Why Tom’s still fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Love him or hate him, you couldn’t possibly ignore him. That may well be Tom Brennan’s epitaph.

But that would be too simplistic and do a huge disservice to a man who, at the age of 79, remains as fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent as he was when first elected a councillor almost 40 years ago.

What’s more, Tom is that rare beast: A councillor who can look back on his unblemished period of office with a mixture of pride and satisfaction – having gifted the people of the Potteries some tremendous benefits.

Born in 1933, there was little to suggest the lad taught mainly by nuns at St. Joseph’s RC School in Burslem was destined for a career in politics.

Having learned his trade as a painter and decorator, Tom completed three years’ service with the Irish Guards.

He went on to work in the building trade before taking a job, like other members of his family before him, with the very Catholic-orientated Michelin tyre firm.

It was there that Tom, who became a shop steward, met the likes of local politicians Leon and Stan Bate who suggested he join the local Labour party. Within 18 months he was elected as a councillor at the then acceptable age of 40.

Tom, who lives in Bucknall with his wife Elaine, recalls: “It was a real culture shock to me. Suddenly I was in a position to be able to represent all of these people in my area.

“I was very proud. I did a four-year college course, paid for by the Labour party, which trained us to be good councillors and schooled us in the art of politics.

“I finished it and even received a certificate signed by Jim Callaghan (who went on to become Prime Minister in 1976).

“I was full of enthusiasm and remember attending my first meeting up at Hanley Town Hall.

“Jim Westwood was leader of the Labour group back then and when I stuck my hand up at the end of the meeting to ask about national policies he made it very clear to me that the local party ruled the roost in Stoke-on-Trent and they didn’t listen to national politicians.

“I wasn’t downhearted by this. When you’ve done three years with the Guards and been a drill instructor you learn to cope with shouting and bawling and how to give it back.”

This refusal to be intimidated and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer was to serve Tom well over the next 21 years as a serving councillor.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards, organised by The Sentinel and now in its 38th year, was Tom’s brainchild.

A talented athlete in his youth, he was also the key player in the creation of Northwood Stadium.

Tom remembers: “Under the ‘any other business’ section of a meeting of the parks and recreation committee I stuck my hand up and asked why Stoke-on-Trent didn’t have a running track like other cities.

“The chairman at the time was Joe Monks-Neil. You have to bear in mind that, back then, the chairmen of council committees were all-powerful. It’s not like that these days.

“Joe asked me who I thought I was to be asking a question like that. He said the council had more important issues to think about like slum clearance and land reclamation.

“But I wouldn’t let it lie and I just kept niggling away.

“I got myself onto the Northwood Management Committee and worked to help bring together the various councils and funding bodies who stumped up about £4.5 million to pay for the stadium.”

More than a decade later, in 1985, Northwood Stadium was officially opened and Tom’s involvement in its creation is now acknowledged there with a plaque.

Tom looks back on his time as a councillor with great fondness and a real sense of achievement.

He said: “Elaine did a terrific job of bringing up our two children and I am very proud of them all.

“Crucially she supported me every step of the way through my endeavours as a councillor and there were times she barely saw me.

“Elaine just knew it was something I was very passionate about. I still am.”

Something which Mrs Brennan was able to play a full role in, however, was Tom’s period of office as the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent (1982/3).

He is now the second oldest surviving Lord Mayor of the city.

Tom recalls: “I was tremendously proud to represent the city. I think we attended more than 1,700 engagements that year. These included a visit to London at the request of the Lord Mayor of London along with all the other civic heads and an audience with Pope John Paul II.”

When Tom heard earlier this year that, as part of cutbacks, the city council was looking at doing away with the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor and its associated costs he was horrified.

He said: “I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself: ‘Where do they get these mad ideas from?’ I am a Labour man through and through – a socialist and proud. But having served as the Queen’s representative I understand the importance of such roles – the distinction of having a Lord Mayor – and I will defend the idea to my dying day.”

Tom believes the role of councillors has changed since his day and that their power and influence has waned somewhat.

He said: “I don’t believe that councillors in 2012 have the same opportunities and wield the same power as they did 30 years ago.

