Only investment will wake Mother Town from slumber

Burslem Town Hall.

Burslem Town Hall.

There’s no doubt I have a real soft spot for Burslem. Sure, it’s home to my beloved Port Vale – but that’s only one reason why the Mother Town of the Potteries holds a special place in my affections.

Firstly, Burslem is where this scribe spent the formative years of his journalistic career – working out of a grand old building in Westport Road during the early Nineties.

I remember I started on the princely sum of £80 a week and carried a pager around with me before graduating to using a mobile phone the size of a house brick.

I had money in my pocket and a yellow Metro to get me from A to B. Happy days.

A few years earlier, this was the town where, as a 16-year-old, I enjoyed my first pub crawl.

This culminated in yours truly throwing up in the gutter outside The American on Waterloo Road after three and a half pints – to my eternal shame.

I was once told that Burslem had more pubs per square mile than any other town in England. I never believed the claim but I liked the idea all the same.

Going back even further Burslem reminds me of Saturday mornings as a youngster.

Dad was invariably working and my mum, my brother and I would walk from our home in Sneyd Green to visit uncle Dave and auntie Jean in Cobridge.

Then it was on to Burslem for the weekly shop and the Aladdin’s cave that was the indoor market.

That was, of course, when the Mother Town had an indoor market. And a Woolies. And some shops.

It was a time before the great white elephant that is Ceramica was tacked on to the Town Hall.

A time when you could still buy a pair of shoes in Burslem – when retail was the beating heart of the town.

Anyone old enough to remember Burslem as the thriving place it was 30 years ago will have experienced the same sense of sadness I feel every time I drive along Newcastle Street.

For more than a decade it has had the feel of a ghost town with boarded-up shops and precious little activity.

There is no doubt Burslem has always boasted the finest architecture of any of the Six Towns, but the dereliction of bog-standard buildings has, in recent years, acted like a thief of grandeur.

However, it seems the powers-that-be may finally have recognised that, with a little tlc, old Boslem may scrub up alright.

Plans were unveiled this week to build a £4.5 million link road to divert traffic away from the town centre – making it more ‘shopper-friendly’. It is hoped work will commence in 2011.

Sounds good. But, to throw in a little healthy cynicism, I would suggest that to have any shoppers you have to have a few, er… shops.

And therein lies the problem.

It is true to say that some money has been spent in the ST6 postcode area since 2001 under the auspices of the well-intentioned Burslem Regeneration Company.

Obvious examples are the Swan Square area and the various business and enterprise units dotted around the town.

To the casual observer, however, it may seem that precious little has changed in Burslem in recent years.

The experts will, of course, tell you that any city worth its salt needs a well-defined centre for tourists and shoppers – a focus for the local economy. (Yes, even a one-Starbucks city like Stoke-on-Trent).

This presumably explains why the city council has chucked millions of pounds at Hanley in recent years – and precious little at Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

And while I’m all for a vibrant city centre with a Cultural Quarter and big-name stores, what price the failure to stimulate trade and attract investment to our other towns?

At present Burslem sleeps. And it will take a lot more than a relief road to shake it from its slumber.

The town is, quite simply, a sad monument to short-term thinking and a lack of investment.

In describing Burslem, Arnold Bennett wrote: “… beauty was achieved, and none saw it.”

I would suggest that unless we see a coherent vision and some serious investment in the Mother Town’s retail heart there is a very real danger the Potteries author’s words will continue to ring true.

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