Canterbury Bid

Christmas Lights

Hanging christmas lights in Canterbury high street

One of the most important things we committed to in the Business Improvement District (BID) campaign this summer was the return of Christmas Lights to Canterbury city centre. In 2013, the city had no lights as the Council couldn’t continue to fund them however this year, after a lot of hard work, the city is shining brightly! Here is our journey:

As well as campaigning to get a positive result in the BID Ballot in July, we started looking for a contractor in April that could supply, put up, take down and store Christmas lights for the city, at a price we could afford. Six presentations later we selected Gala Lights of Maidstone, with a 5 year contract on offer if the BID got the ‘go ahead’ from the business community. Fast forward to the morning of 18th July when we got the BID ballot result: 54% turnout, 64% in favour by number, 61% by Rateable Value… success, but now we’ve got to deliver…

BID Ballot results are subject to a four week ‘challenge’ period when businesses in the BID area can contest the result on a number of grounds and so in this period, we couldn’t take any action that would require any commitment or resource in case the BID Ballot result was not ratified by the Government Department (DCLG).

We decided that one thing we could ‘get on with’ was asking businesses whose premises we wanted to use for their permission, in the event of the BID coming to fruition. So far, so good…

Disaster, a challenge was submitted to DCLG and everything was on hold with the clock ticking. Our ‘last date’ for ordering the lights from Gala was end August and this was fast approaching as DCLG made up their minds on the ‘challenge’…

The 4th September dawned bright and clear and we had finally accepted that, not having heard from DCLG about the challenge, we wouldn’t be starting the BID until after Christmas, if it wasn’t upheld, and that gloom would once more descend on the city at Christmas; after all, the deadline for ordering had passed anyway… 2.15 pm ping! An email arrives saying that no ‘valid request to declare the ballot void has been received’. Game on, frantic phone calls to Gala, ‘is it too late?’ No it isn’t but we’ve got to move fast. Crikey now we really DO have to deliver, gulp!

First, permissions, how many have we got and how do we find the right people to ask where we haven’t?

Next, licences: we need permissions for trees, for lamp columns and for cross street displays (oh, and you need all the H&S Testing Documents for fixings, for which you need to get the permission first, oh goodness!). The clock really is ticking now…

Then we read in the Gazette that a group of businesses are refusing permission for Christmas lights on their buildings unless buses return to St Peters Place through the Westgate Towers. Now what?

After discussion with the BID interim Board we host a public meeting for the businesses in the area concerned to understand their position and hopefully resolve the dispute. Great meeting, poor result; lots of support for lights but little change in the views of those refusing permission. Now what, Mk 2!

Mathematical tiles
Meanwhile we are discovering for ourselves the challenges of putting up lights in a medieval city. Ever heard of ‘mathematical tiles’? Me neither (see picture). However what we do know is that they look like brick but you can’t fix anything to them (we later discover that Brighton BID didn’t know this and pulled the front off a Grade 2 listed building in their first year…); oh, and they are all over our city. Light fixings can ONLY be located in solid brick (not wood, not plaster and absolutely NOT mathematical tiles) and we are starting to struggle for locations in the older streets.

Now we are getting down to our last few permissions but they are stubborn. One managing agent tries to charge us £500 for granting permission; another demands that the lights will be removed within three days if they aren’t happy with them. What planet are these people on???

Time is getting really tight now, we have set light ‘switch on’ for 20th November, as the Cenotaph display will be removed by then, and this is coming at us like a train. We have found a local person, Liz Flynn, to organise the ‘switch on’ event and she is amazing: unfailingly cheerful, competent, communicative and someone who ‘gets it’; who else would you want in charge of an opera star, a gospel choir, Coco and the Butterfields, the Lord Mayor, a snow machine and a bunch of cheeky elves?

The week before ‘switch on’ and we have trees with lights in, a display in Rose Lane, icicle lights in a couple of streets and not much else. Hmmmm. And then the team working on our lights are diverted to another job for operational reasons and we are really up against it.

Switch on week and we have teams across the city on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Each morning we come in and look at what they have achieved the previous night: Tuesday morning, can’t see much progress, need a summit with the contractor: are we going to make it???

Wednesday, much better, and on Thursday morning we have a display. No, we haven’t got the full scheme in but we can at least have a great event and the centre of the city looks great. We’ll crack the whip and get the rest done as soon as we can.

The switch on is fantastic and the feedback is really positive. There was even a genuine ‘ooooh’ when the lights went on!

And then came the slog to get the job completed. The contractor had run out of fixing plates (we needed more than usual due to the age of the buildings) and they didn’t have any in stock (good grief!). Businesses in locations where we hadn’t been able to get the lights up due to the tiles are really upset and businesses in St Peters Street feel let down as they haven’t got their lights yet at all.

Finally, the team are back on site 10 days after switch on and we get the scheme completed as far as we are able this year. We found a workaround for St Peters Street, we got a fascia display in Sun Street and we talked to everyone else about what we can do next year. Phew!

So a few ‘thank you’s:

  • To Lucy Martin, BID Operations Manager for her unstinting efforts to make this happen; Canterbury, if you like the lights then she more than anyone has made them happen.
  • Paul Hussey and the team from Gala Lights: we had our ‘moments’ but we have lights we can be proud of, well done. Next year will be a bit easier for both of us.
  • Liz Flynn
  • The BID shadow Board for their support, especially those who helped design the scheme and support us during the installation programme.
  • Steve Solly, our insurance guru: who knew it could be so simple and he could be so reassuring?
  • John Hawkins and colleagues at CCC for all their sage advice.
  • Serco and Geoff Dunne for the terrific tree in Longmarket.
  • And finally the lady who told us: “These are the BEST EVER Lights in Canterbury!”

Merry Christmas!

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