Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Can someone tell Canterbury City Council about the PM's new land of opportunity?

Today was the day that the Prime Minister spoke at the Tory party conference about his respect for small businesses and about creating a “land of opportunity”.
Well, the PM ought to take a trip to Whitstable.  

I have nothing against Mr Cameron and have no political party affiliations but I nearly choked while listening to his speech on the car radio, as I navigated through the Canterbury traffic.
To be fair to the PM, I had just finished my meeting with officers of Canterbury City Council who had briefed me on their secret discussions about Whitstable Harbour Village and the future of the 33 local independent businesses who trade there.
It took ten days to find out whether we had been successful in our attempts to secure the future of local independent business in Whitstable Harbour but we all hoped it would be worth the wait.  After all, we had the support from the local Chamber of Commerce, local community groups and our local MP, when we respectfully pleaded with Harbour Board members to make the bold decision to grant a ten year lease to the Whitstable Harbour Village, instead of a five year lease which retained the right to close us down at 12 months notice.
Unbelievably though, just as Mr Cameron stood up to talk of the support and encouragement for small businesses, I was being told that we not have any support at all. Our 33 local businesses would NOT be offered a ten year lease but a lease for six months. Then the entire site will be closed down for an estimated six months for essential harbour maintenance and then err… well we’re not sure really.
Is this the support for business that Mr Cameron is referring to?
It already means that the £86,000 we were pursuing with the Coastal Communities Fund to create ten new businesses run by local young entrepreneurs has been squandered.
Is that what Mr Cameron meant by creating jobs for young people?
However, I was told by Council officials about an exciting new marketing campaign to attract new tenants that will allow the council to “maximise their income”. Presumably, Tesco and MacDonalds, can exploit the hard work of local business people who created this viable retail site.
Is that what Mr Cameron meant by respecting risk takers?
It sounded good at the conference Mr Cameron but I think you need to have quiet word with some of your local council officials in Canterbury who might be struggling with the concept.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Public appeal to Whitstable Harbour Board

This is an urgent pubic appeal to the Chairman and members of Whitstable Harbour Board who meet at Whitstable Castle tomorrow.

We have never met most of the members of Whitstable Harbour Board, despite having been tenants in the harbour for more than six years. We have never been invited to participate at any of their meetings, parts of which are conducted in secret and we are not sent the minutes even when they are discussing our businesses. Like most people in the town we are not entirely sure what they do or what they want to do. We can only see that over the last seven years, they have not achieved a great deal in terms of developing the harbour, except the commissioning of a steady line of consultancy firms who inevitably conclude that nothing is feasible without further consultancy.
Arguably, one of the Board’s most successful decisions was agreeing to the creation of a local producers market on the South Quay in 2006, which gradually developed into what is now Whitstable Harbour Village. Now those 33 local businesses, many of whom are dependent on the Village for their family’s livlihood, find themselves completely at the mercy of the Board for their future security.
During those seven years, the Harbour Village has proved itself as a powerful business incubator and more than 20 businesses across Whitstable and East Kent have hatched out of the Village. Nine of them are part of the vibrant independent  shopping scene in Whitstable that help make the town so successful. We have become a powerful visitor attraction with visitors from Europe, North America and Asia all offering praise for what we do.  People say we are local, quirky and authentic which is a key part of why they visit Whitstable and it’s working harbour.
More recently we have successfully achieved Stage 1 approval from the Coastal Communities Fund for £86,000 to create a young entrepreneurs hub at the Village. This means ten new jobs for local youngsters who find it so tough to get decent employment or get a business idea going. Our project has been copied in other towns and many other local authorities ask us how they can set up something similar to regenerate their region.
At the risk of blowing our own trumpet too hard, we are a local community business success story in tough economic times and we would have hoped that the Board and Canterbury City Council would be anxious to secure our long term  future in the harbour.
Instead, after endless emails and requests for clarification, the Board, decided in private on July 19th that we would be offered a lease renewal but that the Council would retain the right to evict all 33 businesses given 12 months notice. The minutes (if you can obtain a copy)  state that they will not cede “flexibility” for future South Quay developments.
We interpret that as “we will allow you to stay for now but will kick you out as soon we get a more attractive offer”.  Presumably, that is their definition of supporting local business but it creates huge uncertainty and anxiety for hard working local people and even more tragically means that progressing the young entrepreneurs hub is impossible.  The deadline for final submissions is October 7th and time is running out fast for ten young people’s business start ups.
We have even suggested a flexibility clause in the new lease so that if, later down the line, a big exciting development opportunity is approved and needs to encroach on our existing site, the Council can retain the legal right to re-locate us.  That seems a pretty fair and simple compromise.
Our plight has been on the front page of the local press and has been the lead story of BBC Radio Kent. It has attracted over 300 signatures on a petition in less than 3 weeks and has been tweeted & re-tweeted and generated nearly 200 new Likes on our Facebook page.  This blog has achieved over 6000 page views. We have received the formal backing of the Whitstable Chamber of Commerce, our local MP, Julian Brazier and respected community groups like the local Lions club, who we work with on local community events. Last night, we even provoked the support of local street artist Catman (see photo).  Despite this groundswell of public support, one of the few local organisations that we have not heard from is the Harbour Board.  Only one councillor has taken any interest in our future at all.
Tomorrow is the next Harbour Board meeting and we are allowed only three minutes to state our case to the board. They are under no obligation to even listen to us, we are not allowed to record the meeting and will not hear what (if anything) they discuss in private about our future.  That, it seems, is local democracy in action.
So as a successful community business that boosts the local economy, attracts funding and creates jobs, we are reduced to begging to the board in the hope that someone will see sense and make a constructive, bold and positive decision that sends a clear and welcome message to the people of Whitstable and beyond. Specifically, we humbly request the members of Whitstable Harbour Board to make three simple instructions to their officers at the Council:
1.       1.Grant a standard 10 year commercial lease to Whitstable Harbour Village so that it has a secure place in the harbour’s medium term future.
2.     2.  Ensure that there is reasonable flexibility clause in the lease that allows the Council to relocate the Village at 12 month notice in the event that a major development is approved and that the same development requires part or all the current Harbour Village site.
3.     3.  Include a clause that commits the Council to consult with the tenant on all major new developments and renovations and that where it is reasonable and possible- endeavour to make disruption to the tenant’s business minimal.
These three simple and reasonable instructions would allow the Board to retain full flexiblity without strangling the progress of a flourishing business (that they allowed to be born back in 2006) and risk putting over 33 people on benefits. 
And if these three simple instructions are impossible for any reason, we request that the Board at least have the common courtesy to tell us at the meeting tomorrow what it is that they have in mind which is a better than the Harbour Village and what it is that we have to do to win their long term support that we are not already doing.   
After six years of hard work contributing to the vibrancy of the harbour and the town surely, we at least deserve that. Thank you.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Help safeguard the future of Whitstable Harbour Village

