Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Builder's Dump for Sale, Please Apply

This 'Rat infested heap' in Westgate's Ethelbert Square, marks the remains of the 'Bungalow', a conservation area building I tried to protect from development earlier in the year.

As you will see from the photograph, what replaces the building is not exactly 'In-keeping' with the neighbouring properties and hardly reflects the developers plans for a project that would almost seamlessly mirror adjoining buildings in a sympathetic manner.

A year ago, at the planning meeting where the decision to accept its demolition was made, I made a rather passionate speech about the need to protect our conservation area here in Westgate, which lies in constant danger of being trampled upon by cynical  commercial interest. The list of buildings to date, Sea Tower, the Bungalow, Harold Ave, Beach Rise and many more, makes me deeply pessimistic about a process of preservation  and local conservation which appears to hold very little weight against planning  legislation stacked heavily in favour of the developer. We either have a conservation area or we don't and if we don't, then let's do away with the pretense and the hope and effort of trying to protect what we can't.

In the example shown in the photo, we now have a derelict wreck which has been sold on by the original developer and I'm told that a effort is being made to sell it on again. I'm also told that the site should have been cleared but the penalty for non-compliance is so low, that whoever owns it can't be bothered and if they happen to be in administration, then there's no point in chasing them either!

So Westgate is left with a derelict, long-term heap of builder's rubble right in the middle of its conservation area. It's a problem that I'm going to be exploring further into the New Year but I fear that it's only one small symptom of a much greater national malaise, in that our threadbare democracy has been steadily emasculated by changes and constant meddling in the planning legislation which rather makes local conservation an aspiration rather than a practical objective.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Little Fiscal Prudence

If any readers managed to enjoy the holiday without watching the alternative Christmas message from the President of Iran or catching the flu, then cheer up, there's always 2009 to look forward to!

To be honest, I'm a Wallace & Gromit fan and so reading the papers may be enough to send all but the most most stalwart personalities into spiralling depression and the popular television soap operas appear to be working overtime, the BBC's now politically correct Dr Who included, in convincing us that the end of civilisation as we know it is upon us.

Throw in a handful of Church of England Bishops declaring from the Xmas pulpit that the Government is morally corrupt - nothing new there - and the looming spectre of growing unemployment for anyone not lucky enough to be an MP or working safely in the public sector, then there's nothing more inspiring than our Great Leader, Gordon Brown, donning the mantle of Winston Churchill and invoking the memory of the Dunkirk Spirit in such troubled times.

In economic terms Britain looks much like a snowball that has just started rolling down a very steep hill. It's not that large just yet but gathering speed will see its surface area growing as financial gravity takes over and it swiftly gathers up families and businesses in its path.

Oil revenues and the City of London make-up the Lion's share of the UK's economy. Having allowed manufacturing to wither and almost die over the least decade, we are now a society that produces 'Services', welfare and public sector jobs. A raft of employment legislation also makes it very difficult for small businesses, to create jobs and as a nation we have become increasingly uncompetitive.

If any Government is going to 'Get a grip' on the problem of both the failing economy and social breakdown then it needs a radical agenda but many would argue that no sitting Government could win an election with a manifesto of true reform; the medicine would be too harsh for the electorate to contemplate.

Which leaves us where we are now, on a bright winter's day surrounded by the best Xmas sales in living memory, comfortably sitting in the calm of the eye of the hurricane that may be about to break.

Being old enough to recall the last two recessions, I'm aware that they can hold opportunities for those who are prepared for them. However, what's different today is the size of the personal debt mountain shared by individuals and families across the country and the accelerating negative equity impact of the housing market. Government, with its VAT reduction is attempting to persuade us to spend our way out of a recession but the maths simply doesn't add-up. Instead, this is the real time for all of us to be following Gordon Brown's original message of fiscal prudence, although, taking following the example of Winston Churchill he might reply:

"Although present on the occasion, I have no clear recollection of the events leading up to it."

Friday, December 26, 2008

January Sales

I was up over the Bluewater and Lakeside shopping centres at noon today as a photo flight for one of the national newspapers. While everyone, the media included, appears to expect a record number of shoppers, I can tell you that neither one of the two shopping centres had what I would describe as an unusual amount of traffic and I did actually wonder if John Lewis was closed.

If I hadn't known it was Boxing Day, I might have thought of it as being a normal Saturday afternoon's trade!

According to the Dail Mail: "At Bluewater near Dartford, Kent, bargain hunters began queueing at 7am for a 9am start, clogging up surrounding roads. The centre's 13,000 car parking spaces were full by mid-morning."

That's not what I saw with my 'Birds-eye view' at the same time and not much traffic on the motorways either!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Station Road

Here's a view of the bottom of Station Road in Westgate, taken at about 11:30 this morning. It was another chance to photograph the proposed site of the shop development in the existing Ellis goods yard to the left of the railway line.

Westwood Cross Quiet on Xmas Eve

Some observant readers may have noticed me flitting about just before noon today, taking photographs of the Christmas Eve activity below and particularly at Westwood Cross.

I've uploaded some of my photos which take in Westgate, Margate and Westwood Cross on to Flickr and you can find these here.

I can't admit to seeing as many people shopping as I would have expected at the peak time of the retail season but judge for yourselves!

My apologies for the quality as they are not as sharp as I would wish. The light is very poor today and the best my camera could offer for a high-speed aerial setting was ASA 500. I'm tasked with going over Bluewater for one of the daily papers on Boxing Day and so I'm hoping for rather better conditions then.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On the Beach

Being more than a little curious, I wandered down to the beach this afternoon to take a photograph of the ship moored in St Mildred's Bay.

I can't recall seeing one of such a size this close to the beach before and at low-tide, if a passing Dover Sole can squeeze under the keel, then it would be doing well. My immediate guess is that it's aground on the sandbank or very close to it and won't be going anywhere until the next high tide.

Perhaps its packed full of secret Santas just waiting to paddle ashore at the next low tide? Remember. it's only a few years since I discovered, to my surprise, a fully dressed gentlemen of Middle-eastern appearance swimming in, from about the same distance, as I kayaked off-shore one summer's evening.

So, if you spot any damp and suspicious-looking Santa Claus characters wearing leather jackets and trainers and the obligatory beard and red and white disguise, asking for directions to London, then it may be a clue!

Woolies Goes West

The closing dates of Thanet's Woolworths stores have been announced.

Margate and Ramsgate stores will close on 27th December and Cliftonville and Broadstairs on 30th December, ending 99 years of high street trading and wiping out 27,000 permanent and temporary jobs. How many local jobs will be involved I don't know but it's a terrible Christmas tragedy for all the hard-working staff at the four stores which have served the people of the island for so long.

What comes next I don't know. I've noticed that one of the estate agents in Westgate, Miles & Barr now has a sign in its window saying that the business has been transferred to another office and the new pet shop in Station Road has lasted less than a month. There's a notice in the window this morning saying that it has closed and the busienss has been transferred to Northdown Road in Cliftonville.

In January, I wouldn't be surprised to see another rash of closures, local and national as businesses of all kinds and sizes, predicted by the BBC, are faced by the prospect of paying both their rates in advance and their VAT.

Word on the street is that one of the largest national electrical goods outlets is struggling to survive the holiday and stores are expected to slash their prices to the bone for January sales which are likely to start before we even unwrap the traditional Christmas presents.

If you didn't know already, today's Times points out that £500 billion or around £8,000 each, is a conservative estimate of what taxpayers, you and me included, are paying for Gordon Brown's plan to bail out the UK banking system. The three-part package includes committing up to £50 billion of taxpayer funds for a part-nationalisation of Lloyds TSB, HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which is now 57 per cent owned by you and me.

£500 billion is a staggering amount of money, equivalent to 4,000 brand new hospitals (at £125 million each), 16 new high speed rail links between London, the north of England and Scotland or 37,000 Jamie Oliver-approved free school meals for each and every pupil in the UK. Instead, writes The Times, they'll be eating turkey twizzlers!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Great Westwood Rush

Westwood appears to be busy this afternoon but what I noticed is that the 'Fast-fix' electronics and toy stores are thriving while the likes of Laura Ashley and Carpetland appear almost deserted, even with big discounts being offered in the store windows

Unable to fit a five foot wide LCD Hi-def television on the back of my motorcycle, I returned home empty handed but from the looks of it, other weren't deterred and at PC World, they have apparently run-out of Apple Macs.

"But they are still more expensive here than buying them direct at the Apple Store", I said to the young shop assistant and she did rather agree with me that charging almost £900 for a MacBook seemed unsustainable when PCs can be bought for less than £200 these days.

Wait for the New Year sales I suppose, after all, if you don't spend it now, then 'Generous Gordon' is one day going to ask for everything you've got left in new taxes once he wakes-up to the grim reality of an economy that has nothing left to offer. As a result, every man, woman and child is expected to do his or her duty and spend, spend, spend the country back on to its feet again. And when we've done all that patriotic spending, then what?

One economist I know is predicting the USD$ to go to $1.24 to the British pound very soon. With the Euro now at near parity 1:1 with Sterling you've got to ask where we go from here? The answer, say my informed 'City' friends, is nowhere for the forseeable future, as our own economy, being principally oil, finance and service based has very little resilience to the banking catastrophe which has done so much damage to global market confidence.

The clever money is on at least three succesive quarters of recession and deflation before the impact of the financial crisis stops ricocheting around the globe sufficiently for any recovery to have a chance of taking root. Until then, the banks are sitting on their money, the business supply chain is in crisis and the political parties of all colours are very short of real answers that may cause the patient which is our own economy to recover rather than killing him outright with the cure!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It Will Be Alright on the Night

The Ursuline College's inaugural drama club presentation was a wild success last night. Students presented to a packed hall and a broad variety of local dramatic and dancing talent was displayed.

It's a shame that I didn't have a good enough camera with me to capture some of the performances but tremendous credit goes to the teachers and the college teenagers who raised money for the Pilgrims Hospice in selling tickets for their event, put in so much effort and for giving all the assembled parents such a good show.

Several of us were reminded of the 'Cambridge Footlights' in the comedy sketch, pictured, giving a passing impression of the likes of Emma Thompson, Tony Slattery and Stephen Fry and so it looks as if there's a rich vein of comedic talent at the school which should be putting on performances for some time to come.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Boris Discovers Manston

Boris Johnson gives Manston a passing thought in his Daily Telegraph column today.

He writes:

"South-eastern councils and the London authorities have decided to look again at all the options, around London, that could save us from the mistake of expanding Heathrow. They include making better use of existing assets, not least Manston, which has the longest runway in the country."

I wonder if this means that our local airport may yet become a serious candidate as an alternative to a third runway at Heathrow or a second runway at Gatwick?

We may yet see Boris making an impromptu visit of exploration to Thanet in the Mayor Force 1, pictured.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gary Glitter's Margate Revival?

Convicted paedophile and former pop-star Gary Glitter has reportedly been seen flat hunting in Cliftonville, according to a story in today's Thanet Times.

Apparently he was spotted by a bus driver who picked him up outside Margate station as well as several taxi drivers and the former dropped-him off at Dalby Square in Cliftonville. Glitter reportedly told the driver he was in Margate looking for a bedsit and wanted to know if the Winter Gardens was still open!

Readers of Thanet Life may recall that two years ago I placed a Freedom of Information request with Kent Police, enquiring as to how many convicted sex offenders in Thanet might pose a risk to our children. The police declined to provide such information on the grounds that to do so "may provoke public disorder."

If the report of Mr Glitter's visit is correct (his real name is Paul Francis Gadd) then it appears that the agencies involved are once again riding roughshod over the will of local people and encouraging their sex-offender problems to migrate to an area of the country that has had more than enough of their attentions.

