When the chips are down…

Elections to Shepway District Council may yet be many months away, but it seems we have our first single-issue candidate throwing his hat – or should that be apron? – into the ring.

Andy Burnett, owner of Andy’s Fish and Chips in Folkestone’s Tontine Street, is not a happy man. He has been a vocal critic of the regeneration work being carried out in the area by the Creative Foundation, arguing that despite millions of pounds of investment, primarily from the pocket of Roger De Haan, things are just not moving fast enough for his liking.

The frustrated fryer first appeared in the local press in April after placing a sign in his chip shop window calling for the return of that other well-known and much-loved philanthropist Jimmy Godden. Speaking at the time, Mr Burnett said he was “getting fed up with the Creative Foundation” claiming Godden rented out his properties whereas the Foundation is “happy to sit on empty ones for several years”.

Last month the crusading chippy reappeared, apparently even more frustrated and disappointed with the lack of progress in the Creative Quarter than he was in the spring, telling the papers: “I only want what’s best for the area but I’m getting very disappointed.”

He added: “I decided to act by asking traders to join my campaign and I’ve had a really good response. My original aim was 20 traders but I didn’t realise quite how many empty shops there were, so I was worried I wouldn’t reach that figure. But I’ve now got 20 on board, which is great.”

Sadly the exact details of Mr Burnett’s campaign remained sketchy, what with the manifesto at this point stretching little further than six words on a blackboard. The Creative Foundation nonetheless branded it “misdirected”.

But perhaps he was simply keeping his deep fat fryer cool, as it were, because it has now emerged the chippy is “seriously considering” standing at the district council elections in May. Our would-be councillor has now revealed his policies, which focus on tidying up the neighbourhood and attracting more families to the area with affordable activities.

The 33-year-old, who may target either Folkestone Harbour or Folkestone East ward, said: “Working in my shop I hear many local problems and know what people want. For example I know that they’re not happy with the cleanliness of the streets. It’s not the dustman’s fault because he works hard, so if I was on the council I would argue for another dustman to be used to help, especially in the summer.”

I don’t think, given the mess most local authorities have found themselves in on the financial front, there is much chance of the district council hiring any additional street cleansing operatives any time soon.

In fact given the plight of SDC, which in 2009 predicted a potential £5.2m shortfall in its budget by 2013/14, it seems more likely we may have to make do with fewer.

Perhaps, in the spirit of Dave Cameron’s big society, Mr Burnett and the 20 traders signed up to his crusade would be better off spending the money required to fight an election campaign on some brooms and get sweeping themselves.

But the Tontine Street cod-father (sorry, I couldn’t resist) does have some praise for the powers-that-be, saying: “The flower beds along The Leas have looked superb this year, things like that can really improve an area so I’m interested in doing things like that.”

He added: “My campaign would also focus on making this a family seaside place again. People want free places to take the family, like the Leas coastal park which I’m a big fan of. I just want to help the area regenerate and give local people what they want.”

Admirable ambitions which I’m sure everyone in Folkestone would share. But it seems the Creative Foundation has dropped off his radar, with no mention of the organisation in the press coverage announcing his potential candidacy.

That’s probably for the best. The Creative Foundation is dedicated to regenerating the Creative Quarter and making it possible for the town to host major artistic events such as the Folkestone Triennial and the Folkestone Book Festival. It is not there to clean the streets or provide free amusements for families, and now we know more of Mr Burnett’s aims it seems the description of his campaign, which initially appeared to be targeted at the Creative Foundation, as “misdirected” may not have been far wide of the mark.

The ongoing redevelopment of the Creative Quarter should be celebrated. It may not be progressing as quickly as some might hope, but it is making Folkestone a better place. You only have to look at the transformation of Rendezvous Street and the success stories of businesses such as Moda and Wild for Flowers, both of which successfully expanded after first establishing themselves in the Creative Quarter, to see how the impact of the creative regeneration of the town is helping the area flourish.

Negativity is dangerous at such a delicate point in the rejuvenation of our town. Yes some businesses have failed in the Creative Quarter, yes there are some observers who seem almost perversely gleeful at the thought of the whole enterprise collapsing, and yes there are those who believe things were better in some imagined golden age – but the truth is Folkestone needs the regeneration of its old town to succeed if it is ever to be great again.

The recession came at just the wrong moment, scuppering the masterplan for the transformation of the seafront and harbour. But this should not be used as a stick to beat De Haan and the Creative Foundation. Would anyone else have invested millions of pounds in Folkestone during the worst economic collapse for generations? Would anyone else have supported businesses and kept construction workers on site? Would Jimmy Godden or anyone else have put their hand in their pocket for the good of the town? I doubt it very much.

I wish Mr Burnett the best of luck if he does decide to stand in May. Local government needs passionate people who care about their area but who are free from the shackles of party politics. It is refreshing to see someone keen to take action rather than just sitting back complaining.

But let’s be clear: the Creative Foundation is not the enemy of small traders like Mr Burnett. If he is frustrated or disappointed by what the Foundation has achieved so far it may be a result of unrealistic, overinflated expectations rather than a failure of the regeneration project itself. Folkestone will not be transformed overnight, but it is moving in the right direction.

What the papers say:

The Daily Telegraph argues art and education are key to seaside regeneration.

The Guardian hails the 2008 Triennial a triumph.

The Daily Telegraph senses a wave of optimism by the seaside.

The Guardian asks what happens when a millionaire fills a town with art.

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7 thoughts on “When the chips are down…

  1. I am fed up with the negative attitudes of some people, Folkestone is a brilliant place to live and I say this having moved here from London where road rage, traffic jams and a lack of community spirit are now sadly common place. As for the Creative Foundation, I think the saying is ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’!

  2. Totally agree Kay, if the Creative Foundation fails I don’t think the town will ever get another opportunity as good as this to turn itself around.

    In all my time in Folkestone I can’t remember feeling this optimistic about the future before. Primark and Asda are bringing lots of shoppers to the Sandgate Road area, while independent businesses have really brought the Rendezvous Street/Old High Street neighbourhood to life. It’s a truly eclectic mix, there really is something for everyone.

    Some people in this town need to start celebrating the positives rather than only ever seeing the negatives.

  3. Plus we have beautiful beaches, the free coastal park, people who actually talk to each other, great artists, great musicians, the list goes on. Not forgetting the excellent Skabour Festival that was recently held and organised by four great guys who love Folkestone as much as me! Oh and if you haven’t tried a Googies burger, then you haven’t lived! There is so much to celebrate!

  4. In fact two local women love it so much they even parodied a song about it……….’Folkestone State of Mind’……go google 😉

  5. Well said Rhys. Businesses fail everywhere and that is not the Creative Foundation’s fault. Many of these businesses are just not viable and more effort needs to go into making sure the right businesses are placed in the Creative Quarter. As a CF tennant I think the support they give to new businesses is outstanding. I do think we need more variety in the Creative Quarter. A collectors record shop, a retro clothes shop, a general antique shop, a sewing shop, a craftsman jeweller and the like are needed to enrich it in my view.
    Folkestone has to re-invent itself and going back to the old funfairs and rock /chip shop seaside is looking back and not forward. Folkestone is a great town with great prospects and negative comments placed in the press help no one. Perhaps some people should think about that.

    John

  6. Thanks John. The feedback I’ve been receiving since writing this piece suggests the negative headlines do not always reflect the true feelings of those on the ground. There are lots of positives in the town which need to be celebrated.

    And I think you’re right about the type of businesses needed to improve the Creative Quarter further, variety is the spice of life after all!

  7. Folkestone’s Creative Quarter: Why so negative? | Rhys Griffiths

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