Sittingbourne Christmas Lights Switch On
Many people were quick to jump to the conclusion that the cancellation of the Sittingbourne Christmas Light’s switch on event was merely due to a clash of personalities between the organisers and Swale Borough Council on the basis of a few minor disagreements that could easily have been overcome.
However, with members of the Sittingbourne Retail Association, the now disbanded Swale Arts Forum and other independent event organisers all coming forward to report that they too have faced similar issues, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Swale Borough Council to continue to defend their position that they have done everything in their power to facilitate the running of the Sittingbourne Christmas Lights Association switch on day.
“What could possibly go wrong when you effectively double book a venue and expect your customers to fight it out amongst themselves.”
The problem isn’t a new one, in fact, the battle lines were drawn some 18 months ago when the Council managed to simultaneously cause significant offence to several organisations in the space of a single meeting.
Reputedly the Council was severely critical of existing high street events, claiming that the events were considered far too amateur and are embarrassing for the town. It was claimed that the events needed to be of a much higher standard and then visitors would arrive by the busload as they do in Canterbury and Rochester.
Throughout this article, I have used a number of photos from some exceptional events that I have attended in the high street to illustrate the fantastic work and immense pleasure that our many volunteers, artists and event organisations provide. These events are enjoyed by thousands of people each year and I am very proud to live in a town that offers such events.
Sittingbourne Si-Fi Festival
I should make it clear that the council does not fund any of the major events on the high street, with the exception of the recent Fusion Festival which is discussed later. They are all run by volunteers who give up their free time to do something positive for the town, and who work tirelessly to financially support these events through fundraising activities.
Contrary to popular opinion, the issues are not directly related to the presence of the monthly Artisan Market nor even the concept of a holding a specialist market which is the market most likely to clash with a major event from St Georges Day at the start of the year through to the Christmas Lights Switch on at the end of the year.
None of the event holders I have spoken with has a problem with hosting a market on the same day, in fact, some openly welcome it as it relieves them of some of their administrative burdens. Although there is a degree of irony that in this particular instance the Council were not planning a Christmas market for the switch on day, something which they call a ‘shop local’ market. The Christmas market is to be held on 23rd December, much to the bemusement of everyone I’ve discussed this with.
Chalk-It-Up Chalk Art Festival
The key contentions revolve around the council’s governance of the market’s operation which, although contracted out to a market co-operative who pay a fixed annual rental fee to the council, would appear to be the under tight control of overzealous council officials whom control the event licensing, issue of the Temporary Event Notices (TEN) and have significant influence with the Events Safety Advisory Group.
One of the difficulties Sittingbourne High Street has compared for example to a town like Faversham is that the High Street has only one entrance and two exits which are further compounded by the fact that half our high street is on a slope with reduced width pavements, making it difficult to fully utilise.
Event organisers have until now been able to offset this issue to some extent by placing larger equipment at the top end of the high street which is flat and wider and locating traders stalls further along the high street than the council’s market is currently allowed.
The Council’s market now occupies the entire top end of the High Street which extends from Wilco’s down to Central Avenue and its operation normally concludes at 2pm. This is far earlier than most events have historically finished, although this isn’t actually a constraint of their planning permission which allows trading between the hours of 7am and 5pm.
Part of the problem is that many of the rules and regulations pertaining to environment health and public safety and the general operation of the market are all wrapped up in a market plan, which in turn forms part of the co-operatives contract with the council and as such the entirety of which is deemed confidential making it all but impossible to verify whether what is being claimed by council officials is true or false.
A major drawback of holding a market which concludes halfway through the working day, is that trader’s vehicles are permitted to use the fully pedestrianised high street. Apparently, vehicles are supposed to be escorted by marshals although there was little evidence of this in practice last Saturday.
In order to minimise impact, the practice is for these vehicles to exit along central avenue, which event organisations have been informed is non-negotiable, therefore removing a key entertainment space which is frequently used for a stage area or Swale FM to set up.
The council has made it very clear that it would be illegal to prevent anyone from departing early, and the market co-operative and council has indicated in written correspondence that some market traders did, in fact, need to leave half way through the switch on day to attend to the Faversham Christmas Lights Switch-On.
St George's Day
The market co-operative, however, is now very keen to stress that there is absolutely no problem with a erecting a stage in central avenue, fairground rides within the market footprint and no traders are going to be leaving early.
“Information changes on a meeting by meeting basis so how can we plan for anything.”
That brings us on to the second major issue, the location of the fairground rides. Due to health and safety, these rides are required to be located on a flat surface, meaning that only the top part of the high street is suitable.
On this issue, council officials have allegedly told event organisers that it was simply not possible for rides to be accommodated within the market footprint. As a matter of fact, the Sittingbourne Retail Association told us some time ago that they were in discussions with the council for the hire of the library car park on which to locate the fairground rides. They even have an estimate of the fee that the council wished to charge of £750 which would be the difference between an event going ahead or not in most cases.
The problems don’t end there as event organisers have been told inconsistent information about what they are allowed and not allowed to do in terms of recruiting their own traders for events. Some have suggested that vetting of traders is a requirement even though the council has absolutely no powers to determine the suitability of a trader outside of the market footprint, especially on the basis of the product they are selling.
Armed Forces Day
Should a member of the public have an accident during one of these combined events it is unclear as to whom the responsibly lies with. Under normal circumstances, each of the traders would hold their own public liability insurance and the event holder would also have their public liability insurance. However, in this example, there are technically two events occurring with overlapping coverage of the high street, which remains a point of some confusion.
Safety concerns have been further exacerbated by an insistence that the market co-operative should continue to use the council endorsed marshalling organisation. Problems with using two separate marshalling groups were highlighted at the recent Sittingbourne Carnival.
Needless to say, none of the event holders I’ve spoken with is willing to risk the reoccurrence of an incident which could risk the entire event being shut down.
If all of this, still didn’t dissuade the plucky event organiser, then the council reputedly threating to revoke licenses and conduct on-the-day inspections in the hope of finding sufficient reason to close an event down is surely enough to make anyone question what the point of it all is.
Sittingbourne Mediaeval Mops Fair
In response to the fervour around this incident, the Council have been quick to claim that the recent Fusion Festival was a perfect example of how an event could work alongside the market. The Fusion festival was genuinely a great event and I really hope the organisers are able to bring it back again next year.
However, in the interests of transparency, it must be noted that it was Swale Borough Council’s idea to extend the festival to the Saturday and hence the need to integrate with their own market.
The Council is also being a tad disingenuous in using this as an example, because a) it funded 40% of the costs, b) assisted in the planning and marketing of the event and c) most events I have attended in the High Street have widely different requirements making this a very unfair model with which to draw comparison.
Bicentenary of Waterloo
So, who is ultimately responsible for this event getting cancelled
Well obviously, the Sittingbourne Christmas Lights Association could have struggled on albeit now without the stage and the entertainment due to the delays and uncertainty created by the council and possibly with a reduced number of fairground rides but this was not finalised, but it certainly would have only been a mere shadow of its former self.
This was to have been the 54th switch on event and without question, the decision to cancel would have been an incredibly difficult one to make, but with time running out, and more hoops yet to jump through I may very well have reached the same decision.
Sittingbourne Christmas Lights Switch On
The market co-operative has also been placed in an impossible position, they are also victims of the council's regeneration plans which forced the move into the high street taking precedence over everything else, regardless of how well established and successful the events have become.
Pretty much everyone loses out, the economic impact for both the market traders and the high street stores will be notable, our children will miss one of Sittingbourne’s one of their most eagerly awaited events, the school children of Iwade will miss out on their five minutes of fame. Other event organisers are already concerned about the future of their events and the council just continually refers to the success of the Fusion Festival as some kind of magic bullet whilst blatantly ignoring what is happening right in front of their noses.
Ultimately the council must concede that it had a significant part to play in the cancellation of this event and unless it makes significant changes, other events will no-doubt suffer the same fate.
The Sittingbourne Christmas Lights Association has told us that the inconsistency of information and uncertainty surrounding this makes it all but impossible to plan ahead and this was a key factor in their decision to cancel.
Do not forget- the Christmas Lights will still be going up and will stay on right up until the 6th January, Father Christmas will still be doing his sleigh rounds around Sittingbourne every single night from 27th November until 22nd December.