Sunday, 26 February 2017

Chips - my Whitwick & Surrounding Areas Community Voice column


A couple of weeks ago I went to pick my daughter up from her dance class. The studio is about a mile from our house and as she left the building on this particular cold, crisp night she noticed that my car was missing.

“How are going to get home?” she asked with a somewhat perturbed look on her face.

“I’ve got a special treat for you,” was my reply “we’re walking.”

Now to the vast majority of 12 year olds walking for pleasure is something of an alien experience but I had a trick up my sleeve. We were going to relive one of my most vivid childhood memories, we were going to stop for chips en route and walk home devouring them, their heat warming our hands as our cheeks froze, the smell of salt and vinegar tickling our nostrils and ever so slightly burning our lips.

I had travelled back thirty years, only this time I was the parent, what an amazing feeling to be making memories from the simplest of pleasures.

When I was growing up my mum used to drag me in tow to her ‘Ladies Bright Hour’ meeting every Wednesday night at Thringstone Methodist Chapel the bribe would be that if I was good I would get to visit Ruby’s for my own portion of open chips for the way home.

By my childhood of course the eponymous Ruby had retired and her shop had been purchased by a young Cypriot couple, Michael and Sonia Demetriou. Today, forty years later, they are still at the shop every bit as much a fixture of village life as Ruby had been in her era.

I went to catch up with the couple who first moved in to start their new lives taking over the long established business on 3rd October 1977, it must have been a daunting prospect considering Sonia had only given birth to their eldest of what eventually turned out to be five children just two weeks earlier.

“Things were certainly different then,” they tell me. “Chips were 14 pence, a fish was just 17p.”

Of course the way that we live our lives has forced changes to the business too. I reminisce about the times as a young man I could stagger out of The Queens Head at nearly midnight and still get some supper on a Friday night.

Michael smiles “Our busiest times used to be late at night when people were coming out of the pubs, but nowadays everybody seems to come at tea time and things drop off after 8.00.”

In the early 1990’s Michael and Sonia took a sabbatical returning to Cyprus for 4 years whilst the shop was run by Sonia’s brother, Clem.  On their return in 1995 the couple planned some major changes to the business, the menu saw the addition of the now legendary doner kebabs and southern fried chicken but perhaps most notably the fa├žade of the shop changed.

An extension brought with it neon signage, now familiar throughout North West Leicestershire and perhaps most notably glorious summer flower displays and at Christmas festive illuminations that are the pride of the village.

But through it all the heart of the business doesn’t change. Fish and chips are still produced in the same gleaming fryers Ruby used in her time. Michael and Sonia, now ably assisted by their son, are very proud of their five star hygiene rating. The quality remains as high as ever, the portions as generous, and you’ll still hear Sonia’s catchphrase “You wanna bag?” as she passes food over the counter to you with a warm smile.

I ask about retirement, their son Andy interjects “I’ll retire before my parents do!”

Michael agrees, the Demetriou’s and this Thringstone institution are planning on sticking around for a long time to come.

Quango scare story must not put us off honouring our local heroes - my Catholic Universe column


You have no idea, dear reader, of the journalistic bullet you have dodged in reading my column this week.


For probably the first time in my life the profession in which I studied and gained qualifications is relevant and I was, until I sat down to write this column, going to to stun you with my knowledge of obscure legislation in order to make the point that the media should indeed turn its attention a little more often to one of the largest burdens facing business in Britain today.


I am talking about our system, to give it it’s proper name, of Non-Domestic Rating; Business Rates to you and me and it’s associated domestic sibling, Council Tax.


Now I worked in the field of local government revenue collection for the best part of twenty years and I literally have forgotten more about it than most of us ever pretend to know. In fairness my memory isn’t what it once was and I am the first to concede it isn’t all that impressive a claim.


Nevertheless, I am sure that none of you will have missed that a Business Rates revaluation is due to come into force on the 1 April and virtually the whole media is railing against the potential damage that it could do to our high streets. For the first time ever my profession is current.


I was going to regale you with the inequity of the business rates system. To tell you that yes, some businesses see massive increases to their rates whilst others see reductions. 


I was going to shock you in the fact that the transition scheme introduced to protect taxpayers from excessive increases is directly funded from taxpayers with significant reductions, that if your rates should have gone down you may never in actual fact feel the full benefit because you are protecting others from increases.


And most of all I was going to tell the current furore over business rates is mainly caused by the scheduled five yearly revaluation having been delayed for two years and posit the question that if this is what it’s like with a revaluation after just seven years what disaster is there going to be when the government finally gets round to revaluing domestic properties after nearly thirty years. It will be chaotic.


I was going to say all of that in even greater depth than I already have. Just imagine how relevant albeit boring it would have been. I was going to do that right up until the minute that I started getting in the mind set to write by flicking through my newspaper and you, dear reader, dodged my journalistic bullet.


