Saturday, 3 August 2013

Stoke-on-Trent Dear Leader's Spin Blog

On 25th June 2015, our council leader in Stoke-on-Trent, Cllr Mohammed Pervez, decided to publish a blog.  Good idea I thought.  I'm no fan of Labour, but I do like the idea of our councillors communicating with us.  What a shame that communication is only one way!  To begin with he did the decent thing and had the blog open to comments.  Several us commented on his first blog and there was a good selection of decent and sensible comments on issues of importance to us.  This was a chance for the council to take some notice.

"It’s all too easy to lose touch with the people" he had said. "I’m going to be using this blog to reach out to local people and engage with you" he had said.  So we started to engage by making useful comments.  These were published online.  This was very useful so everyone could gain from each other's thoughts.  It didn't last long though!  He soon closed down the comment facility.  I kept a note of my comment on Cllr Pervez's first blog and I reproduce it below.  The shame though is the loss then and the continued loss of other people's input.

So alas, Cllr Pervez's blog is yet another arm of the mighty Labour spin machine and Labour continue to fail to listen!

As for his promise to "also be engaging in more online debates; building on the success of past web chats and holding twitter Q&A sessions", have there been any that I've missed or how do I find out about them?  

My comment is below:

I agree with Pervez... on this comment anyway "it’s all too easy to lose touch with the people". But surely to goodness he can't have missed that people don't want many millions squandered moving the civic centre back to Hanley again. Pervez, if you personally read this, take note! I'll tell you what will happen with all this 'listening' he says he will do, because he's done it before and it will be the same as what is done right across the Labour party, their standard mantra will be that we need it explained better to us. They won't accept what we really want, they will insist they know better, they are doing it for our good and we should be so very grateful for them. Pervez may start talking down to us like he did to Ann James at a council meeting, saying it doesn't matter about the money because it's just a loan and he can't possibly know how much it will really cost because he doesn't know the interest rate. If he truly believes this is a valid point, which he seemed to at the time, it is very scary. When you're strapped for cash you don't rush out and buy something new if the old one is suitable do you? Would you really take out a loan if you didn't have to? I wouldn't. He doesn't have to take out the loan because we already have a perfectly good civic centre in Stoke. And if you must take out a loan you wouldn't do it without some inkling of what the interest was going to be and be pretty certain you could afford the repayments and have a plan as to how to pay them. I wouldn't take out this loan and I don't want my taxes used paying interest to banks. I don't have a problem with the concept of taxation, I don't mind paying tax, but I don't want it squandered, I'd rather pay it to provide good services.

Onto my next topic, schools. Education is so vitally important for the young people of the city. But under BSF, the previous Labour government's BSF, the council planned to provide fewer high school places then their own figures projected!
This really made me wonder how numerate people in the council actually are. The current problem is our primary schools are full to bursting. Pervez, you really cannot let these developers keep building more and more housing without building more schools as well. I started to wonder about the council's pupil projections and how they are worked out. They used to be published on the council's website but more recently not, I had to resort to FOI to get them.

This is a general point and not just about schools. With all this talk about transparency, the council is actually becoming less open, with less on the web and forever having to resort to FOI. It's not easy just to ask a simple question and get a straightforward answer either. What you get back is no end of flannel. If I were a conspiracy theorist I might think that the council don't actually like the public being interested in what goes on or scrutinising what is being done. Hence it publishes less in the public domain and deploys super waffle missiles in response to genuine questions.

I tried a public question, just to understand the pupil projections, not necessarily to argue with them.
Poor cabinet member for education at the time Alan Dutton struggled with the concept of an algorithm but at least he set up a meeting for me with officers, so I was hopeful for a time. Much flannel was deployed at the meeting though and I was told there wasn't a specific formula used to calculate expected pupil losses between years 2 and 3 and 6 and 7. Now someone somewhere must know how they have calculated these numbers but it seems I'm doomed not to be told. It was disappointing that I was told that the council is not obliged to publish these projections, so it doesn't. But it has them and if we the public are interested, why isn't it nice and open and publish them rather than insisting on FOI. I was also told there were updated figures on what I had. Of course I would be delighted to receive these but again I expect it would ludicrously need FOI to extract them. I was given some hope though by the suggestion that I could be sent specific reasons for particular numbers that appear anomalous. You would expect when producing your projected figures that if you have one year a certain number of pupils across the city say in year 7, that the simplest zeroth order approximation would be that you could expect that same number of pupils to be in year 8 the following year. Of course this won't be totally accurate because amongst a variety of reasons, pupils may move in or out of the city, so a first or higher order approximation could be made. But, with the exception of the year 2 to 3 and 6 to 7 transitions, it looked like the zeroth order approximation had been made, for 55 out of the 61 such transitions anyway. But the other 6 I hoped I would be sent specific reasons for as suggested. I wasn't. So I asked about this in another public question.
New cabinet member for education Shaun Pender, same old flannel.

Pervez, could we please have more transparency, more information, more answers? Engaging with the public always seems such a pretense. When we are genuinely interested we forever seem to encounter a brick wall.

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