No plans to cancel Whitstable Oyster Festival in future despite drastically scaled-back 2017 event
PUBLISHED: 11:59 10 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:59 10 March 2017
Some traders have voiced concerns but councillors insist a return to a more locally-focused festival will be good for the town
There are no plans to cancel the world-famous Whitstable Oyster Festival, despite details emerging this week of a drastically scaled-back event for 2017.
The annual festival, which has helped put the seaside town on the map, will this year abandon its traditional roots in the harbour and instead move to Tankerton Slopes, in a three-day event in which the popular fireworks display, open-air cinema and famous oyster parade have all being scrapped.
The decision comes after Canterbury City Council officials received dozens of complaints last year over fears the event was spiralling out of control and alienating local residents.
Drunk and anti-social behaviour, excessive littering and over-crowding were among the 43 objections received by the council following the 2016 festival, which led some residents to admit they felt “unsafe”.
Instead, the focus will be shifted to more traditional activities, with the landing of the oysters and the oyster-eating competition remaining on the bill.
Suggestions fewer people will visit and pump money into the local economy as a result have been dismissed, with officials taking a positive approach to the change.
Council leader Simon Cook told Kent News: “My understanding is this is a transitional move – we are taking stock of things and rather than saying we should not have a festival at all, we are looking at having it on a more restricted basis for one year, while we have a really good look at how it’s going to work going forward.
“If you stop for a year, it’s harder to restart again afterwards.
“It’s fabulous that the festival is so successful and people come from far and wide to enjoy it, but ultimately the questions are ‘is this what Whitstable wants?’ and ‘can Whitstable cope?’
“We don’t want to lose it at all, but do the people of Whitstable want the core, traditional events like the landing of the oysters, or do they want it to be a bigger event that brings more people to the town?
“That’s for them to decide, it’s not a case of Canterbury City Council knows best.
“Nobody is talking about there not being a festival, there is an absolute desire for people to celebrate the thing they are known internationally for – it’s just a question of on what scale that takes place.”
A consultation into the future of the oyster festival, Canterbury Food and Drink Festival and the Herne Bay Festival closed earlier this month, where residents were given the opportunity to help shape the events in future.
The council has said an officer group has been set up to ensure a more proactive approach to licensing, enforcement, waste and parking for the duration of the 2017 event, with the aim of avoiding a repeat of last year’s issues.
Kent County Council’s economic development chief, Mark Dance, who lives in the seaside town, agreed changes needed to be made to create a more local focus.
“It’s pulling right back, starting again and reinventing itself, which I think is a good thing,” he said.
“It got out of control, and what did it for me was young people turning up at Whitstable station with carrier bags full of booze – how on earth do you pick up a broken bottle?
“We have got so much to offer and we should be showcasing it.
“It’s very popular but we shouldn’t be forgetting our residents, because when the festival is on people don’t go into the town and that’s crazy.
“It will be better for traders during the festival, because there were people last year selling drink on the harbour, when 100 yards down the road you have a pub, paying business rates, but seeing someone else stealing their customers.”
Conservative MP for Canterbury, Julian Brazier, added: “They needed to have a reasonable compromise.
“It’s a big part of Whitstable’s culture and helps bring in tourists and money to local shops and businesses, but in the last couple of years we have seen quite serious excesses and residents are clearly fed up with that.
“I don’t think traders will be too heavily affected because a huge number of people collecting at night is not doing much for the high street in general, other than for a few pubs.
“This is a sensible attempt to make that compromise.”
Mark Stubbs, head chef at Wheelers Oyster Bar on the high street, told Kent News it was impossible to predict the impact on local businesses but admitted he was disappointed at the prospect of a smaller festival this year.
“I don’t know what business will be like for us, I don’t have a crystal ball to see whether it will be right or wrong for the town,” he said.
“But the festival has been a big part of Whitstable and it’s a shame to see it scaled back because the whole point is to bring families and especially children together to celebrate.
“A lot of businesses used to do things and put on special events during the festival so we’ll have to see if they still do that over just three days.
“No one wants to see the town looking a mess or seeing trouble but if it’s done in a controlled environment, it can have a massive impact.”
A report into disturbance at the festival last year noted the majority of the complaints “were not directed at the core festival activities but rather other secondary activities within the town that may have intentionally or unintentionally been promoted or associated with a wider festival brand.”
It added: “An unauthorised beach party has been suggested as the source for much of the antisocial behaviour and is currently being investigated.”
This year’s festival will run from Saturday, July 22 until Monday, July 24.