So our local school is now managed by Swale Academies Trust…

049Education is a big part of my life these days, the Kent Education Network is going from strength to strength and we’ll be announcing a website and membership soon. Closer to home my daughter’s school, Community College Whitstable, is going through troubled times. It achieved poor GCSE results, was given a ‘Requires Improvement’  Ofsted and its head has been sent on ‘gardening leave.’

Our current government believes that schools are better managed by academy trusts rather than by local authorities. I cautiously support this idea, mostly because there seemed little drive for overall improvement with most council run schools.

Obviously there are a mix of good and bad local authority schools,  and clearly there are a mix of good and bad academy schools too. Many academy trusts are created by highly experienced education managers and have fine leadership teams; the idea is that these excellent trusts take on more schools and spread their good work. The reality is that there are not enough excellent academy chains, and academy trust’s leadership varies. It is also obvious that changing the managing body controlling a school is not a magic fix for every school problem.

The academy program has grown too fast because our government wants all schools to be run by academies as soon as possible. Academy trusts have been created to meet that need, and most want to expand rapidly. They are supposed to be not-for-profit bodies, charitable trusts with the best interests of schools at their heart. Yet if their motivation was purely to do a good job, wouldn’t you think they’d just run three or four schools expertly and settle for that? Few do this, most are keen to grow and acquire more schools year on year. There are financial incentives for this rapid growth. They are certainly not businesses in the true sense, but I worry that the motivation for most academy leaders is a desire to have a profitable chain of schools, achieve bonuses for their teams, and increase salaries. Is this really in the interests of our school children?

There has been plenty in the news recently about the financial side of the academies movement. UK school academies currently hold £111 million in cash reserves, they spend  £8.5 million a year on consultants, and their CEO’s pay is causing a few eyebrows to raise, as you’ll see in this article.

I don’t mind our schools being run by businesses and well paid management if those executives are doing a good job. The worry is that many academies show average leadership not inspirational leadership. The majority of schools that are turned into academies don’t show much change in their results. The system works if academy chains take on new schools and improve them. No one minds if the system adds a new financial layer to schooling if it’s giving us better education. The problem is that an academy chain can take on a new school, take the money and achieve average results. There is no going back if the results are disappointing or the academy’s decisions are unpopular. Parents or governors can not claim a local school back from an academy if it turns out that academy was a poor choice.

Academy bosses get six figure salaries for the work of making good decisions and caring for a school. All while unpaid, volunteer school governors make decisions, do a great job and care more about their schools. I think payment for school governors is long overdue. Our unpaid governors have to make big decisions and hand over schools to highly paid multi-million turnover academy trusts. I do trust school governors to make good decisions, but we must trust them, because the future direction of our community’s schools are entirely in their hands.

downloadThe governors of Community College Whitstable sent a letter to parents last week to say that the school will become part of Swale Academies Trust. It has happened whether we like it or not. There is no consultation at all, this is a done deal. The theory behind this approach is that a consultation would unsettle an already troubled school. I am trying to be sympathetic to that view, and it would clearly not work to have a bunch of uninformed parents choosing their preferred  academy trust… But still. It hurts that the school I chose for my daughter can be given away to an unknown management team. These new school leaders might veer the school in a different direction, or change it in ways I do not like.

So who are the school’s new management? It seems Swale Academies Trust are a Kent based Academy Trust managing 4 primary and 3 secondary schools, 4 nurseries, 1 sports centre and a skills centre. They are listed on the Kent  Independent Education Advice schools website as being, ‘much favoured by Kent County Council.’ This is clear, as they seem to have been asked to step in by KCC when many of their schools received poor  Ofsted ratings.

They took over at Chaucer Technology School, then the decision was made to close the school. They took over Pent Valley Technology College at Easter 2015, although this is now also going to close.  They also took over the North School, Ashford, after it was placed in Special Measures in March 2014. The school received a ‘Requires Improvement’ rating in June 2015, so that is some improvement. The academy chain is about to formally take on the North School.

Despite their hit and miss record with these troubled schools I have no fears that CCW will close. However their involvement with these schools doesn’t show an inspiring track record of change. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, as the secondary schools that the chain have manged for many years seem to be doing fine. Westlands received an ‘Outstanding’ Ofted rating, while Meopham School and Sittingbourne Community College achieved Ofsted  ‘Goods.’

