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.

Smaller numbers often mean better stories

We’ve been trying to keep an eye on politicians, particularly in recent months, and point out any dodgy facts or claims.

But politicians don’t just reside in council halls: our police and crime commissioners are also elected and — unless Labour gets a toehold in government and abolishes them — they’re going to be up for re-election sometime soon.

They’re less likely to attempt to be misleading than regular politicians but we still like to keep an eye on them and Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner’s regime has been guilty of “big number” syndrome: in other words, using a big number because it looks impressive but omitting the context. We use the word regime on purpose, because we’re not blaming anyone and we don’t think Mr Ellis sits there and dictates the release of information; it’s a cultural thing.

Our curiosity was piqued at the end of the last year when Staffordshire Police issued a Press release on Mr Ellis’ Cars Behind Bars campaign, taking uninsured cars off the road.

Obviously, it’s a good campaign: uninsured drivers are a scourge and the antithesis of a responsible society. They deserve to be caught and we have no problem with the cars being seized.

But the Press release said: “In the last 18 months, a total of 73 higher-value uninsured vehicles have been sold off at auction raising almost £50,000, with the proceeds going back into local communities in Staffordshire.”

It’s the kind of thing you should stop and question, so we did. The £50,000 sounds impressive, as it was meant to — it’s a big number.

But it’s raised from 73 cars, which means, when you stop and think, that each car only raised £684. But the Press release calls the vehicles “higher value”, and we wondered why high value cars only made £700 a pop.

So we sent in an FOI request and got the facts behind the £50,000.

First of all, high value: under the police definition, “higher value” is really “any value” — higher value cars are those with a value of “scrap plus”, and refers to cars that are worth more than their scrap value and storage costs combined.

This pretty much answered our query but we also got a list of the seized vehicles and the results are interesting.
Although there were some actual “high value” vehicles in there, the top price went to a Ford Transit van, which sold for £5,150, nearly £1,000 more than the next best vehicle, a Vauxhall Insignia that sold for £4,560.

Knocking off recovery and other costs, the Transit made £4,781 for police funds and the Vauxhall £4,141.
After these two workhorses there were some genuine surprises: some chump went out on a Harley Davidson while not insured, the police selling it for £3,000 at auction (net total for funds, £2,616.2).

Similarly a BMW 3 Series made £2,720 (£2,351) and an Audi A4 £2,660 (£2,241) but after that, next in the list is a Seat Ibiza at £2,500 (£2,231). A Subaru Impreza sold for £1,460 (£1,141.2).

The vast majority of cars were sold for less than £1,000, with even prestige marques making pennies — an Audi A3 sold for £350 (£200) and a Jaguar X Type for £440 (£171).

At couple at the bottom of the list actually lost the police money — A Citroen C5 just about breaks even, a BMW lost £37.80 after costs were deducted and a Zeijang off road bike cost even more, £68.80.

The makes of car seized reflected the car markets, with Ford (mainly Focus) and Vauxhall the top seized vehicles.
Some trailers also lost money though we mention them to warn uninsured drivers — you’ll lose both your car and your trailer. Bearing in mind the cost of vehicles, the trailers were fairly decent, the seven seized selling between £650 and £500.

All this is not going to win us scoop of the year but it’s a shame that someone is going for a headline figure when there are so many good little stories buried in there that would act as a better deterrent in publicity: that top-selling Transit was possibly owned by a trader who lost his work vehicle, the Harley must have a good story behind it and the trailers are warning that it’s not just the vehicle that’s seized.

Foodbanks: easier to use as weapons than do something about the causes

One topic that politicians are fond of abusing is that of foodbanks.

Some topics seems too explosive for them to take control of, such as the debate on drugs or how the NHS should cope with the fact that it can’t cope with our expectations of it.

Anyone daring to question the current drugs policy — putting the control of a substance with which many of our children have contact in the hands of psychopaths — would be pilloried by the tabloids. Anyone suggesting that the non-state sector might have something to contribute to the NHS as it faces an aging population is ridiculed by opponents for wanting to privatise it.

