Monday, 21 April 2014

It will take more than a charm offensive to make people satisfied with this council.

Last week Stoke-on-Trent City Council announced that it intended to launch a ‘charm offensive’ to win back disillusioned citizens after a survey showed their reputation is amongst the worst in the country.

The survey, conducted by consultancy firm Westco cost £25,000 and was carried out in 2012 although the results were only released last week.

It shows that only 50% of people in Stoke are satisfied with the way the council does its job as opposed to a national average of 72%. The council is also seen as performing below the national average on giving value for money, just 30% of the people questioned said that it was compared to a national average of 56%.

In response the council plan to launch a revamped communication strategy aimed at highlighting their achievements in attracting investment to the city.

The local press are seen as key to delivering the new communication strategy, the survey found that just 44% of Sentinel readers were satisfied with the performance of the council compared to 64% of non-readers. This, its author’s remark with a surprisingly straight face, is due to the paper reflecting the views of its readers; blimey fancy that.

The council seem to have spent a lot of money to be told things they should have known anyway. In fact any advantage they may have gained from the survey will have been undermined by public anger at yet more money being wasted on consultants when services are being cut to the bone.

There is also something slightly unsettling about the survey’s failure to understand a few basic facts about the relationship between the press and politicians in a democratic country. Any press officer deserving of the name dreams of placing a ratio of two to one positive stories with the local media, most though are intelligent enough to realise that isn’t going to happen.

Put simply countries where the press lavishes unreserved praise on politicians are seldom free, Britain, for all its faults, is a free and open democracy. The Sentinel is quite right to reflect the views of its readers; that’s its job, if Mr Pervez and his cabinet don’t like that they should either pull their socks up or get another job and leave the politics to people with thicker skins.

That the council could and should communicate better is self-evident, doings so though won’t address the problems at the core of public dissatisfaction with their performance.

The stranglehold exerted on the political life of the city by the Labour Party means there is no effective opposition in the council chamber. It is a truth universally acknowledged that hegemony will eventually turn into hubris, hence decisions such as moving the civic centre to the CBD and the council’s continued illogical faith in the ability of Realis to deliver the City Sentral shopping centre are defended with dogged determination not because they are believed to be the right thing to do, but because admitting their mistake would cause the leadership to lose face.

The absence of an effective opposition means the scrutiny system does not work properly, handing a huge amount of unsupervised power over to unelected council officers, reducing councillors to little more than a rubber stamp. If the key decisions are taken out of sight by people they have never heard of is it any wonder local voters are dissatisfied with the council?

By far the biggest problem though is the poor quality of the majority of councillors currently sitting in the chamber.

In an environment where one party has a virtual choke hold on power qualities such as independence of mind and a willingness to be awkward when you believe your cause to be right do not flourish. Ambitious members of the Labour Party who want to be selected as candidates and then shooed into safe seats rapidly become adept at toeing the party line and saying only the words written for them by regional office.

There are a few notable exceptions amongst the Independents but their voices tend to get drowned out by Labour councillors saying and doing what they’ve been told to. A few candidates with ability from any party might come to the city for a short time to use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but for the most part it is the time servers who prosper, making the political life of our city much the poorer as a result.

If we want a council to be satisfied with then it is up to the people of this city to do something about it. We have to buck the trend of recent years and get out and vote in significant numbers, it is impossible for any council to build a real mandate if much of the electorate refuse to vote.

When we do vote more of us must break the surly bonds of habit and vote for someone, anyone, other than the Labour Party. As a former member that isn’t an easy thing to say, but we need a revived and more representative council, one that isn’t under the thumb of a complacent party willing to squander money on being told things it should already know while its tenants fear eviction and the lines at the food banks grow longer.

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