Missing manners

imageI used to pity dentists who spent most of their working lives peering down people’s throats. Increasingly, this is an experience shared by anyone travelling on public transport or walking in a shopping centre. I refer to the sight of a gaping mouth when a fellow traveller or shopper yawns without placing their hand over their mouth. As a youngster, I was taught very firmly, to cover my mouth when I yawned, coughed or sneezed. It appears to me that those lessons in basic good manners are no longer passed on to the next generation. Whether this is the responsibility of parents or teachers, I don’t know but it seems to have been lost.

I suspect school teachers are dissuaded from passing on what might be thought of as middle class values for fear of “discrimination” or some other politically correct nonsense. If that happens for a generation, you have a set of parents largely ignorant of good manners. This might explain a growing lack of simple good manners in society but how to recover?

I can only suggest faking a yawn and ostentatiously raising one’s hand in response to the sight of the back of someone else’s throat but I fear such example may pass over the head of people who have never heard of good manners.  I think it goes back to schools.


Posted in Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The countryside as an engine of growth

George Osborne

George Osborne

I was fascinated to read the thoughts of our Chancellor, George

Elizabeth Truss

Elizabeth Truss

Osborne and our Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Elizabeth Truss, in today’s Daily Telegraph.  While their plans to ensure our villages share in the prosperity that a Conservative government is bringing, there are some issues that just aren’t working for villages at the moment and I am not sure they have considered them fully.

In my twenty-four years as an Oxfordshire county councillor, eleven of them as Leader of the Council and with DC as one of my Oxon MPs, I represented five delightful villages in North Oxfordshire.  Three of them, Adderbury, Bloxham and Bodicote were large with populations ranging from 2,500 to 3,500; two were smaller, Milcombe had some 650 residents and Milton was an old farming hamlet with a population of just 200.

The three larger villages were situated just beyond Banbury, separated by a sliver of farmers’ fields.  During the last ten years, these villages have all witnessed considerable housing growth with modern estates “bolted on” to their edges.  With the exception of Adderbury, the style of these estates has been increasingly urban and wholly failed to replicate the rural style of Bloxham and Bodicote.  In the case of Bodicote, it is now effectively connected to its urban neighbour, Banbury and recent planning applications threaten to cement this joining of urban and rural even more powerfully.

The two smaller villages are a little further from Banbury and much less sustainable so have largely survived the blight brought by inappropriate developments in the larger ones.

Let me start with the Green Belt.  As I have said, the villages I represented are surrounded by green fields but the quantum of green space has diminished over the years with successive planning applications approved under the coalition’s and now this government’s rush for housing growth at any price.  Many of my constituents were firmly of the view that they had the benefit of Green Belt around their villages and have learned the hard way that this is not the case and the green fields that once protected their villages from urban encroachment no longer do.  Indeed, the Oxford Green Belt is a major problem for north Oxfordshire villages because its constricting corset around the City is increasing pressure for housing beyond it, including the villages I represented.

Milton Road Bloxham

Milton Road

Let me move on to design.  The planning system locally seems almost incapable of influencing design and we have seen hideously urban estates planted on the edge of our fine old Domesday villages.  To the left is the worst example at the Milton Road entrance to Bloxham and adding absolutely nothing to the architectural or social quality of this fine old Domesday village.  Estates like this could be found anywhere in Banbury, Bicester, Brighton, Barnsley or Brentwood and bear absolutely no relation to the architectural style of Bloxham that had evolved gently since Domesday. This is not the only blot in this area; just the worst. A newer one is emerging in Bodicote with 1,000 or more houses to be built as an urban extension to Banbury but much of it in the Parish of Bodicote and joining up this Domesday village to its urban neighbour.

Next, I turn to size.  In this headlong rush to build, build, build and with a political attempt to minimise the take of green fields, we are cramming too many little boxes into inadequate space either for the social or economic good of their residents.  A prospective buyer of a house on the burgeoning Bodicote estate (“Longford Park” as it is known) noted that there was no room for a wardrobe in the largest bedroom and was advised by the selling agent that buyers were using the smallest bedroom for storage because it wasn’t really big enough for a bed!  One resident on this estate has already, very honestly and properly, sought and obtained planning permission to convert their integral garage into more living space and I suspect more applications will follow but with the inevitable parking of motor cars on the inadequate road space.  I will return to parking later but first need to expand on the social and economic dis-benefits of our new housing stock.  If you build houses that are too small to accommodate a dining table and chairs or to provide separate space for children to entertain their friends, the social consequences are not difficult to see.  To encourage the practice of snacking on the settee while watching the TV is a shameful consequence of modern housing design.  On the economic front, the Osborne/Truss piece referred to the modern practice of home working and the ability to do this with super-fast broadband.  Well, broadband may be coming but you also need space in your home to do your home working.  It may not need to be an entire room but it will need to be a space for a table, chair and, maybe, a little storage and if it is both a husband and a wife who home work and a child or two who need to do their school home work, the inadequacy of space in British homes now being built should be blindingly obvious.

Next, I come to the vexed issue of the motor car.  Our planners seem to have been comprehensively brain-washed into a belief that walking and cycling are wonderful, public transport is abundant, regular and reliable and the motor car is an invention of the devil.  As a result, everything is done to deter people from owning or using motor cars.  Houses are built with laughably inadequate parking provision;  what garage space there is, is often too small for today’s generation of 4X4s that many favour and, in any case, given the lack of  storage space in modern houses, the garage is often given over to store all the possessions of our consumer-driven age.  The result is cars left outside houses, on pavements and on roads that have also been deliberately designed, Canute-like, to discourage the use of the private car.  Now these policies may work in urban areas where the school, train station and bus stop are all a short walk away although I am not convinced.  However, in villages like those I represented with an hourly bus service that stops at 6:00 pm and does not run on Sundays, it is blindingly obvious that people are going to need the motor car to get about.  Add to that the hilly nature of my old patch that makes cycling a pursuit for the super-fit enthusiast and you would think planners would realise the need to differentiate transport policies between urban and rural areas but that has not happened in Oxfordshire yet and I suspect in many other places.

Finally, there was a hint from Osborne/Truss about better local government.   Here in Oxfordshire, we endure the two tiers of  county and district councils.  Districts are responsible for planning but counties for transport and more strategic infrastructure.  However, the county council’s ability to plan strategically was weakened some years ago with the abolition of the county structure plan when regional planning was introduced by the Blair government.  While regional planning was quickly scrapped by the coalition, the gap between national and local planning remains and I think this is a serious mistake.  Districts are too small to take a strategic view of transport and economic needs over a functional economic area and Whitehall is too remote.  I welcome Osborne’s support for the Manchester model of joined up local government which covers a functional economic area and plans for the transport, environmental, economic and even health needs of the wider area.  I believe it is a form of devolution that England desperately needs as a whole but, while it may find its way to  Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and the likes and even forward-looking Cambridgeshire, I fear Oxfordshire will be a long way behind in the queue and will lose the opportunity to promote the growth we all need and that the Osborne and Truss piece sets out to promote.

Your wish to sustain rural England is welcome, Chancellor and Secretary of State but there is a long way to go to deliver your vision but will retain the best of our rural communities while making then real engines of economic growth and places where people wish to put down roots.


Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grexit must happen today

EU flag

EU flag

What an EU shambles!  Last Sunday, Greece voted against austerity.  This weekend, the Greek left-wing government has put up a deal that accepts an austerity package but at a huge financial cost to EU members.  There are rumours that the meeting of all 28 country leaders has been cancelled but the Eurozone members are still to meet.  With Germany and France at loggerheads and Finland threatening to veto any deal, it is not just a major shambles but the antithesis of what European integration was always supposed to mean.

Greek flag
Greek flag

 The simple truth is that Greece should never have been allowed to join the EU to start with.  Neither should quite a few other member countries. It is utterly obvious that you cannot shackle together countries with hugely different economies unless you also shackle together their political and fiscal decision making.  It would be pointless to allow bicycles and minis to join in a F1 race; you would not allow an eight-stone teenager to go into the boxing ring with a professional heavyweight; you would not expect a railway train to be made up of carriages with different track widths.  It was madness to harness into a single currency countries with vastly different economic profiles, from first world to third world.  It was never going to work without joining up political and fiscal decision making.

So, hard as the decision may be, Greece has to exit the euro zone and, probably the EU.  It will be better off once it has come through the immediate trauma with a devalued drachma providing some relief once it has been implemented.  There will be pain for many creditors but there will be considerable pain for Greek residents who are not to blame directly for their predicament although many of them have quietly enjoyed the lack of financial discipline that has characterised the Greek economy. This means the EU and I suppose that includes the UK will have to provide immediate humanitarian aid to get the Greeks through the immediate drama.  What the EU should not do is to approve a fudge that will allow Greece to limp along within the Eurozone and with a burden of debt it cannot hope to repay and inevitably bring the country back to crisis point within a short time.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Croquet’s demise – a solution?

croquet_1As a regular reader of the Daily Telegraph on my I-Pad, I have been intrigued to see references in two successive days to the predicted demise of the game of croquet.  In Thursday’s Telegraph, an unidentified reporter predicted the demise of the sport by  2037 unless younger people pick up the croquet mallet.  He or she typically depicted it as a sport of the upper classes, remote from Joe Soap.  As a symbol of hope, he described the creation of a crazy croquet course at Heathrow Terminal 2 and I suspect the piece was stimulated by a press release from the British Airports Authority.

