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.

Haven’t we moved beyond the concept of an eye for an eye?

The attempted restarting of the capital punishment debate by Congleton’s UKIP Louise Bours — she said there was “no ethical reason” to prevent child killers, the murderers of police officers and the killers of Lee Rigby being executed — does her and her Party no good.

Aside from any questions that the comments were made for political or self-promotional purposes, they show UKIP to be what critics claim it is, a party rooted in 1950s Britain, appealing to the lowest common denominator and with ill thought-out policies.

The lone argument for the death penalty is an Old Testament concept of revenge. At the end of the day, in 2014 we should have moved beyond the medieval concept of an eye for an eye.

Anyway, which is the best revenge: to kill someone and remove them from all guilt or keep them alive and in prison for decades? Ian Brady’s recent court appeals are based on his wish to die. The punishment is keeping him alive.

The death penalty is arguably not part of a fair legal system but a stick used by the powerful to keep the weak in fear, whether it’s the English Act of Parliament in 1723 that created 50 capital offences for theft and poaching, or the lynching of blacks in America.

The latter is a good place to start when being critical of killing in the name of revenge: the famous song Strange Fruit was inspired by the lynching of two innocent men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana. The men were falsely accused of rape and murder and lynched by a mob intent on revenge.

When Smith tried to free himself from the noose, the crowd lowered him, broke both his arms and strung him up again to die. That’s revenge for you: barbaric and bloodthirsty. It’s not justice.

The concept of revenge is one our legal system has gone beyond. We spent decades moving away from killing citizens, though it’s true that politicians and lawmakers have done so in the face of public opinion — today, 45% of the public are in favour of capital punishment with 39% against.

Revenge aside, execution does not work. It does not prevent crime. In Texas, the keenest of all US states on killing its citizens, there were 1,144 murders in 2012. The population of Texas is about half that of England and Wales and we had 551 murders in 2012: that’s double the population and half the murders, despite Texas having the death penalty.

Supporters of the death penalty work in the belief that convictions are always correct, something with which Timothy Evans, hanged in 1950 for a murder committed by John Christie, or Derek Bentley, hung in 1953 for murdering a policeman and pardoned in 1998, would disagree. A number of Irishmen could have been hung for offences for which they were later cleared.

What people who support the death penalty fail to take account is that it’s the price we pay for having a fair legal system. The killers of Lee Rigby are the exceptions that show why the rules should be not changed: everyone has to be treated equally and fairly. If a pair of callous murderers appear to make a mockery of fairness, that’s the proof that, for all other cases, a system of checks and balances is built in.

Singling out killers such as Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale for special consideration falls into the trap of valuing some lives above others. What’s the difference between someone who sets out with a knife to injure someone or someone who leaves the pub then drives over the limit and causes a fatal accident? Both know they are about to commit actions that could cause harm, and their victims’ lives are of equal value.

Mr Rigby’s killing was atrocious but from a factual basis, little different to the recent killing in Macclesfield of Zain Sailsman — both were killed in the street by people who had set out to cause serious harm. Mr Rigby was an innocent man killed without provocation, and this was reflected in sentencing, with Adebolajo given a whole life order and Adebowale ordered to serve at least 45 years. In Congleton, Ricky Jervis was sentenced to a minimum of 27 years. Would UKIP advocate that Jervis was executed?

Calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty ignore the fact that the world has changed since the 1950s. Not least because, despite opinion polls, there’s a boycott by the companies supplying the drugs that kill the condemned.

This has led to a fall in executions in the US. California, Arkansas and North Carolina have suspended the death penalty because of a failure to find a workable lethal injection. Other states are trying to develop their own drugs: in April this year, Oklahoma tried out an untested mixture of drugs, which led to a condemned man surviving for 43 minutes before being pronounced dead; he convulsed and spoke during the execution process. He attempted to rise from the execution table 14 minutes in, despite having been declared unconscious.

It could be assumed that, should we re-introduce the death penalty, the drugs manufacturers would be equally unwilling to supply the drugs, so we’d have to pick another method.

Texas is the top executor in the US but it abolished hanging in 1924, the firing squad in the Civil War and electrocution in 1964. (Eighteen US states have abolished the death penalty altogether). Which method would UKIP favour?

Finally, the reintroduction of the death penalty would be a serious blow to the standing of England in the eyes of the world. No longer could we take the moral high ground when lecturing countries on their inattention to human rights.

Is this what UKIP wants? Botched executions of innocent people and Britain becoming a pariah of the world stage?

Surprise result of housing survey

We’ve carried acres of words attacking the new homes being built across Cheshire, and this week we were given a leaked copy of a letter sent by Cheshire East leader Michael Jones to Brandon Lewis, the new minister for housing and planning. Coun Jones wants the minister to help prevent unwanted developments by forcing planning inspectors to be consistent.

Elections are coming and the minister is unlikely to be sympathetic due to the results of a recent survey which revealed public support for the building of new homes has risen. This editorial was going to take a different tack until those pesky facts got in the way, as we shall see.

Some of our original points still stand: we originally wrote that we need more houses and, from the Government’s point of view, Cheshire must look good. Lots of nice country in commuting distance of big cities. Lots of Tory MPs in safe seats, who, at the end of the day, won’t kick up much real fuss.

It’s also true that locally, with elections due next year, things look a little different. The old Congleton borough has proved to be a king-maker in the past, handing the Tories both Congleton borough and Cheshire county councils when voters got disillusioned with the Lib Dems. On the surface, Coun Jones has good reason to be concerned.

Sadly, Mr Lewis does not look like a man who will be sympathetic – and after looking into this, he may well have good reason.

In an article written in the Daily Telegraph in July, just after he was promoted, the minister outlined his beliefs.

After a rambling introduction and some political point scoring, Mr Lewis quoted the British Social Attitudes Survey on house-building, which found that since 2010 support for new homes had risen “dramatically”, from 28% in 2010 to 47% in 2013.

Opposition to new homes over the same period had fallen from 46% in 2010 to 31% in 2013.

What he’s saying (he says it’s thanks to Government planning reforms), is that local communities that once opposed new housing developments now support them. Hmm. These figures seemed at odds with stories we’ve carried, and stories we’ve seen elsewhere.

So we checked the figures, thinking they were perhaps carried out at Tory HQ with a sample size of four.

In fact the survey was carried out by the independent NatCen Social Research, which asked lots of people. Mr Lewis was quoting the figures accurately, too, not needing the politician’s knack of selectively picking figures to suit.

The survey found that between 2010 and 2013 opposition to new homes in respondents’ local areas fell by 15 points.

The fall in opposition to new house building was biggest among those aged over 65.

The 35-54s needed the most convincing, 36% of them say they “opposed or strongly opposed” new homes being built in their local area.

Penny Young, chief executive of NatCen, said: “These findings suggest that the difficulties faced by young people seeking to get on the housing ladder have cut through with the public as a whole. The parents of ‘generation rent’ have recognised that, if their children are going to see the benefits of homeownership, new houses are needed.” But: this means that two thirds of people aged 35-54 support new homes in their local area and resistance among pensioners, who you’d perhaps expect to be most conservative, has fallen.

Does this suggest that the vocal opposition to new homes comes from a small minority? Campaigners might not like it, but the survey found that:

    47% of people are in favour of new homes, compared to 28% in 2010;
    69% would not oppose new homes, compared to 54% in 2010;
    Two thirds of pensioners support the building of new homes – in 2010 it was only 49%.

The figures suggest that opinion is far more divided than press reports would have you believe: just under half of people apparently support the building of new houses and around 70% would not oppose new build, while 70% of pensioners do not oppose new builds.

Cheshire East, and many of the protest groups, are of course opposed to planning applications in the “wrong” areas, but still: we suspect the Government knows new houses need to be built, because there is a shortage of houses, and that most people do not object.

Given that pensioners vote at a higher rate than other groups, and that two thirds of younger people support new homes anyway, perhaps the bad news for Coun Jones is that the Government won’t listen to his concerns.

The good news is that come election time, it might not matter that much.

Surprise result of housing survey

We’ve carried acres of words attacking the new homes being built across Cheshire, and this week we were given a leaked copy of a letter sent by Cheshire East leader Michael Jones to Brandon Lewis, the new minister for housing and planning. Coun Jones wants the minister to help prevent unwanted developments by forcing planning inspectors to be consistent.

Elections are coming and the minister is unlikely to be sympathetic due to the results of a recent survey which revealed public support for the building of new homes has risen. This editorial was going to take a different tack until those pesky facts got in the way, as we shall see.

Some of our original points still stand: we originally wrote that we need more houses and, from the Government’s point of view, Cheshire must look good. Lots of nice country in commuting distance of big cities. Lots of Tory MPs in safe seats, who, at the end of the day, won’t kick up much real fuss.

It’s also true that locally, with elections due next year, things look a little different. The old Congleton borough has proved to be a king-maker in the past, handing the Tories both Congleton borough and Cheshire county councils when voters got disillusioned with the Lib Dems. On the surface, Coun Jones has good reason to be concerned.

Sadly, Mr Lewis does not look like a man who will be sympathetic – and after looking into this, he may well have good reason.

In an article written in the Daily Telegraph in July, just after he was promoted, the minister outlined his beliefs.

After a rambling introduction and some political point scoring, Mr Lewis quoted the British Social Attitudes Survey on house-building, which found that since 2010 support for new homes had risen “dramatically”, from 28% in 2010 to 47% in 2013.

Opposition to new homes over the same period had fallen from 46% in 2010 to 31% in 2013.

What he’s saying (he says it’s thanks to Government planning reforms), is that local communities that once opposed new housing developments now support them. Hmm. These figures seemed at odds with stories we’ve carried, and stories we’ve seen elsewhere.

So we checked the figures, thinking they were perhaps carried out at Tory HQ with a sample size of four.

In fact the survey was carried out by the independent NatCen Social Research, which asked lots of people. Mr Lewis was quoting the figures accurately, too, not needing the politician’s knack of selectively picking figures to suit.

The survey found that between 2010 and 2013 opposition to new homes in respondents’ local areas fell by 15 points.

The fall in opposition to new house building was biggest among those aged over 65.

The 35-54s needed the most convincing, 36% of them say they “opposed or strongly opposed” new homes being built in their local area.

Penny Young, chief executive of NatCen, said: “These findings suggest that the difficulties faced by young people seeking to get on the housing ladder have cut through with the public as a whole. The parents of ‘generation rent’ have recognised that, if their children are going to see the benefits of homeownership, new houses are needed.” But: this means that two thirds of people aged 35-54 support new homes in their local area and resistance among pensioners, who you’d perhaps expect to be most conservative, has fallen.

Does this suggest that the vocal opposition to new homes comes from a small minority? Campaigners might not like it, but the survey found that:

    47% of people are in favour of new homes, compared to 28% in 2010;
    69% would not oppose new homes, compared to 54% in 2010;
    Two thirds of pensioners support the building of new homes – in 2010 it was only 49%.

The figures suggest that opinion is far more divided than press reports would have you believe: just under half of people apparently support the building of new houses and around 70% would not oppose new build, while 70% of pensioners do not oppose new builds.

Cheshire East, and many of the protest groups, are of course opposed to planning applications in the “wrong” areas, but still: we suspect the Government knows new houses need to be built, because there is a shortage of houses, and that most people do not object.

Given that pensioners vote at a higher rate than other groups, and that two thirds of younger people support new homes anyway, perhaps the bad news for Coun Jones is that the Government won’t listen to his concerns.

The good news is that come election time, it might not matter that much.

What’s to be done over the Travellers?

The events of the weekend — one of the most disturbing and bizarre we can remember — should have taught Congletonians several things.

The first is that the Travellers who turned the town into the Wild West have done us a favour: they highlighted how crime-free Congleton is.

Many people in other parts of the country live in daily fear of being verbally abused or being threatened with violence, and just have to live with it. We just had it for a couple of days. You should appreciate how safe life is here.

For those who don’t live in Congleton: a group of extremely antisocial Travellers set up home in the town. We (and doubtless the police) were inundated with complaints: from female joggers being harassed (“It seems it’s not safe to run on your own at the moment” said one personal trainer) to horrible children swearing and being objectionable in shops. “A number of small children started to use explicit words towards one female staff member, even doing the actions what he would do to her,” said one person on Facebook.

The Travellers were throwing stones and dirty nappies at dog walkers, stalked young girls and boxed them in demanding money, and besieged a local gym. Eventually they blocked off a public highway. We experienced it ourselves, seeing a large group force their way out of a restaurant without paying.

It’s also taught the lesson that making allowances for people’s different lifestyles is one thing, but these people were just nasty. Tolerance doesn’t come into it. Whatever your lifestyle, there’s no excuse for intimidation, theft and vandalism.

Why they were here is another thing: some people said there’d been a meeting of travellers in Manchester, others that they had attended a service at St Mary’s RC Church in Congleton; if that’s true, confession must take a long time.

We’ve been trying to be fair to Gypsies and Travellers as a community, but it’s difficult.
We contacted our friend David Burke, who runs the Tuam Herald in Ireland: Tuam, as well as being home to the legendary Saw Doctors, has 7.7% of Ireland’s Travellers.

He said he was “really sorry” to hear about the Travellers.
He wrote: “That’s the kind of thing that makes Irish people cringe. I just hope the average English person realises that we have the same proportion of civilised to barbarian that you have.”
He said that in Tuam, there was a “voluntary, mutually agreed social apartheid” between most of the Traveller community and the so-called settled community (although the vast majority of Travellers now live in houses), though there were exceptions: the captain of the local senior rugby team is a Traveller, and there had been a Traveller Mayor.

He said: “They do their business, patronise local shops, drink in certain local pubs and they don’t cause any more trouble than the settled population. If there are fights, they tend to be among themselves.”

Sadly, none of this rationality and talk of integration helps when you’re facing people who, without putting too fine a point on it, are scum. It does make you wonder if these are the people Ireland doesn’t want.

What frustrates people more is not their behaviour per se but the fact that they were getting away with it: as well as the theft and violence there was the fact that they were parked illegally and most of their cars didn’t seem to have tax discs.

There was a lot of talk about residents confronting them, which seems a bad idea, but the current situation is clearly unacceptable and politicians need to take this on board.
At the next election, we suspect people would rather hear some solutions to the Traveller issue, and not hot air about the EU.

The fact that things CAN be done by elected officials was seen this week: only minutes after police and crime commissioner John Dwyer’s webchat was high-jacked by irate Congletonians, the police turned out in force and evicted most the Travellers.

But it’s clear we need a long-term workable solution that involves more than just townsfolk going all medieval with flaming torches and pitchforks.

We need transit sites, which means someone is going to have a camp built close to them; Cheshire East Council is hampered by the fact that it technically already has a site, in Astbury, which is basically a small estate for settled Gypsies who just don’t want houses: even if there were spare pitches, they’d probably no more want Travellers living next door than anyone else.
Whether the Travellers we had this week would bother to use transit sites is debatable. Probably not. But we probably still need them; at the very least it gives us higher moral ground.

It would be nice to think we could arrive at an amicable solution but in this case it seems that prohibitive measures are all that will work.

Reservations about WWI ‘celebrations’

The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One is being commemorated everywhere at the moment, from the thought-provoking poppies outside the Tower of London to the Guardian cashing in, offering trendy T-shirts bearing war-related graphics.

We’re in on it, too: we’ve got an eight-page pull out this week, though we’ve sold no advertising on the back of it, so it’s costing us money; our excellent compendium of news from 1914 is also on sale.

I’ve done a lot of the 1914 newspaper and spending so much time living in 1914 has left me with a feeling of unease at some of the “celebrations”.

Just to make it clear: we should remember the young men who gave up their lives, and living soldiers justifiably want to remember their friends who were not so lucky. But: a hundred years is a long time ago, and that’s not just stating the obvious — it was a different world. We’re remembering people whose lives we cannot imagine, in ways with which they in turn might not understand.

Motor vehicles were coming in, but people mostly used horse or steam. Child mortality was high, and life itself uncertain until a person got to about 20. Health and safety was non-existent, and fatal diseases common. There was no television or radio, or electricity. Women didn’t have the vote. The landed gentry probably still expected forelocks to be touched.
Life was hard in 1914, with the hours long, the pay low and conditions harsh. There were no state benefits. Many people were never more than a week’s wage from starving. So, you get the impression that many men snapped up the chance of good pay and plentiful food in the army; clearly, no-one had any idea of the horrors that lay ahead.

Biddolphians in particular seemed to be taken by the food, with our correspondent noting in several reports that “there was a plentiful supply of wholesome food”, and of the weight the men had put on. Some complained their clothes had got too tight — these are not men getting fat, but under-fed men eating a healthy diet for the first time.

It’s true that WWI was the first that saw mass conscription — and so more civilian-soldiers were killed — but the Boer War had only ended in 1902 and that’s now ancient history.
(Possibly because we put the Boers in concentration camps and 27,927 — 22,074 of these children under 16 —- and 14,154 black Africans died of starvation or disease. Not something we’d want to remember).

True, WWI was also the first conflict to be widely photographed. We can all picture a WWI soldier, but a Boer War one?

Then there’s the fact that the start of the war did not create unanimous agreement about the glory of defending the motherland, either.

While it’s true the Chronicle referred to a “wave of patriotic enthusiasm”, apathy is also apparent: at the first recruitment meeting, men don’t seem keen on going abroad and “evidences of apathy” are seen after Lord Kitchener’s famous call for men. In parts of Buglawton there was a real disinclination to enlist.

Considerable pressure had to be put on young men to join, whether it was Alderman Solly “working unremittingly” to press men into the ranks, or the police, who clearly forced men to enlist.

A typical case was Emily Dean, who was summoned for being drunk and disorderly, and her son Harry, charged with obstructing the police. She was obviously not drunk when arrested and Harry just annoyed but the court pressured him into having the charges dropped if he joined up. This was clearly acceptable and deemed necessary.

The men were shipped off to Europe and in their cheery letters there start to appear references to events that were too terrible to talk about. After the cliché of the trenches, the next most popular WWI cliché is that of the shell-shocked soldier refusing to talk about what he’d seen. These are not heroes, they’re people like us being mentally scarred by the truly terrible things they’ve seen.

It strikes me there’s a parallel with Diana’s funeral: a national outpouring of grief by a nation that then continued to buy photos from the very paparazzi who hounded her to death.
Similarly while we remember those who gave their lives to protect our country, the UK sells weapons to countries with poor human rights records, in particular Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe but also Sri Lanka, Russia and Belarus. We celebrate our freedom while crushing that of others and don’t seem to care.

Closer to home, people on Facebook post sentimental messages in praise of the soldiers who gave their lives for freedom and justice, and then post hate-filled rants or “share” racist posts that call for their fellow Britains to be persecuted for their religion or skin colour.
You can’t help but wonder what the good people of 1914 would have made of it all. After this year, has the time finally come to move on from WWI?

Transit sites are needed for travellers

So more itinerant travellers have landed in Congleton and caused problems. This time they parked on the playing fields of a local school and forced community classes to be cancelled. Last time they were on Barn Road, causing at least one local business to take extra security measures.

But the travellers — they’re not gypsies but Irish — divide opinion, as we found out on our Facebook page.

At one end was the “thieving scum” argument. “Mostly parasites living off the rest of us… I doubt that they pay tax. They camp where they like, leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab,” was one view, admittedly a tiny minority.

Moving a little towards the centre ground were people who disliked travellers for more tempered reasons, such as the fact that law-abiding people had had their evening classes cancelled, or the fact that young travellers had gate-crashed events and, when asked to leave, come out with verbal abuse that’s far too rude to print here. If the travellers would behave, this group would be quite tolerant.

At the other end of the spectrum was the anarchist view: that the legal system is based on the agreement that we blindly follow it, and some “free men of the land” choose not to.

However, a fair few people were sympathetic to the travellers and it was harder to resist their arguments. Some even compared a bit of mess with the open country being lost to developers.
Partly the tolerance was based on (we’d guess) Christian values: “They are precious, human beings no different to ourselves” and “If we are honest, none of us ever (stay) truly within the confines of the law”.

Many people looked at the problems caused by locals. This was particularly true in the week when Astbury Mere was in the news for the huge amounts of mess visitors have left, but almost every week we report vandalism, fly-tipping or more serious criminal damage.

All of this is cleared up at the taxpayer’s expense, and it’s no argument to suggest that people who pay council tax have the right to cause damage, because their taxes pay for the repairs.

A number of people made the point that there were no temporary pitches for travellers, so they were forced camp illegally (or at least trespass, which is a civil law offence, not criminal).

“If they had a proper place to go that would be ok,” said one person.
“People are always bleating about (the number of) of brown field sites in the area. (These) could be used to offer a safe place for travelling families,” said another.
It was hard not to have some sympathy with this point of view.

Cheshire East Council last year consulted on sites for travellers, and we hope to be able to give some progress on this next week. The problem with temporary transit sites is that no-one wants them next to their homes. Indeed, as we report this week, Smallwood councillors and residents are objecting to pitches in the village. Whatever sites Cheshire East Council recommends in its consultation, the odds are people will object. People don’t want travellers near them, but complain when they camp illegally.

The problems are further exacerbated by the law — Cheshire East Council’s website notes: “The advice from the Government is that provided the gypsies/travellers are not causing a problem, it is possible that the site will be tolerated.”

Fair enough: except it goes on to say that if a landowner allows travellers to stay, they could be in breach of the planning acts and the acts dealing with the licensing of caravan sites.
If the law is in such disarray, how can we hope to find a solution?

On our Facebook site, one person asked: “Has anyone ever even bothered to befriend travellers or any other groups that come to the town?”

The answer to that is yes: this writer, when a trainee reporter in rural Worcestershire (rather bravely) approached a caravan parked on a playing field and, after some stern words, was warmly welcomed into the caravan and given a brew. The husband, a Mr Smith (they all are), said the daughter attended a special school some miles away for dyslexia so her family had to say within a certain radius of the school.

From there things got more complicated, which reflects the confusion in the law.

The editor refused to print the story, saying people didn’t want a sympathetic account of travellers. The police helped to serve an injunction and Mr Smith and his family left. When your intrepid reporter went back, he was saddened to find broken glass on a football pitch and a hedge used as an open toilet.

So: Mr Smith and his family were nice but left a terrible mess and the locals didn’t even want to read about them.

On our Facebook page someone wrote: “People should try opening their mind and embracing other cultures, and realise that there is life beyond the A34,” which is fine until that other culture leaves broken glass where kids are going to play football and turds where people walk their dogs.
It seems clear that the first step should be temporary pitches, so we hope the council can find sites that people do not object to.

If temporary pitches exist, travellers have less excuse to camp illegally, and you would hope that the law could be amended to reflect this.

In the meantime: more tolerance anyone?
 

Time to tackle the turd transgressors

Last week, we mentioned on Facebook about a youth letting his dog poo on the canal towpath near Mossley, Congleton.

The lout rode ahead on his bicycle and left one of his dogs to leave a steaming turd in the middle of the towpath. The same space that families, cyclists, walkers and joggers share.

When we complained on Facebook, we were inundated with responses from people who are fed up with dog poo on paths and other public places. Obviously, most dog owners are responsible; it’s a tiny minority who don’t care about the rest of society.

Congleton Town Council already has a dog poo czar — Coun Glenn Williams, step forward — and there’s a dog warden, but they can’t be everywhere.
It seems clear that byelaws and fines are not the answer, because they are hard to enforce.

People won’t agree to fund an army of dog wardens on the public purse, and neither do people want to confront the poopy perps and collect details to take them to court.
The only way forward must be public pressure being brought to bear, that works even if there’s no-one around.

To digress a little: revolving doors in buildings exchange eight times less air than normal doors, which can add up to thousands of pounds in wasted energy costs per building per year, but offered the choice of revolving or normal door, most people plump for normal.
Students at MIT in the States found that they could get 70% of people to use revolving doors by sticking up a small sign saying: “Please use the revolving door. Help conserve energy”. That small nudge was enough. Perhaps the same is true for dog owners.
It’s not a problem that’s confined to Congleton, or even the UK. We asked editor chums in North America if they had the same problem.

Brian Wilson, in Wisconsin, said it was a common problem there, too, and said residents often left out their own dog poo bins for dog walkers to use.

Derek Kilbourn, in Alberta, had the same problem we have over here: people collecting dog poop in bags and leaving the bag in parks. “I’d rather they just leave the crap, at least it isn’t bright pink and lavender scented,” he said.

Gretchen Daniels, of Iowa, made the point that the view of the poop needing to be picked up might not be the correct one. “A fair and balanced article would toss in the two cents of why leaving it is organic and helpful for the ground and animal life,” she said.

But we all know the problems and how disgusting it is, but what are the solutions?

● Name and shame: we can print a list of sightings of turd transgressors. (Laws of libel apply). Derek Kilbourn wrote: “We have a Smiles And Snarls column, where people aren’t required to sign letters, so long as the smile or snarl is under 25 words. If someone wants to write: “Snarl — to the jerks who didn’t pick up after poopsie on Mary Road last Thursday” we’ll print that. It keeps people at least thinking about being responsible.” Something like that in the Chron might work.

● Bins: the need for more poop bins was suggested by several people on our Facebook page, which is down to Cheshire East Council or the town council. Brian said some of his locals put out weather-proof boxes filled with bags to pick up animal waste, and suggested the creation of dog parks where the “dogs can run and be dogs”.

● Markings: bins are good but people have to use them. One of our Facebook readers said that in Leek there are messages painted on the pavements, with arrows pointing to bins. As with revolving doors and the cheap signs, this might work with some people. It might be harder for people to let their pets poop and not scoop if there are obvious signs of a bin.

● Public pressure: reader Catherine Ellis said her sister lived on the Isle of Portland, where they have Portland Locals Opposing Poo (PLOP). They go out armed with biodegradable spray paint and highlight poo on the coastal walks.
If poops are sprayed, it tells dog owners that someone is watching, and might deter lazy dog owners.

Catherine also suggested the name for a local group: Congleton Residents Against Poos.
Congleton Town Council has some of the spray paint, so perhaps recognised local groups could use it in their area? So what about it? Congleton Residents Against Poos? Alsager Residents

Saying Enough? Sandbachians Hate Idiotic… well, you get the idea.

But it’s over to you. We can snarl at transgressors and print a house advert but a community effort is needed.

It doesn’t need to be confrontational: we have to create an environment that nudges people towards poopy picking.

Anyone up for it?

Council proves inept at defending itself from ineptness charge

If you are going to complain to the Press Complaints Commission that you have been accused of being inept by your local newspaper, the least you can do is be efficient.
Unless of course you are Cheshire East Council.
As we report this week, the Press Complaints Commission has ruled that comments made in this column that questioned the competence of two local councillors did not breach its code of standards.
The process of getting to this decision also shed interesting light on how Cheshire East works, and put the comments we made in a new light.

***

Back in February we had a go at Couns Peter Mason and David Brown — both now re-selected to stand in next year’s local elections — over comments they had made on our pages, in a letter and a story respectively. Before we go any further, we would like to make it clear that we have nothing personal against either man: they have both put in many years’ sterling public service.
The criticism came after we repeated our belief that some Cheshire East councillors are not up to the job: the council’s record thus far surely shows this to be the case. The two councillors felt this referred to them. We have to say that after going through a time-consuming PCC hearing we can only conclude that if the cap fits…
The original editorial opened by saying that many of the current Cheshire East councillors were not good enough and needed to go. It then turned to Coun Mason, saying that, with a year to go until the council elections, he was “clearly rattled” by Cheshire East Council’s performance. We said Coun Mason normally wrote letters in the weeks immediately before elections but had sent two the previous week.
We also criticised him for saying he was not named in the Lyme Green report. The council fought hard to redact the names of all involved in the Lyme Green fiasco, and we did not think he should go against the council’s own argument for anonymity for his own ends, which he admitted he did. Coun Mason said the column made him out to be dishonest.
We are more than happy to stress to readers that Coun Mason is as honest as they come, and we are not suggesting that he was lying when he denied being named in the Lyme Green report.
The point we were making was that Cheshire East Council argued with the Information Commissioner that it had a common-law duty of confidence to the individuals who were questioned in the Lyme Green investigation, both officers and councillors.
Coun Mason saying he was not one of those named — and council leader Coun Michael Jones expanding this and saying that no Congleton borough councillors were involved — reduced the pool of potential councillors who could be named in the report, whittling away at the common-law duty of confidence the council previously said was owed. Using the council’s own argument, this could make a future investigation harder.
This is not a complex philosophical argument but it is one Coun Mason seems unable to grasp, being worried only that we said he was a liar.
Meanwhile, Coun Brown, the man in charge of Cheshire East’s local plan, objected to being criticised for not pushing it through hard enough.
To be honest, it is tough if Coun Brown thinks we were unfair. Cheshire East’s failure to have a local plan is one of the worst things to hit this area in many years and someone must bear responsibility.
Coun Brown is the man in charge of the local plan, and has been for some years. He is also a local councillor — what are we supposed to do? Gloss over the fact that a locally-elected councillor is leading the biggest planning/environmental disaster to hit this area for many years?
Given the rash of planning applications and the council’s failure to develop an acceptable five-year housing supply, criticism of the authority and planning is only fair.
We had always shied away from overly-direct confrontation with local councillors — but in this case there seems no other way.
Moreover, if the plan had been a roaring success, councillors would have been lining up to bask in the glory of success; when it is a failure, they are blaming planning inspectors, the Government, minister Eric Pickles and the “greedy” developers — never themselves.
Whatever: the two councillors complained that we had gone too far, and not distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact. They said the column had caused them and their families “considerable hurt and embarrassment”.

***

Almost from the off, Cheshire East Council lived down to its reputation as incompetent.
When the PCC writes to you, it gives you seven days to reply. We responded to the initial complaint in seven days and the council was then given seven days to respond.
One month later we emailed the PCC.
We pointed out that taking four weeks to reply to a letter proved our accusations that the council was run ineptly. We asked whether our criticism could be judged as true, given this failure to respond. Sadly not.
It eventually took Cheshire East Council five weeks to send its three-page letter.

***

When its response did arrive, it practically made our case for us. Here are some of the highlights.
• Apparently trying to justify its lack of a finished local plan, the council said that its plan was “in exactly the same position as four out of ten other councils that have yet to have their local plan approved by the Planning Inspectorate”. There are 336 local authorities responsible for local plans. This means that Cheshire East Council admits to being among the worst 3% of councils in the local-plan department; the bottom 1% if you use the four.
• Having accused us of doubting his honesty, Coun Mason told the PCC that the Chronicle “rarely attends” Cheshire East meetings — in reality we attend nearly all and sometimes quote him speaking. We could accuse Coun Mason of lying to mislead to the PCC, but we think he genuinely believes this — which means that not only does he only rarely notice our reporter sitting at the Press bench, writing busily in a notebook, but that he has never questioned where our reports of meetings come from. He has never accused us of making them up. Perhaps he just never reads the Chronicle.
• Despite complaining that we had said he normally only wrote letters close to elections for political reasons, Coun Mason admitted that he did, in fact, do just that. Coun Mason told the PCC that he was the local Conservative Association political officer “and wrote letters preceding elections mostly to refute what other political parties were saying”. As he says, he is very honest — but it does make you wonder why he was getting the council legal team to write to the PCC disputing an issue that he knows to be correct.
• Coun Brown robustly defended his reputation as regards planning but then appeared to show a basic misunderstanding. His response to the PCC actually appeared as a letter in the Chronicle — but because of the ongoing PCC complaint, we were forced to refrain from commenting.
In his letter, Coun Brown tried to belittle the Chronicle by saying we did not know what we were talking about and thus could not be believed, writing: “Your poor grasp of the current situation… is misleading your readership and painting a picture of failure by the council”.
He also wrote: “The local plan and the five-year housing supply are two separate documents. They are not connected. Let me say this again — they are separate and NOT connected.”
That seems definitive enough — except that the two documents are inseparable.
On the Government’s own planning portal, giving advice to councils on the National Planning Policy Framework, in a section headed “how often should a local plan be reviewed”, it says: “The National Planning Policy Framework makes clear that relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites.”
The two clearly are connected. The local plan cannot proceed without a five-year housing supply.
A car body and its engine are separate entities but neither is any use without the other, and when people refer to “a car” we do not always correct them with: “Bearing in mind the engine and body are two separate items and not connected”.
Worryingly, this — the five-year plan (or lack of) — is the very issue that is causing uncontrolled housing development. Coun Brown, in charge of the local plan, believes it and the plan are not connected.
As we argued to the PCC, Coun Brown’s letter was an attempt to mislead readers, denigrate the Chronicle and thus negate our (and the voters’) criticism of the council’s failings.

***

Councillors aside, we have often wondered why Cheshire East has had such a troubled life. We have suggested poor management systems from the start, blaming the original shadow council.
Being a bit cheeky, when the council lodged the complaint with the PCC, we sent in a Freedom of Information request for all emails sent by Couns Brown, Mason and Domleo (praised in the original column and not making a complaint), council leader Michael Jones, the council chief executive and the council legal department.
We were told that no emails had been sent.
This can only mean that everything to do with the PCC complaint was discussed verbally or in handwritten/typed notes.
Emails can be troublesome but they also mean that everyone is clear about what is being done and who is going to do it.
If the lack of emails over this one issue reflects the culture at Cheshire East, then perhaps it is no wonder that things go wrong. Officers might be working with no written instructions and only their memories to guide them. In our criticism of Cheshire East, perhaps we have missed the obvious — things go wrong because not enough is written down.

***

To close, it seems that — local plan aside — Cheshire East has been drama-free for some time. Given the Government-imposed cutbacks, hard decisions have to be made and some of these may not be popular.
But perhaps the council is now turning a corner: the Labour Party this week has praised the council for its careful budgeting, saying it had “appreciated the importance of financial discipline and is following its own budgets”.
As regards planning: Coun Brown has assured the PCC that the local plan is on course for a smooth completion. He wrote (we are using extracts): “The local plan… will be finished in 2014. We expect it to be finalised this year. This will be followed by site allocations in the autumn. (The) assertion that it (will take from) 2008 until 2015 to develop the local plan is plain wrong.”
Fantastic! An end to the builder-led developments is in sight.
If Coun Brown is correct, we will write a column praising his and his department’s hard work.
If he is wrong…

Signs of the times

A reader last week wrote in to complain that I had cut a joke out of his letter. It was humour along the lines that Scotsmen are mean, the Welsh love their sheep and the Irish are all thick. It wasn’t offensive per se but such humour seems dated and unnecessary, which was why I cut it, but there’s also the chance it might have offended someone.

Muttering (as much as one can in an email) about political correctness, our correspondent complained sadly: “It’s a sign of the times.”

I emailed back and said yes, it was, but so was the fact that he’d emailed it using a computer across and interconnected network of other computers, probably from a smart phone or tablet.
Other “signs of the times” include hip replacements as the norm, vastly improved life expectancy, satellite television, increased leisure time, solar panels and the lack of a feudal system.
Things change, all the time, mostly for the good. You can’t pick and choose.

It’s human nature to think that everything that came before is good and the future can only be worse; people have probably been thinking like this since the dawn of time. (“Fire? No good will come of it, it’s downhill from here if you ask me”. “Clothes? Unnatural and heretical! Earth Mother would have given us fur like the monkeys if She didn’t think skin was enough.”)

Sadly, some things never do change. I recently came across the Greek law-maker Solon, who tried to legislate against political, economic, and moral decline in Athens, and is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy, which of course means he pretty well invented it.

I wasn’t reading a book on democracy (the above was from Wikipedia and all new to me) but a book on spiders, which included Solon because he said: “Laws are like spiders’ webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it, but large things break through and escape.”

He lived from 638BC to 558 BC, so 2,600 years ago people were muttering things like “one law for the rich and one for the rest of us” and “we’re not really all in together”, though in those days they were thetes (manual labourers) and not Daily Mirror readers moaning that rich people get treated differently or hand-wringing Guardian readers.

At roughly the same time, one Siddhartha Gautama was offering advice to politicians on how to run a happy country, and, again, little has changed.

Gautama lived sometime between 600 and 400BC (Wikipedia is uncertain on the matter) and is better known as Shakyamuni or simply the Buddha. His advice was for kings but would equally stand for governments and it’s enlightening to realise that what people moaned about in 500BC was remarkably similar to tabloid headlines today.

According to Buddha, governments should (and refraining from any sarcastic comments about our MPs — you can fill in your own):

● be generous and charitable, and give away wealth not crave it;

● have a high moral character, and not destroy life, cheat, steal, lie, deceive others, commit adultery or drink alcohol;

● sacrifice everything for the good of the people, including personal comfort;

● be honest and act with integrity, and never deceive the people;

● be kind and gentle, and possess a genial temperament;

● lead a simple life and be austere in habits, and not indulge in luxury;

● avoid hatred and ill-will, and not bear grudges against anyone;

● preach non-violence, ie not hurt anyone and promote peace, actively avoiding war;

● endure hardship and insults with equanimity; and

● not oppose the will of the people and act in harmony with the people.

It’s a list that’s still relevant and should be issued to anyone standing as an MP.

What is Britishness?

Much as it goes against the grain to say that a politician is correct, PM David Cameron does have a point when he says this country should be “far more muscular” in promoting its values and institutions.

Anyone who has travelled widely will know that in many countries you adhere to social norms or face a muscular response, whether it’s covering up in Muslim lands or going easy on the cussing (and not complaining about dry taverns) in the US Bible belt.

Similarly, people coming over here should adhere to our values – even if it does involve getting blind drunk and spewing up on the pavement before starting a fight and showing why the French call us Les F~~~ Offs.

Because while we agree with Mr Cameron that newcomers to this country should adopt our customs, it’s a bit harder to say what those customs should be, though clearly cynicism must be high up on the list.

Banning the burka is one people often call for — but what then happens to all those hoodie-wearing disaffected middle class youths on the front line of Mossley or Sandbach Heath, who suddenly find themselves kettled by the anti-terrorist squad?

Being positive (itself a bit un-British), and leaving cynicism aside, one leading British trait is a lack of faith in our leaders.

While we do have the occasional great leader who people look up to — most recently the Duke of Wellington — most of the time we think our leaders are idiots and we could do better.

This sadly extends to many other authority figures: we’d bet teachers are more widely respected by their students’ families in other parts of Europe (or in the Muslim world) than over here. While the latter is not good, a healthy and polite disrespect for authority is something we admire.

Our patriotism is of the kind that starts family fights: we moan about the country all the time, at least until a foreigner has a go; then we get defensive, rather like the way families who hate each other will unite against a common enemy.

But our patriotism is nothing like America, say: play the Star Spangled Banner at a public event over there and many people will stand up. Play the national anthem over here and most people will shuffle about awkwardly until it stops.

This lack of respect for authority has a positive side: English people on the whole are tolerant, mainly because to be intolerant is almost like taking a lead, and we don’t much like leaders.

We’re also fair-minded and polite, and like to back the underdog. (Admittedly it’s been argued that our politeness is merely a mask for the centuries of inbred aggression bubbling away under the surface).
Make even the simplest comment on football and you’ll be readily accepted into most male company.
So there’s some ideas for Mr Cameron — fairness, tolerance, the questioning of authority and the rules of football. He’s also in favour of democracy (as long as it’s first past the post, of course), so the list is shaping up nicely.

In another area, Mr Cameron sadly seems a little confused in his thinking.

The other week he was saying we were a Christian country and should not be ashamed to live by Christian ethics and culture.

He only made that comment because England is less Christian than it was — so if he wants to teach Britishness he should surely be teaching values removed from religion?

Evolution has been mentioned (at one Birmingham school, teachers allegedly told pupils they didn’t believe in it) but a fair few Christians don’t believe in it, either, so what sort of Christianity does he favour?

Christian commentators often complain about a national decline in morals but that surely reflects a rise in behaviour that could be called British? It’s all very confusing for a politician looking for soundbites.

We’d suggest to Mr C that he quietly abandons his pro- Christian stance (even though we agreed with it at the time). Safer routes would be Humanism (emphasise the value of humans) or Buddhism (no God, and all about respect).

So there you go, Prime Minster: instil Britishness by teaching Buddhism, democracy and association football.  And adopt the practice of throwing shoes at Prime Ministers, as a goodwill gesture to migrants who favour that sort of thing.

Sorted.

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