Saturday, 8 September 2012

Stoke on Trent City Council Meeting 6/9/12

I attended this council meeting and this time contributed by asking supplementary questions to two public questions.  I will concentrate in this blog on petitions and public questions and refer to times in the webcast.


Two of the petitions opposed the move of the civic centre from Stoke to Hanley.  There was a further petition on this still receiving signatures outside the civic centre as I arrived – I signed it naturally,  I reported previously on the decision at the last council meeting to squander a further ~£40k on this move.  The speaker, Richard Snell (0:20:31), gave a very good presentation.  He described the planned move as madness from the point of view of residents, traders and the business community.  He also presented an alternative idea to concentrating the city in Hanley; to build on the city's heritage, keep the tradition of the civic centre in Stoke and introduce town councils to build a strong federation of towns within the city.  This is a good idea I think.  He expressed some surprise that the council had not thought of this.  I'm not surprised myself, I just suspect Labour would find it more difficult to dominate such a devolved structure.

City Independent Cllr Randy Conteh (0:23:18) then proposed that the petition be passed on to the City Renewal Overview and Scrutiny Committee for further consideration.  Labour Cllr Ruth Rosenau (0:23:46) said opposition councillors could have called the decision in but didn't.  Labour Council Leader Mohammed Pervez (0:24:10) agreed with this but what happened next surprised me.  Pervez began a discussion and rebuttal of the petition itself.  Normal procedure is that councillors may propose referral to scrutiny but do not debate a petition in full council unless it has reached at least 5,000 signatures, which these petitions had not.  So anyway, Pervez launched into his speech, much of which was nonsense.  He claimed, as has been said many times before, that the empty Spode site is attractive to investors.  If so, why is it still empty?  It seems to me he's been flogging that particular dead horse far too long now.  He now adds that the abandoned civic offices, King's Hall, Kingsway car park and Swann House will be attractive to investors.  But he repeated the claim that moving the civic centre to Hanley will give businesses the confidence to follow and invest in Hanley.  Now to me that's logically inconsistent, if moving the council to Hanley attracts business then wouldn't the council abandoning Stoke have the opposite effect there?  I can't see that he can have this both ways.  Furthermore, the supposed plans for Stoke are unclear even within the Labour party; Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central Dr Tristram Hunt has been complaining in the press about lack of information on this. Pervez used that tired old claim that the electorate on the doorstep agree with Labour on this issue, a claim of course for which there is no evidence.  There is however documented evidence in petitions and protests that many of the electorate do not agree. One pertinent question Pervez did ask was “where are we now exactly?”  Anyway, eventually unaffiliated Cllr Paul Breeze (0:30:45) pointed out that procedure had gone awry.  

City Independent Cllr Dave Conway (0:32:16) was consequently also given the right to speak.  He pointed out that a colossal amount of money has been spent renovating 4 floors of the Stoke civic centre, what a waste to then abandon it.  I'm not surprised, the Willfield gym and education centre were also nicely renovated, I saw them myself.  Where are they now?  Bulldozed!  He referred to the claim of good feedback on the doorsteps being rubbish, if it was so good then why didn't Labour win the Springfields and Trent Vale by-election?  He also pointed out that the new bus station that Pervez had mentioned is not big enough for all the buses!  He said the money for moving to Hanley was borrowed and there was no money to invest in Stoke.  He rightly expressed concern about the council's increasing debt.

Cllr Randy Conteh (0:36:27) was then given the right to reply to the debate.  He said Hardial Bhogal, director of city renewal, had said he would provide information on the proposals for the regeneration of Stoke and that councillors and petitioners needed to see this and petitioners should be able to bring their case to scrutiny.

Needless to say the City Independent motion to take this issue to the scrutiny committee was lost because dominant Labour councillors voted against it.

Public Questions

There were 8 public questions for which 2 questioners, one of whom was me, attended to ask supplementary questions for 4 of these.

Mike Barnes had asked what would be done to provide better future projections of and services for the population in the city, which is increasing contrary to previous predictions.   Council Leader Mohammed Pervez had attributed the unexpected increase to soaring birth rates and EU inward migration on a scale never seen before.  He had said services were reviewed on a rolling basis and the ONS provide annual population estimates.  Mike Barnes  (0:39:56) asked about inconsistencies in reports he had heard regarding the population.  Mohammed Pervez (0:41:04) said the uncertainties depend on the accuracy of the data collection and that the population of the city is 249,000, from the 2011 census.

Mike Barnes had also asked which councillors had signed up to the new standards protocol.  Mohammed Pervez had replied that council had agreed a code of conduct effective 1st July 2012 and it automatically applies to all members, they do not have to sign.  Mike Barnes (0:42:48) asked what selection procedure is used to appoint the independent member of the standards committee and whether the criteria include political party membership or former membership.  He said the current individual was a Labour party member for 27 years.   Mohammed Pervez  asked the head of legal services Paul Hackney (0:43:55) to answer this.  He said the council's fair recruitment and selection procedure is used and the independent member must have no current political affiliations.  So presumably this would be applied to any former member of any political party, irrespective of how long they had held that membership, provided they had currently ceased membership.

