Ceramica, a landmark millennium project intended to help regenerate a depressed Potteries town, has been mothballed before it could open. It was brought down by problems that could threaten any lottery project.
“Ceramica in Burslem Town How I’d wish they’d knock it down. Rocket pointing to the stars Or is it meant to land on Mars?”

So begins a doggerel verse penned by a local wag and framed on the wall of a café overlooking the town square of Burslem, one of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent.

The inspiration for this scurrilous epic is visible to all who pause momentarily from their tea or bacon sandwich – a spiky pavilion, almost completed but without sign of life. Like a Zaha Hadid design thrown together by a design-and-build contractor, it sits in a bed of hardcore, its needle-sharp ceramic spire enmeshed in rough scaffolding boards. The former town hall to which the pavilion is attached – a Greek Revival temple that erupts into a baroque clock tower and cupola – stands equally forlorn.

The pavilion and converted town hall make up Ceramica, an interactive visitor centre about the local pottery industry. Budgeted at £4.4m, it is Staffordshire’s only landmark millennium project, and has received £1.6m from the Millennium Commission. Due to open last summer, and then delayed until the new year, the project ran out of money before it could be completed. The Ceramica Trust, set up to develop and run the project, is now negotiating extra funding, estimated at up to £800 000. The attraction does not look likely to open until next year at the earliest.

As Ceramica was intended to be the centrepiece for the regeneration of Burslem, it is easy to understand the cynicism of townspeople. The disappointment is all the greater as, unlike many other lottery-funded projects, Ceramica was generated by the local community through a community development trust. So, what went wrong, and can the project be brought back from the dead?

Was the project underfunded from the start, as Ceramica’s new director, Roger Edwards, maintains? Was it the incompetence of an inexperienced one-off client and its project team? Or was the project tipped over the edge by an agglomeration of unexpected additional costs, which the ad hoc trust had no reserves to cover?

The last explanation is the one put forward by project quantity surveyor Tony Lucyk, partner in Dickinson & Lucyk, and endorsed by the other consultants, including Latham Architects, structural engineers Blackwood Structural Design and Ivan Atkins and exhibition designer RFA Designers.

Lucyk claims the project was adequately set up with a two-year lead-in period, yet several problems arose during the contract that could not reasonably have been anticipated. These were administrative and technical problems that together pushed the job over budget. “Aside from throwing a massive contingency sum at the job, I don’t know what else could have been done to avoid the problems,” says Lucyk. Yet despite the lifeless state of the two buildings, all is not lost. For a start, the contract was terminated in an orderly fashion, with consultants and contractor paid up, and, says Lucyk, there are no outstanding claims. The buildings are weathertight and heated to prevent rot.

Director Edwards is now negotiating additional funding through public grants and private sponsorship. The Millennium Commission and the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, have pledged help.

Other signs of urban regeneration are stirring in Burslem, which should encourage investors to complete Ceramica. Royal Doulton, the town’s largest pottery manufacturer, has developed its own visitor centre, which offers guided tours and is intended to complement the centre.

The local Burslem Community Development Trust has embarked on two other urban regeneration projects. A townscape heritage initiative covering the entire town-centre conservation area began a five-year programme three months ago. The trust’s director, Terry Webster, expects £4m to be invested. A row of imposing historic buildings overlooking Ceramica forms one of the six Vision and Design projects around England sponsored by the Civic Trust.

In addition, local city councillor Ted Owen claims that businesses, including McDonald’s, are showing an interest in opening a gift shop and fast-food restaurant next to Ceramica.

“Ceramica plays a vital part in attracting visitors to Burslem,” says Owen. “So it is vital that the building is finished off – and quickly.”

Extra costs that pushed Ceramica over the edge

  • High tender sum for exhibition fit-out (£600/m2 compared with £450/m2 budget) as a result of overheating caused by the number of other competing millennium attractions on site.
  • Late release of the site, formerly a council car park.
  • Submerged concrete and steel girders below brownfield site led to extra groundworks and pressure grouting to subsoil.
  • Medieval pottery kilns discovered in archaeological dig led to piled foundations and thickened floor slab.
  • Dry rot and plaster decay broke out during the few months in which the old town hall lay vacant and unheated.
  • Several months’ rental of scaffolding covering old town hall while English Heritage argued over stone-cleaning specification.
  • High number of claims by the contractor. “In dealing with a listed building and a brownfield site, there are always unknown elements,” says structural engineer Ivan Atkins. Contractor Greswolde would not comment.