Sitting in the sun sipping a coffee by the Clocktower I was struck by how unpleasant and dirty our pavements in the city are.
Covered in gum residue, ground in dirt, sugary spills and assorted tyre marks, scuffs and vehicle oil, they would disgrace a slum. They really don’t provide the ambience we need to create a European street café culture.
The thing that strikes me about this is the contrast with other cities, especially in mainland Europe.
- Popular vegan market making a return to city
- Self-appointed thought police tell us what we can say – even in private
You might argue that better weather, and therefore a more consistent outdoor living style, explains some of their focus on keeping the public space clean and liveable. But that really is to avoid the issue, which is how scruffy the city centre looks.
Since Canterbury is a major tourist destination, one which attracts thousands of international visitors, shouldn’t we be setting our standards for the presentation of the city at a level which might meet their expectations?
How can we expect to grow tourism and get the recommendations needed to attract visitors if the city centre is so poorly maintained?
In turn, for me at least, that calls into question the structure of the management of the city and the standards we set ourselves, because there are two bodies responsible for cleaning the City centre: the city council, and the Business Improvement District (BID).
Somewhere between those two a gap has emerged, either in priorities – since both have limited funds – or in the simple allocation of who does what. Whatever the reason, its worth asking what the BID is for if it can’t even ensure clean streets.
To be fair, of course there are parts of the High Street and St Peter’s Street that are almost impossible to keep clean because of the huge number of delivery vehicles which use those roads every day. But there are significant areas which are for pedestrians only, and those seem no better.
So who is responsible? In short, no one knows.
The BID can only deliver additional services to those the council provides, but since the council provides nothing much more than the basic minimum that leaves quite a lot of scope.
As residents, of course, we have absolutely no influence whatever on what the BID decides to do or not do. It is funded by the city centre businesses, and they decide its priorities, award its contracts and judge its performance. Nor are residents able to question the BID on any of these issues.
In short, the BID is a democratic black hole so far as residents are concerned.
That is not only unacceptable, in my view, but it allows the council to hide behind the BID on the same questions. There is no transparency and no public scrutiny of activities which directly affect the quality of life of residents.
To argue, as I think the BID does, that this is because it is funded by and for the city’s businesses is a misunderstanding of basic democratic principles. Businesses can lobby the council – and often they do attend and present their case at the area member panels, for instance – and their leaders and staff are themselves voters. So they aren’t exactly disenfranchised.
Real democracy is by the people, for the people. Cutting off parts of public services from democratic accountability through mechanisms like the BID or the selling off of large areas of land to private landlords is therefore anti-democratic. It is part of an increasing trend of effectively privatising our public spaces.
It is one which we should resist if we want to ensure that the quality of life of residents and our ability to manage our own local environment is retained.