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.

Pish, nonsense and the Press

Last week’s comment on our own industry was meant to be a one-off but events have combined to force us to be self-indulgent once again.

Only hours after we’d written about click bait — misleading internet headlines that encourage people to click on links to garbage stories in a bid to drive traffic to advertising — came the story of the black-eyed ghost child of Cannock Chase.
In case you missed it, this is the story of the spectral infant with strange black holes for eyes, who allegedly appears on Cannock Chase. (Note on human nature: seeing a ghost is not strange enough, and we have to concoct black eyeholes for added effect).

The legend is that the child appears and tempts people into dangerous situations. Obviously seeing a ghost child with scary black eyes is not enough of an adrenalin rush for some and they just have to follow it into danger. (It’s surprising the child doesn’t have a dog on a lead, slathering the Ebola virus from its yellowing teeth).
The reality is that people claim to have seen it and then carried on with what they were doing. For an evil-doing spectre wandering the wastelands of Cannock, it’s remarkably rubbish at doing what legend demands. Maybe it’s because it has black holes for eyes.

Last week came the story that a woman had taken a photo of her kids playing at Cannock and, lo and behold, the ghost child was in the woods watching. Spooky.

This was picked up by many news outlets, even though a search by Chronicle reader Daryl Layton took about 0.004 seconds to find that the “ghost” was the top Bing (a search engine) image search result for “scary ghost boy”. This was not a case of investigative journalism at its best.

The point is: the news outlets don’t care. The story brings readers in their droves to websites to look at adverts, and that’s all the “news” providers care about.

It really is a case of being careful what you wish for. You want 24-hour, entertaining news on demand? You’ll get it, but it may well be made-up rubbish that even its creators know is untrue.

You don’t get that in print, where publishers are accountable.

Talking of which: last week we also commented on the fact that the bookies successfully predicted the Scottish referendum result while the pollsters did not.

Almost immediately we came across a piece of research saying that newspapers were the primary source of information for Scottish voters during the referendum, well ahead of social media (and the “Yes” and “No” campaigns themselves).
The research which showed that 60% of Scottish voters got a “significant or very large” amount of information about the issues, campaigns and debates about independence from newspapers and their websites, ahead of 54% who said they got a lot of information from social media and 44% who cited the campaign organisers.

It’s clearly not the case that newspapers are the only place where news is accurately reported and it’s equally clear that some newspapers make stories up — the Daily Express is currently developing finely-honed talent at completely making up weather forecasts (blizzard! floods! heatwave! storms in autumn shocker!).

But the regional Press, and particularly weeklies, cannot afford to do anything other than report accurately.
We do make mistakes, and that’s all they are, but if we repeatedly printed inaccurate stories our quality control department — that’s you, the public — would soon take us to task.

If you want made up stories about useless ghost children, that’s fair enough. If you want accurate, fact-checked news, buy your local paper.

EEK! A GHOST . . . .

editorial x2 cong

Misreporting the polls and click bait . . .

A little navel-gazing this week as we raise a couple of issues with our colleagues in the national media (they’re distant relatives, rather than close cousins).

With election fever mounting across the land, (except with voters), and UKIP winning a Parliamentary seat thanks to a popular Tory MP changing sides, it’s worth reflecting on that vote in Scotland the other week.

While pundits and the media revelled in predicting a close-run contest, the people with actual money at stake, the bookies, were paying out on a “no” result, ahead of the actual vote.

As we all know, the “Nos” had it, with 55.3% voting against independence, in a massive 84.6% turnout. But while various polls put the vote neck and neck, bookies were 80% sure of the “no” vote.

It reminded us of Barack Obama’s last election win, which was expected to be close, unless you looked at predictions from people who weren’t politicians, the media or pollsters.

Clearly the media, which has a product to sell, likes a close battle. A result that’s settled weeks ahead of the vote wouldn’t sell more papers, and it can be surmised that politicians will report a tight battle because it will mobilise voters into action.

Opinion pollsters in their turn need to work, and close polls are in their interest, as a close battle needs constant monitoring. While the pollsters varied slightly, the “poll of polls” ran at about a 51/49 split. In other words: wrong.

We can expect a lot more polls as the General Election approaches, but you’d clearly be better listening to Paddy Power or William Hill than MORI or YouGov.

We’d guess UKIP’s fortunes are going to be talked up by everyone, because it’s in everyone’s interest for people to predict a high UKIP vote. The party itself will obviously want this, the Tories and Labour because they want to energise their supporters to turn out and vote.

Politicians would be better saving their money and just looking at what William Hill are predicting than paying pollsters but we guess they’d figure it might look a bit amateur.

***

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the media the buzzword is click bait, which is what excites internetty types but which history may look back on differently.

Click bait are those annoying headlines you see everywhere, in which normal life is reduced to hyperbole: “He took off his hat and what happened next was the most amazing thing since Jesus invented sliced bread and will leave you in tears…”

The aim is to get you to click on the link and see an advert somewhere along the way, which is the only way of making money from this stuff. The stories themselves often compare unfavourably with paint drying.

In a related move, on-line headlines (written American style, With Capital Letters For Every Word) now tend to encapsulate the news story in on-line, so if we did that sort of thing, we’d have on-line headlines like “Man From West Heath in Hospital After Hitting A Swaledale Sheep with his BMW”.

The idea is that anyone searching for any relevant detail in the story will find the link and go to the website, creating traffic — and it’s traffic that’s important to news websites, not the news itself.

As with click bait, the idea is that people are funnelled towards a website and see the paid adverts.
The trouble is, it seems counter-productive.

People often tell us bits of news, and we might go to the local paper website to find out more.
Often, when you get there, you’re faced with a barrage of pop-up adverts, or, if you’ve disabled pop-ups, videos that start playing whether or not you want them.

Either way, the thing you’ve gone to the site for — news — is made hard to access by annoyances, in the shape of adverts.
It would be like going to a pub for a quiet pint and the pub forcing a man wearing a sandwich board to come and sit with you, to tell you about his products.

The trouble is that some people are making a lot of money from the internet and newspapers are hoping that they can do the same. Which is fine, but no-one wants to pay for news, unless it’s niche. The current model is thus silly long headlines and deluging readers with adverts.

We’d guess a lot of this will fail, and at some point in the near future a bright spark will realise that printing news next to neatly laid-out adverts is a good idea.

Click bait aside, the other thing that always does well on the internet is porn. (Though ironically not for porn itself, as the millions of free porn movies that are now available hit the paid-for porn sites badly).

The Mail on Line is the most successful website in the world but it’s partly because of its infamous sidebar, which is mainly scantily dressed women.

Any stories that mention sex or porn mentioned in the tags for search reportedly get loads more hits, which we will try when we post this column on line, mentioning as it does porn, more porn and hot porn.

It’s all a bit depressing and a long way from our sensible reports of WIs and junior football.

Delay in local plan is a cause for concern

After our recent contretemps with local Cheshire East councillors — we criticised them, they said it was unfair and reported us, the Press Complaints Commission agreed that we had the right to say so — we’ve been giving the local plan enquiry a wide berth.

We concede that the Government is making it hard for councils to refuse plans, and goalposts may have been moved, but Cheshire East Council appears to be making it easy for developers to win appeals.

(Incidentally, we have no sympathy whatsoever with local Tories blaming the national Tory Party and calling it names. They have two choices: go along with party policy and suck up the criticism or leave. There’s always Independence if they don’t fancy the Lib Dems or UKIP).

The point should be made: we want the local plan to go through. We don’t want to see local beauty spots being lost forever. We would welcome being forced to eat a large helping of humble pie if it meant the area was protected. Humble pie for breakfast, dinner and tea: bring it on.

Sadly, we rather fear this will not be the case.

During the handling of his complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, Coun Dave Brown — the man who would be force-feeding us the humble pie, as the local plan is his — assured the PCC that the Cheshire plan was on course for a smooth completion.

He wrote: “The local plan… will be finished in 2014. We expect it to be finalised this year.” In a letter to the Chronicle he wrote: “The plan will be ratified this autumn”.

He added: “Ours has been reviewed by central government inspectors to ensure that it is robust and meets all statutory guidelines.”

Bearing all this in mind, it’s concerning that the local plan inquiry, as we report this week, has now been adjourned.

Reference is made by the inspector chairing the inquiry to an “unexpectedly large volume” of submissions. Could we cynically assume this is from developers trying to slow the proceedings?

Despite developers saying that the lack of a plan costs them more in appeals, and so a settled plan suits them, it’s also true that, without a plan, they gain access to extra sites — ones they would not normally get permission for — and make more money. The agreed sites will be built on anyway.

But more ominously, the planning inspector referred to submissions about the “legal compliance and soundness” of the submitted local plan. This does not sound good.

The inspector said he had made the Planning Inspectorate aware of these legal submissions and might “consider whether it may be appropriate to advise the council of his interim views on the legal compliance and soundness of the submitted plan.”
This sounds to us as if the inspector thinks it might be likely that the plan is not legally sound as it is now, and will have to go back to the council.

Planning news website Place North West predicts that the plan could be suspended for six months to allow the council to publish modifications and consult on them. That’s six months before the inquiry starts again.

We know of at least one suggested legal hurdle: Stockport council, in a letter, previously complained that Cheshire East had not consulted it fully and had gone about things the wrong way round, picking a site for development and then finding reasons for this.

Coun Brown, despite having assured the PCC that the plan would be finished in the autumn, and mocking the Chronicle for suggesting a 2015 completion date, issued a statement saying he was happy with the delay.

He called it “a strong positive” for the council that “developers are throwing everything they can into this”.

But presumably, when Coun Brown wrote that the plan would be finished this autumn and that it had been “reviewed by central government inspectors to ensure that it is robust”, this flurry of objections would have been taken into account?

The fact that Coun Brown adds: “I support the fact that many local people have responded and I don’t want their hard work to be lost in the sea of developer hearing statements” suggest the reassurances coming from the council are PR spin: surely if the enquiry has been suspended because of legal submissions and may be suspended, local people’s voice have already been lost.

The legal objections won’t be coming from members of the public.

We’re going to stop there and withhold judgement.

Coun Brown promised an autumn completion date and we’re only just into the autumn so we’ll give him some more time.

One thing’s for sure: some humble pie is going to be consumed. Whether it’s by the Chronicle or Coun Brown, only time will tell.

Your drunken aberration should be forgotten

You may have seen news reports of a European Court of Justice ruling, saying that people “had the right to be forgotten” by Google. It’s a landmark ruling, and one that left Google seething, though it’s now complying.

Some people said it was a threat to free expression but we don’t think so — and it affects all of you reading this, in one way or another.

The case was brought against a Spanish newspaper called La Vanguardia. It published a public notice saying that a property owned by one Mario Costeja González was going to be sold off, as he was in debt. That was 2008. Mario sorted out his finances, but the public notices were visible to anyone who Googled his name.

He eventually went to court to force the newspaper to take the items off its website. The case rose up through the legal system to the European Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of the newspaper but against Google. The search engine cannot link the items to any search for “Mario Costeja González”. The items are still on the web, you just can’t find them very easily, at least in Europe.

Now most of us don’t go bust and have property forcibly sold and you might be thinking this won’t affect you. But the European ruling also supports English law, in that we have a Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which means that certain criminal offences become “spent” after a period.

For example, you’re 18 (and an adult in law) and you’ve gone to university. You get plastered at a freshers’ ball and do something silly — steal a copper’s hat or punch a passer-by, or even drunk-drive that new car the parents bought you.

If you’re up in court and get convicted, your conviction may well be spent by the time you leave uni — conditional discharges are spent at end of the order, compensation orders (for that window you smashed) are spent when you’ve paid off the money. Driving bans are spent, as far as having to disclose it to employers, once the ban is up. Even short prison sentences can be spent after two years.

But clearly, if your case is reported in the local paper or otherwise appears on-line it may be on Google forever. When you go for that dream job at 30, your future employer may well find out that you hit a police officer, smashed a window and drove home drunk when you were 18, just by Googling your name.

We’ve actually had this at the Chron, with a man who was convicted of domestic abuse. He left the area and found that potential employers were able to find out about it. Now he can actually stop Google showing the links to the case — the story is still there, it just won’t appear in a Google search. (Google may refuse to remove links to recent court cases, even where the applicant was acquitted).

We’re writing about this because it’s interesting, but we did wonder how the land would lie should the UK leave the EU. The case in Spain that’s changed the law started off with one Spanish man taking on a local agency (the equivalent of our Information Commissioner’s Office) but once it rose to European level, one man was able to tell the almighty Google what to do. If we left Europe, would this mean the freedom to be forgotten only applied to Europeans?

***

Hopefully you saw the television show Marvellous, about the Stoke character Neil Baldwin. It was truly marvellous. Its success was such that there are now calls for his knighthood and, since it was broadcast, he’s got his own Wikipedia page.

For those who missed out, Mr Baldwin has learning difficulties but has forged a happy life for himself, partly by being eternally cheerful, but also by working voluntarily as a greeter at Keele, and as a kit-man at Stoke City.

What is remarkable is that he says he’ll do something and then does it, however unlikely, whether it’s getting a ride on the judge’s boat in the University Boat Race or befriending Gary Lineker.

It’s his outlook on life that’s led for calls for him to be knighted but it seems to us that it’s the people of Stoke/Staffs who deserve the knighthood, because it’s their universal kindness to him that’s made his life as it is.

But then we thought more: people are nice to him because he is simple, in its broadest sense. When he asks for something, that’s what he wants. His demeanour makes it clear that there’s no hidden agenda.

Most times people are not kind to each other because they’re trying to guess what the other’s thinking: What’s in it for the other person? Are they puling a fast one? How can I lose out? Indeed, people who treat others kindly or think the best of people are often said to be gullible or naïve.

The trouble is, a lot of times, the double dealing is only in our own heads. We project our own biases and selfishness onto others. They might be acting for the best or simplest of motives but we ascribe all kinds of underhandedness to them.

What Neil Baldwin shows is that people can be kind to total strangers.

They’re kind to him because it’s clear he has no hidden motives. He brings out the best in people and shows us that most people can be altruistic, once their own cynicism is put aside.

Maybe he deserves that knighthood after all.

Expect a driving ban for using a mobile phone

A figure buried in a police Press release made us stop in our tracks this week. Hopefully it will do the same for you.

It was: “Government figures suggest mobile phone use will become the biggest killer on our roads by 2015.”

Woah! Mobile phones in cars: the annoying habit people have that we kind of know is dangerous but most people have done at some time? Worse than drink driving? Worse than driving like on loon on the wrong side of the road? Worse than speeding after smoking a joint? Yup, it appears so.

And the obvious — the only — implication from this is that it won’t be long before the law reflects this. Caught driving and holding a mobile phone? Expect a year’s ban. Caught again — three years.

We Googled this, and in the (brief) search we made could find nothing usable for the UK but did find a report from the States; Americans are humans too, so what’s true there will be true here.

It seems that drunk driving has been replaced by texting while driving as the leading cause of teen death in the US.

A study conducted by the Cohen Children’s Medical Centre of New York found that more than 3,000 teens died each year as a result of sending SMS messages while operating a vehicle.

That compares to the 2,700 teens that are killed each year as a result of drunk driving.

That’s shocking.

The police repeatedly tell us how dangerous using a phone while driving is, but on radio discussions on the topic, there’s always some sort of debate, as if two sides existed.

But while people talked, the reality — that using a phone while driving is REALLY dangerous — has been contributing to figures that actually prove this.

As over here, the US study found that people did not appreciate how dangerous text and driving was. The author of the study, Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Centre, said that laws banning texting and driving were not effective. Just over half (57%) of all boys surveyed said that they texted while driving, even in states where it was against the law. This was about the same as those (59%) who sent out SMS messages while driving in states without such laws.

US lawmakers are trying to raise the fines for the offence — in the UK, it’s now a £90, with the level recently doubled.

If it’s really true that mobile phone use will become the biggest killer on our roads by next year, a £90 fine seems more than a little pathetic.

Prof Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, has called for more police action in the UK, saying the use of hand-held phones at the wheel caused more impairment than being at the drink-drive limit or under the influence of cannabis.

We find a statement on the internet that texting at the wheel gives a 20-year-old the reaction times of a 70-year-old. How true that is we don’t know, but studies show that a person who is driving while texting is 23 more times likely to end up in an accident than a driver who doesn’t

A UK Transport Research Laboratory study found that sending a text slows reaction time by 35%. Using cannabis delayed it 21%, and drinking to the UK legal limit, 12%. Speaking on a phone slowed reaction by 46%.

Drivers also showed “significantly greater lateral variability” in their lane position when texting, with the vehicle drifting into adjacent lanes far more frequently when texting.

It seems inevitable that the law on phones will need to change, but we’d hope readers would not wait for a law change to amend their habits.

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?

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