Culture that works? Creative industries development in a working-class city.

Author:Jayne, Mark
 
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Located in the English Midlands between Birmingham and Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent is a city of around 250,000 people. Nicknames such as Ceramicopolis, Ceramic City and, more popularly, The Potteries, leave little doubt as to what goes on in Stoke-on-Trent. While the industrial revolution stimulated a broad local industrial economic base, including significant mining, steel and engineering activity, it was the dominant ceramics industry that imposed a distinctive landscape and a seemingly indelible identity onto the region (Edensor, 2000). The name 'The Potteries' appears to suggest exactly what Stoke is about, signalling not only the region's industrial focus but, moreover, an obsessive--and perhaps even dictatorial--mono-industrial economy, and social and cultural life.

Furthermore, while 'The Potteries' gives Stoke-on-Trent a symbolic resonance (as a City of Pots) it is, nevertheless, the collective name for six towns (and the reluctant, and politically separate, Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme). 'The Potteries' tag thus remains a continuous distraction from, and symptom of, the failure of Stoke-on-Trent to develop the economy, infrastructure, social structures, atmospheres, and spaces and places associated with more successful post-industrial cities; that is, the failure to be anything more than a city in name only. In sum, it is possible to argue that, whilst the area is globally renowned for ceramics manufacture, the continued economic and cultural dominance of the pottery industry and its associated social structures, along with the distinct local spatial arrangement of the Potteries towns, has ensured that the 'city' itself remains of only local importance (Jayne, 2000).

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the lingering effects of these industrial identifications and socio-spatial structures have ensured not only the concentration of employment into just a few sectors, but also a dispersal of creative energies into inter-town competition. For example, the Potteries towns each have their own town hall and civic structures, and no town has a significant advantage or specialism in terms of business or financial expertise.

Any contemporary regeneration strategy, retail or entertainment development in Hanley, for instance, leads to Newcastle or Burslem desiring or, indeed, developing the same kind of business park, pedestrianisation scheme, multi-screen cinema complex, or type of restaurant or themed pub. There is a kind of obsessive internal focus which, until recently, has ensured that Stoke-on-Trent has failed to realise just how far its infrastructure and economy is lagging behind that of other cities.

While the area developed because of industrial expansion, its main activity--ceramic production--could never be considered a Fordist endeavour, but rather was dominated by a craft ethos that could not easily be updated by production-line efficiency. This meant that there was a highly dichotomous relationship between bosses and workers ('them' and 'us'), with only a small sector of clerical and managerial intermediaries required. As these employment structures were matched by a lack of business, financial and support industries (marketing, advertising, suppliers), the local economy has an identifiable lack of middle-class representation--a feature that continues today--and the consumption spaces of the city are dominated by working-class interests.

Thus, while Stoke undoubtedly produced some of the freest ceramics in the world, the above factors have combined to ensure that the city (or its towns) has never developed a significant reputation as a consumption or service centre. In sum, its working-class, inward-looking perspective is a significant factor in its lowly and entrenched position in terms of urban culture and quality of life.

Indeed, the local paper The Evening Sentinel, in its 'The Way We Were: Millennium Special' (1999: 10), describes the area as 'engagingly parochial', suggesting that during the 1950s and 1960s, 'there was little Elvis, Little Richard and the rest could do about it ... the region has remained entrenched in pottery, railways, Bennett, football and boxing, and while politics, consumerism, and fashion elsewhere have all moved on, they've not in Stoke-on-Trent'.

The continued dominance of The Potteries' industrial past is startlingly evident in the fact that there is little progressive championing of post-industrial activity, and little willingness to represent or support the cultural practices of alternative lifestyles such as lesbian and gay, ethnic, youth and other social groups. There is currently a no-go area of representation, in which the promotion of identities and lifestyles associated with post-industrial economy are considered pretentious, yuppyish or a threat to political, economic or social continuity (Wynne & O'Connor, 1998). Politically, the City Council is staunchly 'old' Labour, with working-class (constituents) and town-based allegiances. Despite the problems facing the city, it is not prepared...

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