Stoke-on-Trent’s Potted History
A myriad of stories have been written and told about Stoke-on-Trent over the years. Arnold Bennett’s chronicles assured the city a permanent place in English literature. The reflective English journeys undertaken by J.B Priestly and Victor Canning during the 1930s allowed them to comment respectively in their classic books that:
- Stoke-on-Trent is a city which seems to me unique … like no other industrial region; and
- So much which is essential to mankind’s happiness … depends upon so curious a district.
More recently, The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent, Matthew Rice’s 2010 ‘fanfare for one of the great cities of the world’s first Industrial Revolution’ is as Rice himself states ‘a siren calling everyone who cares … to reconcile (the city) with its past before it can renew’.
Compelling stories help to form lasting memories of places and communities which is why Stoke-on-Trent is one of only a few cities across the globe universally recognised by its core industry’s name. That the city is known far and wide as the World Capital of Ceramics is testimony to its potted history which is indisputably linked to its proud heritage of design, manufacture, marketing and distribution of high quality ceramics – a tradition of excellence that remains today.
However, Stoke-on-Trent in 2015 is a palimpsest, a city in which the old and new are interwoven. In a changing and competitive world it is clear that what is now being promoted as ‘the major city and conurbation between Manchester and Birmingham’ must grasp the notion that sustainable economic and social renaissance can only be achieved by doing things differently. Doing things differently means making Stoke-on-Trent unashamedly the hero if the city region is to develop as a contemporary industrial success story.
The Story of Place
A new ‘Stoke-on-Trent Story’ was launched to an invited audience of public, private and third sector delegates and representatives on 17th April at the Britannia Stadium. Using a tried and tested ‘storybook’ approach designed by thinkingplace – business management consultants whose expertise is in ‘helping places to realise and maximise their potential’, the Story of Place project has been led by a local steering group working alongside John Till, a founding director of thinkingplace.
I first met John back in 2006 when he was Chief Executive of Cityimage, a partnership created to transform the image and reputation of the city of Hull – now the UK’s City of Culture 2017 – where he learnt how a place-led regeneration strategy, effective storytelling and passionate place advocates were a new paradigm for creating a successful city of the future.
John and the wider steering group working through their respective networks used their insights and collective knowledge of the city and surrounding area to answer the following crucial questions:
- What is Stoke-on-Trent for?
- Who is Stoke-on-Trent for?
- Why is Stoke-on-Trent different?
- What is Stoke-on-Trent’s ambition?
- What is Stoke-on-Trent’s story?
As is usual when working in a place-led context, it quickly became clear that any new strategy needed to simultaneously inform and inspire, and that this would be best delivered in the form of a story.The opening pages of this new story of place explicitly set out how:
We all want Stoke-on-Trent to be successful; to attract people to visit and live in the area, encourage those here already to stay, persuade investors and developers to see us as a place worth investing in and create and attract new jobs whilst strengthening our existing industries.
The story will make Stoke-on-Trent the hero, by characterising and championing what makes our city special and different. This new story of place is essentially the written narrative of four underpinning, interdependent themes, identified by the Steering Group after taking ‘a long hard look at our city and area so we know what’s special about Stoke-on-Trent’. By capturing the essence of what makes us special, these four themes will provide a clear direction and are ‘at the heart of how we are going to get ourselves on the map’.
Much has been written about the de-industrialisation that has taken place in the city region over the past four decades or so, and consequently the need to deliver a mandate for change. However, all the evidence suggests cities that successfully deliver sustainable regeneration recognise that there also needs to be a complementary change of attitudes and opinion.
Therefore, I was particularly pleased to note that the ‘story’ sets out what can be achieved through ambition, enterprise and creativity. What must also be made clear is that it requires an appetite and willingness for the public and private sectors to work together, to compete nationally and internationally and to establish themselves as unequivocal champions to positively tell and sell the story in the most compelling, consistent and credible way possible.
As John Till has pointed out to me previously, most recently when presenting at last year’s Tourism Management Institute annual convention which was hosted in the city, the ‘storybook’ is not a marketing tool in itself. What it does do, is provide a timeless and inspirational reference point which then needs to inform, underpin and support the detailed actions and activity, as well as the entrepreneurial governance needed to make a reality of the vision and how our ‘offer’ will develop over time.
At the launch event Professor Nick Foskett, chair of the steering group, provided a useful context for the story. There were also some illuminating presentations delivered by Matthew Rice, Staffordshire Chamber of Commerce’s Sara Williams, Fiona Wallace from the New Vic Theatre, and Matt Hubbard, the owner of Reels in Motion.
Referring back to the storybook which was made available to all who attended the launch, if we do now work together to make Stoke-on-Trent the hero, ‘the story will come to shape everyone’s emotional and practical experience’ of the city and provide a compelling reason as to ‘why people will put it on their list of places to be’.
Inevitably, there will be some initial scepticism around the storybook approach, not least because it uses a formulaic framework which has been applied elsewhere. This should not matter for two reasons. Firstly, this story reflects the distinctive character and culture of Stoke-on-Trent; and secondly, when supported by an appropriate level of commitment and resources it has a track record of being successfully implemented. Which is why I was also encouraged to hear that the Steering Group’s work will continue through the formation of a new Place Board, and that one of the board’s first tasks will be to launch a Stoke-on-Trent Ambassadors Scheme.
Although telling the new story is everyone’s business, it is imperative that proactive, passionate advocates – influential business, organisations, and individuals – are identified and recruited as a powerful force to champion the city and to ensure that the new Stoke-on-Trent and its compelling story is effectively positioned, marketed, showcased and portrayed in the national and international media.