Saturday, 10 September 2011

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Meeting 8/9/11

I observed the city council meeting from the public gallery.  It is also webcast and I refer to times in the webcast.  As an ordinary member of the public I comment on some of the highlights from my personal perspective.


I always like hearing the petitions and public questions as I'm particularly interested in the grass roots aspects of democracy.

Lisa Meredith (0:23:03) did a fantastic job of presenting her petition, signed by 102 people, asking the council to take action to combat the anti-social behaviour in the alleyway between Dairyfields Way and Brianson Avenue in Moorcroft, by means such as reinstating the foliage, shrubs, railings and/or gates to the alleyway.  She was very angry and accused the council of 13 years of empty promises and said that £100,000 for the area seemed to have gone missing.  I really hope Lisa and her fellow residents get a suitable outcome, though from the history she gave and the council response I don't hold out much hope.

Tracy Brennan (0:26:51), 158 signatures, asked the council to relocate the "Welcome to Penkhull" signs at the end of Gresty Road/Honeywall to a location at the bottom end of Honeywall and spoke about the need for an inclusive discussion to resolve this.

Roy Naylor (0:29:31:), 891 signatures, asked the council to provide a School Crossing Patrol outside the Ormiston Sir Stanley Matthews Academy (Blurton High School in old money - council web link to school is broken), Beaconsfield Drive, Blurton, especially following the tragic death of 12 year old Courtney Holdcroft in June.  Roy said a crossing patrol would be the quickest solution for a dangerous road but also asked for a scrutiny committee to consider a more permanent crossing.  I agree, it is a very valuable part of a student's general education to participate in after school activities, as Courtney was.  School crossing patrols provide a good service but do not cater for those staying after school.  My experience of unsuccessfully asking for a crossing years ago in a different area led me to believe the council needs deaths before properly considering these, which is awful.

Another petition on the list, which did not have a speaker, was one to increase the annual intake of Ash Green Primary School from 60 to 75.  I am interested in this as the school is in my area and my children attended it.  I have long thought the intake should be increased as it is a highly popular and successful school and with high birth rates we need plenty of primary school places.

Public Questions

The council now provides the initial responses to public and members' questions on the website.  This is a great improvement.  Supplementary questions may be asked at the council meeting.

Tracy Hall, question 5, had asked why the problem of livestock on the loose causing damage in Packmoor had not been resolved over many years.  Council Leader Mohammed Pervez had replied "The City Council is actively dealing with a number of livestock related problems in this area."  This is a bland response typical of him.  I suppose we'll believe it's been dealt with if it ever happens.  Tracy (0:33 :51) asked why the council rents out fields with substandard fencing.  Mohammed Pervez (0:34:57) explained that the fields were being used illegally.

Kieran Clarke, question 7, had asked what is being done to bring the woefully inadequate bus information at bus stops up to date.  Cllr Adrian Knapper, cabinet member for planning & transportation, had replied that they were working on a "Bus Information Strategy"  (for goodness sake just have a bus timetable at bus stops, it's not rocket science) but to be fair to him he did say the information would be updated by the end of this year!  Kieran (0:36:18) said he is not so sure the council is capable of getting this right (as a former councillor I guess he knows) and cited cases of bus information being 3-6 years out of date.  It was more of a statement than a question and Adrian Knapper (0:37:58) said officers would contact him to sort it out.  We'll find out who is right in January then.

Mick Williams, question 10, asked specific questions on the council's policy relating to its duty to inform, consult and engage.  The response from Cllr Gwen Hassall, cabinet member for housing & neighbourhoods, had been vague in the extreme; how determined? - "normal processes", resources? - "spread across directorates", timescale? - "ongoing", monitoring? - "existing arrangements", means of local groups to have their views registered and acted upon? - "currently being finalised".  As a committee member of a residents' association I would be interested in that last issue but won't hold my breath.  Mick (0:38:30) said that the decision to close the Community Empowerment Network was undemocratic, made by 3 people out 75 and asked whether the council had participated in the DCLG consultation, if not why not and will it act on the results?  Gwell Hassall (0:40:38) said the vote was 6 for dissolving and 3 against and spectacularly failed to answer the questions on consultation.  (Why am I not surprised?)

Community Hall Management

Cllr Paul Shotton (0:56:40) reported that nominations for community halls were suspended but are now reinstated.  It would be interesting to hear from anyone who knows more about the shenanigans behind this.  On the face of it, it looks like nominations were suspended while Labour feared losing control... surely not!  Labour had produced a list of names for the management teams.  Cllr Ann James (0:58:12) proposed an alternative independent list for Packmoor.  She made the point that if Labour were really interested, those proposed could have joined the committee, whereas those on the independent list were already committee members with important roles.  I am with Ann James on this one.  We need committed active people at the grass roots (and on the council!), not Labour names only there to serve party dominance.  Needless to say Labour won the vote.

