Thursday, 20 July 2017

Corbyn's cynical offer to students is neither equitable nor fair - Catholic Universe column

I’m going to let you in to a secret about the one thing that columnists love more than anything else. We love the letters page.
How wonderful is it that something we write, our stream of consciousness, can provoke a reader to concur with our thoughts? It’s even better when someone disagrees with us; the visceral emotion which comes from some of the ‘anti’ letters we receive is great.
A columnist who is the subject of angry letters has absolutely done their job. We never claim to be any more right than the next person but we do want to get you thinking and those letters to the editor are proof that we have done just that.
Yes, being a contributor rather than simply a reader, the letters page is always my first stop when I open my weekly Catholic Universe. You can guarantee I will have read it today long before I check whether I like the layout of this column; which by the way is usually excellent.
But I have a problem. I just don’t seem to get as many letters as your other esteemed columnists. Blimey, I never even used to get a look in when Chris Whitehouse was going with a full head of steam. Every week it would be ‘Dear Sir, I want to protest at your columnist Mr Whitehouse…’ and I would never get a mention.
Now we columnists are sensitive souls and every week it would get me thinking; maybe I need to write better?
And while that is absolutely true, I do need to write better, I also learnt that the letters which you receive are also determined by the approaches that you take. I like to think that in most respects I am fairly moderate; I look at every viewpoint and generally to come up with an opinion which seeks complement all of them.
I find moderation tends to be a good motto for life, not just writing. The problem is that when you tend to be, shall we say, middle of the road, you don’t provoke vitriol quite as much, unless of course you are writing about Jeremy Corbyn, in which case ‘light the blue touch paper and then stand back’.
When you are moderate, though, it doesn’t mean that you don’t care about issues. Moderates often care very deeply and are just as principled as those on the extreme. It just means that we believe compromise and that awful word, triangulation, is usually the best recipe for any problem.
But there is an issue that has been at the forefront of our political agenda where I have a huge problem with moderation. It is an issue which has been raised by the aforementioned Mr Corbyn and I believe he is not only hugely wrong, I can guarantee you that being a shibboleth of the new Labour Party’s identity, I will have letters filling the editor’s post bag questioning my decency for weeks.
I am talking about university tuition fees and Mr Corbyn’s proposals to get rid of them. I have never heard of such a stupid, inequitable policy in my lifetime. Let’s look at some facts.
When Tony Blair’s New Labour Government came to power in 1997, higher education in this country was both relatively poorly funded but, hugely importantly, also tended to be the preserve of the upper and middle classes. Working class kids, given the barriers built into the system, didn’t tend to end up going to university. It is as simple as that.
The New Labour Government wanted to ensure that more young people had the chance to access higher education and making that possible not only meant increasing capacity, it meant increasing funding to places of higher learning too; and so, to meet those aims, the idea of students paying towards the cost of their learning was introduced.
Tuition fees for higher education, initially limited to £1,000 per year, were introduced in 1998 and no matter what Mr Corbyn would have you believe, the system has been a great success.
University capacity did increase. The proportion of young people from working class and underprivileged backgrounds studying for degrees has gone up virtually every year since the introduction of fees.
Two weeks ago Jeremy Corbyn stood at a political rally and told his audience that “Fewer working class young people are applying to university. Let’s end the debt burden and scrap tuition fees!”
I will be generous and suggest that Mr Corbyn was misinformed – I am sure he wouldn’t simply lie, would he? Because according to UCAS, the university admissions body, young people from the poorest areas are more likely than ever to apply for university and application rates from the poorest groups continues to rise year on year.
One of the reasons for the increase in applications for higher education is because tuition fees and the student loan system that supports them are fair. There, I have said it.
We hear so many stories of students leaving university with debts of £50,000 that we fail to consider whether there is fairness in the system; and overwhelmingly, there is.
When you leave university these days you may well have a debt the size of a small mortgage – well, at least a mortgage when we may have bought our first homes – but unlike a mortgage you are not expected to start paying your debt straight away. In fact you do not pay a penny of that debt off until you are earning £21,000 a year; and above that level you pay nine per cent of earnings.
As the wonderful Martin Lewis of recently outlined, if you earn £22,000 a year you will pay £90 per year towards your student loans; if you earn £31,000 you will pay £900 and if you earn vastly more, then you will pay vastly more until your debt is paid.
It is what we might call a progressive system of repayment.
But, I hear you cry, what happens to your debt if all you ever pay is £90 a year? Do you die with it? And once again the system helps those who following graduation have been on lower incomes for the entirety of their career. All student loans are written off after 30 years.
Simply put, although you may have had a notional debt of £50,000, the contribution a graduate had made to their education over the course of a 30-year career isn’t, unless you have been lucky enough to be a top earner, that figure but rather an amount based on your ability to pay.
Once again students fees aren’t, as Mr Corbyn might have you believe, evil. They are fair and equitable and in actual fact based upon how much you can reasonably afford.
But here is the absolute killer. Unlike secondary or even for that matter further education, no-one, but no-one is obligated to go to university; but in getting rid of tuition fees Mr Corbyn and his ilk want everyone who chose not to go to contribute towards the tuition and potential higher earnings of those who chose to apply.
We know that Labour aspired at the last election to not only withdraw tuition fees going forward but to cancel historic debt. We know that such a promise was going to cost into the hundreds of billions of pounds. We know that promise was made to buy the votes of young people.
And despite the suggestion that only business and the top five per cent of earners would pay more we know, because former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls told us so, that we would all be paying more tax to pay for Jeremy Corbyn’s cynical ploys.
The truth is that there may well be an argument that some university courses should have fees paid for by the Government and, by definition, the taxpayer; particularly courses such as medicine or teacher training, where society deems there to be a ‘greater good’.
But my question has to be why should those who chose not to go to university or didn’t have the grades or now work hard in minimum wage jobs, be expected to pay for the tuition fees of barristers or software designers or architects who enter into often lucrative practices or highly paid jobs?
That is a gross inequity which hurts working class people far more than a progressive repayment system ever has. No, in promising to get rid of tuition fees Jeremy Corbyn and Labour were, and continue to do so, seeking easy votes in return for damaging promises. Tuition fees, albeit potentially a revised model, are the way forward in delivering fairness for all of us and not just graduates.
And if that doesn’t get letters in this week, nothing will.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Is sixteen old enough to vote? My Coalville Times column

If political pundits are to be believed how old you are really matters when it comes to how you vote.

Psephologists, those academics who study elections, will tell you that if you are retired you were far more likely than not to have voted for BREXIT; so much so that this time last year you would have heard liberals aplenty telling pensioners they had cost the youth their futures without ever seemingly getting that their arguments were anything but democratic.

