A recent BBC documentary told the story of the rise and fall of Stoke-on-Trent’s once mighty pottery industry. It was in equal part a tribute to craftsmanship and a lament for a ruined empire. The only disappointment was that this otherwise excellent programme didn’t end on a more positive note given the opportunities for commercial property development that now exist in the city.
The former Spode site, which featured heavily in the documentary, is a prime example of the many ideal locations currently awaiting redevelopment. The sprawling site is at the heart of the city council’s regeneration masterplan – which also includes the Victoria Ground and the Falcon works – and its future is the topic of hot debate.
Originally the council’s plans for the site, which it purchased when Spode went into administration, included a convention centre, a hotel and a restaurant which it was hoped would attract smaller commercial interests. These would be connected to the railway station by a £5m footbridge and the development would be known as Stoke Links.
Unfortunately the harsh economic climate has scuppered these grand designs and reopened the discussion about what should replace the eighteenth century factory. Currently the council’s preferred redevelopment plan favours a supermarket taking up a large portion of the site while still leaving room for smaller retail outlets. However this idea is far from popular among local traders.
With a Sainsbury’s at one end of the town and numerous empty or underused commercial properties in between many feel this is the last thing Stoke needs. Cynthia Bruce of the Stoke Trader’s Group told The Sentinel “I would rather have something done with the site than it remain derelict but I know a lot of traders are worried about having a supermarket at Spode.”
There is also political opposition to the plan. It has recently emerged that regeneration leaders have rejected 35 commercial applications in favour of the supermarket option. Councillor Lee Wenger says “I can’t understand how we’ve come to trying to sell part of the site to a supermarket in our own masterplan.”
Now Tristram Hunt MP has joined the debate. While acknowledging the difficult task the council faces in working out a long term strategy he fears the city is in danger of becoming known as ‘Tesco-on-Trent’.
So where does this leave the plan? Well the council appear determined to stick to the supermarket option even if there are those among them who are less than enthusiastic. Even Tristram Hunt, despite his warnings of the effect on smaller commercial outlets, accepts that big supermarkets are the only ones with the cash for major urban developments in the current climate.
Despite this scaling down of ambition the Spode redevelopment could still be a success. Evidence from cities that have undergone similar post-industrial transformations suggests that, if handled sensitively, there could still be opportunities for smaller commercial property developers with innovative ideas. At least a third of the site will still be available and with talk of artist’s studios and cafes it could signal the renaissance of Stoke Town. Who knows, we could even see those unsightly empty commercial properties that blight the town centre brought back to life.
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