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Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
After more than 100 days in lockdown, where many of us have seen our traditional way of life turned on its head, ‘new normal’ has started to look quite appealing. We have a new found love of open spaces and parks, and have embraced home working with vigour. Local businesses that were able to stay open or adapted their business models to ensure we could just nip out to them during lockdown – or even better, have them deliver to us – are highly regarded and form the centre point of our communities, alongside all those new friends we made during our enforced stay at home.
For some people, they looked longingly at this new recognition of what a great place to live could look like, and are now busy scouring the internet to find somewhere for a better life they saw others benefitting from during lockdown. It must have a great quality of life, be affordable but connected (physically and digitally), and have a sense of community. As you’d expect, I have a great suggestion, and combined with the Government’s recent announcements about planning, the mighty Stoke-on-Trent must surely be top of a number of lists.
Beautifully placed in the centre of the country, well-linked by rail, road, and air, with the country’s first full-fibre network coming on stream in the next year, we boast over 100 parks and green spaces, and some of the best value-for-money housing in the country. We drip with authenticity, in towns that reflect our ceramic heritage through beautiful and interesting buildings, and a city centre that also shares a bustling independent sector – a sector that is growing across our city.
De-industrialisation has challenged the live-work-shop model, and some of our towns have been notorious in recent years for the high number of empty properties. However, recent success in bringing back residential to our centres through government supported projects like the Housing Infrastructure Fund see us increasingly having more housing completions than the average London borough. As a city council, we’ve also invested ourselves in bringing forward housing through Fortior Homes, our housing company that demonstrates there is a market for high quality, mixed tenure, new builds – and bringing in other developers who now see the potential of our city too.
In our city centre, we have brought forward high quality city-centre-loving apartments alongside Grade A office accommodation and a shortly-to-open 4* Hilton Garden Inn hotel. Our Housing Infrastructure Fund scheme in Burslem – the Mother Town – brought in £10m to spend on remediating nine brownfield sites around the town, with the first now through planning and well on its way to delivering the first tranche of the 1,000 homes planned for the town. In a city where last year 98 per cent of our housing development was on pre-developed land, we demonstrate that brownfield first is not just something to aim for optimistically.
But new-normal means we need to go further. People living in towns makes them animated and interesting. It attracts new businesses who cater for the parents walking home from school, the home worker who wants to live near the action but not compromise on residential options, the recently retired who are looking for a more relaxed way of life but still with things to do and see. Expanding housing options in our towns is challenging, converting above shops into residential can be tricky, and working that mix of commercial and residential in together.
However, tackling these issues through planning change will arguably mean the rejuvenation of towns and cities like Stoke-on-Trent where levelling up means showing the rest of the country what a great offer you have, and building confidence in your place to be the best it can be. If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s about the need to seize the moment.