Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Acclaiming Aycliffe

It is a British trait to be dismissive of one's home town; but perhaps it is time to regain a sense of civic pride.

Last week, Aycliffe won the equivalent of a gold medal in the Railway Olympics (if you will forgive me an excruciating pun, it was a ‘track’ event).  Coached by Merchant Place Developments and our spectacular MP Phil Wilson, we triumphed over competitors from all over Europe … so that Hitachi – not only the project, but its European rail research and development centre – is coming to Aycliffe!

Thus Aycliffe has its Hitachi as Sunderland has its Nissan … yet Sunderland is a major city.  What has this small town of 30,000 people got, one has to wonder, to be chosen as the place for such a huge and prestigious project?  

Sneers, moans and vicious jibes
A time for rejoicing, you might think – a time to mount the podium, to enjoy the success, to run up the flag? 

Not so for Northern Echo reporter Duncan Leatherdale.  In a sneering and belittling article the next day he chose, not to congratulate, but to attack our town.  Mr Leatherdale wandered round the town centre, collected a few moans, and then wrote them up as an indictment.  The town, he wrote, ‘is showing its age’.  ‘The town is dead’, ‘Aycliffe is down’, ‘everybody is struggling’, ‘it is very depressing’, the article elaborated.

Equally, if you go on Twitter and search for Aycliffe, every day you will find a number of vicious jibes – ‘European Capital of Wrong’uns’, ‘a seriously weird place’, ‘not a very nice place’, to quote some of the more printable statements this week.

Our Abominable Town Centre
Before we go any further, may I agree that our town centre is an ABOMINATION.  The town centre owners seem to regard their intention one day to refurbish the town centre as an excuse to neglect it altogether, and at the moment it looks like a wasteland. 

But it is PRIVATE PROPERTY.  This is not meant to be a political rant, but the town centre is an epitome of Tory Britain – a publicly-owned asset sold off to a private company because (as we’re endlessly told) the private sector does things so much better than the state sector.  Look at Aycliffe town centre, and you catch a glimpse of what is going to happen to our hospitals, to our schools, to our marketised services etc. over the next two or three decades.

A most wonderful place
BUT THE TOWN CENTRE IS NOT AYCLIFFE!  And if it makes you as angry as it makes me, do not criticise Aycliffe, but write instead to the town centre manager and complain!

For Aycliffe, bereft of the scar at its heart, is the most wonderful place.  ‘I like living in this town,’ commented retired William Notley … and, bless him, I do too!

Aycliffe has the most wonderful history.  Our predecessors survived through a Norman genocide, feudal serfdom, Tudor enclosures, Victorian coal owners and Nazi bombs … and, out of it all, Aycliffe emerged triumphant as the flagship of Beveridge’s Welfare State.  We may be standing on the podium of a Hitachi victory right now, but we have centuries of achievement of which to be proud.

And Great Aycliffe has the most wonderful, prize-winning environment.  Visitors are always amazed at our ‘green and pleasant land’.  How many other towns do you know where a ‘green lattice’ takes biodiversity right into the centre of town and links it, through a network of walks and corridors, out into the countryside?  You can’t know of many towns where the play-parks are more modern, or the flower-beds better kept.

And Aycliffe has the most amazing community!  Have you noticed that we have a European Cup-winning footballer, two Olympians, and the UK’s most successful female racing driver amongst our number? 

Of course it is a QUIET town – but do you WANT binge-drinkers marauding through the town centre every weekend? 

Moreover, ‘quiet’ is not the same as ‘dead’.  We have a prominently successful football club.  The Town Council runs, FREE, a tourist-trip for every pensioner, a life-saving fireworks display, a two-day show, fun-in-every-park holiday extravaganzas, and an annual visit from Santa!  This year, we revived the Carnival.  The town is awash with vibrant and well-supported community groups, and crime and vandalism are falling.  A young father, visiting the town, who had reprimanded some teenagers for swearing, confided to me that he would not have dared to speak to teenagers that way where he came from – he would have feared for his safety; instead, our Aycliffe youths apologised and made way for his child to play on the equipment they had been sitting on.  And everybody who visits tells me how welcoming, friendly and caring the people of Aycliffe are.

Unfinished business
Of course Beveridge’s giants still prowl the town, and there are social and civic issues to be confronted; readers know how much I love it when ‘the people’ rise up and campaign about – well, for example, about wheelie bins – and force the powers-that-be to back down.  But that is a not a negative sign – it is a sign of energetic residents making our town the place-they-would-have-it-become.  So do not imagine for a moment that this makes Aycliffe a bad place; Aycliffe is a lovely place, and we are lucky to live here.

