Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Could Whitwick Parish Council's 50% council tax increase have been less? (Spoiler: the answer is yes)

I don't do much blogging these days. In general terms I am far too busy. But something has happened over the past few days to make me get tapping at my keyboard once more.

A few days ago I went to Morrisons and on the way out I was stopped by the clerk of a neighbouring parish council. The clerk in question had heard that this year Whitwick Parish Council, a council of which I have been a member since it was formed in 2011 and one of the only two Chairmen since it's formation, had this year raised it's council tax precept by a staggering 49%.

The clerk muttered to me "I'd like to thank you."

"Why is that?" was my reply.

"With an increase of 49% Whitwick Parish Council are making the rest of us look good!"

And the truth is, on the face of it, the clerk was absolutely right.

Here's a list of Parish Councils in North West Leicestershire which includes a column showing, as a percentage, how much each has raised their council tax precept for the financial year 2018/19. You will notice that one stands out.

Now before we go any further I will freely admit I wasn't at the January 2018 meeting of the Whitwick Parish Council when raising the parish's portion of tax went up. I was playing the Dame in the Thringstone Pantomime production of Rapunzel.

My point is that absolutely I could have raised the points I raise today at that meeting. I really shouldn't have had to though, you don't go wild demanding other people's money unless there is an absolute need to do so.

So lets move on.

There's two things at this point I want to tell you about how Whitwick Parish Council gets its money. There are no secrets here; every fact and every figure comes from public documents.

The first thing to note is that it costs Whitwick Parish Council somewhere in the region of £220,00 a year to operate. This covers the cost of parks maintenance; running a park hall and a pavilion; grit bins, planters and public waste bins; and of course salaries.

The vast bulk of that running cost, last year £193,704, comes from a council tax precept; paid for directly by the residents of Whitwick.

About £15,000 came as a support grant from North West Leicestershire District Council; around £7,000 from letting out the Park Hall and a few bits and bobs from elsewhere.

The second thing to note is that several years ago an internal auditor, paid for by the Parish Council, informed councillors that the council's bank accounts didn't carry enough reserves.

The auditor said that the council should aim to have half a year's typical spending held in a bank account, in case of a major local incident. Councillors agreed, including me, that they would aim to reach the recommended level of reserves by 2019.

This Year

As is always the case at this time of year the Council's Parish Manager produced a budget report for 2018/19.

The report said the council in 2017/18 would spend more than it had originally planned. It said in the current year expenditure had exceeded income by £9,023. Next year (2018/19) all things being equal the shortfall may well increase to £25,747.

Whitwick Parish Council's bank account is pretty healthy though. It is forecast to stand at £75,327 on 1 April 2018. Which is still a fair way off from being 50% of annual spending but it's not what most people would call sickly either.

So what did Whitwick Parish Council decide to do for this year's tax?

Did they agree to a nominal percentage increase? Did they look to cover the cost of the revenue spending shortfall? (Both would have been perfectly responsible ways forward)

Of course the answer is no. Here's the extract from the council's published minutes.

Yes that's right! They decided to increase the percentage that Whitwick residents would pay to the running costs of the Parish by a huge 50%

The Parish Councillors raised their precept from £193,704 last year to £290,556 this year.

If you live in an average Band D house you will pay £51 more council tax if you live in Whitwick than if you live in Thringstone or Coalville.

You'll pay £26 more than if you live in Ibstock, £47 more than Measham or £39 more than if you live in Ellistown.

The only place in the entire district where you will pay a comparable amount is Castle Donington, they have a 2% increase this year and paid £570,000 buying an old hotel (if you're into that sort of thing)

Now in and of itself I am no fan of raising council tax full stop.

I believe it's far better to leave families to enjoy their hard earned money rather than putting it in the pockets of a parish council.

But where there is a need I will and I have voted for increases.

In my mind that should be the exception and not the rule; to balance the books only when a budget has been subject to scrutiny and there isn't any fat that can be trimmed.

