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Swale council offers £25,000 for Christmas lights

By John Nurden

Swale council is spreading the festive cheer with a gift of £25,000 to support Christmas lights across the borough.

But it could be too little too late.

Dave Pratt, who chairs the Sittingbourne Christmas Lights committee, said: "It is good news Swale council as a body has finally recognised the work volunteers put in.

“But the timing is awful. It can take up to nine weeks to buy a single light.

The Christmas Lights in Sittingbourne on Saturday evening. Picture: Chris Davey FM4126565 (4663829)
The Christmas Lights in Sittingbourne on Saturday evening. Picture: Chris Davey FM4126565 (4663829)

"Most are specially built abroad and have to be shipped to the UK.

"It's a shame the timing is so late. Our switch-on ceremony is Saturday November 17 yet the money won't be available until November 5 at the earliest."

He added: "When you look at the application form it is obvious only existing light organisations will be able to benefit. Luckily we are OK this year but both Faversham and Sheerness lights have a deficit of £4,000 each.

Cllr Duncan Dewar-Whalley as Father Christmas. Picture: Chris Davey (4702652)
Cllr Duncan Dewar-Whalley as Father Christmas. Picture: Chris Davey (4702652)

"We had hoped to do something for the whole borough including Teynham, Bapchild, Borden and Newington but it costs £450 per lamppost without the cost of installation. £25,000 just won't go very far."

Organisations must apply by Friday, November 2.

Cllr Duncan Dewar-Whalley, cabinet member for finance and performance, said: “We’re making this funding available to help organisations which might want to update or improve their displays, or to help people put on displays in areas that haven’t had one before.”

The borough’s annual lights displays, including in Sheerness, Queenborough, Sittingbourne and Faversham, currently rely on donations and sponsorship to keep going although council cash is available through arts funding and members’ own grants. They each cost between £6,000 and £10,000 a year.

Sheerness Town Team chairman Brian Spoor and secretary Ria Crawford (4666534)
Sheerness Town Team chairman Brian Spoor and secretary Ria Crawford (4666534)

Brian Spoor, chairman of the Sheerness Town Team, welcomed the move but said free Christmas parking was still his top priority.

He said: “It costs us £6,000 a year to replace and install our lights but this year one of our biggest supporters has just pulled out without warning leaving us with a £4,000 hole so this will be really useful.”

He added: “Last year, Swale council spent nearly £30,000 on a free bus service into town centres which hardly anyone used.

“What hard-pressed traders really want is free parking in council car parks on the three weekends leading up to Christmas so they can compete equally with out-of-town shopping centres. That is what we have always asked for.

Christmas lights around Sheerness clock tower (4663752)
Christmas lights around Sheerness clock tower (4663752)

“Sheerness was promised a £100,000 injection of cash when Neats Court retail park was built at Queenborough as part of the developer’s contribution but Swale still has that money in its bank account doing nothing while small traders suffer.

“It could easily be used to encourage shoppers into town.”

The Sheerness lights switch-on, Santa Saunter and lantern parade is on Saturday, December 1.

Mr Pratt agreed free Christmas parking would help independent shopkeepers. But Swale council refuses to budge.

Sheerness Lantern Parade and Christmas lights near the clock tower (4663557)
Sheerness Lantern Parade and Christmas lights near the clock tower (4663557)

A council spokesman said: “We surveyed those who used the previous parking concession (bus) service and almost all would have visited the town for their shopping anyway – either by car, bus, bike or on foot.

“This strongly suggests that there is no evidence to suggest that these offers increase footfall.

“For high streets to thrive, they need to offer visitors a kind of experience that they can’t get in front of their laptop or at a generic shopping centre.

“Our high streets’ biggest strength is their sense of community, so we want to work with groups and organisations that support them to try to help create a more attractive space that people want to visit.”

For more information, or to apply for the lights fund, visit tinyurl.com/STGlights or call 01795 417193.

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