David Proudlove's
critique of the built environment of Stoke-on-Trent


previous: The family silver...

High Street Blues


The plight of the nation’s town centres and traditional High Streets made headlines recently with the publication of a report by the Local Data Company. 

With working on plans to rejuvenate a number of town centres, and also being interested in the future of our town centres – particularly the Six Towns of my beloved Potteries – I was anxious to get my hands on a copy of the report. On visiting the Local Data Company’s website, I was disappointed that I couldn’t download a copy; however, I could order a copy – if I had over £1,000 spare…luckily, the Guardian provided a handy summary, and so had obviously splashed out on the report. Perhaps that’s why the paper went up by 20p not too long afterwards…



Some of the statistics produced by the Local Data Company paint a very bleak picture: one in seven shops on our High Streets are vacant, and in the more depressed locations, the vacancy rate is one in three. The worst hit small town is Leigh Park, near Portsmouth, whilst the worst performing large town centres are Blackpool and Stockport respectively, with vacancy rates over 25%, whilst of medium sized town centres, both Dudley and West Bromwich have vacancy rates of almost 30%.

'retailers such as Woolworths disappearing forever'
'retailers such as Woolworths disappearing forever'

Woolworths in Campbell Place, Stoke, Stoke-on-Trent - 28 December 2008


The reason for the decline of our High Streets and town centres is a complex cocktail of changing consumer habits, planning policies and poor town centre management by local authorities. 

For more than twenty years, shoppers have deserted High Streets for out-of-town malls and megastores very often only accessible by car, with planning policies often supporting and encouraging such development, whilst the Internet Generation often prefer to shop on-line from the comfort of their homes, avoiding the declining and often hostile environment that many town centres present these days. 

The current economic crisis has only exacerbated matters, with traditional High Street retailers such as Woolworths disappearing forever.

Earlier this year, the Government appointed Retail Guru Mary Portas to prepare a plan to deliver the resurgence of Britain’s town centres and High Streets: the Local Data Company report highlights just how deep rooted the problems are, and the enormity of the task ahead. Portas’ report is due anytime; the Nation’s Shopkeepers wait with baited breath.

In the Potteries we are well acquainted with such problems: we have them, but multiplied by six. 

Add the town centres of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Kidsgrove, Biddulph, Leek, and Cheadle, and it is clear to see that North Staffordshire faces some serious challenges.

Those challenges are illustrated perfectly by the experiences of Tunstall and Biddulph.

By the late 1980s, Tunstall was hurtling head-long into serious decline: much of the town centre’s accommodation was considered unfit for modern purposes; the town centre environment was grim and intimidating; the new retail-led development at Festival Park loomed large; and the pottery industry – which had large representation in and around the town centre at the time, at Grindley’s and Wedgwood’s who occupied the Alexandra Pottery – started to shed jobs at an alarming rate. 

Confidence in the town plummeted, and fell even further when Grindley’s eventually closed their doors.

the Alexandra Works, Tunstall in 2000
the Alexandra Works, Tunstall in 2000

During the 1990s, plans began to emerge to deal with Tunstall’s degeneration: planning policies were put in place to ‘expand the town centre’ to the east of the High Street (or to build an out-of-town retail park in Plain English), allocating sites such as the aforementioned Grindley’s and Alexandra Pottery sites, and the former Unicorn Pottery site for retail and leisure-led mixed-use development; the City Council secured cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund to renovate the market, and the Single Regeneration Fund for town centre improvements, and moved forward with plans to build the Tunstall Northern By-Pass – not recognising the conflict and irony in pressing on to construct a road designed to relieve congestion in Tunstall whilst encouraging new development adjacent to the town centre which would attract more traffic onto the area’s roads…

Jasper Square
the shopping centre sign falling to bits by January 2009
(still not repaired - Nov 2011)

No doubt spurred on by the ‘success’ of Festival Park, this led to the City Council to encourage and approve the development of the Asda superstore off Woodland Street, and Dransfield Property’s monstrous and soulless out-of-town sheds – home to the usual out-of-town suspects such as Matalan, Next and Pizza Hut – which incredibly managed to win an award for ‘innovative design’ from the North Staffordshire Regeneration Zone (presumably because it had nothing to compete with…). 