Reading about their schools makes me think they are a fair to middling academy chain, with discipline as a priority, and a principle who is not afraid to rustle a few feathers as he brings about change. I was told there was a teacher’s strike at one of the chain’s schools due to demands put on teachers (I haven’t found evidence of this so it may be only rumour.) I know the North School was in the news because they changed uniform twice in three years and sent 60 children home for being inappropriately dressed. On another occasion 40 pupils were excluded for behaviour issues. It seems like the chain’s ethos is ‘let’s be strict.’ I don’t mind that, but it seems hard to get a handle on any more to their educational vision.

I had a look at the Swale Aademies Trust finances, and the academy boss is paid £185,000 a year, with other trustees on decent salaries. I am sure this is just the going rate, and most top head teachers are well paid. I looked because academy bosses pay is current news, and because I was curious about the cash they received for taking on two KCC schools for six months before they were closed.

crop

Swale Academies Trust are certainly an ambitious academy chain with a varied portfolio of education establishments. They have expenditure of 29 million annually and fixed assets of 50 million. And remember that this is just a small multi-academy trust! Education is certainly big business, even when it is ‘charitable trust’ business.

I guess the proof of whether this is a good decision for CCW will come if Swale Academies Trust do what they are here to do – we need them to manage changes that lead to significant improvements at CCW.

There is nothing we can do about this academy trust taking over our local school, but there is a meeting on March 22nd to meet the directors and ask questions. I’ll be there with my hand raised and a list of tough questions. I won’t ask about the uniform or whether academies are good value for money…  I will ask what happened with the other three failing schools they took on, and what they’re going to do to make CCW a school we can be proud of.

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Ovalgate – A timeline of events

This post has not been received positively by all Oval supporters, I have been asked to add a lot of further information (such as the use of the land for holiday lets and more on the Yacht Club lease ending) and to put a different emphasis on some facts. So, I wish to make it clear that this a summary of events, and  that any blog post is a presentation of the view of the author. This post is already too long, so I did not want to revisit it in every way suggested. I think it does a good job as it is. I suggested the Oval team use this as the basis of their own more detailed timeline. They now have a timeline on their official site here.

I’ve been accused of speaking for my Conservative councillor husband a few times lately, simply because I don’t think the Oval Chalet controversy is as black and white as the protesters claim. If you check the posts on this blog from back in June you’ll see that I was angry about the sale from the start. I think the council certainly made mistakes, but I also think the council’s recent explanation for what happened is both honest and open. Their position doesn’t lead to outcomes I’d like, but I do understand why they acted as they did.

project-ssw (1)
The development as it was meant to be.

As the facts have been revealed the news has been worse than I imagined.  Back in June I wrote, ‘We have to hope the council got a good deal, or the people of Whitstable will be crosser than the cross they are already.‘ Well, we are crosser than cross..! We now understand that the land was sold for as little as £160,000.

We also learn that this deal was made with an intention to offer public open space (see picture.) But the contract was botched. It was drawn up by a locum who is no longer working for the council, and the contract used the phrase ‘landscaping’ instead of adding a contractual requirement for public space. Of course the developer takes advantage of this, so we are now offered a development with little provision for public land.

Aerial-View-West
The development taking advantage of a contract mistake.

The Oval Chalet group now have a web page, as do the council. This post is written partly out of frustration, the Oval Chalet Preservation Society promotes a rather one-sided view of the deal (for understandable reasons) while the council expects the public to read through 9 long documents of council minutes to understand the situation.

I accept that there are many sides to this, but this is an attempt to present a factual timeline of what happened. It is a complex situation so if I’ve got any facts wrong please let me know and I’ll do my best to correct them. I haven’t covered the historical background to the Oval Chalet land, which some people think relevant, but the history is  well described on Brian Baker’s blog here.

1961 – 30 March 2013 : The Oval Chalet land is leased by the council to Whitstable Yacht Club and used for boat storage. The Council regained possession of the land on 30 March 2013.

10133492-large2012-2013 : Barrie Green and John Knight who own the Tile Warehouse adjacent to the Oval Chalet land become aware the yacht club lease is ending. Barrie Green is quoted in the Whitstable Times saying he is closing the Tile Warehouse business. The Tile Warehouse owners approach the council and discussions begin with council property officers to see if there is potential for a joint development.

37310852012-2013 : There are a a few local newspaper stories about a potential development of the Oval land in conjunction with the Tile Warehouse. One of the stories describes a plan for a hotel. There are no widespread public concerns at this time, and the plans are presented positively by local papers. Members of the Oval Chalet Preservation group claim they contacted the council to ask what was going to happen but received few answers.

2nd and 10th October 2013 :  In meetings of the Overview Committee and the Executive in Autumn 2013, the Oval is discussed. The Head of Property is authorised to negotiate a joint development of the Council’s Oval Chalet site with the Tile Warehouse site. Here’s the relevant section from the minutes webpage.

RESOLVED –

  1. That the Property Services Manager be authorised to negotiate terms for the development of the Council’s site jointly with the adjoining warehouse, and a sale of Oval site be supported subject to suitable terms being agreed and the Property Services Manager being satisfied the sale complies with Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972.
  2. That the Property Services Manager report back after negotiations have reached an advanced stage.

It takes nearly a year for the plans to return to to a council meeting for further discussion.

project-ssw (1)Oct 2013 – Oct 2014 : The council property officers are in talks with Sea Street Developments, the company directors being Barrie Green and James Knight (the Tile Warehouse directors) plus John Green and Richard Green (Barrie Green’s sons.)

The development at this stage seems to be this plan by Sawyer and Fisher it’s described as a raised piazza and has steps leading to commercial units, with holiday lets and luxury apartments on the Tile Warehouse plot.

January 2014 : A valuation for the land is sought. Five firms are invited to tender for the valuation. The letters of tender issued in January 2014 set out the basis on which the advice will be sought. Urban Delivery were the company selected to deliver the  Oval’s valuation report. Details  of the requests made of the council’s potential valuer, and the results of that valuation process form part of the long report here.

It appears that the price might have been low because of development limitations due to public space provision. The valuers were told the development would, ‘Include an area of elevated terrace that will provide public open space. In addition, there will be a courtyard area situated to the northwest of the site that will provide additional public open space and shelter from wind blowing off the sea. This courtyard area will provide access to two further retail units.’

land registry

April 2014: The valuations were received,and offered land valuations based on various scenarios. The valuation mentions difficulty with access if a stand-alone development of the Oval land is chosen, rather than a development with the Tile Warehouse. Some people have noted that the valuers mention access from Sea Wall (close to the beach) but make no mention of access from Sea Street (the Tile Warehouse side.)

There is a small access strip from Sea Street as part of the council land, but it is not possible to tell whether the valuer neglected this fact, or simply decided building work would use access from Sea Wall.

The valuer said this of a joint development with the Tile Warehouse, ‘A comprehensive development scheme for the whole site would be an opportunity to bring significant aesthetic improvements to the locality and meet the desired objectives of many to reintroduce an element of useable public open space within this site. ‘

Colin Carmichael, the Chief Executive was told of the plans and valuations. He sought guidance as to how to proceed. “I took the view that, given the sensitivity of the site, and the proximity of the local election, we would be sensible to consult once more with Executive Members before asking for any formal decisions.” In the old council system such discussions took place in  a ‘Leadership Steering Group.’

colin_carmichael

6th October  2014 : Colin Carmichael reports that he met the Leadership Steering Group to clarify the details of the plan prepared. He explained that, ‘This officer group pulls together advice on development matters which normally need input from officers in several services – property, planning, regeneration, transport, finance and legal.

The notes from the meeting say, ‘The open space component of the scheme comprises approximately 650 square metres which is roughly 90% of the Oval Chalet footprint. The developer would also wish to undertake some wider public realm works to improve the highway environs with the surrounding area between the scheme and the beach.’ 

The meeting discussed three options. 1) Proceed with the sale. It will be a comprehensive development in conjunction with the tile warehouse, giving a better outcome in planning terms. The proposals also provide a good amount of accessible open space.

2) The Oval Chalet Site could be disposed of at auction. This would be a quick and clean method of disposal, and secure an early capital receipt…. There may also be reputational issues for the Council to deal with, given the history of the site.  

I suspect this auction option offered no public space, and that the sale would be for financial benefit alone. This is my take on it given the reputation worries,  but I accept I may be wrong. The description in option 2 makes no mention of open space.

3) Defer any decision to sell until after the election. It has taken a year of discussions to reach this stage, and the developer has previously indicated that the tile warehouse owners are becoming frustrated at the delays.

