Archive for the ‘Stoke City Council’ Category

The People Person


I’ve come to know too well
The modern boss, the people person:
The always open door,
The fake friendliness,
The politician’s smile,
The sharpened knife concealed
Until you turn your back.

The people person, yes,
Who knock people down
To use as steps to speed them
Up the greasy path,
Or cross water bridged
Only by the drowning,
Oh yes, I know the people person.

They know all the talk,
The right yarns to spin,
To fair recruit lovers and friends
Into jobs, bend rules
To sack those they dislike,
And bury those who complain
In sickness and ill-health.

Every day they polish
A halo no one else can see
As up up they go,
Up, ever up to the top,
Spotless, Teflon, Untouchable.
Watch out God,
The People People are coming.


So Long, It Hasn’t Been Good To Know You


The recent news of the departure Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s controversial chief executive John Van de Laarschot was very welcome and long overdue. It wasn’t a surprise: the council changed hands after the May 2015 elections and new leader Dave Conway was a frequent critic of Van de Laarschot while in opposition.

The departure was a costly one. After several weeks on fully paid gardening leave, he was given a Golden Fuck Off of almost a quarter of a million pounds. And this after a five year tenure that wreaked havoc on the council, ruining successful services and causing staff to leave in unprecedented numbers. This obscenely overpaid and arrogant little man should have been sent packing years ago – there were opportunities, but former leader Mohammed Pervez lacked the balls. Better late than never, I suppose, and good riddance to extremely bad rubbish. A pity it took so long and cost us so much.

A Shortage of Common Sense at the City Council


Today’s front page in The Sentinel concerns Stoke City Council’s decision to ban staff who work outside from wearing shorts unless the council decide the weather is “extreme” enough. They do not say just what is extreme. This is despite them issuing binmen and other staff working outside with shorts last year.

This pettiness is sadly typical of the council now, where it will not show its staff respect by treating them as adults. Surely it’s warm enough for shorts if someone feels it is! It seems blindingly obvious that allowing staff some latitude in what they wear to work means they will be comfortable, and thus more productive.

But why stop at staff who work outside? The years I worked there were spent in various buildings without air conditioning. Consequently, they were insufferably hot in summer, even with all the windows open and fans on. (And typical of the council, there were never enough fans and they wouldn’t buy more). Requests by male staff to be allowed to wear shorts on these days were routinely refused. No explanation was ever given, just like a parent justifying their decision by the old cliche because I say so.

I always regarded this as sexist as female staff were allowed to wear shorter dresses in summer. Just what is the difference? The council’s own dress code contained no ban on shorts, just a vague statement that clothing “should be appropriate”. A word clearly open to interpretation. With the recent warm spell, I’m very glad I no longer work there.

The Sentinel ends its editorial with a call for “the City Council [to start] treating its workers like grown ups”. Now how’s that for a radical idea?

Council Spends Even More of Our Money on Consultants


It’s not often I agree with The Sentinel when it comes to their coverage of Stoke City Council: last week’s coverage of the Council’s current sickness levels was an especially lazy piece of journalism. However, today it reports that the Council is to spend £35,000 on consultants to report on the city centre’s parking. Given the scale of the cuts the Council is having to implement, the paper not unreasonably asks is this is an appropriate use of resources. Surely there must be someone in the Council’s parking department who could do the work?

This comes on the heels of the millions wasted on Vanguard whose main remit seems to have been to take successful services and ruin them. I worked in one so I know whereof I speak. To add insult to this injury, the councillors then voted themselves a massive increase in allowances: this when their staff have had a four year pay freeze. They really need to get their priorities straight. They are there to serve us, the people of this city, not to enrich themselves or private companies at our expense. What services will have to be cut to pay for this latest waste of money?

Given the scale of the cuts, the Council must stop the use of consultants; senior management should take a pay cut of at least 20%; the councillors should get no further increases in allowances, and the leader’s pay should also be cut. This will at least demonstrate some leadership and set an example. It is patently unfair to expect city residents to stump up the costs of the cuts through significant increases in rents and other charges and the loss of services, and for the Council to waste money in this way.

Stoke Council Concerned Over Inexperienced Benefit Staff


I understand that the leadership of Stoke-on-Trent City Council (by which I mean the elected ones, not Vanguard’s Representative On Earth) are concerned that the benefits department has so many inexperienced staff. Well, my heart bleeds, I don’t think. This is an entirely self-inflicted wound. People like me who left last year did not do so lightly. Why would so many choose (nay, queue up) to leave what was a good public sector employer during a recession? (It may not officially be a recession any more, but up here it still feels like one). Half the assessment staff (yes half) left because they felt they had no other choice, had been forced into it by a bullying and uncaring management.

