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.

Why our Jonny changed goals to become a stage star

If you’d have placed a bet on what a young Jonathan Wilkes would do when he grew up, you would have got short odds on him becoming a professional footballer.

Little Jonny, pictured here as a mascot for his beloved Port Vale, lived, ate and breathed football when he was a youngster.

It was football which dominated young Jonny’s life from an early age and very nearly resulted in him earning a living from it.

Speaking earlier this week before the launch of The Regent Theatre’s Christmas panto Cinderella, Jonny recalls a very happy, very busy childhood.

Young Wilkesy grew up in Baddeley Green, attending Hillside Primary School, and lived above his dad’s travel agent’s.

Born in 1978, he is an archetypal child of Eighties.

He said: “I do love the Eighties and the fact that there’s such a fondness for Eighties nostalgia. For example, I’m a massive fan of Eighties movies. I love films like the Karate Kid, the Rocky films and The Goonies or Weird Science. In fact, anytime an Eighties movie comes on telly I’ll try to watch it and try to get my lad Mickey to watch it.

“Growing up, though, I was always playing football. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in the ladsandads leagues and for the Miltonians – we had a very good side and we beat everyone.

“Because my dad owned a travel business and was one of the first to offer airport transfers, very often there would be drivers round our house and I’d pester them to go in goal for me in the back garden.”

Jonny’s obsession with football and God-given left peg led him to being put on Everton’s books from the age of 14 but, ironically, that was when he fell out of love with the game.

He said: “The travelling was hard for me and my parents and I never really felt accepted there. I was offered terms at Crewe, Wrexham and Chester but by then my experience at Everton had put me off and I remember feigning an injury to avoid carrying on.”

Jonny didn’t give up on football altogether, however – and turned out for a very good Stone Dominoes side in the mid-Nineties which swept all before them.

However, aged 15 he realised that football wouldn’t give him a career.

Jonny said: “I panicked, if I’m honest. I realised that I hadn’t worked that hard at school and didn’t know what the future held. I went to Sixth Form College in Fenton and studied for a BTEC in leisure and tourism before getting a job at a travel agent’s in Hanley. But I always thought I was destined to do more.”

Jonny explained: “I’d watched Rob (Robbie Williams) performing from a very young age and though to myself ‘Wow. I’d love to do that’.

“So I made my stage debut at the Queen’s Theatre at the age of six. I’ve got very hazy memories of it. It wasn’t actually until the age of 13 when I had my tonsils removed that I found I could sing a bit. So I started to sing at karaoke bars and the like. Then my mum spotted something on GMTV about an upcoming talent competition and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Jonny’s referring to the prestigious Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year Award which he won in 1996 at the age of 17 by wowing the judges with his version of Tom Jones’s ‘Kiss’.
He then became the youngest entertainer to headline a show in Blackpool.

It was so popular it ran for three years.

Jonny said: “I’ve been lucky at times but I’ve also worked extremely hard for the success I’ve had.

“I’m never more comfortable than when I’m on stage and The Regent Theatre really is my second home which is why I’m so excited about returning for panto. Last Christmas just wasn’t the same because I was away from Stoke-on-Trent.

“This year’s going to be a cracker!”

Don’t miss 12 pages of nostalgia in The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday

I don’t need weekly church to make me feel a Christian

Yours truly, front and centre, during my Boys' Brigade days. (My brother Matthew is left of me in the red Cabin Boys jumper.

Yours truly, front and centre, during my Boys’ Brigade days. (My brother Matthew is left of me in the red Cabin Boys jumper.

I can still remember the enormous sense of pride I felt at being awarded the Scripture Exam First Prize (with honours).

Of course, my success was more down to having a decent memory rather than any great love of Bible stories – not that it mattered.

I look back on the decade or so I attended Sunday school classes at Wesley Hall Methodist Church with great fondness.

I recall marching around the streets of Sneyd Green once a month bashing the hell out of my side drum and hoping none of my much cooler mates noticed me wearing the blue uniform of the 14th (North Staffs) branch of the Boys’ Brigade.

I remember sunny fêtes, the crowning of the church queen (yours truly was a page boy) and the annual concert where I was mesmerised by the rickety old wooden stage – which doubtless still has my chewing gum stuck to the underside of a plank in the top right hand corner. Happy days.

I haven’t attended church regularly since I was a teenager. But that’s OK, according to the Bishop of Lichfield, who rode to the rescue of my soul this week.

The Right Reverend Jonathan Gledhill says people like me, who attend church only occasionally, are not hypocrites. He is referring to the 38 million people who go each year to a C of E funeral service and the millions more who attend weddings and baptisms.

The Bishop’s pastoral letter is refreshing in its honesty and shows a willingness to tackle those who sneer at organised religion and take cheap shots at the wayward flock.

He knows full well that most people only attend church when they have an occasion to mark. And for many, this is more a case of duty and tradition than any great need for spiritual fulfilment.

Basically, for many, the church service is the dull bit before they slacken their ties at the wake, christening party or wedding reception. It’s sad, but true.

There are notable exceptions, but for years many churches have presided over dwindling attendances and the majority of worshippers have been older people who are seeking companionship or perhaps hedging their bets before the great hereafter.

Some churches have resorted to playing cat and mouse with potential recruits who have to attend a certain number of services and prove they live within the locality before they are allowed to book a wedding or christening service at their preferred house of God. This is their rather unsubtle way of encouraging our continuing attendance.

It doesn’t work, of course. Once the aforementioned do is out of the way, you don’t see most couples or their offspring for dust.

The simple truth is they have better, or, what they perceive to be, more important things to do on a Sunday. Like going to Ladsandads football matches, trolling around garden centres or dragging the kids to B&Q.

Having said all this, I’m in firm agreement with much of what the Bishop has to say.
The church, or should I say the Christian Church in this country, has become a soft target for social commentators, which is a crying shame.

The fact is, churches are nowhere near as popular as they once were as people now enjoy far more freedoms and choice than they did even 50 years ago.

However, churches are just as relevant and important today, arguably more so, in fact, to a society battling against declining moral standards and in desperate need of some spiritual healing.

And we should never underestimate their value as a focal point for much of what is wholesome and good in our lives.

Whether we visit churches for parent and toddler groups or tea dances, use them to host functions or simply for the necessary bits before cracking open the bubbly and toasting our newlyweds or wetting the baby’s head, they are an essential part of the glue which binds our communities together.

And we would be much the poorer without them.

To me, religion is, and should be, a deeply personal thing. I believe in God and I value the religious education I received which supplemented what my parents and school teachers taught me.

I enjoy attending church for special occasions involving family and friends. I don’t find it dull in the least – in fact, it is by far the best bit of the day for me.

I cherish the Christmas services, the uplifting carols and the messages the church puts out during the season of goodwill.

But by the same token, and it may be a cop-out in some people’s eyes, I feel no need to meet up with other Christians once a week to praise God and sing turgid hymns, or their happy-clappy modern counterparts.

I pray each night, and that’s enough for me to feel in touch with God.