Council leaders want the public to take ‘ownership’ of the new Civic Centre being built at the heart of Hanley’s Smithfield central business district.
Councillors want residents to see the multi-coloured Smithfield 1 building, due to be handed over by the developers early next year as a public space and not just civic offices. The building will house a café and the relocated Hanley library along with a police desk and meeting rooms available for public use.
Olwen Hamer, cabinet member for customer service, told the Sentinel the new approach was ‘all about getting people in to the building. This isn’t just a council building; it belongs to everyone in Stoke-on-Trent.’
She added that getting members of the public to use the Civic Centre would be a ‘reminder to councillors and officers that they work for the people, as well as showing residents that we are here to serve them.’
Councillor Hamer is one of the more capable members of the cabinet and has always, hitherto anyway, impressed me as an independent minded woman; so it is surprising to hear her giving voice to such platitudes. Then again party loyalty can force even the most reasonable people to take up some unlikely postures.
It is a truism to say that local people ‘own’ the new Civic Centre; they’re paying through the nose for it too. What they don’t have ownership of, and they really should, is the fractured political system that let it be built in the first place.
Far from being a symbol of a council that serves the public Smithfield is a massive multi-coloured monument to one that rides roughshod over their wishes. Had the council listened to local people, many of whom took to the streets to make their point; it would never have been built.
At a time when public services are dying a death of a thousand cuts spending £55 million on new council offices simply can’t be justified. The claim advanced by the council that by being the ‘anchor tenant’ in Smithfield they are acting to kick start the city’s regeneration seems permanently stuck in a mire of inactivity.
We are told repeatedly that talks with potential private sector tenants are ‘on-going’ and maybe even ‘advanced.’ What we aren’t told is who these prospective tenants might be, largely because, you suspect, developers Gener8 haven’t been able to identify any.
Speaking to the Sentinel council leader Mohammed Pervez said ‘until such time as some other business commits to the city centre, it will always be a difficult sell for me to say that coming here was the right thing to do.’
A difficult sell; I’d say it was an all but impossible one. Building a massive development using borrowed money and in the teeth of public opposition was always a gamble and like most gambles one where the odds are fixed against the person throwing the dice.
At some level even the members of the cabinet knew that Smithfield is a project doomed to fail, you can’t attract investment just by building yet more office space. Unfortunately the peculiar group think that operates within local Labour circles silenced the voice of common sense.
Whether the public take ‘ownership’ of the new Civic Centre hardly matters, they will have the debt for building it hanging around their necks for years to come. What we really need to do is take ownership of our neglected democracy.
For too long a Labour Party that has grown complacent through years of unchallenged power has taken local people for granted, taking their votes and giving nothing back in return. The end result is a Civic Centre the city doesn’t need and the public don’t want, it might also saddle us with a costly judicial review over HS2 that is more about bolstering the egos of the leadership that bringing investment to the city.
We need to look beyond the tired status quo to find alternative parties and personalities who will speak with the voice of local people not that of a London based political elite who see Stoke as just another branch office.
This article is dedicated to the memory of my father William (Bill) Colclough 1929-2014