Saturday, 23 March 2013

Playing to an empty gallery

The meeting following the budget council was always going to be less of a carnival than the budget council, in much the same way that Boxing Day is always an anticlimax compared to Christmas Day.

Proceedings began as usual with the charming anachronism of prayers, this time round a rather downbeat Chaplin offering up a reading from the book of Isaiah and a prayer for opinions to be expressed in charity and decisions made in wisdom. Nice sentiments, but not usually the way things are done down at the Civic. Actually given what was to follow he might have been better reading out the funeral service.

Business proper began with awards being handed out to Kath Banks (Hollybush and Longton West) for her community engagement work with the Fire Authority and to a young woman who had taken part in the Local Enterprise Partnership’s Apprenticeship Recognition Programme. All very nice and I’m sure both awards were richly deserved, but it seemed a little more like a school assembly than democracy in action.

Then we got to the meat of the meeting, if you’ll pardon the pun, a long spiel from Lord Mayor Terry Crowe (Eaton Park) about his role being to ‘keep order’ during council meetings. Quite so, but the question of who’s order hung in that air as he spoke like the smell of stale kippers. You might think he was protesting a little too much about his decision to clear the public gallery at the last meeting being correct; I couldn’t possibly comment.

The ghost of the Civic Centre move was raised, again, even though the issue itself was quietly rubberstamped behind closed doors by the council the day before by the only one of the six petitions put before the meeting to gain enough signatures to have a chance of being sent for scrutiny.

It was presented by an articulate young man called Christian Foster who gave a calmly reasoned speech that dismantled with forensic logic the case for moving the Civic Centre to the Central Business District. His contribution to the debate was better than anything that followed and far above the standard exhibited by most elected members, which is perhaps why it received such a frosty reception.

Step forward Paul Shotton (Fenton East), Deputy Leader of the council and its favourite hatchet man. He began by making an admission that the council hadn’t done a ‘good PR job’ over the Civic move; crikey you don’t say, then launched into the predictable defence of the move that pretty much compounded that self same PR disaster.

Poor silly public complaining about the move and how much it will cost, we’re all being manipulated by an opposition determined to ‘play to the gallery’. Where Christian Foster made his case using reason and rhetoric, Councillor Shotton preferred to use good straightforward insults; a hammer and cold chisel as opposed to a diamond tipped scalpel if you like.

He had as a backing band an oily crew of Labour councillors who took turns to jump to their feet to recite ad-nauseum the party line that moving the Civic whatever the cost is the only option. Honourable mentions should go to independents Randy Conteh (Penkhull and Stoke) and Paul Breeze (Birches Head and Central Forest Park) for speaking out in support of sending the decision for scrutiny; they turned out to be lonely voices in a wilderness of indifference.

The decision not to send the decision to the overview and scrutiny committee was, unsurprisingly, carried. It was followed by a boo from the public gallery worthy of the entrance of a pantomime villain, if this bothered Councillor Shotton he gave no outward sign, in fact if he’d had a waxed moustache he’d probably have been twirling it furiously.

From there the meeting slipped intractably into the morass of tedium, Andy Platt (Boothen and Oakhill) made a long and rambling speech about changes to the council’s constitution, this was followed by an equally turgid oration from Gwen Hassall (Abbey Hulton and Townsend). I don’t doubt both had important points to make, but all the life seemed to have been sucked out of the chamber; this was democracy by numbers with all the passion factored out.

Later, in a short debate on the Health and Wellbeing policy Councillor Conteh made a good point about the lack of public involvement at the consultation stage, he didn’t get a response from the Labour benches. That said more than words ever could about their lack of interest in what the public think.

I’m not, I hope, enough of a cynic to think that the only motivation for members of the council entering public life is gaining and holding onto power. In their awkward way they mean well, but they are so deeply sunk in their bureaucratic silos they can’t reach the outside world.

The business of politics is often grindingly mundane, but it is never unimportant since it touches every aspect of our daily lives. Which makes it all the more important that it should be done in a way that draws in and engages the public rather than shutting them out and boring them into apathy.

By far the most positive aspect of the evening was a conversation I had with a member of the March on Stoke campaign about their plans to encourage as many communities as possible around the city to set up parish councils. It’s a way of taking a few of the reins of power away from semi-professional politicians and putting them back into the hands of local people.

The plan has its virtues, less bureaucracy and more accountability; and its drawbacks, the largest being a temptation to parochialism, which one wins out will decide the success or failure of the whole project. There is also the small matter of getting potentially dozens of parish councils to work together to advance their shared interests requiring United Nations level mediation skills.

Whatever the problems setting up parish councils across the city poses the result has to be better than the dreary, lifeless exercise in futility acted out whenever the current council meets.

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