Tell me who the real animals are…

My dog Starbuck.

My dog Starbuck.

Over the weekend, I found myself wondering how a dog I’d never met was faring after reading yet another harrowing account of animal cruelty.

Max the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was kicked several times and thrown to the floor by his owner – because it kept wandering into a Co-op store near his home.

On Friday 26-year-old Samuel Byatt, of Fenton, was given an eight-week prison sentence – suspended for 12 months, with 12 months of supervision by magistrates at North Staffordshire Justice Centre.

It isn’t just me that thinks this is unduly lenient and that cowardly bullies like Byatt should be handed much stiffer penalties for abusing animals.

Alsager Animals in Need volunteer Hilary Baxter, who was named Charity Champion/Volunteer of the Year at The Sentinel and Aspire’s Our Heroes Awards recently, agrees.

Hilary, who has rescued more than 4,000 cats and dogs over almost a quarter of a century, said: “I think anyone who kicks a dog will not hesitate to kick a fellow human being.” I couldn’t agree more. Simply put, you surely have to be wired wrong to inflict that kind of pain on an animal which looks up to you for food, shelter and protection.

The sad fact is that not a week goes by when we don’t read stories in this newspaper about pet dogs, cats and other animals – as well as fish and birds at local parks or nature reserves – suffering unspeakable cruelty at the hands of supposedly more intelligent beings.

The most recent RSPCA figures showed that 48 people in our patch were prosecuted for animal cruelty over a 12-month period.

These included Neil Stockton, of Cobridge, who kicked his dog in the air in full view of two police officers.

Then there was Maxine Davenport, of Bentilee, who failed to take her pet whippet zero to the vet despite its weight plummeting.

Or how about Simon Land, of Congleton, who hit his pet cat Mia on the head with a metal bar? Or perhaps you remember back in July the Staffordshire Bull Terrier pup found running around at Greenway Bank with horrific facial wounds.

RSPCA officials blamed his injuries, including the loss of an eye, on illegal dog fighting or ratting and said he had probably been abandoned because of his failing health.

Then in March there was the story of grandmother Margaret Brereton, of Fenton, who was horrified to find her pet rabbit Thumper had been killed and his eyes gouged out. And so it goes on…

The truth is these cases represent the tip of the iceberg and casual cruelty against animals – pets or otherwise – goes on, day-in, day-out.

No matter what your personal circumstances are, no matter how poor you are, neglect of animals who are clearly ill or in need is simply indefensible.

But when someone actually takes it upon themselves to hurt, maim, or kill a defenceless creature out of spite, for fun, or just because they can then – in my book – they cross a line.

The main image on this page is my dog Starbuck – a two-year-old family pet who wants nothing more from life than to be walked twice a day, play fetch with his toys, enjoy the occasional rawhide bone, be fed and watered and receive plenty of fuss when ‘his pack’ are around.

In return he gives unconditional love and loyalty that frankly shames many humans.

He’s brilliant with my daughters – teaching them the importance of being responsible and caring towards others – and isn’t half a bad guard dog either.

Contrast his behaviour then with that of Samuel Byatt and tell me which one is the animal.

He was convicted in his absence and given what many will view as little more than a slap on the wrist.

Lord knows what has become of Max.

Now I don’t believe for a second that tougher sentences and larger fines would solve the problem of animal cruelty but I do think it would be a step in the right direction and perhaps make some morons think twice about their actions.

I suspect spending a while in clink explaining to other inmates that they’re doing time for kicking a dog/killing a rabbit or throwing a kitten into a stream may well be a sobering experience.

Perhaps harsher penalties could also be tied in with unpaid work on behalf of the many terrific animal charities which often have to pick up the pieces in cases such as these.

Forcing those who have shown so little regard for other species to work to tackle the effects of cruelty and neglect is one way of shaming them into never doing it again.

Of course, the real answer – as with so many of society’s ills – lies with education.

It may seem barmy to most of us but clearly there are some people who do need to be told what’s right and wrong when it comes to how you treat animals and this has to be taught from a young age.

They say that a society should be measured on how well it looks after its elderly.

