Living in a Decent Town

I’m a Thanetian – that is, I was born and raised in a small district of some 150,000 people called Thanet. I was at least partially unusual growing up in the 1980s because one of my parents was born outside of Thanet, and didn’t even visit the area until he moved down here aged 10. I’m technically only a half-Thanetian, which is whispered about in some circles as being rather shocking.

Whether I’m a Thanetian, half-Thanetian, or an eccentric sod with a propensity for sarcasm and low wit (and I’m certainly that), I’m one of a particularly strange breed of people – those who actually love their home town. No, I’m not being facetious; I genuinely do love the place I was born and raised, and I’m also genuinely surprised when I encounter people who hate where they live – primarily because I find myself wondering, “Why don’t you just move out and find somewhere you do like?”

I’m not writing this post to give you a history lesson about Thanet, although I easily could if I wanted to – we’ve got enough historical facts to last several lifetimes, and there’s a certain degree of upsurge in hope that the area will rise from the ashes of its doldrums and seize the initiative of being a proud place once again.

To be fair, it already is returning to that state, with a lot of investment being made – but never enough, of course, and never entirely in the right way according to what everyone wants. Some people want the airport to return, others want a new town to appear where the airport used to be, others still want to see an extension of the existing rail network to speed up their travel – and, perhaps, to get out of, or into, the area much faster.

The reason I’m writing this is because of the sense of pride that I feel at living in an area that’s changing, yet still respects its past – to a lesser or greater degree, depending on who you ask. I’ve never understood why people don’t want to live in an area they’re proud of and, if they’re not, then why aren’t they doing something about it. Why aren’t they getting involved in some way? Or why aren’t they leaving?

Here are a few thoughts as to how people can – and should – get involved if they do genuinely care about their local area;

Stand for election: I’m perhaps starting at one of the more extreme ends of the spectrum, as this involves a time commitment that not everyone has. To be fair, a lot of these suggestions involve a time commitment to a lesser or greater degree, but if you have ideas about how to change your area, then why not share them?

Local councils attract a certain degree of opprobrium due to their resources, their priorities, and their funding (inwards and outwards). I worked for the local council for a number of years, and I often found myself frustrated at the lack of something like this, or a stretch in effective communication, attendance at events I organised, or having a sense of passion at doing something rather than just coasting. I never wanted to seek elected office – having to say diplomatic things matters less to me than saying what I think without party politics getting in the way – but I feel like I contributed with my ideas, time, and energy in my own way.

Organise a local Neighbourhood Watch group: If you’re worried about security in your street, then do something to contribute to better security. We all know that the police are underfunded, need restructuring, or need less five-year plans and more officers out on the beat – whatever argument works particularly for you – so why not offer some of that precious time and do something about it?

My mum was heavily involved in a neighbourhood watch group for a long time back when I was a teenager – I remember going along to some of the meetings and helping with posters, newsletters, and so on – and she was pretty much running the entire thing for a long time. It was tiring, but my mum didn’t mind putting the hours in because she knew that people would feel comfortable living in a Watch area – as well as the more capitalist benefits such as better deals on home and car insurance, for example (hey, you’ve got to think of things like that). It was a genuinely admirable way for my mum to give something back, and she did it without complaint until she felt that she had served her time and decided to pass over to a new generation of residents. The fact that it’s now folded is a sad indictment that not everyone has the same level of passion and commitment, and it’s disappointing to see my mum’s hard work and investment not being continued.

Write: Whether that’s a blog post, a letter to the paper, or a regular article in a periodical raising awareness about particular issues that are important to both you and the local area (if it’s just important to you and no-one else, then you’re potentially just screaming into the wilderness, and you might want to consider where you’re expending your energy), then write something about the thing that is most passionate to you.

Here in Thanet, we used to have four local papers – the Gazette, the Extra, the Thanet Times, and the Kent on Sunday’s Thanet Edition. The Times and the Kent on Sunday have now both folded, the Extra is a free paper with more adverts than news stories, and the Gazette costs a quid for a series of stories by a series of centralised staff somewhere other than Thanet who don’t have a clue about the local area in any meaningful way – in that they don’t live here or particularly care about the area. The Gazette used to cost half its current price and was pretty reasonable; now, I refuse to buy the rag for anything other than toilet paper.

However, someone has stuck their head above the parapet and done something about all this. Kathy Bailes is a journalist of the “old-school” tradition, and I mean that in every complimentary sense I can muster; she had worked her way up to editor of one of the local papers, but decided to set up something new when the local journalism was moving away from what she saw as anything decent. I suspect (I hope) I agree with her on what makes decent local journalism, as she has set up her new local paper online, calling it the Isle of Thanet News.

It’s an incredible breath of fresh air in an area having become increasingly stale of anything half-decent and respectable in keeping a thoughtful, independent, and refreshing eye on local happenings, and Kathy deserves the support, respect, and friendship of local people as she builds up this news site to even bigger levels than she currently has it – and it’s already getting some decent readership numbers, by all account. I suspect – depressing to my ego though this is – that my own column in the paper has practically nothing to do with that figure (dammit), but the fact that her writing is clear, concise, and accurate, and that she cares about truth and impartiality, is making her site the go-to place for local news. She’s an excellent example of someone who has stood up and been counted by the creation of new content.

Take an interest in changes in your community

Don’t agree with the largest pub in the UK being built on your doorstep? Agree with Dreamland re-opening and charging per ride instead  of a flat rate entry fee? Then get involved! Go along to consultation sessions if you can, and make time if you’re busy. If you really can’t, then find other ways; watch it online, read the supporting materials, find an online discussion group that leads somewhere, rather than just a digital space to spew out negativity and endless rows about apparent etiquette or because you’re being challenged.

Read consultation documents, allow debate to flourish, and come up with ideas – or at least support innovative thinking – whenever you can. Don’t just sit back and criticise; if you’re not willing to participate somehow (even if it’s through the ballot box), then why are you convinced that your opinions are valid and worthy of attention?

Eat locally / Visit locally / Buy locally

I don’t know about where you live, but here in Thanet and its surroundings, there are lots of options for places to eat, to shop, and to go. It amazes me how often people think that they have to go to the chain stores or the big name restaurants in order to get any service, forgetting that the smaller places offer more local connections to the area, more reason to survive because they’re a sole trader, and more aware of the local needs as a owner / manager in the area. I’m not saying that the bigger chains can’t pick up that information as well, but the independents are more varied and interesting than we give them credit for.

Agitate for change

I’ve said it once, but it’s worth saying again because it’s so important. If you don’t like something, make a suggestion, get involved, do something. If you do like something, then support it. Give the thing your custom, your time, your interest, and let it flourish.

And lastly – for heaven’s sake, be proud of your area by wanting to spend time in it and invest yourself to it. If you can’t do that, then why should anyone else?

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