Potteries won’t restore out fortunes

The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The front page of Saturday’s Sentinel informed us that Burslem’s great white elephant – Ceramica – had finally closed its doors.
Yesterday’s paper then ran with the story that Alton Towers was unveiling a new, multi-million pound white-knuckle ride to pack in even more visitors after a record-breaking year.
Our weekend edition told the sorry tale of an ill-conceived venture, badly executed which had cost an awful lot of public money and never attracted anywhere near as many visitors as was hoped it would.
Monday’s paper revealed plans by a renowned, privately-run business to raise the bar even higher in order to maintain its reputation as the premiere attraction of its kind in the UK.
I appreciate that mentioning Ceramica and Alton Towers in the same breath is akin to comparing crab apples with green D’Anjou pears.
However, the raison d’être of both is to attract tourists.
You see, despite the fact that most of us knew it was doomed from the start, a lot of nonsense has since been talked about Ceramica.
A few people have bemoaned the loss of its hands-on exhibits, pointed out that schools and the disabled used the venue, and asked where people will go now to find out more about the history of the Potteries.
Pardon me, but don’t we have a perfectly good museum in Hanley with a world-class collection of ceramics?
If anyone wants to look at some old crocks or find out a bit more about the grim days of smokey Stoke then they just have to take a trip to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery or Gladstone Pottery Museum.
The simple truth is that pottery isn’t that exciting – particularly to younger generations.
Imagine the kitchen table conversation in your average home…
“Right kids, it’s a sunny day so we’re off out. We can either go to Alton Towers and have a go on the rides, go to see the animals at Chester Zoo or make a pot at Ceramica. What do you fancy?”
This is what I mean when I describe Ceramica as ill-conceived.
Whoever believed that such an attraction would bring 100,000 plus visitors a year into Burslem must have been having a laugh.
Just 98of the 7,400 visitors in 2009/10 paid the full £4.10 adult admission charge. I rest my case.
Ceramica may have had the best, most committed staff and trustees of any tourist attraction in the UK but if the core product is dull then they were fighting a losing battle from day one.
The closure of this dreadful carbuncle is a wake-up call – not just for Burslem, but for the city as a whole.
We should be rightly proud of our unique industrial heritage but must stop putting too much faith in its power to resurrect our fortunes.
When people travel any distance or shell out their hard-earned cash to visit tourist attractions they want to be wowed, entertained or taken away from the hum-drum of daily life – which is why Alton Towers is such a magical and enormously-successful venue.
People can find cups, saucers, pots and plates on the draining board at home without paying for the privilege.
Whatever new purpose the city council comes up with for the Mother Town’s magnificent, Grade II-listed Town Hall I just hope and pray that is different enough and innovative enough to ensure the old girl is regularly packed out – rather than barely-used as it has been since 2003.
We need to think long and hard about not just the kind of attractions we think will breathe new life into towns like Burslem but also how we can re-brand Stoke-on-Trent to outsiders.
Is the ‘Potteries’ tag a help or a hindrance these days – because we all know that there are precious few people still working in the industry on which our six towns was built.
Alton Towers continues to be successful because it is constantly re-inventing itself while remaining true to its core values.
It strikes me that Stoke-on-Trent could learn an awful lot from this hugely-successful, money-making machine on our doorstep.

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The city council has fudged £35 million cuts

I CERTAINLY don’t envy the chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the councillors themselves at present.
Handed the hospital pass of administering £35 million of cutbacks, they all knew they were on to a hiding to nothing.
To be fair, had half a dozen Sentinel readers sat around a table to discuss where the axe should fall, I suspect the headlines would have been little different.
For example, there were some utter no-brainers in the review, such as the closure of that huge white elephant Ceramica.
Common sense has prevailed at last with regard to Burslem’s most iconic building.
The trick now is to find a new use for the beautiful, Grade-II listed Town Hall which has depreciated in value year-on-year since that glass and metal monstrosity was tacked on to the end of it.
Meanwhile, the closure of City Farm in Bucknall was never going to raise too many eyebrows.
By the same token, there will be few tears from taxpayers over the decision to slash £360,000 from the authority’s public relations and communications budget.
The closure of municipal pools in Shelton and Tunstall may have stirred a few dissenting voices but, in truth, both pools are well past their prime and swimmers have other options.
Protecting around-the-clock CCTV coverage in the city also makes sense and so that’s another tick for the powers-that-be.
I also support the decision to continue to fund Stoke Speaks Out, which works with young people to address speech and language problems. However, I do worry that the causes of such issues – such as children being parked in front of the TV all day – need to be addressed at source with a much broader strategy of parental education.
So far so good, but then I start to come over all cynical.
Stanley Head Outdoor Education Centre, Ford Green Hall, the Etruria Industrial Musuem and Northwood Stadium have each been given a six-month reprieve.
The idea is that, by September, a trust comprising local people will have been formed to run each of these venues.
Is that a pig I see flying over the Civic Centre?
If I was being charitable I could say that councillors were giving these facilities a chance and perhaps embracing our PM’s Big Society idea. But the truth is that it is highly unlikely that groups of people with the time, expertise and enthusiasm to take on these centres will be found in six months. Both Ford Green Hall and the Etruria Industrial Museum are wonderful pieces of the city’s heritage and deserve to be saved.
The outdoor education centre at Stanley Head has been a vital resource for generations of city children and we will be all the poorer without it. As for Northwood Stadium – it may be an ageing facility, but as I sit down today at the judging of the 37th City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards I wonder at the future of sports provision in our city if we were to lose the old girl.
It seems to me that by giving each of these centres a six-month stay of execution, the politicians have simply postponed the grim announcement.
The same could also be said for the way in which they have treated the thorny problem of the children’s centres threatened with closure.
Council leader Mohammed Pervez said members had listened to the public outcry over the proposed closure of seven of the city’s 16 centres and were not going to close any “at this stage”.
Those three little words should have sent chills down the spines of campaigners who last Thursday were slapping each other on the back thinking their battle was won.
In other words, not only have councillors cut funding for 25 posts which will make the centres less viable, they have cleverly left the door ajar to alter policy once the small matter of that pesky election is out of the way in May.
The decision-makers in this process knew full well that their immediate political future could rest on the public reaction to the cutbacks.
So, call me cynical if you like, but I can’t help but feel that our elected members have rather fudged these cuts – putting off the less palatable decisions until after polling day.
We may think we’ve seen the worst of the cuts but, in truth, this is just the beginning and we shouldn’t be conned into taking the initial announcements at face value.

My wish-list to give our city a happy and prosperous 2011

Being so busy over the next few days, it’s unlikely that Father Christmas will deliver the presents I want for Stoke-on-Trent.
So here’s my wish-list to give our city a happy and prosperous 2011…
I hope that the families living on deprived neighbourhoods are not left to their fate with the winding down of Renew North Staffordshire at the end of March.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council has worked hand in glove with the regeneration agency that was given hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to transform the Potteries.
Estates such as Cobridge must not simply be abandoned to inexorable decline. It is the responsibility of local politicians to champion their areas.
I hope that work will finally (finally!) commence on building a new bus station for Hanley.
This project, which has been on the drawing board since before yours truly was sitting his GCSEs, is vital to the ultimate renaissance of the city centre. Please can everyone make a note in their diaries on March 28 so that if we don’t see men with hard hats wandering around we can kick up an almighty fuss.
I hope the much-vaunted Local Enterprise Partnership or LEP becomes more than just a talking shop for men in suits – we’ve had too many of these in recent years.
The effectiveness of this body should be assessed on a regular basis by the amount of funding it is able to bring to North Staffordshire.
I hope that a decision can be taken as soon as possible to close the great white elephant that is Ceramica and find a new use for this iconic building. Burslem’s beautiful Grade II-listed Town Hall deserves better than a continuing depreciation in value and a trickle of visitors at this ill thought-ought carbuncle which loses money year after year.
I hope that we don’t all forget about the Staffordshire Hoard. We’ve got a unique tourist attraction – up at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. It’s all gone rather quiet, however. Let’s start marketing ourselves as the home of the hoard, build a great big statue of a Saxon warrior overlooking the M6 to brand our city as such, and start raising the money to have these breathtaking exhibits properly displayed.
I hope the wonderful Donna Louise Children’s Hospice – which is a credit to Stoke-on-Trent – is finally on a sound enough financial footing to be able to open its doors seven days a week.
I hope the project to build stronger links with Lidice in the Czech Republic is a roaring success. If ever a local campaign deserved to succeed – this is it – as it shows the people of the Potteries in their best, most selfless light.
The role our city played in breathing new life into a village which Hitler tried to wipe off the map must never be forgotten.
I’d like my beloved Port Vale to win automatic promotion, retain the services of Micky Adams and earn the kind of investment which secures the long-term future of the club. This would enable the current board of directors to step down with heads held high – rather than being hounded down Hamil Road by disaffected fans.
I wish Stoke City would make it into Europe – even if it’s in that Mickey Mouse competition that Liverpool are in this season.
As well as giving the Potteries more exposure, perhaps then the Match Of The Day crew would at last give Tony Pulis’s team their due and find alternative adjectives to ‘hard-working’, ‘physical’ and ‘well-organised’.
I’d like Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor to finally get the recognition he deserves and win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Failing that, can we not give the bloke the Freedom of the City?
To round off the year I’d like my mate Jonny Wilkes to bring Paddy McGuinness and their adult pantomime to The Regent theatre. You never know, it may even shut up the critics who for years have slated Jonny for putting bums on seats at our premier theatre.
“Oh no it won’t…”

