Community spirit is alive and well in Burslem this Christmas

lights

If we’re being honest nobody really understood what the Prime Minister was talking about when he first used the phrase ‘Big Society’.
Call-me-Dave’s press office dressed it up as the idea of taking away power from politicians and institutions and giving it to local people.
But many cynics felt it was little more than a smokescreen to hide the Coalition Government’s butchery of the public sector.
Cynics like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who described the Big Society as ‘aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.’
Well here in the Potteries we have what I believe is a prime example of the Big Society in action – whichever definition you believe.
You see, the Scrooges at Stoke-on-Trent City Council have decided Christmas is only happening in Hanley this year.
To be fair, amid care home closures and job losses one can understand why fir trees and baubles aren’t perhaps high on the local authority’s list of priorities.
Except in the city centre, of course.
The other forgotten five towns are receiving no council funding for their Christmas lights this year – saving taxpayers £84,000 as the authority attempts to cut millions more to balance its books over the next financial year.
However, in Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall traders have done their best to spread a little festive cheer by making the Christmas lights a DIY affair.
Which just left little old Burslem in the shadows.
But not for long.
I’ve no idea what their political persuasions are but I’m pretty sure David Cameron would be proud of the way locals Louise Worthington and John Flint have taken it upon themselves to brighten up the Mother Town of the Potteries over the festive period.
As, I’m sure, would the Archbishop.
If the Big Society means getting off your backside and doing something positive for your community rather than moaning about your lot then Louise, John and their pals should be its poster boys and girls.
They organised a meeting, set up a Facebook page with the help of their friend June Cartwright, and began collecting donations from individuals and businesses.
They’ve held raffles and will tonight stage a bucket collection at Vale Park ahead of the cup game against Bradford as they hope to close in on their target of collecting £3,500 to pay for three trees and seven sets of lights.
It may not seem like a lot of money in the grand scheme of things but it is £3,500 that needed to be raised quickly and this could only have happened if people could be bothered enough to make an effort.
One can understand why Louise and John were reluctant to let Christmas pass by in a place like Burslem which has a thriving night time economy.
I have nothing but admiration for the people who are taking it upon themselves to fill the vacuum left by council cutbacks.
The campaign to save Tunstall Pool was ultimately doomed to failure precisely because success would have meant the victors making an undertaking to run a large leisure facility full-time – with all the ongoing funding, time commitment and expertise that would require.
But once-yearly events or causes like putting up Christmas lights in a town are eminently achievable because the sums of money involved are relatively modest and people have 12 months to raise the necessary funds.
I sincerely hope that by tomorrow’s deadline Louise and John have raised the money they need to brighten up Burslem.
If they do they may well find themselves in a similar boat next year because it is highly unlikely the city council will play fairy godmother and find the money for Christmas lights in every town.
At least they can start fund-raising in January.
The problem that Burslem has is that it is a town where, with the odd notable exception, the only businesses faring well are the pubs.
Thirty years ago, when yours truly was growing up, it used to have a market, shoe shops and a Woolies.
Mum used to take me and my brother there on Saturdays to do some shopping – rather than making the trip to Hanley.
Nowadays you would struggle to buy much more than a pint, a kebab or some craft item in the Mother Town.
Yes, it’s a brilliant place for a night out but the truth is it has never recovered from the loss of big employers like Royal Doulton.
Stroll through on a week day and it is a veritable ghost town, dotted with empty shops and cursed with the great white elephant that is the old Ceramica building/Town Hall.
Burslem has the finest architecture in the Potteries, some nice craft and gift shops, some cracking pubs and a few too many takeaways and restaurants.
And that’s about it.
What it desperately needs is a plan.
Perhaps a rejuvenated Port Vale – or rather the business plans the club’s new owners have for Vale Park – will help to breathe new life into the town.
What is clear is that Burslem, its businesses, and the people who care about it, can no longer rely on the local authority for either the finances or the strategy to drag it out of the doldrums.
Instead, people like Louise Worthington and John Flint are going to become more and more important until new employers come along to restart the town’s economy.

