Thank you all for some very challenging and appropriate questions. I hope you’ll forgive the general reply. It makes it easier to give a sense of my overall approach, and I will try to give answers to as many as possible of the issues you raise here.
First of all a very little about me. I have lived in Stoke since 1994, and grown to love the city. I don’t live in your area, since my party decided who would seek election where, but I don’t think this need be an obstacle to being an effective representative – clearly communication with the community and representing your priorities would be an absolute guiding principle. My career up to now has been in education, and making sure that our children get decent life chances is a defining passion of mine.
I agree with most of the other candidates in this election about what the major issues for the city are. Stoke has been in long term economic decline for some time: we can virtually talk about three decades of continuous recession. Most of the other problems we face – from crime and welfare dependency to unemployment, anti social behaviour, some less than attractive environments, and almost a crisis of confidence for us as a community stem from this.
The reason I wanted to put myself forward for election is that I believe that a Liberal Democrat approach to these issues is the one that would be best for the city. Previous councils have obviously been largely Labour dominated, and while I really don’t want to criticise the motivations of the people concerned, which I know have had the city’s best interests at heart, the problem has been the general direction of their approach. The city’s problems cannot be solved through the public sector, although obviously it can make a contribution. What we really lack is enough entrepreneurship. In the richer parts of the country, when money comes in to the community it circulates round six or seven times, but in cities like ours, for every pound that comes in, less than a pound is spent locally. Big outside companies, while providing much needed employment, mean that wealth created here is disappearing into the pockets of people who live elsewhere, mostly in more prosperous parts of the country. So for me, the absolute number one priority is to try to create the conditions for the revival of a healthy and locally owned private sector, like we had when the pottery industry was still prospering. I’ll just add that, while I don’t think Labour’s statist approach is the answer, we can see that the Conservative party has little interest in places like Stoke. And while I completely respect independent candidates who are committed to standing up for the interests of their communities, there is a gap between this and the formation of a coherent alternative direction for the city, which for me, only the Lib Dems can collectively provide.
Several of your questions were about budget cuts. I think the best way to respond to this question is really to point to what is happening in other cities with councils of different political complexions. Currently Labour councils seem to be playing politics with budget cuts, adopting a sort of slash and burn strategy, closing down some vital services and blaming all the difficulties on the coalition government. This is the sort of polarised politics that I really think we need to avoid because the services under threat are much too important to play politics with. In contrast, if you look at Liberal Democrat councils operating under the same sorts of financial constraints, it seems to me that we are mostly doing a good job in keeping things going. In terms of the specifics you ask about, I can only say that finding a way to protect vital services such as Tunstall pool would be an absolute priority.
You also asked several questions about the Big Society, and about the balance between what local government can do and what communities should do for themselves. So can I first say that I think that, actually, the Prime Minister is right to stress the value of community action and volunteering, both for the people that do it and for the communities that they operate in. Our taking responsibility for our own lives and communities rather than expecting someone else to fix all our problems has to be a good thing. It is a real shame that this policy is being introduced simultaneously with such a great financial crisis, and so is open to accusations that it is being used as a sticking plaster to bandage over the gaping wounds caused by current cuts. However I think where David Cameron is overoptimistic is in thinking that this sort of change will just happen spontaneously. It might if, like him, you live in wealthy rural Oxfordshire, but actually somewhere like Stoke, we don’t just have the resources in terms of time, human capital or money. So I think the role of local government should be as far as possible to seek to enable the voluntary sector and there are all sorts of useful things that councils can do, in terms of training, providing facilities, start-up funding, really helping the community to begin to empower itself.
The specific questions about communication: yes, Matt, I think a regular blog would be one excellent way of making sure that your councillors kept you in touch with their activities and stayed in touch with local concerns.
I am also interested in lots of other decentralising initiatives. For example, I am a strong believer in decentralised budgeting: it shouldn’t be up to me to decide between your street lamps or park benches, it should be the community itself which finds ways of doing this. Similarly, I think that a proportion of the council budget should be opened up to bids from various local groups, and the community should have a big say in what gets funded and what doesn’t.
I know there are some questions that I haven’t covered in my statement here, so if you want to press me a bit further on any of them, I will keep an eye on this site, and do my best to give you straight answers to them all.
Thanks for your time and interest.