The city of Stoke-on-Trent. Just shy of a quarter of a million people live spread out along a quirky North-West/South-East axis. It is a city that was at the very centre of the industrial revolution. By cannon and bayonet, the British Empire lubricated world markets and flooded them with products from our industrial towns, not least Stoke-produced ceramics that reached the four corners of the globe. Up until the 1960s the city thrived. And then it stopped. Pottery jobs were exported to China and Indonesia. The pits were shut down after a bitter political struggle. And the massive steel mill closed its doors, seemingly unable to compete with cheaper product from elsewhere.
It is a story familiar to many Midland and Northern English cities. Communities that exploded around one or two key industries over the course of the first half of the 20th century imploded as it drew to a close, leaving behind an ugly legacy of derelict buildings, blighted land, sharp economic decline, and severe work-related health problems.
Because America has to be bigger in all things, the experience of nearly all the major urban centres of the US industrial north east has seen the repetition of similar patterns, but on a far larger scale. To put it the respective problems into perspective, in 1960 the populations of Stoke-on-Trent and Detroit were approximately 270,000 and 1.67 million. In 2011, it was 249,000 vs 705,000. The experience of Detroit and other rustbelt cities is not one of decline, but of collapse.
This being the case, are there lessons local government in Stoke and similar cities can take from how the rustbelt has attempted to address and regenerate their disintegrating urban centres?
This was the topic of a talk hosted by Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Tristram Hunt last Thursday. The keynote speakers were Len Gibb of EPIC, a Stoke-on-Trent housing association that operates a substantial number of properties in the Bentilee area of the city, and who had recently returned from a research trip around the rustbelt; and Alexandra Jones of the Centre for Cities think tank.
Opening his talk, it was clear Len had a critique of Stoke-on-Trent City Council's Mandate for Change regeneration programme in his sights. He suggested it is presented in a 'take it or leave it' fashion by the Council, of residents and businesses being compartmentalised into for or against camps, and with little room for compromise. This, he felt, was out of kilter with the city's needs and that a different approach was required.
Len provided some statistics to contextualise where Stoke is at. Between 1998 and 2008, the city lost 21,000 (mainly private sector) jobs: today there is enough work in the city to employ 77% of its working age population, but 65% of those jobs are actually filled by city residents. Many of these jobs are low waged - a point underlined by some 50% of private tenants reliant on Housing Benefit. The city also has higher than average rates of longterm health problems, thanks mainly to the nature of the jobs that once enabled Stoke to thrive. Lastly, to reiterate the 'broken' nature of the city, between 1997-2010 the city received some £2bn in public investment. While this improved public services, it did not alter the economic situation nor arrest the devaluation of housing. This was because the core economy was not altered - Stoke lost ground to overseas competition, collapsing demand for ceramics, technological change, and the overriding of its geographical advantages by the latter. And policy-wise, matters were not helped by welfare payments not linked to retraining, poor education, concentrations of poverty, declining quality of life, and broken politics down the town hall.
Many of these problems also exist across the water. In the rustbelt, populations are 59% of their peak totals, house price averages are £40k less than elsewhere, unemployment stands at 13%, 20% of homes stand empty and rented property constitutes 47% of all households. But in Detroit, where these problems are accentuated, there are signs a new approach to regeneration is working. Rather than trying to do everything, the mayor's office has opted to concentrate running services and preserving the still-glittering city centre while facilitating community-led projects to transform rundown neighbourhoods. There is no interlinked vision as such, allowing communities, philanthropists and other agencies to follow their own idea of what a good neighbourhood and good city would look like.
Len introduced us to a rustbelt regeneration success story: Pittsburgh. This was an example of successful multi-agency working where the city council worked in concert with the university and medical establishments to increase investment, provide incentives to attract new residents and jobs, and enable more community-led efforts. As a result unemployment is 7.2% (much lower than the rustbelt average), and so-called white flight hasn't happened to anywhere the same extent (though the population is still declining). They have worked with what they have and made the most of it.
Moving on to the lessons for Stoke, he would not prioritise the regeneration of Hanley (the city centre) as the Council are doing. A rebalancing of the economy away from the public sector is needed, a homegrown 'culture of agency' promoted, and a renewed emphasis on working with what we've got. He believes, for instance, that new build housing tends to undermine existing neighbourhoods. To begin he would promote internal expertise at the council rather than hiring in external consultants, place more emphasis on refurbishing existing council properties, and do more to open up the City Council's procurement process so the 6,000 local small businesses can benefit. He also favours more engagement with the two universities and the local NHS, and addressing the "dangerously low" levels of local political engagement by devolving power downwards. Like Detroit the council should facilitate communities to regenerate themselves instead of seeking to aggressively drive development with its retail and business quarter plans.
Alexandra's reply was less an engagement with Len's arguments and more a recapitulation of the basics. Cities live and fall according to five key, interlinking factors: economics, housing, transport, quality of life, and political, business, and community leadership. Concentrating on jobs and leadership, Alexandra presented some work Centre for Cities had done on economic diversification in British cities since 1901. Unsurprisingly, those built on one or two key industries have struggled in later years while those who began with more mixed economies have weathered structural change better. For example, Bradford initially eclipsed Leeds. But the former's over-dependence on textiles saw its fortunes decline while the latter thrived and, in many ways, became an exemplar of a successful post-industrial city. As far as Stoke was concerned, its 'eds and meds' sector pointed toward possible future successes, so a spiral of economic decline is by no means inevitable. She also noted a city's success is linked to the skills local people possess. In the same research, large numbers of highly skilled workers made a 20% economic performance difference. It also found that 80% of what Centre for Cities defined as 'poor cities' were in the bottom 20 for skills in 1901. And lastly, better skilled cities actually generate more unskilled jobs than those without.
On leadership, again this does not necessarily have to be a big vision fronted by the council. It can instead be a more diffuse sense of a direction of travel. Manchester is an example of this approach. The council in conjunction with partner agencies aggressively went after the "right sort" of employer that could bring high-skilled jobs to Manchester - an approach that has worked. Combined with some savvy marketing, its popular cultural significance, and economic makeover, it has now more or less wrested the second city status away from Birmingham.
Given the wide range of discussion and the various political stakes tied up in them, the large number of questions raised tended to focus on certain things. The first, inevitably, was the record and strategy pursued by the City Council. The criticisms focused on the retail and business plans, and the difficulties over Community Asset Transfer (rather than close community centres and halls, the City Council are inviting communities to run them themselves, on receipt of a suitable business plan). Criticisms centred on whether retail-led regeneration was appropriate now internet shopping has become big business, how a revamped city centre can thrive when transport links to it are pretty poor, and an apparent belief held by the Council that they do not trust the city's communities to run services.
On economics and geography, a Tory councillor from nearby Stone (who also owns a small, Longton-based pottery) bemoaned a conspiracy concocted by the Germans and Chinese to sell cars and ceramics at "below market rates" for the ills suffered by his company. Leaving aside his confusion between cost-price and market price, it would appear this conservative gentleman is not so keen on the free market when he's at the sharp end of it. His colleague went a step further, suggesting the potters' union CATU (now Unity) was responsible for keeping other industries out of Stoke. There was also some concern expressed about how Stoke can thrive when it is sandwiched between Manchester and Birmingham - both act as retail and employment pulls to the city's detriment. Another audience member pointed out that things are not as grim as that. In addition medicine and HE, the green economy across North Staffs employs approximately 4,000 people and provides business for 150 firms. Another point, which unfortunately went unmade, is the city's plan to become energy self-sufficient by 2030 through the exploitation of renewables, use of waste heat from existing factories, and the extraction of hot water from the mines underneath.
Another point concerned the responsibility the private sector has to the area (addressed previously here). If core businesses in Pittsburgh reinvest locally, why can't that be replicated here? Replying, Len said philanthropists donate approximately $50m/year for reinvestment by Detroit community groups and development agencies. He suggested there is a need for similar intermediary organisations here, as he can't see civic-minded rich people making donations to the City Council.
As you would expect, this post does violence to the many contributions made and, as is typical of public meetings of this sort, more questions were raised than answers. Personally speaking, I do think the critiques levelled at the City Council about its approach to regeneration tend to overlook how this is a corrective against strategic decisions not taken by previous administrations. But a comprehensive defence of Mandate for Change will have to wait for another time.
The debate though was very welcome and given the number of people who came, there is clearly an appetite for public talks/debates of this sort, and hopefully more forums can be organised in the future.
Photo source: NB Bendigedig