I would say the same about how well our society treats animals.

These defenceless creatures have no voice and so it is up to us to speak up for them and say: ‘Enough is enough’.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

How many council staff should it take to change a light bulb?

Is asking council tenants to change their light bulbs a bright idea?

Is asking council tenants to change their light bulbs a bright idea?

Those who took part in the March on Stoke rally at the weekend against plans to relocate the civic centre to Hanley reckon they know just how the cash-strapped local authority can save itself pots of cash.

In their minds, it’s simple: ‘You can save £24 million by just keeping the council HQ where it is’.

As things stand, however, elected members seem hell-bent on moving council staff to the city centre to become the anchor tenants of the new Central Business District and so the bean-counters are having to look for other ways in which the authority can save a few quid.

For several years now taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent have watched as services have been cut and council-run facilities such as care homes and swimming pools have been closed down.

Now the authority has hit upon a new initiative which it hopes will save around £2 million a year.

It is an idea so staggeringly simple that I’m surprised nobody came up with it years ago – and yet it’s bound to prompt a flood of letters to this newspaper from angry tenants.

The authority wants to reduce the cost of call-outs to council homes by its contractor Kier for all sorts of routine maintenance and small jobs.

These include fixing sticking doors, filling hairline cracks in plaster and even replacing internal light bulbs.

Now, while I agree with Chell Heath Residents’ Association chairman Jim Gibson when he says that elderly and disabled people may require help with some jobs on the list, you’re not telling me that most council tenants are incapable of changing a light bulb, dealing with a stiff door or buying a bit of filler.

Even I, legendarily hopeless as I am at DIY, would be embarrassed to make a phone call to ask for help with such menial tasks.

Granted, if you’re a bit unsteady on your feet, in a wheelchair or too doddery to be climbing on a chair or ladder, then you’ve every right to ask for a helping hand.

But even then surely most people would seek assistance from a relative, friend or neighbour before ringing Kier.

This really is a case of using common sense and some people taking a bit more responsibility for their own homes.

No-one would expect 78-year-old Ethel, from Bentilee, to fix her broken boiler. But, by the same token, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of 30-year-old Daz, from Dresden, to do his bit around the house.

The council is even going so far as to spend £10,000 on an educational DVD which teaches tenants how to unblock sinks and bleed radiators.

Surely no-one can object to being given such advice. Can they? The fact is, you can easily find such information on the internet but some people with access to the web simply can’t be bothered.

I’m all for this money-saving initiative and I’m sure most council taxpayers will be too as it doesn’t have a hugely detrimental impact on people.

This is the council equivalent of the NHS asking you not to turn up at the accident and emergency unit when you need a plaster for a cut on your finger. Or the fire service asking you not to dial 999 when you need a new battery for your smoke alarm.

The very fact that the council has drawn up this list means there has been an element of mollycoddling going on with regard to council tenants that many people who don’t live in a local authority property will find baffling.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Let’s give a warm welcome back to a rare local voice

BBC Radio Stoke's Paula White.

BBC Radio Stoke’s Paula White.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine made a mistake. It was the kind of error of judgement we’re all quite capable of making.

She turned up for work a bit the worse for wear. She was rather emotional, to be fair. A little ‘below par’.

The problem was that this friend of mine just happens to be a presenter on a BBC local radio station and so her mistake was shared with thousands of people.

It also happened to be genuinely hilarious. For half an hour she slurred her way through her final week-day show before being rescued by colleagues.

She didn’t say anything derogatory. She didn’t swear. She didn’t libel a listener.

She had, however, had a drink or two and so the audio train wreck made headlines in most of the national newspapers (and the local one).

The unusual 30 minute broadcast became an internet sensation – with hundreds of thousands of people listening to it.

For a brief moment only she had the kind of listener figures BBC local radio station controllers would kill for.

I’m not sure if she trended on Twitter but the clip of her faux pas has the distinction of making it on to comedy show Have I Got News For You and even overseas news channels.

A bad day at the office doesn’t cover it.

The lady in question is, of course, Paula White who has been the voice of afternoons on BBC Radio Stoke for as long as most of us can remember.

