Friday, 26 December 2014

Government cash barely skims the surface of Britain’s pothole problem.

The government gave motorists an early Christmas present on Tuesday in the shape of £6 billion in extra funding for councils to fill in potholes on the nation’s roads. Councils will also be able to bid for a share of an additional £575 million to pay for repairs to infrastructure such as junctions, bridges and street lights, £578 has also been set aside to reward councils who demonstrate ‘value for money’ in carrying out improvements.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told the BBC the funding on offer was enough to pay for 18 million potholes to be filled, saying it was ‘part of our long term economic plan to ensure we have a transport network fit for the twenty first century.’

The Local Government Association ‘welcomed’ the extra funding, but, said a spokesman there was still ‘a very long way to go’ when it comes to improving the standard of Britain’s roads. He went on to say, also speaking to the BBC, that though ‘helpful’ the money on offer ‘does not bridge the funding gap which is increasing year on year.’

The Institution of Civil Engineers described the money as a ‘welcome boost’, but, their spokesperson said, with ‘catch up’ costs totaling £12 billion ‘a significant gap will still remain in local authority revenue budgets.’

Shadow transport Secretary Michael Dugher told the BBC ‘local roads are in a desperate state under David Cameron’ adding that ‘hard pressed motorists and businesses are justifiably sick and tired of having their vehicles damaged because of Britain‘s pothole crisis.’

The trouble with Christmas presents, early or otherwise, is that they tend to look much less impressive when examined in the cold light of Boxing Day morning, that’s pretty much the case here.

On the face of it £6 billion looks like a lot of money, but when spread over more than a hundred local authorities over six years it is really little more than enough to pay for the pothole problem to be, literally, skimmed over. As for the £578 million set aside to reward councils for providing ‘value for money’ given the demands on their shrinking budgets it is hard to see how any could earn a share, unless they interpret value for money as meaning penny pinching; another exciting perverse incentive brought to you thanks to austerity.

Maybe it is time to see the pothole problem as one we can never solve so long as traffic volumes continue to rise and see this as an opportunity to invest in public transport. That probably got you spitting out your leftover turkey, the received wisdom being after all that we love our cars and hate busses.

The thing with the received wisdom is that it often fails to tell the whole story, what we dislike and with good reason isn’t public transport as such; it’s the costly, threadbare and inefficient services we often have to put up with. After all Britain is a small country, there is no need for people to drive everywhere and it would probably be a much nicer place of most of us didn’t.

Just imagine if, for example, First Potteries had focussed on customer aspirations and day to day experiences as much as cost savings and efficiency when they reorganised their routes in the summer. The months since wouldn’t have been eaten up with campaigns by residents angry at a service being withdrawn followed by frequent climb downs by the company, all of which is time consuming, unproductive an the sort of thing that persuades people to stay in their cars.

Travelling by public transport in this country is all too often an uncomfortable and frustrating experience; it doesn’t have to be though. The application of a little of the funding lavished on the roads along with a lot of thought and a willingness to listen to passengers could make the service into one people actually want to use.

Nobody should be forced out of their car, but if a viable and pleasant alternative were available many people might be persuaded to leave it behind. A Britain with less traffic on its roads would certainly be a calmer and healthier place; there’d probably be much fewer potholes too.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The public should take ownership of local democracy not the new Civic Centre.

Council leaders want the public to take ‘ownership’ of the new Civic Centre being built at the heart of Hanley’s Smithfield central business district.

Councillors want residents to see the multi-coloured Smithfield 1 building, due to be handed over by the developers early next year as a public space and not just civic offices. The building will house a café and the relocated Hanley library along with a police desk and meeting rooms available for public use.

Olwen Hamer, cabinet member for customer service, told the Sentinel the new approach was ‘all about getting people in to the building. This isn’t just a council building; it belongs to everyone in Stoke-on-Trent.’

She added that getting members of the public to use the Civic Centre would be a ‘reminder to councillors and officers that they work for the people, as well as showing residents that we are here to serve them.’

Councillor Hamer is one of the more capable members of the cabinet and has always, hitherto anyway, impressed me as an independent minded woman; so it is surprising to hear her giving voice to such platitudes. Then again party loyalty can force even the most reasonable people to take up some unlikely postures.

It is a truism to say that local people ‘own’ the new Civic Centre; they’re paying through the nose for it too. What they don’t have ownership of, and they really should, is the fractured political system that let it be built in the first place.

Far from being a symbol of a council that serves the public Smithfield is a massive multi-coloured monument to one that rides roughshod over their wishes. Had the council listened to local people, many of whom took to the streets to make their point; it would never have been built.

At a time when public services are dying a death of a thousand cuts spending £55 million on new council offices simply can’t be justified. The claim advanced by the council that by being the ‘anchor tenant’ in Smithfield they are acting to kick start the city’s regeneration seems permanently stuck in a mire of inactivity.

We are told repeatedly that talks with potential private sector tenants are ‘on-going’ and maybe even ‘advanced.’ What we aren’t told is who these prospective tenants might be, largely because, you suspect, developers Gener8 haven’t been able to identify any.

Speaking to the Sentinel council leader Mohammed Pervez said ‘until such time as some other business commits to the city centre, it will always be a difficult sell for me to say that coming here was the right thing to do.’

A difficult sell; I’d say it was an all but impossible one. Building a massive development using borrowed money and in the teeth of public opposition was always a gamble and like most gambles one where the odds are fixed against the person throwing the dice.

At some level even the members of the cabinet knew that Smithfield is a project doomed to fail, you can’t attract investment just by building yet more office space. Unfortunately the peculiar group think that operates within local Labour circles silenced the voice of common sense.

Whether the public take ‘ownership’ of the new Civic Centre hardly matters, they will have the debt for building it hanging around their necks for years to come. What we really need to do is take ownership of our neglected democracy.

For too long a Labour Party that has grown complacent through years of unchallenged power has taken local people for granted, taking their votes and giving nothing back in return. The end result is a Civic Centre the city doesn’t need and the public don’t want, it might also saddle us with a costly judicial review over HS2 that is more about bolstering the egos of the leadership that bringing investment to the city.

We need to look beyond the tired status quo to find alternative parties and personalities who will speak with the voice of local people not that of a London based political elite who see Stoke as just another branch office.

This article is dedicated to the memory of my father William (Bill) Colclough 1929-2014

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Black Friday exposes the ills of our society and what we might do about them.

Last Friday was Black Friday, the day when retailers unveil massive price cuts and consumers are, seemingly driven mad by the desire to bag a bargain.

The police were called to shops across the country as bargain hunters turned nasty and in some cases violent. In Greater Manchester the police were called to seven Tesco stores following incidents of disorder; in Middleton two hundred shoppers refused to leave a store despite its stock having all been sold and in Stretford a man was arrested for threatening to ‘smash in’ the face of a female shop assistant.

Locally the police were called to the Tesco Extra in Hanley after a man reportedly punched a female member of staff in the face following a row over a PS4; there were also reports from Hattersley of customers literally fighting over bargains.

Merry Christmas and a happy Black Friday to one and all; welcome to the new dystopia.

A little over three years ago when disaffected mostly young people took to the streets and started grabbing white goods they called it a rioting. Erudite chins were stroked over the malaise afflicting our society whilst at the lower end of the intellectual food chain rent a quote MPs, egged on by the tabloid press, gave an exhibition of knee jerking of the sort you might expect from a robot chorus line trying to do the can-can.

When the acquisitive middle classes behave in more or less the same way, armed admittedly with credit cards rather than half bricks, there are a few murmurs about such behaviour being a bit beyond the pale. At no stage though were there demands for the birch and national service to be brought back. Instead the retailers promised bigger discounts and no doubt bigger riots for next year.

Actually there isn’t that much difference between the rioters of the summer of 2011 and the frenzied shoppers of winter 2014. Both were reacting against a system from which they feel completely disengaged by desecrating one of its iconic symbols. In another time or place that might have meant storming the Winter Palace or pulling the statue of a hated dictator from its plinth; in ours that means scuffling over flat screen TVs.

Black Friday and the scenes of greed fuelled disorder it prompted is an end stage symptom of the malaise that afflicts our society. For nearly forty years we have been living in the petri dish of a vast experiment in neo-liberal economics, the three dead brands that used to be the pillars of British politics have let the mad scientists have their way in return for providing cash to pay for the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, bribing a restive electorate into silence with cheap credit.

The experiment has failed massively, the lines outside the food banks are almost as long as those to get into the sales and they’re there all year round. In fact more than a few of those people out shopping until they drop are only a couple of pay cheques from joining the line themselves.

That’s why more and more people are turning to alternative ways of organising their economic and political lives. Faith groups have found a new voice and sense of purpose through confronting austerity, the Greens have emerged as the only political party able to talk about social justice with the quiet patience necessary when dealing with a dumbed down media, all we need now is for the trades unions to have an awakening similar to that experienced by the churches.

The talk of the forthcoming election might well be how well Ukip do and the unlikely postures the three stooges strike as they pretend the result doesn’t matter, but promise to do something pretty dramatic about it all the same. Behind it though will be another and more important story.

