There is nothing new about spending cuts. I remember in 1978, towards the tail end of Jim Callaghan’s government, a dire evening of what can only with generosity be called “theatre”, at the York Hotel (now O’Neills, by Chatham rail station). It was a performance meant to agitate against looming government cutbacks. Sometimes I am still haunted by the dronelike refrain of “Here come the cuts, here come the cuts…”
Now, here they really do come. And on a scale that is truly unprecedented. This was not what we expected back in 1978. This time round, government is taking an axe to the very notion of a welfare state. They are essentially ideological cuts, not genuinely driven by the condition of national finances. I don’t have space here to go into the detailed economics, but a national debt running at 70% of GDP is in fact less than the UK has handled for much of the last century; while the UK currently has the lowest government debt as proportion of GDP among the G7 countries.
It isn’t simply a matter merely of the rich trying to make the poorest pay for a crisis caused by the bankers. Oh no, this is about the rich trying to tear down every gain that working people have fought for and won since 1945. The question surely is not whether such cuts should be resisted. It is – how can they be stopped?
The day that the Comprehensive Spending Review was presented in Parliament, October 20th, saw thousands protest at Downing Street. But there was also protest on a much smaller scale outside the offices of Medway Council on Gun Wharf, as in many other places around the country. Later that same evening, at the Command House in Chatham, in a meeting hosted by Medway Trades Council, more than 40 people voted to launch Medway Against the Cuts as a broad based coalition that can bring together trade unions, community groups and local campaigns
This is how things will emerge. Not from the complaints of certain union leaders who object but not too loudly. Not from the Labour frontbenchers who agree that such deep cuts are necessary but the agony of them should be drawn out for longer, as if that is somehow meant to be better.
Thousands of people are beginning to organise themselves to defend their jobs, their public services, and their communities in every city and every town. The numbers will grow as the
real impact of cuts becomes felt. It may not take long. Already there are reports of workers being sacked from Medway Maritime Hospital, and Medway’s regeneration plans appear to be on hold.
As Tania Earnshaw, a local government worker in Medway and a member of Unison, said. “There’s going to be devastation for the Medway Towns. If you look at who the main employers are, it’s the Council, it’s the hospitals, it’s the universities. Because 64p in every £1 that a public sector worker makes is spent in the local community, we’re going to see an impact on the Medway Towns comparable to the closure of the Dockyard”.
The appearance of Medway Against the Cuts reflects a widening mood that we will have to fight to preserve our communities and our jobs from the most ferocious attack on the welfare state since its foundation after the Second World War. It is timely, it is necessary, and it deserves the active support of every Medway resident who thinks their towns are worth real regeneration, not cuts.
Photograph (c) Richard Reader
It’s been a good autumn for the supermarket chains in Medway. Tesco has been granted planning permission toextend its edge-of-town superstore in Strood, whilst Sainsburys has been given the go-ahead to build a supermarket complex on the Medway City Estate. Publicity for the developments has been full of the benefits of the new stores – more choice for customers, more jobs and a boost for the local economy. A trip to the supermarket is a weekly ritual for most people; for better or worse the likes of Tesco, Sainsburys and Morrisons are part of day to day life now. On the face of it, bigger, better supermarkets can only be a good thing.
But there is a dark side to the supermarket. Anyone living in Medway will be familiar with the often desperate state of the high streets in Chatham, Gillingham and Strood. Chain stores hold their own, but they are increasingly surrounded by empty shops, their boarded-up windows and ‘for rent’ signs an all too familiar sight. The number of independent, family run shops – the butchers, grocers, fishmongers, clothing and hardware stores that used to make up much of the traditional highstreet, is visibly dwindling in the face of unassailable competition from the supermarket giants.
At the same time, redevelopment of Medway’s highstreets is supposed to be a priority. The regeneration of Chatham town centre is a cornerstone of plans for the Medway Renaissance program of urban renewal. There is already competition for Chatham’s retail and restaurant trade from the Dockside outlet centre, to which will now be added the new Sainsburys superstore. Interestingly, one of the potential sites for the new out-of-town Sainsburys was in the Pentagon Centre. Against the advice of their own planning committee, the council cabinet approved the Medway City Estate site instead.
One of the reasons cited for doing so was demand for greater retail choice from residents on the Hoo peninsula. A new shuttle bus will take customers to the store, but it will not reach as far as Hoo, one of whose bus services will be diverted to the new store. Instead, the shuttle bus will take shoppers from Strood and Frindsbury, directing them away from Sainsburys’ main competitor, Tesco, and Strood highstreet. On their behalf, Tesco has offered to redevelop Strood town centre. The improvements to pavements, pedestrian access and green spaces will provide a cosmetic lift, as well as subtly directing shoppers towards the new superstore and away from Morrisons, the main competition in Strood.
There appear to be no plans to improve the site of Strood market, which remains stranded by the one way system in a cramped car park, surrounded by Morrisons on one side and Tesco on the other. Additionally, no-one who parks to shop at Matalan or B&Q on the Strood retail park will be able to use the market because there is a £60 fixed penalty for leaving the retail park. The market, one of the few local enterprises that can offer value and choice to rival the superstores, doesn’t seem to be getting the breaks on offer to its chain store competition.
The jobs created by a supermarket don’t come without a price either. For every small, independent shop that closes when its trade disappears to Tesco or Sainsburys, several people will be left unemployed. But the impact goes deeper than that. Supermarkets have national chains of supply, with their stock held at huge regional depots. Independent shops tend to have a very direct relationship with local producers, farmers and wholesalers. When a grocers or butchers goes out of business, their suppliers take a step closer to going bust themselves.
It’s not just groceries that are an issue. Strood’s new Tesco and the new Sainsburys will be competing on all fronts, with their own cafes and restaurants and expanded stores to stock clothing, electrical goods and hardware. The last family businesses in Strood doing a visibly good trade are its traditional greasy spoon cafes. Quite how they will cope when people stop at Tesco for their tea and full English remains to be seen.
Photograph (c) Lisa Dillon
The future of hearing aids has arrived, and it’s digital. Good news for everyone? Rew Oates, front-man of Kent-based band Wheels and social worker by day, claims it is not. He says, ‘Digital aids aren’t suitable for all types of hearing loss. When I use my new digital aid, I can’t bear the sound of my own voice. The voices of others sound distorted and unclear. Ambient noise is suppressed, everything else sounds false, like I’m listening through headphones. Other random sounds are highly amplified for no apparent reason.’
Rew has ‘sloping hearing loss’, which is severe to profound in the higher frequencies. He was first fitted with an analogue hearing aid 23 years ago at the age of six. Audiologists at NHS Medway admit that the digital models currently available are not suitable for his particular hearing needs. However, Rew has been told that once his old hearing aid wears out, there will be no analogue replacement; a predicament arising from an initiative launched by the Department of Health in 2000, in response to public demand for digital aids. The implementation and delivery of the Modernising Hearing Aid Services programme was led by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID).
Department of Health
The Department of Health maintains that no decision was made to phase out analogue hearing aids. A spokesperson says, ‘The provision of digital aids is not compulsory and people can request to continue to use an analogue aid if they find they would prefer to. The purpose of the Modernising Hearing Aid Services programme was to increase the availability of digital aids, not to replace analogue aids. Digital hearing aids are not used exclusively by the NHS and they are not suitable for all patients. As with any other treatment provided, hearing aids should be appropriate to a patient’s clinical requirements.’ Why, then, are patients experiencing difficulties obtaining analogue devices at local audiology centres?
A spokesperson for NHS Medway says, ‘The decision to phase out analogues was not made by us, rather the hearing aid manufacturers in response to lack of demand.’ Since demand is driven by the NHS itself, it seems a perverse move to blame manufacturers for lack of availability. This irony was not missed by Rew who points out that, from his own conversations with hearing aid manufacturers, ‘the reason they no longer focus on analogue aids is because the NHS, the biggest purchaser of hearing aids in the world, doesn’t want them.’
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Failing to consult
The NHS’s core principles state that ‘services must reflect the needs and preferences of patients’, who should ‘be involved in and consulted on all decisions about their care and treatment.’ By denying his clinical requirement, ignoring his preference for an analogue aid, and failing to consult him about the withdrawal of analogue aids, the NHS is failing to live up to its own core principles. Rew claims the decision made on his behalf by the NHS is making him more disabled than he has ever felt.
Dismayed by NHS Medway’s inability to meet his needs, Rew and his wife, Anna, set up a Facebook campaign group to drum up awareness and support. Anna says, ‘I think this issue has been swept under the carpet and individuals have thought they were alone with this problem. We want to draw attention and make the NHS aware just how widespread this is.’
As a result of his campaigning efforts, Rew has been promised a new analogue aid by NHS Medway, however many patients remain unaware of their options and some may not have the confidence to fight to have their needs properly addressed. Anna says, ‘If patients aren’t informed by their audiology departments that analogue devices can still be purchased by the NHS, and are told that digital is the only option, they are, in effect, being forced to switch.’
At the heart of this issue, there is a society-wide uncertainty: Can we be sure this issue is experienced exclusively by hearing aid users? Are other patients being coerced into accepting unsuitable treatments? Are other condition-specific departments undergoing modernising programmes which invalidate patient choice and disable the people they were set up to help? How many people are suffering in silence, unaware that they still have a choice?
The Keep Analogue Hearing Aids Available on the NHS group can be found on Facebook.
Photograph (c) Alan Bourne
The Medway Towns are expanding and getting more businesses! That’s really exciting, because it all started with an idea from an Australian internet casino.
Thursday 30 June saw Medway anti-cuts supporters, striking teachers and civil servants converge on the Command House in Chatham to protest against proposed changes to their pensions. The Medway Against the Cuts group held a street stall in Chatham high street and then marched along to the main rally to join the strikers.
A number of speakers told the crowd how the government was trying to convince taxpayers that public sector pensions were ‘gold-plated’” when in fact the average teaching pension paid to these qualified professionals is £10,000 per annum, which is less than the minimum wage.
To further highlight how the message on pensions has been manipulated the Unison speaker pointed out that the average pension of their members is a mere £2500 per annum. The fear of many teachers is that they physically won’t be able to work to the proposed new retirement age of 68 as the job is so demanding.
Teachers are also concerned that they won’t be able to afford the increase of 50 percent to their pension contributions as they, like all public sector workers, are subject to a two year pay freeze imposed by the current government. For the Association of Teachers and Lecturers it was their first strike action ever.
All of the union representatives at the rally were clear: public sector pensions are sustainable having been thoroughly reviewed and adjusted just five years ago in line with the anticipated increase in life expectancy over the coming years.
The anger felt by many is due the way the government are using public sector workers as ‘whipping boys’ for a deficit caused by the banks. This attack on workers is compounded by the feeling that the Prime Minister is intent on a reduced public sector and a greater privatisation of services as the coalition is follows an ideological political path.
This is expected to be the first of many more strike days as public sector workers stand up against the Coalition government’s attacks on their hard-won pay and working conditions.
Medway Against the Cuts can be seen most Saturday mornings outside Primark in Chatham high street, so if you want to get involved in the campaign, come along and find out why we in Medway need to stand up against government cuts.
Check Medway Against the Cuts’ Facebook page for activities and events.
Trish Marchant, Medway Green party and Medway Against the Cuts
Photograph (c) Trish Marchant
Medway Eyes is proud to present Medway Happenings 2011, the fourth annual all day music festival for Oxjam. This event was originally started by Medway Eyes’ great friend and frequent collaborator Bob Collins back in 2008. Bob is a huge music enthusiast and former member of legendary Medway band The Dentists, among others. Bob met Medway Eyes chairman Phil Dillon (a musician then and a photographer now) back in the Eighties when their respective bands were part of the Medway Bands Co-Op, and initiative that would one day inspire the creation of Medway Eyes itself.
Medway Eyes is an independent collective that operates as a charity with a team of eight trustees at its core and an army of contributors. It makes perfect sense for Medway Eyes to adopt Medway Happenings, with Bob at the helm, now that it has grown into one of the biggest local music events in the calendar. The line up for 2011 includes Theatre Royal, The Len Price 3, Didi Bergman, The Galileo 7, The Flowing, Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society, Groovy Uncle, Frau Pouch, Crybaby Special and Simon Bunyan, and the event takes place between 1pm and 9pm on Sunday 28th August at the Command House in Chatham.
The day itself as much about Oxjam as it is about the music. Oxjam fights poverty through ongoing development work, campaigning and emergency relief at home and abroad, but is particularly focused on the current East Africa appeal. There will be collections on the day, and you can also donate online. The event is being put on in association with the Medway Broadside, Medway’s independent, people-powered alternative news source, so expect some coverage there as well as some ‘mini-Glasto’ moments popping up online thanks to media students from Mid-Kent College.
