Saturday, 31 May 2014

Stoke's Trip to the Chelsea Flower Show

One problem when you have an market-based economic system built around production for profit, is that those with binding decision-making powers (heads of companies, politicians, etc.) frequently have to make perverse choices. Enter stage left Stoke-on-Trent City Council's entry to the Chelsea Flower Show.

Despite being the son of prize-winning gardeners, what I know about plants and gardens could fit on the back of a seed packet. But looking at the pictures the Council's garden looks very swish. In the socialist future all our cities will be adorned by horticultural displays of its like. And robots. Apparently, it represents Stoke as a renewed centre of advanced materials manufacture and, thanks to ambitious plans to exploit the hot rocks beneath the city, a coming powerhouse of a new green industrial revolution. The judges were very impressed. In a field of 12 showcase gardens, Positively Stoke was awarded silver, just missing out to Birmingham City Council's entry.

Not as impressed are local residents who follow the Council's comings and goings. The cost of the garden and a VIP reception lies between £250k and £450k, the majority of that picked up by the local authority's coffers. To rub it in Birmingham's costs were met mostly by sponsorship. The bill to the second city's taxpayers was just £5,000. In the context of £100m worth of cuts over the next four years, splurging on a glorified London soiree is taking the piss. Or is it?

Responding to objections, Council chief executive John van de Laarschot lays out the logic of the game the Council has to play. Because of the heavy cuts falling on Labour-run authorities, they are compelled to seek new sources of revenue. They can increase charges for council-provided services, and put up council tax. In both cases, there isn't much room to rake in mega money. And, thanks to Eric Pickles, from 2015 locally collected business rates will be returned to council as the pool from which local government presently share is abolished. As Stoke has fewer businesses in number and size terms compared with, say, Derby, that means another cut to revenues. There is only one precarious ladder out of the deepening pit the council finds itself in, and that is regenerating the local economy and increasing the numbers of people who live inside the city limits. More business = more business rates. More residents = more council tax.

This is where the perverse logics start kicking in. If the council adopts a strategy of fighting fires, of protecting budgets according to demonstrable need then it is a matter of buying time for those services. However, there will be nothing left for immediately intangible things like economic regeneration strategies. On the other hand, if the council applies cuts across the board but retains a budget to market the city to potential investors, and/or attempts to make the city more attractive through controversial developments, it opens up the possibility, the hope that it will pay off and put it on a better footing to protect services in the future.

Keeping this in mind, as unpalatable as it is, the council's decision to enter Chelsea should be seen as a speculative investment. Because it's not about the horticulture, it's about business. More politicians and business people attend the flower show than any other, outside of elite summits and the like. Chelsea is the number one networking event on the corporate calendar. Yes, unfortunately, if you're playing the regeneration game it means going where the potential investors are and spending money to catch their eye.

I don't like it. When the food bank queue is growing in our city, it is appalling that the council are spending and borrowing for things that do not address these problems. Yet that is the game by which it has to play. As those rules are unlikely to change any time soon, neither by new legislation or a mass movement challenging these logics, it's stuck. The council can do nothing and let the city's decline continue, or stretch every sinew to turn the situation around. It stinks. It's the stuff anti-politics is made of. Sadly, however, I don't think it or any other local authority in a similar position has much of a choice.


Anonymous said...

Did you notice Lord Heseltine's visit to open the latest exhibition at thee Potteries Museum? An exhibition whose physical contents could be described as 'things we had in the back of our cupboard', made into a great display by the team at PMAG. Pretty much no extra cost to the Council at all. Yet it is reliably reported to me that there was bemuseument amongst ranks of senior officals and councillors that such a big name would come for such a little event. The concept of soft power or cultural capital seems utterly alien to them.

The Hot Air Literary Festival is being entirely conceived and run without Council involvement.

The failure to attract sponsorship for the garden, or possibly the failure to seek it is to my mind a damning verdict on the execution of the Mandate for Change strategy. If 50 or so of the reasonably successful businesses in the City are not on board to the tune of £10,000 each, or Coates or Caudwell, for a share in this supposed networking bonanza,then why not?

The attempt to overturn 150 years of railway history and the logic of geography by usurping Crewe's position as the stop for HS2 is another example of a foolish tactic in pursuit of a laudable strategy. Indeed such a foolish tactic that it must undermine investor confidence in itself

I think you have the right words in 'speculative investment' but I think the speculation is of a gambler who has panicked, betting on longshots.

Phil said...

I was at the Heseltine opening, where he diplomatically praised the city's strategy.

There are many problems with the city council's officialdom. Lack of institutional memory is one, a tendency to pursue some really daft projects is another (charges for boards outside of shops, anyone?). But regarding Chelsea specifically, the Council had had a garden for two years now - long enough for some conclusions to be drawn. I'd like to see an assessment of its tangible net benefits so far, and an inquiry into the efforts the council has made to secure sponsorship. After all, if Brum can do it why can't Stoke?

Gary Elsby said...

I always suspected your true inner Conservative hunger would shine forth one day.
I can't argue with the case you put for local Councils to play at being businessmen and hopefully businessmen who actually are members of the Labour Party will get more credit for abandoning their daily monopolistic lives for that of altruism.
But I doubt it.
The case you made for Stoke-on-Trent is false.
The Mandate for Change agenda is a lie. It is a Labour lie designed by a person who is all but an Elected Mayor that a referendum in Stoke rejected (and changed the law).
One example (of many):
The decision to shut care homes to save money (£600K PA) and to speculate (flower shows etc).
This years widely publicised save/speculate ultra vulnerable dementia patients to be evicted from their 'family' and home by our caring Labour Council (they made us do it, they plea) is Abbots House, a full to capacity facility given a 100% score by CQC.

It isn't closing though because two Labour cabinet members in that area will be voted out.

This proves that the 'business' case for 'Mandate for Change' in Stoke -on -Trent is as useless as the facts of total failure suggest and as useless as the Councillor votes that support it.

Phil said...

Okay, supposing you are correct, supposing the regeneration strategy is a "lie", how would you a) go about formulating one, b) securing new revenue streams for the council, c) deal with the DCLG's total package of £200m cuts?

Gary Elsby said...

Phil, where does it say in the script that Labour has to lose socialism to adopt money making schemes to fund S-o-T plc?

The script is entirely new to anyone who is witnessing Stoke Labour commit suicide.

Why haven't Labour shut Dimensions pool? A sitting duck.
Answer, because they daren't.
Why shut a care home? Answer because they dare.
A valueless set of political principles only worthy of a Conservative party and group.

This Labour Group can do whatever it likes as far as anyone is concerned apart from attacking it's supporters as though they neither care or mind.

If the case for methane extraction has a sound business plan, then why not? If it's a useless plan, then why waste money on it?
Making money is not the enemy of socialism even though some loons always see it that way.

Care homes have always closed Phil and so have pits but that doesn't mean we do so just to free up cash.
Care homes serving dementia in this City score 100% and that is not a coincidence it is deliberate.
The abandonment of socialist structures is considered a crime by this public who would applaud successful business adventures in the face of harsh news criticism.
The Regent Theatre is one of this City's big success stories. It sets us apart from also ran Cities.
Labour was crucified during it's construction.
Big deal, so what? It's what we wanted and it's what we got.
We took the critics on and we faced win or lose with equal dignity.
Ask anyone if we were right.
No one would have supported it on the back of closures.