Sunday, 2 December 2012

The start of an awkward conversation about the city’s budget

On a wet Tuesday evening last week I headed down to the Civic Centre to attend the launch of Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s budget consultation for 2013.

The event took place in the Jubilee Room, a rather gloomy wood panelled space with heavy red drapes at the windows and a print of George V in full ceremonial uniform glowering down from the wall, a reminder of the slightly fly-blown civic grandeur that will be lost if the building is sold off to developers.

All the big guns of what the council, somewhat pompously, bills as its ‘cabinet’ were present, sitting at the front of the room and looking for the most part more than a little uncomfortable. They, as did most of the audience, knew this was not going to be an easy evening.

Front and centre was council leader Mohammed Pervez, a portly man in a grey suit with a speaking style that alternates between nervousness and exasperation; not a good combination in a politician with something unpopular to sell to the public. The consultation was to be, he said, part of a ‘meaningful conversation’ with the public about the city’s finances; specifically how £21 million in savings can be found in addition to the £56 million already made overt the past two years.

He reiterated what are to regular observers of politics in Stoke familiar themes about the lack of a financial settlement from the government, it is expected some time in December and is unlikely to be generous and the refusal of ministers to recognise the challenges faced by the city. The meat and drink of the presentation that followed though was that the council will have to tighten its belt and go on doing so for years to come, if predictions made by the Local Government Association are correct there may be little in the budget beyond funding for statutory services.

The latest round of efficiencies will, he said, involve large ‘savings’ from the budget of each of the council’s directorates, the sale of buildings and the merging of departments along with another two hundred to two hundred and fifty job losses. Those council employees who keep their jobs will, again, go without a cost of living increase in their pay settlement, although the council have agreed to give the lowest earning workers the minimum living wage of £7.45 per hour; cold comfort in hard times.

The language the bad news is delivered in is drawn straight from the lexicon of middle management, it is all about ‘efficiency savings’ and cutting ‘ back office costs’; the council is going to move from providing services to ‘commissioning’ them from companies in the private sector. It seems that three years of austerity economics have provided our culture with as many words for spending cuts as others have for snow.

The delivery veers between the dull and the downright bad tempered, like many a politician before him Mohammed Pervez knows all too well the soporific effect of statistics and provides a blizzard of them here. He also gets more than a little testy during the question and answer section what asked how the council can justify taking out a huge loan to build a new Civic Centre whilst at the same time cutting vital services.

The logic behind this move, if you can did it out of rather a lot of waffle boils down to ‘if we build it they will come’, meaning that if the council moves to the new Central Business District on the outskirts of Hanley investors will soon follow. If you think this has more than a touch of magical thinking about it you’d probably be right.

Pouring investment into Hanley is both a bone of contention and an article of faith under the ‘Mandate for Change’ that is the bedrock of the council’s regeneration strategy. Residents of the other five towns making up the city feel aggrieved that so much investment is being aimed at the city centre whilst their own communities are being left to crumble; Mr Pervez and his cabinet cite this as an example of the parochialism that has held the city back for decades and say that if investment if focussed on Hanley the benefits will, eventually, trickle down to the rest of the city.

Whilst it is possible to feel sympathy for the Council Leader as he struggles to balance a budget without much help from a government that sees no votes for either coalition partner in Stoke, the unavoidable fact is that much of the thinking underpinning the city’s regeneration strategy is flawed. Almost every former industrial town in the region is trying to re-invent itself along the same lines and there is only so much money to go round.

It was hard not to come away from the evening without feeling a sense of gloomy resignation, the council it seemed, was defending a position on which it had already decided rather than seeking suggestions from the public. It was suggested that the council would consider suggestions sent in as to how to save money and promote the city to investors, I can imagine the postbags filled with letters saying don’t sell the Civic piling up to following day and promptly being tipped into landfill.

As exercises in public engagement go this felt more like box ticking than the real thing, sadly Stoke council has form in this area having run a Community Empowerment Network that folded because it wasn’t taken seriously or given much in the way of independence. That inevitably fosters an atmosphere of weary cynicism; people feel there is little point in taking part in a conversation if they aren’t going to be listened to.

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