Oxfordshire – open for business

Oxon development locationsIn the 2001, 2005 and 2009 county council campaigns, I had lead responsibility for devising the election manifesto, working with our Conservative constituency associations. Having stood down as leader on 15 May 2012, this task falls to others for the 2013 elections and they will surely want to put their own stamp on the campaign.   However, I hope that does not preclude me from putting some ideas into the melting pot.

So here goes ….

For my three campaigns, we had a strap line that lasted for 12 years and set the strategic framework for council officers as well as council members.  It was low taxes, real choice, value for money.    I think the council is going to have to move on, recognise current economic and financial reality and establish a new message that reinforces Conservative principles of enterprise, self help and sufficiency.  As a starter for ten, I put up a strap line that reads Oxfordshire – Open for Business.  It is surely beyond conjecture that the restoration of economic growth has to be the driving imperative for the next ten years or more.  I believe Oxfordshire is well placed to lead the nation in the search for growing the economy but we have some barriers to overcome:

  • Complacency:  I am afraid there is a complacency in Oxfordshire and, more specifically, in Oxford City.  It is embedded in a belief that academic reputation is all that is needed, that striving for excellence is elitist and should be resisted and that equality rules OK.
  • Skills:  Similarly, there is a willingness to accept very poor academic performance in Oxford schools in the belief that student performance, examination results and stretching targets need to take second place to the god of equal opportunity, based on refusing to create winners and losers.
  • Housing: There is huge housing need in Oxfordshire and, particularly, in Oxford City.  However, the attractiveness of our county depends on maintaining its rurality and the charm of its market towns.  Bolting large housing estates onto our market towns and villages will do nothing to retain that charm unless the housing mirrors the vernacular style of those towns and villages and provides sufficient infrastructure to maintain viability.   This has to mean an end to inadequate parking provision and for planners to recognise the need to build houses with sufficient space to maintain family life, to recognise the growing scale of personal possessions needing decent storage space and the growing practice of home working.
  • Transport: For too long, political correctness has required us to pay lip service to the expectation that all will walk and cycle to work, school or the shops.  This is nonsense.  In rural areas where there is an indifferent bus service, it is stupid to assume residents will not get into a car to take their children to school or to go to work. We need to ensure schools and other public buildings can cater for the predominant transport method likely to prevail and to recognise this will differ between metropolitan, urban and rural settings.   
  • Ambition:  This flows from what I have said above.  There is a belief in some communities that what was good enough for father as a shelf-stacker or a taxi driver is good enough for his children.  There are not enough community leaders around to quash this view and to promote ambition and self-belief.  It is encouraged by those of the left who believe elitism is evil and competition should be supressed in schools, colleges and elsewhere to serve the god of equality.  There also some ethnic communities who retain control over their women-folk by preventing them from learning and speaking English and considering exploring the world beyond their own  immediate community.  This ghettoisation is not acceptable in the name of multi-culturalism.
  • English-ness:  John Major tried to describe England in terms of “the country of long shadows on county (cricket) grounds, warm beer, invincible
    green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers”.  I have a different view.  English-ness to me is about reserve, about under-statement, about respect.  Our monarchy is at the heart of our nation; illogical, difficult to justify but it works.  The Church of England is about English-ness; less a religion, more a way of life; a refuge for troubled times; an institution to baptise, marry and bury citizens and a religion that can contain within its wide ranging boundaries those who believe in the paramountcy of the bible in a Calvinistic manner to those who believe in the doctrine of the mass, confession,  absolution and Mariology. I think our tolerance is being stretched to breaking point buy those who would impose a secular society or Sharia law on our English nation.

Where does this all take us?  I think it gives some very clear pointers to a strategy to persuade the Oxfordshire electorate to trust the Conservatives once again to improve the lot of all of Oxfordshire’s citizens.  In particular:

  • We have an exciting and diverse economy. Let’s do everything we can to promote it and to remove the blockages that prevent its expansion.  In particular:
    • We must support Gove’s school reforms and do all we can to promote competition and rising expectations of all children regardless of their background.  This involves promoting a vocational alongside an academic stream in schools and valuing them both.
    • We must not permit children to go through ten years of school – soon to be twelve or even 15 – and yet to emerge without being able to read, write and add up, let alone hold mature and confident conversations.
    • We need to explore institutions that promote personal skills in youngsters.  Cadet corps, scouts, guides and similar organisations have much to offer and schools should be given every encouragement to support them.
    • We must help our FE colleges to understand and meet business needs.  Local business has a role here to work in partnership with college teachers.
    • Our universities are a wonderful, unique and global resource.  We need to exploit the Oxford connection much more.
  • Let’s not forget we are still an English county with a predominantly English population.  We welcome people coming from diverse roots but we expect them to adopt an English life-style if they intend to make their home here.  That includes speaking English in their home and work place. I would stop publishing council documents in a variety of languages and offer English-speaking classes  to all who will take them.
  • Oxfordshire needs more housing but let’s have policies that concentrate on providing housing for those who are economically active.  We also need to facilitate house building that matches the vernacular of place; that provides adequate space for family living – including a family meal around a table – and the growing practice of homeworking.  We also need parking provision in the rural areas that recognises public transport is not a realistic option for many and never will be.
  • Oxfordshire has some womderful ecoomic resources:
    • Oxford University – a seat of learning and research and a source of economic research, development and spin-outs;
    • Harwell – with the synchrotron, space, nuclear fission and a whole host of other exciting developments;
    • Milton Park – one of the most successful business parks in the country with a business model that could be put to work elsewhere in the county;
    • Bicester Village – attracting visitors from round the world;
    • South Oxfordshire with a concentration of financial businesses and organisations like Johnson Matthey;
    • Banbury with an outlook more to the Midlands than to Oxford but with food manufacturing, composites and advanced motor engineering;
    • More publishing comnpanies in Oxford than in London;
    • A significant military population with their dependents and service providers with five large military bases, significan land holdings and plenty of potential to use some of that land to meet housing need and to promote a defence-based economy.

We have failed to capitalise on this wealth of economic potential and to make clear that we have so much to offer.

I have not even started to talk about Oxfordshire’s cultural heritage and the splendour of our environment.  On the former, we are not going to be able to pour money into culture or to promote cultural activity for the poor and destitute.  We have to promote culture that can wash its own face and pay for itself.  Tough but necessary.

On our environment, people come here and stay here because of our wonderful City, market towns and villages and the open countryside that links them.  We concrete over too much of our countryside or erect ugly wind turbines at our peril.  If we create rural ghettoes of ugly housing estates disconnected from the villages in which they are built we are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg of the English village and we risk losing the very bedrock of our Party’s support base.

I could go on and on but this feels like a good start.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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