Friday 9 November 2018

Getting snippy on the High Street

There's an interesting counter to the gloomy story of the 'inevitable' decline on the British High St. While some of the big chain stores have faltered and closed, usually due to mis-management, shops dealing in personal services and non-alcoholic meet-up spaces appear to be doing well:

"Barbers, beauty salons, shoe repairs, ice cream parlours and coffee shops were among the retail sectors to see increases in shops opening in the first half of 2018, according to retail intelligence business the Local Data Company."

Some shops like this are combining their sales, such as the vintage barber at Vagabond's in Stoke-on-Trent who offers a vintage beer option with every haircut. Presumably there's also a nice ginger beer on offer in the chiller, for those who don't drink.

What else could be sold to the older gent, that they can't get more easily on eBay on Amazon and through the letter-box, and which wouldn't get the shop in 'change of use' trouble re: the planning and zoning regulations?

Walking sticks and suchlike are out of the question. True, you wouldn't want to get a walking stick through the post, but at the same time they take up space, are awkward to display, and would sell only rarely. Collapsible seat-bearing 'flipsticks' might be another matter, since one would only need to have one display-model out front. These enable one to have a sit and a breather when walking, even if no seating is around or it's only a bum-numbing mesh-grid, or the metal-box type now plonked around the centre of Hanley. If not needed for carrying or sitting, they can be slipped into a bag.

But such things are not an ongoing regular purchase. Once thirty of your regulars have them, you're not likely to sell many more.

Perhaps a curated little rack of difficult-to-find print magazines, with nostalgia value? The small Commando booklet-comics, perhaps. What bloke of a certain age wouldn't be tempted to try one of those, from a rack displaying titles guaranteed by the barber to have a combo of the best art and the best writing. Once they'd read a classic such as The Long Chase, they'd be wanting more. The publishers of Commando might even offer barber shops their own little fold-and-slot stand of classic titles, that could hang on a wall. Each purchased copy would have a voucher inside with a discounted year's subscription and a flyer for The Oldie. The barber would be given a small commission for each subscription taken out, for either title.

That might not be for all such barbers, of course, and many will have a clientele more interesting in sports, fishing and gardening. And selling to older men is generally difficult, which is why the high street is so geared to other market segments. But that leaves a gap which is not being catered for, and ideas such as those above show how barbers might 'up their game' in terms of repeat-sales of 'small pleasures', and how these might then be leveraged into bigger purchases such as annual subscriptions.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Slightly soiled

Coming soon, as part of Stoke-on-Trent City Council trimming its budget...

"Introduction of charges for soil, plasterboard and rubble at household waste and recycling centres – saving £120,000."

I'm rather surprised to hear that it's been free, until now, but then I've no need to use such tips and thus don't know about such things. There was something in the Conservative manifesto about not allowing Councils to charge for disposal of DIY wood off-cuts and empty paint-tins. But obviously friable things like soil, plasterboard and rubble must be considered a different matter.

I guess this new charge may possibly affect allotment holders, re: getting rid of bags of soil that's been contaminated with something or other that's not toxic but is still unwanted. Though, in reality, you'd probably just build a mound or bank somewhere on the allotments site with the soil, and then turf over it.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Manifesto for Wildlife

Just published, Chris Packham's A Manifesto for Wildlife. He asked 20 people what their "top 10" measures would be. His choice of people was obviously highly selective, and as a result a lot of the document seems to be a front for "anti-hunting and shooting" / "anti-farmer" / "more laws, bans, taxes and Big Government" leftist types. Wildlife often seems to get a little lost among the political axe-grinding. But the following picks would be my do-able practical measures from the document, in no particular order:

"Hedgerow trees to be celebrated and replenished – today they are almost uniform in age, and are not being replaced as they die."

"Focus on increasing domestic fruit and vegetable production with special support for small-scale producers."

"Identify no-dig Root Protection Areas (RPAs) around valuable trees and protect them."

"All new-build estates must have a pond".

"In areas designated as nature reserves, dogs – with the exception of assistance dogs – to be banned. On areas or footpaths adjacent to nature reserves, dogs should be on their leads at all times. ... [serviced] dog-walking hotspots should be established to attract owners away from a wildlife-sensitive area".

"A small increment on benefit payments (from universal credit to pensions) in return for hours worked on local wildlife conservation" or litter picking in green spaces etc.

"Every primary school in Britain to be twinned long-term with a farm".

Either give up and "downgrade all National Parks to Upland Nature Areas", or else give them real powers to actually protect and boost nature. Such as by robustly excluding damaging human activity (e.g, motorbikes, trail bikers, mountain-bikers, dog walkers, cars) from key areas.

Thursday 9 August 2018

National Allotments Week, starts 13th August

The National Allotments Society has a National Allotments Week, Monday 13th August to Monday 20th August 2018. Nicely timed for the easing of our very dry summer.

Friday 27 July 2018

The drenching

After all the hysterical weather-warnings from the Met Office over the last month, here comes the real thing at last. The drenching begins 8pm tonight, with torrential thunderstorms rolling in over the weekend and set to be especially wet on Sunday.

Thursday 26 July 2018

Doing fine

Convoluted legal attacks on pro-Brexit campaigners are backfiring in a big way. Instead of a £20,000 fine being something to fear, it turns into a means of raising money for the cause. Darren Grimes was fined £20,000 effectively at the behest of the EU (on what sounds like very questionable grounds), but this fine fellow now has £42,000 raised to cover it — and there's still a month to go.

Update: he raised nearly £95,000 and totally won his case, being fully exonerated and with the judge ruling there was no case to answer and therefore no fine to pay. The Electoral Commission left the court in disgrace.

Saturday 21 July 2018

Buxton Community Farm saved

Buxton Community Farm has been saved, for now. The local Council still want cash for the site, but it appears that the option of community-ownership will now be given first refusal.

Friday 20 July 2018

National Garden Festival badge

Lovely enamel badge, produced for the National Garden Festival in Stoke-on-Trent.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Kempthorne Docklands

Kempthorne bloody Docklands. Seriously? Which idiot thought that one up?

I suppose we should be thankful it's not Brendan Nevin Bunkers.

Saturday 12 May 2018

Maplins off the map

It's a pity to see Stoke's Maplins electronics shop close down. The similar PC World store on Festival Park has also been gone for a year or two now, and that's still empty. But I can't imagine that the same fate will befall the former Maplins, what with the shop space being on a prime town-centre site opposite Sainsbury's. Let's just hope we don't get even more dubious hippies setting up on that stretch.

Maplins and PC World were both nice to browse the aisles of, if only to keep up-to-date with what was available in affordable tech and gadgets. But I guess those days are gone, and the best options now for Stokies are:

1) For electronic widgets, sockets and wires too big for the letter-box, eBay's arrangement with the Sainsbury's Argos facilities. This allows the buyer to collect eligible small-packages from Sainsbury's Argos counter in Stoke. Although the time-out on that can be a bit tight, and if you don't get there sharpish after you order then you'll find "it's been sent back, duck".

2) For basic things like a new computer mouse and keyboard, and the occasional January Sale blink-and-it's-gone bargain, the nearest best option is probably the Office superstore on the eastern edge of Festival Park. (Update, it closed in spring 2019.)

3) For PC owners and courier-phobics, who need something more substantial and delicate (a new hard-drive, monitor or even a new PC), the best local alternative option is probably now Overclockers in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Overclockers are a well-regarded national PC-centric gaming hardware company, with HQ and public counter and display-space on the outskirts of the town. They make some good value gaming PCs, and have just this month taken the plunge into making well-reviewed graphics workstations for home office-based artists, graphic designers and 3D animators.

Ponies by the yard

You couldn't make it up. 13 year-old girl in Stoke-on-Trent orders a 'free pony' on the internet. Said pony actually arrives, and is left in the back yard of her Nan's house in Ford Green, giving the girl's Nan quite a surprise. Pony gets named 'Melvin'. And presumably, but the look of him, gets a bit of a trim and a wash.

Hopefully they can do a crowdfunder now, to pay for the vet's bills and a nice field.

Update: Melvin has now been taken in by Penny Farm Horse rehabilitation centre, near Blackpool.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

On the stump

The Labour loons at Sheffield City Council "decided to destroy 17,500 trees, half the city's total" by felling, on the grounds of "health and safety". Now the latest news reports that "the entire enterprise has been suspended" — but only on the grounds that Council workers might get hurt and sue the Council. You couldn't make it up.

The Councillor and Cabinet Member for Environment responsible has just resigned, though, so there may now be some slim hope that the mad programme will be halted for good.

Friday 4 May 2018

Taking the NOCs

Ah well, very little change from yesterday's local elections. Stoke-on-Trent wasn't voting this time around and, despite all the hoo-haa, locally it all stays the same in terms of control of councils ranging from Sandwell in the south to Stockport in the north.

Although there was a little action on the fringes of Birmingham. Apparently Walsall is now set to be run by the Conservatives, despite 'no overall control'. And a little further away in the West Midlands the Conservatives took Redditch.

Nearer home there was a slight upset just to the north of Stoke-on-Trent and north-away into Kidsgrove:

"The Conservatives have won two out of the three seats in Kidsgrove and Ravenscliffe".

So the pavement-pounding work put in during the General Election up that way, including bringing in a serving minister (at least twice, I think), may have changed minds and then paid off in a delayed way at the local elections.

The two newcomers add to two existing Conservative councillors, turning Kidsgrove a nice shade of blue. The Conservatives also unexpectedly took nearby Bradwell, which is just across the valley from Ravenscliffe as the crow raven flies.

The count at Newcastle-under-Lyme, next-door to Stoke-on-Trent, appeared to be heavily delayed and then plodded along like a lame donkey for the whole day. But they eventually dragged it across the finishing line before 5pm. More staff needed next time, I'd suggest, to take it at a faster clip. Eventually... no overall control.

So... no national Labour breakthrough, and disappointment for Comrade Corbyn. The Ukip's local councillors almost totally evaporated, just as the national party has. Many Ukip-ers seem to have gone to the LibDems, presumably on the basis that they tend to produce good local councillors, even if nationally they're dubious left-leaning opportunists who are eager to betray Brexit. The widely predicted inner-urban / London collapse for the Conservatives didn't happen, and I hear that the Conservatives even managed to land a new North London councillor.

Update, 16th May: Newcastle-under-Lyme Council is now headed by the Conservatives, despite 'No Overall Control'.

Friday 13 April 2018

It's all looking rosy at Spode

The Rose Garden, next to the Kings Hall in Stoke, has a list of public gardening days in 2018:

Monday 26 March 2018

"Going, going, gone..."

Wow, things really are bad in High St. 'big retail'. The former M&S store in Stafford, on a prime site in a prime shopping town, just sold at auction for below the guide price. And auctioneers almost always set their 'guide prices' low, to encourage starting bids.

Thursday 15 March 2018

Suck it up

Chromatography Today fires up the lab and asks: "How Does Polluted Soil Affect Vegetables?"...

"several studies have shown that although vegetables take up contaminants from the soil, they do so at a low level that is unlikely to cause harm."

Sunday 11 March 2018

Bags of trees

The Tree Council has a Community Tree Fund 2018 open to both formal and ad hoc community groups. Up to £700, to plant native trees during National Tree Week in late 2018. Apply by 31st March 2018!

Trentham Park oak, by Quimby.

It's wet and wild in Stoke

Welcome news of a forthcoming "major programme of works to link, buffer, restore and recreate wildlife habitats across the project area of Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme". Staffordshire Wildlife Trust is currently recruiting for it, including a full-time Rivers Team Manager.

The Trent at Stoke, flowing toward its meeting with the Fowlea Brook at the Minster.

Saturday 10 March 2018

It's Cold in the West Midlands

Starting to be reported today...

"New research by National Accident Helpline (NAH) has found that 1 in 5 British consumers continue to suffer from daily nuisance calls. It found that in the West Midlands, 50% of people aged over 65 were cold called every day."

