Thursday, 30 April 2015

Tales from the library

A petition of 4,000+ signatures from Whitstable aimed at 'saving our local libraries' has just been submitted to Kent County Council.
Richard Stainton, whom I know and respect, has worked extremely hard at putting this together so I feel I owe him and others an explanation of why my name is not on the list. I passed up the opportunity of signing when I was offered a sheet of paper at Windy Corner Stores a couple of weeks ago.

Firstly: petitions. Really? Are they worth the paper they are written on? As a somewhat cynical old hack, I'm not so sure. I've attended many a council meeting in my time - all over the country, not just in Kent - where wodges of signatures are just tossed aside without much of a murmur. In reality, you see, issues like this have already been the subject of many long and intricate reports and hundreds of hours of council officers' time before they come to public knowledge, so that a decision is more or less already in the bag.

Also it kind of seems to me that this is a charmingly old-fashioned means of protest. Electronic petitions are where it's at in 2015.  Did you know that if you can gather at least 100,000 names, the Government is obliged to debate your issue in the House of Commons? If you follow the link I've given, you'll see that this is a pukka newly-established gesture towards democracy although at the moment, your petition will have to wait until after the election. 100,000 signatures... our local library activists still have a long way to go. Perhaps they should go national? I'll bet KCC isn't the only local authority reviewing the library service.

Next quibble: there seems to be no suggestion that our libraries will actually close, but some discussion on whether they should instead be run by charitable trusts. ... just like Whitstable Museum, Whitstable Castle, the Horsebridge Centre, the Whitstable Improvement Trust to name but a few local institutions (see my earlier blogpost, 'Trust me, I'm from Whitstable'). Now, if it's OK for some services to be run by trusts, what exactly is different about libraries? I'm curious to know where we draw the line. I'd also like to see some comment from our local KCC members, who don't seem to be backing the petition as far as I can see in the local press. or even commenting publicly.

Finally, what is the rationale behind the suggestion that KCC sheds this particular public responsibility? Money-saving, for one thing, and we all want to pay less council tax. But maybe, just maybe, our local public libraries aren't the essential go-to places they once were?
When I was about 10, I desperately wanted to be a 'library lady'. I defaced many of my own books by sticking in pages for (hand-written) date stamps while forcing my younger sister to borrow them. Then I badgered the Rochester children's librarian, Miss Horsley, to let me help out on Saturday mornings. I never got to stamp the books, which was what I really wanted to do, but instead got the re-shelving job.... I was quite good at alphabetical order!
I loved books, but there weren't many in my house, only a few I managed to buy second-hand with my pocket money. So the library was my treasure-house. After a few months of Saturday 'volunteering' I persuaded the long-suffering Miss Horsley to upgrade me to the adult library next door so I could use my card there too. Wow - what an Aladdin's cave!
Right from then up until, I would say, about 10 years ago I continued to be a loyal and regular library user, enrolling my son when he was about a year old and visiting most weeks.
But gradually I've stopped going, and I don't even have a card for the Whitstable branch. I suppose I have simply found that I do not need the library any more. For reference-type material, the internet is a much more vast and up-to-date resource. Libraries recognised this when they installed public-use computers, but now it is a rare household that does not have its own domestic broadband access.
As for what we might call 'reading books' they have become cheaper to buy online and in bookstores, and widely recycled in charity shops where you can pick up a copy for £1 or even 50p. My Dad knows where you can get them cheapest. You might say that even this is more expensive than the free library service.
Yes - except that it isn't free, because we all pay for it in our council tax whether we use it or not. And you have to return the book. Maybe with a fine (!); maybe the library is not conveniently located for you to walk to; maybe they haven't got the book you want so you have to order it...
Institutions like the British Library, the Bodleian in Oxford and the wonderful Birmingham Library do have vast, valuable and important collections and it might be worth considering whether financial resources should be focused there rather than on purchasing a few more copies of Dan Brown's Inferno for the local branches (most borrowed book, 2013/14).  

I hope there is a wide-reaching look at exactly what we need from our libraries in the 21st century. It will be a missed opportunity if we don't.
If we are imaginative and can re-invent a library which can become part of all our lives again, I might be first in the queue to fulfil that ambition to be a voluntary 'library lady'!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Trust me - I'm from Whitstable

We are becoming more and more trusting in Whitstable. Or perhaps others find us to be trustworthy folk.

Whichever it is, we seem to be putting our faith increasingly in trusts to run our town.

Whitstable Museum, with its opening hours slashed by Canterbury City Council who seem to be putting all their eggs into the Beaney basket, is currently being handed over to a team of trustees and volunteers.

Now there's talk of KCC outsourcing the library to... another trust. I confess to getting a little confused in reading about these two hot topics of discussion in the local papers and on social media, because it sometimes looks to me as if the same people who are supporting the museum trust are against the library being run in the same way. I'm not taking sides, but what's sauce for local artefacts is surely sauce for books and dvds?

There are already several trusts in this quite small town: Whitstable Castle, Horsebridge Centre, Whitstable Improvement Trust, the Umbrella Centre.... any more?

I wonder if soon we are going to run out of generous-minded people willing to give up their spare time to be unpaid trustees or helpers to keep all these things running!
Already, I know there is some overlap of individuals being involved in more than one trust. Probably not a bad thing, as experience in one can inform another.

So maybe the next logical step is just to hand over Whitstable to one big single, all-encompassing board of trustees?

Come on KCC and CCC - cast our coastal town adrift and let's run everything ourselves.
Trust us!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

No more shafting in Shaftesbury Road car park

With JD Wetherspoon's new beer garden sprouting up this Spring, a nasty trap for drivers in Whitstable has been literally buried beneath the earth.
You'll remember that several motorists complained that they were being 'shafted' in Shaftesbury Road car park. In each case, they had diligently paid for a ticket, returned to the car within their allotted timespan, and been astounded to find a penalty charge notice awaiting them.
The problem was that, rather than being one council-run car park as could have been easily assumed from the large notices, the area was in fact invisibly divided into three: two council areas sandwich a piece of land owned by Wetherspoon's (behind its Peter Cushing pub) which has been operated over the last two or three years as a general car park with its own pay machine.
Time and again, people who left their cars on the council land were using the 'wrong' machine, then being penalised for 'failing' to pay. One annoyed motorist set up a blog to vent his frustration and, as you can see from the comments, several others recounted similar experiences.
In December, Peter Smythe from Herne Bay learned that his legal appeal against a £50 fine had been won when - as the Whitstable Times reported - Canterbury City Council backed down and accepted that the situation was 'confusing'.
Now Spoon's have solved the problem by constructing their long-planned beer garden on half of their car park, and appear to intend the rest of the land to be for staff cars (see photos). The beer garden is behind the new fence.

This solution has been a long time coming because of rights of way issues. There is an established footpath along the back of the Peter Cushing building which neighbours pointed out would be swallowed up by the pub garden. This threatened to delay the pub opening in 2011 and so the outdoor seating plan was temporarily withdrawn and replaced with the car park. Later, the pub chain reiterated its desire for outdoor seating and a certificate of lawful usage was granted by CCC more than a year ago (planning permission being deemed to be not necessary).

Hopefully drinkers, motorists and residents will now be happy.

The downside is that the loss of any general parking spaces is something Whitstable can ill afford. Park and ride, anyone?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Never on a Sunday: strictly no parking

Every year, as the outside temperature rises, so transport in Whitstable becomes a hot topic.

The debate has started earlier than usual, with unexpectedly warm weekends drawing in the day-trippers and coinciding with an initiative by a resident to set up a '1 way for Whit' Facebook campaign. Also, a new draft local transport strategy has just been published (perhaps best explained from a Whitstable viewpoint by Councillor Neil Baker here) and which has led to local debate about a possible park-and-ride scheme.

But what's slipped under the radar (a bit of a shock to some unwary locals) is the sudden implementation of a seven-days-a-week parking ban in the town centre over the last few days.