Similarly foodbanks: no politician can talk seriously about them, because that might mean them admitting that their policies leave people starving. Politics is failing the very poor.

For a start, it’s wrong to say foodbanks are a phenomena of the Tory Party’s rule and a result of changes in the benefits system.

In Congleton, New Life Church’s foodbank has been going for ages but wasn’t called a foodbank — it was called Storehouse and just helped out people in need. There are lots — no-one knows the number — of other unofficial stores, which all existed before foodbanks became news.

The reason foodbanks are in the news is down to The Trussell Trust, the largest operator of foodbanks and the only organisation for which figures exist.

It was founded in 1997 (PM: Tony Blair, Labour in power) and its own website reports that it was in 2000 (still Tony Blair) that it started foodbanks in this country.

It originally started to help people in Bulgaria, using money left by Betty Trussell, mother of co-founder Carol Henderson.

The charity’s website says: “While fundraising for Bulgaria in Salisbury in 2000, Paddy (Carol’s husband) received a call from a desperate mother in Salisbury saying ‘my children are going to bed hungry tonight — what are you going to do about it?’.

“Paddy investigated local indices of deprivation and ‘hidden hunger’ in the UK. The shocking results showed that significant numbers of local people faced short term hunger as a result of a sudden crisis.”

Paddy started Salisbury foodbank in his garden shed and garage, providing three days of emergency food to local people in crisis.

In 2004 the UK foodbank network was launched teaching churches and communities nationwide how to start their own foodbank. That’s 2004 — still Tony Blair, still Labour.

But the rapid ascent of foodbanks is a bit of a meaningless number.

It’s like iPhones: as soon as they were introduced they sold by the bucketload. There was a previously unfilled market out there.

Similar, politicians’ claims about the rise of foodbanks are based on Trussell Trust statistics and reflect the fact that it didn’t exist and then it did, rather than a recent collapse in society.

It’s true that foodbanks grew by 10% under Labour, but that was the early days of the trust. Foodbanks have increased by over 22% under the Tories, but that’s because they are filling a pre-existing demand and the trust is growing.

We should really be asking why politicians of all hues have clearly done nothing about people going hungry for decades.

In effect, the issue has only come to light because a random woman died, her son set up a charity to help in Bulgaria and then randomly met a hungry woman in Salisbury.

We discussed this on Facebook and a common reaction is that foodbanks are frequented by scroungers who could buy food if they wanted but prefer to blow their money on cigarettes and big tellies.

We don’t really buy this: we don’t think people voluntarily beg for food. It’s probably demeaning and embarrassing for many, and of course you can’t just rock up and ask for six tins of beans and fresh loaf. People need to be referred to foodbanks.

According to the Trussell Trust’s 2013/14 report, nearly 1m used its foodbanks though this total does not track repeat visits, so if you went back twice you’d be counted twice.

The trust itself found that two thirds of people only visited once over a six-month period, which gives it 700,000 unique visitors.

There are probably no figures for fraudulent foodbank claims, so here’s a bit of guesswork.

Benefit tax fraud in 2012 was £1.6bn, out of a total benefit budget of £159bn. If you assume that all those people who fraudulently claim benefits also con foodbanks, that means just 1% of users are scroungers — 7,000 people out of 700,000. But that won’t happen and it’s easier to forget to say you’ve got a job than it is to lie face to face to obtain a small supply of food. Spongers are a tiny percentage.

The point is that foodbanks are clearly needed in this country by people who can’t afford to buy food and this seems to be a long-standing problem that politicians have failed to address.

It is not the result of any one party’s policies and certainly not the result of the Tory benefit cuts.

To repeat: we should really be asking why politicians of all hues have clearly done nothing about people going hungry for decades, and why it’s taken members of the public to bring the issues to light.

Whoever wins the election is going to build a lot of houses. . . .

