Monday, 23 September 2013

An evening at the budget cabaret

When I arrived at the King’s Hall last Thursday night they had set things out to look like an old style nightclub with lots of round tables arranged in front of a low stage. This, the mutinous thought immediately struck me, was going to be public consultations presented as a cabaret act.

The King’s Hall is the traditional location for election counts and there is no doubt that much of the ruling Labour group’s hopes for survival in 2015 depend on how well they manage making the £100 million in savings demanded by government cuts.

Going into this budget they have given themselves some pretty hefty handicaps. A bitter row earlier in the year over relocating the Civic Centre from Stoke to the new Central Business District (CBD) stirred up public resentment. The day before the consultation the local press ran a front page story suggesting the council now intends to retain a ‘presence’ in Stoke, fuelling rumours that the whole CBD project is about to fall through. Then on the day of the consultation they ran another story claiming more than £7million had been set aside to equip the new Civic Centre on top of the original £41million building cost.

The aim of the consultation was to establish public priorities before the process of making ‘savings’, cuts to you and me, begins. A glossy document on each table said the council wants the public to ‘tell us what is important to you and give us your views on how we meet this challenge’, a noble aspiration; but one previous experience of such exercises suggests may not be met.

The crowd around me seemed to be made up of council suits bussed in to make up the numbers with a smattering of community activists. Each table had a ‘facilitator’, an ugly word much loved by local government and often applied to someone with the job of steering debate away from anything remotely contentious.

Actually the one on our table was helpfulness personified; she managed the discussion with polite authority making sure everyone got an opportunity to speak. The suspicion remains though that the line between facilitating and managing a debate is one that gets crossed too often for comfort.

The opening speech by council leader Mohamed Pervez was introduced by the Assistant Chief Executive of the council, a man with a presentation style reminiscent of the headmaster of a minor public school addressing the parents on speech day. He didn’t do himself many favours later in the evening when he responded to a question from the floor about why there aren’t more good restaurants in the city by murmuring , ‘I quite agree’. The trials of public service; imagine having to work in a place where the restaurants have such limited wine lists.

The most significant fact about the speech Mr Pervez gave on Thursday night was that it contained no significant facts, none his audience weren’t already familiar with anyway.

He ran through the familiar details of how Stoke has been hit hardest by government ‘austerity’ measures and the steps being taken under the Mandate for Change to bring in private sector investment to offset the worst hardships imposed by the cuts. The delivery was so practiced that any trace of passion or commitment seemed to have been ground out by constant repetition.

This presented a problem when he tried to deliver a sort of ‘vision thing’ near to the end. It is hard to fire an audience up with the belief that this is the time to act in order to create a better and more prosperous future if you are speaking in the tones of an automated checkout.

I was left not for the first time with the impression that Mr Pervez leads an administration that knows how to describe the city’s problems but is all at sea when it comes to presenting original solutions.

When Mr Pervez left the stage to a polite ripple of applause with a backwash of indifference the real business of the evening began. It turned out to be a sort of monopoly game where people at each table were asked to place pretend pounds to a value of £25million on the areas where they thought savings could be made.

The message was a simple one, choosing where to make savings is complicated, a fair point, but also a rather obvious one familiar to anyone who has ever balanced a household budget. Rather more interesting was the discussion between the people on my table, from which the consensus emerged that there was a lack of basic efficiency on the part of the council when it comes to securing value for money and commissioning major projects.

Needless to say there was no way to record those responses as part of the exercise at hand. Seeking the views of the public and listening when what they say isn’t necessarily what you want to hear are clearly two different things.

The evening ended with a question and answer session, not something Mr Pervez handles at all comfortably. He tends to give answers that are too long and lose the thread of what he is saying along with the attention of his audience.

Amongst the questions he flapped at like an ineffectual batsman were ones about investment in town centres other than Hanley, the future of the Abbots House care home and the use of council cash reserves to meet some of the savings required. I doubt if most of the people who asked questions were left with the feeling they had been given a meaningful answer.

On they way out we were all handed another glossy leaflet giving details of how well the council is doing to achieve its Mandate for Change targets. The event had been billed as ‘My City, My Say’, the impression I was left with though wasn’t one of having been given a participant in a process that gave me a genuine say, rather it was of helping to tick a box confirming decisions that have already been made.

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