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

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Time to back sure-fire winners which matter to our Six Towns

The Sentinel's front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

The Sentinel’s front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

When you’re staring down the barrel of £20 million cuts, every penny really does count.

The truth is that because of the way the squeeze is being applied to local authorities, in a few short years practically all they will be responsible for will be the most basic of statutory services.

What that means is the non-essential stuff inevitably diminishes or is lost altogether.

Departments such as sport and leisure and facilities like museums and libraries will see their budgets scaled back enormously as councillors focus on what they have to deliver by law.

So the street lights will stay on, bins will be emptied, children’s services and adult social care will be ring-fenced. But in all honesty virtually everything else local authorities are responsible for will be up for discussion.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent, where the public sector cutbacks are being felt as keenly as any other city in the UK, councillors have attempted in recent years to protect frontline services as Whitehall has slashed and burned.

Now there’s very little wriggle-room left and how the comparatively small amount of money which doesn’t cover the costs of essential services is spent, will come under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Things like the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), hosting the Tour Series cycle ride events, the staging of summer pop concerts or the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards will all have to be carefully considered.

The problem is they cost money. Some cost a lot more than you’d think. And taxpayers will want to know there is a tangible benefit to the city in staging or hosting such events.

They will want to know what is gained from them. They will ask about the benefits of having highlights of a bicycle race which starts in the city being shown on ITV4. Does it really boost trade in the city centre and has there been a huge spike in the numbers of people cycling locally?

Is it better instead to continue with a 39-year tradition of honouring local sportsmen and women and inspiring future stars from our patch with an event which is a fraction of the cost?

Taxpayers will want to know how the BCB, an event which most people in the city don’t understand, don’t know is happening and will never attend, helps to raise the profile of the city.

More to the point, they will ask how pottery manufacturers who employ local people benefit from it in terms of increased sales and new contracts.

They will want to know if it really is worth paying hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the cost of a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Does it really help to attract investment? If so, they will say, then show us the money.

We really will have to get down to brass tacks now because the time for gambles and indulgences is over.

It is time instead to back sure-fire winners and to protect the things which really matter to people here in the Six Towns. It is time to safeguard things like free admission to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which houses exhibits such as the priceless Staffordshire Hoard, the city’s Spitfire and an unrivalled, world-class collection of ceramics.

Now isn’t the time to start charging admission fees for somewhere like this. Instead, let’s make the museum the best it can possibly be – somewhere tourists marvel at and people boast about.

Let’s put in place plans to protect the fabulous Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, The Regent theatre, the Victoria Hall and Bethesda Chapel because, let’s face it, without them there would be no such thing as a ‘Cultural Quarter’.

Let’s protect the libraries which have chronicled local life for decades – places where the less well-off, the students and mums with young children can congregate to laugh and learn.

Let’s invest in the people of the Potteries – from better pitches for the Ladsandads leagues and better facilities for am-dram productions to making the tradition that is the Potters’ Arf bigger and better.

Let’s shout about Robbie Williams and Sir Stan and Reginald Mitchell and Arnold Bennett and all the greats our city has produced.

Let’s be proud of our history and heritage and fight to protect buildings like the deteriorating Wedgwood Big House in Burslem or the under-threat Fenton Town Hall with its unique Great War memorial.

Personally, I‘d far rather money be spent on giving the people of Fenton a focal point for events in their town than paying a company from outside the city to create a short-lived garden in London that none of us will ever see.

To my mind, if we want others to invest in our city then we need to polish what we have across the Six Towns rather than putting all our eggs in Hanley’s basket and spending money on vanity projects which yield little in the way of results.

It’s time we started looking after our own and trumpeting the wonderful assets Stoke-on-Trent has which other cities would be making a virtue of.

One thing’s for sure: If we don’t, no-one else will.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday.