The recent BBC4 documentary series this month on Stoke-on-Trent CityCouncil was filmed over a considerable period in 2010-11 by Blast! Films and clearly the local nature of this deserves comment from local bloggers such as myself.
To put my comments in context I will state where I am politically, which is political but not party political. Referring to parties of relevance to Stoke-on-Trent and this documentary, I have never voted for the Conservatives or British National Party. I have in the past, to my shame perhaps, voted Labour and Liberal Democrat. I currently have a preference for independents (although clearly will not like all of them or agree with everything they do) and voted for the Hanford and Trentham independent councillors in the 2011 local election.
I have to say I was a little surprised about the focus of the documentary, mainly on the cuts and on specific cuts. Clearly they will have filmed many hours of footage and had to select from that quite severely to fit it into a 3 hour mini-series. But I suppose I expected a rather wider coverage and certainly more depth than appeared.
I did get the impression that some of the worst aspects of our city and our councillors, of all parties including Labour and the BNP and even independent councillors, were shown.
The 'democratic' process
There was a lot that the documentary didn't say. I have mentioned some of these things in a previous blog relating to the relationship between local and central government. A key issue here has been the use (and abuse in my opinion), by Labour, of the Local Government Act 2000 which was used to impose an unelected board to interfere in our city, take away our system of election by thirds contrary even to a local council vote and inflict ward boundary changes on us. So now we can only hold our councillors to account once every 4 years instead of annually 3 years out of 4. The documentary focused on the 2011 local council election but didn't put it in this context very well. Furthermore it did not mention the outrageous curtailing of the terms of 20 of our councillors, who were elected for 4 years which was then cut down to 3. This is unfair and undemocratic both to the elected councillors concerned who had been lied to about the time they would serve and to the electorate who voted for them to give them a 4 year mandate. I know there were people interviewed who would have talked sensibly about these deeper issues of democracy, but their interviews were not included.
The documentary included the time just prior to the 2011 election when we had 60 councillors in 3 member wards and a very politically mixed cabinet including members from the 3 largest parties/groupings; Labour, City Independents, Conservative and Independent Alliance, but notably also a Liberal Democrat but not members of the larger British National Party and Community Voice groups. (It is worth pointing out that independent councillors often form groups for pragmatic reasons because the council is structured that way but are not whipped in the same way as political parties.) The cabinet was led by Mohammed Pervez from the largest group, Labour, who remains the leader of the current 44 member council, 33 of whom are Labour.
The filming showed some of the worst antics of the councillors, such as Debra Gratton looking really out of her depth and just saying how difficult things were and Mohammed Pervez being advised by media man Dan Barton (who has since left the council) along with other council officers, but with his blank look, appearing as if it was all washing over him. He used that phrase “we are where we are” which I hate and which is overused by some councillors to try to 'justify' any further stupid decisions they want to make. The documentary stated that Pervez is paid £44,000 per year for his council role and that he also has a full time job as a research scientist, so I would imagine there is little time to get to grips with council matters. Peter Kent-Baguley and Brian Ward were seen in heated argument and Terry Follows was seen being vocally rather aggressive towards Barbara Beeston. Mike Coleman made an inadvisable comment about muslims and what they wear that I had better not repeat (in the 'retweeting' debate this doesn't have to mean agreement in my view, just that you want to alert others to what someone else has said). Terry Follows and Denver Tolley were both shown using the scare tactic that if they don't do what 'government' wants they will come in and take over. But in Denver's case, as Labour, they actually brought the government in when it suited them. Besides, there is a lot the council does that isn't driven by government, the deeply unpopular move of the civic centre from Stoke to Hanley, squandering our money and plunging us into further debt whilst cutting valued services, being just one example.
In terms of the election itself the documentary reports Labour and anti-fascist groups “campaigning together”. Now I understand that there are very strict rules regarding election campaigns and campaign expenses and who is officially supporting whom and who is campaigning independently of whom, which clearly need to be adhered to!
