Tuesday 21 November 2017

On Stoke-on-Trent's Homeless Tax

Last week I was asked why nothing had appeared on this blog lately about Stoke-on-Trent. And you know what, it's because not a great many interesting things have gone on. Yes, Stoke South was one of the few Labour places that fell to the Tories at the general election, and in Stoke North and Central there were contractions in the majorities. All of which are, in my view, the expression of the geographic distribution of the polarisation we're seeing that's characterising the shape of British politics at the moment. But politics-wise, things were quite settled. The Tory-led coalition on the council hadn't made any egregious missteps, certainly nothing to get the local paper and broadcast media in a flap, and things are looking better round and about. More of those brown field sites are getting filled in, more businesses are opening up up Hanley (i.e. the city centre for non-Stokies), and all in all the memory of being at the centre of the universe earlier this year has faded.

What of note has happened before these last couple of days? Our two remaining city Labour MPs, Gareth Snell and Ruth Smeeth, have loudly banged the drum for Stoke and took a lead in persuading the government to move Channel 4 to the Potteries. An excellent idea that proper caught the local Tories on the hop, with Jack Brereton, the temporary tenant in Stoke South forced belatedly to get in on the action - though I understand Deputy Council Leader Abi Brown has let it be known she thought of it first and wrote to the Department of Media, Culture and Sport over the summer. Of course she did.

And there is the City of Culture bid, something the council is taking seriously and has splashed out quite a bit of cash pushing it. As we've noted before, thanks to the cuts foisted on local authorities many make perverse spending decisions. Cutting services while blowing cash on champagne receptions and glossy flyers is something all councils do as they play the regeneration game. As the local government grant continues to shrink and council tax rises capped, lost revenues must be made up somehow, and the Tories' preferred option (since Dave) is for local authority areas to compete for inward investment and generate monies via business rates. This is with a view to scrapping the block grant in its entirety, and with the consequence of deepening free market fundamentalism and a boot straps approach in town and county halls. What happens to those areas that can't compete? Hard lines and hard times, of course. In the absence of a mass movement contesting and harrying austerity, like most other councils Stoke has no choice but to transfer wealth from what is left of localised social security into the pockets of marketing people and regen consultants. After all, Hull looks like it has come out well from their experience.

On the surface it seems to be going well, but look underneath you see the legs frantically working away, but in opposite directions. Consider this. In the recent past the City Council was regularly criticised for adopting an authoritarian approach to things, a criticism the Tories and City Independents were happy to weaponise when it suited. And now? Basically, the City of Culture bid is held in a tight grip by senior officers and the leading lights of the Conservative group. They're not interested in having Labour MPs, Labour councillors or, for that matter, even City Indies, their own allies on the council anywhere near the bid. Fair enough you might say, politics is politics, but they extend this attitude to other "stakeholder" organisations they're supposed to be partnering with. Everything is super centralised via Abi Brown and chief executive David Sidaway. They're not interested in receiving help from others except on their own terms, and are totally uninterested in allowing them to show a bit of initiative. This came to a farcical head early in the Autumn. Jack Brereton, who remains a city councillor, used his Parliamentary offices to set up a reception at Westminster to push the Stoke bid. Between him and the council leadership they organised a soirée for the great and the good and, well, no one thought it might be an idea to invite anyone other than the people already involved in the bid. And so the council, its officers, MPs, reps from Stoke organisations enjoyed a reception talking and networking entirely among themselves. Time and money well spent, I'm sure you'd agree. Meanwhile, when Coventry MPs hosted their rival shindig they made good care to invite and bring along a wide range of MPs and metro media luvvie types. And so the Tories' vainglory, the obsession of Abi Brown and friends to leave something other than a legacy of miserable cuts behind sees them recklessly steering the bid into the ground.

