Thursday, May 29, 2008

Response to the Governance Commission report

Yesterday was a very important day for Stoke-on-Trent. The Governance Commission reflected back a picture of Stoke politics that everybody will recognise. You can read the full report here.

Given how many people who had given evidence were in the room, it was surprising how quick people were to distance themselves from its findings. Unfortunately, the same habits of divisionism and negativity that have turned off most of the people of city were all evident. The cabinet were accusing the Independents and BNP of causing all the problems while simultaneously claiming they wanted to move away from negative politics. The main campaign group was asking for an entirely different option that the ones we are able to choose. The vast majority of people in the chamber were white and over 40. In the press conference afterwards, the cabinet, who were quite clearly in the firing line, seemed to be denying that their leadership style had in any way contributed to the report. Meanwhile the national Guardian newspaper have been to Bentillee and gave the world a three-page view on the rise of the BNP in Stoke. Brilliant.

So, what choice do people in the city have? Nothing, except to get involved right now. Unless you want the same people who have caused this demise to create the solution, you need to find a way to be a part of it. I've been discussing the report with a few people so far and everybody has some view on what should be done. 'Leaders' may decry apathy but people are far from apathetic. I believe where they are missing the point is by failing to realise that where there is a lack of trust it's no good asking people to be involved in the sky-high policy, it is the issues on the ground that they care about and the short term. Just take parking as an issue. If the people of Burslem have been able to have absolutely no dialogue with anybody on an issue that they almost universally agree adversely affects the town, how can you say they are being engaged?

Little things have a massive effect on people's lives and the council need to accept that if they're in a huge fight over them, that's not good leadership. Dialogue can prevent issues and build trust. Of course it's hard to get people involved, but that's your job. Why did the closure of Dimensions need to turn into a petition issue instead of being discussed with Residents Associations and, dare I say, the users of Dimensions? Who has ever been asked about whether parts of Hanley should be rebranded, wiping its name entirely from roadsigns? Not the communities of Hanley, I'll suggest.

The report is well thought-through, leaving options open for discussion where possible and clarifying the areas where choices are more limited. Reporting it simply as a row over whether we have a referendum for a mayor rather misses the point: that our system is so damaged that the system doesn't really matter. If we accept the Commission's view of the problem - and there is no reason why we shouldn't because it echoes all of the views expressed every day in the City, at least the parts I see - we need to accept their solutions. The council need to take immediate action to fix the breakdown in engagement and start to show people it is worth getting involved again.

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