Time to back sure-fire winners which matter to our Six Towns

The Sentinel's front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

The Sentinel’s front page reporting the £20m city council cutbacks.

When you’re staring down the barrel of £20 million cuts, every penny really does count.

The truth is that because of the way the squeeze is being applied to local authorities, in a few short years practically all they will be responsible for will be the most basic of statutory services.

What that means is the non-essential stuff inevitably diminishes or is lost altogether.

Departments such as sport and leisure and facilities like museums and libraries will see their budgets scaled back enormously as councillors focus on what they have to deliver by law.

So the street lights will stay on, bins will be emptied, children’s services and adult social care will be ring-fenced. But in all honesty virtually everything else local authorities are responsible for will be up for discussion.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent, where the public sector cutbacks are being felt as keenly as any other city in the UK, councillors have attempted in recent years to protect frontline services as Whitehall has slashed and burned.

Now there’s very little wriggle-room left and how the comparatively small amount of money which doesn’t cover the costs of essential services is spent, will come under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Things like the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), hosting the Tour Series cycle ride events, the staging of summer pop concerts or the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards will all have to be carefully considered.

The problem is they cost money. Some cost a lot more than you’d think. And taxpayers will want to know there is a tangible benefit to the city in staging or hosting such events.

They will want to know what is gained from them. They will ask about the benefits of having highlights of a bicycle race which starts in the city being shown on ITV4. Does it really boost trade in the city centre and has there been a huge spike in the numbers of people cycling locally?

Is it better instead to continue with a 39-year tradition of honouring local sportsmen and women and inspiring future stars from our patch with an event which is a fraction of the cost?

Taxpayers will want to know how the BCB, an event which most people in the city don’t understand, don’t know is happening and will never attend, helps to raise the profile of the city.

More to the point, they will ask how pottery manufacturers who employ local people benefit from it in terms of increased sales and new contracts.

They will want to know if it really is worth paying hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the cost of a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Does it really help to attract investment? If so, they will say, then show us the money.

We really will have to get down to brass tacks now because the time for gambles and indulgences is over.

It is time instead to back sure-fire winners and to protect the things which really matter to people here in the Six Towns. It is time to safeguard things like free admission to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which houses exhibits such as the priceless Staffordshire Hoard, the city’s Spitfire and an unrivalled, world-class collection of ceramics.

Now isn’t the time to start charging admission fees for somewhere like this. Instead, let’s make the museum the best it can possibly be – somewhere tourists marvel at and people boast about.

Let’s put in place plans to protect the fabulous Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, The Regent theatre, the Victoria Hall and Bethesda Chapel because, let’s face it, without them there would be no such thing as a ‘Cultural Quarter’.

Let’s protect the libraries which have chronicled local life for decades – places where the less well-off, the students and mums with young children can congregate to laugh and learn.

Let’s invest in the people of the Potteries – from better pitches for the Ladsandads leagues and better facilities for am-dram productions to making the tradition that is the Potters’ Arf bigger and better.

Let’s shout about Robbie Williams and Sir Stan and Reginald Mitchell and Arnold Bennett and all the greats our city has produced.

Let’s be proud of our history and heritage and fight to protect buildings like the deteriorating Wedgwood Big House in Burslem or the under-threat Fenton Town Hall with its unique Great War memorial.

Personally, I‘d far rather money be spent on giving the people of Fenton a focal point for events in their town than paying a company from outside the city to create a short-lived garden in London that none of us will ever see.

To my mind, if we want others to invest in our city then we need to polish what we have across the Six Towns rather than putting all our eggs in Hanley’s basket and spending money on vanity projects which yield little in the way of results.

It’s time we started looking after our own and trumpeting the wonderful assets Stoke-on-Trent has which other cities would be making a virtue of.

One thing’s for sure: If we don’t, no-one else will.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday.

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Celebrities, saucy lost property and a riot over Rocky II…

When Peter Kelly first arrived in Hanley he was 29 years old. The year was 1972 (coincidentally, the year yours truly was born) and, although he didn’t know it at the time, Peter was to spend the rest of his working life in the Potteries.

