Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Happy Easter from Westgate

The Co-Op's Mel & Emily Raising Money for Charity
The snow has stopped and the sky has cleared, for now at least and in Westgate, there's an Easter Saturday spirit in the town as you can see from the two photos.

It's that unique community feel that I would like very much to protect for the future, along with at least two thousand other residents. I worry, that should it be approved, a big modern supermarket blockhouse on the southern-side of Station Road, regardless of its 'High quality PVC fittings,' may set a precedent the town could well do without.

I do understand that people hold a spectrum of opinions on whether a Tesco would be good for Westgate and the debate is welcome but as was pointed out to me yesterday in a letter:

"The Conservation 'report' is not really a report at all, just a couple of sentences expressing vague concern. It is extremely weak, and even criticises several aspects of the design. It does not in any way stand up to scrutiny, and if that is all the report consists of, it is easily challengeable." Furthermore, in the Council's planning statement, much is made of 'compliance' with the current policies, which are exposed as 'selective quotes'. Either these apply or they don't. In recommending the Tesco, the Council's planners cannot reasonably claim compliance with the earlier local plan policies in support of their argument and then claim we can't challenge the same!

Chris Ballard
Lots to think about then and we will keep up the pressure all the way to the next planning committee meeting on the evening of April 17th where the application will be finally decided. However, regardless of the outcome, what this objection has shown, as with the Sainsbury's opposition of last year, is that the residents, businesses and traders of Westgate can work very effectively indeed as a community to express their views and I feel quite privileged to be a ward councillor, in a town which has a strong collective voice and uses it when it has to.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Welcome Back Search and Rescue

If Clive Hart isn't going to welcome the news that Air Sea Rescue services will once again be operating from Manston airport, let me be the first to welcome them home instead.

What was once the British company, Bristow, was bought by a US business some years ago but it has now been awarded the contract to replace both the RAF and Royal Navy's ageing fleet of helicopters, with a privatised service operating the latest models. Manston will be one of its rescue hubs and this is great news for the airport, both in terms of new jobs and potentially, tourism too, as people will come to see the latest helicopters while they have novelty value.

The service will operate a mixed fleet of 22 state-of-the-art helicopters from ten locations around the UK. AW189 helicopters will operate from Lee on Solent, Prestwick airport, and new bases at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports.

Whether Clive is worried about night rescues breaking his delicate airport curfew or shattering the calm of Ramsgate in the early hours I don't know but in case you need to be reminded, there's a County Council election next month and so perhaps there's a reason there?

Last night's cabinet meeting saw the launch of the Council's much vaunted diversity and discrimination policy. The good news is that Cllr Worrow's earlier plans for 'Diversity blog wardens' are not included but he did find the time to deliver a rambling and emotional speech on his experiences of personal discrimination, where he claimed to have consulted extensively with local residents and faith groups over the content. This caused me to turn to Cllr Tom King behind me with a raised eyebrow. "Tom, have we had any consultation of this kind in Westgate?" "No!" "Thought not."

Out of personal interest. If you have been part of this "extensive local consultation",  by the Council's 'hard-working' diversity champion as either part of a community or a faith group, do please let me know, as I'm rather alarmed that Westgate appears to have been left out or may even be the subject of discrimination?

Seen Yesterday at Headcorn . Remember the 'Great Escape?'
Changing the subject completely, the campaign to object to a Tesco in Westgate continues and I met with a small committee this week at the home of Ted Wolf. There is now a new petition to sign at Edwards Store and several letters from concerned local groups appear in the Thanet Gazette this morning. A longer and more detailed collective objection, has been sent to all the members of the Council's planning committee, offering new arguments on why members of the public opposed to the development, believe they should reject the application.

Next Friday, 5th April at 09:30, there is a site visit by members of the planning committee at Station Road in Westgate. This will coincide with a silent public demonstration which will assemble at just after 09:00, for those who wish to express their opposition in numbers.

What we don't want, of course, is the planning committee to abandon the visit over concerns of heckling and personal safety, as this would be entirely self defeating. So if you do plan to attend I would ask you to help me to remind everyone else that silent opposition and protest will achieve very much more than noisy protest at this very delicate stage of the application, which comes back to the committee for final decision on Wednesday April 17th at 7pm.

Monday, March 25, 2013

On the Edge

Photo Copyright Jim Bennett
Today's ride over to St Margaret's Bay revealed the morning after the night before, in the shape of a very impressive cliff fall indeed. If I owned one of the homes close to the iconic white cliffs edge, I would be rather worried at nature's steady march inland.

It is without doubt bitterly cold outside and I'm struggling to remember an Easter with the temperature this low. I did notice the spring lambs appearing and this must be a desperately challenging time for the farmers, given the extreme cold weather, with so much of the land between here and Dover, with small lakes of standing water visible in the fields

The Tesco battle continues with a meeting of a small group of the objectors tomorrow evening, at Ted Wolf's home, to plan the next stage in their strategy. I have been invited to attend.

Public opinion and all comments on this subject are welcome, both for and against the development and I will answer questions where I can.