Plaques like this one outside St Alphege Church were attached to High Street lamp-posts at the start of last week. They signal two key changes:
  • 'no parking' now applies also on SUNDAYS
  • loading times are restricted to less busy times of day
The lack of warning to local people about the change coming in is a bit regrettable. I know that one regular churchgoer, after parking in his usual place, came out of the early Sunday service in St Alphege today to find a penalty charge notice adorning his windscreen.

I really hope, though, that these simple limitations will go some way to easing bottlenecks at peak times so that we don't need a one-way system which sends traffic including lorries and buses along unsuitable residential roads.

Of course, though, they won't work unless enforced. We've long had parking restrictions in Whitstable town centre, but most of us knew we could get away with a few minutes in a loading bay or on a double yellow because there just weren't enough 'enforcers' to cover Whitstable and Herne Bay. 

As the driver attending church painfully found out - not any longer. Canterbury City Council has been recruiting more staff in a renewed effort to crack down on illegal parking, so we may actually see a real difference.

But while visitors from now on might have less trouble actually getting into Whitstable, they'll still have to face the almighty obstacle race of going round and round inadequate car parks chasing elusive spaces. Let's hope, for businesses' sake, with our new streamlined High Street they don't find it all too easy to turn round and go home.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Whitstable Castle in Wonderland

Murder mystery evenings have been among the events organised at Whitstable Castle since its restoration, where real life gets 'mysteriouser and mysteriouser', to almost quote Alice in Wonderland.
On 6th March, Canterbury City Council's executive approved a £15,000 emergency grant to the Castle following a confidential report explaining the reasons behind the application to cover core costs for 6-8 weeks. As you'll see from here (scroll down to item 206) the word 'emergency' was used several times in the minutes and the reason for the decision was given as 'The funding minimises the risk of the Council having to take back the building and prevents immediate insolvency of the Trust'. 
The Trust which runs the Castle (the property is owned by the council) declined to comment at the time on this, or on the hasty departure of the latest in a series of managers.
Finally, one of the trustees has this week spoken to the admirably dogged Whitstable Times*, saying: "The trustees applied for a grant from the single grants gateway panel, like many other charities in the district do.
"We are not and never have been insolvent."
So was there no real 'emergency' after all - just a run-of-the-mill request for a bit of help? In which case, was the council's formal minute about the Trust being in dire danger of losing the Castle just somebody's exaggeration?
My sniffing and observing over the last couple of weeks has seen one of the confidential reasons for the grant application emerge from two different sources (which suggests a degree of corroboration). It looks as if there has been a backlog in filing some financial accounts to the board, although this does not seem to be the fault of the voluntary treasurer whom I know to be a highly experienced, diligent and conscientious person.
If so the call for cash could, indeed, have been put forward as vital with the financial year-end only weeks away, but surely it should have been explained and responded to as a temporary situation rather than mortal danger?
And perhaps if, as the trustee suggests, the Castle is a long way from insolvency, a loan would have sufficed.
Emergency, what emergency?
To quote again from Lewis Carroll: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean," (after Humpty Dumpty).

*(I can't give you a link to the Times story because it has disappeared from the Times website, possibly because of an ironic mix-up over the words loan and grant in a heading which needs to be rectified.)