It will be one about communities forced by austerity to find ways of running their economy that are about solidarity rather than individual consumption; about those same communities finding a political voice that belongs authentically to the grassroots and by-passes the tired mainstream parties.

It may not happen overnight, but with courage and good will the world will change eventually.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Saving the NHS shouldn’t mean giving tacit approval to privatisation.

Last Monday I had to take my elderly father to A&E at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, the name may have changed the long wait remains the same.

It took five hours, most of which were spent waiting in the corridor outside the triage centre, before he was seen by a doctor and it was nearly midnight before they found him a bed. Throughout what was a hugely trying experience the staff were exemplars of professionalism and the other would be patients in the queue lived up to their name by being; patient.

What the experience impressed upon me was the need for the NHS, which was created in 1948 and now has to deal with problems and expectations its founder could never have imagined, is desperately in need of reform. The thing that scares me is the form it has been decided that reform should take and how little resistance to it there has been from our political representatives.

Take the case of Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt and his strangely sanguine attitude towards the outsourcing, privatisation by any another name, of cancer services in the region. A contract worth £1.2 billion to provide cancer services is up for grabs and a number of private companies including Virgin Healthcare are circling like hungry sharks.

In a recent article for the Sentinel he lambasts the government’s ‘disastrous top down reorganisation’ of the NHS, going on to say that it was ‘rammed through’ despite pre-election promises there would be no more such exercises.

He then asserts that preserving the free at the point of use status of the NHS will ‘require tough decisions on both investment and reform,’ this, he pledges, will be paid for under a future Labour government through ‘a clampdown on tax avoidance as well as new taxes on cigarette companies and homes worth over £2 million.’

Cue massed cheering from the cheap seats, well maybe not, because his honeyed words are the prelude to something much less pleasant.

In relation to the outsourcing of cancer services he counsels his readers against passing ‘knee jerk judgements upon new ideas which aim for better outcomes and efficiency.’ This is a long way away from what many of the people who elected him would like to hear him say; which is that he opposes the creeping privatisation of the NHS.

The support for outsourcing is tacit and he leaves himself plenty of wriggle room, but it’s still there all the same. Could this have something to do with the fact that Mr Hunt has been given a research assistant worth £74,000 for seven months funded by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the National Union of Teachers and satirical magazine Private Eye think so, they might just have a point.

Although there is no suggestion that either Mr Hunt or PWC have done anything wrong it seems unlikely that such generosity comes without strings attached, and that is the point at which we encounter the yawning gulf between following the rules and doing the right thing.

PWC, as Private Eye notes, has some ‘fixed ideas about rethinking government’, meaning selling off as much of it as possible to the likes of Capita, Serco and all the other usual suspects. The article goes on to suggest that Mr Hunt already limits his comments as shadow education secretary to attacking the ‘wilder shores’ of government policy, free schools and the like, whilst keeping mum about plans to introduce commercial providers into schools.

Is he going to take the same approach to the creeping privatisation of healthcare? If so that is a shocking betrayal of the people who elected him.

Tristram Hunt is a man with powerful connections and serious ambitions; he is sometimes talked about as a potential future party leader, maybe even prime minister. He has a high media profile and is orbited by a solar system of lesser MPs all of whom would like to be scattered with the fairy dust of success if his time comes. If he endorses privatisation, even tacitly, they will do the same.

This matters for two important reasons. First of all outsourcing and privatisation don’t work apart from as a means of handing huge wads of public money over to private companies, the promised efficiencies and improvements to service quality never arrive.

More importantly the NHS isn’t just another piece of the public service infrastructure to be sold off at a knock down price. It is symbolic of a powerful idea we ignore at our peril, that working people should be free of the fear that falling ill means risking destitution for themselves and their families.

Once upon a time Labour understood that idea, that’s why it founded the NHS along with the rest of the welfare state, then along came Blair and with him the delusion that only by proving itself to be more in love with the free market than the Tories could the party become electable again.

Now we see the outcome of such thinking, crumbling public services, rising inequality and a Labour Party so hopelessly compromised it is fast losing all legitimacy. At the same time the people it should be fighting for are having their lives made nasty and more brutish thanks to austerity and the dismantling of employment rights. If good healthcare becomes once again something only the rich can afford those live may end up being unnecessarily short too.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Giving it back to the community is the only right thing to do with Fenton Town Hall.

Direct action has come to Stoke in the shape of campaigners occupying the former Fenton Magistrates court citing article 61 of Magna Carta, the ancient guarantee of English liberty in support of their actions.

The group moved in on Sunday and have pledged to stay until Justice Minister Chris Grayling agrees to meet with them to discuss the fate of the building. They have received strong support from the local community with people stopping by to drop off food parcels and books.

Speaking to the Sentinel Cheryl Gerrard, co-owner of the town’s Artbay gallery said ‘we will occupy the building for as long as it takes until the Ministry of Justice listen.

That could be a long time, in a response, also reported in the Sentinel; a spokesperson for the HM Courts and Tribunals Service said they were ‘currently considering a number of options for the future of the building.’

This is a reaction so chilly and dismissive it could have been sneered by wicked King John himself. The subtext reads, ‘go away you ghastly peasants and don’t presume to ask awkward questions of your betters;’ and tells you everything you need to know about the attitude of Whitehall mandarins to the great unwashed.

No wonder the campaigners led by Alan and Cheryl Gerrard have been driven to direct action, it was about the only course open to them when faced with an officialdom that doesn’t want to listen and thinks ordinary people shouldn’t have a voice anyway.

Giving Fenton Town Hall back to the community is the only right thing to do with an iconic building that might otherwise suffer the fate of so many others by being torn down and replaced with something uglier and less useful. It is certainly a better option than that put forward by vote chasing Stoke South MP Rob Flello, who suggested it be handed over to the council that would just mean swapping a set of out of touch bureaucrats with cut glass accents for the same sort of people with local ones.

It looks like what used to be spoken of as the ‘forgotten town’ of the Potteries is now showing the rest of the city the way when it comes to clawing back power for local people.

Former deputy leader of the council Paul Shotton, who was forced to resign in June when it was revealed that he had been sending texts in which he defended the council’s policies under several false names, the scam was exposed when someone noticed they all came from the same phone number, has been welcomed back into the Labour group.

Last month an internal committee ruled that he had should be censured for bringing the party into disrepute, it also recommended that he be given extra ‘training’ and be barred from holding a cabinet position until after the election.

Speaking to the Sentinel Mr Shotton said he had ‘made a mistake which I apologised for at the time and still regret.’ His actions, he said, were an attempt to counter the ‘incessant negativity’ towards the council expressed in the local media.

As political scandals go it was more like something out of a Brian Rix farce than Watergate, we shouldn’t though let the tears of laughter blind us to what was really going on.

Mr Shotton seems to have operated on the principal that if you can’t persuade the people you’re right using reasoned arguments, then you might as well try and dupe them instead. That isn’t comical it is deeply cynical.

No doubt he regrets what he did, most people doing wrong do when they get caught out. What he needs to understand is that their nature means he shouldn’t be given a ticket back to the top table of local politics any time soon.

Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis has described the 2010 move of Staffordshire Police headquarters from Blaswich to its current location of Weston Road as ‘a monumental misspend of money.’

The move cost £16million and recouping this outlay has been given urgency by the announcement last week that the force will face a £22.9 million drop in its funding over the next five years.

To his credit, and I’m not his biggest fan, Mr Ellis does not seem to be intent on rushing into a deal to redevelop the Baswich site, preferring to hold out for the right combination of a fair price and a project that will be ‘something positive’ for Stafford.

Speaking at a meeting of the police and crime commission reported by the Sentinel this week he said he had ‘not a clue’ why the police had gone through all the cost and complication involved in moving their headquarters.

Am I the only person who sees in this situation a certain similarity to the one we are in regarding the council’s decision to move the Civic Centre from Stoke to Hanley? Where it differs, of course is that Matthew Ellis is willing to admit, perhaps because the decision was taken before he came into office, that the move might have been a costly mistake.

What chance is there of Mr Pervez making a similar admission at some stage? Not much would be my guess; none at all in fact.

Monday, 10 November 2014

However they feel about their leader Labour will have to play the ball as it lies.

The leaves have turned; the nights are drawing in, just the time to settle down with a good thriller. Thanks to the machinations within the Labour Party over the weekend we’ve been handed one with a political flavour, although it owes more to Secret Squirrel than Ian Fleming.

On Saturday Ed Milliband wrote an article on Facebook saying that rumours of a challenge to his leadership voiced at a fractious meeting of Labour MPs earlier in the week were ‘nonsense’ and that he and his team would fight the next election ‘street by street, house by house.’ Calm down dears; it’s not Stalingrad.

He added that Labour is in ‘the fight for the future of our country’ and would show at the election they are ‘equal to the challenges of the time in which we live.’ When a politician starts using prose that purple you know he’s got something to be worried about.

Several key party figures were quick to rally to the defence of their beleaguered leader, shadow chancellor Ed Balls said claims that a number of back bench MPs had called for Mr Milliband to resign had been ‘got up’ by malcontents. Election coordinator Andy Burnham, fingered by the rumour mongers as a leader of the plot against Red Ed said that such claims were ‘pure fiction.’

