Since 2014 the BID has dressed the city with Christmas lights and we thought it would be interesting for our levy payers to have an insight into this important programme.
Why doesn’t the Council pay for and install the lights?
Up to 2013, when the Council stopped doing this, they did provide the lights; however, due to budgetary issues, they comprised a single strand of lights in a small number of streets, which remained in place all year and were switched on in mid-November each year and even this is no longer affordable for them. Since 2014 the BID has provided a more comprehensive scheme (see below) and in Whitstable and Herne Bay, where CCC also discontinued their lighting scheme, there have been significant issues around providing lights funded by the local community.
How did the BID select the Christmas Lights supplier?
The BID held an open tender process to select the best supplier, based on cost but also quality of delivery and the presentation of a scheme that was both affordable and also in keeping with the city’s architecture and style. Of the six companies who tendered, Gala Lights of Maidstone was the only Kent supplier and their tender was both the least expensive and also the most suitable for our city centre. Gala also supply lights to a wide range of towns and cities across England, including Brighton and York.
Why did we choose the scheme we see today?
After a lot of reflection and consultation, we decided that a combination of soft and bright white was the best solution for Canterbury. As an ancient city and the home of the global Anglican Communion, making sure that what was provided was sensitive to the context and highlighted the beautiful buildings rather than overwhelming them was important.
The scheme has evolved since the first year and we have discovered the challenges of working in a medieval streetscape! Cross street displays require a solid brick to fix to, as the plates used have to be tested to a 1 ton weight; they also have to be 6 meters above the ground to avoid catching vehicles below. Additionally, a large number of our buildings have mathematical tiles on their fascia, which look exactly like brick (as they were a cheaper alternative to a fashionable brick frontage back in the 18th century) but are brittle and only about ¾” thick (in Brighton, the supplier before Gala took the front off a Grade 2 listed restaurant on one notable occasion). For this reason, there are one or two ‘gaps’ in the High Street as we can’t in-fill them with a cross-street display.
In other areas, we again encountered a combination of these issues and so had to ‘invent’ solutions, mainly strings of icicle lights as in Burgate and St Margarets Street or a double strand of lights along building fascia, but also the lights display in Mary de Castor Gardens and the ‘drape’ on the frontage of the former La Trappiste (now Deakins) building.
How much of the city is covered?
The scheme has evolved sine Year 1 and we now cover much more of the city than we did then. Indeed, this year we have added Butchery lane to the areas covered.
In most places, the lights cover the main street and then quickly ‘peter out’ in secondary streets; not in Canterbury! Our scheme starts in St Georges Street and runs all the way down through The Parade, St Peters Street and along St Dunstans Street to the railway crossing, including both sides of the Westgate Towers. They also run all the way from Castle Street and Mary de Castro Gardens across the city, including St Margarets Street, Butchery Lane, Mercery lane, Sun Street, Orange Street, Palace Street, The Borough and almost all the way down Northgate. Gala tell us that this is a greater coverage of any of the locations in which they install lights.
We also buy a 25 foot Nordman fir for the Longmarket Square and dress that with lights too, as well as the trees in St Georges Street and Canterbury Lane.
So, how much does this costs and what are we paying for?
Over the five years, we will spend around £330,000 on the lights and the tree, as well as the power we use, a surprisingly small cost of around £2k per annum as the lights are all LED so very efficient (we also leave them on for 24 hours a day as the costs of installing timers is prohibitive versus the costs of the power; also, at this time of year it is often quite gloomy and so we get great value from them all day when that is the case.). The Christmas Tree on its own cost £1,800 each year and is supplied separately by Elveden Estate in Suffolk.
Roughly half the cost is the hire of the lights over the five year term (we don’t buy them as the hire covers repairs, replacement and storage ) and half is the installation and take-down. Installing in a city like Canterbury is a delicate process, carried out at night and it takes between 3 & 4 nights, with a number of crews (6 this year) and ‘cherry pickers’ to get it done, including the testing of both the fixings and lights themselves as part of that.
In order to reduce costs, we invested in paying the hire ‘upfront’ for lights in Year 2 to secure a 10% discount from our supplier, using the surplus from the BID’s first year.
What else is involved?
Installing Christmas lights is a complicated business (who knew?); first we have to get permissions from every business in the city to which we attach any sort of fixture (100s!), a complex issue in itself. We also have to obtain permission from KCC for using lamp columns and another permission for installing cross street displays, as well as our contractor getting permission for working at height, along with everyone’s insurance documents, health & safety schedules and method of work statements. We also secure permission to install lights in all the trees we use too and get an Unmetered Supply Certificate from EDF to power them all.
And finally, why don’t all the lights come on at the same time during the Switch-on Event?
I really don’t want to let sunshine in on magic, but that plunger they all push? Sorry, but that isn’t actually connected to anything. I know, when I found out I was gutted as well! The scale of our lights, and the complexity of the power switches available to use, means there are around 12 places where lights have to be switched on, all at height and most requiring a cherry picker to get to them. We switch on lights at the entrance to the city (lamp columns in the Kings Mile, lights in Mary de Castro and the fascia lights in castle Street), but in order to make sure there is impact we leave all the others until after the switch on, with the lights immediately round the stage in St Georges, Rose Lane and the High Street the ones we make sure come on when the plunger is plunged!
The BID team has worked really hard to make sure Canterbury city centre is among the best city light displays, certainly in Kent and possibly across the south east. We are really proud of them and we hope you are too! We are gathering feedback now for future years and your thoughts are most welcome.