It was easy to spot the killer line in the report which attempts to create a retail blueprint for Stoke-on-Trent over the next 15 years.
The reclassification – a softer term than the perhaps more honest ‘downgrading’ – of Burslem and Fenton would see them viewed as district centres, along with Meir, rather than town centres.
I can’t help it but I instinctively balk at the suggestion that the Mother Town of the Potteries along with Fenton, which successive administrations at the local authority have overlooked, should no longer be considered towns.
It may annoy planning officers and those tasked with attracting inward investment to the Potteries but, for me, Stoke-on-Trent IS the Six Towns.
The fact that we have the Six Towns, each with their own heritage and distinct identity, is one of the city’s many unique features.
After all, Arnold Bennett didn’t write a novel entitled: ‘Anna of the four towns and two or three district centres’.
The problem is, of course, that over the last 20 years or so some of the towns have benefitted from investment, time and resource and others have not. Burslem, a town I know well, has never really recovered from the closure of the Royal Doulton factory in Nile Street.
It is no longer somewhere that people go to do their shopping – like my mum did every Saturday when I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties.
It has no supermarket, no indoor market, no big chain stores. Instead it relies on craft-type shops and a night-time/weekend economy.
However, there are at least grounds for optimism in the Mother Town thanks to the advent of the Burslem Regeneration Partnership, the proposed Haywood Academy and the planned work of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust on the Wedgwood Institute – (facilitated, I should point out, by the city council). Boslem also, of course, has a League One football club.
There is, as far as I can tell, no such optimism surrounding the future of Fenton which seems to have been branded little more than a residential zone.
I suppose the devil is in the detail of this study. The sobering statistic is that 22.8 per cent of retail space in the city is empty – a figure which is twice the national average.
In simple terms, then, there isn’t the capacity to sustain all those vacant units and so we need to rethink our retail strategy and that will, inevitably, impact on other planning matters.
As I understand it, the report by Manchester-based consultants Wyg suggests that Burslem, Fenton and Meir be considered ‘local centres’ in retail and planning terms.
This is because towns such as Longton and Tunstall are seen as having a more sustainable retail base.
Meanwhile, Stoke (minus the Civic Centre) will hopefully benefit hugely from the relocation of Staffordshire University’s Stafford campus and all those students needing accommodation and shops.
But what are the consequences of a ’reclassification’ for Burslem, Fenton and Meir? Will it, for example, mean that businesses wanting to set up shop in Burslem will instead be encouraged to opt for Tunstall where the retail base is viewed as more viable?
Will chain stores looking at Fenton simply be steered towards Longton? It is vital that this is explained properly to people living in these areas.
And what exactly is the plan for Fenton over the next decade beyond it being a place where people live?
It doesn’t have Burslem’s magnificent architecture but it does have a beautiful Town Hall and square which should surely be the focal point for investment and the community.
We should remember that this report focuses purely on the city’s retail needs and, as one commentator posted on Facebook: ‘There’s more to life than shopping’.
However, Wyg’s study will feed directly into the city council’s Local Plan so its findings are significant and we should all take note and make our views known.
I believe the council is right to prioritise Hanley as a strong city centre. It is, to my mind, key to the regeneration of Stoke-on-Trent as a whole. (Note to planners: It should never be referred to as Stoke city centre because Stoke is, of course, a town).
Hanley is, after all, where the bulk of our shops are. It is also the home of three terrific live entertainment venues as well as the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
Hanley will be fine. We just need developer Realis to get their skates on and deliver what they promised in terms of an, albeit smaller, City Sentral shopping centre as soon as possible.
I can even live with the daft name if they show a little willing now by bulldozing the eyesore East/West precinct.
Likewise, I think there are also plans for Stoke, Longton and Tunstall which will ensure their viability in the medium-term.
What I would like to see now is two things. Firstly, a pledge that the local authority will put some energy and resource into the regeneration of Fenton and Burslem so that the former, in particular, does not continue to be the ‘forgotten town’.
Secondly, I‘d like as many local people as possible to be involved in a big conversation about the future of our city.
Write to The Sentinel, comment on our website, contact your ward councillor and attend meetings in your locality or at the Civic Centre.
Just please don’t sit there and moan because this is too important for people to fall back on the old chestnut that the ‘council is rubbish and no-one ever listens’.
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel