Tuesday 16 February 2016

Stoke City Council Debt Hypocrisy

There's nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, but at what point does ambition grow over into delusional thinking? Helpfully the ruling coalition is jolly old Stoke-on-Trent is set on providing a case study. Long-term readers will remember that Labour lost its overall majority on the council back in May, and was replaced by an alliance of councillors who, to put it euphemistically, are of mixed ability. We have the City Independents, led by nominal council leader Dave Conway. It's worth noting they went into the elections pledging not to ally with any other party, and with an alacrity that surely must be a record they immediately broke that promise and jumped into bed with the Tories and UKIP to keep Labour out.

The reasons behind Labour's defeat - though it's worth remembering it retains a plurality, even after an opportunist desertion - are legion. But one of them involves the controversial Smithfield project. The original plan was to build two new buildings in Hanley which, despite the efforts of the nominal leader is the recognised city centre of the six towns that make up Stoke, it was hoped would kickstart a business district development. To get it up and running the council were to decamp from Stoke Town and move up the road. Understandably, a great many questions were asked about the wisdom of the move, but on the whole I think it would have been worth it. Indeed, it is my understanding that a well-known American hotel chain was ready to sign the papers to begin development on the site in March of last year, pending the outcome of the election.

The City Independents and, for purely opportunist reasons, UKIP and the Tories pledged not to move the council. And so upon their election, some services already available in Hanley were condensed into one of the buildings and the other marketed for rent or for sale. The critical mass of people the whole project depended on was not delivered and, shock, the hotel has now found itself kicked into the long grass. Well done the governing coalition.

There was another key attack line peddled by Labour's opponents. How could the council contemplate spending somewhere in the region of £55m when cuts were made and services closed down? Again, quite a reasonable question to pose - and one they rode all the way to the council leader's office. Perceived wasteful spending by local councils is a hot potato wherever you go, after all. As are dishonest arguments about those decisions.

Imagine my surprise when our coalition council announced its spending plans a couple of weeks ago. They have promised to dip into reserves to offset some cuts for a year, of which another time. And then there is this: its half-a-billion quid capital investment plan. What tickles me is the plan is premised on - as yet unspecified - "external funds" to the tune of £116m, £18m from a fire sale of council property, and lastly £185m from ... borrowing. Yes, after years of grandstanding about the debt Labour has left "the children" for building the Smithfield, our new council is promising to take on almost £200m on the never never. My ghast is well and truly flabbered. Seldom in the dirty business of politics does one encounter such blatant hypocrisy.

What goodies can we expect to be delivered? Sadly, there's still no sign of the tea set and package tours, but some of it seems quite sensible - surprisingly. Can't disagree with investment in the City Library (note to Dave, City, not Hanley library), dosh for the Gladstone Pottery Museum, and infrastructural bits and bobs. I was amused to see the council splurging on private "high quality" housing that, to be fair, should bring in a return - amused because the Tories went into the election arguing that regeneration has to be privately, not publicly led. Ditto for the investment in student accommodation - perhaps to convert the Spode site, seeing as the council is determined to throw obstacles in the way of every private developer who's expressed an interest. Revamping the King's Hall as a conference/events venue is overdue too. I'm not sure about the desire to throw money at diesel generators to sell electricity - a plan that could easily go belly up should oil prices recover, which they will eventually.

The one to cause most difficulties is the proposed link road from the city centre to Bentilee. There is some wisdom behind this. For those not in the know, 'Benters' as its affectionately known is a large post-war council estate, but one that is effectively ghettoised as there are only three road routes into the estate from the rest of the city. Where it meets the wider road network you have persistent bottlenecks and accident black spots. Putting a new road in would alleviate traffic (but arguably displace a problem to elsewhere) and open a corridor along it to development. There are, however, two problems. The first is the scheme has gone away and come back again for well over 30 years for a variety of reasons. The second is, well, let's just say when allotment holders in Joiners Square hear rustling in the bushes, they'll be disappointed to find not Cllr Russ Irving but a bulldozer or two. As the City Indies are adept at jumping on a bandwagon, they'll find it difficult when they find opposition articulated in the populist, anti-development terms they're used to spouting. In 2008 and 2009 it was arguably protests by allotment holders that forced abandonment of the plan. If they are keen to build roads, it's disappointing to see the remaining quarter of the ring road isn't on their list. Since the third quarter was laid a few years ago, new land ha been opened and new companies have either invested or plan on starting building imminently. There's no reason to think the same wouldn't repeat itself.

Will these schemes happen? It's difficult to see how they can juggle borrowing a huge amount of money with deep cuts they've forestalled for a year. Just because Abi Brown and her gaggle of speak-your-Daily-Mail-headline machines and Sleeper blokes are at the helm doesn't mean central government are going to go easy on Stoke-on-Trent. Just as the debt incurred by Labour for the Smithfield hurt us politically, so the millstone they want to carry around could well sink them.


Johnnyf said...

A brave defence of the last Labour Council Phil but I think we both know that there were a lot more problems than just the issue of moving staff to Hanley or the City Centre if you prefer that description . I have no intention of listing issues because that is all in the past , the point that I will make though as someone who deals with the council on a day to day basis and is a socialist is that how depressing it is that the current collection of councillors can be so much easier to deal with than the regime that was ran by Pervez and JVDL . I hear this often from many people of the same political persuasion and it appears that is only the Labour Councillors themselves and a few hardy loyalists who remain in denial that significant changes are needed before Labour can be considered fit to run the City again .

Phil said...

As I noted, the move was *one* of the reasons why we lost. And, au contraire, others have told me dealing with the new administration is much worse. I suppose it depends whether your face fits :)

Gary Elsby said...

The other reasons Labour lost, of course were:
1. We (labour voters) refused to support them.
2. Labour carried out the City Independent/Conservative budget (2009/10).
3. Labour didn't fight the cuts, they didn't oppose them, they ran with open arms.