Hoard remains to key to success of Cultural Quarter despite funding setback

It costs eight dollars for adults and four dollars for children but I’m told by a colleague that it’s well worth the admission price.
The National Geographic Museum in downtown Washington is a state-of-the-art, interactive tourist attraction.
And right now the top draw at this top drawer venue is our very own Staffordshire Hoard and the powers-that-be there are making the most of its one and only U.S. appearance.
Want to build your own medieval helmet? No problem.
Want to learn about the epic Beowulf saga poem, Anglo-Saxon culinary expressions or wheat-weaving and corn dollies? It’s all there. Fancy going exploring with your family? Just grab a field guide and backpack to help you get the most out of the Hoard exhibition by ‘looking, moving, touching and doing’.
This is history how it should be taught. Dark Age history enlightened by modern technology and made accessible to all.
Contrast this then with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery’s first attempts to showcase the Hoard.
Granted, museum staff will admit that the initial exhibition was thrown together in miraculous fashion in a space which wasn’t really suitable.
But while it may not have put off the tens of thousands of visitors who flocked to view samples of this breathtaking discovery, what our little display has done is highlight the Hanley venue’s shortcomings.
The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery is a building which hasn’t really moved on in two decades.
Yes, it has a world-renowned collection of ceramics and a dedicated friends group but I’m afraid that isn’t enough to make it a decent tourist venue.
The fact is if you don’t like pots then I’m afraid you’re going to be rather disappointed.
Take our Spitfire exhibit, for example. The creator of the fighter plane that turned the tide of the Battle of Britain was born down the road in Butt Lane but our tribute to his work of genius is something of an embarrassment, if we’re honest.
The Spitfire is tucked away in a darkened room and overlooked by a mannequin which wouldn’t seem out of place in an infant school art department.
Aside from this, the rest of the museum is a hotch-potch of displays – sort of like Bargain Hunt crossed with a taxidermy conference.
All this changed, of course, when we acquired a share of the Staffordshire Hoard. Or rather, it should have done.
Museum staff knew only too well that the Hoard presented a wonderful opportunity to transform the city centre venue from a rather niche tourist attraction into a major player.
However, news that a major funding bid for a permanent Hoard exhibition in Stoke-on-Trent has been turned down by the Arts Council is a major blow – and not just for the 13 museum employees whose jobs have been put at risk.
It is worth saying that the Birmingham Museums Trust bid was successful. Why am I not surprised?
We have brilliant and passionate staff at the Potteries Museum who did us proud at short notice with regard to the Hoard.
People like collections officer Deb Klemperer with whom I shared a podium at the special Sentinel sneak-peek viewing of the Hoard the night before the exhibition opened.
They deserve our support as they pick themselves up after this latest disappointment and go back to the drawing board.
As Hanley prepares itself, via the ludicrously-named City Sentral, for the kind of regeneration not seen since the advent of the Potteries Shopping Centre, it is vital that the Cultural Quarter steps up to the mark.
If we finally get a bus station not reminiscent of Eastern European town during the Cold War along with a new, multi-million pound shopping centre, then we must ensure our all-round offer to shoppers and visitors is of the highest standard.
We have a first class theatre and a museum that now has all the gear but no idea (or should I say no resources) of how to display its riches properly.
We must bid, bid and bid again for funding to display the Hoard in all its glory and position Stoke-on-Trent as the home of the Staffordshire Hoard.
Councillor Mark Meredith, cabinet member for economic development, has assured us that in spite of the failed hoard bid its “business as usual” at our museums.
That’s the problem though Mark, isn’t it? Business as usual means a few score visitors on a week day.
Remember the queues snaking around the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery when the Hoard first arrived?
Remember the excitement when we learned the bid to acquire this national treasure had been successful?
We must not lose the impetus now.
If marketed properly the Staffordshire Hoard could be priceless asset to the city rather than simply another hidden gem at a venue that simply hasn’t moved with the times.
I can feel a campaign coming on…

