What a fantastic protest today! Despite the cold, we put lots of layers of clothing on and got out there and marched. Why? Because Stoke-on-Trent City Council do not listen to us and because they have no sense and no credibility. We don't want to be plunged into debt to move the Civic Centre back to Hanley, from Stoke. It was in Hanley before, the Civic Centre in Stoke is not that old, recently refurbished and perfectly usable and money has been spent on consultants whose reports do not recommend the move. BBC Midlands Today did a good TV report yesterday and BBC Radio Stoke interviewed council leader Mohammed Pervez who admitted despite the >£40million pound cost he doesn't really know what the final sum will be. We have had great support and coverage by StaffsLive throughout.
We marched in a very long snaking procession from Cannon Place in Hanley to the Civic Centre in Kingsway Stoke. Thanks to the police and stewards for a safe transit and for stopping traffic. Thumbs up for support from motorists and sorry, as they say, for any inconvenience caused. So very well done to all protesters.
A rally was held in Kingsway. We heard from a number of speakers including the youngest, Michelle aged 16. She's not a voter yet but by the 2015 elections she will be able to vote. Points made included that it is our tax money and we don't want the council squandering it, racking up debts that we and our children will have to pay off. They should work for us, the civic move was not on the cards when we voted in 2011. We are not against regeneration, but we don't want our money servicing debt and we think the council plans are illogical and poorly thought out and they do not have their priorities right. We do have an alternative, develop all 6 towns, each with their own character and keep Stoke with its rail and major road links the centre for civic activity. It was clear people want this council out and chanted this. It was noted that it is not the entire council that decides on most issues, it is the controlling group, Labour and specifically the cabinet in charge of making the decisions. What is needed is for people to vote with awareness of the individual they select. Often there will be a good independent candidate there to serve residents only, not a political party. Even if a preferred candidate is a member of a political party, it is the consideration given in making the choice that is important. In particular, there in no need to vote 'the same way' on the local ballot paper as on the general election one. Not all of the councillors are against us, it is just that if they're not in the controlling Labour group, they can't overturn the decisions.
So, what about our Labour MPs, what do they think of our Labour council and the move of the civic centre? Coincidentally, just this morning I received a letter from my MP Rob Flello, following up a 'community conference' he had held with residents in November, which of course I attended. He says “the £40m that is being cited for the cost of the move is money that is to be found from closing some council buildings, savings from bringing staff together and borrowed, not money that is being taken away from other services”. So, why close buildings that are fit for purpose, bringing staff together perhaps means redundancies and the last point, “borrowed”, is what particularly bothers people. If the council has to spend money on interest, servicing the debt, then that surely does impact on services. Rob Flello says “I am pleased at the leadership being shown by the council”. I have to say I hugely disagree with Rob on this point.
I live in Hanford & Trentham ward, where we have embraced the independent idea, with both our councillors being independent. Furthermore, if a councillor has not served us well, we have shown we can turf them out at an election, as we did in the case of Ross Irving.
So, will this protest change the council's mind? I doubt it, but that is only part of the reason to protest. It is also about having our say and raising political awareness. Mind you, I tend to be a pessimist. I didn't expect such a large turnout today, I had thought maybe 300, but most of the figures being quoted are at least two times this. It was thrilling to see so many there, especially as I had personally put out 1,360 leaflets in Trentham. Maybe this encouraged some people to turn up, or if not, at least to know more about the issue. But as Alan Barret had said, he would march if only 10 turned up, that was my view also. Sometimes success can be had, as with the save Trentham High campaign. All the way through that I never thought we had more than a 50% chance of success, but I felt determined to have a say. We won then. What about the next local election, simultaneous with the next general election? I would predict a Labour council by a huge majority. But then, I am a pessimist, so could it be different?
What next? One of the pointers from the rally was let's be politically aware. On February 28th the full council meets at 5.30pm to discuss the budget (cuts), one of the few decisions made by the full council rather than the cabinet. These meetings are open to the public to observe (no shouting out is allowed, but it's a chance to see how they operate). I have been observing council meetings either in person or on the web for some time, sometimes asking public questions. I have blogged on these on this blog since 8/9/11, for example on the crazy City Sentral name, approving the £40million to move the Civic Centre to Hanley, petitions against the move, independent councillor motion against the move and last year's budget council 23/2/12. It would be good to see more who attended the rally turning up. The plan is to assemble at 5pm on Thursday, just before the meeting. See you there!