If the Which? magazine's "Ten tips to stop cold calls" fail to work for you, the UK's 7th-20th March 2018 Webuser magazine has a useful guide on how to ditch your land line completely, but stay connected to the Internet and use Skype.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Jolly Potters in winter - review

A good new midwinter review of Jolly Potters, Hartshill, from the Two Pint Perspective blog which is touring all the local pubs doing reviews.

Also has older reviews of Red Lion, Hartshill and The Holy Inadequate, Etruria.

Wednesday 28 February 2018

Flat tops for 'Castle

A new report looks at "The cheapest place to buy a home if you're single". Topping the list is Newcastle-under-Lyme...

"It found that the average mortgage repayment on a one-bedroom flat in Newcastle-under-Lyme equates to 10.84 per cent of the monthly wage in the area."

I'd instantly suspect that the finding is probably being heavily skewed by the masses of low-cost single-person apartments needed by the zillions of students at the University Hospital and at Keele University. Also perhaps by "the area" being deemed to include Stoke-on-Trent, and thus dragging down the average wage.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Council for the chop

According to the weather forecast, springtime may be starting in Stoke on Friday. What better time, then, than this weekend for you to spring outside with the hedge clippers and trim back your overgrown hedge or tree? "Or else", says the city Council...

Council: 'Cut your overgrown trees and hedges back NOW!' (or we will bill you for doing the work) — Stoke Sentinel.

"Council bosses are targeting overhanging trees and bushes blocking pavements - and will bill anyone who fails to cut them back. The council's highway asset and group coordination team will now take over the enforcement.

In a report, public rights of way officer Paul Pearce said: “Failure to comply with the notice allows the highway authority to take any necessary action to remove the vegetation and then recover any reasonable costs incurred by so doing.”

Community leaders have welcomed the crackdown. Reg Edwards, secretary of Hartshill and Harpfields Residents’ Association, said: “If bushes and trees are overhanging across a pavement then people have to step into the road. It reduces the width of the pavement and it can be difficult to appreciate the scale of the overhang at times until you walk into it and it can be quite painful.”"

The Sentinel and the Residents’ Assoc. both use the word "pavements", which might mislead a little. Our "public rights of way" are not just on the roadsides, but are all paths, and the city has abundant off-road paths and tracks, and 'ways around the back' known only to locals. These also need trimming, as there are plenty of people in Stoke who walk because they don't have cars — 45% (nearly half) of all households in Stoke-on-Trent don't have access to a car.

Monday 29 January 2018

New £5m Woodland Fund, Stoke eligible

The new HS2 railway, phase one...

"officially starts early this year with a huge woodland creation programme, stretching from London to the West Midlands. Around seven million new trees and shrubs are being planted during the construction of HS2. The first saplings have now been planted, and will be followed by over 100,000 more by the end of this winter. Trees are a mix of more than 40 native species such as Oak, Elm, Field Maple, Hornbeam and Wild Cherry."

"In addition to the new woodlands along the railway, a separate £5 million HS2 Woodland Fund has been established. It opened for applications this month, and will help landowners up to 25 miles away from the route create new woodlands too."

Right then... more new small woods planted in Newcastle-under-Lyme/Stoke, anyone?

Saturday 27 January 2018

'Seeing the wood for the trees...'

From the Yale School of Forestry Yale Environment 360 magazine...

"the American Forest and Paper Association, a trade association, concluded that most wood pellets produced in the U.S., both for domestic burning and for export to the U.K., were prepared from whole trees." (Dec 2017)

So the wood pellets that power our power stations are not quite made from the off-cuts and waste bits of timber that we'd been told about. It appears that "most" comes from whole and healthy hardwood trees, felled and shipped half way across the world to be burned for so-called 'green energy'. And don't forget that the UK domestic electricity bill payer is paying on average about £149 more on their bills each year, in order to fund the 'green subsidies' that pay for such mad schemes. This subsidy is expected to treble in cost to the domestic bill payer, over the next five years.

On the Mark

The new Labour Party candidate in the Stoke South constituency reportedly thinks that Stoke-on-Trent is a town, not a city....