The council officers advice was to sell the land at auction, ‘Although there were, in our view, clear advantages to a joint development, and in fact such arrangements can often be very positive, the increasing controversy behind this development and the desirability of an arrangement where the Council could be seen to tender alone and organise its own affairs, as well as the potentially higher income achievable as suggested by Urban Delivery, meant that, on balance, officers thought that an auction sale of our own land would be the best solution.’

However the councillors at this meeting didn’t go along with the officers advice. The Executive Members favoured negotiation with the developer and preferred the development as originally envisaged.

The options were then put to the meetings of the Overview Committee and Executive in December 2014.

4th December 2014 : Canterbury City Council Overview Comittee debated the Oval Chalet sale in a closed session. Like the earlier meetings this was closed to the public due to commercial confidentiality rules. ‘Financial and business affairs of the Council and other persons.. is exempt information.’ This is regular practise in any commercial deal, it means the online minutes list the item discussed but limited details.

Alison O’Dea, Neil Baker, Phil Cartwright and Louise Morgan were the Whitstable Councillors present in this Overview meeting. Phil Cartwright represented the the ward where the Oval is located. He describes what happened here.  He explains that the councillors were led to believe the development offered good public space.

The Head of Property discussed the options for the land with the councillors. The developer declined to provide the complete plans as it was claimed this would be costly until the deal was sure.

The councillors were led to believe 90% of the Oval Chalet land was a ‘public piazza’. It seems the councillors believed the £160,000 (reputed) price was low as the developer would mostly offer public land on the site. The councillors recommended to the Executive that the deal progressed through the legal department, and ‘concludes a sale of the land on the terms set out in this report.

11th December 2014 : The Council Executive accept the recommendation from the Overview committee. They approve the sale of the land to Sea Street Developments. The report they were given is here, with some details not revealed, but it seems clear from this report that the the plan is to, ‘provide an open plaza within the proposed development looking out towards Reeves Beach.‘ Regarding the developer’s requirements the report says,  ‘The policies in the Local Plan ensure that any future development of this site within the Conservation Area will include the provision for open space and access to the sea front. Indeed, the developer is keen to provide this – and enter a legal agreement with the Council in that respect, and sees it as an important part of the scheme to be put forward.’

We can see that the report shown to the Executive does not show the council land in full. Some people have speculated that the valuer was also given incorrect descriptions of the land, missing the access strip from Sea Street, but we do not know if this is true. I suspect part of the valuation process would be to check the land registry, particularly given the complex nature of the land’s history and potential for clauses to limit its use. But we do not know.

This section of the meeting was again private due to confidentiality. The minutes do record that the following options were considered.

(1)         Do nothing – the council will continue to hold a currently unproductive area of land which will incur maintenance costs, attract anti-social behaviour, and will leave a difficult site to improve in the future in the event the tile warehouse is developed without incorporating the subject site.

(2)         Agree a sale for the amount recommended in the report, which will contribute to a better overall development in Town Planning terms.

(3)         Sell the freehold on the open market. The Local Planning Authority is likely to prefer to see the site developed comprehensively rather than in a piecemeal fashion.

And 2) was chose, and the sale subject to development was agreed, with :

Reasons for the decisions

There is now a chance to do something really exciting for this part of Whitstable, and any development is likely to be more attractive and cohesive as a joint project incorporating the Oval Chalet land with the Tile Warehouse footprint than as a stand-alone site.

Should the council seek to leave the Oval Chalet untouched and the adjacent site is redeveloped in isolation, the ground level differences between Harbour Street and Sea Street will result in the council’s retained site becoming an eye-sore offering no amenity to the community of Whitstable. Any subsequent development would be severely constrained by the built form that occurs at the adjoining site, along with Rights to Light issues and would close down any opportunity to deck the land to raise a viewing platform for the public to enjoy sea views. This will provide the best chance for a more comprehensive and cohesive townscape in terms of the development format with public space provision across the two combined sites.

January 21st 2015 : A contract subject to planning permission is drawn up. This is where things go badly wrong. 

As Colin Carmichael’s report says, ‘The contract entered into seems generally appropriate except in one sense. The clear desire of the Executive to achieve open space as part of the joint development has not been clearly translated into the contract. There is mention of “landscaping” but that isn’t necessarily open space.

The contract places reliance on delivering that on the planning process. In hindsight I think more could have been done to require this contractually, though of course that ran the risk of sabotaging the scheme by making it unviable.