Public deserves to know the facts of ‘secret’ pool deal

Irrespective of the spin certain people might like to put on it, the Dimensions leisure centre saga leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
One of the reasons people like myself get frustrated with the public sector is the sheer lack of transparency which pervades so many elements of its work.
The ‘settlement’ reached between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and multi-millionaire businessman Mo Chaudry in recent days is another case in point.
No wonder some councillors are up in arms about what they are calling a ‘secret deal’.
I suspect there will be a few Freedom of Information (FoI) requests winging the council’s way as a result.
Thanks to the settlement, Mr Chaudry has agreed to drop his long-standing threat of legal action against the local authority.
But just what does this agreement entail and has it cost the taxpayers of the city? Either way, surely they have a right to know.
It is more than three and a half years since The Sentinel’s front page revealed the planned closure of the splash pool at Dimensions.
It is more than two years since the police investigation into the proposed closure of the facility in Burslem was dropped through lack of evidence.
But I dare say most observers are still none the wiser as to what went on, who spoke to whom, or what exactly was being proposed back in early 2008.
What we do know for definite is that the Dimensions controversy led to the arrest of former city councillor Roger Ibbs and the then elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent Mark Meredith.
Mr Chaudry was also arrested but no charges were ever brought against any of the men and the investigation was dropped.
All three men then spoke of their relief, said there should never have been a police inquiry and basically seemed to be blaming each other for what became the ultimate political hot potato.
The closure plans were abandoned after a huge public outcry and a council report which conveniently concluded that shutting the Dimensions pool would actually cost money rather than save it.
Talk about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Initially, councillors had been told the scheme would save about £60,000 a year but a subsequent report found that the loss of visitor income and loss of income from services like vending machines would result in a net cost of £42,000.
Mr Chaudry says he had negotiated a deal with the city council to close the splash pool and have them pay him £100,000 a year to offer people discounted admission to his Waterworld attraction.
The city council has now finally admitted that discussions did take place with Mr Chaudry over the possible closure of the facility.
Now we can argue about whether or not any such contract would have represented a good deal for the taxpayers of Stoke-on-Trent or whether or not local authorities rather than private businesses should be providing such facilities.
But I can’t get past the fact that what we are talking about here is a leisure attraction – the number of visitors to which had risen consistently in the years leading up to its proposed closure.
This begs the question why anyone at the council – politicians or officers – thought there was merit in shutting the splash pool in the first place.
Sadly, we’ll never know who got the maths wrong and no-one will ever be named and shamed or punished over the affair.
But surely, given recent developments, we should be able to get to the bottom of the settlement brokered between Mr Chaudry and the council.
If the authority didn’t have a contract with Mr Chaudry then why have we never had a statement from them saying as much?
I’d like to know whether or not Mr Chaudry has been financially compensated for any breach of contract or perceived damaged to his reputation. I’d also like to know how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on solicitors’ fees dealing with Mr Chaudry’s threatened legal action.
How can the public possibly judge whether or not their money is being well spent or take a view on whether or not the council has learned lessons from this sorry saga when there is such a clear failure to communicate.
It seems obvious that mistakes were made when the Dimensions splash pool was being considered for closure and that senior figures at the council spectacularly misread the public mood when discussions were taking place with Mr Chaudry.
However, it appears that no-one is accountable and the long-suffering public is once again being asked to accept bland statements which attempt to gloss over what is a monumental PR disaster.

Slash is returning to Paradise City

Yes! He’s back! A little older. Perhaps even a little wiser. But with the same laid-back attitude.

No, I’m not talking about former Elected Mayor Mark Meredith.

I refer, of course to the return to his native city of a music legend: A rock icon; A guitar hero;

I could go on…

The truth is that Labour’s landslide victory in the local elections pales into insignificance alongside the big story of the week.

Let’s face it, any fool could have predicted that voters in Stoke (or at least those who could be bothered) would revert to type and stick an X next to candidate wearing a red rosette.

It seems all is forgiven for Worldgate/the Cultural Quarter etc. (insert as appropriate).

The only thing that would have prevented a Labour candidate winning in most wards is if a certain Saul Hudson had stood for election on a ticket of free smokes and Jack Daniels for all.

Mr Hudson, better known the world over as Slash, would have romped home, I assure you.

It is testament to the pulling power of the former Guns ’n Roses guitarist that tickets for his first ever gig in Stoke-on-Trent sold out in under two hours.

THAT is the big story of the week, ladies and gentlemen.

A colleague of mine, who shall remain nameless, simply couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when I told her I’d lined up an interview with the man himself.

“He’s hardly local, is he?” she asked in the dismissive tones of one who had clearly never appreciated the magnificence of Appetite For Destruction or the unbridled genius of the opening riff to Sweet Child ’O Mine.

I don’t care if he only lived in Stoke-on-Trent until he was five, I’m claiming him as one of ours.
It seems I’m not the only one, either, as an online campaign to honour Slash and Motörhead stalwart Lemmy Kilmister with statues in their home city continues to attract signatures.

FA Cup Final or no FA Cup Final — they both hail from the Mother Town, by the way, so technically they should be Vale fans too.

Having been fortunate (or unfortunate — depending on your perspective) enough to have rubbed shoulders with a fair few celebrities over the last 20 years I don’t generally get star-struck.

Fair enough, I haven’t washed since shaking hands with The Fonz but — that aside — I am generally underwhelmed by showbiz stars, footballers and even royalty.

Slash is, however, a bit different and when his PR bloke confirmed I could have an interview I admit the denim-wearing 17-year-old in me played air guitar momentarily.

You see, it is a little-known fact that Stoke-on-Trent is a bastion of rock music.

Indeed, I have it on good authority that there are more Bon Jovi, Guns ’n Roses and Queen fans per head of population in the Potteries than almost anywhere else in the UK.

I should know, I’ve queued with most of them to get into every stadium from Milton Keynes to Manchester, from Wembley to Gateshead over the past two decades.

It’s something to do with our fair city being stuck in 1987, according to a friend of mine.

For those of you still wondering what all the fuss is about, Slash is widely considered one of the greatest rock guitar players of all time.

He has received countless accolades and awards including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside his idols Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix.

He has performed alongside everyone from Elton John and Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson and Ray Charles.

More to the point, sales of the 10 studio albums released by the bands he has been the heartbeat of since 1986 — Guns ’n Roses, Slash’s Snakepit and supergroup Velvet Revolver — have sold in excess of 120 million records.

Thus the arrival of the great man, now an elder statesman of the rock scene, for his first ever gig in the city where he was raised in his early years is something of a coup for the Victoria Hall.

As I said in a previous column, the powers-that-be at the King’s Hall should take note that this gig could have sold out five times over.

Not that I am surprised by either the response to the tickets going on sale or the decision by this music legend to come home.

Slash is returning at long last to Paradise City — “where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”.

OK. You can stop laughing now.

I’ll be there on July 24 with my faded jeans, an earring and a G’n’R tee-shirt.

I may even grow my hair again — although I will have to give the bandana a miss this time.

Election? What election?

Britannia deal was a huge missed opportunity

Last March I was slated for writing a column which suggested that for years the city council has favoured Stoke City over Port Vale.

As a result I received a couple of phone calls threatening to ‘sort me out’ (the language was slightly more colourful).

There was an independent fans’ website thread devoted to calling me all the names under the sun and we received a number of letters here at Sentinel HQ from people who had simply missed the point of the article.

It was, at the time, supposed to be a precursor to the publication of a report detailing the findings of the Audit Commission’s investigation into the controversial sale of the council’s stake in the Britannia Stadium.

I was convinced councillors hadn’t been properly consulted over the deal and that it wouldn’t have gone ahead had they been aware of the full facts.

As it happened, that report wasn’t to see the light of day for another nine months.

However, now that we know what’s in it, I’d just like to say: ‘I told you so…’

You see, I never had any axe to grind with Stoke City Football Club regarding this deal.

The Potters are fortunate, in Peter Coates, to have a shrewd, successful and extremely wealthy businessman as chairman.

Executives at the club negotiated an extremely good deal with the local authority and good luck to them.

No, my beef was and still is with the city council.

In December 2007 the then elected mayor Mark Meredith and council manager Steve Robinson agreed to sell the city’s 36 per cent stake in the Britannia Stadium to Stoke City Football Club for £4.5 million, five months before promotion to the Premier League.

Councillors who voted for the deal were not told that the purchase of the stake in the stadium would be paid in three instalments rather than one lump sum – which meant the council missed out on £180,000 in interest payments.

Of course, as the Audit Commission report points out, under the council’s constitution as it was, neither Mr Robinson nor Mr Meredith did anything wrong.

They didn’t have to tell councillors the details of the contract, although Mr Robinson says key councillors and group leaders such as Roger Ibbs and Mike Tappin were told. Both Mr Ibbs and Mr Tappin deny this.

They can’t all be right, can they?

The extraordinary length of time it took the Audit Commission to complete its report means, of course, that this is all old news.

Supporters may say that Stoke City are now in the Premier League and going great guns so why should we care about a piece of business conducted more than two years ago?

I believe we should care for a number of reasons.

Firstly, no-one in their right mind can possibly argue that this was a good deal for the taxpayers of Stoke-on-Trent.

Former elected mayor Mike Wolfe tells me that during his time in office the then Icelandic owners of Stoke City wanted to buy out the council’s stake in ‘the Brit’, but talks never got very far.

Why? Because he refused to discuss anything less than an offer of £6 million. He had also insisted on a clause being inserted in any contract stating that if the club were to be promoted to the Premier League the council would have received a dividend.

As it was, his successors sold the council’s stake in ‘the Brit’ for just £4.5 million – to be paid in three, interest-free instalments.

I am also bemused as to why the council hierarchy felt it necessary to complete the deal at that time.

Why the rush to offload this community asset?

Granted, Steve Robinson and Mark Meredith didn’t have a crystal ball, but you don’t have to be a financial whizz to realise to potential benefits if you’re a stakeholder in a football stadium and the resident club makes it into the Premier League.

I’ve read the Audit Commission report and it reveals the huge power wielded by extremely well-paid, unelected, untouchable officials within local authorities.

The report states: “It would have been good practice… to report back to full council regarding the final payment terms.”

That didn’t happen.

Councillors voted the deal through and the rest, as they say, is history.

If the elected members had have seen the small print, so to speak, I dare say they wouldn’t have approved the sale.

Indeed, both Roger Ibbs and Mike Tappin both told investigators they would have objected to the deal had they been aware of the devil in the detail.

The truth is the city council’s involvement with ‘the Brit’ was, from start to finish, a huge missed opportunity.

It never became the community stadium it was intended to be and, in my opinion, by agreeing to this bargain sale price for the city’s stake in the venue, the council’s hierarchy ensured the taxpayers of the Potteries were significantly shortchanged. Again.