The argument that no doubt convinced officers to recommend the plans to elected members to approved was probably Trickle Down Theory: people will flock to the new development, and then on to the High Street. 

The demolition of the Alexandra Pottery was a particular sad loss, with the developer paying lip service to the history of the site by christening their appalling scheme Jasper Square and Alexandra Park, and providing a piece of public art – a huge stainless steel sculpture of a shard of pottery discovered whilst turning an historic site to dust.

The one ‘name’ left on Tunstall High Street is Burtons
The one ‘name’ left on Tunstall High Street is Burtons


The Asda and Dransfield schemes have thrived: the stores teem with shoppers, and local roads struggle to cope with traffic, despite the subsequent opening of the Tunstall Northern By-Pass…but as Trickle Down Theory has been proven to be flawed in respect of the economy, so it has also been proven to be flawed in respect of the new developments in Tunstall drawing people onto the High Street: vacancy rates are through the roof, and the majority of High Street units that are occupied are depressing and unattractive, with the High Street’s offer now seemingly artery-hardening food and snacks, cheap booze, cigarettes, and second-hand goods, whilst the town centre environment has once again spiralled back to the bleak and grim days of the late 1980s.

The second-to-last nail in the coffin of the out-of-town apologists’ arguments was hammered home just recently when Boots left their traditional High Street location in Tunstall to join the Alexandra Park bandwagon. The one ‘name’ left on Tunstall High Street is Burtons, and it is surely just a matter of time before they also jump ship, which would surely provide the final nail in the coffin of the out-of-town vs. town centre argument argument.


The state of Tunstall Town Hall presents an awful image
The state of Tunstall Town Hall presents an awful image

The one thing that defines Tunstall’s decline though is the condition of Tunstall Town Hall: it is an absolute disgrace, and has been for many years. The development of Jasper Square and Alexandra Park presented a great opportunity to find new sustainable uses for the Town Hall, and indeed, it could’ve been the centrepiece of a thoughtful, well planned and well designed development, providing a clear link to the High Street and Tower Square, and the opportunity for people to flow freely between the new development and the town’s traditional heart. Instead, the opportunity was either not recognised or ignored, and this beautiful building has been allowed to rot. The state of Tunstall Town Hall presents an awful image, and surely deters private investment in the High Street and wider town centre: if the local authority is not willing to properly invest, what encouragement is that to the private sector?

Hilda Sheldon's ‘Biddulph in Bloom’
Hilda Sheldon's ‘Biddulph in Bloom’

Over in Biddulph, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council also got hooked by out-of-town development, but with a special ‘town centre’ spin.

Just as Tunstall was suffering in the late 1980s, Biddulph also began to suffer due to the collapse of its traditional industries. Biddulph was a mining town, and when the Victoria Colliery closed, the impact was enormous. In addition, Biddulph is intrinsically a part of the Potteries conurbation – despite what local politicians of a certain persuasion may say and believe, and what red lines on maps define – so the town also suffered as industry in the Potteries declined; local people had less and less money in their pockets. Further still, the better ‘offer’ of nearby Congleton in affluent South Cheshire, and the more mainstream shopping on offer in the Potteries drew people away from Biddulph, blitzing the town’s High Street, having a terrible impact on the town centre environment. A further drag on the local environment was the fact that the main A527 between the Potteries and Congleton ran through the heart of the town, choking the High Street with congestion, and degrading environmental quality.

The decline of Biddulph Town Centre became a real concern for local people and businesses, so much so that one local resident took matters into her own hands and resolved to do something about it. Hilda Sheldon launched ‘Biddulph in Bloom’, and campaigned for a better Biddulph whilst ‘greening’ the local environment through the introduction of planting, hanging baskets, and floral displays. 

Biddulph in Bloom have since won numerous awards for their efforts, and Hilda has been awarded an MBE for her hard work. However, as welcome as Hilda and her team’s graft was (and still is), a few hanging baskets and planters were not going to deal with the town’s downward spiral and the fundamental causes behind this decline.


Biddulph town By-Pass
Biddulph town By-Pass
Google Street View

For many years local residents and politicians had campaigned for the construction of a by-pass around Biddulph to at least relieve the congestion on the High Street, and thus help to improve the town centre environment. However, despite the many calls for the new road to be built, and land being reserved within local plans for the purpose of the by-pass, it wasn’t until the election of the Labour Government in 1997 that things started to gather pace with the plans, with newly elected MP Charlotte Atkins fighting hard for the road to be prioritised by the Department of Transport, County Council and their partners.

As things began to move forward with the Biddulph By-Pass, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and Biddulph Town Council formed the Biddulph Regeneration Strategy Forum, and pulled together elected members and key officers from both the District and County Councils, representatives from the Biddulph Chamber of Trade, local residents, and voluntary organisations. Recognising that the construction of the new By-Pass would presented the ideal opportunity to rejuvenate the High Street and the wider town centre, the Forum was pulled together to help shape and develop a regeneration strategy for Biddulph Town Centre.

The work of the forum helped provide the evidence base for an Area Action Plan (AAP) for the town centre, as part of the emerging Staffordshire Moorlands Local Development Framework (LDF). It also formed the evidence for a submission to the Regional Development Agency Advantage West Midlands for funding for the Biddulph Market Town Initiative, a £1,000,000 scheme designed to regenerate the High Street. 

During this time, the Forum morphed into the Biddulph Partnership Executive, designed to oversee the Market Town Initiative, and – given the high-profile and ‘sexiness’ of regeneration at the time – was hijacked by local councillors who went on to use it as a political football. The Market Town Initiative was deemed to be a success: new paving was laid; projects by Biddulph in Bloom were funded; vacant shop units were tackled.

Sainsbury's Biddulph - Site Plan
Sainsbury's Biddulph - Site Plan

But the centrepiece of the AAP, and the town’s regeneration programme, was a new supermarket-led development off between the High Street and the new By-Pass. Sainsbury’s were appointed to deliver the project, which was portrayed as being the answer to Biddulph’s prayers. Sainsbury’s developed their proposals, which was to include a new, large supermarket – partly on stilts to enable the provision of undercroft car parking, and with an entrance onto the High Street – a series of other retail units along the High Street, and a new block of office space and apartments fronting the By-Pass on the corner of Wharf Road. The scheme would also enable the delivery of a new ‘transport interchange’, and fund a new one-way system and ‘public realm improvements’.

Sainsbury’s launched a ‘massive’ public consultation exercise in support of a planning application for the new development, and demonstrated that more than 80% of local residents supported their proposals. 

However, given that consultees were presented with a form with three boxes to tick – that they supported the scheme, didn’t support the scheme, or supported some of it – it could be argued that their methodology was deliberately skewed in order to provide a positive outcome.


Sainsbury's on Biddulph High Street
Sainsbury's on Biddulph High Street
Google Street View

The scheme was subsequently granted planning permission, and the store opened its doors for business in late 2010. However, the scheme has not been developed and delivered as originally envisaged: the proposed new block of offices and apartments has not been built – Sainsbury’s have argued that it was unviable in the current economic climate, an argument that is difficult to disagree with – the transport interchange is simply a couple of new bus stops and a small shed with some toilets that nobody uses; the public realm improvements are simply directly adjacent to the Sainsbury’s store; the new one-way system has proved confusing and frustrating to locals and visitors alike, and has largely benefited Sainsbury’s, making it easier for customers to arrive and depart from the car park of their new store. The new retail units along the High Street also remain vacant.

In addition, Sainsbury’s has not been the magic wand that would transform the High Street that local politicians hoped it would be. One of the main arguments behind the proposal was that it was a ‘town centre’ store. The idea was that because the store would have an entrance onto the High Street, people would arrive, do their weekly shopping, and then stroll into town to enjoy a coffee at Rijo’s, or possibly a couple of oatcakes from Povey’s. 

Nice theory, but the reality is that people don’t really want to load their shopping into their cars and leave their frozen food there defrosting while they grab a meat and potato pie from the Wright’s Pies shop. In addition, the Sainsbury’s store itself has a café, and so shoppers more often than not grab a coffee and a snack in there first before doing their shopping and clearing off home.

A few weeks after Sainsbury’s opened, the local newspaper – the Biddulph Chronicle – ran a headline story that the local Chamber of Trade had reported that trade on the High Street had dropped by 33% since the new store had started trading, and that some businesses were finding it very hard to compete. In a delicious irony, on the letters page of the same week’s edition of the paper was a lengthy screed from Councillor Andrew Hart – Portfolio Holder for Regeneration and Housing at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council – expressing how proud he was to have played a key role in bringing Sainsbury’s to Biddulph. If you were being mischievous, you could possibly turn that on its head and declare that Councillor Hart is really pleased to have further contributed to speeding up the slow death of Biddulph High Street…

At a subsequent meeting of the newly formed Biddulph Business Group in early 2011 (formed to replace the Biddulph Partnership Executive, which was axed following a fit of political pique from Councillor Hart, who – Shock! Horror! – is the Chair of this new Group), local residents and traders expressed concern at the further decline of the High Street following the opening of Sainsbury’s. These concerns were arrogantly dismissed by Councillor Hart and his Head of Regeneration, who – with sniggers and grins – suggested that the High Street was suffering due to the effects of the recession, and the particularly harsh weather conditions during November and December of the previous year. 

When asked how the new Sainsbury’s store was doing, the pair brazenly trumpeted just how well the store was performing, and that Sainsbury’s were absolutely delighted with the results to date. When it was pointed out that it was strange that Sainsbury’s were doing so well whilst the High Street was suffering, when – after all – they both had had to contend with the same economic and climatic conditions, Councillor Hart and his Head of Regeneration both seemed a little reluctant to answer any further questions on the matter.


Barclays Bank has closed its Biddulph branch
Barclays Bank has closed its Biddulph branch
Google Street View

In the months that have followed, Biddulph High Street has declined further: Barclays Bank has closed its Biddulph branch, and Lloyds TSB have announced that they are to leave the town; the former Co-op store has closed and reopened three times; one of the highest profile local independents – florist ‘Darling Buds of Biddulph’ – has closed its doors, unable to compete with Sainsbury’s. 

The town centre environment is heading back into decline, with much of the new paving damaged or replaced with patches of black top, with traffic congestion back on the rise, probably due the confusing nature of the new one-way system. The predominant function of the High Street is now to provide take away food, a place for locals to get their grooming needs addressed before going on to get inebriated, followed by more take away food. 

It is incredibly sad given that Biddulph Grange and Gardens just a mile up the road attracts thousands of visitors a year; I wonder how many of those are tempted on to visit Biddulph Town Centre afterwards?

the setting of the Nicholson War Memorial
the setting of the Nicholson War Memorial

You would think that Staffordshire Moorlands District Council may have learned lessons from their experiences on delivering regeneration in Biddulph. However, you would be wrong. Over in Leek, the Council are hoping that the building of a new supermarket-led development on the Churnet Works site will transform the fortunes of Leek Town Centre, yet this truly is an out-of-town site. Once again, Sainsbury’s are the supermarket chain of choice, and a key element of their proposals is the implementation of a controversial one-way system in the town centre, part of which would see the destruction of the setting of the Nicholson War Memorial.

If concerned locals would like to see the possible impact of this new proposal, they need only travel over the hills into Biddulph and take a good look around. Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again…and expecting different results”. Perhaps certain elected members at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council need a spell in therapy?

These are the challenges facing just three of North Staffordshire’s eleven principle town centres. So does North Staffordshire have too many town centres? Is it a case that some should simply be abandoned, with the local authority managing their decline? The answer in both cases should be a resounding “no”.

North Staffordshire doesn’t have too many town centres, but in all truth, North Staffordshire’s town centres probably have too much space that is allocated for retail purposes, and this is exacerbated by the current Use Classes Order, and the flexibilities and inflexibilities within it. This means that local planning authorities hang grimly onto the hope that their town centre policies will ensure retail space will be taken by a market that presses for out-of-town development and ensures an uneven playing field exists for smaller independent retailers, whilst being unable to prevent the boom of charity shops and take aways.

What town centres need is people. What has happened with the majority of town centres throughout North Staffordshire – and this is a particular problems with the Six Towns of the Potteries – is that they have lost people. 

In the Potteries we have seen historic and recent clearance of dense communities that will have supported their town centres, and dispersal to suburban areas where it is as easy to get to out-of-town locations – which usually have acres of free car parking – coupled with the decline of the city’s traditional industries, which have quite often been in town centre or edge of town centre locations.


Burslem - new housing built around the edge of the town centre
Burslem - new housing built around the edge of the town centre 

However, the local authorities’ response to these issues has either been poor or non-existent. The exception has been in Burslem. Following the closure of Royal Doulton’s works on Nile Street, there was much angst amongst local residents and councillors at the Mother Town’s decline, and the impact that the closure of Royal Doulton would have. Led by local MP Joan Walley, the Burslem Regeneration Company was formed to help formulate a strategy for Burslem. Development opportunities in the heart of the town centre were relatively constrained due to the historic nature of the town and its tightly drawn Conservation Area boundaries. However, the town’s heritage assets were identified as being key to the town’s future, and a masterplan was prepared to guide the future development of the town, and formed the basis of bids to draw in funding from sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. The other key element of the strategy was to introduce new uses into the town centre, and bring people back to Burslem. New housing was planned around the edge of the town centre (for example the new development on the former Sadler’s site off Greenhead Street), and Queen Street was to become a focus for creative businesses.

the renovated Burslem School of Art
the renovated Burslem School of Art 

Whilst Burslem still has problems to tackle, numerous projects have been delivered with some notable successes: Burslem School of Art has been renovated, creating studio and office space for artists and small businesses. Midland Heart has delivered two live/work schemes adjacent to the School of Art, providing high-quality business and residential accommodation. Two Townscape Heritage Initiatives have been delivered, renovating an impressive number of historic buildings throughout the town, helping to attract new businesses, and helping the viability of existing businesses. 

Burslem is heading in the right direction, but there is still much to do. It has been recognised that the town’s heritage and the introduction of new uses are the vital ingredients in rejuvenating the town centre. What needs to happen next is for the City Council and its partners to be bolder. It has to be recognised that there is still too much space aimed at retail uses; the retail core of the town needs to be consolidated, probably around St John’s Square and Queen Street, away from the heavy traffic that passes through the town. These areas could be utilised to build on the town’s burgeoning evening economy, with the introduction of further bars and restaurants. Further housing development is needed in and around the town (difficult in the current climate) to bring more people back to Burslem. And most importantly, continued support, management and leadership is required from the City Council.


Altrincham Forward – a strategy to help pull the town centre from its downward spiral
Altrincham Forward – a strategy to help pull the town centre from its downward spiral

This is the sort of approach that is being pursued and is working elsewhere. Altrincham is an attractive market town on the edge of the Cheshire Plain, around twelve miles from the centre of Manchester, and is the principal town centre of the Borough of Trafford. When the Local Data Company launched their town centre’s report in 2010, Altrincham was the worst performing medium sized town centre in the country, with a vacancy rate of over 30%, with its decline attributed to its close proximity to Manchester City Centre and the Trafford Centre, the perceived ‘higher-quality offer’ of nearby towns such as Wilmslow, and local competition such as the Altrincham Retail Park. 

This was shocking news to the local authority, who went on to form a group with local businesses and residents – Altrincham Forward – to devise a strategy to help pull the town centre from its downward spiral. The new strategy has identified a number of new development opportunities that will deliver significant change over the coming years. However, they also recognised the importance of the existing fabric of the town centre, and the public realm, as the ‘glue’ that will integrate these new developments into the town, and hold it all together. They have also examined good practice from elsewhere, and are actively promoting the introduction of new uses to the town centre. 

There is evidence that their new strategy is having a positive effect: in the past twelve months, vacancy rates have started to fall, and are now below 30% according to the Local Data Company, and Altrincham is no longer the worst performing town centre of its size – it is still in the top ten, highlighting that there is still much to do in Altrincham – but the positive progress over the past year demonstrates the potential,

The dubious honour of worst performing large town centre goes – jointly with Blackpool – to one of Altrincham’s near neighbours, Stockport. However, in the case of Stockport, the vacancy statistics mask the endeavours and positive work – and results – of the local authority. Stockport MBC recognises that they have had problems with their main town centre, but have put in place a comprehensive strategy to turn the place around. Part of this strategy has been to recognise that again, there is an oversupply of space designated for traditional town centre uses, and space that is unsuitable for modern requirements. They are also putting their money where their mouth is, investing in the acquisition of key sites in order to control and drive forward new development, whilst introducing new uses in and around the town centre’s historic core, through the creation of a new residential community in and around the Hillgate neighbourhood, utilising a number of historic buildings and sites. This has attracted more than £10million of investment from both the public and private sector, and has been successful to date in attracting new economically active residents into the area. The local authority is looking to continue this strategy, and I would guess that by the time the Local Data Company issues its next report on the state of the nation’s town centres, Stockport will mirror the progress made over in Altrincham, with vacancy rates falling, and new investment on the rise.

There are a number of common themes running through the positive progress made in Burslem, Altrincham and Stockport: 

  • Positive leadership from the local authority. 

  • Recognition that the historic fabric of the town centres can play a key role in their future. 

  • Recognition that a more diverse range of uses is required, and that mainstream retail isn’t necessarily the magic wand. 

  • And bringing people back into the area, either through the creation of new residential communities or through encouraging small businesses to town centre locations. 

However, the most important aspect is the development of a long-term vision for the place. This isn’t easy, particularly where there is real pressure to deliver early, visible results, but that is where a local authority has to be strong, and bold. Grant schemes can help to provide early visible results, particularly in historic areas. It is recognised that in the era of austerity, attracting external public sector funding will be difficult. 

However, there is nothing preventing local authorities themselves from funding such schemes, and is a way of demonstrating positive leadership, and a relatively quick and easy way of attracting private sector investment. 

Imagine what could be achieved if Stoke-on-Trent Council made, say, £200,000 a year available for a grant scheme within each of the Potteries’ Six Towns. That is just £1.2million a year; surely this is within the reach of the Council? Imagine the potential returns in terms of Council Tax, New Homes Bonus, Business Rates, private sector investment, etc.?

So what will the future hold for our town centres?

The Government will be launching its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in the near future, and this will be a vitally important piece of guidance for our town centres. We must hope that the Government recognises how important the planning system can be in revitalising out High Streets, and that the NPPF includes measures designed to deliver a town centre renaissance, and resists the pressure to continue out-of-town and edge-of-town trends. In addition, the Government’s response to whatever recommendations are made by Mary Portas in her forthcoming report must be positive, and backed by real and practical support, be it in the form of direct funding, or other initiatives such as tax breaks and other financial incentives.

And what should the approach be in the Potteries?

The City Council has already demonstrated a positive model for change in Burslem. This is clearly an approach that could – and perhaps should – be replicated in Tunstall, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton. Our Six Towns should all be a focus for attention, after all we known as the ‘Six Towns’. 

The City Council needs to be brave in respect of the Six Towns, and show strong and positive leadership, and set a clear role and vision for each – emphasising each of the towns’ historic environment – and hold on tight to that vision in the face of short-term pressures. It should also provide real assistance for each of the towns, possibly in the form of grant schemes, in order to provide incentives to encourage small businesses to choose the Six Towns ahead of other locations. 

And the role of another layer of democracy for the city shouldn’t be discounted either: Alan Gerrard is leading calls for the creation of a Town Council for Fenton. This could be something to be explored for each of the Six Towns, with the new Councils setting the vision for their town centres, and providing grass roots leadership towards implementation of their vision.

I would call on the City Council to be bold, be brave, and be strong. And maybe than we can enjoy a Six Towns Renaissance.

David Proudlove
November 2011


previous: The family silver...



Related pages..

Sadler Pottery Works - Burslem

The Regeneration Game - Stoke-on-Trent needs to reconcile itself with its past before it can renew.