Citizen Power “A Mirage”

citizen smith07:10 Monday 7th February 2011
Peterborough Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: this morning we’re also asking if the Big Society is working anywhere, and especially here in Peterborough. A review will be presented later on the city’s seven Neighbourhood Councils, which cost the Council over £200,000 a year. But the criticisms are, are enough people turning up to make them worthwhile? At the same time, Council is spending a quarter of a million pounds over two years on Citizen Power Peterborough, which is also tasked with getting residents more involved in shaping the city’s future. Last week, of course, Liverpool Council gave up on the Big Society. So what should we do in Peterborough? On the line to discuss this, one of the councillors behind the review into Neighbourhood Councils, English Democrat Stephen Goldspink. Morning Stephen.
PAUL STAINTON: Shall we just get rid of it? It seems like it’s a dead dog.
STEPHEN GOLDSPINK: Well I don’t think we’re going to be able to get rid of it, because the Conservatives on Peterborough City Council, particularly Cllr Cereste, have shown they’re committed to Neighbourhood Councils. I would rather get rid of them, and a number of other councillors would as well, but what we have to do is work within reality. And therefore, if we’re going to have them, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get rid of them, then we’re going to have to try and make them work better.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. So the review is looking into what, every aspect?
STEPHEN GOLDSPINK: Yes it is. We’re doing a two-part review. The first part was looking at the finances of Neighbourhood Councils, because we wanted to fit in with the Council’s budget cycle. The second part that we’re now working on is to do with the organisation and participation in Neighbourhood Councils, to try and encourage more people to get involved.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. OK. But I mean people look at this and think, hold on a minute, we’re getting the Neighbourhood Councils, we’re getting Citizen Power Peterborough, we’re getting a review into all of this. Is this not costing even more money?
STEPHEN GOLDSPINK: Well, the original decision to go ahead with these things was made by Cabinet, or the Cabinet Member concerned. The Council has a scrutiny process, whereby other councillors who are not on the cabinet, meet on scrutiny panels, similar to what they do in Parliament, and look into the things that the Executive have done. And we’re acting within our brief, to look into things that the Cabinet, or Cabinet Members have done, in detail, over a period of time, and make recommendations. So it’s part of our job. That’s what we’re paid to do, although we’re not actually paid to be on scrutiny panels. We only get our normal councillors’ allowance.
PAUL STAINTON: Now the cost of Neighbourhood Councils will drop after the budget, but at least I think £220,000 was spent on them in this current financial year. What has the review found? Have you justified that amount of expenditure?
STEPHEN GOLDPINK: Not really, no. Because we don’t believe for example that the Chairmen of Neighbourhood Councils do all that much work. When they came to see us, they talked up their job. But the councillors on the panel, and this includes Conservatives, It wasn’t just opposition councillors, remain unconvinced that the councillors concerned do enough work to justify the payments that they get. And indeed we’ve said, if you split the work down into seven pieces, for the seven Neighbourhood Councils, instead of into three pieces, with three councillors covering the areas, then actually you end up with that you don’t actually have to pay the councillors to chair the Councils at all. And indeed Cllr Fox and I have both said we would consider it an honour to chair the Neighbourhood Councils and take no money at all.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. So you’ve already found ways of saving?
STEPHEN GOLDSPINK: Yes. We have, yes. That would take a large amount out of the Council’s budget straight away. We also made some recommendations regarding the amount of money that the Neighbourhood Councils should have to spend. And we also said we should only have minimal staffing costs there, so don’t send along tto many Council officers. Very often there were more Council officers at these meetings than there were members of the public. So we have made some recommendations we feel are sensible. I already know which one’s are going to be kicked out by the Cabinet, and always did. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them.
PAUL STAINTON: What is the point in setting up a committee to make recommendations, if you already knew they were going to be kicked out?
STEPHEN GOLDPINK: Well, you have to do it, because it’s part of our job. And the point is that we have very good reason ..
PAUL STAINTON: It’s a waste of time though, isn’t it?
PAUL STAINTON: If you know it’s not going to work. If the recommendations are just going to be .. It’s a sop, isn’t it?
STEPHEN GOLDSPINK: Not really, because we have very good reason for making our recommendations. And we’ve looked at this over a period of time. Now the Cabinet, when they actually come to justify their rejection, I’m going to be very interested in what reasons they come up with. Because I don’t think there are any reasons that actually justify paying the allowances to the Chairmen of Neighbourhood Councils. And I think that may be the only recommendation that’s rejected, although I do believe they might pick one or two more, just so it’s not too obvious.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. And you’ve also recommended that Citizen Power Peterborough should be scrapped as well. We’re talking about that later.
STEPHEN GOLDSPINK: That was a piece of scrutiny that we worked on as well, in the Strong and Supportive Communities Scrutiny Committee. And I asked over eighty questions about Citizen Power, because I had so many misgivings about it. Other councillors joined in. We looked at it in detail over six months. We’ve got loads and loads of information. And we have concluded that basically it’s a mirage. That nothing is going to happen with this. The people of Peterborough aren’t going to benefit. What it is, it’s an arts project in disguise, pumping a large amount of money into the arts to benefit artists, and hiding behind the veil of pretending to benefit the people of Peterborough. And it’s just not going to happen. they’ve got no objectives, no measurements, no nothing. And I’ve looked at this from my professional perspective as a project manager.
PAUL STAINTON: So should People Power Peterborough, Citizen Power Peterborough, the Big Society, Neighbourhood Councils, should we just give up on the whole nine yards?
STEPHEN GOLDSPINK: I think the problem is the party system Paul. The problem with parties is they don’t want to lose power. And so they keep putting forward these initiatives over and over again. The truth is they’re never going to cede power to the people of Peterborough, because they want it all for themselves.
PAUL STAINTON: The Big Society in Peterborough, a fallacy, a mirage, according to Stephen Goldspink of the English Democrats.