Sunday, 22 June 2014

Put this on a postcard working with people is the best way to improve our town centres

One day I was walking past the Lancaster Building, one of the iconic landmarks in Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre when I saw what I at first took to be an art installation in one of the empty shops on the ground floor. Such exhibitions are fairly frequent as the owners struggle to find a use for a building that may be iconic, but has no immediate commercial function.

On closer inspection the small cards stuck to the window of the empty shop turned out to be part of a campaign run by the charity Sustrans encouraging people to have their say on how public spaces can be improved. Some of the contributions, particularly those written by people with an unhealthy obsession with pigeons, were weird enough for an art gallery, most though, calling as they did for more independent shops in the town and a better bus station made exemplary good sense.

It would be easy to dismiss this sort of thing as being part of the well meaning but ultimately doomed effort to make the world a nicer place that always gets flattened by the relentless onrush of capitalism. Except that in't really the case, it could actually be the best hope for reviving our town centres and our moribund democracy.

Actually Newcastle has fared better than many towns, there are too many empty shops and litter is a problem; the refurbishments to the outdoor market seem to have been dragging on forever, but things could be very much worse. The Castle Walk shopping development brings trade into the town and the feeling of decline and despair you get in other towns is notably absent.

When I thought later about what might go on my own card another nearby town centre sprang to mind, and it cut a much less happy picture.

Stoke, the town that gave my home city its name is a place where defeat and resignation seem to seep up from the paving stones. The town was marooned by a seventies road development and the arrival of a major supermarket a decade ago has killed many of the smaller retailers.

Now the town is a sad jumble of charity shops, takeaways and bookmakers; the sort of place traffic rushes through on its way to somewhere, anywhere else. My prescription for making the town better would be as follows:

Turn the unused space over many of the shops back into what it originally was, living accommodation, for a town to be truly alive people have to live there not just drive in to work than escape at four thirty.

Revive the dowdy and dying market by renting some of the stalls to students from the nearby Staffordshire University at a reduced rate, who knows a major retail empire might be started from one of them, it has happened before in other towns.

Last of all do something to encourage the town's dozen or so takeaways to use healthier locally sourced ingredients; burgers don't have to be made from reconstituted junk.

None of this is particularly original, the point is though I doubt I's ever have the chance to fill out such a postcard, the powers that be at the Civic Centre would walk barefoot over broken glass to get away from such an idea.

They are fond of running consultations, usually online with a prescribed list of questions, if you're lucky you might even get invited to elaborate on your contribution at an 'event' where some bright young thing from a marketing company writes down what you've said on a flip chart. These are then, I imagine, used to lag to loft at the Civic because they're never seen again.

Consultations by their very nature are corporate exercises, undertaken to confirm a policy position those in charge have already reached. Genuine opinions aren't wanted because they tend to be awkward, contradictory and generally get in the way.

Sustrans though seem to be doing something entirely different, something that is alien to the sensibilities of many people in local and national government; they're actually listening to people. The message they're getting back seems to be that people want ownership of the public spaces they use. They want them to be more accessible, more distinctive and most of all they want to be involved in making the decisions that shape this and other important areas of their lives.

It isn't that the political class don't want to build a better world themselves, they're just determined to go the wrong way about doing so. They seem to be afflicted by the last echo of the old imperial mindset, meaning they see the public as a huddled mass to whom things must be done for their own good and in order to make the world a better place.

This sort of thinking might have had its uses in the nineteenth century, but in the modern age when most people are literate and the internet gives us access to more information than ever before its not just inappropriate; its downright dangerous.

It results in billions of pounds being wasted on projects like building a new Civic Centre in Hanley or ripping up half the countryside to build HS2; elections where only a handful of people vote and the creation of an atmosphere of cynicism about politics in which the extremism of Ukip or worse prospers.

The truth so simple it always seems to elude the clever people who presume to govern us is that you achieve more by working with people than you do by imposing solutions from the top down. If you want to consult an expert about what its like to live in Stoke, talk to someone who has done just that all their life.

The role of government both local and national should be to first facilitate the discussions and compromises that will turn aspirations into reality and then to use its organisational ability and economies of scale to deliver the project.

Quite simple really, at least it is if those in the seats of power can develop the confidence to give we the people our head; they and we might be pleasantly surprised by the result.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

A retail report its't a state secret so what have they got to hide

It was only a small story tucked away on the inside pages of Thursday’s Sentinel, it told anyone who read it everything they might need to know about the way our city is governed.

In May of last year the council commissioned a report from consultancy firm WYG into the retail needs of the city, it coast £44,515. The report was completed in March but the council has decided not to release it until an unspecified ‘future date.’

The Sentinel reports that the document may contain suggestions for the controversial City Sentral shopping development on the site of the former bus station in Hanley.

Speaking to the paper a council spokesman said ‘we consider that public interest is more strongly in favour of withholding the report than in releasing it because to release it early, without prior approval from council, would result in information being released into the public domain unnecessarily early before all due debates and discussions about its potential impact can take place.’

Which seems to be a rather torturous way of saying they’d quite like said ‘debates and discussions’ to take place behind closed doors without you or I worrying our fluffy little heads about their outcome. For heaven’s sake it’s a report about shopping, not a state secret; what an earth have they got to hide?

I can pretty much guess what the report might say, something, perhaps, about the need to revive the other five towns, encouraging more small and start-up businesses as part of the process. On the subject of City Sentral it might well suggest that the whole thing is rapidly turning into a money pit gobbling up cash but producing nothing in the way of a tangible result.

