Top: The grade II* listed Gladstone Pottery Museum where visitors can learn about city's pottery history and manufacturing processes; Bottom 2 rows: The city is full of abandoned pottery factories, kilns and chimneys
Last year, I visited The Asia Triennial in Manchester, and I was pleasantly surprised by the how the city has evolved since my last visit back in the early 90s. The city has also been named the most liveable place in the UK according to the Global Liveability Survey – beating London for the second time.
This year, after my 2 day visit in Stoke on Trent, I left the city feeling rather depressed, appalled and agitated. Unlike Manchester, Stoke on Trent exposes the uneven distribution of wealth in this country; and how the government has neglected many parts of the country that urgently require regeneration and economic support.
Top row: Hanley park; Bottom left: The grade II* listed train station; Bottom right: The city's typical terraced houses
In its heyday, about 4,000 bottle kilns dominated the city's skyline, now only 47 (listed) are left standing. Walking around the city, one can't fail to notice the abandoned factories, kilns and chimneys that once played a vital role in city's development and economy.
In the 1980s and 90s, Stoke-on-Trent was hit hard by the decline in the British manufacturing sector; and as a result, many factories closed down or moved overseas, leaving a sharp rise in unemployment in the 'high-skilled but low-paid' sector. Although in recent years, there has been a revival in the city's pottery industry, with ceramic exports have rising by 36 percent between 2009 and 2014, the road to recovery may still take some time.
The city's mishmash architectural styles
Last year, the city made headline news when Stoke-on-Trent City Council put 33 derelict properties on the market for a pound each in a desperate attempt to clean up the area. The 'Clusters of Empty Homes Programme (£1 home scheme)' was a bold and unconventional idea, and it seemed to have paid off when thousands applied for them. Yet despite all the positive press coverage of the city's 'renaissance', I was not entirely convinced when I was walking around the city on a weekday afternoon.
The city's Art Deco, Brutalist and contemporary architecture
Lack of urban planning is only one of the issues in this city. The mishmash architectural styles – not in a positive eclectic way – reveal the incoherency of city planning, hence you can find architectural styles from all eras in one street. I find it bewildering that unnecessary regeneration (and social cleansing) is constantly taking place in parts of London that erase its local identity; whereas cities like Stoke on Trent would probably benefit more from it than a wealthy and over-developed city like London.
The 'Cultural district' is the least cultural place I have ever visited
On paper, the cultural quarter sounds exciting, but in reality, I saw nothing related to 'culture' except for a street art piece and hand-written tourist information on a disused shop window panels. Many of the shops in this quarter are derelict, while the ones that remain open are chained stores like Waterstones and TK Maxx.
There were teenage 'hoodies' hanging out in the streets, and older guys drinking outside of the pubs looking as if they have been there for days! Even the sun couldn't lighten up the grim and dismal atmosphere in the city centre, and I was desperate to get out.
'Emptiness' in Stoke on Trent's city centre
I did some research on the city when I got back to London, and I discovered a Regeneration masterplan report proposed by the local Council in 2011. This plan suggests that followng: "the redevelopment of Stoke Town has the potential to create 500 jobs over the next 5 years and attract £25m in investment. The Council is providing £1m for remediation works and a further £2m for the wider town centre."
Four years after this publication, I am not sure how many of its grand plans have been realised. As far as I could see, the former Spode works and its surrounding area still look dilapidated, and the same goes for the city centre or cultural district. So what happened to this master plan? Was it lack of funding that obstructed the regeneration?
I have never been to Detroit before, but I have a feeling that Stoke on Trent is the smaller and less drastic UK equalvalent of the US industrial capital that fell from grace. If Detroit is able to slowly bounce back from bankrupcy, then there is still hope for Stoke on Trent to thrive again as UK's pottery capital.
The trip has been an eye-opening experience for me, and like most Londoners, I probably take things for granted and I tend to forget that London does not represent the rest of the country. It is a real shame that most of the foreign and government's investments focus mostly on already wealthy cities like London, Bristol and Manchester etc. Shockingly, regional inequality in the UK is said to be the worst in Western Europe according to Eurostat, the data agency of the European Union. Many parts of UK are at least 20% poorer than the EU average, and the Shropshire and Staffordshire region (including Stoke on Trent) was named the 6th poorest in the UK in 2014. The gap between the richest and the poorest is growing at an alarmingly rate since this Government took office in 2011.
Now, I really want to ask David Cameron one question, "What happened to your grand vision of the BIG society?"