Community spirit is alive and well in Burslem this Christmas

lights

If we’re being honest nobody really understood what the Prime Minister was talking about when he first used the phrase ‘Big Society’.
Call-me-Dave’s press office dressed it up as the idea of taking away power from politicians and institutions and giving it to local people.
But many cynics felt it was little more than a smokescreen to hide the Coalition Government’s butchery of the public sector.
Cynics like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who described the Big Society as ‘aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.’
Well here in the Potteries we have what I believe is a prime example of the Big Society in action – whichever definition you believe.
You see, the Scrooges at Stoke-on-Trent City Council have decided Christmas is only happening in Hanley this year.
To be fair, amid care home closures and job losses one can understand why fir trees and baubles aren’t perhaps high on the local authority’s list of priorities.
Except in the city centre, of course.
The other forgotten five towns are receiving no council funding for their Christmas lights this year – saving taxpayers £84,000 as the authority attempts to cut millions more to balance its books over the next financial year.
However, in Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall traders have done their best to spread a little festive cheer by making the Christmas lights a DIY affair.
Which just left little old Burslem in the shadows.
But not for long.
I’ve no idea what their political persuasions are but I’m pretty sure David Cameron would be proud of the way locals Louise Worthington and John Flint have taken it upon themselves to brighten up the Mother Town of the Potteries over the festive period.
As, I’m sure, would the Archbishop.
If the Big Society means getting off your backside and doing something positive for your community rather than moaning about your lot then Louise, John and their pals should be its poster boys and girls.
They organised a meeting, set up a Facebook page with the help of their friend June Cartwright, and began collecting donations from individuals and businesses.
They’ve held raffles and will tonight stage a bucket collection at Vale Park ahead of the cup game against Bradford as they hope to close in on their target of collecting £3,500 to pay for three trees and seven sets of lights.
It may not seem like a lot of money in the grand scheme of things but it is £3,500 that needed to be raised quickly and this could only have happened if people could be bothered enough to make an effort.
One can understand why Louise and John were reluctant to let Christmas pass by in a place like Burslem which has a thriving night time economy.
I have nothing but admiration for the people who are taking it upon themselves to fill the vacuum left by council cutbacks.
The campaign to save Tunstall Pool was ultimately doomed to failure precisely because success would have meant the victors making an undertaking to run a large leisure facility full-time – with all the ongoing funding, time commitment and expertise that would require.
But once-yearly events or causes like putting up Christmas lights in a town are eminently achievable because the sums of money involved are relatively modest and people have 12 months to raise the necessary funds.
I sincerely hope that by tomorrow’s deadline Louise and John have raised the money they need to brighten up Burslem.
If they do they may well find themselves in a similar boat next year because it is highly unlikely the city council will play fairy godmother and find the money for Christmas lights in every town.
At least they can start fund-raising in January.
The problem that Burslem has is that it is a town where, with the odd notable exception, the only businesses faring well are the pubs.
Thirty years ago, when yours truly was growing up, it used to have a market, shoe shops and a Woolies.
Mum used to take me and my brother there on Saturdays to do some shopping – rather than making the trip to Hanley.
Nowadays you would struggle to buy much more than a pint, a kebab or some craft item in the Mother Town.
Yes, it’s a brilliant place for a night out but the truth is it has never recovered from the loss of big employers like Royal Doulton.
Stroll through on a week day and it is a veritable ghost town, dotted with empty shops and cursed with the great white elephant that is the old Ceramica building/Town Hall.
Burslem has the finest architecture in the Potteries, some nice craft and gift shops, some cracking pubs and a few too many takeaways and restaurants.
And that’s about it.
What it desperately needs is a plan.
Perhaps a rejuvenated Port Vale – or rather the business plans the club’s new owners have for Vale Park – will help to breathe new life into the town.
What is clear is that Burslem, its businesses, and the people who care about it, can no longer rely on the local authority for either the finances or the strategy to drag it out of the doldrums.
Instead, people like Louise Worthington and John Flint are going to become more and more important until new employers come along to restart the town’s economy.

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