One of the reasons that Theresa May called last month’s General Election was that polls reassured her of a massive Tory lead amongst the retired; the age group invariably most likely to vote. It’s also true that one of the reasons for the Conservatives comparatively poor performance was the alienation of older people through the proposed withdrawal of the pensions triple lock and the possibility of ‘the dementia task’ and Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusing of young voters; a group who normally can’t be relied to bother to turn out on polling day but who, when they do, will typically vote for more left wing causes.

Perhaps most notably during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, for the first time ever in Britain, the voting age for those entitled to take part was lowered to just 16. In that referendum 80% of young voters were engaged enough to register to vote, far higher than the turnout at national general elections, and perhaps being an age group far more enthused with the prospect of change polls showed that 71% of them voted for Independence.

Simply put in the Independence Referendum if there had been a few less older people and a few more younger ones Scotland and England would now be separate countries.

I write all of this because there are currently moves afoot to reduce the voting age for elections across the United Kingdom.

Last month Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tabled an early day motion which calls on Government ‘to give 16 and 17 year olds a say in their long term future by legislating to reduce the voting age to 16 for all national and local elections and referendums at the earliest possible opportunity.’

And here’s the key point: her motion is gaining momentum. So far 78 of Lucas’ parliamentary colleagues have signed up to support her suggestion.

Whilst most of the motion’s co signatories are Labour MPs it is fair to say that she has generated support across parliament. Members of parliament from every major party, seemingly with the exception of the Democratic Unionists, have joined the call to lower the voting age.

The arguments in favour of reducing the voting age are strong. 16 year olds can marry, join the army, pay tax (although as I point out to my children you are a taxpayer as soon as you are old enough to pay the VAT on chocolate) and do many of the other responsible things adults can. Plus, of course, it would be far easier to link the practical importance of democracy into citizenship lessons at school.
The counter arguments are persuasive too. We don’t allow 16 year olds to drink, smoke, gamble or drive (OK, the age limit for driving is 17). There is also the important consideration that many 16 years are simply not mature enough to be trusted with such an important decision; but then again are than 18 year olds worldly wise enough to be trusted either?

It is said, I don’t know how true it is, that if you can get younger people to actually, you know, vote that you would never see a Conservative government again. There’s probably an element of truth in the assertion; certainly if polling analysis is anything to go by folk do become more conservative as they mature.

Whether you agree with votes at 16 or not is very much a personal choice, many reasonable people do take up positions on both sides of the argument; but for me at least I’m simply not convinced that children aged 16 or 17 have grown up sufficiently to have a say in how our government is formed; to choose the people who keep us safe or take us to war.

But then again, just look at the mess ‘sensible’ adults make of democracy on a regular basis.

On a serious note one thing is certain. The debate on reducing our voting age isn’t going away; if the Conservative Party do want to continue as a natural party of government they must find a way to promote the positive benefits of a free market to young people.

In fairness the Tories should probably be talking to voters much more about the good that a successful economy brings, no matter how old we are.

Giving the youth a real voice is a challenge for our politicians - my Catholic Universe column

The whole world over most of us associate growing up with the age at which you are legally allowed to do things for the first time.

How many of us look forward to the day when our son can legally be taken to the pub so their dad can buy them a first pint? We understand that age limits are a right of passage and are designed primarily to prevent youngsters from doing things that as a rule of thumb they don’t have the maturity to handle at an earlier age.

It is, after all, arguably wise to have the legislation in place stopping a thirteen year old from being able to enter a tattoo parlour asking for a permanent imprint of a girlfrend’s name who may well not be a girlfriend just days in the future. The permanence of a tattoo should be commensurate in law with the age, in theory at least, of those armed with the maturity of making such a lifelong decision.

Of course whilst all over the world we have age limits to prevent young people from carrying out various acts not every nation takes the same approach, look no further than the United States of America.

Whilst in Britain we legally allow young people to drink alcohol when they reach the age of 18, a time on these shores at least which is universally accepted as reaching adulthood, in the US you will not be served until reaching the age of 21 and you can expect to be challenged to provide ID until you are far, far older than that age.

A few years ago Britain raised the age at which you can buy tobacco from 16 to 18, whereas last year the state of California raised their own limit to 21, parity with alcohol laws.

We may think that age limits imposed by our American cousins for alcohol and tobacco are draconian but then we are probably equally shocked to realise that in the state of Arkansas you can apply for a learners permit to drive a car at the age of 14. I’m not sure that I know many 14 year olds that  I would be comfortable with getting behind the steering wheel of an extremely dangerous piece of machinery.

The reason I make all of these observations is that for many of us the age that we allow young people to do things for the first time is just something that happens to be; something that we tend to accept without question or consideration.

Why, for example, do we allow a couple to marry with parents permission at the age of sixteen? Why is it not lower as it would have been in biblical times and still is in many parts of the world? Why is it not higher? Arguably this most important and long lasting of all decisions should be prohibited until the participants really do have the maturity to cope with the implications of what they intend to do?

And normally there isn’t a great deal of call for changing our somewhat arbitrary age limits; except in one hugely important area there now is.

Let me ask you a question: at what age do you think young people should be allowed to vote for the first time?

I’m guessing that unless you have really gave the matter some thought, which, let’s face it, most of us haven’t, then your answer to my question was probably 18. You probably thought ‘what’s the age limit now?’, followed by ‘well, that pretty much works’ and plumped for the age which has been accepted for many years.
Except of course the voting age in Britain hasn’t actually been set at 18 for that long. It was in fact reduced from 21 as recently as 1969. It’s less than fifty years since the age of universal suffrage was considered by parliament and reduced and there are many people who believe now is the right time for it to be lowered even further.

On the 26th of June Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons. Ms Lucas’ motion states the UK's 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds are as knowledgeable and competent to vote as other young adults; and calls on the Government to give 16 and 17 year olds a say in their long-term future by legislating to reduce the voting age to 16 for all national and local elections and referendums at the earliest possible opportunity.”

And whilst the motion is unlikely to become law anytime soon the number of members of parliament supporting it is perhaps surprising. At the time of my writing this column 79 MPs from across the political spectrum have signed Lucas’ motion. By the time you read this the number will in all likelihood have risen, it’s going up virtually every day.

But is the suggestion right? Supporters of lowering the voting age will point to the fact that young people can indeed marry, or join the army, or leave school at 16 and voting is arguably no more momentous than any of those life decisions. Many in support of a reduction would argue that if you are old enough to pay tax then you should be old enough to have a say in how it is spent without ever really considering that anyone even buying a packet biscuits is paying tax too.

Supporters point to an historic lack of engagement in the political process from teenagers and argue that effectively making a first vote part of a child’s education would increase participation; and whilst that argument may be true effectively being told you have to vote possibly suggests that you are not ready for such a grown up task.

Undoubtedly there is a move throughout the world to lowering voting ages. In Brazil, Argentina and Austria you can now cast your vote when you turn 16, in other countries voting rights have been lowered for regional and local elections; and although change may not come soon and indeed may not come at all if left to the will of the wider electorate, over 80% of voters rejected a similar proposal in a Luxembourg referendum recently, we all need to consider how changing the electorate also changes the decisions that we make.

Psephologists, the people that study elections, will tell you that more conservative older people delivered a BREXIT decision whereas young people overwhelmingly voted to remain. Consider now that the closeness of the referendum outcome may well have been very different had 16 year olds been allowed to vote.

You will be told in the Scottish Independence referendum, the first experiment in this country of ‘votes at 16’ that largely pro-Indy youth very nearly swayed the outcome to ‘Yes’.

And you will know from just a month ago how Jeremy Corbyn energised young people for the first time in a generation and very nearly delivered a monumental upset. What would have happened if the voting age was lower and a couple of million more young voters could have been motivated?

It is said that, and to be fair given my own life path there must be an element of truth to it, as we get older and arguably more worldly wise we become more conservative. There is an argument at least that if younger people were given the vote you would never see another centre right government again. I don’t know if that is true but there is a credence to the argument.

What is undoubtedly clear however is that for now at least, and whether we reduce voting ages or not, young people are engaged in politics. Jeremy Corbyn and his team have done a first rate, albeit extremely cynical, job of enthusing students up and down the country.

Unless the Tories want to find elections uncomfortably close for a long time to come they are going to have to find a way of putting a positive Conservative argument forward to engage younger generations. Let's face it advocating hard work paying shouldn’t be too difficult a task, should it? 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Greatness awaits - if you can just learn consensus building, Theresa - my Catholic Universe column

Being a newspaper columnist is a funny type of gig. We usually sit not in a busy newsroom but in the solitary confinement of our study or, when the weather is as glorious as it has been recently, in our garden, just in range of Wi-Fi access.

We pick up a news story; research it in depth; turn it upside down and inside out; weigh it against comparable past events and historic data; and then try and come up with some sort of reasoned commentary and usually some sort of projection of what will happen next.

In some respects we are little more than those horoscope writers you read in the tabloid dailies; or betting pundits reading the form.

It sometimes befuddles me that we get things right as often as we do, but in actual fact we are pretty good. Columnists by their very nature tend to be on the small c conservative track. We know that past behaviour is by far the best predictor of future happenings and in actual fact, more often than not, it is.

Of course none of that means that we are infallible. The problem often comes when a brand new parameter comes into the mix.

I was far from the only commentator to resolutely say that there was no chance that Donald Trump would ever win the Presidency of the United States. What I, and countless others, failed to include was the simple fact that there had never been a serious anti-establishment candidate like Mr Trump before. No one could have predicted his populist rhetoric and patent exaggerations would have convinced enough blue collar Americans to vote for him.

Intellectually I was wrong about the last general election and BREXIT, although on both occasions my gut feeling and fortunately for me betting slips predicted the real outcome.

And just a few weeks ago, splattered across the home page of the Huffington Post, I got it wrong again when I predicted that Mrs May shouldn’t be too disappointed if she only comes out of the General Election with a majority of sixty or so.

Now, on the face of it you could argue that my recent record isn’t that strong but I have to put up a defence. The 2015 General Election, EU referendum, rise of President Trump and demise of Mrs May; every single one of them went against the conventional wisdom. Not one of them should have happened but every one of them did.

They are the most convoluted set of random decisions by electorates in living memory. And it is happening all over the world. Seriously, who would have predicted two years ago that Emmanuel Macron, a comparative unknown, would march to the French Presidency?

Who would have thought that just one year after decisively, and unexpectedly, voting to leave the EU the British electorate would effectively hamstring the process of doing it? We live in very strange times.

So, with all of that in mind, today I am going to play the columnists trump card. I am going to argue a point to you so fantastical that you will think I have lost all senses but given the craziness of politics over the past few years may, just about, be feasible.

Let’s face it: if the conventional wisdom is hardly ever right who can blame me, every now and again, for throwing a curveball?

So, here it goes: Theresa May has the opportunity to go down as one of the great British Prime Ministers.

How weird does that sound? Here is a woman who was sat on a healthy parliamentary majority and a massive polling lead against an, on the face of it, appalling opposition and a combination of atrocious, stilted campaigning and political nous from the other guys lead to a hung parliament. In the space of less than a year a competent, professional premier had transformed herself, entirely at her own behest, into one of the biggest lame duck Prime Ministers in the history of Westminster.

Theresa May was guilty of atrocious campaigning. There is no doubt whatsoever that the awful election of 2017 will go down in history as a textbook example of how not to run for office and will be, almost certainly, Mrs May’s last ever campaign.

But, crucially, being a poor campaigner doesn’t make you a bad politician or a bad person and Theresa May is neither of those things. She is decent and principled and wants the very best for the country that she notionally leads. And that could be her saving grace.

In the classic 1968 film ‘The Lion in Winter’ a very young Anthony Hopkins plays a very young Richard the Lionheart. As he sits rotting in a dungeon with his two brothers one turns to him and says ‘My, you chivalric fool…as if the way one fell down mattered.’

Hopkins is given one of the great lines of modern cinema in retort and one that holds true for most of us ‘When the fall is all there is, it matters.’

It is a line which could be very, very relevant to Mrs May. We know that at some point in the next parliament she will be deposed. The Conservative Party have never had a problem getting rid of leaders who are electoral liabilities and it has been made absolutely clear to her that she falls into that category.

Mrs May’s main reason for being allowed to stay in office is because not doing so would almost inevitably result in another election and a probable loss to a resurgent Labour Party but nevertheless she has this once single  chance for greatness.

She could just conceivably put aside party political differences and seek to deliver a real, one-nation, BREXIT. A consensual process not only working across the British political spectrum but actually alongside EU partners.

She has the chance to negotiate the best deal and not simply the most politically beneficial one.

The point is that my assertion isn’t just fantasy. Just last week Mrs May addressed the thorny topic of the rights of EU citizens to remain in Britain and, of course, the rights of British citizens to remain in EU countries after BREXIT.

There are some who call for EU citizens to be used as some sort of bargaining chip, whose future should be left dangling as part of negotiating procedures. Others still would like EU citizens to be given the unilateral right to stay in the country post-BREXIT.

After keeping her cards so close to her chest for so long last week the Prime Minister revealed that she believes that all currently resident EU citizens should have the right to remain in Britain, if they so wish, gaining access to our benefits system after five years residence.

There appears to be some areas of discontent: the EU want final decisions about residents present in the UK to remain with the European Court of Justice whereas the British government do not; should Britain be able to deport EU prisoners when they finish their prison sentences?

