“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.
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
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.