So the developer has a contract with no open space requirement…  I wonder what they might do!? This contract does have a a ‘Long Stop’ date by which it can be terminated if the planning approval is not given.

electFeb – April 2015 : The general election is coming up… you might say this has no bearing on a land sale, but perhaps it has? The Ward Councillors for the Harbour ward Phil Cartwright and John Wratten were not selected to stand for Labour in the local government election. I also think most councillors and members of the public are likely to be interested in the election and paying less attention to local issues. The boundary of the Oval ward is  now redrawn as  Gorrell Ward with 3 councillors standing. Labour select 3 new candidates. John Wratten did stand as an independent candidate, but didn’t retain his seat.

May 8th 2015 : The election results are in, and new ward councillors for the  Oval Chalet patch are Ashley Clarke and Brian Baker for the Conservative party and Bernadette Fisher for Labour.

View-1May 22nd 2015 : A public consultation is announced for the development. The plans are shown and the size of the public  space is minimal. It seems the 90% open space plan is more like 10% now. The open space is a small paved area outside a kiosk shop.

The developer has no contractual requirement to offer public space, and so has offered a plan that is mostly built up with houses and holiday lets.

June and July 2015 : The public interest in this Oval Chalet grows. Information is scarce, I was emailing councillors but information was hard to come by. I brought up the sale at WAMP, asking councillors to use these meeting to update the public on local issues, and asked a few questions. The Oval Chalet Preservation Society was formed to protest about the development. A petition was launched with this web page promoting it.

15 July – 28 August 2015 : The Oval Chalet and Tile warehouse planning application was open for consultation. The developer presented a massive file of supporting evidence with hundreds of pages, no ordinary mortal could spare the hours needed to go through it in detail! Despite this, and the fact the council website timed out when you spent more than 5 minutes writing a comment (!) the application received 80 complaints from the public.

23rd July 2015 : At the Full Council meeting the petition was presented to the council with 800 signatures. The petition was received without debate and referred to the Regeneration and Property Committee for a report by the Officers.

17 September 2015:  The Regeneration and Property Committee discussed how to proceed. The report on the petition discussed options, but the recommendation was pretty clear.

‘The Council is not in a position to rescind the contract. In conclusion therefore, there is no reason for the Council to revisit its decisions in the matter, and the only route left for the Council is to reject the petition. Any other decision would lead to litigation with the developer for breach of contract, with the concomitant time and costs involved in defending the Council’s indefensible position in the matter.’

The council minutes of the meeting reveal that in a closed part of the session there were discussions about the value of the land, the open space provision, and the lack of openness with the sale. Councillors were given advice on the legal and financial implications of withdrawing from the contract. There was no vote on withdrawing from the sale, because the recommendation was clear that the contract could not be cancelled.

The proposal put, and seconded, in the public session at minute 259, that the decision remains in place, was put to a vote and FELL.

 A proposal was put that the decision was reviewed with full disclosure of information, appropriate financial advice, independent legal advice and with relevant witnesses and with a site visit. This was not seconded.

 A proposal was put that the council fulfils its current contractual obligations and also undertook a review of the way in which the decision was taken. This was seconded and when put to a vote it was CARRIED.

So the decision was made to retain the contract and review the sale because, ‘The council would suffer significant reputational and financial losses by breaking the contract. However, there were some areas of concern for the public in how the original decision was taken and it may help the council to learn lesson but conducting a review of how that decision was taken.’

22nd October 2015 : This review was presented at the next meeting of the Regeneration and Property Committee. Colin Carmichael compiled a lengthy report which can be read in full here. It covers how the decision was made, reveals near complete details of the valuation report, and reveals the key fact that the contract offered no clear provision for open space just a mention of ‘landscaping’.

The report was thorough and presented the honest admission that the contract offered no safeguard for open space. The Chief Executive also said that future closed session meetings should reveal as much information as possible in their minutes.

12342806_1672922989591510_3567234605771084720_nThe Oval protestors did not like the report, they felt that the Chief Executive was reviewing his own actions, which meant the report was not an impartial investigation.

10th November 2015 : In a slightly unconventional announcement in a Facebook group, Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding the Chairman of the Regeneration and Property committee revealed independent legal advice was being sought on whether the contact could be cancelled. A highly respected Counsel reviewed the case and backed up the council lawyers. His report said the contract had to stand. 

12274423_10208503007159325_3863594542288192383_nThe Oval protestors say that the QC was swayed by the questions put to him and the evidence given.

 

17 November 2015 : The council creates a web page linking to documents and minutes to do with the sale.

25 November 2015: In the Whitstable Area Member Panel (WAMP) meeting Cllr Neil Baker presented a request by a member of the public for background information and details of the Oval Chalet contract to be made public. Other councillors supported the recommendation, although it appears likely council officers will deny it on commercial confidentiality grounds.

4 December 2015: The Oval Chalet group have created a web page. It details their view of the sale,and I’m glad  they have a place for information and documents. However Cllr.Ben Fitter-Harding claimed that of the 5 bullet points on the front page only 1 is accurate.

Next steps: I asked the council democracy department what the options are for effecting this sale. You can read my email here. In brief they say, the contract must stand as both council lawyers and an independent council have agreed  that the council can not withdraw from this.

A judicial review may be a possibility, but must be within 3 months of the decision, and all the decisions were made more than 3 months ago.

A complaint to the local government ombudsman may be possible, but this must be made by an individual harmed by a decision – not by a whole town. It is unlikely to lead to the contract being cancelled.

The best plan seems to be fighting the development at the planning application stage. I am hopeful the current plan will be rejected, and this means the developer will need to compromise.  Another point is that if the decision takes a long time to reach an agreement the contract may end due to the Long Stop clause.

CGQ3jw4XEAEnpceThe contract will also not stand if any foul play is discovered. ‘Bad faith or abuse of power‘ are  both reasons to cancel the contract. The Oval group are considering these points. These are certainly serious faults to find. This means fraud, an intention to deceive, or official misconduct. I do not suspect criminal acts when I consider this situation, although other people have stated suspicions of some conspiracy.

There is also a view from some, councillors included, that this development is not even worth a fight. They say we have plenty of open space a few feet away on the beach. Despite my own passion for this cause I have some sympathy for this view… Despite all the talk about the Oval there seems  to be no clear consensus on how best to use the land.

postcardBut I do believe that it is worth a fight. I still hope some solution will be found to save it. I’d like to create a development that sits prettily on a postcard, and create a bit of our town that will be loved by Whitstable people now, and by generations to come. The original plan by Sea Street Developments, voted for by the Executive and priced low because of its open space plaza and sea views, would have been a plan I could support.

I hope this review of where we are is useful. If anything is incorrect please email joanne@museumoffun.org and I’ll correct any inaccuracies. This post is an attempt to present some balance in a fraught situation, although I’m aiming to present facts, it is of course my own reading of them. Feel free to add your opinions in the comments bit.

 

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?!

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.

When ‘the bubble’ has popped

0_34727_0-630I have launched a blog with the name Whitstababble, it’s supposed to suggest chat and prattle about life in Whitstable. But I want to make it clear that I am not in favour of the term Whitstabubble to describe the town. It’s too cute and a town’s name should be a serious thing.

I wonder if Whitstable people are divided into those who use the term, ‘the bubble’ to describe the town, and those who don’t? I sometimes wish a local historian would research it’s first use. I expect it would be some writer who’d moved here from Essex in 1973.

Catman, the grafitti artist is clearly doing his best to popularise the word.  It doesn’t surprise me. It’s a quirky Whitstable world, and we quirky folk of Whitstable are willing to accept art on the walls without any kind of legal consent. I admit to liking his penguins, but every time I see the Mona Lisa I want to buy a can of paint and get rid of it. I think it’s naff.

a466a9f685be8124f5358000945a3004It seems most people in Whitstable like his art, or at least think it has more merit than the usual grafitti. I’m ok with it on the whole, but it’s all over the place. If some respected painter put his picture in my living room, I might think ‘not quite my thing but thanks for your efforts.’ If he put his pictures in my bedroom, the kitchen, and the living room I might think, ‘Hang on a minute, can you leave my walls alone?’

I’m not too keen to have someone else’s taste foisted on me by someone with a paint brush and an ego. But just like I accept the word Whitstabubble without enjoying its use, I also accept that life in the town features an artist who can paint wherever he wants when he fancies it.

And if he painted those penguins on my garden fence I’d be fine with it. Us Whitstabubblers are contrary folk, famed for the inconsistency of our opinions. We get out the banners and protest if a coffee shop opens perfectly legally and with full openness, but make no complaint when an illegal picture is foisted upon us in the night .