Asked by the BBC whether he thought Ed Milliband could turn things round before the election back bench MP John Mann said that he could, but that he needed to develop a ‘cutting edge’ and to ‘get out and about on the doorstep, listening to people and reflecting on what they say.’

If, as Napoleon put it, a leader is a dealer in hope then Ed Milliband has spent the past four years showing everyone why he’s no Napoleon. Labour should be racing ahead, the economic recovery has yet to be felt by anyone other than Citizen Dave’s hedge fund mates and the Tories are embroiled in another row about Europe and yet they’re on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The received wisdom is that Milliband, a classical Hampstead liberal has failed to establish a ‘narrative’ that resonates with either Labour’s core vote or the electorate in general. As is the way with such things there is more than a grain of truth in this, Ed will always be more at home in a book lined study than on the mean streets of a council estate.

Origins needn’t be a handicap for a leader, so long as he or she possesses another very important attribute; courage. Unfortunately for Ed Milliband and the Labour Party this is something he lacks in entirely.

To lead effectively means sooner or later having to adopt positions that may make you an object of ridicule and maybe even hatred and then standing by them come what may because you believe them to be right. Instead Ed Milliband has tried to be everything to everyone, a grinning Blair 2.0 working a tame crowd, the prophet of obscure concepts such as ‘predistribution’ and gurned his way through endless photo-ops involving bacon sarnies and the like designed to make him look more human.

It has all been to no avail; been one big displacement activity that has failed to hide the courage shaped hole at the heart of his leadership. Only on those rare occasions such as when he took on the Daily Mail over the defamation of his late father or pledged to freeze fuel costs did he make anything like a meaningful connection, but he couldn’t maintain the required momentum.

Like many before him who showed themselves to be decent people but poor leaders he made the mistake of thinking that courage is the product of a single event played out in the spotlight. It is nothing of the sort; it is the cumulative result of countless small actions and decisions.

As the old saying goes if you were trying to get a Labour government elected you wouldn’t start from here. The truth is Ed Milliband should never have been elected party leader, a safe pair of hands like Alan Johnson would have been a better choice, if only because the best leaders often tend not to aspire to be leaders at all.

In politics, like golf, you have to play the ball where it lies, and where it lies for Labour is on the wrong side of what should be favourable circumstances with a leader in whom they don’t have confidence. That means they will, in all probability, lose the next election; the best they can do is turn the process of doing so into a learning experience.

As John Mann advises they should spend the time between then and now out on the doorstep listening to their frustrated core voters, particularly when they don’t like what they’ve got to say. What they shouldn’t do is see this as the moment to launch a divisive and pointless leadership contest. That would only further convince working people that the party founded to further their interests has lost touch not just with its core vote; but with reality too.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Busses, parking and the problems of a stressed out society

How do you stun a public meeting into awkward silence? It takes a conjuring trick no more complicated than mentioning the topic of mental health and the way society deals with the people it drives to distress.

The other evening I saw this happen for myself at a PACT meeting held at the Medical Institute in Hartshill, the speaker on the night was Julie Elden a nurse manager with the North Staffordshire Combined Healthcare NHS Trust. She had come to speak about the community triage system operated by NHS mental health services and the police.

It is part of a national agenda aimed at reducing the amount of time the police spend dealing with people with mental health problems who are not suspected of committing an offence and was initially funded by police and crime commissioner Matthew Ellis.

The team consists of three community psychiatric nurses and a support worker and take referrals from the police to deal with people in mental distress across North Staffordshire, the service operates between three pm and three am, the hours during which most call-outs are received and members are accompanied by a police officer.

Where the triage system differs from what was in place previously is in its focus on signposting people in distress to relevant support services and the willingness of members to attend service users in their own homes as well as in public places. They also assist the police with their responsibilities under section 136 of the Mental Health Act to take a person in distress to a place of safety, using an approach focussed on the needs of the distressed person as well as public safety to defuse potentially difficult situations.

Since being set up in November of last year the triage system has dealt with eight hundred incidents in locations ranging from private homes to a bridge over the M6 and offered one hundred and twelve people support over the phone, members have also helped the police hit their target regarding section 136 incidents.

Local officer PC Terry Dunn said he ‘enjoyed’ working with the triage team because it gave him and his fellow officers a wider range of options for dealing with people in mental distress and that he relished the opportunity to learn from members of the team.

Normally PACT meetings are marked by the lively questioning to which members subject sometimes unsuspecting speakers, when the floor was opened this time there was a deathly hush. This is not unusual, media misreporting and an enduring stigma makes mental illness one of the few subjects that still has the power to kill a conversation stone dead with embarrassment; even though one in four people will experience it in some form during their lifetime.

That is what makes initiatives like the triage system so valuable, a different approach from the police means fewer people in mental distress being arrested because there is no other way of getting them to a place of safety and so fewer scare stories for the tabloid press to misreport.

Ambitious plans are in place to expand the team to include paramedics; however this is dependent of the award of funding which must be bid for again with no guarantee as public purse strings are pulled ever tighter.

The next speaker, Nigel Eggleton, Managing Director of First Midlands Bus Company, got a far more typical, meaning robust, reception. He had some to receive feedback on the new and controversial bus timetable implemented in the summer. He made a few bland remarks about how well, from a business point of view the new timetable was working then opened the floor to questions.

Cue a barrage of angry questions and comments from the floor, many focussing on the flagship 3 service which runs through the hospital, much to the displeasure of local residents for whom it has caused traffic problems. He was also questioned about the age of the vehicles in the First fleet and the difficulty finding a service that connects with trains coming in to Stoke station.

Written down this sounds like tepid stuff, but the antagonism in the air was palpable, few things stir up passions like a change to the local bus service. Not without good reason too, having an old and rattling bus pass their house dozens of times every day can have a negative impact on an individual’s quality of life and being stuck in traffic hardly improves the already dull routine of the school run.

Mr Eggleton, who I’d guess has had media training of some sort, handled some tough questioning with an affably avuncular charm that is learnt rather than natural. Playing a straight bat Boycott style to drive off criticism whilst giving away as little as possible, the whole thing was rather like watching a junior minister handling the press, giving out the bare minimum of information without offending anyone; effective no doubt from a corporate point of view but frustrating to watch.

Local residents dealing with Mr Eggleton over their not unreasonable concerns may have to be prepared for a war of attrition rather than a single battle.

Last to speak was Mike Brown, Facilities Manager at the newly renamed Royal University Hospital of North Staffordshire. The name may be new but the problem here is singular and as old as the hills; parking.

By Mr Brown’s admission parking in and around the hospital is a ‘nightmare’ and unlikely to improve any time soon due to the on-going construction work. To his credit he didn’t try to slither past tough questions and the frustration of his audience.

The biggest problem seems to be the attitude of hospital staff to parking with many preferring to park in the surrounding streets rather than use the spaces provided by their employer even though the cost is minimal in comparison to other sites. They seem to see doing so as an inalienable right leading to inevitable and entirely understandable confrontations with local residents who hold the opposing view.

In the short term the only solution seems to be the sort of glum putting up with an awkward situation at which we Brits are so practiced, in the longer term. The longer term solution is the construction or multi-storey parking on the hospital site, the problem then of course is where to build it; that may be the opening shot in a whole new battle.

What draws these two seemingly more minor problems together with the work of the triage team? Both seem to by symptomatic to some extent of the stresses inherent to living on a crowded island where society seems to get more selfish, more determined about protecting individual rights at all costs with each passing year. It is impossible to say when and for whom those will boil over into distress; you just have to hope for good fortune and failing that for someone to be there to pick up the pieces.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Cash for diagnosis won’t help people sailing into the darkness of dementia or their families.

Under a plan put forward by NHS England last week GPs could be paid £55 for every patient they diagnose with dementia. This, it is hoped, will help to reduce the 90,000 or more people currently living with the debilitating condition who have not been given an official diagnosis.

The money will go towards providing improved care for suffers, Dr Martin Mc Shane, national director for long term conditions for NHS England, told the BBC ‘We know that more needs to be done across the health service to ensure that people living with dementia are identified so they can get the tailored care and support they need.’

He denied the proposal was ‘payment for diagnosis’ and said that it was ‘part of a larger range of measures to support GPs in their work tackling dementia.’

These measures include £42million available to help GP practices carry out assessment of people with suspected memory problems and a further £31million to provide appropriate care.

Criticism of the plan has come from the Patients Association; chief executive Katherine Murphy called it a ‘step too far’, saying that it would place a ‘bounty on the head’ of certain patients. Good GP practices, she told the BBC, would ‘be diagnosing their dementia patients already. This seems to be rewarding poor GPs.’

Professor Sir Simon Wessley of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said, also speaking to the BBC, the government had ‘done well’ when it came to improving awareness and funding for dementia care. However, he added, at present ‘evidence favours either improving social care, or investing in research to find new treatments that actually modify the course of the disease. Until that happens I can see little point in this exercise.’

Having spent the last two years watching my father sail into the darkness of dementia I welcome any initiative that raises the profile of a sadly ignored and stigmatised condition. This plan though goes too far down a route we shouldn’t even be considering.

