Offering a holiday lifeline to the children of Chernobyl

Many of us will remember that fateful day in April 1986 when the world held its breath as an unprecedented disaster unfolded before our eyes on TV news bulletins.

An explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere over much of what was the western Soviet Union and parts of Europe.

The blackened and shattered site remains to this day one of the iconic images of the 1980s – a chilling reminder of risk posed by the use of nuclear power.

The battle to contain the radiation ultimately involved an estimated half a million workers and between 1986 and 2000 more than 350,000 people had to be moved out of the most contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and resettled in new homes.

Just 31 deaths were directly attributed to the outbreak – all of whom were people who either worked at the reactor or for emergency crews.

However, various studies have conservatively estimated that tens of thousands of additional cases of cancer and subsequent deaths have been caused by exposure to radioactive material.

In 1995 John and Julie Gater, of Light Oaks, were watching a television documentary on the after-effects of the disaster and were so moved by the story of one little boy – Igor – that they decided to become involved with a charity which provides hope and respite to the children of Chernobyl.

John, aged 50, said: “Igor was born with severe deformities as a result of the radiation but he had a personality which was 10 miles wide.

“It was that which inspired us to ultimately become involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK).

“They said they’d love to have us but that there wasn’t a group in our area and that we’d have to go away and find 10 friends who would be prepared to help us. We didn’t want to be put off by that and so we went away, and – because we are Christian – we prayed and decided to set up our own group based at St. Luke’s Church in Endon.”

Seventeen years later and the group is still going strong – having arranged trips to the UK for more than 470 children and young people and a handful of parents from contaminated areas of the former Soviet Union.

During that time more than three dozen have stayed with the Gaters in their own home.

John and Julie’s branch of the charity covers the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands area and they have a network of families willing to take in children and young people and help with looking after them during month-long visits to the UK which include trips to beauty spots and fun days out to places including the Alton Towers resort.

John, a garage proprietor, explained that doctors in Belarus say that four weeks of clean air, fresh food and a happy holiday improves the children’s health for at least two years and gives them a better chance of either recovering from or avoiding serious illness.

He added: “Julie and I have four children and, at the time we became involved with the charity, our youngest was only three.

“It has been a big commitment in terms of time and effort but neither Julie nor I regret a single moment of it.”

Anyone wishing to contact the charity to offer help can log on to: http://www.chernobyl-children.org.uk or contact John and Julie by ringing 01782 535000.

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

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Proud to see Stoke’s Top Talent shine once again

When you are involved in the organisation of any big community event there’s always that nagging doubt: The fear that no-one will actually turn up.

In this case I needn’t have worried. When I arrived at the Victoria Hall in Hanley at half past seven on Saturday morning the queue of entrants and their supporters was already snaking around the building.

It felt like a homecoming. Stoke’s Top Talent was back after a year off and so was the buzz surrounding our showcase for home-grown stage stars.

They say the role of the media is to inform, to educate and to entertain.

Stoke’s Top Talent certainly ticks the third box and, like the Our Heroes awards which we judge tomorrow, provides this newspaper with an opportunity to champion the communities it serves.

The contestants came from all over our patch. From across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

They came from Crewe and Congleton, Biddulph and the Moorlands, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stone, Stafford and, of course, the Potteries.

For some, simply performing in front of hundreds of people at the Vicki Hall is thrill enough. Not everyone harbours dreams of a career in showbusiness.

For example, at the age of 74, I suspect crooner Graham Horne knows that the competition is unlikely to propel him to West End stardom.

But, as he said himself, he just loves to sing in front of an audience and he did Ol’ Blue Eyes proud once again.

I reckon it would take a brave man to bet against Chell’s finest making it through to the latter stages of the contest.

In sharp contrast to Graham, there were scores of youngsters there on Saturday for whom the dream of a career in musical theatre is very much alive.

From the brilliant dance act Dolly Mix who just get better and better to guitar virtuoso David Jiminez Hughes, of Silverdale, who won a few hearts and minds at the end of a very long day.

For them Stoke’s Top Talent could well be a springboard to future success – allowing them to follow in the footsteps of Abbey Hulton dancer Aaron Corden.

He was sat right behind me on the front row, watching this year’s hopefuls with a wistful look in his eyes.

Now one of the top dancers at a prestigious performing arts school in Cambridge, Aaron has already danced for Take That and the Black Eyed Peas and will be back home in Stoke-on-Trent for Christmas appearing in the Regent Theatre panto alongside whoever wins the competition which kick-started his career.

For others with no great ambition beyond the contest itself, it was simply a case of testing the water.

Some were doing it for charity like the Dolly Tubs – four ladies with big personalities squeezed into leotards and tutus in the name of Caudwell Children.

They showed us their best sides as well as their backsides and no-one minded that we’d only just had breakfast.

Some of the contestants will have wanted to do this for years: Wanted to prove to themselves that they could stand up in front of an audience and sing, dance, tell jokes or perform tricks.

Whatever their reasons for getting involved, the 147 acts who had their moment in the spotlight on Saturday can be rightly proud of themselves for having the bottle to get up on that stage.

For me, being a judge will always be something of a surreal experience because I’m just a punter.

I’m not in the industry. I don’t do am dram. There are so many people more qualified than yours truly who could be judging the contestants.

But that’s why Jonny Wilkes and Christian Patterson were there. That’s why panto producer Kevin Wood (‘the judge with the grudge’) and West End star Louise Dearman will be at the heats and grand final in September – along with a host of other famous faces.

Me? Well, I once embarrassed himself in panto but my main qualification is that I have the distinction of having sat through every single Stoke’s Top Talent audition and heat since year one.

I just try to say what I see – which isn’t always easy when Jonny Wilkes is writing inappropriate comments on your judging sheet, trying to make you laugh when you’re speaking and stitching you up with the voting.

Ever the performer, you have to be on your toes with our Jonny when there’s a mic around.

Even so, it was a wonderful day which I could tell meant a lot to Jonny. Christian, meanwhile, seemed genuinely blown away at the calibre of some of the acts. He wasn’t alone.

It was a day of raw emotion ranging from the nerves of first-time contestants to the elation of those put through to the callbacks.

Then there was the genuine pleasure of seeing a few familiar faces return stronger and better with two years’ worth of practice under their belts.

On Saturday we have the unenviable task of cutting the remaining 110 acts down to just 50 who will contest the heats.

It really is a case of comparing apples and pears when gymnasts, dancers, singers, musicians, comedians, a drag queen and a mentalist go head-to-head.

However, unlike some of the the TV talent shows which make a point of poking fun at some of their contestants, Stoke’s Top Talent is a win-win for all concerned.

Everyone will get their moment in the sun and everyone will walk away with huge respect from the judges, their fellow competitors and the audiences.

What’s more, someone will walk away with a cash prize of £2,000 a professional theatre contract.

For me, though, it’s all about generating pride. Pride in our communities and pride in the potential of local people to aspire to great and memorable moments which will stay with them all their lives.

*The callback auditions for Stoke’s Top Talent take place on Saturday (August 4) at the Victoria Hall in Hanley, starting at 9.30am and are free to watch.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Our proud links with the Staffords must never be severed

In September of 1918 another stalemate loomed in the War To End All Wars.

The German Army had retreated behind the Hindenberg Line – a vast system of defences in Northeastern France stretching from Lens to Verdun.

Fortifications included concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, masses of barbed wire, tunnels, deep trenches, dug-outs and command posts.

Built by Russian prisoners of war, it was considered nigh on impregnable by the German commanding officer – General Ludendorff.

However, he hadn’t factored in the men of the British 46th (North Midland) Division.

On the morning of September 29, under the cover of a dense blanket of fog, the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – formed up and fixed bayonets for what seemed to many to be an attack that couldn’t possibly succeed.

They had to wade across a wide waterway – the St. Quentin Canal – and faced 5,300 Germans in heavily fortified positions.

But just over three hours later the Staffords and their comrades had completed all their objectives – smashing a hole in Hindenberg Line and ultimately penetrating 6,000 yards into enemy territory.

On that day the 46th Division captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns and suffered less than 600 casualties which, given the enormity of the achievement, could be classed as nothing short of miraculous.

This spectacular success, the breaching of the German Army’s last line of defence on the Western Front, undoubtedly shortened the Great War and saved countless lives.

What’s more, it was potters and miners from our neck of the woods who were instrumental in that decisive blow.

Men of the Staffords.

Fast forward now a quarter of a century and the 2nd Battalion (South Staffords) is part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade which arrives in North Africa and routes a battalion of crack German paratroopers.

Two years later, in September 1944, a butcher from Burslem by the name of John ‘Jack’ Baskeyfield wins a Victoria Cross for his actions in the Battle of Arnhem.

While defending the Oosterbeek perimeter three days into the battle, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield commanded a pair of anti tank guns that destroyed several enemy tanks before their crews were killed.

Despite being badly wounded himself he crawled from one destroyed gun to another and continued to fire upon the advancing German armour before he was killed. His body was never found.

Jack Baskeyfield VC served with the 2nd Battalion, the South Staffordshire Regiment.

His comrades in the 1st Battalion, South Staffords, formed part of the Chindit Force which flew into Burma in 1944 and were never defeated in a series of battles against the fearless Japanese.

Some 30 years later, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Staffords establish for themselves a reputation as firm but fair peace-keepers. It leads one veteran helicopter pilot to describe them as ‘better than the Marines and the Paras’ at the difficult helicopter missions around Armagh where road travel was impossible.

More recently, during the Iraq War the Staffordshire Regiment was posted to the hot spots of Al Amarah and Basra where the lads were attacked, as their C.O. told me, ‘on an almost daily basis’ by insurgents.

Their textbook Christmas Day raid on the infamous Al Jameat Police Station on Christmas Day 2006 made headlines across the world.

That year the regiment was voted BBC Midlander of the Year by television viewers and in 2007 the Staffords picked up The Sentinel Editor’s Award just months before they became part of the Mercian Regiment.

These are mere glimpses into the long and distinguished history of our local regiment.

However, they perhaps go some way to explaining the response of the people of North Staffordshire to the Ministry of Defence’s decision to disband 3Mercian.

Most people in the Potteries know someone, a relative or a friend, who has served or is currently serving with the Staffords.

This has been a fertile recruiting ground for the Army and North Staffordshire has a proud history of producing fighting men.

In September 2007 General Sir Richard Dannatt was espousing the need for the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

What perhaps he didn’t know was that 12 months earlier the people of North Staffordshire, through The Sentinel newspaper, were sending boxes of treats to Staffordshire Regiment soldiers on the frontline in Iraq as part of our Operation Christmas Cheer campaign.

On their return from operations, Staffordshire Regiment soldiers were invited to watch Stoke City and Port Vale matches free of charge – long before it became commonplace for football clubs to show their appreciation of what our Armed Forces were doing for us overseas.

Our current campaign – entitled ‘Save Our Staffords’ – has attracted more than 10,000 signatures in less than two weeks.

It has touched a chord with young and old alike and not simply ex-service personnel or people who have direct links with 3Mercian.

So we have a rich heritage and hopefully that will count for something in the coming weeks as Army top brass sit down to plan the reorganisation of the Mercian Regiment.

But if it doesn’t then I would just ask the powers-that-be the following questions:

Why should an 18-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle or the Staffordshire Moorlands in the coming years choose to join the Mercian Regiment over say The Rifles or any other another unit which seems to offer greater possibilities?

