I understand city council move but Hanley cannot succeed in isolation

As someone who is very passionate about the Mother Town of the Potteries I can well understand the incredulity, the anger and the fear felt by some in the wake of the city council’s decision to transfer its workforce from Stoke to Hanley.

It is impossible to escape the comparison between this move and the bombshell closure of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory in 2005 which ripped the heart out of Burslem.

The decision will rankle even more with taxpayers because it presents us with a back to the future scenario.

Twenty years ago I recall the uproar when the powers-that-be at the council decided to move its employees from Hanley to a new, purpose-built Civic Centre in Stoke.

Now an entirely different administration – and that is an important distinction to make – thinks it is a good idea for the authority’s 2,000 or so staff to go back to Hanley again.

Personally, I think the logic behind the move is sound – and not just because, ultimately, it will save money.

Let’s face it, however much we bang on about the unique nature of our Six Towns every city worth the name has a city centre recognised by shoppers, tourists and businesses alike.

Like it or not, by quirk of history, Hanley has for decades been the beating heart of Stoke-on-Trent – albeit sometimes beating more weakly than we would perhaps have liked.

It has the most shops of any of the towns, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the city’s finest theatre, and other cultural gems such as the Mitchell Arts Centre, Bethesda Chapel and the Town Hall.

Very soon, after decades of delays, it will also have a brand new bus station to go with the enormous Tesco store which has tidied up the bottom end of the town.

Then we have the absurdly-named but undeniably exciting prospect of the new City Sentral shopping complex together with the planned expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre.

There can be no denying that Hanley is ‘on the up’ and this is something we should all be pleased about.

In the past various schemes and visions have faltered at the eleventh hour because of the local authority’s inability to secure a so-called ‘anchor tenant’.

It has failed, for example, to attract a big name retail store or employer that has been prepared commit to investing in an area in order to tempt other businesses to follow suit.

One of the main reasons for this has been that Hanley has been viewed as saturated in terms of its retail offer.

In other words, developers thought there simply weren’t enough people in the city centre to justify further investment and expansion.

Of course, this all changes if the local authority switches its entire workforce to Hanley and becomes the ‘anchor tenant’ for the proposed ‘business district’.

Suddenly, the city centre is a far more attractive proposition for all concerned.

I think that a popular, successful and economically-viable Hanley is a must if Stoke-on-Trent is to drag itself out of the doldrums in these most austere times. But I’m afraid this will require radical and sometimes painful decisions and just a little bit of that horrible phrase: ‘thinking outside the box’.

But what of Stoke, and indeed, the other seemingly-forgotten towns?

The worst-case scenario here is that the city council’s decision to relocate turns Stoke into a ghost town of empty office buildings and condemns businesses who have relied on city council workers for custom to a slow death.

The idea of pulling the Civic Centre building together with the former Spode site and the Kingsway car park and offering that up as a package sound reasonable – so long as the long-term viability and care of the King’s Hall can be assured.

However, we mustn’t forget that this a vision.

It is the small print on the master plan to inject fresh life and impetus into the city centre.

What is needed now is a genuine concerted effort to find a new purpose for those key sites in Stoke.

Perhaps the expansion of the University Quarter (UniQ) development across the A500 and into the town of Stoke proper is the best way of filling the vacuum that will be left by the city council’s relocation.

What is certain is that it will take years for the benefits of a thriving city centre to trickle down to the other five towns.

In the meantime, it is vital the local authority puts as much energy into find unique selling points for Stoke, Burslem, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall as it has done into aiding the city centre in order that Hanley’s poor relations don’t become poorer still.

Stoke-on-Trent desperately needs a successful city centre but, by the same token, it cannot succeed in isolation.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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