But overall there is the basis of a sound deal which the vast majority of us, whether we were for leave or remain or EU nation government, can sign up to?

What if Mrs May can defy the odds in other areas of negotiation too? Is it just about possible that because she doesn’t have to appease a Tory anti-EU right or a hardened core of ‘bremoaners’ that she can set aside political calculations and focus what’s best for the future of the country?

Certainly without a parliamentary majority Mrs May is going to have to think how she can build bridges across Westminster. If she achieves it she could just manage to go down as one of our great peacetime leaders.   

Volunteers: The lifeblood of our community - my Coalville Times column

If you are ever suffering from insomnia and counting sheep or a milky drink simply doesn’t work then you can do a lot worse than looking at a map of County Council electoral divisions. I have to be honest when I say that isn’t one of the most scintillating reads of your life and, unless you are something of a political anorak, you could very easily benefit from the soporific qualities of such a document.

You might wonder how arbitrary boundaries were arrived at, you might question how villages have been grouped together or sometimes, even more interestingly, divided. Just how did anyone split Coalville North from Coalville South? You get the idea.

But if you do look at a map you will see that amongst County Council divisions my old patch of Whitwick, never knowingly called Whitwick and Thringstone or latterly including parts of Oaks in Charnwood, was an unusual beast.

Whitwick is a strange division because for the most part it doesn’t benefit from County Council money in the same way as other areas. It doesn’t have museums or resource centres or even a library in the same vein as many towns and yet it isn’t rural enough to benefit from public money for high speed internet or those ever diminishing subsidised bus routes.

When residents used to ask me what they received directly in the patch from their expensive council tax my answer usually resorted to highways and potholes. That’s when the expletives usually started to flow and I made for my quick escape.

There was however one notable caveat to my potholes script. For many years the County Council had provided significant resources to the running of Thringstone Community Centre, a building generously donated to the people of the village for their education and recreation by Victorian philanthropist Charles Booth; and which since the 1950’s had been in the hands of County Hall and operationally managed under a convoluted constitution of management and executive committees. For a number of years I was a local authority appointed nominee on those bodies.

As county council budgets tightened and we witnessed the closure of treasures such as Snibston Discovery Park it was clear that at some point the writing would soon be on the wall for Thringstone Community Centre, reputed to be the first such building of its kind in the whole country.

Knowing the fabulous set of volunteers dedicated to the Community Centre as I do my approach with the political administration at the County Council was always the same. The Centre could forge a brighter future and become an entirely independent entity free of local authority constraints, all that was needed was the time, resources and assistance to help them achieve that.

In fairness the politicians and senior officers in Glenfield listened to my pleas and agreed to help in the Community Centre’s bid for self sufficiency. Last Friday, at a meeting of the County Council’s Cabinet, and on the basis that reassurance has been provided that the volunteers plans are robust and sensible, approval was finally given to transfer the building to a brand new charitable organisation.

In the coming months all of the t’s will be crossed and i’s dotted and by the autumn Thringstone Community Centre and the volunteers that run it will become the masters of their own future.

There is little point in this column of discussing at length the concept of austerity, or living by your means as others would call it. A tightening of the public purse strings has been voted for again and again by the electorate over this past decade.

No, today I want to pay a huge tribute to those amazing volunteers who are the lifeblood of our communities. Where would we be without the small number, and sadly it is too small, who give hours and hours of their time and effort to make sure that every resident can enjoy these wonderful public assets?

You may well never have heard of names like Nita Pearson or Mike Statham or Ray Woodward and yet without people like these, and a smattering of others in every community who go that extra mile we wouldn’t be able enjoy the local theatre productions or art clubs or night classes that so many of us do.

Around this area there is small battalion of unsung heroes who make living where we do just that little bit better. If you wonder who does the litter picking in our streets or replanting vandalised flowerbeds in our parks more often than not the answer isn’t ‘the council’ but just an ordinary person who wants to give a little bit back.

And the beauty, of course, is that we can all be one of those unsung heroes. All you have to do is decide that you want to play your part.

And if, for whatever reason, you can’t volunteer yourself you wouldn’t believe just how much a simple thank you is valued by those that do.

To each and everyone of those unsung heroes: Thank you.    

Monday, 26 June 2017

There's nothing wrong 'women's sport'; it's just different

Yesterday I was one of the smattering of fans who actually paid to go to Leicestershire’s Grace Road cricket ground to watch the opening group game of the ICC Women’s World Cup.

One ‘Cricketeer’ volunteer muttered to me ‘You must be one of the few that has paid’. If you take away passholders, parents of children who were guards of honour and members of the gospel choir arranged as entertainment during breaks in play he was probably right.

‘I wouldn’t be here except for the fact I received a discount as a Leicestershire member’ was my reply.

It’s a shame because Pakistan v South Africa was an excellent game. But it certainly wasn’t the same standard as a Leicestershire County Championship game, let alone any team plying their trade towards the top of the professional leagues.

I loved every minute of yesterday’s game, it’s just that it was undoubtedly Women’s Cricket. The physicality between journeymen professionals and those at the top of the women’s game could not compare. The women playing on a much smaller pitch, obstructed annoyingly for those at the ground by a fence placed for sponsors but preventing any supporter seeing a four being scored, was testimony to the difference. Women’s Cricket is women’s cricket; something to be supported and enjoyed but very different from the male variant. The same can be said of women’s tennis or women’s soccer.

The whole point is calling a game ‘Women’s’ is no bad thing.

In virtually every sport women play on a literally different playing field. Not lesser just different.
Clearly I am not a woman and my generalisations are just as sweeping as those of Matt Butler in his iNews piece ‘One day women’s sport will be known as ‘sport’’ but a couple of weeks ago my wife, in her youth a keen sportswoman, was invited to take part in a Prosecco cricket match.

For the first time in years she said ‘Yes’ to sport. She loved the fact that the game could be enjoyed with the promise of a swig of Italian fizz every now and then. She loved the competitiveness but not the testosterone fuelled sort associated with the male game.  She was more than happy to being playing the woman’s game.

And isn’t that the point? Calling a sport Women’s Cricket is no more demeaning than watching colt’s rugby or wheelchair tennis. It is a different variant of the sport. Nothing more, nothing less.

Next Sunday I will be back at Grace Road watching the South African women face off against the West Indies. I won’t be expecting to see the same style of game I might when Leicestershire play against Durham the next time the County Championship rolls up at Grace Road. It won’t have the big sixes putting car windscreens at risk, but I have no doubt it will be a top level example of what it is. Women’s cricket. 

Wombles and a way back? Thringstone Miners Welfare - my Community Voice column

At my mother’s house, tucked away somewhere at the back of a drawer, there is an old black and white photograph of another age.

