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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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

City council should forget PR gurus: A decent reputation will come by doing a good job.

The city council's headquarters in Stoke.

The city council’s headquarters in Stoke.

Sometimes I despair, I really do. The fact that Stoke-on-Trent City Council felt it necessary to commission a reputational survey in late 2012 speaks volumes about the paranoia gripping the Civic Centre.

Does anyone really believe giving a PR firm run by another local authority ‘darn sarf’ £25,000 to telephone people across the Potteries represents a sensible use of taxpayers’ money?

I’d love to know who’s idea this was. Was it prompted by a senior officer, fresh in post, trying to make his or her mark?

Was it done at the behest of councillors fixating on the odd negative headline?

Or was it suggested by a highly-paid consultant – perhaps one of the Westco brigade (yes, we still pay oodles of cash for that sort of thing).

Is it any wonder that many people have little faith in the authority when it sanctions the frittering away of taxpayers’ cash on nonsense like this?

Let’s examine the ground-breaking findings of this document which is presumably titled: ‘Stating the bleedin’ obvious’.

Yes the survey produced such telling insights as ‘the perception that the council provides good value for money, at 30 per cent, is 26 points below the national average.’

Presumably this score wasn’t helped when respondents were told how much the daft survey was costing.

My favourite paragraph, however, reads: ‘The impact of reading The Sentinel is strong. Residents who have read it are more likely to form a negative judgement of the council. This is likely in part to be the newspaper reinforcing the views of local people.’

Goodness me. Heaven forbid a local newspaper reflects the views of local people. Whatever next.

Conversely, the report found that people reading the council’s own glossy newsletter – Our City – were more likely to view the authority positively. How about that?

So the newsletter which the council pays for and fills with its own propaganda gives a more positive impression of the local authority.

Could that perhaps be because it is hugely biased and not in any way balanced?

I do wonder when the penny will finally drop for senior officers and councillors that they just can’t ‘win ’em all’.

I’ve been a journalist long enough to remember the council’s two-strong press office of the early nineties.

Now the authority has legions of communications staff and – during my 16 years at The Sentinel – has gone through half a dozen PR gurus, each with their own flawed philosophy.

One kept trying to slap injunctions on this newspaper to prevent us from publishing stories the administration at the time didn’t like.

He didn’t last long.

Then, on his arrival, another PR expert famously summoned The Sentinel’s entire senior editorial team to the Civic Centre for a dressing down.

His opening gambit was to tell our previous Editor that his newspaper was way down the pecking order behind Sky TV, ITN and all the national newspapers (because, of course, they’re here a lot).

We all walked out of the meeting and needless to say that bloke didn’t last long either.

About 10 years ago the city council audited The Sentinel over several months and found that around 74 per cent of council-related stories were positive or neutral – thus exploding the myth that this newspaper only peddles bad news.

I dare say very little has changed as we’re not in the business of turning down positive news stories as and when we are presented with them.

Thus the suggestion that the council now aims for a two-to-one ratio of positive to negative stories is nonsense because this is already happening.

The fact is this newspaper will never shy away from challenging local organisations – including the council.

If the authority has a poor reputation I would suggest there are several reasons why this is the case.

Huge PR gaffs in recent years (deciding to let TV cameras in to film the documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank was one) don’t help. Just thinking about the millions of people who watched that makes me cringe.

The camels no-show in Hanley last Christmas was yet another daft, embarrassing failure.

I could go on as there have been many.

Then there’s the trust issue. The Dimensions splash pool saga was hugely damaging to the council’s reputation – irrespective of who was involved.

As is the fact that the ludicrously-named City Sentral shopping complex still doesn’t exist despite all the hype.

You see, it’s no use blaming the developer in this situation. If you nail your colours to a mast then there’s no point trying to disassociate yourself with the ship when it flounders.

I also think that there is a perception that the leadership at the council simply doesn’t listen to ordinary people – adopting instead a ‘we know best’ approach to everything from cost-cutting to promotion of the city.

I would suggest a little humility and the occasional holding up of hands and admitting mistakes would go a long way in terms of establishing trust and credibility.

Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that many people think the council often gets its priorities wrong.

For example, it spent £800,000 on bringing a cycle race (watched by three men and a dog on ITV4) to Stoke-on-Trent.

It is again about to spend a minimum £250,000 on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show which none of us will ever see – the tangible benefits of which are, to date, zero.
For what it’s worth, here’s my PR advice (and it’s free):

*Stop worrying about things you can’t change and stop sulking over occasional negative headlines or readers’ letters in The Sentinel. People don’t tend to put pen to paper if they’re ‘satisfied’;

*Accept that you’re in the business of cutting services, thanks to central Government, and this inevitably makes the council unpopular. Yes, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is;

*Listen more closely to taxpayers and the things they care about. Show a little empathy when you’re cutting services rather than hiding behind economics;

*Focus on all the positive things which are happening across the city (and there are many) and start valuing the terrific staff you employ;

*Stop seeing the local media as the enemy or something which can be neutered or controlled. It can’t be and won’t be.

