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 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.  

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Donald Trump is not a racist

Donald Trump is not a racist.

To paraphrase Sarah Champion. There. I said it. Does that make me an apologist? Or am I just prepared to call out his horrifying character traits for what they are?

As a general rule of thumb racists are not presented with Tree of Life awards by the Jewish National Fund.

Racists don’t get recognised with Ellis Island Medals of Honor for, in the words of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organisations, exemplifying ‘tolerance, brotherhood, diversity and patriotism.’

And racists don’t, in general, describe the leader of the Ku Klux Klan as ‘a bigot, a racist, a problem’ as Trump did of David Duke during an interview on NBC back in 2000.

It’s possible of course that 17 years ago Trump could have been playing a very long game or that philanthropy could have bought awards; but really, if you were a racist, even just a little bit, would you honestly want to be cited publicly and prominently as very definitely not being one?

No, and accepting anyone of us can change our views over the course of year, Donald Trump is not a racist.

Having said that I’m not at all certain that Donald Trump particularly cares about race; it strikes me as being one of the least important things in the world to him.

You see, Donald Trump is an old, rich, white man with, seemingly, little interest in the welfare of anyone other than Donald Trump. How could race possibly be anything other than a side show to him?

No, the most important thing in the world to Donald Trump is his own personal brand.

You boost a brand by having loyal, dedicated customers, or supporters in the case of Trump and just like Gerald Ratner found out many moons ago telling those customers they are foolish is not the ideal tool for retaining their loyalty.

When news broke about Charlottesville essentially that customer loyalty, and not racism, that was President Trump’s first sin. Donald Trump, like any businessman, was not going to tell many of the voters who had put him in his position where to go.

It didn’t have to be racism or anti-Semitism if Donald Trump had a loyal band of customers who feasted nightly of dogs he wouldn’t be denouncing them but asking ‘paw or tail, sir?’

Remember, in brand Trump the loyal customer is always right.

It seems to me that there is only one thing in the world of Donald Trump more important than the customer always being right; it’s that the proprietor is never wrong.

Donald Trump has such startling and simple self belief; such a ‘huuuuge’ ego that like a Pope of Capitalism does not believe he can be fallible and even in the face of demonstrable evidence the error must be with he or she who points it out.

When the media pointed out the Emperor’s New Clothes of diminished inauguration day crowds Donald Trump did not for one second believe the photographic evidence. Donald Trump knew what he saw and his infallibility could only mean that detractors were the ones who were mistaken or lying.

And when his own advisors suggest to him that maybe, just maybe, he might be erring the answer is simple. There is always someone else willing and ready to affirm Donald Trump’s peerless intellect.
No, Donald Trump is not a racist – although equally he isn’t someone who could ever be termed a civil rights campaigner – he is perhaps worse than that.

He is venal and delusional.

Each of those facets on their own can be dangerous; combined who knows, if he remains in office, what the next three and half years may bring?

Monday, 14 August 2017

Mo has had a good run - from Somalia to top of the Brit list: my Catholic Universe column

By the time you read this column, all things being equal, the greatest of all British athletes, Sir Mo Farah, will be preparing for his final ever race on a running track. It is just possible Sir Mo is about to bring home an unprecedented, for a distance runner, eleventh gold medal from a global championships.

In his 10,000 metre race last weekend, the first of a potential double alongside the 5,000 metres this week, Farah looked and ran like the supreme athlete that he is. An early plea for support from his home crowd and undoubtedly a little gamesmanship to antagonise his fellow competitors guaranteed that Mo would be subjected to both a fast paced and at times nasty race as African nations worked together to try and topple Britain’s most mercurial athlete.

It was the aftermath of that race last weekend though that I want to reflect on today and it was, in fact, just one tweet in particular that got me thinking.

Straight after last week’s 10,000 metres race former England Rugby Union hooker Brian Moore took to Twitter writing ‘Mo Farah – simply stupendous’. Within a few minutes another Twitter user replied to Moore’s tweet with just one word ‘somalian (sic)’, Moore’s response was almost as brief and certainly cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

Now on the face of it that unnamed Twitter user was arguably right. Sir Mo had been born in Somalia before his family moved to Djibouti and onwards to London by the time the young Mo was eight years old. But it wasn’t that fact that most interested me but Moore’s exceptionally direct and vitriolic response.

The always forthright Mr Moore was simply protecting someone who to most of us is a national treasure. Last year Heinz Beanz, in one of those meaningless surveys manufacturers carry out to get their product into the press, asked Britons what made them most proud to be British and then they listed the results. You might guess many of the things that respondents identified: the NHS; Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding; Her Majesty, the Queen and decent bacon sandwiches but right there in 21st place was Mo Farah. When we think about what makes us proud to be who we are, for many of us, Sir Mo rightly jumps to the forefront of our consciousness.

Sir Mo’s story is a remarkable one; leaving the country of his birth and separation from an identical twin brother; growing up in a vibrant, multicultural capital city; falling in love and marrying his childhood girlfriend before worldwide domination in the sport of his choosing. It is a tale that undoubtedly resonates with our sense of Britishness.

Just a few short weeks ago another British sportsman celebrated an unprecedented victory. No Briton has ever dominated the world of cycling like Chris Froome and on 23 July this world beating cyclist claimed his fourth victory as winner of the Tour de France; the world’s most famous and arduous bike race.

Froome too was born in Africa, in his case Nairobi, Kenya to an English father and although at first he represented that nation on the international stage and still speaks with the same clipped tones of an African native he has now represented, as of right, Great Britain for many years.

It is undisputable to say though that Froomey, as he is known, doesn’t have anywhere near the adulation from the British public as Sir Mo despite the fact that his sporting achievements are comparable. What is the difference? Why does one sportsman receive almost universal hero status amongst Britons whilst another just a grudging nod of admiration?

It could validly be argued that whilst Froome has never resided in Britain for any period of time Sir Mo spent his formative years in and around East London. It could be, but that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Farah’s residence has now for a number of years been on the west coast of the United States.

You might suggest that cycling isn’t the same universal sport as athletics, that it takes a ‘real’ native born Brit to break through in that arena. You could argue that but then again no one is seen as more British than Sir Bradley Wiggins, a man born in Belgium to an Australian father and British mother.

No, there is undoubtedly something almost intangible that makes us react in different ways to foreign born British sportsmen and women; and it isn’t necessarily just whether they win or not that makes us see them as countrymen or competing under a flag of convenience.

Look at the list. No one but no one would ever pour doubt on the Britishness of John Barnes, Andrew Strauss, Mike Catt or Justin Rose and yet if I were to ask the nationality of Owen Hargeaves, Greg Rusedski, Lennox Lewis, Zola Budd or Kevin Pietersen I can guarantee that I would hear many times over that the answer was three Canadians and two South Africans.

So what is it that makes us adopt some sportsmen as compatriots more than others? You can’t even suggest that it’s a funny, foreign sounding, name; I’m sure the vast majority of us would agree Chris Froome sounds far more traditionally British than Mo Farah.

In preparing for this week’s column I kept asking myself the same question. What makes someone more ‘British’ than the next man or woman?

I’m sure that you will have heard that for the past few years all schools have been instructed to teach children the concept of ‘fundamental British values’ and I asked myself whether they could provide an answer to my query?

According to OFSTED there are five such values that all of us should share; a respect for democracy; a respect for the rule of law; individual liberty; mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

It is final point that I believe the answer to my query lies. That mutual respect is as its very wording indicates a reciprocal agreement. It isn’t just about the respect that we show for sportsmen and women but the respect and passion that they show back for our nation.

Every time Sir Mo Farah runs and wins you can see how incredibly proud he is to be draped in that union flag; the passion that John Barnes displayed in playing for his adopted country irrespective of the hideous racial abuse he faced in the 1980’s and ‘90s; the pride that Strauss or Catt displayed each time they pulled on their England jerseys to captain our nation.

Undoubtedly we at least subliminally grade our own respect in the degree of passion shown. There’s little doubt that Kevin Pietersen was and is one of the finest batsman in Cricket but did we ever accept him as English? The answer to that was fairly self-evident the moment allegations of passing team secrets to South Africa surfaced.

Of course, if I am right, and the level of acceptance and adulation is linked to passion and mutual respect there is one fundamental problem and it perhaps affects Chris Froome more than any other sportsman I have mentioned today.

Froome, by all accounts, isn’t the outgoing extrovert as those we take to our hearts are. If stories are to be believed here is a man who is passionate about representing his county but for all his peerless skills as a cyclist simply doesn’t have the personality to show it.

A few weeks ago a sportswoman broke into the national consciousness following her first rate performance at Wimbledon. Johanna Konta was born in Australia and represented that nation professionally until the year 2012 when she started representing Great Britain.  The question now is whether and how we take her to our hearts.

I can tell by now you are asking how this relates to a Catholic newspaper and the point I want to make today is this.

Being British isn’t as simple as five characteristics; it’s much more complicated than that. In all likelihood there are as any different strains of being British as there are people in our nation.
Just because someone is less outgoing or more reserved doesn’t make them any less British.

I am sure, just like in other walks of life, some sportsman and women take up British nationality as a convenience whilst others do so because they feel fundamentally attached to our nation.

Surely our Britishness is about ignoring their possible motivations and welcoming and embracing just the same?

Let us give OFSTED judgements the cynicism they merit - my Coalville Times column

This time eighteen years ago my wife and I were awaiting the arrival of our first child, a son, and fretting about all of those things that first time parents worry about.

What sort of diet were we going to feed him? Although he had not yet even been born had we made sure the electrical sockets had been covered? Were all the sharp edges in our home protected?

And, of course, were stair gates in place both top and bottom to ensure that even though he was months off from being anywhere close to mobile he couldn’t inadvertently get up a flight of stairs?

We also worried about how we were going to pay for our infant son. With only one of us working maybe, just maybe we could manage to pay the bills but undoubtedly it would be tough and at least for my wife her promising career would flat line with no guarantee that it would easily be restarted in the future.

After a great deal of debate and discussion of all the options we came to the conclusion that fairly soon after his birth our son would be entrusted to the care of a nursery.

As first time parents we toured every childcare provider and came to the conclusion, as I am sure many do, that none were perfect for our unique bundle of joy but, on balance, one was marginally better than all of the others. We duly paid the necessary large deposit, roughly equivalent to a month’s mortgage payment, and filled in copious amounts of paperwork comparable to what you’re faced with when buying a new car. I’m surprised we were never asked if we wanted T-Cut or gap insurance?

When he was just a few months old our son went off to nursery. There was nothing wrong with the childcare provider that we had chosen it was, we were regularly informed, classified as ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED; it’s just that it didn’t feel very good either.

Each month we would hand over several hundred pounds and in return we felt that our son was for the nursery just another unit or widget that was going through their childcare factory. You could guarantee that whilst nursery provision was perfectly perfunctory our provider would show a great deal more zeal when it came down to additional opportunities to increase their own revenue.

The reason I mentioned all of this is that after a few years and two additional children we had by then enough experience and were confident enough in our parenting abilities to take the major decision to change nurseries.

It just so happened that we fell upon the subject of last week’s Coalville Times front page, Orchard House, and decided to take look around. We fell in love with the then newly opened nursery.

From the moment our children went to Orchard House they loved it. The management and staff were professional but more importantly cared for our children; the facilities were first rate and not for one minute did we ever feel that the driving force behind the business was making as much money as possible. As parents we couldn’t have been happier with Orchard House Day Nursery.

Now it’s five years since we were parents of children at Orchard House and undoubtedly in that time a lot can change in any organisation. I felt sad when I read last week’s front page and the damning inspection report issued by OFSTED that the story resulted from; this wasn’t the nursery that we as parents had known.

I’m not writing today’s column because I have any links with Orchard House, other than being a ‘customer’ several years ago I have none, but because I want to reflect on OFSTED judgements.

A provider that was outstandingly good for my children has been slammed whilst one which I thought no better than average was regularly praised.

It’s not just nurseries though. If you read statistics well over 80% of children in Leicestershire attend either Good or Outstanding schools. Yet ask parents directly and I guarantee you that nowhere near 80% of children receive what their parents perceive to be Good or Outstanding educations.

As they grew up my two older children started attending a ‘Good’ school. For one the school is indeed brilliant, for the other barely adequate. Clearly the experience of whether a school is good or not doesn’t vary just from parent to parent but from child to child.

Proclaiming that you are a good school isn’t about who can have the biggest banner or paying for signs on a roundabout it is, undoubtedly, about how you can support the individual needs of a child.