"In Stoke people have moved away from Labour because the town council has been lost," McDonald said. (Labour List, 25th January 2018)

Oh dear, oh dear. We do trip up these incomers, don't we, with our pesky geography. Although you might have thought that, as a big-shot lawyer, he'd have have done his basic homework about Stoke before parachuting in. Or would have been briefed by his endorsers inside the far-left Momentum wing of the Labour Party. Just on the basics, like... that we're a city not a town.

Friday 26 January 2018

Thursday 18 January 2018

High Street UK 2020

Nearby Alsager and Congleton were two of the small towns studied by a recent project called High Street UK 2020 (HSUK2020). It's a very clunky name for an academic-led ESRC project, which started in early 2014, one of a string of projects which have aimed to identify ways to boost retail on the UK High Street. HSUK2020's final papers appear to have been published in an academic journal at the back end of 2017, but Google News searches for "High Street UK 2020" and "HSUK2020" suggest almost no publicity in the establishment media. Although I should add that's not so unusual, for many of these Research Council-funded academic projects.

Anyway, I've only just caught up with it. Sadly their attempt to tackle Alsager doesn't seem to have been very enlightening for the academics...

"In Alsager, stakeholders agreed that future research and analysis regarding footfall, the catchment area, centre users’ behaviour and shopping preferences and residents’ perceptions of the town centre can reinforce the place branding process by elucidating town centre challenges and what type(s) of action is needed."

Erm... indeed. I think that translates into plain English as "We need more consultants". Still, they did manage to discover that the locals, albeit the sort likely to go to consultation meetings, have a view that...

"Alsager is a big village rather than a small town"

Incisive stuff. So far as I can tell that's about as far as they got in Alsager. My Google searches suggest there was no special report on Alsager, no razzmatazz press-release about how specific measures had boosted the town's retail trade. But the town, along with nearby Congleton, did input into this useful PDF which asked the people at the grassroots about what the expensive consultants' reports miss out. It's the most impressive 'output' I found from the project. Amazingly, "Health" is one of the factors previously overlooked...

"We could not find anything in the published literature relating the health of the catchment [of shoppers] to High Street performance"

Wow. What an indictment of 'experts'. Not one of them ever considered health as a factor. Not even once.

While skimming the HSUK2020's final papers, published in an academic journal for planners, I noted just a few useful nuggets. Such as confirmation that around 87% of consumers significantly change their retail habits during a big recession, and that those habits tend to stay changed for many years. For instance, some people go to coffee and tea shops more and linger longer, because that's relatively cheap, and then they 'window shop' more than they used to. Which to me suggests the question: How can you reach them in the coffee shops? Can a local shop offer a "we deliver to your table" service, co-ordinated by mobile phone GPS? Pop in the cafe for a coffee, and while you're waiting for it to be served, your phone's app pings the shop and an apprentice pops in with a smile and personally hands you the book you purchased online yesterday. Or your dry cleaning that you dropped off last week. That kind of thing. Timing would be everything, but it might be done reliably.

In terms of the HSUK2020 factors and advice it all seems to boil down to some obvious basics. I'm rewording here, summarising and translating from academic-speak and council-speak:

* understand the current identity of the town, and how it's changing.

* identify the many local barriers that your consultants may overlook.

* have a firm grasp of exactly how the town really functions, at the practical level.

* find out what the actual experience of visiting the town is, at a variety of levels.

* find out what the actual experience of selling in the town is, at a variety of levels.

* work out how to survey 'the unreachable' users of the town, including those who've stopped visiting and traders who are 'too busy to talk'.

* work out what the needs of local people are, and how to serve them better. That includes people who spend very little.

* crunch the Big Data, including data on what shopkeepers used to call 'passing trade', for trends and opportunities.

* encourage people in the town to see the ongoing global changes in retail markets and technologies as opportunities.

* expand the range of independent shops and non-retail uses.

* consult local people on any town re-branding, and especially on extensions in opening hours or evening trading.

* avoid the "fast and easy solutions" - a shiny new town logo, a simplistic appeal to big spenders, a new mailing brochure with some coupons at the back.

