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

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