The picture, protected by a cheap plastic frame and decades of being shut away, shows no signs of fading. It’s an image which will stay with me forever.

Even in monochrome you can see the photograph is of a scorching summer day and there I am, just four or five years of age, stood proudly with cherubic cheeks glowing dressed as a Pearly King. Next to me stands a small girl just a year or two younger dressed as a gypsy, the 1970’s were undoubtedly far less culturally sensitive than they are now.

And alongside us? A giant Womble. Even after all of these years I can still vividly remember the day that I met Orinoco, I think, that slothful protagonist amongst the litter picking residents of Wimbledon Common.

Things didn’t get much more exciting for an infant schoolboy growing up in the East Midlands in those days; and to make things even better a week later the photograph appeared in The Coalville Times, I was famous too!

That photograph was taken when I won first prize in the fancy dress competition at Thringstone Miners Welfare Gala. In those days the annual Gala always, in my mind at least, held at the peak of a seemingly endless summer was a big deal.

Gala day would see a parade throughout the village; brass and marching bands, decorated floats and, of course, the ubiquitous Gala Queen and her princesses aboard a horse-drawn carriage (or much more likely a pony and trap).

The Gala itself would be held on the Homestead Road football pitch at the Miners Welfare. Teams of burly young men, most now pensioners, would display their machismo in the Tug of War whilst their wives and girlfriends would enjoy a Cinzano and Babycham in the sunshine as children enjoyed the stalls and sideshows.

We don’t have events like the Gala anymore, isn’t that a shame?

The Thringstone Miners Welfare Centre has for many years been a part of village life, I even had my ‘surprise’ 18th birthday party there, but like most of us over the years it started to deteriorate.

In 2011, in a partnership with Riverside Housing Association and the North West Leicestershire District Council, a brand new centre was opened to serve the village and its residents.

These days the centre is the home of a playgroup and mother and toddler group as well as being home of Thringstone Miners Welfare Football Club, historically a Leicestershire Senior League team that has had mixed fortunes on the pitch in recent years.

Earlier this year I was asked if I would like to help the centre out by becoming the Chairman of their Trustees. I jumped at the chance, this place was a part of my growing up, a hugely important part of our village.

A few years ago as a Councillor I asked for the Miners Welfare to become a polling station at election time, it was an ideal facility with disabled access and a private car park. I’m sure many of you reading this will have cast your vote there very recently. If you have you will know what a great community asset the centre is.

Over the coming years I would love to see the centre used far more by members of our community. There’s even plans to develop training facilities that will allow more young people to get involved in the sport and maybe help return the club to a higher level on the field.

Keep an eye out for developments and opportunities at Thringstone Miners Welfare, wouldn’t it be great to see it once more as the fulcrum of our community? I can’t promise any Wombles though. 

Are we about to return to the extrme? My Coalville Times column

A few days ago I was sat at home when my telephone pinged to tell me I had a message. As happens most days it was from those nice people at Facebook reminding me of posts that I had entered on that day in years gone past.

On this particular day my reminder told me of a discussion I had back in 2009 on the day after the County Council elections. I was dismayed, as were the many people who had responded to my post, that voters in the Coalville division had just returned a member of the British National Party as their representative at County Hall.

My actual words, something which I now find regrettable and silly but included here for the sake of completeness, were ‘We’re a town full of racists’.

I abhorred virtually everything that the BNP stood for and undoubtedly many of their policies were racist but, looking back, my less mature self was startling in the simplistic view that it took.

Of course Coalville isn’t full of racists. What we were after years of economic decline was a town that felt it had been left behind by the political establishment, whose people were unlistened to and for whom many had found an outlet in a politics of dissatisfaction echoing the better days of years past.

If Coalville had, as my original slur implied, been full of racists it goes without saying that the BNP would be still occupying council seats now; as it was it took just one term of office for local people to see them for what they were.

But moving away from an extremist party didn’t automatically mean that people in this area felt any more connected to politics in general. This area, entirely understandably, continued to have strong voices for anti-establishment politics whether through UKIP as a party or BREXIT as a concept.
In an election all any of us ever do is lend a political party our vote. No politician has a right to expect support from one term to the next, it is incumbent on all of them to earn those invaluable crosses on our ballot papers every single time.

As I stood at the parliamentary election count in the early hours of last Friday morning it struck me how for the first time in my memory a significant majority of us had chosen to lend our votes not to parties of dissent but to one of the two historic parties of power.

Up and down the country, in vast numbers, voters had returned to that binary decision of Labour or Conservative and have entrusted the political establishment not to let them down.

The difficulty now for both parties will be in trying to earn the future support of such broad churches of views or will issues important to people right here in this district will once again be forgotten?

Last year the overwhelming majority of voters in North West Leicestershire who took part in the EU referendum voted to Leave.

What will happen if now through political necessity BREXIT is watered down? Will those who stridently argued for it simply say ‘OK’ or will they, once again, feel like they are not listened to?
We are all only just getting over this General Election so predictions about what might come in five years, or potentially five months, may be a little hasty but what happens if and when voters feel ignored once more?

Will we see a resurgence of UKIP? Or, far worse, whatever guise extremists have chosen to take by that time?

Our politicians have been given the most complex scenario ever imposed by the British public; a scenario of delivering their most difficult diplomatic mission ever with no real mandate from the electorate in how to achieve it.

Is it a mission which is now doomed for failure and all of the implications that entails?

Playing politics with the public's anger could lead to more disaster - my Catholic Universe column

As I have got older, I’m sure that this happens to us all, it strikes me that it is amazing how quickly that what we accept to be normal changes.

It was my birthday this week and I am still only in my mid, some would say early, forties yet my youth seems a different world away. I can remember a time when I was old enough to be at work but nevertheless a time of phone boxes, A to Z’s, not having to worry about average speed cameras but having to worry about carrying cash to pay for parking and vending machines.

Even just a decade ago the world was very different.

It struck me this week how in just a few short years the way that we see the world has altered massively. Let me explain.

Back in the summer of 2011 my wife and I booked a summer holiday for our family; we were going to take the children to a campsite we had visited a couple of times before in Holland. The place where we stayed was an idyllic location for an annual vacation: bike hire, fairground rides, pancakes; what more could you want? We were also, just six years ago pretty much cut off from the outside world.

Now clearly in 2011 we had by today’s standards fairly primitive ‘smart devices’ but what we didn’t have was connectivity. Our campsite didn’t have wi-fi; using the telephone network to transmit data would have been exorbitantly expensive. So for a week we simply lost touch with home; millions of holidaymakers in the past had done it, I’m sure many still do.

But it is only when you have been ‘off the grid’ for a period of time, as we were then, that you realise how much things can change whilst you are away.

We caught a late afternoon ferry back from Calais and started back from Dover in the early evening. As we driving around a free moving M25, and I had finally been given permission to put Radio 5 on, we heard for the first time that, amongst other places, we should avoid the Enfield area. Coincidentally Enfield was a place I knew relatively well from working there for a period of time and we were literally just at the turnoff for the town on the motorway.

We obviously drove on as instructed and wondered what had been happening since we were away.

You will no doubt recall in that period that we had been out of the country the Metropolitan Police under the auspices of Operation Trident, a major unit that had been created to tackle gun crime and gang activity in London’s Afro-Carribbean community, had shot dead a known gangster: Mark Duggan.

After a long hot summer, and in fairness a lifetime for the many feeling that they had been left behind by society, tensions rose and for around a week rioting sporadically flared up around the country.

I live in a quite, relatively privileged, part of the world and, I am certain, can in no way claim to know what it is to live inside the inner cities that flared up that late July and early August of 2011 but it seems to me that all of the ingredients are there for a recipe of civil disturbance this summer that Britain has not seen for years.

We have seen in the past week the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. At the time of writing it is not clear how many souls have been lost as a result of that awful incident or the exact reasons for the cause of the fire but it is entirely possible to come to a conclusion that those residents who did manage to escape with their lives were part of a large proportion of inner city society who have felt left behind and unlistened to.

We do not know at this point if cladding, rumoured to have little other purpose than making a down at heel tower block look more appealing to upmarket neighbours, was a contributory factor to many deaths; we don’t know if sprinkler systems could have saved lives; and crucially we don’t know how many other similar towers are at risk. But we do know without hesitation that many residents had been warning of their concerns for months in advance and that they felt that their worries were not being adequately addressed by those in positions of power.

In many ways the death of Mark Duggan was a trigger for the anger of the left behind, it is entirely possible that the Grenfell Tower tragedy, or even a seemingly inconsequential incident that follows it, could act in the same way.

It seems to me that in actual fact the risks and the potential for civil unrest in this summer of 2017 are even greater.

We have just come out of an election period in which the country demonstrated perhaps clearer than ever that it is divided. Theresa May asked for a clear majority and what she ended up with was something far less whilst the Labour Party crowed about exceeding all expectations.

Let me be clear: Labour and Jeremy Corbyn had an outstanding election campaign but democracy spoke and Labour lost unambiguously.

But now we hear of the Shadow Chancellor calling for marches of a million or more to kick the Conservatives out of power; we hear Mr Corbyn positing the unprecedented requisitioning of private property as a response to a tragedy and we see many on the political left blatantly seeking to make capital from the loss of innocent lives.

Look no further than Labour MP Clive Lewis who in the wake of the tragedy incited who knows what with a tweet stating ‘Burn neoliberalism, not people’.

Given the events of the past week I hate to use the analogy, but our inner cities are a tinder box ready to burst into flame and there is a real argument that our politicians are just one step away from being the spark required.

It isn’t just our politicians though who need to be more considerate at this time.

Since my journey back from Holland all those years ago the way that we live our lives online has changed dramatically. For many of us, if not most, a significant proportion of our real lives are spent on social media in a virtual world.

That virtual world is a place where we can say what we want without real repercussions. Except it isn’t. The tropes that we share online, look no further than those awful websites The Canary and Skwawkbox, are full of mistruths, exaggerations and hugely biased versions of fact which any reasonable person would dissect within minutes.

Except we don’t. We accept lies as truth, nuance as an alien world, and far too many of us promulgate the message unhesitatingly.

We must stop. Because what we share does influence people and does manifest itself as actions in the real world.

There is every possibility that sharing rubbish without thinking to someone that we potentially don't even know could well be the trigger for the next outbreak of civil disobedience.

Our country is at a very difficult crossroads. A year ago we asked the Government to negotiate a withdrawal from the EU, two weeks ago we looked to hamstring that decision.

There is a possibility that extremists calling for a hard BREXIT could be every bit as dangerous as far left protesters inciting removal of the government.

And we in the middle have a choice. We can either continue clicking on ‘share’ to perpetuate myths and calling for the downfall of democracy or we can take a step back and think.

Never has there been a greater need for grown ups. We all must choose to be just that right now.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

What are Labour's plans for faith schools? Christians need to know.

If you have ever been to a Labour Party meeting, an experience that I'm sure most of you reading this piece today have never enjoyed, you will know that many members on the far left of that party totally and utterly hate the Tories and everything that we stand for.

It’s a hatred that I really haven’t encountered since I joined Conservative Party. I’m sure that many Tories have no liking for Labour but the visceral contempt for our opposition is something I just haven’t encountered. But that really is a story for another day.

You see, from all of my years of going to Labour Party meetings, there is one other thing that jumps out as being despised as much, if not more, than the Tories amongst those same members.

They hate religion. They ridicule believers and save there highest contempt for Christians.

You will often find atheists, agnostics and humanists amongst the ranks of the far left and their greatest vitriol is held over for faith-based education.

Try mentioning faith schools at Labour Party meetings and wait for the howls that ‘there is no place for  religion in education’, you will see what I mean.

It’s for that reason as a practising Catholic and writer that I am more than a little worried in that remotest of possibilities,  a Labour Government next Friday morning.

Nowhere in the Labour manifesto does is mention faith schools.

What you will find however are causes for concern if you are a parent whose children attend one.

Their manifesto claims that ‘Labour will ensure that all schools are democratically accountable, including appropriate controls to see that they serve the public interest and their local communities.’

What does that mean? How do diocese fit into that structure of democratic accountability? Or, maybe they don’t?

The manifesto goes on ‘We will require joined-up admissions policies across local schools to enable councils to fulfil their responsibilities on child places, to simplify the admissions process for parents and to ensure that no child slips through the net.’

Will faith based criteria find its way into those ‘joined-up admissions policies’? Or, will that not be acceptable in a modern socialist Britain?

Of course I could be scare-mongering, but just think for a second.

We know that the last moderate Labour government changed admissions procedures to prevent a majority of places being allocated on the basis of religion in new faith schools. We know how that prevented Christian denominations from seeking to build new schools.

If that was a moderate Labour government then what will an ideologically pure one do?

You won’t find much about faith schools on Labour websites but cast you net a little wider into the hinterland of left wing politics and it becomes much more illuminating.

The Socialist Party, formerly Militant, are no fans of faith schools. In 2014 on their website the party questioned ‘whether faith schools should have any place in our school system at all’.

Around the same time the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) were posting on their website ‘End private, sectarian and religious schools. Quality education for all.’ Before going on to state it is christian schools of all denominations, with catholic schools at the forefront, that are the largest players in the sectarian delivery of education. Following the advice of the Jesuit priest Gracian – “Give me a child of seven and I’ll give you the man” – they aim to indoctrinate in a manner that will dominate their pupils for life, ensuring the ongoing power of their anachronistic institutions.’ 

Is it mere chance that Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, described himself as a Marxist? Is it a coincidence that both fringe parties in this General Election are campaigning for a Corbyn victory?

The truth is that disagreeing with faith schools is a perfectly laudable position. I disagree profoundly but other reasonable people would support such a stance.

The real worry is that with this Labour Party we simply don’t know what their intention is for the future of faith schools.

Practicing Christians, parents and grandparents have a right to know before they go to the ballot box next Thursday.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Tough but honest May wins over Corbyn's optimistic fantasy - my Catholic Universe column

For newspaper columnists General Elections are both a blessing and a curse. For once there is absolutely no difficulty in coming up with a topic on which to opine, the downside of course is that every other columnist has the same story staring them in the face too.

It can all lead to column metre after column metre of newspaper text all dedicated to the very same topic: how stultifying.

It is for this very reason, dear reader, that so far I have very consciously stayed away, in newsprint at least, from pontificating on the subject of the upcoming general election for so long.

But I can’t stay quiet any longer. It’s all just too much. Manifestos have been published; car crash interviews with representatives of all parties have gone viral online; and by now a fair few of you will have already returned your postal ballots after they started falling onto doormats over the past few days.

You see, about a week ago now I received a message asking me if I would like to be one of the panel guests on a regional variation of BBC One’s Sunday Politics show. As is usual with these sort of things I was briefed, in general, the direction that the debate would follow.

‘We’ll be talking about the manifestos,’ the producer of the show told me, before indicating to my immense relief that we would in all likelihood only have time to discuss the parties most likely to form a government.

As a result I can testify that I am in actual fact one of the minute proportion of voters in this country who has, you know, actually read the whole of two election manifestos.

Perhaps incorrectly I am assuming, dear reader, that you have not found yourself  in a position where going from back to front cover of these lengthy tomes has been a necessity so I shall try and summarise them for you very succinctly.

In 2017 there is two things that you notice about the Conservative and Labour election manifestos. They are both, thankfully, very easy to read. Unfortunately they are also both immensely boring.
It is fair to say that for the first time in my lifetime there is clear blue water between the offerings of the two main parties, however not just in policies but in tone.

Labour’s manifesto is one the likes of which I have never read before. There is, in actual fact, a great deal to like about the optimistic tone it is written in.

After two years it is generally known that I am no fan of Jeremy Corbyn but there is much to like about the manifesto his party has put forward.

In all seriousness who could not want free hospital parking, free school dinners, 10,000 more bobbies on the beat, free university education, billions upon billions put into health and schools, pay rises for public sector workers, a significantly increased minimum wage, increased paternity allowances and huge additional amounts being put into welfare payments?

It really isn’t a surprise when voters are asked whether they support such policies for the purpose of opinion polls that overwhelmingly they say ‘yes’.

The problem is that people do tend to say ‘yes’ to free things right up until the point that realise that very little is actually ever free and, indeed, nothing delivered by government actually ever is.

And that is where the optimism of the Labour manifesto stops. It is quite a dark concept that if you want to make things look free then you have find a bogeyman whose door the actual bill can be left at.

In their prospectus Labour have found three groups of dark figures who, they believe, the wider electorate will be willing to let them reap the true cost of their project from.

The ‘rich’ will find themselves paying more. If you are not quite sure whether you fall into that category just check if you are earning the same or less than an MP, if you are on the same then congratulations! Your income falls just short of the amount that can be earned before your tax rate increases significantly.

Businesses will find themselves subject to increased corporation tax. But at a time when many are considering whether Britain, given our withdrawal from the EU, is the best place to base themselves, and the hundreds of thousands of families who rely on them for employment, a Labour government is seeking to significantly increase their tax burden.

The final group who will be presented with the responsibility of meeting Labour’s spending commitments are, wait for it, you and I. Well, when I say ‘you and I’ obviously what Labour would like you to believe is that it will be the bankers through a ‘Robin Hood’ tax. The difficulty is that the billions potentially raised through such a tax directly impact on pension funds, the funds that you and I save for our retirement.

Whenever I go out canvassing in elections from time to time, or for that matter even at the pub or at church, I am used to hearing one thing about politicians: ‘they all lie’.

The Conservative manifesto really is an extraordinary piece of work. It highlights the challenges that the country is going to be facing over the coming years, not just BREXIT but equally major issues like the huge problem of how we tackle social care for older people, and actually tries to come up with workable solutions.

It places issues, like the withdrawal for most retired people of the winter fuel allowance, absolutely front and centre and risks alienating a voting group that has traditionally voted Tory, and why?

Because it seems Mrs May knows that it is the right thing to do.

Of course many elderly people need the winter fuel allowance payment, and they will still get it, but crucially many do not. We have to ask why then, when finances are exceptionally tight, are we paying it?

To my mind, and in fairness in the mind of many retired people that I talk too, we cannot. But it is a very brave politician that highlights a problem and tries to address it not in a way that garners the most votes but in an equitable, fair one.

It’s quite possible to argue all day long that you disagree with the contents of either manifesto but one fact is true. We hear that politicians are ‘all the same’ patently taking note of the gap between policies in the Labour and Tory manifestos, they are not.

In a few weeks we have a choice to make.

Do we want to vote for a party who has based it’s platform in the fantasy land of spending untold billions and a promise of it only affecting the rich? Or, do we want to support a party basing their admittedly more boring agenda, at a time when Britain is facing unprecedented change, in reality?

For me the answer isn’t difficult.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Cyber threat highlights why public sector must work with private firms - my Catholic Universe column

Fifteen years ago I was working for a local authority in the north of England. I managed that council’s Council Tax and Business Rates department and at the time our computer system was on the verge of becoming obsolete.

It transpired that prior to my arrival at the council our then suppliers had contacted the authority to give them contractual notice that at a certain date they would no longer be supporting the software and that either they could continue using it without support, and more importantly a lack of updates following legislative changes, or they could buy a new and in all likelihood far more expensive system.

To all intents and purposes upon my arrival the council had been sitting on this information for a number of months and I had no choice but to recommend that we go to the market to buy new software as a matter of urgency.

We soon discovered that there were three or four suppliers of this type of system in the market and that, for a district council, the packages were inordinately expensive running over a few years into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Nevertheless with changes to legislation on their way we had to have one.

After a short procurement period we chose our supplier and awaited our new system.

During the period of time between ordering our system and the go live date a strange thing happened to me. A representative of the computer supplier said to me one day “we really like the way you operate, why don’t you come and work for us?” With an attractive package on offer I found it very difficult to say “no”, so I didn’t.