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New superhospital puts an end to a local healthcare scandal

Truly we are living through historic times: Days that many of us doubted we would ever see.
For decades the people of North Staffordshire have waited, moaned, campaigned and then waited some more for two major regeneration projects.
The first is the demolition of the great carbuncle that is Hanley bus station.
Well, many of us may have no time for the name City Sentral but what is surely more important is that a developer has finally committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds creating a new shopping complex which will transform the city centre.
The second project was a new hospital, fit for the 21st Century, to replace the horrible hotch-potch of antiquated buildings which made up the Royal Infirmary and City General sites.
It is not over-egging the pudding to say that, for generations, the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Staffordshire Moorlands have been the poor relations to NHS patients in other areas with regard to hospital treatment.
For as much as the care offered by staff up at Hartshill may have been first class, the outdated buildings which they have been forced to operate from and the very nature of the sprawling sites means that they have, effectively, being toiling with one hand tied behind their backs.
Ignored by successive Tory administrations and often overlooked by their Labour counterparts, the people of the Potteries have for too long been forced to put up with a second-rate hospital.
I distinctly recall the day – January 3, 2001 – when The Sentinel’s then Editor and a little lad by the name of Jacob Bradbury went down to 10 Downing Street to present a petition calling for a new hospital.
Yours truly was on the Newsdesk at the time and I remember how we chose smiley, five-year-old Jacob to become the poster boy for our Caring For Tomorrow campaign.
The little lad, from Madeley, was one of those who had suffered as a result of inefficiencies up at the Hartshill complex – waiting years for treatment on his deformed jaw.
Thus it was Jacob who delivered the 19,000-plus petition of Sentinel readers, demanding a new hospital, to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We deliberately timed the visit for maximum impact – just four months before the General Election.
Looking back now, it seems scandalous that the people of North Staffordshire had to ‘campaign’ at all for the same kind of hospital facilities that other towns and cities simply take for granted.
Hospitals are sacred places to us all. Places where we are born and often where we and our loved ones die. Places where we experience the whole range of human emotions – hope, fear, relief, sorrow.
They are simply too important to be neglected which is why the scandal of North Staffordshire’s wait for a hospital which is fit for purpose reflects so poorly on politicians of all colours.
Thankfully, this Saturday the long wait will be over when the first 80 patients move into our new superhospital.
Let us not forget the long and rocky road which we have travelled.
There were many setbacks and times, with costs spiralling out of control, when it seemed that the dream of ultra-modern hospital care was again to be denied to the people of the Potteries.
Therefore, we should not underestimate the significance of the hospital’s doors opening for the first time this weekend or the effect this building will have on North Staffordshire’s psyche.
Round here we often have to settle for second best, to make-do and mend and to live with half-finished projects and promises broken.
However, the unveiling of the new superhospital genuinely gives us a state-of-the-art building to be proud of as opposed to facilities to be embarrassed about which wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian novel.
There will be teething troubles, no doubt, as with any major building project of a scale such as this.
For me, the proof of the pudding will be in whether or not community facilities can cope in the coming years in the light of our new ‘cathedral to healing’ having 290 fewer beds than its predecessors.
But, for now, let us celebrate this long overdue milestone in local healthcare.

It’s sad the church’s message falls on deaf ears

It’s sad but true to say that, just like Christmas, Easter simply doesn’t resonate with most people on a spiritual level these days.
Hands up if you actually went to church. I thought so. Neither did I.
For the vast majority of people Easter is simply an excuse to take a few days of annual leave, link them up with the Bank Holidays and have a week off work.
Many children don’t even have a clue what we are celebrating – having been weaned on tales of the Easter Bunny and annually plied with their own body weight in chocolate eggs.
It’s sad because the Easter story is the Christian church’s most powerful message of love and hope and yet it is falling on so many deaf ears.
I may not attend church religiously, if you’ll pardon the pun, but I am a believer and, as a good Methodist lad, I do take note of what the movers and shakers within the Church of England have to say – especially at important times of the year.
This is because they are among the few people who actually speak out altruistically in this spiritually-bankrupt country of ours.
They also talk a lot of sense and often say things that go against political-correctness or highlight the vacuous nature of our celebrity-obsessed culture.
For example, I was struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s idea that the rich and powerful should be required by law to spend some time every year helping the poor and needy.
Rowan Williams said a return to the medieval tradition when monarchs ritually washed the feet of the poor would serve to remind politicians and bankers what should be the purpose of their wealth and power.
This is an idea so bizarre and so unlikely to ever be taken up, and yet it chimes with me as the Prime Minister continues to trot out his mantra of a Big Society while assuring us that “we are all in this (financial mess) together”.
Dr Williams has suggested a new law that would make all Cabinet members and leaders of political parties, the editors of national newspapers and the 100 most successful financiers in the UK spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate, or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home.
I’m all for such a law, but I would widen the net even further to include a few more meritorious individuals.
For example, I’d take the highest-paid footballers at every club in the top flight and force them to flog pies and raffle tickets to fans of a struggling League Two team on a wet Tuesday night in November.
At the same time I’d have the Premier League and FA big-wigs staffing the turnstiles to highlight the gulf between the haves and the have-nots which is killing our national game.
I would also have our top 10 best-paid and generally most-nauseating television and radio personalities – certainly anyone from the X-Factor – working a shift with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to give them a taste of the real-life they bleat on about but are so far removed from.
But what if we could ensure that this conscription of the great and the good dribbled down to a local level?
For starters, I’d have all the senior managers at the former RENEW North Staffordshire living in terraced houses for a week in one of the areas left in limbo by the agency’s slash and burn approach to regeneration. Middleport, for example.
Then I’d have the former Council Managers and Chief Executives of Stoke-on-Trent City Council brought back to the Potteries and force them to collect rubbish from the homes of taxpayers who have been short-changed in recent years by untouchable public sector top brass who survive and thrive by moving from job to job.
You see, the Archbishop’s idea may be fanciful but it has great merit in my eyes.
Many of the most wealthy and powerful individuals in the UK are completely out of touch with the lives of the ordinary people over whom they have so much influence and are utterly unaccountable for their actions.
Sadly, Dr Williams’ idea to “remind leaders what the needs really are at grassroots level” has as about as much chance of being heard and acted upon as Jesus has of winning a popularity contest against the Easter Bunny with the children of the UK.

Time to welcome back our Robbie… a proper celebrity

It is the nature of celebrity in 2009 that no sooner has someone become a household name than their star is waning.
These days, of course, some people don’t even become household names.
Reality TV types, for example, are known only to a hardcore of fans for a nanosecond.
Generally, their behaviour has to be either lewd, criminal or unfathomably stupid for them to secure any lasting coverage in the national media – so devoid are they of any real talent… for anything.
Even then, most of us wouldn’t recognise these people if we bumped into them at the deli counter in Morrisons.
You see, there are stars – and there are real stars.
Take our very own UFO-spotting, global pop superstar come-hermit Robbie Williams, for example.
We’ve heard nowt from Boslem’s finest for about three years.
His last album – Rudebox – was, for the Robster, something of a damp squib.
And, during his self-imposed exile only the odd story has leaked out of camp Robbie.
Odd being the appropriate word.
And yet the airplay of the first single – Bodies – from his forthcoming album was greeted in many quarters like the Second Coming.
Why?
Because Mr R. Williams Esquire is a proper celebrity. Love him or hate him, no-one can deny the bloke has talent.
It would have been very easy for him to jump on the Take That bandwagon when Manchester’s ageing pin-ups took to the road again but common sense prevailed.
Now he’s back and – in the absence of any genuine pretenders to his throne – a public starved of his charismatic, snarling, energetic performances and occasionally brilliant music can’t wait to get their hands on the new material by the undisputed king of UK pop.
After his last album failed to hit the dizzy heights of previous releases there were many commentators only too keen to predict the demise of the ‘fat dancer from Take That’ as some unkind soul dubbed him.
However, I suspect our Robbie has a little more backbone than people give him credit for – and a damn sight more talent.
It is a peculiarly British thing, we are told, to build someone up only to knock them down.
And, in doing so, we seem to forget who and what we are dismantling in the rush for soundbites and headlines.
Ironically, none of us really know much about a bloke who – at the height of his powers – commands more column inches than the Prime Minister.
We know Robbie has an American girlfriend with an unusual name who he’s been with for some time now and that, during his sabbatical, he has developed a fascination for the extraterrestrial.
Other than that, we know precious little about the lad from Tunstall who lived above a pub in the Mother Town and whose gran gave him pocket money so he could watch the Vale.
I see quite a lot of Robbie’s dad and his best mate and I don’t ask after Robbie – just as those ordinary Potteries folk who bumped into him during his whistle-stop tour of his home city earlier in the year didn’t pester him.
On all the occasions I’ve been with Robbie’s nearest and dearest I’ve learned the following: those who know Robbie call him Rob; he has a PA called Josie; yes, he does have an interest in the paranormal; he was living on a diet comprised largely of fish as he got fit ahead of the release of the new album.
Hardly the kind of crumbs that would have the national Press offering me wads of cash.
No, the truth is Robbie is something of an enigma. His people do an amazing job of protecting his privacy and, consequently, there are many who hate the fact that he has a life outside of his public persona.
I say good luck to him.
Those who take great delight in knocking Robbie because he chose to live in Los Angeles or base himself down south on his return to the UK would do well to remember a couple of things.
In the last nine years his charity – Give It Sum – has distributed more than £4.5 million to more than 420 worthy causes in North Staffordshire. And it was £250,000 of Robbie’s own money which literally saved a certain local football club from going under a couple of years ago. Fact.
Maybe one of these days Robbie Williams will ring me up on a whim like he did another Sentinel journalist and we’ll have a chat about his latest album and our beloved Port Vale.
Then again, maybe he won’t.
Who cares about his private life? Let’s just face the music and dance.

Signs of recovery? Not when it’s every man for himself

I don’t pay any attention to the seemingly endless roll-call of financial experts and economists dredged up by political parties and the media to gaze into their crystal balls and offer pearls of wisdom about the recession.

My view is that if they didn’t see the mother of all financial storms coming then they can’t be relied upon to predict how bad it will be or how long it will last.

The FTSE may have risen a few points recently but does anyone in the real world outside the City or Westminster honestly believe we are seeing any ‘green shoots of recovery’?

I only use that lazy cliché because I’m so sick of hearing the phrase bandied around by people shielded from the harsh economic realities of Britain in July 2009.

People with protected pension funds or on huge bonuses or commenting from the comfort of a BBC studio in London.

Recovery? Do me a favour. The UK is going to hell in a hand-cart and I can see precious little being done to minimise the casualties.

Take, for example, my brother Matthew. He’s 32, single, and a window fitter. He works hard and he’s very good at what he does.

And right now he’s the dictionary definition of how the recession has kicked the you-know-what out of the working man.

At the start of the year Matt was working in London building a new school for a company based in Cannock.

If truth be told, he’d rather not be working away from home but needs must when the Devil vomits on your oatcakes.

Inevitably, a bloke from the Potteries working in The Smoke incurs diesel costs, lodgings and tube fares –all of which, crucially, can’t be deferred.

Matt became increasingly concerned that he hadn’t been paid as promised but was told time and time again that there was nothing to worry about.

After 12 weeks, numerous telephone calls and no less than three visits to the firm’s headquarters, the boss finally strolled out of his office to tell him the company was going into liquidation and he wouldn’t be getting a penny of the £2,000 he was owed.

This left my brother with no work and two months’ worth of bills to pay.

To add insult to injury the same bloke who had strung him along for three months was trading again the following week, from the same building, through a sister company with a slightly different name to the firm that went bump.

Matt being Matt, he kept his worries to himself and begged, borrowed and scraped together the money he owed.

He then began sub-contracting for another firm, based in Cheshire, working on a variety of building projects in London and Leicestershire.

Three weeks ago he quit. Up until now he has been paid £1,100 of the £3,000 he is owed for work he completed months ago.

To date, excuses for non-payment have included the boss being on holiday and a woman in the firm’s accounts department being off with swine flu.

All the while Matt has a mortgage to pay, repayments for his van to keep up, and all the other household bills we know and love so well – not to mention the stress of wondering where his next pay packet is coming from.

After a few weeks in limbo, he has just started work up at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire and has been promised he will be paid fortnightly.

Fingers crossed, then.

There are people a lot worse off than my brother – something which Matt often reminds me.

People with families and young children who have been made redundant or treated just as shabbily by bean-counters only interested in the short-term and self-preservation.

The sad thing is that at a time when our glorious Prime Minister is telling us we should all be pulling together, it’s actually every man for himself.

If there was any justice then the bloke who owes my brother two grand would have the Mercedes he drives impounded until he had paid off all his creditors and he would be barred from running a business ever again.

The reality is there is very little protection for the most vulnerable members of the UK’s workforce and the kinds of sharp practices that have always been used by businesses are even more prevalent now the credit bubble has burst.

By George! Isn’t it time we recognised our patron saint?

Did you miss it, then? Chances are that, if you blinked, you would have. I am, of course, referring to St. George’s Day.

You know – flags with the red cross on a white background, that sort of thing.

I was up early and drove 67 miles during a day which didn’t finish until after 10pm.

Granted, I didn’t pass any civic buildings, but other than my own cufflinks, I clocked only one ragged emblem of St. George clipped to a white van on the A500 – along with the flag fluttering half-heartedly in the breeze above Sentinel Towers.

This sense of apathy makes me incredibly sad.

On St. Patrick’s Day you can’t walk down the street without being accosted by some halfwit wearing a leprechaun’s outfit staggering from an Irish-themed bar and claiming pseudo-Irish ancestry.

So why oh why are we so poor at celebrating the day of our own patron saint?

I know that the patronage of St. George isn’t the exclusive preserve of the English and that stories of the life and exploits of the said individual are many and varied. Dragons don’t exist either, apparently.

But does it really matter? The point is the national emblem of the English, along with the three lions, is the flag of St George. Why then are we so reticent to wave it about and celebrate our own heritage?

Let me give you an example. A bloke contacted The Sentinel on Thursday to say he had gone into a North Staffordshire pub on St. George’s Day dressed up as the mythic dragon slayer – only to be turfed out by bar staff who were afraid he may offend some of their customers.

Pardon? How, pray tell would he have offended them? Do some of their punters have an aversion to chain mail? Was it his plastic longsword?

Unfortunately, the reader asked us not to publish the story after his mate intervened and pub staff did a swift U-turn (having presumably realised they had overreacted just a tad).

This is exactly the kind of political correctness masquerading as multiculturalism which shames us all.

Stoke-on-Trent is strange place.

On the one hand it is a city with a proud history of tolerance. A city which has welcomed, and continues to welcome, people from different ethnic backgrounds from all over the world.

Examples include exiled Poles during the war and doctors from the sub-continent during the 1960s who went on to form the backbone of family medicine in the Potteries for generations.

We are also a city with several democratically-elected councillors belonging to the far right British National Party – which, in the eyes of Whitehall, is the equivalent of having leprosy.

Of course, the BNP isn’t slow to wave the red and white flag, which makes everyone else rather jittery.

This is presumably why we are forever apologising for our colonial past and falling over ourselves not to offend all and sundry while neglecting our own proud culture and traditions.

Forget my politics – I am very patriotic. If England were playing Ecuador in the final of the World Indoor Tiddlywinks Championship I’d probably watch it. Or at least set the DVD player for record.

You see, the flag of St. George doesn’t belong to the BNP or the Tories, Labour or the Lib Dems.
It’s mine… and it’s yours whenever you want it.

If you fancy dressing up in medieval garb and having a couple of glasses of your favourite tipple while toasting the health of Her Majesty and England’s cricket team ahead of The Ashes then you should be able to do just that – without fear of recriminations.

I mention sport because it brings people together like few other mediums can. When England play a football match it is as if our fears of being labelled extremists suddenly evaporate.

If Andrew Strauss has toppled the Aussies by August 24 then suddenly everyone will be a cricket fan and you won’t be able to move for red and white flags.

Poor old St. George deserves better than this. His emblem shouldn’t just be dusted off for major sporting occasions.

If our Glasgow-born Prime Minister wants to cheer up the majority of the electorate amid all the doom and gloom, then he could do far worse than making April 23 a national holiday in England – never mind what the captains of industry think.

At a time when we are all supposed to be pulling in the same direction, a time of unprecedented hardships, what better way than coming together as a nation once a year to celebrate whatever it is that Englishness means to each and every one of us?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel