Sunday, 18 May 2014

Labour shift the deckchairs around as a £150 million cuts tsunami looms.

This week the weather improved, we even had a couple of days of sunshine, unfortunately little else seems to have got any better.

It is still certainly midwinter for the city’s finances with the Sentinel reporting on Wednesday that £150 million in spending cuts could be heading our way between now and 2021. This on top of the £80 million in cuts made so far.

This is the result of a likely reduction in the Revenue Support Grant (RSG), the money given to the city by central government, just as the projected revenue the council needs to function is predicted to rise from £214 million to £257 million.

Speaking to the Sentinel council leader Mohammed Pervez said this had created a ‘perfect storm’, in which wealthy rural areas were favoured over poorer urban cities like Stoke because they are better able to raise their own revenue.

He told the Sentinel that the ‘only way to get out of a perfect storm is to accelerate hard and keep a firm hand on the wheel,’ and cited initiatives such as the Central Business District and plans to create the country’s largest geo-thermal district heating system as examples of what was being done to address the shortfall.

Amongst those people unconvinced by his comments was Dave Conway, leader of the City Independents group in the council chamber, who told the Sentinel cuts on the scale proposed would not need to be made if the council ‘cut its cloth’ according to its means, starting with not ‘borrowing money to pay for a building in Hanley we don’t need and paying consultants to say where people can park.’

The probable reduction of the RSG is entirely down to government policies that favour leafy shires with sizeable Tory majorities over places like Stoke where the party barely exists. How the council responds to this is though entirely its own work and so far the results are far from impressive.

As Mr Conway points out building a new Civic Centre has created a burden of debt the city could well do without and the council’s love affair with hiring consultants is a habit we can no longer afford. Never mind though we will soon have four extra ‘higher tier’ managers parking their coffee cups down at the Civic, because in a crisis the thing you need more than anything else is more managers.

The Labour group, who will pay the price for this latest piece of foolishness at the ballot box seem surprisingly sanguine about things, issuing a bland statement about finding the right people for the job. Perhaps they were distracted by a reshuffle that looked to everyone outside the bubble like an exercise in shifting the deckchairs around on the deck of the Titanic just as she steams into the ice field.

Very little has changed Janine Bridges and Alan Dutton have been cast into outer darkness and Olwen Hamer and Joy Garner have been welcomed back into the fold; Ruth Rosenau has been rewarded for a leadership ‘challenge’ that was really about going through the motions by retaining her seat. Quite what all this shifting and shuffling will do to improve the quality of governance on offer is debatable.

The huge debts generated by the CBD project are likely to be hung around the neck of every taxpayer in the city for years to come, like an avalanche it has gathered so much momentum it cannot be stopped. Something can and should be done to prevent another such white elephant can be allowed to trundle over the horizon.

In any system where one party has a virtual monopoly of power the end result will always be hubris and waste on the part of the leadership. If we are going to face a tidal wave of cuts that will make the hardships of the past few years seem tame then Stoke needs a real opposition in the council chamber.

One with the courage to hold every decision made by the cabinet and council officers up to forensic scrutiny and enough votes to throw a spanner in the works whenever necessary. If a dangerously complacent Labour Party is relaxed about the hiring of four extra senior managers just as hundreds of council workers are about to have their jobs put at risk then we need to ensure they have a dozen or so fewer councillors after the next election.

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