Consultation, community engagement and learning from the best

I am impressed with the new members at Canterbury City Council, although I am biased as my husband is one of the councillors! I blogged recently about their plan to seek money making ideas from the community in the ‘Ideas Lab.’ This seems like a clever way to get the public on board, with members of the community working with the council in a shared aim to raise cash for our district.

Infrastructure and ParkingIn general the new council seem keen to inform the public early, and involve them in consultations. A clue to this change was the announcement of car park and transport plans in a meeting for community groups. This was clearly an attempt to tell the people who matter first. Feedback on this plan is now being sought, and is one of many consultations underway. There’s a public meeting in Whitstable on Friday 22nd at  7pm at the Umbrella Centre if you want to find out more, you’ll find the details here.

The consultation that interests me most is the proposal for the 2016-2020 Corporate Plan. This document sets out the aims and priorities for the council’s term in office.

At first glance the council objectives give little reason for comment. The 10 aims are broad and positive. They include:

  • Working to achieve enough high quality housing to meet everyone’s needs
  • Contributing to the good health of local people
  • Focussing our community support on those in most need of it
  • Supporting business growth  etc.

The temptation is to say, all very good, and leave the council to get on with things… Only I’m not going to leave them to get on with things! We’re being asked for an opinion, and this is important stuff. It feels like an opportunity to get involved and push our council to work a little harder. I think they’re doing a good job, but a consultation is an opportunity to influence them to do a great job.

I’ll be honest. I think the council has a trust problem. Many of my friends are suspicious of local government, which is odd when you see what they’re about listed in 10 super-positive aims and objectives. Everyone would agree these things are worthwhile and important. Only somewhere in the detail, or the delivery, something goes wrong and people become suspicious, or in some cases even angry.

This is a consultation on a four year plan with broad aims that look rather nice. So I suspect the council are not going to get a lot of comments or suggestions… The consultation involves a survey with comments.

So there is, ‘Focussing our community support on those in most need of it’

We can say on a 5 point scale whether we strongly agree with this point, are somewhere in the middle, or strongly disagree. It would be an odd person to check the strongly disagree box! But perhaps this exercise will be useful to councillors, and lead to some feedback on what matters most to people in the district?

There are boxes on each point for comments, but I’d imagine if you cared about any issue in particular and had a lot to say it might be better to write to a councillor or council department.

This exercise even has some potential to lead to lack of trust again. There’s nothing worse than someone saying, “What do you think of this?” And you tell them and they ignore you. Of course the council can’t act on anyone’s whim, but what if we see the results published and 70% of people think ‘Inspiring people through a wide range of cultural activities and opportunities’ is not very important..? Will those comments and points really be heeded and plans changed?

I think the council is better for public involvement. But (massive BUT) this only works if there is a genuine desire to act on those comments.

So I am going to give my consultation reply to one small aspect of the corporate plan. The bit that I’m going to focus on this:

Principle 1 We will make clear and transparent decisions having been informed by local opinion We will do this by ensuring that:

a) we will consult only where there is a genuine opportunity to influence the decision

b) when consultation is appropriate, it should take place at a stage in the process when it can genuinely influence the outcome

c) sufficient information is provided to allow consultees to provide an informed response

d) the consultation will be open and accessible to all relevant interested parties

e) the results of the consultation will be taken into account and made publicly available

I’m going to write a consultation comment about the council consultation strategy..! That’s all a bit meta, isn’t it!? But I am worried that this consultation does not live up to the high aims of points a) and  b).

I agree with ‘consulting where consultations can make a difference’ but I think this point has a danger of shutting down communication. I would say that communicating information is important even when the public can’t have a say.

An analogy used in a recent Facebook discussion was about neighbours extending a house. If the neighbours chat about the builders work they may find a compromise to make a difficult situation work better (consultation.) The other side to this is that simply knocking on the door and saying ‘this building work is happening’ (no consultation, just good information) can also make things run smoothly. So I would suggest that consultation and sharing knowledge are both parts of a good relationship between public and council. I think good communication matters and should be somewhere in this document too.

I am trying to work out the thinking behind this consultation principle. I want the council to seek comments because they feel decisions can sometime be better with public involvement, but it is clear that they are seeking comments because their decisions are better when they are informed by the public.

It’s a subtle difference, but it effects the strategy. It supports a one-sided approach of choosing cases where they may listen to the public and choose to be guided by them. It doesn’t encourage any public involvement to guide the council. They are listening not discussing. So I guess that is why there is no mention of communication… It is not a very new strategy to do  it this way. Consultation may be number 1 on the list but this is an average sort of consultation policy. But then again, I wonder with things like Ideas Test and those public meetings, do these things suggest they may want a little more that this?

I think this bit is also interesting:

Principle 2 We will encourage local individuals and communities to become self-reliant and actively engaged in improving facilities, activities and the environment.

I think a council who wished to communicate and engage with the public might find good ways to connect to people and groups who want to make a difference. I think a smart council might even lay some foundations for doing that. I liked this post about this here.

I think there may be people in our communities with the skills who might help with all sorts of council things from community centres to rubbish problems, and I think the council must have many services they need help with. So how do they put the two things together? I think there could be some innovative ways, all tied in with good communication and telling people what is needed.

I am being picky but I also want to point out that the first two principles are not very joined up with this bit:

corpplan

Consultation is about people, encouraging self-reliant communities to improve things is about people…

I assume they are not considering  the consultation and working together bit here because they’re seen as minority interest. I think the council are missing a trick. They are saying ‘cultural activities and opportunities’ can inspire people. They are probably spending wodges of budget on this inspiration..! But I would argue that community involvement and engagement with neighbourhood improvements can inspire people too. Only this doesn’t cost anything, and it can save the council money.

I get a kick out of going to the Beaney and learning about history. I get a kick out of thinking of ideas too, and being listened to when I’m having a say on things that matter, and I love learning about improvements to our town like new sports centres and changes at the harbour… It’s not Beaney history, but it’s another sort of learning and inspiration. I think people can often be inspired by communication of neat improvements to our town, and I think people can also be inspired by opportunities to take pride in their community and get involved in improving it.

I found one council who had this line on their corporate plan.

Create a well connected and engaged city.

The measurement points included, opportunities to have a say, community engagement/volunteering, numbers participating in consultation activities, civic engagement in decision making.

I liked this. So I would put something like this in my council wishlist.

I also took part in a central government consultation recently and looked at the policy document about the principles of the consultation process.

This bit was very clear. ‘Consultations should have a purpose Do not consult for the sake of it…. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.

The consultation I took part in involved a new law I disagreed with. But the thing is, I was told very clearly that this thing had been decided already. I was told that the consultation was only on two small bits of the implementation process.

What do you think I did?

I worked my hardest to make these two things as good as they could be.

Strangely I wasn’t angry, I understood the big law wasn’t my decision to make, but I could  influence this situation I cared about. I only had a say on one very narrow thing, but this tiny aspect was something I thought I could change. I think this was an excellent consultation, because I felt empowered by commenting on the one thing that I could certainly influence. This felt much better that writing lots and lots of points about something I had no clear hope of doing anything about.

I’m afraid this corporate plan consultation is not very guided. I don’t know what I can influence,  I have my doubts that anyone can influence anything. The point above says ‘we will consult only where there is a genuine opportunity to influence the decision.’ But it doesn’t tell me which bits are open to negotiation here, or how we might change things in the corporate plan, or in what sort of way.

It is not a bad consultation, but it’s certainly not a consultation that asks a very clear question. When the central government consultation asked a question I felt ‘needed’, they were not asking people for the sake of it, they told us exactly what we could do and I trusted I would be heard.

But this consultation is check box scores and a few comments from the public, and councillors may just latch on to ideas… Maybe. We don’t really know, it feels vague. Even thinking about it is putting me off bothering…

Also I somehow need to turn this blog post into something to actually submit!

I think I will summarise it all as :

The council should commit to a clear plan for communication, and it should be early and honest communication.

Communities want to be engaged, so the council should seek ways to get people involved and tell them very specifically what is needed.

The council should learn from the best, steal the central government style of narrow consultation rather than a free for all. That also means giving people clear power to actually influence decisions, even if it is only in very small ways.

Central government also give the right amount of information. Not many people read a long document or presentation, but a recent Education Select Comittee gave 3 bullet points of information, one question, and a web forum. That is a very public friendly consultation.

I feel the council do not properly use a resource of a bunch of people who passionately care about their community. They should consider the benefits of actively engaging them, look at places that do it well, and consider measuring themselves against a high benchmark of being the best council for a positive relationship with the public. People like this stuff as much as they like the Beaney!

I worry that Canterbury district resident’s care for our community often manifests itself in hours of free time spent in protest about council things that have gone wrong. This involves people debating controversial issues with friends, getting petitions together, sharing social media news, or writing to the papers. The subtext to this is not only that the people care, but that they give free time willingly to these issues they care about. Can’t we find a way to harness exactly that same motivation, and these hours of our community’s hobby-time in a more positive and productive way? People want to make a difference, we give them no way to make a difference, and their time is spent feeling frustrated and patching up the perceived problems.

I’ve written an awful lot on just a couple of presentation slide points. There you go,  I’m yet another care-about-my-community type, wanting to do something and not sure if I’m usefully engaged..!.We’re a free resource and we like to help, maybe one day the council will accept brain power and caring alongside the council tax payments.

The corporate plan consultation runs until Friday January 22nd at 5pm, check it out, check those boxes and have your say here.

Advertisements

Let’s help the council make some money!

imageI spent years trying to persuade my company to set up an ideas and suggestions system.  Ten years ago there was a one room office, and I could send ideas to my boss. He would always look at my random suggestions (and he must have been fed up with getting them) but a few ideas did get implemented. Then the years passed and the company grew and grew… My boss was busy managing six offices  full of people, and my  line manager only liked ideas about our department. There was nowhere for general ‘this might work’ ideas. This drove me nuts!

Ideas are free, everyone has them, they can be bad, indifferent, good or amazing…  And do you know the best way to find a good idea? Have lots of ideas! Ideas are powerful, ideas are my favourite thing, and a good idea can change the world!

ideas (1)So I was happy when my company finally set up  ‘The Innovation Hub,’ an online place to harness the free resource of their thousands of idea-generating staff. I was even more thrilled when they realised how useful it was and invested millions in innovation.

So what’s all this got to do with the council? Well a small post on a Facebook page just got me really excited. The post used my favourite word ideas! Canterbury City Council (yes, a council!) have this thing called ‘Ideas Lab.’ It’s a workshop in January for people to help the council with income generating ideas.

ideasThe document detailing this starts with the problem to fix – and it’s a big one.

‘The ‘age of austerity’ has taken its toll on Canterbury, we have already had to find £4m of savings in the last four years. ‘

Uh oh. No one likes cuts! The presentation goes on…

‘The autumn statement made it clear that from 2020 we will not be able to rely on central grants to fund services – placing additional pressure on council budgets. ‘

Great, more cuts..!

‘It is our ambition to achieve financial self-sufficiency by finding alternative income, as well as potential savings, to offset the loss of this funding and maintain service delivery levels. To help achieve this goal, we will need to generate additional income by 2020.’

That s pretty sensible. So, how?

‘We are already challenging all our services to reduce costs, but it won’t be enough. So we are asking people to help us be more creative and generate ideas on how we could generate income. We are talking with a wide range of people including residents, businesses, parishes, community groups, partners and suppliers – everyone we do business with and for.’

So, the council has told us about a problem. I like honesty… They’ve said what they’re doing. Good…. And they’re open to offers of help. I like this best, because we are all in this together. We need important council services supported, and so of course I am willing to help.

Ideas to generate income are needed because these days councils can set up any money making enterprise.

I will admit I had reservations when I heard about the changes of the Localism Act, this act allows councils set up any business venture. If it’s a business that you or I could run, then the council is allowed to run it too. It seemed worrying to me that a council might set up a chain of hairdressers, and use its massive promotional power to create profitable council-run hairdressers… in the meantime putting every independent hairdresser out of business! So I think they do need to be careful with this income-generating plan. But that’s another reason why it’s good that they’re involving people from the start. There might be a hairdresser in the Ideas Lab meeting saying, ‘Hang on a minute..!’

The Ideas Lab will showcase ideas that other councils have used, and from what I’ve heard about all this there are some clever, and responsible, enterprises out there. There is no reason why the council couldn’t generate income and also  improve tourism, or generate income by adding features to services they already operate.

So, this is Canterbury Council realising that ordinary people might care to get involved. I don’t have any amazing ideas yet, but I’ll try to think of some. Even if the ideas people come up with aren’t much good I still think people will appreciate being involved in this way.

Council’s get an awful lot of bad press, but if they inform people what they’re doing and give them a say things work better. It’s like any relationship, it’s better with listening, involvement, and a date night once a month.*

It took ten years to get the Innovation Hub set up at work, it’s taken this new council just six months to realise that ideas matter. I read about the Ideas Lab on the excellent Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District facebook page. If you’re interested in participating contact Haroon Awan on haroon.awan@canterbury.gov.uk. I believe there will also be ways to participate online.

I hope some bright ideas get found and we can help the council make some much needed cash.

 

 

*That might just be me.

 

 

Escape from School!

It’s worrying times for Community College Whitstable, their head suspended, disappointing GCSE results, and a ‘Requires Improvement’ Ofsted.

I’ve spoken about the problems in Kent’s non-selective secondary schools before. My daughter went to Chaucer Technology School, but we were unhappy with the school and moved her just before it went into special measures. She’s now landed in yet another troubled school.

Today I volunteered for a mentoring program  that works with children at the school. I’ve been interested in working with secondary school children for a while, I’ve even considered being a teacher but I don’t think I’m quite cut out for that. I like the kind of education that encourages a love of learning. I hope a mentoring program will be more about individual children than lots of classroom facts.

I also have a love of games and community events. I set up the Museum of Fun partly because it lets me create interesting stuff. It shouldn’t really tie into secondary schools, but with the way my mind works it does.

escape-room-prDo you know about escape games? They lock a bunch of people in a space and there’s a time element, you have to solve the clues to get out. There’s a big new one based on the Crystal Maze coming to London soon.

So how do escape games, community events, and a failing school fit together?  Well I’d love to create an escape game for Museum of Fun. I was thinking of a Whitstable venue, and think the best one would be Community College Whitstable.

So I had the mad idea of creating an ‘Escape from School’ game. Perhaps the story is that an evil teacher has locked people in the school, and people playing the game need to solve clues based on science, history, or maths puzzles..? Plus it could have people dressed up as zombies. Everyone loves zombies!

Perhaps I could see if any kids at the school want to help me create it? Perhaps it will add a little fun to their lessons…

mhef9k4af6siwspmpnxsI will see how it goes with the mentor program first.

I am a very amateur school helper, plus kids these days haven’t even heard of the Crystal Maze.

AMP-azing!

23DADC5100000578-0-image-m-2_1417986434618I just learned that Herne Bay has council funded reindeer.

Each area of Canterbury  City Council has an Area Member Panel (AMP) Opportunity Fund. This allows councillors to give small grants to groups and individuals who come up with a plan to help their community or improve their town.

So someone in Herne Bay applied to the Herne Bay councillors to put reindeer at the end of the pier for Christmas. I think this is a mad, but lovely idea! It will give children in Herne Bay far more pleasure than the regular lights and tree. In fact I know I’ll be visiting Herne Bay with my kids to meet those pier reindeer.

Two years ago I applied to Whitstable councillors and received a grant from the WAMP opportunities fund. I wanted to put on a community event, I had plenty of ideas, a few people who would help, but no money. The councillors said yes and this meant the Museum of Fun was born.

I had never applied for a grant before in my life, but this was a simple one page application, and the councillors understand what I was attempting to do. So, if you live in Whitstable and have a seed of an idea I would urge you to put in an application to the Opportunity Fund.

It is a perfect opportunity for a few friends to get together and  try to make a small difference. Maybe a Mums group needs new toys for its members? Or a street want to get together and create a shared vegetable garden? Or a group would like to put on a free show for their community..? There are very few rules and  you can apply for as little as £50.

I’m sure the councillors would welcome new faces applying, and appreciate people who haven’t been much involved with community things applying for cash to try to start something up.

In its first year Museum of Fun was funded  by WAMP, in its second year it was funded entirely by sponsorship and fundraisers. More that 50 amazing volunteers got involved to create a great event for our town. I will always be grateful to WAMP for getting this project off the ground, it’s grown into something I’m very proud of.

You can find the very simple WAMP application here,  I’d be happy to advise if anyone has questions, or needs help filling in the form, just email whitstablemuseumoffun@gmail.com.  Spread the word, because I know Whitstable people are creative and care about their town.

Herne Bay has council funded reindeer,  so what can Whitstable do?!

Hello middle of November

Years ago I had a well liked blog that I updated every day. But blogs aren’t so popular these days, the world has shrunk from long posts into tiny tweets, Facebook posts, Snapchat and Instagram. I still like blogging, so I will use this place to write my thoughts now and then. The months have gone by and I wish I’d found more time to write about some of the things I’ve busy with, here’s a whizz through some of the significant bits.

The Oval Chalet 

As my last post suggests, the council was slow to reveal information about this controversial sale, and as information has been revealed it’s clear mistakes were made. Our seafront is our town’s finest asset. It’s pretty much our Canterbury Cathedral, or  our Big Ben or Eiffel Tower. So of course people care about this bit of land and will be sensitive about any changes. Here’s why many people are understandably upset that this sale :

  • It was sold without us knowing anything about it, or having our say.
  • it was sold for a price that insults it’s value in our eyes. (A reputed £160,000)
  • Mistakes were made, particularly with a contract that makes no real demands for open space.
  • We want open space of some sort, but have no realistic chance to get that now. The council took legal advice and voted that the contract stands, our only chance to fight this now is through the planning process.
project-ssw (1)
Reputed to be an image of the sympathetic development with open space voted for by councillors in the meeting where the £160k  land sale was decided.

I share a passion for putting right these wrongs, but bizarrely I have fallen out with the group leading the protest. They don’t like that I’m a councillor’s wife. I seem to upset them because I try to share the facts that I know, with the unhappy conclusion that there is not a lot we can do now. I hope I am wrong, but I am basing my information on discussions with councillors.  I think facts matter, and I don’t think anything is to be achieved by encouraging false hope. We can fight for a compromise in the planning stages but I don’t see much else we  can do. It won’t be the kind of development I would have wanted for this prime spot by the beach, but I don’t have any ideas to fix this. Believe me, I’ve tried looking for solutions.

The council have been quite open and informative since this issue reached their committee meetings. I think they want to prove they are different from the secretive council who made this bad deal. The report from the council’s chief executive explained a lot, including the honest admission of the mistakes that messed up the deal.

This made me realise that the council don’t really have very good channels to communicate effectively. There have been lots of people demanding answers on Facebook, and there have been a lot of rumours, accusations and misinformation. It’s taken a while but there is now a page on the council site listing all the reports about the sale. It’s not perfect and I’d love to see some kind of fact file or summary of the key points, but it’s information at least.

Poor old Oval Chalet, I do hope it has a happy ending.

Online Local Democracy

This point follows from the last… There were some interesting discussions in the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District Facebook group about the Oval Chalet situation and the communication of council information. I’ll be meeting a few like minded people to discuss ideas, either with the aim of encouraging the council to have a better consultation and communication policy, or creating a local democracy site to take on some bits of this task ourselves.

I would hope CCC might be encouraged to create an excellent engagement strategy, but I can see why it might be tricky. It would be an interest plan B to try to create a local democracy site.

Museum of Fun

N4ICiCtZhvzyzoCtEzs70NtyBjkyDifgwPfv8RqStTI (1)The second year of Museum of Fun was loads bigger and better than the first. I’m especially proud that we managed it without any grant funding. It shows you don’t need a huge budget to get things done.

The Museum of Fun entertained over 1,000 Whitstable people in and around the Umbrella Centre on October 4th, and also offered a smaller event at Lucerne Neighbourhood Centre the day before. The Neighbourhood Centre event turned out to be just as rewarding as the big one, we took a smaller version of the event to children who don’t usually get to experience this kind of thing.

The event involved more than 50 volunteers, and bought together groups as diverse as the Twin Towns Association, architecture, event planning & physical sciences departments from the University of Kent, Whit Word, Whitstable Museum, Vattenfall the wind farm people and numerous individuals who wanted to create something arty, sciency or fun for our event.

I love that this event is such a hotch potch of things. The highlights for me were our Whitstable smell museum, and adding a sea to our cardboard Whitstable.  I’m not sure quite where to take it next year, it’s an awful lot of work but it is satisfying creating something with a bunch of amazing people who give time and effort to their community for free.

Secondary Education in Kent

Where to start with this one? I started writing an anonymous blog about Kent education, and somehow got into an intense 10 day Twitter debate with ‘the hated’ Peter Hitchens, a noted supporter of selective education. He ended up linking to my blog from his blog a few times, so I ended up with thousands of people reading about the failings of Kent’s education. Mostly Peter Hitchen’s fans were in favour of grammar schools too, and via the long debate, reading and thinking, I started to see both sides of the debate.

I really enjoyed learning how to argue a point from a master debater. I would go as far as to say that this Twitter conversation was one of the highlights of my year. If I didn’t put my point across well I was dismissed. I fought with facts, he fought with facts, they were the only weapons allowed… I researched, I presented my case, he stuck to his guns and explained his rules of having a principle. I realised I didn’t actually have a principle, at least not a clear one, just a vague sense of injustice.

I admitted some of Mr.Hitchen’s arguments were valid points, I believe he thought about my side of things too. He is one of the grammar school movement’s biggest fans but I think I influenced his opinion a little, if only by presenting some of the issues in Kent. Interestingly he’s not in favour of a one off eleven plus test like we have here.

My problem with Kent education is that there is no answer for the secondary modern schools. The schools denied academic children are not like the comprehensive schools in other parts of the country. The grammar schools take 25% of the high achieving, mostly middle class pupils, and the schools they leave behind have many disadvantaged children, and too many children who see no point to school. These schools are often troubled and get bad Ofsted reports and league table results. Chasing a quick fix drives them still deeper into trouble as they fight to catch up. My daughter’s school bribes children with cookies to attend homework clubs. I don’t know if this is a good use of the pupil premium but I doubt it.

Statistically speaking schools with high numbers of disadvantaged children and low attainment, do badly. So with the grammar school system we are creating a lot of schools with this likelihood of doing badly. We have no real plan to help these schools, and mostly we turn a blind eye to the problems.

At the recent Comprehensive Future conference I was impressed by Jonathan Simons of the right wing think tank Policy Exchange, who explained that the selective system in Kent is a sort of social selection, as advantaged parents use it to further their child’s education.

I have no time here to tell you about my admiration for Kurt Hahn, or my believe that we should aim to find another kind of success for those who might find limited success in exams. I’ll try to write another post on this some time.

Anyway, secondary education has become a bit of a thing for me.  I don’t feel changing the grammar school system in Kent is a winnable fight and I like proper goals. So I am looking at general ideas involving education, rather than trying to change such a big thing.

I’ve considered:

  • A free school in Canterbury, if I can get any support this would be an expeditionary school. I love this model of schooling, it means involving children in challenging projects and experiences to encourage learning, lots of practical projects and exam subjects studied in creative ways.
  • A community project to work with failing schools. These schools have little joy in them, but what if a group got involved to offer after school clubs, and extra curricula stuff? I want to ask demoralised kids in schools, ‘What do you want to learn?’  I believe anyone can discover a love of learning. Sometimes schools are far too narrow in their definition of education. I learned far more  from ZX Spectrum computer programs in magazines, collecting cacti, and Clubs Week than my geography lessons. I have no idea what we did in geography but I can still tell you about the complex biology of cacti grafting.

I’ve whizzed through the explanations for these ideas but I have given them a lot of thought. Both are big things and will take over my life, so I need to make sure anything I do is the right idea, and that I’ve time to do it properly.

Writers of Whitstable short story anthology

A couple of years ago I set up a local writing group and it has grown and thrived. It now meets twice a month,  one group for novels and one group for short stories. Over a glass of wine in the Marine Hotel we share feedback on our work. It’s my perfect sort of writing group, it’s so useful to get notes to help a story find a better direction, and many of the WoW writers have become my friends.

We’re publishing a short story anthology in May next year. The theme is Whitstable and I hope the book will make a small profit and benefit Beanstalk a local children’s charity. I’ve written two stories for the book, one I like, the other I need to get on and finish.

Story Planner

logo-squareStory Planner is my second web app project,  and I’m thrilled with the way the whole thing came together in only two months and launched with excellent feedback from it’s users.

PlayMaker was my first app, and definately my learning project. My son still loves PlayMaker and nags me to go back to it, but I fear it has a lot of  flaws to fix, plus it’s not as easy to monetize as my writing site.

Story Planner is a site offering templates to help plan novels, short stories and screenplays. I think it works pretty well, but not everyone is a story structure nerd like me… The main feedback I get is that it’s hard to know which writing plan to choose. I have a fix for that, and a few tweaks to improve the user journey. My developer friend has been busy with his own projects but will work on a new version of the site in January. It’s a bit of a bore making site changes, but I know it will be worth it. I’ll give Story Planner a relaunch in the new year with a bit of a marketing budget behind it.

It is only a side project, though I hope it may make a bit of a profit. I know I have far too much on in general, with a job and a family too.

I think writing this list has helped me see that I need to prioritise the projects that matter. The tricky bit is deciding which those are.

Active Whitstable citizens and big dreams

eventhomepagepictureSince I started working on Museum of Fun I’ve come across a heap of amazing people who are keen to get involved, or are busy working on their own ways to take action and make Whitstable a better place.

I’ve discovered this undercover world of active citizens running groups and societies with no plan to make a profit, from the board game club, to the Twinning Association, to the lantern parade, to park run, residents groups, the museum community group or WhitLit volunteers. There are far too many to list, in fact there’s a small army of people who are giving time, energy and thought to adding a layer of interest and depth to our town.

I don’t know if there’s a phrase for these people. I wish there was. I think of them as the Active Citizens of Whitstable. Although that shortens to ACOW which isn’t a very friendly acronym. And citizen reminds me of Citizen Smith, so I’m not sure the word is right.

I have a few dreams about my life in this town. One of them is to throw an annual party for all the ACOWs (name to be confirmed.) To get an invite you must pledge to take action and do some positive act to improve life for our community. It could be one small thing like volunteering to go on a beach clean, or taking in interest in local affairs by attending a WAMP meeting, or setting up a group for your hobby.

I like the idea of this meeting for people who Do Stuff, and wonder if new ideas could be hatched, alliances formed, or maybe this meeting of busy creative people might even have some epiphany and win the Holy Grail of Whitstable life and fix our traffic problems?

My other dream is more personal, I would love to create a useful, exciting, permanent, tourist thing in the town. Something that nowhere else has, and that would entertain locals and get people talking about our town. I have no clear plan for what this will be, just a few  half hatched ideas. Unfortunately I have to make a living and don’t have any spare cash so this will likely just stay a dream. But if I did win the lottery I’m pretty sure there’d be a bunch of clever active Whitstable citizens to give guidance. Ideally over a glass of wine at some Doing Stuff People’s party. (Must work on that name…)

Whitstable Always Mentions Parking (WAMP)

5441547-largeIt’s a shame that Whitstable has one big unsolvable issue that can never be fixed. The town’s traffic problems inspire opinion and debate, but there is no easy answer, there’s just too many cars and it’s impossible to fit them neatly into place.

I’ve only been to two Whitstable Area Member Panel meetings but parking issues have dominated both. We can add yellow lines, take away yellow lines, change rules with loading bays, get tougher traffic wardens, or spend money on consultations, but nothing can fix the problem of a town that’s too small to hold all its cars. The traffic problem will feature at these meetings until flying cars park in the sky.

WAMP is a council meeting for and about Whitstable. I fear the average Whitstable citizen couldn’t tell you the difference between Canterbury City Council, Kent City Council, and the work our MP does.  I’ve learned a lot since my husband got elected as a councillor. I’ve come to the conclusion that Canterbury Council is 40% council staff telling councillors what to do, 30% bins, 20% transport, 10% development and planning and 10% wearing robes in parades. I expect my husband has a better understand of it all, and can even make the percentages add up.

I am finding it fascinating to learn about local government, and am glad I now understand that white gloves and tie must be worn with the robes, and that cathedral invites traditionally entitle wives to sit a few rows from the front with a good view of the robed backs.

WAMP involves all our Whitstable councillors, and before my husband was a councillor I had the vague idea that it was a meeting to talk about the bins. I was wrong, it’s all about the traffic.

The councillors also hold a £15,000 pot of money for useful projects for the town. My initial interest in WAMP was entirely based on the idea that they might give me £750 to put on a free community event. The councillors said yes, so I am very grateful that WAMP helped launch Museum of Fun. This year we’re doing it again, bigger and better and with money raised entirely from fundraising and sponsorship. WAMP got us off the ground and I appreciate receiving their seed funding.

I heard about the money from someone who’d applied in the past, and I think the regular community folks do know about the WAMP grants. But this cash is for anyone who has a good plan that benefits people in the town. We weren’t an official group when we applied, just a few friends with a mission. You can ask for a few hundred pounds, and there’s even an easy application form. I hope someone reading this might have a good idea and apply.

WAMP is not a secret, but just like no one really knows what the council does, no one knows that every six weeks  a public meeting takes place where anyone can raise a question and get involved. I think it’s great that anyone can potentially email a discussion point and might get councillors to investigate their Car Park In The Sky idea.

You’d have to be the sort of person who enjoys reading the council website to know about WAMP, so the same regulars tend to go each time. People who organise community groups, individuals with a passion for double yellow lines, or more often, political types who find it their only opportunity to voice their opposition to everything tory.

Half the local voters voted for opposition parties, but eight of nine councillors are Conservative. I have to admit it makes perfect democratic sense to give people their say this way, I just don’t like that it leads to shouting.

I am a big fan of community involvement, I’ve even read the Localism Act 2011 (plain English version, it’s very readable!) which is a significant law about good people making a difference.  An open meeting for councillors and the people to come together is an excellent thing. The problem is the practicalities of making this work.

The issues:

1)  The community are more interested in Game of Thrones than ways to make our town better.

2) The community who do care about their town are not likely to come to an obscure meeting that sounds like a yeti.

3) The left wing people who care understandably have a bit of a chip on their shoulder and engage councillors in a shouty ‘us and them’ battle.

I went to the last meeting because I was interested in hearing views on a local issue. It became awkward because my councillor husband was elected chairman of WAMP. His first job was to field a question from me, and declare himself unable to answer because he knows me. He knows me very well. The problem is neither of us know exactly what to do about sharing an interest in local things. He needs to learn what to do as a Councillor,  and I need to learn what not to do as a Councillor’s Wife.

And the good thing is I can leave him to sort all three points above. My Councillor husband is doing a great job, you can read his blog here if you like. I’m not sure if there’ll be any quick changes to WAMP, whether he’ll add an agenda item about Game of Thrones to popularise the meeting, or  lower the volume on the shouty opposition, or even lead Whitstable to victory in the parking war. I only know he’ll do his best, which is probably all you can do with this complicated monster of a meeting.

I do like WAMP, but I’m glad I have the chance of more practical community stuff to get involved with. It’s a lot easier creating a community event than fixing impossible issues with cars and buses.

The next WAMP is September 9th, do go along but please don’t expect an answer to traffic issues, and I’d appreciate it if you could make political points at normal volume, thanks.