Stoke: Anywhere but Europe

If you want to understand the underlying sentiment of Brexit Britain, visit Stoke-on-Trent. Proclaimed as the ‘Brexit capital of Britain’, the city voted nearly 70% in favour of leaving the European Union – the highest out of any city.

Stoke is a metaphor for the uncertain political climate which surrounds us: In 2017, Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt vacated his seat causing a by-election – UKIP saw an opportunity, declaring ‘let’s make Stoke the capital of change’ – they came second; in the 2017 General Election, owing to mounting disillusionment with the direction of the Labour party, Stoke South – a Labour stronghold since 1950 – voted in its first Conservative MP.

 

Regeneration: One View

During a recent research visit to the city, walking along the towpath of the Trent and Mersey Canal, I came upon Festival Park – an adjoining development largely consisting of offices. Formerly the main site of Shelton Steelworks, the site is a metaphor for many of the city’s social and political woes. In 1978, culminating from an historic overreliance on too few industries, the works were closed amidst much local protest before being adopted as a site for the burgeoning Garden Festival movement. The Conservative movement sought to catalyse regeneration in post-industrial cities through tourism and job creation. Following the event, in the 1990s, Festival Park was rebirthed as a low-density office and retail park. The only remaining building form the site’s industrial era is Etruria Hall – once the residence of ceramicist Josiah Wedgwood – it has now been enveloped by a Travelodge development.

On a map, one can see the canal winding to the west of the site, and the dilapidated remains of the gardens towards the centre; yet on the ground, these features are largely unnoticeable. For the site’s abundance of features, the developers created a remarkable insular environment.

A kilometre to the north of the site is the recently reopened Middleport Pottery, reworked by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. One of the few remaining traditional ceramics factories in the Potteries, it is a project which is well-judged, confident, open to the canal – and distinctly European-feeling. This is not least because it is amongst a handful of regeneration initiatives in the city which have been reliant on European Union funding.

More broadly, and at a national level, such regeneration efforts reflect a ‘Europeanisation’ of public space espoused under New Labour planning policy. Barnsley would be a Tuscan hill town, Gateshead would be the new Bilbao, and Sheffield modelled on Barcelona. Each of these places voted in a clear majority to leave the European Union. So what went wrong?

Opportunities Missed

In many ways, modern Stoke is a landscape of the 1970s and 1980s. A rapid growth of social and private housing in this period, aimed at stimulating the local economy, resulted in a mesh of cul-de-sacs infilling the peripheries of the city’s urban centres. Festival Park was merely an extension of this view of regeneration, not least in its layout. Whilst an extension to the peripheries of Hanley, the development creates a dead-end condition, ignorant of its surroundings.

It is surprising how the design team behind Festival Park did not want to emphasise the semi-Arcadian landscape which replaced the wrought and industrial landscape of the steelworks. Equally, this was the norm of the time: you can find similar developments at Nottingham’s Castle Marina Park or across much of Milton Keynes.

The contrast with European regeneration initiatives of the same era is remarkable. At the heart of it was a very different attitude towards the importance of public space. Landschaftspark Park in Duisberg Meiderich, Germany, opened in 1994, is a repurposed industrial landscape of a similar scale. The Guardian described it as ‘one of the ten most beautiful urban oases in the world’. Alongside remodelled industrial buildings, used for a variety of corporate events, the landscape is successfully used for leisure, recreation and sport.

In 1992, the Labour Party’s publication ‘A New London’ contrasted Europe’s openness and sense of experimentation with Britain’s dilapidated streets and new suburbia. This was an abstract of what Richard Roger’s Urban Task force would attempt to implement from 1997 to 2010, promising nothing less than an Urban Renaissance to cities such as Stoke.

The new Europe of New Labour never materialised in Stoke. Funding was either insufficient, or cut too early, or simply ill-managed. Aborted schemes such as Pathfinder, to ‘renew’ the city’s housing stock, resulted in the wholesale demolition of entire blocks of Victorian housing. Much of this housing has yet to be replaced and has resulted in a physically and socially scarred landscape. Whilst Salford became a cheaper, rainier version of Barcelona, Stoke remained firmly in 1980s England, complete with its dreary office and retail parks.

So, What Next?

Whilst many of Stoke’s urban qualities overlap with those of other post-industrial British cities, the collective effect is unique: the city has a rich and enviable industrial heritage; it is home to two universities, and in 2015 had the second fastest expanding local economy. Such attributes should surely be cause for celebration? At least in mainland Europe, the answer would be very different.

The wasting of the city’s resources represents a significant failing of planning, which in turn represents a significant failing of politics. It is no wonder that Stoke feels so disconnected with Europe. At this political turning point, the precedent of the European city once again becomes central to debate. The European city is not merely the clean, walkable, social framework espoused by New Labour, it is also the city of the nation-state: a model which has caused cities across Britain to be reshaped in its image. Where should Stoke now look for inspiration?