This one's going to run and run. I am, of course, referring to the controversial (to put it mildly) relocation of Stoke-on-Trent City Council from Stoke to Hanley. If you're not from the Potteries, it's a city made up of six towns with their own centres and, according to some, unique senses of identity. Confusingly for a metropolis called Stoke-on-Trent, the town that doubles up as its city centre is Hanley, not Stoke. However, whereas most cities have their council HQ in the centre moving it to Hanley has proved controversial because a) it came with a £55m price tag slap bang in the middle of huge cuts to the local government grant, b) feeds a sense that Hanley always does well over and above the other towns, c) would remove large numbers of council workers from Stoke with the consequent hit to businesses that rely on lunch time trade, and d) this comes about 20 years after the council was moved from Hanley to Stoke after the previous building, the brutalist monster Unity House, was deemed unsafe to continue housing the local authority. Nevertheless, I remain convinced of the case for the move while mindful that a large number of other Stokies don't.
The announcement of what became Smithfield was three years ago, but it has cost Labour dear. It saw our party lose control of the council and I think it's fair to say it depressed Labour's parliamentary share too. The constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, where I'm sitting right now, saw the lowest turn out in the country. Yet rumours of doom and gloom about the chosen developer, Genr8 didn't come to pass and today the first two buildings of the Smithfield development are up. But they're definitely not running. Of course, as if confirming every cynic ever to have drawn breath in the city limits, it's gone wrong. Potentially very wrong. Possibly knock-it-all-down-and-start-again wrong, according to some. It's a project that's had its share of mishaps. First there was a debacle where the council, late in the day, discovered that it had better order some furniture. Then there was the embarrassing oversight of the council not spotting the routing of a gas pipe ... through its main fire exit. And the third? Well.
The plans for the two buildings, imaginatively titled Smithfield 1 and Smithfield 2, specified that there would be a great deal of exposed concrete in the interior. We're not talking yet more brutalism but a smooth kind of concrete that would not be aesthetically objectionable and would also, apparently, allow for easy access to the building's innards. The contractors responsible for the concrete, the Manchester-based firm Laing O'Rourke, were to prefabricate the various odds and sods at their facility and deliver them to the site for installation. However, in the best traditions of if-something-can-go-wrong ... something went wrong. It turns out that either the mix of the materials used was wrong, or that some impurities got into it. Whatever the case, the nice, smooth textures that were the buildings' endoskeleton have turned out to be a touch less. It is my understanding that the impurity has left the floors and the supports with a slight bubbly appearance. The developers maintain that it is merely cosmetic and has no bearing on their structural integrity. The new council leader and his triple alliance of City Independents, Tories, and UKIP maintain that it's a bit more serious than that.
Ah. What another fine Stoke-on-Trent fuck up.
However, there is a danger Cllr Dave Conway could make a bad situation worse. If there is a difference of opinion about the viability of the concrete used, then fine. I can understand why he's asked for patience on the part of interested Stokies as other materials experts are sounded out. He is, after all, very keen to differentiate his ragtag and bobtail outfit from the perceived authoritarianism of the previous administration. On that I'm willing to give him a bit of slack. Yet if it does turn out to be okay, and I suspect it will be, our alliance of pub bores, anti-immigrant tub-thumpers, speak-your-Daily-Mail-headline machines, and unprincipled combinationists are courting further disaster. It's a mystery whether the late Cllr Paul Breeze or the Chuckle Brothers penned the inimitable City Independent manifesto, but their main pledge was to stop the council move from Stoke to Hanley and flog off the buildings. Let's just think about this for a moment. Suppose you are a business or government department looking at locating some operations to Stoke's Smithfield because of its location and, ahem, "competitive" wage base. You see that the Council Leader has a record of denouncing the development as a waste of money. You see how over the half-year he has used rumours about its concrete floors and supports to build political capital. And you also note that should, as is likely, the expert(s) give the build a clean bill of health, the council aren't going to move in. On what planet is that business or organisation going to ever pony up the full value of the building? In what possible reality are they going to happily lease those offices at the appropriate commercial rates? What Dave Conway has done, and given his minions full licence to continue doing, is undermine the market potential of a council asset. If the local authority can't show any confidence in its new build, what makes it think an inward investor will?
Not to worry. If the Smithfield development stays empty while money is bled out through existing, inefficient council buildings; or if it's sold on at a massive loss, at least the people of Stoke-on-Trent can look forward to the exciting debut of the City Indies' Staffordshire Hoard tea set.