When he took early retirement in 1999 at the age of 56, Peter had managed both the Odeon cinema in the city centre and its new incarnation at Festival Park, Etruria.

He oversaw numerous celebrity film premieres and, during the late Eighties, presided over the most successful Odeon business in the UK in terms of admissions.

Now aged 69, Peter looks back on his cinema years with fondness.

He said: “I was very lucky. It was a wonderful job and I got to meet and work with some wonderful people over the years – some of whom remain my friends to this day.”

Originally from Scarborough, Peter had been to theatrical school and was destined for a career on the stage before deciding to switch career and head into management with Rank.

When he first arrived in Stoke-on-Trent, Peter ran the Odeon at the former Gaumont on Piccadilly (now The Regent Theatre) which, at the time, was a dual-purpose cinema and theatre.

If you’re my age you’ll remember the free trips to see old movies there as part of the Staffordshire Police Activities and Community Enterprise (SPACE) scheme.

Peter said: “In those days, of course, there were no computers. It was very much a case of people turning up and paying to see the film they wanted.

“If the showing was full then they had to either get in the queue for the next one or come back at another time.

“There was no paying in advance or credit cards.”

In fact, on one occasion, there was no paying at all… as Peter explains.

“I remember turning up for work one morning at the Odeon in Hanley at 9am and finding a queue of 300 people outside.

“They were waiting to watch Rocky II (1979). Rocky had been released on video at the same time that Rocky II came out and there was great anticipation for the movie.

“I recall thinking that I was going to need some extra pairs of hands and so I rang my assistant managers who came in to help.

“By the time we opened the doors at 1pm the queue was enormous and snaked all the way around the building to where Radio Stoke was on Cheapside.

“There was an almighty rush and it was chaos. Windows were broken and people started helping themselves to sweets and merchandise.

“I called the emergency number at our head office and was basically told: ‘you handle it’.

“So I let the first showing in to see the film for free. I didn’t know what else to do. Then the next lot paid.”

If you think that was bad, then don’t ask Peter about the things he and his staff used to find in the cinema after showings. Let’s just say it wasn’t just bras and knickers that turned up around the so-called ‘love seats’ at the back of the auditorium.

Back in the 1980s cinema chains had deals with certain film companies which meant that, for example, Peter’s Odeon never showed some of the biggest blockbusters such as ET.

He said: “I remember standing outside at the Gaumont (Hanley Odeon) and looking down at the old ABC to see how big their queues were.”

Some of Peter’s fondest memories of running cinemas in the days before IMax, CGI and 3D that works, involved his benefit events – such as midnight screenings where the proceeds went to causes such as the Lord Mayor’s charities.

In 1987 the Odeon relocated to Festival Park and over the following two years ticket sales soared – making it the number one Odeon cinema in the country. Thus the decision to increase the number of screens from eight to 10.

Peter fondly recalls some of the quirky ideas he had to get bums on seats – such as a ‘Weepy week’ of films.

He said: “I remember this included the Lana Turner film Madame X and all of the audience weeping.”

Peter was also responsible for showing horror classic The Exorcist very late every Saturday night. It ran very successfully for more than a year at the Festival Park Odeon.

But it is the celebrity film premieres featuring the likes of Pierce Brosnan and Dudley Moore that brought him the most pleasure.

He even persuaded Sir Richard Attenborough to attend the Festival Park premiere of his 1993 film Shadowlands.

He said: “I met him in London and asked him if he would attend the Stoke premiere. He asked me why he should and I said ‘because Stoke-on-Trent’s Odeon sells more tickets than any other in the UK – including the one in Leicester Square’.

“So he came up to Festival Park and I got him on stage and he was thrilled because Sir Stanley Matthews was in the audience. They were both lovely people. Real. gentlemen.”

Peter’s favourite film is actually the musical Funny Girl which launched the career of Barbra Streisand.

But it’s a little known secret that he’s also partial to a bit of Dirty Dancing and Ghost – which left him ‘in tears’.

After all this, you may be surprised to learn that Peter, enjoying his retirement and living in Lower Tean, hasn’t seen a film at the cinema since he retired.

He said: “When you have spent so long around people you value the peace and quiet to be honest.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekly Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia