Tracey is on the ball!

Crouch_T1I must confess to some disbelief when I read we had a minister in Cameron’s government called Tracey; in fact Tracey Crouch. I suppose it demonstrates an inclusivity among Conservative ranks where Jeremy, Hilary, Lucy or Vernon might have been expected among the Cameron ranks but are, in fact, all names of Labour MPs!

I was still less impressed to learn that this lady is the Minister for Sport and an opponent of hunting. She seems to support football which is well enough if you like this game but to oppose hunting is, in my view, unforgivable and should have disbarred her from membership of the Conservative Party and certainly from standing as a Conservative MP.

However, my opinion of this lady has moderated slightly having heard her views on the proper approach to the welfare tax credit cuts. She said people facing a cut should cut down on luxuries such as premium TV channels. Dead right. We have created a culture in which inability to buy expensive trainers for people’s kids or to enjoy a day at the dogs or in the bookies or their fags is seen as the fault of government. Well it is not.  I think our Tracey is far from out of touch in her views. I suspect she has listened to many of her constituents who pay their taxes and who resent seeing them funding the extravagant lifestyles  of others who cannot differentiate a luxury from an essential and who are happy for others to subsidise their lifestyle choice.

Cameron should be pleased he has a minister willing to tell the public the truth about Kids Company_1welfare dependency even if she has chronic views about hunting. If our Tracey had been in charge of funding the Kids Company run by the cranky Camilla Batmanghelidjh and the ex-BBC luvvie, Alan Yentob, the government might not have wasted £41 million pounds of our money paid to Kids Company that handed out wads of cash to youngsters in inner city areas who promptly spent it on what they chose and which I suspect we can guess pretty accurately

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Cyber pests

locustNo – I am not referring to the myriad of people who send spoof e-mails that attempt to hack my personal details or the equally irritating marketing e-mails for items I would never want to purchase.  The pests to which I refer are Microsoft and LinkedIn.

MicrosoftEvery time I boot up my laptop, Microsoft invite me to upgrade my software to Windows 10 and every time I decline.  The reason is simple.  When it was first launched, I opted to upgrade and waited patiently for the on-line miracle to complete.  All appeared well and the new version seemed to have some good features.  However, when I called up an important piece of MS software that I use daily, I was surprised and horrified to find that Windows 10 will  not run MS Money.  No warning; no advice; just a refusal to load it after I had upgraded.  Now Microsoft have long ceased to support their own product MS Money but that has not prevented me from relying on it hugely and using it daily to manage my finances.  So, faced with the total and instant loss of all my financial information, I pressed the button to roll back the Windows 10 upgrade.

So, Microsoft, please stop badgering me to upgrade; I can’t and I won’t until it will allow me to run MS Money.

LinkedInMy second cyber pest is LinkedIn.  Several times per week they e-mail me asking me to link with one or more people with whom I have e-mailed.  The e-mail appears to come from the individual, someone I know and they can be persistent and remind me of their request.  I have discovered in the past that these individuals who are apparently imploring me to join them in LinkedIn have no idea they are badgering me.  I strongly suspect that they allow LinkedIn access to their on-line address books and LinkedIn simply e-mail everyone they find in it to try to increase their membership base.  I think this is a damned cheek and an invasion not only of my privacy but also that of the individuals who unknowing allow LinkedIn to pester people.

I can see absolutely no benefit from joining LinkedIn and plenty of disadvantage with their aggressive marketing approach so I simply delete requests immediately.  In fact, when I get a minute, I ought to write an Outlook rule to send all LinkedIn e-mails directly to the Junk Mail folder.



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Remembering Maggie Thatcher

ThatcherM3Baroness Margaret Thatcher of Kesteven LG, OM, PC, FRS would have been 90 years old today (13 October 2015) if she was still alive.  Sadly, she died on 8 April 2013 after suffering a stroke.  Her daughter, Carol had let it be know that she was suffering from dementia and seems to have declined steadily since the death of her beloved Denis on 26 June 2003.  In line with her wishes she received a ceremonial funeral, including full military honours, with a church service at St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 April. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip attended the funeral, the second time in the Queen’s reign that she had attended the funeral of a former prime minister, the first being Winston Churchill’s in 1965.

