Let’s view Tour of Britain miss as an opportunity for our city

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

I wonder how many taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent will be genuinely disappointed that the Tour of Britain isn’t coming to the Potteries this year.

The cycle race’s organisers have decided against returning to the city again and instead will host a charity ride for amateurs here in the Six Towns on October 5.

That means we won’t see the likes of Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medalist Sir Bradley Wiggins in Hanley alongside dozens of other pro riders.

To be honest, cycling isn’t my bag. A few of my friends – even some of my colleagues – have taken to two wheels since the London Olympics and I do appreciate the health benefits for them and their kids. All that wind-in-your-hair, outdoors business sounds good.

But as a spectacle, standing for several hours waiting to catch a glimpse of 30-odd blokes who you can’t name whizz past in a nanosecond isn’t my idea of good day out.

I remember being in Hanley on a drizzly afternoon a couple of years ago when The Tour came to town and recall the paved area outside the old Woolies store being cordoned off.

I’m being generous when I say there were perhaps a couple of hundred spectators within sight of Sir Stan’s statue and most people, like me, just seemed frustrated that the crash barriers meant they couldn’t cross the street to get to Marks & Sparks.

I confess I would never consider tuning in to ITV4 or whatever channel The Tour of Britain is broadcast on to catch up with the action – even if for one day you might spot the odd Potteries landmark in the background.

It’s not that I don’t applaud the city council for trying to attract big events to Stoke-on-Trent. I guess cycling as a sport is just a bit niche for me.

Given the viewing figures the Tour of Britain receives, however, I don’t believe I’m alone.

Yes, cycle nerds, cycle shop owners and a few traders in Hanley may have had a good day but I’m not sure hosting the race justified the £820,000 of taxpayers’ money spent since 2008 and all the associated mither of road closures.

Senior councillors have confirmed they did want the Tour of Britain here this year and would like to see it return soon.

This means there must be a pot of money that would have been spent on the race in 2014 – perhaps £120,000 plus – going spare.

That being the case why don’t we look to organise some other events which will help to raise the city’s profile and boost the economy?

For example, given the fact that we are the undisputed darts capital of the world and have been for more than a decade, I’ve always wondered why Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t look to stage a tournament.

If it’s because some people are a bit sniffy about it not being a proper ‘sport’ then I suggest they get over themselves and pop in to a few pubs across the Potteries to see how healthy local leagues are.

Darts is hugely popular – that’s why it’s broadcast on Sky TV – and in Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis and Andy ‘The Hammer’ Hamilton, we have three home-grown ambassadors who would themselves be a big draw. We could stage it at the King’s Hall in Stoke or the Victoria Hall in Hanley over a weekend.

We’ve also got a couple of world class pool players living locally so perhaps that’s another sport we can look to in order to raise our profile.

Of course, events which bring people into the city and get them spending money in shops, pubs and restaurants don’t necessarily have to be sports-related.

Take the recent Robbie Williams fans’ festival, tourist trail and exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, for example. They cost a few thousand pounds to stage but the benefits were huge in terms of helping local businesses, attracting visitors and boosting the city’s profile.

Let’s not forget that neighbouring towns like Stone and Leek, which have much smaller populations, stage hugely successful food and drink and arts festivals, respectively.

Meanwhile, Newcastle is about to put on its jazz and blues festival.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent we struggled to get a few camels up Hanley for the Christmas lights switch-on. What’s all that about?

We should have more farmers’ markets, continental markets or perhaps stage a huge garden and local produce show which highlights the best our farmers, bakers and brewers have to offer.

Or how about an annual Spitfire Day here in Stoke-on-Trent, based around trying to raise funds to restore our own RW 388 in the Potteries Museum – complete with wartime music, re-enactors in period costume, military vehicles and a fly-past?

We are a big enough city to be staging a major public event once a month and they could be shared around our Six Towns so that each one enjoys the economic boost – rather than just Hanley being the beneficiary.

When you think about it, we are only limited by our imaginations.

I’m pretty sure all of the above could be staged for less than the £120,000 or more it cost us to host the Tour of Britain each year – and certainly a lot less than the minimum £250,000 of taxpayers’ money we are spending on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

There is simply no need to put all our eggs into a couple of baskets.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Stoke-on-Trent’s HS2 bid may be a gamble too far…

An artist's impression of Stoke-on-Trent's proposed HS2 hub station.

An artist’s impression of Stoke-on-Trent’s proposed HS2 hub station.

I’m not a gambler but, if I was, after this week I’d put money on Crewe getting a HS2 hub station ahead of Stoke-on-Trent.

I hope I’m wrong. I really do. It’s not that I have anything against Crewe, but a lad from Sneyd Green is always going to bat for his home city.

To my mind the endorsement for the railway town’s bid by HS2 Chairman Sir David Higgins has derailed the city council’s proposals.

Whilst it is the Government that will ultimately decide on plans for the new high-speed rail network, I can’t believe that ministers will not be guided by recommendations from the man who delivered the hugely-successful London Olympics.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who listened with frustration as Transport Minister Baroness Kramer talked in platitudes about Stoke-on-Trent’s bid still being in the mix.

It was a typical politician’s interview – even worse because it was given during the countdown to the next election. No straight answers and full of clichés about ‘communities in the North and Midlands coming together’ – whatever that means.

Could you vague that up for me a little more, Minister?

About the best thing she could say was that she ‘appreciated the city council’s commitment’ to the project and claimed ‘Stoke’s bid hasn’t been discarded’.

She also talked about the importance of making sure that services to Stoke weren’t diminished – irrespective of what happens with HS2.

Well cheers, duck, but forgive us if we don’t put up the bunting just yet.

Perhaps senior city council officers and elected members have been given a steer to the contrary but you’d have to say it doesn’t look good for our bid right now.

I’m not a transport expert but the city council’s HS2 bid seemed to be compelling when it was first unveiled in The Sentinel.

It is cheaper, would have a reduced impact on the environment – compared to other proposals – and could be delivered more quickly.

The elephant in the room, however, is that our bid arrived at the table very late (about 18 months too late) and – irrespective of what people say about the consultation process – that will surely have a bearing on the final decision.

I don’t really understand why we were so late to the party. You’d have to have been living on Planet Zog not to have seen all the fuss about HS2 when it was first announced.

I’m not being negative but I do think you have to read the runes sometimes and, following Sir David Higgins’s press conference on Monday, I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of the city council spending a further £800,000 plus of taxpayers’ money on what has become, to all intents and purposes, an outside bet.

No-one minds a bit of ambition, but sometimes I have to question the way money is spent by the local authority.

We’re flogging off beautiful buildings like Fenton Library at auction and doing nothing to protect Fenton Town Hall and its unique Great War memorial but we can somehow find £1 million for this grand HS2 vision.

By the same token we’re again spending an eye-watering minimum of £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show – something which has, to date, yielded no tangible benefits other than giving an elite few a nice day out. You know who you are.

I think it’s crazy. If we’ve got a quarter of a million pounds to spend then let’s spend it here where local people will benefit – rather than on a jolly aimed at ‘raising the city’s profile’.

We could stage about five huge, great garden shows of our own here in Stoke-on-Trent for that sort of money. Such events would not only attract tourists and businesses to the city but would engage thousands of local people, foster a love of the outdoors and gardening and could be used to help to emphasise the importance of healthy eating to school-age children.

Last month, for about £3,000 (about one per cent of what the Chelsea Flower Show presence will cost) we created a Robbie Williams tourist trail and launched a hugely successful exhibition based around Rob’s life at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which attracted 17,000 people in its first month.

This generated more than 70 positive national and international news stories which showcased the city and gave a big boost to businesses over the weekend of RWFanFest. Now that’s what you call money well spent.

I dare say the forthcoming ‘Hot Air’ Literary Festival will also do more for the city’s profile than a presence at the Chelsea Flower Show will – and at a negligible cost to taxpayers.

Ultimately, I believe the HS2 bid and Chelsea Flower Show investment are the kind of decisions which will come back to haunt politicians at the next local elections. As central government squeezes local authorities more and more to the extent that they are in a position where they are only able to deliver essential services, we have to be more careful than ever before about how, where and why we spend taxpayers’ money.

It seems to me that Hanley and, to a lesser extent, Burslem and Tunstall, are being nurtured but the other three towns which make up the Potteries are being neglected.

How can we possibly maintain or nurture a sense of community when our communities have nowhere to call their own – nowhere to meet, congregate or work together?

It means local people have no focus and nowhere to be proud of.

Perhaps it is time we stopped gambling on long-shots and started looking at a little closer to home when spending what little money we have because if the city’s HS2 is unsuccessful then it’s £1 million wasted – pure and simple.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel