Monday, 17 July 2017

Council to spend £335,000 on cleaning up Hanley.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to spend £335,000 on tackling anti-social behaviour in Hanley.

Under a proposed public spaces protection order begging and street drinking would be criminalized and the police would have new powers to move on rough sleepers.

Money from the pot will also be spent on funding three new PCSOs to patrol the town centre and £10,000 will be spent on using vinyl window stickers to smarten up empty shops.

The plan will see the creation of a new post for a city centre strategic coordinator with a salary of £50,000 to oversee the project.

Spending on pastoral support for street drinkers, rough sleepers and other people coping with chaotic lived will be set at £35,000.

Jonathan Bellamy chair of the City Centre Partnership welcomed the plan saying it would ‘see a return as people will feel safer and will therefore spend more time in the town centre.’

The council will also set up a City Centre Business Improvement District (BID) to raise money from local businesses ring fenced to be spent in the town centre.

Is this money well spent? Hanley certainly has its problems. Like all town centres it is a magnet for the troubled and the lost.

At a time when Stoke-on-Trent as a newly shortlisted runner to be the 2021 City of Culture needs to show its best face to the world. Look beyond the headline figure and something more problematic can be seen.

Make no mistake £335,000 is a serious chunk of cash, a large slice of which, £961,00 a week to be exact, will be paid to the new strategic coordinator.

Only £631,00 a week will be spent on pastoral care for people who, for the most part, have ended up on the streets through bad luck rather than personal failings. The money will be split between multiple charities and projects, reducing the figure even further.

This seems like a strange, but sadly not unfamiliar, set of priorities. Once again hiring a highly paid manager to oversee services has been put ahead of funding said services properly. Past experience has taught everyone outside the ivory tower inhabited by senior council officers that this doesn't work.

Setting up a BID may prove problematic too if the experience of people in nearby Newcastle is anything to go by. Some businesses there have complained of being strong armed into joining.

There is also the small matter of communities being made up of more than businesses, but under BID only business owners, many of whom might live out of the area, will have a say on how the money raised is spent. That is far from democratic and could cause a serious clash of interests.

There is also the perennial problem of how to spread the benefits out to the other five towns.

Hanley is on the up after years of decline, walk down Piccadilly and it almost seems cosmopolitan, slickly metropolitan certainly. That is a good thing, every city needs a centre, but you can't solve social problems just by moving them on to somewhere else.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Democracy dies in darkness.

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time, setting up an independent panel to scrutinize allowances paid to members of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Like many bold initiatives before it this one has hit the rocks of unforeseen problems. The announcement of who would sit on the panel was due to be made last Thursday and has now been delayed.

Elections monitoring officer Fiona Ledden told the Sentinel thus was due to ‘technical’ issues. Code, it would seem, for concerns having been expressed by Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez about the appointment of Alan Barrett to sit on the members remuneration panel.

Mr Barrett was a leading light in the March on Stoke campaign against the building of a new civic centre. In 2014, he launched a petition calling for a 30% cut in councillor’s allowances.

In the headline to an article published on Friday the Sentinel called the holding back of an announcement about the panel a ‘mystery’. You probably don't need Sherlock on speed dial to work out what's going on.

If you do and you happen to think politics is more than just a distraction, then you will have ample cause for concern.

What has happened is that the political establishment, represented here by our own dear council, has dipped a toe into the water of transparency, only to pull back at the last moment.

There is something distinctly farcical about the claim made by the Labour leader that Alan Barratt was too ‘political’ a figure to sit on the panel.

Having met him on several occasions I would agree that he is a man of strong opinions, not all of them relating to politics. He is also someone with a strong sense of public service and a demonstrable commitment to working to improve his community.

Those are, you might reasonably think, the sort of qualities you'd look for in a councillor. They certainly more than qualify him to scrutinize how councillors are paid.

I find it hard to believe that someone who has been around the block as many times as Mr Pervez fails to realize how important effective scrutiny is to the political process. Particularly when the people doing it ask awkward questions; which is exactly what I'd expect Alan Barratt to do.

Why does all this matter? It's hardly something hipster types munching on artisan sandwiches in the Cultural Quarter are talking about between bites, never mind those who inhabit the corridors of power.

It matters because it reveals a wider malaise in the state of politics. We are rapidly reaching a state where two rival camps warily eye each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

On one side, we have an establishment cocooned within the Westminster bubble that increasingly fears and distrusts a public it feels are unpredictable. In the other corner stand we the public growing ever more sceptical and restive by the day.

Democracy is a fragile flower, it dies in darkness, particularly if its roots are doused in dishonesty. If we want it to thrive then we have to let in the light of transparency.

The bad old days when payments for special responsibilities were handed out like prizes at a school sports day with everyone sure of getting something, whether they deserved it or not, are long over. Today's councillors serving larger wards for the most part deliver value for money.

As the old saying goes if members of the council have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear.

By acting like they do and quibbling over an entirely suitable appointment, they are helping to fuel a distrust that will make their already difficult job even harder.