Skip to main content

How creativity and culture saved a condemned Hanley community

When 500 terraced houses in Hanley were earmarked for demolition it was the community that saved them. Now neighbours, including some who bought the once condemned houses for £1, are regenerating the deprived area from its grassroots. Starting with the local pub...

March 28 2024, 11.45am

It’s a brisk Saturday morning in March and a group of women stand on Portland Street in Hanley, Stoke-On-Trent. They’re gathered around banana bread, fresh coffee and picnic blankets, about to set off to the park together for a session run by the Portland Inn Project. 

Despite the cold, the sun is shining and there are blue skies overhead. Stoke’s old red brick buildings and colourful shop fronts are looking quite lovely. There’s a charity 5K race happening in the park, Staffordshire Oatcakes bakery is full, and a fair few people are heading in and out of local independent bookshop Drop City Books.

The Portland Inn Project was co-founded by artists Anna Francis and Rebecca Davies in 2016 in an effort to combat local problems through a range of creative community projects. At the heart of this is the regeneration of the once neglected Portland Street Pub, which the group of women now stand in front of sipping their coffees. Currently covered in scaffolding, it’s in the process of being transformed from a boarded-up pub into a thriving arts space and social enterprise. 

The pub’s metamorphosis from a dilapidated symbol of disregard to creative hub represents a clear departure from the pervasive negative image that has blighted this neighbourhood. Whilst the renovation is projected to be finished in summer 2025, Francis and Davies have been organising, curating and creating a programme of events from their temporary headquarters – a shipping container that sits alongside the pub.

Standing here on Portland Street, it’s hard to imagine that the 500 houses which make up this traditionally working-class neighbourhood were earmarked for demolition in 2002 by the government’s Pathfinder Scheme. Whole streets of terraced houses were bought up by councils and condemned. This was happening all over Stoke-On-Trent, as well as in many other areas deemed ‘unfit for modern families’ up and down the country. Although the council bought up many of the Portland Street homes, ready for demolition, the people here fought back and delayed the demolition until, in 2011, the Pathfinder Scheme was scrapped. 


The rows of terraces weren’t demolished, but many of the houses which the council bought remained boarded up – contributing to social problems and a sense of malaise in the area. On the Indices of Deprivation list, this neighbourhood is cited in the top 10 per cent most deprived in the UK. With the local pub, shop and post office also being closed down, the people of this neighbourhood struggled to cope with the effects of a plethora of harmful socio-political forces.

In 2013 the city council came up with the £1 Housing Scheme to try and combat some of these issues. Anyone could buy a house for £1, on the condition that they must live in the house for at least 10 years and ‘contribute to community life’. 

In her practice as a social artist Francis had always been interested in regeneration, social art and community development. In her home life she and her husband were struggling to get on the housing ladder. She bought a £1 house and had a clear vision of how she could contribute to community life. Her new neighbour, Davies who also bought a £1 house, had similar ideas. Together they developed their vision to transform the abandoned Portland Street Pub around the corner. 

“We realised the importance of creating space for people to come together, whilst also recognising the tensions in this community,” says Davies, as she passes families and dog walkers as she makes her way to the park. “Industry has gone and high unemployment levels means people have their backs to the wall.” 

The everyday, practical demands of life on Portland Street are intertwined with artistic curation and environmental concerns and the PIP projects include everything from a weekly gardening club to pottery making, social organising, community cooking and meetings of SMUT – the Singles and Mothers Unite Together women’s group.


Credit: Portland Inn Project


Members decide their programme collectively and this Saturday morning walk has been organised by Ruth, a Portland Street resident in her early 20s and member of SMUT. When they get to the park she leads the group through some gentle stretches. 

“Working out has had such a positive impact on me since I started doing it properly a few years ago, so when we were coming up with ideas for what to do next with the group I thought I could lead the other women,” Ruth says. 

“You have to be sensitive to everyone’s needs, which can be very different because we have a lot of different people here, but I like thinking about that.” 

The range of ages and abilities varies considerably. Single mother Sarah is here with her young daughter – one of the most enthusiastic stretchers of the group. 

“We moved here a few years ago and it’s been great having this project. My daughter’s always here doing the gardening club, things like that. It’s also nice to get some time to myself.” 

All of the women emphasise the positive impact of the community support they’ve found in SMUT, the benefits of having a space to come together, and the friendliness the programme encourages in the neighbourhood.

While the PIP is now the thriving centre of the community, Francis says initially some residents were wary of the project. 

“When we first moved here people had been through a really traumatic time – to have your community condemned. There was a lot of anger and there was some animosity towards the new £1 homeowners which was really understandable. 

“People were like, ‘Why have these new families been given these homes and we’re still living in damp, bad housing conditions?’ So there was a really slow process to build trust and confidence because people had been really knocked down.”

The strain on vital childcare, social welfare, education and health services that locals felt keenly meant they struggled to see how resourcing arts projects like PIP could help them but, as Davies points out: “It shouldn’t be a question of having one or the other”. 

“Things like the cost of living crisis impact here so fast because of the type of neighbourhood we are,” adds Francis. To combat this, PIP has developed a groundbreaking 100 Year Plan. Launched in 2021, the plan has aimed to instil a sense of long-term thinking in local residents – promoting sustainable change and encouraging contemplation of climate, community and developmental issues over the course of a century. In a landscape often marred by short-termism in arts and community sector funding, the 100 Year Plan champions a hopeful and aspirational approach to social, political and environmental issues. 


Credit: Portland Inn Project


Climate activism is a key focus of the plan, one aspect of which has involved collecting and making visible local biodiversity data. This came about after the team realised that Portland Street had no official environmental data records – not uncommon in areas high on the Deprivation Index. The lack of official biodiversity records led to a local woodland being cleared by private housing developers in 2021, so PIP campaigned for replanting and started raising awareness about the importance of recording this data and making it visible.

Whilst spreadsheets are, of course, vital in this task, displaying the data has been tackled in creative ways too – specifically with Portland Palissy ceramics. These ceramic plaques have been created by the community and are displayed outside the pub, featuring artistic representations of small animals and vegetation collected from the local environment. 

When the women part ways at the end of their walk there remains a sense of togetherness and common purpose. Davies reflects on the importance of PIP and the power of creative projects like it in areas that are rarely recognised for their creativity, community or culture. 

“Yes, the arts scene is a lot smaller here than in, say, London. There are fewer venues, there’s less choice in terms of culture, but if you have the imagination and the energy, you have an amazing opportunity to make things happen.” 

Sign up to The Stoke-on-Trent Lead for free for more of our news, features, recommendations and investigations

You can see the previous newsletter we sent to our subscribers here

You might also like...