If our proud local links with the military are severed why should young recruits from our patch or the people of North Staffordshire consider what’s left of the Mercian Regiment as their local unit?

I would suggest those charged with reorganising the Mercian Regiment don’t put themselves into a position where these questions need answering.

The Staffords are our boys and that precious name must be saved.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Alton Towers: A magnet for thrill-seekers which helped put us on the map

Believe it or not, there are some people who don’t know our city as the Potteries and don’t even know which county it is in.

Instead they refer to Stoke-on-Trent as ‘that place near Alton Towers’.

Yes, the gargantuan theme park set in the rolling Staffordshire Moorlands countryside really is what puts us on the map for many visitors.

Last year the Alton Towers resort attracted more than 2.6 million visitors – making it the most visited theme park in the UK by some margin.

This wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, thirty odd years ago there was little to indicate that the semi-derelict former seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury was to become a magnet for tourists and thrill-seekers.

During the Sixties and Seventies the grounds to Alton Towers were reopened to the public.

There was a boating lake, a small fairground and visitors were allowed to look round the empty house into which concrete floors had been placed.

Then millionaire property developer John Broome bought out the majority stake in the Towers and it was he who laid the foundations for today’s internationally-renowned attraction.

Broome installed various permanent rides and began to develop the grounds of the estate.

But 1980 was the year when Alton Towers really announced its arrival with the installation of the Pirate Ship and Alpine Bobsleigh along with a ride that was to become a household name.

The Corkscrew was officially unveiled on April 4 that year and was the first rollercoaster yours truly experienced.

Back then there were relatively few steel rollercoasters and the Corkscrew was unique in that flipped you upside down twice (a double inversion in rollercoaster-speak).

The ride did wonders for Alton Towers’s profile in Britain and those who tried it, like myself, wore the experience like a badge of honour.

During the Corkscrew’s first year of operation the waiting times for the ride frequently reached five or six hours – forcing the park to close early.

For many years the Corkscrew was the iconic rollercoaster in this country – used for the opening title sequence of ITV’s The Chart Show (1989-1991) and even the cover image of a single by dance outfit The Prodigy.

The Log Flume, which was to be enjoyed by the likes of Diana, Princess of Wales and her then young sons William and Harry, was unveiled in 1982 and two years later the park’s second rollercoaster, The Black Hole, became operational.

The Eighties was the decade when Alton Towers cemented its reputation as the number one theme park in the UK as more rides such as the Congo River Rapids (1986), attractions and areas were added.

These included Towers Street which is the first area visitors encounter and includes the famous ‘jumping frog’ fountains, a lawned area where seasonal events take place and refreshment and merchandise shops.

The renowned monorail system which transports visitors from far-away car parks to the main entrance and ticket booths was launched in 1987 by non-other than Star Trek’s Captain Kirk – alias actor William Shatner.

Also unveiled that year was the Skyride cable car attraction which transports visitors between different areas of the park.

Since the 1980s Alton Towers has continued to evolve and innovate – adding new ride experiences such as Nemesis, Air, Th13teen and Rita: Queen of Speed to draw in the crowds.

The park also boasts no less than two hotels – one of which has a themed, tropical water park where even our inclement weather can’t spoil the fun.

Of course, Alton Towers hasn’t been entirely free of controversy in the last three decades.

Given the fact that the park can receive up to 28,000 visitors each day, there were bound to be odd technical hitches, fires and accidents.

There has also been a long-running battle with a few local residents who bought their homes prior to the park’s incredible expansion and object to the noise and traffic it generates.

However, there is no doubting the importance of Alton Towers to the region’s economy and the fact that it really does put our city – and the wider North Staffordshire conurbation – on the map.

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

How can this sort of a prison life be a deterrent?

My ‘feed them to tigers’ approach to dealing with criminals doesn’t go down so well in these politically-correct times.

Everyone deserves a chance, they say. Prevention is better than punishment, we’re told. Rehabilitation is the way forward, apparently.