Last week’s column looked at UKIP’s Nigel Farage’s claim that a new house was built every seven minutes to house immigrants: we decided it was true on one reading of the stats, but the country needs one house every two minutes anyway. And it could equally be claimed that far fewer are needed for immigrants — we reckoned one every 28 minutes, not every seven.

The next obvious question is: if we need all those houses, what are the various parties’ policies for house-building?

According to the Confederation of British Industry, Britain needs to build 240,000 houses a year to keep up with population growth. That’s the figure from a body that represents the building industries, and that’s where the two houses a minute comes from.

Writing in advance of the manifesto launches, this proved a little hard to unearth, until someone kindly sent us a Local Government Information Unit briefing (we won’t say who it was in case we’re not supposed to have it). The unit is a think tank that serves local authorities.

Two facts to bear in mind:

(1) The Local Government Association is calling on whoever forms the next Government to allow councils to build 500,000 new homes. The LGA is the cross-party organisations that represents nearly all local councils in the country.

(2) All the main parties are promising to build lots of houses, probably 200,000 to 300,000. To give this context, building started on 137,010 new homes in 2014, 10% higher than in 2013 and the highest annual total since 2007. Whoever gets into power is going to build more houses than we’ve seen in the last 12 months, and keep building for five years. It’s a lot of houses.

The Conservatives have pledged to build 200,000 discounted starter homes for young first-time buyers (and to continue with Help-to-Buy and Right-to-Buy) over the term of Parliament. They don’t say these are council homes, so we assume it’s down to the private sector.

If they built all 200k starter homes over a five-year Parliament, that’s 40,000 a year. If developers build 25% starter homes on any new development (an optimistic figure), that’s 200,000 homes a year, pretty close to the CBI’s figure. If we assume the CBI has inflated the figures a little for its members’ sake, it’s probably about right.

Labour has committed to build “at least” 200,000 new homes per year by 2020, while giving first-time buyers a priority in certain housing growth areas to 125,000 new homes funded by the new first-time buyer ISA. Again, that’s about what we need.

The Liberal Democrats go better and have promised to increase the rate of house building to 300,000 homes per year, more than the CBI says we need. At least house prices would come down.

The Lib Dems would force councils to allocate land to meet 15 years’ housing need in their local plans, which would be bad news for Cheshire East Council, which is struggling to identify five years’ worth. They would also help first-time buyers onto the housing ladder through a Rent-to-Own scheme.

UKIP is a more vague: it says it will protect the Green Belt by changing planning rules and offering developers funding and tax incentives to build one million new homes on brown field land by 2025.

That’s 500,000 new homes in the next Parliament or 100,000 a year for the next five years. This is much less than everyone else, less than we apparently need and less than the number of houses needed even if Nigel Farage’s figure of 74,500 homes built for migrants each year is knocked off the CBI total: UKIP would build 65,500 fewer homes a year than we actually need.

We think Mr Farage is being deliberately vague. He hopes to wield the balance of power in the next Government so most of his policies don’t matter — he’ll agree to support anything as long as the Government takes us out of Europe.

We’ve seen the Green Party mocked for its pledge — to build 500,000 new council homes by 2020 — but as we said above, this is actually the figure requested by the LGA, “the national voice of local government” as its website claims. The Greens also want a “living rent” and rent increases capped to inflation. They would abolish both Right-to-Buy and the “under-occupation’ deduction from housing benefit.

We’re not making any conclusions about this: the facts are that the three main parties are promising enough houses to fill the housing need, the Greens are backing the Local Government Association and UKIP wants to build far fewer houses than we need.

Immigrants’ houses and lost jobs: the myths

Nigel Farage’s claim on the leaders’ debate last week — that we need to build a house every seven minutes to house immigrants — bugged me for several days, until I looked into it.

It turns out it’s kind of true, but filtered through the, er, truth kaleidoscope, of a politician. It’s depressing how politicians of all parties spout figures as fact, knowing that most people are too lazy to look them up.

