Vicky Newham


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The Oval Chalet, Whitstable: so many questions, so few answers

When I first started coming to Whitstable, I noticed the plot of land in between the Tile Warehouse and the sea. On my walks I would wonder why it was so overgrown and neglected. Given its prime, seafront location, I started researching its history. The ‘closing down’ sign hung outside the Tile Warehouse for years, so I wasn’t surprised when people told me that its owners were waiting to buy it. Rumour, of course. Except – four years later, this is exactly what has happened. On 21st January, contracts were exchanged for the sale of the plot for the alleged sum of £160k, to the owners of the Tile Warehouse, completion dependent on successful planning permission.

When I learnt about the sale, I asked around. Had anyone known it was for sale? Nope. I asked on Twitter and Facebook. It was mentioned in the council agenda for x meeting, someone told me. I looked it up. There it was. Surely the council put it out to tender? Mumble, mumble … agendas … minutes … a closed meeting. A what? Oh yes, completely normal. After a bit of digging around, I learnt that the council did not make it public knowledge that the plot was for sale and met with the owners of the Tile Warehouse instead (now under the name of Sea Street Developments) and agreed a sale with them. Since then we have learnt a number of things.

  • In October 2014, the previous Executive at the council, decided to continue negotiations with Sea Street Developments, even though the recommendation by council officers was for a tender to achieve a ‘clean sale and early capital receipt’.
  • Urban Delivery, who valued the plot, were given an inaccurate description of the site, claiming it had no access. It is believed they spoke to the developers about the land but it appears no site visit was undertaken, just a desktop valuation.
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Access is available down this slope

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This access route is shown on the up-to-date title deeds but was not shown on the ones give to Urban Delivery

  • The sale contract is conditional on planning consent but failed to commit the developers to the public open space which was agreed for the plot when it was sold to Canterbury City Council.
  • When initial plans were floated for the development, they showed some open space but the ones drawn up by Lee Evans, to submit for planning application, have been altered and now show almost no open space, simply a tiny kiosk with a bit of ‘landscaping’ around it and steps. And no provision for ‘the aged’ of the town, just 18 holiday lets and second homes.
  • When the petition was being circulated, and documents requested, the council took ages sending out the files. Did this mean that councillors at the meeting on 17th October hadn’t seen – or had time to read – everything? And why was the Freedom of Information request turned down to know the exact sale figure?
  • At the 17th October meeting of the Planning and Regeneration committee, councillors voted for the sale process to be reviewed but not the actual sale.
  • At the 22nd October meeting the review by the Chief Executive, Colin Carmichael, was discussed. In public, most councillors agreed that the sale had not been dealt with well but in the non-public session they voted against the proposal for the Oval Chalet contract to be reviewed by full council and whether best value has been obtained.

This sale and development are so difficult to evaluate. It is hard to be objective when this is the last piece of seafront land in Whitstable. Different aspects of the situation bother different people. The way the human brain works, it is inevitable that ‘other issues’ get stirred into the mix. I have noticed a number of opinions and responses to the Oval Chalet sale. One of these is to form one’s view of the development based on one’s view of the developers, ie. the Greens. Another is to roll in one’s views on tourism, visitors, DfLs, traffic, parking, second homes. The second home issue is relevant: the planned development will bring in no section 106 contribution to local services. Others say that no-one has bothered about the land for ages, so why the concern all of a sudden? This last one is absolutely not the case. Many approaches have been made to CCC, and they have been turned down. The lease with the Yacht Club, to use the site as boat storage, precluded other ideas anyway. And a local resident has emails going back several years which document her questions to CCC about the Oval Chalet, and their repeated reassurance that they would tell her if plans were afoot to sell. (They didn’t)

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The site has been described by CCC as ‘a difficult one’ and ‘difficult to develop’ – this is the view from it onto Reeves Beach.

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Neglected, overgrown and in need of development, yes. But always intended to be public open space.

