Inspiring partnership celebrates city’s rich sporting heritage

Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi at the Sports Awards 2012.

Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi at the Sports Awards 2012.

It’s another big week for our city, following the hugely popular visit of HRH Prince Charles to the Mother Town a few days ago.

On Thursday evening an array of stars from the world of sport will turn out at the Kings Hall in Stoke to pay homage to individuals who are perhaps less well-known but nonetheless equally deserving of praise.

The guest of honour will be Sally Gunnell OBE – our compere for the 38th year of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality Awards.

The gold medal-winning Olympian follows in the footsteps of sporting luminaries such as Lord Sebastian Coe, James Cracknell OBE, Dave Moorcroft OBE and Jonathan Edwards CBE who have all graced the event in recent years.

Joining Sally will be a veritable who’s who of home-grown sporting legends who each year give up their time to make the event more memorable for those in attendance.

These include World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks OBE, Paralympic equestrian hero Lee Pearson OBE, Olympic gold medal-winning hockey player Imran Sherwani, former England wicket keeper Bob Taylor MBE, current England cricket star Danielle Wyatt and football pundit Mark Bright, to name but a few.

They’ll be rubbing shoulders on the red carpet with Potteries football royalty like John Rudge and Micky Adams.

The list goes on…

It really is a night to reflect on Stoke-on-Trent’s rich sporting history and our celebrity guests add a touch of glamour to what is a very prestigious occasion.

We’ll be handing out the Sir Stanley Matthews Potteries Footballer of the Year Awards to a Stoke City and Port Vale player and inducting two more famous faces into the Civic Sporting Hall of Fame.

But the real focus on Thursday’s event is on the achievements, endeavour and selflessness of individuals and teams who may never hit the big time or make national headlines.

That said, their contribution to sport in our patch is exceptional and well worth celebrating.

Indeed, this is why in 1975 councillor Tom Brennan came up with the idea of a civic event, championed by The Sentinel, to pay homage to the unsung heroes and heroines of local sport.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards has come along way since those early days when a few dozen people attended a buffet and prize giving.

It’s now a black tie event for more than 300 guests with video tributes to all shortlisted nominees which you’ll be able to view on The Sentinel’s website on Friday morning.

But the ethos of the awards remains the same: To honour the local footballers, cricketers, rugby players, martial artists, cyclists, coaches, officials and competitors across a range of sports and sporting disciplines.

They make all the wet Sunday mornings, the endless training sessions, the fund-raising and administrative nightmares worthwhile.

Most of those who we will be honouring on Thursday will not be household names but, through their efforts, they touch the lives of thousands of people in the Potteries.

Their walk on to the freshly-painted stage, accompanied by music and the warm applause of a packed Kings Hall to receive their trophy from a celebrity and have their photograph taken, may only take a few minutes.

But it will hopefully create a memory that will last a lifetime and we will chronicle it for them.

I think there must, sadly, be a perception among some city councillors that journalists at The Sentinel spend all their time thinking up negative stories about them and the local authority.

This is presumably one of the reasons why communications gurus come and go with such regularity and there seems to be a constant appetite for reviewing the council’s press and PR strategies.

However, the truth is somewhat different to the perception of some elected members.

The vast majority of council-related stories carried by this newspaper are positive or neutral and that’s a fact.

What’s more, Thursday night proves that our partnership activities with the authority are a real success – genuinely aspirational and important events for the city as a whole.

Along with The Sentinel Business Awards, the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality is a key event in the city’s calendar with a long and distinguished history.

Long may it continue to reward and inspire.

*Follow @SentinelStaffs on Twitter for updates on Thursday night as the winners are announced. Full coverage of the event in Friday’s Sentinel and online.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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I’m proud of the latest piece in Hanley’s jigsaw puzzle

Hanley's new bus station.

Hanley’s new bus station.

In April 2001 Stoke-on-Trent was branded the worst place to live in England and Wales in a survey of hundreds of towns and cities.

The Potteries was placed at the bottom of a quality of life league table covering more than 370 council areas.

This damning judgement was made by researchers from global information solutions consultant Experian who pulled together data for the Sunday Times on subjects ranging from housing, jobs, traffic congestion and schools to crime and even shopping.

Other national newspapers then followed this up – with one tabloid even using a picture of Hanley Bus Station at its most depressing to reinforce the report’s findings.

While there was understandable outrage here in the city over the study’s findings, few could argue with the choice of image used by that one paper to represent our city centre.

The bus station looked like what it was – a grim, decaying, concrete carbuncle blighted by vacant shops.

If nothing else it backed up what most people in these parts had been saying for 20 years about the need for a new bus station.

I wonder what picture the red tops would use to show Stoke-on-Trent in a grim light in 2013?

Presumably one of the many areas of cleared land where the RENEW North Staffordshire Pathfinder project bulldozed scores of terraced homes.

Or perhaps some of the emails that were flirting about when certain people wanted to close Dimensions…

It certainly wouldn’t be our brand spanking new £15 million bus station which officially opened this morning.

I, for one, love this iconic piece of architecture which gives a nod to our heritage through the use of materials used in its construction but is also bold and modern in its design.

It’s the kind of development that makes a welcoming statement to visitors as they arrive in Hanley – irrespective of how far they have travelled.

Like I did when the enormous new Tesco opened up, I Tweeted proudly about the new bus station – having driven past it the other night when it was all lit up.

I was inevitably met with derision from those who simply couldn’t understand what I was getting excited about.

That’s because they aren’t from this neck of the woods.

Anyone who travelled on a PMT or Sammy Turner’s bus during the Eighties and Nineties and either arrived at or left from Hanley Bus Station will tell you they couldn’t wait to get out of there.

It was dark, dirty and graffiti-strewn and only the smell of freshly-baked bloomer loaves from the bakery in the underpass could hide the smell of urine.

The bus station, shopping area (I use that term loosely) and the multi-story car park were well past their use-by date and we could all see it.

Yes the powers-that-be have gone and called it Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Bus Station in their quest to airbrush one of the Six Towns out of history but we locals will all still refer to it as Hanley Bus Station.

Whatever its name, we should be proud that another piece of the jigsaw puzzle has fallen into place.

First Tesco. Now the bus station. If we can: Revamp the Potteries Museum to better showcase the Staffordshire Hoard, our Spitfire and our pots; Finish the restoration of Bethesda Chapel; Find a new use for the old Town Hall and secure that oddly-titled new shopping complex we will genuinely have a city centre worthy of the name.

In the meantime, I’m sure Ambassador Theatre Group – which operates The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall – along with other city centre businesses must be chuffed to bits that a) the bus station work is complete and b) that the new main terminus is hi-tech, clean and safe.

There’s an awful lot of negativity about the city centre at the moment – especially from those campaigning against the council moving its Civic Centre to the new Central Business District.

There are those who feel that Hanley (or the city centre as we’re supposed to start calling it) gets all the cash and all the effort at the expense of Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

While I would agree that more needs to be done to help each of the towns develop its own unique selling point I can also understand what the city council is trying to do up ’Anley.

The ambition is to create a powerful brand and, like it or not, Hanley has been the beating heart of the Potteries for many years.

To that end I’m genuinely thrilled to see the new bus station open and I am now looking forward to the completion of the City Sentral shopping centre.

Even if it is a daft name.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Mother Town miracle as local people shine for Christmas

Burslem's Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Burslem’s Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Campaigners determined to bring a little festive cheer to the Mother Town have smashed their fund-raising target to pay for Christmas lights.

Saddened by the fact that Burslem was the only town in the Potteries with no public decorations, they set about trying to raise £3,200 to pay for three sets of tree lights and seven sets of street lights.

But in just nine days campaign organisers Louise Worthington, John and Jayne Flint, June Cartwright and their families and friends raised more than £5,000 to light up the streets.

Their remarkable success means the town will now have four lit Christmas trees and eleven sets of street lights.

What’s more, the group have pledged to do the same again for 2013 and are planning a meeting in the New Year to kick-start 12 months of fund-raising.

Jayne, aged 43, who lives in High Lane, Burslem, said: “We are so proud of everyone who has been involved. This is a genuine example of a community pulling together.

“The generosity of people really does bring a tear to you eye and, as a result, Burslem will shine this Christmas.”

The campaign was prompted by council cutbacks of £84,000 which meant that only Hanley received local authority funding for Christmas decorations.

Traders and local people in Stoke, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall organised their own trees and lights but it was looking like Burslem would be left in the shadows.

Then last week Burslem locals began their campaign by creating a page on social network Facebook which quickly attracted more than 1,300 supporters.

Various events and collections were organised – including a disco and raffle at Burslem’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Crown – and Port Vale fans donated more than £1,000 on away trip coaches and before Tuesday night’s home game against Bradford City.

The 67th Burslem Scout Group and Vale mascot Boomer were among those rattling collection buckets at Vale Park.

Businesses across the Mother Town also contributed including: Kelly Molyneux & Co. Accountants; New Image tattoo parlour; Chillz bar; the Bull’s Head pub; The Swan pub; The Leopard pub and Barewall art gallery.

Autonet Insurance, based in Nile Street, spent £550 to purchase an additional set of Christmas tree lights and its managing director Ian Donaldson said the firm, which employs 600 people, was looking forward to working with the campaigners next year.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Artbay gallery in Fenton also donated a special print which was auctioned off to raise £150.

Stoke-on-Trent Markets gave £300 but the largest single donation came from recycling firm Acumen, based on Hot Lane, which donated £1,500 to the cause.

Contracts manager Adrian Moore said: “I read about the campaign in Friday’s Sentinel and wondered if we could help out.

“We are a company which employs around 35 people from the local area and our owner John Hodges was very keen to contribute. It is terrific the way local people and businesses have worked together for the common good to make Christmas special in Burslem.”

*The lights will be switched on tomorrow when Santa Claus emerges from The George Hotel.

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

I understand city council move but Hanley cannot succeed in isolation

As someone who is very passionate about the Mother Town of the Potteries I can well understand the incredulity, the anger and the fear felt by some in the wake of the city council’s decision to transfer its workforce from Stoke to Hanley.

It is impossible to escape the comparison between this move and the bombshell closure of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory in 2005 which ripped the heart out of Burslem.

The decision will rankle even more with taxpayers because it presents us with a back to the future scenario.

Twenty years ago I recall the uproar when the powers-that-be at the council decided to move its employees from Hanley to a new, purpose-built Civic Centre in Stoke.

Now an entirely different administration – and that is an important distinction to make – thinks it is a good idea for the authority’s 2,000 or so staff to go back to Hanley again.

Personally, I think the logic behind the move is sound – and not just because, ultimately, it will save money.

Let’s face it, however much we bang on about the unique nature of our Six Towns every city worth the name has a city centre recognised by shoppers, tourists and businesses alike.

Like it or not, by quirk of history, Hanley has for decades been the beating heart of Stoke-on-Trent – albeit sometimes beating more weakly than we would perhaps have liked.

It has the most shops of any of the towns, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the city’s finest theatre, and other cultural gems such as the Mitchell Arts Centre, Bethesda Chapel and the Town Hall.

Very soon, after decades of delays, it will also have a brand new bus station to go with the enormous Tesco store which has tidied up the bottom end of the town.

Then we have the absurdly-named but undeniably exciting prospect of the new City Sentral shopping complex together with the planned expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre.

There can be no denying that Hanley is ‘on the up’ and this is something we should all be pleased about.

In the past various schemes and visions have faltered at the eleventh hour because of the local authority’s inability to secure a so-called ‘anchor tenant’.

It has failed, for example, to attract a big name retail store or employer that has been prepared commit to investing in an area in order to tempt other businesses to follow suit.

One of the main reasons for this has been that Hanley has been viewed as saturated in terms of its retail offer.

In other words, developers thought there simply weren’t enough people in the city centre to justify further investment and expansion.

Of course, this all changes if the local authority switches its entire workforce to Hanley and becomes the ‘anchor tenant’ for the proposed ‘business district’.

Suddenly, the city centre is a far more attractive proposition for all concerned.

I think that a popular, successful and economically-viable Hanley is a must if Stoke-on-Trent is to drag itself out of the doldrums in these most austere times. But I’m afraid this will require radical and sometimes painful decisions and just a little bit of that horrible phrase: ‘thinking outside the box’.

But what of Stoke, and indeed, the other seemingly-forgotten towns?

The worst-case scenario here is that the city council’s decision to relocate turns Stoke into a ghost town of empty office buildings and condemns businesses who have relied on city council workers for custom to a slow death.

The idea of pulling the Civic Centre building together with the former Spode site and the Kingsway car park and offering that up as a package sound reasonable – so long as the long-term viability and care of the King’s Hall can be assured.

However, we mustn’t forget that this a vision.

It is the small print on the master plan to inject fresh life and impetus into the city centre.

What is needed now is a genuine concerted effort to find a new purpose for those key sites in Stoke.

Perhaps the expansion of the University Quarter (UniQ) development across the A500 and into the town of Stoke proper is the best way of filling the vacuum that will be left by the city council’s relocation.

What is certain is that it will take years for the benefits of a thriving city centre to trickle down to the other five towns.

In the meantime, it is vital the local authority puts as much energy into find unique selling points for Stoke, Burslem, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall as it has done into aiding the city centre in order that Hanley’s poor relations don’t become poorer still.

Stoke-on-Trent desperately needs a successful city centre but, by the same token, it cannot succeed in isolation.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

A tribute to Gareth: One of ours

Private Gareth Bellingham.

Private Gareth Bellingham.

For a couple of months now I’ve been wearing one of those rubber wristbands.

It carries the words: ‘Supporting 3 MERCIAN (Staffords) in Afghanistan’.

Through my job I’ve been lucky enough to get to know some serving soldiers and their COs and I’m immensely proud of the work they do.

This weekend we lost one of our own.

Private Gareth Bellingham, of Clayton, was shot while on duty in Helmand on Saturday. He was 22.

Having witnessed the humbling sight of the bodies of our servicemen being repatriated through the little town of Wooton Bassett, the news brought it all back to me.

My heart goes out to Gareth’s family and friends.

There will be some who will say ‘we shouldn’t even be there. Nobody has to die if we bring the troops home now’.

I’m afraid it isn’t quite as simple as that.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the war in Afghanistan, our boys and girls are there NOW and we should be supporting them.

Every day as we go to work, sit at home watching the telly, walk the dog, take the children out or go to Vale or Stoke, they are in the heat and the dust risking their lives for freedom and democracy.

I, for one, am in awe of the job they do.

These people don’t do politics. They do duty.

I will continue to wear my wristband with pride until every last one of the Staffords is home safe.

Only investment will wake Mother Town from slumber

Burslem Town Hall.

Burslem Town Hall.

There’s no doubt I have a real soft spot for Burslem. Sure, it’s home to my beloved Port Vale – but that’s only one reason why the Mother Town of the Potteries holds a special place in my affections.

Firstly, Burslem is where this scribe spent the formative years of his journalistic career – working out of a grand old building in Westport Road during the early Nineties.

I remember I started on the princely sum of £80 a week and carried a pager around with me before graduating to using a mobile phone the size of a house brick.

I had money in my pocket and a yellow Metro to get me from A to B. Happy days.

A few years earlier, this was the town where, as a 16-year-old, I enjoyed my first pub crawl.

This culminated in yours truly throwing up in the gutter outside The American on Waterloo Road after three and a half pints – to my eternal shame.

I was once told that Burslem had more pubs per square mile than any other town in England. I never believed the claim but I liked the idea all the same.

Going back even further Burslem reminds me of Saturday mornings as a youngster.

Dad was invariably working and my mum, my brother and I would walk from our home in Sneyd Green to visit uncle Dave and auntie Jean in Cobridge.

Then it was on to Burslem for the weekly shop and the Aladdin’s cave that was the indoor market.

That was, of course, when the Mother Town had an indoor market. And a Woolies. And some shops.

It was a time before the great white elephant that is Ceramica was tacked on to the Town Hall.

A time when you could still buy a pair of shoes in Burslem – when retail was the beating heart of the town.

Anyone old enough to remember Burslem as the thriving place it was 30 years ago will have experienced the same sense of sadness I feel every time I drive along Newcastle Street.

For more than a decade it has had the feel of a ghost town with boarded-up shops and precious little activity.

There is no doubt Burslem has always boasted the finest architecture of any of the Six Towns, but the dereliction of bog-standard buildings has, in recent years, acted like a thief of grandeur.

However, it seems the powers-that-be may finally have recognised that, with a little tlc, old Boslem may scrub up alright.

Plans were unveiled this week to build a £4.5 million link road to divert traffic away from the town centre – making it more ‘shopper-friendly’. It is hoped work will commence in 2011.

Sounds good. But, to throw in a little healthy cynicism, I would suggest that to have any shoppers you have to have a few, er… shops.

And therein lies the problem.

It is true to say that some money has been spent in the ST6 postcode area since 2001 under the auspices of the well-intentioned Burslem Regeneration Company.

Obvious examples are the Swan Square area and the various business and enterprise units dotted around the town.

To the casual observer, however, it may seem that precious little has changed in Burslem in recent years.

The experts will, of course, tell you that any city worth its salt needs a well-defined centre for tourists and shoppers – a focus for the local economy. (Yes, even a one-Starbucks city like Stoke-on-Trent).

This presumably explains why the city council has chucked millions of pounds at Hanley in recent years – and precious little at Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall.

And while I’m all for a vibrant city centre with a Cultural Quarter and big-name stores, what price the failure to stimulate trade and attract investment to our other towns?

At present Burslem sleeps. And it will take a lot more than a relief road to shake it from its slumber.

The town is, quite simply, a sad monument to short-term thinking and a lack of investment.

In describing Burslem, Arnold Bennett wrote: “… beauty was achieved, and none saw it.”

I would suggest that unless we see a coherent vision and some serious investment in the Mother Town’s retail heart there is a very real danger the Potteries author’s words will continue to ring true.