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.