Never mind the election… what about our manifesto?

As Gordon Brown and David Cameron are busy peddling the policies they hope will propel them to 10 Downing Street, I thought I’d have a dabble at my own manifesto – specifically for North Staffordshire.

As Stoke-on-Trent celebrates the centenary of the federation of the six towns, what better time to take stock of where we are as a city and a region and plot a vision for a brighter future?

With a newly-arrived chief executive at the city council, a new face arriving in the role of the Stoke-on-Trent Central MP and a transfusion of new blood via the local elections, I think opportunity genuinely knocks for our neck of the woods.

Let’s hope we don’t ignore it.

This is my wish-list to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century…

*Forget parochialism and create a North Staffordshire authority serving nigh on half a million people – including the city, Newcastle, Leek, Biddulph and Cheadle and do away with the present, inefficient hotchpotch of local councils. Let’s face it, we’ve all got more in common with each other than we have with Stafford, Tamworth or Lichfield. I would suggest it is better to start speaking with one voice which would give us far more clout nationally. Such a merger would also enable us to get rid of many of the public sector non-jobs created in recent years. Perhaps then we could balance our budgets.

*Get serious about regeneration and deliver the key foundations to our economic recovery and future prosperity. How many times have we been shown plans of glass bottle kilns and the like which never come to fruition? Hanley desperately needs the long-awaited new bus station and the East-West shopping precinct so let’s ride a coach and horses through the bureaucracy and get them built. The University Quarter, or UniQ, and the Business District must become a reality rather than limping along as artists’ impressions. By the same token, our MPs and councillors must lobby like their lives depend upon in it in the coming months to ensure that, irrespective of which party wins the General Election, the hundreds of millions of pounds of funding currently transforming our estates via regeneration agency Renew North Staffordshire doesn’t dry up halfway through the process.

*Throw all our weight behind the Next Stop Stoke campaign to ensure the £60 billion high-speed rail network comes to North Staffordshire. We must ensure Stoke-on-Trent is selected as a stop on the flagship HS2 inter-city project or we run the risk of missing out on investment, jobs and tourism.

*If we don’t want to become a cultural desert then we need to stop quibbling about subsidies for The Regent Theatre and accept that if you want a top class venue in the city centre then, like other major cities, you have to be prepared to spend serious public money to help a private operator earn a crust. The benefits to our economy, the social life of the sub-region and the aspirations of future generations are there for all to see.

*Bring our home-grown football stars, role-model Olympic hopefuls and local celebrities together for a campaign to tackle North Staffordshire’s chronic obesity problem run through every single school in the city, Newcastle and the Staffordshire Moorlands. Tie this in with major renovation and promotion of our parks, public open spaces and excellent cycle routes to encourage more people to become active and fitter.

*Act now to capitalise on the huge public interest in the Staffordshire Hoard. As I suggested previously, let’s have a campaign to build a huge, great statue of a Saxon warrior visible for miles just off the M6 passing through Stoke-on-Trent and luring in visitors to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Let’s market ourselves as the home of the Hoard and completely renovate the venue to make the Hoard exhibition a tourist attraction of international significance. The time has come for us to stop marketing ourselves solely on our industrial past and find a new identity.

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Their England is not one I either want or recognise

The flag of St. George.

The flag of St. George.

I’ve often heard the movers and shakers in the Potteries wish that Stoke-on-Trent had a similar profile to the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham.

At the weekend that wish came true, after a fashion, when Stoke-on-Trent followed in the footsteps of those cities and endured its first English Defence League (EDL) protest.

There were 17 arrests, six police officers were injured and city centre traders were left seriously out of pocket at a time when they can ill-afford it.

It could have been worse. Much worse.

All in all it was an expensive farce which prevented thousands of Potters going about their business up ’Anley.

However, it wasn’t the end of the world and no – it doesn’t mean that our city has suddenly become a pariah.

After Saturday, it would be easy to tar all the EDL demonstrators with the same brush and label them yobs and fascists.

But, as The Sentinel’s own reporters discovered, the inconvenient truth is that far from being entirely composed of shaven-headed Nazis and unemployed louts, the protesters on Saturday were a mixed bag of locals and outsiders, teens to people in their fifties from all walks of life.

Whatever their reasons for being in the city centre on Saturday no-one could possibly argue that they were all there seeking violence or indeed that they are all fascists.

It would be a bit like arguing that because a certain football club has a few followers who enjoy a ruck then all its supporters are hooligans.

While it is absolutely fair to say that elements of the EDL showed themselves up to be bigoted morons bent on provocation and confrontation, it seems a large number of the protesters were simply disaffected, disillusioned and misguided – none of which are crimes.

Whatever their motivations, these kind of people have every right to hold a peaceful public protest.

Sadly, a peaceful protest is not what we got.

“Saturday made me ashamed to be English,” wrote one reader on The Sentinel’s website, somewhat melodramatically.

Well it didn’t make me ashamed to be English because the EDL doesn’t represent me and it is not campaigning for an England that I either want or recognise.

If the EDL genuinely wants to affect change in this country then I would suggest to its leadership that there are far better ways of doing it – such as becoming a legitimate political party or lobbying decision-makers.

Bringing a busy shopping town to a standstill on a Saturday afternoon, intimidating the locals and wearing scarves and masks while shouting “ban the burkha” is patently not the answer.

The fact is the organisers of this gathering knew there would be trouble and that’s exactly what we ended up with.

Unfortunately, as our economy continues to struggle and the mainstream political parties shy away from tackling the thorny issues of immigration and the UK’s membership of the EU and its ramifications, these kind of demonstrations will continue – along with a growth in support for right wing parties.

To use a word popular with modern soundbite politicians, many ordinary people feel disenfranchised by the mainstream parties and are looking elsewhere for someone to give them a voice.

The EDL should have done its homework, of course. Stoke-on-Trent has a proud history of tolerance and integration and a few placards and a bit of lairy behaviour one afternoon is hardly likely to shake our city to its foundations.

This year we mark the centenary of the Federation of the Six Towns and we have plenty to celebrate.

In a few weeks’ time the Staffordshire Hoard comes to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and over the coming months we will all be enjoying numerous events to coincide with the 100 years which will put our city on the map for all the right reasons.