With that in mind, and once again I accept I wasn't at the budget setting meeting - although my single vote of protest wouldn't have changed the outcome, I have some questions to publicly ask those who agreed to increasing council tax by one of the highest percentages in the entire country. Here goes:

  • I've been told the precept had to be increased because the district council is cutting its support grant. Yes it is. By £3,884; which doesn't account for a £96,852 increase in precept. If the reduction in support grant is being phased in over a number of years then why wasn't any amount to cancel out the reduction too?
  • This year Whitwick Park Hall has realised £7,700 in bookings income; next year the projected figure is only £3,500 but Park Hall Caretaker salaries are being budgeted as £3,610, that's more than money raised in lettings. Surely if lettings income is down then salaries income should be too? (Or, what work is being done to ensure bookings income remains at its current level?) 
  • At a time when hard pressed families are struggling to make ends meet, and council tax is going up massively, should staff training budgets go up from £750 to £1,250? (They certainly haven't in the private sector)
  • Parish Councillors have approved a budget which will see planned free reserves, that is reserves that have no fixed purpose and can be spent freely, go up to £130,527 by the end of March 2019. If there was a need to increase reserves by the amount is it really necessary to create new budget lines for contingencies for running the Park Hall (£1,545), Pavilion (£750), Community Office (£500), Railway Station (£750), Salaries (£520) and maintain an existing contingency budget for elections which has never previously been used (£2,500)? Surely the aim is not to use contingencies, they're not supposed to be slush funds, isn't there at least an element of double counting in increasing reserves AND creating new contingency pots?
  • Finally, Parish Councillors have previously stated they would like to achieve a balance of free reserves equal to six months revenue spending. Given that the National Association of Local Councils state that reserves "should fall within a range of 3 to 12 months net revenue expenditure", wouldn't it at least be prudent to have reduced this ambitious aim in the short term? 

Of course whether the increase is a wise move or not will ultimately become the decision of the voters in May of next year.

It's been said to me that a 50% increase only represents about 68 pence a week, and it does.

But if you have two young children 68 pence a week also represents roughly the cost of putting decent shoes on your kid's feet.

It all comes down to what we want our parish council's to do for us. I think the increase was a step too far, other decent people think it was perfectly reasonable.

Whitwick Parish Council is a Labour controlled council. The majority of those who supported the increase were Labour members.

As a Conservative you may expect me to disagree with them.

But ultimately my last question is this:

Could Whitwick Parish Council have taken reasonable steps to negate such a high precept increase? I would suggest, undoubtedly, they could.

Friday, 29 December 2017

My 2018 Coalville Times Predictions

Part of the job of a newspaper columnist is to be a fortune teller. We’re always writing at least a few days ahead of ourselves, sometimes if we have a holiday booked, a couple of weeks. It really is astonishing how often we actually get things right and how even when we get them wrong we were ambiguous enough to claim to be right anyway.

So in that spirit of being true to the columnists art this week I want to give you a few predictions for the coming twelve months. You can ignore them, you can hold me to them, you can point out how wrong I eventually turn out to be. Only I won’t be, they’ll all turn out to be true; except the ones that don’t, of course.

So here goes.

There will be no General Election, no change of Prime Minister and no let up on Brexit in the coming year. One way or another Britain is leaving the European Union, probably in early 2019. There’s a lot of work to be done in that time and you don’t change riders, let alone horses, in the middle of a race.

The Conservatives will be just about united enough to stave off a general election and Mrs May will demonstrate just how much of a first class backroom operator she is by continuing to come up with eleventh hour deals.

The Prime Minister might not be much of a campaigner but she is one of the most practical politicians of this, or any other, generation; she’ll be at the helm until a final Brexit deal is struck, and depending on how good that deal is maybe a great deal longer than that.

On the other hand 2018 could, and against all of the perceived wisdom, spell the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s career. It’s recently been measured that populist politicians maintain their peak of popularity for about a year. In other words you only get one chance to make a first impression and Corbyn had his last June. He ran Theresa May close but it wasn’t enough; his freshness becomes staler from hereon in. Moderate Labour MPs might just start organising against him once more, this time they may well be more effective.

Abroad President Trump will remain in the Oval Office. If there really was a smoking gun incriminating enough to impeach him we would know by now. Expect him and his party to take a pasting in next year’s mid-term elections but don’t for a second bet against him winning a second term of office two years after that. Working class folk want to hear a voice that talks to their worries; if Trump continues to do so then he’s heading for a second term of office. The challenge all of our political parties are rubbing their collective heads about is just who could be the British equivalent.

Locally our politicians will continue to moan on about the reintroduction of the Ivanhoe railway line from Burton to Leicester; and they will continue to be disappointed. It isn’t going to happen; not in 2018, not ever. We are too wedded to the convenience and privacy of our cars and as long as we are there won’t be demand to make the reopening of the line viable. We don’t mind paying more as long as we can get a parking space at the other end. Who wants to sit next to some stranger for half an hour, or worse, someone you slightly know and can’t remember their name? If bus routes aren’t financially viable, seriously, what’s the chances that building stations, lines and rolling stock ever will be? It’s not happening!

