David Elks: The devil is in the detail for Stoke-on-Trent City Council's Hanley HQ move
CALL me sceptical, but I'm always a little dubious when people and organisations make plans for mass job creation and inward investment.
It's not that I don't support initiatives to create wealth and prosperity, just that I'm always disappointed when the reality fails to match up to the rhetoric.
Last week we had news surrounding two schemes which potentially could create tens of thousands of jobs across North Staffordshire.
The first was that the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP)'s City Deal bid had successfully passed the latest round of Government vetting.
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For those who haven't been keeping up, the Government plans to give 20 cities greater freedom over matters such as planning and finances to areas able to demonstrate they have a clear vision.
Our region has decided to focus on its strengths in ceramics and engineering with plans to become a global powerhouse in the development of advanced materials – things like super-light alloys and ceramics which could be used in cars or replacement knee and hip joints.
It is hoped that the scheme could bring in £500 million in Government investment, in turn levering in £600 million from the private sector and generating 30,000 jobs over the next 10 years.
Which sounds fantastic in principle. But then as an adopted Potter I've heard stacks of big plans before, only to see them collapse in a cloud of hyperbole.
For instance, I was listening to a radio interview last week in which Philip Atkins, leader of Staffordshire County Council, claimed the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire area was in the top three regions for job creation and that the City Deal bid they had put forward was one of the strongest among those in the running.
'Top three for job creation?' I thought. Yes, the area might not be haemorrhaging jobs as it was 10 years amid a fundamental restructuring of the pottery industry, but is it really generating more jobs than places such as London, Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool?
I was so surprised by the statistic that I rang Staffordshire County Council's press office just to check that I wasn't going mad.
It turns out the statistic is based on one finding from a report published last August by fDi magazine – a division of the Financial Times designed to find out how effective every LEP might be in attracting foreign investment.
But while our LEP ranked highly, the report also noted that London's LEP was not particularly active in promoting itself simply because of the interest in the capital as a target location.
The upshot is that just because our LEP is ranked as being effective, it doesn't necessarily mean it's creating jobs in the sort of numbers which a top three placing might imply.
Which brings me to the second scheme. Stoke-on-Trent City Council's plan to move out of its current headquarters in Stoke to move to a state-of-the-art building within the Central Business District in Hanley.
The city council leader Mohammed Pervez claims the move will be good for the city as it will show the authority's commitment to the CBD and draw in other outside firms to Hanley.
This might be true, but for 700 people who joined last weekend's March On Stoke protest, it also brings with it the risk of wasting £40 million without the guarantee of a return for the city.
So does that mean the city should back away from aspiring to flagship projects with the great potential to change the fortunes of the region?
Ten years ago, I visited Keele University to report on a 10-year plan to expand its fledgling science park on to 73 acres of land on the campus.
At the time, the park had two 'Innovation Centres' hosting two mostly small, but growing firms.
I remember thinking that the plans might have sounded far-fetched had it not been for a clear step-by-step strategy of turning a grand idea into solid reality.
At the time, the park hosted 20 firms. Now it has more than 50 employing 700 people across a whole series of buildings which have been erected in phases designed to provide bleeding-edge accommodation for its tenants while minimising risk.
So should we not think big. Not at all. But don't think big without concentrating on delivering the detail.
David Elks is aggregation co-ordinator and data journalist for Northcliffe Digital.