You see there was a story in the newspaper which caused my normal placid self to rage, something which I care passionately about and I venture that others may too. Let me explain.


Nearly thirty years ago now, back in 1991, a young girl in my town called Ruth Langham heard about the plight of orphans who to all intents and purposes had been left to rot in run down orphanages in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.


Ruth was visibly moved by the story and like many girls in their late teens and early twenties pledged to do something about it. The big difference was that unlike many girls Ruth actually did.


Ruth worked with children and decided to go to Romania, with the support of her family, to do whatever she could to help the desperate ones she had seen on television.


When Ruth arrived in the country she met eighteen month old twins Dumitru and Ion. The brothers had been born with cleft palates and learning difficulties and Dumitru in particular was in need of an operation.


Ruth arranged for the operation and begun plans to adopt the boys, a pair of infants with complex needs who may otherwise have been left in an institution.


Ruth and her family set up a charity and raised funds to help other Romanian orphans. I doubt that there was anyone in my town who didn’t know her or the amazing things that she had done. She had helped so many people and had become a mum to two children who may well have never known the love that she gave them if she hadn’t done what she did.


Ruth was a real life hero and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought the disease and saw her two sons become young men but then in 2013, aged just 42, she lost her battle.


Of course I knew of Ruth’s remarkable story and resolved to commemorate her memory in the only way as a councillor that I knew how.


I wrote to Ruth’s parents and asked for their and the twins permission to request that a street be name after her as a permanent memorial to her memory and the role that she had played in our community. 


Ruth’s family kindly agreed and now I am very proud to say that my town contains Ruth Langham Court, a small but lasting token to her memory.


It’s often said that to all but our immediate families the legacies that we leave are forgotten within just two or three generations. I firmly believe that for those who make notable contributions to our towns and villages there is no greater honour than dedicating permanent memorials. To my mind at least it certainly beats a developer concocting some ludicrous name to make an edge of town estate seem somehow idyllic.


So you can imagine my anger when I sat down to write this morning to read a story in The Daily Telegraph entitled ‘Streets should not be named after local heroes in case the are later found to be paedophiles, councils told’.


The story outlines how Geoplace, a government quango responsible for the National Land and Property Gazeteer, supported by a spokesman from the Local Government Association have issued guidelines to local councils that places should not be named after individuals in case they are subsequently linked to ‘inappropriate activities’.


The numerous stories that you will find in the media all cite the many sites named in memory of Jimmy Savile which have since been renamed after the revelations concerning his predatory behaviour with young children.


The stories go on to cite the cost to the taxpayer when names have had to be changed.


But I have a message for those civil servants at Geoplace or members of the Local Government Association or indeed councils. The vast, vast majority of those honoured for notable works are not paedophiles but remarkable, inspirational people who have made our communities richer in many, many ways. They deserve to be recognised and we have a duty to make sure their contributions affect future generations.

It is probably fair to say that it is difficult for me to be anti-establishment when by most definitions I am part of the establishment itself. Being a councillor, a writer, a charity trustee does the sort of thing to you.


But every now and then you hear a story which makes your blood boil and this is one.


How can you let the perversions of one man overshadow the amazing work of not just of Ruth Langham but the countless other people memorialised up and down the country for the works they have done or in many cases the lives that they have given.


No, on this one the quangos must be put back in their boxes, the right to honour people should not be removed.


The good news is, the Telegraph reports, that Marcus Jones, the Minister for Local Government is against the guidance but these type of guidelines have a funny way of being adopted by local government, usually in the name of ‘best practice’.


It’s not very often that I urged you, dear reader, to take action but for once please do. Write to you local MP and local councillor and demand that these silly guidelines are given the due consideration that they deserve. 


I would hate it if the next time a councillor proposed naming a street after a fallen soldier they were told ‘it’s not allowed we’ll call it Hedgehog Grove instead’.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Society has changed and now it looks like we love Big Brother - my Catholic Universe column

This week two seemingly completely unrelated issues have caught my attention. Both of them are the type of news story which start conversations in the workplace, or the pub, or the back of church after mass and both seem to be the type that after a brief discussion we simply go on with our lives.

It seems to me however that both stories indicate perfectly the changing society we are living in. Let me explain.

A few days ago the BBC, along with most if not all daily newspapers, ran a story proclaiming that two unnamed schools working alongside the University of Portsmouth had been conducting a research experiment where class teachers had been issued with police style body cameras to see if they helped in controlling bad behaviour.

The story, in some quarters at least, was seen as a direct response to the past criticisms of outgoing OFSTED boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, of the curse of low level classroom disruption and the average of one hour a day’s teaching time which pupils can lose as a direct result.

It struck me that such a story is likely to evoke from readers and listeners a black and white, binary response and I undertook to ask people their views on whether such an example of ‘big brother’ watching our children was something that they found palatable. The outcome of those conversations was something of an eyeopener.

I corresponded with a headteacher of a secondary school who told me “Awful idea my concern, teachers will lose professionalism. Reliance on monitoring over than building positive relationships…schools are meant to be strong communities. Not police states”

Another correspondent, a perfectly decent political activist, told me “It sounds thoroughly illiberal, that’s what it sounds…I think parents would be appalled.”

But here’s the funny thing. I undertook to ask a group of parents their views and their response was somewhat different. One mum told me “There is a huge problem now with parents refusing to believe their children are disruptive, blaming teachers and allowing this behaviour. Creating a culture of teachers who no longer teach but spend their days in conflict with children who have no parental barriers…show them the evidence and protect our teachers! No one should fear this unless their children are going to get busted!”

Another mum said “I feel it’s a great idea and an opportunity for parents and teachers to truly analyse behaviour watching it back and in doing so let’s hope they can work together to resolve issues and and importantly support the children demonstrating unwanted and inappropriate behaviours which impact on not just themselves but others too.”

Overall there was far more support for the initiative from, for the want of a better word, ‘ordinary parents’ than there was from political types or education professionals.

Another story has caught my eye over past week too.

Last Monday The Guardian ran an article outlining how under new guidelines NHS hospitals have now been instructed to charge overseas patients for non-urgent care up front.

In a complete about face from current practice from this April onwards hospitals will be asked to check patients entitlement to NHS care and, in the words of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS – as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does. So today we are announcing plans to change the law which means those who aren’t eligible for free care will be asked to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment.

As you would expect with the more politically radical parts of the medical profession a boycott seems to be on the cards. One prominent doctor wrote on Twitter – seemingly forgetting the guidance that the new rules apply only to non-urgent medicine “Well I won’t be asking for their passport before resuscitating them, thanks.”

Whilst another wrote “What the hell? This is absolutely disgusting, the NHS should not be actively working to kick migrants out.”

Now putting aside for one minute the cost to our NHS of the treatment of foreign patients, according to the National Audit Office around £150 million pounds a year goes unpaid with  the expense borne by you and me, there is a wider question as to whether we ‘ordinary’ Brits would be happy to hand over our details to prove that we are entitled to medical care.

There is of course relatively little evidence to determine one way or the other.

Research carried out by the BBC and Ipsos shows that 74% of us are happy with the idea of increasing NHS charges for those from outside the UK. It doesn’t unfortunately go on to say how we might respond when asked for our passports.

Once again I pointedly went out to ask what people I came into contact with thought.

And here is the shocker, time and time again I encountered one very similar answer: “We should have identification cards.” The people I spoke with at least thought it entirely reasonable that we should carry around a document which proves to those in authority who we are.

Now to those amongst us for who memory is no longer our strongest asset I would remind you that indeed Identity Cards very nearly came to pass in this country just over ten years ago.

The then Labour government, whirling in a cloud of anti-terror laws, argued that the benefits of such a scheme would be significant. Indeed back in 2003 61% of those who responded to the Government’s consultation on the introduction of ID cards were supportive.

Of course over the years public support slipped, and even though legislation was enacted by the time the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, the ‘thoroughly illiberal’ programme was cancelled.

But here is the important part ten years down the line less and less of us, it seems to me, are concerned about ‘big brother’ watching us..

If we bother to think about it we know we are caught on CCTV countless times each day, but we don’t think about, because we also know that such cameras play an important part in our lives whether it is helping to apprehend villains  right through to keeping us informed of whether traffic is moving.

To many of us the only time we time we come into contact with biometrics is when we return from holiday and marvel at how quickly we can get through customs these days.

Most of us might think about sinister foreign governments stealing our data but then we think ‘there are 60 million records in this country, why would Russia want my information?’

Most of us understand that there are potential drawbacks to any system but when the good outweighs the bad, as it seems to in our modern day surveillance culture we not only live with it but we accept it.

In the coming months and years we will see far more stories where greater surveillance is touted as a proposed solution. My guess is that society will unflinchingly accept it.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

On joining the Conservative Party - the way forward for me, the way forward for Britain

As a lifelong Labour voter, and some time Labour councillor, I did something today which for many years I thought that I would never do.

I joined the Conservative Party.

For me it is the logical end to a journey which I have been on for a number years.

I want to explain as best as I can what has brought me to making that journey, that crossing of the great political divide.

It can be summed up in three words: decency, principles and self.

Decency

Back in early June 2013 I had been the leader of the Labour group at North West Leicestershire District Council for just over two years. One day I received a letter in the post from, Richard Blunt, my opposite number on the Conservative benches who happened to be the Leader of the Council, about the sensitive planning policy of making provision for travellers, a serious problem facing the district.

Without disclosing too much information because of a lack of local plan the district council had been losing appeal after appeal once planning decisions had been adjudicated by the inspectorate.

The Council leader was understandably concerned about this state of affairs but also acutely conscious of the fallout if his group were to positively address the problem. I was conscious of the need for the Tory administration to move towards resolving the issue, something that would have been difficult for them without cross party support,  and together we agreed that the mature, grown up thing to do for the good of the district was to work together.

I stipulated that given the potential repercussions I wanted my minority group to have equal standing with the Tory administration in a working party we were looking at establishing to work towards resolution on an evidence based basis. To his eternal credit Richard agreed and said he would take our plans back to his group.

On Monday 17th June 2013 I received notification from the Leader that his Conservative group had agreed to our plans, a big concession from them given the natural suspicion between the two parties. All I had to do was deliver the agreement of my group.

But I couldn’t do it. An hour of fierce debate which swayed between ‘it’s the right thing too do for our district’ and ‘let the Tories hang, we will benefit at the ballot box’ eventually came down narrowly on the side of putting perceived electoral advantage over the residents of North West Leicestershire.

I was disgusted that local Labour politicians who purported to be working for their communities would seek to cynically manipulate big issues for a few votes.

The facts stood for themselves, the Tories hadn’t taken such a cynical approach. They had reached out for unity to deal with a difficult issue, Labour had turned their backs.

I resigned as leader of my group on the spot. Of course there was the usual story of ‘work commitments’ but the truth is that was the night I had seen the difference between politicking and decency demonstrated to me perfectly.

Principles

When you become involved in local politics you realise, comparatively, how little power you actually have.

You are bound by the legislation created by higher powers (in particular when they tell you there are things that you MUST do), you are bound by the simple fact that you can’t spend more money than you collect and you are inextricably tied to one simple rule: we govern by consensus and whatever we do must ultimately be acceptable to us, the general public.

I have said time and time again that the easiest thing in the world is to be against things. Evoking that truism that ‘we oppose in poetry, we govern in prose’ running even the smallest of parish councils is constantly a battle of what you want to do versus what you can do.

When Theresa May took to the steps of Downing Street last July she gave a masterclass in that tough balancing act.

She spoke about the steps to improving social justice that had been achieved under the previous government. Indeed, Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nicholls highlighted the work Mrs May  had done personally on human trafficking in his comments on the Prime Minister taking office.

Mrs May spoke passionately about the challenges facing the impoverished right here in Britain.

As a white, working-class boy myself, a boy who went to state school and didn’t go to university I was physically taken aback that the plight of the generations that followed mine in the kind of area that I represent would become, perhaps for the first time, a priority for our government.

Mrs May was speaking to me.

If it takes miles to change the course of a supertanker, just think how much more is needed to change the course of a country.

In that speech on the steps of Downing Street I knew that keeping the country on track, both fiscally or socially, wouldn’t be easy. Change is often glacial, but I heard that the priorities and direction were the right ones for Britain and for the first time as a Labour voter I thought that a Tory, Mrs May, was the right person to steer the ship.

Self

I’m not going to lie. I’ve joined the Conservative Party because I am a little selfish too.

I want the best for me and the best for my family and I believe that now the Conservatives are the best placed to deliver that.

There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘just about managing’ and, to an extent, that includes me.

My wife and I work hard. We want a nice house. We want to take our children on holiday once a year. We want to be able to choose to pay for them to do extra-curricular stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s no more than millions of others up and down the country want.

But it’s been tough over these past few years, it’s been tough for others too.

As a County Councillor I know only too well how difficult finances are at the minute. My own council has determined to increase council tax by 4%.  Leicestershire residents will find it tough and I know no one in the Conservative group is taking delight from such an increase.

It shows the difference between the Conservatives who understand the difficulty for working families and Labour who called for an even steeper rise.

It’s the difference between struggling to pay more because you know ultimately it is necessary and that increasing council tax is a last resort and struggling to pay more simply because the council has the power. It seems to me the difference between Tory and Labour right now is an understanding of the lives of those who are ‘just about managing’.

But it goes deeper. I’m passionate that our National Health Service remains free at the point of use, I’m sorry but as long as that continues I’m not wedded as to who delivers it.

I care about men and women who have to use public transport to get to work, I’m not bothered about artificially created politically motivated strikes aimed that hurt them and are little more than stunts aimed at ‘bringing down the government’.

I want to be a member of a political party who understands ordinary working men and women. When I joined I fervently believe that that was Labour. It isn’t any longer.

There is only one party and one leader that has the gravitas, the decency and the principle to make the country stronger for me and my family.

That party is the Conservatives. That leader is Theresa May.