I’m proud of the latest piece in Hanley’s jigsaw puzzle

Hanley's new bus station.

Hanley’s new bus station.

In April 2001 Stoke-on-Trent was branded the worst place to live in England and Wales in a survey of hundreds of towns and cities.

The Potteries was placed at the bottom of a quality of life league table covering more than 370 council areas.

This damning judgement was made by researchers from global information solutions consultant Experian who pulled together data for the Sunday Times on subjects ranging from housing, jobs, traffic congestion and schools to crime and even shopping.

Other national newspapers then followed this up – with one tabloid even using a picture of Hanley Bus Station at its most depressing to reinforce the report’s findings.

While there was understandable outrage here in the city over the study’s findings, few could argue with the choice of image used by that one paper to represent our city centre.

The bus station looked like what it was – a grim, decaying, concrete carbuncle blighted by vacant shops.

If nothing else it backed up what most people in these parts had been saying for 20 years about the need for a new bus station.

I wonder what picture the red tops would use to show Stoke-on-Trent in a grim light in 2013?

Presumably one of the many areas of cleared land where the RENEW North Staffordshire Pathfinder project bulldozed scores of terraced homes.

Or perhaps some of the emails that were flirting about when certain people wanted to close Dimensions…

It certainly wouldn’t be our brand spanking new £15 million bus station which officially opened this morning.

I, for one, love this iconic piece of architecture which gives a nod to our heritage through the use of materials used in its construction but is also bold and modern in its design.

It’s the kind of development that makes a welcoming statement to visitors as they arrive in Hanley – irrespective of how far they have travelled.

Like I did when the enormous new Tesco opened up, I Tweeted proudly about the new bus station – having driven past it the other night when it was all lit up.

I was inevitably met with derision from those who simply couldn’t understand what I was getting excited about.

That’s because they aren’t from this neck of the woods.

Anyone who travelled on a PMT or Sammy Turner’s bus during the Eighties and Nineties and either arrived at or left from Hanley Bus Station will tell you they couldn’t wait to get out of there.

It was dark, dirty and graffiti-strewn and only the smell of freshly-baked bloomer loaves from the bakery in the underpass could hide the smell of urine.

The bus station, shopping area (I use that term loosely) and the multi-story car park were well past their use-by date and we could all see it.

Yes the powers-that-be have gone and called it Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Bus Station in their quest to airbrush one of the Six Towns out of history but we locals will all still refer to it as Hanley Bus Station.

Whatever its name, we should be proud that another piece of the jigsaw puzzle has fallen into place.

First Tesco. Now the bus station. If we can: Revamp the Potteries Museum to better showcase the Staffordshire Hoard, our Spitfire and our pots; Finish the restoration of Bethesda Chapel; Find a new use for the old Town Hall and secure that oddly-titled new shopping complex we will genuinely have a city centre worthy of the name.

In the meantime, I’m sure Ambassador Theatre Group – which operates The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall – along with other city centre businesses must be chuffed to bits that a) the bus station work is complete and b) that the new main terminus is hi-tech, clean and safe.

There’s an awful lot of negativity about the city centre at the moment – especially from those campaigning against the council moving its Civic Centre to the new Central Business District.

There are those who feel that Hanley (or the city centre as we’re supposed to start calling it) gets all the cash and all the effort at the expense of Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

While I would agree that more needs to be done to help each of the towns develop its own unique selling point I can also understand what the city council is trying to do up ’Anley.

The ambition is to create a powerful brand and, like it or not, Hanley has been the beating heart of the Potteries for many years.

To that end I’m genuinely thrilled to see the new bus station open and I am now looking forward to the completion of the City Sentral shopping centre.

Even if it is a daft name.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Ray of sunshine has been on the buses for 44 years…

Thirty years ago if you wanted to get around the Six Towns then most people hopped on the tried and trusted buses mainly operated by Potteries Motor Traction (PMT).

In the early Eighties, there were nowhere near as many cars on the road and public transport was the lifeblood of the local economy.

Buses ferrying workers to major employers such as Shelton Bar, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and the pits were crammed from 7am.

Hanley bus station – that huge, dirty, decaying carbuncle which is set for demolition – was a hive of activity as the main terminus for the Potteries.

My nan wouldn’t buy her bloomer loaves from anywhere else other than the bakery in the underpass where other businesses such as a dry cleaners, chemist and bookies were thriving.

This was a place Ray Newton knew very well.

In August of 1980 he passed his driving test not in a little car like the rest of us – but behind the wheel of a PMT bus.

