Monday, 25 November 2013

The last thing Stoke needs is another celebrity MP.

Last week veteran Stoke North MP Joan Walley announced that she will stand down at the next election, setting in train a race to be her successor akin to the recent hunt for a new Dr Who.

Over the next few weeks everyone will be talking about regeneration and at some stage the baddies from Labour’s regional office will trundle onstage waggling their antenna and barking ‘you will obey!’ in a scary monotone.

Several prominent local party members have been suggested as possible contenders including former group leader Joy Garner and ex cabinet member Debra Gratton.

Both are solidly loyal to the party high command, if unlikely to stir up much in the way of excitement amongst local voters.

A more interesting option might be Olwyn Hamer, another former cabinet member and one of the few local Labour councillors to have the talent to be a full time politician.

She is a competent performer in the council chamber and a forceful character with a clear set of political values. Ideal qualifications for a prospective MP you might think, however being on the list as a possible candidate to be a MEP, not to mention the fact that she has sufficient talent and independence of mind not to be cowed by regional office might count against her.

All these rational considerations were thrown to the wind anyway at the end of last week when the Sentinel published an article suggesting that a young woman by the name of Mabel McKeown was ‘hotly tipped’ to be Joan Walley’s replacement.

Who she? Well might you ask.

Ms McKeown is a former aide to Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and an unsuccessful candidate in the Ealing Broadway council London Assembly elections.

She is also the daughter of 1980’s TV star Tracey Ullman and a regional office spokesperson speaking to the Sentinel on Friday described her as a ‘very highly respected political adviser’, who would ‘make an excellent MP one day.’

Possibly so; but not today and not here, I have nothing against Ms McKeown, but the last thing this city needs is to have another celebrity, or in this case I suppose the child of a celebrity, MP foisted upon it.

The situation as it is unfolding has some unfortunate similarities to the events following the retirement of Stoke Central MP Mark Fisher in 2010 and the subsequent ‘parachuting in’ of Tristram Hunt as his successor.

A hugely respected local figure has announced her retirement and almost at once a slate of paper candidates have emerged, possibly to provide a smokescreen for the virtual coronation of the candidate regional office wanted to get the nomination all along.

That might be Mabel McKeown; it might be someone else, anyone who has encountered Labour’s regional office for the midlands knows only too well that they love nothing better than surrounding even the simplest task with more bluffs and double bluffs than you’d find in the plot of a spy novel.

The point is Labour Party members and then voters in Stoke North risk being railroaded into accepting a candidate they didn’t really choose and who, in all probability, has no connection to the area apart from seeing it as a stepping stone.

There are some important differences between now and 2010 and members of the Labour Party in Stoke North need to use them to their advantage.

For a start time is on their side, they are choosing a candidate with more than a year, rather than a few weeks, to go before the next election. There is no need for the selection to be rushed, party members, not paid officials need to set the timetable and to make the decision they want to not the one they’re told to.

They will be aided in this by the fact that unlike in 2010 regional office casts a much less menacing shadow over constituency parties, largely because despite all its other faults the Labour Party under the leadership of Ed Milliband is far less paranoid and authoritarian than it was during Gordon Brown’s tenure.

Over the next few weeks Labour Party members in Stoke North will suddenly discover they have become figures of importance overnight. Their phones will ring off the wall with earnest young men and women seeking their views, their wisdom and, most of all, their endorsement.

They need to recognise they are in a position of strength, they should not be afraid to ask awkward questions of every prospective candidate who crosses their path and to cast their final vote with what they’ve heard in mind.

Selecting the right replacement for Joan Walley matters, perhaps more to the people of Stoke than who wins the general election. This city needs a team of MPs who understand the huge social and economic challenges it faces and have the courage and pragmatism to put addressing those challenges ahead of advancing their own careers.

As an active member of the Green Party I’d like one of those MPs to be one of ours, but know the current voting system doesn’t make that a practical possibility. That’s why I’m hoping Labour Party members in Stoke North make the right decision, if that means upsetting their party leadership so be it.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Time to put a stake into the outsourcing vampires

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has called for more ‘openness’ from ministers regarding the performance of private contractors brought in to deliver services formerly carried out by the government.

A handful of big companies Serco (£1.8bn), Capita (£1.08bn), G4S (£718m) and ATOS (£683m) receive huge payments from government for delivering services and yet face little in the way of sanctions when problems arise. The report calls for them to face fines and possible exclusion from further contracts when they fail to deliver.

It is also critical of the Cabinet Office, saying the official charged with overseeing such contracts have little ‘commercial experience and expertise below senior levels’ and that information held on over forty major service providers is ‘inconsistent and incomplete.’ The big sticking point though is transparency, needed as the report points out ‘to ensure that no-one within the contractor can hide problems.’

The government, the report says, ‘needs to ensure it is in the contractor’s financial interest to focus their control environment more widely on meeting the standards expected of public service.’ Put in the language of you and I, since we’re paying them billions of pounds through our taxes we’d quite like them to be at home to Mr Cock-up a little less often.

Amayas Morse, head of the NAO, told the BBC there was a ‘crisis of confidence’ in public trust in services outsourced to private providers caused by some worrying examples of contractors not appearing to be up to the job. He said that whilst some government departments were ‘quick off the mark’ when it came to identifying and resolving problems there was a ‘clear need to reset the ground rules for both contractors and customers.’

Tim Gash of the Institute for Government said, also speaking to the BBC, that ‘without a more transparent and measured approach to outsourcing high profile failures are likely to multiply.’

In response a Cabinet Office spokesperson told the BBC the government’s commercial reforms had saved taxpayers £3.8billion and that the government knew ‘the civil service lacks commercial capability’ in some areas. There were, the spokesperson said, seeking to ‘address this’ but it was imperative to ‘accelerate change to serve taxpayers more, create better quality public services and to promote growth.’

