Thursday, 15 December 2016

A curate's egg at the Polite Vicar

In a bid to raise the tone I'd like to introduce what might be called the 'reviewer's paradox.' It goes like this, what do you write when your experience was just about ok but everyone else with you had a pretty rough time?

That is the problem a recent trip to this venue posed, to keep the clerical metaphor going it was a bit like the curate's egg, some parts were excellent, others less so.

The spicy nachos, 'Jingle Burger' and chocolate orange cheesecake combo I went for was well worth the close to £13 bill. Perhaps because the only thing Christmas related was the name of the burger that probably appears under a less spangly name the other eleven months of the year.

Where things went wrong was with the one thing everyone else had come for, a good old down home Christmas dinner. The vegetables were undercooked to the point of still being in the soil, things didn't get any better with dessert, unless hunt the Christmas pudding is your favorite party game.

The portion given to one of my companions and then hidden under a lake of custard could have been served up by Scrooge himself. To be fair though the profiteroles served to another resembled a miniature mountain range drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Maybe the chef was helping the time pass by playing dessert roulette, fine if your number comes up, not so good if it doesn't.

To their credit the staff were helpfulness incarnate when we complained about the veg, it's just doing something about it seemed to take forever. I suppose cook was off in some far corner of the kitchen wearing a tux and sweating over having put all his white chocolate gateaux down on black.

The Polite Vicar isn't the Ritz Grill; you expect competent simplicity not haute cuisine. For the most part that's what we got at a reasonable price too.

The trouble is some even simpler mistakes made on a night when the pub was far from busy mean we probably won't be back in a hurry. As any gambler knows you only get one throw of the dice and the poor old Vicar lost.

The Polite Vicar
600 Etruria Road

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A psychologist walks into A pub

It’s early on a wet but mild December evening and I’m standing in a pub just outside Stoke town centre waiting for a psychologist to walk into the bar.

This sounds like the set-up for a joke, actually it was the prelude to a surprising evening.

The pub in question is The Glebe, which a friend recently described as having a distinctly ‘London’ vibe. Never having supped in the smoke I can’t comment, but being close to the campus of Staffordshire University gives it a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than most other pubs in town.

When he arrives the psychologist turns out to be an affable man called Dave Spence wearing a beard and a Christmas Jumper.

The talk, part of the ongoing Psychology in the pub series is on the ‘Psychology of Belief’, or more accurately the point where it turns into superstition. Something that we the audience, as smart broadsheet reading metropolitans could never be prone to; perish the thought.

Only, as Spence points out the more irrational elements of belief have a habit of catching us off guard. Otherwise reasonable people refuse to walk under ladders or wear their lucky socks to the most important meeting of their career.

Along the way he poked a little gentle fun at conflicting biblical accounts of the nativity, Christmas traditions that are less ancient than they seem and internet UFO photographs.

There was even time for a game of pass the parcel, something that brought back memories from my suburban childhood of squirming with embarrassment in case the music stopped while I was holding the parcel.

Thankfully it didn’t and so I was able to appreciate the whole thing as a metaphor for how belief is often several layers of wrapping around a confection, in this case a chocolate Santa.

The tone was light hearted with plenty of banter between Spence and his audience. Anyone willing to look a little closer would easily see a more serious message behind the jokes.

Beliefs are what help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Fair enough so far as it goes, apart from the fact they tend to be based on unconscious biases, making us worryingly easy to manipulate.

That is all well and good if it’s just a soft drink company fooling us into thinking it invented Santa Claus. Less so though when the manipulation is done by people with more sinister agendas.

Like getting a boorish reality TV star into the White House for example but something like that couldn’t happen, could it?

Monday, 5 December 2016

Local Greens respond to Bradwell closure plans.

North Staffs Green Party today made public its response to the ‘My Care My Way Home First’ consultation launched by Staffordshire NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).

In October the CCG announced plans to close 63 beds at Bradwell Hospital used to care for frail and elderly patients.

The move came on the back of threats to beds at other community hospitals in Cheadle, Leek and Burslem.

Health and community campaign groups expressed concern over the plans, as did several NHS staff employed at the hospital, the long term future of which is now in doubt.

The response states that the bed closures will have a ‘detrimental impact on the healthcare of the population of North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent.

Local Green Party Coordinator and author of the response Jan Zablocki said: ‘No one should be fooled into thinking it is just about more people living longer with more complex healthcare needs; it’s about much more than that.’

He added that: ‘It is about the future scale and shape of our health service. These bed closures represent a highly political agenda in which the NHS is being bludgeoned between the hammer of Tory privatization and budget cuts and the anvil of Labour’s massive PFI debt.’

The response highlights a number of problem areas in the plan put forward by the CCG, including the pressures likely to be placed on the Royal Stoke University Hospital as a result, particularly as services are transferred from Stafford to the RSUH site.

It also identifies a problem in relation to district nursing services being unable to cope with caring for more patients in their own homes, even though this is a key element of the plans put forward by NHS managers.

Figures obtained under freedom of information by the Green Party show that staffing levels have fallen dramatically between 2012 and 2016.

Concern regarding staffing was expressed in a report conducted by Sedgwick Igoe and Associates for the CCG in 2012 and again in a report by the Care Quality Commission in 2016.

Despite this CCG chief executive Marcus Warnes told a meeting of North Staffs Pensioners Convention in October that nine out of ten people currently occupying beds in community hospitals would have better outcomes being cared for at home.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Officer Adam Colclough said: ‘The CCG have not been honest with people about either the motivations for or the impact of these bed closures.’

Commenting on the announcement made earlier this week he said: ‘although any delay to the closure of the beds at Bradwell is welcome the problem of how to provide adequate community care when there aren’t enough staff available remains.’

Adding that: ‘Protecting the NHS is a key theme in Green Party policy and as a member of the Patients Congress I have raised this issue several times and will continue to do so until the CCG gives local people an honest answer.’

In conclusion Jan Zablocki said: ‘For those with their eyes and ears open the sirens are sounding and the blue lights flashing and the patient in mortal danger is the NHS itself.’

Monday, 21 November 2016

Greens back petition to keep BAC O’Connor Centre Open

North Staffs Green Party has backed a petition due to be handed in to Staffordshire County Council protesting against the removal of £800,000 funding from the BAC O’Connor Centre.

The cut comes as part of a package of £8million in savings made by the council following the decision by the NHS to stop funding its Better Care Fund including a £3.4million cut from the budget for drug and alcohol services.

Other areas facing cuts are funding for debt advice provided by the Citizens Advice Bureau, rehabilitative and intermediate care and assistive technology services.

The petition has gathered over forty thousand signatures since being shared online by comedian Russel Brand, if enough of those are from people living locally the council will debate it at their next meeting.

Campaign Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party Adam Colclough said ‘As a volunteer for two local mental health charities I have seen the devastating impact substance abuse can have on people’s lives.’

Adding that ‘The O’Connor Centre does remarkable work helping people regain control over their lives and to work towards recovery. Closing it down will not make the problem disappear, what it will do is force vulnerable people to rely on other services that are already stretched to breaking point.’

Monday, 7 November 2016

We need to fight poverty not waste time squabbling over Brexit.

However cynical you think you’ve become there will always be one story that brings you up short and acts as a welcome reminder that you can still be shocked, I came across just such a story last week.

Newcastle based Alice Charity has 88 families on its books waiting for a bed and 24 where a baby is waiting for a cot. Until these arrive children and parents in the families concerned will be sharing beds and some children may have to sleep on the floor.

The charity works with families in the Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle area who are struggling to cope, providing emotional support along with practical help with budgeting and accessing services.

Fund raising manager Sam Warrilow told the Sentinel last week their role was to help families ‘work out if there is a better way for them to spend their money until they are able to manage without our support.’

She added that they often had families on a waiting list for beds to be donated, but recently the number had risen sharply, this has been linked to figured published recently showing that 25% of families in Stoke and 17% in Newcastle were classed as having low incomes.

The appeal launched by the charity has been supported by several local businesses.

It is hard to credit that such a situation could exist in the Britain of 2016, the go-ahead country populated by hipsters where everyone is fixated on who will win Strictly we imagine ourselves to be; and yet it does.

The shock value of children having to sleep on the floor because they haven’t got a bed makes the news, but poverty, like an iceberg, is nine tenths submerged.
You can catch a glimpse of what is really there in the sad little paragraphs at the edge of the page in any local newspaper, sketches of people brought before the courts for stealing food that belong to Dickensian times; not the digital age.

Everyone knows about poverty and the bitter inequality of our society, but nobody ever talks about it. It is that angry elephant wrecking the drawing room of an ignorance in which we are aided and abetted by the media.

The political class mostly ignore the problem, preferring instead to engage in their favorite pastime of arguing about what, if anything Brexit means.

A media that has dumbed itself down to the point of idiocy helps them by typing judges who ruled that parliament should be allowed to debate how we negotiate our exit from the EU as ‘enemies of the people.’

When the issue of inequality is discussed it is usually through the repetition of hackneyed ideas, what we need is the return of grammar schools, because after all telling most kids they’re failures at the age of eleven is an excellent way to motivate them; not.

