Why the big Christ­mas lights switch-on is now a turn-off

James Tap­per trav­els to Alde­burgh, where, as in many towns, the big event is now seen as too much bother

The Observer - - News -

Christ­mas lights are meant to in­spire fes­tive cheer – not death threats. But for the shop­keep­ers of Alde­burgh, or­gan­is­ing the big switch-on has met with such a mix­ture of op­po­si­tion and in­dif­fer­ence that they have given up.

The lights are up in the charm­ing sea­side town on the Suf­folk coast, but with­out the fan­fare of pre­vi­ous years. “It’s such brain dam­age,” said Rob Mabey, who owns the Re­gatta restau­rant and chaired the lights com­mit­tee for five years. “We used to close off the road, so peo­ple couldn’t park. We had abuse, death threats. We were do­ing it for the town and the ra­tio of nasty let­ters to good let­ters was… well, we didn’t get any good let­ters.”

Alde­burgh is not alone. Whit­stable has no Christ­mas lights at all this year, af­ter the cham­ber of com­merce gave up amid a row about fund­ing. A group of vol­un­teers tried to step in but, by July, they had ad­mit­ted de­feat. Basil­don in Es­sex had no switch-on this year, and in Taun­ton, Som­er­set, the lights made a re­turn af­ter three years – though the event prompted an an­gry let­ter to the lo­cal pa­per about the “un­wanted” lights be­ing switched on “by a no­body”.

The re­ac­tion in Alde­burgh to news that there would be no switchon was that it must be be­cause of the in­flux of sec­ond-homers. As in nearby South­wold, the num­ber in Alde­burgh has risen steadily, fu­elled by City bonuses – the lo­cal ver­sion of mil­lion­aire’s short­bread is known as a banker’s bonus – and at­tracted by the pas­tel-shaded houses and a high street a few steps from the beach.

Yet most of the re­tail­ers in Alde­burgh be­lieve that sec­ond­homers and week­end visitors keep them afloat. They share a prob­lem fa­mil­iar to many small towns in East An­glia, and out­lined by the es­say­ist Ronald Blythe in his book Aken­field: there are fewer jobs lo­cally, so res­i­dents work in Ip­swich or Lon­don, re­duc­ing busi­ness for lo­cal shops. “We’re run­ning to stand still,” said Mary James, who runs Alde­burgh Book­shop and for whom high rent and busi­ness rates meant that vol­un­teer­ing to ar­range the Christ­mas lights was out of the ques­tion. “We have to work harder to get the same vol­ume of sales. We’re all wor­ried about on­line shop­ping, but the sec­ond-homers keep us go­ing – some are very loyal.”

In the­ory, a Christ­mas lights event should tempt peo­ple to the high street, but re­tail­ers say they see a dip in sales. Ar­rang­ing the events ate up 200 hours of his time, Mabey es­ti­mates. This in­volved or­gan­is­ing lights, shut­ting the street and find­ing per­son­al­i­ties, in­clud­ing Lenny Henry and Emma Freud, who switched them on – as well as rais­ing about £22,000. Sally Og­den, Mabey’s re­place­ment as chair of the Alde­burgh Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion, said even her stripped-back event last year cost £6,000, and the bur­den falls mostly on the in­de­pen­dent stores. “It is a thank­less task,” she said. “We had money out of some of the smaller chains but the big chains just don’t bother. We went to ev­ery shop and some said, ‘The lights will go up any­way, why should I pay?’”

Alamy

LEFTThe beach at Alde­burgh, which can­celled its lights event ow­ing to lack of sup­port.

BE­LOW Emma Freud switched on the Alde­burgh Christ­mas lights in 2013.

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