Punching below its weight
When Aycliffe was first formed in 1948, it met tremendous opposition from local councils, who resented their upstart neighbour.  And I suspect, even today, that Durham County Council does not fully appreciate the jewel in their crown our thriving and assertive town and trading estate constitutes.  Aycliffe has been punching below its weight for too long, and it is time for us to hold our head up and take our rightful place.

So, let’s challenge the critics and celebrate our town’s genuine achievements.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Simple Problems, Easy Answers

I have a Council colleague who regularly complains about what he calls ‘pub politics’ – the tendency of people, who haven’t really thought things through, and actually don’t know what they’re talking about, to propose ‘easy answers’.

But sometimes there ARE easy answers, and still nothing gets done.

A Problem with Litter
Tonight I attended a packed community meeting going mad about litter.  As the County Council officer who fielded most of the complaints remarked, it was perhaps a good job that it took place in a church!

But I could have solved that problem.  The Town Council already has a ‘Town Pride’ team of two with a vehicle; we are already paying for that.  If we could employ a team of a dozen on-the-ground litter-pickers, even part-time, I bet we could make Great Aycliffe the spick-and-spannest town in the country.

Meanwhile, in Great Aycliffe at the moment, there are some 250 young men and women, aged 18-24, on Job Seekers’ Allowance.  Would it cost the country so very much extra to employ a dozen of them as Council litter-pickers?  My guess is not so very much more, once you have factored in that their National Insurance and any PAYE would go back into the national kitty anyway.

An easy solution?

But then on the one hand you have a government which sees nothing wrong in paying JSA to young people to fill in forms – and millions more for them to go on unpaid, meaningless, ‘work experience’ – but which regards Council expenditure as an anathema which needs cutting to the bone … so there’s no chance of a vired budget to create jobs for these perfectly able young people.

And I would suggest we might apply to organise a programme of ‘workfare’, where the Council would take on young Job Seekers, train them, equip them, and give them meaningful employment cleaning up their town until they could find a better job … except that on the other hand we would find ourselves confronted by an army of idealistic people who would see any form of directed labour of that sort as ‘slave labour’ and exploitation, and the Council would be massacred on twitter.

So what happens?
Well, on the one hand we have thousands of perfectly healthy young people all over the country who have no job.  

And on the other we have towns all over the country with a litter problem trying to organise initiatives for volunteers and community groups to pick it up.

There are some situations where, you have to admit, the pub politicians have got a point.

Winning Back The 'Lost Left' Voters

This is a response to political letters in my local newspaper, the Newton News ... but the issue is one which faces many local Labour parties - how to win back the 'lost left' voters.

I don’t know about you, but I found the letters in last week’s Newton News exciting!

Mr Welsh, as usual, wrote a cogent and plausible letter, though I always feel his sentiments would be more appropriate for a Surrey Conservative Club than a north-east new town.  Three more years of this government’s policies and he will be literally, as well as metaphorically, ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’ … because that is what this government is going to make of County Durham.

However, it was the letters by Mr Hodgson and ‘WS’ which interested me the most because – though far to the left of Mr Welsh – readers will have seen that they too criticised ‘New Labour’.

New Labour’s problem
In the years 1997-2010, some 5 million people stopped voting ‘New Labour’.

Those who moved to the Lib Dems seem now to be returning to the Labour Party relatively easily, since they realise the Lib Dem MPs are just propping up an incompetent and wicked government, assiduously betraying everything they claimed to believe in.

The Labour Party, however, seems to be finding it much harder to win back those who left the Party because they felt that ‘New Labour’ was betraying traditional Labour principles.  Indeed, many people who stayed in the Labour Party were also uneasy with policies which introduced such as academies, PFI, marketisation and free-market economics.

‘WS’ is correct when he says that – even under Ed Miliband – Labour has been slow to abjure its ‘New Labour’ principles.  But the Party quietly dropped the ‘New’ from its name in February last year.  And Labour is, gradually and carefully, redefining its vision, distancing itself from policies which have surely been discredited by events. There is an ongoing debate within the Party – characterised by ‘colours’ such as ‘Purple Labour’, ‘Blue Labour’, ‘Red Labour’ etc. – about what form that new vision should take.  There is also, (albeit painfully slowly), a growing acceptance that policy must be evolved from the membership, not imposed by the leadership.

The irony is that, the longer the more left absent themselves from the Labour Party, the less likely it is that their views will form any part of Labour’s evolving policies. 

Focussing on the Future
Some of the principles of ‘New Labour’ must never be abandoned.  ‘New Labour’ shed Labour’s ‘loony left’ reputation, and aimed the Party’s policies squarely at the centre-ground of public opinion.  We can never abandon that ground if we want any hope ever again of forming a Labour government.

But some things that were right for 1997 were no longer right in 2010, and now we need a ‘renewed’ Labour Party with policies appropriate for the future, not shackled to the past.  Both ‘WS’ and Mr Hodgson would find many current Branch Party members who agree with every word they wrote, and it is vital that Labour distance itself from some of the crueller policies that New Labour tried, but found wanting … i.e. it is true that – if we want any hope ever of being elected – we need a Party which is able to accommodate and articulate the aspirations of ‘WS’ and Mr Hodgson.

Labour does not yet have ‘a manifesto’ which sets out its stall before the British public – it does not need one until 2015.  But it is at the moment vigorously debating what that manifesto might contain, and I urge people to join Labour and have their say within that debate … before the Mr Welshes of this world, so cogently and plausibly, lead us into the neoliberal abyss.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

'Ron Hogben' is an anti-social idiot

Here's an idea to consider ... perhaps the greatest problem with our democracy is not the politicians, but the public they serve.

Ron Hogben steps out from his groundfloor flat and lets rip: problems with his bins, the lack of parking, bus lanes, the cost of replacing his windows, why Britain should get out of what he insists on calling "the EEC", and the crazy excesses of the 2012 Olympics. I then ask him about his view of party politics. "Let's be truthful: you get a local MP that promises you this, that and the other, but he's only going to toe the line," says Hogben, 59. "My idea of a politician is a thief, a liar and a cheat."

Thus begins, in today’s Guardian, John Harris’s analysis of the recent ‘Democratic Audit’ – a report on the decline of traditional politics and political activism in this country (which receives an equally depressing airing in today’s Guardian under the headline ‘British democracy in terminal decline’).

I am trusting that ‘Ron Hogben’ is a pseudonym, but – hoping that he is not a real person – I have to say it.  ‘Ron Hogben’ is an anti-social idiot.

The problem is not 'Ron Hogben's' - 'Ron Hogben' is the problem

Let’s start with the bins.  There is no problem with ‘Ron Hogben’s’ bins.  ‘Ron Hogben’ is the problem with his bins.  And that’s not just because he puts food refuse into his recycling bin and refuses to put it on the kerbside as asked.  ‘Ron Hogben’s’  bins aren’t emptied properly because he doesn’t want to PAY for his bins emptying properly.  ‘Ron Hogben’ could have a Rolls-Royce bin service where the men emptied them every day, came into his garden to collect them and then washed them out afterwards.  It would just cost a lot.  And, of course, ‘Ron Hogben’ doesn’t want to pay.
People have a strange view of public services, which they regard as a right not a service.  ‘Ron Hogben’ expects to receive a call-out charge from the local plumber, and is happy to pay ££££s for Sky TV, but ask him to cough up the equivalent of 50p a week to have his bins emptied and he’s tirading – indeed, so much so that he has elected and is cheering on a government which is slashing Council budgets and forcing them to explore all manner of means to reduce the service on the bins to save money.

And surely the fact that he’s still talking about ‘the EEC’ is a bit of a hint as to how much credence we should place on what he says.  The ‘EEC’ was renamed the ‘European Union’ TWENTY YEARS AGO.  ‘Ron Hogben’ – like all the ‘Ron Hogbens’ of this world – is shooting off his mouth about something he knows TOO LITTLE about to warrant a comment.

Jumping the gun a little, if you are wondering ‘what’s gone wrong’ with politics in this country, perhaps we might start by wondering how we came to a situation where someone as ill-informed as ‘Ron Hogben’ feels that he can pontificate on matters of which he is catastrophically ignorant – and somehow feels he can ‘tell it how it is’ to a politician who is briefed-to-the-eyeballs, ideologically-interested, and involved with it every day of his life!
Why not shut up, find out about what you’re talking about, and come back when you are able to do more than spout pub-politics bigotry?

The unreasonableness of public political apathy

We’ve all met ‘Ron Hogbens’ on the doorstep.  ‘What does the Council do for me?’ one of them triumphantly accused me one election … whilst standing in the garden of his council house, with its renewed roof, double-glazed windows and doors, just about to get a new kitchen and bathroom, leaning on his emptied bins, looking out over a beautiful flowerbed across towards the recently refurbished children’s playground.

I have a colleague who responds energetically to those people who sneer that ‘we only see you at election-time’.  Indeed it is true that, before an election, she goes door-to-door asking supporters to vote for her.  But at other times she is available by phone and by email, not only at the council offices, but at her home!  She attends, not only Council meetings which are open to the public, but an endless, almost daily, round of community meetings, neighbourhood watch meetings, school governor meetings, etc.  The council puts out an informative news-sheet every quarter, and the Labour Party drops a steady succession of leaflets through people’s letterboxes.  This councillor also holds a monthly surgery, which usually consists of her sitting in a church hall waiting for people who don’t go and see her. 
It’s not that she isn’t extensively available to them, it is that they just have not been bothered even to pick up the phone to tell her anything.

Neither is this just laziness and preferring-the-telly.  I have a column in my local newspaper in which I write up what has happened at every Town Council meeting, and I regularly put in letters keeping people up-to-date with relevant issues.  You’d be amazed at the number of people who reply wishing that I would ‘shut up’!  It is not just that some people are too lazy to know about politics, they actively wish to be ignorant about politics!

“Do you realise that E.ON are going to put a 28-turbine windfarm across the road from the town?”
“I don’t want to know.”

The destructiveness of public political apathy

What these people do not realise about themselves is that this kind of wilful antipathy is terribly anti-social, because it undermines the democracy and government which holds society together. 
‘Ron Hogben’ no doubt feels himself superior to the ‘hoodie’ who staggers loudly and drunkenly down his street at night and smashes the Belisha beacon on the Zebra crossing.  

He would be stunned to find that I don’t think so.  
Unacceptable as vandalism is, the light can be replaced and the ‘hoodie’ will grow out of it … but the aggressive, anti-democratic cynicism of the ‘Ron Hogbens’ of our society do it a much-more permanent damage that threatens to catapult it into chaos, violence and tyranny.

Yet these, of course, are the very people who then stereotype politicians – so ‘Ron Hogben’ opined – as ‘thieves, liars and cheats’.
At this point I hit the ceiling.
He is talking about me.
I am not a thief, a liar or a cheat AT ALL – in fact, I would be quite happy to compare moralities with ‘Ron Hogben’ and see who comes up better.

Why do we let him get away with this?  If he had said it about a specific religion, people would have been up in arms.  If he had said it about a racial or ethnic group, he would have been receiving a visit from the police.  But he can say it about me and my colleagues, and I’m supposed to hang my head in shame and rush about trying to find ways to ‘involve’ this man with such ignorant opinions.

If I do have a beef with my fellow politicians, it is that they are too pusillanimous to tell these people how stupid their opinions are.  Instead we butter them up, and give it all this nonsense about how we ‘must listen to their voice’ … and even give them pride of place at the head of a national newspaper column, as though they had anything to say that is worthy of my attention.
Poor old Gordon Brown, of course, is the warning.  He met a bigoted woman who not only felt she had the right to ‘tell him how it is’, but then wouldn’t listen to his answers.  And when, getting back into the privacy of his car, he had the misfortune to be overheard saying what was absolutely the truth – that she was a bigot – what happened?  Not a wave of horror that this dreadful woman should so treat the Prime Minister of Great Britain – but such a campaign of faux-outrage which forced OUR PRIME MINISTER to go back and apologise to her.

We must start by valuing our politicians

When I was a Deputy Headteacher, occasionally I would meet the parent of a cheeky pupil who would try to tell me of a member of staff that ‘respect has to be earned’.
My reply was always the same.  That member of staff had passed his exams and interviewed successfully for a job at the school.  He had ‘earned respect’ already – and now it was the time for her and her son to give the teacher the respect he had earned.

Politicians are human beings, so there are always going to be a proportion who are ‘thieves, liars and cheats’; they should be dealt with as we deal with all thieves, liars and cheats.  But the problem with our democracy is not so much that politicians don’t deserve respect – it is that people don’t adequately respect their politicians.


So my message to ‘Ron Hogben’ is this.  Stop your mouth of these ill-informed prejudices.  Discipline yourself to go along to your monthly branch Labour Party.  Attend your local Council meetings and get active in your community.  And then – when you actually KNOW something – you’ll be amazed at how eager your local politicians will be to listen to you.
In fact, my guess would be that within a couple of years you’ll be one of them.

It’s not that there aren’t dozens of issues out there which DESPERATELY need addressing, Mr Hogben – it’s just that at the moment it’s me who is trying to address them and not only are you doing nothing to help, you are attacking me as I try to do something about them!

What a crazy world we have allowed to develop.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Be Warned - Cows Are Killers

I will never walk through a field of cows again and – if you have any sense – neither will you.

Yesterday, driving home, I passed a farm.  In the wood next to the farm was a huge fire, with leaping flames.
No problem; I’m an interferer by nature.
I pulled into the driveway, got out, opened (and closed) the gate, and started to walk down a long pathway to the farm to ask the farmer if he was aware.

An intimidating situation
Next to the pathway was a field of cows.  Even before I started down the path they were clearly ‘spooked’ by the fire.  My presence on the path, however, steadily increased their agitation.
First, a large black and white cow – which I took to be the leader of the herd – charged towards the fence.  It was leaping and crashing down on all four hooves more like an enraged horse than how one imagines a cow. 

After it had run at me a number of times and turned away, I was beginning to get a bit alarmed.  I was very aware that the fence between us was merely a mesh wire with studs, and would not stop the beast if it genuinely attacked.
I turned and faced it, looked it in the eye, shouted ‘No!’ very firmly and authoritatively, and it turned away. 

Next, a large number of cows formed themselves into a herd, wheeled round, and came at the fence at a run. 
I assessed my options.  I was about a third of the way down the path.  They were charging from behind me so there was no chance of getting back to the car.  It was too far to run to the farm, and I suspected that running away might increase their agitation.
I again turned and faced them, shouted ‘No!’, and they turned away.

What’s the matter with cows today!
Cows never used to be like that!  When I was a very small child my father used to send me into the cow-field to collect buckets of manure for his roses! 

Indeed, I remember one school trip as a young teacher meeting a herd of cows with a class of 50 schoolchildren.  ‘Don’t be scared’, I told them, ‘Cows are chicken – if you just walk confidently at them they’ll run away.’  And so we did, and so did they – indeed, my main care was to prevent the children doing anything to scare the cows, not to stop the cows harming the children.
My blood runs cold just thinking of that time; if we had met on that occasion the herd of cows I met yesterday, we would – I am sure – have all been trampled.

I continued down the path.  I have to admit that I grew increasingly reassured, but only because the farm was increasingly within ‘run-as-fast-as-you-can’ distance.  Even so, still, twice more, I felt it necessary to turn and shout at groups of cows that were getting alarmingly aggressive.

I have been aware of an increasing number of stories in the press of people being trampled to death by cows.  It strikes me that the reports generally try to make ‘excuses’ for them.  Cows are alarmed by a dog, I have read, so let your dog off the lead to run away.  Cows will attack if they feel you are threatening their calves, I have heard.

But these cows had no calves, and I had no dog.  

These cows were after ME, and they wanted to do me harm.

A truly terrifying threat
I reached the farm, and spoke with the farmer, and he was aware of the fire, and no harm done.
“Do you mind just watching me back past your cows?” I asked him. “They were getting very frisky on the way down.”
“Oh you needn’t worry,” he assured me.  “It’s an electric fence – they won’t be coming through that.”

Far from reassuring me, this alarmed me all the more. 
It had not, therefore, been my authoritative shouting which had deterred the cows – it had been the electric fence. 
I am not exaggerating or over-reacting.  I am simply sure that, if I had been trying to cross the field, rather than walking down the side of an electric fence, I would now be dead, and nothing I could have done or said would have prevented it.

I find this terrifying.  Before yesterday’s (I realise now, lucky) encounter – when, unknown to me, I was perfectly safe – I would not have thought twice about walking through a field of cows. 
Even more frighteningly, I know many family and friends who also would not think twice about entering a field of cows – they come from a generation which assumes that cows are docile and harmless.

But these cows were neither docile nor harmless.
They were wild, and could have been deadly.

Never again
Many years have passed, of course, since those harmless beasts of my youth, when docility had been bred into most breeds.  Since then, we have seen a generation of cows wiped out by foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease.  I presume that there have been new feeds, new bloodlines and different genes.  I also wonder what role the ‘right to roam’ has played in producing a more aggressive breed of cow. 

To be honest, I don’t know enough to do anything other than wonder why cows are so different nowadays.

One thing I do know, however, is that I will never walk through a field of cows ever again, because I won’t trust them not to be like the cows I encountered yesterday.

And – if you have any sense – neither will you.