Anyway in the brave new world just around the corner we’re all going to drive for Uber or do some other job in the ‘gig economy’ so sparkly and new it hasn’t even been invented yet.
This ignores the fact that to make anything like a living in that sort of situation you have to start with the backing that comes from having inherited money behind you. If you don’t have that then the brave new world rapidly turns into a nightmare of stress and uncertainty.

Add to that the benefits cap and the simmering discontent stirred up by media rhetoric about ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ and you have an unwisely ignored problem wired to a ticking time-bomb.

Brexit is no doubt one of the major political issues of our time, but it is only one battle not the war the media make it out to be and so has only a limited influence of wider events.

The real fight is against poverty and it is one we must win; if we don’t the consequences could be disastrous.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Four ways to improve the lives of people living in poverty.

There are 13.5 million people living in poverty in the UK, a shocking figure for a major economy.

Ahead of the chancellor's Autumn statement the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have put forward four ideas that could improve their lives.

The first of these is reinstating annual rises for working age benefits if the price of essential goods rises.

They call for the government to recognise the economic importance low waged sectors not to be overlooked within any industrial strategy and for ministers and business leaders to work together to improve productivity.

It is, they say, important that the government increases funding for shared ownership and affordable housing programmes, with housing associations being able to leverage their resources in order to deliver the right type of housing and support affordable rental schemes.

The foundation calls for the government to use leaving the EU as an opportunity to design a regional policy that is responsive to local priorities and opportunities, recommending the creation of a rebalancing fund to offset the loss of European Structural and Investment Fund money.

These suggestions mirror many of the policies on which the Green Party fought the last general election, polling over a million votes and connecting with a public tired of economic and social policies that put the interests big business first.

The UK is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, poverty and the social problems that go hand in hand with it are a major drag on our economy.

If we wish to have a secure and sustainable future we need to tackle poverty and improve social mobility, the suggestions made by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation represent an important step towards that goal.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

You can't mothball lives along with hospital beds.

This week NHS commissioners announced plans to make further cuts to hospital services across the city.

Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire clinical commissioning groups (CCG) said that Bradwell Hospital would lose 64 beds. The hospital cares for frail and elderly people, many of whom may now have to go into private care homes instead.

The announcement comes hard on the heels of a decision to 'mothball' all 48 beds at Cheadle Hospital and one ward at Burslem's Heywood Hospital, the future of in-patient beds at Leek Moorlands Hospital is also uncertain.

The decision to close beds at Bradwell has been criticised by local MPs, trades unions representing hospital staff and local health campaign groups.

In a joint statement reported by the Sentinel a spokesperson for the two CCGs said that NHS England would be reviewing its plans for the beds under threat over the next few weeks and that any final decision would be 'subject to formal consultation.'

'Mothballed', 'decommissioned' (another bureaucratic favourite) carefully masks the fact that behind a decision made by a committee lie innumerable real lives. In this instance the lives of highly vulnerable people and those of their carers.

The fear expressed by health campaigners that further bed closures will lead inevitably to higher use of A&E services, piling yet more pressure onto a system that is already struggling to cope is entirely credible. What haunts me though is another, equally frightening possibility.

There is a very real risk that with services at Bradwell Hospital downgraded and, in a worst case scenario, closed at some future date vulnerable people and their carers could simply fall off the radar. Trapping them in a nightmare struggle against odds that can't be beaten without adequate support and with a very real risk of a tragic outcome.

The end result will certainly be people accessing services later when their problems are far more complex and the support they need more costly, cancelling out any earlier savings at a stroke.

The CCGs talk a good game about caring for people at home rather than in hospital for as long as possible. This is a noble aspiration and helps people to retain their independence for far longer, at least it does if home care is properly resourced; but at present it isn't.

What frail elderly people and their carers get is an all too familiar fudge, promises of jam tomorrow and a diet of bread and water today. They and their carers are forced into a miserable obstacle race after support that is never enough to make a difference even though it costs them their savings and maybe their home.

The NHS is a truly great British achievement, even more so when you consider that it was founded at a time when the country was near to bankrupt. Sadly the visionaries of 1948 have long since been replaced by political pygmies who don't understand the value of having a free at the point of use health service.

As a result we are witnessing its slow dismantling through a mixture of endless tiny cuts and managerial meddling from central government. It is telling that Jeremy Hunt prefers picking fights with the junior doctors to sorting out the shambles that passes for elderly care, if he thinks about it at all he probably dismisses the whole thing as a problem to be solved by 'market forces' or some such meaningless twaddle.

There is a very real risk that we could slip backwards to the not so good old days when good health and a long life was a luxury denied to the vast majority. A bleak future that wilfully wastes potential and puts prosperity and social stability at risk.

This is something we should fight against by opposing every bed closure, every attack on the working conditions of hospital staff and every attempt to sneak privatisation in by the back door. The NHS belongs to the people and we should do all we can to defend it.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Watson: stop 'supporters' voting in future leadership elections.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has called for party rules to be changed to exclude registered supporters from taking part in electing the party leader.

He told a meeting of the party's National Executive Committee (NEC), the BBC reported today, that their participation had been 'unpopular' and called for the reinstatement of the previous franchise based on members, trades unionists and MPs electing the leader.

Last year 105,598 people paid £3 to sign up as supporters, 84% of whom voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Ahead of this years race the fee was raised to £25 and it is believed that 129,000 people signed up; there are no prizes for guessing who most of them are going to vote for.

Supporters were given a say in choosing the party leader by Ed Milliband in 2013, although they have been around since the days of New Labour.

Watson, the BBC reports, told the NEC that the change to rules had been 'rushed' and had proved 'unpopular', principally with MPs who felt it had allowed the far left to infiltrate the party.

He said the proposed change to the rules was not intended as a threat to Jeremy Corbyn; allies of the soon, probably, to be reconfirmed leader see them as an attempt to prevent the circumstances that brought him into office ever occurring again.

The deputy leader also wants to see members of the shadow cabinet elected by MPs for the first time since 2011, ending the practice of the front bench team being picked by the leader. This, he said, would help Labour to 'put the band back together' ahead of a possible early election.

Although it is not believed the intend putting forward an alternative proposal supporters of Mr Corbyn want members and party activists to also have a role in electing the shadow cabinet.

On one level almost everything the Labour Party does at the moment seems like rearranging the deck-chairs on a sinking ship. This latest displacement activity though does at least offer the opportunity to watch the Blairites being hoist on a petard of their own making.

Back in the day signing up supporters was the clever wheeze of the moment, they were seen as being more pliable than pesky old fashioned members with their antiquated ideas about having a say in party policy.

The flaw in the cunning plan was that because it was as easy to do as ordering a pizza almost anyone could do it. The left saw an opportunity in this, grabbed it with both hands and inadvertently changed the Labour Party forever.

Tom Watson is a man with sensible instincts and he is right that Labour needs to change its system for electing the party leader, the year long soap opera that will end with Jeremy Corbyn being reconfirmed as leader has been a costly and divisive distraction.

The trouble is he is stuck in the old ways of thinking, he either can't see or won't accept that like it or not, and most MPs very much do not, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader changed Labour forever. However tight they close their eyes and wish the Blairites can never will back into being the old dispensation where party members were seen but not heard.

Although there was a patronising popularism about it Watson was on the right track when he said Labour have to 'put the band back together'; meaning they have to stop being a mob of competing egos and start playing like a team.

That means the keepers of the New Labour flame holding their noses and accepting the brave new world they now inhabit and the Corbynistas growing up enough to realise that idealistic passion doesn't excuse prejudice and always needs to be tempered by common sense.

The alternative is more division, more bitterness and even less influence for a party that is still, even if it hasn't always behaved like it, the official opposition.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Is a lottery really the answer to funding local good causes?

How does a council go about finding money for good causes when budgets are tight and, thanks to Brexit, could get tighter still?

A three pipe problem and no mistake, or maybe in this non-smoking age a three vape one, either way its enough to give Sherlock a bit of a headache.

Thanks to the Gambling Act (2005) one solution could be the setting up of local lotteries to create a pot from which local charities and community groups could bid for funds. Stoke-on-Trent City Council is set to join Portsmouth City Council and Melton Borough Council in taking advantage of this opportunity.

This could be to the benefit of community groups that have been starved of funding since austerity began to bite and, to their credit, the council do not intend using this as a stealthy way of topping up their coffers.

Punters will pay their £1 for a ticket and have the chance to win the jackpot of £25,000, a car or a range of smaller prizes. Aside from running costs any money raised will go either into the prize pot or to local charities.

The Potto Lotto, an awful name, offers a better return to players with, if it follows the model used by Aylesbury District Council, 60% of the money raised going to good causes as opposed to just 28% of that raised by the national lottery reaching the same destination. There is also no chance of it foisting upon us Mystic Meg or those awful adverts featuring Billy Connolly.

Speaking to the Sentinel council leader Dave Follows said people would be 'more likely to pay a pound for a ticket if they can see where it is going to be spent'

Danny Flynn, chief executive of the YMCA and one of the sharper minds in the local charity sector expressed qualified enthusiasm for the scheme, telling the Sentinel his organisation would 'welcome any attempt to create more resources for local good causes', adding though that the thought 'it would only be part of the solution.'

