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Medway collectively loses its mind over Christmas lights
Plus the key points from full council, an iconic brand disappearing from our streets, and anger over homeless people being given homes
Editor’s note: It’s been a big week for Medway news, and this week we’re looking into the tug of war between Medway Council and a town centre forum over Christmas lights. On top of that, we’ve got the key points from last night’s full council meeting, news on an iconic brand disappearing from our streets, and the anger over homeless people being given somewhere to live. As ever, it takes a lot to pull each edition of Local Authority together, so please consider becoming a paid supporter if you value these updates.
Medway collectively loses its mind over Christmas lights
They say that a week is a long time in politics, and that was very much demonstrated this week as almost everyone in Medway collectively lost their mind over Christmas lights.
We covered this a bit last week following the initial announcement that Medway would have no lights or switch on events this year, something that was seemingly only decided at the absolute last minute. Because competence, presumably.
Following the announcement and the completely foreseeable response of everyone being very angry about the lack of lights, Medway Council began negotiations with corporate sponsors to get the lights funded for this year. After all, someone in the Medway Council contact book must have £75,000 that they’d want to write off against tax.
At the same time as this was taking place, another group in Rochester sprang to life with a plan to save their lights because Rochester is the kind of town that cares very deeply about this sort of thing.
Step forward the Rochester City (sic) Centre Forum, a loose association of Rochester High Street traders and the kind of people who care Very Deeply about things like hanging baskets and bollards being painted correctly.
The group, who were allegedly informed about the imminent corporate sponsorship deal, launched a crowdfunding campaign to take back control of the lights in a sea of hyperbole, declaring that Rochester is where Christmas began and that the prospect of no lights would be utterly unthinkable. Sure.
The initial campaign asked for £12,500 to keep the existing Christmas lights and have some nice new ones at either end. Which sounds lovely. Coincidentally, £12,500 is the exact same amount the RCCF could have received from the Medway Council’s Shared Prosperity Fund had it bothered to apply like the similar groups in the other Medway towns did. But anyway.
The good people of Rochester duly sprang into action, with over 600 people pledging over £25,000 at the time of publication. Donations raised from individuals pledging small amounts to a number of Rochester businesses pledging hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds.
In the midst of all of this, the usual political suspects spent hours yelling at each other on social media, blaming each other for the situation, as if Christmas lights are the most important issue facing Medway right now. But here we are, covering as our headline story, so who are we to judge?
On Saturday, Medway Council announced the corporate sponsorship of the Christmas lights, with Medway Council suppliers and associates Norse Group, Marston Holdings, and Volker Highways all riding to the rescue.
And so it was that Christmas was saved and everyone lived happily ever after.
Except there’s now the issue of the £25,000 that the RCCF have collected for Rochester’s Christmas lights that now - in theory - isn’t needed. The group continued to solicit funds even after the corporate sponsorship was agreed, and have even increased their target to a seemingly optimistic £50,000.
The group are now promoting the fund as a way of protecting Rochester’s Christmas lights for the future, and funding some small additions this year. They have, to their credit, since scrambled to begin the process of creating a Board of Contributors to oversee how the funds are used, though with a Treasurer and Legal Advisor already appointed, it remains to be seen how transparent the use of funds will be through the coming years.
With a significant number of serious issues facing Medway, it remains reassuring that the entire political class of our towns can collectively lose their minds over something as important as Christmas lights. So much of this seemingly could have been avoided if Medway Council had an ability for competent forward planning and communication, but that seems like a Christmas wish too far.
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What we learnt from last night’s full council meeting
Last night saw the second full Medway Council meeting under our new Medway Labour administration, and as everyone settled into their roles a little more comfortably, we can begin to get a sense of what the next four years might look like.
Rather than a full blow-by-blow, here are the key things we took away from last night’s meeting:
Council meetings are seemingly rowdier, with the Mayor having to step in more than once because councillors were daring to applaud or bang on tables in response to each other.
The St. George’s Centre remains a terrible council chamber, with sound that can be barely heard in the gallery, particularly when it rains like it did last night. Happily, a new chamber is well on the way and the St. George’s Centre can probably be sold off to raise money.
The Labour administration seem to be organised on most agenda issues, having a coherent position and prepared answers that do (and this shouldn’t be a novelty) actually answer the questions asked. On the other hand, the Conservatives seem incoherent, struggling to find attack lines that can gain traction at the moment. The independents were there too.
Medway Council unanimously agreed to give Medway NHS Foundation Trust the honourary award of Freedom of the Borough. Nearly every councillor spoke in glowing terms about the service, so it was a bold move of Cllr Andrew Lawrence (Con) to highlight failings at the trust during his speech.
Red routes remain the hot topic as the Conservatives seem to think they can drive a wedge on the issue by opposing them in Rainham (but not anywhere else). Even so, the Conservative position seemed muddled, with a lengthy argument about whether 123 people represented the majority of Rainham residents or not. Yes, really.
Cllr Alex Paterson (Lab) is as angry as ever, particularly when questionable statistics on red routes are being thrown around.
Cllr Howard Doe (Con) asked a question about travellers in his ward, using the term ‘invasion’ to describe the community being allowed to stay there for three months. No one called this language out until Cllr Joanne Howcroft-Scott (Lab) finally got around to it a couple of hours later.
Medway Council unanimously agreed to set up a Public Space Protection Order against nuisance vehicles across all of Medway. This will give the police more powers to deal with questionable activity from cars, bikes, e-scooters, and anything else. Cllr Chris Spalding (Ind) claimed the police were ‘really looking forward’ to these powers, which should have been a red flag, but nope.
Medway Council unanimously agreed to force taxi drivers to take card payments. Good.
For some reason, Cllr Tristan Osborne (Lab) decides to read his standing while clutching a laptop as opposed to standing with paper or sitting with the laptop.
Medway Council agreed to restore the points based Mayoral system, which will rotate the role between political groups. Medway had the system until the Conservatives withdrew it so keep the role for themselves. They were happy to support the change now so they’ll get the role again in coming years despite being in opposition. Curious that.
Public questions are getting an overhaul with a return of supplementary questions and possibly additional time as well. The Conservatives previously removed supplementary questions while in power, but voted to reintroduce them now they are in opposition. Hmm.
There’s only one more full Medway Council meeting between now and the crucial budget setting showdown in February, which is when things are due to get very real for the new administration. It’s going to be a fun few months.
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Farewell to Twydall’s Kings Ferry depot
The managed decline of the Kings Ferry brand progressed a step further this week, with the announcement that the brand’s depot in Twydall will be closed by current owners National Express.
Kings Ferry is a recognisable local coach brand, running a large-scale commuter and private hire operation until only a few years ago. Commuter travel didn’t return to pre-covid levels, meaning the coach services were wound up in 2021. Since then, the operator has existed purely as a private hire endeavour.
As a result, National Express have deemed the depot to no longer be viable and will be closing it alongside another operated by fellow coach brand Clarkes, who recently had their Medway to Canterbury and London coach services axed as well.
National Express claim the Kings Ferry brand will continue to exist with no changes planned “at present”, which doesn’t sound ominous at all.
On the other hand, to get back to one of our usual beats, the closure of the Kings Ferry depot does free up a large slice of land adjacent to a residential area at a time when Medway desperately needs locations to build housing. That’s assuming the ever-expanding MEMS site immediately next door doesn’t gobble it up instead.
“Help the homeless. No, not those homeless”
Last week, we briefly covered the furore over Anchorage House in Chatham being used to house homeless people from outside of Medway. This week came confirmation that the plans were being brought forward for the London Borough of Newham, which has seen a significant rise in homelessness and has run out of suitable provision to house families in need.