You see, it’s not rocket science, this PR lark – despite what highly-paid consultants might try to tell you.

It’s just about knowing how and when to roll with the punches because, frankly, some things aren’t worth going to war over.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Let’s view Tour of Britain miss as an opportunity for our city

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

I wonder how many taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent will be genuinely disappointed that the Tour of Britain isn’t coming to the Potteries this year.

The cycle race’s organisers have decided against returning to the city again and instead will host a charity ride for amateurs here in the Six Towns on October 5.

That means we won’t see the likes of Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medalist Sir Bradley Wiggins in Hanley alongside dozens of other pro riders.

To be honest, cycling isn’t my bag. A few of my friends – even some of my colleagues – have taken to two wheels since the London Olympics and I do appreciate the health benefits for them and their kids. All that wind-in-your-hair, outdoors business sounds good.

But as a spectacle, standing for several hours waiting to catch a glimpse of 30-odd blokes who you can’t name whizz past in a nanosecond isn’t my idea of good day out.

I remember being in Hanley on a drizzly afternoon a couple of years ago when The Tour came to town and recall the paved area outside the old Woolies store being cordoned off.

I’m being generous when I say there were perhaps a couple of hundred spectators within sight of Sir Stan’s statue and most people, like me, just seemed frustrated that the crash barriers meant they couldn’t cross the street to get to Marks & Sparks.

I confess I would never consider tuning in to ITV4 or whatever channel The Tour of Britain is broadcast on to catch up with the action – even if for one day you might spot the odd Potteries landmark in the background.

It’s not that I don’t applaud the city council for trying to attract big events to Stoke-on-Trent. I guess cycling as a sport is just a bit niche for me.

Given the viewing figures the Tour of Britain receives, however, I don’t believe I’m alone.

Yes, cycle nerds, cycle shop owners and a few traders in Hanley may have had a good day but I’m not sure hosting the race justified the £820,000 of taxpayers’ money spent since 2008 and all the associated mither of road closures.

Senior councillors have confirmed they did want the Tour of Britain here this year and would like to see it return soon.

This means there must be a pot of money that would have been spent on the race in 2014 – perhaps £120,000 plus – going spare.

That being the case why don’t we look to organise some other events which will help to raise the city’s profile and boost the economy?

For example, given the fact that we are the undisputed darts capital of the world and have been for more than a decade, I’ve always wondered why Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t look to stage a tournament.

If it’s because some people are a bit sniffy about it not being a proper ‘sport’ then I suggest they get over themselves and pop in to a few pubs across the Potteries to see how healthy local leagues are.

Darts is hugely popular – that’s why it’s broadcast on Sky TV – and in Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis and Andy ‘The Hammer’ Hamilton, we have three home-grown ambassadors who would themselves be a big draw. We could stage it at the King’s Hall in Stoke or the Victoria Hall in Hanley over a weekend.

We’ve also got a couple of world class pool players living locally so perhaps that’s another sport we can look to in order to raise our profile.

Of course, events which bring people into the city and get them spending money in shops, pubs and restaurants don’t necessarily have to be sports-related.

Take the recent Robbie Williams fans’ festival, tourist trail and exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, for example. They cost a few thousand pounds to stage but the benefits were huge in terms of helping local businesses, attracting visitors and boosting the city’s profile.

Let’s not forget that neighbouring towns like Stone and Leek, which have much smaller populations, stage hugely successful food and drink and arts festivals, respectively.

Meanwhile, Newcastle is about to put on its jazz and blues festival.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent we struggled to get a few camels up Hanley for the Christmas lights switch-on. What’s all that about?

We should have more farmers’ markets, continental markets or perhaps stage a huge garden and local produce show which highlights the best our farmers, bakers and brewers have to offer.

Or how about an annual Spitfire Day here in Stoke-on-Trent, based around trying to raise funds to restore our own RW 388 in the Potteries Museum – complete with wartime music, re-enactors in period costume, military vehicles and a fly-past?

We are a big enough city to be staging a major public event once a month and they could be shared around our Six Towns so that each one enjoys the economic boost – rather than just Hanley being the beneficiary.

When you think about it, we are only limited by our imaginations.

I’m pretty sure all of the above could be staged for less than the £120,000 or more it cost us to host the Tour of Britain each year – and certainly a lot less than the minimum £250,000 of taxpayers’ money we are spending on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

There is simply no need to put all our eggs into a couple of baskets.

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

Night-time economy is vital for Hanley and our city as a whole

A police officer on the look-out for trouble in Hanley.

A police officer on the look-out for trouble in Hanley.

Nightclubs are, mercifully, a distant memory for me. As much as I enjoyed shoe-gazing to Indie tunes in the late Eighties and early Nineties at The Ritzy in Newcastle, ‘dance music’ – and the whole popping pills mullarky – left me cold.