For me, as a psychologist, evidence is crucial. I don’t like witch hunts and I don’t like unnecessary blaming. I also don’t think conspiracy theories are helpful. Asking questions, assuming to know the answer and presenting a theory isn’t helpful. But asking questions and wanting answers is part of democracy, isn’t it? Having been a teacher since 2002, I believe that accountability is important. In a school the head teacher has a senior management team but ultimately he/she is accountable for what goes on. In the case of the Oval Chalet there are so many questions which have not been answered satisfactorily, the void of not knowing easily gives rise to suspicion and doubt. Everyone admits there has been a series of errors and oversights. Some see these as simple mistakes. Others believe they verge on neglect of duty and deliberate attempts to mislead. It is impossible to claim to know the motivations of those concerned. Only they know what they did and why.

I would like to outline what I believe the questions are. And I call on CCC to answer them:

  1. Can the previous Executive members, or the five remaining councillors who served on that body, explain why the recommendation by council officers to put the Oval Chalet out to tender was ignored, and the current development pursued?
  2. What responsibility do Urban Delivery have for their valuation based on the notion of the plot having no access?
  3. Did Urban Delivery make a site visit?
  4. Who gave Urban Delivery the inaccurate plot description and drawings?
  5. Who drew up the sale contract and why did it not include a condition that public open space was to be provided?
  6. To what extent can the current Executive be held responsible for a decision made by the previous one?
  7. To what extent are individuals responsible who were part of the decisions and negotiations?
  8. Has the Chief Executive discussed the significant plan changes with the developers, specifically the fact the public open space has now disappeared from the application?
  9. Has the Chief Executive discussed the valuation issues with the developers?
  10. What legal advice has been taken about the potential consequences of not completing on the sale, and re-negotiating the contract or offering it out to tender? (There are widely diverging views on what these consequences may be and the idea that a judge would just order CCC to hand over the land is not a fait accompli)
  11. What was the point of agreeing to a review of the sale process when the sale itself was to stand?
  12. Was Colin Carmichael the right person to conduct the review?
  13. Why is he reluctant to get a second opinion on the value of the plot given the inaccuracies on which the Urban Delivery one is based?
  14. Why did CCC not make it public that the plot was available? Do they expect residents to learn of upcoming issues and decisions by trawling through lengthy council agendas and meeting minutes? Who on earth has the time to do this? And – what sort of communication is that?

So, CCC – over to you.


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A mooch round smelly Whitstable

(This poem was written for the Whitstable Museum of Fun ‘Smell Walk’ hosted by Kate McLean)

The summer downpours have rinsed the sky
And stranded disappointment in puddles on warm tarmac.
The sea wind has rolled back an invisible gauze of smells,
The air slaps the senses: salty, tangy.
At low tide, forests of seaweed dry, the colour of slate and moss,
Silt on the sea floor, stinky and rotting,
A living carpet of decomposing shellfish.
On the stony beach, damp barbecue coals blush at frozen burgers,
There’s a hiss and a fizz and the smell of warm fat,
As recent rain has subdued the carefree mirth of August.

At the Forge, fresh coffee is the siren on the sea breeze,
Wafts up my nostrils, draws me onto the rocky sea wall
Where I watch visitors douse two quid oysters – all slimy and raw,
With cheap tabasco and pungent malt vinegar.
At the Fisherman’s Huts, it’s eau de chien
As a long haired mutt shakes the sea from its fur
And lies on its back in the slanting sun,
Next to a huddle of towels and yesterday’s trainers which still aren’t dry.
Into Sea Street, and it’s vinegary chips in soggy paper,
Stuffed into hungry mouths on damp-bottomed benches.


On the East Quay the asphalt plant grinds stone
And like the blowhole of a whale,
Belches out smoke from hot bitumen.
Ugly silhouettes poke up into an azure sky,
Ghosts of pre-war industry meet the modern world,
Where once coal, grain and timber arrived.
In the Harbour Village, homemade curries tickle my taste buds,
Lime and ginger blur into tomato and garlic,
Sumptuous Greek olives keep Philyra happy
And sweet, syrupy baklava straddles East and West.

On South Quay now, it’s fishy heaven
Unless you’re a snoozing lobster, yanked from a pot.
In the bowels of the harbour the mud quivers
Like brown blancmange with detritus stirred in.
Gill nets, like huge spiders’ webs,
Are hosed and brushed on rotating racks,
Flicking fish tears onto unsuspecting tourists,
While they check departure times for the ‘Greta’.
At the whelk stall, sea treasure in iced crates,
Smelling freshly caught, just not in local waters,
Industry collides with a working harbour,
And economies murmur as much as money smells.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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A lot of love … and laughter

And some gorgeous pieces of beach-inspired art

The Fish-slab gallery, artist run, named as it used to be a fishmongers.

The Fish-slab gallery, artist run, named as it used to be a fishmongers.

 

Stunning window display

Stunning window display

Earlier in the week I popped into the funky, artist-run Fish-slab art gallery in Whitstable to chat to Martin Pammant and Jan Plaice about their recent exhibition. The majority of the work was Martin’s rustic pieces, created with beachcombed materials and driftwood. Jan had her ‘trademark’ pebbles on display, all painted in striking designs. In addition, she had her most recent creative innovations – canvases. There was also a piece on which they’d collaborated.

Jan and Martin

Jan and Martin

 

Jan's lovely pebbles

Jan’s lovely pebbles

 

Their first collaboration: Jan's pebbles in a frame made by Martin

Their first collaboration: Jan’s pebbles in a frame made by Martin

I started off asking them how the exhibition has gone. Straightaway Martin said that it had exceeded all his expectations, that his last exhibition was successful but this one has tripled that. I was interested to know who buys their art. Martin had previously told me that people find out about his work through the internet: Twitter, his website and also through JoJo’s restaurant in Tankerton. From these routes he has contacts in the Midlands and East Anglia, one in Cyprus, as well as Londoners. And also local people. The popularity of Martin’s Kent Beach Art seems to have been reflected in who has visited the gallery. He and Jan told me that a man from Stafford had come down for the weekend with his wife as a surprise: to visit the exhibition. This was someone they’d met via Twitter. They said that local artists have been both encouraging and generous.

I really like the mix of objects in this piece

I really like the mix of objects in this piece of Martin’s

 

I was interested to know what’s next for them. Martin said, making more pieces. Also that at the moment the balance is 80:20 between his work as a carpenter and his art. He said that ideally he’d like to ‘create’ full time, but a 50:50 balance would suit him. Jan still does some primary school supply teaching, something that she did for 20 years in Northamptonshire before she moved down to Whitstable. She says that whilst she still loves the pupils she is a bit disillusioned with education system [ooh, rings a bell!]. I was fascinated to learn that she is about to start Reiki practitioner training. She says that her approach to life has become more holistic over the years. I commented on her Twitter biography which says ‘making a habit of happiness’. Happiness is something which seems to surround Jan and Martin, and it seeps out of their beautiful creations. They told me how a lady had been in to the gallery and had seen the piece below and had started crying, saying, ‘there’s a lot of love in here’. Aww.

Martin's creations make people cry

Martin’s creations make unsuspecting customers cry

Jan said that her father was very artistic and when she was doing her B.Ed, she’d majored in Art and Design. It was when she moved down to Whitstable to be with Martin, she started painting her pebbles more seriously. Martin has always been creative, he says, and in his work as a carpenter, by doing bespoke work, he’s tried to make it as creative and unique as he could.

Having seen couple co-authors Nicci French and Lars Kepler interviewed at Crimefest, I was curious to know how Jan and Martin find working together, and whether they learn from each other. They agreed that they value each other’s opinions and feedback. They’re able to be honest with each other and take on board suggestions or stick to their guns, whichever feels right. Martin says that Jan give him calmness and Jan learns techniques from Martin. His carpentry helps, for example, he cuts wood by eye.

I was interested to know how they both ended up in Whitstable. Martin grew up in Croydon. When his parents moved to Northamptonshire he followed them up there and stayed there for 20 plus years, then moved to Whitstable and has been in love with place ever since. Jan had known Martin for twenty years. He’d been her son’s football coach but they lost touch. When they met up again they did long distance travelling for a year and then Martin ‘lured’ Jan down to Whitstable.

We then talked about how many artists and creative people live in Whitstable. History tells us they are often drawn to the sea. Martin said they’d been to Cornwall recently and had found it very similar to Whitstable: the sound of the sea, friendly people. They spent the whole time in ‘create’ mode. He said that he thinks what makes the difference is that people have come to Whitstable because they love the place.

