I arrived just at the right time at the civic centre, in Stoke, for the full council meeting. I'd come direct from a bracing but very scenic 9 mile walk in the Peak District (followed by a nice latte and naughty slice of carrot cake at The Old Smithy in Monyash). It was good to see a packed public gallery, including some from March On Stoke.
There were a few circulations within the public gallery:
- A leaflet from 'March On Stoke' “In loving memory of Democracy which has sadly passed away in Stoke-on-Trent. May you be resurrected in 2015."
- An email address and telephone number which I shan't publish without the owner's permission, directed at those who care about Stoke.
I refer as usual to webcast times in brackets.
Cllr Breeze & the Lord Mayor
There were two speakers for petitions present but unfortunately only one of them got to speak.
Kristian Foster (0:24:18) presented a petition to “stop all plans to relocate the civic centre”. Obviously there is overwhelming support from ordinary people for this petition. Kristian highlighted the council's propensity for wasting money, clarified that we are not against the CBD, just against relocation of the civic centre which is not in the mandate for change. The council should listen to people. But all that can be done by supportive councillors, such as independent Cllr Randy Conteh (0:28:26) is to propose a motion to refer it to scrutiny, which would allow the petitioner and interested parties to have a proper discussion of the issues with the council at a scrutiny meeting. Independent Cllr Ann James (0:28:37) seconded the motion, but obviously it got voted down by Labour. There were various speakers but the worst was Cllr Joy Garner (0:32:40) who complained that the suggested scrutiny would “clog up the rest of the democratic process”. What democracy?
Sharon Edwards was present as lead petitioner for “save our school crossing wardens on Dividy Road” (an extremely busy road). I would have liked to hear a presentation on this issue, which is occurring in various places across the city and has implications for the safety of children. But there seemed to be a mix up where Sharon Edwards believed she had informed the council she was there but legal officer Paul Hackney (1:20:05) said she had not and suggested she present the petition at the next meeting, councillors agreed. I'm not totally clear which meeting this is, the next one on 16th May is the annual council, which wouldn't normally hear petitions, the one after is on 4th July.
One issue of inconsistency that I wonder about is the treatment of petitioners and public questioners. Often, especially with public questions, the Lord Mayor tends to ask if the questioner is present in the chamber, whether they are or not, that gives them the chance to identify themselves if they have not done so already. But this is not consistently done, especially with petitions, so confusion can arise. If there were a consistent process such misunderstandings could be avoided and public involvement could be improved.
On another issue local to me, there was a petition to continue the closure of the alley gate at Abingdon Way. There has also been a petition against closure of the alley gate. I can see both sides of the argument but within Ash Green and Pacific Road Residents' Association (in which this street is located and for which I am currently secretary) what concerns the committee most is the lack of proper consultation by the council! We have been appealing with the help of our Cllr Peter Hayward for a proper process, so that whatever the outcome even those on the losing side of the argument can be satisfied everyone has had a proper say. But we have not got this, a delegated decision has been made, our RA has not been consulted and the council is acting against government guidelines to review gating orders annually. Quite honestly this council is hopeless at involving communities in its decisions.
There were no speakers present for public questions. I have written an article on how to put these forward, on the March on Stoke web site. The last questions I put in led to a welcome meeting with the cabinet member Cllr Alan Dutton and officers but didn't get me much further forward in extracting answers from the council. I may submit questions for the July full council.
I am keen on the idea of having independent councillors who truly represent communities and are not party whipped (and I may even stand as one). Sometimes independent councillors, particularly the city independent group, are accused of being just like a political party and sometimes even of being whipped, which they are not. So it is worth noting that amongst a number of plans and strategies and motions approved at the council meeting, city independents Cllr Dave Conway and Cllr Ann James voted against the joint health and well being strategy and the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent joint waste local plan, whereas others voted for. So they are not party whipped and sometimes do vote differently. I think the difference in views occurred because of issues with consultation. Independent councillors often form groups, this can be helpful for support and discussion but especially because the council structure and processes are built around parties and groups, but councillors are still independent and not whipped.