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Local Government

Volume 492: debated on Friday 8 May 2009

I am today announcing a programme of action to help the people of Stoke-on-Trent restore to the city the good city governance necessary to respond successfully to the challenges Stoke faces today and to promote the city’s future prosperity.

As the Independent Governance Commission found last year, Stoke-on-Trent is a city with a damaged political system and deep-seated malaise in its politics.

The Governance Commission recognised that Parliament had legislated to abolish the mayor and council manager governance model that the city had adopted. It made 14 recommendations to be taken forward alongside this fundamental change to Stoke’s governance arrangements. The cornerstone of these recommendations is for Stoke-on-Trent to have a fresh start and clearer, more stable political leadership with whole council elections.

In early June, the old governance arrangements in Stoke will end and—as a result of a local referendum—new arrangements with the council electing a leader from among its members will replace the mayoral leadership. Despite accepting the Commission’s recommendations, the council have failed to progress the Commission’s key recommendations including the recommendation for whole council elections.

Government action and support are therefore now needed to help put Stoke-on-Trent’s governance on a sound basis for the future and rebuild the public’s confidence.

Accordingly, we are minded to intervene to make an order under section 86 of the Local Government Act 2000 specifying a scheme of whole council elections for Stoke-on-Trent city council from 2011. Before taking a final decision on the order we are allowing a short “soundings” period until the 18 June to provide an opportunity for interested parties to make representations to us.

We are adopting this approach having regard to the evidence presented by the Governance Commission, who judge that a move to whole council elections will materially strengthen the operation of local democracy in Stoke-on-Trent. This is reinforced by the Electoral Commission’s report on “The Cycle of Local Government Elections in England” which presents a compelling case for simplifying electoral cycles, concluding that the balance of evidence suggests that whole council elections are more likely to provide clarity to electors and stability to the council.

It will be important for this new start that the Governance Commission’s recommendation on reducing the size of the council is in place before 2011, together with new electoral arrangements necessary for facilitating effective and convenient local government. I am today therefore asking the Electoral Commission to respond to the Governance Commission’s recommendations and direct the Boundary Committee to undertake now an electoral review in Stoke-on-Trent, the results of which would be implemented in the 2011 elections.

The aim is that by the 2011 elections there is a realistic prospect of a revitalised political system and strengthened civic life in Stoke-on-Trent. To enable the focus of all to be on this 2011 new start and while this electoral review is being conducted, we are also minded to include in the order provision to cancel the 2010 elections for the city council. Those members of the council whose term of office is due to end in May 2010 would have their term extended by a year to 2011.

Subject to consideration of any representations we receive, our intention is to make the order as soon as practicable after 18 June.

To reinforce this new start, the Leadership Centre for Local Government have agreed to work with the council, supporting the recruitment of talented, dynamic, and diverse candidates to seek election to the council, thereby helping to revitalise and strengthen the politics of Stoke-on-Trent.

We are also providing support to strengthen civic life in Stoke-on-Trent. The council will receive funding to become a Take Part pathfinder, and participate in the expanded LINks programme that will support the development of civic engagement.

In addition to these steps that the Government can take, it remains important for the council itself to implement the other recommendations of the Governance Commission including the recommendation for reviewing councillors pay and cutting the number of councillors receiving special responsibility allowances (SRAs). The independent city council remuneration panel has now recommended that the number of SRAs be reduced from 42 currently to 23. The council needs to implement such a reduction as a matter of urgency, if the people of Stoke are to regain confidence in their elected representatives.

Rebuilding the politics of Stoke is essential if the significant service improvements achieved by the officers of Stoke, supported by the Stoke excellence board are to be safeguarded and continued. Accordingly, we will expand the external officer support group to help support the council’s senior officers in the transitional period during which the politics of Stoke are being rebuilt.

In addition, I am strengthening the transition board to support both the good governance of the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the continued improvement in the council’s delivery of local services. This will act as the governance and performance transition board. It will continue to be chaired by Professor Michael Clarke and to reinforce it with sector support I am also appointing Councillor Ken Taylor (Coventry), Councillor Stephen Houghton (Barnsley), Paul Sheehan (chair of West Midlands Regional Improvement And Efficiency Partnership) and Trudi Elliott regional director of GOWM.

The Government are committed to giving the people of Stoke-on-Trent and the city all the support they can. Over recent years the Government have invested some £690 million in Stoke-on-Trent, including on regeneration projects, housing sector renewal and improving college campuses. We have already announced further planned future investment of £500 million which includes the major BSF programme, investment in the university hospital and on housing market renewal.

And I can today announce that the Government have identified £40 million from the Homes and Communities Agency to back regeneration work in Stoke and North Staffordshire, including the City Waterside project which will transform the city centre so that residents and visitors can enjoy new walkways, canal side café’s, and open spaces. This investment will provide a new focus for development in the heart of the city. This project is promoted by the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership and I will support the partnership in its proposals to change the constitutional arrangements to replace the mayor with the appointment of a new private sector chair to push forward essential economic development and regeneration projects like City Waterside for the new Stoke-on-Trent.

The west midlands regional Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), takes a close interest in Stoke, working to support the city alongside the lead officers in the main organisations operating in the area, including Advantage west midlands, Home and Communities Agency, Job Centre Plus, Learning and Skills Council, Strategic Health Authority, Highways Agency, GOWM, West Midlands LGA. This strong support from the regional Minister and agencies will continue.

The people of Stoke-on-Trent deserve a city which is well governed, with high quality public services, successful economic regeneration, and improved quality of life for all. I believe that the steps we are now taking provide the best possible opportunity for the people of Stoke-on-Trent to achieve this.