Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #4

On Monday 26th July, a Public Inquiry began to determine an appeal by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company against an enforcement notice made by Canterbury City Council in 2018 against the oyster trestle development, which was built without planning consent and which the council ordered the company to remove.

There have been numerous submissions made to the Inquiry by various interested parties, including local organisations and clubs, professional experts, scientists and local residents.

Here is the evidence presented to the Public Inquiry on July 28th from Valerie Kenny.

I am Cllr Valerie Kenny, a local resident and City Councillor for Gorrell Ward, including the site of the oyster trestles. I wish to speak on the evidence presented by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery’s Company that removing the Oyster Trestles will irreconcilably damage Whitstable’s tourist economy and that the regeneration of our town has, almost solely, been based on the reintroduction of Oyster Farming by the WOFC since 2010.

I believe that the interpretation presented by Ms Evans (the WOFC Economic Advisor) is incomplete, deliberately misleading and fails to acknowledge the breadth of factors associated with tourist growth since 2000. I contend that the historical redevelopment of this town is more multi-faceted than Ms Evans suggests, and Whitstable has never been a ‘one industry’ town as suggested by Ms Ellis. That whilst the global recognition of the ‘Whitstable Oyster’ has no doubt added to the attractiveness of our town to tourists, the character of the area, its geographic proximity and prominence within the creative industry has been underplayed in the narrative of Whitstable’s development.

I believe that there is little evidence that the removal of trestles within the enforcement area will substantially reduce the tourist economy and, further, that the failure to remove them, may jeopardise emerging tourist usage on the foreshore.

The industrial heritage of Whitstable is far broader than Oyster production. The Canterbury Heritage Strategy (2013) gives as many words over to describing the value of ship building as it does Oyster production. The town was famous for a number or coastal industries including salt, fish, oysters, copperas and as a world leader in diving. The Whitstable Town Conservation Area Appraisal (2010) highlights that it is the history of salt production, fishing, and boat building, not oyster farming, that has most “influence the built form and character of the architecture”.

Whitstable has long been synonymous with oysters and whilst the WOFC have been very successful in drawing upon this long history to promote their own business, there is little evidence that reducing their capacity to farm Oysters would negatively justify that. In fact, in 2004, four years before the WOFC began farming oysters using trestles, a Kent County Council Select Committee report into the Regeneration of East Kent Coastal Towns reported that “Whitstable has demonstrated the potential to tap into new marks for gastronomic tourism and successfully developed this niche”.

The economic regeneration of Whitstable started well in advance of the use of trestles for farming oysters. Between 1990 and 2008 more than £900,000 of public funds was invested in regenerating Whitstable, attracting an additional £4.5m in partnership funding. This improvement of the ‘fabric’ of Whitstable saw a rise in the number of independent shops which once could argue have attracted new people to our town. This approach is as much ‘cultural’ as it is economic.

Kennell (2010) in his paper on contemporary approaches to seaside regeneration characterises Whitstable approach as ‘cultural’ rather than ‘economic’. He notes “Whitstable on the North Kent Coast has been transformed from a small fishing village to an ‘arty, foody, fashion hub’ in the main due to an influx of artists and creative industries over the last fifteen years, an organic, gentrifying change’.

Whilst Ms Ellis is right to acknowledge the importance of tourism to Whitstable and its economy. I contend that the remaining accommodation and restaurant businesses would remain not see substantial job losses because of the upholding of the enforcement action and would continue to serve tourist need. The vacancy rate for hotel accommodation in our town is substantially lower than the national average.

In many ways tourism in our town has grown unencumbered by local authority influence. The council’s focus has historically been in the support of light industry which is not mentioned in Ms Ellis’ economic assessment. The 2017 Local Plan highlights the importance of the existing John Wilson Business Park, Joseph Wilson Business Park and Chaucer Business Park (Wraik Hill). Tourism is only one of many industries in town.

The Whitstable Harbour Strategic Plan, quoted twice by Ms Ellis, acknowledges that this heritage is a major tourism attraction, but the Harbour doesn’t currently include Oyster Production and believes that its uniqueness is in it being a ‘working harbour’ for other fishing.

In fact, in recent years the Whitstable Harbour Board and Canterbury City Council have pursued a strategy for actively promoting increased recreational water use to visitors. The use of the coast has changed, and our area is increasingly popular with paddleboarders, kite surfers, open water swimmers and kayakers. As a local councillor I have had direct representation from several local water sports companies and/or organisations concerned about the danger the trestles within the enforcement area pose to recreational water users.

Whilst we appreciate Ms Ellis’ argument that the Whitstable Oyster Festival is evidence of the strength of the ‘Oyster Brand’ I believe it is disingenuous to suggest that this brand is solely rooted in the activities of the WOFC. The Whitstable Oyster Festival is not a historic festival and was launched independent of the WOFC in the early 1988 by Councillors Cyril Windsor and Pat Burke. The city council’s funding of this festival is to promote tourism and economic investment not, sell Oysters per se.

The sale of products which link Whitstable to Oysters pre-dates the farming of oysters on trestles and suggesting that the WOFC is the only person to actively contribute to the success of the Oyster Brand does a disservice to all those who use it for wider purposes inc. the council whose annual £10,000+ investment in the Oyster Festival, the iconic Wheelers Oyster Bar which has traded since 1856 and during periods where oyster trestles were not used or local authors who subvert the stereotype in their highly successful detective stories.

Ms Ellis contends that the online association between two search terms is a tangible measure of brand value but Google Trends sees a near doubling of interest in the search term ‘Whitstable’ since 2004, whilst we observe a near halving in interest in the term ‘Whitstable Oyster in the last six years alone. This information would suggest that Whitstable itself is growing more popular than the Oyster brand Ms Ellis contends is so essential to its success.

Councillor Valerie Kenny

24th July 2021

More on the Public Inquiry:

Whitstable vs Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company

Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #1

Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #2

Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #3

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