After working my notice period a few months later I started work at the IT suppliers. I worked in the ‘services’ department and within a very short period of time I was told that my role was two fold. I had to help our customers, the council's that we worked with, to get their computer systems up and running. My second task was to sell “services”.

You might ask what “services” are, I certainly did, and the answer was very, very simple. Anything that wasn’t in the contract that the council had signed.

Local authorities, I was told, commonly would sign what they thought were comprehensive agreements when in actual fact everything that they received was very clearly stipulated in the legal contract.

I was a little shocked at this at first. Was this profiteering? Was this why, as I kept being told, the private sector should have no place in public services?

I asked a senior manager who made what must have been an oft-repeated argument to me: ‘Our customers get everything, everything their contract stipulates. It is not the responsibility of this company to handhold local councils nor is it our problem that as a whole the are tremendously awful at contract management.’ Of course that last quote isn’t a direct one but it is very much along the lines of what was said.

And, of course, that Executive was absolutely right. There are some things public bodies are outstandingly good at; looking after sick and vulnerable people, teaching our children, processing benefits to name but a few; but there are others where they, not to put too finer point on it, are inept.

After having some experience in the field I wouldn’t trust many public bodies with negotiating a contract, or managing a project, or running an IT system.

Simply put too many public sector administrators do all of those things in addition to their day jobs and there are people out there, most in the private sector, who can carry out those roles more effectively and efficiently in the long run saving taxpayer money.

The reason I raise all of this is the news last week of cyber attacks on the National Health Service.

Last week, around 48 NHS organisation's found that they had lost access to their computer systems as a result of them becoming infected by a piece of software known as ‘ransomware’.

Using flaws in systems criminals are effectively able to take over computers, encrypting the information stored on them. These cyber attackers will only release the data when a usually fairly modest ransom has been paid using an all but untraceable, but very real, online currency known as Bitcoin.

The effects on the National Health Service were significant. Some General Practices were unable to access patient records, automated fridges for dispensing blood shut themselves down and in one incident an MRI scanner stopped working with an anaesthetised child inside it.

The attack on the NHS was by no means isolated, it was reported to have affected companies including Nissan and Renault as well as German train operator Deutsche Bahn and global logistics giant FedEx. In total 99 countries were reported to be affected.  

But the attack had probably it's most notable, if not potentially most severe, impact on parts of our health service. We are still not absolutely clear whether patient records were put at risk or not.

It transpired that the attack had been made on computers running the long obsolete computer operating system Windows XP. You won’t have seen this operating system on a home computer in many years but still, on a relatively large scale and despite warnings from government, some NHS organisation's continue to use it.

There are a plethora of reasons why this may be the case. It could be that some applications still in widespread use don’t work well with later versions of the operating system; it could be that existing and often expensive hardware and medical equipment doesn’t support newer software; it could be because IT support is inadequate; and patently it might be that trusts have prioritised resources in other directions.

But whatever the reason patients have been jeopardised as a result of IT failings.

It is impossible for any government to mitigate all risk. No one can say with certainty that they could have prevented last week's cyber attacks.

Similarly it’s impossible for any government to be immune to criminality and events which take place outside of their control; look no further than the mooted ban on laptops and tablet devices on transatlantic flights which we are told, given terrorist advances in explosives, is an inevitability.

But we must keep sight of the fact that whether it’s the procurement of a computer system or cyber and terror attacks any government would be remiss in assuming that there is no benefit in working closely, even delegating authority to, the private sector.

Yes private companies are there to make a profit but they are our friends and our co-workers.

Sometimes they are better placed to have the skills that our public services rely on.  

Coalville cannot be stuck in a past which no longer exists - my Coalville Times column

As a child growing up in the 1970’s there was nothing finer than being taken by my mum to, in my memory at least, the gleaming and large New Broadway shopping centre in Coalville to spend my saved up pocket money at the rather wonderful Geoff’s Toys.

I often think back to those visits where I would hand over pennies for a brand new Matchbox car or MB board game; never Action Man or Star Wars figures mark you – it seemed every boy my age had an ‘aunty’ who worked at Palitoy.

I remember the shelves seemingly tightly packed with Scalextric race cars and Hornby train sets all the way to the ceiling and in my reminiscences how dark the shop was as a result of windows being blocked out by countless Spirographs and girls toys I had absolutely no interest in.

And now after all those years Geoff’s Toys will soon be gone. A part of my childhood and the early years of countless Coalville children has died.

We all know how Coalville has suffered. Over the years we’ve seen great independent traders, look no further than the wonderful Cayman Reef, disappear. As the fortunes of national chains have varied we’ve seen the departure of Woolworths, Farm Foods, Greenwoods and soon NatWest leaving our beleaguered town.

Thanks to hard work by traders, landlords and yes, even the council often those empty shells of buildings have found new businesses to fill them. But not often enough. How many times have all of us bemoaned or heard about the death of our town?

We’ve all lost count of how often we complain about the dearth of charity shops or discount retailers.

We claim that Coalville is a special case. That Ashby doesn’t have it as tough. That if only the powers that be bothered.

But we’re wrong.

Coalville isn’t any different from countless other small towns that have seen years and years of decline. And the truth is that the problems go much, much deeper than any one organisation has the power to change.

If you have ever been lucky enough to visit the United States, whether it’s New York or Orlando or any other town of any size you will have visited Macy’s.

Macy’s is a giant of retail owning hundreds of anchor stores in virtually every mall around the country. If that isn’t enough the company owns the upmarket Bloomingdales to boot. Yet last week the company reported like for like sales as being 4.6% down on last year’s first quarter.

Over the past year Macy’s have announced the closure of over 100 huge department stores, some that have been trading for more than 60 years.

Macy’s are not on their own. Sales at other long established chains are plummeting. Kohls, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Sears, all massive players in US shopping, are consistently down.

And the explanation that comes forward again and again? The internet.

Last week the BBC reported Jeff Gennette, the Chief Executive of Macy’s as saying “These are unusual and challenging times for retail…we know that these changes are…not cyclical.”

In America NBC news recently put the plight of retailers even more succinctly: It’s “all really just a fancy way of saying “Amazon.””

I’m certainly not saying internet shopping in general or Amazon in particular are bad; I use internet shopping as much as the next person.

The problem is very nearly all of us do, it’s convenient and cheap; who can blame us? But we can’t have it all. We can’t have the advantages of the web and a thriving, vibrant town as we once did. Our expectations must be realistic.

There’s no reason why we can’t have great independent traders or seek to attract national chains. But in the future why will ever need the sheer number of retail units that we once had? How can we expect to sustain book shops, record or even toy stores when the way we shop has changed so significantly?

There’s absolutely no reason that Coalville, or any small market town for that matter, can’t be a success; but we have to base our expectations on reality rather on a past that no longer exists anywhere.