As such, working with Theori, a company specialising in housing homeless people, they will move up to 81 families into Anchorage House. This kind of thing is becoming increasingly common as homelessness rises and council budgets become further stretched. Ultimately though, the building is sitting empty, and there are families who need accommodation, so it seems like a fairly logical move, so long as the accommodation is maintained at an acceptable level.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped pretty much everyone from being outraged about the move. The Labour administration aren’t happy. The Conservatives aren’t happy. Local business owners aren’t happy. Perhaps the most surprising intervention came from an unexpected source in an article on KentOnline:
“Bringing 80 families into Medway is madness … We've all got our problems, we've got a lot of homeless and people who need help in Medway. Let's look after ourselves first. It's great people want to be housed, but it's not a dumping ground, don't just dump everyone on us and let us pick up the pieces - we've got our own problems in Medway”
Not the words of Nigel Farage (despite the incredibly similar rhetoric), but instead those of Neil Charlick of the Gillingham Street Angels homelessness charity, taking a bold stance against the housing of homeless families. Still, maybe it’s not wholly surprising that it’s easy to confuse the two.
The language being used to describe families in need of housing has been pretty grim across the board, and terms like ‘dumping ground’ to describe desperately needed accommodation for the most vulnerable in society are deeply unfortunate.
Medway Question Time went okay!
Thanks so much to those who joined us on an incredibly rainy Wednesday evening for our latest Medway Question Time event.
Our thanks to Adrian Gulvin, Oliver Tomlin, Tristan Osborne, and Kate Mechedou for making an excellent panel, offering a range of voices on the issues that matter most to the people of Medway. On the agenda this time were topics as varied as council finances, river pollution, provision for motorcyclists, vaccines, and lots more.
This was the second edition of these events, and we tweaked the format a little more to allow more direct audience interaction and discussion, which from our point of view seemed to work. We’re grateful to all panel and audience members for taking the time to engage in robust but good-natured debate.
We’d love to hear from those of you who attended. What worked? What didn’t? How can we make these more valuable going forward? We’re adamant that we can build something positive for democratic participation in our towns here, so we’re more than happy to take all feedback on board.
We’ll be aiming to release the debate in either audio or video form in the near future, and are currently looking to hold our next MQT event in January in the outer wilds of Rainham. We do hope that you’ll consider joining us.
🏥 Medway Hospital is on an updated government list of buildings that used potentially unsafe RAAC concrete. Happily, the organisation claim it is safe and is continuing to use the building in question.
🛒 KMTV has been investigating shoplifting in Medway, which has reached 2,000 reported incidents in the past year.
🎨 Francis Iles in Rochester High Street is set to close. The art supply shop and gallery has existed for over 60 years but will close up after Christmas.
🏗️ The gasometer near the Strand in Gillingham is being dismantled. This leaves me conflicted. I love the structure, but it’s also prime development land for some sweet, sweet new housing.
Can you help us?
We’d love to hear from anyone with experience of allotments in Medway. This can be anything from current or former allotment holders, anyone on the waiting list, anyone who would like one but can’t face the waiting list, or anyone with strong opinions about the concept of allotments.
We’re looking to speak with anyone who has had to deal with substandard rental accommodation in Medway. Our current focus is on the private sector but we’re happy to hear about experiences in the social rented sector too. If you’ve had to deal with poor quality accommodation or faced difficulties getting problems resolved, please get in touch.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re able to help out with either of the above either on or off the record, or if you have any stories that might be of interest to our readers. Thanks to everyone who got in touch about skateboarding in our towns last week, which has massively helped an upcoming piece.
Paid supporters of Local Authority receive extra editions of the newsletter every week. This week, we hit play on the Medway video jukebox once again, looking at all kinds of weird and wonderful things you can find about our towns on Youtube. We also had a - gasp - football column where writer Ben Hopkins looked at the current position Gillingham Football Club find themselves in. Finally, Steven sat down to interview local deaf artist Christopher Sacre about his work and what can be done to improve accessibility for deaf people.
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