Friday, 26 December 2014

Government cash barely skims the surface of Britain’s pothole problem.

The government gave motorists an early Christmas present on Tuesday in the shape of £6 billion in extra funding for councils to fill in potholes on the nation’s roads. Councils will also be able to bid for a share of an additional £575 million to pay for repairs to infrastructure such as junctions, bridges and street lights, £578 has also been set aside to reward councils who demonstrate ‘value for money’ in carrying out improvements.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told the BBC the funding on offer was enough to pay for 18 million potholes to be filled, saying it was ‘part of our long term economic plan to ensure we have a transport network fit for the twenty first century.’

The Local Government Association ‘welcomed’ the extra funding, but, said a spokesman there was still ‘a very long way to go’ when it comes to improving the standard of Britain’s roads. He went on to say, also speaking to the BBC, that though ‘helpful’ the money on offer ‘does not bridge the funding gap which is increasing year on year.’

The Institution of Civil Engineers described the money as a ‘welcome boost’, but, their spokesperson said, with ‘catch up’ costs totaling £12 billion ‘a significant gap will still remain in local authority revenue budgets.’

Shadow transport Secretary Michael Dugher told the BBC ‘local roads are in a desperate state under David Cameron’ adding that ‘hard pressed motorists and businesses are justifiably sick and tired of having their vehicles damaged because of Britain‘s pothole crisis.’

The trouble with Christmas presents, early or otherwise, is that they tend to look much less impressive when examined in the cold light of Boxing Day morning, that’s pretty much the case here.

On the face of it £6 billion looks like a lot of money, but when spread over more than a hundred local authorities over six years it is really little more than enough to pay for the pothole problem to be, literally, skimmed over. As for the £578 million set aside to reward councils for providing ‘value for money’ given the demands on their shrinking budgets it is hard to see how any could earn a share, unless they interpret value for money as meaning penny pinching; another exciting perverse incentive brought to you thanks to austerity.

Maybe it is time to see the pothole problem as one we can never solve so long as traffic volumes continue to rise and see this as an opportunity to invest in public transport. That probably got you spitting out your leftover turkey, the received wisdom being after all that we love our cars and hate busses.

The thing with the received wisdom is that it often fails to tell the whole story, what we dislike and with good reason isn’t public transport as such; it’s the costly, threadbare and inefficient services we often have to put up with. After all Britain is a small country, there is no need for people to drive everywhere and it would probably be a much nicer place of most of us didn’t.

Just imagine if, for example, First Potteries had focussed on customer aspirations and day to day experiences as much as cost savings and efficiency when they reorganised their routes in the summer. The months since wouldn’t have been eaten up with campaigns by residents angry at a service being withdrawn followed by frequent climb downs by the company, all of which is time consuming, unproductive an the sort of thing that persuades people to stay in their cars.

Travelling by public transport in this country is all too often an uncomfortable and frustrating experience; it doesn’t have to be though. The application of a little of the funding lavished on the roads along with a lot of thought and a willingness to listen to passengers could make the service into one people actually want to use.

Nobody should be forced out of their car, but if a viable and pleasant alternative were available many people might be persuaded to leave it behind. A Britain with less traffic on its roads would certainly be a calmer and healthier place; there’d probably be much fewer potholes too.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The public should take ownership of local democracy not the new Civic Centre.

Council leaders want the public to take ‘ownership’ of the new Civic Centre being built at the heart of Hanley’s Smithfield central business district.

Councillors want residents to see the multi-coloured Smithfield 1 building, due to be handed over by the developers early next year as a public space and not just civic offices. The building will house a café and the relocated Hanley library along with a police desk and meeting rooms available for public use.

Olwen Hamer, cabinet member for customer service, told the Sentinel the new approach was ‘all about getting people in to the building. This isn’t just a council building; it belongs to everyone in Stoke-on-Trent.’

She added that getting members of the public to use the Civic Centre would be a ‘reminder to councillors and officers that they work for the people, as well as showing residents that we are here to serve them.’

Councillor Hamer is one of the more capable members of the cabinet and has always, hitherto anyway, impressed me as an independent minded woman; so it is surprising to hear her giving voice to such platitudes. Then again party loyalty can force even the most reasonable people to take up some unlikely postures.

It is a truism to say that local people ‘own’ the new Civic Centre; they’re paying through the nose for it too. What they don’t have ownership of, and they really should, is the fractured political system that let it be built in the first place.

Far from being a symbol of a council that serves the public Smithfield is a massive multi-coloured monument to one that rides roughshod over their wishes. Had the council listened to local people, many of whom took to the streets to make their point; it would never have been built.

At a time when public services are dying a death of a thousand cuts spending £55 million on new council offices simply can’t be justified. The claim advanced by the council that by being the ‘anchor tenant’ in Smithfield they are acting to kick start the city’s regeneration seems permanently stuck in a mire of inactivity.

We are told repeatedly that talks with potential private sector tenants are ‘on-going’ and maybe even ‘advanced.’ What we aren’t told is who these prospective tenants might be, largely because, you suspect, developers Gener8 haven’t been able to identify any.

Speaking to the Sentinel council leader Mohammed Pervez said ‘until such time as some other business commits to the city centre, it will always be a difficult sell for me to say that coming here was the right thing to do.’

A difficult sell; I’d say it was an all but impossible one. Building a massive development using borrowed money and in the teeth of public opposition was always a gamble and like most gambles one where the odds are fixed against the person throwing the dice.

At some level even the members of the cabinet knew that Smithfield is a project doomed to fail, you can’t attract investment just by building yet more office space. Unfortunately the peculiar group think that operates within local Labour circles silenced the voice of common sense.

Whether the public take ‘ownership’ of the new Civic Centre hardly matters, they will have the debt for building it hanging around their necks for years to come. What we really need to do is take ownership of our neglected democracy.

For too long a Labour Party that has grown complacent through years of unchallenged power has taken local people for granted, taking their votes and giving nothing back in return. The end result is a Civic Centre the city doesn’t need and the public don’t want, it might also saddle us with a costly judicial review over HS2 that is more about bolstering the egos of the leadership that bringing investment to the city.

We need to look beyond the tired status quo to find alternative parties and personalities who will speak with the voice of local people not that of a London based political elite who see Stoke as just another branch office.

This article is dedicated to the memory of my father William (Bill) Colclough 1929-2014