The reasons I left were bound up with all this. As a result of the changes to the job – making it largely face-to-face – people like me who preferred to work in the back office were left with a stark choice by management: adapt or fuck off. So a lot of us fucked off, fed up with being badly treated. I didn’t want to leave the council, but the stresses of the changes caused my depression to return and to require a steadily increasing dose of medication to combat it. I made three visits to Occupational Health in my last two years there, and their recommendations were always ignored by management. Adapt or fuck off. Every day, I would wake up and dread going in. I hated it. If I hadn’t left, I would have remained ill and the illness would almost certainly have got worse. Even though the job I went to turned out to be shit, I still managed to kick the medication. This would have been impossible if I had remained at Stoke.

So I would say this to the leaders. While I admit that I don’t envy your having to make savage cuts (who would want to go into public service to do that?) the loss of so many experienced benefit assessors happened on your watch. If you had taken a closer interest in the welfare of your staff and not allowed a bullying management culture to take root, this would probably not have happened.

Stoke-on-Trent Benefit Manager Resigns over Unpaid Council Tax


The Sentinel recently reported that interim benefit manager at Stoke City Council, Arlene Cowan, was under investigation for unpaid Council Tax. She apparently owes money to two councils in London, and recovery procedures got as far as arrest warrants being issued. It appears that Stoke were unaware of this when she was appointed. Well well.

I will declare an interest here. I had some dealings with this person when I worked there and disliked her. I have now heard that she has left her job at Stoke. This all seems rather too quick and easy to me. I would have expected her to have been suspended while the allegations were investigated, and had they been confirmed, to have possibly faced dismissal or other disciplinary action. That is what would have happened to any “normal” employee, especially a non-manager. I say this as I have long believed that managers can get away with far more, a different rule seems to apply to them. I have heard of several cases over the years of managers being accused of something and doing a deal to leave quietly in return for a good reference. The Sentinel report is brief and the Council have refused to comment. I do have to wonder about the basis on which Ms Cowan left. Was such a deal done here? I think we have a right to know. If the Council Tax arrears should have been declared to Stoke prior to appointment, and it’s true that they were not, then this surely raises questions about probity.


Kier Stoke Strikes Again


Kier Stoke have done it again. Another triumph. This time it concerns the fire door replacement programme for the high rise flats in the city. It was clear from the outset that the doors were of a poor quality and were shoddily installed. Worse, they were of a type unsuitable for use as a front door as they were too flimsy, so were not secure. (I’m sure the Leader would not want such a door to his house). Many residents complained about this, but the Council’s response was to dismiss all such complaints: we are doing this for your own good so to complain means you are against fire safety. Just how patronising is that? Some residents refused to allow access for the doors to be fitted, and reiterated their concerns over security. The Council’s response to this was not to treat the complainants as adults and discuss the issues sensibly. No, they threatened to evict anyone who refused.

Thankfully, some residents refused to be intimidated. They made formal complaints and after two years of wrangling, the Council finally deigned to order an inspection of the work done. The report when it came was damning. A high level of defects were found which meant that the doors were not safe. The report can be found here.

The Council admitted to The Sentinel on 1st August 2013 that mistakes had been made and they made a half-hearted, grudging apology. Well, that does not go far enough. Numerous questions still need to be answered:

  1. The report was delivered to the Council in March 2013 yet they did not write to the residents until August 2013. Why the delay?
  2. Concerns over security have still not been addressed. Why?
  3. The Council’s letter to residents states that Kier are to carry out remedial works. Given that Kier messed it up, why are they still involved?
  4. Given that the doors are safety critical (which the Council was so keen to remind us of) and that they do not meet the required standard, have any staff been disciplined for this monumental failure? And if not, why?
  5. Just how much of our money they have wasted through their arrogance?

Stoke-on-Trent City Council have hardly covered themselves in glory over this. They should have been grown up enough to listen to their tenants and admit their failures far earlier. This whole sorry affair has further lowered the reputation of an organisation I was once proud to work for. Let us now hope that fire doors are fitted that are both fit for purpose and sturdy enough to be secure. Sadly, I have no confidence that this will happen.

