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.

More positive electioneering, please

If you don’t like working to tight deadlines you shouldn’t be in newspapers, and usually we manage very well.
Unfortunately my last editorial, commenting on a “debate” at Cheshire East Council, was written with the deadline looming and was perhaps not as clear as it could have been.

I was attempting to complain about a piece of electioneering, carried out at the taxpayers’ expense, in which opposition councillors tried to portray leader Michael Jones as a bully, inept and — in the case of a local councillor — with a dodgy business record.

As a reader wrote in the letters pages, the attempted no-confidence vote was no more than a comical theatrical presentation in what was the last full council meeting before the elections — but we are surely entitled to better from our local politicians?

Our councillors are not at Westminster debating points of national importance, though Prime Minister’s questions illustrates everything that is wrong with politicians, entertaining as it is, but are normal (ish) people elected to deal with local issues?
In the editorial of two weeks ago, I tried to point out that some of Coun Jones’s fiercest critics were either being hypocritical or should at least be slightly more balanced in their comments.

Sandbach’s Coun Sam Corcoran was one I picked on, because he himself had been accused — and cleared — of bullying. He vehemently denied the charge and was cleared of any suggestion of bullying (a point the last editorial did not articulate clearly enough) but his response actually helped prove the point I was trying to make.

Coun Corcoran was really upset and very annoyed that the column gave the impression he had acted like a bully — just to repeat, he had not and was cleared of all bullying charges – but it only added weight to the point I was trying to make: to accuse someone of bullying is hurtful and damaging. It’s not something to which local politicians should resort, at least not in an attempt to score cheap political points and gain headlines.

Obviously, it wasn’t Coun Corcoran who accused Coun Jones of bullying, it was his Labour colleague Coun Steve Hogben who said there was a “culture of fear” at the council and that people were frightened of whistle-blowing. (Which is a neat circular argument that doesn’t need proof: “There’s bullying but no evidence because people are afraid, because of the bullying”).

We hear many things about Cheshire East Council, but operating in a culture of fear is not one: the fact seems to be that planning aside, Cheshire East is not too bad and it has certainly improved under Coun Jones.
It’s true Coun Jones engages his mouth before his brain at times, and you have to be prepared to interrupt him otherwise you never get a word in, but that’s not bullying.

It seems to me that Coun Hogben was simply making an unfair claim to get headlines and score a point — yet his colleague Coun Corcoran was deeply upset by a similar suggestion on our part. Justifiably so.

Coun Corcoran himself attacked the leader over his business record — or would have, had he been allowed to speak.
For years, opponents of Coun Jones have been circulating documents from Companies House, showing Coun Jones’s earlier career as a recruitment consultant and property owner. We saw the documents some time ago and could see nothing wrong, and certainly nothing to do a story about. “Man ran company” is hardly a splash.

One area of concern is that Coun Jones had a company that was registered as property development and guess what — property developers are pillaging the county thanks to Cheshire East’s failure to develop a local plan.
But linking the two is meaningless without proof: the Chronicle is a publisher, as are Razzle, Viz and The Sun. That doesn’t mean you could look at one publication and conclude those three and the Chron are the same.

We did ask Coun Jones about his “property development” and he said it was a couple of houses, as his pension plan.
Obviously Coun Corcoran doesn’t say Coun Jones is in cahoots with the developers developing the green fields in Cheshire East. He can’t. He just points out the paperwork and leaves it to his audience to “work it out”.

There is actually a website devoted to all this, and it reports a letter from Coun Jones saying: “Your profile is factually incorrect and I am happy to inform you that I am most compliant with HMRC. I have paid extensive taxes and always been fully compliant. It is sad that you need to invent and try to bully me.”

***

Obviously I might be naïve in my hopes that we could have a more mature debate in the local elections.
Admittedly, in the same no-confidence debate, Labour group leader Coun David Newton trod a more solid path and said the local plan promised to residents had not been delivered. But Coun Jones has the get-out that he wasn’t in charge when early mistakes were made — that was his predecessor Coun Wesley Fitzgerald.

(Coun Newton did claim credit for the recent “Tweetgate” scandal — in which council officers tweeted on behalf of Coun Jones — saying it only came to light after questions were raised by “diligent opposition councillors”. In fact it was a Freedom of Information request by Radio Stoke. We note that at least one party is already claiming victory in the battle over parking charges at Congleton War Memorial, when in fact it was a public campaign supported by the whole community).

If councillors want to be personally abusive to Coun Jones and his colleagues, we’d have thought there were other areas that were more constructive. Cheshire East Council is now in charge of public health, for example, which means encouraging us all to be healthier: Coun Jones is a big lad and so are some of his colleagues. Surely they should be leading by example?

Sadly, politicians often go for the easy option. If I was Labour’s Dr Darren Price trying to chip votes from Conservative MP Fiona Bruce I’d be going for some of her right wing views.

Her politics are influenced by her religious beliefs (and good for her for sticking to them) and there must be left-leaning Tories who disagree with her stance over abortion and same sex marriage.

But no: he’s recently roped her into the “MPs with second jobs” row, because she draws money from the company she started from scratch — at a time when she could only find one bank manager who’d lend her money — and built up from nothing to be a successful legal practice.

Far from attracting disaffected Tories, I’d suspect that even some Labour voters would have sympathy with Mrs Bruce, a woman who’s made her way in a man’s world.

Obviously campaigning is not easy. Most people are, sadly, going to vote for their party they’ve always voted for and it doesn’t matter who the party puts up.

One reason my editorials have become more outspoken is that we — you — only have the chance to change Cheshire East Council every four years. I don’t think some councillors have made a good job of it and it would be a shame if people just voted for the party colour and returned the same people to make the same mistakes.

At a national level, it’s unlikely that anyone will oust Fiona Bruce, but it would be more interesting if politicians debated the issues and not the personalities (though having a go at unhealthy politicians leading the way on public health is arguably an issue).

Judging from our letters page, the local issues that annoy people the most are:

• Dog dirt: Something needs to be done to stop dirty dog owners fouling paths;

• Travellers: people are very threatened by their arrival and unhappy at the time it takes to shift them;

• Parking: paying for parking, parking outside schools, Blue badges being abused, all important issues for people.

• Potholes: admittedly Cheshire East Council has worked hard on this, but people still complain repeatedly about holes in the road;

• Transparency: at all levels of local government.

The election campaign is gathering speed. Is it too much to hope that candidates address areas that really are of concern to local people, and not just resort to showboating?

***

NOTE: SINCE THE COMMENT BELOW APPEARED, THE ENERGY COMPANY HAS BOOKED SOME ADVERTS

Readers might also like to know that we’ve possibly paid the price for being so outspoken (don’t forget the council also reported us to the Press Complaints Commission last year).
Cheshire East is currently promoting its FairerPower scheme, offering cheap power to voters, handily coming just before the election.
The council has seen fit to pay for large advertising campaigns in the Macclesfield Express and the Crewe Chronicle — both owned by a national company — and not the Congleton Chronicle, locally owned and employing local people.
Let’s hope none of the Cheshire East councillors seeking re-election claim to support local business!

Celebrity criminals: give their Royalties to charity . . .

This is just a rant I had . . .

It’s not often I shout at the radio, but this happened over the weekend when the BBC disparagingly reported that Spotify and other music streaming services were still making the music of Gary Glitter, Lostprophets and Rolf Harris available.

The tone was that Spotify was despicable and in the wrong not to ban music by these convicted sex offenders. However laudable (albeit without any thought) the intentions, this stance is simply wrong.
Just to stress: the crimes committed by these people are despicable, and it’s up to you whether you stop buying their music (though I doubt anyone has bought anything by Glitter or Harris for some time). But it shouldn’t be down to the BBC — or anyone else — to call for private companies to censor their output.

It’s a different thing cutting out Top of the Pops repeats featuring Jimmy Savile: he wasn’t creative and wasn’t interested in the music anyway (he used to boast he could record his two-hour radio shows in 15 minutes — he just recorded the links and never played the music).

But calling for a ban on creative performers is just wrong, on many levels, as well as inconsistent and hypocritical.
Surely art and the person who makes it are separate? Even when they’re not, their music can be enjoyed — take Wagner and his anti-Semitism and racism, or Mozart’s racist Magic Flute or Shakespeare’s viciousness in Merchant of Venice.

As for consistency: while Ian Watkins (Lostprohpets singer) is extreme, if you’re going to ban Harris and Glitter, there’s a few others you need to look at, too.

Elvis Presley started seeing Priscilla when she was 14 and she moved in when she was 15. Presley was never charged but Chuck Berry was: he was convicted in St Louis of transporting a 14-year-old girl across a state line and served time.
Most famously, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 14-year-old cousin Myra Brown; he was never prosecuted, though admittedly it proved a setback to his career.

Woody Allen is still working, despite taking pornographic photos of a child and I won’t mention Roman Polanski.
Worst of all: Errol Flynn, who was acquitted on statutory rape charges involving two teenage girls, and allegedly introduced a phrase into the language: “In like Flynn”, which means men hitting on girls and getting away with it.
Then there’s Lolita, the story of a man involved with a 12-year-old. You can imagine the BBC banning a rock band but defending a production of Lolita on artistic grounds.

The law views murder as more serious than rape or child abuse, and plenty of performers have murdered but remained critically acceptable.

One of the most famous is Sid Vicious, charged with murdering Nancy Spungen. A world without Sid’s music wouldn’t be a much poorer place (sorry, Sid); not so with Phil Spector, generally agreed to be a lunatic and now serving time for murder. Take a high moral ground with him and we’d lose all those songs with that famous Wall Of Sound.
Motley Crue are beloved for their roguish behaviour but singer Vince Neil drunk-drove and killed Hanoi Rocks drummer “Razzle” Dingley. Neil pleaded guilty to a vehicular manslaughter charge as a result of the accident, but his career continued.

Jim Gordon wrote the beautiful piano coda for the classic Layla, but also murdered his mother with a hammer and a knife.
While Harris’s contribution to music won’t bother history much, Glitter and Watkins are important: Glitter was at the forefront of glam and can’t be erased from history while Watkins was one of the leaders of a resurgence in music in South Wales.
There’ve already been glam rock radio shows and compilations that don’t feature Glitter. He was at best a jobbing singer: his musical style was invented by producer Mike Leander, who co-wrote most of the hits, but whatever Glitter did, it’s rewriting history to ignore his contribution.

