Monday, 29 September 2014

The art of regeneration

What does the city centre need to blow away the cobwebs of neglect and turn it into the place to be for groovy metropolitan types? A chumbrella of course; no I’d never heard of one before either.

This is less of a surprise than maybe it should be since the chumbrella has just been invented by Stone based artist Sarah Nadin. It’s all part of the Beneath the Pavement project, a clever wheeze costing £11,000 and funded by Appetite to involve the city’s burgeoning arts industry in driving regeneration.

As part of this a team of artists have got together to put forward a slate of proposals including creating a city garden housed in ‘geo-domes’ for visitors and shoppers to enjoy, offering vacant shops in the town centre to artists on short term lets and siting large photographic installations around the city to celebrate its distinctive architecture.

Sarah Nadin told the Sentinel on Friday that she got the idea for the chumbrella from sharing an umbrella with a fellow artist, an experience that made her realise had ‘something about it as a way to make people talk with each other more.’

Also speaking to the Sentinel Anna Francis of the AirSpace gallery said of the project, ‘we need to see artists included in the conversation about what’s being done in the city centre,’ adding that if regeneration is left to ‘developers and money men city centres can end up looking like anywhere else,’ and that ‘artists have a different way of looking at things.’

Public art; don’t you just love it? There is nothing better for stirring up a little light controversy; you can just imagine the massed spluttering of outrage prompted by project chumbrella. Disgusted of Heron Cross won’t know what to get into a tizzy about first, the waste of £11,000 or the mangling of the English language involved.

The thing about public art of course is that yesterday’s hideous carbuncle is often tomorrow’s cultural icon; either that or it just gets forgotten. Consider the fuss made way back in the long ago about ‘A Man Can’t Fly’, not least because his failure to achieve take off might have had something to do with the drag factor coming into play, these days both the man in question and his most prominent feature are routinely ignored by passing motorist.

That will probably the fate of anything that comes from the Beneath the Pavement project, some of their ideas are good, others will never get off the drawing board; which is a shame since I’d love to see a geo-dome in Hanley.

I wouldn’t though dismiss what they’re trying to do out of hand, not least because I agree with Anna Francis that we need voices other than those of business interests involved in the conversation about regeneration. Otherwise we really will end up as just another clone town, actually that may be happening anyway.

Turning the conversation about regeneration into a monologue involving what we might call the money interest alone has given us the expensive money pit that is the Smithfield project and a civic centre the public didn’t want; but will pay through the nose for anyway. Nationally it has led to the building of two huge aircraft carriers to project a power we no longer possess around the globe.

Projects like Beneath the Pavement have the virtue of at least trying to work with the public, because, after all, without an audience art doesn’t exist. Where I would criticise it is that, like so many regeneration projects it seems to have been created by people who believe Hanley to be the centre of the universe.

As the city’s economic centre and soon to be its political one too Hanley will always do well, at least it will if business is left to get on with things and take its own risks as with the successful expansion of the Potteries Centre. What a contrast to the City Sentral fiasco, over which the council have fussed like a mother hen producing, so far, nothing at all in the way of results.

Where the ability of the arts to bring people together from all sections of the community to express their views and creativity is most needed is in relation to the other five towns. The conventional wisdom is that they should be side-lined at best and at worst ignored altogether and everything should be focussed on one centre; that is dangerous bunkum.

It means ignoring our unique selling point, that we are six towns brought together into one city, we are proud of our shared identity and those things that make us unique. That as much as handing things over to the bean counters and money men is the royal road to making our town into a clone town.

It’s hard not to warm to Appetite, not least because much of what they do is engagingly eccentric, but I would suggest to them that the secret to being creative often lies in being willing to rip things up and start again. That’s what we need to do with plans to revive all six towns making up this remarkable city.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scots referendum shows the way to a society where everyone gets a seat on the train.

Last week getting onto a train back from Birmingham I turned the wrong way and entered the first class coach by mistake; not a smart move.

You can imagine the scene; there I am gawping with surprise at seeing so many unoccupied seats, whilst the air fills with a polite murmur of distaste. I say, poor show what; the fellow looks like he bought his furniture, hardly the sort of person we want in first class.

