Monday, 25 February 2013

People power in action.

‘Are you going on the march later?’ the young man from the Socialist Party collections signatures outside Poundland is almost touchingly grateful when I say that I am. It’s early in the day but he already looks like a man who has faced more than his fair share of apathy.

I’d got into Hanley early in order to take in a little of the ‘colour’ of a town that is the economic heart of Stoke-on-Trent and the focus of most efforts to regenerate the city. They hadn’t, from what I could see, bourn much fruit.

There are several major chain stores in the town, M&S and Primark being probably the biggest names and no shortage of discount retailers. The Pound Bakery is only a short walk from Poundland, you can get a lot for a pound in a city like Stoke; its just there aren’t as many pounds to go around these days.

In the Potteries Centre, a 1980’s shopping arcade that hulks over the town like a medieval castle, the fronts of empty units are covered over with huge pictures of models with eight foot wide smiles frolicking on a beach that seems a world away from the chilly February day outside. Those shops that are open have ‘sale’ signs plastered over their windows and the handful of customers milling about inside seem to be doing more looking than buying.

Broad Street, the proposed location of the Central Business District (CBD), to which Stoke-on-Trent City Council plans to move the Civic Centre, has a bit of colour of its own. Predominantly that of brick dust from small businesses that have been swept away to make room for the project mixed with the garish pastel colours of the signs telling passing motorists that what is in effect a corporate land grab has been enacted as part of the council’s ‘Mandate for Change.’

The problem is the council don’t actually have a mandate for what they’re doing; the plan which could cost upwards of £40million of mostly borrowed money has been pushed through without consulting the public. At a time when the council has slashed its budget by £21million this year alone this has left local residents as mad as hell and not willing to take it any more.

The march that is the latest public manifestation of their anger is to start from a former school now used as the offices of the North Staffordshire African Caribbean Association, when I arrive at a little after eleven it is a scene of mildly eccentric chaos. There are a lot of people milling around wearing paper elephant masks, to sent the message that the new Civic Centre is a white elephant, a woman strolls past dressed as an undertaker, Stoke RIP reads the band around her tall black hat; there are even a couple of anarchists holding placards reading ‘Down with this sort of thing’ and ‘Careful now.’

When the march eventually moves off it is led by a man banging two metal dustbin lids together and a little further back in the column another man shouts into a megaphone.

‘What do we want?’


‘When do we want it?’


The responses are ragged and hesitant at first then grow stronger as people get into the spirit of things.

‘Council!’, shouts megaphone man, the ‘Boo!’ solicits from the marchers is loud enough to rattle windows on the other side of the street.

It is only as we reach Hanley Park that the column trudging good naturedly along behind a huge elephant mask made from crepe paper and garden cane that I realise quite how many people are taking part in the march. By the time we reach Stoke Station the unofficial figure has passed the two thousand mark, far in excess of anything the organisers had envisaged.

There are several people on the march who have been involved with the local political scene in one form or another for years, but most are just ordinary residents angry at being taken for granted by the council. Passing cars honk their support and even those motorists held up as we pass smile and wave; it is clear that the march has tapped into a deep well of resentment and given it a temporary focus.

Two questions continue to nag away at the back of my mind, will the council take any notice of this very public display of disapproval and can the organisers of the march keep the momentum going?

The answer to the former is, sadly, that they won’t, partly because the juggernaut of moving the Civic Centre is impossible to stop at this late stage; but mostly because the ruling Labour Group seems to operate under a sort of bunker mentality. They have hitched their fortunes to the ‘Mandate for Change’ and lack to imagination to depart from the rigid course it sets out.

Whether the organisers can keep the momentum going is less clear. They have to walk a fine line between opposing the move of the Civic Centre and supporting the regeneration of the city, it is also unclear how well the cheerful eccentricity of the campaign so far would stand up to the dark cynicism of day to day politics.

I hope they can though because they have managed with little in the way of resources to give a positive voice to public dissatisfaction with way politics works in this troubled city.

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