However, Friday’s Telegraph contains a piece in the Comment section by Jemima Lewis.  She pans the Croquet Association for its incomprehensible rules and seems to end her piece more applauding the demise of croquet than hoping for its continuance.

Prescott playing croquet at Dorneywood

Prescott playing croquet at Dorneywood

However, I have a simple solution.  The sport needs an ambassador.  Someone who can cross the class divide and express support for a sport that has a long tradition and can be great fun for all.  Of course, it is Lord Prescott and here he is, playing croquet at his stately home, enjoyed at the time as Deputy Prime Minister, at Dorneywood.  Although he no longer enjoys the trappings of ministerial office, I have no doubt John Prescott has kept the thrill of this sport and would make a wonderful ambassador for croquet as he toured the stately homes of England that have the lawns to make the sport a success.

Posted in Political humour | Tagged , | Leave a comment

National living wage – not good for all

George Osborne

George Osborne

Congratulations George, on a clever budget that wrong-footed an already weak Labour Party and cheered up our normally fractious and disputatious Conservative MPs.  However, I am afraid it is not all good news for potential supporters.  A national living wage may send an important political message to many who need to hear it but it will present serious problems to some organisations that deserve it and a good few that certainly do not.  Who are they?

Obviously and, I think, fair game are the big retailers.  Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury, Tesco, Waitrose and whoever I have forgotten rely on employing large numbers of relatively low-paid staff.  They train them and they rely on their need to Tescofit in their work with other duties.  I suspect there will be very little sympathy for the plight of large retailers having to up their hourly rate of pay but watch out for the impact flowing through into supermarket prices!

Two others organisations face a much more challenging situation.

social care_1First is the social care industry, managed and funded by local government that is already struggling with some of the highest levels of funding reductions imposed by central government.  In two-tier areas like Oxfordshire, it is the county council that has responsibility for social care, needing to work closely with the hospital and primary health care sector.  In unitary areas, it will be the unitary council that similarly finds social care funding to be a huge pressure on resources.  Most social care is provided by independent contractors whether profit-making businesses or charitable or voluntary organisations.  They rely on paying their workers the present level of minimum wage and have had to squeeze their margins for years, given the ongoing pressure on local government budgets.  Increasing the minimum wage (now George Osborne’s “national living wage”) is likely to put the final and irrevocable screw on local government finance unless the Treasury understands that neither local government nor their charitable contractors pay corporation tax and will therefore need additional financial support to continue to meet their constituents’ social care needs.  I don’t think that  message has got through the doors of Number 11 yet!

Banbury MillThere is a second and more worrying sector that could face financial armageddon from Osborne’s national living wage.  It is the community sector.  I write as Chairman of the Mill Arts Centre, Banbury and I know we face serious financial pressure if we will have to increase the hourly rate of our casual bar and box office staff from £6.50 now to £7.20 from April 2016 and to £9.00 from April 2020.  The Mill is losing its county council funding and moving to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) as soon as possible.  We are making good progress in this direction and moving from years of loss making to one of modest profitability.  We already face a new financial burden in the obligation to enrol all staff members in a workplace pension scheme (auto enrolment), probably adding £10k pa to our pay bill. I doubt anyone in Whitehall thought of the impact on small, community businesses like The Mill.

Then, we are hit with a national living wage that will add to our payroll costs hugely.  We rely on using temporary staff to man our bars and box office whenever we expect peaks in demand.  In addition to the minimum wage rate per hour for casual staff, we have to pay them a holiday allowance which already increases the actual cost per hour.  A lot of the casual staff at The Mill are there because they have a commitment to the arts and an ambition to be part of the industry.  I don’t know how many of them are drawing Gordon Brown’s working tax credit but the stark reality is that, if The Mill has to pay substantially more per hour for its casual staff, it will seek to employ people for fewer hours.  Bad news for people who want to work in the arts industry.  Again, I wonder if any of the spotty-faced young advisers in the Treasury have any idea of the impact of their policies in the real world?


Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Referendum lessons



I was in Scotland during the week in which the Scottish independence referendum was held, driving up from Oxfordshire early in the week and driving back again after the referendum had closed.  As we crossed the border from England to Scotland, there were a lot of NO posters in farmers’ fields and in the larger houses in the more rural part of south Scotland.   We saw hardly any YES posters until we drove through Galashiels where what were obviously council houses were all plastered with them.  It may be easy to draw conclusions from visiting a tiny part of Scotland but I sensed we were seeing a dividing line between richer and poorer; between self-supporting and dependency.  I believe in the Union so was greatly relieved to learn that the NOs had it by a substantial majority.

Greek flag

Greek flag

Listening to news broadcasts on the Greek referendum and reading newspaper reports, I sense a similar divide between the NOs – younger people on low incomes or unemployed and those who have enjoyed Greece’s liberal tax and retirement practices – versus the YESs – the middle and wealthier classes and businesses – who can understand the financial disciplines of the market.

Well, I suppose it is no surprise that the Greek NOs had it by 60 to 40.  Watch the Scottish woman try to build her client dependency base to ensure a Greek answer when there is another Scottish referendum.

But, returning to Greece, the home of democracy, the country is clearly in a pickle and so is the Eurozone.  The Greeks have voted against austerity and against paying back a debt they cannot afford to repay but to which their political masters eagerly agreed.  Should the people of Greece pay a dreadful price for the profligate borrowing and spending and also the many Spanish practices of their country?  Tax appears to be a voluntary exercise for many and retirement seems to be normal at 50 years of age.

However, the European Union cannot escape blame.  Greece should never have been made a member of the Eurozone and was only allowed in by a complete fudge of the financial rules.  The Eurocrats bear a burden of guilt here and it may not stay with Greece alone.  The admission of much of eastern Europe is likely to increase the financial pressure that is inevitable between wealthy first world countries and struggling second or third world ones.  Creating a monetary union without an equivalent political union was never going to work as experts made clear at the time but it has taken the rogue state of Greece to make it clear.   Thanks goodness we stayed out despite the Kenneth Clarks and Michael Heseltines of our world who were so wrong.

So who has to blink first?  Well, it is clear that Greece is determined to deny austerity and expects other European countries to support their lifestyle.  That makes it clear that Greece should never have been in the Eurozone and needs to exit as soon as can be arranged.  Others with the same dependency culture need to do the same.

However, to ditch Greece without the Euro and absolutely broke would not reflect the degree of guilt the Eurocrats should share for letting Greece into the EU club to start with.  I think this means the Eurozone nations needs to support Greece financially into its new drachma world where they will hopefully learn the financial facts of life,  including there is no such thing as a free lunch, a tax system that is mainly voluntary or a retirement age of 50.


Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Black Boy has a new claim to fame

Black Boy Milton

Black Boy

The Black Boy in Milton has a new claim to fame to add to its considerable history.  This delightful village pub in the tiny hamlet of Milton (the one in North Oxfordshire and not the Milton near Abingdon) has a wonderfully politically incorrect name and long may it thrive which seems likely now that Marco Pierre-White has gone and it is being well looked after by the new owners, Pete and Catriona.

Their latest claim to fame is a visit on Saturday June 20th from Cam and Sam; yes, the Prime Minister and his wife who popped in for some lunch and, by all accounts, enjoyed

Cam & Sam

Cam & Sam

themselves.  Pete is clearly very chuffed and telling his customers about his surprise guests.  Catriona is a little more circumspect, fearing her Scottish accent might have led the PM to suspect she is a closet SNP voter!  Anyway, it has to be good news for my local and who knows how many other members of the Chipping Norton set might appear.  Could we be seeing Jeremy Clarkson, Rebekah Brooks, Steve Hilton and Elisabeth Murdoch?  Would we want to?  Probably not if we saw a return to the style of Marco but I think this is unlikely with Pete and Catriona who are turning the Black Boy back into a great village pub with good drinks and good food.

Previous claims to fame are many and varied:

  • One landlord mortgaged the pub up to the hilt to pay for improvements shortly before Black Wednesday when interest rates rocketed and he found himself wholly unable to meet the loan repayments.  He walked away from the pub leaving a selection of sharp knives for the bankers on his bar!
  • A Black Boy landlady had a boyfriend who walked off with our MP’s wife, leaving her to run the Black Boy on her own and leaving our MP, Tony Baldry, bereft.
  • Another landlord tried for planning permission to sell the pub car park for housing,  When the villagers of Milton found out, he was lucky not to be strung up from the pub sign but hastily returned to the east end of London whence he came.
  • And lately, we had Marco Pierre-White who tried very hard to wreck this delightful pub and who comprehensively upset residents of Milton and many of the villagers around.  Thankfully, Pete and Catriona  are undoing the harm he did.
Posted in Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment