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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My local heroes and Villains of 2011…

As the year draws to a close it is a time to reflect on the good and the bad of the last 12 months.

As I’m a bloke (and we love lists) here, in no particular order, are my local heroes and villains for 2011…

*First up its the lads and lasses of the Third Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Staffords) who are HEROES – despite what my columnist colleague Mike Wolfe may think – for completing their tour of duty to Afghanistan. Private Gareth Bellingham, aged 22, of Clayton, was shot while on patrol in June and paid the ultimate sacrifice. We can’t have anything but admiration for the job our Armed Forces do.

*Developer Realis may, in time, be viewed as a HERO for investing hundreds of millions of pounds in the city centre to replace the eyesore that is Hanley Bus Station with a huge new shopping centre. But they, and the city council, are firmly in the VILLAINS corner for ever thinking it was OK to name the complex ‘City Sentral’. Bad English. Bad idea.

*I’m swallowing my pride for this one and naming Stoke City’s team HEROES for their exploits in 2011. It would be churlish – even for a Vale fan like me – to deny our cousins down the A500 their moment in the sun after an FA Cup Final appearance, a continuing European odyssey and some very decent results of late in the Premier League. There, I’ve said it.

*Next comes Jim Gannon – the pantomime VILLAIN who almost single-handedly wrecked Port Vale’s chances of promotion last season by dropping the entire first-choice midfield and upsetting virtually every player. The manager’s bizarre behaviour (remember busgate?) alienated the entire club and its fanbase. Good riddance.

*I’m afraid the city council again earns the title of VILLAIN for its shocking lack of transparency and accountability over the Dimensions pool fiasco. Ultimately, local businessman Mo Chaudry dropped his threat of legal action against the authority and tens of thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money was wasted because someone at the council dropped a clanger over a potential deal to shut the splash pool at Dimensions. Inevitably, no-one – neither councillors nor officers – has been punished. Quelle surprise!

*The various incarnations of Port Vale’s board of directors have proven to be VILLAINS whose self-interest and misguided view of what’s best for the club have been catastrophic. The Vale doesn’t appear to have two pennies to rub together and fans and shareholders have been properly led up the garden path with the issuing of ‘nil-paid’ shares and the spectacular failure of the Blue Sky deal. Time for a New Year Spring Clean methinks.

*Another sort of local HERO this year is Saul Hudson – AKA guitarist Slash – who returned to his native North Staffordshire for the first time to play a one-off gig at the Victoria Hall. His links to the city may be tenuous, but I’m still claiming him. Anyone who, like yours truly, was lucky enough to see him play live up Hanley in July knows they were in the presence of greatness. Rock on, Slash.

*Sticking with music I’d like to name Robert Williams esquire as a HERO of 2011. Firstly, he has earned it because he has given ordinary Vale fans a voice by allowing his shares to be used by the Supporters’ Club. Secondly, he deserves it because I saw him with Take That on the Progress Live tour at Manchester and can categorically say that there was only one superstar on the stage that night. Everything else was window dressing. Take a bow, Robbie.

*My next VILLAIN isn’t local but its actions have placed a priceless piece of our heritage in jeopardy. The High Court ruling that the Wedgwood Museum collection could be sold off to help plug a pension fund deficit linked to the collapse of the pottery giant was a disgrace. Mercifully, the stage is set for Stoke-on-Trent-born billionaire and philanthropist John Caudwell to become the HERO after he vowed to save the collection rather than seeing it broken up and lost to the Potteries. Nice one, John.

*Finally, a bit of festive cheer courtesy of a local firm which battened down the hatches in October 2008 in preparation for the global economic downturn. JCB is not only surviving but thriving and has to be seen as a HERO after awarding its workforce a 5.2 per cent pay rise and a £500 Christmas bonus. Other employers please take note.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

It’s great news up ‘Anley. Just a shame about the spelling…

If, like me, you are one of those sad individuals who gets upset when you spot a missing apostrophe on a shop sign or dodgy spelling in a menu, then you probably groaned at page seven of The Sentinel a few days ago.
A specialist agency in London was presumably paid a not insubstantial sum to ‘create’ the name of the new £350 million shopping centre which will be built on the site of the old bus station.
Bear in mind this is a scheme on which, it is fair to say, much of the hopes for the regeneration of the city centre are based.
The agency came up, wait for it… ‘City Sentral’ because, and I quote: “The use of the ‘S’ in Sentral reflects the very nature of the scheme – Stoke-on-Trent as central – while also giving it stand-out quality.”
Tragically, there’s more where that flannel came from.
Apparently, City Sentral has a “brightly-coloured ‘asterisk’ icon which reflects the exciting, dynamic nature of the project – with each of the arrows representing a different aspect of the City Sentral offer.”
I am not the first, and I dare say won’t be the last, to say that this is a crime against the Queen’s English. It’s also marketing nonsense. Nonsense that starts with a nonsensical name.
Yes, developer Realis has shelled out brass to a branding firm down south who have saddled us with what must be the most expensive spelling mistake in retail history.
Essentially the new name for the East West Precinct says to visitors that here in Stoke-on-Trent there is a desperate shortage of dictionaries.
‘City Sentral’ basically says we Stokies are either a) thick or b) trying a bit too hard to appear different.
It’s so much worse than calling a children’s play centre a ‘kidz zone’ or calling young people’s services ‘Uth services’ because we are talking about a showpiece £350 million development.
I’m pretty sure that had Realis run a competition through this newspaper or even with local schools it would have been presented with several hundred names which are better than City Sentral and a logo which didn’t look like it had been created using an Etch A Sketch.
They could have called the new shopping centre ‘Hanley One’, or ‘The Station’ or ‘The Phoenix’.
For heaven’s sake anything would have been better than City Sentral.
It’s not that I have anything against the development – unlike my columnist colleague Mike Wolfe. Indeed, I can’t wait for work to finally commence and to find out the names of some of the new tenants.
Some will say the name of the new complex is irrelevant but I disagree.
I’m just so disappointed that, in trying to be clever, Stoke-on-Trent has once again ended up with egg on its face.
Contrast this then with the Potteries Shopping Centre (a proper name that is because it does what it says on the tin) which has just announced a planned £14 million extension.
I suppose the owners of Hanley’s main retail complex had to react in some way to what’s about the happen at the old bus station site and I, for one, am delighted with the proposals.
Six restaurants, a 10-screen cinema, more parking spaces and 200 jobs? I’ll have some of that, please.
Forget the nay-sayers with their predictions of doom and gloom for Festival Park.
Just ask yourself this question: What kind of city centre doesn’t have a cinema? Enough said.
It strikes me that more and better places to eat and a multiplex movie theatre will perfectly complement the existing stores and market stalls.
So let’s finish on a positive note. When you combine what Realis is about to do at the bus station site with the expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre, the opening of the wonderful Mitchell Memorial Youth Arts Centre and plans to upgrade the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery to take advantage of the acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard, we are in danger of having a city centre to be proud of.
More to the point, it would be somewhere where you could genuinely spend a day out.
So long as you can stomach the poor grammar, that is.