She was appointed a Privy Counsellor (PC) upon becoming Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1970.   She was appointed a Member of the Order of Merit (OM) (an Order within the personal gift of the Queen) within two weeks of leaving office. Denis Thatcher was made a Baronet at the same time.  She became a peeress in the House of

Thatcher Arms

Thatcher Arms

Lords in 1992 as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.  She was appointed a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter (LG), the United Kingdom’s highest order of chivalry, in 1995.  She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1983, not without some controversy among some of the existing Fellows who exacted their revenge when, to its eternal shame, the University of Oxford (of which Margaret Thatcher was an alumnus, having graduated from Somerville College) voted against awarding her an honorary doctorate.

What can I say about her?  She transformed this country.  She gave us back our pride though her determined leadership.  Churchill led the war against Fascist tyranny and was a great wartime leader.  Margaret Thatcher led the fight against insipid liberalism and the tyranny of the left and was our greatest peace time leader of her century.  She led a Party that was fractious and not always welcoming of its first woman leader and the country’s first woman Prime Minister.  She was inspirational, not without her faults and flaws but this country would be infinitely poorer if she had not served as its Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.

The second volume of Charles Moore’s biography of this great lady is available from the Daily Telegraph and is a great read.

Requiescat in pace, Margaret.


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Integration or segregation – are we all tribal at heart?

Former Archbishop George Carey

Former Archbishop
George Carey

It is a brave public figure who debates ethnicity, integration and tribalism so I was pleasantly dumbfounded when I heard former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, recently say “Some will not like me saying this but, in recent years, there has been too much Muslim mass immigration to Europe. This has resulted in ghettos of Muslim communities living parallel lives to mainstream society, following their own customs and even their own laws.”  He went on to say “Isn’t it high-time instead for the oil-rich Gulf States to open their doors to the many Muslims who are fleeing conflict? Surely if they are concerned for fellow Muslims who prefer to live in Muslim-majority countries, then they have a moral responsibility to intervene?”

There are many levels at which the issue of integration versus segregation can be argued.

When planning permission is sought for a local housing estate, developers are required to provide for a minimum quantum of “affordable housing”.  What this means is generally taken to be provision of houses to let that are owned by a housing association where the rent is subsidised and tenancies are offered on a measure of need. Now the reality of this “affordable housing” is that someone is subsidising the capital cost of building it and that can only be the seller of the land or the developer of the site or the buyers of the remaining market housing.  I rather suspect a good chunk of the hidden subsidy is borne by those people who can afford to buy a brand new home.  During the consultation stage for this housing, in addition to the inevitable opposition to any housing from a swathe of the population, there will be a demand from well meaning individuals for the affordable housing to be integrated or “pepper potted”, as opposed to being “ghettoised” in a distant and murky corner of the estate.  While this is a wholly commendable attitude, I think we need to question its practicability and desirability.  At heart, many human beings are deeply tribal.  Look at any football game; sit in a pub and listen to the conversation about sport; engage in conversation with a stranger and one will be asked “who do you support?”  Look at youngsters who have been conned into buying perfectly good jeans with holes scored out of the knees and you will realise the deeply tribal instincts that many possess.  So, returning to the issue of affordable housing, anyone who insists on integrating low cost housing in an estate needs to answer a simple question.  Imagine you have just paid half a million pounds for a smallish four-bedroom house on a new estate with limited living accommodation, inadequate storage and a single small garage that will not take your 4X4 or your wife’s 4X4 or even your eldest child’s 4X4.  Shortly after moving in, the house next to you which is in the ownership of a housing association shows signs of occupation.  First to arrive is a heavily tattooed woman with several extremely noisy children and a collection of barking dogs.  They are followed by a series of extremely muscled men of varying nationalities who appear to be fathers to the assortment of children that appear and disappear regularly. The men bring clapped-out old cars which are dumped on the tiny piece of grass in front of your neighbour’s house, partially dismantled and then left.  Do you welcome the result of affordable housing based on assessed need or do you worry about your living environment and the ongoing value of your home?  Do you still support “pepper-potting”?   Now 75% of social tenants are not as I have described and are decent and honourable people who deserve a proper home but 25% are just as I have described.  Are they better off dotted around an estate or grouped with people of their own style?  Of course, the answer is “neither”.  They are better off if they learn to adopt more acceptable life styles but institutions like housing associations are too often incapable of enforcing acceptable norms and the result is years of misery for others.

The same questions arise with schooling.  Many parents are desperate for their children to do well at school and to have a successful and rewarding career.  To achieve this, they will want their children to attend a school with high educational standards and an ethos that encourages learning and good social values.  A lucky few will pay for this privilege by sending their children to a private school and paying twice over through their taxes and through school fees.  They will want their children to speak well, to acquire confidence and good social skills and good moral standards.  They may have strong religious or ethical views which they wish to see passed on to their children.  There are people who would seek to prevent parents from choosing this course for their children on the grounds of “equality” but I would say this was equalising downwards and producing an unacceptable lowest common denominator of learning or the lack of it.  In our tribal society, there are, very sadly, people who do not value education, probably having had a bad experience themselves and who lead their children to scorn learning and good social standards.  If there are just a few of these children in a class, the impact on those who need and want to learn can be catastrophic.  Michael Gove’s school reforms and the growing number of academies and free schools are going some way towards creating more of an education market where competition will inevitably drive up standards but, oh dear, it is a slow process and the teacher unions (Gove’s “Blob”) do all they can to sabotage these reforms.

So we come to the big one and return to George Carey’s argument where I started.  We are all tribal and tend to want to be with our own kind. Manual workers with manual workers; skilled craftsmen with others; professionals with professionals; Arsenal supporters with other football lovers and so on.  Of course it is not altogether healthy and mixing with others of widely different outlooks and views is conducive to a healthy society but there must be limits and bounds.  I think that unlikely combination of George Carey and David Cameron have shown us where they can be set.

Prime Minister

Prime Minister

At the Conservative Party Conference on Thursday, David Cameron said: “Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with children learning about their faith, whether it’s at madrassas, Sunday schools or Jewish yeshivas but, in some madrassas, we’ve got children being taught that they shouldn’t mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people.  These children should be having their minds opened, their horizons broadened, not having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate.”  He went on to say: “If an institution is teaching children intensively then, whatever it’s religion, we will, like any other school, make it register so it can be inspected and be in no doubt, if you’re teaching intolerance, we will shut you down”.  Of course, the devil will be in the detail and in translating a sensible policy into practice without being snared on the hooks of political correctness or sabotaged by liberal judges with little understanding of the real world in which most of us live.

While America was for a long time the land of the free, accepting all within its shores, it has learned the lessons of practicality and is now very careful about extending its citizenship.  Angela Merkel is in trouble for allowing her heart to rule her head and, perhaps, for believing an ageing population needed revitalising with unlimited inward migration despite the obvious dangers.  She is going to have to back-track and the EU’s obsession with free movement of labour looks doomed.

Thanks goodness we have a Conservative majority government that is concerned with the security of our nation and the well-being of all of its citizens.  It is only too clear what Jeremy Corby would seek to impose on the hard-working majority if he had the chance and I am afraid the same goes for the left-leaning Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland.

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More power to local government? I doubt it!

Corbyn thugs_1

Egged delegate

I have been enjoying the Conservative Party Conference from my arm chair in front of the TV.  Manchester was always a long way for this southerner and, while I enjoyed Birmingham where I could stay on a narrow boat and walk to the conference centre, I am very glad I will not have to run the gauntlet of Corbyn’s left-wing thugs in Manchester.  I think their behaviour warns us of worse to come.  Maggie had the courage to take on Scargill and the miners who were bent on bringing down the government.  I hope that courage resides as strongly in the present government.

George Osborne

George Osborne

George Osborne may have made councillors’ hearts beat a little faster when he promised radical devolution from central to local government by handing over £26 billion of business rates (National Non-Domestic Rates or NNDR) to local councils.  After nearly half a century in which local government has lost more and more power to the Treasury and, more recently to central planning, this may sound like really good news but I am not so sure.  As always with local government, the devil will be in the detail.  Eric Pickles tinkered with the local government finance system when he was in charge of local government but the result was so complex and conditioned that I am not sure local councillors noticed the difference.

Let’s look at some of the complexities.

Firstly, local government is funded from four main sources:

  • charges that councils are allowed to make for some services;
  • council tax, paid by local residents and based on the historical value of their homes;
  • business rates which are set as a national poundage on the rateable value of business premises, are collected into a national pool. The pool is then apportioned with some being handed back to councils and some retained by central government.
  • government grant which has declined substantially over recent years and is a balancing figure to top up councils for the difference between the above three sources and a government calculation of each council’s financial need.

Complicated?  You are not kidding!  If Osborne is serious about handing over the whole of the business rates to local government, he will have to work out how to deal with the huge differentials in revenue between economically successful areas and those that struggle.   This is no easy task and I can detect lots of “ifs and buts” in the small print that is beginning to emerge in some of Osborne’s throw away remarks.  For example, in my own district council of Cherwell, business rates payable in the current year work out at about £521 per head of population while Oxford City has £548 and South Oxfordshire just £319.  Further afield, Birmingham City collects £391 per head of population while Boston in Lincolnshire collects just £302.  Currently, half of business rates are siphoned off by central government while half stays with local councils.

The problems do not stop with huge inequalities in income from business rates around the country.  There is also the nightmare of two-tier areas with county councils and district councils.  For example, in Oxfordshire, there are Oxfordshire County Council and five district councils: Cherwell, Oxford City,  South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse and West Oxfordshire.  County councils are large, strategic authorities with child and adult social care as the largest area of spending, followed by highways and waste disposal and a plethora of smaller duties.  Their spending dwarfs that of their district councils whose main responsibilities are planning, housing, recreation and waste collection.  However, of the 50% of business rates handed back to local government, 40% goes to district councils and just 10% to county councils; the inverse of their spending patterns.

Quite how civil servants will unravel these and other complexities is not clear from the Chancellor’s announcement nor from the response of the Local Government Association.  My guess is they have not worked much of it out yet and they have got until 2020 for the full implementation of the scheme.  My best guess is that the Treasury will never let go of the stranglehold they have on local democracy and the final translation of George Osborne’s announcement will leave local councils as financially constrained as ever.  I hope I am wrong.

If local government hopes MPs will welcome and encourage devolution, they should think again.  My experience of many MPs of all parties is a dislike and a distrust of local government, linked with an appalling lack of understanding by many.  I remember a picture in the local media of David Cameron with members of Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service (a county council function)  in which he heaped praise on tiny West Oxfordshire District Council.  His view of local government has always been of this small council whose boundaries match his parliamentary constituency and that view seems to be matched by many MPs.

In my view, it is the strategic authorities that offer the best opportunity to grow our economy and to improve people’s living conditions.  Authorities like Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire if only the latter would wake up, co-operate across the council tiers and embrace the need for economic growth.  In the metropolitan areas, it is the Manchester model of co-operative working that Osborne has seen and is promoting that has every prospect of delivering rising living standards through economic growth.  The opportunities are there for the taking if national politicians could see strategic councils or collections of such councils as allies in delivering political and economic success and not as competitors.  America and many European nations enjoy strong and independent local government where being a state governor or city mayor is a stepping stone to a successful national political career.  I am afraid many UK MPs who have served as councillors seem unwilling to admit to the fact when they get to Westminster.  Check out a few MPs’ CVs if you don’t believe me!


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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.


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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.


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