‘Close Ceramica? I thought it shut ages ago…’

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say that the writing was on the wall for Ceramica from the moment that eyesore was tacked on to Burslem’s beautiful Town Hall.
When news of the venue’s potential closure broke, The Sentinel’s editorial suggested that Ceramica’s epitaph may read: ‘a good idea, badly executed.”
I have to say that I disagree: It was a flawed concept, badly executed.
Proud as I am of the city’s industrial heritage and even my own family’s role in the pottery industry, I never thought Ceramica would succeed.
While the finished design of the new-build element may have pleased architects and arty types, many of us thought it looked completely incongruous.
In addition, estimates of visitor figures always seemed ludicrously optimistic to me.
‘Experts’ predicted Ceramica would bring in 100,000 visitors a year to the Mother Town. In actual fact, just 7,400 people visited the tourist attraction over the last 12 months. That is an appalling average of 28 visitors per day.
During the last four years the city council has given grants totalling £560,000 to Ceramica while the venue itself has generated just £75,000 in admission fees.
That’s just since 2007. In total, since the venue opened its doors, it has leeched more than £1 million from taxpayers who are still scratching their heads as to what the big idea was.
One wonders how else that money could have been better spent to help breathe life into Burslem.
What’s more, the historic, Grade II-listed Town Hall is depreciating in value by £57,000 a year because of this great white elephant.
So why did I doubt the Ceramica vision?
Because the fact is that a visitor centre and pseudo-museum that is dedicated to the ceramics industry was always going to be dull as dishwater to locals, never mind most visitors from outside North Staffordshire.
Let’s face it, many of us have cupboards full of crockery and – as much as we may be plate-turners at breakfast time in a Costa hotel – most of us can think of better things to do of a weekend than wandering around looking at pots.
When I told a friend of mine that Ceramica could face closure she replied, in all sincerity: “I thought it had shut ages ago.”
Enough said.
On reading that Ceramica was under threat, one newsroom colleague had an idea.
He suggested, given the shape of part of the venue – which is not too dissimilar to the prow of a ship, that it be turned into an exhibition centre dedicated to the memory of Captain Smith of Titanic fame.
You know, we could perhaps have a plaster cast of Celine Dion – arms outstretched – hanging off the pointy bit, that sort of thing.
Joking apart, if Ceramica is to close then the information and exhibits it contains should be retained – perhaps up at the excellent Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley.
More importantly, it is essential that very quickly a new use be found for this iconic building in the very heart of Burslem.
The Mother Town simply can’t afford to have such a focal point standing empty.
I suppose it is too much to expect anyone to hold up their hands and admit that they got it wrong with our three-year late Millennium project.
But the very least we must do is ensure that Ceramica’s legacy isn’t simply to bequeath another empty building to a town that is already flatlining.

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.

Only investment will wake Mother Town from slumber

Burslem Town Hall.

Burslem Town Hall.

There’s no doubt I have a real soft spot for Burslem. Sure, it’s home to my beloved Port Vale – but that’s only one reason why the Mother Town of the Potteries holds a special place in my affections.

Firstly, Burslem is where this scribe spent the formative years of his journalistic career – working out of a grand old building in Westport Road during the early Nineties.

I remember I started on the princely sum of £80 a week and carried a pager around with me before graduating to using a mobile phone the size of a house brick.

I had money in my pocket and a yellow Metro to get me from A to B. Happy days.

A few years earlier, this was the town where, as a 16-year-old, I enjoyed my first pub crawl.

This culminated in yours truly throwing up in the gutter outside The American on Waterloo Road after three and a half pints – to my eternal shame.

I was once told that Burslem had more pubs per square mile than any other town in England. I never believed the claim but I liked the idea all the same.

Going back even further Burslem reminds me of Saturday mornings as a youngster.

Dad was invariably working and my mum, my brother and I would walk from our home in Sneyd Green to visit uncle Dave and auntie Jean in Cobridge.

Then it was on to Burslem for the weekly shop and the Aladdin’s cave that was the indoor market.

That was, of course, when the Mother Town had an indoor market. And a Woolies. And some shops.

It was a time before the great white elephant that is Ceramica was tacked on to the Town Hall.

A time when you could still buy a pair of shoes in Burslem – when retail was the beating heart of the town.

Anyone old enough to remember Burslem as the thriving place it was 30 years ago will have experienced the same sense of sadness I feel every time I drive along Newcastle Street.

For more than a decade it has had the feel of a ghost town with boarded-up shops and precious little activity.

There is no doubt Burslem has always boasted the finest architecture of any of the Six Towns, but the dereliction of bog-standard buildings has, in recent years, acted like a thief of grandeur.

However, it seems the powers-that-be may finally have recognised that, with a little tlc, old Boslem may scrub up alright.

Plans were unveiled this week to build a £4.5 million link road to divert traffic away from the town centre – making it more ‘shopper-friendly’. It is hoped work will commence in 2011.

Sounds good. But, to throw in a little healthy cynicism, I would suggest that to have any shoppers you have to have a few, er… shops.

And therein lies the problem.

It is true to say that some money has been spent in the ST6 postcode area since 2001 under the auspices of the well-intentioned Burslem Regeneration Company.

Obvious examples are the Swan Square area and the various business and enterprise units dotted around the town.

To the casual observer, however, it may seem that precious little has changed in Burslem in recent years.

The experts will, of course, tell you that any city worth its salt needs a well-defined centre for tourists and shoppers – a focus for the local economy. (Yes, even a one-Starbucks city like Stoke-on-Trent).

This presumably explains why the city council has chucked millions of pounds at Hanley in recent years – and precious little at Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

And while I’m all for a vibrant city centre with a Cultural Quarter and big-name stores, what price the failure to stimulate trade and attract investment to our other towns?

At present Burslem sleeps. And it will take a lot more than a relief road to shake it from its slumber.

The town is, quite simply, a sad monument to short-term thinking and a lack of investment.

In describing Burslem, Arnold Bennett wrote: “… beauty was achieved, and none saw it.”

I would suggest that unless we see a coherent vision and some serious investment in the Mother Town’s retail heart there is a very real danger the Potteries author’s words will continue to ring true.

Let’s blow our own trumpet to clinch crucial arts prize

The Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston

The Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston

A few weeks ago, I was banging on about how we in North Staffordshire are so poor at trumpeting our proud past.

Now, as arguably the world’s foremost pottery brand battles for survival under the stewardship of its new American owners, we have been presented with an opportunity to help preserve a priceless piece of Potteries heritage.

The Wedgwood Museum, below, has been shortlisted for the £100,000 Art Fund Prize 2009 – the largest single arts award in the UK.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement for the Barlaston venue.

However, there are no points (or should I say pounds) for second place and it faces stiff opposition from three other tourist attractions – the preposterously-named Centre of New Enlightenment at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham and Ruthin Crafts Centre in Denbighshire.

I have never visited these other attractions and so I can honestly say I have nothing against any of them. I just don’t want them to win.

You see, as far as I’m concerned, the country has plenty of interactive learning experiences ‘which inspire children to achieve success in their lives’.

We’ve got one ourselves – it’s called Ceramica – and every time I drive past it is either closed or there isn’t a visitor in sight.

And anyway, Kelvingrove has already benefited from a £5 million donation from the philanthropic Hunter Group, so it’s hardly on its uppers now, is it?

Meanwhile, supporting contemporary crafts is all well and good, but I dare say the legacy of 250 years of creativity, craftsmanship and employment rather trumps whatever the unique selling point of the Welsh entry is.

Ok. You might have gathered that I’ve got a soft spot for the Wedgwood Museum.

That’s partly because it is run by a charitable trust which is financially independent of the Wedgwood brand and has been charged with the task of conserving one of the most precious archives in the world.

I also like the fact that the Wedgwood Museum does what it says on the tin.

It may be housed in a breathtaking modern building but inside it’s a proper museum that looks like, well … a proper museum. You know, lots of wood panelling and exhibits that are unique, priceless and a lot older than me.

Thus I would dearly love our entry to scoop the cash – particularly as Bethesda Chapel or ‘Cathedral of the Potteries’ was robbed of the first prize in BBC TV’s Restoration programme. I reckon we’re due a break.

Let’s face it, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is spent every year across the UK on white elephant tourist attractions and wasted by misguided local authorities on nonsensical arts projects. Ahem.

Just think back to how cash was literally thrown at obscure schemes around the time of the Millennium celebrations.

Here, the six Art Fund Prize judges have the chance to lend a helping hand to a truly stunning attraction which we all take for granted because it’s on our doorstep.

This isn’t some arty, minority interest venue. It’s a museum dedicated to the tens of thousands of people who made objects of great beauty from the soil of North Staffordshire.

It is a living, breathing monument to their lives’ work.

And as well as telling the fascinating lives of the Wedgwood family members and displaying the skills, artistry and ingenuity of the Wedgwood workforce, the museum boasts a huge range of manuscripts, documentation, correspondence, factory equipment, and original models.

Oh, and one of the most important ceramic collections in the world.

For the first time, the public can vote for who they think should win the £100,000 Art Fund Prize.

The winner of the poll will count as one of seven votes at the final judges’ meeting.

I’ll do my bit if you do yours. Let’s give old Josiah something to smile about.

After all, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.