Council Chief Exec Doesn’t Like Local People


It seems that Stoke City Council’s esteemed chief executive John Van de Laarschott doesn’t like the people his organisation is there to serve. That is, if recent local press reports are to be believed. Apparently, Mr Van de Laarschott thinks we all complain too much. So presumably, by extension he thinks we should all be grateful for his glorious rule and keep quiet.

I don’t know which planet he lives on, but it certainly isn’t the one where I and lot of my fellow residents live. Pardon me, but I think we have much to complain about. This city still ranks uncomfortably high in the deprivation tables. Look around and you don’t have to travel far to see lots of derelict land, boarded up buildings, empty shops and vacant office blocks. Yet the council persists in its expensive vanity project, the Central Business District. Once they move all their staff into it, what little life remaining in Stoke town will be killed stone dead. Stoke, which already has more than its fair share of empty buildings, will have even more.

And let us not forget Vanguard. It was Mr Van de Laarschott who brought in these expensive consultants (for whom he acts as an advocate in his spare time). Consultants who then wrecked a successful Benefits service and who have since been let loose on other departments. And all this at Council Tax payers expense.

There have also been several thousand job losses on his watch. People have been queuing up to leave. I’ve said it before and will doubtless say it again: if folks are so keen to leave what should be a good employer during a time of high unemployment, that suggests (nay, shouts) that there is something very seriously wrong. I know there is the wider picture of savage government cuts (and Stoke has had particularly bad settlements), but these issues predate that.

Unlike some, I am not anti-Council. I firmly believe in the public sector. I worked at Stoke City Council for over 16 years and was proud to do so. What pained and offended me was how the public service ethos was corrupted by all the worst aspects of private sector managerialism. This is exemplified by Van de Laarschott: an obscenely overpaid import from the private sector who thinks he knows it all. If he really doesn’t like us, that’s mutual. I know I’ve said this before too, but the people of this city deserve better.

Stoke Benefits, the Saga Continues


I hear that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is recruiting fifteen benefit assessors. This comes only four months after they allowed around ten assessors to take voluntary redundancy. This is yet another demonstration of the incompetence for what passes for management at the Council these days. While I worked there, staff had been saying for two years that there were insufficient assessors to provide the service (see my earlier posts, especially How Consultants Ruined a Good Benefits Service in January 2013). So they make ten redundant, only to have to recruit again a few weeks later. You really couldn’t make it up.

If I was feeling charitable, I could say that they have at least seen their mistake and are trying to put it right. Better late than never, I suppose. However, this is not a job you can pick up in a couple of weeks: when Stoke bothered to provide proper training, it took a minimum of six months to train an assessor, and that was just for the basics.

Any charitable feelings I felt for the Council evaporated a long time ago. What this demonstrates is that the ruination of a good service that started over two years ago under one set of incompetent managers is continuing under another. It’s not just incompetence, it’s a significant corporate failure. Benefits provides a vital service, especially in such times as these, and the council have failed. They have failed their hard-working and under-paid staff, and they have failed the people of Stoke-on-Trent. Both deserve better.

Stoke Writes Off Millions of Unpaid Council Tax, Again


I read in today’s Sentinel that Stoke-on-Trent City Council has decided to write off another £6 million in unpaid council tax. This comes only a few months after an earlier decision to write off £7.5 million. The Council apparently claimed that the debts could not be recovered owing to chargepayer death, bankruptcy or absconding. This seems too easy an excuse to me. It sends out a strong signal that they won’t try very hard to recover unpaid tax, and that they will easily give up and write it off.

If it’s true that some unpaid tax goes back twenty years, then it’s clearly never got to grips with the problem. Having worked in Council Tax while I was with the Council, I know the collection rate has long been poor. This is not to criticise the hard working staff, the blame lies squarely with poor management, especially in recent years. This problem will only get worse with the abolition of Council Tax Benefit this month: people who previously didn’t pay anything will now have to pay one third of the charge. If the Council already can’t collect what it’s supposed to, how will it manage in future? Or will these multi-million pound write-offs be a regular feature from now on?

Instead of wasting huge amounts of money on endless restructures, obscene senior salaries and vanity projects like the business district, perhaps the Council should concentrate on collecting more of the money that is owed to it. A lot more. Each write off is money that could have been spent on services and that could have eased some of the cuts. I appreciate that many people struggle to pay the charge, but there are many who can pay, but don’t. One unfortunate legacy of the poll tax fiasco was that a culture of “can’t pay won’t pay” grew up, and it has now firmly taken root. By consistently writing off such large amounts, the Council is nourishing this culture when it should be attempting to kill it off.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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