On its own being ‘Good’ or ‘Requiring Improvement’ doesn’t necessarily mean you are good or that you need to improve; it means you’ve demonstrated at a given time to what degree you’ve complied with a set of guidelines; and you’re assuming that OFSTED’s own inspectors have even then arrived at the right result (in 2015 OFSTED sacked 40% of contracted inspectors for being not up to snuff).

Of course an OFSTED rating is one factor for any parent to consider in the choices they make for their children; but it is just one factor.

Having gone through this process of raising children three times now, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, let me offer if I may a piece of advice.

When it comes to choosing who will look after and educate your children never let a poor OFSTED grade prevent you from considering a provider; never believe an outstanding one automatically leads to an outstanding education. You can’t go wrong with being a little cynical about OFSTED and their judgements.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Our world today is entirely foreign to older generations - my Catholic Universe column

A few days ago I was talking with an old acquaintance who told me of a story that had recently happened to him.

My old friend had offered to take an elderly relative on a shopping trip to a town that his octogenarian aunt hadn’t visited in many years. The old lady seemed to be enjoying her trip around the gleaming shopping centre; she stopped in a lovely little coffee shop for lunch and searched out bargains in the large department store located at one end of the mall.

On the way home my acquaintance asked his aunt “Have you had a nice day?” her response took him back a little.

“Oh yes, I’ve had a lovely day. The assistants were so friendly and there was so much to see in the shops…and of course there were far fewer black people than where I normally shop.”

As he told me the story I am fairly certain my mouth opened slack-jawed. I’ve met the relative he was telling me about and she is the most generous, kind-hearted, God fearing woman you could ever hope to meet; and here she was coming out with one of the most overtly racist comments I have heard in many years.

My friend’s story started me asking myself was his relative a racist or was she simply a product of her time? Did she have a deep seated hatred of people from other ethnic backgrounds or had she essentially stayed still in a time warp of Love Thy Neighbour and other light entertainment ignorance? Or could it be possible that as she had gotten older she has regressed into a world and longed for surroundings where she felt more comfortable?

My acquaintance maintained that his aunt does not have a single malicious bone in her body, indeed over the years some of her greatest friends had come from other ethnicities, but he couldn’t forget this comment which to his 2017 sensibilities seemed so offensive.

I am now in my mid-forties, I have grown up in a world so different from my friend’s elderly aunt that in many ways it is unrecognisable. I live in a modern multicultural society and I am part of a faith that if not yet wholly embracing is certainly coming to terms with homosexuality.

I am very proud to say that within my lifetime as a church and as congregants we have largely moved away from regularly castigating lesbian and gay Catholics and become a faith that welcomes warmly; cares and accepts for our brothers and sisters regardless of their sexuality.

It hasn’t always been easy for us to adapt but we are getting there.

It is said that even in the face of evidence many if not most of the people who believed in a flat earth were never convinced that, in fact, our world was spherical; in the end those who believed that if they travelled far enough they would simply fall of the edge of the world just died out.

I am sure that the same will happen eventually to those harking back to a long passed youth of mono ethnicity and at lease superficial heterosexuality. Inevitably there will come a time when the vast majority if not all of us celebrates the diverse community in which we live.

But, here is the key point, it isn’t easy for any of us.

I grew up in a world where being different from the norm was accepted; whether you were a part of an ethnic minority in an otherwise entirely white town or a gay man or woman living openly for the first time in history. But I have realised that as I get older and as the world moves on sometimes I am taken aback by how quickly it is changing.

Last week you will recall a major furore in the news ensued when President Donald Trump tweeted that ‘After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.’

Now, to my knowledge and of course I could be wrong, I think in my lifetime I have met just one transgender person which was when a representative of an LGBT group was speaking alongside me on a political platform. I have no idea if there were other transgender people in the room at the time; which of course got me asking how big an issue transgender soldiers is in the US military?

I did some research and according to a report commissioned by the US Defence department at any one time there are around 7,000 people who identify as a different gender from the one they were born as. I have literally no idea whether that number includes or excludes people who identify as gender-fluid; that is not seeing themselves as having a ‘fixed’ gender.

It struck me that in a military of 1.4 million servicemen and women 7,000; half of one percent is still quite a big number. Around one in every two hundred US servicemen and women identify as transgender.

Conveniently President Trump’s tweets came at around the same time as our Conservative government floated their own political weather balloon suggesting changes to gender identity laws.

Equalities secretary Justine Greening will, it is reported, shortly be undertaking a consultation which would seek to allow people to change the gender on their birth certificates, without any sort of doctors diagnosis, to a different one. It could be that someone being born female formally identifies as male; it could be someone born male having their birth certificate gender changed to ‘X’ or some other non-binary mark.

I am sure that if you happen to be transgender you will have faced all sorts of abuse and the Government is right to try and limit it; equally I’m sure that there will be sick individuals who try to take advantage of changes to legislation for their own duplicitous purposes.

But I must admit that I am having some difficulty in accepting the entire premise. I simply don’t get how it is possible to be non-binary in a variable where there is literally only two options; I don’t see hundreds of transgender people around me; I don’t understand how so many people could have possibly be born into the wrong bodies.

Last week the Gender Identity Development Service produced a report commissioned by NHS England. The report revealed that last year alone 1,986 children, some as young as three, were referred to specialist help for problems with gender identity. Less than 10 years ago, in 2009-10, that figure was 94.

Are we living in a time of great enlightenment or a time when changing genders is just the latest fad following high profile role models such as Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox? Is it possible that being transgender is just the latest medical condition or lifestyle choice du jour?

My point is that I don’t know and that frankly, to me at least, it all feels a bit wrong.

There is very little doubt that we are at the start of the mainstream story of transgender issues; for example we really have little idea about what proportion of transgender people seek to revert to their birth gender somewhere down the line. So much more will become known in the years to come.

Today’s column in actual fact isn’t really about whether you choose to identify with another gender or not, it’s about the millions of us for whom that choice is alien.

Like my friend’s aunt I am struggling with a concept we find difficult. It doesn’t mean that she or I or many, many others are bad people; it means that as times change we all sometimes struggle to keep up.

Thinking about that old lady or my own foibles I am reminded of the words of Pope Francis when he said ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge’.

We may struggle but it is incumbent upon us all to embrace those issues with which we have difficulty.

The Hermitage dilemma – I’ll take the new car please: my Coalville Times column

Let me give you, if I may, a hypothetical choice.

Imagine that you have a car, let’s say a fifteen year old Ford Mondeo, it’s a car you have had since new and it’s served you well. Your Mondeo has done everything you’ve ever asked of it but it is showing signs of wear; like all old cars getting it through it’s MOT gets harder and harder; it’s getting more expensive to run; and let’s be honest it doesn’t have anywhere near the same specification as modern cars, no reversing sensors or Bluetooth connection or in built SatNav.

At some point in the future, no matter how much you look after your faithful old motor it simply isn’t going to be fit for purpose anymore. At some point, depending on your finances, it will either become too expensive to run or simply give up the ghost.

Now imagine I offer you the opportunity to replace that car with a brand new one. You could have a fully loaded, top of the range 2017 Mondeo which with modern financing options would actually save you money, and with adequate safeguards be guaranteed to be around for the next twenty to thirty years.

Which option would you go for? I reckon pretty much every one of you would say “I’ll take the new car please, but where’s the catch?”

I did say at the start of today’s column my question was hypothetical so I don’t really have any cars to offer; but it is a question worth asking because a very similar one is currently being mulled over by our politicians about the future of Whitwick’s Hermitage Leisure Centre.

If you have been down to the Hermo recently you would know that after forty years of faithful service it’s looking a tired. It’s not only in need of a refurbishment but is costly to maintain and run; especially to heat.

To get to the Hermitage you navigate busy local roads and half of the time you simply can’t book in for the popular stuff that people want to do these days. The gym is too small, fitness classes more often than not oversubscribed, and swimming pool really not adequate for delivering the massively popular private lessons. And please, don’t get me started on how revolting the dry side changing rooms are.

Simply put the Hermo is getting to the stage that, if it’s not already there, it will soon be no longer fit for purpose and that means it actually loses money. Hundreds of thousands a year. That’s hundred of thousands that are being paid for directly by you and me through our council tax to make the book balance. Whether we use our leisure centres or not.

Now skip forward. Last year our district council employed consultants to look at what could be done with leisure centres in the district, and particularly the offer that we have available in Coalville.

To start off the consultants suggested building a new centre on the Bridge Road car park. It quickly became apparent that size and location on our road network would make that a non-starter but over the months another option of a site just off the A511 near to the McDonalds roundabout started being talked about.

It would, the professionals told the council, allow for a much larger and fit for purpose, easily accessible, financially and environmentally efficient centre to be constructed. A centre which if one or two parcels of land were to be disposed of could be managed and financed by a private provider at no cost to the taxpayers of North West Leicestershire. With smarter management, competitive pricing and lower overheads the books would balance.

It is on the face of it the leisure centre equivalent of my motoring hypothetical.

Last week the Cabinet of the District Council took the decision to progress with plans to build a brand new leisure centre for Coalville. Last Thursday night Richard Blunt, the Leader of NWLDC, volunteered to spend two hours fielding questions and dealing with angry comments from Whitwick residents and parish councillors explaining his and his administration’s position. He certainly wasn’t obliged to.

A new leisure centre is by no means a done deal; it may be that the proposed site for one reason or another isn’t suitable, it may be that after investigation the finances don’t stack up.

But let’s be honest. If our local councils do ever merge to save costs, as many would like to see, then a cash strapped county authority would undoubtedly be asking how in the face of an increasing social care bill it could afford to fund the discretionary service of a loss making, inefficient leisure centre?

No, there is a window of opportunity right now for the district council to protect and enhance our leisure centres by moving to a private trust model used widely elsewhere.

Other may disagree but for me the answer is very simple: “I’ll take the new car please.”

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

On running and Whitwick's wonderful Hermitage Harriers - my August Community Voice column

It was a Sunday evening in the spring of 2006 when I was busy trying to get our two year old toddler to settle down for the night that my wonderful wife, Clare, mentioned to me that she thought she might be pregnant. Clare’s announcement was, to put it mildly, something of a surprise; one that on that evening I wasn’t expecting but in hindsight one of the better bombshells of my life.

Funnily enough this month’s column isn’t about anything to do with babies or pregnancy, in fact it’s about running, but that revelation is indeed extremely relevant to my ‘illustrious’ running career.

Following the death of my father two years earlier I had decided that I needed to lose some weight; to try and get fit so that I could be there to see my own children grow up. So I took up running.

When you are seventeen stone in weight running doesn’t come that easily but I persevered through the aching knees and twisted ankles and after a year or so unbelievably l was starting to look and feel healthier. I started to enter races; local 10k’s to start with and then I got in to the iconic Great North Run.

I was becoming an albeit very slow runner.

Which takes us to one week after the surprise pregnancy announcement.

It was a Friday night and after watching the late news we were getting ready for bed when the telephone rang. After a few rings and a very short conversation; “shall we pretend we’re asleep?” I answered and a very distant voice spoke to me.

“Is that Mr Spence?” I confirmed it was. “I’m delighted to tell you that you have won an all-expenses paid trip to take part in the Chicago Marathon this autumn…”

After a moment of incredulity and a realisation that indeed the promise of a trip was bona fide, it dawned on me that this once in a lifetime prize would take place on the exact same date that our third child was due.

You might imagine the conversation that followed; “Well, I’ve been to two births but I’ve never been to Chicago…” To her immense credit Clare insisted that I couldn’t miss the trip “and the baby will probably be late anyway.”

I am starting to hear you ask what has all of this got to do with Whitwick, Thringstone or Swannington? The answer is simple.

One of the best possible ways to train for a race like a marathon is to join a running club and just a couple of years before my tale Hermitage Harriers had been formed.

Harriers, eponymously named after the Leisure Centre where it is based, is now one of the most successful running clubs in Leicestershire having won league titles aplenty but back then strength in depth may not have been one of our strongest points.

In those days Harriers had plenty of great runners but there was always the chance, because the club was so new, that anyone would score in league races; anyone could be a club record holder.

Astonishingly club record holder at marathon distance was exactly what I turned out to be; far more by virtue of the fact that I was one of the first to run a marathon rather than having claim to any degree of speed, my record didn’t stand for long.

In 2006 Hermitage Harriers was the perfect, sociable, friendly group of people to help you train for a marathon: it still is.

As we reach the dog days of summer and we start thinking about nights drawing in and lights going on a little earlier each day you will often see groups of runners pounding the streets of our villages wearing a vast array of hi visibility clothing. That will more than likely be the members of Hermitage Harriers preparing for winter races, maybe a spring marathon or just trying to keep healthy as they socialise.