But maybe, just maybe, Coalville will get a cinema (and I don’t mean one that’s just a big television – like the one in Swadlincote). Local businesses are starting to talk with a bit more conviction about a ‘leisure quarter’ in the town; it might just happen.

Of course even if we end up with something akin to London’s Leicester Square outsiders, and far too many of our own residents, would end up slagging the place off and blaming ‘the council’ on Facebook because it isn’t Las Vegas.

Seriously guys, if you’re from Coalville like I am, your 2018 resolution should be to be more positive about our town. One of the reasons that Coalville is perceived to be glum is that we allow it to be perceived that way and even perpetuate the myth.

Here’s another prediction for you: in 2018 the area will lose at least one of our local newspapers, but it won’t be the Coalville Times. In an act of great foresight this newspaper never did go down the route of putting all its content on a website free of charge. Those that did are finding it remarkably tough; unless we start buying more copies some of them will go to the wall, probably over the course of the next twelve months. When they do and no one is left to scrutinise our public officials we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

So there’s a few predictions for you; maybe they’ll come true, maybe they won’t. I also predict the new royal baby will be a boy; or maybe a girl. Leicester City won’t win the league, but they might do well in the cup. And watch out for Gary Lineker on Strictly.

All right, this is getting silly now. Who knows what will happen in 2018? But whatever it is I wish you the very best for the next twelve months.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

At last the National Trust is standing up for our heritage - my Coalville Times column

About fifteen years ago Christmas was fast approaching and for the first time since meeting my wonderful wife I was stumped as to what to get her as a gift.

After a few years of marriage I had done all of the usual presents: perfume, jewellery and lingerie and I didn’t want to get a reputation of being too predictable. I could have plumped for something that she really needed, a new Dyson or a washing machine for example, but even I with my limited knowledge of the ways of the female gender knew that probably wasn’t a good idea.

Despite weeks of thinking, at that stage little did I know that most husbands save gift shopping for 3.00pm on Christmas Eve, I was a drawing a blank; and then I had a brainwave. My wife’s gift wouldn’t be a present just for Christmas Day but one for the whole year.

With a young family and busy lives we would make time for each other by doing things and going to places. On Christmas morning my wife woke up to family tickets to Conkers, Snibston Discovery Park and annual memberships to English Heritage and the National Trust; she had tickets to the theatre, concerts and even a weekend away. It would be a year of experiences.

We absolutely loved all of the places that we went to either as a family or just the two of us. I have to say the greatest let down, for us, was Snibston; the biggest highlight the many beautiful houses and gardens of the National Trust.

In fact the National Trust is the one thing that we have carried on with this past fifteen years. We very soon realised that as lovely as days out at stately homes are that isn’t actually the purpose of membership. In joining we were supporting a vital charity dedicated to the preservation of our most important history and heritage.

Over the years, as our children grow up, we’ve made holidays of touring National Trust properties in one region or another (I strongly recommend Devon and Cornwall); we’ve walked dogs through rolling countryside and we’ve tasted far more cream teas than we should have.

For the very first time, however, I’ve been thinking of cancelling our membership to the National Trust; it’s not the history that I have fallen out of love with it’s the politics.

It all started at Easter this year when it was reported that the Church of England had accused the Trust of “airbrushing faith” from their annual Easter Egg Hunt in favour of a commercial partner. In a ludicrous decision seemingly made based on income and secularising the most important Christian feast the National Trust plastered their website with images inviting customers to enjoy the ‘Cadbury Egg Hunt’.

For me at least it was the thin end of a very large wedge. If the National Trust is a charity dedicated to history then a significant part of that is our Christian tradition; it shouldn’t simply be airbrushed for commercial convenience or political correctness.

It got worse though. The lifeblood of National Trust properties are the wonderful and hugely knowledgeable volunteers, often retired folk well into their eighties, who staff each room open to visitors on a daily basis.

Last month volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk were informed that as part of an LGBTQ promotion room stewards, who give huge amounts of time voluntarily, would be required to wear rainbow badges highlighting the gay pride movement. Volunteers who, for many reasons, said that they did not feel comfortable wearing the badges were informed they would be found duties away from their normal roles and from the paying public.

The National Trust has always been perceived as a gentle, kindly organisation and, whilst I and many other like me would happily wear such a badge, there is something a ungrateful and a little sinister about a charity who is embarrassed by the decent people who have given so much to it over the years.

Last week though, for the first time in many months, I sensed that there may be light at the end of the tunnel; that the National Trust may be regaining its sense of place and proportion. You see an online petition has been doing the rounds, and gaining momentum, calling for the Trust to revoke all licences which allow hunts to use its land.

Thank heavens for once the trustees of this iconic organisation are standing up to the kneejerk, reactionary cyber-warriors calling for such an idiotic proposition.

‘Hunting’ is a rich part of British history; it is inextricably linked with many of the homes and estates managed by the National Trust. It is, to my mind, absolutely right that fox hunting has been banned; at the same time it is imperative, not just for historic reasons but for the thousands of contemporary jobs that rely upon it, that legal hunting of an artificial scent is not only tolerated but actively encouraged.

The National Trust though have made it clear that for once they don’t intend on backing down stating ‘We always look to welcome people to our places and host the broadest range of outdoor activities on our land. We believe that this should include trail ‘hunting’, where it is consistent with our conservation aims and is legally pursued.’

In their seemingly endless attempts to attract metropolitan liberals through incessant political correctness it’s great to see this important organisation, for once, standing up for rural communities, our history and our heritage. My membership may well be safe for another year.

Let's fight to put faith back in the heart of policy making - my Universe column

You will recall that I have mentioned to you before the challenges of writing a regular column; that difficult task of prophesying what news will still be current in the intervening time between writing and publication and the jeopardy of making an absolute fool of yourself in doing so.

You will have heard many journalists talk of the long summer parliamentary recess as ‘silly season’; those two or three months when MPs go on holiday and the gossip of the Westminster village all but grinds to a halt. I kid you not that a few weeks ago I found myself on the front page of my local newspaper because I had mentioned on social media that I enjoyed playing the role of Father Christmas for functions and fayres and in the lazy days of August it was judged to be enough of a story to make headline news; the epitome of ‘silly season’, the bane of columnists.

With that in mind about four weeks ago I was looking for inspiration for this column. There had been a few stories in the media about a slightly eccentric and traditional backbench Conservative Member of Parliament coming from relative obscurity virtually overnight to being the hot favourite to be leader of his party, and potentially Prime Minister.

Of course that MP was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a proud Catholic and someone whom article after article portrayed as being the Conservative answer to Jeremy Corbyn; a man true to his beliefs and ideology, a man of principle willing to eschew the triangulation of modern day political policy making.

I thought to myself ‘wouldn’t it be grand to interview Mr Rees-Mogg for my column?’ and dropped an email to his parliamentary office to ask if it would be possible to have a chat with him.

Now more often than not when you ask a politician if they would like to talk about their faith they will run for the hills. In modern politics a Christian belief is often seen as guaranteed career destruction, look no further than the treatment of Tim Farron and his largely hypothesised views on homosexuality during the last election campaign, for evidence of that; so in e-mailing Rees-Mogg I didn’t have too much expectation of receiving a reply.

Imagine my astonishment then when less than an hour later an email dropped into my inbox from the MP’s diary secretary very politely declining my request explaining that ‘a number of interviews have been published recently… and he thinks it likely that people will be rather bored by him by now.’
It is probably fair to say that that if Mr Rees-Mogg thought that the public would be bored by him in the middle of August then by last week they must have reached saturation point.

Of course you will know by now of the MPs appearance on Good Morning Britain when, some would argue, he was ambushed by presenter Piers Morgan asking pointed questions about same sex marriage and abortion. You will be aware of the robust defence Mr Rees-Mogg put up for the teaching of the church on both issues; and no doubt you will be familiar with the criticisms written about him in the secular media and the overwhelmingly supportive editorials of the Catholic press.

When it comes to Church teaching far more knowledgeable commentators than I have expressed their admiration for Mr Rees-Mogg’s defence of it and clarity about how it affects his personal political beliefs. Who could not have agreed with Bishop Philip Egan when he told the Catholic Herald that the politician gave a ‘wonderful witness on ITV as a Catholic’?

So I really do not intend for Mr Rees-Mogg to be the focus of my column this week but rather look to the underlying point as to what that interview was about.

I don’t know whether you have noticed but, it seems to me at least, over the past year faith and the battle for secularisation by the state has become a battle ground like never before.

It all seemingly started with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister and her guarded willingness to talk about how her personal faith had shaped her into the politician she is today.

Then there was the promise of a relaxation of funding criteria for new church schools to allow a greater proportion of faith-based admissions, and the subsequent backing away from the policy after a surprising general election result.

I urge you to take a look in the more serious reaches of our news media and over recent months virtually every day you will find a story about faith and religion, the way it impacts society and what secularists are doing to fight back against it.

In just the past few weeks The Times has run stories on Catholic prison inmates now outnumbering Anglicans; an increase in the number of animals killed without stunning; a Christian family suing their child’s school due to gender neutral uniform policies which allow boys to wear dresses; OFSTED stepping into arguments over whether hijabs should be allowed to be worn in primary schools; and just this week an article claiming ‘Most British Catholics back right to abortion’. Those stories are the tip of the iceberg and from just one publication; there are many others.

It was indeed The Times that ran a particularly abhorrent cartoon last week of an unborn Mr Rees Mogg holding a placard stating ‘Anti-Gay, Anti-Abortion’ and a speech bubble proclaiming “Well, that’s my leadership plan terminated…”

There is a battle going on for secularisation arguably like never before, and energised by claims last week of Britain becoming a country where the minority of us have faith, and it is up to us to fight for the huge good that organised religion does and seek to influence decision makers.

Last night I went to the cinema to see the new blockbuster adaptation of the Stephen King novel ‘IT’, a horror story of a small New England town overtaken every 27 years by a great evil in the shape of a demonic clown and being fought off by a group of adolescent loners who seemingly are the only ones truly understanding of what is going on.

As the clown seeks to pick each one off by exposing their very worst fears they realise that the only way to battle it is by working together, placing their faith in each other and overcoming their fears.

It is a wonderful film that is just as much about friendship and the coming of age as it is about a scary clown; but as I sat watching it I was struck by how it reflected the war between secularisation and our faith.

There are a great many people out there for whom religion is an anathema, who would like to see the end of it.

Not all of us can assert our beliefs as eruditely or as prominently as Jacob Rees-Mogg but we can all do our bit in standing up for our faith and explaining proudly and courteously why we believe the things that we do to others. We may fear being ridiculed but just like those children in IT together there is nothing that we cannot overcome.

In the months and years to come you can guarantee that each of us will be subjected to ridicule for our Catholicism I ask you what better example can there be of defending it than Mr Rees-Mogg? Together we can re-assert the importance of religion in policy making.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Stop the bigots from making the political divide any wider - my Universe column

Like a great many columnists, it won’t come as a surprise to you, that from time to time, I write for other publications (although in the words of the late, great Sir Bruce Forsyth “You’re my favourite”).

As well as spending hour upon hour composing my often erroneous but always thoroughly considered thoughts for you each week I am also very privileged to have an equivalent piece in my local newspaper which seeks to put forward often political views with a leaning to the place where I live.

It’s that newspaper where I would like to start my contemplation today.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about some local issue or other and filed it ready for publication a few days later. I didn’t think too much about the piece after that; the life of a writer is very much about going forward after all and moving along with the issues of the day.

In truth I didn’t actually remember that the piece had been published when I went one evening to a meeting and a Labour Party councillor, once a colleague but now sat across the political divide, came up to me.

“Leon, you were dead wrong in your column today,” the man said to me “I’ve got a mind to write in to the paper.”

On hearing the comment I was somewhat thrown off guard but I realised that although we disagree about many issues, although we very much share the same opinion about others, this man, Dave, wasn’t simply a political adversary but also a valued and treasured friend.

“Dave,” I replied “please do write in to the paper. Debate is all about listening to different opinions and I am sure our readers would be interested in hearing yours.”

Dave told me he would do just as I had suggested.

When the following week’s newspaper was published I looked to see if Dave’s epistle had been published on the letters page; it had not and so thought that he had decided not to write in after all.
It was a couple of days later when Dave telephoned me on a crackly line, he happens to be a collector of antique phones, to complain to me “I wrote about your column and they didn’t publish it. Would you mind finding out why?”

The following day dutifully I spoke to the editor who told me the very simple answer “We got it late and our letters page was already full; but we will definitely publish it next week.”

I duly let Dave know and waited for the next edition to be printed. When I opened my newspaper the following Thursday I read Dave’s letter; he had been absolutely scathing about the points I had made in my column, he opposed everything and indeed in some respects he was right and others completely wrong.

Crucially though Dave had criticised my arguments and not me, he had played the ball and not the man, but looking back it did strike me as a little odd and very funny that I had ended up facilitating him quite so much in ripping my column to shreds.

But, you know what? That is what friends do. They help each other through thick and thin; they can take a little deserved criticism; they can disagree without being disagreeable because ultimately they trust and respect each other.

It does not matter one little bit that we sit across, in reality, a very narrow political divide. I could not be prouder than to call my mate Dave a friend.

The reason that I mention all of this is a political story that has evolved over these past few days concerning Laura Pidcock MP, the new Member of Parliament for the Labour held seat of North West Durham.

Ms Pidcock last week gave an interview to left-leaning website skwawkbox.org about her first couple of months as a parliamentarian. As well as railing against many of the traditions and practices at Westminster the 29 year old commented on her political opponents, the Conservatives “I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them…I feel disgusted at the way they’re running this country, it’s visceral…the idea that they’re not the enemy is simply delusional.”

I, like a great many others, was taken aback by the hatred contained in those words; they were, after all echoing those of the post-war Labour politician Nye Bevan who once described Conservatives as “lower than vermin”. Surely we should have moved on in that time?

The simple truth, of course, is that for some on the extremes of party politics we have not. In the wake of the Ms Pidcock’s interview many Members of Parliament took to social media to say that they, like me, were proud to have friends across the political spectrum.

Will Quince, the Tory MP for Colchester, was one such parliamentarian tweeting “This is such a disappointing attitude, Labour MPs are the opposition not the enemy and I count several as friends.”
It perhaps shouldn’t come as a great surprise that less than twenty four hours later he followed up his first post with “I’m genuinely getting tweets asking who my Labour MP friends are so they can be added to the ‘to de-select’ list. Unbelievably sad.”

In truth Ms Pidcock’s view isn’t that rare nor is it isolated to just the opposition benches, I would certainly be the first to admit to having heard similar views amongst Conservative activists, albeit far less often.

But ultimately, whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, it is a tremendously flawed position to take.

It is often said that in polite company one should never talk about religion or politics and certainly one should never talk about politics whilst in church but I absolutely guarantee you that when you sit at mass on Saturday night or Sunday morning you will be surrounded by fellow Catholics of all political persuasions.

They won’t be bad people, although one or two may have failed to fast for an hour before mass, indeed on the whole Catholics are remarkably decent and amongst them there will be greens and tories and socialists and liberals; and they will be your friends.

There is a word which means intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself; it is called bigotry and, sadly Ms Pidcock’s comments reflect just that.

Many commentators would argue that our world is becoming increasingly divided and doubtless it is that intolerance of different views that is playing a significant part.

It’s true that we do tend to gravitate to others with similar experiences and interests to ourselves but most of us do not discount the possibility of friendships outside of those groups.

So this week I set a challenge not just to Laura Pidcock but to all of us. Try and speak on a human level to someone outside of your comfort zone; it might turn out that you like them; they may even become a friend.

Doesn’t crossing those artificial divides make the world a slightly better place?

Monday, 21 August 2017

One year on, we're still heading to the door - whatever happens next: My Universe column

It is well over a year now since that June day when Britain collectively decided to take that fateful step into the unknown to withdraw from the European Union.

This spring witnessed the Prime Minister formally declaring the Article 50 process; and just as importantly the vast majority of parliamentarians conferring on her the right to do so.

In less than two years as a nation we will be out of the EU, there is still arguments over ‘divorce bills’ and ‘transitional periods’ but essentially we, Britain, will have seen the fruits of our democratic mandate come to pass.

The referendum campaign was a long, bitter one; accusations and bare-faced lies reigned down from either side of the argument. Anyone with any sense would have completely disregarded a promise painted on the side of a bus offering £350 million a week to the NHS as little more than air-headed propaganda. Similarly talk of punishment budgets and the cajoling of a receptive US President into, ostensibly, bullying for a ‘remain’ vote were the worst of politics and the worst of an otherwise decent Tory government.

This column certainly isn’t the place for rerunning the referendum campaign; there are always going to be stupid people who vote for either side of any argument. The fact remains that the vast majority of the electorate evaluated the information available to them, both the farcical and the realistic, and the clear majority decided on balance that they would prefer to withdraw from the European Union.

I wrote at the time how I personally had campaigned for Remain and was hugely disappointed; but that is how democracy works and it is frankly beholden on all of us to make a success of BREXIT.

Voters weren’t hoodwinked; the vast majority who voted Leave knew exactly what they were voting for; and to my mind there is no evidence or argument for a second referendum. We collectively made a choice it is now time to collectively attempt to make a success of it.

With all of that said I must concede that a number of stories emanating from the media over the past week or so have set me thinking.

Last week The Guardian ran a story on their website about the cost of going on holiday. Announcing that ‘British holidaymakers should brace themselves for more Brexit pain when they change their pounds into euros, with a leading investment bank forecasting the currencies are on the way to parity.’

The Guardian’s Deputy Editor, Paul Johnson, promoted the story on his twitter feed highlighting that the day before last year’s referendum you were able to get €1.31 for your pound, last weekend that figure had reduced to just €1.09. Highlighting that bankers Morgan Stanley have modelled a picture where in the not too distant future one pound may be worth just one euro Johnson commented “They didn’t put that on side of the bus (sic)”.

I must confess that for the first time in many years this year my family and I have opted for a ‘staycation’. The ever reducing value of the pound has been a material factor in not being able to afford an annual family sojourn overseas. We mulled over a pilgrimage to Lourdes but, frankly, the combination of security concerns and having less to spend was enough of a deterrent to say ‘let’s leave it till next year’. I’ll be honest and say I am a bit fed up about it, but as we might have said as confirmed Europhiles ‘C’est la vie’.

Of course missing my family holiday pales into insignificance when you consider some of the other EU related stories currently doing the rounds.

By the time you read this column the government may well have issued a series of position papers stating their preferred solutions to a number of issues which still need to be determined before Brexit finally takes place.

One of those papers, the contents of which appear to have been released softly on a piecemeal basis to gauge public response, will focussing on the issue of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

It is reported that whilst the Irish government, and therefore one supposes by definition the EU too, favours a border in the Irish Sea essentially keeping free movement between north and south Mrs May is likely to remain strong about plans for a physical land border which would rely on smart technology to control most of the traffic going either way.

Clearly there are both strong economic and immigration arguments for a land border between the two countries; at the same time there are grave concerns for the potential reigniting of hostilities between those who fervently believe in a united Ireland and those with deeply held affinities to Britain.

Tragically it certainly isn’t beyond the realm of possibilities that we could see a return to the violence and terror of ‘the troubles’.
The third story that has caught my attention this week is about the beleaguered discount retailer Wilko. The business, a staple of most high streets for many years, announced that it was considering cutting 4,000 jobs from its workforce. The company has conceded that whilst it would try to find at risk employees alternative positions the consultation exercise may well lead to a significant number of redundancies.

Last week The Financial Times reported that the company was ‘blaming the collapse in the value of the pound for a steep rise in costs following last year’s Brexit vote.’

There is at least a possibility that by Christmas a large number of Wilko employees will be out of work essentially because of the outcome of the referendum.

If you are forced to claim benefits and are at risk of losing your home; or if you are genuinely concerned about violence rearing its head in your community after it has been at peace for so many years; or if you are simply fed up that you haven’t been able to go on holiday this year there is very little doubt that you might start having reservations about the referendum vote that took place last year. You would be fully justified in doing so.

None of the stories that I mention today are good. In fact they are all fairly miserable and directly attributable to a Leave vote.

But, and there a crucial point here, they are not that Armageddon that was promised by those advocating remain. Each story is sad and affects real lives but doesn’t take account of the fact that bad news does tend to be cyclical.

Tourist exchanges will get better, there has been a steady strengthening against the US dollar for some time now. Some jobs will be lost but others will be gained, many businesses are already planning for growth at the prospect of being able to export more successfully with a highly competitive pound to help them. And yes, there is a potential for a resurgence in violence, but we have learnt so much since the Good Friday agreement and many who were once active in violence have long since retired or died.

I was shocked last week at a quote that I discovered about the Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. In his book the Making of Modern Britain Andrew Marr writes that this figure from the past used to refer to voters as ‘vermin’.

There is a tendency even now amongst politicians to think that they are smarter than the electorate, and empirically that may even be true. But a referendum isn’t about the ‘cleverest’ decision but the one that feels right to the majority of people.

Last year the majority didn’t vote Leave because it would be smooth sailing but because they wanted to see a strong, independent Britain unencumbered by the rules and regulations of Brussels.

Brexit is going to be a rocky road but equally, over time, things will get better and who knows even improve. It is all of our responsibilities, especially those amongst us who voted Remain, to give the will of the people a fair crack of the whip.

The daylight robbery of carrier bags - my Coalville Times column

All of us have pet hates; those small, seemingly inconsequential things which really get our goat.

It may be that you despise those ignorant individuals who continue having a telephone conversation whilst being served in the supermarket or bank; or what about people who delight, just because they can, in telling you about the ending of a book before you have reached it? I genuinely once nearly ended up in a fist fight when a friend told me of the death of a central character in the latest Harry Potter novel before I got to the climactic chapter.

And, of course, being involved in politics you have to be acutely aware of the foibles of anyone you happen to be knocking on the door of and the way they may respond. I’m certain that political canvassers lose more votes than they ever gain by crossing over gardens instead of walking up and down drives. I once had a homeowner I was canvassing open both metaphorical barrels on me for disturbing his gravel; to most people an act so trivial but to him one of high importance.

The privilege of a newspaper columnist though is the ability to set out our own pet hates as ‘quasi-news’ and to all intents and purposes force our odd opinions on the wise and receptive readership of this esteemed newspaper.

So with that I would like to talk you today about something that really, really gets up my nose and I’ll try and explain why it should get up yours too.

My story this week goes back a number of years to the birth of our third child. There were now five of us living in our house, the youngest two being in nappies, and no matter how much recycling we did our wheelie bin was always overflowing.

I telephoned the local council and a lovely fellow came out to explain to us top tips for recycling better. The nice man from the council explained that our greatest enemies were, of all things, black bin bags; he explained in great detail, honestly I though a PowerPoint was coming, that large bin liners created air cavities in our wheelie bin and that we would finds ourselves easily able to dispose of much more waste if we simply switched to carrier bags.

I have to hand it the man from the council, he was absolutely right, and because there are still five of us living in our home we’ve used plastic carrier bags for bin liners ever since.

As you can imagine for many years it actually meant that we were saving money. Carrier bags were free at every supermarket, apart from Marks and Spencer who went ‘eco-friendly’ far before they were told they had to, and the bags that we used for our shopping were put to a good use.

This is where my pet hate comes in. There are some shops who shall remain nameless, but if you want your pound to stretch as far as possible you will probably know who I am talking about, who delighted in providing carrier bags of the most abjectly poor quality that the chances were that they were unlikely ever to reach your car in one piece let alone be put to a second purposeful use.

These shops, where you would find plenty of bargains for your home, delighted in selling products with moulded plastic edges or sharp corners that could disintegrate a flimsy carrier bag on first contact.

But pre-carrier bag charges I lived with it. A discount bag was entirely appropriate for a discount retailer.

The point, and my pet hate, is that now you are paying 5p for a carrier bag each time you pop into one of those shops forgetting your ‘bag for life’ why oh why oh why am I still being sold a carrier that is of the same appalling quality I was back in the days when they were free?

A carrier bag at B&M is the same price as one at Waitrose. It’s not a discount product; in fact it’s probably the only thing you can by where Poundland is as expensive as Harrods. So why on earth are they not better quality? I’m getting riled up now.

“Leon”, I hear you telling me “calm down, it’s just a carrier bag. And all the money goes to charity anyway.”

And now you’re getting me really angry because this week the government announced how much money has indeed gone to charity since the introduction of carrier bag charges, and which shops have donated most. It’s not easy reading.

Now there are plenty of retailers like Asda, John Lewis and many more who are very good and who donate all proceeds to charity once administration costs have been deducted.

There are others who keep a significant proportion of the monies raised, for example, WH Smith made £206,000 last year from the sale of single use carrier bags but gave just £132,500 to good causes.

And then there’s Poundstretcher. Last year that discount retailer, in statistics provided by them and published by DEFRA, reported that they had sold more than 6 million carrier bags raising more than £300,000. After VAT and costs net proceeds from the scheme were £249,989.

Do you know what Poundstretcher did with that quarter of a million quid? They kept it.

Poundstretcher are not on their own. A few other retailers don’t donate the proceeds either.
And undoubtedly we need to ask why the biggest beneficiary of the whole scheme are treasury coffers that benefit from the millions collected in additional VAT.

There are many reasonable questions to be asked.

But for God’s sake discount retailers you aren’t discount retailers when it comes to carrier bags. Either improve your quality or have the good grace to give the money raised to charity. Anything else just looks grabby.