Contrary to what the agencies involved might believe, we have no equivalent to the Statue of Liberty standing outside Margate station, offering a warm welcome to unlimited numbers of perverts, paedophiles and registered sex-offenders here in our over-subscribed seaside community beyond what might be considered a normal statistical distribution for such matters.

Why should the safety of Thanet's children be placed at a lower level of priority than the safety of children living in the wealthier suburbs of London?

After all, rather too many sex-offenders have been re-discovered or prosecuted in Thanet over the last twelve months than I care to remember, in addition to the horrifying and tragic discovery of missing teenager, Vicky Hamilton's body buried at Peter Tobin's former home in Irvine Drive.

The Thin End of the Westgate Wedge?

I've been out this morning taking a straw poll of residents and traders in Westgate in regard to a planning application by DJ Ellis Construction to change what is now his goods yard adjacent to Station Road and the railway platform to four blocks of two storey office buildings.

The area involved is cleared illustrated in my aerial photograph as the green area to the right of the train (click the photo to expand it) and it looks to be around 10 metres wide at best.

This is of course a central part of the Westgate conservation area and a development of this nature would make a fundamental change to the look and feel of the town. While I accept that this tiny strip of land wedged between the public toilets and the garden centre could be tidier, I'm reluctant to see yet one more precedent set for quick construction on such a small plot and I'm equally surprised to read of a perceived need for office space as we plunge into the deepest recession since before the last War.

Listening to the views of residents and other ward councillors I have now referred the matter to the planning committee for debate. The application is F/TH/08/1393 should local residents wish to express their own views on the subject.

Update - 19th December

I met with Mr Ellis this morning and we discussed the proposed development while I had the benefit of looking at the plans. He stressed that the proposal involves retail space rather than office space but that there is no distinction made between the two uses when submitting an application.

In principle, I have no objection to a new development of an unsightly space beside the railway, which is sympathetic to the traditional covered look and feel of Station Road and which adds more shopping space and choice to Westgate but if any residents wish to express an opinion please email or write to me directly or let Cllr King or Cllr Goodwin know.

Friday, December 12, 2008

An Icy Morning at Gatwick

If you wondered why Manston appeared rather busy on Thursday morning, it was because of a 'SNAFU' at Gatwick, which caused a number of passenger jets to divert in to Thanet.

More than a hundred planes were grounded and up to 2,000 passengers were left stranded after ice and light snow closed Gatwick's single runway for four hours.

The closure started around 6am and was over shortly after 10:30am, by which time at least 100 inbound and outbound flights had been affected, all because they forgot to de-ice the runway which they only started to clear after 6am, far too late for the in-bound aircraft stacking above Kent.

A spokesman for the Met Office said Gatwick did not subscribe to its Open Runway service, which would have flagged up the conditions. 'I don't know where they get their weather reports from,' added the spokesman.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

How Green is My Thanet

According to the release in front of me, Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, and Kent’s Green MEP, will call for a radical “green new deal” for Thanet when she speaks at a public meeting in Ramsgate on Friday December 12th.

Thanet, she says, should turn away from developments such as the controversial China Gateway plan and the destruction of greenfield sites, and instead pursue an alternative, more sustainable, economic strategy.

Her 'Green' plan for action for the island includes:

- Abandoning Manston Airport and turning it into a centre for leisure

- The transformation of Margate seafront and the rebuilding of Dreamland

- A growth in Thanet’s further and higher education opportunities

- The expansion of organic farming

Regardless of my politics, rarely have I had the privilege of reading such utter tosh! What on earth does she think the present agenda is for Margate's regeneration and who does she think will pay for other populist schemes which imply substantive levels of private investment; just as we run into the buffers of the worst economic recession since before the Second World War.

Who will 'rebuild' Dreamland or will subsidise turning Manston into a local version of Disney World I wonder, that's assuming it's not your cash-strapped local council and we all wish our council taxes to remain at much the same levels over the next few years.

I do wonder if she has any true idea of how hard the fallout from the faltering economy is going to hit deprived areas such as Thanet and what struggle lies ahead in maintaining essential public services; that's assuming that some of the money to fund her vision is to come from the public purse?