But before we get into those darker evenings at 10:30 on Sunday 13th August the Harriers will hold their annual Carl Rutt Memorial 10K race which takes hundreds of runners around the streets of the village and surrounding countryside. The race has gained something of a reputation as being a well organised but gruelling test of stamina.

I have a suggestion: why not take to the streets for a few minutes that day to support not only the runners but also one of our areas most successful sporting clubs. I guarantee you it will be appreciated.

As for me I did run my marathon in Chicago, I had an amazing time, but even better my son was thoughtful enough to hang on for a couple of weeks so that I could be present at his big event too.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Why do I have to pay for you to watch Mrs Brown's Boys? My Coalville Times column

I don’t know about you but I don’t care that Alex Jones, presenter of the One Show and rival with DIY SOS’ door frames for the ‘most wooden thing on TV’ award, gets paid £450,000 for reading an autocue.

I’m not bothered that Steve Wright, one of the few of his generation of disc jockeys not to have been beset by scandal of one form or another, takes home half a million quid each year. Do we still call them ‘disc jockeys’? Does he still have a posse?

And I must be frank I admire that local boy done good, Gary Lineker, has the cajones to think he’s worth £1.8 million, in addition to his crisp fortune, for basically staying up late on a Saturday night to tell us about football matches we already know the results of and many have already watched through various nefarious streaming methods. Well played, sir.

The point is that Ms Jones or Mr Wright or Gary, as I like to call him, have clearly got decent agents who will negotiate for them passionately and, I am told authoritatively, that these three stars and virtually every other on the recently published BBC Rich List could have earned significantly more with private sector broadcasters.

The simple truth is that it is doesn’t bother me too much how much Derek Thompson earns, I don’t think I had ever even heard of Derek Thompson until I read the list and someone told me he’s been in Casualty for more than 70 years, because I simply don’t watch the BBC.

Let me qualify that slightly. I will usually put the news on in the morning in one shape or another, it could be BBC Breakfast or it could be the Today programme, but aside from that: nothing. In fact I would go as far as saying I virtually never watch terrestrial TV.

I pay for Netflix and Amazon Prime; I love audiobooks from Audible and stream music from Spotify; I even still take digital newspapers and magazines and I pay for the lot.

So why when there is nothing for me and my family do I have to pay, or be prosecuted and even go to prison, for entertainment which I simply don’t use or want?

If people want Football Focus or Mrs Brown’s Boys or even the interminable Graham Norton then fine. But surely I shouldn’t stump up for their enjoyment?

It’s like a Leicester City season ticket holder being told they are legally obligated to pay towards Derby County because ‘well, you know, we need a government owned football club’.

No. We have a hugely competitive market in this country trying to entice us in with streaming and quality content; seriously have you seen The Crown on Netflix? it’s amazing; and for the most part I and countless others think they do it far better than a monolithic establishment broadcaster fit for purpose thirty years ago but now with a funding model fit for nothing more than the scrapheap.

I do get that there is an argument for an impartial news organisation, I even get that having one should be funded through taxation. If there was a subscription model just for news I would probably even be one of the first to sign up for it.

But Bargain Hunt? Escape to the Country? Pitch Battle (whatever that is)? Flog It!? Do me a favour!
Of course there is a serious point to all of this. Your annual licence fee is now £147. That’s way more per year than any of the streaming services, with Amazon Prime for considerably less than that you even get your shopping delivered next day free of charge. Just imagine Vanessa Feltz turning up with you groceries?

Given the choice many, many families on lower incomes would choose an option other than our state broadcaster.

In fact there’s a strong argument that the poorest people in our society are subsidising the wealthiest. How on earth can Alan Yentob be on the rich list, and just what does he do? I’ve no idea but I’ll venture there’s not many residents of North West Leicestershire and South Derbyshire who have him down on Series Link.

Crucially though there isn’t a choice. If you own a television you must pay.

Now I don’t have any problem at all with government providing services that we need, you know, a health service and schools and roads, they are essential, that is what government is there for. But just like the world has moved on from a state owned telecoms companies in 2017 we don’t need a barely adequate state broadcaster.

It really is time to end this stunning anachronism.