It’s always interesting to hear where people get their ideas from so I asked them what comes first the idea or the materials? They both said, the materials. Martin said that he often knows instantly when he picks up a piece of material what it’s going to be. Occasionally a project doesn’t work so he leaves it. For Jan, it’s sensory. She picks each pebble up and walks round with it, rubbing it and touching it. She said that ideas evolve this way. Sometimes she applies the base coat and chooses the colours first and ideas just come. Music inspires her. She said that one day she was listening to a play on Radio 4. It was sad and so her pebble became a sad one. Otherwise she said that she absorbs colour combinations when she’s walking around, for example, the colours in a scarf in a shop. Then she mixes those colours and uses them.

This was the pebble I was drawn to, and bought. It's the heart thing.

This was the pebble I was drawn to, and bought. It’s the heart thing.

I was interested to know which is their favourite piece from their own work, and why. For Jan it’s the second canvas she made in a set of six. The first one was a practice, as it was a new direction for her but she wasn’t sure if she could pull it off but was pleased with the outcome and did five more. For Martin, it’s the ivy tree root. He said he loves the story behind however the root got cut down inland, washed out to sea, stripped of its bark and washed back up on the shore. The plinth in this piece is an old brass chair leg which he found on same day.

The bottom right one is Jan's favourite piece currently

The bottom right one is Jan’s favourite piece currently

Ivy root: Martin's favourite piece.

Ivy root: Martin’s favourite piece.

 

I asked about the beachcombing and if material comes from any other sources. You can beach comb debris, in fact coast guards often encourage it as it helps to keep the beaches clear and safe. Martin uses old nails, some of these he got from local store, Stocks, who bought up materials from when the old boatyards closed. As most of the stones on our beaches are natural sea defences or have been put in place, Jan’s pebbles aren’t beachcombed, she buys them in specifically for her designs. She said that they need to be the right size and shape to paint.

I asked whether their pieces had reoccurring themes. They both agreed that the main one is love, and although they didn’t say it, it came across that this is love of life, for each other and for their work. Martin said that driftwood unites his pieces, also that he puts his heart and soul into each of them . . . and often blood and skin! The link between love and creativity isn’t new. Some people need it to create, others are most productive without it. Martin seems to fall into the former category, saying how when his father died he couldn’t create for months. He said that his head and heart need to be in right place. They both agreed that they are very sensory and have highly personal work spaces. They surround themselves with photographs, memories and things they love, as these spark off ideas.

Finally, I had to ask them about their studios. Jan has a wooden cabin, with lots of cream and sage green. She’s furnished it with a sofa, and a table by the window, both from her old house in Northampton, and says she does her yoga in there. Martin’s is very different: a vibrant space, and he likes to play loud music. His has a log burner. He says that in the winter Jan sneaks in to his studio to work. I love the idea of the separate studios with the walkway in between.

It was a pleasure chatting to Jan and Martin. I am always interested in, and inspired by, people who are working hard to create something new for themselves, something they’re passionate about and which nourishes them.  It is so fabulous to  pursue a life which involves making things which will give others joy. The fact that their works relates to the sea makes me like it all the more.

Terrier, Crystal ... and some rather nice shoes.

Terrier, Crystal … and some rather nice shoes.

 

If you want to read more about Jan and Martin, they are in August’s Ideal Home magazine. Martin’s website is here: http://www.kentbeachart.com/about.html And below is Jules Roy’s documentary on Martin.

Vicky Newham © 2014

 


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Whit Lit 2014 – what a way to start!

This weekend saw the inaugural Whitstable Literary Festival – or Whit Lit, as it has been affectionately called. And, wow, what a way to start a festival! It’s been a long time in the planning stages, in the capable hands of Victoria Falconer as Festival Director, Marnie Summerfield Smith and their team.

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I can’t comment on the specifics of the whole festival, only the events I attended. What I can say though on a general level is that the buzz around Whit Lit has been incredible. The Horsebridge Centre on the weekend was packed with people attending events, and chatting excitedly on the stairs about what they’d been to or were on their way to. In my Psychology class this morning, before we got stuck into attachment theory, my students were all talking about the wonderful variety of events and how well attended they’d been.

I attended four public events in total. On Friday I went to How to Get Published with two literary agents, Julia Churchill and Joanna Swainson. I knew of both agents from Twitter, and was interested in meeting Joanna as I’d read that she represents various genres of writing and likes crime fiction. I went to a similar talk at the London Book Fair 2013 and so some of the information I knew already but it was an excellent, informative session. I wrote down in my notepad yet again how much of a ‘company’, multi-department decision it is now to publish a book, rather than it being about what an editor likes. I definitely think that an agent is essential in the current publishing climate with ever new forms of rights and royalties requiring negotiation. Julia covered what an agent does and Joanna talked about the submission process.

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I was lucky to be invited to the launch drinks on Friday evening in the Somerset Maugham gallery. The atmosphere here was wonderful. Everyone I spoke to was so enthusiastic about the event and full of appreciation and admiration for Victoria and her team for making the festival happen.

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On Saturday I was at the Transformers panel, with DE Meredith, Wendy Wallace and Lloyd Shepherd, and Andrew McGuiness as chair.

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All three write historical fiction, with Denise and Lloyd doing historical crime fiction. My interest was partially in the crime writing side but also in some of the characteristics and scientific developments of the Regency and Victorian eras which provide the backdrop for all their novels. Funnily enough, the one book I bought wasn’t one of the crime novels. It was Wendy Wallace’s The Painted Bridge. I’d looked up Wendy’s books before the talk and had seen that this book was set in a private asylum for women. As a psychologist this captured my imagination. When Wendy referred to the book as being about ‘woman becoming’ it clinched my purchase.

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The three authors each read an excerpt from their books, and described how they perceive their work. They also talked about how they came to start writing and how they approach their novel-writing. Denise talked about the morally driven murders of The Devil’s Ribbon and, this, and its Irish setting, made me add it to my wish list. All three of them came across as really lovely people and I could have listened to them for hours. During questions, I asked the panel whether they plotted their books before writing and it was fascinating to hear how different they all were.

In the evening it was the turn of the Great British Gothic (film) with the Barry Forshaw and Christopher Fowler.

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I’ve seen Barry at other events and his knowledge always comes across as encyclopaedic. This was a whistle stop tour through early gothic, with its camp sensibilities, and Hammer films, Frankenstein and the vampire movies. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were discussed, also Deborah Carr and Laurence Olivier. Barry mentioned how sex and violence have been linked for decades in films, and how Peter Cushing always played amoral characters. I asked whether films have mixed genres in the way that commercial fiction is increasingly doing. Barry said that genres have to cross-fertilise to survive. I also asked whether technological advances and special effects have enhanced storytelling or sidelined it, and whether storytelling is as important in film as in fiction. They both agreed that the story is key. Phew. Christopher cited Jason and the Argonauts as an example of a film with a great story and fabulous computer generated effects. What was wonderful about this event was that Barry and Christopher clearly share a passion for film, and enjoy talking to each other, as is evident in my photograph of the two of them sharing a joke. I forced myself to choose between Barry’s book on the Gothic film and his one on British Crime films. I opted for this one, as it relates to an essay I’m doing for my MA, on feminist theory and crime drama.

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My final event, on Sunday evening, was John Gordon Sinclair – the actor turned crime writer – talking to Andrew McGuiness. John was very funny, and came across as candid, full of insight and passionate about his writing. He said that writing gives him control over what he creates in a way that acting doesn’t, but that when a story comes to mind he sees it as a film in his mind and often acts out scenes in his hut at home at the bottom of the garden (which has a sofa and a fridge, drool). I found it fascinating to hear John discuss some of the themes in his novels and how he likes to explore phenomena, places and experiences which are new to him. His themes include: differing reasons for violence; how our past affects who we become; love; what he calls ‘dark politics’; collusion.

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From the brief conversations I’ve had with people about some of the other Whit Lit events, I gather they were a roaring success. Whitstable is definitely a suitable place for a literary festival. With its abundance of creatives and pretty seaside location, I am just surprised that one hasn’t been going here for years. Well, that has been rectified now and I have a feeling that Whit Lit will go from strength to strength. I, for one, will be happy to help out with next year’s and will be buying the full pass rather than individual tickets. As ever at these events, I met in person a number of people whom I ‘know’ from Twitter. In this case it was several fellow Whistabubblians. Aw.

