidence that the way we award contracts is fair and the public needs to be sure they are getting value for money.
 
“Significant concerns have been expressed over the way these two demolition contracts were evaluated.
 
“Our internal review has shown that we did not apply our rules for assessing these tenders and awarding these contracts as well as we should have.
 
“Because of those concerns and the need to maintain confidence in our systems we are going to recommend those two contracts are retendered.
 
“We are also recommending a full review of the council’s procurement procedures and a programme of staff training. It is vital that we move forward and improve where we can and that we do business in ways that meet the highest standards.”