No excuse for not playing your part in local democracy

One of the My City, My Say debates.

One of the My City, My Say debates.

This is one of those columns which I’m going to be slated for. This is one of those columns where I can’t win.

Then again, as my forerunner – the late John Abberley – once told me, being a newspaper columnist isn’t a popularity contest.

I’ve chosen a subject where the opinions of people who may wish to comment are so polarised that they can’t even, through gritted teeth, acknowledge that maybe the other side has a point: That maybe, just maybe, there could be some common ground.

Have you heard of the My City, My Say debates taking place across Stoke-on-Trent? No?

They’ve been promoted in The Sentinel, on local radio, on social media and even on billboards and flyers.

There are 35 events taking place across the Potteries, organised by the city council, with the aim of giving local people – local taxpayers – a say in the future priorities for their communities.

When any initiative like this is announced there is an awful lot of cynicism and I can understand elements of it.

Some people will say: ‘Isn’t it funny how the council – or rather the ruling Labour group – has decided to roll out these forums in the run up to next year’s elections?’

It’s certainly no surprise to me that some opposition councillors are boycotting the meetings and presumably telling everyone they’ve ever met to do the same.

(Although I should just give a big shout out here to councillor Randy Conteh for being part of Wednesday night’s excellent debate at Thistley Hough Academy in Penkhull – irrespective of his political persuasion – having clearly seen the value of the event).

Other people say: ‘What’s the point? The council never listens anyway. This is just a PR stunt.’

I’m sorry but that’s a huge abdication of responsibility – similar to the one some people would accuse the council’s leadership of.

Even if you think it’s a PR stunt, if you’re not there voicing your frustrations then how could anyone know what they are?

All you are actually doing is perpetuating this awful apathy that pervades politics in general in this country, and our city. The apathy which sees only 20-something per cent of people turn out on polling day.

I’ve also seen people posting on forums arguing that the ‘council’ – I guess they mean the leadership of the authority – doesn’t care about their communities because they haven’t supported or funded projects that some local people are passionate about.

That is a very fair and valid point. You could certainly argue that some towns in Stoke-on-Trent (Fenton being the obvious example) seem to have been overlooked in recent years and campaigns such as the one to save Fenton Town Hall haven’t received the support from councillors, MPs and people in positions of power, that they deserve.

But not turning up to meetings and not articulating these views accomplishes nothing.

If you, for example, think the authority shouldn’t be relocating its headquarters from Stoke to Hanley then why not come along to one of these meetings and tell council leader Mohammed Pervez?
You can even come and praise him too.

If you think Hanley doesn’t need a second large retail centre called City Sentral – particularly as the other one, Intu Potteries, is expanding, then why not go along to a meeting, have your say and write your comments on a form?

If you are concerned about fly-tipping locally, or the grass needs cutting somewhere near you, or you have an issue with another council service, why not come along to one of these meetings, fill in a ‘service card’ and you’ll get a reply within two weeks (Or so I’m told).

To my knowledge the My City, My Say initiative is the first time the council has done such a public exercise – putting councillors, officers and representatives of other key partner organisations on the road for people to meet, quiz and debate with.

Despite the cynicism of some, if I was the council’s PR chief I’d be saying this was exactly the kind of initiative that’s needed at a time when the authority – like every other in England – is staring down the barrel of continuing budget cuts.

Otherwise, how can you – in all good conscience – know what the priorities of the local electorate and taxpayers are and how they want money to be spent on their communities?

I got involved in this initiative as one of several ‘independent’ people – including the Editor of The Sentinel – who host the evenings and effectively chair the discussion.

We don’t get paid (other than cups of coffee provided by the venue). I’m doing it because I care about the future of Stoke-on-Trent. I also honestly see the value in ordinary people, taxpayers and voters voicing their opinions and concerns. This is democracy.

Of course, the key now to making My City, My Say a real success is demonstrating that the priorities of local communities start to come through in the council’s policies and budget allocations.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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We must help families whose children root through bins for food

Hollings Street where children have been seen rooting through bins.

Hollings Street where children have been seen rooting through bins.

Don’t laugh, but I’ll admit I had a hard time believing our own story the other day.