Friday, 14 March 2014

Whitstable Castle under siege

When comedian Harry Hill opened the newly-restored Whitstable Castle three-and-a-half years ago he joked that it could be useful in case Herne Bay ever invaded.
Now it seems that the Castle is being besieged and embattled from within, without any interference from external marauders.
The Trust which runs the tourist attraction and venue is being given extra ammunition in the form of a £15,000 emergency grant from Canterbury City Council to cover core running costs for 6-8 weeks and avoid ultimate financial defeat. I presume this takes them roughly to the end of April when there will be an opportunity to start afresh with a new annual budget.
The request for reinforcement was discussed in a private parley by the council's executive, but the upshot is now in the public domain in the minutes on the council website here, and it's been published in both the Whitstable Times and the Kentish Gazette.
News of the parlous state of the Castle coffers comes hard on the heels of the sudden departure of the latest manager who had been in place for only a few months - and from what I hear there does seem to have been a high turnover of staff, with now at least three managers gone in as many years. An extravagant use of firepower or a succession of surrenders by beleaguered captains?
I think it is of great regret that the Trust has not yet commented on either of these two significant events. After all, the building is public property (owned by the council) and was restored with public cash (council grant and lottery money). If the Trust, which is made up of well-intentioned local people, were to come forward and say something like, 'look, it's proving harder than we thought to run this enterprise, especially in these difficult economic times - we just need help to get over a bumpy bit and then we'll have another go at doing better' - I think most people would be sympathetic.
To sit tight and say nothing smacks of a siege mentality and a missed opportunity to enlist the support of the local community which the Castle is intended to serve, especially those who worked tremendously hard to protect the local landmark. 
I've been keeping an eye and an ear on the Castle for a while because I've long been interested in and involved with similar community ventures. I know just how hard it can be to work co-operatively and smoothly with a board of trustees/directors (the generals, if you like), a team of paid 'officers' and a raft of foot-soldier volunteers, as I've worn all three hats at different times both locally and in the Midlands before that. Talk about hats, you probably need steel helmets to be involved with the Castle as it's such an expensive and prestigious project (£2.5 million to renovate and Lord knows how much to maintain).
I don't know anyone on the board or employed at Whitstable Castle to tap up for inside intelligence so, like anyone else interested, all I can do is turn to the website - usually a sure indicator of any organisation's general health and vigour - and here is what I found: 
The Whitstable Castle site still proclaims on its home page the 'latest news' that it will be closed on Christmas Day.
Let's hope this Castle is not made of sand.

  • If you're looking at the minutes through my link to the council website, you will need to scroll right down the page to item 206. (No point in clicking to the pdf which gives no detail.)

Friday, 7 March 2014

Be careful what you wish for

It's good to make a stand against the big boys and girls who do things we don't like, and Whitstable is awfully good at this, sometimes successfully seeing off plans which might detrimentally alter the character of our town - though realistically (and maybe cynically) I suspect some 'changes of heart' like the Harris & Hoole/Tesco coffee shop withdrawal are made for economic reasons and just coincidentally seem like a climb-down.

The anonymously-produced satirical blog and pamphlet The Whitstable Pioneer is currently enjoying a bit of fun with the town's history of protesting and, while I'm not comfortable with poking fun at individuals, some of the points made do strike a chord with those of us who follow the local news. One of these points is how enthusiastic campaigners may come to feel dangerously sure that they speak for all.

It's so easy for any of us to get carried away by something we feel strongly about, and assume a) that everyone else feels the same and b) that there won't be any inconvenient consequences.

I've recently observed three examples of b). One of these is that with Harris & Hoole pulling out, the large former Clinton Cards premises in the High Street continues to languish empty, which unhelpfully counteracts our proud boast of a low empty shop rate in Whitstable.

Secondly, an acquaintance was telling me about her reaction from Network Rail when she asked them to trim some trees behind her garden which border the railway line. When she mentioned the name 'Whitstable', this immediately rang alarm bells and resulted in unhelpfulness. Since the much-publicised action a year or so ago when protestors chained themselves to some trees that Network Rail wanted to chop back, our town seems to have earned itself a big red flashing warning sign saying PROCEED WITH EXTREME CAUTION IN WHITSTABLE pinned up in the Network Rail tree department.

The third 'inconvenient consequence' concerns another coffee bar - Costa - which endured a graffiti protest before opening about four years ago. I've heard that the High Street business is already earmarked for an uplift and refurbishment. It would appear that, because of the initial hostility, Costa gave Whitstable only its lowest-grade offering in terms of furnishing and equipment in case the cafe was shunned.

In fact, it's proved to be one of the most popular Costas in the area and the staff have been struggling to cope with queues and inadequate machinery.

Be careful what you wish for.

*Observations are my own, and I am boringly neutral about most local issues.