If you ever needed proof that we are being governed by aliens from the planet Politico who think the world, well the bits of it they visit anyway, smells of fresh paint then look no further than the outsourcing shambles.

The sums of money involved is staggering; as is the level of damage done to vulnerable people and local communities when services they have depended on for years simply fail to work. There is a case to be made that old style public services could, at their occasional worst, be bureaucratic and costly, but is the brave new world of outsourcing everything any better?

Thanks to corporate behemoths like Serco and Capita we have been introduced to incompetence on a truly epic scale. ATOS has turned the reforming of disability benefits into a cruel and unpredictable lottery, Capita have made a dog’s breakfast out of handling asylum claims and have gone on to turn the process of recruiting people to the Territorial Army into a farrago of call centre based confusion, just at the moment when the government has decided to replace most of the army with reservists. Oops!

Then, of course there is G4S, the dunderheads who promised to recruit an army of security staff for the Olympics, only to make such a mess of things the real army had to be called in to help.

If you think antics like this constitute an improvement of public services you need to look up what improvement means and maybe book in to see a shrink.

The NAO is right to call for more transparency in how these companies get and operate their contracts; but that is only half of the story. What the public want and have consistently not been offered because a complacent political elite have sold them to a mob of corporate vampires for a mess of pottage, is public services that are delivered locally and overseen by well informed councillors who are answerable to the electorate.

This is something to remember when your local council, as mine has done, lops twenty million off the city’s budget whilst at the same time throwing the doors open to Count Dracula and his mates.

Remember it too when you go into the booth to cast your vote. If you don’t like public services being sold off give your vote to one of the smaller parties trying to whittle a stake to go through the heart of these corporate monsters instead.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Why I can’t stop worrying and learn to love the CBD.

Auditors Grant Thornton have been critical in their annual letter to the council of its failure to identify the full cost building the new Civic Centre. They expressed concern that the full £48 million cost was not made public earlier, in particular the additional £7.65 million earmarked to outfit the new council offices and the £7.9 million cost of maintaining a presence at the former Civic Centre in Stoke.

The auditors are, according to the letter, details of which were published by the Sentinel, ‘satisfied that the decision to build the CBD is based on a clear economic rationale for the regeneration of the city.’ They added though that were ‘concerned’ that ‘this decision and the identification of the further building costs and ongoing running costs of the CBD scheme have increased financial pressure on the council. We are concerned the full financial costs of the CBD were not identified earlier and members were not able to consider them as part of the overall proposal.’

Also speaking to the Sentinel interim director of financial services for the council Peter Lewis said the authority was ‘committed to being as open as possible about this process and will act on the auditor’s comments.’ Council leader Mohammed Pervez said there was ‘no denying there are huge financial pressures on the council’, but that he was ‘pleased the auditor understood our rationale for the CBD and recognises the review of the number of council buildings is a positive response to concerns of local communities.’

One afternoon last week I caught a bus out of Hanley and, thanks to a traffic jam on Broad Street had an opportunity, perhaps my first real one, to contemplate the size of the CBD, both physically and as a huge political and financial gamble. One that could, were it to go belly up, prove that even though it is multi-coloured rather than white an elephant can still cost a fortune.

Grant Thornton for all their ‘concern’ about the cost of the CBD expressed overall satisfaction with the state of the city’s finances, describing the £56 million of spending cuts made over the past two years as a ‘positive area of performance.’ That’s on then, nothing to worry about, at least not if you’re blowing into town with a calculator to take a look at the books.

Things are rather different if you live out there in cold reality and have seen the services you depend on decimated over the past two years. In that case you probably moved from concern to desperation some time ago.

There is something wrong with the whole CBD project; in fact there are several things wrong with it and we could end up repenting them at our leisure, whether we want to do so or not.

For a start the rationale behind the CBD and its sister project the City Sentral retail development is deeply flawed, it seems to depend mostly on a sort of ‘if you build it they will come’ approach. To be fair they might too, but there are a lot of cities out there hawking office and retail space, in what looks like being a buyer’s market for some time to come turning grand plans into real profits is notoriously tough.

The council has, grudgingly, done the right thing by retaining a presence in Stoke and other towns, but this is not allied to a wider vision for reviving all six towns. Once again they have piled their chips on the square marked Hanley, spun the roulette wheel and are hoping for the best.

Then there is the small matter of the ever rising cost of the project, even if the city wasn’t being battered by massive spending cuts, with equally large social implications attached, this would be a huge debt to hang around the neck of local taxpayers. Large capital projects like the CBD often take years to turn a profit and that it with competent management in place from day one. The fact that nobody seems to have thought that they’d need to budget for fitting out their swanky new offices puts a huge question mark over the ability of the council to deliver.

Most dangerous of all is the lack of transparency, the plan to build the CBD was forced through in the teeth of public opposition and, if the auditors are to be believed, without councillors being given sufficient information to hold the executive to account.

This is no way to take a major decision that could have an impact on the economy of this city that lasts for decades and says much about the complacency and distance form the concerns of local people of the ruling Labour group. The regeneration of our city is an issue of importance for everyone who lives and works here, one that requires people to reach past artificial party differences and work together for the good of all.

That won’t happen so long as the current leader and cabinet remain in place. On this issue Labour have shown a shocking level of contempt for the concerns of local people, they decided what they were going to do first and then consulted with councillors from other parties and the voting public as an afterthought. That is no basis for sustained economic regeneration; it is at best a recipe for stasis; and at worst for total disaster.

The people of this city want and deserve much better which is why in the by-election next week and the full council elections in 2015 they will carry out their own audit of how this council has performed. Their verdict will, I suspect, be far less kindly than the one delivered by Grant Thornton.