Tell that to anyone who knew Gregory Baker – the disabled man who was murdered in his own cottage in the Staffordshire Moorlands village of Alton in 2007.

The 61-year-old was suffocated in order that Yvonne Purchase, of Meir, could collect the £60,000 Mr Baker had left her in his will.

Purchase had two accomplices – Shane Edge, of Longton, and her son Lance Rudge, also from Meir – who was one of the subjects of a television documentary screened last night.

The 24-year-old convicted murderer was featured in ‘Lifers’, a Channel Four documentary looking at the day-to-day lives of prisoners serving life sentences at Gartree Prison in Leicestershire.

During the course of his interview for the documentary, Rudge showed no remorse for his awful crime and clearly viewed his murder trial as a little more than a ‘boring’ distraction.

He told viewers he was enjoying prison life because he has a TV, stereo and three meals a day.

Rudge said he ‘has it nice’ behind bars because he doesn’t have the ‘nightmare’ of trying to get a job.

He thinks life outside the prison would be ‘horrible’, adding: “I wouldn’t like to be out there at all now. I’d prefer to stay inside a while and wait until it calms down.”

While I am delighted that this low-life won’t be let out in the world until at least 2025, I can’t be the only one who is appalled that having committed such a heinous crime he now lives a life of comfort.

Just look at his ‘cell’. If you ignore the bars it looks to me more like a teenager’s bedroom.

Rudge is absolutely right, of course, in saying that by being inside he is shielded from the economic downturn which has many of us fearing for our jobs and wondering how we can pay our bills.

While we worry about keeping a roof over our heads, we’re all paying for Lance Rudge and his ilk to sit there in cosy rooms watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, listening to Radio One and eating meals which are no doubt nutritionally-balanced for them.

The question I would pose is: Can this really be termed ‘punishment’?

Is the denial of Lance Rudge’s liberty enough of a punishment for an horrific, pre-meditated killing?

Not in my book it isn’t.

If I had my way I’d strip him off that Stoke City shirt and baseball cap and have him wearing a fluorescent orange overall and he’d be hand-cuffed for much of the day.

His cell would contain only text books to supplement the daily education he received which would be aimed at making this toe-rag employable when he is finally released.

Those lessons would be interspersed with back-breaking labour akin to that once inflicted on chain-gangs in American prisons. (One U.S. state still allows you to volunteer for this, apparently).

Yes, I’d have Lance Rudge breaking rocks, carrying timber and sewing mail bags for the duration of his stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Meanwhile I’d have someone telling him every day that what he did was evil and despicable until he got it through his thick skull that other people matter and that he is responsible for his actions.

If this all seems incredibly draconian then I come back to the central point that prison is supposed to be a deterrent.

However, here we have a bloke who murdered someone actually preferring to stay inside where he has all the comforts of home but doesn’t have to earn a living like the rest of us.

We are told our prisons are bursting at the seams. I would suggest this has much to do with the fact that imprisonment itself isn’t much of a deterrent to people with little or no moral compass like Lance Rudge.

Clearly there is a problem with the prison system and, as a senior prison officer told me, it is failing because so many prisoners go on to re-offend upon their release.

According to the latest Ministry of Justice figures, a record number of offenders sentenced for serious crimes last year had committed previous offences. Ninety per cent of those sentenced in England and Wales had offended before – and almost a third had committed or were linked to 15 or more crimes. The figures showed that re-offending rates were highest among serious offenders who had been jailed.

Ministry of Justice officials say the figures show a “clear trend” of a rising re-offending rate.

I read that as a clear acknowledgment that being in prison doesn’t put people off coming out into society and committing more crime.

Of course rehabilitation is important. Of course reaching those who may be at risk of falling into a life of crime is important.

But surely the final resort is important too – and not simply for keeping the public safe.

