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.

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