The headline certainly grabbed me: “Starving children are eating from bins in Fenton.”

Really? Surely not, I thought. Not in this day and age. And where are their parents anyway?

Can it honestly be the case that in one of the richest countries in the world in 2014 there are hungry children rummaging through bins for other people’s leftovers?

This is the kind of thing you shake your head at when you see it on the TV in some Third World shanty town on the TV.

It’s like something you’d read in a post-apocalyptic novel. Some sort of twisted future where a privileged fview live in safety, comfort and sometimes luxury and the rest eke out a living in medieval-style villages or Dickensian urban squalor.

But, according to eye-witnesses, this is actually happening in certain parts of our city – the Hollings Street and the Brocksford Street areas of Fenton, to be precise.

Concerned residents raised the matter at a recent meeting with police – citing the problems of rubbish-strewn streets and the potential risk to the health of those involved.

One of the people quoted in our story was Glenn Parkes – a volunteer at the local foodbank and someone I know. If Glenn says this is happening, then I believe him.

But why is it happening? Why are children, especially, going hungry and resorting to such sad, desperate and potentially dangerous measures?

The answer may be complex and multi-faceted but it also fairly obvious.

Families who were previously almost entirely or perhaps solely supported by the welfare state have seen their incomes dramatically reduced under coalition gGovernment reforms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for everyone contributing to society and getting the feckless and the lazy off their backsides.

They do exist and they make my blood boil in the same way useless bankers and untouchable public sector executives do when they’ve done a poor job and then get a ridiculous pay-off.

But the one-size-fits-all approach to welfare reform adopted by the Government assumed that families for whom benefits was a way of life would overnight become hard-working and valuable citizens.

I’m sorry, but in the real world that just doesn’t happen without massive intervention on the part of the state to help turn such lives and aspirations around.

And wWhile Chancellor George Osborne eulogises about the recovery and talks of the need for further reform, the truth is many families who are his ideal ‘hard-working’ stereotype are themselves on the breadline because of redundancy or continuing low wages.

Then there are those parents who simply aren’t very capable – lacking either the knowledge or care to properly look after their children and prioritise their needs.

People of my age will remember there were always one or two children who were seen as poor and unloved in their class or year at school. The ones with the messy hair and shabby clothes, with shirts and blouses un-ironed and ill-fitting, scuffed shoes.

Strangely, it seems to me there are a lot more of those these days than there were 30 years ago.

There are, of course, other factors too – such as a flawed immigration policy.

This certainly plays its part in perpetuating deprivation in areas where local services can’t cope and where integration of various cultures doesn’t fit the grand vision of our multi-cultural utopia.

Whatever the reasons, as a society we surely can’t stand for a situation where children, from whatever background, are rifling through rubbish for food?

There is clearly something very wrong when foodbanks are expanding quicker than multi-nationals and where ordinary families are constantly being asked to set aside tins of beans and packets of pasta and rice for people living down the road in Stoke-on-Trent.

If anyone knows of a family or individuals in such desperate need that they resort to picking through other people’s leftovers then for heaven’s sake do something to help them.

There’s no shame in someone falling on hard times or wanting help and support.

The shame is if we, as a society, turn our backs on them in their hour of need.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Don’t just sit and moan: Have your say on future of the Six Towns

The Wyg report says the city council is right to focus on Hanley as the retail centre of the city, but suggests Burslem and Fenton are downgraded.

The Wyg report says the city council is right to focus on Hanley as the retail centre of the city, but suggests Burslem and Fenton are downgraded.

It was easy to spot the killer line in the report which attempts to create a retail blueprint for Stoke-on-Trent over the next 15 years.

The reclassification – a softer term than the perhaps more honest ‘downgrading’ – of Burslem and Fenton would see them viewed as district centres, along with Meir, rather than town centres.

I can’t help it but I instinctively balk at the suggestion that the Mother Town of the Potteries along with Fenton, which successive administrations at the local authority have overlooked, should no longer be considered towns.

It may annoy planning officers and those tasked with attracting inward investment to the Potteries but, for me, Stoke-on-Trent IS the Six Towns.

The fact that we have the Six Towns, each with their own heritage and distinct identity, is one of the city’s many unique features.

After all, Arnold Bennett didn’t write a novel entitled: ‘Anna of the four towns and two or three district centres’.

The problem is, of course, that over the last 20 years or so some of the towns have benefitted from investment, time and resource and others have not. Burslem, a town I know well, has never really recovered from the closure of the Royal Doulton factory in Nile Street.

It is no longer somewhere that people go to do their shopping – like my mum did every Saturday when I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties.

It has no supermarket, no indoor market, no big chain stores. Instead it relies on craft-type shops and a night-time/weekend economy.

However, there are at least grounds for optimism in the Mother Town thanks to the advent of the Burslem Regeneration Partnership, the proposed Haywood Academy and the planned work of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust on the Wedgwood Institute – (facilitated, I should point out, by the city council). Boslem also, of course, has a League One football club.

There is, as far as I can tell, no such optimism surrounding the future of Fenton which seems to have been branded little more than a residential zone.

I suppose the devil is in the detail of this study. The sobering statistic is that 22.8 per cent of retail space in the city is empty – a figure which is twice the national average.

In simple terms, then, there isn’t the capacity to sustain all those vacant units and so we need to rethink our retail strategy and that will, inevitably, impact on other planning matters.

As I understand it, the report by Manchester-based consultants Wyg suggests that Burslem, Fenton and Meir be considered ‘local centres’ in retail and planning terms.

This is because towns such as Longton and Tunstall are seen as having a more sustainable retail base.

Meanwhile, Stoke (minus the Civic Centre) will hopefully benefit hugely from the relocation of Staffordshire University’s Stafford campus and all those students needing accommodation and shops.

But what are the consequences of a ’reclassification’ for Burslem, Fenton and Meir? Will it, for example, mean that businesses wanting to set up shop in Burslem will instead be encouraged to opt for Tunstall where the retail base is viewed as more viable?

Will chain stores looking at Fenton simply be steered towards Longton? It is vital that this is explained properly to people living in these areas.

And what exactly is the plan for Fenton over the next decade beyond it being a place where people live?

It doesn’t have Burslem’s magnificent architecture but it does have a beautiful Town Hall and square which should surely be the focal point for investment and the community.

We should remember that this report focuses purely on the city’s retail needs and, as one commentator posted on Facebook: ‘There’s more to life than shopping’.

However, Wyg’s study will feed directly into the city council’s Local Plan so its findings are significant and we should all take note and make our views known.

I believe the council is right to prioritise Hanley as a strong city centre. It is, to my mind, key to the regeneration of Stoke-on-Trent as a whole. (Note to planners: It should never be referred to as Stoke city centre because Stoke is, of course, a town).

Hanley is, after all, where the bulk of our shops are. It is also the home of three terrific live entertainment venues as well as the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

Hanley will be fine. We just need developer Realis to get their skates on and deliver what they promised in terms of an, albeit smaller, City Sentral shopping centre as soon as possible.

I can even live with the daft name if they show a little willing now by bulldozing the eyesore East/West precinct.

Likewise, I think there are also plans for Stoke, Longton and Tunstall which will ensure their viability in the medium-term.

What I would like to see now is two things. Firstly, a pledge that the local authority will put some energy and resource into the regeneration of Fenton and Burslem so that the former, in particular, does not continue to be the ‘forgotten town’.

Secondly, I‘d like as many local people as possible to be involved in a big conversation about the future of our city.

Write to The Sentinel, comment on our website, contact your ward councillor and attend meetings in your locality or at the Civic Centre.

Just please don’t sit there and moan because this is too important for people to fall back on the old chestnut that the ‘council is rubbish and no-one ever listens’.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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

Why Fenton and our city need the Town Hall and memorial to be saved

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

The Great War memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

Tomorrow the first of The Sentinel’s four Great War centenary supplements is published and I can honestly say it has been a privilege to be involved in the project.

Occasions like this, when we are required to delve deep into the newspaper’s archives are rare, and the process has thrown up some astonishing tales, some wonderful images and – I have to say – some terrific writing by my predecessors.

Slowly but surely the 100th anniversary of the start of the ‘War to end all wars’ is seeping into the nation’s consciousness and here in North Staffordshire we are uncovering just how the conflict changed lives forever.

It was a war which altered Britain beyond imagining and had a dramatic and often devastating effect on communities and families across the land.

Among them, of course, were the 498 men of Fenton who paid the ultimate price for serving King and country and whose names are recorded on the unique Minton Hollins tiled memorial inside Fenton Town Hall.

For many of those brave souls that memorial is, to all intents and purposes, their grave marker.

They include Frederick Heath, of Mill Street, Fenton, who historians recently credited as being the soldier most likely to have written the definitive account of the famous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914.

Sadly, in the year that some of the £50 million the Government has set aside starts to be spent on a variety of projects to commemorate the Great War, this memorial – and indeed the building which houses it – remain under serious threat.

Fenton Town Hall, created for and bequeathed to the people of Fenton, is up for grabs with a price tag of around £500,000.

A moratorium on its sale has just expired and campaigners seeking what is snappily-titled a ‘community asset transfer’ are concerned that officials at the Ministry of Justice – which somehow acquired the building during its time as a magistrates’ court – have gone awfully quiet all of a sudden.

The positive meeting which took place in December between the Friends of Fenton Town Hall and the man who will ultimately decide the building’s fate gave everyone hope that Whitehall’s bureaucrats were perhaps listening at last.

After all, a 10,000-signature petition calling on the building to be given back to the community was handed in at Downing Street late last year and campaigners have, to their credit, made an awful lot of noise.

Even the national treasure that is Stephen Fry Tweeted his support for their cause.

But having been fobbed off for weeks now I can understand why campaigners are growing increasingly worried that this historically important building may be sold off from under their noses.

If that were to happen then, irrespective of any protection order placed on the memorial as a condition of sale, its safety could simply not be guaranteed.

Also, I suspect it is unlikely new owners would want members of the public trooping up their stairs to view the memorial or pay their respects to relatives.

I find it hard to understand why the cenotaph outside Fenton Town Hall – which links directly to the memorial inside – was given listed status and yet the unique tiled memorial was not.

Sadly, a man with a clipboard from English Heritage decided not to list Fenton Town Hall and, therefore, its interior – including the Minton tiling and the memorial itself – is unprotected.

I am in full agreement with campaigners and the Victorian Society who are urging the MoJ to work with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to find a new role for Fenton Town Hall which ensures that its vaulted chamber and First World War memorial remain intact and accessible to the public.

I believe the town and people of Fenton need this building as a focal point. The city owes it to philanthropist William Meath Baker who built it, and to the men whose names are listed on the memorial inside, to preserve it for future generations.

How can we, in all good conscience, sit idly by and allow it to be sold off in the year when we commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War?

Wouldn’t it be great if the city’s MPs and the city council could help to broker some sort of deal whereby the campaigners – and indeed the people of Fenton – were given a chance to resurrect the Town Hall for community use?

The campaigners are doing their bit and I would suggest it is time for the powers-that-be to stand up and be counted.

Ultimately, of course, the decision on the building’s fate lies with civil servants in Whitehall.

The department these taxpayer-funded civil servants work for is called the Ministry of Justice. So let’s see some justice for the 498 men of Fenton who gave their lives in pursuit of the freedoms we all enjoy today.

*Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Why Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival should be write up your street…

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A cultural wilderness. That’s how one rather unkind soul described Stoke-on-Trent when posting a comment on The Sentinel’s website and mocking plans for the city’s first literary festival announced this week.

Of course, the internet is a strange place where people are far more likely to be disparaging of new initiatives than be welcoming or to accentuate the positives.

I suppose it always was easier to knock than to praise.

They say there’s a book in all of us. Personally I just wish there were a few more lying around in homes across the Potteries – instead of mobile phones and games consoles – and that more parents locally took more of an interest in helping to open their children’s eyes to the joys of reading.

Then again, if the parents themselves struggle with words and left school with a limited grasp of the English language then the idea of picking up a book or writing a story or poem with their children may seem like an alien concept.

Talk to many primary school teachers and they will say that they can spot within the first few weeks the children in their new intake who will do well in class and they are the ones who are properly supported at home.

They are the children who are read to at night before bed and who, in turn, read to their parents. They are the children who receive help with their homework, eat a decent breakfast before school and whose packed lunch doesn’t simply consist of chocolate, crisps and a sugary drink.

The sad fact is that more than 40 per cent of the city’s three-year-olds start school with literacy levels below the national standard because their parents/guardians couldn’t be bothered – or haven’t been able – to give them enough help and support.

Among these you’ll find parents who use the television as a babysitting service and bribe toddlers with biscuits and crisps just for some peace and quiet. You’ll also find mums and dads simply struggling to cope with being, well, mums and dads.

Because of the start two-fifths of children in the city are given, it is perhaps no great surprise that results for seven-year-olds show Stoke-on-Trent is at the bottom of league tables in England for reading, writing and maths.

These are depressing statistics which drill down to the heart of why many people locally fail to aspire to further and higher education and are unable to fulfil their wider potential.

You can get by without some subjects and certain knowledge taught in schools but, in terms of basic life skills, being able to read and write to a decent standard is fundamental.

The irony that Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival, entitled Hot Air, was announced during the same week that The Sentinel published a story revealing 300 odd Staffordshire University students had been caught cheating by plagiarising other people’s work was not lost on me.

When at high school and Sixth Form College, Fenton, I’d walk a couple of miles from my home in Sneyd Green to the reference department at Hanley Library in order to fish out whichever books I needed for homework, essays or exams. My generation used a fountain pen from the age of 11 onwards in order that we could improve the standard of our ‘joined-up’ writing.

If I made an error on a six or seven page A4 essay for my A-Level English Literature teacher, Mr Adshead, out came the Tipp-Ex. Better that gunky mess on one line than having to re-write the lot from scratch, eh?

These days students rarely use a pen and don’t even have to get out of bed to do their homework. They can Google (other search engines are available) whatever topic they require and find reams of information – often written by previous students – which they can steal bits of, recycle, and then present as their own work.

This is one of the reasons why I would argue the age of copy and paste has done very little to improve literacy standards.

It goes without saying the internet is a wonderful tool which provides countless benefits but for every advantage it gives us as a society there’s usually a downside.

In the case of literacy standards, the internet and indeed the ‘text speak’ which has become prevalent through the use of mobile devices is killing the Queen’s English.

Some experts will tell you that language is always evolving and you shouldn’t get too uptight about the use of numbers where letters should be or the general malaise over literacy standards which pervades our everyday lives.

Then there are Luddites like me who believe it’s just plain wrong for councils to run Uth (youth) centres and drop apostrophes from road signs because some people don’t know how to use them.

We have a problem with literacy standards here in Stoke-on-Trent and so the idea of staging a festival aimed at encouraging reading and writing makes absolute sense.

It also, with the attendance of stellar names like best-selling authors Joanna Trollope and Dr David Starkey (as well as our own rising star Mel Sherratt), promises to be a lot of fun.

A literary festival isn’t in any way a silver bullet for the problem of poor literacy standards locally but if it encourages people to engage with libraries, meet authors and handle books or perhaps pick up a pen or approach a keyboard in order to write something, then it can be regarded as a success.

If The Sentinel’s Too Write! competition for authors of all ages inspires hundreds of children and adults to try their hand at storytelling then it too can be deemed to have done its job.

Anyway, I’ll have to go. It’s World Book Day on March 6 and my two have decided to both go in to school dressed as George Kirrin from the Famous Five. I kid you not.

Do you know hard it is to find a decent satchel and a children’s outfit from the 1950s?

Still, better this than them going to school dressed as a character from the latest Disney movie that will have been forgotten next year.

Thank goodness for Enid Blyton, I say. It’s ginger beer all round in our house. Long live proper books with all that old-fashioned punctuation lark.

*The Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival takes place at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 20, 21 and 22. Ticket information will be released on March 31.
For details on the Too Write! writing competition email: toowrite@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

New Year’s Honours list makes me think of North Staffordshire’s unsung heroes

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

Stoke-on-Trent film-maker Chris Stone.

It’s always nice to read about ordinary local people among those recognised in the New Year’s Honours list alongside the requisite celebrities, sporting stars and captains of industry.

By ordinary I simply mean they don’t get paid a fortune, they’re not in the public eye and they don’t do what they do for power or glory.

This time I was delighted to see that one of The Sentinel’s Our Heroes Awards winners – Maureen Upton, of Meir Heath – earned an OBE for services to the voluntary sector after racking up more than 45 years working for the St John Ambulance.

I was also pleased to see Penkhull historian Richard Talbot had made the cut.

Richard’s MBE is a reward not only for the pivotal role he played in kick-starting Hanley’s Cultural Quarter but also an acknowledgement of his fund-raising for worthy local causes and his work in the community over many years.

The publication of the honours lists always makes me think of other worthy individuals who get precious little recognition.

That being the case, I humbly offer up the names of half a dozen locals who I believe help to enrich our communities and who will continue to do so throughout 2014.

First up I’d like to doff my cap to a couple of blokes who may never have met for all I know but who have a shared passion for film-making.

The first is the superbly-talented Chris Stone who, over the past few years, has produced some sparkling movies – the scenes for many of which were shot in his native North Staffordshire.

If you’ve never seen it, search out his vampire web series Blood And Bone China which has been viewed by more than 300,000 people online.

Or if you pop in to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to view the new Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, he’s the man behind the epic movie The Last Dragonhunter which is playing in the background and includes eye-popping animation by another of my local heroes – artist Rob Pointon, of Burslem.

His kindred spirit is a film-maker who I think deserves huge recognition for his artistic endeavour.

John Williams, of Wolstanton, is currently putting the finishing touches to The Mothertown – a zombie apocalypse movie based in Burslem and involving literally hundreds of extras which is helping to raise funds for three-year-old leukaemia sufferer Frankie Allen.

Anyone who has seen John’s posts on social media and viewed his special effects handiwork can’t fail to be impressed.

But it’s his passion for the medium which inspires people and, like Chris, he’s a terrific, creative ambassador for the Potteries.

Speaking of which, I’d like to mention two other people who work tirelessly to promote their community and our city.

Alan and Cheryl Gerrard, of Fenton, were responsible for rekindling this area’s remarkable links with the Czech town of Lidice – destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War and rebuilt with the help of the people of North Staffordshire.

I first met them a few years ago when they asked for The Sentinel’s help in planning a debate to mark the 25th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. Alan and Cheryl are both passionate advocates for the people of the Potteries which often means they aren’t popular with the powers-that-be.

However, their honest and forthright approach to campaigns such as the battle to save Fenton Town Hall and its Great War memorial have won them far more friends than enemies and I count myself among the former.

Another friend of mine whose work enhances our reputation is local sculptor Andy Edwards whose work you can see on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
Andy produced the nine foot statue of a Saxon warrior which takes pride of place in the foyer.

It was commissioned to celebrate the acquisition of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard and Andy is currently working on a 15 foot version, to be unveiled soon, which will stand guard outside the county council HQ in Stafford.

Andy’s other works have included statues which have been presented to Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and Desmond Tutu.

However, a more proud and passionate Stokie you could not meet and we should be incredibly proud to call him one of our own.

Please indulge me as I mention two other people who actually work alongside me here at The Sentinel.

The first is our award-winning health reporter Dave Blackhurst who has been with this newspaper for 35 years and who is planning to retire in March.

He may not have been honoured by Her Majesty but Dave’s work has won the admiration of readers, colleagues and health professionals over three decades during which he has been an unflinching champion of his patch and its people.

Finally, a quick mention for the legend that is Dianne Gibbons – our court reporter who has been with The Sentinel for 51 years and who laid on a spread, as we call it in these parts, for her colleagues unlucky enough to be working on New Year’s Day.

If only we could bottle Dianne’s enthusiasm and pride in her job and this newspaper.

I consider it a privilege to work with both Dave and Dianne.

They may not have a gong (yet) but, like the others on my little list, they remain an inspiration to me and, I’m sure, many others.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel