editorofthechron

The blog of the editor of the Congleton Chronicle Series. We cover east Cheshire and north Staffordshire, which are at the very top of the English Midlands Views expressed are not always official newspaper policy.

Some answers are needed on the local plan

The truth is out there . . . but quite where, no-one really knows.

We refer, of course, to the latest debacle in the Twilight Zone that is Cheshire East Council’s local plan.
After the council proudly proclaimed that it had sorted out its five-year supply of housing — although at the second time of asking — a Government inspector has now allowed 90-plus houses to be built at Elworth Hall Farm, Sandbach, and told the council that it misled itself. It has no five year plan.

This means we are again at the mercy of developers, and back to square one.

As far as we can tell from the inspector’s report, he dismissed Cheshire East’s five year plan on three grounds: the council’s lead-in times for houses to be built was over-ambitious; 40% of the projected houses did not have planning permission and might never be built; and the fact that the council had included retirement homes, which it says will house 360 people. He also pointed out that the council had not consulted builders, as was the norm, and that it had changed its assumptions from its 2012 assessment.

The first question must be over the help Cheshire East was given by Government minister Eric Pickles, who sent in experts to advise the council on its plan. If the council followed the experts’ advice, it should have legal recourse against the Government and it will be the Government that is to blame.

If the council did not follow the experts’ advice, heads should roll. Council leader Michael Jones has pretty well staked his reputation on the plan being complete, and Congleton’s Dave Brown is in charge of it.
But whoever is to blame, we have now got to suffer at the hands of developers well into next year — and the free-for-all will continue.
Working out where it all went wrong is hard, however.

***

Collectively, we all may be partially to blame. Both Congleton Borough Council and Cheshire East Council failed to deliver their targets for housing: Congleton borough in 2006-07 and 2007-08 and Cheshire East since 2008-09, the planning inspector said.

It seems logical to assume that, in part, this was because people objected to houses being built over the years. The rejection of each small plan added up to the dire situation today. True, there was also a Government-imposed moratorium on building.

But part of the problem must also be inept decisions by councillors — and possibly others.

***

We say that because Congleton borough’s local plan was in disarray — and, as far as we can ascertain, that was because plans for an industrial estate in Congleton were shoe-horned in at the last minute. But it is possible the problems began before then.

In 2001, following the Liberal Democrats’ well-publicised departure from power, the Congleton Conservatives threw out large chunks of the local plan.

“Planning officers could only sit and watch as many sites they had recommended were scrapped,” we reported at the time.

A housing allocation at Rookery Bridge, Sandbach, was deleted after comments from Coun Neville Price. Housing allocations next to Congleton and Sandbach railway stations were also deleted.

Some could see problems. Coun Bill Owen warned his colleagues about departing from the county plan.

Was this savaging of the local plan all those years ago the start of the problems, as Tories sought to establish control over the Lib Dems?
In 2007, the Sandy Lane business park in Congleton was backed by CBC, despite parish councillors accusing the borough of using “underhand tactics” to get the proposal pushed through. Coun John Wray described the plan as a blot on the landscape — but the 90-acre Sandy Lane site was added to the updated local plan after a Holmes Chapel site was rejected following local opposition there.

Sandbach’s Coun Barry Moran backed the Sandy Lane scheme, saying its inclusion had followed “the due process”.
But in 2008, the same council then threw out Sandy Lane, leaving Congleton borough without an enforceable local plan. The plan had been due to go to the Government for approval in 2008.

The-then leader of CBC, Roland Domleo, warned: “We have responsibilities and all of these projects come at a cost.” How right he was — but possibly not in the way he intended.

At the time, we were told by a leading councillor that the lack of a local plan meant a potential free-for-all for developers, a fact which must have been known by senior Tories at Congleton, a number of whom – Couns Domleo, Brown, Gordon Baxendale and Peter Mason — were on the shadow Cheshire East authority in 2008.

They must have known that Congleton Borough had no enforceable local plan, and the dangers that this brought. The developers’ free-for-all had been predicted to us, though it is doubtful anyone could have foreseen how bad it was going to be.

As far as we aware, local plans take around four years to prepare. In theory they are rolling plans and one should always be in force. But nobody has explained to us how Cheshire East and Coun Brown have taken since 2008 on the local plan and still not completed it — if it goes for approval in 2015, that will mean it has been seven years in the making. It should, at the latest, have been finished more than a year ago.

***

We are not original in making these criticisms.

Last year, we reported how Coun David Brickhill had attacked the council, quoting the shortfall in new houses. He said the total number of developments for Congleton was only 30% of its total, in Alsager 50%, but in Shavington 160%.
He pointed out that Coun Brown had been in charge of the local plan since 2008.

Coun Brickhill said: “I think this whole local-plan business is being run extremely badly, and that is why we are in this position today.” We had no letters contradicting his comments, and no complaints. Some blame must also rest with Wesley Fitzgerald, who was the leader of the council: the buck stops at the top. He, of course, is the 2014-15 Mayor of Cheshire East.

***

It is possible councillors will be spluttering at all this — but the fact is we just don’t know why we are in this mess because nobody ever admits to mistakes.

And if we don’t know, we can only speculate — though we are speculating via our news stories at the time.

So we would like to pose some questions we — and probably many readers — would like answering.

We would like to hear from those involved; we do not have to print your names.

Please note we do not want letters from councillors and former councillors just exonerating themselves or their party.
Mistakes and errors of judgement have been made — even with the best of intentions — and someone must have made them.

These questions might help explain how we got to where we are:

• Why were schemes dumped wholesale from the local plan once the Lib Dems lost power?

• Where did the Sandy Lane business park idea come from?

• Who put it in the local plan at the last minute?

• If it was so crucial, why was it pulled?

• Did this cause the Congleton borough local plan to lapse? If not, what did?

• Why will it take Cheshire East Council seven years to develop a local plan, a process that normally should take only four?

• What actions were taken when Cheshire East Council was formed, in the knowledge that CBC had no local plan and that this area was, at the least, open to developers?

• Did Cheshire East Council follow the experts’ advice over the five-year plan? If so, is legal action being taken?

Are we being rushed into a by-pass?

Two figures have been in my mind this week.

One was the £250m a year that the NHS would save if people took just one in 10 trips on a bicycle instead of a car.

The other is the £102.1m cost of the most expensive route for Congleton’s proposed by-pass. (We were supposed to call it a link road, but we’ve had enough of that. It’s a by-pass).

Clearly £250m is a big number, big enough for the story to appear in most of the national newspapers. The number’s an estimate of what the NHS would save if people were just a tiny bit fitter — exercise can fend off not just heart attacks but cancer and other nasty things.

And if £250m is a big number on a national scale (though small against the NHS’s total budget of £109bn) then £102m is massive when it’s being spent to by-pass a small town at the top of the English Midlands.

Thinking about it, it started to cross my mind that perhaps it’s a case of the solution being found first, and then the problems that need that solution being turned up afterwards.

A road is a big, long-term thing, and it’s a lot of money.

At this point it should be stressed that I used to live off West Road, on West End Cottages, until not so long ago. Never mind rush hour, the traffic is bad at 9am on a Sunday morning. It’s clear that Congleton needs a solution to its traffic problem and if, after looking at the alternatives, it’s got to be a by-pass, then fair enough.

It should also be stressed that Back Lane industrial estate equally clearly needs some relief, and, again, it may well be that only a by-pass will be the solution.

However, it seems that nothing else is being discussed, except by Eaton residents who keep raising the £10m traffic scheme that was apparently discussed at some point, that would just mean amending the current roads and not building a new one.

For example, I’m pretty sure I read a report some time ago that a lot of drivers heading for south Manchester leave the M6 to cut through Congleton, because the existing roads are too slow / busy / annoying / whatever.

Because there IS an existing road system to by-pass Congleton: it’s called the M6, the M56 and the A556, which presumably is meant to take traffic in and out of the south Manchester area.

Has anyone studied what percentage of traffic uses Congleton as a short cut? Maybe part of a less destructive — and cheaper — solution would be to either encourage that traffic to use the existing roads, or discourage it from using the A34 as a rat run.

Towns in Europe have slowed traffic down by planting trees at the sides of roads and building chicanes. Would making Congleton too annoying to drive through cause a reduction in traffic? (Admittedly,  I can see the flaw there — Congleton is already really annoying to drive through but people still do it).

And what percentage of traffic in Congleton is local? People driving into the town centre or across town to see friends and family? Long before Mr Johnson had his Boris Bikes, the redoubtable Margaret Williamson suggested a fleet of bicycles (and tricycles for the less steady) for Congleton.

Park them in the town centre and at other spots, collect one as needed and cycle home. She even suggested supplying baskets for carrying and flags for visibility.

It might seem a bit wacky, but £100m would buy a fleet of bikes for everyone in Congleton, plus pay for all the cycle lanes, secure lock-ups and bike traffic lights, with change left over to widen Back Lane and support free parking for 50 years.

Once we’ve seen off the rat-runners by using chicanes and trees, and encouraged locals to cycle with free bikes, how much traffic would that leave? Does anyone know?

And in the print version of this article I failed to mention school traffic. Doh! Everyone knows that traffic is much less in school holidays. That’s partly because people go away, so it’s not schools closing that reduce traffic, it’s that people are not working, but even so: reduce/remove school traffic and how much need would there be for a by-pass?

As I say, I concede that a by-pass may be the ultimate answer — and Congleton has wanted one for a long time — but I don’t want the solution to suggest the problems. We should look at the problems, then think of solutions to fit.

Twenty years ago, a by-pass would have been a no-brainer but today, with our awareness of green energy, pollution, global warming, the cost of petrol, growing obesity and falling levels of fitness, surely we at least need to consider the alternatives.

Councillors can’t have it both ways

Elections for seats on Cheshire East Council are still 12 months away but our local councillors seem to be planning for its arrival.

I hope all the political parties takes a practical view when it comes to selecting candidates for the 2015 elections. The Chronicle, and I suspect the electorate, will not be impressed if the same old faces line up to appeal for votes after four years of racking up failure after failure.

I’m actually a bit worried what we’ll do: newspapers don’t usually take sides in elections  but Cheshire East’s track record thus far proves that the current lot are just not good enough.

A few have probably survived from the old urban district days, and certainly most were on the old, smaller councillors, where being keen was enough. Cheshire East is a big organisation and needs more skills than just “being keen”.

So it’s not that the councillors are terrible; they’re just not equipped to deal with the more demanding role.

The proof of all this is the failures that embattled Cheshire East has faced over the last years. All of them would have been avoided if the council had been better run, most of them if councillors had generally been of a higher calibre. We want new faces, people with transferable skills from the private sector, not people whose only skill is having been a party member for 30 years.

I think council leader Michael Jones is able and charismatic. He might shoot his mouth off and give us entertaining quotes but under the bluster he’s getting things done.

Closer to home, Congleton’s Peter Mason is clearly rattled. He normally only writes letters to us in the weeks immediately before elections but he sent two last week, the second of which appears this week.

Last week, he said he was never involved in the Lyme Green fiasco (he preferred the word “project”) and was not mentioned in the report. He praised the council for its ability to reduce waste and for its openness.

As readers this week pointed out, Coun Mason has been a Cabinet member throughout the life of Cheshire East and, when parking charges were introduced, adhered to the policy of corporate responsibility.

As for his claims that Cheshire East is open: he can claim innocence over Lyme Green only because the council has refused to name names.

While I actually find the reasons for withholding the names given by the Information Commissioner to be reasonable, Cabinet members like Coun Mason can’t have it both ways — if the names are secret, he can’t say he’s not one of them.

And what if ALL the Cabinet members said they were not named? Would there  be a strong public interest reason in going back to the Commissioner to find out who’s telling the truth?

Cheshire East deputy leader Coun Dave Brown is also not going without a fight.

He told a meeting that residents could sign an e-petition against the Government’s building policy; despite being a Conservative himself he said developers were “raping and pillaging” the town and said the Government policy “gets up my nose”.

“I feel strongly about this,”  he told the meeting – but not strongly enough, while deputy leader or on the Cabinet, to push through a local plan before developers had the chance to rape and pillage.

He got a bit technical talking about the Liverpool vs the Sedgefield method for estimating housing demand and claims that the Government moved the goalposts.

But the fact would appear to remain that if Cheshire East had had a robust local plan in the first place, the goalposts would have been set in concrete and immovable.

While a number of other councils are in the same boat, others are not, so the goal post moving is not universal. Coun Brown was on the old Congleton Borough Council, which also made a hash of its local plan.

Meanwhile Couns Roland Domleo — former leader of the old borough — and Gordon Baxendale have taken a firmer tone.

In another letter to the Chronicle, they come over all practical in regards to what they call the Cheshire East link road. They skilfully manage to distance themselves from Cheshire East in a more positive way, by looking to the future.

The letter is quite impressive, but Coun Domleo was leader of the plan-less Congleton borough before it merged with Cheshire East, and has been on the Cabinet and served as deputy leader of the new authority.

He was also involved in one of my more embarrassing moments in recent years. Chatting to him during the period when heads rolled post-Lyme Green, I said that the Chronicle should really find out which idiot appointed some of the sacked people in the first place.

There was a heavy silence before Coun Domleo admitted that he’d been on the selection committee that recruited new officers. Ah. If it wasn’t Roland and I didn’t think he was a decent man, we’d have run a story.

I’ve also got some sympathy there — I’ve recruited some stinkers in my time, they all interviewed well. But still.

In fairness to all councillors, I suspect a lot of the authority’s problems were due to poor leadership from the start of Cheshire East Council’s life and the council leader (Wesley Fitzgerald) and the chief exec (Erica Wenzel) from those early days have both gone.

But Peter Mason, Roland Domleo and Dave Brown were all happy to trumpet that they were ON the Cabinet when appointed, saying it would give the old Congleton borough a voice. They can’t now turn round and say that, well, that wasn’t quite right and they actually didn’t do much at all but now it will all be different.

I just hope that the candidates selected for the 2015 elections have better hustings speeches than “It wasn’t me and I don’t agree with the Party in whose name I’m standing either”.

That way surely lies another four years of disasters.

And actually, for Tories who are saying that the Government has annoyed them, there’s an easy answer – leave the Tory Party and stand as an independent. Somehow I can’t see that happening.

Why the Daily Mail is bad for the newspaper industry

Someone wrote in a while back asking if — and why — we (ie me) had it in for the Daily Mail. Lacking evidence, I backtracked a little; I don’t want to be upsetting the customers after all.

But now some facts have appeared, confirming my prejudice, which demonstrate that my opinions are, in fact, rational. It’s like reputable garages trying to distance themselves from their peers who invent work that needs to be done, and then overcharge.

Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, recently unearthed the numbers of breaches of the Press Complaints Commission code, and which companies were the most frequent offenders.

Heading the list at 1,214 complaints was the Daily Mail, with almost double the complaints made against the Sun (638), which attracted twice as many complaints as the paper at number three, the  Daily Telegraph (300).

If you read the Daily Mail, you are perhaps not sure of how it goes about things. So here is an example.

On 31st December last year it carried a story claiming that buses and planes to the UK from Bulgaria and Romania were sold out as, it implied, Johnny Foreigner flocked over to claim benefits.

Its headline was “Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians and Bulgarians head for the UK”.

But when Jon Danzig, formerly an investigative journalist at the BBC, looked into this, he found out that it was, more or less, made up.

For example, the Daily Mail claimed that Wizz Air had doubled flights from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK — but the airline said this was not true. Moreover, seats were available every day from Sofia and Bucharest to London. British Airways made the point that the festive period is naturally busy anyway.

In its response to Mr Danzig, the Daily Mail hinted that it took the truth as a variable, saying: “The article did not suggest that easyJet traffic had increased, only that airlines were almost booked out, which easyJet is.”

So it has told the truth – that easyJet was booked out – but implied that this was because of a sudden influx of Romanians and Bulgarians, rather than just that easyJet was always booked up.

The Daily Mail also “spoke” to a manager at a Bulgarian bus company, Balkan Horn, who “said” that “many people wanted to travel to England . . . everything is booked up”.

But when contacted by Mr Danzig, Balkan Horn denied a reporter had spoken to the company. And even if this had been the case, it would not have said everything was booked up — because it was not.

All this may seem petty complaining from a small weekly paper that is of little relevance. But it is not petty complaining.

First, the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, was influential in the Press Complaints Commission. One of the three directors of the company that owns the PCC’s planned successor, IPSO, is Peter Wright, of the Daily Mail

Thus far the Chronicle has not signed up to the new Press regulation body, IPSO, because I figure that it is being run by the same people who ran the old PCC, and they have a vested interest in nothing changing. For example, it is unlikely to ban paparazzi photos because they are a staple of the Daily Mail website. It seems to me that, after all the argy-bargy and Leveson, everything will go back to being just as it was. But I can’t be unreasonable in expecting newspapers to be discouraged from making stuff up, and when they do make it up, being forced to run a prominent apology, can I?

And secondly, the made-up, right-wing stories of the Daily Mail, are, thanks to its website, a constant source of material for racists on Facebook and other social media. Barely an hour goes by without some Daily Mail story or another, which knocks foreigners, appearing on the Chronicle Facebook page, all seized upon by racists. Yet there is a good chance that these stories are either made up, or, at best, not very accurate.

The funny thing is that a lot of the time, the right wingers are lamenting the loss of British “culture”, usually laying the blame at the door of Muslims. But the right wingers must have a pretty poor view of Britishness if they assume that it is so wishy washy it can disappear so quickly.

Other nations will proclaim, proudly, that their nationhood runs indelibly through their hearts, like writing in sticks of rock. Right wingers over here seem to think Britishness is no more sturdy than a child’s stick-on tattoo.

As for blaming Muslims: Not so long ago I went to the excellent food store, Pak, in Stoke, to stock up. Rashly, I collected only a hand basket, ending up in a long queue, sweating profusely with a toddler on one arm and a heavy basket on the other.

Seeing my plight, as if by magic, the lines to the checkout disappeared as people beckoned me to the front of the queue, and helped with the heavy load. They were lovely.

If courteousness, politeness, helpfulness and friendliness are part of Britishness, the Muslim customers of Pak have a lot to teach some of our home-grown right wingers.

** John Danzig’s article is here: http://eu-rope.ideasoneurope.eu/2014/01/09/buses-planes-bulgarians-romanians-and-the-daily-mail-an-update/

What the Dickens!

Back in the year 1857, life wasn’t so good as it is now.

For example, according to manchestergalleries.org, Manchester in 1857 had no sewerage system or clean water supply, resulting in a high death rate thanks to diseases such as cholera and dysentery. I recently wrote about the infant death rate in Congleton; overcrowding meant infections such as tuberculosis spread rapidly and consequently life was hazardous; it was often short and grim for the poor.

Life expectancy in Manchester was 26, the lowest of any UK city; in Congleton it would be a bit higher, bearing in mind that both figures are skewed by horrendously high infant death rates. The average Mancunian would live only to 43, but we’d guess that if you made it past the teenage years you’d probably live into your 50s or beyond; 10% of children died before their fifth birthday.

Back in Manchester, up to 250 people would share a privvy, a pit in the ground used as a toilet. Only 32% of Manchester’s five to 14-year-olds went to school, the fourth lowest percentage in the country. In Congleton they at least fined people who sent their nippers out to work.

At work, the average person was expected to work around 56 hours a week, and health and safety did not exist. Boys would be doing men’s jobs, and dying doing them.

Even in the kitchen, it wasn’t safe: until 1875 there was little in the way of control on food quality. Bakers added alum and chalk to the flour, while plaster of Paris, pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of loaves. People were poor and hungry, and just wanted filling with food.

Brewers often added mixtures of bitter substances, some containing poisons such as strychnine, to improve the taste of the beer and save on hops. A court case in Congleton in 1914 showed this still went on.

So you get it: life 150 years ago was brutal and hard, unless you lived in Downton Abbey.

And we’re all glad we’ve left all that behind, right? Wrong.

The year also saw Mr Charles Dickens publish Little Dorrit, a tale about a poor girl living in the pauper’s prison, during which story he described life in London in general. I’m currently listening to it on Audible (owned by those tax-dodging rascals Amazon, but a wonderful thing).

And here goes Dickens, talking about Bleeding Hearts Yard, one of the locations outside the debtors’ house that he used.
He’s reflecting on the average working man’s attitude towards foreigners, and obviously did not approve, mocking as he did the narrow minded stupidity of the yard’s simple residents.

He wrote: “It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts.
“In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country.
“They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from diverse parts of the world if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British.
“They entertained other objections to having foreigners in the yard. They believed that foreigners were always badly off; though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection.
“They believed that foreigners were dragooned and bayoneted; though they certainly got their own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill-humour, it was with a blunt instrument, and that didn’t count.
“They believed that foreigners were always immoral; though they had an occasional assize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so, that had nothing to do with it.
“They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing.
Not to be tedious, they had many other beliefs of a similar kind.”

Do parts of that sound familiar?

Yup, depressingly similar to the current debate on immigration, where some politicians try to win votes by proclaiming that we don’t want foreigners over here, while not mentioning what would happen if Europe in turn sent all its British ex-pats home.

There’s the tabloid newspapers peddling hateful myths about foreigners, into whose heads pop no other ideas but criminal, ignoring the fact that we have home-grown shoplifters, doorstep callers who regard pensioners as fair game and men who can burn five of their children to death to make a point.

The Bleeding Heart yarders eventually tolerate the Dickens’ foreigner, when it becomes apparent he’s not got a knife or immoral habits — “tolerate” as in “treat like a baby”, conversing in staccato sentences and shouting loudly so he can understand them. Sound familiar?

It’s sad that everything that was part of the harsh daily life in 1857, from deaths by dysentery to sending small boys up chimneys, has been improved upon.

But when it comes to tolerance, some parts of the nation’s psyche have not moved on at all. With the grey, dreary influence of UKIP forcing immigration to the fore as the next General Election approaches, it’s clear that our leaders, of whatever party, have no intention of changing this.

How did education come to this?

In the week in which a court investigating illegal hacking heard about the depths some newspapers plumbed to unearth celebrity trivia, this week we’re looking at what we, in the responsible Press, are not publishing.

The following tale is a cautionary one for anyone using email to communicate, and a reflection on successive governments’ policies.
It’s also quite funny.

But it’s a sad sign of how important “spinning” a story has become. We mentioned the other week that some organisations now get annoyed with us for not following their carefully prepared spin. The following shows the lengths people will go to.

We’re keeping the names a secret — though they’ll know who they are — and only say that they are involved in education somewhere in our circulation area. We call everyone “he” but that’s for simplicity’s sake.

The drama unfolded at the end of a routine Press release, when we noticed that we’d been sent the email conversation behind its creation.

What piqued our interest was a comment about “needing to keep [the boss] away from this so that he can claim he had nothing to do with it if it comes to it”.

Gosh! It’s like Harrison Ford being given the nod from an underling of the US president. They call it deniability in the movies.

“I know that is what he wants,” added a mysterious Mr Big.

We just had to read on.

It’s clear that those in the conversation think they can present a Press release that will fool our reporters.

“I have tried to place it [the main point] among the text to “persuade” them [that’s us, the Chronicle] to use it, as it’s quite powerful,” writes one.

“If we put it in the first paragraph the Chronicle may also lift their headline from these words.”
(Yes, journalists are that predictable).

The difficulty in pushing one school at the expense of others is clear.

“I’m treading a tightrope here and need some input,” complained one person, though that input can be less than helpful: “point out that we are brilliant and aspirational,” was one comment.

It’s clear that they know rival schools are doing just the same thing, noting that one school will “definitely make this claim and be believed” and that “they will spin and present their version”.

They also want to make the spin for their own school easy to understand, so “that even the less intelligent can see it,” as they put it.

All this is amusing, if revealing, but there are number of conclusions to draw from it.

1. If you’re helping a school with its PR, lesson one should be “don’t send incriminating emails out to the Press”.

2. It reinforces our view that schools are paranoid about bad publicity. We’ve mentioned before the Ofsted Paradox: we’re letting the community down when we don’t report a glowing Ofsted, but irresponsible gutter hacks when we highlight a negative one.

3. This is what Government “league” tables and “performance” results have done. Nowhere in the email chat does anyone say: “Well, we might be the best but can’t we also flag up that our kids are happy?”

4. These are schools we’re talking about. One line in the email chat reads: “Communicating it in such a politically sensitive landscape is tricky.” No. A “politically sensitive landscape” is stopping Syrians killing each other. School exam results, within quite a wide range of acceptability, are not.

Politics, in its broadest sense, should have no place in schools, except that successive Governments have decided that schools need to compete, for everything.

And does the attitude of rubbishing your colleagues and peers at other educational establishments extend to the kids? Do teachers rubbish their counterparts in the classroom?

Finally: a lot of newspapers would have run this story, with relish, naming names and possibly costing jobs.

We’re not going to.

We’d imagine those involved are now hiding in corners, gibbering but at the end of the day we’ve only got sympathy for them.

It’s not their fault education has become such a battleground.

Congleton: the cultural centre of Cheshire East

This week, inspired by Michael Portillo – possibly not something anyone’s ever written before, so here it is again – inspired by Michael Portillo, I’m making a case for Congleton to become the cultural and tourist centre of Cheshire East.

 There’s often a feeling that Macclesfield and Crewe are the “big” towns and Congleton the smaller brother; Cheshire East itself bases many of its operations in Macc and Crewe.

That’s fine for practical things: let Crewe have the piles of grit for the roads and all those job-creating warehouses  and Macc the council’s fleet of trucks and biosciencetechnology biopark.

But when it comes to culture, heritage and history, and, above all, charm, Congleton (and indeed, the former Congleton borough) is well ahead.

Empirically, you can see this for yourself. Not that I recommend it, but if you find yourself shopping in Macc you’ll notice what a tatty town centre it has. Admittedly, there’s a Waterstones (nice staff), but that’s about it. The town looks scratty — a technical word, used by town planners  — and it lacks the ancient charms of Congleton or Sandbach.

As for Crewe: I’m led to believe its town centre is somewhere between the multi-storey car park and Asda but I’ve never felt the urge to look.

Obviously I exaggerate for humour, and that’s clearly a biased generalisation. Even if it’s true. Both lack the qualities of Congleton — and we’ve recently discovered reliable and independent proof.

Inspired by Michael Portillo (that’s three times) and his televised travels on trains, we picked up a cheap copy of Bradshaw’s handbook, the legendary guide to the railways, as used by Mr P.

It’s interesting reading anyway, but it’s very interesting for its coverage of this area.

Take Macclesfield, for instance. Despite having a population (then) of 36,000, it’s dismissed by Bradshaw in a mere paragraph, about the same as Leek (population 10,000). It’s got a church and an MP or two.

In a book about trains, Crewe is obviously important but again benefits from only a small amount of Mr Bradshaw’s time. Though to be fair, back then it was just a small town landed with a big station. After some impressive stats on railways and their ways, and a passing admiration of the town’s grease, Bradshaw mentions Crewe Hall and moves on.

Congleton, on the other hand, despite being a third the size of Macc, gets a lengthy entry from the discerning Mr Bradshaw. He mentions the half-timbered houses, the town hall, and the many stately homes in the environs of the town.

The route into the town (and out of Macclesfield, obviously) is “rich in natural beauties”, and there’s Cloud End and Mow Cop. The Bridestones are singled out for attention, as are the viaducts.

All in all, Congleton merits nearly half a column — it’s on the same spread of page as Ashbourne, then, as now, a tourist trap, which gets only a bit more.

And Bradshaw was writing before Little Moreton Hall was open to the public, or Jodrell Bank was built, or Biddulph Grange restored and handed over to the nation. Or we started honouring his namesake, regicide, and made the town the centre of all things ursine, not to mention real ale.

He doesn’t mention Sandbach Crosses, only a short trip away, or our beauty spots.

This made me realise that the Congleton area is just as well-placed as more famous tourist towns like Buxton or Bakewell to cash in on day trippers or “staycationers”; we’re on the edge of the both the Peak District and the Cheshire Plain to boot.

There are numerous attractions within only a short drive, be it Sandbach’s historic cobbles and crosses, or Biddulph Grange, or Jodrell Bank. Visitors staying in the area can be directed to the Peaks without having to see Macclesfield, and they can get to Chester without having to observe Crewe.

Obviously, our development as a tourist area depends on Congleton and Sandbach not being destroyed because of Cheshire East’s dismal failure to produce a local plan (overseen by a Congleton councillor, ironically) but once the council has a valid local plan, and the link road is sorted — freeing up Congleton’s medieval streets — we should be lobbying for a tourism boost in this area.

When it all gets going, maybe we should get Mr Portillo and his worn copy of Bradshaw to wish us luck.

Facebook/Twitter and racists

One of the less savoury sides of social media, particularly Facebook, is the small minority of racists who regularly post messages.

In that annoyingly invasive way that racists have, they dress up their racism in reasonable clothes in an attempt to make anyone who takes issue look sensitive. Obviously, being racist they’re generally too stupid to see how they give themselves away.

The current trend is Islamaphobia, with “news” stories regularly posted in which a Muslim has committed a crime and is thus portrayed as representing all Muslims. After one such posting, I tried asking where the story about white British Christian Ian Watkins sexually assaulting young children was, and whether he represented all Christians or Britons, or indeed all the Welsh, but answer came there none.

Other religions similarly escape: it was never claimed when Charles Saatchi hit the headlines that Jews routinely discuss difficult issues by putting their hands round their spouses’ necks, and Parsis are not generally labelled as 100% homosexual with big moustaches, despite their number including Freddie Mercury.

The racists’ general argument is that Muslims are destroying traditional English life, with even those who commit crimes in other countries having this power. Oddly, the racists never state which traditions they want to bring back. Knocking all your teeth out (a pre-dentistry tradition that continued until the 20th century), losing half your children to diphtheria or bringing back 14-hour days in satanic mills perhaps? Maybe the world wars or women being banned from voting? Sending children up chimneys and only travelling by horse? Only having three television channels and no mobile phones? Obviously, they don’t actually mean anything: they’re just racist. There never was a golden age of Britishness.

Sometimes the world plays into their hands, and so was the case recently when Universities UK — which represents university vice-chancellors — said that, under some circumstances, seating plans that segregated the genders would be allowed, if requested by speakers from orthodox religious groups. By which they mean hardline Muslims.

It’s worth pointing out that no speaker has made such a request: the organisation was using a hypothetical case featuring a hypothetical speaker invited to talk about his faith, and hypothetically requesting segregated seating areas for men and women. But it’s drivel like this that plays into racists’ hands, because it’s so stupid. No-one in their right mind is going to agree with it.

Anyone who has travelled will know that if you go to other countries, you follow their customs: if you go to a Muslim country you dress modestly, just like if you go to Australia you don’t drink much and go to bed early. (No really: Ozzies hate British visitors going over and keeping them up late drinking).

Similarly, anyone living in England should follow our customs, one of which is that we treat both sexes equally. There was a time when we didn’t, but that was 100 years ago during the Golden Age Of Sending Kids Up Chimneys and we’ve made some changes since then.

If you don’t like it, go and live somewhere else. It’s not racist to state that, but it is wrong to side with racists because of it.

***

The bigots also had a field day when a school in Accrington recently banned Enid Blyton books, on the grounds of them being racist.

Unfortunately, Blyton was writing at a time when right wing views were more widely held, and she was of her time She had golliwogs as baddies — replaced by Sly and Gobbo for television — and when Noddy meets the Tootles, he finds Romany gypsies who camp illegally and steal his car. She also vaguely disapproves of the rougher working classes and derided the law – she did invented the Plod, after all.

You can still buy the older books but the modern ones have been re-written to be PC and they suffer accordingly, being much less interesting and dull to read: Blyton is not popular because she was a bad writer.

Upon hearing of the Accrington ban, the racists rallied round the cause, because it was (they said) a loss of Britishness to ban a series of books that featured golliwogs, one of whom was called Nigger. The word is part of our language, the racists claimed.

Strangely they did not use other words that were equally popular at the time: “Hey, the bluenose big cheeses have bumped off that broad Blyton!” was not a phrase we saw used.

Racists don’t argue thus because they want to protect all old fashioned words and ideas. It’s just that racist one and, by deeming it to be somehow special, it only reveals their racism. They want to protect it because it causes offence to people of a different colour; we doubt they’d defend a book that used words like spackers and flids, both acceptable at one point but not now.

Stop moaning and let some decisions be made

Someone asked me this week why I’ve not mentioned fracking, which is currently the national bogey-thing. It’s the end of modern life as we know it, apparently.

The simple answer is that, even with a good (though fading) knowledge of geology, I didn’t know enough.

On one hand is the fact that France has banned fracking. With French energy company Total forced to the UK to frack, the veto in its homeland has been mentioned more than once. But this is probably less about the dangers of fracking than the fact that France has an energy policy. The UK does not, and more of that shortly. The French know where their energy is coming from, and can do without fracking which – as with any large-scale industrial process – has an environmental impact.

I don’t believe the claims that fracking has no side effects. I’ve read stories in the US where it has polluted groundwater, forcing people to ship in bottled water. Some people can light the fluid (it’s not water) that comes out of the taps. America is huge and fracking is carried out in remote areas, whereas England is small and there are no remote areas. Any danger to water supplies must be taken seriously.

I don’t see how earthquakes produced by mining are reported in a joking way as interesting and exciting, while earthquakes from fracking are practically the precursors to a zombie attack. An earthquake is an earthquake, surely?

I don’t buy the cheap fuel excuse for fracking. Self-sufficiency, maybe but cheap, no. Gas is sold on a world market and, if we add to the world supply, someone somewhere will produce less to hold the price up. Most of our gas suppliers are also the wholesalers, so I can easily see prices going up not down.

That’s all irrelevant, though: science and economics aside, the fact that the Government and the gas industry see the need to bribe us is enough to suggest that it’s a bad idea. We were bribed with cheap shares to accept energy privatisation in the first place, and look how well that turned out.

So: no to fracking, until we have more research.

But there’s a deeper problem, and that’s us.  I realised this week that one reason Britain is in a mess is not because of big business or inept politicians but because of us, the people. We moan about EVERYTHING, even when two moans hold contradictory positions.

We moan about fracking, wind power, wave power, coal-powered power stations, nuclear power and waste incinerators – in fact anything to do with solving our power generation issues. We’ve had stories from people complaining about wind turbines, waste incinerators, biomass burners . . . . yet it seems to me that the dangers of doing nothing (global warming) are worse than any of the options.

The end result is that our Government has no national energy policy, but staggers from one alternative to another as the tabloids whip up hostility to whatever they don’t like that day. Fracking is just the latest. Tomorrow it could be tidal barriers.

The sensible option would seem to be nuclear for the backbone of power generation, with green generation – offshore and on-shore turbines, solar – being used as much as possible and whenever possible. But governments, whose little piggy eyes can see no further than the next election, are hog-tied by the constant moaning into doing nothing. Whatever they do will lose votes, because everyone is mostly opposed to everything.

Then there’s drugs, another area where we have no policy. That’s because people moan about dope fiends, drug-related crime and smackheads, but also any serious attempts to discuss the issues, again whipped up by the tabloids. Any politician who suggest a serious drugs debate would be pilloried by the Daily Mail. So we currently allow drugs industry to be managed (in many cases) by violent psychopaths, and while one drug (smoking) kills 50% of users, the tabloids go into a feeding frenzy when the odd person dies from a recreational drug.

Housing policy? People moan about banks, high house prices and the cost of mortgages but then moan about most plans to build new houses.

Roads? Almost as bad as energy. People moan about traffic jams and pollution, as well as new roads that might alleviate the issue, then moan about being overweight and not getting enough exercise while moaning about having to pay to park, a move that in part was intended to make people exercise more.

Moan, moan, moan.

Never mind fracking: if we could harness the hot air produced by the English moaning about everything, we’d solve the world’s energy problems at a stroke.

On being a hero

This country’s attitude to our armed services has undergone a considerable change in the last few years.

Seven or eight years ago, I ran an appeal for Help for Heroes (or some sort of a predecessor) and had one donation – £20. There was no interest in supporting our boys back then.

I’d visited the US and the contrast between them and us was noticeable – Americans were able to differentiate between their troops and Government policy, and people would send gifts or letters to random soldiers, just to show support. I wanted us to be able to do the same.

Obviously, we’ve got a different history: for many years, courtesy the IRA, our soldiers were invisible, because they dare not wear uniforms in public. But we did seem to have a national mentality that they were just people doing a job, so where’s the fuss? Now that’s all changed, which is good, but we seem to have gone from one extreme to another, which is not so good.

An increasing number of people are growing uneasy about the fact that ALL soldiers are seen as heroes, just because they’re in the army, and that people who don’t support all soldiers are somehow letting the side down.
Look at the newsreader who doesn’t wear a poppy: they’ll be pilloried in the tabloids.

But we live in a democracy – the same one that soldiers died for – and we have freedom of speech, and the freedom to choose whether to wear, or even buy, a poppy.

Clearly, there are failings in the system: too many soldiers seem to be let down by the Ministry of Defence, both when they are wounded and when they are discharged.

It’s likely that some people join the army because they can’t cope in civvy street, and still can’t cope when they leave. Even so, the Government has a responsibility to people who have laid their lives on the line for their country.
Organisations such as Congleton’s excellent LOL should not have to rely on charity to help ex-employees of their nation to get back on their feet.
That aside, it also can’t be true that all servicemen are heroes, simply because they’re in the army (or navy or RAF).

Most of them are men (or women) doing their jobs. The odd one will do something that makes them a hero, but it is the odd one. That’s why heroes are so revered.

I’ve made the point before that young men don’t join the army because they want to discuss philosophy and read books: many soldiers are not people that the more middle class supporters of the likes of Help for Heroes would want to sit next to in the pub. Having lived briefly in Aldershot, I speak from experience.

I’m musing on this because, looking back in our archives, I found some comments made by Lionel Head, former editor and chairman of the Chronicle.
Writing in early 1950 – ie only a handful of years after the end of WW2 – he pondered the flaws of Congleton’s greatest hero, Sgt Harold Eardley, VC MM.
Lionel reflected on the nature of bravery and the mentality of those who commit acts that can only astonish more normal people.

He recalled that six years previously “the houses were bedecked with bunting, and the Mayor, town clerk and half the corporation fetched (Sgt Eardley) from Crewe in regal state; the band played, and Movietone News, Gaumont-British and daily press photographers shot from all angles as the hero’s car thrust its triumphant way through crowds of cheering townspeople.”

“It was a fine piece of work,” the King had said, awarding Sgt Eardley the VC, which he won by destroying three machine-gun posts single-handedly.
But, asked Mr Head: “Where is he now, that hero whom we delighted to honour six years ago?”

He explained.
“Unfortunate events that subsequently occurred have blotted his name and face from their memory,” said Mr Head, who reflected that if Sgt Eardley had been killed, his name would have lived on for ever in glory.
Lionel argued that, with some VCs, a “nobility of character subordinates fear”. He had met these men, and they usually died.

“Then,” he wrote, “there is the other kind, to which Congleton’s VC belongs: devoid not only of physical fear but of other normal human instincts and restraints.
”The type that doesn’t know the meaning of fear often doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong either.”
He went on: “In some cases – as in this – the VC is incapable of conforming to the conventional social pattern. For one reason or another, the hero comes to be forgotten.” As had been the case with Earldey, it appeared.

I’m surprised that Lionel wrote this down so close to the VC being awarded, though his successor, John Condliffe, had several interesting stories about Sgt Eardley.
For example, after the VC came home, he went on a bender for three days and didn’t go home. A worried (and rather annoyed) Mrs Eardley had to come into the Chron to find out where her husband was, asking John where the hero was to be found.

As for the incident referred to by Lionel: perhaps it was the day Sgt Eardley visited a local stately home and left not only with universal praise ringing in his ears, but also some of the silverware. The gentlemen of the police were summoned but it was not deemed appropriate to press charges: the man was a hero, after all.

This and other escapades would have been widely known at the time and Lionel’s comments about the VC being forgotten could have resonated down the decades – the campaign to get a statue erected in his honour took some time to get going.

It’s a lesson: Sgt Eardley was heroic when he stormed the machine gun nests – and deserved his VC – but his behaviour off the battlefield showed that simply being in uniform did not make him a hero.

Conversely, Falkland veteran Simon Weston became known for the serious injuries he suffered on the Sir Galahad. His only action at the time was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet in his life subsequently he has become something of a hero.

I read his autobiography many years ago and it was clear that he was a lager-drinking lad who was headed for a fairly predictable life. But after suffering the horrendous burns, he became a person he would never dreamed of being, and received an OBE for services to charity.

Pick your hero of choice: the one who earns the honour for heroism on the battlefield, but who can’t live up to it afterwards, or the one who spends his life working for and representing his fellow servicemen, and is noble enough to become friends with Argentine pilot who dropped the bomb that caused his injuries.

They’re both heroes, of course, but it’s because of what they did, not simply because they wore a uniform.

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