Until prisons are more of a deterrent then I would suggest that rapists, paedophiles, armed robbers and murderers like Lance Rudge are simply laughing at us for funding their cosy existences.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

We must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now

The injuries suffered by Staffordshire Moorlands soldier Anthony Lownds are a grim reminder that, on a daily basis, somewhere in a foreign field there is generally a British serviceman or woman risking life and limb for Queen and country.

The 24-year-old Grenadier Guard was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban.

He is currently receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has so far had four operations for injuries to his right hand and legs.

My thoughts are with Anthony and his family and friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.

While most of us have been enjoying the patriotic fervour generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, to a lesser extent, the Olympic Torch Relay, Anthony and his comrades have been unable to relax and join in the celebrations.

As we settle down to watch England’s exploits in Euro 2012, spare a thought for the almost 10,000 members of the British Armed Forces who are demonstrating incredible bravery and commitment day-in, day-out in Afghanistan.

To date, since 2001, 417 British personnel have been killed in operations in the place they called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

It is a total that, heart-breakingly, is as sure to rise as the sun over that troubled land.

There are, of course, some who would argue that we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place – in the same way that we should have kept our noses out of Iraq’s business.

But Britain’s Services personnel don’t have that luxury and always deploy and do their duty, regardless of any personal misgivings they may have, which is what makes them such remarkable people.

That is exactly what they are doing right now in Afghanistan and we should be immensely proud of their efforts in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I wonder how Anthony Lownds and his mates felt when they learned a few days ago of more proposed cutbacks to the regular Army?

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of ‘difficult decisions’ ahead as the standing Army is reduced from 102,000 personnel to just 82,000.

If you know your military history then you will know that this is significant because an Army used to be defined as being 100,000 strong. Anything less than that figure wasn’t considered an Army.

While the regimental system will not be abolished, Mr Hammond said it was inevitable that some units would be lost or forced to merge.

If the national papers are to believed, one of those units could be our own 3 Mercian – or the Staffordshire Regiment in old money – along with such prestigious names as The Coldstream Guards.

I have to say that, for me, enough really is enough.

For years now I have watched Defence Secretaries slash and burn as they have wittered on about making our Armed Forces more ‘mobile’ and ‘adaptable’.

Always the end result is the same: Fewer boots on the ground; Less hardware; More reliance on reservists or other nations; And, ultimately, less ability to react to crises around the world.

Britannia once ruled the waves. Now we will have to hope we don’t need an aircraft carrier until 2020.

The RAF was once the only thing preventing the whole of Europe from falling under Nazi occupation.

But in Afghanistan it was a chronic shortage of helicopters which actually added to the number of UK casualties.

I could go on. The bottom line is that penny-pinching at the MoD over the last two decades, at the behest of various administrations, has significantly undermined the ability of the UK’s Armed Forces to do its job.

This has happened at a time when the actual number of global conflicts involving British Services personnel has risen.

Where is the logic in that?

Whatever we think of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, there is no denying the world is becoming a more dangerous place – with revolutions and the rise of extremism fanning the flames of conflict.

Add to this the ever-increasing economic uncertainty and inevitable shortage of natural resources such as fuel, food and water in the coming years, and you have a recipe for decades of instability.

So what does Whitehall do? Continue to reduce the number of Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

This is madness.

I believe caution should be the watch-word with regard to the future of our military. We only have to look to history for guidance.

Infantry battalions that were mothballed after the end of the Cold War had to be reconstituted for service in Northern Ireland.

Having scrapped Harrier Jump Jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal we realised both would actually have been quite handy for the Libyan crisis.

Yes, times are tough and each Government department has to make savings and each will plead it deserves protection.

But the MoD really is a special case involving tens of thousands of special people who do a very special and specialised job.

The UK’s Armed Forces personnel are our ‘go-to’ guys and gals at home and overseas for everything from industrial unrest and disaster relief to frontline warfare and their importance simply cannot be over-stated.

I firmly believe that for Britain to remain safe and secure and for our country to retain its position as an effective, relevant and respected player on the global stage then we must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now.

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.