Then it was my turn.  The background to my questions was that I had wanted for both general interest and local reasons to find out the catchment areas of the primary schools in the city.  I had scoured the Stoke-on-Trent city council website but had failed to find the information I was seeking.  I submitted questions relating to this.  In between submission and receiving the answers, pleasingly, a map of catchment areas appeared on the website.

So my first question had been to request a map showing the primary school catchment areas.  Cllr Alan Dutton, cabinet member for education, had replied that this is now on the website. I asked the question (0:45:20) “How are catchment areas decided and how can local residents take part in the decision making process?"  Alan Dutton (0:45:40) replied that schools decided this and that parents could choose schools if places were available.  This threw me rather because if schools decided their own catchment areas there would be overlaps and gaps.  Also no mention was made of the council's role in deciding the catchment areas.  The point about parental choice isn't really relevant because catchment areas only matter in precisely the situation where there aren't enough places and parents may be denied their choice.  This links in with Mike Barnes' question about population.  In my area of Trentham both the primary school and high school are oversubscribed.  This isn't a direct issue for me as my children are past high school age and continuing their education outside the city, but it's of great general importance, has community implications locally and can cause great difficulties to families when catchment areas move.  Besides, I have been banging on about impending lack of school places for years.  I will be following up this question with the council.

My second question had been to request not just any map, but a map on the website.  I had provided an example of one, from West Berkshire council, for no other reason than this popped up when I did an internet search and looked useful.  Of course Stoke-on-Trent had provided a web map after I'd asked the question, so Alan Dutton's reply reflected this.  I had prepared two possible supplementary questions in this case.  I had been dismayed when I saw the meeting documents because my question had not been reproduced as I had sent it.  One possible supplementary question could have been: “An apostrophe has been introduced to this question as printed.  This was not in my original question and is grammatically incorrect.  Would the education department please remove it from the meeting documents and minutes?”  However I had chased this up ahead of the meeting and been told that the meeting documents would not change but the error would be corrected in the minutes, which is half OK.  So instead I posed another question (0:47:01).  “The introduction of these maps to the website is most welcome.  But could we please have more zoom out options added so those of us with an interest in education across the city can see the bigger picture?”   Alan Dutton (0:47:19) replied that the Stoke-on-Trent map is superior to the example I had given.  To an extent this is a matter of opinion, hopefully you may judge for yourselves and compare West Berkshire with Stoke-on-Trent.  While writing this blog I am unable to access the West Berkshire map, but from memory my assessment of the two websites is that Stoke-on-Trent is better in respect of having both aerial photograph and OS map views and catchment areas of different colours, albeit of poorer contrast in OS view and West Berkshire is better in respect of having blue rather than yellow boundary lines which are easier to see, having quicker and less cumbersome navigation around the map and having a larger number of zoom levels.  It's good that Stoke-on-Trent now has a catchment map and I can feed in suggestions for improvement via the website.

UPDATE 11/10/12

Following the council meeting Alan Dutton did arrange for a meeting between the council's education department, our local councillors and some members of our local RA to discuss a local catchment issue.  That was useful insofar as it enabled a better understanding of how these things work but not as yet in producing any desired change.  

It was clarified that the council does indeed have a major role in deciding catchment areas (less so for academies and trust schools for which there are very few in the primary sector in Stoke-on-Trent for the time being).  In fact it is ultimately the council's cabinet which makes these decisions, although they are unlikely to take any action unless prompted by the education department of the council.  If the education department wants to make a change they trigger a 'consultation' which is considered by an 'admissions forum' at the council attended by some school governors and councillors, which then advises cabinet.  This process is for admissions policy more broadly and may or may not include any catchment consideration.

It was also clarified that there is no formal way that local people are included in the council's process but we can meet with, write to and let our views be known to councillors, council officers, cabinet members and school heads and governing bodies.

It is the issue of primary catchment which is of particular major concern locally to the RA I am in.  The council states that catchment areas must be “reasonable” and “inclusion of a catchment tends to increase the chances of local people getting access to their local school”.  However locally a change was made that was very unfair and had the opposite effect, exclusion of local people from catchment has decreased, rather than increased, the chances of those families getting access to their local school.  The education department and Alan Dutton are now aware of this and have been requested to rectify this in future cabinet decisions, although there is of course no guarantee that cabinet will agree.

There are some distressing anecdotal accounts but I requested some statistical information regarding the schools local people from different areas, both within the council defined catchment and the area we think should be in catchment, are asking for and the schools actually allocated and the areas from which allocations to the school actually come from.  I thought some real statistics would help with discussions at our RA open meeting next week.  But I am still waiting for the numbers.

As for the suggestions I made for the website, which were well illustrated by me having to litter the meeting table with multiple A4 sheets printed from the web, on account of not being able to zoom out far enough, these have not, as yet, been implemented.

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