Photo Copyright Jim Bennett
On a final note, the danger of  'Exemplary damages' that will follow in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, will or should concentrate the minds of any and all of our local bloggers, who have a following large enough to argue that they are a publisher. There's enough to suggest that several of our more excitable and vitriolic bloggers need to watch what they write in future with very great care indeed. I certainly will be very cautious in future and this of course extends to the comments left against some of the stories as the legal waters look very muddy indeed.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Listen In

For all those readers lucky enough to have had a sleep in this Saturday morning, here is the link to the BBC Radio Kent interview on the plans for a Tesco in Westgate and the local opposition to it.

You need to start it at 1h: 11 mins (which is 7:11am) and you can hear, Tesco, Ted Wolf and me, adding opinions into the debate.

The sudden snow this morning came as a bit of a shock but I was relieved it didn't happen yesterday, as I had to drive to a conference at a hotel near Farnborough. It took me three and a half hours to return home after I was finished and I'm almost forced to conclude, that these days, it's impossible to travel any distance without somebody causing an incident or a 'stupidty' on the motorway, which leads to delays and traffic chaos.

The presentation was to the managers of a multi-billion investment fund and I had had been asked to discuss what I saw as the most significant downstream technologies, that they might need to think about from an investment perspective and the impact of these technologies on nations like our own in the global economy.

All this rather gelled today, listening to Ed Milliband speaking at the Labour spring conference. I was somehow reminded of the Robin Williams film, 'Man of the Year' in which a comedian, decides to run for President. Why? Because there are no simple answers and probably not within my lifetime.

If politicians of all parties followed the example of Robin Williams, then they might collectively experiment with telling the truth but that's normally a very bad idea, because where the economy is concerned and with the example of Cyprus in front of us, it's not a great way of attracting votes.

If you were to talk to investment fund managers handling £billions of pounds they might see things very differently to the kind of rhetoric delivered by Mr Miliband today.

Fact #1 is that we are drowning in debt (£120 billion budget deficit) much like the average household with a large mortgage and with a £50,000 credit card bill to service. The generous welfare state we grew up with, is now simply unaffordable in its present form.

Fact #2 The engine of our economy is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century global economy, as the world's centre of economic gravity slides inexorably towards Beijing.

Fact #3 You can promise jobs but rapid automation and increasingly intelligent machines, means that a larger and larger proportion of the workforce are no longer required and at the lower end of the skills market, the over-supply of cheaper migrant labour will depress wages further. As a example, South Africa will, in the next decade, automate 30% of its mining workforce out of employment and much like the Luddite revolt of 1812, you can already see the unrest starting to ripple across their society.

Every economic indicator that exists here in Europe, tells us what is going on but it would be a very brave national politician who could stand-up and admit it publicly.

Presently, the only game in town is to try slash the size of the public sector and reduce the debt as rapidly as possible in order to keep interest rates low. Stimulate business as much as possible with low taxes and attempt to create an environment that attracts new manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing and new industries, such as robotics, to our shores rather than Germany or France.

However, regardless of the small successes along the way, at home, we are in for a very hard landing which will demand considerable psychological adjustment at a national level. It will take at least another twenty years to re-purpose our economy and our workforce to meet the demands of a very different world. One, where China is busily creating an intellectually- property-based manufacturing and service economy to undercut and out-maneuver Europe and the United States.

Ed Miliband has to promise his supporters and the trades unions jobs and welfare and new homes and all those other good things that we have all come to expect but the harsh reality of the numbers, is that he knows he has absolutely no way of delivering any of this without a revitalised economy and consumer-spending to match.

Labour's answer last time was to mortgage our future through PPI and create a huge public sector, which created nothing and led the way to the debt and the pensions obligations which surround us to today. What we need is a thriving service and manufacturing economy but servicing who and making what? Those are really the questions that politicians, who speak in a mixture of promises and platitudes, regardless of party need to answer.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Fight Continues in Westgate

News of the great Tesco revolt in Westgate-on-Sea made the front page of today's Thanet Gazette and tomorrow, barring the sudden arrival of a tidal wave or a passing meteor, to interrupt the news, I will be discussing the town's main objections on the Pat Marsh Show on BBC Radio Kent at 7:07am. So please tune-in for the latest.

The Paper reports: "Councillors Kay Dark, William Hayton, Rosalind Binks and Steve Alexandrou all said they were completely against the development, while Rick Everitt and Shirley Tomlinson said that a site visit is needed – but both were struggling to find reasons to refuse the application on planning grounds."

Lucy Wolf's Facebook Page "SayNoToTescoInWestgate" has been a great success and please add it to your favourite groups if you are a Facebook user and against the application.

There is now a new petition you can complete and share with others who may also object. You can find this via the Facebook group or in hard copy at the Edwards Store in Westgate. The aim here is to narrow down the objections to a petition that carries proper arguments in planning law and which is much harder to dismiss.

Here's what it says:

"We, the undersigned, call upon Thanet District Council to reject the currently proposed scheme F/TH/12/0769 (The TESCO Proposal) on the grounds that: 

1. It does not comply with Local Plan Policy TC1, paragraph 2, in that there is no demonstrated need for the proposal, it is of an inappropriate scale, and there has been no assessment of the development’s impact on the local area. 

2. It does not comply with Local Plan Policy TC8, as there is no demonstration of meeting a local need, it does not widen the choice, quality or range of shopping facilities. 

3. Furthermore it does not accord with the guidance notes of paragraph 4.87 or 4.88 of the current Local Plan. 

4. We consider the highways provision for the proposed Tesco, to be wholly inadequate on road traffic; parking and pedestrian safety grounds, and urge Kent County Council to reconsider its report in the light of public concern. Further the detrimental effect the highways proposal could have on Emergency Services, this being a major bus route."

I have to run off to a conference but more tomorrow and perhaps even a change of subject!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tesco Time Out

For those readers who haven't been watching my Twitter feed, the news is that Tesco's application, was stalled in the Council's Planning Committee meeting and now there will be a site meeting on Friday 5th April at 09:30am.

This will give the councillors involved an opportunity to see the location for themselves, hopefully ask some more searching questions and then make a final decision on the application at a future date, yet to be decided.

This evening, I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer number of people that packed the council chamber beyond its capacity and who had come to express their opposition to the Tesco Express; perhaps as many two hundred if you count all those who could not get in for fire safety reasons.

We had one speech in favour of the application and an excellent second speech against from the Conservation Heritage Action Group. When my turn arrived, I should add that I was shocked by the discourtesy shown by Planning Committee Chairman, Jack Cohen, who interrupted my speech and refused to let me finish my final sentence at the end of my three minutes. Normal polite convention is a "Finish please Councillor" but when you read my criticism of this founder TIG party member on ThanetLife, it's really not surprising and it did not stop me from delivering the greater part of my speech.

What surprised me next was with such an important debate with huge public interest, Cllr Peter Campbell quickly moving procedurally, to accept the application and put it to the vote. Fortunately, the detail conscious Cllr Binks moved in and directed several uncomfortably searching questions at Council officers, who appeared more unprepared as the evening passed.

In my speech I refer to a "demonstration of need" (Policies TC1/TC8 of the Local Plan) but the officers and indeed the Councillors present, failed to question this at all, focusing instead on highways issues, which I regarded as the weaker part of our objection argument.

As the evening progressed, it became more evident that the officers were falling well short of expectations in providing the information required to support the application. I was also surprised that having provided an aerial photograph of the site to aid the debate, no reference was made to it all and its absence caused several members, including Cllr Fenner some problems in trying to place the site and the street scene in context.

After a while longer, it became clear that the wheels were coming-off the officers arguments and then one planning committee member after another decided that in order to recognise the views of the considerable audience and better understand the application at a street level, a planning committee visit was the best course of action. This is particularly important should the councilors be minded to either approve or refuse the application at the next meeting, because it provides a kind of legal box-ticking exercise to show that the facts have been properly examined at every opportunity.

So there you have it. Deferred for a site visit and then a final decision. Thank you everyone for the magnificent show of support this evening and now we really need to focus the councillors minds on the visible weaknesses in Tesco's application, all those points the council officers dodged and weaved around, worrying over the potential costs of a legal fight with the supermarket giant if the development is refused.

The fight continues in Westgate but I was told last night that another application for Tesco may soon be in the system for Birchington, adjacent to the roundabout.!

The Case Against Tesco in Westgate

This is my speech for the Thanet District Council Planning Committee meeting this evening.

'Chair and members of the planning committee. When from a small population of 6,000 people, a petition receives over 2,000 signatures, it expresses a voice more powerful and in larger numbers than the democratic process that put any one of us in this chamber tonight.

Our respected local historian, Dr Dawn Crouch, reminds us that Station Road, Westgate on Sea with its rare canopied shops is completely Victorian in nature and as such should be cherished. Westgate’s town centre represents a conservation area with a unique heritage and history. This application will effectively trample on our past and set an immediate precedent for future development on the southern side of Station Road.

I will argue that this application is out of keeping with the existing and historic townscape and that the officers’ advice is flawed and fails to demonstrate the ‘Need’ required in our local policies TC1 and TC8. I will further argue that officers’ advice to this committee is highly selective and if you have any doubts, you should reject this application and I would ask you to consider a site visit.

A two-storey retail outlet on the south side of the road would be incongruous. The plans for TESCO show a building many times the width of the average shop front in Westgate. This is totally out of keeping with the character and history of the town.

The highways assessment appears inadequate at best and flawed at worst. It fails to take proper account of issues of visible congestion and road safety, given the dangers presented by large delivery vehicles, the parking provision offered and the worryingly narrow width of the pavement outside the building.

The Council’s Policy TC1 on retail development, describes new development in central commercial centres of main Thanet. Outside these core areas, proposals must demonstrate need, and assess the impact on existing businesses.Tescos are already proposing a major at Arlington House and have a smaller store a mile away in Westbrook. How much more "choice" do we need?

I struggle to see how any new supermarket on the proposed site accords with policy TC8. This policy, while potentially allowing additional shopping provision, requires any proposals to clearly demonstrate the "need" for extra facilities. This is a considerable requirement, and is a higher hurdle to leap than a simple application to build, when the criterion may be largely determined by architecture and design. By its own admission the proposed store is aimed solely at "Top-up shopping" and does not demonstrate any 'need' in its proposal.

The report states "...The development would widen the choice to consumers..." A selective quote again. This is a dubious statement, as TESCO demonstrably fails, as, by its own admission, it will offer only a limited range of goods. A Co-Op already exists in Station Road, with extended opening hours offering a wide range of goods. If this element is to be introduced as an argument then may the objecting public also see the "demonstration of need" (Policies TC1/TC8 of the Local Plan - LP).

Policy TC8 envisages development to be local shops. Larger food stores may be applicable but again the “need” must be explicitly established. Thanet’s Local Plan, specifically states that ‘Westgate is well served, is in state of retail equilibrium’, and also that existing diversity and vibrancy of local centres must be maintained.

Planning permission was granted and remains current for a development of four individual units on the site. This original plan seems compliant with the Thanet Local Plan and so our Planning department seeks to erroneously use the 'Grandfather Rights' argument, stating that it would therefore be ‘unreasonable’ to refuse the TESCO proposal, as it is broadly similar in overall size. This is flawed logic as a child could see that the two proposals are very different indeed.

Officers support the proposal by stating that as the store will be less than 1000 SQ2m and therefore accords with the planning guidance. This is disingenuous, as it completely disregards the local policy para 4.88 i.e "...The District Council envisages that any new retail shops within these centres should be local shops, to serve the local catchment of the particular centre..." The 1000 SQ2m consideration is then simply a limit on the size of retail development, and is not the criterion for approval in principle.

Under policy TC1, in particular paragraph 2, the onus is on the applicant to assess the potential impact on existing businesses. The application states it expects to provide a small number of full and part-time jobs in Westgate, but makes no mention of the likely impact on our existing businesses, who have asked me to express their real concerns based on the experience of small towns elsewhere. Surely that must be a key matter in maintaining the vibrancy of Westgate centre.

The officer’s advice clearly omits the section (para 4.87 of the Local Plan LP) "It is important that the vitality of these centres is maintained."

In conclusion Members, this application is an example of the Emperors new clothes. The officers’ advice may appear convincing but in reality there is nothing of substance in either the local plan or the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF ) to support their recommendation to approve. To claim that the NPPF overrides the LP is clearly wrong, as in that case there is absolutely no point in having a Local Plan at all! It follows therefore, that to try to claim that the lack of a clear statement of 'Need' for development in the NPPF overrides the LP's requirement for 'need' also is wrong and you should reject the application on this basis.'

Three minutes is a very short time indeed and can't do justice to detail required in making an objection like this one. My grateful thanks to Dr Dawn Crouch and to Martin Powell for their work, advice and expert assistance in preparing this objection.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Blast from the Past

Cherie Booth 1983
A blast from the today, having re-discovered some political literature from the Thanet of 1983.

You may recognise the young lady in the photograph from the faded Labour election material, married at the time to a barrister named Anthony Blair, who might one day later, enter politics and make a name for himself in the Labour party.

Listening to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, this morning on the BBC's Andew Marr Show, focusing in on potential tax cut for higher earners in next week's budget, it seems that Labour have not moved on that much since 1983. They have quite forgotten, that the argument in favour of such a tax cut or fiscal stimulus, first came from Alasdair Darling when the financial crisis first happened. Why? Because Government spends your taxes very badly but there's considerable evidence to support the notion that cutting taxes at the higher levels injects more money into the economy and stimulates the consumer spending that we so badly need.

Pity the people of Cyprus who are looking at a 10% tax on their bank savings from tomorrow, prompting panic withdrawals. The island is yet one more tragic example of a failed European policy of throwing money at member governments, based on wildly exaggerated economic figures sketched out on the back of a cigarette package. Thankfully, the UK is not part of the bail-out as David Cameron refused to allow Britain to participate in the rescue of failing governments and foreign banks with, I predict, more to come.

Back here in Thanet, there's been some useful dialogue in the previous entry over the Tesco Metro application for Westgate, which comes before the planning committee for decision on Wednesday evening. To be perfectly frank, I believe the absence of a highways objection is a mistake and at the same time, as Dr Dawn Crouch, our local historian, points out:

"The plan for the Westgate Estate drawn by the Estate architect, Charles Nightingale Beazley in 1870 shows clearly that Station Road was intended to have shops on one side only of the road east of the stationmaster’s house."

Roger Gale 1983
The Council's policy TC8, while potentially allowing additional shopping provision, requires any proposals to clearly demonstrate, fundamentally, the "need" for extra facilities. As pointed out by one eagle-eyed reader, "By its own admission the proposed store is aimed solely at "Top-up shopping" and does not demonstrate any 'need' in its proposal. A Co-Op already exists on site, with extended opening hours offering a wide range of goods."

We have until Wednesday afternoon to keep the discussion going, so please keep the comments and observations going. Tesco was successfully defeated in the village of Herne and I see no good reason that with the weight of public opinion against it in Westgate, why we should not have the right to defeat them here. There's been a great deal of talk about the principle of localism and it would be nice to see it succeed here.

I'm very pleased that our Thanet North MP, Sir Roger Gale, has also added his support to the campaign and I would respectfully ask all our members of the Council's Planning Committee to study the many useful points and arguments included in the comments section. While I completely recognise that TDC can't afford a legal battle with Tesco's very clever lawyers without very solid legal ground for a refusal, like Sainsbury's last year, I believe that the planning officers recommendation to approve is built on a very flawed evaluation of heritage, conservation and highways issues in Westgate and I will say so on Wednesday evening in the Council chamber.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Metro Madness

Sir Roger Gale adds his Support to Westgate Campaign
Away on business this week, I have been catching-up by email and Twitter, on the progress of the Westgate, Tesco Metro application, which comes before the planning committee of Thanet District Council, next Wednesday evening at 7pm. If you plan to attend in the public gallery, then you should arrive early as spaces are limited.

I have been asked by the objectors, both traders and residents to speak against the application. Just to remind ourselves, the council received a petition of 2,000 signatures, expressing concerns at the potential impact on local trade, as well as sending out over five hundred letters to residents who contacted the Council with a view.

The planning committee will be giving me and Jonathan Simmonds (representing the heritage side), three minutes to present our arguments to the councillors of all parties, before reaching a decision. Presently, Thanet Council's planning department have recommended approval of the application in Station Road, based planning regulations and article TC8 of our local plan, which support the building of retailoutlets in order to offer local people greaterchoice.

Readers may recall that the Sainsbury's application in the Canterbury Road was rejected last year because of objections from Kent Highways. I had expected the same to happen to Tesco in the town of Westgate, if not based on the daily road traffic chaos that surrounds a similar Tesco Metro in Westbrook but because of its position and the absence of parking spaces.

Roxburgh Rd
Instead and to my great surprise, 'Highways' appear to believe that ample parking spaces exist, if not in Station Road, then in the adjacent Roxburgh Road and that furthermore, most visitors to the store will walk and not drive.

Not only is the pavement width provision for the store inadequate in my view but the highways officers appear not to have noticed that the gaps along Roxburgh Road are a consequence of the many driveways and that parking in Station Road is frequently non-existent during peak times of the day and I will be challenging their report.

This morning, when I drove to Margate, I encountered a Tesco delivery lorry parked on the double yellow lines outside the Westbrook store and given so many independent reports of similar incidents, I have no reason to doubt that the same would not happen in Westgate and I worry that buses and emergency services vehicles may have their route into the town blocked from time to time.

Station Rd View
So what can be challenged and what can't?

I'm still researching the finer points of the planning regulations but we must start by accepting that the name, 'Tesco' is purely incidental. The site already has planning permission for retail, offices in fact, something I gave conditional approval to the developer for several years ago and was surprised when this was changed to something entirely different not long after permission was granted.

The Council can only object to a development on planning grounds, highways included. In this case the argument against potential economic impact on local traders as a consequence of the new store opening.

If the Council  were to object, then the prevalent opinion is that it would likely lose on appeal and leave us, the council tax payers, holding the costs for a legal battle with Tesco's very expensive and very sharp lawyers.

So, presently I plan to concentrate on the highways report, which I believe is weak and does not reflect the true situation in Station Road and Roxburgh Road and that the building still remains out of keeping with the heritage conservation area style of Westgate on Sea, which you can read about in Wikipedia.

Location mid right of photo
I think that based on the weight of regulations in favour of the development, the very best I can achieve next Wednesday, is to encourage the members of the planning committtee to visit the site and decide for themselves whether the pavement and parking provisions are both safe and adequate for the footfall and traffic expected. It would also be useful if they looked at the plans for the new& building in the context of Westgate's own unique history and perhaps take into account that if that one small site is developed, it won't be long until all the adjacent lots towards Paul's Bar, grow concrete as what was near derelict land suddenly increases in value.

There is now a Facebook group you can join "Say No to Tesco in Westgate" and I would encourage readers to discuss the arguments that I might sensibly use in the three minutes available.

On other news it's good to put a face to a name or in this case, that of local Margate Labour Party activist, Amy Rutland, who caused quite a stir, for all the wrong reasons on the BBC's Question Time programme from Dover last week and had her fifteen seconds or more of fame, in front of the studio cameras and subsequently, the Daily Mail. Amy, who had to close down access to her Twitter feed after the hate campaign that followed , will, I'm sure be working hard to support young Will Scobie's campaign in Cliftonville in the coming weeks.

Finally and on a completely different subject. Adrian Square is closed while the fallen tree is cut into pieces and removed. Hopefully a new wall will be up soon. It's fortunate nobody was hurt.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Show Time

I see, this morning that the loose fringe of Marxists, anarchists, Occupy, former CND, Militant and Socialist Workers' supporters, that have found their home in Broadstairs, have invited me to be a panelist on their special 'Question Time' debate on 'corruption' in Thanet.

"You must be having a laugh" I replied referring to their panel of so-called experts, as I do try and avoid attending left-wing show trials and especially meetings where Cllr Ian Driver is looking for more opportunities for megaphone diplomacy. An example that Labour's Alan Poole chose not to follow more recently in Ramsgate. In any event, they may not have spotted that it's the same evening that the Tesco application for a 'Metro' in Westgate, comes before the Planning Committee and I think that local people in my own ward might rightfully expect me to be there, speaking for them, rather than play the same game of soapbox political charades, more commonly associated with Cllrs Driver and Worrow.

Let's just remind ourselves why Cllr Driver is so popular with the publishers of Thanet Watch, in his own words: " I was in Militant Tendency. Yes I was in the early 1980 and proud of it! I was a Member of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party.  I later led the opposition against Scargill’s dictatorial leadership of the party, was expelled and retired from politics until I rejoined the Thanet Labour Party. "

Based on the experience of political farce, both inside the Council chamber and outside, quite why anybody would believe that one could achieve anything remotely resembling intelligent debate on any sensitive issue, with Cllr Driver present, I really don't know.

I do however believe that most people, here in Thanet, are astute enough to realise there's an agenda behind the films and meetings regularly turned-out from this small coterie of political activists in Broadstairs. Many of them have, I'm sure moved on from the glory days of CND and Greenham Common, reduced to scaremongering about the future of our Health Service in Thanet or human rights in Israel.

In the last fortnight, I've seen wild  allegations flying around that are both unsubstantiated and malicious. I've even read a suggestion on another weblog that I be jailed along several councillors and council officers for my own non-specific involvement in local politics.

This is a time for calm reflection and not idle speculation, to avoid further damaging the reputation of local politics and confidence in local government. Once all the dust has fully settled in a few weeks then I expect local bloggers and others to look at the bigger picture, based on the evidence, rather then the urgent pursuit of political opportunism.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Pay and Display

One desperate driver has been forced to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the new scale of car parking charges introduced by Clive Hart's Labour administration but at St Mildred's Bay this morning, the results were somewhat unexpected.

The story, as reported to me, was that a young man, possibly inspired by last weekend's beach racing on Margate sands, decided to take his girlfriend on a romantic beach detour, yesterday evening and then discovered that his Ford didn't have 4WD.

As I write, the tide is still coming in and the recovery truck on the promenade, out of picture, is quite helpless.

I used to see this quite often as a boy but mostly fisherman who were stuck, trying to launch or recover their boats. My friends and I would sit on the promenade and watch nature take its course as the vehicle slowly submerged on the incoming tide.

Remaining with Westgate, I hear reports of a new campaign to 'Save' our library. This came as a surprise to both me and our county councillors and it transpires,  this is all part of a new campaign to promote Labour's John Edwards ( presently a Dane Valley District Councillor) as a prospective county candidate in May against the sitting Conservative, Cllr Robert Burgess. Other than leafleting, it's reported that both John and Westgate's Jodie Hibbert, are presently living in a small tent  and a cardboard box, outside the library, firmly resolved to keep it open, even though there are no plans to close it. There they are pledged to remain, until either the date of the election or it is 'Saved,' whichever comes first.

One can normally tell there's an election of one kind or another close by, when Labour councillors start popping-up trying to save one thing or another. You may have noticed that the red-flag waving Broadstairs Leninists who publish 'Thanet Watch' are equally busy trying to save the QEQM hospital from being privatised and handed to Richard Branson's Virgin group to manage, which no doubt comes as a surprise to the hospital trust.

The proposed Westgate Tesco Metro (F/TH/12/0769) is now coming before the Council's planning committee on 20th March at 7pm.

This will take place at the Council chamber in Cecil Square and is open to the public. I have been asked by local traders and petitioners to speak against the application and so if you have any representations, please send them to me at my councillor address. Here's is a link to the latest plans if it works on your PC.

Following my last blog entry on out-of-control dogs, I was sorry to have a message from a dog owner in Cliftonville who told me her chihuahua was attacked and killed by a 'staffie' in Palm Bay on Wednesday afternoon. Speaking with another lady at the pet shop yesterday, she agreed with me that one needs to have one's head on a swivel taking a small dog for a walk these days, which is possibly why dog-owners are now seen walking in large groups for mutual protection and assistance against the ever too frequent risk of out of control and aggressive animals on our beaches.

Blades Display Team at Sywell
As a final local note, I would like to extend a warm community welcome to the Reverend Barbara Way, who joined us at a ceremony at St Saviour's Church on Tuesday and mention that the tennis courts relining has been completed at St Mildred's bay and these are now available for public use again. Also, it's the monthly meeting of the WWRA at the Bakehouse in Westgate at 7pm on Monday evening.

