Sunday, 3 August 2014

For £5.3million the council could pay for Kirsty Alsop to ‘distress’ their old furniture.

Smithfield, the development formerly known as the Central Business District really is the gift that keeps on giving; local tax-payers sleepless nights that is.

It was revealed in the Sentinel yesterday that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to spend £5.3 million on furniture for its new offices within the CBD, this at a time when budgets are tight and services are being cut.

The money will be used to buy 2116 chairs, 1096 desks and 356 tables for the new offices to be used by the 1700 council staff due to relocate there, part of the money will also be used for furnishings for the town halls in Longton and Tunstall, Stoke Civic Centre and other of its buildings that will remain open after the big move.

Speaking to the Sentinel Alistair Watson, cabinet member for finance said the contract to supply the new furniture would ‘enable the council to take advantage of bulk purchase discounts so we can get the best possible deal.’ Then added with the touch of patronage we’ve come to expect from this council that ‘unfortunately furniture isn’t free.’

Gosh, thanks for reminding me, although I could probably have worked that out for myself. At least I could if I wasn’t so busy wondering why they can’t just use the old furniture in the new offices and thinking that for £5.3 million they could probably pay for Kirsty Alsop to come to Stoke and ‘distress’ the darned stuff with her own fair hands.

Commenting on the contract Dave Conway, leader of the City Independents told the Sentinel ‘this is a huge amount of money, what are they buying; gold plated desks?’

Alan Barret, chair of March on Stoke said, again to the Sentinel, that he realised councils are ‘held to ransom’ when buying furniture, but added that ‘people are already angry at the council spending all this money on the CBD, so they should be showing some common sense and frugality.’

Common sense and frugality, if either were mentioned in the cabinet debates on whether or not to build the CBD in the first place, let alone spending yet more money fitting it out like something off ‘Cribs’ they’d have had to fetch a dictionary to look up what their meaning.

The use of common sense would have entailed a serious discussion as to whether there was any genuine need to build, using borrowed money, a new council HQ at a time when the core services local people depend on are under an existential threat. It would follow logically on that there isn’t and the council’s money should be used to protect vital services, not fund a huge and unnecessary debt. Unfortunately there are precious few photo opportunities in protecting services and so and so the cranes have started swinging and the debts are rising by the day.

As for frugality, that’s something that gets imposed on someone else, whilst the council does its usual Janus faced trick of piously preaching fiscal restraint, claiming that the cuts are nothing to do with them they’re just following orders from the nasty government and then pouring money down the black hole of the leadership’s pet projects like the CBD and the doomed bid to bring HS2 to Stoke.

No wonder Mr Pervez and his cabinet were so keen to force plans for the CBD though the system, had they been exposed to sustained scrutiny they would have dissolved into dust like a mummy left out in the sunlight.

In a city where public faith in the political process is at an all- time low and electoral turnouts are miniscule this is highly dangerous. An electorate that feels its concerns are always going to be ignored by a council dominated by a single party led by people who are out of touch with the public mood will withdraw even further into apathy, perpetuating the cycle of decline that has dragged the city down.

The need grows clearer every day for a greater spread of parties, voices and experiences within the council chamber; a proper opposition that will push the Labour group hard and offer voters a credible alternative to their continued dominance. It may be too late to stop the CBD project, but such an opposition could and should challenge every extra cost imposed in its name.

Whenever I travel into Hanley my eye is caught by the huge cranes swinging girders about as the Smithfield project rises around them. It is a reminder that these controversial buildings are going to be part of the city’s skyline for decades to come; the debt and political damage they have caused may be around for just as long.

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