Wednesday, June 23, 2004

It's a Jungle Out There

I discovered today why so much of Thanet is in an unkempt mess.

I can still remember when the grass and hedges in public places were kept neat, flowers were planted and overall, the island looked pretty in the summer.

Today, I called Thanet District Council to complain over the state of the tennis courts adjacent to my house. "The grass", I said, "Is knee high and much of it is wild barley. The hedges are in a total mess and the trees, which dump leaves into my garden in the autumn, need cutting right back, What on earth is going on"?

The council, always polite and helpful, admitted that things had changed. A result of the infamous public, private partnership initiative introduced by this government.

What this means is that here, like everywhere else, all services that can be are outsourced and these include leisure, as in Thanet Leisure Force which I'm told is repsonsible for most of the run-down sports facilities and of course the parks department, which relies on outside contractors who do, well very little by all accounts.

It seems that in those areas with a strong residents association that's prepared to make a fuss, things eventually get done but no protest appears to equal no services or very little and so in my case, the contractors have been warned that they have breached their service level agreement with the council by not maintaining the tennis courts and will be fined unless the hedges are cut in the next week.

"How much" I asked. "Twenty-five pounds", was the reply. "Big money then", I said sarcastically. "True", said the man from the council, "But if there are enough fines, they add up and I agree, it's not very satisfactory but that's how things are these days".

So, in Thanet, we pay an outrageous level of Poll Tax,over twice that I paid in London and in return, receive very little beyond the promise of a Turner Gallery, forced diversity, courtesy of social services and the loss of other services to useless, third-party contactors who milk the local taxpayer and deliver next to nothing in return.

As Richard Littlejohn might say, "You couldn't make it up".

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Destination Europe

Every business wants to look good on Google but sometimes Google can be a little too helpful.

Last week, I had a chance meeting with P.J. McGoldrick, former Chief Executive of Ryan Air and now CEO of EUJet, a new lost cost airline that will soon be operating out of Manston, which is now Kent International Airport, a stone’s throw from Ramsgate and Margate on the North Kent coast.

Up until now, Manston, which used to be an RAF V-Bomber base with the third-longest runway in the country, has been used as an air cargo hub but from September, EUJet will be operating a fleet of seven Fokker 100 aircraft offering trips to many of the most popular European destinations, such as Palma, Turin and Nice, where I’ve booked a flight to, for the whole family for £147 return, all-inclusive.

Does the UK have room for another low cost airline? My own feeling Is that Manston, here in Kent, is perfectly positioned to capture the attention of the South Eastern population, who like me, want cheap flights to popular destinations and without hours spent trying to tackle the Greater London traffic. On a normal day, Manston is 1:10 mins drive from junction 9 of the M25 or 1:15mins from Docklands

This could also be of great economic benefit to an area of the UK which is suffering from 22% unemployment and needs a good success story to kick-start the local economy beyond traditional tourism and the building trade.

The commercial heart of the EUJet operation is, of course its website, which is certainly one of the quickest and simplest I’ve found to date in the airline business. ‘Idiot-proof’ is an expression I hesitate to use but in my case it generally applies and finding an uncluttered website that would allow me to book my choice of flight and graphically select a row of seats – with extra leg room – by an emergency exit, was an experience that is likely to bring me back again.

The sense that the relationship between many airline reservations systems and the Web need a little extra work was reinforced by a conversation with a pilot friend who had just booked a flight to Majorca for the weekend. Although he’s online, he preferred to use the telephone and had found a company called Air Berlin who apparently both a website and a customer call centre that answer the phone within two rings he tells me, a miracle in this day and age.

Back to EUJet then and P.J.McGoldrick tells me the new business has invested a great deal of effort in the usability and speed of its website as the focal point of customer experience. A good five years into the Internet age and this aspiration, should, one would think, be shared by every business but time after time, different research tells that both public and private sector websites consistently exhibit a callous disregard for best practise and indeed common sense in the way in which they design and manage their virtual relationship with their customers; a customer service number on the front page of a website often being the first good idea.

Of course, if you’re not on the first page of a Google search result, then in the minds of many surfers, you don’t exist and owning a high Google ranking is the ambition of any successful business. But there’s a twist in the EUJet story. It has a proposition for the population of the South East, of England which avoids the nightmare M25 and M1 road-trip to Stansted or Luton and a website which makes booking a cheap flight to the Sun or a European business centre a quick and painless experience. Just one problem though. If you look-up EUJet on Google, above the address the search engine returns, it obligingly asks the question, “Did you mean: EasyJet - - We fly 153 routes between 44 European airports. Book now”!

“We need to ask Google to look at this”, says P.J.McGoldrick and he’s right. Can you imagine looking for Microsoft Windows and being asked “Did you mean Lindows”, which rather supports my theory that with Internet search engines increasingly figuring as critical factor in the development of a successfully branded on-line presence, there is no justice, only Google.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Rules of the Sea

I'm at my wits end with the jet-skis and now speedboats towing water skiers close inshore at high tide..

Yesterday morning was one of those rare days when one can actually see eight or ten feet below the sea at high-tide and once again I was paddling my kayak between the bays.

A jet ski came racing towards me, followed by a speedboat. With a fluorecent red kayak and wearing a yellow t-shirt and red shorts, the jet ski driver may have thought I was the local lifeguard and beat a hasty retreat back towards Minnis Bay but the three young men in the speedboat carried-on showing-off within yards of the promenade between West Bay and St Mildreds Bay.

It's not so bad now, because the tourist season has yet to start and there aren't many people on or in the water but I've never seen such a consistent disregard for the inshore water safety regulations in all my years; which makes me sound rather like Victor, "I don't believe it", Meldrew.

Trouble is that many of these people haven't read the rules and even if they have, they don't appear to care or have thought deeply about other people who might be sharing the water fifty yards from the beach.

On another note, Dreamland's closure has left a big gap in the local tourist attractions and an equally large gap on Margate seafront, as you can see from the picture.