This week, I've been up at Sywell aerodrome in Northampton for the CAA's 2013 display pilot's symposium.

One of the highlights, was a talk from Martin Withers, the chief Vulcan pilot and the only man to fly one in anger, during the Falklands War, bombing the runway at Port Stanley.

With luck, we will be seeing Martin and the iconic bomber at the Manston airshow on the 20th June. It needs a small fortune to keep the aircraft flying and if any reader is feeling generous, here's a link to their campaign site.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Margate March

I had a meeting at the Council offices this afternoon and on what seemed like the first day of spring, I took my camera along with me to catch whatever came way in terms of images to capture a sense of Margate on an unusually sunny March day.

You can view my little cameo here. With only a small camera, I was very much the street photographer as I find using a big SLR with a long lens obtrusive and sometimes a little intimidating for the subjects.

Walking along the promenade, I found myself having to intervene to help a young girl whose two dogs on the lead had caught the attention of an out of control large Staffordshire and had a polite but firm argument with its owner, who saw nothing wrong with his dog scaring the poor girl as it went for one of her dogs. "I know about dogs" he told me, as if I should be impressed!

There was a larger and even more dangerous-looking banned breed candidate I saw go for another dog on the beach at Westbrook and it strikes me, simply from my own observation, walking back and forth to Margate, that not only do we have a chronic dog-fouling problem, between the Westbrook cafe and the Nayland Rock but that at times, there appear to be rather too many aggressive Staffordshire types roaming the area with totally irresponsible owners.

On a far more pleasant note, this evening, over at Westgate's St Saviour's Church. it's the licensing of the Reverend Barbara Way by the Right Reverend Trevor Wilmott, Bishop in Canterbury and Bishop of Dover and I will be attending in my role as a ward councillor for the town.

If you missed my Twitter feed on the sidebar where I try and keep readers up to date with local news, Westgate residents please note that the temporary number for the doctor's surgery is 03000 426426 until the phone fault is repaired.

Also, if you happen to be a keen tennis player and were disappointed to find the courts at St Mildred Bay closed in the last week, it's because the lines were being repainted. They should be back in action for the weekend. I'm told we need £10,000 to replace the fencing which is in a very poor condition. That's a very big challenge in the present financial climate.

You may have also noticed that the planning permission for the new Westgate Cricket Club pavillion, to replace the one burned down last year, has been granted, so with luck it will all be completed in time for the coming season.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Es Una Cosa Muy Seria

"Es una cosa muy seria," a  Spanish Civil War quote from the famous war photographer, Robert Capa, which seems entirely appropriate in the current political circumstances here in Thanet.

On a personal level, I'm as shocked and surprised as anyone else but would caution readers to be wary of extrapolating the actions of a single individual to the business of the Council in general. A great deal of water has flowed under the political bridge and many changes have taken place in the time since Sandy Ezekiel was leader of the Thanet Conservatives and the Council. I would hope that processes would now be robust and transparent enough to prevent any future potential for self-interest compromising the business of local government.

From my point of view, we all learn important lessons about personal conduct as councillors and we move-on, much the wiser for it. There's still a great deal left to think about and so, for now, I'll leave my comment at that and write about something else, which isn't plastered across our local blogosphere this weekend.

Credit to Louise Oldfield who did a fantastic job keeping everyone up to date with objective, minute-by minute events of the trial in Maidstone by Twitter.

Net Receipts vs Contributions Member States 2009 -2010
I had lunch with our MEP, Richard Ashworth this weekend; an annual catch-up with events and politics in Europe and it's interesting how the argument for membership has changed in the light of UKIP's rising influence and David Cameron's most recent speech on renegotiating our own place in this grand but increasingly dysfunctional and rather broke European family.

The most telling statistics can be seen in the first image and reveals those EU nations which are net beneficiaries (net contributions vs receipts) of subsidies and in contrast, those who pay all the bills.

To avoid you reaching for your reading glasses, the slide somewhat resembles the UK income tax graph, as I pointed out to Richard. One the right hand side you have the northern European states and Italy (with its big manufacturing economy) and on the left, everyone else, like Poland, Greece, Ireland Spain, and Belgium, rather like an army of Big Issue salesman outside the EU headquarters in Strasbourg.

UK Primary Trading Partners 2012

It's that graph which reveals the unsustainability of the European project as it presently exists in the worst recession since the 1930's and why Germany and the UK, at the far right of the chart, are so deeply worried by the direction of so many European economies as the present statistics are rather worse than the chart, which is now three years out of date.

There's another interesting chart as well. That's the UK's 'Primary trading partners.' What I find most riveting here is the figure for China, which makes-up a quarter of the world's population and the world's fastest growing economy.

Only 2% of our trade exports flow towards Beijing and Shanghai. This tells us something very important indeed. That as a nation, we no longer manufacture those goods that an emerging superpower like China actually needs. In fact, in contrast with thirty years ago, we hardly manufacture anything at all and many of our traditional world-class trademarks and brands, like Rolls Royce, are now owned by someone else.