You don’t need to hire a costly consultancy firm to tell you any of these things, go down to your local and the regulars stood around the bar will be happy to tell you this and more for the price of a round. Actually given the nature of such things consultants tend to be a bit like the soothsayer to a roman emperor, they keep their reading of the entrails sufficiently vague to allow almost anything to be read into them based on how things turn out.

Why keep it under wraps then, shouldn’t those debates and discussions it is going to prompt be conducted in public? They manifestly should, but unfortunately the council has become caught up in a culture of secrecy and paranoia that is both absurd and dangerous.

Mr Pervez, his cabinet and the unelected council officers who pull their strings much of the time have retreated into a metaphorical bunker, maybe it’s located somewhere under the new Civic Centre, from which they view any criticism as an existential threat.

There is no doubt there would be criticism, lots of it, about the report in question, forty four thousand pounds is a lot of money to be paying to be told things you probably already know. Publication of the report would also rekindle public anger over the council’s continued faith in a City Sentral project that is so far from even beginning the developers have allowed the planning permission for the site to expire.

While we’re at it let’s get hot under the collar over the money being poured into the doomed bid to bring HS2 to Stoke and the £450,000 spent by the council on a display at the Chelsea Flower Show and the £700 a plate dinner for the great and the good they hosted at the same event.

These may seem to be unconnected issues, but they all refer to the same skewed priorities and poor judgement that set the teeth of local people on edge. The council have demonstrably lost touch with the concerns of the people they serve and see themselves as arms-length ‘facilitators’ forever at one remove from the consequences of their action.

This has led to the farcical situation where a council that preaches belt tightening and fiscal restraint when it comes to setting the budget spends like a drunken sailor on its own pet projects. When the inevitable criticism arises the paranoia kicks in and anyone speaking against the view from the bunker is seen as a threat.

Actually public anger at such foolishness is a vital part of the democratic process, it shows that we the public have expectations of our elected officials; the most important of these being that they listen to our concerns.

What Stoke-on-Trent needs after the next election isn’t just to have a smaller and more humble Labour group leading the council and a few new faces and parties in the chamber, although all that would be more than nice. We need a radical and long overdue change to the political mind-set, a form of governance that is conducted in the open and where involving the public in decision making is at the core of the democratic process, not a peripheral to be paid lip service only.

The secret to reviving the moribund political scene in this city might turn out to be having far fewer secrets in the first place.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

No more chasing targets Police tell PACT meeting

It’s a little before seven o’clock on a Monday evening and I’m sitting in a lecture theatre at the Medical Institute in Hartshill waiting for this month’s PACT meeting to start. The surroundings are a little cramped with walls painted in a suitably clinical shade of white, for a wet night the crowd is surprisingly good.

PACT meetings bring together residents associations, the police, the council and other groups to discuss issues relating to a specific area. The meeting I attended covered the Penkhull, Hartshill and Basford areas.

The speakers included Inspector Ian Hancock of Staffordshire Police and Simon Anderson Chief Officer of the Staffordshire Police Special Constabulary. Also speaking were Christine Wilshaw and Cheryl Harding of Staffordshire Victim Support giving an overview of the service the charity delivers locally and promoting its open day taking place at Winton House in Shelton on 16th June.

Speaking about the performance of Staffordshire Police over the past year Inspector Hancock said the force had ‘moved away’ from chasing targets and instead adopted three clear objectives, preventing crime, providing outstanding service and dealing with what matters to communities.

This more straightforward regime had led to reductions in burglaries and vehicle crime and a rise in reporting of violent and sexual crimes, with a rise in the latter area in the reporting of historic crimes due to media coverage of the issue.

The force was, he said, implementing a ‘robust’ reporting and follow up system and working hard to identify crime hotspots, they were also mounting ‘high visibility’ patrols to reassure the public in areas identified. They were also refining their systems for deploying officers and working with the council, the NHS and other services to reduce crime.

As a result, said Inspector Hancock, people in Staffordshire are amongst the most satisfied with the service they receive from the police in the country.

In his open necked shirt and designer glasses Inspector Hancock was the very figure of the modern senior police officer, peppering his speech with management speak and projecting an image of approachable competence. The policies he was describing though seemed to be rooted in a desire to make the police more responsive to public concerns.

Chief Officer Anderson cut a different and more traditional figure, all epaulettes and a starched white shirt worn with a tie and a peaked cap placed neatly on the lectern as he spoke. If the previous speaker had, probably subconsciously, been projecting an image not dissimilar to that of the CEO of an internet start-up, this one resembled nothing so much as a house master at a minor public school.

He gave, using a suitably traditional power-point presentation, a brief overview of the role of the special constabulary in Staffordshire. This challenged the inaccurate public perception of the specials as at best ‘hobby Bobbies’ and at worst an anachronism, highlighting the extent to which they are fully integrated into every part of the policing role.

He also stressed the important role specials play in engaging with the public, after all as volunteers they often live in the communities they police. This would seem to be an ideal solution to providing the high visibility local policing the public desire without incurring extra costs at a time when budgets are tight.

PACT meetings are a rare example of how the police, the council and other agencies can engage with the public effectively, mostly because they are controlled by the community and respond to the priorities they have identified. The high quality of speakers attending this and other such meetings suggest that slowly, very slowly in many cases, the message that connecting with the community matters is getting through.