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.
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Time to become a Labour supporter?

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

I am very tempted to register as a Labour supporter and to pay

Karl Marx likened to Jeremy

Karl Marx
to Jeremy

my £3.00.  This would enable me to vote in the forthcoming election for a Labour Party leader.  I would then have no hesitation in putting my cross next to Jeremy Corbyn’s name.  If enough Conservatives did this, we would have a good chance of getting Jeremy Corbyn elected and then we could simply go home and enjoy a long time of Conservative rule!

There is a danger because I might be kicked out of the Conservative Party as a result of supporting Labour.  However, I would only be supporting the Labour principle of holding an open election and allowing me to join in. I also think I would be doing the Party a favour and would hope many other Conservatives would follow suit, put Jeremy Corbyn in place and leave the Labour Party to stew.

If 100,000 good Conservatives were willing to invest £3.00 each and hold their breath when they signed the Labour support declaration, we might well have a good result.

What do you think out there?


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Little boxes, little boxes

I wonder if Britain is unique with a planning system that is delivering ever smaller new houses while people have more personal belongings and are increasingly tending to work at home for at least a part of their working week and need space in which to do this successfully.

Two recent local examples have highlighted the absurdity of this situation to me:

I am told – and it is hearsay – that prospective purchasers of the housing at Longford Park in Bodicote have asked the agents about living space.  They thought the main bedroom would accommodate a double bed but that there would be no room for wardrobes or a dressing table.  The answer from the agent was apparently to point to the smallest bedroom and to say that “many purchasers plan to use this for storing items like wardrobes”.

Longford Park estate, Bodicote
Longford Park estate, Bodicote


Recently, a newly-arrived resident of Longford Park has submitted a planning application to Cherwell District Council to convert his garage into living accommodation.  This is within a few months of buying his new home!  It may be that this household does not drive and will be walking and cycling everywhere but I doubt it.  Even if they are a car-less household, the next purchasers of the house may not be and the absence of a garage will lead to another car parked on a road that is not designed as a parking lot.   In any case, the garages are tiny and there is a growing practice for families to convert their tiny garage to a storage area and to leave their car permanently on the adjacent road.

I would hope that the truth might dawn upon Cherwell planners.  This application shows that we are permitting houses to be built that are wholly inadequate to meet decent living standards and people’s growing needs for proper living space.  Whether Cherwell will permit the conversion or refuse it remains to be seen but I doubt it will cause them to reconsider the suitability of the housing they are promoting through their planning policies.  The Parish Council has objected to this application and good for them because their reason – pushing another car onto an inadequate road – is exactly right.

However, what will be the consequence of the Cherwell planners’ decision?  If the application is approved, I suspect there will be a flood of others with more and more cars being pushed onto inadequate road space.  If the application is refused, I suspect other residents will be less honest.  They will simply close their garage door; reinforce the inside of it;  punch a hole through from the house and use the garage as living space without permission and, if they are lucky, without anyone knowing.

We need to find a way of incorporating quality space standards into planning policy as a matter of urgency and as a national policy. Until we do, we will be squeezing families into four walls that deny them enough space to eat a meal together; get on with different activities at the same time; have space for home working; have space for all the growing collection of personal properties that families accumulate and enable them to live comfortable and happy lives.

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The shambles that is football

Sepp Blatter

Sepp Blatter

I have never made any secret of my loathing for football.  I can’t bear the sound or sight of a game and I know such a statement puts me at risk of wholesale ignominy. However, I feel some justification when I see the antics of this old man called Sepp Blatter and the recent news that lawyers are accusing a number of executives of FIFA of corruption.  The sight of Russia’s Vladimir Putin supporting Blatter and FIFA simply confirms my suspicion that the head of one corrupt organisation is seeking to support the leader of another corrupt organisation.

What it is that holds such fascination for so many people worldwide about this game just baffles me but each to their own.  What saddens me more is the huge business that football has become – not a sport but a huge, huge business.  It pays silly money to young men, many of whom cannot handle the fame and the finances and inevitably go off the rails.  It also charges families huge sums to attend a game and to buy all the paraphernalia of support that people are brainwashed to see as essential pre-requisites.  It is all as bad as the National Lottery that takes money off people who cannot afford to pay it, many on benefits, in the hope of a quick win.

Football is no longer sport;  it is big business and I fear cricket has gone the same way thanks to the Australian chap who dressed cricketers in coloured pyjamas.  I suspect rugby and horse racing face the same threat of changing from a wonderful sport to a business with growing pressure on funding.

However, football has now gone beyond the pale in my view.  It is clear that there is huge corruption in the international arena with FIFA officials accused of wholesale profiting personally from the business.  Disgusting and funded from two sources:  the poor old suckered fans and big businesses like Coca-Cola, Visa, Adidas, McDonald’s, Hyundai Motor, Budweiser and Gazprom who are desperate to milk the poor old fans through their advertising and marketing.  What a disgusting mess.  Time to pull the plug on old Blatter and the whole sad edifice.  Maybe time to return to a game that is sport and not business but that may just be impossible?



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Gay rights and Euro rights

Two news items surprised me today.

The first was to learn that the Irish, traditionally Catholic with a large “C” and conservative with a small “C”, have voted in favour of legalising marriage between people of the same sex.  I have to say I struggle with this.  The BBC have been full of it and we have had the inevitable pictures of two men kissing and holding hands.  Perhaps it is my age and a lifetime of witnessing weddings in the traditional Prayer Book style but marriage means a man and a woman and, I think, a strong protection for the resulting children.  I do not like the in-your-face style of the LGBT (whatever that stands for) lobby.  They know there are people who have strong views and who find this very difficult to stomach but they insists on flaunting something that is essentially private.

The second issue was equally baffling for me.  I gather that a senior Conservative MP is threatening to resign his Cabinet seat to be able to oppose the scrapping of the European human rights laws.  What is the matter with the man – or woman?   We are perfectly capable of framing  our own charter of rights although I hope it will be minimalist, not heavily politically correct and framed to balance rights with responsibilities.   The current Euro legislation has been used by too many people who should be kicked out of the country to remain in it, funded by our generous benefit system and having their human rights defence and appeals funded by our legal aid system.

It’s a funny old world and not as gay – in my sense of the word – as it used to be.

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The battle for young minds

Nicky Morgan

Nicky Morgan

Headlines this week speak of further legislation to reform and improve state education.  Apparently, Nicky Morgan (who replaced Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education) is introducing laws to allow her to send in hit squads to failing schools; to give coasting schools notice to improve or face similar treatment to failing ones and to create another 500 semi-independent free schools created by charities and parents’ groups.  It seems she is continuing the Gove formula which is a blessing.  Education has always been the domain of a variety of interest groups and this will mean a further re-positioning among those groupings.

If you go back far enough, most of primary education was provided by and largely funded by the Anglican and Roman churches.  Although the funding has largely dried up, an awful lot of primary schools continue to have a religious and, mainly Christian, connection.  I think this is a wholly good influence.  These schools seem to have an ethos that is exemplified by the appearance of their reception areas.  Religious schools will proudly display a crucifix or cross or a statue or picture of the Virgin Mary for children to pass as they enter and leave.  Pure state schools are more likely to exhibit a health & safety notice or a bland statement about equalities.  Sadly neither denominational nor non-denominational schools will display our national flag outside or a picture of our monarch inside but that seems to be a reflection of the British mentality that shuns national pride.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with the growth in Moslem schools providing their teaching reflects British values including democracy, rule under the law, women’s equality, British sovereignty and our unique sense of fair play.

Local government has also had a major role in children’s education and, for years, had responsibility for funding schools, for the allocation of children to schools, for much of the detailed management and for planning school places through new build, extension and closure.  Over the years, as in so many other areas, the power of local councils has been chipped away.  First of all a national funding formula was introduced to the extent that schools are now funded directly by central government.  Ofsted took away much of the quality control that local government used to exercise and, with academies and free schools blossoming, local government has less and less control over the quality of state education although it continues to be blamed for many of its failures!

There is one area where some local strategic overview has to be exercised and it is in planning for school places.  With population growth and demographic shift around the country, some areas face a perilous shortfall of school places while others have an embarrassment of supply.  I can’t see Westminster making a good job of planning for this and believe local councils have an important continuing role here but am unclear how much of a priority they will give to it when there is so much pressure on social care provision which remains the largest budgetary item for unitary and county councils.

As someone who believes firmly in local government, do I regret the passing of control over state schools away from local councils?   My response is both Yes and No.  I think most public services are best run locally and I think it is wrong to allow professional providers too much control in their own area.  By this I refer to what Michael Gove called “The Blob” in the form of the teacher unions.  They have consistently placed the wishes of their members above the needs of their pupils and have perpetuated out-of-date and so-called progressive teaching methods that do not work.  I fear local government failed to grapple adequately with this phenomenon and found itself caught in the eternal triangle of central government, teacher unions and local government.

The growth of academies and free schools, started by Blair and continued by the coalition and now by the Conservative government, seems to be working.  Why?  I think it has created an element of a market with choice and diversity growing in what was a pretty mono-cultural institution and has stimulated competition that the teacher unions always anathematised.  However, I think there is a bigger issue still with which to grapple.  Why are public and independent schools so much better in terms of their output, whether measured by university places, exam results or the visible quality of the young adults that emerge from them?  I don’t think it is only money and the gap between state school funding and the cost of day provision in the independent sector has narrowed considerably.  Rather like the NHS, simply throwing more and more money into the system does not guarantee a proportionate increase in quality.

I think there is another hugely important factor in all of this.  It is parental support for education.  When parents will beggar themselves to buy a house in the catchment area of a good state school or by paying fees for an independent school or a for a tutor to top up inadequate state teaching, their children will always have an advantage over families where education is seen as irrelevant at best or something to be endured or avoided as far as possible at worst.  A home where there are books or, nowadays, a kindle and a PC or tablet and parents who want to see their children thrive educationally has to be the single most important element in providing any child with good prospects for their own life.  Lefties will argue that academies and free schools will favour the middle classes and will disadvantage the poorer and more disadvantaged in society.  I think there is an element of truth in this but levelling down cannot be the answer.  How do we level up?  How do we motivate parents for whom school was a fearful and unproductive experience to try for something better for their children?  Particularly when culture in their estate will be to mock “swots” and to extol dropping out, drugs and violence as the only answer to living in a sink estate?

For many people, their lifestyle is a matter of choice.  If they prioritise booze, baccy and the bookies over books, learning and self-improvement, it is exceptionally difficult to break that cycle.  I don’t think making public services appear “free” helps.  I think this is fearfully true for state education, the NHS, legal aid and other subsidised public services.  I have always believed an education voucher system would transform state education over time.  If parents knew their teenager’s year at school had a cost of some £7,000 pa, demonstrated by a voucher that they could spend at any school of their choice, I think this would shake up the schools market and the complacency that grips coasting state schools.

I think Keith Joseph might have seen the potential value of a school voucher system but Margaret Thatcher was never persuaded and subsequent Conservative governments have never had the courage to introduce one.  Grant-maintained schools,  academies and free schools might be seen as half-way houses towards a more market-based system and Blair saw their value quite clearly but Conservatives have always feared the accusation of “privatisation” that has become a bogey-man for some electors and too many Conservatives!

I am afraid Nicky Morgan is still tinkering at the edges of a system that has failed countless generations of British children, particularly those in disadvantaged areas.  Labour would simply level down.  I hope one day a future British Prime Minister might have the courage to introduce a full-fledged school voucher system. I think it is the only way to drive up educational standards for all.  Perhaps Boris might see the light?

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English votes for English laws

Cameron & SturgeonCameron has the Scottish woman making her demands already but he will have his own members demanding a bit of fair treatment for England before long. At the same time, the anti-austerity brigade have been exhibiting their yobbish behaviour outside Downing Street. There was a delightful tweet – was it from IDS? – that said they had protected important public buildings by signing them JOB CENTRE!  Enough to frighten the yobs away!

There is also some grumbling about our voting system with UKIP feeling hard done by for scoring 4 million votes but getting only one MP. Tough! The last thing this country needs is a weak government based on a coalition, particularly if it is a coalition of economically illiterate lefties like Labour, Plaid Cmry, the SNP and the loony Greens.

We need to keep the first-past-the-post system but we do need to look at our constitution in national, regional and local terms.  This is not going to be easy for a variety of reasons. The first one is the relative size of our constituent nations. England has 40 million voters; Scotland has 4.1 million; Wales has 2.3 million and Northern Ireland 1.2 million.  To put this in context, the Scottish woman wants Cameron to condition the EU referendum to be approved by each country. So, a majority of the 40 million English voters could vote to quit and be blocked by 7 million Scottish, Welsh and Irish voters. It is not even proportional!

The problems multiply, however, even before we think about the House of Lords!  At the moment, Scotland has its own parliament with 128 MSPs elected on a proportional system that was meant to create permanent coalition government but has patently failed!  In Wales, there is a Welsh Assembly with 60 members. The UK Parliament has 650 members, of whom 533 represent English constituencies; 59 are Scottish constituencies; 40 are Welsh and 18 are Northern Ireland.

If I lived in Scotland and wanted to contact my member of parliament, I am not clear who I would choose?  Would I go to the MP or the MSP?  I am increasingly unclear why we need two separate tiers of politicians if we are seeking a federal system that works for the whole of the UK. I suspect anything that reduced the number of career politicians in the country would be welcomed by most voters so my question is simple. Why not shut down the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and create a federal House of Commons where the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English members meet together for one or two days per week to debate national issues and to make national laws?   The Scottish MPs could then meet in Edinburgh for the rest of the week to deal with purely Scottish matters as could the Welsh, in Cardiff and the Irish, at Storemont.  It sounds easy but England remains the problem because of its scale.  Would there be an English First Minister?  Would he be the same person as the UK Prime Minister? Would there be an English education secretary as well as a national one? It goes on and on but mainly depends on the degree to which responsibilities can be accurately divided between the UK and individual countries.  You can see the tensions!

Despite the difficulties, I think it is worth a try but there is a second tier that I think needs reform and it is not the House of Lords. People are sick of remote and, many feel, unaccountable politicians. The most efficient and accessible bit of UK government is local government and it is time it regained some of the power and respect it used to enjoy.  There is a golden opportunity – probably once in a century – to reform the whole structure of government in the UK and to give it some credibility.

I met John Swinney (SNP Deputy Leader) a while ago and he said how, with 32 unitary councils in Scotland, they could call the leaders together and have a conversation with them.  Part of England is cursed with two tier government and a multiplicity of small district councils.  I am very clear that English local government could be much more effective with a smaller number of strategic authorities.  Scotland and Wales have unitary local government that seems to work.  There are two ways to achieve it in England.

The first is to hold a long drawn-out review that will pitch councils against one another and embroil MPs in local turf wars.  Knowing our propensity for compromise, the outcome will probably be a mishmash as bad as the present one.  The problem is compounded when you realise that the two tier areas (county and district councils) are mainly in the Conservative heartlands and, in many constituencies, the MPs’ supply of activists, willing to knock on doors at election times, is drawn from their councillors.  Converting two-tier areas to unitaries, particularly to larger, more strategic unitary county councils would wipe out quite a lot of the MPs’ shock troops!

Which leads to the second and, I think, more palatable alternative.  It is the Manchester model of creating large, strategic super councils with powers over transport, strategic planning, economic development and health and the funding that goes with them.  It seems to be George Osborne’s solution as well, given his recent announcement.  It would leave metropolitan areas like Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Tyneside – and many others – to form cooperative structures along the lines of the Manchester model, pooling some of their sovereignty through a combined authority with representatives from the constituent councils to make decisions.  The media have begun to understand the model and have started to refer to “city regions” but it certainly need not stop at cities.  Counties should have the opportunity to do the same and this is where we could undo some of the mischief of the two-tier system.  Cambridgeshire would be ready for it and is already some way towards the model.  Sadly Oxfordshire would not be there because the county, city and district councils spend too much time squabbling with one another to realise the huge power of cooperative working.  Perhaps one day they will see but it may be 20 years after Cambridgeshire.

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