Our city has six towns. Six unique centres, with six high streets and suburbs clustered around six distinct locations. To people from the Potteries, this is entirely normal. In fact, we are rightly proud of our city and the communities we are from. Ask a Stokie where they are from and they often might reply “Longton” or “Fenton”, rather than “Stoke-on-Trent”. Sometimes we do not appreciate how unique this is, how important it is to our identity as a place and how different it can be to those who did not grow up locally.
As someone who has lived in the city my whole life, I am proud to represent all our communities in the south of the city. This uniqueness should be a cause for celebration and we should make the most of what is different about our city, but we also do need to recognise the challenges we face. All too often I hear people tell me that they feel they and their area are always overlooked, and that it seems sometimes that Hanley is the only town which matters.
Of course, Hanley is our City Centre and the main commercial centre of Stoke-on-Trent, but I do not believe that this should or needs to be at the sacrifice of our other town centres. We should celebrate the unique aspects of each of our towns and use this as a platform to build upon so that all our communities have the chance to thrive.
We need a clear vision about the strengths of each town. Did you know, for instance, that of the 47 remaining bottle-kilns in Stoke-on-Trent, more than half are in the south of the city and most of these are in Longton. Amongst these is the iconic Gladstone Victorian Pottery Museum, where a number remain and is such an important part of our heritage.
It is fantastic that we have recently secured a ‘Heritage Action Zone’ for Longton, which is focused on securing more of these important sites within the town. It promises to put more funds into maintaining and making better use of Longton’s industrial heritage. It will also encourage more private investment into the town to bring more redundant sites back into use.
As I made clear in the debate on housing and homes in the House of Commons Chamber recently, encouraging new investment, bringing derelict sites and buildings back into use is frequently not easy in Stoke-on-Trent. Often far too much attention is focused on an overheating property market in London and the South-East, yet we can face just as many challenges. We have some of the lowest property values in the country and whilst in some senses this can be a good thing, it does mean the return on investment in new development or refurbishing existing premises can be lower than other areas, deterring investors.
Changing shopping habits too, have resulted in shops in our town centres standing empty. We cannot continue to allow these premises to decay and I want to see them back in use. To achieve this, we must find new alternative uses. It means overcoming challenges to find solutions that will encourage conversion and refurbishment to alternative commercial or residential use. In many cases this will require some incentive, especially where we have properties in a dilapidated state or sites that may be polluted from former industrial use where costs of redevelopment will be high.
Just as with Longton, in Fenton there are several examples of redundant brownfield sites and empty properties, which, with the right push, could become valuable housing developments for the community. Through its own housing company, Fortior Homes, the City Council has begun to develop sites which would otherwise have been left derelict and I hope to see sites in Fenton benefit from this soon.
It is initiatives like this, through the Heritage Action Zone in Longton and Fortior Homes in Fenton, that we can see improvements to our town centres. These measures will help to boost confidence and encourage further private investment. This is a good start but there is still lots more to do to ensure our communities can flourish.
I am proud of all six of our towns, but especially Longton and Fenton, which I have the honour to represent in Parliament. Our towns will not be forgotten and I will continue to push for investment to come into these towns.
This article appeared originally in The Sentinel, on Monday 28th May 2018.