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

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Back to the future for Hanley Town Hall

I was chuffed to bits to see a picture of Hanley Town Hall in today’s paper – particularly because the event was an overnight ghost-hunt involving my mates Denholm Siegertz from BBC Radio Stoke and fellow Sentinel columnist Fred Hughes. Yours truly is partial to a little supernatural sleuthing himself and recently spent nights at The Leopard pub in Burslem and The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall up Hanley. For me, the Town Hall is a key plank in the regeneration of the city centre and we have to find a suitable use for it as soon as possible. You never know – when (notice the word, when) the new bus station is finished, when Bethesda Chapel’s refurbishment is completed, and when we finally get our act together and start to display the Staffordshire Hoard properly at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery we may actually have a Cultural Quarter worth the name. If we are stuck for a new purpose for now-defunct Hanley Town Hall, I’m pretty sure the ghost of the original owner of the grand old building can point us in the right direction. It would certainly make a splendid, high class hotel once more – the like of which our city is distinctly short of.

Grand old lady has vital role to play in regeneration

Hanley Town Hall.

Hanley Town Hall.

For all its aesthetic problems, we should always take heart from the fact that the Potteries is blessed with a significant number of architectural gems.

Nowhere are beautiful buildings more prevalent than in the Mother Town of Burslem.

However, the city centre also has one or two special buildings which stand out from the urban sprawl – not least of which is Hanley Town Hall.

New plans to transform it into a hotel might surprise and upset a fair few people, but on this occasion I think the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership and Stoke-on-Trent City Council should be commended for their ambition.

Let’s face it, at present the grand old lady is as good as mothballed – barely used and far too big for the few council staff who rattle around inside.

As the local authority scratches about for cost savings, it seems barmy for taxpayers to be maintaining such a huge building for current uses – namely housing the city’s register office and the council’s licensing, tourism and trading standards departments.

If there’s one thing North Staffordshire is desperately short of, it is prestige hotel accommodation and where better to have it located than a cockstride from The Regent Theatre, The Victoria Hall and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery?

Positioned as it is in Albion Street, the town hall should be one of the jewels of our Cultural Quarter.

As it is, it is like having a Rolls-Royce parked on your drive but never opening the doors.

Make no bones about it, this proposal is nothing like the ill-fated abomination of turning Newcastle’s historic Guildhall into a pub.

Let’s not forget that Hanley Town Hall was originally built as the Queen’s Hotel in 1869 and only became a civic building some 17 years later.

(There is no truth whatsoever in the rumour that the hotel’s owners sold up because they were so fed up of waiting for the bus station to be redeveloped).

Attracting visitors to Hanley and making them want to hang around is not simply a question of having places of interest to visit, good transport links and somewhere for them to lay their head.

It’s about creating the right ingredients for a memorable experience – particularly if we want them to leave with a good impression and talk the place up.

By the same token, us locals want to have pride in our city centre.

In simple terms, that means getting shot of derelict buildings and bringing into use sleeping giants like the town hall.

Of course, to make an upmarket hotel in Hanley viable then we have to present visitors with reasons to stay the night.

With two cracking live entertainment venues and a museum which will soon house the Staffordshire Hoard, this isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

However, as we’ve seen with the chequered history of The George in Burslem, hotels need more than a grand façade to turn a profit.

I would suggest that key to converting the town hall into a successful hotel would seem to be the transformation of the area around the building.

That means, of course, the great carbuncle that is Hanley bus station has to come down – something which we’ve now been promised (again) will happen.

We are safe in the knowledge that, as a Grade I-listed building, the town hall won’t become a victim of environmental vandalism.

After all, there’s surely only room for one Ceramica in any city.

Urban regeneration is more than simply demolition followed by new-build.

It is about conserving and breathing life into our heritage buildings so that they become more than something nice to look at as you wander past.

That being the case, I am convinced that if we want to create a genuine Cultural Quarter worth the name then buildings like the town hall and poor old Bethesda Chapel have a key role to play.