Moving Council Meetings to the Evening

Council considered a Notice of Motion (1:31:28), moved by Cllr Paul Shotton and seconded by Cllr Tom Reynolds:

“That this City Council notes that great strides have been made towards ensuring that full Council meetings are viewed by the widest possible audience following the introduction of the webcasting facilities.  Council resolves that:
• in order to give greater opportunity for members of the public to attend the City Council meetings and
• to attract high calibre candidates with diverse backgrounds to stand in local elections,
the normal starting time for those meetings will in future be 5.30 p.m.
Council also confirms that changes to the starting times of the meetings of any of its committees are matters for those committees to determine.”

I agree with the first bullet point above but find the second blatantly disingenuous!  What local elections?  Labour outrageously and dictatorially did away with our annual elections (by thirds) for the next 4 years, contrary to our council's vote, by getting their then Labour government to impose the new election system on us!

Amongst the lively debate on this I pick out just a few examples from many.   

Cllr Paul Shotton (1:31:45) cited Shropshire council where a public petition had requested a move to the evening and Lewisham council which wanted a move from evening to day and were accused of stopping public protest.  He also said daytime meetings make it difficult for the working public to contribute and observe and thinks it is more difficult to find childcare during the day.  I agree on the first point, I have asked public questions in the past and have had to delay them to a month when I had a chance of getting away from work on the day to attend and then bust a gut to get there on time.  It is less important to attend to observe now it is webcast, although there is a different perspective when attending.  I have not been to a council meeting for a while because of work and only attended this time because I was on holiday.  I disagree on the second point.  Having been there and done that; it is easiest to get childcare during the day, difficult but sometimes possible to find a babysitter for later in the evening but virtually impossible around the 5.30pm 'teatime' they are planning for.  Furthermore that is prime time to spend with your children, after school and before their bed time.   

Cllr Paul Breeze (1:35:23) gave a lively and entertaining rant that was nothing like watching paint dry, accused Labour of self interest, referred to 24 Labour voting fodder stooges and suggested Mohammed Pervez should ditch his day job.   

Cllr Andy Platt (1:43:22) said evening meetings have been Labour policy since the 1980s.  So it's taken them over 20 years to implement this then!  Typical Labour.   

Cllr Randy Conteh (1:45:57) and Cllr Ann James (1:48:55) pointed out they think it is a full time job being a councillor and it is important to attend meetings with residents in the evenings.  I agree on these points.  The reason I have not stood for council is because I would not be able to do both that job and my existing job.  I would not be prepared to let residents down or leave important commitments in my other work unfulfilled and I need the money the existing job provides.  Actually on my planet it would be very different.  There would be much more devolution to local communities and many more people involved from the grass roots.  There would be more councillors, but unpaid, making each role manageable alongside other work.   

Cllr Mohammed Pervez (1:55:27) made an amusing comment, getting his own back on Paul Breeze by inviting him to join the Labour group.  I do take exception to his suggestion of attracting high calibre candidates to stand for election.  Fine, but again, what elections?  And diversity?  Labour don't want diversity, they want Labour and have gone to great dictatorial lengths to get it.   

Cllr Tom Reynolds (1:59:32) asked if people show disdain for parliamentary democracy.  Actually I think I do, I would prefer a more representational democracy with less party politics.  There was then a named vote to ensure Labour councillors were thoroughly whipped. 

Even Lord Mayor Terry Follows said (2:07:10) surprise surprise the motion is carried.

Labour Dominance

Cllr Debra Gratton (2:09:50) said she was at a ceremony at Thistley Hough High School relating to new school building.  Cllr Randy Conteh (2:10:36) asked a very pertinent question; why wasn't he as councillor for the ward invited?  Debra Gratton treated him terribly.  First, after finishing her gloating, she didn't even afford him the respect of listening to him and he had to repeat himself.  Then she didn't apologise for his exclusion and dismissively said she didn't know why he wasn't invited.  Well, if she engaged brain she would realise the elected councillor, given the mandate from the people, should be involved in ward events.  So either she didn't think or it was a deliberate act, either way it's a poor show.  To me it looks like intentional sidelining and exclusion of non-Labour councillors of the sort that I believe has been going on for years.  I think it is to con the public into thinking Labour are doing the great things and others can't be bothered, whereas in my experience it is for the most part the other way around.  Where I live we had problems with some of our Tories instead, but again it's a large party problem.  We've done the sensible thing now and voted in independents who actually care about the community above party politics.

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