No excuse for not playing your part in local democracy

One of the My City, My Say debates.

One of the My City, My Say debates.

This is one of those columns which I’m going to be slated for. This is one of those columns where I can’t win.

Then again, as my forerunner – the late John Abberley – once told me, being a newspaper columnist isn’t a popularity contest.

I’ve chosen a subject where the opinions of people who may wish to comment are so polarised that they can’t even, through gritted teeth, acknowledge that maybe the other side has a point: That maybe, just maybe, there could be some common ground.

Have you heard of the My City, My Say debates taking place across Stoke-on-Trent? No?

They’ve been promoted in The Sentinel, on local radio, on social media and even on billboards and flyers.

There are 35 events taking place across the Potteries, organised by the city council, with the aim of giving local people – local taxpayers – a say in the future priorities for their communities.

When any initiative like this is announced there is an awful lot of cynicism and I can understand elements of it.

Some people will say: ‘Isn’t it funny how the council – or rather the ruling Labour group – has decided to roll out these forums in the run up to next year’s elections?’

It’s certainly no surprise to me that some opposition councillors are boycotting the meetings and presumably telling everyone they’ve ever met to do the same.

(Although I should just give a big shout out here to councillor Randy Conteh for being part of Wednesday night’s excellent debate at Thistley Hough Academy in Penkhull – irrespective of his political persuasion – having clearly seen the value of the event).

Other people say: ‘What’s the point? The council never listens anyway. This is just a PR stunt.’

I’m sorry but that’s a huge abdication of responsibility – similar to the one some people would accuse the council’s leadership of.

Even if you think it’s a PR stunt, if you’re not there voicing your frustrations then how could anyone know what they are?

All you are actually doing is perpetuating this awful apathy that pervades politics in general in this country, and our city. The apathy which sees only 20-something per cent of people turn out on polling day.

I’ve also seen people posting on forums arguing that the ‘council’ – I guess they mean the leadership of the authority – doesn’t care about their communities because they haven’t supported or funded projects that some local people are passionate about.

That is a very fair and valid point. You could certainly argue that some towns in Stoke-on-Trent (Fenton being the obvious example) seem to have been overlooked in recent years and campaigns such as the one to save Fenton Town Hall haven’t received the support from councillors, MPs and people in positions of power, that they deserve.

But not turning up to meetings and not articulating these views accomplishes nothing.

If you, for example, think the authority shouldn’t be relocating its headquarters from Stoke to Hanley then why not come along to one of these meetings and tell council leader Mohammed Pervez?
You can even come and praise him too.

If you think Hanley doesn’t need a second large retail centre called City Sentral – particularly as the other one, Intu Potteries, is expanding, then why not go along to a meeting, have your say and write your comments on a form?

If you are concerned about fly-tipping locally, or the grass needs cutting somewhere near you, or you have an issue with another council service, why not come along to one of these meetings, fill in a ‘service card’ and you’ll get a reply within two weeks (Or so I’m told).

To my knowledge the My City, My Say initiative is the first time the council has done such a public exercise – putting councillors, officers and representatives of other key partner organisations on the road for people to meet, quiz and debate with.

Despite the cynicism of some, if I was the council’s PR chief I’d be saying this was exactly the kind of initiative that’s needed at a time when the authority – like every other in England – is staring down the barrel of continuing budget cuts.

Otherwise, how can you – in all good conscience – know what the priorities of the local electorate and taxpayers are and how they want money to be spent on their communities?

I got involved in this initiative as one of several ‘independent’ people – including the Editor of The Sentinel – who host the evenings and effectively chair the discussion.

We don’t get paid (other than cups of coffee provided by the venue). I’m doing it because I care about the future of Stoke-on-Trent. I also honestly see the value in ordinary people, taxpayers and voters voicing their opinions and concerns. This is democracy.

Of course, the key now to making My City, My Say a real success is demonstrating that the priorities of local communities start to come through in the council’s policies and budget allocations.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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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

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.

Never mind the election… what about our manifesto?

As Gordon Brown and David Cameron are busy peddling the policies they hope will propel them to 10 Downing Street, I thought I’d have a dabble at my own manifesto – specifically for North Staffordshire.

As Stoke-on-Trent celebrates the centenary of the federation of the six towns, what better time to take stock of where we are as a city and a region and plot a vision for a brighter future?

With a newly-arrived chief executive at the city council, a new face arriving in the role of the Stoke-on-Trent Central MP and a transfusion of new blood via the local elections, I think opportunity genuinely knocks for our neck of the woods.

Let’s hope we don’t ignore it.

This is my wish-list to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st century…

*Forget parochialism and create a North Staffordshire authority serving nigh on half a million people – including the city, Newcastle, Leek, Biddulph and Cheadle and do away with the present, inefficient hotchpotch of local councils. Let’s face it, we’ve all got more in common with each other than we have with Stafford, Tamworth or Lichfield. I would suggest it is better to start speaking with one voice which would give us far more clout nationally. Such a merger would also enable us to get rid of many of the public sector non-jobs created in recent years. Perhaps then we could balance our budgets.

*Get serious about regeneration and deliver the key foundations to our economic recovery and future prosperity. How many times have we been shown plans of glass bottle kilns and the like which never come to fruition? Hanley desperately needs the long-awaited new bus station and the East-West shopping precinct so let’s ride a coach and horses through the bureaucracy and get them built. The University Quarter, or UniQ, and the Business District must become a reality rather than limping along as artists’ impressions. By the same token, our MPs and councillors must lobby like their lives depend upon in it in the coming months to ensure that, irrespective of which party wins the General Election, the hundreds of millions of pounds of funding currently transforming our estates via regeneration agency Renew North Staffordshire doesn’t dry up halfway through the process.

*Throw all our weight behind the Next Stop Stoke campaign to ensure the £60 billion high-speed rail network comes to North Staffordshire. We must ensure Stoke-on-Trent is selected as a stop on the flagship HS2 inter-city project or we run the risk of missing out on investment, jobs and tourism.

*If we don’t want to become a cultural desert then we need to stop quibbling about subsidies for The Regent Theatre and accept that if you want a top class venue in the city centre then, like other major cities, you have to be prepared to spend serious public money to help a private operator earn a crust. The benefits to our economy, the social life of the sub-region and the aspirations of future generations are there for all to see.

*Bring our home-grown football stars, role-model Olympic hopefuls and local celebrities together for a campaign to tackle North Staffordshire’s chronic obesity problem run through every single school in the city, Newcastle and the Staffordshire Moorlands. Tie this in with major renovation and promotion of our parks, public open spaces and excellent cycle routes to encourage more people to become active and fitter.

*Act now to capitalise on the huge public interest in the Staffordshire Hoard. As I suggested previously, let’s have a campaign to build a huge, great statue of a Saxon warrior visible for miles just off the M6 passing through Stoke-on-Trent and luring in visitors to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Let’s market ourselves as the home of the Hoard and completely renovate the venue to make the Hoard exhibition a tourist attraction of international significance. The time has come for us to stop marketing ourselves solely on our industrial past and find a new identity.

Their England is not one I either want or recognise

The flag of St. George.

The flag of St. George.

I’ve often heard the movers and shakers in the Potteries wish that Stoke-on-Trent had a similar profile to the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham.

At the weekend that wish came true, after a fashion, when Stoke-on-Trent followed in the footsteps of those cities and endured its first English Defence League (EDL) protest.

There were 17 arrests, six police officers were injured and city centre traders were left seriously out of pocket at a time when they can ill-afford it.

It could have been worse. Much worse.

All in all it was an expensive farce which prevented thousands of Potters going about their business up ’Anley.

However, it wasn’t the end of the world and no – it doesn’t mean that our city has suddenly become a pariah.

After Saturday, it would be easy to tar all the EDL demonstrators with the same brush and label them yobs and fascists.

But, as The Sentinel’s own reporters discovered, the inconvenient truth is that far from being entirely composed of shaven-headed Nazis and unemployed louts, the protesters on Saturday were a mixed bag of locals and outsiders, teens to people in their fifties from all walks of life.

Whatever their reasons for being in the city centre on Saturday no-one could possibly argue that they were all there seeking violence or indeed that they are all fascists.

It would be a bit like arguing that because a certain football club has a few followers who enjoy a ruck then all its supporters are hooligans.

While it is absolutely fair to say that elements of the EDL showed themselves up to be bigoted morons bent on provocation and confrontation, it seems a large number of the protesters were simply disaffected, disillusioned and misguided – none of which are crimes.

Whatever their motivations, these kind of people have every right to hold a peaceful public protest.

Sadly, a peaceful protest is not what we got.

“Saturday made me ashamed to be English,” wrote one reader on The Sentinel’s website, somewhat melodramatically.

Well it didn’t make me ashamed to be English because the EDL doesn’t represent me and it is not campaigning for an England that I either want or recognise.

If the EDL genuinely wants to affect change in this country then I would suggest to its leadership that there are far better ways of doing it – such as becoming a legitimate political party or lobbying decision-makers.

Bringing a busy shopping town to a standstill on a Saturday afternoon, intimidating the locals and wearing scarves and masks while shouting “ban the burkha” is patently not the answer.

The fact is the organisers of this gathering knew there would be trouble and that’s exactly what we ended up with.

Unfortunately, as our economy continues to struggle and the mainstream political parties shy away from tackling the thorny issues of immigration and the UK’s membership of the EU and its ramifications, these kind of demonstrations will continue – along with a growth in support for right wing parties.

To use a word popular with modern soundbite politicians, many ordinary people feel disenfranchised by the mainstream parties and are looking elsewhere for someone to give them a voice.

The EDL should have done its homework, of course. Stoke-on-Trent has a proud history of tolerance and integration and a few placards and a bit of lairy behaviour one afternoon is hardly likely to shake our city to its foundations.

This year we mark the centenary of the Federation of the Six Towns and we have plenty to celebrate.

In a few weeks’ time the Staffordshire Hoard comes to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and over the coming months we will all be enjoying numerous events to coincide with the 100 years which will put our city on the map for all the right reasons.

Royal mix-up a real missed opportunity to mark 100 years

My picture of Princess Diana on the log flume at Alton Towers. Picture copyright Smith Davis Press.

My picture of Princess Diana on the log flume at Alton Towers. Picture copyright Smith Davis Press.

Through my work I’ve been very fortunate (if you like this sort of thing) over the last 20 years to have met several members of our royal family in the flesh.

I’ve chatted to Prince Charles, Prince Edward and Prince Andrew and – here’s my trump card for use against people who like to name-drop – met the late Princess Diana.

Back in my days as a cub reporter I was tipped off by a national newspaper that Princess Di would be taking her boys to Alton Towers one Sunday afternoon.

I raced over to the theme park in my little yellow Metro, paid to get in as any punter would, and then set about trying to find the royal party.

Alton Towers is a surprisingly big place, you know. After half an hour of me running around like a headless chicken, Diana, William and Harry sailed past me on the Log Flume.

I caught up with them, said hello, ignored the withering looks from their minders and snapped them all as they walked past me.

My story and pictures of them on various rides were used in The Sun and the Daily Express the following day and I was chuffed to bits.

However, as a proud Englishman, I have to say that nothing can top seeing the Queen up close and personal.

I first saw Her Majesty at the National Garden Festival here at Etruria in 1986.

I also met Grotbags the TV witch and Central News anchorman Bob Warman on the day.

No offence to either but, for me, seeing Liz just shaded it.

I was 14 at the time and I remember standing in the rain amid the throng and doing my level best to attract the Queen’s attention by waving and shouting – all to no avail, of course.

Despite the bizarre nature of some of the exhibits – a fountain made of toilets springs to mind – the Garden Festival was, for Stoke-on-Trent, an unmitigated success.

It kickstarted the regeneration of a huge parcel of land close to the city centre which is now the thriving retail and business park we all take for granted.

Indeed, where do you think yours truly is sitting while typing this? (The Sentinel’s HQ moved from Hanley to Festival Park in 1986)

What a shame it is then that Her Majesty won’t be coming up in March to help us celebrate the centenary of the federation of the Six Towns.

I can’t help but think that this is something of an own goal.

The word was that the Queen was definitely coming up in the New Year but someone, somewhere seems to have dropped a right royal clanger.

I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know the centenary was coming up, is it?

You would have thought that the Lord Lieutenant, the city council and Buck House could have got their collective act together to make sure the Queen was in town to give the royal seal of approval to a special day for Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

Is anyone prepared to hold their hand up and take responsibility? No, I thought not.

We may well get a visit from another member of the royal family but if any occasion merited a visit from the Queen it was our centenary, don’t you think?

What a great lift it would have given to Potters to have Her Majesty drop in and say hello as we struggle through the worst recession in living memory.

Despite what the anti-monarchy brigade might say, I’m a huge fan of the Windsors and of royal visits.

Having the Queen here in 1986 and again when the refurbished Regent Theatre opened its doors in 1999 created a huge buzz.

There’s no politics to such an event – just flag-waving, happy faces and a moment in the sun for a city that has suffered more than most during the current economic downturn.

These occasions remind the rest of the country that there’s more to Stoke-on-Trent than ailing potbanks, ill-health and council cock-ups.

At least, we all think there is.

It’s just a shame we won’t be able to remind our wonderful monarch at a time when it really matters.