Ray had begun his career on the buses on May 6, 1968, when – as a 21-year-old – he had swapped his job as a stores clerk for a firm in Newcastle for the better paid job of a conductor PMT operating out of its Clough Street depot.

Ray, aged 64, of Bentilee, said: “I started on a basic wage of £13 nine shillings – which was a big jump for me. And we could work overtime to earn some more.

“It was a great job and I really enjoyed it. There was wonderful camaraderie on the buses and the drivers became good mates – a big part of your life. As well as collecting the fairs, the conductor was responsible for ensuring the buses stuck to the timetable and arrived on time. It was an important job.

“Back then people were more friendly, polite and courteous. Lads would give up their seats for a lady if the bus was full and the drivers and conductors were treated with respect by customers.”

Ray’s working life came to a crossroads in August 1980 as conductors were being phased out in favour of single-operative vehicles.

He opted to re-train as a driver and during the interview we worked out that he must have ferried yours truly to Sixth Form College, Fenton, and home again to Sneyd Green in the late Eighties.

Long before that, however, Ray had to pass his driving test.

He said: “It was terrifying, to be honest. My knees were knocking the first time I sat behind the wheel of a bus. I only had a provisional licence at the time and so I passed my test on a bus which I suppose is quite unusual.

“By the following year (1981) there were no conductors on PMT buses and the drivers were doing it all and so I had to learn to take the fares as well as getting my head around the mechanics of driving a big vehicle.”

Ray has no doubt why the number of people using the buses across North Staffordshire has fallen in recent years.

He said: “It’s the local economy. We just don’t have the companies and workplaces we had back then. Workers would fill our buses.

“It was standing room only at certain times of the day. They just aren’t there anymore.”

And the biggest change he has seen over the years?

Ray said: “Definitely the switch from a manual gearbox to an automatic. That was a really big deal for all of the drivers and totally changed the job.”

Of course, you can’t work on the buses with the public for forty-odd years and not have a few stories.

Ray has seen it all – including one elderly passenger he picked up near Cobridge Traffic Lights expiring in his seat.

But one story which still tickles Ray is from his time as a conductor in the seventies.

He laughed: “Our bus came to a stop in Highfield Road, Blurton, and I told one of our passengers – a blind man – I would get off and help him cross the road. Just as we got to the other side I heard the ‘ding-ding’ of the bell on the bus and off she went. The driver drove off without me.

“Some comedian had obviously seen what I was doing and pretended to be me, rung the bell, and left me stranded. To be fair, the driver did come back for me. Eventually.”

On May 5, Ray will finish his shift at First Bus, hand in his keys at the depot in Adderley Green, and head off to a well-deserved retirement – just one day shy of 44 years on the buses.

He’s had a long and distinguished career and admits he has enjoyed it.

So how will he fill his retirement?

Ray said: “I love making things. Doll’s house furniture and the like. That’ll keep me busy.”

With seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, three great grandchildren (and another on the way) he won’t be short of takers for those hand-made toys.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

New superhospital puts an end to a local healthcare scandal

Truly we are living through historic times: Days that many of us doubted we would ever see.
For decades the people of North Staffordshire have waited, moaned, campaigned and then waited some more for two major regeneration projects.
The first is the demolition of the great carbuncle that is Hanley bus station.
Well, many of us may have no time for the name City Sentral but what is surely more important is that a developer has finally committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds creating a new shopping complex which will transform the city centre.
The second project was a new hospital, fit for the 21st Century, to replace the horrible hotch-potch of antiquated buildings which made up the Royal Infirmary and City General sites.
It is not over-egging the pudding to say that, for generations, the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Staffordshire Moorlands have been the poor relations to NHS patients in other areas with regard to hospital treatment.
For as much as the care offered by staff up at Hartshill may have been first class, the outdated buildings which they have been forced to operate from and the very nature of the sprawling sites means that they have, effectively, being toiling with one hand tied behind their backs.
Ignored by successive Tory administrations and often overlooked by their Labour counterparts, the people of the Potteries have for too long been forced to put up with a second-rate hospital.
I distinctly recall the day – January 3, 2001 – when The Sentinel’s then Editor and a little lad by the name of Jacob Bradbury went down to 10 Downing Street to present a petition calling for a new hospital.
Yours truly was on the Newsdesk at the time and I remember how we chose smiley, five-year-old Jacob to become the poster boy for our Caring For Tomorrow campaign.
The little lad, from Madeley, was one of those who had suffered as a result of inefficiencies up at the Hartshill complex – waiting years for treatment on his deformed jaw.
Thus it was Jacob who delivered the 19,000-plus petition of Sentinel readers, demanding a new hospital, to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We deliberately timed the visit for maximum impact – just four months before the General Election.
Looking back now, it seems scandalous that the people of North Staffordshire had to ‘campaign’ at all for the same kind of hospital facilities that other towns and cities simply take for granted.
Hospitals are sacred places to us all. Places where we are born and often where we and our loved ones die. Places where we experience the whole range of human emotions – hope, fear, relief, sorrow.
They are simply too important to be neglected which is why the scandal of North Staffordshire’s wait for a hospital which is fit for purpose reflects so poorly on politicians of all colours.
Thankfully, this Saturday the long wait will be over when the first 80 patients move into our new superhospital.
Let us not forget the long and rocky road which we have travelled.
There were many setbacks and times, with costs spiralling out of control, when it seemed that the dream of ultra-modern hospital care was again to be denied to the people of the Potteries.
Therefore, we should not underestimate the significance of the hospital’s doors opening for the first time this weekend or the effect this building will have on North Staffordshire’s psyche.
Round here we often have to settle for second best, to make-do and mend and to live with half-finished projects and promises broken.
However, the unveiling of the new superhospital genuinely gives us a state-of-the-art building to be proud of as opposed to facilities to be embarrassed about which wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian novel.
There will be teething troubles, no doubt, as with any major building project of a scale such as this.
For me, the proof of the pudding will be in whether or not community facilities can cope in the coming years in the light of our new ‘cathedral to healing’ having 290 fewer beds than its predecessors.
But, for now, let us celebrate this long overdue milestone in local healthcare.

It’s great news up ‘Anley. Just a shame about the spelling…

If, like me, you are one of those sad individuals who gets upset when you spot a missing apostrophe on a shop sign or dodgy spelling in a menu, then you probably groaned at page seven of The Sentinel a few days ago.
A specialist agency in London was presumably paid a not insubstantial sum to ‘create’ the name of the new £350 million shopping centre which will be built on the site of the old bus station.
Bear in mind this is a scheme on which, it is fair to say, much of the hopes for the regeneration of the city centre are based.
The agency came up, wait for it… ‘City Sentral’ because, and I quote: “The use of the ‘S’ in Sentral reflects the very nature of the scheme – Stoke-on-Trent as central – while also giving it stand-out quality.”
Tragically, there’s more where that flannel came from.
Apparently, City Sentral has a “brightly-coloured ‘asterisk’ icon which reflects the exciting, dynamic nature of the project – with each of the arrows representing a different aspect of the City Sentral offer.”
I am not the first, and I dare say won’t be the last, to say that this is a crime against the Queen’s English. It’s also marketing nonsense. Nonsense that starts with a nonsensical name.
Yes, developer Realis has shelled out brass to a branding firm down south who have saddled us with what must be the most expensive spelling mistake in retail history.
Essentially the new name for the East West Precinct says to visitors that here in Stoke-on-Trent there is a desperate shortage of dictionaries.
‘City Sentral’ basically says we Stokies are either a) thick or b) trying a bit too hard to appear different.
It’s so much worse than calling a children’s play centre a ‘kidz zone’ or calling young people’s services ‘Uth services’ because we are talking about a showpiece £350 million development.
I’m pretty sure that had Realis run a competition through this newspaper or even with local schools it would have been presented with several hundred names which are better than City Sentral and a logo which didn’t look like it had been created using an Etch A Sketch.
They could have called the new shopping centre ‘Hanley One’, or ‘The Station’ or ‘The Phoenix’.
For heaven’s sake anything would have been better than City Sentral.
It’s not that I have anything against the development – unlike my columnist colleague Mike Wolfe. Indeed, I can’t wait for work to finally commence and to find out the names of some of the new tenants.
Some will say the name of the new complex is irrelevant but I disagree.
I’m just so disappointed that, in trying to be clever, Stoke-on-Trent has once again ended up with egg on its face.
Contrast this then with the Potteries Shopping Centre (a proper name that is because it does what it says on the tin) which has just announced a planned £14 million extension.
I suppose the owners of Hanley’s main retail complex had to react in some way to what’s about the happen at the old bus station site and I, for one, am delighted with the proposals.
Six restaurants, a 10-screen cinema, more parking spaces and 200 jobs? I’ll have some of that, please.
Forget the nay-sayers with their predictions of doom and gloom for Festival Park.
Just ask yourself this question: What kind of city centre doesn’t have a cinema? Enough said.
It strikes me that more and better places to eat and a multiplex movie theatre will perfectly complement the existing stores and market stalls.
So let’s finish on a positive note. When you combine what Realis is about to do at the bus station site with the expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre, the opening of the wonderful Mitchell Memorial Youth Arts Centre and plans to upgrade the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to take advantage of the acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard, we are in danger of having a city centre to be proud of.
More to the point, it would be somewhere where you could genuinely spend a day out.
So long as you can stomach the poor grammar, that is.

A new bus station… Am I dreaming?

Am I dreaming? I can’t quite believe it. I just wish my nan was alive to see it. Work really is to start next week on a new bus station for Hanley. If you’re not from Stoke-on-Trent then you simply won’t understand the significance of this development. For decades us Potters have been moaning about the horrible carbuncle which welcomes  (I use that term loosely) visitors to our city centre. It is no surprise that when the Daily Mirror ran an article a few years back claiming our city was the worst place to live in England and Wales they chose to run a picture of the bus station underpass. This dirty, great concrete monstrosity has been an embarrassment for years and the quicker it is pulled down the better. I may be speaking to soon but this could finally be the thing which kickstarts the regeneration of Hanley and holds up the top end of the Cultural Quarter. After all, first impressions do  count…

Rebirth of city is on target? We’ve heard that one before

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

I have quite a few fond memories of Hanley bus station.

There used to be a bakery in the underpass where my nan would buy warm, crusty bloomer loaves to take home to Bentilee.

I loved the smell and they were a real treat for someone who had been weaned on supermarket own-brand sliced bread.

Chico’s nightclub, part of the bus station complex, was also a regular haunt of me and my sixth-form college buddies.

It was here, at the age of 17, where the girl I’d been besotted with through high school first acknowledged my existence.

Hanley bus station was also the place that I returned to on a coach in the early hours of August 20, 1989, drunk with happiness having seen my first live rock concert – Bon Jovi at the Milton Keynes Bowl.

Having said all of that, it’s still a dump. It’s an embarrassing eyesore – and has been for as long as I can remember.

It is little wonder that a national newspaper chose to use a picture of Hanley bus station to illustrate the infamous “Stoke-on-Trent is the worst place to live in England and Wales” story a few years back.

The story itself may have been nonsense, but who could argue with the image they used to illustrate the point?

Indeed, anyone who arrives in the Potteries on a bus could be forgiven for asking the driver to keep the doors closed and continue his journey.

The dirty great concrete behemoth is hardly a great advert for our city, located as it is just a stone’s throw away from The Victoria Hall.

Twenty years ago, I recall writing stories about plans to revamp the area around the bus station.
Numerous council administrations have come and gone since then and yet the city’s worst carbuncle remains.

Tom Macartney, managing director of the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership (NSRP), is pleading that his organisation be given more time to complete projects such as the bus station.
I’m sorry Tom, but we’ve heard it all before.

The thing is, your average taxpayer in Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t differentiate between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the NSRP.

Many don’t have a clue what the NSRP is, or that it even exists.

They don’t care who is charged with delivering change to the city’s tired infrastructure.
They just want something – anything – to change.

It’s not that anyone begrudges you your £150,000 a year salary, Tom.

It’s just most people are so jaundiced, so fed up, so disillusioned with the lack of progress in the last two decades (and the grand designs that never materialise) that they have accepted the status quo.

I believe Stoke-on-Trent stands at a crossroads and, irrespective of the financial climate, now is the time to think big.

RENEW North Staffordshire has achieved, not without problems, significant regeneration of the housing stock on some of the city’s most deprived estates.

However, since the refurbishment of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall more than a decade ago, little has changed to make more visitors want to go up ’Anley.

The Staffordshire Hoard presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to market and rebrand our city and give our city centre a much-needed makeover.

I’m a huge supporter of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall, but these two venues and a few chairs and tables outside eateries in Piccadilly do not constitute a “Cultural Quarter”.

If we have any pretensions of being a city worth the name then I would suggest the area around Hanley bus station has to be regenerated as soon as possible to take advantage of the huge benefits that could come our way via the Staffordshire Hoard.

It is vital that people arriving in the city centre are confronted by clean, modern facilities, top-brand stores and dining opportunities that the people of Manchester and Birmingham take for granted.

At the moment, many theatre-goers must leave Hanley thinking “that was a great show, but what a dump Stoke-on-Trent is”.

My beloved nan isn’t with us anymore.

The sad truth is, however, that if Ethel Tideswell circa 1990, of Sundorne Place, Bentilee, arrived at Hanley bus station in June 2010 I doubt she’d spot any difference (other than, perhaps, the lack of crusty bloomer loaves).

The time for excuses really has passed.

I’m not that fussed about the new design, but surely we deserve a bus station that doesn’t look like the backdrop for an episode of Life On Mars.