Sunday, 11 May 2014

What ‘Fentonians’ want is self-determination.

This week a petition signed by almost two thousand residents of Fenton was handed in to the Civic Centre calling for the creation of a town council, prompting Stoke-on-Trent City Council to lunch a review into what form one would take were it created.

Members of the council’s general purposes committee said they were unclear as to what ‘Fentonians’ actually wanted. Possible options include a fully-fledged town council funded through a precept on the council tax and the setting up of an area committee, this would have fewer powers than a town council but would still allow residents to influence services.

A town council for Fenton would consist of eight elected members and be funded through an extra 50p levied on council tax payers living in the area. Fenton Community Association, the organisers of the petition, believe having a town council will protect local services and give the often ignored town a stronger voice.

Speaking to the Sentinel Councillor Neil Day said the council did need ‘help after the number of councillors was reduced’, following the 2010 review by the Boundary Commission for England the number was cut from sixty to forty four, but said he was ‘worried that these parish councils are set up on the crest of a wave’ only for it to turn out later that ‘someone just wanted their grass verge cut more.’

Councillor Martin Garner suggested any governance review should be expanded to cover the whole city, the committee decided to focus on Fenton. Also speaking to the Sentinel he said he had ‘yet to hear any arguments why Fenton is special and needs a separate town council,’ adding with some flippancy that they might just ‘want revenge on Arnold Bennett,’ the author famously ignored the town in his novels.

This is in no way a personal attack on Councillors Day and Garner, both are, I am sure, conscientious servants of their constituents. Unfortunately events have conspired to push them out front and centre to articulate an attitude on the part of the council that tells you everything about why political engagement in Stoke has fallen off a cliff.

To save the mandarins down at the Civic Centre a little chin stroking I’d like to make a suggestion as to what ‘Fentonians’, as they so patronisingly name then, want. It really is quite simple; they want self-determination.

There is nothing, as such, that is ‘special’ about Fenton, the town is fairly typical of most places in our city. A little down at heel certainly, but with a strong sense of and pride in its unique identity, it also has a sizeable portion of the voting public who are tired of the old deal between the Labour Party and local communities. You know, the one where we are suitably grateful for what little we’re given and don’t question the status quo because nanny always knows best.

If ten percent of the electorate in Fenton are in favour having a town council then the city council is legally obliged to look into how one could be set up. Trying to suggest exercising their rights is an attempt to gain special treatment does not make me feel confident the resulting review will be as open to the possibilities of change as it should be.

What really causes offence though is the suggestion the people in Fenton are motivated by nothing more than a desire to get their grass verge cut more often and suchlike trivia. Nothing could be further from the truth, they are deeply worried about the loss of local services and angered by a regeneration process that seems intent on putting Hanley first and everywhere else a distant second.

Fenton Community Association have proved themselves to be determined defenders of their town, as shown by the way they have fought to save the former magistrates court from joining the long list of buildings in Stoke demolished because someone thought there was a few quid to be made from sticking something more ugly in their place. Perhaps that’s the problem, they’ve given nanny a scare by showing they are more than capable of standing on their own two feet.

A town council in Fenton needn’t be a threat to the city council, in fact it could be an asset. Were there to be one in all six towns it could help to drive forward regeneration by giving local people a genuine sense of involvement in the process.

The downside, from the city council’s point of view anyway, is that a little of its power would be diluted, egos would have to be reined in and grand projects like to CBD and the still to materialise City Sentral shopping centre might face stronger scrutiny, mostly from people who can’t be leant on by a party hierarchy of they ask awkward questions.

Threatened or not the city council may just have to suck it in and learn to live with the idea that in the interconnected, wired, world of the twenty first century people want to have a greater say in what happens in their area. Where Fenton leads other towns and many smaller communities will follow.

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