“That’s a good and bad thing, I suppose, and I dare say getting something like Northwood Stadium would be beyond modern-day councillors and I feel sorry for them in away.”

However, Tom says that even with the changes and knowing what he knows now, he would happily start over as a councillor tomorrow.

He said: “You never stop caring. You never stop wanting to help people. It gets in your blood.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel for 12 pages of nostlagia

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I’m bored of the Olympics already. How about you?

NEWSFLASH: Contrary to what you may have been told, not everyone is obsessed with Olympics.

Despite what Lord Coe would have you believe, we aren’t all sitting at home wearing skin-tight, Team GB branded lycra outfits and waiting for the opening ceremony.

Some of us can live without tickets to the eagerly-anticipated Uruguay versus Outer Mongolia badminton clash.

Simply put, I reckon there are quite a few people like me – for whom – London 2012 can come and go. Really.

I won’t be sitting glued to the telly in 10 days’ time and assessing whether our opening show was better than the one in Beijing.

I can live without watching BBC presenters run out of adjectives again like they did during the Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant.

And don’t get me started on those ridiculous, one-eyed mascots – Wenlock and Mandeville – which are enough to frighten small children.

If truth be told I struggled to feign interest when the defective, fiery cheese-grater (sorry – I mean Olympic Torch) came to the Potteries.

It’s not that I don’t wish Team GB well. It’s not that I don’t want local heroes like pole vaulter Steven Lewis or rower Anna Watkins to be on the podium.

It is simply that I’m not that interested in the vast majority of sports served up by this overblown, over-hyped and over-commercialised behemoth.

This is sacrilege, of course and I will doubtless be roundly condemned in The Sentinel’s newsroom.

You see, I work in the media and thus I am obliged to get excited about any event involving more than half a dozen people, animals or vehicles. But I simply can’t stand the hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s my age but I can’t be doing with people becoming instant disciples of sports that they have never shown an interest in until five minutes before. Unless you are a child, of course.

I have friends who are hugely excited because they entered the lottery for tickets for London 2012 and managed to get a couple of passes for the first round of the weightlifting.

“It’s all about being able to say you were there,” they croon. “It’s about being part of a huge global sporting event. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Oh come on. It’s actually about sweating like a stuck pig on rammed tube trains and queuing for hours to watch eastern European athletes you’ve never heard of do stuff you’ve never tried in sports you’ll never understand and then wittering on about the ‘incredible atmosphere’.

For all that the Olympics is supposed to unite people through sport it’s actually a pretty bizarre and, I would argue, divisive event.

There are so many popular sports which aren’t even represented at the Olympics and a number of very odd, niche ones which are.

Let’s examine some of the sports on offer, shall we?

Beach volleyball: Do me a favour. We all know why lots of blokes will be watching this and it won’t be to enthuse about the Rally Point System.

Diving: This can’t be a sport, can it? Discuss.

Handball: I honestly had to look this one up and I’m still none the wiser.

Synchronised swimming: See diving. More a concept for entrants on a Simon Cowell talent show than a sport, surely.

Trampoline: Fun to watch the kids do at Rhyl. Beyond that I can’t see the point.

Wrestling (Greco-Roman or Freestyle): Can’t be taken seriously as Kendo Nagasaki, once of this parish, has now retired.

You see what I mean? The remainder of the offerings are niche at best – take canoeing, cycling, equestrian and fencing – hardly mass participation sports are they?

And when the Olympics does try to go mainstream we end up with some unique fudges.

For example, all but three of Team GB’s footballers have to be under the age of 23. Random or what? No wonder the governing bodies of world football sneer at the tournament.

Granted, the 100-metres final may pique your interest and you may enter the office sweepstake on the number of drug cheats caught out but, beyond the athletics, let’s not pretend most of us care. Especially if you live north of the Watford Gap.

As for it being an Olympics for the whole country I take my hat off to the organisers for doing their best to peddle that myth.

But I would suggest the only tangible legacy for the UK from this multi-billion pound extravaganza – funded during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – will be new housing and sports facilities for a deprived area of London.

A small number of pottery firms may have made a few quid but I can’t see Northwood Stadium benefiting too much or see London 2012 inspiring a generation of youngsters in the Potteries to take up rhythmic gymnastics.

If this all sounds incredibly cynical then I make no apologies because the Olympics itself is a cynical, money-making enterprise.

Coming, as it does, hard on the heels of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Euro 2012 football tournament (I enjoyed both) I just don’t think I have it in me to get excited about something which may as well be taking place on the other side of the world.

There may be too much football, cricket and rugby on the TV but you can always switch it off – just like I do when Wimbledrone and that awful John McEnroe person put in their annual appearance.

If the Olympics is your bag then I hope you have an absolute ball and thrive on every minute of it.

But if, like most of us, you’re not the slightest bit interested, then you’ll do your best to avoid this London-centric bonanza of weirdness.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

The city council has fudged £35 million cuts

I CERTAINLY don’t envy the chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council or the councillors themselves at present.
Handed the hospital pass of administering £35 million of cutbacks, they all knew they were on to a hiding to nothing.
To be fair, had half a dozen Sentinel readers sat around a table to discuss where the axe should fall, I suspect the headlines would have been little different.
For example, there were some utter no-brainers in the review, such as the closure of that huge white elephant Ceramica.
Common sense has prevailed at last with regard to Burslem’s most iconic building.
The trick now is to find a new use for the beautiful, Grade-II listed Town Hall which has depreciated in value year-on-year since that glass and metal monstrosity was tacked on to the end of it.
Meanwhile, the closure of City Farm in Bucknall was never going to raise too many eyebrows.
By the same token, there will be few tears from taxpayers over the decision to slash £360,000 from the authority’s public relations and communications budget.
The closure of municipal pools in Shelton and Tunstall may have stirred a few dissenting voices but, in truth, both pools are well past their prime and swimmers have other options.
Protecting around-the-clock CCTV coverage in the city also makes sense and so that’s another tick for the powers-that-be.
I also support the decision to continue to fund Stoke Speaks Out, which works with young people to address speech and language problems. However, I do worry that the causes of such issues – such as children being parked in front of the TV all day – need to be addressed at source with a much broader strategy of parental education.
So far so good, but then I start to come over all cynical.
Stanley Head Outdoor Education Centre, Ford Green Hall, the Etruria Industrial Musuem and Northwood Stadium have each been given a six-month reprieve.
The idea is that, by September, a trust comprising local people will have been formed to run each of these venues.
Is that a pig I see flying over the Civic Centre?
If I was being charitable I could say that councillors were giving these facilities a chance and perhaps embracing our PM’s Big Society idea. But the truth is that it is highly unlikely that groups of people with the time, expertise and enthusiasm to take on these centres will be found in six months. Both Ford Green Hall and the Etruria Industrial Museum are wonderful pieces of the city’s heritage and deserve to be saved.
The outdoor education centre at Stanley Head has been a vital resource for generations of city children and we will be all the poorer without it. As for Northwood Stadium – it may be an ageing facility, but as I sit down today at the judging of the 37th City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards I wonder at the future of sports provision in our city if we were to lose the old girl.
It seems to me that by giving each of these centres a six-month stay of execution, the politicians have simply postponed the grim announcement.
The same could also be said for the way in which they have treated the thorny problem of the children’s centres threatened with closure.
Council leader Mohammed Pervez said members had listened to the public outcry over the proposed closure of seven of the city’s 16 centres and were not going to close any “at this stage”.
Those three little words should have sent chills down the spines of campaigners who last Thursday were slapping each other on the back thinking their battle was won.
In other words, not only have councillors cut funding for 25 posts which will make the centres less viable, they have cleverly left the door ajar to alter policy once the small matter of that pesky election is out of the way in May.
The decision-makers in this process knew full well that their immediate political future could rest on the public reaction to the cutbacks.
So, call me cynical if you like, but I can’t help but feel that our elected members have rather fudged these cuts – putting off the less palatable decisions until after polling day.
We may think we’ve seen the worst of the cuts but, in truth, this is just the beginning and we shouldn’t be conned into taking the initial announcements at face value.