The facts are these.

The Confederation of British Industries believes Britain needs to build 240,000 houses a year to keep up with population growth. That’s total growth, from a body that represents the building industries.

There are 525,600 minutes a year, which means that the CBI believes one house should be built every two minutes.

The Office for National Statistic (ONS) gives a net migration of 298,000 for 2014. Assuming a household of four people**, those people need 74,500 homes — and this would appear to be the one house every seven minutes that Mr Farage refers to.

This needs to be set against the one house every two minutes we need in total, and ONS figure is all migrants, from footballers and bankers to East European labourers. (To save you working it out, using the CBI recommendation, immigration accounts for 30% of new homes needed).

But the figures don’t account for East Europeans coming over and living 23 to a room in rented squalor, or — a lesser number — for people who come over and go and live with family.

Referring to the former: the Joseph Roundtree Foundation says that 75% of recent migrants live in rented accommodation — that would be 223,500 people, using the ONS figure for net migration. Rented accommodation, by definition, exists, so they don’t want new homes.

That leaves 74,500 immigrants wanting private homes (either for themselves or the people whose houses they buy). Divide by four to get the total number of families and you get migrants needing only 18,600 homes which is 7% of the CBI total.

That’s one house every 28 minutes for migrants, a lot less than Mr Farage’s figure. It’s a crude sum but then so’s Mr Farage’s, so it’s only fair.

And even using the 70k-houses-for-migrants figure, we still need 165,500 houses, or a house every three minutes in total.

** I aired this on Facebook and someone questioned the average family size of four people: the average household in the UK is 2.3 people. But (i) Mr Farage’s figure seems based on a four person household and (ii) the 2.3 average includes pensioners and widow(er)s, who are less likely to want new houses but reduce the average household size, particularly with an ageing population. The UK has a higher percentage of households with three or more children than three-quarters of European Union countries.


Sticking with immigration, the facts are hard to pin down, and politicians bend the stats to suit.

To give it some context, I recently heard an interview with American Adam Davidson, an economist and founder of US podcast Planet Money.

He was discussing whether poorly paid immigrants take local jobs, a common complaint both here and in the US.

He said there was “zero debate” among economists that high-skilled migrants — people with degrees — helped the country, and generated wealth.

Turning to unskilled immigrants (eg Mexicans legging it over the border), he said there was a “slight debate”.

He said nearly all economists agree that, long-term, these unskilled workers make Americans better off. The debate centres on whether they hit the income of low-skilled Americans, mainly African American males in inner cities. The most pessimistic put this at $1,000 dollars – unskilled Mexicans cost high school drop-outs in deprived areas about $1,000 a year. This is highly debated, and most economists believe that the unskilled migrants have no effect or a small one, much less than $1,000.

One case study is south Florida, in 1980: 120,000 Cubans landed in a short space of time and 45,000 of these were working age, representing about 7% of that city’s working population.

Economists found this flood of cheap workers had no impact on wages (again, there was some disagreement) but said Mr Davidson: “If you don’t see big effects, you’re probably talking about minor effects”. In other words, the fact that the economists argue about the fine detail means there probably was no big effect.

He said immigrants complemented native workers, not substituted them (in the same way as an iPhone is a substitute to a Samsung but a complement to headphones).

He said immigrants often worked alongside native born workers. He’d studied construction sites in Brooklyn, often seeing two or three native-born skilled Americans owning the company, employing cheap migrants to do the grunt work.

But they weren’t taking local jobs: having cheap labour made contracts cheaper, which made the work more affordable for more people, and so the pie got bigger — more people could afford to use builders and there was more work all round.
Mr Davidson said immigrants were a net burden locally (using health and education services) but a net benefit nationally, as working family members paid tax.

Concluded Mr Davidson: “Immigration is essential. Take away the immigrants and we are in real, real trouble -— look at Japan, they are in profound trouble.”