Environmentally friendly policies I quite agree with and let's have more organic farming by all means and the growth in our further and higher education facilities, whatever that implies. However before we add World peace to her wish list, perhaps she might share with the uninformed, like me, where the money for all of this may be hidden among the funds for the Olympic Games, the banks rescue, and a 2.5% VAT reduction? Perhaps, like the popular TV series, there's a secret millionaire walking among us here in Thanet with the kind of money to risk on a Manston Airport Leisure Park in return for getting rid of all those noisy aircraft.

Perhaps it's ECR because it won't be Sir Alan Sugar?

PS.. speaking of green issues:

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Centenary Mass at Birchington Catholic Church

I attended the centenary mass at the Church of Our Lady & St Benedict in Birchington today. One hundred years on from its founding, the Right Reverend Bishop John Hine (auxillary Bishop of Southwark), celebrated the mass and the congregation were delighted to see parish priest, Canon Bill Clements, arrive specially by ambulance from hospital, in London, where he has been ill for many months.

I was asked if I might record the event, given that I had my camera with me and so I've placed a selection of photos up on Flickr for members of the congregation to look at and download if they wish. These can be found here.

A special Papal blessing was sent to the parish and you can see the the Reverend Bishop displaying it to the congregation in the photo.

A very busy and well attended buffet reception and celebration was held in the church hall after the event, adding to the success of the day.

All present today send their best wishes to Canon Bill as well as the prayers of the congregation for his speedy recovery and return to a parish where he has done so much good work over the years.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Westgate Lights

It's the Westgate Christmas lights fair today and there's everything from ice-skating - a temporary rink - to candy floss and childrens' rides happening in Station Road.

I've been wandering back and forth taking photos which you can find here and now I'm off out again to take some more.

A good day's trade perhaps for local character 'Victor' from Romania, selling the 'Big Issue' outside Somerfield, his regular spot - he tells me he has seven children to support - and great to see our ex-community warden, Tony Bailey back in town to help, if only temporarily. He's sorely missed by the community!

The weather is perfect and everyone involved has done a fantastic job in making this event a success for yet another year. Angelo's is doing a roaring trade in roasted chestnuts and bacon sandwiches and there's even free mulled wine on offer at Mr Bell's off-license as well!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Wiki Westgate

For Westgate residents with an interest in the town's history, I've been making some small edits on the 'Award-winning' Wikipedia web page about the town and added one of my aerial photos as there's a request there for more images.

There are lots of people out there, I'm sure, who could make a valuable contribution to the entry, once they've worked out the process and rules for editing entries and so I would encourgage any keen local historian to do so and perhaps make it one of the best small-town information pages in the online encyclopaedia

A vote of thanks to the author of all the splendid work on the Westgate entry to date! If he or she would like to contact me in a search for more photographs, I 'm very happy to oblige!

PS Don't forget that tomorrow, Saturday, sees the turning-on of the Christmas lights in Westgate and with it, an afternoon of fun for all, which will also celebrate the Westgate & Westbrook Residents Association 5oth anniversary.

Fantasy Economy

As we plunge ever faster towards a recession - I hear that thousands of City jobs will go from banks and institutions in the weeks before Christmas. This leads me to wonder about the "Three million 'new' jobs" that supposedly reflect this Government's much-trumpeted success in revitalising the economy.

This week, the Financial Times published an analysis comparing the growth of jobs funded by taxpayers with those funded privately. In a stinging editorial it remarks:

"Two out of three jobs created between 1998 and 2006 have been in sectors dominated by public services: health, education, social work and public administration. Some of these workers - agency nurses, supply teachers and public policy consultants - may legally have private employers, but they depend on the state."

The paper adds:

"Whatever the merits of public sector workers, they are not an investment. They provide services that must be paid for, and in the coming recession it is hard to see how."