Being someone what knows his place and pausing only to give my forelock a good tug I trotted off back to cattle class pronto, there to spend the rest of the journey crammed in nose to armpit with my fellow plebs.

There’s something else what I know too, that the rolling shambles of our train service proves that TUC chief Frances O’Grady was onto something when she said Britain was at risk of becoming a ‘Downton Abbey’ society. The only point where I disagree is that there is no risk about it, we’re already one; and always have been.

Quite a few people reading this will probably be snorting derisively right now, what lefty rubbish, they’ll say. Ours is a ‘classless society’, as proclaimed by John Major of all people, a Tory prime minister who also happened to come from humble origins.

It is, at best a convenient myth, one that my experience aboard that train helps to explode.

Trains, or rather the waves of workers who arrive at a London railway station aboard them every morning form one of the key metaphors in George Orwell’s famous essay about the class system. First come the cheery tabloid reading artisans, then the fussy little clerks clutching copies of the Daily Express and last of all the governing classes with copies of the Times and the Daily Telegraph that were ironed for them by their butler.

The image has always seemed a little too rosy to me, although I’m willing to cut Orwell some slack since he was writing during a war when we really were all in it together, if only in the interests of survival. Personally I favour the far bleaker vision of the class system put forward by Owen Jones, the closest thing our age has to George Orwell. The class war is raging more fiercely than ever and the working and middle classes are losing on every front.

The train has the power to be the ultimate democratic mode of transport and yet we have made out of opportunity a dispiriting shambles where legroom is sold like a class A drug. Last month I joined a protest outside Stoke station against the latest sky high hike in train fares, not one of the people we approached refused to take the postcards we were handing out.

This wasn’t the ‘angry mob’ stereo-typing says would support our protest, these were the sort of people governments of all stripes have courted for the past thirty years. A left wing cause like renationalising the railways resonating with Middle England, surely that’s impossible; don’t you believe it.

At long last the penny has dropped, or it’s starting to anyway, and the people in what used to be the middle class are starting to see they have common cause with those one rung below. The opposition between the striving and the skiving looks ever more like a convenient fiction dreamed up by the political elite.

Both groups have been sold a pup, the aspiration they are goaded into striving for is really just racking up ever more debt in a mad race to keep up with the Jonses, rather than progressing through the force of their efforts they’re splashing like mad to keep their heads above water. As they do so they’re haunted by the fear their kids will likely drown anyway.

The reason we got into this sorry mess is quite simple, the elite long ago learnt that an indebted populace is easy to control because it is too busy worrying how to make ends meet to pay attention to what they’re up to and are endlessly open to falling for the oldest trick in the political play book; divide and rule.

Up to date it has worked because there hasn’t seemed to be an alternative, now there is and it has given our complacent political elite the biggest shock of their comfortable little lives and it had been provided by the campaign around the Scottish independence referendum. The extent to which they have been rattled was demonstrated last week when the three party leaders abandoned the weekly playground squabble of PMQ’s to head north to campaign for a no vote, an exercise that couldn’t have been more absurd had they made the trip in a clown car.

What has scared the political elite so much isn’t the prospect of Scotland becoming independent, all politicians are pragmatists at heart and are adept at rolling with the punches thrown by events, is that the campaign has created a political discourse that is the opposite of the one they usually have with the British public. Their usual tactics of smothering debate with a mix of threats, cheap sentiment and vague promises has fallen flat; they’re in a blue funk and don’t know what to do.

This is because either by accident or design a potentially dull constitutional issue has been turned into a debate over what it means to be Scottish and what sort of shared future the people of the country want. Not surprisingly the market driven, everyone for themself model of the past thirty years is running a distant second to having an open and egalitarian society on Scandinavian lines; who’d have thought it? Not a bunch of professional politicians with firsts in PPE from Oxbridge apparently.

This campaign has engaged the Scottish public in a way that nothing since maybe the 1945 general election has, whatever the result tomorrow things will never be the same again. Even if the Better Together campaign wins the day for the status quo by a narrow margin the people who have held power for centuries will no longer be at ease in the old dispensation.

All of a sudden the idea that where Scotland leads the English regions could follow no longer seems like a woolly notion for bearded men wearing home knitted jumpers. Handled properly it could be our chance to have a meaningful debate about how we make the sort of society where everyone gets a seat on the train into a reality.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Parking the main issue as UHNS Chief meets local residents.

UHNS Chief Executive Mark Hackett met with members of the Hartshill and Basford PACT group on Monday night to hear the views of local residents.

It was my first encounter with Mr Hackett and after the antics of some of his colleagues the previous Wednesday I wasn’t, to say the least, disposed towards being generous to senior managers with the NHS. A point of view I found myself revising as the evening progressed.

First impressions seemed to confirm my prejudice; Mark Hackett breezed into the Nadim lecture theatre at the North Staffordshire Medical Institute looking every inch the sleek, suited chief executive with an old school tie and an air of self- importance.

The narrative he gave of his life and career to date provided the first clue that I should be a little less eager to jump to the first conclusion that came my way. Born in Kidderminster and educated at the local comp and then the LSE he said he had worked for the NHS since he was twenty one because he wanted to ‘give something back’ in return for the good education he’d received. Not sentiments you’d imagine most health bureaucrats expressing; it’s usually Eton and Oxbridge all the way with a side order of entitlement.

He went on to say he’d held four chief executive positions at different hospitals around the country before coming to Stoke, the last of these being in Southampton. Health services in Staffordshire were, he said, in need of leadership, and how since the UHNS treat a number of patients equivalent to the population of the entire city every year and the workload will only grow as services formerly based at the beleaguered Stafford Hospital move to Stoke.

Mr Hackett gave an outline of his ‘vision’ for the future of UHNS, saying that he wanted the hospital to become a world class provider of healthcare by 2025, making it the ‘best place for people to work, learn and do research.’ The focus on research would, he said, bring between £10million and £15milllion in extra funding over the coming decade.

This would make UHNS a centre for best practice bringing improved patient care delivered by highly motivated staff at the very top of their game. The hospital was, he said, already saving more lives than the national average and had a nurse to patient ration of six to one; good going by another national average.

Investment was also being made in stroke services, cardiology and buying new MRT and CT scanners. The hospital had taken a hit in recent months over waiting times in A&E, but, Mr Hackett said, patients rated the care they received as ‘good’. What was needed, he said, was for the public to be encouraged to use alternatives to A&E whenever possible.

All this was pretty much par for the course, you’d expect the chief executive of any large organisation to be able to run through the list of its achievements and recite the ‘vision’ for its future even if shaken awake in the middle of the night. What made Mr Hackett’s offering different was that it was a presentation rather than a speech and as such comfortingly dull and probably delivered straight.

There was none of the ‘spin’ I’d sat through the previous Wednesday, at no stage was one of his colleagues brought up to the lectern to emote in a cynical attempt to ‘connect’ with we little people. Incidentally Mr Hackett is rumoured not to be the biggest fan of the CCG’s plans for reforming cancer care.

He gave a, mostly, assured performance when the floor was opened to questions, the biggest of which was that of parking around the UNHS site. A shortage of places has driven staff, patients and visitors out into the surrounding streets with the sort of chaos you might expect. To his credit Mr Hackett listened patiently to several people making the same point with varying degrees of frustration and promised that the hospital management had plans in hand to put on more shuttle busses for staff and to open up additional parking spaces on the site of the old central outpatients.

Challenged about long waiting times for admission, nine hours in the experience of one questioner, he initially disappeared behind a smokescreen of acronyms. AMU, SAU, MAU; et al are pretty baffling for a reasonably healthy scribbler to grasp, someone who is sick and scared would be utterly bewildered. That said his promise to look into and try to improve the system seemed genuinely given.

His one big misstep came when asked about the campaign to keep services from being moved from Stafford to the UHNS, he said most of the public supported the move apart from a small but ‘vocal’ campaign group. The issues are rather more complicated than that and have as much to do with the idea of having an NHS that is free for all as what gets done where.

This aside Mark Hackett did seem to be genuinely interested in engaging with the public, as opposed to handing down his pronouncements and expecting us all to be suitably grateful. That is sufficiently rare in senior NHS managers for him to be given the benefit of the doubt by even the most cynical observers.