Saturday 1 August 2015

The Stupidity of Stoke's City Independents

Ah, Stoke-on-Trent. How I love thee. It's not the oatcakes that captured my heart, but the utterly dysfunctional local politics. And the latest twists and turns by nominal Council Leader Dave Conway has caused my heart to throb even more. This week the long, drawn out saga of the new council offices' concrete floors has got resolved. As predicted by this blog, there was no real cause for concern. However, Cllr Conway has ruled out a proper move. One of the two buildings is to be occupied by council staff, and the other will be marketed for tenants until this capital asset can be disposed of - no doubt on the cheap. Needless to say, this is incredibly stupid.

A little story. As long-time readers know, I'm from Derby originally and that is where I now work. Since I left the place on an Autumnal morning almost 20 years ago the city has transformed itself utterly. There are new buildings everywhere, a huge shopping centre, and a vast business park where there used to be nothing but rotting ruins from Derby's industrial peak. All the big names in shopping, eating, and services have a presence too. You might say it's an example of successful regeneration. That isn't to say it's without problems - the city's renaissance has barely touched some of the inner city wards and outlying suburbs, and some of its schools have some issues. But overall, it's a position most medium-sized cities would like to be in.

Derby and Stoke share a key advantage - location. They more or less occupy the same position in the Eastern and Western parts of the Midlands. They're both on a London line and both reside near heavily urbanised areas. Stoke is between Manchester and Birmingham. Derby is a stone's throw from Nottingham, Leicester, and Sheffield. Both are surrounded by relatively affluent county hinterlands. There are, however, divergences. Derby kept its crucial manufacturing base and supply chain, Stoke did not. As Rolls Royce kept chugging along, as Toyota arrived, as trains kept getting made and repaired, the Potteries lost its potteries. Steel, gone. Mines, gone. Pot banks - mostly overseas. Derby therefore had a much stronger economic base on which it could draw, and the persistence of manufacturing acted as an attractor for more advanced industry and hi-tech firms. It had an added advantage too. Like most 'normal' cities, it had a core shopping and business district. Public spending for economic regeneration could be concentrated in one central area, which ran from what became Pride Park to the city centre proper. That is an advantage Stoke lacks. As a federation of six towns, it has six centres. Hanley, as the Potteries' traditional commercial heart is the generally acknowledged city centre. However, compared to other cities of a quarter of a million people (320,000 if you lump in the good people of the contiguous towns of Kidsgrove and Newcastle-under-Lyme) there's very little to write home about. A few high street names, a small modernish shopping centre, a bus station, and a handful of eateries. Non-retail business is almost completely absent. Why? The primary reason is the other towns compete with rather than complement Hanley. As a city dominated by low-paying jobs, what disposable income there is gets spread thinly across those town centres. As such, Hanley looks like a small town rather than the heart of a sprawling, populous conurbation.

That's the background, without a little bit of violence to some of the detail. How then does one regenerate a place like Stoke with two disadvantages vis a vis its competitor city 40 miles to the east? There's only one option available, and that's to try and overcome the accident of the city's geography. During Labour's 2011-2015 tenure, the limited resources available to the City Council tended to be spent in Hanley. In a series of related projects, the strategy was to make the nominal centre a proper centre attractive to inward investment. More business = more jobs = more reasons to live in Stoke, thereby upping the council tax take. The council did this by improving the roads (including getting a missing quarter of the ring road built), pedestrianising and sprucing up bits and bobs and, most controversially, relocating the main council offices from Stoke to the centre. There was a sound business case for doing so. It meant the demolition and redevelopment of a decrepit section of Hanley. It would also have entailed two thousand or so council staff being about in the city centre in peak business hours, popping into shops, eating out at lunch and after work. Its very presence would have clustered more people to give it the economic boost the centre badly needed. By virtue of its presence it would have drawn people that have dealings with the council - everyday folk, businesses, out-of-town visitors - into the centre too. In all, a clustering of spending power would have improved the centre, provided ready made business units for inward investors with easy access to key council personnel, and have helped that nebulous but nevertheless important structure of feeling: business confidence.

That was before the City Council was gifted to the city's new rulers, a clueless coalition of independents, Tories, and UKIP. All three were opposed to the council move to the new Smithfield development. The indies because time for them stopped in 1971. The Tories because they stupidly think regeneration is driven by business investment, an evidence-free belief that contradicts the experience of city rejuvenation everywhere - including London. And UKIP because they know a bandwagon when one trundles by. The case against as articulated by the independents that saw people take to the streets boils down to a set of interrelated arguments.

1. Hanley is always favourited when it comes to public funds. It's not fair.
2. Moving the civic centre from Stoke would devastate the town.
3. The present civic centre is a perfectly adequate building.
4. It's a waste of public money. The move wouldn't create a single job.

As the move was premised on the council's location, not the fitness or otherwise of its present abode; and that the case for regeneration was always about knock-on effects, the latter two points can be consigned to the 'dealt with above' drawer.

On "fairness", over the years I've heard a great deal about the distinctive character of the six towns. That each place has an identity that should be cherished and nurtured. What does this mean? In Stoke I can hang out in the library, do some shopping in Sainsbury's, and nip for a pint down Wetherspoon's. Things that can also be done up 'anley, duck. Down Longton way I can avail myself of the market and scoot around some charity shops. Everything that can be done in all the other towns, except Fenton. Perhaps that's where the character doesn't lie. Maybe it's in the dilapidated buildings that afflicts the towns. Or the communities grown up around factories and pot banks that, like everywhere else, now find most of its cultural meanings in popular/mass culture as conveyed by television, the internet, radio, papers, and magazines. Is it in the pubs independent councillors drink in, or at resident associations where the same-old same-old turn up and reminisce about leaving school on the Friday and having a job by the Monday morning? Is there something I'm missing, an essential 'Stokieness' about Stoke that marks it out from 'Hanleyness', 'Tunstallness', 'Burslemness', 'Longtonness' and 'Fentonness'? There is no such character, truth be told. As much a minority, and it is a minority, think their town is the bee's knees there are no distinctive identities now. And since the majority of Stokies live in districts outside of the towns, this is irrelevant to the lives of the city's residents and the ways they think about themselves. If you want to talk about fairness, how is holding back a regeneration project so the "precious" unique qualities of Stoke's town centre is preserved fair when, ultimately, it means fewer jobs.

On the second point, true, moving the council wouldn't have a beneficial effect on Stoke town centre. The case, however, has been massively overstated. Having worked in Stoke myself, if I nipped out at lunch time more often than not it was to the pub. Or to the supermarket. Or perhaps for a Wright's Pies. Funnily enough, most council workers did exactly the same. You could sit in the window of the White Star and watch council workers file into town and return with either a Wright's Pies or Sainsbury's bag. The town's so-called retail offer consists of charity shops, three bookies, and a Cash Converters. The disposable income of council employees aren't going to the independent coffee shops, the clothes stores, the restaurants, and whatever other small business you can think of. It's going into the pockets of one large and one medium-sized chain. Besides, since Staffs Uni announced its full relocation to its base in nearby Shelton, Stoke Town is set to be inflated by the arrival of a couple of thousand extra students. The passing trade would have been more than made up by new students living in the town. Because of a lack of imagination and a seeming unawareness of what's actually happening, should the continued health and wellbeing of a supermarket and a baker's trump economic regeneration that would benefit the city as a whole? Our pretend Council Leader and his small-minded helpers think it should.

Now the Smithfield development has been passed as move-in-able, the council has decided that one building is to be occupied by staff ... already located in Hanley. The Hanley local centre, the library and archives, and the offices scattered about are going to be condensed here. Everyone else is staying put. Now, that concentration will save money on rent and bills but completely defeats the purpose of the whole exercise and fatally undermines a key prop of city regeneration. Instead, our cack-handed coalition are pushing forward with something they call a "six town strategy". In other words, spreading limited resources thinly in the hope things will somehow get better. Such an approach might have made sense if the city was different and each of the towns had something unique to offer, but they don't. All are smaller, more depressed versions of Hanley itself.

Fewer than three months in and the new council are all set to compound Stoke-on-Trent's economic weakness. If they can screw up economic strategy because their own prejudices come before evidence and experience from elsewhere, I shudder to think how they will deal with the cuts coming from central government.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was the Labour administration that decided to keep the Civic open - because since there was zero manpower planning and the actual requirements of the workforce had not been taken into account - deliberately not taken into account by the arrogant JvDL and John Betty - Smithfield could not accommodate all the staff that would be decanted from all the minor buildings around the City. And also because no councillors wanted to work in the Smithfield environment.

The case for the CBD sounds plausible, but building highest grade office space in a town centre with no car parking and poor rail access was always risky. Even within the City, Trentham Lakes, Festival Park and Michelin's Trentside parks offer nicer environments, and in the case of Festival Park, better retail offer than Hanley.