What the FT has done is to use figures from the Office for National Statistics' Annual Business Inquiry to calculate job growth across the main industrial sectors of the economy. All too predictably, the growth of public sector jobs has been concentrated in Labour constituencies and grandiose and generous spending projects North of the border. Note from the diagram that Thanet and other South-eastern deprivation hotspots, has not figured even modestly in contrast with equally deprived North of London.

In the period, 1978-2008, the UK has created a net 4.8m extra jobs but no fewer than 3.3m of them have been in these same sectors dominated by the public sector. So actually, that ratio of 2 in 3 new jobs being in the public sector is not just a New Labour phenomenon. It's representative of our entire post-1970s history.

This is a worrying fact because it suggests that even at the height of Margaret Thatcher's power, the UK's job growth actually depended more on the public sector than the private and the Labour Government simply carried on the work of the past, in building the public sector in line with its good socialist principles!

The conclusion from the FT and economists elsewhere, is: "That looking forward into the gloom of our high debt, high tax, spending restrained future, there are going to be an awful lot of people without jobs. We truly have been living a fantasy."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Falling with Style

Not for the nervous flyer perhaps but the video below displays such outstanding airmanship on the part of the pilot, that other than gawp with admiration at his skill and fast reactions, I can't really pass comment!

Best ask Roger to try and book him for next year's airshow I think!

On a further exciting note, I'm delighted to hear that Flybe will be operating from Manston with regular flights to Jersey next summer. Good news for local residents in the flightpath, is that they will be using ultra-quiet STOL Q-400's a stretched Dash-8 with seventy seats, similar to those that go in and out of London City airport.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Wonder of Woollies

‘The Wonder of Woolies’ may soon be no more! Opening in 1909 Woolworths was not only an icon of the British High Street it frequently defined it. Affordable shopping at its best, where shoppers went to ‘pick n’ mix’ and to watch the pennies. Saddled with an enormous debt and a crumbling business model, Woolworths was an inevitable victim of the credit crisis and with its demise go some 30,000 jobs and millions of customers, frequently from a part of society who couldn’t afford to or weren’t able to drive and shop at the brighter out of town shopping malls.

The eight hundred stores across the country are set to close after Christmas and for Thanet, the loss of its high street presence could be a small catastrophe, both in jobs lost to the local economy and the impact it will have on the on-going efforts to regenerate our Thanet towns. I had been worrying for some weeks now that business would collapse under the weight of its debts and had already raised the possibility in conversation but the speed of the announcement took me by surprise and now, the already struggling Ramsgate, Northdown Road and Margate High Street are looking like high-profile local victims of its demise.

Where Government has been busy bailing out the banks, Woolworths was one small part of the same parcel of toxic debt that led to the global collapse of the credit system. Government isn’t so quick to rescue businesses and perhaps more importantly, this particular Government hasn’t been quick to help them either, with the present system business of rates on empty properties creating problems for business and local council landlords alike.

If Government appears to be wringing its hands while businesses like MFI and Woolworths collapse, I read the letters in the local papers: “The council should do this” and “the council should do that” from readers who sincerely believe that their council tax should be spent, like a magic wand, to support struggling local businesses without realising that a council’s job is to provide services with what little money that it has left year on year.

Business and consumer confidence is at a rock-bottom and there are doubts that the VAT cut will tempt cash-strapped consumers back into the shops. Not just in Thanet but in towns across the UK the writing is firmly on the wall for the great British High street, unable to compete effectively against the attraction of internet shopping or the ‘Wonder of Westwood Cross.’ But that’s what people want, it’s called choice and they vote with their feet, the High Street faced by competition from an out of town shopping mall, simply lacks competitive advantage, unless you happen to be part of a captive local audience, without transport or an eBay account.

Woolies survived the Great Depression but perhaps not the crash of 2008.The death of the great British high street has been predicted before and proved wrong many times in the past but perhaps on this occasion, we need to ask if its true and what should replace it in the fast-changing 21st century shopping environment?

But Christmas, recession or not, should be a time of good cheer and goodwill to all men, bloggers, council officers and councillors included and so may I wish you all a very merry Christmas holiday this month and a New Year ahead which won't be as gloomy as the newspapers predict.