I’ve been writing for this esteemed publication each week now for more than six years, and during that time I’ve tackled all manner of different things from politics to art, football to buildings, and always with an emphasis on our part of the world.
Often developments occur which take me back to things I’ve written and leave me happy that my instincts were right or leave me looking like a doofus. However, sometimes things aren’t so clear-cut.
The towns versus cities debate has been rumbling on for some time now, and in more recent times the debate has got louder.
Following December’s General Election, towns are now perceived to have more political importance, particularly those in former ‘Red Wall’ areas, but much of the talk in terms of serious investment and devolution has been around the bigger cities.
This has taken me back to one of the first columns that I wrote for The Sentinel back in 2014 in response to a local retail study that had been undertaken that ‘downgraded’ two of the Potteries’ six town centres.
In response, I wrote that Stoke-on-Trent was six towns but one city, but that the six town centres would always be seen as town centres, no matter what a retail consultant had to say.
And this brings us directly to where Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire sits in terms of the current agenda, and, to be quite frank, how we ought to pitch ourselves as a place.
The City of Stoke-on-Trent is a relatively modern construct. There was an early proposal for federation in 1888 which would have seen each of the six towns become a district but brought together within a county of the ‘Staffordshire Potteries’.
Of course, the inevitable happened in 1910 when the six towns were brought together as a county borough.
Around a decade later, the new borough looked to take in neighbouring Newcastle, Wolstanton, and Kidsgrove, a proposal that was strongly resisted and ultimately led to Wolstanton being added to Newcastle.
However, in 1922 Smallthorne and other rural parishes were added to the county borough of Stoke-on-Trent, and in 1925, the borough applied to the Home Office for city status.
The application was rejected, but the borough appealed directly to King George V, who agreed Stoke-on-Trent should be a city.
The King visited the Potteries on June 4, 1925 when he formally granted Stoke-on-Trent city status.
Neighbouring Newcastle has a much longer history. The town itself has Roman roots and became a major market town in medieval times.
It became a municipal borough in 1835, with some expansion in the 1920s and in 1974, and has been fiercely independent of its more urban neighbour, though in practical terms, both Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle are one place.
Do we pitch ourselves as two distinct independent places?
Or do we reflect the realities of economic geography? Do we paint ourselves as a city? Or as a polycentric city region?
Despite talking itself up as a major player and future ‘core city’, Stoke-on-Trent has benefited from playing the towns card over the past few months, securing funding for Stoke-upon-Trent Town Centre from the Government’s Towns Fund, while many local people are proud and very protective of their particular town.
And on the horizon, we have the Government’s Devolution White Paper, which may well present big opportunities for towns, though I must admit to having some concerns already. The white paper should be heavily influenced by localities. What it definitely shouldn’t be is a one-size-fits-all Whitehall straitjacket, otherwise it will be a complete contradiction and lead to debacle.
We need the white paper to allow places to come up with solutions that respond to their needs and challenges in locally driven ways, and that would open the door for places like Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire.
And so, we need to be on the front-foot when it comes to shaping and responding to the white paper, and you’d like to think that the current political make-up of North Staffordshire would allow us to do this, and redefine what our place is in the 21st Century.
But back to Stoke-on-Trent, are we six towns or one city? Or both? I guess that depends on who the audience is, I guess. A wilderness of mirrors, a policy of strategic ambiguity.