Caring for someone with dementia is a lonely and terrifying experience; actually having dementia must be a thousand times worse. At no stage along the associated trail of tears can I imagine anyone saying that what would make things better would be for medical professionals to be incentivised like used car salespeople.

What patients and carers alike want is quicker diagnosis, the remaining sentience someone with dementia has is precious and passes so swiftly, knowing they’re ill allows them and carers to make plans and say their goodbyes. A system of social care that doesn’t make vulnerable people into participants in a bureaucratic obstacle race would be helpful too.

Neither of those objectives will be achieved by loading yet more perverse incentives onto the already tottering NHS. As Katherine Murphy rightly says cash for diagnosis will just provide the handful of lazy GPs with another system to game, whilst grinding out of the responsible majority the idealistic desire to help others that brought them into medicine in the first place.

That such a suggestion is even being considered is all too sadly symptomatic of a political system that has become witlessly enthralled to the idea that for every problem there must be a market based solution. There are many things the market does brilliantly; delivering healthcare isn’t one of them.

The result of bringing the market in to solve healthcare problems is at best a two tier system that is the unfair antithesis of everything the NHS stands for; the worst case scenario is the sort of target driven madness that destroyed Stafford hospital. If your answer to the problems of the NHS is more marketisation, then you’re asking the wrong questions.

What is needed is a concerted effort to remove the stigma surrounding dementia and other mental health problems. This won’t be an easy sell, unlike with cancer it is impossible to construct a ‘narrative’ about a heroic battle against adversity that can be won through effort. There may be a cure someday, but for now it is all about making the time sufferers have left a little less grim.

A whole lot more respect for carers, both paid and unpaid would be welcome too, they deserve the best support for their own needs as much as those of their loved one; sadly what they get all too often is ignored and left to worry themselves to rags in isolation.

Next year is an election year; expect the three ghost brands that used to trade as Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems to trot out the same tired platitudes about how only they can be trusted with the NHS, whilst all the time they plan to carry on doing the same destructive things for the same old muddled reasons.

Personally I’d rather see the future of the NHS in the hands of people who don’t think an adding machine is a piece of medical equipment.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

This is what the revolution might look like.

Think of a political meeting held on a cold October evening and what image comes to mind? Probably one of a dismal little gathering taking place in a dingy room somewhere, everyone going through the motions without feeling they can really change anything.

Attending the monthly meeting of the reinvigorated North Staffs Green Party promised something different, not least because this was to be the meeting at which the party chose its parliamentary candidate for 2015.

The setting was the futuristic new fire station in Sandyford, when I arrived there were already ten people present, an outstanding turnout for a political meeting in a city where civic life is rapidly atrophying, before the seven o’clock start time this number had more than doubled.

Looking around the room the average age of attendees was well over forty, not a surprise, politics is a business for the middle aged. There were though several younger people present, a testimony to the party’s strong following at Keele University and proof that despite the best attempts of the media to say otherwise the young are engaged with politics; at least they are when it takes the trouble to engage with them.

The atmosphere in the room was warm, warmer certainly than that at meetings of larger parties in the city, where the business of politics is done by people with scowls on their faces and all too often either an agenda to push or an axe to grind.

Things got under way with all the usual fuss you’d expect, minutes needing to be gone though and found accurate, apologies to be recorded and drinks doled out. Tea or Coffee such a simple question and yet it manages to cause so much confusion.

It was all done in an amiable and slightly chaotic manner, making a refreshing change from the soul sapping pedantry and point -scoring you get at so many political meetings. In the discussions that followed about the merits and risks associated with coal-bed methane extraction and plans for the forthcoming elections everyone had their say, points were made with passion and conceded without rancour, the stultifying conformity other parties impose was thankfully nowhere to be seen.

Then it was on to the main business of the evening, choosing the party’s first candidate to fight a parliamentary seat in Stoke-on-Trent. The only name on the ticket, the party held an open nominations process in which all members were encouraged to participate, was that of Jan Zablocki. A long time trades union activist and the sort of campaigner who used to be the backbone of the Labour Party, until they decided to first take them for granted and then ignore them completely.

Earlier in the evening Mr Zablocki had been ambling around the room taking orders for tea and coffee and then bustling about the small kitchen with the urn and teabags. This is something of a first; in my experience prospective parliamentary candidates tend to have a more highly developed estimation of their own importance, particularly if they also have a fraction of the life experience and have notched up far fewer miles on the campaign trail.

In his nomination statement Mr Zablocki spoke about his belief that the representation of the people of this city by its current MPs as being ‘feeble and ineffective’ and being ‘driven by a desire to satisfy the narrow, entrenched agendas of their political masters rather than a genuine desire to speak out for improvements to the lives of local people.’

The Green Party, he said, represented a form of political representation that was ‘more closely in touch with the real needs’ of local people and ‘more sincere and determined about dealing with the issues that have blighted the lives of the people of our city and increasingly divided the nation between those with great wealth and power and those without.’

He ended by saying ‘we need a powerful voice closely connected with local people, their history, their everyday lives and an understanding of their aspirations for a better future. I believe I can be that voice for the North Staffs Green Party.’

The speech was delivered with a passion I have encountered on previous occasions when I have heard Jan Zablocki speak, the last being at the recent public meeting on the proposed sell off of cancer services. This is a man to whom politics matters deeply and he is refreshingly unashamed about saying so.

His is a voice as far from the patrician tones of the candidates parachuted in to the city by the three main parties as New York is from Newcastle under Lyme. This is very much the voice of the man in the street; but don’t let that fool you, behind it is a sharp intellect and an assured ability to pose questions that leave his opponents twisting in the wind, as happened to the hapless stuffed suits from the CCG at that meeting on cancer services.

After a secret ballot Mr Zablocki was endorsed as the Green Party candidate without a vote being cast against him. His wasn’t a slick performance and he stumbled a little when taking questions from the floor, but it was an honest one given by a man who clearly believes in what he is doing.

I have attended political meetings across the city for the best part of a decade and much of what I have seen has left me feeling disheartened. All too often it feels like being a witness to the end of something; this felt like it might be the beginning.

The Greens have a steep hill to climb, the first past the post electoral system we were all scared into hanging onto in 2011 works against them, as does the electoral inertia that sends a dwindling number of active voters out to tick the Labour box every few years. And yet there is a feeling that something has changed in the political life of the UK, the Scottish independence referendum showed that people will engage with politics when it takes the trouble to engage with them.

If Ukip, a party distinguished chiefly by what it is against can come as far as it has in such a short space of time, how far can a party that believes in things and has the courage to talk about them go? This really could be what the revolution looks like.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Political turmoil, independence debates and a big disease with a little name

The nights are drawing in, the leaves have turned and there is a definite nip in the air, autumn is here and therefore this is a good time to sit back and take a look at some of the events that have interested, amused and occasionally scared us over the past few months.

The other season that starts when the leaves turn is the party conference season, I’ve largely given up on these as meaningful political events since they have long since come to resemble an awkward hybrid stitched together out of a trade fair and a revivalist meeting. Next year being an election year should have given this year’s offering a little more oomph, but it didn’t, they were, alas, as tepid as ever.

For the record what little insight they offered can be summed up fairly succinctly. Labour dropped the ball, again, spending all week waffling around the edges of policies they don’t actually have. Ed Milliband’s big speech was by turns dull and then disastrous, any credibility he had gained at the start of the week by calling for the minimum wage to be raised was blown away by his forgetting to mention the economy in his speech. Open mouth, insert foot; watch your party’s chances of winning the next election vanish.

The Tories played squarely to their core vote promising more austerity and benefit cuts along with a tax cut for anyone earning over forty thousand a year. As ever David Cameron made the best conference speech, not a surprise really since he is the only one of the three main party leaders who can do that sort of thing with any level of ability. The right wing media, which is most of the media of course, lapped it up though I’m not at all sure his message of playing to the base instinct of the electorate and letting the consequences for society go hang plays all that well outside the Westminster bubble.

The Liberal Democrats made a lot of noise and even bit the Tory hand that has fed them governmental titbits for the past five years. Listening to them you couldn’t help feeling they were whistling in the graveyard, mostly to keep up their own spirits because the wider public aren’t that interested.

As a curtain raiser for the forthcoming election all three party conferences were a total dud, none of the three main political parties inspire much in the way of confidence, mostly because they lack both policies and a vision for the sort of country they want Britain to be.

Perhaps that explains the rise and rise of UKIP as a political force, they have had strong showings in the recent European and local elections and the day before I wrote this article won their first seat at Westminster in the Clacton by-election. They are certainly attractive to disgruntled Tory voters and are starting to make inroads into Labour’s neglected northern heartlands.

There is a possibility that they have peaked too soon and won’t be able to maintain their current momentum; it is also notable that aside from leader Nigel Farage the party lacks any figures with much in the way of talent or charisma. It is also certain that once in office, at any level, UKIP will find it harder to be distinctive when weighted down by the demands of day to day politics.

For now though they are managing to connect with the public, largely through trading on their collective anxieties and distrust of the political elite, in a way the three main parties just can’t. That might not give Nigel Farage the keys to Downing Street next May, but it could make his party a major player in a future coalition government.