I was astounded recently when it was reported in the local press that the council are squandering yet more of our money on spin! The article states that “Mohammed Pervez told The Sentinel he would review the authority's 'communication strategy' after seeing his party lose the Springfields and Trent Vale by-election to the City Independents in July”. The way that reads rather implies that our council tax payers money is being used to boost the image of “his party” - Labour. That cannot be right. I recommend reading the remarks made by former councillor John Davis (no relation) in this article, I have to say I totally agree with him on this.
BNP candidate Mickey White was interviewed, he wanted a future for his daughter and was frustrated at being unemployed with foreign migrants getting work. His concern for a good future for his child is one most of us parents share and his frustrations have some justification. Pervez has even stated at council that a rise in the city's population is due to EU migrants as well as birth rate.
Mike Coleman was interviewed talking about a well motivated, very organised body of people. The filming here left this a little ambiguous though I speculate that he may have been referring to a community of Asian origin, but I wonder if he was also on some level wishing his own political party could be that well organised. The worst aspect of the protesters outside the civic centre on election night was also shown when Mike Coleman was spat on. Protest by all means but that sort of assault is unacceptable. Mike lost the plot when he lost the election and went on to be convicted of racially-aggravated harassment. Resorting to law breaking is not the answer either. I believe the BNP are now finished in Stoke-on-Trent and maybe even further afield.
A most pertinent comment was made by a local voter, Dave, who said he votes differently in local elections than he does in general elections. Now that is something I would like to see more of, firstly someone who is willing to consider the issues and actually go out and vote and secondly someone who is willing to consider voting differently in different elections, depending on the issues involved. How he votes is obviously his choice but it would be good to see more people making considered decisions rather than blindly following a party by tradition or not even bothering to vote.
Right at the start of this documentary series it is stated, correctly, that central government Conservative cuts are responsible for reducing local government funding, for 2011-12 this was an 8.09% cut for Stoke-on-Trent, amounting to £21.6million. (Of course Labour have openly stated that they would be cutting if they were in government as well, just not so fast.) But the documentary immediately goes on to say that the Labour led council is therefore going to 'save' £36million. So it's not all down to central government, much is down to local council poor choices and as independent councillor Dave Conway states, “bad management”. This is a council which pays its chief executive silly money and even then he needs an assistant also on silly money.
Amongst the cuts the documentary focuses on is the cut to children's centres and the successful battle led by Melissa Beydilli to keep these open, followed of course by cuts to the services offered at these centres. It was interesting that Mohammed Pervez telephoned Melissa to ask to 'help her' with her talk when she presented her >5000 signature petition against the closures to full council. Melissa spoke well about the importance of early provision for children, but the filming also revealed a worse side. She was dropped off at the civic centre in a car which parked on a double yellow line! After the children's centres were 'saved' and of course after Labour had won so many council seats in the 2011 election and introduced a Labour only cabinet, they proposed a 30% cut to the children's centres budget. This is when Melissa realised what they were really like - “conniving” and said the campaign had been “used and abused”. In the end the cut was negotiated down to 20%.
Various other areas cut were also mentioned including Shelton and Tunstall swimming pools. The shenanigans that go on with swimming pools in the city are incredible. I'm not even going to dare to go there in this blog.
Another strong focus of the documentary was the closure of council care homes, Eardley and in particular Heathside House. The residents seemed happy there and the carers did really seem to care. It was interesting listening to some of the residents. I had to chuckle during a quiz when icebergs came up, a resident said it was a lettuce. Alice was a very jovial character and fantasized amusingly about a luxury holiday. Mabel didn't hold back in having her say and reported that they weren't asked about whether they wanted the care home closed, they were just told. Pervez described the care homes as “poor quality”, which annoyed Gaynor, the manager of Heathside House. A resident's relative in a meeting with Pervez said it was “baloney” for him to talk about short term rehabilitation when people have dementia, complained of “no proper consultation” and accused the council of failure. It slipped out during the documentary that the strategic decision to close the care homes had been made a couple of years previously, not attributable to the Conservative government then. It was quite heart wrenching seeing the old folk moved out of Heathside House. Gaynor took redundancy. I wonder how the residents and former staff are doing now.
What infuriated me the most about the care home issue was Pervez talking about “choice” for elderly people. They had no choice! 'Choice' seems to be a term used by Labour when they are doing exactly the opposite and dictatorially imposing things on people. Shame on them!
Further comments on the cuts are given in a good letter toThe Sentinel by Alan Lear, which I have commented on.
And the result of the 24/2/11 budget and cuts:
For:- Lord Mayor Tolley, councillors Al-Khatib, Barber, B. Ali, Z. Ali, Bell, Bowers,
Brian, Bridges, Brown, Clarke, Daniels, J. Davis, M. Davis, Dillon, Follows, Fradley, Garner, Gratton, Hamer, Hassell, Irving, Iqbal, Khan, Knapper, Lyth, Matloob, Najmi, Pervez, Powell-Beckett, Reynolds, Rosenau, Ryan, Shotton, Smith, D. Walker, Ward, Wazir, Wilcox and Wright. (These are Labour, Conservative and Independent Alliance, City Independent, Liberal Democrat and Non-aligned councillors.)
Against:- Councillors Barnes, Baddeley, Batkin, Coleman, Conway, Burgess, Marfleet, E. Walker, Joynson, Kent-Baguley, Rigby, Salih and Sutton. (These are City Independent, British National Party, Community Voice, Liberal Democrat and Non-aligned Christian Independent councillors.)
Pervez talked about approving this “budget of £36million” and then needing to take out a further £28million. Note that he is not talking about a budget as I would know it, a plan for spend, he is focusing just on cuts. The 2011 local election followed this budget. It was pointed out in the documentary that this election provided in part for a judgement on the cuts so far and the cuts to come. It is noticeable that the electorate largely voted for parties and people inflicting the cuts and less so for those opposing the cuts. So in some sense the people of the city are getting what they collectively asked for.
The documentary series highlighted the council's appalling record on collection of council tax, exposed by Dave Conway at a full council meeting. There were millions of pounds of council tax debts dating back to 1993! One council worker said people were given repeated chances despite having excuses like forgetting (for 10 years in one case), spending all their money on holiday and not treating paying the debt as a priority. Pathetic! Some had been given repeated court summonses which they had ignored. One had £6,000 of debt just written off. People were shown with nice cars and large televisions but still not paying their council tax. The bailiff shown struggled to get anywhere as she could only seize possessions with the council's permission which they wouldn't give. There were just no proper repercussions if people didn't pay. The chief executive John van de Laarschot interviewed on this passed the buck to elected members, indicating that they need to decide policy on this.
Some of us, including myself, always pay our council tax and pay it on time. I don't have a problem with the concept of taxation and social responsibility and wish that others who can't be bothered to pay weren't so selfish. Many people on low incomes and benefits get much or all of their council tax paid for them. If this isn't sufficient then they should appeal to the council to do something about it, not just ignore it. I don't think council tax is a great tax, I would prefer a local income tax, but as I'm in a minority on this I have to put up and pay up. I hate the way this council squanders my money but given that others in the city have put this council into power I have to live with it. But I am outraged that this council lets irresponsible residents off, they really do need to be more hard line on this. They should clamp down promptly to stop people building up large debts which become more difficult to pay back and to deter people from trying to get away without paying.
I found Mohammed Pervez's smiles whilst inflicting the cuts disturbing, he said he had driven the whole budget process himself and even said he enjoyed it! He enthused about his political ambitions. He talked about applying Labour values, but if this is what today's Labour values are then I want none of it. This is the man the electorate of Moorcroft choose to keep in power and has so much power given to him by Labour voting electorate in other wards bolstering the number of Labour whipped councillors. Under our poor approximation to democracy we look destined to suffer under a Labour council until at least 2019. The 2015 general election will bring out extra Labour voters who will put their crosses in the local Labour boxes too. Until we get more electorate willing to turn out and vote on local issues and for sensible alternative candidates, we are stuck with a Labour council.
Meanwhile I continue to be an independent voter when I get the chance and possibly even an independent candidate at the next local election.