Last week, I took two university students along to a Canterbury City Council licensing committee hearing. It was the first time either had taken a peek into the world of UK local government. On the other hand, I have spent a vast proportion of my adult life in local authority meetings and am inured to their constipated procedural pipework and the way the ghastly officialese erupts with volcanic might from the chamber floor. But these young people were both bewildered and appalled. They must have felt like they had entered an alien world.
“Nan-oo, nan-oo. I am Smarg. Welcome to Planet Council. I trust your stay will be an unpleasant one.”
We had come to the Guildhall on a Tuesday morning for an application by Play Islands, a children’s play centre and bowling alley which has just opened on the Wmcheap Industrial Estate. It wanted to be able to sell the odd bottle of beer or glass of wine to parents while their children played. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, a lot, apparently. The way committee questioned the father-and- son team, Martin and Rob Finnerty, behind Play Islands makes one feel distinctly queasy These men have invested £750,000 in an empty building which has lain dormant for years. They will be providing fun for children not found anywhere else mthecity, they have employed local tradesman and injected vital cash into the Canterbury economy and they have created employment. You might have thought they would be made to feel welcome and thanked for their investment in Canterbury. Not a bit of it.
The applicants were made to be feel like defendants facing prosecution for the heinous crime of opening a children’s play and tenpin bowling centre. Questions loaded with accusation were fired at the Finnertys and their barrister as the committee pored over the excruciating minutiae of the application and nitpicked over inconsequential detail such as where a particular door led to. I’m surprised they didn’t ask questions like whether the doorknob turned clockwise or anti-clockwise or at what pressure the water comes out of the taps. After Play Islands, the committee was due hear a review in secret of the One- Stop convenience store in St Georges Place because it is accused of selling booze to minors. Asked by this newspaper why the council was holding the hearing in secret, an official replied mechanically:
“I cannot tell you that.”
With petulant officiousness, he then burbied some witless tripe about the police being involved. Oh, I must have missed that bit in my local government tralningwhere it says the police also run Canterbury City Council – how foolish of me. This sort of attitude stinks of contempt for the taxpaying public. It projected an image of disdain for the voter and the concept of transparency in a democratic body. Transparency is the most important principle to which a public body must adhere and yet it is the one most commonly abandoned by grey- suited officials. In the mid-1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev set about reforming the crumbling Soviet empire, he invoked the notion of Glasnost – openness – as the way to better the country. This dismal obstinacy of officialdom is why so few people have any faith whatsoever in local authorities. Canterbury City Council will be a very different organism when it emerges from the pupa after the election in May. Or will it?
• The other thing that left my young charges and me very melancholic after the licensing committee was the attitude of certain people in Wincheap.
Lib Dem ward councillor Nick Eden-Green turned up to inform the world that the children’s play centre is doomed to failure:
“I can’t see how it can be economically viable.”
Not a licensing issue, but thank you for your warm words of support, councillor. Other people wrote in to the council to whine that they don’t like the idea of Ma and Pa having a little tipple while Grizzelda and Gavin run amok in the soft play area. What is this festering compulsion in some people to yearn to control the activities of others or limit their freedom of action? it is such an ugly trait. There is also an irrational fear among some that Play Islands will turn into a nightclub. No chance. The owners have no desire to do this. Why is it so hard to be happy that the Finnertys have invested a vast amount of money in Canterbury and given children a fun place to go?
Herne Bay Gazette, December 25th 2014