After taking some time off and issuing a public apology for her behaviour, I am delighted that Paula will soon be back on the station.

It is absolutely the right decision. After all, let’s not forget the Beeb chose to inflict the talent vacuum that is Richard Bacon back on the British public again via the medium of radio after sacking him as a telly presenter on Blue Peter when his drug use was exposed by the tabloids.

By comparison, Paula’s misdemeanour pales into insignificance and I think it’s only fair that she be welcomed back.

OK, so she appeared on radio sounding a bit squiffy and the odd Puritanical listener took umbrage.

But Paula’s not a brain surgeon or a policewoman. Nobody died as a result of her saying ‘P-A-R-T-Y… because I said so!’.

Come on, admit it, that’s still funny.

The problem is that because Paula works in the media and has a profile she’s there to be shot at.

But when considering her fate I am sure the powers-that-be at BBC Radio Stoke must have taken into consideration a number of things.

Firstly, for the last six and a half years Paula White has done a terrific job brightening up people’s afternoons and done a great deal of good for local communities and charities.

Secondly, she is one of the precious few local voices on BBC Radio Stoke and that is important.

Listeners feel comfortable with her because she knows her Biddulph from her Bentilee and can pronounce Potteries place names.

They like the fact that she grew up in this neck of the woods, remembers the SPACE Scheme, danced the night away at The Place and calls everyone ‘duck’.

Finally, Paula’s style is chatty and irreverent. She has always worn her heart on her sleeve and that is what has endeared her to so many guests and listeners over the years – listeners who have shown their support for her through social media and have written in to BBC Radio Stoke too.

Paula probably still feels mortified at what happened – not least because she thinks she let her family, friends and colleagues down.

But the truth is that ‘squiffy-gate’ is a storm in a teacup.

It should be viewed as a half-hour aberration in a broadcasting career that has spanned thousands of hours and brought a smile to many faces.

Welcome back, duck.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Fond memories of Pets’ Corner, the railway and a shire horse called Bob

Bob the shire horse out for a ride with carter Peter Hearn in 1991.

Bob the shire horse out for a ride with carter Peter Hearn in 1991.

I read with sadness this week the news that Bucknall Park is being plagued by anti-social behaviour.

The problem is so bad that residents are banding together to form an action group to restore the attraction to something like its former glory.

One of the Potteries’ smaller green oases, it doesn’t boast the grand architecture or landscaping of the likes of Burslem Park.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, that it is any less important to those living nearby.

What Bucknall Park did have when I was growing up was Finney Gardens which later became the City Farm attraction.

The City Farm closed on Sunday, March 6, 2011 due to city council cutbacks.

Over the years it had grown to become a popular and much-loved facility which attracted around 90,000 visitors each year.

It boasted a sensory garden and the farm itself was home to a large range of animals – from llamas, sheep, goats, cows, ducks, chipmunks and chickens, to rabbits, ferrets and rare KuneKune pigs.

There were also aviaries containing finches and cockatiels.

The history of the City Farm can be traced back to 1972 when a former police building adjacent to Bucknall Park became vacant.

Thanks to the vision and hard work of George Baker and his team from the Stoke-on-Trent City Parks Department derelict land and old buildings at Finney Gardens were tidied up and made safe.

A lady then rang to ask whether or not a suitable home could be found to house a pair of peacocks.

They became the first residents at Finney Gardens and were soon followed by a goat with no horns called William, an abandoned donkey called Jenny, and some ducks, geese, budgies and cockatiels.

The Pets’ Corner, as it was then known, was born.

The Sentinel’s paper archives reveal that by 1975 councillors were considering plans to expand the attraction by erecting fencing to keep grazing animals safe.

In 1978 one of the most popular attractions – Bob the shire horse – joined the fold.

For the next 17 years gave pleasure to generations of youngsters by giving them rides around the attraction – ably assisted by Turk the white shire horse.

As our nan and grandad lived in Bentilee, my brother and I were among them.

When Bob had to be put down in August 1995 children left flowers, letters and pictures at Bob’s empty horse box.

One read: “I’m sorry you died. We used to see a lot of you. I hope you are in the sky. You must miss us.”

By the beginning of the 1980s, thanks in no small part to Bob’s arrival, Finney Gardens’ Pets’ Corner was a well established favourite with families – with the nearby pub on Bucknall Road an added incentive for mums, dads and grandparents like mine.

A miniature railway was added which came into its own on hot summer days and when Santa Claus visited the attraction.

During its hey-day, Finney Gardens was home to dwarf goats, pot-bellied pigs and even a retired racehorse and plenty of animals were born there – including, in April 1985, a Shetland Pony foal to proud mum Minnie.

Sadly, Pets’ Corner is no more but perhaps a little of George Baker’s magic will rub off on families living near to Bucknall Park and they can reclaim this little jewel for future generations.

I wish them all the best.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Ray of sunshine has been on the buses for 44 years…

Thirty years ago if you wanted to get around the Six Towns then most people hopped on the tried and trusted buses mainly operated by Potteries Motor Traction (PMT).

In the early Eighties, there were nowhere near as many cars on the road and public transport was the lifeblood of the local economy.

Buses ferrying workers to major employers such as Shelton Bar, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and the pits were crammed from 7am.

Hanley bus station – that huge, dirty, decaying carbuncle which is set for demolition – was a hive of activity as the main terminus for the Potteries.

My nan wouldn’t buy her bloomer loaves from anywhere else other than the bakery in the underpass where other businesses such as a dry cleaners, chemist and bookies were thriving.

This was a place Ray Newton knew very well.

In August of 1980 he passed his driving test not in a little car like the rest of us – but behind the wheel of a PMT bus.

Ray had begun his career on the buses on May 6, 1968, when – as a 21-year-old – he had swapped his job as a stores clerk for a firm in Newcastle for the better paid job of a conductor PMT operating out of its Clough Street depot.

Ray, aged 64, of Bentilee, said: “I started on a basic wage of £13 nine shillings – which was a big jump for me. And we could work overtime to earn some more.

“It was a great job and I really enjoyed it. There was wonderful camaraderie on the buses and the drivers became good mates – a big part of your life. As well as collecting the fairs, the conductor was responsible for ensuring the buses stuck to the timetable and arrived on time. It was an important job.

“Back then people were more friendly, polite and courteous. Lads would give up their seats for a lady if the bus was full and the drivers and conductors were treated with respect by customers.”

Ray’s working life came to a crossroads in August 1980 as conductors were being phased out in favour of single-operative vehicles.

He opted to re-train as a driver and during the interview we worked out that he must have ferried yours truly to Sixth Form College, Fenton, and home again to Sneyd Green in the late Eighties.

Long before that, however, Ray had to pass his driving test.

He said: “It was terrifying, to be honest. My knees were knocking the first time I sat behind the wheel of a bus. I only had a provisional licence at the time and so I passed my test on a bus which I suppose is quite unusual.

“By the following year (1981) there were no conductors on PMT buses and the drivers were doing it all and so I had to learn to take the fares as well as getting my head around the mechanics of driving a big vehicle.”

Ray has no doubt why the number of people using the buses across North Staffordshire has fallen in recent years.

He said: “It’s the local economy. We just don’t have the companies and workplaces we had back then. Workers would fill our buses.

“It was standing room only at certain times of the day. They just aren’t there anymore.”

And the biggest change he has seen over the years?

Ray said: “Definitely the switch from a manual gearbox to an automatic. That was a really big deal for all of the drivers and totally changed the job.”

Of course, you can’t work on the buses with the public for forty-odd years and not have a few stories.

Ray has seen it all – including one elderly passenger he picked up near Cobridge Traffic Lights expiring in his seat.

But one story which still tickles Ray is from his time as a conductor in the seventies.

He laughed: “Our bus came to a stop in Highfield Road, Blurton, and I told one of our passengers – a blind man – I would get off and help him cross the road. Just as we got to the other side I heard the ‘ding-ding’ of the bell on the bus and off she went. The driver drove off without me.

“Some comedian had obviously seen what I was doing and pretended to be me, rung the bell, and left me stranded. To be fair, the driver did come back for me. Eventually.”

On May 5, Ray will finish his shift at First Bus, hand in his keys at the depot in Adderley Green, and head off to a well-deserved retirement – just one day shy of 44 years on the buses.

He’s had a long and distinguished career and admits he has enjoyed it.

So how will he fill his retirement?

Ray said: “I love making things. Doll’s house furniture and the like. That’ll keep me busy.”

With seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, three great grandchildren (and another on the way) he won’t be short of takers for those hand-made toys.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Rebirth of city is on target? We’ve heard that one before

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

I have quite a few fond memories of Hanley bus station.

There used to be a bakery in the underpass where my nan would buy warm, crusty bloomer loaves to take home to Bentilee.

I loved the smell and they were a real treat for someone who had been weaned on supermarket own-brand sliced bread.

Chico’s nightclub, part of the bus station complex, was also a regular haunt of me and my sixth-form college buddies.

It was here, at the age of 17, where the girl I’d been besotted with through high school first acknowledged my existence.

Hanley bus station was also the place that I returned to on a coach in the early hours of August 20, 1989, drunk with happiness having seen my first live rock concert – Bon Jovi at the Milton Keynes Bowl.

Having said all of that, it’s still a dump. It’s an embarrassing eyesore – and has been for as long as I can remember.

It is little wonder that a national newspaper chose to use a picture of Hanley bus station to illustrate the infamous “Stoke-on-Trent is the worst place to live in England and Wales” story a few years back.

The story itself may have been nonsense, but who could argue with the image they used to illustrate the point?

Indeed, anyone who arrives in the Potteries on a bus could be forgiven for asking the driver to keep the doors closed and continue his journey.

The dirty great concrete behemoth is hardly a great advert for our city, located as it is just a stone’s throw away from The Victoria Hall.

Twenty years ago, I recall writing stories about plans to revamp the area around the bus station.
Numerous council administrations have come and gone since then and yet the city’s worst carbuncle remains.

Tom Macartney, managing director of the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership (NSRP), is pleading that his organisation be given more time to complete projects such as the bus station.
I’m sorry Tom, but we’ve heard it all before.

The thing is, your average taxpayer in Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t differentiate between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the NSRP.

Many don’t have a clue what the NSRP is, or that it even exists.

They don’t care who is charged with delivering change to the city’s tired infrastructure.
They just want something – anything – to change.

It’s not that anyone begrudges you your £150,000 a year salary, Tom.

It’s just most people are so jaundiced, so fed up, so disillusioned with the lack of progress in the last two decades (and the grand designs that never materialise) that they have accepted the status quo.

I believe Stoke-on-Trent stands at a crossroads and, irrespective of the financial climate, now is the time to think big.

RENEW North Staffordshire has achieved, not without problems, significant regeneration of the housing stock on some of the city’s most deprived estates.

However, since the refurbishment of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall more than a decade ago, little has changed to make more visitors want to go up ’Anley.

The Staffordshire Hoard presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to market and rebrand our city and give our city centre a much-needed makeover.

I’m a huge supporter of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall, but these two venues and a few chairs and tables outside eateries in Piccadilly do not constitute a “Cultural Quarter”.

If we have any pretensions of being a city worth the name then I would suggest the area around Hanley bus station has to be regenerated as soon as possible to take advantage of the huge benefits that could come our way via the Staffordshire Hoard.

It is vital that people arriving in the city centre are confronted by clean, modern facilities, top-brand stores and dining opportunities that the people of Manchester and Birmingham take for granted.

At the moment, many theatre-goers must leave Hanley thinking “that was a great show, but what a dump Stoke-on-Trent is”.

My beloved nan isn’t with us anymore.

The sad truth is, however, that if Ethel Tideswell circa 1990, of Sundorne Place, Bentilee, arrived at Hanley bus station in June 2010 I doubt she’d spot any difference (other than, perhaps, the lack of crusty bloomer loaves).

The time for excuses really has passed.

I’m not that fussed about the new design, but surely we deserve a bus station that doesn’t look like the backdrop for an episode of Life On Mars.