It didn’t help that I’m no Travolta, neither. When I was in The Regent theatre’s panto a couple of years ago, Welsh star Christian Patterson, who played the dame, wrote: ‘Martin is to dancing what King Herod was to babysitting.’

It was a harsh, but fair assessment.

My drinking days are long gone too.

In truth, I never really enjoyed booze like my peers did and was almost always the driver for my mates when we went on pub crawls around Hanley or up ’Castle.

My friends would shrink with embarrassment when I ordered a glass of red wine in a pub as part of their round of manly pints.

Four bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale or four pints of Löwenbräu (laughing juice as we used to call it) up the Duke of Wellington at Norton and I didn’t know whether it was Friday or Norway.

To be honest, I could never understand why anyone would want to drink pints of anything. It just made me need the loo. I always regretted it the day after too: Waking up with a banging headache and stinking of cigarette smoke.

We weren’t bad lads by any stretch of the imagination.

Unless you count running past Hanley nick late at night with a traffic cone on your head and being chased by a couple of coppers.

Then there was the time I drove down the A500 in the dark in my bright yellow Austin Metro, forgetting to put the lights on and barely able to see out of the windscreen because of the smoke from the marijuana spliffs being passed around by my passengers.

In truth we were far too square to get into any real trouble.

However, even in our day – 20 odd years ago now – there were always idiots looking for a fight in pubs and clubs and we got into a few scrapes.

It seems some things haven’t changed.

This week’s figures showing that Stoke-on-Trent is ranked as the 15th worst local authority area in England and Wales in terms of violent crime, shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

For starters, the city is 16th in the list of most populous built-up areas in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics, so our position in the ‘league table of troublespots’ sort of makes sense.

Around 13 per cent of violent incidents in the Potteries happen in Hanley. Again, this is to be expected, I suppose – given that the city centre has a large number of pubs and clubs concentrated in a relatively small area. Apparently, most of the trouble – involving drunken youths – occurs between 9pm and 4am.

Why anyone would still be out drinking at three or four o’clock in the morning is beyond me.

It was only when I met recently with Hanley’s pub and club owners that I realised that the night-time scene has actually changed beyond all recognition in the last two decades.

Gone are the days when 10, 15 or even 20,000 people were out in the city centre on a Friday or Saturday night – moving from pub to pub and ending up at The Place or Valentino’s – then finishing up with a kebab and a taxi ride home before mum got too worried.

Nowadays, Hanley is a ghost town most nights.

Licensees are fighting for custom from the two to four thousand young people who don’t actually turn up in Hanley until after 10 o’clock – many arriving ‘preloaded’, having drunk copious amounts of alcohol before leaving the house.

They then flock to the Trinity Street area and cause police a huge headache – especially at closing time.

The real problem here, in my opinion, isn’t the fact that a minority of boneheads can’t handle their ale – it’s that Hanley is dead of an evening – with the exception of audiences who visit The Regent, the Victoria Hall or Mitchell Youth Arts Centre when there’s a show on.

This is absolutely not the case in other comparable city centres which have a far more cosmopolitan ambiance and where people of all ages feel comfortable walking round.

The night-time economy in Hanley is genuinely struggling and really needs some urgent help. It is simply not viewed by over-30s as somewhere they’d like to be of a Friday or Saturday night – unless they have a theatre ticket.

Even if they do visit the theatre, the vast majority park up, watch the show, and go home – rather than heading to a pub or going for a meal. Hanley is currently undergoing major regeneration work involving the expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre and the creation of the Central Business District.

Meanwhile, we’ve all had a punt in the great sweepstake on whether or not the ridiculously-named City Sentral development will actually happen and finally lead to a much-needed makeover of the old bus station site. Over to you, Realis…

Parts of our city centre now look bright and modern but the problem remains that it isn’t somewhere most people over the age of 30 or anyone with children really wants to visit.
This isn’t a question of demonising young people.

I don’t believe for a second that there is a higher proportion of yobs these days than there was when I was queueing at the bars in Macy’s or the Market Tavern.

Helping the police to reduce violence is, of course, important but – to me – of equal value is assisting those businesses who rely on night-time trade for their survival.

That includes the restaurants and businesses which don’t benefit from an influx of teenagers and 20-somethings of a weekend.

While Hanley is, undoubtedly, a work in progress I think that more needs to be done to tempt families, couples and those born before 1985 to spend their evenings in the city centre.

Christmas shopping nights shouldn’t be the only time when the majority of us want to visit Hanley of an evening. There should be more continental markets and street entertainment, the superb Potteries Museum – for example – could be opened up for evening visitors and more should be done to promote some of the terrific restaurants.

Successful city centres don’t close down at 5.30pm and I would suggest we neglect Hanley’s night-time economy at our peril.

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