* help to refresh the grass-roots organisations that can encourage change in the town.

* establish a range of new partnerships, especially among those who can help break bureaucratic and other log-jams.

To which I'd add:

* get better staff and management in High St. retail. Grumpy staff are a huge factor in the current unattractiveness of the High St., and in pushing people toward online shopping. So much so that you wonder if some retailers do it deliberately, because you're more profitable to them online.

* pair humdrum sub-regional shop managers with people based in other areas, areas where the shops have already adapted to the latest retail trends.

* shrink the High St. area by moving all the outskirts shops inward, so the town centre is not strung out across two or three miles of walking (that's pock-marked by empty shops and grot). Convert the outskirts roads back to housing.

* bring all the shops together within a single website and/or Facebook group. Non-spammy, properly curated kind-of like a magazine, and full of 'added value' rather than PR fluff.

* add lots of really nice benches to sit on for free. With proper backs to them. Cafes may hate it, the police may frown and fret about drunks/druggies congregating, but the pensioners will adore you. If drunks/druggies are a real problem after noon, then work out ways to have benches put out only at certain times of day.

* have someone sprightly and eager who is dedicated to constantly going round picking up every scrap of litter and bit of broken glass, including along all footpath and cycleway approaches to the town centre.

* totally ban all chuggers and similar, don't just restrict them to certain days.

* remove 'plastic and tat' type shop-fronts, replace them with restored authentic shop-fronts if possible.

* rediscover and revive old long-lost traditions in the town. Who knew, for instance, that Congleton used to have a tradition of "ringing the chains"? In which the local monks would race around the town with strings of huge bells on them, to "announce to the town the arrival of the ‘wake’, an August holiday fair". Surely that could be imaginatively adapted for modern times, and revived?

Wednesday 10 January 2018

On the Trail

New on the Hartshill Residents Association website, a collection of documents for the History of Hartshill, including scans old Heritage Trail leaflets.

Over the Edge

Run over by a newly elected council: plans for a £646,000 car park on allotments at Alderley Edge.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Around the houses

I wonder if those rancid London journalists did Stoke's first-time buyers a favour in 2017, during the various elections? Because perhaps their relentless negativity caused the 4% city's house price dip? By the end of 2017:

"There was one decrease in the West Midlands – Stoke on Trent (-4.0%)."

Just one in the Midlands, in a slightly rising national housing market. That seems to imply that there must be something remarkable to have caused that, when all around was different (Staffordshire Moorlands at 9.1% growth, for instance). Especially as demand in the city saw a big increase:

"Rochdale (+56%) and Stoke-on-Trent (+53%) have seen the largest increase in demand over the course of the year"

Selling-time here is also very good:

"Other cities that saw houses flying off the market were Bristol (61 days), Stoke-on-Trent (70 days),"

So demand goes up, homes sell quickly, but... the average price goes down? Curious. The Council's new tranche of "£1 homes" in the city can't have caused the dip, as not enough were released to make much a difference to the overall average. So I have to wonder if the 4% fall was due to that relentless negative publicity about the city, putting off a small proportion of nervous buy-to-let investors and downshifting incomers from outside the city? It'll be interesting to see of there are any articles in The Sentinel in the next few days, explaining the 4% fall in prices.

Monday 1 January 2018

The Penkhull Wassail 2018

The Penkhull Wassail is happening again, on 13th January 2018 with the procession from 4pm-8pm. Starts at the village Hall in Penkhull, before visiting many of the pubs on a circular route. Should be at the Beehive Inn on the Honeywall, at about 6pm.

Hawfinch haul

I'd noticed small flocks of 50-or-so small birds, flittering around in mini 'murmurs' near sunset. Without reaching for binoculars (they were too quick) I wasn't sure what they were, but according to The Telegraph it appears they're likely to be hawfinches...

"The little birds largely bypass the UK in the winter, staying in central Europe, but poor harvests on the continent have sent them further north"

Apparently they're moving as far north as Scotland, where the "little" birds miraculously grow in size, according the link-bait headline of the Oban Times...

"Giant finches flock to overwinter in Scotland".