Dartford is a town divided. The burning question on the high street, which last year received £79,000 of Government cash to revive its flagging fortunes, is a simple one: what price for a day of Peppa Pig's time?
On Wednesday local politicians made a trenchant defence of the decision to spend £1,610 on a market appearance by the children's TV character – insisting Peppa had done important work "boosting morale" of residents.
Speaking after The Independent revealed the cost of the cuddly costume, Dartford Council leader Jeremy Kite launched a counter-offensive in the local press. "We got Peppa Pig down and it was packed; people spent far more in local businesses than we spent on the costume," he said. "It's very negative and grinch-like for people who don't know the facts to come out with these comments.
"We did spend that money on the Peppa Pig costume, but nobody asked me about the benefits we got from it, financially and in boosting morale."
One of a dozen pilot towns that received a share of a £1.2m cash boost in May last year in a trial of retail guru Mary Portas' plans to put life back into Britain's high streets, Dartford has spent just £17,251 of its grant. Other "Portas Pilot towns" have been similarly stingy – just 13 per cent of the overall cash had been spent bythe end of last year. But Dartford's decision to book Peppa Pig for the town's new Sunday market last July caught particular attention.
The week after Ms Pigg, Fireman Sam made an appearance for a mere £1,150. The week after that CBeebies character Mike the Knight was in town, again at a cost to the taxpayer of £1,150. To date, 24 per cent of Dartford Council's spend of the Portas Pilot grant – intended to put the town "at the vanguard of a revolution" according to local government minister, Grant Shapps – has gone on children's TV characters.
"Peppa Pig is a huge crowd-puller," insisted the council's market manager Martin Lee. "So far, it has been not a lot of money, well-spent."
But local people are not so sure. "There must be something better to spend that money on." said Ana Kutukcu, 31, who works for Kent Barbers, just off the High Street.
Her husband Zaf, 52, agrees. "Look how many people – does this look like a town centre to you?"
He has a point. Shopkeepers report that the decline that attracted would-be saviours like Ms Portas to Dartford has shown little sign of reversing since the cash boost.
The recession has hit the town hard. Local shopkeepers blame sky-high rates and have called for local politicians to focus on measures to bring them down.
The council however, has confidence in its Peppa Pig strategy. Officials said that appearances by TV characters at the Sunday market in the summer were a useful boost, attracting families to the shopping precinct.
But for a town in desperate need of real investment, it smacks of fiddling while Dartford burns, critics say.
"It hasn't helped the image of Dartford and quite frankly it's a bit of a joke," the Labour group leader, councillor Geoffrey Prout said.
Among the stalls at market was Newsstand Comics – the brainchild of James Cobley, 26. He has received £1,000 to set up his market stall. It was his first day and business was steady.
Mr Lee from the council said that the council had a plan for how to spend the remaining Portas Pilot money – something "never before seen in the UK". Dartford's shopkeepers will be hoping that it really is something substantial – otherwise, it might just be so much lipstick on the Peppa Pig.
Margate spends just £111 of £100k grant
Margate has spent virtually none of the £100,000 received from the Government to revitalise its ailing high street ahead of it appearing in a TV series presented by retail expert Mary Portas next month. The Kent seaside resort was one of the 12 initial towns, dubbed Portas Pilots, given the funding in May. But The Independent has learned that Margate had spent just £111 of the six-figure grant by 31 December – making it the lowest spender of the dozen pilots. The meagre spend was on Land Registry searches and stationery. The revelation is embarrassing for Margate and Ms Portas as it comes ahead of her latest TV programme that features the coastal town next month. Margate's Pilot team said they had been "working extremely hard gelling together". A spokesman added: "We have a dedicated team with diverse skills and we have spent hours of professional service providing in-kind support, planning to ensure that members offer value for money and not a 'quick fix'."
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