When I discussed this on Facebook there was surprisingly little dissent.

The main issue is of course Royalties: Watkins made about £100,000 between arrest and conviction while Glitter earns a fortune: £300,000 in 2012, largely from US music royalties. His tune Rock and Roll, Part2 has been popular at American sporting events for decades and he gets money from Oasis, who sampled Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

The obvious solution came from Dave Wedgbury at A&A Music: when someone is convicted of a serious offence, one that causes pain to others, any earnings during their prison sentence should go to their victims. In the case of high earners like Glitter, the excess should go to charities helping victims of the same crime.

It’s a perfect solution.
If you don’t want to buy Gary Glitter, that’s ok. If you want to buy early Oasis or a glam rock compilation, that’s ok too, because a sick man is not benefitting from the Royalties.

You couldn’t make it up

Anyone who runs a business will know the importance of keeping proper records and having a paper trail.

Here at the Chronicle, we require a purchase order for larger adverts, so that we have it in writing that company X wants an advert of a specified size in a certain edition and knows it will cost so much.

It protects us — no-one can say they didn’t order the advert — and it protects the customer, if (and this rarely happens) we forget to run the ad, run it the wrong size or try and charge the wrong price.

Likewise, when people pay their bills, they want an invoice with their order number on, so they can cross check, and often a receipt of some sort so they can prove where their money went.

When our staff claim expenses we need to see a receipt, to prove the money was spent. It’s all very basic stuff.

So it’s shocking to learn that Congleton Town Council apparently doesn’t do any of this.

A little digging by Coun John Saville Crowther over the Simnet fiasco, and the council’s missing £20,000, has ascertained the fact that the council not only failed to have a form of contract with Simnet, it also never got a receipt for the money.

We reckon that this cuts the chance of it ever getting the money back from Simnet from slim to zero. There’s no evidence of any order being placed or any money changing hands.

This makes the council’s decision to discuss and change to its financial regulations even more bizarre: it’s not only local government guidelines that appear to have been breached but common sense.

No amount of rules and regulations can prevent someone handing over £20,000 with no contract and not asking for a receipt.

A letter to the Chronicle this week says we should do more to unearth the facts, but short of staging a Watergate-style break-in and stealing the evidence, there’s not much more we can do.

However, we suspect that some readers will not be happy with the response to our questions from £60,000-a-year town clerk Brian Hogan who, when asked to comment on Coun Saville Crowther’s letter told our reporter: “This issue is closed as far as the council is concerned.

You can write whatever you like, but nothing more will be said.”

We suspect there’s a lot more to be said.

***

Not that we’re any more impressed with the antics of the Opposition on Cheshire East Council, calling for a vote of no confidence in leader Coun Michael Jones.

They knew it was doomed and a waste of time — and money — but persisted anyway. It was nothing but electioneering.

Coun Jones’s critics claimed there was a culture of “fear and loathing” in Cheshire East.

The Opposition attacked Coun Jones for instilling fear in staff —which is ironic given that two members of the Opposition have been accused by others of something along the same lines.

Macclesfield Independent Brendan Murphy, a leading critic of Coun Jones, was convicted in 2012 of pursuing a campaign of harassment against his neighbours.

As well as being fined, Coun Murphy was made the subject of a restraining order.

Coun Sam Corcoran meanwhile — who we like, and it grieves us to raise this — was found guilty of breaching Cheshire East Council’s code of conduct.

This was down to over eagerness, in talking to a couple involved in a planning matter, but they accused him of failing to identify himself and being intimidating.

A council committee found that he breached the council code of conduct, with the  person appointed to the panel as an independent member, saying: “I believe it constitutes a certain degree of bullying.”

In the end, Cheshire East’s Code of Conduct Resolution Panel found that Coun Corcoran had breached the code’s section that related to councillors conducting themselves in a manner “which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute”.

While he was not found to have acted in a bullying manner  – and we certainly don’t think he is a bully – his case shows how behaviour can easily be construed as bullying. Perhaps it should have given Opposition councillors some pause for thought before launching their attack on Coun Jones.

Neither of these has as much brass neck as UKIP’s Brian Silvester, who claimed (well he would) that Tories would be “swept out of office” for supporting Coun Jones and accused Coun Jones of being “inept”.

This is the same Coun Silvester who was fined £45,000 at Chester Crown Court for failing to obtain the necessary licence for a house in multiple occupation, and 11 fire safety offences.

The fire service said the breaches “could ultimately have led to serious injury or potential death”.

Now that’s inept.

***

Reading this column back, we suddenly realised what the phrase “you just couldn’t make it up” means.

If we fictionalised the shambles in our local government for a television series — one council stumping up £20k and not asking for a receipt, another having a councillor who’s been fined for heavily being incompetent accusing people of ineptness — no-one would believe you. The critics would say “that would never happen in real life”.

There is some hope.

Over in Biddulph, a local worthy, Jill Salt, who works hard for the community and speaks a lot of common sense, has decided to stand for council. We hope she does well.

Over in Cheshire, our views on the competence of Cheshire East councillors is well known. May’s elections should see people voting for good candidates, not someone who happens to be wearing the right coloured rosette.

Let’s hope the latest events prompt some independent councillors to come forward and stand.

Why are the police so reluctant to release details of crimes?

Readers who follow us on social media will have noticed that we regularly appeal to the victims of crime to contact us.

This is because Cheshire Constabulary no longer feels it has a duty to keep the public informed of what is going on.
This is not a new thing: we’ve struggled for some years to get crime reports from the police, but the policy seems to have shifted from not telling us about petty crime to not telling us anything – flashers, burglaries and even rape have been kept from the Press in recent months.

When we do report something, we’ve had their Press office on asking what right we have to print crime news. (No, really).
Twenty years ago (ok, 30 years ago), as a trainee, this writer would wander down to West Mercia Constabulary’s local nick and be handed a ring binder containing all the crimes from the past 24 hours. Reporters across the country were doing the same.

It was all down to trust — we knew what we could report, and when we occasionally erred, we’d be hauled up before a very fierce chief super for a rollicking (after which he’d give us a cup of tea).

After West Mercia, a new job saw the morning calls being made with Lancashire Constabulary, and a severe but friendly head of CID would give us a daily briefing. Moving to Congleton, the same practice was in operation, at least for a while. Then computerisation led to claims that the daily crime log was hard to access, and after a faxed list of crimes ended about 15 years ago, we’ve had little since.

This pattern has been repeated across the country, but the annoying thing is that we’ve always had good relations with the police. While other papers got arsy with their local officers and fell out, relations between the Chronicle and local police remained good.

As each sergeant left, his successor would be introduced, often being told that bad experiences with the Press elsewhere would not be repeated with the Chron.

Sadly, all the goodwill has got us nowhere.

We’d go over and see the last sergeant, the affable Russ Thomas, who’d raise areas of concern the police had with a story or two, and we’d raise the issue of being kept informed. We’d go away and take on board what he’d said and he —  like all his predecessors — would promise to take up our issue with his superiors. Nothing ever happened.

The past 18 months have seen it get worse. In case you think we’re just moaning about a few petty crime stories, here are some examples.

Last year we had reports of a man exposing himself on Park Lane, Congleton. We contacted the police Press office and they denied it was true, even though we were getting solid reports from the public. Eventually, using back channels, we were able to get it confirmed and forced a statement.

The man then started exposing himself in Biddulph — would he have been stopped earlier had his antics been given more publicity?

More recently, after appealing on Facebook, we found about two spates of burglaries, one in Congleton and one in Alsager, about which we had been told nothing.

More so than the flasher, we find this hard to believe — not only should the police be warning people to take more care, but appealing for information might help catch the burglar. Flashing and burglaries: these are not petty crimes.

The sex attack in Mill Street is still to go before the courts so we can’t say much, but that took the police three days to issue a Press release, during which time social media was awash with mostly untrue speculation and we were unable to do our job of supplying factual information.

Most surprising was the story last year, when a man was viciously stabbed at Astbury Mere. The police were less than helpful and when we ran the story, a senior figure from HQ phoned us to angrily demand what right we had to put the story on the front page. George Orwell, are you watching?

We’d like to stress: we have nothing against the police. We’re a local paper with staff who live in the community. We are part of that community and we want it to be safe one. We’ve always got on well with the local police on the ground. We’re fair to the police and avoid sensationalist stories.

The secrecy is growing: Alsager’s PCSOs (partly paid for by the town council) want to report details of crime to Alsager Town Council behind closed doors, so the Press cannot find out.

We realise that the Press and the police may sometimes disagree, however cordial relations. However, our job is to report the local news and when people on social media are telling us stuff that we don’t know about — especially serious matters like burglaries — it means we are failing.

Social media can now be faster than official lines of communication, but when the Press office doesn’t even return calls or denies an event has occurred, it doesn’t help.

We have no real idea why the police are so unwilling to release details of crimes.

The force logo includes the words “Be safe, feel safe” and police cars carry the legend “Helping Communities Feel Safer”. Maybe perception of crime is now more important than dealing with the actual crimes? As long as we “feel safe” they’ve done their job. Perhaps those at the top think it’s better not to scare people by letting them know that a crime has occurred.

Or perhaps, like many organisations, the police just want to control the message. Everyone, from schools to voluntary groups and private companies, now seems to have media managers who have to justify their position by doing just that.
Maybe it’s just unfortunate that the Chronicle IS responsible – perhaps we’re suffering because other media outlets are less so.

Whatever the cause, we’ve (sadly) had enough of asking the police politely, and for nothing to ever be done.

Our goodwill towards the police has extended to co-operating in spreading their corporate message — basically, we print all the Press releases they send us, for, despite a reluctance to share details of crimes, they’re more than willing for us to print their hand-outs. From now on, we’ll treat police Press releases with a harder news eye than in the past.

While stories that are in the public interest will still be printed — appeals for information after serious crimes etc — other news items will be given less priority. Press releases from the police and crime commissioner, for example, or news about internal successes. There’s little point in printing routine crime awareness stories, either, if — as far as official releases go — there is no crime in East Cheshire.

Maybe we’re just getting old. Maybe in these days of social media and data protection the police really do have no need of local newspapers and it’s just that times are changing.

But if that’s the case, they can hardly expect us to print the thoughts of their crime commissioner or the fact that a police department we never heard of has won an award known only to crime professionals.

Why not stand for election?

If you’re sick of reading about councils making mistakes and are always thinking you could do better, local elections take place on Thursday, 7th May. So why not stand for election?

Cheshire East Council is running a series of seminars giving candidates advice on the more serious issues but apart from that all you have to do is put your name forward.

Many candidates stand for a particular party but arguably this is a bad thing: critics often complain that on the bigger parish councils, ie our town councils, decisions are often pre-judged and people vote along party lines.

In the US, local councils are not elected on party lines. People stand as independents and local papers often come out and favour one candidate — over here that never happens because politics is aligned to the Parties right down to grassroots level.

We need more independents!

Standing is simple: to become nominated as a candidate at a local government election in England or Wales, you need to submit a completed set of nomination papers to the returning officer by 4pm on the 19th working day before the poll (we reckon this is the 9th April).

Independent candidates are people who stand for election and are not chosen by a political party. You may be inclined one way or the other or even be a member of a party.

At their most basic, parish councils are the lowest tier in local government. It is the level of government closest to the community, with the district authority (Cheshire East Council) next up in the hierarchy.

While being a councillor on Cheshire East Council is paid, it also means a level of commitment; town and parish councillors are unpaid but probably have less responsibility, though this is changing as powers are devolved. However, as the level of local government closest to the people, parish councils are often the first place people will go with worries or complaints.

If you’re interested in politics it’s thus a good place to start, particularly now with neighbourhood plans coming to the fore, and many parish councils doing important work.

Town councils (effectively still parishes) are getting even busier, taking over town halls and street cleaning, as well as other services from Cheshire East Council.

Obviously the same applies in Staffordshire, where Biddulph Town Council is a larger parish council but other, smaller bodies do exist. The most common topics that parish councils get involved in are planning applications — parishes must be consulted — as well as open spaces, crime prevention (some councils pay for a PCSO) as well as various plans and strategies for the local area.

While parish councils have limited powers they are heavily involved in negotiations and consultations.

Parish councils usually meet once a month for one council meeting. The public is invited.

Town councils also have some committees and a monthly full council.

Councillors can also stand as representatives on various bodies.

Once elected, parish councillors serve for four years.

Most people reading this will be able to stand: you must be a UK citizen (or member of an EU member state), over 18, an elector of the parish, or occupied (as owner or tenant) land or premises in the parish, or have worked in the parish.

Cheshire East Council’s website has useful information and an elections team. Call 01270 685922 or email electoral.information@cheshireeast.gov.uk

Cheshire East Council is also holding briefing seminars for prospective candidates:

  • 23rd February: Crewe, 5.30pm (borough) and 7pm (town and parish);
  • 24th February: Macclesfield, 5.30pm (borough) and 7pm (town and parish);
  • 27th February: Sandbach, 10am (borough) and 11.30am (town and parish);
  • 2nd March: Nantwich, 5.30pm (borough) and 7pm (town and parish);
  • 4th March: Congleton, 5.30pm (borough) and 7pm (town and parish);
  • 5th March: Macclesfield, 5.30pm (borough) and 7pm (town and parish);
  • 6th March: Crewe, 5.30pm (borough) and 7pm (town and parish).

The past sucks

It’s a human failing that we always think we stand on a cusp between what was better and what is to be worse; it’s a staple of the tabloids and of politicians, for whom the future is a fear to be exploited for votes.

Having spent many hours trawling through our archives I tend to think that this is not true. The past often sucks, and we are apt to forget we are the most prosperous, long-lived and healthy people who ever walked the planet.

In Another Week this week we cite a Mr Rutland, who wrote to us in 1965, looking back 50 years previously.

Having worked in the “miserable starvation task of fustian-cutting” — seen by us now as part of the area’s rich heritage — he ended up working in Biddulph, walking six miles each way for a hard job.

He said: “Those good old days that some people are so fond of talking about, now gone, I hope never to return.”

Further on in the same year we came across a story that showed the swinging 60s, “when Britain was Great” as many people say, was itself not an age we’d want to return to.

The story was headed “Colour bar on estates” and reported on a local builder whose company had decided not to sell houses to “coloured people”.

He said he was “unhappy” with this but saw no other solution.

The firm’s policy had come to light when it returned a house deposit to a British-born man who had hoped to buy a house on a new estate at Chester, built by the company.

The reasons given were that the company would have found it difficult to sell other houses on the estate, and that people who’d already bought houses were worried their own properties would fall in value because of the presence of “coloured people”.

I know we reported a similar case from Buglawton, and when we posted this story on Facebook, a former Congletonian reported that his wife remembers a vote on West Heath because a black family — whose daughter was one of her classmates — wanted to move to the estate.

There were no good old days, and don’t let politicians fool you into thinking that if we turn back the clock, things will get better.

It’s one thing to want a reasonable debate on Europe, another to hark back to day when “coloured people” couldn’t buy houses wherever they wanted.

***

Not that stupidity is a thing of the past. News broke this week that the Co-operative is closing branches in this area.

As well as being really inconvenient, this is really annoying.

I moved from the Royal Bank of Scotland, dismayed at the mix of incompetence, stupidity and vanity (at its head office; the staff are lovely) that caused the bank to collapse. Already debating where to go, a new mortgage with the reliable and dependable Britannia Building Society brought with it an account at the Co-operative Bank, a perfect solution.

But then it transpired that the Britannia was not so reliable, and had diverted from its tradition of safe lending to higher risk (and thus more profitable) loans, leaving a black hole in its accounts.

The Britannia would have collapsed had the Co-operative Bank not stepped in; God bless the reliable and dependable Co-operative movement.

But then it transpired the Co-op wasn’t so well run either. It had its own black hole and a boss soon dubbed the Crystal Methodist: he was done for possessing cocaine, crystal meth and ketamine (being on horse tranquilisers would explain all the bankers’ behaviours) though he escaped prison. (How? People at Newcastle Magistrates Court get sent down for less).

The bank had a black hole of about £1.9bn it couldn’t fill, and had to sell out to hedge funds, those bastions of the capitalist system.

Never mind, the Co-operative Group still owned 20% and promised to stick to its ethical values.

But now it transpires that even this isn’t true and the Co-operative Group is closing branches and shedding jobs; jobs that came to it via the failure of the Britannia. Never mind: the Co-operative Bank might make a profit by 2017 and it has promised to buy back the shares.

The past sucks. Roll on the future. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

A sign of the cuts to come?

We suspect that buried in the Chronicle this week is rather portentous Press release: a sign of what’s to come in austerity Britain.

Not that you’d notice.

In true spin doctor style, it’s hard to pin down what’s going on at all: “Cheshire East Council has put in a successful bid to run a national pilot for a new Government programme to make local services more effective and efficient,” the original Press release reads, though for “effective” you can read “cuts” and for “efficient” you can read “cuts”.

The grandly entitled “Delivering Differently in Neighbourhoods” programme — read “cuts” — has been set up to “help” local authorities “do more with less” — read “cuts” — by working with local communities and neighbourhood groups “to redesign services” — read “cut” — to meet their needs.

It goes on to say that the Government has asked “for innovative approaches” (“cuts”) that will draw “on the energy and expertise of local people” to find ways “to reduce reliance on public services” — “cuts” — and cut “waste”, the latter word being an anti-euphemism for “much valued council services,” we’d guess.

The basic gist is this: local authorities are going to need more volunteers to run stuff that’s now paid for by the public purse. The word “facilitate” doubtless comes to into it somewhere, or will do.

To explain the background: Chancellor Gideon Osborne has announced Government plans for a budget surplus in 2019-20, should the Tories get re-elected.

As per our recent explanation, that’s a surplus in revenue, not a reduction in debt.

Davey Boy Cameron has reassured voters that his chancellor’s aim will mean overall cuts in spending of 1% a year over the next four years but this is — surprise, surprise — a little misleading.

This is because while total spending cut is cut by 1%, spending in some areas is going up.

Things like the NHS, schools, pensions and benefits and all “protected”, ie, they have to go up because of inflation and other factors so can’t be cut. Or, in the case of pensioners, votes.

The same is true of the national interest payments on the money we’ve already borrowed.

This means that cuts will fall hardest on a small number of Government departments, such as the police and Home Office, and local government.

These sectors are facing cuts of not 1% but 26%; if the Government is re-elected, by the end of its second term unprotected departments will have faced cuts of up to 41%.

It’s not clear what areas the pilot scheme that Cheshire East Council is running will address, but they will be where the cuts are going to fall in the next four years.

The Press release itself is woolly, talking about “solving problems in local areas with the help of neighbourhood organisations, parishes and the voluntary sector,” which suggests grass roots cuts.

Coun Les Gilbert, Cheshire East’s Cabinet member in charge of localism, talks about “vibrant community hubs” playing “a key role” in “providing fit-for-purpose and sustainable services in the right place and at the right time”.

Local people will be encouraged to set up community interest companies to take over the delivery of some local services.

What services do you reckon will be cut? Obviously they’ll be (with all respect to people who now work in those sectors) easy for lay people to run. Libraries, day centres, youth clubs, school meals, adopting stretches of road to keep clean, that sort of thing, though this is without thinking too deeply about the actual affected services, just about the ramifications of the Press release.

None of this is making a political point: the aim of a budget surplus is in all the three “main” parties’ agendas — and it’s unlikely any will boast of running a deficit.

Labour wants to borrow more, £50bn a year, and increase the debt, as has it has done in the past, but they’re all going to cut.

We’d have asked the council but they’d probably just say it’s too early to say, which it may well be.

But this time in four or five years’ time, we guess a lot of you will be voluntarily doing jobs that councils now pay for.

The national Press is not good for your health . . .

As we report this week, Team Congleton has been successful in winning funding to get people more active.
Coupled with Robbie Brightwell’s Twin Assassins campaign, town leaders are sending out all the right messages: do more, eat less sugar and fat.

Sadly, the national media’s reporting of health is patchy at best, whether it’s newspapers simply getting it wrong or making it up for the sake of a good headline. It surely must counter some of the Team Congleton message.

As the Chronicle went to Press, there were headlines such as “Too much jogging as bad as no exercise at all” — fuel for those who don’t want to exercise to put things off even more.

Even common sense might tell you that this sounds a little flawed (what’s “too much”? What are the factors that make some people run more than others?).

As always, our first port of call was the NHS’s excellent “Behind the Headlines” service on its website, which analyses — usually critically — health stories.

Predictably, the results of the study cited in the “too much jogging” story were “not as clear-cut as the media has made out,” said the NHS.

The study involved about 1,500 people in Denmark and found that light to moderate jogging was associated with living longer compared with being sedentary; strenuous jogging was not.

However, a major limitation was that the sample size was small, particularly for the most active runners. Small numbers mean analysis is less able to detect real differences.

The NHS said that The Daily Telegraph’s headline “Fast running is as deadly as sitting on couch” was “too sensationalist” given the limitations to the study. BBC News and the Daily Mail made the journalistic sin of stating “too much of x is bad for you”, which the NHS called “an entirely uninformative statement of the obvious”.

Too much of anything is bad for you.

And the study did not answer our own question: it does not conclusively say how much is too much.
Said the NHS: “The study does not impact the current physical activity recommendations for adults.”

For what it’s worth, the study found that jogging up to 2.5 hours in total a week, over up to three sessions, at a slow or average pace, was associated with the lowest risk of death during follow-up.

If everyone did that, health levels in this country would soar, never mind worrying what is “too much”: the study found that joggers tended have lower blood pressure and body mass index, and be less likely to smoke or have diabetes.
Health stories generally should be treated with a pinch of salt, though the media is not always to blame. The recent story about a high percentage of cancer being down to chance came with a misleading Press release — journalists reported fairly accurately what this said.

The problem was with the study, which appears to have been confused. The NHS analysis said that the survey showed that only four out of 10 cancers could be a result of bad luck, or, alternatively, as many as eight out of 10. The BBC said the figures made no sense and the researchers themselves are apparently being force to write a paper explaining what they really meant.

The message would seem to be: carry on as you were. A lifestyle choice to help reduce the chance of getting cancer.
As we say, health stories generally should be treated with a pinch of salt but the Daily Mail saves you the effort of checking up — you can fairly safely assume they’re hugely inaccurate.

So it’s bad news if you believed the Daily Mail when it said “one third of pensioners have sex at least twice a month” — the survey did not cover only pensioners but people aged 50 and over, and the newspaper ignored the fact that many participants expressed concerns about sex, not just the frequency of their sexual activity.

Another recent Mail story — that shell shock had been “solved” — was not true. “Shell shock has not been ‘solved’, as the Mail Online would have us believe,” said the NHS.

To go back to the original point: jogging is good for you.
Exercise is good for you.
Healthy food (ie not processed) and losing weight are good for you.

On the other hand, believing what you read in the national Press is bad for you.

Do politicians actually make much difference?

You might have noticed that politicians have become more active recently, roaming the airwaves and news columns: like vampires stimulated by the sight of the rising moon, it only takes an election date to appear on a calendar for them to stir.

At Cheshire East Council, cheques are being handed out with gay abandon. MP Fiona Bruce is sending us a Press release almost every minute and UKIP’s Louise Bours has suddenly decided she wants to be on Congleton Town Council after all, despite not attending since Noah was a lad.

They’re all telling you that they know best and the other lot are rubbish. The cynical joke about politicians lying only when their lips move is a little harsh, but slightly truer prior to elections.

On social media, the lines are being drawn. This week we asked innocently if anyone was joining the Greens and watched as Facebookers went wild.

As unbiased observers, it’s interesting to see people’s beliefs, often ignoring facts even when presented to them.
Among the many things we’ve seen this week was a diatribe against Maggie Thatcher: you know, the woman who destroyed manufacturing, decimated the mines and snatched milk from the mouths of babies. Except, on the whole, she didn’t.

When she died, the BBC’s statistics programme More or Less looked at her record and it was less than people think.
A Warwick University economist was asked about the decline in mining and said: “Nothing to do with Mrs Thatcher.” He said it was a trend visible all over the Western world.

According to Wikipedia, in the two decades from 1950-1970 around 100 North East coalmines were closed. “A common misconception is that Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its suburbs was one of the areas affected most by the infamous mid-eighties strike. In reality, the vast majority of mines in that area were long since defunct by that time.”

You could spend hours researching this, but we found a Welsh coal mine forum that listed pit closures, starting with: “North Rhondda No2 1947, Blaenclydach 1947, Erskine 1947, Llanmarch 1947, Penrhys 1947, Charmborough 1947, Cynon 1947, Llanerch 1947, Rhiw Colbren No five 1947. . .” Pits closed before, during and after Thatch; whatever else she did wrong sending in the police against miners and personalising the battle, pit closures happened just as much under Labour.

Similarly the decline in manufacturing: she couldn’t really do much here either because, as another economist told More or Less, “These are powerful historical trends”.

Manufacturing has certainly changed: in 1952, it produced a third of the national output, employed 40% of the workforce and made up 25% of world manufacturing exports. Today, it’s about 11% of GDP, employs 8% and sells 2% of world exports.
But in value, we produce around two and a half times what we did in the late 40s. Instead of thousands of men standing at lathes making washers we now have a few bright young graduates writing computer games, or using CAD machines for sophisticated engineering.

Manufacturing has also decreased as a proportion of output as other things came along. Once it was the big game in town, now there are other business sectors, from computer game companies to call centres and nice restaurants, hotels and gyms in the service sector.

Manufacturing has not disappeared, as some would have you believe, it’s just that other areas of the economy have grown.
A 2009 report, using data from the Office for National Statistics, said that manufacturing output (at 2007 prices) has increased in 35 of the 50 years between 1958 and 2007. Output in 2007 was at record levels, double that in 1958.

Again, rooting around we found a motorbike forum that offered a better explanation for the change than it being Mrs T taking an axe to manufacturing: complacency and unwillingness to change.

Kawasaki apparently made “a total nut-and-bolt copy” of the BSA A7, a classic British motorbike, which was then 35-years old. While BSA carried on building the same bike, thinking it would all go on forever, Kawasaki developed a new engine that led to today’s superbikes.

Noted the forum: “We could have done that. We had the money and the brains, but we also had apathy. You can feel the Brummie drawl pronouncing ‘That’ll last a lifetime that’. No it wouldn’t, it probably wouldn’t make its first trip out of the showroom without something falling off.”

Other myths about Thatch were that she cut taxes (direct tax was cut but VAT was doubled); cut spending on the NHS (she maintained same rate of increase spending as her predecessors) and cut education: this is partly true but spending fell at a slower rate than the decline in pupil numbers so per capita spending increased.

As some bones for you Thatcher haters, she did increase inequality by a large degree — top earners saw their incomes rise by 60% while poorer people saw nothing. Before Thatcher there were 128m strike days in Britain a year, afterwards 6.5m, so you can take that as union bashing, too, if you want. She arguably caused the current housing crisis.

The point is: despite the strong feelings she arouses and the claims her supporters make, in some of the biggest areas, she had little effect. Manufacturing continued its slow decades-long change, mines continued to change, the NHS carried on being a political football and education funding stayed constant.

We suspect that in these days of globalisation, politicians potentially have even less effect, unless they do something really risky, like leading us into war or out of Europe (or enourage the police on big horses to charge striking miners).

Most of the time, though, they just carry on what was being done before and can’t do much about anything. But that hardly makes for a decent hustings speech.

Dog poo and traffic problems

We’re often critical of things other people have done or are doing.

This week, we’re sticking out neck out with two suggestions for problems that have been aired. Feel free to contribute. They are difficult situations, which is why they’ve been around for yonks.

One is the A34 at the bottom of Astbury village. It is the scene of regular, serious accidents and there was another this week. It’s a miracle there’s not been a fatal.

Just to declare an interest, this writer was knocked off his bicycle by a car there, and has not really been on a bike since. While I wouldn’t say I had sympathy for the guy who ran me down, it can be a mentally demanding junction.

At busy times, it probably has the same effect on your brain as using a mobile phone while driving after three pints of lager.

You can, say, be in the filter lane in front of Astbury Garage turning right up the village. There are cars going down the A34 each side of you. There are cars going up and down the road you’re trying to turn into. There are two lanes of cars at the other side of the village green and there may be a car in the other filter lane in front of you.

That means you’re watching cars going in seven different directions.

Counting your own vehicle, your brain is processing the movements of eight vehicles. Nine if someone is pulling out of the cemetery.

The poor bloke on a bike, the 10th vehicle on the road, has no chance.

Two solutions are probably out — a roundabout or traffic lights. Costly, and it’s too picturesque a village green to be dug up for a roundabout.

You could prevent people turning right if they’re on the left of the green (ie the Astbury Garage side of the green), but, as with the speed limit that’s in place now, enforcement is the issue.

So how about some severe traffic calming? A couple of warning signs to slow cars down, then narrow the road in both directions, with dragon’s teeth markings opposite the garage and the Egerton Arms’ driveway. Pave the road in the style of a pedestrianised area. Perhaps plant some trees in what is now the middle of the road. Make it impossible for cars to go at any speed.

That would force everyone to slow right down; that in itself might mean people don’t use both sides of the green to turn towards Congleton.

Aside from cost, the only problem we can think of is the wide loads that come that way.

As we say, it’s a miracle no-one has been killed: we won’t be that lucky forever.

***

Dog poo is the other issue. People periodically complain and it all kicks off but then it dies down and nothing is done. Until it all kicks off again.

Enforcement is the issue: at the end of the day, someone has to grass up a dog owner and report them to the authorities. People are not always willing to do this. The council warden can only be in so many places at once.

We reckon the answer is to make bad owners of dogs feel that they are being watched.

Our solution would be DogWatch. Congleton Town Council could pay for some nice signs in the style of Neighbourhood Watch, and residents could put these up on lampposts. There is special high-vis spray that can be sprayed on dog poo, again making it look as if the streets are being watched. Perhaps a warning sign or two could be stencilled on the pavement.

Then all you need is people to keep an eye open for miscreants. Perhaps the PCSOs or community wardens can be drafted in to speak to anyone whose dog is spotted fouling the pavement; perhaps it will be necessary for a DogWatch group to take someone to court before the message will start to get through.

Discussing this on social media, a lot of people support some kind of measure but others complain that dog mess on the footpath is a minor issue when compared to drugs or other street crime. They also complain that it’s wrong for neighbours to snoop on people and take them to court.

We’d argue that community pride can never be bad, and that people can already take pavement foulers to court. The aim of the DogWatch group (or whatever it would be called) would be to report foulers as a group, meaning no one person has to make the complaint and stick their head above the parapet.

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