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

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Pottery firms: Still innovating and still the key employers locally

Ceramics 2013 logo.

Some people would have you believe we don’t make stuff in this country anymore.

It’s certainly true that manufacturing in the UK has changed beyond all recognition in the past 30 years or so.

No-one views us as the ‘Workshop of the World’ anymore – that’s for sure.

Great industries like coal-mining and steel production have all but disappeared and my native North Staffordshire still bears the scars.

Shelton Bar, which once lit up the night sky and where my great-grandfather was a foreman, is no more.

The pits where other members of my family dug for black gold are now but a memory.

But what of the industry after which this area is named?

They still call us the Potteries but is it a fair reflection on the Stoke-on-Trent of 2013. Is it even applicable anymore?

In recent years some civic leaders have stated that we should drop the name altogether – arguing that the label is neither helpful nor relevant to our city today.

The problem is, of course, that they had no clue what to replace it with. There was no alternative: No big idea on which the city could hang its hat.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing because the reality is that the industry for which we are renowned is still very much alive and kicking – despite what some would have us think.

Here, in what is often described as the ‘world capital of ceramics’, you will – of course – find the derelicts, the ruined hulks and the former factories.

Drive around the city and you’ll see the former Spode site and the mess that is Nile Street in Burslem where the behemoth that was Royal Doulton’s premier factory used to stand – now sadly reduced to rubble.

Then there are the smaller potbanks – too numerous to mention here – which are boarded-up, roofless and weed-choked.

But that’s only half the story.

The pottery industry may have shrunk considerably since its hey-day but it remains THE key employer locally.

More to the point, whisper it quietly but many of our foremost ceramics firms are doing rather well, of late.

As well as still being home for long-established family names like Dudson and Wedgwood, our neck of the woods still boasts brands such as Johnson Tiles, Steelite International, Churchill, Wade Ceramics, Portmeirion as well as relative newcomer Emma Bridgewater who are all world and market leaders in their fields – still innovating, still producing millions of crocks and still proudly employing hundreds of people here in Stoke-on-Trent.

Add to these dozens of smaller pottery firms operating across The Sentinel’s patch and you start to build up a very different picture of the area and its core industry.

That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t challenges to be faced.

The global economic downturn has done manufacturing businesses no favours whatsoever – and suggestions of a recovery at this stage should be viewed with extreme caution.

As well as the continuing battle to underline the importance of the Made in England/UK backstamp, pottery firms are also wrestling with the problem of ensuring they have a plentiful supply of cheap energy – while trying to satisfy various green agendas.

So while there are many reasons for optimism surrounding the ceramics industry, challenges remain.

No doubt they will be discussed on Thursday at the Centre for Refurbishment Excellence (CoRE) in Longton when it hosts Ceramics 2013.

This event will bring together manufacturers large and small, as well as their suppliers, to showcase the very best this resurgent industry has to offer.

The fact that it is being held here in Stoke-on-Trent is no coincidence and the list of attendees and exhibitors is dominated by names we plate-turners know and love.

I’m chuffed to say that yours truly will be hosting a question and answer session with top industry names (at which all are welcome).

However, rest assured Thursday is far from a navel-gazing exercise on the part of pottery firms.

You’ll find students, artists, graphic designers and all manner of creative industries represented at this event – and members of the public are very welcome too.

With designer Wayne Hemingway MBE – founder of fashion brand Red or Dead – as its guest speaker, Ceramics 2013 is looking to the future and viewing our core local industry as a design-led, British success story.

It’s a story that I, for one, am only too happy to help tell.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

I understand city council move but Hanley cannot succeed in isolation

As someone who is very passionate about the Mother Town of the Potteries I can well understand the incredulity, the anger and the fear felt by some in the wake of the city council’s decision to transfer its workforce from Stoke to Hanley.

It is impossible to escape the comparison between this move and the bombshell closure of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory in 2005 which ripped the heart out of Burslem.

The decision will rankle even more with taxpayers because it presents us with a back to the future scenario.

Twenty years ago I recall the uproar when the powers-that-be at the council decided to move its employees from Hanley to a new, purpose-built Civic Centre in Stoke.

Now an entirely different administration – and that is an important distinction to make – thinks it is a good idea for the authority’s 2,000 or so staff to go back to Hanley again.

Personally, I think the logic behind the move is sound – and not just because, ultimately, it will save money.

Let’s face it, however much we bang on about the unique nature of our Six Towns every city worth the name has a city centre recognised by shoppers, tourists and businesses alike.

Like it or not, by quirk of history, Hanley has for decades been the beating heart of Stoke-on-Trent – albeit sometimes beating more weakly than we would perhaps have liked.

It has the most shops of any of the towns, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the city’s finest theatre, and other cultural gems such as the Mitchell Arts Centre, Bethesda Chapel and the Town Hall.

Very soon, after decades of delays, it will also have a brand new bus station to go with the enormous Tesco store which has tidied up the bottom end of the town.

Then we have the absurdly-named but undeniably exciting prospect of the new City Sentral shopping complex together with the planned expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre.

There can be no denying that Hanley is ‘on the up’ and this is something we should all be pleased about.

In the past various schemes and visions have faltered at the eleventh hour because of the local authority’s inability to secure a so-called ‘anchor tenant’.

It has failed, for example, to attract a big name retail store or employer that has been prepared commit to investing in an area in order to tempt other businesses to follow suit.

One of the main reasons for this has been that Hanley has been viewed as saturated in terms of its retail offer.

In other words, developers thought there simply weren’t enough people in the city centre to justify further investment and expansion.

Of course, this all changes if the local authority switches its entire workforce to Hanley and becomes the ‘anchor tenant’ for the proposed ‘business district’.

