Friday, December 08, 2006

Back to Burslem

Last night I went to the second meeting of the steering group which will work on a(nother) 'masterplanning' process for the area around Burslem, Middleport and Etruria Valley, a mysterious area of canal and derelict factories that has only trolls living in it but will one day be transformed into the height of waterside luxury.

It started out pretty bleak, one has to say. Another pottery has gone under, the George has shut, there's not a trader left, let alone a chamber of trade, and Burslem is merely a big road for cars to queue in on their way to late-night shopping in Hanley. Meanwhile people are facing demolition in their homes and are, we were told, still without an idea of where they will go or whether they will be able to afford to go there.

Everyone got pretty depressed and it was observed that the government needed to intervene. What this intervention would involve, I'm not quite sure but I suspect it would involve a big pot of money, some consultants and, hopefully, a community steering group with the ear of everybody. Which is what we have, so more reason to be cheerful, even if there's a nagging feeling that maybe it's Too Late.

Places like Stoke may be experiencing the downsides of globalisation. But this isn't new. The great majority of Stoke's industry was wiped out over the last thirty years, even before that work could be unreliable, dangerous and fairly narrowly focussed. Looking back, we will probably see the closures of the last two years as simply the tail-end of a long collapse, though traumatic for those who managed to hold onto their jobs for this long. The skills of the Potteries need maintenance and  diversification into exclusive, beautiful studio pottery has been shown to be possible, even if its employment prospects are more limited than the big potbanks.

My view is that the population needs to take some responsibility for its fortunes, raise itself out of years of perfectly justifiable disappointment and get creative. Why should a proud set of towns become dependent on state aid, constantly looking for help? As was pointed out at the meeting, we've had thirty yearsof 'intervention', to the extent that the population now pretty much ignores it. We've got used to failure. So any more than what we've got won't help - we need to make the most of what we've got - the Renew process - and make sure that it transforms the city into something sustainable. The state money won't last forever.

The population as a whole has specific responsibility in two areas. We heard about affordable housing. Apart from in managed schemes, housing will only be sold at the market rate. It isn't any government that decides how much a house is worth, it's people willing to pay inflated prices in the hope that someone else will pay them a price even more inflated. If nobody can afford to buy a house, then prices will collapse, but in the meantime people will borrow more and that means everybody has to borrow more. This is clearly in the interest of banks, estate agents and the tax office. Drawing a line between those who are allowed to say that they 'don't want to' take on debt and those who have to go through normal channels to own a house is divisive. I do think it is unfair that buy-to-letters with ready cash can buy up new developments while they are still affordable and would like to see people facing demolition being given preferential access and help, but overall it will be the market that decides price - and at the moment the market is being greedy. We all have choices, even if they're not the choices they once were. Mine was to move out of London, where houses average 300,000 pounds and commute to a place where they are a third as much. I'd rather not see Stoke go down the same road - people should be content to put a little extra value on their houses rather than expecting them to triple every five years. It might be you left at the top of the pyramid when it collapses.

Another aspect is shopping. Burslem is currently trapped in a vicious circle of decline with nothing to buy if you do get there (at least that's what it seems like). There is a lot of support for new businesses. Shops can't open unless there is community support and some research to show what will make a sustainable business. If everybody who lives within walking distance of Burslem chooses to drive to Hanley to shop then nothing will change. I'm not suggesting we make Burslem like Hanley (God forbid). A market, a good coffee shop and a bookshop (oh London, London, how I cry for you) would probably be enough to get me there instead of Tunstall. Maybe not even the market, as Tunstall's is very good and along with Hanley may be all that can be sustained. But the lack of a market (and the big market building that has been closed for years) is a psychological drag on the town. It was a centrepoint to draw people in.

A local shopping base is going to be more stable than the more valuable but less consistent input of tourists and getting this moving is particularly important while Burslem has no hotel and, er, not many potteries. Building the heritage and studio side is important, but tourists will be more likely to shop in a thriving town than one that is empty. Writing this, I've realised that unlike in the majorty of towns, no youths hang around Burslem. I guess you get them in KFC but I couldn't even be sure of that.

What the area around Burslem needs is a substantial exchange of ideas and some commitment. What businesses would local people want to run? What businesses would local people support? What would get teenagers in town instead of burning cars round the greenways? What are people's needs in their local town? Units for small businesses are available as are grants and support. Online training is doubtlessly available to help people sell online as well as in town. Locals who may not have been to Burslem in the day for a long time might respond to a publicity campaign outlining what is already there. If the areas uses the skills it has to create a pleasurable shopping environment that local people commit to walking to and supporting, then other people will start to come, first from other parts of the city and then from further afield as people buying beautiful things on the web want to come and see it being produced. This is deeply rooted in Stoke's heritage as well as having a sustainable and practical base. But it will take local support and locals taking responsibility for where they spend their money.

It is difficult for a city to maintain seven town centres, but each town has a different character and if they develop their own niches, people can revive that old sense of pride in their own town. I'm looking forward to the winter arts & crafts festival tomorrow and hope that it will be full of crowds willing to give Burslem a fresh try.

Friday, December 01, 2006

From Burslem to Brighton

Thursday brought the chance for a super-city day as I embarked on a day-trip to Brighton to see the new Xserve Mac server and a demonstratotion of sleek new Leopard (even if *some of us* have been running it for months). Afterwards, I was hoping to fit in a stop at Birmingham for some evening shopping and was looking forward to finding out just how far a saver return to Brighton might allow for weaving round Britain.

So I caught the early train from Stoke, the train where you fall asleep and risk waking up to find yourself next to someone a bit dodgy from Tamworth 'Low Level'. Popped into the office for a free coffee and to work out where I'd be going in Brighton. Wonder what scale Google maps is and whether Brighton is walkable or a taxi type place. Raid petty cash just in case.

Then down to Victoria, admiring the beautiful girls through Oxford Circus. Grooming takes a leap in W1. At Victoria station, they have sectioned off the departure boards so that you can't easily find the next train to Brighton. Not as simple as Euston, I sniff. The South West trains look crowded and a bit grim when it pulls in, but is not too bad once empty. No plug points, but I had anticipated this limitation of the short distance trains and charged accordingly. The commuters do leave a library of Metros and Argus Metros, but these are swiftly cleared away.

Surprised by the river and Battersea Power station, and then on through the suburbs to Croydon. Croydon East in fact, 'home of Nestle UK'. Much like Stoke, Croydon never can escape slightly unsavoury connotations though it does benefit fromm some beautiful countryside around, much like Stoke.

By 1015 we are in pheasant country! And it is still leafy and autumnal, though the weather was not quite as sunny as I was hoping for a visit to the seaside. We're also, I think, in Quaker country, I recognise a few of station names and wave to some subscribers.

In Brighton, nice station. Shocked that the rather stroppy taxi driver didn't know where I was going, despite the place looking so civilised. But in the end I arrive at Solutions Inc, a temple to Apple, and spend five delightful hours hearing about Xserv Raid and Leopard Server. Between all the incomprehensible sentences, pick up some extremely exciting tips on the dusty corners of my Panther server which have never been poked into before - and then learn that most of them will work best only if I get an upgrade to Tiger at least. Wonder if 3,000 pounds is an inconcievable amount to sneak into next year's IT budget for the joys of iChat and computers that look just the same wherever they are logged into, which would save considerable amounts of confusion for those of us for whom a different Mac spells utter alienation. Decide that it probably is (inconcievable, that is), but that a Leopard upgrade may fit very nicely into our online strategy, what with its inclusive website/wiki/blog server, automated podcast (Talking Friend) creator and many other toys with animal icons.

And enjoy enough free latte to keep me going to the evening.

Back to London, persuading a fellow seminar attender who has moved to Croydon that he'd be just as happy in Stoke with a quarter of the mortgage. Have by now decided that the diversion to Birmingham, while desirable, can be put off. On the tube, the glamorous girls haven't stood up too well to a full day in the office which makes me wonder why they took the time in the first place. Unless they've actually spent the day pacing Regent Street as they appear.

On the 5.05 back to Stoke, bump into Joan Walley, Our MP, while charging through first class. Run through the trials and tribulations of regeneration in Burslem (main hotel - featured in many an Arnold Bennet as the Dragon - shut down, few traders left bereft of customers, but at least there's room for improvement) and plot a trip up for London's youth to see the delights that the Mother Town has to offer. Be warned, London friends. I complain about the local councillors, a new favourite theme which I've only blogged about in passing so far. but, oh, there's so much more to say.

Back at Stoke, the 'revolving ticket barrier' (six uniformed guards) isn't going down too well with those who think they should only be stopped if they are young and/or dark-skinned and I observe the pitfalls of being an MP: recognisable and automatically to blame for everything bad in Stoke (but nothing good). 200 jobs to go at Spode, says the Sent'null, cheerily welcoming us back.

In all, a very enjoyable ramble round Britain, if not the countryside, sorry Arnold. While I regret not adding Birmingham to Burslem and Brighton, a nice day with plenty of familiar faces.