Whether you are a native, a resident, or regular visitor to Whitstable you will almost certainly know about the vibrant community of fisherman’s huts on the South Quay which is home to the thirty-three artists, artisans and local independent retailers that make up Whitstable Harbour Village.
You might also be surprised to learn that our recent requests to obtain a new lease from Canterbury City Council have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, it has been made quite clear to us that the Council will not include the Harbour Village in the longer term plans for the harbour. Instead, they insist on the right to evict all the traders and the huts given 12 month’s notice at the end of any season (a break clause) and prefer to focus on what they call their "master-plan", whatever that may be.
In short, the hard working traders, many of whom depend on the Village for their family’s livelihood will only be tolerated until a big corporate development opportunity comes along. Having helped improve the harbour and create a viable visitor destination over six years they can then just get lost, so someone else can reap the rewards. Sadly, many local people would be forced onto benefits.
And if that doesn’t sound very fair or sensible, it gets even worse….
This break clause (or “kick out" clause) also means that it is impossible for us to progress a funding opportunity with the Coastal Communities Fund to create a young entrepreneurs hub in the harbour village. We have already achieved Stage 1 approval for an £86,000 grant to create 10 new businesses for local youngsters with a business adviser to help them but the Council won’t back it.
And if that sounds plain daft, what about this?
There are now more than 20 new local independent businesses renting premises and employing people across Kent who started or developed their business at the Harbour Village. In tough economic times, the Village produces tangible economic development (ie jobs) for Whitstable and Kent. Just look at the number of Harbour Village businesses who went on to set up successful local shops in Harbour Street, High Street and Oxford Street helping to make Whitstable such a successful, quirky and independent shopping destination
You would think that the Council might be bending over backwards to encourage and embrace this local initiative which has become such a successful tool for economic development and not looking for the first opportunity to send it packing. And don’t forget, we pay our fair share in rent and business rates too.
Instead, we estimate that by not offering basic security to these local businesses and squandering the fantastic opportunity to create 10 new young people's businesses, Canterbury City Council are jeopardising more than 50 full and part time jobs in Whitstable in the midst of a difficult recession.
Now that's a very strange definition of economic development.
Please help us to persuade Canterbury City Council and Whitstable Harbour Board to see sense and commit to making the Harbour Village central to the plans for the harbour with a normal 10 year lease; not tolerated like a bad smell in the hope something better may crop up later. Please email or contact your local Councillor with your thoughts, sign our petition in the harbour at week-ends or just visit our Facebook page and Like. Best of all, please attend the next Harbour Board meeting on Friday 20th September at 3pm at Whitstable Castle and make your views known.
The Village would not have started or prospered without genuine community support and we humbly request it again now to secure our future and the future of local independent business in Whitstable. Thank you