These charts and several others I have in my briefing pack tell us, without contradiction, that the world has changed very quickly between the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. Our own place in influencing the direction of Europe is important but the continent itself is increasingly in danger of becoming a political irrelevance on the world stage. With our own debts still building at £500 million each month, membership on existing terms, of a broke and fragmented European super-state, is looking unattractive while we give thanks for the blessing of control over our own fragile-looking currency.

To put it frankly, none of us can avoid the alarming facts about our future inside or outside of Europe and I recommend reading this article from the magazine, Money Week, which makes a series of unnerving predictions about the remainder of this decade.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Gesture Politics at its Best

Gesture Politics,“ wrote the Thanet Gazette’s Thomas Brown on Twitter last night, after listening to Cllr Iris Johnston making a valiant if not rambling effort to avoid answering my question on the Margate Caves and Ramsgate Tunnels subsidy. This, despite repeated efforts on my part to draw her away from her favourite topic, the socio-political history of Thanet in the eighteen years since she became a member.

Reading my last weblog entry, a number of people are clearly quite vexed that I presume to ask quite an important question. One that surrounds accountability in public finance. You see, I’ve an unorthodox view, which argues that if you give people public money, then it’s only right that in return, you are able in some tangible way, to measure its benefits to the local taxpayer. Odd isn’t it?

So here is the question that was actually asked. It’s quite simple as I’m sure you will agree:

Please explain how the £20,000 earmarked for groups supporting the Margate Caves and Ramsgate Tunnels projects will be spent, what near-term benefits tax-payers or tourism industry will see and how prohibitively expensive sums previously estimated by officers to restore the caves and tunnels have changed since this administration took control.”

Cllr Johnston was swift to correct my figure of £20,000 which came from my own misunderstanding of the  announcement of support, made at the previous Council meeting. In fact, the figure is now a more generous £30,000.

The Cabinet Member for Communities, that’s Iris Johnston of course, then took up her entire period of allocated time, ‘Not’ answering the question but simply scoring as many political points as she could against the stopwatch. We heard for example, that because the Margate Big Event had been cancelled and that the Council were giving us a Manston Airshow instead, the money saved there was being diverted to the two underground projects. Readers may recall, through looking back on this weblog that Cllr Johnston, in opposition was extremely active in the 'Save the Margate Caves' campaign, condemining the Council's decision not to spend money restoring the underground tunnels and giving TV interviews to the BBC.

Never letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, the airshow argument is, to use a technical expression, ‘Total Rubbish” as in fact the Council were originally intransigent, arguably obstructive and have absolutely nothing to do with the concept or organisation of that event beyond a lame political attempt to take the credit.

After Cllr Johnston had finally sat down, I tried a second time, drawing her attention to the question again in a last ditch and frustrated effort to seek enlightenment. Instead, I received another five minutes of frantic political wittering, as she delivered one of her characteristic  and lengthy monologues on her many achievements since the day the Margate Caves was first discovered, smugly stating that she had received “complaints” about this weblog.

So the answer is, I’m afraid, that she doesn't know or indeed is not prepared to answer a perfectly legitimate question from a member of the Shadow Cabinet sitting opposite.

The Gazette’s Thomas Brown, twittered his own guess of hundred of thousands of pounds but as Twitter is likely a black art to Cllr Johnston, I doubt that she has actually read it.

So let me quickly recap on my position, which is repeated from the last weblog entry.

I would welcome both the Margate Caves and the Ramsgate Tunnels being bought back into use as a local tourist attraction and started the ball rolling with my colleague Cllr Alasdair Bruce, by lending support when the Conservatives were in administration, asking the Margate Caves group for a proper business plan and supporting Cllr David Green’s request for the tunnels entrance to be opened and explored as part of a feasibility study.

The Council has no money and every small commitment represents a real budgetary struggle given its many local priorities, so £30,000 represents quite a large sum.

Volunteer groups in both Margate and Ramsgate have been doing great work attempting to work-up enthusiasm, funding and support for the caves and the tunnels and the most likely opportunity appears to lie with the English Heritage Lottery if a suitably attractive project can be delivered. Whether English Heritage’s generosity would stretch to both projects in close proximity or simply one, is an unknown but it’s far too early to tell
I’m a ward councillor here in Westgate and having turned the former putting green concession back into a public park; even £10,000 might well have turned the small concession hut into an immediate, revenue generating opportunity for the Council, given the approaches it’s received from interested parties.

As instead, the Council has dipped into its almost empty pockets and diverted £30,000 towards the caves and the tunnels groups, I think it’s only right that the local taxpayer knows if this money is a spin of the roulette wheel or an investment with a visible return. Furthermore, if Cllr Johnston has absolutely no idea of the costs of bringing both projects into public use or the ongoing costs of maintaining these assets and the Councils own liabilities, then I find that deeply worrying and I have to question her motives or indeed her judgement, as she appears resolute or unprepared to answer questions on finance around either project in Council.

NB. I learned yesterday evening that the paintings in the Margate caves (shown above) were actually done in the 1960s by the same artist who did much of the amusement park work in Dreamland.