The independence referendum in Scotland offered a more positive and hopeful vision of what politics could be like. Ultimately Alex Salmond wasn’t able to seal the deal for the ‘yes’ campaign, but he did manage to instigate an open, constructive and mostly temperate debate about what sort of country Scotland wants to be, best of all the debate was driven by the Scottish people and not the political establishment.

This gave the political elite another unwelcome shock and although the union has survived they have been forced to promise greater devolution of power to Edinburgh and may have to open discussions about giving other parts of the UK more autonomy. In recent weeks there have been some attempts to slow the process of devolving power away from the centre down and return to business as usual, this is a grave mistake, the old way of doing things no longer works and now the democratic genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back in again.

Ukraine and the violent separation of Crimea from the rest of the country showed what happens when a people seek independence by any other than democratic means, chaos, bloodshed and suffering. It also demonstrated the impotence of the EU and the United States in the face of a newly emboldened Russia determined to support the claims of the Crimean separatists, despite shrill protests both backed down meaning that when or if the times comes when there is no way to avoid standing up to Mr Putin the consequences of doing so will be all the worse.

The impotence of the EU and America over Ukraine may explain why there has been such enthusiasm for military action against Islamic State forces based in Syria. As the jet fighters scream through the air and the politicians promise it will all be over by Christmas and with no casualties too I am put in mind of the advice wise old doctors used to give to their eager interns, don’t just do something; stand there.

At the moment we seem to be doing all the wrong things and in an unholy rush too. It is by no means clear that the people we are supporting are any better than IS, just different, it is also a fallacy to think we can get away without putting troops on the ground and when we do being prepared to take substantial casualties.

Anyway all the above might not matter if Ebola, to quote the eighties Prince song a big disease with a little name, takes hold. There seems to be a worrying touch of complacency to the West’s response to what is seen as an African problem. We are told repeatedly that the disease will be easily contained by our more developed health services; I’m not so sure, the more complex a system is the more prone it is to breaking down.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The art of regeneration

What does the city centre need to blow away the cobwebs of neglect and turn it into the place to be for groovy metropolitan types? A chumbrella of course; no I’d never heard of one before either.

This is less of a surprise than maybe it should be since the chumbrella has just been invented by Stone based artist Sarah Nadin. It’s all part of the Beneath the Pavement project, a clever wheeze costing £11,000 and funded by Appetite to involve the city’s burgeoning arts industry in driving regeneration.

As part of this a team of artists have got together to put forward a slate of proposals including creating a city garden housed in ‘geo-domes’ for visitors and shoppers to enjoy, offering vacant shops in the town centre to artists on short term lets and siting large photographic installations around the city to celebrate its distinctive architecture.

Sarah Nadin told the Sentinel on Friday that she got the idea for the chumbrella from sharing an umbrella with a fellow artist, an experience that made her realise had ‘something about it as a way to make people talk with each other more.’

Also speaking to the Sentinel Anna Francis of the AirSpace gallery said of the project, ‘we need to see artists included in the conversation about what’s being done in the city centre,’ adding that if regeneration is left to ‘developers and money men city centres can end up looking like anywhere else,’ and that ‘artists have a different way of looking at things.’

Public art; don’t you just love it? There is nothing better for stirring up a little light controversy; you can just imagine the massed spluttering of outrage prompted by project chumbrella. Disgusted of Heron Cross won’t know what to get into a tizzy about first, the waste of £11,000 or the mangling of the English language involved.

The thing about public art of course is that yesterday’s hideous carbuncle is often tomorrow’s cultural icon; either that or it just gets forgotten. Consider the fuss made way back in the long ago about ‘A Man Can’t Fly’, not least because his failure to achieve take off might have had something to do with the drag factor coming into play, these days both the man in question and his most prominent feature are routinely ignored by passing motorist.

That will probably the fate of anything that comes from the Beneath the Pavement project, some of their ideas are good, others will never get off the drawing board; which is a shame since I’d love to see a geo-dome in Hanley.

I wouldn’t though dismiss what they’re trying to do out of hand, not least because I agree with Anna Francis that we need voices other than those of business interests involved in the conversation about regeneration. Otherwise we really will end up as just another clone town, actually that may be happening anyway.

Turning the conversation about regeneration into a monologue involving what we might call the money interest alone has given us the expensive money pit that is the Smithfield project and a civic centre the public didn’t want; but will pay through the nose for anyway. Nationally it has led to the building of two huge aircraft carriers to project a power we no longer possess around the globe.

Projects like Beneath the Pavement have the virtue of at least trying to work with the public, because, after all, without an audience art doesn’t exist. Where I would criticise it is that, like so many regeneration projects it seems to have been created by people who believe Hanley to be the centre of the universe.

As the city’s economic centre and soon to be its political one too Hanley will always do well, at least it will if business is left to get on with things and take its own risks as with the successful expansion of the Potteries Centre. What a contrast to the City Sentral fiasco, over which the council have fussed like a mother hen producing, so far, nothing at all in the way of results.

Where the ability of the arts to bring people together from all sections of the community to express their views and creativity is most needed is in relation to the other five towns. The conventional wisdom is that they should be side-lined at best and at worst ignored altogether and everything should be focussed on one centre; that is dangerous bunkum.

It means ignoring our unique selling point, that we are six towns brought together into one city, we are proud of our shared identity and those things that make us unique. That as much as handing things over to the bean counters and money men is the royal road to making our town into a clone town.

It’s hard not to warm to Appetite, not least because much of what they do is engagingly eccentric, but I would suggest to them that the secret to being creative often lies in being willing to rip things up and start again. That’s what we need to do with plans to revive all six towns making up this remarkable city.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scots referendum shows the way to a society where everyone gets a seat on the train.

Last week getting onto a train back from Birmingham I turned the wrong way and entered the first class coach by mistake; not a smart move.

You can imagine the scene; there I am gawping with surprise at seeing so many unoccupied seats, whilst the air fills with a polite murmur of distaste. I say, poor show what; the fellow looks like he bought his furniture, hardly the sort of person we want in first class.

Being someone what knows his place and pausing only to give my forelock a good tug I trotted off back to cattle class pronto, there to spend the rest of the journey crammed in nose to armpit with my fellow plebs.

There’s something else what I know too, that the rolling shambles of our train service proves that TUC chief Frances O’Grady was onto something when she said Britain was at risk of becoming a ‘Downton Abbey’ society. The only point where I disagree is that there is no risk about it, we’re already one; and always have been.

Quite a few people reading this will probably be snorting derisively right now, what lefty rubbish, they’ll say. Ours is a ‘classless society’, as proclaimed by John Major of all people, a Tory prime minister who also happened to come from humble origins.

It is, at best a convenient myth, one that my experience aboard that train helps to explode.

Trains, or rather the waves of workers who arrive at a London railway station aboard them every morning form one of the key metaphors in George Orwell’s famous essay about the class system. First come the cheery tabloid reading artisans, then the fussy little clerks clutching copies of the Daily Express and last of all the governing classes with copies of the Times and the Daily Telegraph that were ironed for them by their butler.

The image has always seemed a little too rosy to me, although I’m willing to cut Orwell some slack since he was writing during a war when we really were all in it together, if only in the interests of survival. Personally I favour the far bleaker vision of the class system put forward by Owen Jones, the closest thing our age has to George Orwell. The class war is raging more fiercely than ever and the working and middle classes are losing on every front.

The train has the power to be the ultimate democratic mode of transport and yet we have made out of opportunity a dispiriting shambles where legroom is sold like a class A drug. Last month I joined a protest outside Stoke station against the latest sky high hike in train fares, not one of the people we approached refused to take the postcards we were handing out.

This wasn’t the ‘angry mob’ stereo-typing says would support our protest, these were the sort of people governments of all stripes have courted for the past thirty years. A left wing cause like renationalising the railways resonating with Middle England, surely that’s impossible; don’t you believe it.

At long last the penny has dropped, or it’s starting to anyway, and the people in what used to be the middle class are starting to see they have common cause with those one rung below. The opposition between the striving and the skiving looks ever more like a convenient fiction dreamed up by the political elite.

Both groups have been sold a pup, the aspiration they are goaded into striving for is really just racking up ever more debt in a mad race to keep up with the Jonses, rather than progressing through the force of their efforts they’re splashing like mad to keep their heads above water. As they do so they’re haunted by the fear their kids will likely drown anyway.

The reason we got into this sorry mess is quite simple, the elite long ago learnt that an indebted populace is easy to control because it is too busy worrying how to make ends meet to pay attention to what they’re up to and are endlessly open to falling for the oldest trick in the political play book; divide and rule.

Up to date it has worked because there hasn’t seemed to be an alternative, now there is and it has given our complacent political elite the biggest shock of their comfortable little lives and it had been provided by the campaign around the Scottish independence referendum. The extent to which they have been rattled was demonstrated last week when the three party leaders abandoned the weekly playground squabble of PMQ’s to head north to campaign for a no vote, an exercise that couldn’t have been more absurd had they made the trip in a clown car.

What has scared the political elite so much isn’t the prospect of Scotland becoming independent, all politicians are pragmatists at heart and are adept at rolling with the punches thrown by events, is that the campaign has created a political discourse that is the opposite of the one they usually have with the British public. Their usual tactics of smothering debate with a mix of threats, cheap sentiment and vague promises has fallen flat; they’re in a blue funk and don’t know what to do.

This is because either by accident or design a potentially dull constitutional issue has been turned into a debate over what it means to be Scottish and what sort of shared future the people of the country want. Not surprisingly the market driven, everyone for themself model of the past thirty years is running a distant second to having an open and egalitarian society on Scandinavian lines; who’d have thought it? Not a bunch of professional politicians with firsts in PPE from Oxbridge apparently.

This campaign has engaged the Scottish public in a way that nothing since maybe the 1945 general election has, whatever the result tomorrow things will never be the same again. Even if the Better Together campaign wins the day for the status quo by a narrow margin the people who have held power for centuries will no longer be at ease in the old dispensation.

All of a sudden the idea that where Scotland leads the English regions could follow no longer seems like a woolly notion for bearded men wearing home knitted jumpers. Handled properly it could be our chance to have a meaningful debate about how we make the sort of society where everyone gets a seat on the train into a reality.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Parking the main issue as UHNS Chief meets local residents.

UHNS Chief Executive Mark Hackett met with members of the Hartshill and Basford PACT group on Monday night to hear the views of local residents.

It was my first encounter with Mr Hackett and after the antics of some of his colleagues the previous Wednesday I wasn’t, to say the least, disposed towards being generous to senior managers with the NHS. A point of view I found myself revising as the evening progressed.

First impressions seemed to confirm my prejudice; Mark Hackett breezed into the Nadim lecture theatre at the North Staffordshire Medical Institute looking every inch the sleek, suited chief executive with an old school tie and an air of self- importance.

The narrative he gave of his life and career to date provided the first clue that I should be a little less eager to jump to the first conclusion that came my way. Born in Kidderminster and educated at the local comp and then the LSE he said he had worked for the NHS since he was twenty one because he wanted to ‘give something back’ in return for the good education he’d received. Not sentiments you’d imagine most health bureaucrats expressing; it’s usually Eton and Oxbridge all the way with a side order of entitlement.

He went on to say he’d held four chief executive positions at different hospitals around the country before coming to Stoke, the last of these being in Southampton. Health services in Staffordshire were, he said, in need of leadership, and how since the UHNS treat a number of patients equivalent to the population of the entire city every year and the workload will only grow as services formerly based at the beleaguered Stafford Hospital move to Stoke.

Mr Hackett gave an outline of his ‘vision’ for the future of UHNS, saying that he wanted the hospital to become a world class provider of healthcare by 2025, making it the ‘best place for people to work, learn and do research.’ The focus on research would, he said, bring between £10million and £15milllion in extra funding over the coming decade.

This would make UHNS a centre for best practice bringing improved patient care delivered by highly motivated staff at the very top of their game. The hospital was, he said, already saving more lives than the national average and had a nurse to patient ration of six to one; good going by another national average.

Investment was also being made in stroke services, cardiology and buying new MRT and CT scanners. The hospital had taken a hit in recent months over waiting times in A&E, but, Mr Hackett said, patients rated the care they received as ‘good’. What was needed, he said, was for the public to be encouraged to use alternatives to A&E whenever possible.

All this was pretty much par for the course, you’d expect the chief executive of any large organisation to be able to run through the list of its achievements and recite the ‘vision’ for its future even if shaken awake in the middle of the night. What made Mr Hackett’s offering different was that it was a presentation rather than a speech and as such comfortingly dull and probably delivered straight.

There was none of the ‘spin’ I’d sat through the previous Wednesday, at no stage was one of his colleagues brought up to the lectern to emote in a cynical attempt to ‘connect’ with we little people. Incidentally Mr Hackett is rumoured not to be the biggest fan of the CCG’s plans for reforming cancer care.

He gave a, mostly, assured performance when the floor was opened to questions, the biggest of which was that of parking around the UNHS site. A shortage of places has driven staff, patients and visitors out into the surrounding streets with the sort of chaos you might expect. To his credit Mr Hackett listened patiently to several people making the same point with varying degrees of frustration and promised that the hospital management had plans in hand to put on more shuttle busses for staff and to open up additional parking spaces on the site of the old central outpatients.

Challenged about long waiting times for admission, nine hours in the experience of one questioner, he initially disappeared behind a smokescreen of acronyms. AMU, SAU, MAU; et al are pretty baffling for a reasonably healthy scribbler to grasp, someone who is sick and scared would be utterly bewildered. That said his promise to look into and try to improve the system seemed genuinely given.

His one big misstep came when asked about the campaign to keep services from being moved from Stafford to the UHNS, he said most of the public supported the move apart from a small but ‘vocal’ campaign group. The issues are rather more complicated than that and have as much to do with the idea of having an NHS that is free for all as what gets done where.

This aside Mark Hackett did seem to be genuinely interested in engaging with the public, as opposed to handing down his pronouncements and expecting us all to be suitably grateful. That is sufficiently rare in senior NHS managers for him to be given the benefit of the doubt by even the most cynical observers.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Cognitive dissonance from NHS bosses planning changes to cancer care.

Under plans put forward by the government NHS Cancer and End of Life services in Staffordshire are being opened up to tenders from private companies, a contract worth £1.2 billion.

There is, say campaign group Cancer-Not for Profit, no business case for privatising the service citing figures from the Office of National Statistics showing that 90% of patients in Staffordshire are satisfied with the care they receive from the NHS run service. The NHS Support Federation says that 70% of the contracts put out to tender have been won by private companies, a testament, perhaps, to their greater experience of the tendering process.

The Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) led by Andrew Donald claim the service needs to be ‘joined up’ to prevent patients from falling through the crack, under legal advice they have been instructed to consult with the public before putting their plans into action.

Cancer-Not for Profit have collected 10,000 signatures on a petition opposing the sell off and on Wednesday they held a public meeting at the Civic Centre; it proved to be a stormy evening for Mr Donald.

The meeting took place in the Jubilee Hall, a grand wood panelled space redolent of a civic self -confidence noticeably absent from the cuts haunted landscape of local government today. Down at the front of the room the four speakers milled around, Stoke South MP Rob Flello wearing a distinctive white suit, whilst half a dozen earnest young people fussed around with cameras and light-meters.

There was a fairly large crowd, not surprisingly really since the NHS is one of the few political issues that still has the power to galvanise the public. The age range was well above forty, a danger sign for any politician considering an assault on the NHS because this is the demographic that votes; mostly because they can remember when doing so meant something.

Andrew Donald, the Staffs and Surrounds CCG Chief Officer and Transforming Cancer Care EOL programme sponsor, a title that if he has it painted on his office door must have doubled the NHS signage budget at a stroke, the opposing captain so to speak put Dr Jonathan Shapiro a consultant with experience of a family member using the NHS cancer services in London in to bat.

A smart move in the sense that he had an emotive story to tell about his elderly father’s struggle to cope with a service that seemed to be focussed more on its own systems than the needs of patients, a fair criticism that can be levelled at some aspects of the NHS. He lost the audience though with a patronising analogy that placed the private provider as the ‘conductor’ bringing the disparate elements of the health care orchestra together tunefully that he hammered mercilessly, suggesting a bedside manner that was a little on the grandiose side.

Andrew Donald also ran with the line that although the service delivered was in general good it needed to be redesigned to make it more integrated and focussed on patient needs by getting the various providers to work together. He summed this up as the creation of a service delivering ‘patient seamless care; a piece of bureaucratic double-speak that could mean anything or nothing depending on who he is speaking to.

He was slippery to say the least when questioned from the floor as to why this new service could only be created by bringing in a private company, saying at one point that opponents were ‘assuming’ that one would be brought in, although the ONS figures suggest any other outcome is unlikely. Mr Donald also didn’t take kindly to being questioned about the CCG’s patient consultation, saying huffily that they had put together a team of ‘patient champions’ although he was unable to say what these people actually did apart from being force fed CCG biased information.

Rob Flello MP, taking the crease for the Labour Party gave a rather off the peg speech about an NHS that was ‘cracking at the seams’ due to government underfunding and called the privatisation of cancer care the ‘biggest auction in NHS history. He was more animated in the panel discussion asking several questions that made Mr Donald squirm inside his expensive suit. It was hard not to feel though that his hands were tied by the fact that the plan could be forced through before the election leaving an incoming Labour government unable to reverse it for fear of being sued and that his party though it is often at the anti-cuts dance has been rather timid when it comes to taking to the floor.

Rachel Maskell, head of Health for UNITE savaged the plans as an attempt to ‘drive profit from the sick’ and contrasted the way the NHS owned by the public operates and the secretive practices of many of the private companies set to bid for the contract. Dr John Lister of Coventry University also attacked the lack of democratic accountability in the tendering process and the limitations of the public consultation conducted by the CCG.

The real meat of the meeting came when it was opened up to questions from the floor, poor Andrew Donald must have felt like a batsman who had taken to the crease only to find himself facing a bowler using grenades. Time and again questions about the lack of transparency in the tendering process, the possibility of patients having to ‘top up’ the cost of their care and the existence of a preferred list of bidders bounced over his startled head.

In an exchange that drew a sustained burst of applause near to the end of the meeting Jan Zeblocky of the local Green Party accused him of ‘cognitive dissonance’, receiving the message he wants to hear not the one he’s actually been sent, regarding public support for privatisation. It was an apt metaphor for a CCG acting in the name of a government that seems to have been deafened to public concerns by the din of its own ideology.

Fittingly the last word of the meeting came from a woman with a cut glass accent who called out ‘what right have you to take away the NHS people have paid for,’ what right indeed. It was, if you’ll pardon the cliché, the voice of middle England and the government would do well to listen to it before assaulting the NHS people have paid for.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

How we treat libraries says everything about the sort of society we want to be.

The former Stoke Library, a grade two listed building dating from 1878 and described as ‘iconic’ is to be sold off by the council as part of its plans to raise funds by disposing of unused buildings, the sale is thought likely to make £85,000.

Local residents aren’t pleased, the library itself moved to the town’s former indoor market in 2008, but they are concerned as to what use a new owner might put the building. One, Mick Jones (70), told the Sentinel on Wednesday that ‘once it is sold off the community won’t have any connection with its use’, adding that he thought it shouldn’t be sold to just ‘anyone’ because ‘my father, mother and grandparents all paid taxes towards places like this.’

By chance I’ve been thinking about libraries and what our attitudes towards them say about the sort of society we want ours to be quite a lot recently following a discussion that took place at the last meeting of the North Staffs People’s Assembly.

Staffordshire County Council wants to either close a number of its libraries with the option of some being taken over by community volunteers, Newcastle-under-Lyme council has its sights set on closing libraries too. As the annual budget looms what chance is there of Stoke-on-Trent City Council at least contemplating a similar move? I’m not in the business of making predictions, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Stoke still has a library and it is liable to survive, for now anyway, because it is attached to the council’s Local Centre in the town. That just leaves the question of what should happen to its former home.

Let’s not be naive here, liked it or not the council has to sell of many of its unused or underused buildings to raise much needed cash. When the buildings in question have particular architectural merit or a strong community attachment though a caveat should be attached regarding their future use, the former Stoke Library fits both criteria.

It shouldn’t just be carved up into yet more office space that nobody wants to rent or turned into swish apartments for the sort of ‘young professionals’ estate agents so love to court, it should be turned into affordable housing. This would help make the struggling town centre into somewhere people want to live and raise families and pay a fitting tribute to the social conscience of the people who set up the library in the first place.

You could, of course, make a case for libraries being hopelessly out-dated institutions long ago superseded by the internet. Actually you could make the same case about cathedrals. St Pauls occupies such a first rate location, we’d keep the façade of course and turn the insides into the most divine apartments; it would be worth an absolute mint!

You’d probably think that counts as sacrilege and even though I’m an agnostic I’d be inclined to agree. Not least because cathedrals and libraries are both buildings that have a meaning which far transcends the use they are put to.

One answers to our desire for something larger and more mystical than our own experience of the world; the other seeks to enrich that experience through learning. Lose either in significant numbers and our culture becomes that little bit poorer.

In a city like Stoke-on-Trent where we need to raise people’s skills levels and transform their attitude towards learning, making it into a lifelong activity rather than something that happens in the few years you’re at school for, libraries should be at the centre of their community. A space where everyone is made equal by curiosity, a place of shared aspirations that challenge the self- interested individualism of the market.

This isn’t just lefty idealism, learning, culture, positive interaction between sometimes divided communities, all things libraries are ideally placed to promote, are demonstrably effective ways of improving the social and economic wellbeing of individuals. There is, of course, a place for volunteers in this, but the real drive has to come from local and national government.

How we treat our libraries expresses what sort of society we have made for ourselves, tabulates what it values that can’t be recorded on a spread-sheet. If we want ours to be a society where we are more than just producers and consumers; then we should be building libraries not looking for ways to close them down.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

For £5.3million the council could pay for Kirsty Alsop to ‘distress’ their old furniture.

Smithfield, the development formerly known as the Central Business District really is the gift that keeps on giving; local tax-payers sleepless nights that is.

It was revealed in the Sentinel yesterday that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to spend £5.3 million on furniture for its new offices within the CBD, this at a time when budgets are tight and services are being cut.

The money will be used to buy 2116 chairs, 1096 desks and 356 tables for the new offices to be used by the 1700 council staff due to relocate there, part of the money will also be used for furnishings for the town halls in Longton and Tunstall, Stoke Civic Centre and other of its buildings that will remain open after the big move.

Speaking to the Sentinel Alistair Watson, cabinet member for finance said the contract to supply the new furniture would ‘enable the council to take advantage of bulk purchase discounts so we can get the best possible deal.’ Then added with the touch of patronage we’ve come to expect from this council that ‘unfortunately furniture isn’t free.’

Gosh, thanks for reminding me, although I could probably have worked that out for myself. At least I could if I wasn’t so busy wondering why they can’t just use the old furniture in the new offices and thinking that for £5.3 million they could probably pay for Kirsty Alsop to come to Stoke and ‘distress’ the darned stuff with her own fair hands.

Commenting on the contract Dave Conway, leader of the City Independents told the Sentinel ‘this is a huge amount of money, what are they buying; gold plated desks?’

Alan Barret, chair of March on Stoke said, again to the Sentinel, that he realised councils are ‘held to ransom’ when buying furniture, but added that ‘people are already angry at the council spending all this money on the CBD, so they should be showing some common sense and frugality.’

Common sense and frugality, if either were mentioned in the cabinet debates on whether or not to build the CBD in the first place, let alone spending yet more money fitting it out like something off ‘Cribs’ they’d have had to fetch a dictionary to look up what their meaning.

The use of common sense would have entailed a serious discussion as to whether there was any genuine need to build, using borrowed money, a new council HQ at a time when the core services local people depend on are under an existential threat. It would follow logically on that there isn’t and the council’s money should be used to protect vital services, not fund a huge and unnecessary debt. Unfortunately there are precious few photo opportunities in protecting services and so and so the cranes have started swinging and the debts are rising by the day.

As for frugality, that’s something that gets imposed on someone else, whilst the council does its usual Janus faced trick of piously preaching fiscal restraint, claiming that the cuts are nothing to do with them they’re just following orders from the nasty government and then pouring money down the black hole of the leadership’s pet projects like the CBD and the doomed bid to bring HS2 to Stoke.

No wonder Mr Pervez and his cabinet were so keen to force plans for the CBD though the system, had they been exposed to sustained scrutiny they would have dissolved into dust like a mummy left out in the sunlight.

In a city where public faith in the political process is at an all- time low and electoral turnouts are miniscule this is highly dangerous. An electorate that feels its concerns are always going to be ignored by a council dominated by a single party led by people who are out of touch with the public mood will withdraw even further into apathy, perpetuating the cycle of decline that has dragged the city down.

The need grows clearer every day for a greater spread of parties, voices and experiences within the council chamber; a proper opposition that will push the Labour group hard and offer voters a credible alternative to their continued dominance. It may be too late to stop the CBD project, but such an opposition could and should challenge every extra cost imposed in its name.

Whenever I travel into Hanley my eye is caught by the huge cranes swinging girders about as the Smithfield project rises around them. It is a reminder that these controversial buildings are going to be part of the city’s skyline for decades to come; the debt and political damage they have caused may be around for just as long.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Are the Greens the only party willing to talk honestly about taxes?

People with wealth of over £3million should pay a wealth tax of between 1% and 2% according to Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. This would raise between £21.5billiion and £43billion annually.

Wealthy people, Bennett told the BBC on Thursday, can afford to pay more and it is in their interests to do so, she said ‘we’re not talking about dinner ladies who have paid their whole lives into a pension pot. It’s people who have very large assets; frankly we’re talking about people who can afford it.’

If support of imposing a wealth tax the Greens cite the fact that the UK is the seventh most unequal nation in the OECD, with Bennett saying that ‘inequality is a problem we have to tackle.’ They also point to the use of a similar tax in countries such as France, Norway and the Netherlands.

The new tax would, along with the introduction of a living wage and company- wide pay ratios, Bennett said, be part of a ‘range of measures’ the party would implement to ‘address persistent inequality.’

Ms Bennett concluded by saying that at a time when there was a resources boom at one end of society and a cost of living crisis at the other ‘the time has come to introduce a tax on wealth to ensure the richest pay their fair share back to society.’

The art of taxation, so the old saying goes, lies in so plucking the goose as to get the most feathers with the least hissing. In practice that means governments tend to talk tough about clamping down of corporations and wealthy individuals who duck their taxes and then do nothing.

Certainly no government, either of the left or the right, so far as such distinctions still apply would dare these days to suggest taxing the rich more for fear of being consumed by a whirlwind of hissing, feathers and flapping. The thing is though the conventional wisdom on tax just doesn’t ring true anymore, public and politicians alike know this to be true; but the latter lack the guts to admit it.

This makes what Natalie Bennett said genuinely radical, there has always been a shortage of out of the box thinking in politics, but just lately anyone capable of even attempting it has been an endangered species. The right wing press, if they pass comment at all and they tend to ignore the Greens, will no doubt portray this as a bellow of ‘soak the rich’ coming from the far left; it is nothing of the sort.

What Natalie Bennett has done is have the courage to speak openly about something most people have known for years, the current tax system doesn’t work because proportionally the riches people pay the least and the government colludes with them in doing so in the name of free enterprise.

It wasn’t always like this, once upon a time the rich saw their good fortune as coming with responsibilities, motivated by a mix of paternalism and philanthropy they routinely put back into the society that had helped to generate their wealth. Then along came the welfare state and it all went to pot, not, as the right would have it because it made the poor less enterprising; but because it made the rich less reliable.

All of a sudden tax became a burden to be dodged rather than a chance to put something back into society. Just look at the world it has given us, not, I fear, a paradise or justly rewarded striving so much as a cramped and ill at ease place where the lines are growing outside the food banks and the rich hide within gated communities.

Public and politicians alike know we can’t go on like this, something has to change or something is going to give with nasty consequences. Nobody, including the Green Party, is talking about taxing the rich ‘until the pips squeak’, even if they paid an extra 2% in tax every year someone with assets worth over £3million would still be comfortably off.

More to the point the extra revenue could be used to preserve and improve public services, meaning the impact of deep generational poverty and ill health could be addressed, making ours a fairer and safer society in which to live.

The media might not be impressed by what Natalie Bennett has to say, not yet anyway, in time they might just have to sit up and take notice. After the European elections the big story was how well Ukip had done, nobody noticed the Greens coming in quietly in fourth place, they should have done though.

All across the country the Green Party is quietly growing in strength, taking some council seats and coming second and third in others, it is a young party with a youthful and active membership at a time when the mainstream parties are looking ever more old, tired and out of touch.

The thing about young people and young parties is that they aren’t tied to the old ways of thinking; when it comes to sorting out our complicated and unfair tax system that is no bad thing.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Just putting more women in the cabinet won't change politics nearly enough

This week David Cameron reshuffled his cabinet, casting several of his ministers into outer darkness and welcoming new faces to the top table, several of which happened to belong to women.

Cue miles of news footage of the likes of Dominic Grieve, David Willets and Ken Clarke among others trooping out of Downing Street trying hard not to look like they were about to go home and kick the cat.

There was also plenty of footage of Nicky Morgan, Liz Truss and Esther McVey marching in the opposite direction faces aglow with anticipation, as the Daily Mail made snide comments about their choice of handbag.

All this was accompanied by an increasingly dour debate over whether or not this meant the end for ‘male, stale and pale’ politicians. I’d say not, even after this so called great leap forward only five out of twenty two cabinet ministers are female; if the sisterhood are storming the citadel they’re doing it in slow motion.

Two big beasts caught a bullet when the herd was culled with William Hague moving from Foreign Secretary to being Leader of the Commons and announcing that he intends to stand down as an MP at the next election, Michael Gove has been moved from being Education Secretary to be the Chief Whip, both events providing more of a surprise than anyone watching might have expected.

The sad truth about reshuffles is that they tend to be more about image than substance, particularly when like this one they come when an election is less than a year away.

The decision by William Hague to bring the curtain down on his political career when he is still, by political standards, a relatively young man prompted much chin stroking over what might have been. If only he hadn’t worn that baseball cap, hadn’t had to face the supernova of charisma that was Tony Blair in his pomp over the despatch box things could have been so different.

It is hard not to imagine a chorus line of geography teachers kicking up their sandals and singing ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ as Michael Gove gets dragged off the stage with a big hook. Hyperactive, obsessed with picking fights with the teaching unions and a fool for any initiative likely to garner a headline he was ultimately too divisive a figure to remain in post any longer. His successor Nicky Morgan would do well to learn by his example and try working with rather than battling against the ‘blob’.

The big story, of course, was David Cameron’s finally coming good (almost) on his promise to ensure a fifth of his cabinet was female, pinstriped paleness is out and all things pastel coloured and progressive is in.

Anything that makes politics less of a club for public schoolboys has to be a good thing, well up to a point anyway. Unfortunately the sense of righteous vindication emanating from Citizen Dave over his own modernity suggests that nothing has really changes, under the progressive veneer political business will go on as usual.

The problem lies in the selection process for MPs of either gender, which is biased towards favouring flinty eyed careerists adept at playing tricksy Westminster games but with little experience of life outside the bubble.

We need more female members of parliament; whether they make it to cabinet level or not; come to that we need more black, disabled and working class MPs too. Having parliament look more like the people it represents isn’t enough though; not nearly enough.

It must contain people who represent to broad sweep of life experience, from academic policy makers to people who have had to make their way using their wits alone. That is the one sure way of ensuring parliament will always do its job through the prism of focusing on the most important of its roles, protecting the rights and liberties that keep us free.

I would be glad if after the next election parliament never mind the cabinet formed by whoever wins is less male, pale and stale than it was before; I’d like it to be less remote, insular and complacent too.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Britain needs the right to strike

Stoke on a sunny Thursday morning in early July, the day when public sector workers across the country went on strike over pay, pensions and working conditions.

The town is a somewhat shabby collection of discount stores, charity shops and empty units; over to the left of where I’m standing they’re building a new hall of residence for students at the nearby Staffordshire university and outside the Wetherspoons at the end of London Road a handful of early drinkers are smoking cigarettes.

This is the sort of place in which the ‘hard working families’ Francis Maude and David Cameron have spent the run-up to the strike saying will be hit hardest by it live; despite the brave talk of recovery from the PM and the man who gave him his first job in politics many of them are struggling to make ends meet. As shoppers amble around me enjoying the sunlight it is hard to discern much sign of the chaotic standstill right wing politicians and their nervous bedfellows at the BBC predicted the strike would cause.

By the time I arrive in Kingsway, the broad tarmacked area outside the Civic Centre the crowd is slowly building. There are stalls representing the unions taking part, GMB, PCS, NUT and alphabet soup of protest; along with ones for the Socialist and Green parties and campaigns by the local branch of the People’s Assembly and people fighting to protect the NHS.

Over the next forty minutes or so the crowd grows to maybe two hundred strong with a distinct carnival atmosphere setting in. More or less everyone seems to know everyone else and old style embroidered union banners mix with shiny paper placards printed out the night before, a young woman wearing a top hat and frock coat wanders past and there are several people in t-shirts with the legend ‘Get Angry And Fight’ printed on them wandering around; subverting in the name of protest the somewhat patronising ‘slogan’ of the recession.

The age range of the participants is wider than often at such events with several families with young children present. One includes a small boy clutching proudly a handwritten placard reading ‘My Daddy is Worth More’, nice to see someone learning the habit of protest early.

Only slightly behind schedule Steve Jones of the North Staffs Trades Council takes to the podium to introduce the speakers, getting in the process a bigger laugh than he probably deserved by holding up a rather withered looks in twig and saying it is another unions branch that has fallen foul of the cuts.

First to speak is Clive Rushton of UNISON, the crowd gives one of the biggest cheers of the day when he addresses them as ‘comrades’, several other speakers will do the same with a similar response. There may be a message there for the handful of Labour councillors watching rather sheepishly from the side-lines, it might be time to embrace rather than hide their party’s working class roots.

He attacks the government for its unwillingness to negotiate with public sector unions and praises the work his members do providing essential services and says the strike is there chance to send a clear message that ‘enough is enough.’

Linda Goodwin of the NUT turns her fire on the demands placed on teachers by ever more stringent OFSTEAD inspections and attacks government plans for performance related pay for teachers as unsuitable since people in education work collaboratively; a sensible point that will probably be lost on busy, publicity chasing Michael Gove.

Colin Griffith of GMB gets another big cheer when he proclaims himself to be ‘working class and proud’, followed by some pantomime boos when he revisits memories of the damage done to heavy industry by the Tory governments of the 1980’s. This time, he says, they’ve got public services in their sights. To strong applause he calls for money to be clawed back from tax avoiders to be used to fund better public services.

Margaret Armstrong of UNITE is equally combative as she says their treatment of public sector workers demonstrates the values of this government, meaning they want to pay the people who deliver essential services poverty wages and then condemn them when they protest. It was time, she said, for working people to ‘pick up their heads, get off their knees and fight back.’

The final speaker of the day is Jason Hill, President of the Trades Council who launches into an impassioned attack on the ‘obscenity’ of the government’s approach to the economy, listing to rising cheers zero hours contracts, benefits reform and privatisation. Austerity, he says, isn’t the way to encourage growth; you do that by rebuilding public services and having a government that is unafraid to stand up for working people.

Then almost as soon as it began the whole thing is over, as the Birmingham Clarion Singers sing political songs old and new people are folding up trestle tables and rolling up banners. All of a sudden we have left behind the elevated plain of demonstration and returned to the everyday world of the school run, bills to pay and moss growing in the lawn.

The strike in Stoke or elsewhere didn’t bring the country grinding to a halt and drive the forces of the market back into the sea, it was never going to. What it did do was articulate the anger of public sector workers doing vital but unglamorous jobs at how they have been treated by the coalition and bubbling away behind their public discontent is that of the silently disgruntled majority who know that whatever the politicians say the recovery hasn’t begun for them.

The question is can a Labour Party so timidly unsure of what and who it represents that it didn’t dare associate itself with the strike offer them an alternative?