As the Government has placed accelerating growth in our major cities at the heart of the plans to rebuild the economy, smaller cities and towns and their local authorities have been wrestling with budget cuts and scaled-back public services.
Stoke-on-Trent is firmly in this boat. As the Government lays its economic eggs in the baskets of London, the South East, and the major provincial cities, where does Stoke-on-Trent fit in? Stoke-on-Trent does not appear to be high on the list of the Government’s priorities, though this may change as the City Deals are rolled-out to other cities. Given the Tories’ historic ambivalence towards the Potteries, this should not come as a surprise.
The governance of Stoke-on-Trent has seemed to be under constant scrutiny and change, from the creation of the City of Stoke-on-Trent, the City Council becoming a unitary authority, shaking off the influence of Staffordshire County Council, through to the dominance of the Labour party, and introduction and subsequent abandonment of the Elected Mayor alongside the rise and fall of the BNP. The story of the city’s governance can be told by the host of town halls throughout the Potteries, a story covered at length on other pages of thepotteries.org.
postcard c.1905 of Tunstall Town Hall in better days
One of the city’s finest town halls
– and most neglected – can be found in Tunstall, at the heart of the town centre, and was the work of the prolific A.R. Wood. The town hall is the symbol of Tunstall, and it is also a symbol of the town’s decline, but although the building is in a terrible state, it is a still a dominant and reassuring presence, towering over the High Street and Tower Square.
The building was the town’s second town hall, completed in 1885, ahead of Tunstall becoming an urban district. A Neo-Renaissance masterpiece in brick and ashlar stone, it was described by Pevsner as being “ill defined”, but provides the eastern extremity of Tower Square with an excellent set piece. The building was designed to also incorporate two banking premises, a covered market hall to the rear, and a parade of shops fronting the High Street, and early example of a mixed-use development.
Today, Tunstall Town Hall continues to rot, a situation that is unlikely to change in this era of public austerity. It has been in an appalling condition for over twenty years, but the mistreatment of the building is nothing new: the insertion of shop frontages out of character with the building was initially allowed years ago, and they continue to be a horrible disfigurement to this day.
The building is crying out for a sustainable new use, and whilst the adjoining blots-on-the-landscape Jasper Square and Alexandra Park hum with activity, Wood’s civic masterpiece stands almost silent. It is very sad, and a disgraceful waste of an important public resource.
disfigured frontage of Tunstall Town Hall
So what does the future hold for Tunstall and its town hall? I believe that the aforementioned City Deals could offer a glimmer of hope.
The distribution of economic activity in the Potteries influenced the form of the city, its linear structure, and the growth of that structure in-turn influenced the economy of the city until the collapse of industry and mass manufacturing. This has led to a continued search for a distinct, defined role for each of the Potteries’ Six Towns. The recent excellent masterplan by URBED could define a distinct role for Stoke, but what about the rest?
I believe that the answer
could be in the new localist agenda. There is a democracy deficit in Stoke-on-Trent. The City Council is a unitary authority (as opposed to the two tier structure in the rest of North Staffordshire), and therefore there is not as much political scrutiny, and a lack of leadership for each of the Six Towns. This lack of democratic scrutiny reached its peak just over a decade ago when all 60 seats were taken by Labour. As has been pointed out previously, the city has many civic buildings across the Six Towns that no longer have a use or a purpose.
Could it be that a new layer of democracy, the creation of a Town Council for each of the Six Towns, could provide the additional political scrutiny that is necessary? At the same time, each Town Council could set a vision for its town, and also provide the leadership that each town is so obviously lacking. And those under utilised and neglected public buildings could find themselves with the new uses they are crying out for.
This may appear to go against the grain with the Government pushing for Elected Mayors in major cities, a political regime that Stoke-on-Trent embraced then rejected. However, Manchester has rejected the Elected Mayor approach, and Stoke-on-Trent is different to most other cities, and therefore a bespoke solution to civic leadership is required and the city should not be subject to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ response.
But would there be an appetite amongst the people of Stoke-on-Trent for such change? Although the Elected Mayor system was eventually rejected in the Potteries, the fact that the system was agreed in the first place demonstrates that political change is acceptable to the people. The politicians of the city complained that the Elected Mayor system marginalised them and their influence, and this message was communicated clearly to their electorate. This clearly would not be the case with a Town Council arrangement.
If there is a drawback with the Town Council approach, it is with vested political interests and undue influence. I was previously a Town Councillor in Biddulph, which is controlled by Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and Staffordshire County Council. The Town Council in Biddulph contains a large membership of that are also District and/or County Councillors, and this also repeated in Leek and Cheadle, the other towns in Staffordshire Moorlands.
Therefore in practice, the members of the Town Council in Biddulph do not act independently (or if they do, they then clear off to Leek and Stafford and do the opposite), and the Council Chamber is often a political background for political interests at District and County level. If such a system was to work in Stoke-on-Trent, it would be vital that such conflicts weren’t repeated. Is there a way of ensuring that this wouldn’t occur? Does legislation allow a Town Council’s constitution to prevent this? Can the tools be found in the new Localism Act?
Could a new layer of democracy in the Potteries form the basis of a City Deal for Stoke-on-Trent?
There have been stirrings over in Fenton about the creation of a town council for the city’s ‘forgotten town’, but this could be a major boost for each of the Six Towns, including Tunstall, and a new, sustainable use for Tunstall Town Hall could be found, and maybe then a town’s shame can become a symbol of a civic renewal, civic pride, a new Tunstall.