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Issue 232
September/October 2005
Nature Knows us - do we know nature?

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THE NECESSARY ANGEL
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issue cover 232

Cover: Temple de la Sagrada Familia, Pinacle de la Nau lateral, obra d'Esturo Soto, by Antoni Gaudí, Photograph: Pere Vivas

 

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THE NECESSARY ANGEL

Balancing ideals with actions is a constant challenge.

CONTRARY TO MEDIA prejudice, the work of MPs is challenging work - every day without respite I receive a stream of letters, emails and phone calls. When I hold my monthly surgeries, the swell is even greater. The queue of constituents only wanes when closing time at the library where I hold my surgeries washes us out onto the street.

The amount of resulting case-work is enormous and it can be overwhelming. All the more reason to be strategic about the changes that are necessary to prevent the problems in the first instance. None of these changes will just happen as if by magic. They need detailed, repeated, strategic and determined action. Action through parliament and action through partnership and policies locally. Action steeped in the values that will steer and guide the changes that we need.

As I balance each day between my constituency and Westminster, and between the House of Commons and back home, I use my travelling time as a bridge for thinking about my workload. I endeavour to select and prioritise the issues that need to be tackled - with the Chancellor and fellow MPs; with local activists; with constituents and local partner organisations. But it is often hard to get a perspective of where I need to be, and what needs to be done to address the intractable issues that just won't go away.

So, the arrival of every treasured issue of Resurgence is a source of solace and respite. It contains tangible evidence that the aspirations of social and environmental justice through democracy are within reach. For some people, at least.

Yet, I cannot help but also be troubled by a sense of distance between the places that Resurgence carries me to and the day-to-day reality of where I live and work. It seems the contributors' starting places are in a different terrain from mine. While we struggle to set our sights on the far horizon of where we want to be, in the meantime the tide ebbs and flows, and with it the realities of job losses, patterns of consumption, pressure on public services and the reality of the meetings and partnerships that must be navigated if we are to succeed in creating real change.

Indeed, most Resurgence readers aren't based in the areas of high deprivation where mining and steel and ceramic jobs have been lost and not yet replaced. So, I am interested to explore how we trace the links between ideas and vision, and how the resulting concerted action, both nationally and locally, can turn things around.

TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, the Herculean efforts to regenerate Burslem, Staffordshire, the mother town of the potteries. It should be a national treasure - the Hay-on-Wye of our ceramic heritage. Burslem is also the heart of my constituency, with much to celebrate. Three hundred small- and medium-sized companies, all steeped in the traditional skills that made Stoke-on-Trent the home of the pottery industry, reside here.

Yet the effect of globalisation on the pottery industry is inescapable, causing redundancies, hardship and business closures. This is all the more reason to secure and regenerate our heritage - the abandoned pot-banks, the brownfield sites, and the skills and social heritage of the people who shaped the industry and whose future is so uncertain.

Out of this uncertainty the Burslem Partnership has emerged, a regeneration company that looks at the big picture and is enabling the transformation of the area so that businesses and craftspeople continue to want to live and work here. But the day-to-day endeavours needed to make this happen seem to take forever.

Yet milestones do rise up as a testimony to what is being achieved. Take the four-year-long efforts to transform the original town hall into a visitor attraction to commemorate the history of the ceramics industry and its people. After lengthy negotiations, millennium funding breathed new life into an otherwise redundant building, and Ceramica now enjoys the Staffordshire Visitor Attraction of the Year award.

One vital and symbolic piece in the jigsaw to regenerate Burslem - and a sign that the tide is turning for the better - was the arrival of an angel. Halfway through our efforts to find the funding to refurbish the old town hall, a decision was made to restore the life-sized golden angel which has always had pride of place high on the roof. She was carefully gilded, and scaffolders were brought in to carry her back to her perch on the roof. In true Arnold Bennett style, local people gravitated to the main square to stare and be there to see the angel restored to her former glory.

But when it came to slotting her back into place there was a serious delay. How could we maintain the momentum, and keep the people who had turned out happy? My immediate response was to call the local Performing Arts College (ex-school of Robbie Williams, well known for his song about an angel) and request some music. Within minutes we had a pupil complete with trumpet. Right when we needed it, the children hit the right note and the townspeople were happy to wait for the moment when the angel was finally positioned, symbolic of the transformation of our ideals.

OF COURSE, I know that there are no easy, instant solutions to society's ills. But when you are face-to-face every day with impossible dilemmas, it is difficult to strive for the long term, when the changes are needed right here, today.

We need to sit with the angels sometimes, on the high ground, and appreciate just what is possible. But the measure of the success of our ideas will always be down on the ground, rooted in our actions, however small, and however many of them we need to put the jigsaw together.

Burslem adjoins the Housing Renew area of Middleport. Already there is a go-ahead for a feasibility study to recreate Burslem Port to give canal-boats a berth overnight. Refurbishment of high-quality workshops and studios is under way, to bring craftspeople back into the town. And Port Vale Football Club has been rescued from administration by local people who need 'angels' to see the club run as a community facility solely for the benefit of its supporters. The community strength survives.

But as I look back on the turmoil and effort of making this progress, it occurs to me that there have to be more support mechanisms out there somewhere. There have to be people who do not live and work in deprived urban areas but who could offer support, expertise and encouragement to those struggling to turn communities around.

Visiting Ceramica and our industrial heritage would help. Some of you may even be tempted to relocate to Burslem!

Joan Walley is the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent North.

Resurgence at the heart of earth, art and spirit