Vicky Newham © 2014

 


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Back on track and raring to go

A few of you know that I’ve moved recently. I really hoped that this wouldn’t affect my writing routine and flow but it did. Having spent ten days in Coulsdon, packing up the house there, I was completely shattered, mentally and physically. Initially I was going to pay for the removal company to do the packing but when the boss man came round and saw all my books and teaching folders, the estimate shot up by several hundred pounds. So I decided to do it myself. It also seemed like a good opportunity to have a good clear out. Anyone who has done this knows how exhausting and time-consuming it is. Some of it was easy: I took three quarters of my clothes, shoes, boots and bags to the charity shop in those enormous IKEA bags. There were loads of clothes I hadn’t worn for years. Some impulse buys still had labels on and hadn’t even been worn (gulp!). The biggest problem was my books. After two undergraduate degrees and an MA, and now being half way through another MA, plus having been a teacher for ten years, I have mountains of text books. Then there’s the fiction and the books on writing. I tried to have a cull but in the end decided to keep all my Psychology books. The charity shop was thrilled. My shoulders and back much less so. I’ve learnt two things from doing all this: 1) it takes quadruple the time you expect it to take, partly because you get progressively more knackered and slow down, and 2) I will never do it again on my own. I did have various friends come and help me but you can only expect people to do so much. Consequently, the bulk of it I did myself.

Moving day was very stressful. The day before – yes, the day before – the council had started digging up the pavement on the opposite side of the road to my house. As it’s a small arterial road, and very busy all day, with no parking outside, I was extremely worried whether the lorries would be okay parked out front for loading. I had terrible insomnia for the whole of those two weeks as I just felt completely overwhelmed with the task at hand so I was getting up in the night and doing more packing, of course, making myself more exhausted, but somehow unable to stop myself from doing it. On moving day, when we arrived in Whitstable, the people hadn’t left the new house. They were still packing and were transporting their stuff via small DIY van loads. We had to wait nearly three hours before we could start unloading. Removal companies charge extra if they cannot unload straightaway so this cost me an extra £100 and created an unpleasant atmosphere for moving in. And then there was the unpacking. Which just goes on and on, doesn’t it? Although I’ve moved to a larger house and have inherited a shed, I don’t have any book shelves so I still have loads of bags of books upstairs, teaching folders and related paraphernalia, waiting to be housed. I’ve had two weeks plus of more heavy work: lifting, carrying, digging, cleaning and DIY. Lots of people said ‘Oh, relax, you’re there now, just take your time’ but I don’ find it easy to relax when I’m sitting in a house surrounded by boxes, bin liners, bags and debris … and can’t find anything. I can only relax when things start to get done and I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Unfortunately, I still have the house in Coulsdon hanging over me, and, after three months, am still waiting to exchange contracts on its sale. So I have to find ways to keep at bay the worry that that causes. But, the new house is getting straight and I absolutely love it. Downstairs is now tidy and I can put my feet down in the study. Hurrah! So, this post is to say that, as of yesterday, the hiatus is over. I am now back on track with my writing. I’m not doing a follow-up to Book 1 in my detective series yet; I’m doing a standalone psychological thriller. Having set my first book in London, I wanted a different setting. I also want psycho-geography and community to play much more of a part this time, and so I decided a while ago that this book is going to be set in Whitstable. It’s all plotted (something I was doing whilst I was packing and unpacking, so it wasn’t all time wasted) and I’ve written the first 5,000 words. I am sad to leave my detectives for a while but I have a feeling I shall return to them. For now, the new book feels exactly what I want to be writing. The plan is to achieve 1,000 words + a day on the first draft until it’s finished. This is what I did on the first novel and it worked really well. I have new locations to write in, both at home and around Whitstable, new landscape to inspire me, and I couldn’t be happier. My body is recovering and I’m sleeping well (despite the seagulls going crazy in the small hours every night!). I know in my heart that moving here was absolutely the right thing to do.

Vicky Newham © 2013