Grand old lady has vital role to play in regeneration

Hanley Town Hall.

Hanley Town Hall.

For all its aesthetic problems, we should always take heart from the fact that the Potteries is blessed with a significant number of architectural gems.

Nowhere are beautiful buildings more prevalent than in the Mother Town of Burslem.

However, the city centre also has one or two special buildings which stand out from the urban sprawl – not least of which is Hanley Town Hall.

New plans to transform it into a hotel might surprise and upset a fair few people, but on this occasion I think the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership and Stoke-on-Trent City Council should be commended for their ambition.

Let’s face it, at present the grand old lady is as good as mothballed – barely used and far too big for the few council staff who rattle around inside.

As the local authority scratches about for cost savings, it seems barmy for taxpayers to be maintaining such a huge building for current uses – namely housing the city’s register office and the council’s licensing, tourism and trading standards departments.

If there’s one thing North Staffordshire is desperately short of, it is prestige hotel accommodation and where better to have it located than a cockstride from The Regent Theatre, The Victoria Hall and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery?

Positioned as it is in Albion Street, the town hall should be one of the jewels of our Cultural Quarter.

As it is, it is like having a Rolls-Royce parked on your drive but never opening the doors.

Make no bones about it, this proposal is nothing like the ill-fated abomination of turning Newcastle’s historic Guildhall into a pub.

Let’s not forget that Hanley Town Hall was originally built as the Queen’s Hotel in 1869 and only became a civic building some 17 years later.

(There is no truth whatsoever in the rumour that the hotel’s owners sold up because they were so fed up of waiting for the bus station to be redeveloped).

Attracting visitors to Hanley and making them want to hang around is not simply a question of having places of interest to visit, good transport links and somewhere for them to lay their head.

It’s about creating the right ingredients for a memorable experience – particularly if we want them to leave with a good impression and talk the place up.

By the same token, us locals want to have pride in our city centre.

In simple terms, that means getting shot of derelict buildings and bringing into use sleeping giants like the town hall.

Of course, to make an upmarket hotel in Hanley viable then we have to present visitors with reasons to stay the night.

With two cracking live entertainment venues and a museum which will soon house the Staffordshire Hoard, this isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

However, as we’ve seen with the chequered history of The George in Burslem, hotels need more than a grand façade to turn a profit.

I would suggest that key to converting the town hall into a successful hotel would seem to be the transformation of the area around the building.

That means, of course, the great carbuncle that is Hanley bus station has to come down – something which we’ve now been promised (again) will happen.

We are safe in the knowledge that, as a Grade I-listed building, the town hall won’t become a victim of environmental vandalism.

After all, there’s surely only room for one Ceramica in any city.

Urban regeneration is more than simply demolition followed by new-build.

It is about conserving and breathing life into our heritage buildings so that they become more than something nice to look at as you wander past.

That being the case, I am convinced that if we want to create a genuine Cultural Quarter worth the name then buildings like the town hall and poor old Bethesda Chapel have a key role to play.

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