As Mr Davidson pointed out, America can be very under-populated — Alaska and Montana are among the least densely populated areas in the world — but it’s probably a fair bet that we’d see a similar picture here.

National finances for beginners

Politicians are all vying for your vote and don’t really care if they bend the truth to get it. From a few weeks ago, here’s my simple guide to the national budget. I got a U at GCSE maths so if you spot any mistakes let me know.

DEBT refers to the amount of money owed by the UK Government, built up over many years, by many governments.

This one is easy: someone lends you a tenner and your debt is a tenner.

Net debt is the debt minus the Government’s liquid assets.

Debt has increased in recent years and is now about £1 trillion.

No politician can claim to have reduced debt.

Debt was £811bn around the time the Tories/Lib Dems took over. In December it was £1,111bn.

THE DEFICIT is the difference between the Government’s expenses and its revenues — what it spends and what it gets.

For example: if you borrow £10 a week to meet a shortfall in your income for a month, your debt is £40 and so is your monthly deficit.

The next month your deficit is still £40 but your debt is now £80 (two months at £40).

If you only borrow £20 the next month, you’ve halved your deficit (£40 to £20) but your debt still goes up by £20, to £100. Politicians can thus claim to have halved improved things by reducing the deficit, masking the fact that debts are rising.

It could have been much better: between 1998 and 2001, under Tony Blair, the country had four years of surplus, but Labour just increased the debt.

If Labour claims to have reduced the deficit or run a surplus it won’t mention this.

The Tories (and the next government) are hamstrung because the average growth of public spending is about 3%, and much of this is automatic — rising pensions, for example.

GDP. Debt can also be expressed as a percentage of total economic output, or GDP (“gross domestic product”).

The debt looks better if national productivity is on the increase: if you borrow £50 off a friend and your household has £200 coming in, you’re less financially robust than next door, if they owe £50 but have £400 coming in.

STRUCTURAL deficit is where simple comparisons break down. This is the budget deficit (income v outgoings), adjusted to account for the cyclical nature of the economy. The deficit automatically falls when the economy grows, so the structural deficit excludes the effect of this. It’s the deficit that’s not affected by economic performance.

It’s this more complicated (easier to fiddle, I’d suggest) figure that George Osborne promised to eliminate by 2015-16.

He failed, hence the Tories’ attempts at making up stats to claim some kind of success.

The Government has reduced the structural deficit but not as much as they promised.

Because of this, the Tories are now trying to say they’ve reduced spending as a percentage GDP but this is also untrue.

The debt, £811bn at the 2010 election, was 55.3% of GDP while December’s £1,111bn was 70.7% of GDP.

The national debt is forecast to hit 74.7% of GDP this year and peak at 79.9% in 2015-16, before falling slightly by 2016-17.

At which point whoever is in power will claim the credit.

The UK’s 77% of GDP should also be compared to Japan’s 225%, Italy’s 120% and the US’s 75%.

In the late 1940s, UK debt was over 180% of GDP, and around that time we set up the welfare state and NHS.

Mr Cameron was of course criticised for saying the cuts had not reduced economic growth, when the Office for Budget Responsibility says it has.

From 2002–2007, Labour increased national debt to 37% of GDP (37%!), because it increased spending on health and education (the social security budget also rose).

Whether borrowing to spend on schools and hospitals is good or bad is another debate, but Labour increased the debt.

INVESTMENT BORROWING: it’s also worth knowing that borrowing is both borrowing to fill a revenue deficit and borrowing for investment.

This is like you borrowing £20,000, £5,000 to clear a credit card debt you ran up while out of work (debt) and £15,000 for a house extension (investment, but still a debt).

There IS a difference between the parties here: in 2007, Labour borrowed £37.7bn, of which £28.3bn was investment. In 2013, the Conservative-led coalition borrowed £91.5bn, but only £23.7bn was invested, so the Tories can claim to have cut something, even though this is public sector investment.

As a percentage of GDP, public sector investment has shrunk from 3.5% to 1.5% under the Tories.

As is moderately clear above, a booming economy reduces the deficit (or even creates a surplus) making repayment of debt easier.

Unfortunately politicians of all hues believed the bankers’ claims that it would ever be thus (“No more boom and bust” and all that tosh) and Labour was happy to increase debt while in budget surplus.

After 2008, debt increased sharply because of the recession (lower tax receipts, higher spending on unemployment benefits). This also exposed a structural deficit, caused by excessive spending.

There was also the minor matter of Northern Rock, RBS, Lloyds…

I think I’ve got this right but I’m not the only ones to find it complex: last year David Cameron was told off for saying the Tories were “paying down Britain’s debts” when he meant deficit, the same mistake the-then Moorlands MP made in a letter to the Chronicle a couple of months ago.

Football: it really is only about money

Readers of a red top Sunday newspaper may well be reading about a Premiership player and his sexual antics at Easter weekend (2015).

The word “romp” may well figure, as the tabloids are the only place this word is ever found. Fine Easter reading material.
However, the facts behind the case are actually more interesting than the player’s sex life. Watching paint dry would be more interesting, come to that.

The gist of the tale is that Premier League footballer has failed in a bid to keep his name out of the Press. The player had been to a works do and met a woman, a fitness instructor in her 30s. He went to a mate’s house and an encounter took place. (Think Bill and Monica).

The bit that interested us was that the player himself had not even given evidence to the court.

As Mr Justice Warby said: “The most remarkable feature of this case is the complete absence of any evidence from the claimant.”

Not only was there no statement from the claimant about his attitude to disclosure, there wasn’t any hearsay evidence of acceptable quality about what he had to say.

No: the court case was apparently brought by people more interested in the financial worth of the player, presumably fearing their own ability to earn a crust would be affected by the bad publicity.

Mr Justice Warby himself said that commercial motives played “a considerable role” in the case, brought by the claimant’s agent on his behalf.

Proof indeed (if any were needed) that football is now motivated solely by money.

Is new road a price worth paying?

The other week this column talked about the problems of traffic through Astbury, saying something needed to be done before anyone was killed.

We suggested some fairly radical ideas, mainly to slow down cars and perhaps deter them from travelling through the village, but now an even more radical plan has been suggested — dramatically expand the village by building more houses and using the money from developers to build a small bypass.

On one hand, this does seem to be a good solution — given our rather limited approach to solving transport problems.
The proposed road would run from Astbury Garden Centre, then go round the back of the church, Glebe Farm and the former council estate, and emerge at the junction of Peel Lane and Dodd’s Lane. Presumably at some point, another road would connect this and the proposed Congleton Link Road.

The road would cost around £2.5m and be paid for by allowing developers to build around 100 new homes in Astbury. Some would be low cost but the majority would, we’d guess, be “executive” homes. Some would be built alongside the road but we’d also guess some would be built closer to Congleton.

A bypass at least would solve the problems of Astbury village. Peel Lane and the railway/canal bridges would not benefit, because all traffic would still use Peel Lane, but the A34 would be less dangerous and the historic village centre would be healthier.

On the other hand: the current way of thinking is just to solve all traffic problems by building new roads. Despite the fact that some people have made a credible case for improving the A34 through Congleton rather than building the link road, the latter was always going to be the preferred option, probably because it is simply less mentally taxing for politicians to build a new road than consider the alternatives.

We often wonder why UKIP gets so much publicity and the Greens so little but really, we know the answer: UKIP lives in the current mindset of the political world, which is confrontational and wants easy alternatives: in Europe or out, immigration good or bad.

The Greens, on the other hand, challenge how politicians think. For example, to solve a problem like Astbury’s a greener (or Greener) way of thinking would presumably be to see how cars could be reduced, by deterring traffic, encourage walking and cycling or improve public transport — and not just to think “new road” as the only solution.

While we all agree that something needs to be done, the village is paying a heavy price — 100 new houses — to solve a single problem, traffic. It’s true that some green ideas are unworkable in practical terms but you’d think there’d be a middle ground.

For anyone in Asbury: this is far from a done deal and there will be consultations, and, as we said: everyone agrees something needs to be done.

The tender task of tackling the Travellers . . .

Last week, this column mentioned some of the issues that concern readers — often topics that politicians avoid — and one was Travellers (capital T, see below).

This week Sandbach Tory Matt Wood has written in about Gypsy / Travellers, his basic point being that the issue is not dealt with because of what he calls “political cowardice and correctness”.

Mr Wood is (as far as we can tell) a right wing Tory and we’re far too much wishy washy libertarians to agree with a lot of what he says. But the benefit of not being political (aside from being a bit Green) is that you can find yourself agreeing with everyone at some point, and Mr Wood did direct us to some interesting information.

As we said last week, people generally do not like Travellers setting up camps on spare land, not just because of the mess they leave but because, in some cases, of the petty (and not so petty) law breaking that goes with it.

Most people would think that the law should treat everyone the same: if your granny can be fined for parking on double yellow lines or parking without a ticket on a council car park, so should a band of Travellers. We can see it might be harder with the latter — they’re probably all called Smith and unlikely to answer a letter asking for payment — but the law is the law.
Whenever this topic comes up on social media, someone always chips in with a line about Travellers just being “different” and we’re all just closet racists and should let them be.

We can nail that one now: when the nasty, violent Travellers were in town last year, we contacted the Tuam Herald because Tuam has a high population of Travellers. It said the people we get over here are disliked in Eire and seen as English.They are not representative of the ethnic group known as Travellers (hence the capital T).

So it seems fair to ignore the “they’re just following a different cultural tradition” and agree that they should be made to obey the law, the same as everyone else. Cultural identity is one thing, harassing women and stealing with threats of violence is another.

In his letter, Mr Wood directed us to a Government Select Committee report looking at caravan site provision.
It summed up the nub of the problem very well: English people are happy to employ wandering tradesmen — particularly (we say, not the committee), if a cash in hand transaction is cheaper than paying VAT to a registered trader. The local police have made this same point — the Travellers only hang around because there’s paid work to be had.

On the other hand, people are “appalled” (the committee’s word) at the prospect of Travellers setting up mobile homes anywhere nearby, as can currently be seen at Middlewich.

This is because people fear crime and anti-social behaviour — quite justifiably in many cases — but this in turn means that Gypsies and Travellers move in large groups, for their own safety. (No, really).

So: we have a community of people travelling around, doing work for cash, forced to move in groups because of fear of crime but also committing crimes and not generally prosecuted, and facing a lack of places to park legally (3,500 Gypsies and Travellers, 20% of the travelling community, have no legal place where they can stop their caravan).

There is probably no easy solution but options to promote could be:

● Travellers who break the law to be treated the same as everyone else;

● householders persuaded to stop having small cash jobs done by people knocking door to door; and

● transit sites to be established so Travellers at least have somewhere to go.

But there the simple solutions, at least on the time scale this column is written, seem to end.

The logical conclusion would seem to be to avoid simple solutions: what we really need is to get the Travellers to travel in smaller groups, which means reducing the animosity towards them. Then they might arrive less likely to cause mess and / or trouble. This is possibly where transit sites might come in, if anyone would agree to them being built.

In the other direction, the Travellers need to be more community minded, and report the unruly to the police or, at least, as the evidence from Tuam would suggest, police the unruly themselves — they don’t like involving the authorities.

You see what happened there? We ended up being a bit wishy washy. And of course the rational approach only works if the Travellers you are dealing with are basically ok — which, from our own experience and from the Traveller heartland Tuam, they are not.

So we end up agreeing with Mr Wood: on this particular issue, political correctness is not going to work. But what will?

This is one issue we’re happy to leave with politicians.

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?



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.

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