Suddenly, the city centre is a far more attractive proposition for all concerned.

I think that a popular, successful and economically-viable Hanley is a must if Stoke-on-Trent is to drag itself out of the doldrums in these most austere times. But I’m afraid this will require radical and sometimes painful decisions and just a little bit of that horrible phrase: ‘thinking outside the box’.

But what of Stoke, and indeed, the other seemingly-forgotten towns?

The worst-case scenario here is that the city council’s decision to relocate turns Stoke into a ghost town of empty office buildings and condemns businesses who have relied on city council workers for custom to a slow death.

The idea of pulling the Civic Centre building together with the former Spode site and the Kingsway car park and offering that up as a package sound reasonable – so long as the long-term viability and care of the King’s Hall can be assured.

However, we mustn’t forget that this a vision.

It is the small print on the master plan to inject fresh life and impetus into the city centre.

What is needed now is a genuine concerted effort to find a new purpose for those key sites in Stoke.

Perhaps the expansion of the University Quarter (UniQ) development across the A500 and into the town of Stoke proper is the best way of filling the vacuum that will be left by the city council’s relocation.

What is certain is that it will take years for the benefits of a thriving city centre to trickle down to the other five towns.

In the meantime, it is vital the local authority puts as much energy into find unique selling points for Stoke, Burslem, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall as it has done into aiding the city centre in order that Hanley’s poor relations don’t become poorer still.

Stoke-on-Trent desperately needs a successful city centre but, by the same token, it cannot succeed in isolation.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Blame directors who never understood what they had for Wedgwood’s sad demise

The remains of Royal Doulton's Nile Street headquarters in Burslem.

The remains of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street headquarters in Burslem.

When I started work as a cub reporter 20 years ago, the industrial landscape of the Potteries was unrecognisable to the panorama which greets our bleary eyes on a cold Tuesday in March 2009.

Trentham Superpit, or Hem Heath Colliery as was, still employed more than 2,000 miners.

More than 300 people worked at the rolling mill that was once the mighty, glowing Shelton Bar steelworks where my great-grandfather had been a foreman.

An estimated 18,000 workers were employed at potbanks in Burslem alone – including 2,500 at Royal Doulton.

And Wedgwood, nestling proudly amid the lush fields of Barlaston, was the jewel in the crown of the pottery industry.

I reported on the closure of Trentham Superpit in 1993. I talked to the families and businesses affected by the decision. I saw the tears and heard the fears.

Those interviews have stayed with me.

For the first time, I properly appreciated the enormity of the challenges facing North Staffordshire’s economy and the tragic human cost of the decline of our traditional industries.

Similarly, I well remember being on The Sentinel’s newsdesk in 2000 when Shelton Bar closed down – bringing to an end 159 years of steel production on the site.

Certainly, I recall the sadness I felt one day in April four years ago when workers at Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory clocked off for the last time.

I had always had a soft spot for Doulton because it was where my mum served her apprenticeship as a lithographer in the ’60s.

Now I read of the creditors’ meetings involving former employees of Wedgwood. These were people I interviewed at Barlaston for the company’s own newsletter in the early ’90s. People who talked of their pride at working for a world-renowned brand and spoke fondly of the camaraderie they enjoyed on the factory floor.

While the friendships doubtless remain, there wasn’t much pride this week. There was bitterness and resentment – and justifiably so.

Former workers were leaving the creditors’ meetings in a state of shock. Many are set to be short-changed to the tune of several thousand pounds in terms of their redundancy packages.

Take Bob Wilshaw, aged 58, of Abbey Hulton, who had worked for the Wedgwood group for 42 years.

Let me repeat that: 42 years.

Mr Wilshaw had expected to receive around £23,000 in settlement – yet he is likely to end up with just £10,000. Not much to show for a lifetime of service.

Staggering, isn’t it, how the questionable management of a company, a sheer lack of foresight and rush to embrace outsourcing can bring a global name to its knees in a few, short years?

It wasn’t so long ago that Wedgwood, in comparison to the basket case that was Royal Doulton, was being held up as a model business – an innovator and a beacon of hope.

Who could forget the Duchess of York promoting her own ‘Sarah’s Garden’ range to the Americans.

Of course, she soon bailed out when the storm clouds began to gather. What a shame Wedgwood’s management couldn’t read the runes as well as Fergie, eh?

I’m not naïve. I know the pottery industry was haemorrhaging jobs left, right and centre long before I knocked out my first story on a PC.

But I can’t help but feel that senior managers could have – and should have – done more to stave off the complete disintegration of the industry which placed this city on the world map.

Now we have the comforting thought of new owners KPS, the American private equity firm, underlining the fact that it is 85 per cent cheaper to produce pottery ware in the Far East and reportedly planning to “aggressively grow the hell out of…” (the Wedgwood brand). Charming.

Do they know we make fine bone china round here? Do the new owners realise that buyers aren’t daft and that, sooner rather than later, they will realise that the quaint old English quality backstamp that was Wedgwood ain’t quite what it used to be?

Of course they do. The truth is, they don’t care so long as they squeeze the pips out of the brand for their shareholders.

As Wedgwood crumbles, I have listened to ex-potters who have spoken eloquently of their frustrations with the role their union has played in recent years which, in their opinion, was akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burned.

Whatever the truth, I doubt whether or not Doulton’s former chief executive Wayne Nutbeen or former Waterford Wedgwood majority stakeholder Sir Anthony O’Reilly are sitting there this evening worrying about how they will pay their mortgages or what employment options are open to a man in his late fifties like Bob Wilshaw.

More’s the pity.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday