A tale of two towns- Stoke and Leek

This is a story of two towns. One I left at the age of 10 and the other that has been my home for the last 16 years. I have a memory of being about 6 and looking across the road at Campbell Pace at thinking how modern and busy Campbell Place in the centre of Stoke seemed to be. I stood at the same spot last Thursday. It was an appalling vista. Woolworth’s was closed, as was Ethel Austin. A shoe shop was empty, as was a Subway sandwich bar. There was an area of dereliction and decay about the place.

Yet my memories of Stoke in the 1960s were of a bustling town writing some 30 years before the writer JB Priestley in his “English Journey remarked on work and industry to the existence of the 6 towns for without either the place had no reason to exist. He wrote of “a fantastic collection of narrow-necked jars or bottles peeping above the housetops on every side, looking as if giant biblical characters, after a search for wine or oil, had popped them there, among the dwarf streets.”

Certainly if I could draw a picture of the Stoke of my childhood it would be an industrial landscape and particularly a soundscape. The sound of factory hooters, the grinding sound of flint being crushed in a local mill, the shrill sound of a saw from the coopers across the road, steam trains, the clatter of goods wagons in the siding and the chugging of barge engines. The canal in the 60s was still a working place with barges filled with bones, clay flint and pottery.

As a child one of favourite places was the old Stoke Market especially in winter. The place always seemed a magnet for the good humour of crowds. And if Proust had his madelines to evoke his childhood I had Brown’s sausage rolls- delicious and warm.

Years later I went out with Beth Brown. I now realise that if I had played my cards right I could ended up heir to a sausage roll empire.

That was in the 80s and contrary to the myth even in the early 80s with Thatcher Stoke still survived. My brother moved to Oakhill in 81 and there was still an excellent range of small shops, greengrocers, butchers, a bakery, a model shop and the Legendary Lonnie’s record shop along London Road. That was beginning to change by the 90s and in the following decade

I worked for SRB 4 about ten years ago whose aim was to regenerate Stoke for a community mediation service and one of the decisions which proved fatal to Stoke along with moving the football ground was the building of Sainsburys.

You might know that metal box which sits uncomfortably over the road from the 19th century Library the glorious creation of Charles Lynam. Why is it that Stoke Council always seems to allow really shoddy architecture and design?

Perhaps I am not being fair to lay the blame for the squalor and despair that I witnessed in Campbell Place solely at the door of Sainsbury. But if ever there was an example sometimes used in supporters of supermarket’s that such developments enhance town centres Stoke serves as a grim warning.

I now move to Leek, which is about to under go its own battle against two supermarket developments. Applications from Sainsbury and Tesco are both before the council. Leek is a throw back to the 50s. It has a good range of independent shops it even has a well-stocked independent book shop. Despite the recession it still has excellent pubs. A friend of mine who visited me from Wolverhampton last week was envious of the choice of great drinking places in the town. It has an ironmongers, good value butchers and the rather eccentric Home and Colonial Store which is something of a treasure throve and a busy market in a Sugden designed building of 1896.

There was a public meeting on the proposed development in Leek also on Thursday. It started off promptly enough with about 80 people present, although only 3 of them were Councillors. There was a panel of 5 speakers one of them was an architect who gave a good overview of the planning laws and appeal procedure. A couple of shopkeepers followed who feared the impact of their business of a successful supermarket application.

The UKIP Councillor, Steve Povey gave a typical speech, bombastic and black and white with the angels on one side- of which he was one- and the villains, most noticeably the planning department and other Councillor’s on the other. This did not the meeting or the campaign very far. Robert Warrilow son of Ernest the photographer and well known in the town for the very old fashioned tea shop that he ran beside the Nicholson Library. He spoke about the importance of planning an alternative strategy for developing the town’s tourism appeal based on the interesting principle of the “open air supermarket” – in other words using local shops.

What struck me about all these worthy contributions was that they missed the point. It’s Leek today and it’s been other places in the past. In my contribution I stressed the need for building alliances with other towns that were or had been engaged in similar struggles with developers. I ended by saying we had to build a campaign that supported local shops retaining what made Leek special. I even went so far as to suggest a campaign name- Leek Against Supermarkets Squashing Independent Enterprise- (LASSIE) and stressed the name to builds a 21st century professional campaign. Use meetings to stimulate debate about more innovative and relevant ideas which will compliment rather than compete with the town centre, and provide a solution that will last for many years.

No one should have any doubt that it will be a long and hard battle.
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The game against the small independent trader’s and their supporters is fixed against them. David may have beaten Goliath, but nowadays David has one hand tied behind his back while the judge is all too often in the pay of the giant. A deadly combination of the power of corporate business abetted by government- of whatever main party- is destroying the independent shop.

Does it matter? Well yes it does because the small independent shop is an integral part of the landscape. From my boy hood I can remember the names of the small shops along City Rd in Stoke- Mr Rennie who sold sweets, Mr Powner the newsagents and Joyce at the corner shop were all part of my urban landscape. Whether a high street is a patchwork of independent business or a bland vista of corporate business does matter. It makes a difference to the character and look of the community, the quality and type of jobs and the diversity and quality of the products. It will decide what sort of Britain that my 6-year-old daughter will end up living in

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