Beestonians Unite to Save Wilkos: Others Just Act Plain Odd…

As it’s Christmas, so I should be writing something suitably whimsical about Beeston and reindeer, but as often happens when I’m just looking forward to a nice rest and a mince pie, It All Kicks Off.

I give a pub-based interview with The Nottingham Post on Wednesday with Broxtowe correspondent Alex Britton, which is odd as I’m more used to chatting with Alex before or after the full-council meetings and other local-political shindigs we attend. I’m not really used to being the subject, so when he said ‘I’m now interviewing you Matt’ my normal louche free-flowing speech became a halting stuttering repetitive barrage of non-sequiturs and nonsense, though somehow he span this into a story which I’ve linked to below this post.

Later that day, I get asked by BBC Radio Nottingham if I’d do a piece, so  quick telephone chat in the evening,followed by being on the street outside Wilkos at 7.20am the next morning to be interviewed live by the sprightly and smiley Hannah Meredith for the Breakfast Show. I haven’t listened to it yet but all I can remember was trying to get my message out about Wilkos as my brain fought not to hit panic and shout ‘OH HEAVENS YOU’RE ON LIVE RADIO RIGHT ACROSS THE COUNTY RIGHT NOW IMAGINE IF YOU START SWEARING RANDOMLY HOW BAD THAT WOULD BE GO ON DO IT DO IT’. Somehow,I got through without a breakdown, and Hannah jumped back in her radio car to meet some pagans on Wollaton Park.

With all the media attention, the closure of Wilkos suddenly became a huge issue in Beeston, and by the time I tacked my fresh petition sheets to a  clipboard at 9am, a queue of bewildered shoppers had gathered. For the next six hours, around a thousand more stopped to express their anger, shock and sorrow at losing the store, and to put down their John Hancock to try and prevent it happening.

I have to confess, I had a great time. It’s not often one gets to meet so many people who understand community and it’s needs so well. Beestonians, you were universally wonderful yesterday.The cheeky grinned old ladies who went from sweet grans to head-scarfed Boudiccas the moment they saw the petition; the two gents who I’ve never met before who showed up to help (and in the case of Jeremy, make a cash donation to the fighting-fund of petition sheets, pens and clipboards); the policeman who strolled up and, when I exclaimed I thought he’d come to move me on, said ‘Oh no. I want to sign. Bloody good shop this’; the staff of Wilkos who slipped us flasks of tea at exactly the point my voice was cracking through the near-solid talking; and everyone who took the time to sign even when the queue was six deep. You are all what makes Beeston great, and you know you can make  difference.

Or can they? Some more cynical types signed but with a ‘For what good it’ll do’, and I understand. These are people who have signed petitions before, campaigned for stuff, attended meetings, wrote letters to editors and still found that The Man just does what he likes anyhow. This could be the same for Wilkos. Before I explain why I think this won’t happen this time, heres some back ground.

The first question BBC Nottingham asked me yesterday was ‘Why are you campaigning for a chain store?’, and its a very valid question. I can’t remember what I answered then but I don’t really care much about Wilkinsons the company. I care about this one shop. It is an amenity for the community, serving those who don’t drive and are loathe to enter large supermarkets, people who like the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff, people who like that they seem to sell just about everything practical.It gets loads of trade into Beeston, and is seldom anything but busy. When the high street is under attack from the seemingly interminable economic downturn and the soulless hangars of  that are modern Supermarkets, to lose a real retail success is incredibly imbecilic.

Then there’s the staff. Wilkos is a large employer in Beeston, predominantly part-time women. They have been told that they are probably be going to be out of a job by April, a Christmas message I’m sure they won’t cherish. Redeployment to other stores is not an option for many: if you’re only contracted to do three/four-hour shifts its unlikely you’ll want to sacrifice chunks of your time travelling to other towns, not to mention the hefty financial costs involved. It’s not viable whatsoever. A new Wilkos must be in Beeston, and the staff must not lose one days wage in any transition period.

Who is to blame for the closure? I want to keep the campaign positive and avoid finger-pointing, but it seems three key parties have let this happen. Broxtowe Borough Council, Henry Boot and Wilkinsons themselves all seem to have failed Beeston by not getting a new site sorted soon after the plans to raze the present store were laid out. They’ve known for the best part of a decade, and still not figured it out, despite identifying several potential sites. The developers, the aforementioned  Henry Boot, have famously been unwilling to commit to anything and have systematically frustrated the redevelopment of the Square, which surely should have run concurrent to the tram works to ensure minimal disruption. The Council should have stopped the squabbling between themselves over the tram a while ago: like it or loathe it, its been inevitable for some time but has still been used by councillors for some populist point-scoring when they should have swallowed pride and thrashing out the best deal for Beeston. Wilkinson’s Head Office also need to shape up: they were also responsible for finding a new site and have failed to do so: maybe the large compensation package – funded by council tax, remember-they’ll receive if they have to abandon Beeston caused them to drag their heels somewhat. I don’t know, and I don’t care too much anymore, I, and the 1,000+ petitioners I met yesterday ask one thing: that all concerned parties sit round the table, and do not get up until a deal for a new site that preserves each and every current job is signed. Nothing less is acceptable.


Cllr. Radulovic

But wait, whats this? It’s Milan Radulovic, head of Broxtowe Borough Council, and he’s outside Wilkos. I proffer my signature sheet and a Bic. Surely he’ll sign? After all, Cllr. Radulovic unfailingly, and with a high degree of gusto and bombast, states in council meetings his passion for the preservation and creation of jobs in Broxtowe. Such a man of the people should be signing, surely? Yet the pen remains in my hand.

‘I’m not signing. I’m not signing as Wilkos isn’t leaving Beeston.’

Blimey, have we been that successful? I know for a fact we had no replacement site as of hat morning, had it changed.

‘Wilkos is staying in Beeston, and some blogs have more facts than others.’ I take it he means Beestonia, rather than comparing Perez Hilton to TMZ. As I’m trying to work out his point, Alan, the aforementioned chap who’d came along to help, asked ‘Where? Where will it be?’, but Milan, along with Cllr Charlie Robb (who you may remember for his rather bizarre views on Climate Change, scroll down to the 14th paragraph) don’t explain, and slink off, leaving me feeling confused and not a little intimidated.

Cllr. Robb. Not a friend of the Laws of Thermo-dymanics.

In the Post article, Milan also states (italics my own)  that he is

‘…confident that a solution has been found and, although there will be a break in trade, Wilkinson’s will not be leaving Beeston permanently…’

Wilkinson’s themselves issued a statement when the media got hold of the issue stating simply

‘Wilkinson’s is committed to remaining in Beeston’.

Will either statement cheer Wilko’s staff before Christmas? Cllr. Radulovic’s is maddeningly vague, and states that even if this mystery new location is agreed upon, the staff will be out of work for some indefinite period of time. Wilkos is purposely vague: the phrase ‘committed to’ is a spin doctors favourite: just as every government will say they are ‘committed to reducing poverty’ or ‘committed to keeping the NHS’ it means little unless they tailor policy so.

So I implore both Wilkos and Broxtowe Borough Council to issue a categorical statement before the New Year that they can guarantee staff jobs, and a seamless transition. The people of Beeston were out in force yesterday, all wonderful people who understand that the things that hold a community together are precious and must be retained. Now prove you do too.

Read the Post article here. Just don’t look at my picture, and skip the bit that says my age. Neither are flattering.