Photograph [Theatre Royal](c) Phil Dillon
As a celebration of all that’s great about the area, Medway Eyes and The Medway Broadside are putting together an ‘A-Z of Medway’. The A-Z, part love letter to Medway, part alternative tourist guide, will eventually appear in print and online formats. This is your chance to help us choose what each letter will stand for. Thanks for your time.
A Medway based writers’ collective, ME4 Writers was formed by playwright Sam Hall in 2008, after she moved to the area. Sam says ‘I was searching for some form of writers group and couldn’t find one, so I decided to start one’.
The early meetings were held at local cafes and Chatham Library, and took the form of tutorials. Over time the focus changed as a core group emerged, eager to produce and showcase work together, and this more solid membership moved forward as more of a collaborative group working on larger projects.
‘ME4 Writers has created a platform for local writers to develop their creativity and share work with a wider audience…’ says Roy Smith, one of the group’s original members.
In 2009 the group began working on ‘The Seventh Traveller’, a holistic multi-media project loosely inspired by Charles Dickens’ The Seven Poor Travellers.
Part ghost story, part mystery, part online game, part history walk, it was an event fusing literature, audio, film and art, created by the writers, but also bringing in some local artists. It included live performances at Eastgate House, and also Dickens World. Part of the project was an audio walk around an alternative Rochester by Roy Smith which can still be downloaded from here.
ME4 have always had a penchant for linking their projects to current events and topical dates. ‘The Seventh Traveller’ previewed at Dickens World on Dickens’ birthday (7 February) and was capped off in June 2010 at the Dickens Festival. In between these happenings, the group stuck the literary dagger into the subject of romance at their Anti-Valentines Tea Party in February 2010 with a three hour takeover of The Deaf Cat Café.
Following hard on the heels of these interventions on the literary world of North Kent, came an invitation from Moogie Wonderland, the indie-arts club night, to devise some writing. In response to this the group premiered ‘The City Project’. This involved thinking around the idea of Medway’s prospective city status and took the form of a sort of lateral-thinking encyclopaedia.
Originally a collection of (non) definitions for the night itself on 6 November 2010, in the course of a quite convivial evening this evolved into the ‘Encyclopaedia Citaecephale’ – the city without a head. This ongoing project is now on Issue Five, heading for completion this year, and includes contributions from a fluid line-up of writers. They can be found as originally designed, rare, guerrilla printings in all the best places, from The Deaf Cat to the South Bank.
A series of summer events have kept the group busy over the last few months. The Alternative Royal Wedding Picnic in April attracted the attention of the local media, who it may be said failed completely to grasp the idea behind it! During the same month, the group gave readings at ‘i am small The World Is Big’, a takeover of Kent County Hall in Maidstone by Kent-based experimental theatre group, Accidental Collective.
The group’s real triumph of the summer though, was the performances at Eastgate House for this year’s Dickens Festival entitled ‘Low Expectations’. The show brought to life characters from Great Expectations outside of their place in the narrative and played to a packed room for the most part. A member of the Dickens Society praised the group for really ‘getting a feel for the characters’. (You can see some extracts from the show on YouTube here and here).
As to the future, ME4 are currently inviting contributions for two upcoming projects. First up is ‘Short & Nasties’, their horror project. Submissions should feature the Medway towns and be in one of four categories: slasher, creature feature, supernatural or psychological. The group are looking for short stories, scripts or poems no longer than 1,000 words. These will feature in a potential podcast or live night.
The second is ‘Letters Home’ which invites contributors from anywhere in the world to share their thoughts on the meaning home holds for them, to be submitted by any media they choose. It is intended that these will be exhibited next year. To find out more about these two projects visit the ME4 blog: http://me4writers.wordpress.com
The membership of the group is fluid around a solid core. Most of the members do have some writing experience, they may have been published already, and all have been writing for some time.
‘Groups like this keep me motivated and focused when the rubble of everyday life is getting in the way.’ (Roy Smith)
‘Any writers out there wanting to join really just need to be local, and have a genuine commitment to writing. We won’t teach you how to write, though we hope that through being a member of the group that all our writings will reach new heights’ says Sam. Information on how to join can be found on the ME4 blog.
Photograph (c) Nikki Price
Bill Lewis is one of those Medway artists and writers who seem to have been around forever, whose name crops up frequently at least in local artistic circles, and yet whose work has so far been largely and unjustly neglected.
This new exhibition of his paintings, prints and photographs at The Deaf Cat is his first solo show for two decades. And it’s about time.
His paintings light up the interior of the café with their vibrant colours and intense imagery. Bill brings into play themes of love and conflict, life and shadow, in a dance of mythic vitality. A man shares a drink with Coyote the trickster. A woman guerrilla poses with a gun. People confront life, love, and the world of dreams and stories.
There are strong influences at work here, especially from the school of magical realism so linked to Latin America, which in some sense can perhaps be thought of as Lewis’ spiritual home. But the paintings are also redolent of Matisse and Chagall. And, dare I say it; there is even a trace of Surrealism somewhere in the background.
This is interesting, because while Bill Lewis has been closely associated with the Stuckists – he was, in fact, a founding member of the original Stuckist group – his interests have always seemed much broader and his influences much deeper.
There is a very strong element of self-exploration, a journey that Lewis has taken on and recorded with honesty and more than a little courage. In a recent magazine profile he was quoted as saying, “A lot of my paintings are like a magic mirror that I hold up and see something of myself in them that I didn’t know about before”.
The trick with a magic mirror is to encourage others to see themselves in it as well. Bill’s work achieves this feat and so eludes the limitations of art-as-therapy. Look into his paintings and see something of yourself, too.
This exhibition probably won’t make any waves in the mainstream local media, let alone win a national profile. Yet without doubt this is, and will remain, one of the most important artistic events to take place in Medway for a long time. Don’t miss it.
Bill Lewis’ exhibition at The Deaf Cat café, in Rochester High Street, continues until 18 September 2011 at the Deaf Cat Cafe, Rochester.
Image (c) Bill Lewis, courtesy of WoW Medway
Local news has recently been concentrating on traders suffering in Chatham High Street, raising the question of whether Medway Council has failed the commercial sector or if the situation is a blip on the radar that will rectify itself before too long. Or as asked here, if the slump in trade represents a slide away from traditional forms of shopping towards online retail.
Last week’s Medway News ran with the story that Chatham High street is being strangled by the never ending roadworks. Businesses have already begun making redundancies, cutting hours and some are on the brink of closure. Guy Varley (of Varley’s Electrical Store) says their business is down by seventy percent.
The council’s regeneration scheme is being blamed, with Stephanie Humphries of clothes shop Internacionale being quoted as saying:
‘We were led to believe it (road works and diversions) would be finished by Easter, now it’s looking like the end of the year.’
Incentives like free parking or buses to get people into the town are good ideas, but may only have a limited impact. They could also represent a drain on the public purse, as the Council will have to subsidise the bus services.
Medway Council has, however, assured the people of Medway that the new bus station, due to open at the end of the summer, will bring about great change for central Medway, being easier to use and more welcoming for shoppers.
The Council also told the Medway News that they are working closely with retailers on ideas such as free parking and promotional campaigns that will encourage shoppers back into Chatham.
Although Medway Council claims that the new bus station will also rejuvenate the riverside area, what it has definitely done is to shift the locus of trade another twenty feet towards Rochester. This will probably hit the trade at the east end of town fairly hard.
Chatham town centre is already fairly dead beyond the Trafalgar centre, but the new bus station’s placement would make it even further to walk to the end of the high street than it is now. Other shops on the second floor of the Pentagon might also be hit.
Part of the reason for Chatham’s decline may be that the modern shopper no longer has the time or the inclination to hit the high street’s shops. The internet also offers attractions for retailers, with fewer staff needed, lower overheads and more profit. This is coupled with big companies’ ability to undercut small high street retailers, who still have to pay massive overheads on utilities and rent.
If there is to be a family shopping trip, many people don’t mind driving to Bluewater or even Maidstone to do their shopping. In Bluewater you can park inside, do your shopping, catch a movie, take the children to the adventure playground, and have dinner, all under one roof with a level of choice that far outstrips that available in one of Medway’s town centres.
Despite the current hardships, and the definite impact this elongated campaign of road works has had on Chatham, we have to hope that the council is right and that the new bus station will encourage more shoppers and breathe life back into the heart of Medway.
If not, then maybe it’s ‘bye bye’ Chatham and ‘hello’ Bluewater.
Photograph (c) Lisa Dillon
Re-posted in edited form from the Ginger Liberal blog