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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Why Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival should be write up your street…

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A cultural wilderness. That’s how one rather unkind soul described Stoke-on-Trent when posting a comment on The Sentinel’s website and mocking plans for the city’s first literary festival announced this week.

Of course, the internet is a strange place where people are far more likely to be disparaging of new initiatives than be welcoming or to accentuate the positives.

I suppose it always was easier to knock than to praise.

They say there’s a book in all of us. Personally I just wish there were a few more lying around in homes across the Potteries – instead of mobile phones and games consoles – and that more parents locally took more of an interest in helping to open their children’s eyes to the joys of reading.

Then again, if the parents themselves struggle with words and left school with a limited grasp of the English language then the idea of picking up a book or writing a story or poem with their children may seem like an alien concept.

Talk to many primary school teachers and they will say that they can spot within the first few weeks the children in their new intake who will do well in class and they are the ones who are properly supported at home.

They are the children who are read to at night before bed and who, in turn, read to their parents. They are the children who receive help with their homework, eat a decent breakfast before school and whose packed lunch doesn’t simply consist of chocolate, crisps and a sugary drink.

The sad fact is that more than 40 per cent of the city’s three-year-olds start school with literacy levels below the national standard because their parents/guardians couldn’t be bothered – or haven’t been able – to give them enough help and support.

Among these you’ll find parents who use the television as a babysitting service and bribe toddlers with biscuits and crisps just for some peace and quiet. You’ll also find mums and dads simply struggling to cope with being, well, mums and dads.

Because of the start two-fifths of children in the city are given, it is perhaps no great surprise that results for seven-year-olds show Stoke-on-Trent is at the bottom of league tables in England for reading, writing and maths.

These are depressing statistics which drill down to the heart of why many people locally fail to aspire to further and higher education and are unable to fulfil their wider potential.

You can get by without some subjects and certain knowledge taught in schools but, in terms of basic life skills, being able to read and write to a decent standard is fundamental.

The irony that Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival, entitled Hot Air, was announced during the same week that The Sentinel published a story revealing 300 odd Staffordshire University students had been caught cheating by plagiarising other people’s work was not lost on me.

When at high school and Sixth Form College, Fenton, I’d walk a couple of miles from my home in Sneyd Green to the reference department at Hanley Library in order to fish out whichever books I needed for homework, essays or exams. My generation used a fountain pen from the age of 11 onwards in order that we could improve the standard of our ‘joined-up’ writing.

If I made an error on a six or seven page A4 essay for my A-Level English Literature teacher, Mr Adshead, out came the Tipp-Ex. Better that gunky mess on one line than having to re-write the lot from scratch, eh?

These days students rarely use a pen and don’t even have to get out of bed to do their homework. They can Google (other search engines are available) whatever topic they require and find reams of information – often written by previous students – which they can steal bits of, recycle, and then present as their own work.

This is one of the reasons why I would argue the age of copy and paste has done very little to improve literacy standards.

It goes without saying the internet is a wonderful tool which provides countless benefits but for every advantage it gives us as a society there’s usually a downside.

In the case of literacy standards, the internet and indeed the ‘text speak’ which has become prevalent through the use of mobile devices is killing the Queen’s English.

Some experts will tell you that language is always evolving and you shouldn’t get too uptight about the use of numbers where letters should be or the general malaise over literacy standards which pervades our everyday lives.

Then there are Luddites like me who believe it’s just plain wrong for councils to run Uth (youth) centres and drop apostrophes from road signs because some people don’t know how to use them.

We have a problem with literacy standards here in Stoke-on-Trent and so the idea of staging a festival aimed at encouraging reading and writing makes absolute sense.

It also, with the attendance of stellar names like best-selling authors Joanna Trollope and Dr David Starkey (as well as our own rising star Mel Sherratt), promises to be a lot of fun.

A literary festival isn’t in any way a silver bullet for the problem of poor literacy standards locally but if it encourages people to engage with libraries, meet authors and handle books or perhaps pick up a pen or approach a keyboard in order to write something, then it can be regarded as a success.

If The Sentinel’s Too Write! competition for authors of all ages inspires hundreds of children and adults to try their hand at storytelling then it too can be deemed to have done its job.

Anyway, I’ll have to go. It’s World Book Day on March 6 and my two have decided to both go in to school dressed as George Kirrin from the Famous Five. I kid you not.

Do you know hard it is to find a decent satchel and a children’s outfit from the 1950s?

Still, better this than them going to school dressed as a character from the latest Disney movie that will have been forgotten next year.

Thank goodness for Enid Blyton, I say. It’s ginger beer all round in our house. Long live proper books with all that old-fashioned punctuation lark.

*The Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival takes place at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 20, 21 and 22. Ticket information will be released on March 31.
For details on the Too Write! writing competition email: toowrite@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

In all honesty, this press regulation bun-fight has nothing to do with regional newspapers

The Sun's excellent front page yesterday.

The Sun’s excellent front page yesterday.

In the wake of yesterday’s historic agreement on press regulation we now have the entirely predictable and unseemly spectacle of the main protagonists doing their very best to claim victory and rewrite history.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s plain for all to see that, as per usual, leaders of all three political parties were more interested in point-scoring and saving face than genuinely achieving an accord which satisfied both the public clamour for change while safeguarding one of the pillars of our democracy.

Frankly, I’m very cynical about the Leveson Inquiry and rather despondent about the subsequent witch hunt.

This is not because I don’t think the inquiry was warranted. Neither am I cynical because I would try to defend any of the nefarious activities of certain journalists working for certain media organisations.

I’m cynical because I see how MPs, scarred and seething in the wake of the expenses scandal, were champing at the bit to bash Fleet Street.

I’m cynical because the rich and famous with axes to grind turned the inquiry into a cause célèbre and rather hijacked the very legitimate aims and concerns of the Hacked Off campaigners.

I’m cynical because, if anything, the real danger to people’s privacy and the enemy of good journalism – the internet and social media – was beyond Lord Justice Leveson’s remit, despite it becoming more relevant (and intrusive) by the day.

I’m cynical because many broadcast journalists who should know better are taking the moral high ground and reacting as though their counterparts in the print media have leprosy.

I’m cynical because the hacking of telephones by a minority of national newspaper journalists (exposed, of course, by other national newspaper journalists) has somehow been allowed to tar the entire industry with the same brush.

Lastly, I’m cynical because my colleagues and I in the regional press are wondering where Leveson and yesterday’s vote leaves us – the thousands of ordinary regional newspaper journalists who haven’t the faintest interest in hacking someone’s phone but may well pay a heavy price because some fools once did.

A few days ago the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Lord Hunt visited The Sentinel.

We gave him a whirlwind tour of Stoke-on-Trent and then he met staff on a paper that’s been chronicling the history of this part of the country for 159 years.

Lord Hunt gave us an insight into his meetings with senior politicians ahead of yesterday’s all-important vote and spoke of his hopes and fears.

We expressed our concerns that the regional press seemed to have been forgotten in the almighty post-Leveson scrap but could well pay the price of misdemeanours by staff on national newspapers.

He spent a couple of hours at Sentinel HQ and during that time we did our best to accentuate the differences between ourselves as A Friend Of The Family and the red tops and broadsheets who caused this mess.

We explained that we are the only media organisation with the resources and the inclination to cover both magistrates and crown courts in North Staffordshire on a daily basis – thus playing our role in the administration of justice locally.

To that end we extolled the virtues of my colleague Dianne Gibbons, who greets me in the office each day at 7.30am with a smile before heading off to court.

Dianne has been with The Sentinel for more than 50 years.

Like her colleague Dave Blackhurst, our health reporter for more than 30 years, Dianne’s knowledge and professionalism is unparalleled and the service they both provide to our readers is vital.

We informed the Chairman of the PCC that we are the only media organisation which provides in-depth coverage of local government – attending every city council meeting and outlining in full the ramifications of things like local authority cutbacks.

We told him of our investigative work which has exposed everything from the goings-on at Port Vale under the previous board of directors to various council gaffes and concerns over the capability of doctors at our local hospital.

We showed Lord Hunt our successful campaign to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment which attracted 17,000 signatures on a petition which was taken by veterans to 10 Downing Street.

We told him about our public events – from the ever-popular Our Heroes Community Awards and the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in its 38th year) to our Class Act campaign for schools, our Young Journalist Awards scheme run in conjunction with Staffordshire University, The Sentinel Business Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent which we organise in partnership with The Regent Theatre.

We pointed out that we mark all the important occasions in our neck of the woods with souvenir supplements – from the Olympic Torch coming to our city to Stoke City’s 150th anniversary or 40 years of the Dougie Mac.

Hopefully Lord Hunt went away knowing that we echo the view of Lord Leveson himself who said: “It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role.”

This is what we strive to do at The Sentinel every day – irrespective of what Hugh Grant thinks.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Steve proud of the way old North Staffs Poly has scrubbed up

Few are better qualified to comment on the momentous changes taking place within the city’s University Quarter (UniQ) than Dr Steve Wyn Williams.

He’s a man who talks my language. A language that acknowledges that there was life before email and mobile telephones.

Earlier this week The Sentinel produced a special 16-page supplement updating people on the multi-million pound UniQ development.

It coincided with the official opening of the new £30m Science and Technology Centre on Leek Road – the UniQ’s latest piece of education-led regeneration which is transforming Hanley west, Shelton and Stoke.

The UniQ project is a partnership between Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent College, the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

It aims to raise aspirations and levels of educational attainment among the people of North Staffordshire in order to make them more employable and while, at the same time, improving the area between Stoke Railway Station and the city centre.

It’s the most significant, focused regeneration project the city has seen since the 1986 Garden Festival and the results, thus far, are spectacular.

The UniQ is creating a distinct, ‘one-campus’ feel for university and college students alike and impressing visitors (and the locals) with stunning new architecture.

It is a far cry from when Steve first joined the staff at was the old North Staffs Polytechnic back in 1988.

He said: “It’s amazing really. These new buildings are making a statement. They are cutting-edge facilities and are really enhancing the learning experience for students.”

Steve, originally from North Wales, first moved to North Staffordshire 34 years ago when he took up a post at Keele University.

A geographer, he worked as a demonstrator for students at Keele – teaching them everything from map reading to data inspection skills.

Eight years later he joined North Staffs Poly as a lecturer in Geography.

He said: “I think it was a more relaxed time. Because the place was much smaller and had fewer students (5,000 to 7,000) there was also very much a community feel to it.

“I recall that everyone seemed to smoke back then – in the corridors, the bars and even the lecture theatres.

“You’d see lecturers puffing away as they taught. Indeed, the whole place seemed to be under a constant fog.”

Now aged 59, Steve has risen through the ranks to become first Head of Geography and is now Dean of Academic Policy and Development.

However, he recalls his early days at the old Poly, which became Staffordshire University in 1992, with fondness.

He said: “When I came here in the late 1980s we are talking about the very early days of computing. We’d write memos to colleagues and students and stick them in pigeon-holes and then wait a week for a response.

“The students themselves would carry around bags containing big, heavy text books which they would actually have to read.

“Students received grants, of course, and there was a sense that they felt privileged to be at studying at the Poly university because only a minority went on to higher education at that time.

“Nowadays, of course, around 40 per cent of school and college leavers go on to receive a university education which, in itself, presents different challenges.”

Nowadays Staffordshire University is a truly international place of study, looking after around 20,000 students, 2,850 of whom at the Stoke campus are from overseas.

Steve said: “We are acutely aware that students are now our customers. We like to view them as customer-partners because while they are paying to come here and study it can only be a success for them if they are prepared to put the work in.

“The university has always had a reputation for delivering courses which give students skills which are perhaps more vocational-based and enhance their employability skills and, given the current climate, that has never been more important.”

Steve added: “I’m very passionate about the university and our students and I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with the UniQ project for several years now.

“Seeing the changes taking place, it makes me incredibly proud to have contributed in some small way and that the university I work for has such wonderful facilities and ambition.”

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

Hope for our fine profession

I’m putting the finishing touches to the script for tomorrow’s Young Journalist Awards ceremony. This is something we’ve been running in conjunction with Staffordshire University for a couple of years now – giving primary and secondary school pupils as well as college students the chance to have their stories published in The Sentinel and online. It’s all about encouraging the journalists of the future and I don’t think there has ever been a greater need to promote our fine profession. In this age of 24/7 broadcast media, regional newspapers particularly face their most difficult challenge to date as they struggle to remain relevant and desperately try to get to grips with the internet revolution. There is hope, however. I think people are starting to appreciate that there’s something about having a quality, tangible news product in your hand – something you can pass around and share, cut out or keep. You see, we don’t all spend every waking hour glued to a PC or mobile phone. Blogging and broadcasting is all well and good but, for me, print journalism will always be where it’s at. There’s very little room for error with print journalism – particularly when it has your name on and readers can come in to your office waving the paper at you.  Anyone can write a blog – as you can see – but not everyone who does is a trained journalist. They haven’t all sat in council meetings, inquests and court hearings. They haven’t all covered a football match or done a death-knock. They haven’t all had their ears chewed by a News Editor on deadline. The truth is you have to earn your stripes in this game. We should beware the ones who haven’t… and cherish those who have.