I hate to be a killjoy but this scheme has all the signs of being something made up to look good from a distance that is rather less attractive when examined at close quarters.

For a start giving punters a list of seventy local charities to which they can donate part of their stake sounds like a good idea, until you think about how people go about making such choices. It is based on the premise that we always make rational decisions; and we just so don't.

When they are picking a charity most people, myself included, are more likely to be motivated by sentiment that common sense. Those good causes that feature kids or cute animals will do well, so will anything that being seen to support confers perceived virtue on the person signing the cheque.

Those charities that support difficult people or unfashionable causes, the homeless or people with mental illness for example will struggle, even though the level of need is equal if not sometimes greater.

In short punters will be offered an invidious choice that invites good people to be unintentionally cruel when they are trying to be kind.

My biggest issue though is that however carefully it is dressed up as a harmless flutter a lottery is still gambling and as such has the potential to cause serious problems. Something that was brought into focus this week by a rise in the number of people reporting an addiction to bingo.

I could at this point make a lot of lame jokes about grannies blowing their pensions down at the local Gala, but I won't, because addiction is no laughing matter. It is usually the outward symptom of a trauma the person experiencing it can't articulate or, maybe, even bring themselves to acknowledge.

Stoke is an impoverished city, there are a lot of people here who are just about keeping their head above water, to them winning £25,000 could look like a lifeline, even if trying to do so proves to be a brass ring they grab for endlessly, but never manage to reach.

I don't of course advocate banning gambling, everyone who buys a lottery ticket doesn't end up stood outside the bookies with three cigarettes on the go and all they own on some nag in the 3:30 at Kempton just as having a drink doesn't automatically lead to chronic alcoholism; but the council shouldn't add to the risk by endorsing it.

They should though be given credit for thinking out of the box when it comes to finding a solution to a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better, even if this time they're on the wrong track.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Closing ward four would be a false economy with devastating consequences.

Earlier this week North Staffs Combined Healthcare Trust announced plans to close its dementia care unit at Harplands hospital after the area's two clinical commissioning groups cuts its funding.

The staff on ward four have been praised by the national care regulator for their work in helping frail elderly people retain their independence for as long as possible.

Speaking to the Sentinel Combined chief executive Caroline Donovan said the ward's 'outstanding and committed staff' had provided care that has helped patients return home sooner, adding that despite the financial challenges faced by the NHS 'the ward's approach is one I believe should be supported.'

North Staffs Green Party fully supports keeping ward four open and will be actively campaigning to secure its future.

Campaign Coordinator Adam Colclough said : 'I have visited the ward on a number of occasions as a volunteer for a local mental health charity and seen at first hand the good work done there.'

He added that: 'the staff are a credit to the core values of the NHS, cutting the service they provide would be a false economy with devastating consequences for patients and carers.'

The party have written to minster of state for community and social care Alistair Burt asking him to intervene.

The Green Party fought the 2015 general election on a manifesto pledge to provide free social care for older people funded by taxation and to protecting the NHS as a comprehensive free at the point of use health service.

They are also committed to increasing spending on mental health services in line with their pledge to increase health spending overall, and to fighting the stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with mental illness.

Mr Colclough said: 'we have asked the minister to ensure that no decision about the future of ward four is taken until the people who use the service, their carers, staff and local mental health charities have been fully consulted.'

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Having a conversation about the NHS we'd like to have and the one we can actually afford.

Just before I set off to attend what had been billed as a 'community conversation' about local health services I received and email asking me to send a tweet celebrating the sixty eighth birthday of the NHS.

Happy to oblige, like most Britons I have a deep emotional attachment to the NHS, it helped to bring me in to the world and will probably see me out of it too. Though what sort of state it might be in by then is open to question.

When I arrived at the King's Hall a reasonably large crowd had assembled, milling about between the stalls set up by various charities. Most of the people present seemed to be associated with either the health service itself or one of the charities represented, suggesting that much of the afternoon would be an exercise in preaching to the converted.

To its credit the NHS has, in recent years anyway, made a concerted effort to open up itself up more to public involvement and scrutiny. For their part the public have mostly found something, anything else to do.

For all our protestations of love for the NHS we tend to treat it like a sort of parental figure, expected to be there when we need it; but to be ignored the rest of the time.

This isn't an attitude for which Margy Woodhead, Chair of the local Patients Congress and one of the four speakers has much time. In her view the 'voice of the public' has to be at the centre of how the health service makes decisions about how its large, but still far from adequate, budget is spent.

The public also, she said, have a vital role to play in identifying those areas where the NHS isn't delivering. What is needed is the widest possible range of voices, particularly from hard to reach, or easy to ignore, sections of the community; the people who would miss a free at the point of use health service most were it to wither away from neglect and inertia.

The need for a 'conversation' with the public was echoed by Sally Parkin, clinical director for partnerships and engagement with the Stoke-on-Trent clinical commissioning group. One where the main topic was 'prioritization',meaning how local health services manage to do more with less given the huge challenges they face.

The scale of these was outlined in a 'quiz' involving some slightly awkward audience participation. Locally the NHS spends almost half its budget on acute care, a hospital outpatient appointment costs £119, a trip to A&E costs £1,569.50 and an operation with a couple of nights on a ward to recover doesn't leave much change out of £3000.

These costs can quickly stack up when you consider the health inequalities people in the Stoke area face, as outlined in his presentation by Dr Andrew Bartlam, accountable officer for Stoke-on-Trent CCG.

For a start if you were born in Knutton you're likely to die fifteen years sooner than it you were born in the Westlands, along the way you're also more likely to suffer from a preventable illness. Childhood obesity levels remain high as does the suicide rate, with the latter 30% higher than the national average.

Add to that problems recruiting GPs and nurses to work in the area and continued pressure from central government to do more with less and the position looks grim indeed.

There is though, Dr Bartlam said, some hope of improvement offers by new models of care that take services out of expensive hospitals and move them closer to patients, more joined up working between CCG's and doing more to address well-being to keep people healthier for longer.

Even so the NHS faces internal and external challenges greater than any it has faced before, a service founded almost seventy years ago cannot continue to operate as if it were still 1948. It has to be more efficient, more focussed on squeezing the most benefit out of every pound it spends; all this whilst staying true to the principles upon which it was founded.

The way we, the public, treat the NHS has to change too, we cannot afford to take it for granted, that plays into the hands of those in government who would sell it off one little bit at a time until there was nothing left.

We need to take more responsibility for our own well-being to ease the strain on services and for being more involved in deciding how the they are funded. The NHS was created by ordinary people who believed, rightly, that health is a public good to be shared equally, it will be defended by people who feel the same way.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Has the political class learnt nothing from the upheavals of the referendum?

Will it be Michael or Theresa, Liam or Steven; maybe even Andrea? To be the next leader of the Conservative Party and by default the next prime minister.

One thing is for certain it won't be Boris Johnson, a dagger placed neatly between his shoulder blades by old 'friend' Michael Gove caused him to pull out of the race before it had even started. In typical Bojo style though he managed to get more attention for not putting his name on that ballot than any of the people who did.

Anyone who thinks this is the last we're going to see of the dishevelled one had better think again, he has, I'm sure a few more capers to cut on the political stage before his revels are ended.

The gun has at least been fired and Tory leadership races have the benefit of being short, if seldom sweet, theirs is a party that holds its grudges far tighter than a limpet holds onto its rock.

Meanwhile over at the Labour ranch it has been a non-stop round of resignations and recriminations. After a most of his shadow cabinet too their collective ball home and several of their replacements decided they didn't feel much like playing either Jeremy Corbyn has more knives in his back than the lead in a bad amateur production of Julius Caesar.

The parliamentary Labour Party are about as united as they ever can be behind the opinion that he has to go, the one thing they're short of is a candidate to challenge him. Angela Eagle was going to , then she wasn't; now she still might, just not yet. Confused? I'm pretty much baffled.

Showing a surprising amount of determination for someone who wears so much corduroy Jeremy Corbyn refuses, so far, to take the hint and go. If the parliamentary party want to re-enact western classic High Noon, then he's only too happy to take the Gary Cooper role.

Any resemblance between the past week in Westminster and a bad soap opera seems to be entirely intentional. The life of an MP can be dull what with all those committee meetings and the endless case work, so you can, perhaps, forgive them for going a little 'demob happy' when they find themselves playing pat-a-cake with the hand of history.

There is no doubt that since the Brexit vote we have been living through historic times, its disappointing in the extreme that most of the political class just aren't up to the challenges we're about to face.

The public have spoken and just over half of them said they wanted to leave the EU, what everyone who cast a vote a week last Thursday said, maybe not always consciously, was that they want a very different settlement to the one we have now.

Sadly what they've been given over the past week is more of the same. Meaning the political class carrying on as usual engaging in its private squabbles and treating the most important people in the political equation, the voters, as having a walk on part at best in the ensuing melodrama.

The British don't really do revolution, but there is something close to it in the air, this it certainly a time when radical ideas might get a fair hearing in a country that usually prides itself on its conventionality.

We need to look again at the voting system, not with a view to the sort of timid fiddling represented by the now mostly forgotten referendum on the alternative vote. Only a radical change to proportional representation will address the concerns of the disenfranchised young and encourage a more collaborative style of politics.

That will take time, one change could be effected almost overnight and all it requires is for the Labour Party to stop fighting like cats in a bag and grow up. Over the next few years decisions will be taken that will shape our country for a generation or more, they need to be scrutinised by a strong opposition. Under PR that job would be shared by a number of smaller parties all of whom could work together to hold the government to account, until utopia arrives though the job falls to Labour; it's time they started doing it.

More than anything else we need the political class as a whole to wake up and smell not so much the coffee as the whole damn house burning down. Most of the accusations that have been levelled at the EU, about being remote, overly bureaucratic and unwilling to listen to ordinary people's concerns can, and will, be levelled at Westminster.

The public are angry and in no mood to put up with everything staying the same. If their decision to vote for Brexit, not my personal choice but a democratically expressed one I respect, scared them back into their comfort zone, then the result of the next election could have them running for the bunkers.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Its taken a tragedy to remind us that politicians are people too.

Last week on the streets of Birstall, a market town in West Yorkshire Jo Cox the Labour MP for Batley and Spen was murdered by a 52 year old 'loner' named Thomas Maier.

Mrs Cox entered parliament in 2015 and in a little over a year had managed to make a lasting impression on her colleagues and constituents. In other circumstances were the Labour Party to some day emerge from its endless internal squabbles she could have been one of the people it turned to in search of a new, more positive direction.

The tributes to her were as prompt as they were heartfelt. A day after her death Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn travelled to Birstall to lay a wreath in her memory.

Speaking to the BBC Mr Cameron called the murder of Jo Cox an 'attack on democracy', it has been suggested that Maier held far right views and was angered by her support of the 'Remain' campaign. He added that if people wanted to 'honour' Jo Cox's memory they should recognise the values of 'service, community and tolerance' she had lived and worked by.

Mr Corbyn said Cox was 'an exceptional, wonderful, very talented woman, taken from us in her early forties when she had so much to give and so much of her life ahead of her.'

Tributes were also paid by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron who called her an 'outstanding representative who stood up for her community diligently', Commons Speaker John Bercow said Cox was an 'outstanding' MP and that fellow parliamentarians had come to admire her talent and passion.

Words like tragic and heroic have been overused to the point where they have lost much of their impact, yet there was true tragedy in the way Jo Cox met her death; more importantly there was something decidedly heroic about the way she lived her life.

She was, by all accounts, a woman who lived for others without being either a pedant or a scold, that she did so for its last year in a profession often seen as an exemplar of cynicism and self interest makes her even more remarkable.

The death of Jo Cox has reminded us of something we've always known, but have chosen to forget in recent years. Although they might not all have her qualities most MPs are a long way from being the cheating caricatures the media makes them out to be.

Most work hard, try their best and receive little in the way of thanks for their efforts, if this shocking crime has forced we the public to examine some of our lazier assumptions some good may have come from a bad thing.

What it shouldn't do, and the temptation very much there, is allow us to turn an understandable sense of outrage in to a moral panic accompanied by a knee jerk reaction. There will be an entirely appropriate re-examination of the level of security surrounding MPs as they go about their constituency work.

To this must be applied a sense of proportion, something the British sometimes struggle with applying in stressful circumstances.

The last thing we need is for Britain to become the sort of country where politicians shuttle from one secure location to another surrounded by an entourage of hired muscle in mirror sunglasses, where the only voices they hear are those of sycophants.

To represent their community in anything like a meaningful way politicians have to be part of that community. If they are going to speak for the people they must first have listened to what they have to say, even when it isn't necessarily what they want to hear.

The idea that politicians, or members of any other profession, merit deference should be packed away in the attic along with Grannies wedding dress, but if they make themselves accessible to the public then the public should treat them with respect.

There should always be a robust debate, but it only works if all concerned get a fair hearing and holding an opposing opinion isn't a risk to life and limb.

Few members of parliament are as talented or inspiring as Jo Cox, but like her they are all human beings, imperfect but for the most part trying to do the right thing. Remembering that might be the most lasting memorial to the life she lived so well and lost too soon.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Swiss vote shows the way on a basic income

It might have been defeated by a comfortable margin of 77% to 23% but the [proposal put to a referendum in Switzerland to pay every citizen a basic income points towards a new approach to tackling inequality.

The proposal would have seen every adult citizen paid £1755 per month with a smaller payment given to children.

This, supporters claimed would recognise the huge amount of unpaid work done by carers, Che Wagner of campaign group Basic Income Switzerland told the BBC "In Switzerland over 50% of total work that is done is unpaid. It's care work, it's at home, it's in different communities, so that work would be more valued with a basic income."

Supporters said a basic income would also address the 'march of the robots'' as ever more jobs are automated.

At the 2015 general election the Green Party campaigned on a manifesto proposing a reform of the tax and benefits system that would see most existing benefits, apart from housing and disability benefits, scrapped along with the personal income tax allowance.

In their place every man, woman and child legally resident in the UK would be paid 'resident in the guaranteed, non-means-tested income, sufficient to cover basic needs – a Basic Income.'

Like the proposed Swiss basic income this would recognise and reward work done outside the formal economy and help to address social inequality, it would also help with the necessary transition to a more sustainable economy.

Switzerland is the first country to vote on a basic income, other European countries are looking at something similar. The Finnish government is considering a trial programme to give a basic income to 8000 people from low income groups, the Dutch city of Utrecht is also considering a similar pilot project set to begin in January 2017.

The Swiss electorate may have rejected a basic income on this occasion, the idea behind the proposal is still relevant.

It prompts us to think about how we reward unpaid work like caring, our response to technological change and how we share wealth and resources fairly.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Are we flushing away the idea of civic society?

In local government issues of state and the great ideological struggles tend to be conspicuous by their absence, it is all about the small things, the detail. The mundane run of things like where to situate a new taxi-rank or what colour to paint the benches in the local park.

Mundane they may be, but more often than not such concerns can point to important shifts in our society.

That is certainly the case with an issue that, on the face of things sounds mundane in the extreme, the decision by the council to demolish the recently closed public toilets on Crown Bank in Hanley.

They have in the past been the scene of anti-social behaviour and are now deemed not to be in keeping with the proposed £10million revamp of the area as a funky market for fashionable people who wear designer clothes and have hipster beards. In their place there will be a couple of TARDIS style pay toilets on Percy Street.

This instance of a public convenience becoming that little bit less convenient is just the latest in some 1782 closures of public toilets across the UK over the past decade. Local businesses aren't happy, their owners fearing being besieged by people wanting to 'spend a penny', without spending any actual money.

The North Staffs Pensioners Convention aren't pleased either, Chair Andy Day told the Sentinel on Wednesday 'everyone young and old, from disabled people to young mothers needs easy access to such facilities.' They've got some impressive form when it comes to fighting for access to toilets, last year they forced the council to back down over charging to use the facilities in the new bus station.

It's only a loo I hear you say, nobody is going to go to the barricades over something like that. Reasonably adequate alternative provision has been made and if we want clean, safe public toilets then we'll all have to get used to paying to use them.

Fair enough,but look at it another way and you could see this as yet another nail in the coffin of civic society. Remarkably given the public health implications councils have no obligation to provide public toilets, in the past most have done so though because it was the right thing to do.

It still is, the customers of the chic coffee shop or the funky pop-up boutique may be able to spend their penny elsewhere but pensioners and parents with small still need public conveniences that are, ahem, convenient. To deny them access plays into the continued dismantling of the idea that society is a shared endeavour; when we aren't really all in it together the most vulnerable people are the ones who lose most.

The council are, to be fair, doing their best to meet their responsibilities, but are being trapped between a rock and a hard place by the demands of balancing a budget. Last year they bought themselves time and popularity by using money from reserves to avoid making unpopular choices, this could be the first small step down a more difficult and divisive road.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Green Party deputy leader to speak at Keele TEDx

Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack is to take part in a TEDx event taking place at Keele University on 9th June.

Ms Womack (29) is the youngest deputy leader of any UK political party and is committed to making young peoples voices heard within the Green movement and the wider political scene. In eight years of active involvement with the party she has campaigned on issues including TTIP and the shortage of affordable housing.

At the 2015 general election she stood in the Camberwell and Peckham parliamentary seat gaining 10.1% of the votes available, tripling the party's 2010 total.

Born in Newport she holds a degrees in Environmental Biology and Environmental Technology.

TEDX is a programme of self organised local events aimed at sharing innovative ideas from original thinkers and is an offshoot of the wider TED movement that began in California thirty years ago.

Participants in the event at Keele on 9th June include Students Union chief executive Jim Dickinson speaking about how politics can reconnect with the concerns of young people, Keele based research academic Sharon George on society's growing 'addiction' to material goods and its impact on the environment and jazz musician and academic James Tartaglia speaking about how he combines musical and philosophical ideas in his work.

Tickets and further information about the event are available at :

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The political class has turned the EU referendum into their own petty squabble.

Two months in and the campaign over whether or not the UK stays in the European Union is starting to look like a sorry thing. The public are rapidly moving from confusion, to annoyance with the incessant squabbling, to indifference.

There is just over a month more to go before polling day and no sign of things getting better any time soon.

At the end of last week the Treasury Select committee criticized both sides for using 'misleading' figures and 'implausible assumptions' in their campaign material.

The committee was critical of the statement made for the 'Remain' campaign by chancellor George Osborne that families would be on average £4,300 a year worse off were we to leave the EU, calling it 'mistaken' and saying he had 'probably confused voters.' Adding that 'the main Treasury analysis found the impact on family incomes would be considerably less;' can't help thinking Curious George ought have known that.

They also took the 'Leave' campaign to task for their repeated claim that leaving the EU would save Britain £350 million a week, saying it was 'deeply problematic.' Not least because it does not take into account the 'rebate' we receive on our contribution to the EU and the investment Europe ploughs into the country.

Committee chair Andrew Tyrie writing in the report says the claims 'sits very awkwardly' with promises both campaigns had given to the Electoral Commission to 'work in a spirit that reflects the gravity of the choice facing the British people.'

Speaking to the BBC's The World at One programme on Friday he said that what was needed was an 'end to the arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter-claims made by both sides.' Good luck with that as the teenagers like to say.

He added that unsubstantiated claims made by both sides were 'confusing the public' and 'impoverishing political debate', leaving voters 'thoroughly fed up.'

The British public has never shown much enthusiasm for participating in referendums; you could forgive them for ignoring this one entirely, even though doing so is potentially disastrous.

Both sided have managed to turn the whole exercise into a dispiriting circus, one where Ringmaster David Cameron goes through endless photo-ops wearing the pained expression of a schoolmaster taking the dimmer pupils in his house through their Latin prep, statistics get thrown around like custard pies and every five minutes someone invokes Hitler as the bogeyman of choice for unthinking commentators. Whenever it looks like a serious debate might be in danger of breaking out Boris Johnson blunders on stage and starts carrying on like the Cookie Monster on acid.

It would be laughable; if it weren't so serious. If the referendum on Scottish independence in late 2014 hadn't shown us how different things could be.

A referendum doesn't have to be a nasty squabble between the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble, it can be a positive conversation about how we see our shared future that engages voters and reinvigorates a jaded political process.

Whether the mess we're in is the result of accident or design on their part is debatable, what it clearly shows is that the political class of 2016 is worryingly incapable of talking to the electorate. Instead they focus on their own petty squabbles and point scoring all the while alienating the voters to whom they owe their comfortable lifestyle.

Europe matters,particularly to places like Stoke-on-Trent, my Midlands home town, a place that has been battered by three decades of economic change and either ignored or taken for granted by successive governments. Its regeneration, slow and faltering though it may have been so far, has depended on EU funding, that is why I will be voting for us to stay in the EU on 23rd June.

Although I find some of their 'little England' posturing absurd I recognise and respect in the more reasonable wing of the campaign for us to leave a belief that democracy is something we should all value and work to protect.

The 2015 general election taught us that it is never a wise idea to try and second guess the electorate, I am though willing to make one prediction, if we let the campaign continue to degenerate into a childish squabble then whoever wins; democracy will be the loser.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Strong results for the Green Party across the Midlands.

Green Party candidates across West Midlands recorded strong results in the local elections last week, further raising the party's profile in the region.

In the May Bank seat in Newcastle-under-Lyme Sean Adam gained 20% more votes than the last time the war was contested finishing fourth with 109 votes. Party colleagues Verity Venter ( Loggerheads and Whitmore) and Gordon Pearson (Westlands) also achieved good results, polling 129 and 51 votes respectively.

Speaking about the campaign Mr Adam said the party had 'produced a strong performance with limited resources' and had demonstrated once again their 'genuine commitment to engaging with local people on the issues that matter to them.'

The party would now, he said, be 'looking at what we have learnt from the campaign and putting together a strategy that will see us do even better next time.'

Party Coordinator Jan Zablocki said that the party would be working hard to address local issues such as residents opposition to development in Lightwood and protecting Weston Coyney Country Park.

They would also, he said, be raising national and international issues relating to the environment that have been highlighted as concerns by voters.

As an example he cited the bush fires that recently destroyed the Canadian town of Fort McMurray and the possible link between this event and climate change. The party will also be continuing to campaign against the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Elsewhere across the region the Green Party won its first seat on Cannock Chase District Council, taken by Paul Woodhead. In Solihull the party won four seats with Chris Williams gaining 75% of the votes case in Chelmsley Wood.

The Greens also contributed to the Conservatives losing control of Worcester City Council and now hold the balance of power in the city.

The party has its highest ever number of councillors in the region with twenty seven sitting on eleven councils across the West Midlands.

In the Police and Crime Commissioner elections John Raine achieved 7.4% of the vote in West Mercia and Paul Woodhead gained 3.7% in Staffordshire, raising the party's profile in both counties.

Although membership numbers have dipped slightly since the 'Green surge' before the 2015 general election the party has positive plans for campaigning activity across the city and, says Jan Zablocki believes it is winning the argument when it comes to persuading voters to change their habits.

Although it may be a 'long process' he says 'local, national and global events over the next few years will show that Green politics are the politics of the future.'

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

An election with the volume turned off.

There is an election for a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Staffordshire taking place in just over a week. Actually most counties are electing a PCC on 5th May, although you'd have been forgiven for not noticing since the temperature of the debate locally or nationally has barely reached lukewarm.

Trying to get a picture of what, if anything, was going on I headed to the Medical Institute in Hartshill to attend a debate between the candidates. There were four on the platform, challengers Paul Woodhead (Green Party), George Adamson (Labour) and Harold Gregory (Ukip) up against Tory incumbent Matthew Ellis, a fifth candidate Natalie Devaney (Independent) chose not to attend.

I got there early and stood around in the foyer bar outside the Wade lecture hall taking in an atmosphere that was as tepid as I'd been expecting. The organisers had predicted around a hundred people were going to attend, the final figure, by my estimate maybe seventy turned up.

Those of us who arrived early stood around in the foyer at what was supposed to be a 'meet and greet' with the candidates, only two of whom took part. Green Paul Woodhead told me he was 'confident' about how the debate was going to go and that his campaign was really all about 'raising the party's profile'. Harold Gregory spent the whole time sat at a table at the far end of the room with a name with name on handily placed in front of him being pretty much ignored by everyone. Every so often he would get up and slope off to the bar, giving the impression that he wasn't the man of the hour.

Matthew Ellis turned up fashionably late, strolling into the auditorium five minutes before proceedings were about to begin, exuding as he did so the relaxed, 'this is just a formality' air of a champion defending his title against an under-card of journeymen. That is unfair to two of the other candidates, but given the power of incumbency and the indifference of the public towards the whole business it may be a fair prediction of the outcome.

The sound quality in the large auditorium wasn't good to start with and got progressively worse throughout the evening. This made listening to the candidate's opening statements a little like trying to tune in an old LW radio.

Between the pops and crackles I was able to make out Paul Woodhead talking about his wide experience in, non police related, public service and his determination to hold 'professionals to account', no bad thing considering the mistakes and malpractices of senior officers in South Yorkshire Police highlighted at the conclusion of the Hillsborough enquiry this week. He also said that he wanted to 'involve' the public in deciding how they are to be policed through the creation of a 'community policing plan'.

Next up Matthew Ellis, doing the headmaster of a minor public school addressing the parents on speech day routine familiar to anyone who has seen him address PACT meetings at the same venue , defended his record since taking office in 2012. He highlighted the investment made in new technology during his watch and how many officers this had got back out onto the streets and concluded by saying that policing in Staffordshire was better now than when he took charge.

Harold Gregory built on the non-charisma of his performance during the meet and greet session. We found out that he was a former soldier and that he wasn't happy with how the police have changed in recent years, mostly you imagine because none of the officers he's met resembled dear old Jack Warner. He said that he wanted the police to work with schools more, they do a lot already but protecting that work from the attentions of the bean counters is no bad thing and that he's like to see more police on the streets, but if that was too expensive more PCSO's would do just as well.

George Adamson, himself an ex police officer, gave a speech that suggests he along with Paul Woodhead is one of two candidates likely to give Ellis something like a run for his money. He spoke about his opposition to cutting police budgets and support for neighbourhood policing, he also said that unlike Matthew Ellis he has no ambition to see the PCC take over control of the local fire service. What impressed most though was his understanding of the challenges faced by police officers at the sharp end and his determination to bring that into how decisions are made.

The questions from the floor saw the candidates address issues including the proposal that any future applicants to join the police would need to have a university degree, to their credit all opposed this bit of Whitehall silliness. George Adamson said that 'common sense' was the primary qualification a police officer needed, Paul Woodhead said there needed to be a balance between officers with academic and vocational qualifications and Matthew Ellis said that he opposed a requirement for officers to have degrees because it may be change their relationship with the public.

Asked about increasing diversity in the force all four candidates said more needed to be done to attract more BME recruits, to this Paul Woodhead added that work also needed to be done to engage with the LGBT community too.

As debates go this was a decidedly tepid affair, maybe that is part of the wider problem, there is little about choosing a PCC, essentially a senior manager, that excites ideological fervour; or even, it seems, general interest.

Matthew Ellis did have a couple of sticky moments later in the evening, he didn't play curve balls about the powers of PCSO's to hand out traffic fines and the cost of his well staffed back office at all well. Just for a moment the mask slipped and he betrayed, briefly, the annoyance of the entitled with the public for being so rude as to ask awkward questions.

Paul Woodhead and George Adamson had bouncers of their own to play in relation to their respective parties opposing the existence of PCC's but still standing candidates for the role. They managed to return them though by emphasising they would work to involve the public more and use the role to fight cuts to policing and other public services.

Despite the awfulness of the sound system this was a well organised debate and although, I fear, it did little to energise a largely indifferent electorate the intentions behind it were good.

Matthew Ellis emerged from an evening where he had looked by turns bored and annoyed as the nominal winner, that said Paul Woodhead and George Adamson showed themselves to be challengers capable of giving him at least a run for his money.

The whole event was though pretty much an anti-climax, this time round the turnout is likely to be higher than the dismal 11.9% achieved in 2012 thanks to being piggy-backed on the local elections, but not by that much. Ellis looks certain to be returned to office, but with a mandate that does little to make the role of Commissioner any more relevant.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Green stalwart Sean Adam launches bid to win in May Bank.

Long time Green Party activist Sean Adam has launched his bid to win a seat on Newcastle Borough Council.

Mr Adam, a trained engineer and active supporter of several local charities is standing in the May Bank ward.

In a newsletter to be sent to all residents of the ward he leads on the controversial plans to build a new civic hub on the site of the former St George's primary school. Highlighting the £15.4 million projected cost of the development, which has attracted criticism from residents and local businesses.

Chair of North Staffs Green Party Jan Zablocki says in the leaflet 'At a time of austerity and deeper cuts to basic services there could not be a worse time to waste millions on a vanity project for our civic leaders and Sean will, instead, do all he can, if elected, to ensure front line public services come first in public spending.'

Adding that: 'As a representative of the Green Party Sean will seek to protect the identity and resources of Newcastle Borough Council by modernising and refurbishing the existing building, and retaining its use for local people, rather than a shared facility of Staffordshire County Council.'

Speaking about his candidacy Mr Adam emphasises how having lived in the ward for many years and been active in local charities has given him a 'wealth of experience' he can bring to the role of being a councillor,particularly in the area of fighting against further cuts to youth services.

Campaign Coordinator for the North Staffs Green Party Adam Colclough said 'Sean is a stalwart of the local party, a man who truly lives our values. If elected to the council he will be a powerful independent voice for local people at a time when that is needed more than ever.'

Over the past year Sean Adam has been prominent in local and national campaigns against fracking and cuts to the NHS. In November last year he spent a night sleeping rough in Stoke town centre to highlight the problems faced by the homeless.

He has also been a prominent supporter of Green Party candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner Paul Woodhead.

Over the next week the Green Party will be announcing their full list of candidates standing in Newcastle.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

New signs are symptomatic of the 'throwaway society' say local Green activists.

Last week Stoke-on-Trent City Council announced that it was to spend £16.000 on new signs welcoming visitors to the city.

Council leader Dave Conway told the Sentinel 'This is all about promoting and celebrating the city's identity and having fit and proper gateway entrances to Stoke-on-Trent.'

He added that the signs will ensure visitors to the city are 'given a proper welcome' and that they will 'see we have great pride in where we live.'

Also speaking to the Sentinel Ernie Clarke chair of Coalville residents association said that it was 'good that the council is investing in new signs and making sure they are maintained in future.'

One reason cited for replacing the signs is that some of them have become covered with dirt thrown up by passing traffic. The new signs, it is understood, will be maintained as part of the 'gateway strategy' being drawn up by the council.

The first of the new signs has been erected on Weston Road in Weston Coyney and it is believed that they will all be in position by the end of the year.

There have been a number of critical responses to the council spending money on new signs at a time when budgets are tight.

Writing on Twitter local music promoter and Green Party activist Annette Bellyou said the decision to replace the signs because they were dirty was condoning the 'throwaway society' and that this was not showing 'pride in the city.'

She added that unless the new signs would also get dirty unless they were 'totally mud deflective' and said the decision to replace the old ones was like the council having the windows in the new civic centre replaced when needed cleaning.

An anonymous source within the civic centre suggested that the decision to replace the signs was part of the council trying to use up funding before the end of the financial year, adding that buying new signs my also have been cheaper than getting a contractor in to clean the old ones.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said that 'although the amount being spent in this instance is, comparatively, small it is still an unnecessary cost. Things like that can easily mount up when the budget is as tight as it is now.'

He added that 'if the old signs being dirty was the problem, then surely soap and water mixed with a little elbow grease would have solved the problem for a fraction of the cost.'

The Green Party has sent a freedom of information request to the council asking whether the old signs are going to be recycled and if the new ones are made from recyclable material.

They will also be suggesting that the council consider using more natural and longer lasting materials to construct any future signs.

Campaign Coordinator Adam Colclough said 'if we're going to put up signs welcoming visitors to our city, then lets use to do so materials that honour our industrial heritage and celebrate our world famous creativity.'

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The very model of a modern Chief Constable.

Last Monday on the first warm(ish) evening of the year members of the local PACT group met at the Medical Institute in Hartshill to hear the Chief Constable of Staffordshire Jane Sawyers speak.

As public events go it isn't, perhaps, in the first division, there certainly isn't the associated cachet of say a junior minister venturing north to where they probably think dragons are to be found, it would turn out though to be surprisingly rewarding.

The fifty of so people who has turned up were put in a good mood by the provision of coffee and cake, a tactic for winning over their audience in advance more public figures should adopt.

When she took the stage Sawyers looked the part, all silver braid and medal ribbons. I'm not quite so far into my dotage that I've started to think that police officers somehow look younger than they used to; but I do like the senior ones to look the part.

Her speaking style was confident but not exactly spectacular, no bad thing there is only so much watching people in the public eye work through their suppressed desire to be in amateur dramatics you can endure and keep your objectivity.

The interesting thing though was what she had to say, beginning with the story of how she had come to be the county's top police officer.

By her own account Sawyer had never wanted to be anything other than a police officer, more specifically she wanted to be a police officer in her home county of Staffordshire. A decision that, until the law was changed recently, would have prevented her from reaching the top of the ladder unless she was willing to move elsewhere.

Sawyers told how she joined the constabulary in 1984 and was pitched straight into a front-line role in Cannock at the height of the miners strike; some baptism of fire. Thereafter she served in various roles around the county rising rapidly through the ranks to become first an assistant then a deputy chief constable.

Throughout, she said, he commitment remained first and foremost to serving the people of Staffordshire. This was said without any of the 'side' you might expect, and certainly made a change from the attitude usually shown by ambitious public servants, where where they are at any moment is just so much scenery outside the office windows made steamy by the white heat of their drive to get ahead.

Speaking about the 'challenges' faced by the constabulary she leads Sawyers said the police had been hit by £32 million in funding cuts since 2010, although front-line policing had been protected the cuts had hit back office services hard. Things were, she said, looking a little better for the future, but savings would still have to be made and new ways of delivering the same level of service devised.

One example of this being the partnership Staffordshire Police have entered into with US company Boeing to provide IT services. There will also be more investment in early intervention in the hope that curtailing criminal behaviour early on will cut down on expensive recidivism.

Sawyers praised the work done by the Ethics Transparency and Audit committee and the Safer Neighbourhoods Partnership, both initiatives introduced by the Police and Crime Commissioner. They had both, she said, helped to make policing in Staffordshire more accountable and improved the way officers do their jobs.

The elephant in the room, of course, was the coming election for the county's Police and Crime Commissioner set to take place in May. By chance Natalie Devaney, one of the three candidates hoping to unseat Matthew Ellis was present.

Chief Constable Sawyers described her relationship with Mr Ellis as being 'healthy', saying the he did not interfere with operational matters, though he officers did at times feel the weight of the extra accountability he had placed on the service. She was, no doubt, too diplomatic to even think it, but having been at the sharp end of policing its hard to imagine that in unguarded moments she might not think the cost of having an extra, politicised, layer of management might instead have made a dent in the £32 million in cuts to the local policing budget.

Taking questions from the floor Sawyers said that funding for community policing would be protected because the public value a visible police presence on the streets, but the way it is delivered might have to change.

She also responded to a question from the floor on cyber crime, something she had alluded to in her speech, saying the force was working with Staffs and Keele universities to recruit staff with relevant IT skills. Earlier she had spoken about the difficult balance that had to be struck between the visible policing the public like to see and the fact that ever more crime takes place online. These days Dixon of Dock Green would need a tablet as much as a truncheon.

On the one hand Jane Sawyers came across as being the very model of the modern Chief Constable, capable of churning out management speak from the podium in a convincing way. On the other though she seemed to be a throwback to an earlier age.

One where public servants built their careers in one place instead of hopping from one opportunity to another and on the grounds of having a sense of purpose and wish to serve focussed on a desire to use their position to do good.

That's why even this cynical hack listened to her say that she wants to lead Staffordshire Police into an undeniable challenging future with 'confidence and optimism' and to 'embrace change and promote standards' and mostly believed it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Ours will be a campaign about social issues not personalities says Green PCC hopeful.

Speaking at a meeting of North Staffs Green Party last night Paul Woodhead, the party's candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections said he wanted to make his campaign about 'social justice and not the politics of personalities.'

The meeting took place at the New Vic theatre in Basford and was attended by party members from across the city.

Mr Woodhead spoke about the priorities that he says will guide his campaign for the election set to take place in May.

He wanted, he said, to be a commissioner who focussed strongly on social issues and who used his position to ensure the police were 'given the tools they need to do their job.'

It is also his intention to make the role more accountable to the public and to the officers who deliver front-line policing on the county's streets.

He criticised some of the decisions made by incumbent Matthew Ellis, including spending money refurbishing his office at a time when funding for policing is being cut.

Speaking about funding for the police Mr Woodhead said that it was worrying that the police have been hit by government austerity measures.

This point was amplified by several questions from the floor about the impact on local community of increased homelessness and the possible risk of terrorist attacks.

Mr Woodhead also answered a question on the ongoing debate over the county flag and the role to be taken by the public in choosing the version to be used saying, “It is a really positive outcome that the people of Staffordshire get to decide our flag and not just a few councillors. We encourage everyone get involved to vote and decide our flag, it should be the people’s choice.'

Although the Green Party did not support the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners Mr Woodhead said that it was important to contest the election in order to give voters an alternative to the two main parties.

He would, he said, be spending the next eight weeks travelling around the county meeting people and listening to their concerns.

Cannock Chase Green Party has created Facebook and Twitter accounts supporting his campaign and Mr Woodhead will be attending a number of hustings events around the county.


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

EU debate short on facts and long on playing to fears and insecurities says Green Party Leader.

In her speech to the party's Spring conference in Harrogate this weekend Green Party leader Natalie Bennett attacked the 'Leave' campaign for playing on voters fears about the EU.

She said the current debate was 'short on facts and big on playing on fears of insecurity', the Greens were instead, she said, committed to 'arguing to remain in Europe by focusing on the positives of Europe .'

The 'Leave' campaign would, if successful see 'Britain turn away from its geography, away from its proud history of offering refuge to those in need, away from cooperation and friendship. As a result a decision to leave the EU would see 'Britain not just damaging itself, but damaging the rest of Europe, and the world.'

Commenting on the need for reform in Brussels and at Westminster Ms Bennett said 'We need many reforms in Brussels, but then we need many reforms in Westminster. That’s not an argument for giving up on democracy, despite the fact we’ve now got a government with the support of just 24% of eligible voters.'

She cautioned voters against using the referendum as a means of expressing their distrust of the government and politics in general saying 'We must not allow the “out” campaign to use general dissatisfaction, distrust for our undemocratic government, fear for the future – drive a vote to leave the EU.

Adding that 'the EU vote isn’t a vote of no-confidence in this government, much as that’s deserved. It's a vote on our long term future.'

Cited in an article written for the Huffington Post by Josiah Mortimer Communications Officer for the Electoral Reform Society several prominent party members gave their vision of what a reformed EU would look like.

Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas said ''The EU needs to be more transparent and democratic - as does the House of Commons'. We need democratic reform in all our institutions, which are creaking at the seams'

Green Party MEP Keith Taylor said the European Parliament needs to be strengthened and given greater power to scrutinize the activities of the European Commission and called for an end to the practice of moving the parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg.

In their 2014 publication 'Close the Gap' the Electoral Reform Society put forward a number of suggestions for reforming the EU, these include allowing parliament to scrutinize the government's negotiating position before meetings of the European Council, putting in place a mechanism for involving the public in developing EU legislation and for parliament to hold a Speaker's Conference on strengthening its role in European democracy.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Greens join the race to be Staffordshire's next Police Commissioner.

The Green Party in Staffordshire has selected prominent countryside campaigner Paul Woodhead as their candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner.

He will join Labour candidate George Adamson and incumbent Matthew Ellis on the ballot paper for the election set to take place in May.

In a press statement released on Wednesday Mr Woodhead said: “Green policy has a distinctive and unique message focused on addressing the causes of crime rather than coping with the symptoms and our policy area on restorative justice was established many years ahead of its time. We have a consistent message built upon social and environmental justice which will deliver real positive impact for our communities”

He added that he was” extremely proud and humbled to be selected to be able to offer the people of Staffordshire the opportunity to vote for a Green PCC.”

He has been a major force in the party's campaign against plans by Staffordshire County Council to sell off green spaces in the county, he has also been prominent in campaigns against austerity, the privatisation of public services and fracking.

In the press statement launching his campaign Paul Woodhead said:“We do not accept the premise of austerity. Cuts have consequences with Staffordshire having one of the lowest proportion of Police Officers,” adding that “We believe the Fire Service should remain independent of PCC interference whilst building upon a collaborative approach to better working.”

The Green Party does not he said “support the establishment of Police and Crime Commissioners, however he believes it to be “imperative that residents have the opportunity to vote for a candidate who wants to ensure democratic accountability of the police is returned to the community.”

The nomination process for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections requires candidates to put up a £5000 deposit, this usually paid by for by what Mr Woodhead describes ad 'vested interests', his own campaign will be paid for through crowd funding.

Concluding his statement to the press Paul Woodhead said:“ with the election system allowing for a preference vote for the PCC you can vote for your preferred Green voice ahead of your least worst choice of other party and hopefully this will give confidence to residents that they can indeed delivery the result they want at the ballot box”

Paul Woodhead has agreed to join fellow candidates Matthew Ellis and George Adamson in a debate to be staged at the Medical Institute in Hartshill on Monday 25th April.


Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Local camera club exhibition shows focus on images that rival the professionals.

This pleasing exhibition belongs to the so small you could miss it category. Not due to the quality of the content, but thanks to it having been poorly sited just inside the entrance of Hanley Central Library.

It is though more than worth the awkwardness involved in squeezing around to see them to appreciate photographs that compare favourably to the work of professional shutter-bugs.

On display is work by members of Willfield Camera Club, a local group based that describes itself as a 'friendly club' with members of all ages and abilities.

To the current exhibition Kari Limond contributes an accomplished picture of a sunset over Westport Lake, equally atmospheric is Shawn Balleau's black and white shot of Perch Beach lighthouse, capturing as it does the loneliness of the setting and the starkness of the landscape.

Chris Hulme's aerial photographs contribute a dash of action, the best if these being 'Typhoon Pulling G's' and Tony Finney's 'The Tool-shed' brings a touch of social realism.

If asked to pick a favourite, not an easy request given the high quality of the contributions, I would have to plump for the bunnies in suits of Richard Amor Allan's 'Alice in Wonderland.' This seems to capture perfectly a surreal humour of which Lewis Carroll would surely have approved.

The pictures contained in this exhibition and more information about Willfield Camera Club can be found at

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Rise in homelessness shows the cruelty at the heart of the austerity agenda.

A shelter built to house bicycles in the centre of Hanley has been taken over by a group of homeless men who have erected tents inside the structure.

The Old Hall Street 'Cycle Hub' was opened in 2015 as part of a plan to boost cycling in the city and cost £40,000.

There are no immediate plans to evict the men and a council spokesman told the Sentinel, 'there is a lot of professional support out there for people who are homeless or facing homelessness,' he went on to urge anyone in such a situation to come forward and ask for support.

This includes the newly council's newly opened 18 bed Macari Centre, at which homeless people can get a warm meal, a change of clothes and a bed for the night.

Also speaking to the Sentinel Danny Flynn, chief executive of North Staffordshire YMCA, said that 'for around twenty years we were starting to make inroads into the problem (of homelessness), but over the last five years things have got worse all over the country, mainly as the outcome of government cuts.'

He added that the YMCA currently had 38 people on its waiting list,some of whom would be sleeping rough, and said that what was needed to address the problem was 'a national programme for building new social housing.'

It is a sadly inescapable fact of political life that when a Tory government comes in, especially one wedded to austerity at all costs, the most vulnerable people in society tend to go out onto the streets. That is definitely what has happened in the five years since 2010, it is rare now to go into town and not see at least one poor soul sat in a doorway with all they own in a few plastic bags.

Lets be clear about this from the start, having ended up on the street is seldom the fault of the homeless person him or herself, the path there leads through a landscape of misfortune and mental anguish few would visit by choice. The romantic notion of the 'gentleman of the road' living happily outside bourgeois conventions is just that; a romantic notion unrelated to reality.

The presence of so many homeless people in Hanley isn't the fault of the council either. On this issue they have tried to stem the tide of misery set loose by five years of ideologically driven assaults on the benefits system.

The blame lies squarely with David Cameron and his government, they have sat back and watched indifferently as vulnerable people have been battered from pillar to post by cuts and benefits sanctions. At the same time they have been aided and abetted by a media all too willing to pump out divisive propaganda that sets 'strivers' against 'skivers.'

Equally culpable are the Labour Party for being too weak and divided to be an effective opposition. Now at last they have a leadership at least willing to admit that free market capitalism isn't the cure for all ills and to, rather timidly, suggest there may be a fairer alternative, but the bitter Blairites on the back benches hamper them at every turn.

The solution is simple, we need to build more social housing and cap excessive rents in the private sector that drive tenants into penury. David Cameron and his country house cabinet would probably dismiss that as woolly idealism and say that market forces have to have their way, even if they drag us all over a cliff in the process.

When Green Party leader Natalie Bennett made this point during the general election the media preferred to focus on the fact that she got some of her figures wrong due to having a heavy cold; to me and, I suspect to people like Danny Flynn who see the consequences of our chronic lack of affordable housing at the sharp end it sounds like common sense.

The trouble is common sense is the first casualty of the dreary squabble amongst members of a distant elite our political discourse has descended into; the tragic outcome of this is more people than ever sleeping rough in a country rich enough to give everyone a bed for the night.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Taking the fight to raise awareness about the dangers of fracking to the streets.

Members of North Staffs Green Party joined over a hundred campaigners from Friends of the Earth and other organisations in Hanley to protest against government fracking proposals this weekend.

They were taking part in a national day of action and members involved came from across the region with representatives from Newcastle, Leek and Cannock present.

The demonstration took place outside the Intu Potteries Shopping Centre and was followed by a march to Hanley Town Hall. Organisers said the main objective of the event was to raise awareness about the risks to the environment and to communities posed by fracking.

In a speech made on the steps of Hanley Town Hall Sean Adam, a coordinator for North Staffs Green Party and one of the organisers of the event outlined the dangers posed by fracking.

These included damage to the environment caused by the toxic materials brought up from underground as part of the process. He had not, he said, heard any convincing evidence from supporters of fracking that the safety measures they claim will be put in place would be effective.

The process was, he went on to say, being driven by utility companies who were 'putting profits ahead of people' and were not investing in infrastructure such as piping and water treatment plants.

He also warned of the potential impact on local communities. Although Stoke-on-Trent City Council do not include the use of fracking in their energy policy there is a possibility that contaminated material generated as part of the process may be brought to a site in Middleport for treatment.

This would be, Mr Adam said, 'another blow' to a community that had been hit hard by the decline of the pottery industry. As a result of the risk of contamination property values in the area would go down whilst insurance premiums would be likely to increase.

He added that this would also happen in areas where fracking took place and there would be additional problems caused by issues such as water shortages that would have an impact on householders.

After the march the protestors took their banner to a bridge over the A500 in Stoke to raise awareness amongst passing motorists, receiving a mostly favourable response.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough who attended the event said, 'the number of people who have come out in the wet and cold today to make their feelings known shows the deep level of public concern about this issue. We are committed to promoting sustainable forms of generating the energy we all rely on and believe that rather than ever more extreme methods of extracting fossil fuels are what the government should be investing in.'

Further events are planned throughout the year with the next being held in Cannock on an as yet undisclosed date.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Capping LHA will cause already vulnerable people health damaging levels of stress.

Changes to housing benefits that could see a cap placed on the local housing allowance (LAH) could have a damaging impact on the health and well-being of vulnerable people living in sheltered and supported housing.

Research carried out by the National Housing Federation and published in the Sentinel yesterday revealed that 41% of all sheltered and supported housing could be affected with tenants losing, on average, £68 per week in benefits.

The cap on LHA could also see care homes and sheltered housing developments close causing distress for residents, some of whom may become homeless as a result.

Before Christmas North Staffs Green Party launched a campaign for social justice in the housing sector, as part of which party member Sean Adams spent a night sleeping rough outside the Civic Centre in Stoke to highlight the plight of homeless people.

Today, as part of their ongoing campaign the party wrote to the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to protest at the cap to LHA.

Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said,: 'This is a massively unfair cut to the benefits of some of the most vulnerable members of society, people we should be supporting to live with dignity; not putting under unnecessary financial pressure.'

He added that ' as a volunteer for a local mental health charity I see a great many people who have been either made ill due to stress or had an existing condition made worse through the pressured associated with living on benefits. There is no question that this cap on LHA will have a devastating impact on the well-being of people who are already facing significant challenges.'

As part of its manifesto at the 2015 election the Green Party put forward a range of policies aimed at making the benefits system fairer and improving access to social housing. These include, building 500,000 good quality social homes and giving local authorities control over housing benefit budgets ,allowing them to design packages of support tailored to their specific area. The manifesto also included policies aimed at improving benefits for people with disabilities and their carers.

Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said ' as a party we are committed to building a fairer and more sustainable society where every member is valued and able to live with dignity. Those values mean that we will fight the damaging austerity agenda of this government at every opportunity.'

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Life as told by the 'Man from the Pru.'

Easily Distracted
David Vickers
(city Voices Publishing, 2014)

The one thing a writer of memoirs needs more than anything else is the happy knack of being someone to whom interesting things happen. Despite downplaying his achievements as a poet and composer David Vickers has said knack, as this charming, funny, sometimes profound and always interesting book demonstrates.

In twenty or so chapters he takes a leisurely wander through his life and times, covering a period from the end of the war to the present day. Along the way he has a range of mostly comic misadventures, including coming face to face with a demon cardboard baler in his first job, having an authentically swinging sixties night out in Wales and accidentally rubs shoulders with several stars including country singer Gene Pitney.

The interest in the book is primarily local with the names of long gone pottery works and the much missed, by the generation before mine, Sherwins record shop in Hanley featuring prominently There is though plenty to interest readers from further afield.

Vickers is an adept observer of human nature in all its flaws and virtues, a skill honed no doubt during his stint as a 'Man from the Pru,' This section of the book yields some to his best anecdotes showing his customers as a more diverse, even eccentric, community than might be expected.

His writing style is self deprecating with a strong sense of compassion for the sometimes troubled people he has encountered along the way. The whole thing puts you in mind of a chat around the fire in a back street pub rather than the 'look how well I've done' showing off that often spoils autobiographies.

This is an amiable and unpretentious book, rather like its author, only after a conversation with both has ended do you come away surprised by having heard something unexpected.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Becoming the UK's City of Culture could show the world what Stoke is made of.

Last night members of the council's cabinet voted to back Stoke-on-Trent bidding to become the UK City of Culture.

Speaking to the Sentinel cabinet member for leisure Terry Follows said that Stoke was 'a city which is awash with culture' adding that a successful bid see the city 'achieve recognition throughout the world.'

It could certainly see prestige events like the Turner prize and the Brits come to the city, previous holders of the title have seen their economy receive a significant boost, £5 for every £1 spent in the case of Derry, Hull set to be the next City of Culture in 2017 expects to see an extra £60 million added to its economy.

There is a considerable cash outlay, just making a bid will cost £165,000 with an extra £10 million bill if the city is successful. This makes it a tough sell at a time when funds are tight and the public has been made cynical by seeing too many grand schemes come to nought.

You can see why there isn't exactly dancing in the streets at the thought of another project that might deliver less than it promises every time you ride a bus into Hanley and look upon the multi-coloured mess that is Smithfield. The last administration ran up a huge debt to build what is essentially a speculative development no different from a Spanish timeshare that might or might not ever turn a profit.

Proponents of the bid, and I am one, with some reservations, might point to the fact that in this instance we won't have to build anything and there is a fair chance that they, visitors, will come. That isn't though to say that we should be starry eyed about things, far from it, to succeed a bid to be UK City of Culture must be ruthlessly pragmatic.

For a start the risk has to be spread, local businesses will benefit from extra trade and so should be expected to put up much of the funding, the role of the council should be primarily as a facilitator and project manager. Whoever puts up the cash the budget has to be watched closely, there cannot be an overspend, largely due to poor planning, of the sort that plagued Smithfield.

Despite the risks involved making a bid, even an unsuccessful one, provides a golden opportunity to market Stoke-on-Trent to a wider audience and attract much needed outside investment; so what's holding us back?

In part its the, not unreasonable, concerns about cost and official competence outlined above, but there is another and much darker reason why so many people may be sceptical about our chances. One that goes to the heart of the flawed psychology that has so often held this city back.

Stoke is a city afflicted by a massive inferiority complex, a cultural cringe that has lasted for decades and left us feeling that we aren't quite good enough. We're the salt of the earth, hard working and nice enough in our way, but 'culture'; that isn't for the likes of us.

Nothing could be further from the truth, Stoke is a city with creativity hard-wired into its DNA. You can see this in the mostly unsung artistry shown by generations of pottery workers. It can still be seen the city's outstanding music scene, whistle down an alley in Fenton and you're likely to get a cracking guitar riff back.

We've got one top university and another on our doorstep, both are producing the artists and innovators or tomorrow. A world famous football team, two depending on which part of town you live in and a history that takes in everything and everyone from the Spitfire to Jackie Trent composer to the theme tune to Neighbours. That's more than enough culture for a city twice the size.

Most of all we have, even those of us who will never compose a symphony and can't draw much beyond stick figures, the unique character that comes from living in Stoke. This is a famously friendly city with a refreshing dislike of pretension and an original sense of humour.

The trouble is as a city we have spent so long on our knees we've forgotten that we might just be a bit special. Its time to stand tall again, to challenge the negative image of our city perpetuated by an insular elite, most of whom have seldom left the confines of Islington, and show the world what we can do.

Culture is not the property of a single class who then get to dole it out like parish charity; it belongs to all of us because making or appreciating it is central our humanity. That idea more than anything should be at the heart of our bid to make this a city of culture, whether we win the official title or not.