If that wasn't idiot enough for you, it turns out our coalition council has plenty in reserve. It's the time of year again for councils to start letting the public know about their upcoming budget proposals. Again, while the government blows hot and cold over austerity there's no reprieve for councils like Stoke. On the list this time is scrapping HIV care and support, cuts to adult social care (despite applying the one per cent addition to council tax for ... funding adult social care), and a reduction of support to homeless services. As Mohammed Pervez, Labour group leader rightly points out, reducing the provision of service leads to greater service demand in the long run. Cuts to social care only displaces people from council-run services to NHS services. Bed blocking, anyone? Not to worry, in response to possible concerns Cllr Dan Jellyman, the council chamber's resident speak-your-Daily-Mail-headline-machine and nominal holder of the regen portfolio said "Important to note £1 after 3pm on council car parks is not changing under these proposals." With a wave of calamity and personal crisis about to crash over the city's already-stretched services, it's good to see Dan allaying fears on the issues that matter.

What's this got to do with the City of Culture bid? Among the proposals is the Tory/CIndie/UKIP desire to socially cleanse Hanley. There's nothing wrong with wanting to see the back end of homelessness, but quite another applying that attitude to homeless people. Their wheeze? A homeless tax. The council wants to draw up a protection order to make it an offence to erect and occupy a tent in the city centre and adjoining districts. Non-compliance makes one liable for a £100 fine. In other words, if someone camps down for the night in the exclusion zone, it has to be in a sleeping bag or some other arrangement. A little bit of extra protection from the elements a tent might afford is bang out of order. In its defence, the council bizarrely argues it's "not targeting" rough sleepers. As Hanley is not a noted centre for rowdy recreational urban camping, I declare bullshit.

In its own terms, it's bound to fail. How many homeless folks around Hanley have £100 to stump up for this punitive Tory tax? And when they don't pay, subsequent fines can escalate to £500, £1,000 and a court appearance. All it does is manufactures debt to be written off at the end of the financial year (some three million is routinely classed as unrecoverable by the council), and certainly won't do anything to help homeless people out. But then these aren't the kind of people we can have seen shuffling down our repaved streets and reflected in the windows of the trendy new eateries up Piccadilly, nor are the Tories and CIndies interested in the less fortunate beyond point scoring.

Here's the problem for the Tories and their clueless, hapless allies. Not only is their homeless tax stupid and petty minded. Not only will it help make homeless people's lives more of a misery, it's not a good look either. By initiating this tax they run the risk of making Stoke-on-Trent look a mean-spirited and vindictive place that thinks its most vulnerable citizens are fair game for social policies straight out of a Dickens novel. Stoke is in the process of shedding its reputation as a backward, racist place thanks to past associations with the BNP and UKIP only for the Tories to rebrand the Potteries a compassion-free void, an amoral blot on the North Staffordshire landscape. When all is said and done is a council, is a city prepared to victimise homeless people this way a fit and proper host for the City of Culture? I doubt it very much, and I'm pretty sure the judging panel would agree.


Shai Masot said...

Reputational damage? Stoke Central CLP nominated the full-fat Progress slate in the NEC election! Now, that's what I call reputational damage. Hang your heads in shame!

Blissex said...

«How many homeless folks around Hanley have £100 to stump up for this punitive Tory tax? And when they don't pay, subsequent fines can escalate to £500, £1,000 and a court appearance.»

I suspect that the consequence go beyond that, and will result in the disappearance of the homeless.

«they run the risk of making Stoke-on-Trent look a mean-spirited and vindictive place that thinks its most vulnerable citizens are fair game for social policies straight out of a Dickens novel.»

But that's popular with the "Blow you! I am alright Jack" voters that they target. Between 2010 and 2015 the Conservative national vote went up by 1m and in 2017 by another 2m not despite the "nasty party" image, but because of it. There are such people even in Stoke.

That's a huge problem with people on the left: instead of trying to persuade the "moderate" wing of the "alright Jack" constituency that "Blow you!" is not in their own interests, they end up helping to persuade the others that the Conservatives are good at making the "scroungers" and "tramps" go away.

Phil said...

You win some, you lose some Mark.

BCFG said...

I agree with blissex except I think we should just call these Tory voters for what they are, scumbags who would be happy to see refugees, the homeless etc freeze to death, drown in the sea, get shot by armed men of the state or whatever.

To my mind these people are no better than ISIS, Adolf fucking Hitler or Jimmy fucking Saville. Let us start telling these fuckers that to their sociopathic faces.