Rye Town Meeting – Mayor’s Overview of 2014-15
Perhaps the Council’s most popular decision over the past 12 months was the appointment of a town steward for the Parish. In response to numerous complaints over the last few years, Nicky Ledger was appointed in January to help improve the appearance of the Parish and make Rye a more attractive place in which to live, work, study and visit. Dressed in orange and driving a large 4×4 with Rye Town Council all over it, he is a difficult chap to miss! His duties include clearing litter from public or publicly-accessible areas; removing weeds and other vegetation; removing dog faeces; pruning trees and bushes; acting as the ‘eyes and ears’ for the community – having regard to vulnerable residents and anti-social behaviour; cleaning signs; clearing gulley grates; removing vegetation obstructing signs, telephone kiosks, post boxes and grit bins; clearing snow/ice from, and hand gritting, public footways; checking and maintaining stiles; reporting fly tipping/abandoned vehicles; and removing fly posting. I would emphasise that he is there to supplement – and not replace – services provided by other public bodies – all of which are continuing to have their Government funding reduced substantially.
The Council was pleased to support the Rye Academy Trust’s bid to Rother District Council to have the former Lower School site in Ferry Road added to the Rother Assets of Community Value. If successful this will give the Trust Six months to raise sufficient funds to purchase the site. The existing College is in a poor state of repair – £650,000 needs to be spent on upgrading electrical services over the next 6 years; £100,000 was spent on window replacement and £70,000 on replacing water pipes. The Trust is hoping to obtain funding to acquire the site from the Education Funding Agency in order to build a new school. It would then demolish the existing building and sell the land for housing to pay towards the new development.
Last year my predecessor gave an update on the proposal to introduce a loading bay into the High Street. Although this turned into a bit of a saga as we tried to incorporate everyone’s concerns and interests, with the help of the Rye Highways Forum we finally achieved our objective on 6 February. The loading bay is for use by goods vehicles only between midnight and 3pm and 11pm to midnight, Monday to Saturday, with a 10-minute time limit. For the rest of the time the bay can be used by any vehicle to load or unload for up to 10 minutes. I appreciate that the signage is confusing but it has been worded by the Highways Authority to ensure it is legally-compliant. Although a number of regular delivery drivers have still not started to use the bay – and some inconsiderate car drivers have chosen to abuse it – there are now fewer incidents of delivery drivers parking on pavements and causing congestion. Because the Traffic Regulation Order governing the operation of the bay is for a trial period of 6 months there will be a formal review of its operation in the summer.
Although we did not have snow last winter – and have had just a couple of light, short-lived coverings so far this winter – Rye is better prepared for snow than it has ever been. The Parish currently has 21 Snow Wardens ready to clear snow and to salt pavements. The Town Council has twelve grit bins, three sites where bulk supplies of salt are stored, one 4×4 vehicle – and has access to two others.
The long-standing problems with the 14th century, Grade I Listed Landgate Tower are well-known and include: the clock either not working or displaying an inaccurate time; excessive vegetation growing on the structure; dead/trapped pigeons in the netting; the uplighters not working; pigeon mess; water ingress – and irregular flag flying. The good news is that Rother District Council has now responded to our concerns and recently arranged for the inside of the Tower to be thoroughly cleaned – in preparation for a professional condition survey. Once the surveyors have published their report we should know which repairs need to be prioritised. Given the continuing public sector funding squeeze it is doubtful whether Rother (or any other local authority) will be in a position to fully fund this work – and it is likely that the community will need to step forward to help save this key Rye landmark. This could include setting up a Friends of the Landgate Tower charity; adopting or sponsoring the Tower; making a donation; fundraising; or offering free, or discounted, professional services.
Many of you will be aware that, on behalf of the Town Council and the wider community, over the past 20 months or so a Steering Group comprising Town Councillors and members of the public has been steadily developing a Neighbourhood Plan for the Parish. I won’t say much about it because you will have been given a progress report when you arrived here this evening – and we are close to agreeing a Plan for formal consultation. However, I would like to emphasise that this has been a sizeable piece of work. I would like to thank those who have participated in the Steering Group and its Working Groups – especially Colonel Anthony Kimber who has effectively undertaken the role of unpaid co-ordinator. It is doubtful that we would have got this far without his considerable input and determination.
The Council remains concerned about the difficulties faced by young Rye families finding affordable rented accommodation – and is keen to help stem the flow of them having to relocate to cheaper areas (notably Hastings & St Leonards). A working group has been set up to explore the options.
We continue to assess – and comment upon – local planning applications, despite this having been made more difficult following Rother’s decision to cease to provide full-size hard copies of plans to parish and town councils. Given the significant year-on-year reduction of their Government funding the decision was not unexpected; however, as many of you will know it can be difficult to view plans on Rother’s web site – particularly when the documents scanned and uploaded are of poor quality. Economic development Last April, as part of a joint initiative with Rye & District Chamber of Commerce to support – and strengthen – the local economy, the Town Council ring-fenced £15,000 towards the appointment of a Business Development Manager for the town. Sadly, the Chamber has not yet managed to source a similar sum as match-funding.
One of the highlights of the year for me was the opening, at Christmas, of the Rye Kino within the former Library and part of the old FE Centre building. This 2-screen, state-of-the art (yet relaxed) facility has created much-needed employment and has provided as well a welcome boost for our retail and hospitality communities. A big ‘Thank you’ must go to all those who saw this ambitious project through to fruition – particularly Mike Eve who kept the Town Council updated on the project’s progress and who will be stepping down from the Council in a few months’ time.
The Town Council has instructed its solicitor to proceed with the Transfer of the Spirit of Rye Millennium Wall from Southern Gasworks Networks to the Council – thereby enabling it to maintain the wall for future generations.
Last month the Council received a progress report from Rye Rugby Football Club. As a result, the Council decided to freeze the Club’s rent for a further 5 years.
Following on from its decision to reduce its annual district-wide tourist information services budget from £65,000 a year to just £30,000 from April 2015, Rother District Council went out to tender on the basis of a reduced specification. With its long track record of providing visitor information services – including doubling up as Rye & District Tourist Information Centre for much of this time – the Rye Heritage Centre was, theoretically, in a strong position to step in. However, aside from the fact that the contract sum has been reduced by £35,000 a year, the Town Council was concerned that its legal advice suggested that the successful bidder would have to accept a number of likely/potential short- and longer-term staffing liabilities. The Town Council therefore decided to advise Rother that it would be well-disposed towards the Rye Heritage Centre being utilised as the official Tourist Information Point for Rye & District from this April. Rother ultimately award the Visitor Information Services contract to a brochure distribution company for £23,000 per year. The Rye Tourist Information Centre in Lion Street will close before Easter and the Heritage Centre – which is continuing to thrive and generate a small surplus under the management of Peter Cosstick – will act as the main Tourist Information Point for the town.
During the year the Council signed a Service Level Agreement with Rother District Council governing the distribution of £9,000 towards new events held within Rye & District – or new activity associated with existing events. The purpose of the funding is to attract additional visitors to the area. After a slow start the Town Council has now received a number of applications – and it is hoped that Rother will be prepared to enter in to another agreement covering more than one year. The Council has continued to support existing festivals – as well as local community organisations. Over the year it agreed funding for the Rye Arts Festival, Rye & District Community Transport, Rye Christmas Festival, Rye Community Centre, Pett Level Rescue Association, Rye Boxing Club, Rye Sea Cadets and Music Well. Aware that the last couple of Rye Christmas Festivals have not lived up to expectations I recently arranged a meeting of interested parties with a view to improving this year’s event. The good news is that residents and local businesses have stepped forward to help – and the Town Council has set aside £4,500 towards the installation of festive illuminations on lamp posts, the lighting of the Railway Station and a large Christmas tree at Strand Quay – all organised by Peter Cosstick on behalf of the Council. I am pleased to report that a Steering Group has being formed to progress other aspects of the Festival and I am optimistic that ‘normal service has been resumed’.
Following on from its decision to reduce its share of your Council Tax bill for the current financial year, for the year April 2015 to March 2016, the Council has decided to freeze it. This will enable the Council to continue to fund the Rye Town Steward post, help fund the 326 Town bus service and increase its support for the Rye Christmas Festival. Including the Heritage Centre – and excluding VAT – the Town Council’s estimated total income for 2015-16 is £281,000. This includes Council Tax income of £108,767 which represents just under 39% of our total income. Unlike many other parish/town councils, Rye Town Council derives most of its income from sources other than Council Tax.
I am sure many of you will be aware that the General Election will be held on 7 May – however, this is also the day when there will be election for Rother District Council and, if there are sufficient candidates, Rye Town Council. Some people are deterred from standing for election to their parish or town council because they are mistakenly under the impression that they do not have many powers. This is far from the case – especially here in Rye because the Town Council has the General Power of Competence, which means that it can do virtually anything it likes for the benefit of the parish. The only limiting factor is, of course, money: public services and facilities have to be resourced – be it by grants, public donations, volunteers, charging for services or taxation. A number of my colleagues will be retiring from the Council this year and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them – on behalf of the Parish – for their time and contributions over the last 4 years. If you are interested in following in their footsteps do please contact Richard, our Clerk, who would be pleased to summarise what is involved and to advise on how to go about standing. To ensure that it works in the best interests of the Parish as a whole the Council needs people from all walks of life and backgrounds.
Turning now to my civic role as Mayor (rather than Chairman of the Council) The year so far has been a real eye opener. I began by inheriting the role of Speaker of the Cinque Ports for a period admittedly of only 16 days but with the responsibility of chairing the meeting which saw the handover to the Speaker for 2014/15 and I have to admit that I was quaking in my boots at the prospect. Facing a room of dignitaries and Mayors from all over Kent is quite terrifying, not to say blinding as the sun glances off the most amazing collection of mayoral gold chains and regalia. As the year has progressed, though, I have got to know what is expected of me and now feel far more relaxed and confident as I represent Rye at some very dignified events. Wherever possible I have supported the current Speaker by attending events he has organised and have got to know some of the Cinque Ports Mayors very well. 2014 was as you know the year when we commemorated the First World War and for me some of the highlights of that year were visiting the Battle of Britain Bunker near RAF Northolt and standing where Winston Churchill would have stood as he observed the Battle for Britain’s skies. Later that day we ate lunch in the Officer’s mess, the same room from which so many of those brave young men set out, and to which so many would not return. I am indebted to the Mayor of Harrington who made this extraordinary day possible and honoured to have met the Mayors from Windsor, Kensington and Chelsea among others, and to be able to recommend Rye to them as a place worthy of a day out. Promoting Rye is one of the great pleasures associated with these rather splendid trips.
Also as part of the commemorative year, I was humbled by the honour laid upon me when I visited Ypres with the Rye Branch of the British Legion in September. I led the parade to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate on behalf of Rye. This was, and will remain to be quite simply one of the most moving moments of my life. I did always resolve that I would, as Mayor, be available for as many local events as possible and I am pleased to have been able to attend so many. However, as a working Mayor this has sometimes been tricky and I have found myself often using up my lunch break to drop in at say ARRCC or another local charity event or scrambling last-minute fashion into glamourous clothes at the end of a long shift looking after peoples pets to get to an opening of some sort or another, and on occasion having to take along my dog as my escort. On one notable evening in December I attended the Brownie’s pyjama party then followed it up with a cheese and wine reception with our local Antiques Dealers, a rather more dressy event. My blue antique style velvet nightgown managed to pass muster for both, to my relief. I would hate though to give the impression that I am always quaffing Prosecco and nibbling canapes I am as likely to be found in wellies planting trees in the Community Garden in Love Lane or attending meetings of the newly formed Rye Dementia Alliance. I have joined the Street Pastors to learn about their work in the small hours when I’d rather be in bed and I have attended sessions to learn all about how the food bank scheme works. There is an awful lot going on in our little town and I consider it a duty of the role to be aware and involved where I can be. I have also spent a lot of time talking to, discussing with and attending meetings with our Higher Authorities, Rother District Council and East Sussex County Council. I believe in co-operation and see no merit in constantly butting heads. It’s not the way to get things done and whilst the wheel do still roll very slowly, they do at least roll. Being Mayor means that I am also Chairman of the council and those meetings too can come clad with terror at times. I want to thank my colleagues on the Council for their support when questions from the public have got tricky, and for those who can be relied upon to make lively contributions to debates. There is nothing worse than a sea of blank silent faces when you have to be the one trying to kick start things but I rarely have to prompt far to get discussions going. Whilst we are on the subject of thanks, I want to thank my daughter who has accompanied me on some fairly formal official duties and disported herself with dignity and grace on each occasion. Then there are those other people without whom I could not possibly have managed this year! These are our amazing staff at the Town Hall. David and Kevin as macebearers have often accompanied me carrying those massive golden orbs on their shoulders and Rex has roared in my ear more times than I can count. More than anyone though, we all need to thank Richard and Judy who make the running of the Town Hall seem a simple thing! Believe me, it is anything but!