Why Tom’s still fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Love him or hate him, you couldn’t possibly ignore him. That may well be Tom Brennan’s epitaph.

But that would be too simplistic and do a huge disservice to a man who, at the age of 79, remains as fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent as he was when first elected a councillor almost 40 years ago.

What’s more, Tom is that rare beast: A councillor who can look back on his unblemished period of office with a mixture of pride and satisfaction – having gifted the people of the Potteries some tremendous benefits.

Born in 1933, there was little to suggest the lad taught mainly by nuns at St. Joseph’s RC School in Burslem was destined for a career in politics.

Having learned his trade as a painter and decorator, Tom completed three years’ service with the Irish Guards.

He went on to work in the building trade before taking a job, like other members of his family before him, with the very Catholic-orientated Michelin tyre firm.

It was there that Tom, who became a shop steward, met the likes of local politicians Leon and Stan Bate who suggested he join the local Labour party. Within 18 months he was elected as a councillor at the then acceptable age of 40.

Tom, who lives in Bucknall with his wife Elaine, recalls: “It was a real culture shock to me. Suddenly I was in a position to be able to represent all of these people in my area.

“I was very proud. I did a four-year college course, paid for by the Labour party, which trained us to be good councillors and schooled us in the art of politics.

“I finished it and even received a certificate signed by Jim Callaghan (who went on to become Prime Minister in 1976).

“I was full of enthusiasm and remember attending my first meeting up at Hanley Town Hall.

“Jim Westwood was leader of the Labour group back then and when I stuck my hand up at the end of the meeting to ask about national policies he made it very clear to me that the local party ruled the roost in Stoke-on-Trent and they didn’t listen to national politicians.

“I wasn’t downhearted by this. When you’ve done three years with the Guards and been a drill instructor you learn to cope with shouting and bawling and how to give it back.”

This refusal to be intimidated and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer was to serve Tom well over the next 21 years as a serving councillor.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards, organised by The Sentinel and now in its 38th year, was Tom’s brainchild.

A talented athlete in his youth, he was also the key player in the creation of Northwood Stadium.

Tom remembers: “Under the ‘any other business’ section of a meeting of the parks and recreation committee I stuck my hand up and asked why Stoke-on-Trent didn’t have a running track like other cities.

“The chairman at the time was Joe Monks-Neil. You have to bear in mind that, back then, the chairmen of council committees were all-powerful. It’s not like that these days.

“Joe asked me who I thought I was to be asking a question like that. He said the council had more important issues to think about like slum clearance and land reclamation.

“But I wouldn’t let it lie and I just kept niggling away.

“I got myself onto the Northwood Management Committee and worked to help bring together the various councils and funding bodies who stumped up about £4.5 million to pay for the stadium.”

More than a decade later, in 1985, Northwood Stadium was officially opened and Tom’s involvement in its creation is now acknowledged there with a plaque.

Tom looks back on his time as a councillor with great fondness and a real sense of achievement.

He said: “Elaine did a terrific job of bringing up our two children and I am very proud of them all.

“Crucially she supported me every step of the way through my endeavours as a councillor and there were times she barely saw me.

“Elaine just knew it was something I was very passionate about. I still am.”

Something which Mrs Brennan was able to play a full role in, however, was Tom’s period of office as the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent (1982/3).

He is now the second oldest surviving Lord Mayor of the city.

Tom recalls: “I was tremendously proud to represent the city. I think we attended more than 1,700 engagements that year. These included a visit to London at the request of the Lord Mayor of London along with all the other civic heads and an audience with Pope John Paul II.”

When Tom heard earlier this year that, as part of cutbacks, the city council was looking at doing away with the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor and its associated costs he was horrified.

He said: “I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself: ‘Where do they get these mad ideas from?’ I am a Labour man through and through – a socialist and proud. But having served as the Queen’s representative I understand the importance of such roles – the distinction of having a Lord Mayor – and I will defend the idea to my dying day.”

Tom believes the role of councillors has changed since his day and that their power and influence has waned somewhat.

He said: “I don’t believe that councillors in 2012 have the same opportunities and wield the same power as they did 30 years ago.

“That’s a good and bad thing, I suppose, and I dare say getting something like Northwood Stadium would be beyond modern-day councillors and I feel sorry for them in away.”

However, Tom says that even with the changes and knowing what he knows now, he would happily start over as a councillor tomorrow.

He said: “You never stop caring. You never stop wanting to help people. It gets in your blood.”

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Hands-off the Lord Mayor… it’s too important a role for us to cast aside

Even when needs must and belts have to be tightened, I would suggest there are certain things that ought to be sacrosanct.
In our house it’s Heinz Baked Beans and my monthly copy of The Wisden Cricketer magazine. Everything else is up for discussion as far as I’m concerned.
This, admittedly simplistic approach to thrift, is how I believe Stoke-on-Trent City Council should approach its cost-cutting measures.
Make no bones about it, the situation is grim. Council tax will rise and 358 jobs will be made redundant as the local authority attempts to find savings of £24 million.
The public consultation is already underway on a sweeping cuts package which could see the axe fall on care homes, lead to fewer bin collections and result in reduced opening hours for the city’s libraries and museums.
Amid this financial carnage, I was heartened to read that the council’s business services scrutiny committee had refused to endorse another money-saving suggestion: Getting shot of the Lord Mayor.
Apparently, doing away with the ceremonial role – complete with car, chauffeur, hospitality, allowances and a secretary – would save around a £130,000 a year.
However, by my reckoning, dumping 83 years of heritage simply isn’t worth the cost saving.
Frankly, I’d rather see the back of another highly-paid senior manager than have Stoke-on-Trent lose its first citizen.
Better still, we could save tens of thousands of pounds by doing away with the six-week British Ceramics Biennial funded by local taxpayers who haven’t a clue what it actually is.
My friend and fellow Sentinel columnist Fred Hughes said recently: “I’m in favour of the mayoralty but there are question marks over the value it holds in times like these.”
Unusually, I have to disagree with Fred this time.
In my book, if we want to be a city worth the name then we have to draw a line somewhere when it comes to cutbacks and, for me, that line starts with the Lord Mayor.
During my 20-odd years as a hack I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and working with many of the city’s first citizens during that period.
In my opinion you simply cannot put a price on having a figurehead travelling around the Potteries bringing gravitas to so many occasions.
I think of the numerous picture requests The Sentinel’s photographic department receives from people eager to tell us ‘We’ve got the Lord Mayor coming to open it (whatever it happens to be).
People care about this role. It means something. Having the Lord Mayor attend your do – whether it be a charity gig or a more formal occasion – is hugely significant.
Simply having the Lord Mayor there in his/her civic regalia adds a touch of class and raises the profile of thousands of events and makes people feel they, and their do, are a bit special.
In my role at The Sentinel I work closely with colleagues from the city council and help to organise major public ceremonies such as The City Of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
As well as a host of sporting personalities from our neck of the woods such as Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and Gordon Banks OBE, in recent years this event has attracted the likes of Lord Coe and Stuart Pearce OBE.
I simply can’t envisage organising such events without planning for having our first citizen on the red carpet to greet the VIPs – and the hundreds of local people for whom such nights are a treasured memory.
It was certainly no surprise to me that when the 10 contenders for Stoke-on-Trent’s Citizen of the Century Awards were chosen last year they included Doug Brown.
Doug, perhaps best known as the founder of Ladsandads, is the only person to have been Lord Mayor of our city twice.
As well as being a thoroughly nice and genuine bloke, he was also an outstanding ambassador for our city – something which was only made possible by his role as first citizen.
For me, the Lord Mayor is a position to which we should aspire and a role to be cherished.
It is one piece of the family silver which should not be tinkered with.

King’s Hall deserves more chances to shine

Last week 350 guests, resplendent in their finery, attended the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
Having organised the event, I’m bound to say it was a good do – and it was.
A joint venture between this newspaper and the city council, it’s a classic public/private partnership.
The awards night enables Stoke-on-Trent to showcase the very best of its sporting talent and reward all the unsung heroes – the grassroots coaches and volunteers which nurture that ability.
An olympic gold medal-winner rubbed shoulders with a World Cup-winning footballer, former England cricketers, Potteries football icons, MPs and a host of civic dignitaries.
Black tie and evening wear for ladies, read the invitation, and I have to say we all scrubbed up well.
At a time of austerity there will be those who will question the merit of such events – and the cost.
But the truth is that if we aspire to be a city worth the name then we have to demonstrate that we can stage events which have that ‘wow factor’ and which make visitors sit up and take notice.
What made this year’s awards ceremony rather special was the venue which hosted it.
The King’s Hall in Stoke is a real architectural gem and, following its interior makeover a couple of years ago, the grand old lady really sparkles on nights such as last Thursday.
Aside from having wonderful acoustics, the hall itself is a magnificent visual treat – with its ornate plasterwork, chandeliers and imposing stage with its choir stalls and voluminuous red drapes.
Having compèred several events there myself I can tell you that the King’s Hall is the perfect venue for everything from glitzy awards ceremonies to veterans’ celebrations – from prayer breakfasts to good, old-fashioned discos.
What a shame it is then that this wonderful asset is so under-used.
Indeed, I wonder how many people in our city ever have cause to visit the King’s Hall – particularly anyone under the age of 30.
At present, the King’s Hall makes do with election counts, the odd wedding and occasional use by specific interest groups.
Only half a dozen times a year does the venue actually come alive with music, entertainment and genuine celebration which embraces all sections of our community.
If the King’s Hall was in another city I dare say it would be playing host to at least a couple of decent gigs every week.
I won’t try to claim this as my idea, because it wasn’t, but why don’t we have a music promoter touting the venue around for bands?
Let’s face it, Stoke is hardly a hive of activity after 7pm.
Just think of the potential boost to the town’s economy – to shops, bars, cafe’s and pubs – if 2,000 people were packing out the King’s Hall a couple of times a week to see their favourite musicians, singers or comedians.
It wouldn’t take much. The venue is almost ready – aside from a modest investment backstage to create some decent dressing rooms.
This may all seem like pie in the sky at a time when leisure facilities are being closed as part of local authority cutbacks but I believe the King’s Hall is different.
Attached to the council’s Civic Headquarters, this venue will continue to host events irrespective of the financial climate.
The question is: can we maximise its potential and that all of all the other dormant and under-used civic assets across the city?
Forget Hanley: it already has a Cultural Quarter and is finally undergoing the kind of bread-and-butter regeneration which turn it into a thriving city centre.
However, to use a marketing concept, I believe that it is vital that the other five towns each finds its own unique selling point (USP).
Aside from boasting a Minster church, it strikes me that the King’s Hall is Stoke’s USP and much more should therefore be done to promote it.
Do you think more use should be made of the King’s Hall and other civic assets?