Families have been betrayed by this half-finished project

Rarely has a Sentinel front page stirred my emotions as much as yesterday’s which carried the story of Stoke-on-Trent’s 15-year, £2.3 billion housing renewal programme being hit by Government funding cuts.
It’s not that I was surprised. After all, it doesn’t take a political analyst to work out that the Tory/Lib-Dem Coalition was unlikely to support Labour’s much-vaunted Pathfinder programme.
But as I read the news that the city council had been forced to call a halt to demolition work I couldn’t help but feel angry for the thousands of people caught up in what could well be the death throes of RENEW North Staffordshire.
Some of our most deprived communities have been betrayed and it seems the families who live in the blighted streets are the victims of a half-finished project.
The big questions are: Who is to blame and what can we do to help the families being forced to live in squalor?
I well remember Regeneration Agency RENEW being launched with much fanfare in 2004.
Back then it seemed that the Potteries, which had for so long been the poor relation of other cities like Liverpool, had at last struck lucky.
As the millions of pounds of regeneration funding began to flow and new neighbourhoods started to take shape there was a genuine sense that real, lasting, significant change was upon us.
Of course, from day one there were the cynics and the critics who slated RENEW for everything from poor public consultation to what was perceived as a ‘scatter-gun’ approach to regeneration.
There was bound to be a backlash because people were literally fighting for their homes and some simply couldn’t understand why their houses had to be demolished.
Similarly there were others, just a few streets away, who were heartbroken to discover that their properties fell just outside of clearance areas and would, therefore, remain untouched.
Irrespective of the vocal minority, no-one could deny the great strides made in areas such as the former mining community of Coalville or at the new City Waterside development.
Of course, the problem was that in order to effect change on such a grand scale RENEW was always going to require a great deal of money and time to fulfil its potential.
And no-one knew just how much of either resource was actually going to be forthcoming.
Keeping the 15-year programme ticking over was always going to depend on two things: a) Labour being re-elected to government for fourth and fifth terms; and b) Labour remaining committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a city with three safe Labour seats.
It was a bit like trying to bake a cake and starting off with some of the ingredients but relying on a dodgy cooker and hoping that the leccy wouldn’t be cut off before you’d finished baking.
To be fair, we shouldn’t underestimate the effect that the global economic crisis has had on our Pathfinder project.
Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago developers would have been queuing up to work on sites that had been cleared by RENEW but in the past two or three years they have been thin on the ground to say the least.
The net result is that across North Staffordshire today you will find semi-derelict streets and large swathes of land where homes once stood.
In communities such as Middleport and Cobridge, families are quite literally living in limbo – not knowing whether or not they will be moving or staying put.
Meanwhile, levels of crime and vandalism in these areas continue to increase.
Others face being forced to live among boarded-up properties while the bean-counters at Whitehall complete their comprehensive spending review and decide what, if any, crumbs from the table will fall at our feet.
It would be easy to point the finger of blame at the newly-elected Coalition Government which, after all, may soon stop the funding for our housing renewal programme.
That would be wrong.
To me, what is most staggering is that no-one from RENEW, the city council or the previous Government had the wherewithal to pre-empt this disgraceful state of affairs.
Many fine examples of regeneration work have been achieved by RENEW and I’ve met some passionate and dedicated employees who are committed to improving the lives of local people.
However, RENEW and the city council seem to have merrily ploughed on with consultation work and clearance of properties without the proper funding or partnerships for rebuilding being in place.
It is now 10 years since the Nevin Report exposed the full scale of Stoke-on-Trent’s housing crisis — revealing a city saddled with the legacy of almost 20,000 crumbling terrace properties.
This was, and still remains, the greatest social challenge facing North Staffordshire and it seems that a decade on, far from coming up with a solution, we may only have succeeded in perpetuating the problem.

Rebirth of city is on target? We’ve heard that one before

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

City council leader Barry Stockley and Sentinel managing director Richard Dodd reading our Proud of the Potteries publication.

I have quite a few fond memories of Hanley bus station.

There used to be a bakery in the underpass where my nan would buy warm, crusty bloomer loaves to take home to Bentilee.

I loved the smell and they were a real treat for someone who had been weaned on supermarket own-brand sliced bread.

Chico’s nightclub, part of the bus station complex, was also a regular haunt of me and my sixth-form college buddies.

It was here, at the age of 17, where the girl I’d been besotted with through high school first acknowledged my existence.

Hanley bus station was also the place that I returned to on a coach in the early hours of August 20, 1989, drunk with happiness having seen my first live rock concert – Bon Jovi at the Milton Keynes Bowl.

Having said all of that, it’s still a dump. It’s an embarrassing eyesore – and has been for as long as I can remember.

It is little wonder that a national newspaper chose to use a picture of Hanley bus station to illustrate the infamous “Stoke-on-Trent is the worst place to live in England and Wales” story a few years back.

The story itself may have been nonsense, but who could argue with the image they used to illustrate the point?

Indeed, anyone who arrives in the Potteries on a bus could be forgiven for asking the driver to keep the doors closed and continue his journey.

The dirty great concrete behemoth is hardly a great advert for our city, located as it is just a stone’s throw away from The Victoria Hall.

Twenty years ago, I recall writing stories about plans to revamp the area around the bus station.
Numerous council administrations have come and gone since then and yet the city’s worst carbuncle remains.

Tom Macartney, managing director of the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership (NSRP), is pleading that his organisation be given more time to complete projects such as the bus station.
I’m sorry Tom, but we’ve heard it all before.

The thing is, your average taxpayer in Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t differentiate between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the NSRP.

Many don’t have a clue what the NSRP is, or that it even exists.

They don’t care who is charged with delivering change to the city’s tired infrastructure.
They just want something – anything – to change.

It’s not that anyone begrudges you your £150,000 a year salary, Tom.

It’s just most people are so jaundiced, so fed up, so disillusioned with the lack of progress in the last two decades (and the grand designs that never materialise) that they have accepted the status quo.

I believe Stoke-on-Trent stands at a crossroads and, irrespective of the financial climate, now is the time to think big.

RENEW North Staffordshire has achieved, not without problems, significant regeneration of the housing stock on some of the city’s most deprived estates.

However, since the refurbishment of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall more than a decade ago, little has changed to make more visitors want to go up ’Anley.

The Staffordshire Hoard presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to market and rebrand our city and give our city centre a much-needed makeover.

I’m a huge supporter of The Regent Theatre and The Victoria Hall, but these two venues and a few chairs and tables outside eateries in Piccadilly do not constitute a “Cultural Quarter”.

If we have any pretensions of being a city worth the name then I would suggest the area around Hanley bus station has to be regenerated as soon as possible to take advantage of the huge benefits that could come our way via the Staffordshire Hoard.

It is vital that people arriving in the city centre are confronted by clean, modern facilities, top-brand stores and dining opportunities that the people of Manchester and Birmingham take for granted.

At the moment, many theatre-goers must leave Hanley thinking “that was a great show, but what a dump Stoke-on-Trent is”.

My beloved nan isn’t with us anymore.

The sad truth is, however, that if Ethel Tideswell circa 1990, of Sundorne Place, Bentilee, arrived at Hanley bus station in June 2010 I doubt she’d spot any difference (other than, perhaps, the lack of crusty bloomer loaves).

The time for excuses really has passed.

I’m not that fussed about the new design, but surely we deserve a bus station that doesn’t look like the backdrop for an episode of Life On Mars.

Are these six-figure salaries really such a great surprise?

Members of the Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) knew they were on to a sure-fire winner when they circulated details of the salaries paid to top executives at local authorities across the UK.

The information was released in the wake of mounting public anger at the obscene bonuses paid out to bankers who failed so miserably to keep trusted high street names on the straight and narrow.

Thus it was the press release equivalent of throwing a kitten out of a tenth storey window. You just sit back and wait for the howls of outrage.

If we are honest, the gut reaction of most people when they see the sums of money involved is a mixture of shock, anger and jealousy.

When the average annual pay for a full-time worker in the Potteries is around the £22,000 mark, salaries of almost £160,000 per annum seem absurd.

Yet that is what Steve Robinson, former Stoke-on-Trent City Council manager was earning before he jumped ship at the end of last year.

According to the TPA, Mr Robinson was being paid the princely sum of £157,661. Having said that, his replacement – the new permanent chief executive – will earn up to £195,000 a year. Nice work if you can get it.

Indeed, 23 senior officers at councils across North Staffordshire and south Cheshire collected salaries of more than £100,000 last year.

These included RENEW North Staffordshire director Hardial Bhogal on £129,685; regeneration director Tom Macartney on £124,449, and the city council’s former director of community services, Julie Seddon, on £123,220.

According to one national newspaper, salaries of forty, fifty and sixty thousand pounds a year plus are ten-a-penny at local authorities across the country.

Yes, and I saw a pig flying over the Civic Centre last Tuesday evening.

While it may be true to say that a few thousand people working for councils across the UK earn substantially more than the local or national average salary, the fact is the pay of the vast, vast majority of local authority employees is pretty ordinary. Yes, some are able to work flexible hours and they all receive decent pension contributions.

But to suggest that our councils are chock-full of Bentley-driving flash-Harrys with two homes and a yacht moored at Westport Lake is something of an exaggeration.

The fact is, as with most private companies, the pay of local authority employees is dictated by seniority and is commensurate with responsibility.

And, as with all firms in the private sector there will be those who earn their money because they are committed and talented and others who you wouldn’t pay in washers but who have, by some twist of fate, risen to the dizzy heights of senior management and are taking home very good wages for doing… well, not very much.

Look at it this way: If you’re the managing director of a company employing 500 people with a turnover running into several million pounds then you would expect a six-figure salary, a decent pension and your own parking space out front.

Likewise, if you’re the top man or woman at a council employing 10,000 people and are responsible for everything from keeping the parks free of dog poo to helping to maintain standards at local schools, then you should also expect to be handsomely rewarded.

After all, if – God forbid – you have a Baby P-type scandal happen during your watch, then you are there to be shot at.

The difference is, of course, that it’s public money we are talking about. And taxpayers quite rightly want to know their cash is being spent wisely on people who are doing a good job.

Most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such salaries if their council was super-slick, never made a mistake and their bins were always collected courteously and on time.

But show them a busted street light and suddenly something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

So long as they do a decent job, I have no problem with the top executives at local authorities being well-rewarded.

Given the fact that the Potteries has become the political equivalent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in recent years, one could argue that senior officers of this rudderless ship earn every penny.

So you may or may not think Steve Robinson, for example, or his predecessor Dr Ita O’Donovan did a good job during their time in charge at Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Frankly, I’ve no idea. None of these high-rollers seems to hang around long enough for us to judge.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel