Why cracks are showing in the Potteries
06 October 2008
As Stoke-on-Trent city council prepares for a referendum over the future of its elected mayoral system, Dean Carroll takes a closer look at the tribal political wars – and predicts that whichever way it goes the council must learn to reconnect with the people
Politics in Stoke-on-Trent is now as delicate as any of the ceramics to have come out of the city’s once-thriving pottery industry. Tribal political wars over how the city council is run are threatening to break the system apart.
Councillors who are critical of the current elected mayoral system say their constituents want "Meredith out" – referring to the Labour incumbent Mark Meredith. Some suggest voters have turned to extremism, electing nine BNP councillors, as a result of the alternative governance model. Now central government wants a resolution and the electorate is to have a referendum on 23 October.
Local people will be asked if they want a return to the traditional council leader and cabinet model. If they vote no, as pollsters predict, the council will keep an elected mayor and cabinet. The cost of this exercise is estimated to be £175,000 on top of the £120,000 already spent on consultation.
"I think that councillors wear rose- tinted glasses when they talk about a council leader," says Meredith. "The mayoral system is the best for continuity and stability but we need a referendum to lance the boil and settle it once and for all – so that we don’t have this phoney war about process."
Due to absurdly written legislation from Whitehall, the council cannot ask the public the straight question – would you prefer a mayor or council leader? Although most councillors maintain there is popular demand for a return to the more traditional leader and cabinet model – that puts the dominant party more firmly in charge – fewer than 40 people watched in the public gallery at the meeting to decide whether to have a referendum.
Labour deputy mayor Mohammed Pervez suggests anti-mayoral feeling is a myth. "Let’s have some honesty; councillors voting in their own leader will create further public disengagement. What are we scared of? Why would we not let the people decide?" he says.
Meanwhile, the BNP tells Public Servant that it will win a mayoral election next May – if the system is retained – having trounced Labour in recent local ballots. "I have no doubt we will take control of the council," says BNP leader councillor Albert Walker. "We would have taken more seats from Labour this year if we’d had the candidates to stand in more wards; we now have support across the city."
This may be viewed as posturing, but Labour is worried. The party is preparing to throw everything at a campaign to keep Meredith in power. Stokies can expect to receive a flurry of Cabinet ministers to back a mayoral campaign next May.
The mayor is accused of allowing the council to come under heavy government influence. Elected members outside of the alleged Meredith cabal feel disenfranchised. They claim decision-making is furtive and officer-led. A new agreement by the local authority to move to single-member wards has only heightened anxieties as local democratic representation is chopped from 60 to 20.
Many councillors talk of the "mayor’s dictatorship" and then paradoxically claim the authority is without direction. A tour of the city does not dispel the impression of a leadership vacuum. Regeneration has yet to progress much beyond the demolition phase, despite a large EU funding pot and city renaissance blueprints dating back years. The UK competitive index rates Stoke as one of the bottom four cities. Community cohesion is weak while racial tension is palpable.
"The system has reached paralysis, we are far from a three-star council despite the Audit Commission giving us that rating," says councillor Peter Kent-Baguley, leader of the Potteries Alliance Group. "It’s teamwork that produces vision rather than a big daddy sitting on a throne."
Liberal Democrat councillor Gavin Webb is affronted by the notion that "people in London have the nerve to tell us how to do things". "The government is a bunch of tyrants and councils across the country are suffering from Stockholm syndrome," he adds.
It is also argued that residents are confused by having an elected mayor and a lord mayor. Despite the fanciful notion that voters know of, or are interested in, the existence of both, there is a serious point here. The chains and pomp have a fading role, especially when councils are supposed to be reconnecting with harder-to-reach communities.
With the expected low turnout and marginal victory either way, it is unlikely the referendum will serve Stoke’s citizens. It is now time for the city’s politicians to listen to the public. Continued infighting over job titles will alienate voters further and could create a doomsday scenario where central government steps in to take charge. As the city’s famous potter Josiah Wedgwood said: "Men must have the right of choice, even to choose wrong, if he shall ever learn to choose right."