GAZETTE COLUMN

I write a weekly newspaper column called ‘Going about Gloucestershire’ for the Gloucestershire Gazette.

You can buy the paper format every Thursday or visit the Gloucestershire Gazette website for local news, views and what’s on. You can also follow on Twitter with @glosgazette.

Every Thursday, I’ll post my column to the blog so you can have a quick read.

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LATEST GAZETTE COLUMN: 4th December, 2014

Quit thinking of ourselves this Christmas. Think of others.

It’s getting nearer to Christmas. What’s that? Is that the sound of a collective Gloucestershire groan I hear? Ah, yep, sounds about spot on.

 And, to be fair, quite right too. I mean, take a look at the festive season these days. It seems to now start back in October, nay, September sometimes. One UK store was even flogging Xmas goods in August. And we sigh at this, we do. We say it is too soon, that it is a small nightmare, the organization of Christmas, that there is, quite honestly, so much to do.

 And so our shopping begins earlier. We tot up the coffers, plan what we need, look over our friends’ shoulders at what they’re doing, how they’re managing it all this year. Then there’s the issue of family. Who to invite on the main day, who to avoid, who will argue…Ah, yes, it’s a joy all right. But of course, all this is even before people open their presents. The most popular phrase I have heard uttered to children so far these past few weeks is, “What do you want for Christmas?” And while this is pleasant sentence, one filled with good intent and happiness, there is a word in it that should make us stop and think. Nope, not “want”, but “you.”

 See, here’s the thing that bothers me most about the festivities: We think of ourselves. “What do you want” implies the person to look to their own needs, but – and I don’t know this is because I am getting older (don’t say anything..!) – what we should be doing is looking at others’ needs.

 We live in a tough old world. Ebola is devastating Africa and threatens to spread, not to mention Malaria. There are war-orphaned children, local families dependent on food banks. And just down the road, there may be an elderly neighbour sitting lonely, lost, no one to talk to.

 So this year, here’s what we should do. Since we’re getting things done earlier, stick one extra on your to do list: think of others. Can you donate? Help? Listen? Wherever you shop, go in Gloucestershire, do it with one eye not on your presents, but with an open mind to the people around us. Because maybe then, even though the word Christmas will still make us groan, at least it will make some one else smile.

 

27th November, 2014

Girls’ sport needs better provision. Now.

There is one thing that worries me. Actually, there are several things that worry me, but that’s a whole other story. So, let me get to the point. And the point is this: the provision of sport for girls in schools.

 Girls and their participation in sport has always been a concern. Particularly for me. I have two daughters, and their well being, the amount of exercise they do is crucial. I am different to most, I suspect, mad keen on sport as I am, as I always have been. I do it all. Running, cycling, swimming, the gym. I love it. And while yes, I understand that this excessive consumption of physical exercise is unusual, it is also essential. For body and for mind.

 But in recent years, the number of girls taking part in sport has drastically dwindled. Today, only 12% of girls aged 14 meet the official guidelines for physical activity – roughly half the number of boys the same age. What’s more, 51% of girls say that they are, “put off sport and physical activity because of their experiences in school sport and PE.”

 And do you know what? This does not surprise me. You see, schools, specifically PE changing rooms are, quite frankly, awful. I use the gym that’s based at Rednock School in Dursley, and sometimes I have to nip into the changing rooms there – and they are dire. The toilets are often blocked, there’s no soap, but that’s just for starters. Because the changing rooms themselves are back in the dark ages. Cold communal changing areas, communal showers. And this flabbergasts me. Because at that age, we are sensitive, we are acutely aware of ourselves. So how is making girls change in such circumstances going to encourage them to get into sport? I am sporty and even I, as a teenager, detested the changing rooms. A report showed that 75% of girls said they are self conscious about their bodies.

 We need to show girls that we respect them. Scruffy communal changing rooms says to me that schools don’t fully consider what matters to their pupils. The government needs to put up the money to fund better, more modern facilities. Only last week, it was reported that obesity costs more to the UK economy than war or terrorism. So maybe to reduce that cost, it’s about time money was invested in school sport. Now.

 

20th November, 2014

Science must inspire

Me, I’m a language lover. At school I was all about the English literature classes – your Shakespeare, your Salinger. Maths, conversely, to me back then, when my glasses were bigger than Deidre Barlow’s, was not my thing.

 Yet, science? Science sparked a curiosity that I thought was only the preserve of the spoken word. In short, science ignited my imagination. The live chemical experiments, the Bunsen burner scorched eyebrows, they kick-started how I imagined the universe, how I envisioned what could be possible. Show me a heart and a neuron, and I’ll show you the wonders of the world.

 And so to last week, when something remarkable happened: a space capsule landed on a comet. Launched 10 years ago, the Rosetta satellite carried a robot probe named Philae to Comet 67P. And what’s remarkable is that since blasting off in March 2004, Rosetta and its lander Philae have travelled more than 6 billion kilometres to catch up with the comet, which orbits the sun at speeds of up to 135,000km/h. It is, in a word, amazing. Because to do that, for the lander to make it to the comet, a comet travelling so fast, is almost impossible. Yet it has happened. And even though, as I write this, it’s uncertain as to the longevity of the mission, the pictures already beaming back are beyond what we could have hoped for.

 But the trouble is, science and the investment of it within state schools in Gloucestershire and the UK, is diabolical. A report published last year, for example, detailed that funding for school experiments is as low as 75p per student per year in some state schools, compared with an average of £27 in independent schools. In some private schools, the figure is as high as £83.

 And I worry when I hear this. Because if there is little science funding for state schools, how will our children ever learn to fire their scientific imagination? How, as a nation, will we ever lead the world in scientific advances, advances in health, the earth – the solar system? Or are those discoveries only to be the preserve of those more well off?

 It’s time to take inspiration from the Rosetta landing, time to inspire children’s scientific imaginations. So, government, step up and do the one thing you should have been doing way before Rosetta even launched: provide better funding to state school science.

 

13th November, 2015

Hello. I’m an immigrant. Are you going to ask me to leave?

Will there ever come a time when something will be acceptable? Think about it. In this land, in this glorious green country of ours, we find it tough to take things on. And by things, I mean anything new.

 We fight, as we do, us humans, against change. We do. Heck, we even dig in our heels, resisting, shouting, almost, at this change, telling it that no, we don’t want it, because we are fine as we are, thank you very much, that we like our life as it is and why should that ever be different, why should someone ever have a part of what we have? We tell them they can’t, by gum, they can’t have any of it because we want to keep it for ourselves, preserved for eternity in the way we intended it.

 And we apply this position to everything. It’s true. We apply this mentality of ‘It’s mine, hands off’ to so much. Our country, for one. Take immigration. I have listened to agonising stories of people fleeing their countries, finding themselves in Calais, starving, stranded. Their crime? Simply wanting a better life. And what do we say in the UK? How do people reply? Do they respond with sympathy and kindness? No. There were tweets concerning Calais immigrants from UK people, telling the immigrants to ‘Go home,’ or others saying, ‘You’re not wanted here.’ It shocked me. I came to the UK as an immigrant because my parents, like the ones in Calais, purely sought a better life. What are you going to do? Tell me to go home?

 And this mentality, it stretches far. It stretches, even, to the Gloucestershire fields near which we live. Last week, it was reported that a proposal for solar panels in a field near Iron Acton were rejected. The reasons? Because it wouldn’t look nice, because people walk in the fields. And there it is. The mentality of ‘It’s mine, you’re not having it.’ See, if we continue to do this, if we, as a people proceed to ring fence everything we have, keeping it from others, we will end up with one thing: nothing. Because it is only when we open our minds – and our arms – do we all truly benefit. And we will discover that change is good, that new is acceptable. And that so, in turn, life becomes better.

6th November, 2014

Not everyone can afford to stay warm this winter

Ah, winter is on the way. Cue the cold spells, the running noses, the endless packets of pocket tissues. For most of us, mercifully, winter is a cosy affair, all images of hot cocoas and the radiators on full blast. But that’s not always the case.

 And so to the 2014 Cold Weather Plan for England. The plan, scribed by a committee consisting, amongst others, of Public Health England, gives advice on how to reduce the risks to health during winter. Such guidance consists of how homes can be better insulated, made warm; how to make sure heating systems are routinely checked, and encourages those eligible for a flu jab to have it.

Now look, here’s the thing: this is very good advice. All sensible, useful. But there is one problem. One issue that, if left unchecked, if set aside as a ‘not the state’s problem’ will not only cause a health crisis, but a society crisis, too. And that issue is fuel poverty.

You see, it’s all very well telling people to keep warm during winter, but what if you can’t afford to have the heating on? You may be thinking this is not really a problem, but take a look at the figures. Today, householders pay £410 more for fuel than they did a decade ago. The cost of electricity and gas has outstripped inflation since 2003-04, with an average increase of 137% compared with 27%. And, over the same period, water supply charges have risen by 67% and food by 43%. And the result of all this? 6.59 million people – yes 6.59 million – are in fuel poverty in the UK.

And what does all this mean? One word: deaths. And it is happening right here. In Gloucestershire in 2012 alone, 270 winter deaths were directly related to cold weather. In fact, Public Heath England itself has said that in 2014, 10% of winter deaths will be directly attributed to fuel poverty.

What disturbs me so much about this, is that it can be prevented. It is not a case of telling people to keep warm when they can’t afford to. It is a case of our government renationalizing the energy sector. Because only then will energy not be about business and profit, but about people and life. And only then can people truly afford to stay warm. And alive.

 

30th October, 2014

We, the community, deserve a better bus service

Another day, another bus service lost. I read, last week, with a heavy heart, at the news that, yet again, Stagecoach has axed an essential route in our community. This time it’s the number 21, which runs through Stroud, Uley and Dursley, and is the only bus in the area with a low floor for easier access.

 Now, see, that access, that ease of use – that is the whole point. Because, here’s the thing: who is this bus service really benefiting and why is Stagecoach not considering them? The answer, if the users had ever actually been consulted, would have been obvious. Heck, one enquiry by some local councillor’s and a newspaper uncovered what Stagecoach couldn’t. And that is that the people who use the number 21 service do so because it is a) accessible, and b) provides a vital access to the community in which they live.

You see, the bus in question, as mentioned above, has a low floor, and that means those with, say, mobility difficulties or pushchairs, even, can get on and off the bus with better ease. It is, in a word, essential.

 This is not the first time I have tutted loudly at our county’s transport system. Buses, trains, whether in Thornbury, Yate or Dursley and beyond, have all been affected over the past year or so. And for what? For company profit. As Gloucestershire County Councillor for Dursley, Steve Lydon said: “Stagecoach is a company that makes decisions based on profit not public need.” And that’s the whole problem. When a company’s objective is to make profit, why on earth should they keep an apparently non-profit making bus service like the number 21 going?

 It’s a sad reflection of what our society has become, one driven by money, communities ripped apart by privatisation, privatisation put into place by out-of-touch Westminster politicians who’s main objective often is not helping the people or doing good, but getting re-elected and scoring party points.

 In fact, one of our own Gloucestershire politicians, Neil Carmichael, last week said how he has established the Carmichael Commission in order to explore options for more investment in transport infrastructure. If that is the case, it would be good timing now if he, and other politicians, could step up, speak to Stagecoach and sort this bus issue out. Because we, the community, not only demand it. We deserve it.

 

 

23rd October, 2014

When will the Catholic church realise they have a problem?

I was 13 when one day, I walked home after school, and, as we were Roman Catholics, a priest had come to visit us. I cannot recall to this day what the priest was there for, but what he said has never, ever left me.

 I had been to netball club, having walked home still in my standard short grey gym skirt. I was tall, skinny and utterly oblivious.

 So, on arriving home, my mum called me into the lounge where the priest was sitting. He was dressed in his sweeping black robes, white collar. I was polite, said hello, but what happened next even then, even with my naivety and oblivion and, basically, being just an innocent kid, made me realise that it wasn’t right.

 You see the priest, the Roman Catholic priest who we all trusted, revered, came to worship with every Sunday at mass, after I said hello, looked me up and down. I stood there, silent, unsure. And then, after taking in my outfit, he announced, ‘Hasn’t she got lovely long legs.’

 Now, yes, I know this is no biggie. But think about it. I was 13. He was a much, much older man. A man who was a priest.

 I have to be clear here: not all priests act inappropriately. Many of them are good, moral people. But, the sad thing is, that’s not always the case. Look at the facts. Earlier this year, Pope Francis has revealed that around one in every 50 Catholic priests is a paedophile. Indeed, the UN accused the Vatican of ‘systematically’ adopting policies that enabled priests to rape and molest thousands of children over decades, failing to report accusations to the authorities, and relocating offenders to new dioceses.

 And here’s what worries me: Roman Catholic Churches are present all over Gloucestershire, so are their priests saying inappropriate things to kids, just like the one I encountered did? Blimey, did that priest, back then, even realise what he was saying, how wrong it was? Is it that Catholic priests are simply too far removed from the real world that they don’t even know what’s inappropriate to say?

 Church officials have admitted that they have “no real knowledge” of the true abuse scale. So, my question is: how many really are still out there like the one I experienced all those years ago? And what, now, are they really doing?

16th October, 2014

Human kindness needs to beat the bomb

I’m a pacifist. I don’t like violence, not believing in weapons and fighting as the answer to our problems. In fact, they just make things worse, causing those on the receiving end to fight back, often harder and for years on end, the cycle never breaking.

 And so to Iraq and Syria and the recent announcement that we will be part of a targeted assault. Now here’s the thing: pacifist or not, the current situation in these countries is horrendous. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like, as civilian, to live through it all. Men, women and children are displaced, terrible hunger and perpetual fear prevail. And that’s before the terrible laws that seem to be imposed by some on the citizens of these countries, the oppressive regimes that refuse to allow freedom of thought, of movement, of dress, of, well, simply being human. Imagine that happening to us, now, in Gloucestershire. What would we do? Would we want international countries to intervene? The answer would be a definite yes. To walk away, to turn a blind eye to the injustices and atrocities – that would be a crime in itself. In fact, I have to question the minimal intervention so far from the global community concerning Syria. The UN should have stepped in long, long ago.

 But the trouble is, bombing is not the answer. You see, the varied problems in Iraq and Syria are caused by fanatics. And, the thing with fanatics is that you cannot rationalise with them – even if that rationalising does come in the shape of a bomb. So, to that end, how can invading with weapons change the fanatical mind? How? The answer is it won’t. In fact, I would argue that it will make the situation worse, that, while in the short terms, yes, it will temporarily halt their terrorising campaign, in the long term it will ingrain the seed of hate towards the the countries involved in the bombings even more. It will, in short, make things worse.

 And in the meantime, people are suffering. So, global governments should be more stealth, more intelligent with their actions. Instead of brute force, implement sanctions, put food on the ground, use our secret services to infiltrate the groups and leaders that are causing the evil. Because, what we don’t want to break is the one thing we hold true: human kindness.

2nd October, 2014

Just one smile makes a world of difference

Sometimes we feel insignificant. Do you think that sometimes? I do. Not day-to-day – mercifully, life is good, blessed as I am with a great family, friends and job. But, of late, I’ve been a bit ill, and have had to swing by the hospital for a few tests, and oh my days.

 Now look, here’s the thing: the NHS rocks. We are lucky, truly lucky to have a free-at-point-of-service healthcare, exceptional, as it is, in its research and experts and endless lines of nurses and doctors who are doing an amazing job in often difficult circumstances. The trouble comes, though when, amongst all that hecticness, amongst the day-to-day grind, one thing gets almost completely forgotten: the patient.

 Take this for an example. The other day, I arrived for an appointment at Gloucester Hospital and checked in. First off, the receptionist didn’t smile. I was anxious about the test I was to have, but she just barked out instructions and demands and that was that. No smile, no thought. No care. Sure, she’s busy, but still. I sat down next to an elderly man laid out on a bed, the chap clearly in distress. Scores of busy workers walked past him. None of them stopped to talk to him, none of them smiled at me or anyone else.

 And I wonder if, amongst this culture of money and pressure and targets and share prices, we have forgotten the value of simply saying hello, of just smiling to one another. Even the private sector can’t get it right. Tesco is a prime example. In the press of late for suspect account practices, I increasingly find myself in our local store in Cam with two workers chatting over me about their social life as I am trying to shop. Or management stands by, nattering about their day as customers try to use the store. There are minimum smiles and minimum interaction. It’s got to the point where I actively avoid the store now whenever I can.

 And as I think of both these examples, as I contemplate how it makes me feel – annoyed, sad, disappointed – one phrase whips round my head: we all matter. We do. And whether you are a hospital or a shop or a school, please, remember that. It takes a second to stop, to smile. To care. And it can make all the difference in the world.

 

25th September, 2014

Cycle paths ultimately save our kids, not harm them

Sometimes, I just get confused. Granted, it doesn’t take much. But, a bit like trying to figure out why people fancy, I don’t know, Rod Stewart, for example, sometimes things just don’t make any sense to me.

And so to Yate and a new cycle path proposal. The cycle path is set to run through a residential area in South Yate, stretching all the way to the streets of Witcombe, Brockworth and Rodborough, and the people who live there are not happy about it. Not happy at all. See, the proposal will create a cycle lane through the estates’ enclosed green spaces, but folk fear that it will mean their children can no longer play safely outside their homes.

 Now look, I totally understand concerns for safety. I have two children myself and as a parent their well being and security is my number one priority. But here’s the thing: cycle paths are good. So why, when cycle paths mean kids can use them too, when they can be fit and healthy, when more bikes equal less cars, can there be such ferocity of protest? Is it that we are so constantly surrounded by roads and cars that we have become immune to their existence? That, when presented with something new – like a bike – we recoil in horror at the thought of this impostor, when all the while cars speed round seriously injuring just under 47,000 people between 2001-9 and killing almost 4,000 people in the same time period?

According to the Department for Transport (DfT), in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, no pedestrians were killed in Great Britain by cyclists, but 426 died in collisions with motor vehicles out of a total of 2,222 road fatalities. I am confused – surely these are better stats? Right?

 It’s all a matter of balance. Safety is vital, but with that comes sensibility. Cars are the issue here, not bicycles and if we do not have cycle paths, ones that incorporate urban and suburban areas, how will we ever thrive? Yes, cyclists have to be considerate, be accountable to the same laws. Absolutely. But just imagine a world with more bikes, less cars. Surely that’s one we want our kids to grow up in?

 

18th September, 2014

More local cinemas, please

I got quite excited the other week. No, not about my book deal news, although, to be fair, I am still in a dream world about that. Oh no, the excitement of late has come from the prospect of a cinema in Dursley.

 I love the cinema. Love it. I remember the first film at the flicks I saw was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And I was in love, not with the cute dwarves, not with Snow White either – there’s something about waiting around for a Prince to save you that, as a woman, I can’t quite get on board with. I’m more of a ‘make your own way’ kind of gal. No. My love came of the cinema itself: the dimming of the lights, the sweet smell of the popcorn, the hush, the seats, the rise of the auditorium, the movie wall of sound. I would watch, enraptured, as a story come to life on a screen, a screen where I could, for 1-2 hours, completely lose myself, forget who I was, have fun pretending I was someone else – somewhere else – entirely.

 But the problem is, I worry it ill never happen, this cinema lark in my hometown. You see, since my early Snow White days, times have moved on. Out-of-town is where it’s at. Large multiplexes dominate our viewing these days, with their sky-high ticket prices and their even higher ones for food and drink. For a family of four, tickets these days can set you back over £40. It’s all too much. But of course, the large chains want to make a profit, and I get that, I do. And sure, film companies have to make their dough, too. But the trouble is, rocket the prices up, take the cinemas out of town and into a soulless complex and what do you get? A place only accessible to those with cars.

 Mercy be then for community cinema. More than 600 operate nationwide now, one of them in Wotton Under Edge. And it’s lovely there – prices are sensible and you don’t mind paying because it’s all part of the community. So if you can, give this potential cinema in Dursley the thumbs up. And take your kids. 30 years ago the cinema lit up my imagination when I first went. And it inspired a creative streak in me that has never left. Hello, book deal.

 

11th September, 2014

Looking back could be the key to development

There was time when I believed you couldn’t bring back the past. The future, as they say, is the way forward, laden with new possibilities, with changes, with endless advances. But, something caught my eye the other day. It was a quick piece in The Gazette about a historic image and it stayed in my mind, made me think.

 The piece, you see, was about a special picture of the month currently being showcased at Dursley Heritage Centre. The picture details an aerial view of the old Mawdsley’s Factory in Uley Road, and by it sits a modern-day view of the site. And this got me thinking, this image, the thought of it. It got me thinking to the way thing used to be, to the way things were.

 A long time ago, life was so much more simple than it is today. For a start, there were fewer cars on the road, meaning people walked everywhere, were leaner as a result, healthier. Technology, as it does today, didn’t exist, reliant instead as folk were back in the day on letters and old dial up phones and talking face to face. Surroundings were different too. There were more fields, more flowers, trees, mass housing developments not having taken hold, not having yet squeezed the middle out of our communities.

 But, I think one of the most noticeable differences were the high streets, the shopping areas. Look back at old photos across Gloucestershire – Yate, Thornbury, Dursley and more – and you’ll see just how different times were. For a start, there were more people in the shops, baskets in hand, busier. And the retailers, too, were more and varied. Fishmongers, butchers, bakers, ironmongers – no out of town expansions back then.

 Yes, of course, times have to change, have to move on. Take medicine, for example – without modern advancements we wouldn’t have the life saving drugs that we have today. So yes, modern technology is good. But just as the future has its place, so too does the past. And I wonder. I wonder if the town planners worked with retailers more, if they looked at the past and learnt something from it, learnt how shops should look – uniformed, presentable, inviting – then maybe, just maybe prospects would flourish. Communities would flourish. And perhaps finally the future could glean something from the past. And finally things would all work out.

4th September, 2014

On your bike

Sorry about the column blip last week, I was a bit poorly, and turns out writing a column when ill is not a good combination. But hey! I’m back! And this week I want to talk to you about bicycles.

 I love a bicycle. Give me a pushbike and I will give you not only a happy person, but a fit one, too. The trouble though these days, in our county, is that the humble bicycle gets forgotten. Last week, Gloucestershire Road Safety partnership launched a campaign called The Invisibles. No, it is not the title of a new Disney Pixar animation, although, to be fair, that would be a cracking film to watch. No, the campaign refers to bikes and how, to some drivers, cyclists are just invisible. See? Or perhaps, ironically, you don’t.

 The campaign highlights that, while statistically, drivers are at a lower risk of injury than motorcyclists or cyclists, they are, in fact, more likely to cause serious road injury to other road users if they are involved in a collision. Or, to put it another way, they could hit a cyclist.

 Now, okay, let’s be clear about something here: there are many drivers who do the right thing. They look at the road (pretty crucial) and they give plenty of room to bike users. I am an avid cyclist, and I can say, for sure, that many drivers are great at giving me enough space. But, the trouble comes when drivers don’t do that, when a car swings so close by you, so near to your bike, that you catch your breath at the near miss. And why? All because the driver was not paying attention. In fact, only last week when I was at a junction, a blue car drove right next to me and screeched out, nearly knocking me off. And don’t get me started on the lorries.

 So here’s the bottom line: we all need to look out for each other. Whether you’re a cyclist, car driver, bus driver or motor head, spare a thought for one another. Because I can tell you, having a near miss on the road, nearly being knocked off your bike just because some one was careless or in a rush or just plain daft, is no fun. And something else that’s no fun? Being seriously injured. So next time you’re driving, please: think bike.

 24th August, 2014

Cats will be cats

Some things are a right pest. Spiders taking over the house in summer. Snails on your veg patch. Greenfly on your…actually, I don’t know what greenfly do, but I’m guessing it’s a right pain in the neck. Anyway, my point is, some things in life really do bother us.

 And so to Dursley and the apparent scourge of cats. Now, I’m going to declare an interest here: we have a cat. He is old, very fluffy and is partial to a little bit of cheddar. The fact that he’s older means, and I think you may be able to sympathise with him here, a bit slower on the uptake, a bit creakier around the joints, shall we say. Somewhat like my knees. Anyway, rewind 10 years and that was not the case. A whole host of small birds and worms would he bring in, usually to the sound of me shrieking. Ah, and I’ll never forget the time he trotted happily in with a live frog in his jaws, the amphibian shrilling out the most gut-wrenching squeal you have ever heard.

 But that was then and this is now, and things have not changed. For, just as the seasons still evolve and the leaves still descend come autumn, cats still hunt. It’s the way of life, the way it will always be. Yet, a chap the other week in the letters pages here was outraged at cats, who, in his words, ‘Dig up holes, deposit their excrement and kill wildlife.’ Now, listen, he has my sympathy. It’s no fun finding cat-poop under foot or getting a whiff of it as you merrily mow the lawn, but here’s the thing: what can we do? The RSPCA states that: “We do not recommend keeping a cat that is used to going outside, as 
an indoor-only cat, unless it is for health reasons.’

Trouble is, most cats are ‘outdoor’ cats, so, if we follow the guidelines, if we let them out, good for their health as it is, then they will be cats – it’s in their DNA. Absolutely, yes, cat-owners have an obligation to their neighbours, have a duty of care to their pets, but nature is nature, and just as lions kill zebras, cats will kill birds.

The phrase, ironically, that springs to mind is ‘live and let live.’ Maybe that’s something, chap from Dursley, we all need to do.

 

14th August, 2014

Cars and pedestrian areas do not mix

Well hello there. How are you? Missed me? Actually, no, don’t answer that. I’ve been away on holiday for a couple of weeks and, I don’t know why, maybe it was the sun, the glistening sea, the endless supply of French bread, cheese and wine, but I thought things would be different here when I returned. And by different, I mean just plain darn sensible.

 No such luck. See Dursley high street is in somewhat of a pickle or, more specifically, in a jam of cars. The other week it was reported that trades people from the high street shops were unhappy about the increasing amount of traffic coming down the road where they are based, a road that is, for the majority of the time, designated as a pedestrianised area. Yep, that’s right you folk who drive down the high street – pedestrianised. For people. To walk on. In safety. With their feet.

 Now look, this is not the first time the car subject has arisen, nor is it the first time I have talked about it, cross, as I once was in this column, when I one day witnessed a police officer tick off an old man for riding his push bike slowly through the high street, while day in, day out, cars drive down there, park there when they are not permitted. And not only that, they can often drive at speed. Speed which could end up injuring someone, probably a child, even, God forbid, fatally.

 So you would think, therefore, that the police would do something, right? Prevention is better than cure? Nope. Crikey, that would be far too logical. It seems all sense has evaporated in the recent hot sun. See, what Gloucestershire Police have said about the situation is that unless somebody gets hurt then nothing will get done. Have they gone mad? So we basically have to wait for someone to potentially die before anything changes? Not good enough.

 Something needs to be done now. Dursley Town Council – you need to step up and get involved, come up with a working solution. And in the meantime, if any of us are even thinking of driving down the high street or any pedestrianised area in Gloucestershire, make sure it’s during the right time zone. And please, please, remember there are small children running around. And that no one should be injured. Or killed.

24th July, 2014

Inside all of us is something truly amazing: The school boy musical genius

Sometimes, it takes us a while to realise that we’re good at something. Life, the rascal, gets in the way. Work, family, illness, devastating deaths, heartbreak, losses, wins, fears, procrastination. They take over, like a blanket thrown over us, making it impossible to see what’s beyond today, what’s beyond what we think we can achieve.

 A couple of weeks ago I went on a tour of Rednock School in Dursley with my youngest. Towards the end of the visit, we were taken to the music department – and there was this breathtaking, heart-stopping concert pianist sound. We stood, in a trance almost, as before us a slight young boy with a mop of blonde hair played the piano. I cannot tell you how stunning it was; like seeing a genius before anyone knew of him. The only sound I can liken it to is Ludovico Einaudi, the Italian concert pianist who composed and played the score for the film The Piano, amongst many other pieces.

 The Head of Music came over and whispered, ‘In all my years of teaching, I have never seen such a genius talent. He’s only in year 8.’ This means he is only 13 years old. 13. And what’s more he’d only been playing piano for a year. One day, a year ago, he sat and just played. The Head of Music heard it and thought someone was pranking with the demo on the synthesizer. And then she saw the boy. What’s more amazing is that, besides not ever having a lesson, the boy cannot read music. He simply plays out the emotions he is feeling at the time. Happy, sad. And the students love him, many in tears when he plays, so powerful is his music. This is a boy who is not in the top academic class; he just has a pure gift. When we saw him, he was awaiting on whether he had won a place at a major music school, a school that, on hearing him play, said they had never heard such a talent.

 See, it reminds us, this boy, this stunning musical talent, of two life-affirming things: that we are all of us, in some way, good at something; and that we should never, ever write anyone off. Because inside each of us, regardless of our backgrounds, our troubles, is something truly amazing. You just have to look for it.

 

17th July, 2014

Let’s think positive about were we live

Did you read my column last week? What? No you didn’t? Tsk. I’ll let you off (this once), and if you did read it, my eternal gratitude from the four corners of Gloucestershire. And I’ll tell you for why: where we live is blooming great.

 See, again, this summer sun has melted my mood and finally I am seeing things for what they are and, like last week with my message of ‘do things for others this summer’, my deed for you this time is once more simple but powerful: be positive about where you live.

 Easy! I hear you say. But, think about it: we grumble. Oh boy do we grumble, and often with just cause. Take the pothole fiasco that was the Gloucestershire roads last year. Take the massive spate of burglaries and break-ins in Cam, Dursley, Yate – you name it. Take the shops that are closing down – and the big out-of-town, soulless facades that are taking their place. So go on, you have my permission: have a good old rant… Okay, out of your system now? Good. Because I want you to listen, all of you, and listen good: we now have to be positive.

 See, this is my theory: the more positive we are about where we live, the better it will become. Shoot it down, dismiss the place where you live and work, and bang goes any prospect of change, of development of, quite frankly, unadulterated, daily joy. Don’t believe me? Look at Nailsworth. 15 years ago it was somewhat run down, but folk believed in better. Now? Thriving. Delis, restaurants, classy shops, the lot. Now look at Dursley. Bit run down in places, so easy to moan about right? And Yate? That Tesco too big?

 Here’s the thing: be positive and change will come. Take the new Bank Café in Dursley. A former bank, it’s now a modern café run by local couple Amy Pain and Tom Burry, and how. It’s a café we need, a café that wouldn’t look out of place in trendy London. And customers are so pleased, so positive; even the landlords of the café are chuffed because they want Dursley to do well.

 And so should we. Wherever we live, we should want the most for it, heck, for us. So go forth, reader dear, and be positive. Because the rewards it can bring can go on forever.

10th July, 2014

This summer do something for others

I’m going to declare this this summer of doing stuff. What? Not snazzy enough a line? Okay then, how about this: this is the summer where we do things for others. Good right?

 Because, you see, the older I get (no comments, please…) the more I realise that we are all here, all of us, for each other. England (predictably) crash out of the World Cup before you can even settle on the sofa with your can of beer? I’m here for you. The rain set in before it’s even got to the middle of July? Right here, my friend. Feeling a bit cross because for the love of God that dog has pooped on the path again and the owner has not picked it up? I’m coming with the Neighbourhood Warden phone number right now.

 See, this thing, this feeling, this wave of help for one another, please, take it, do, because I want you to have it. No, I haven’t gone mad (again, no comments…). I don’t know, call it the sunshine streaming in through the window while I write this piece, call it the dozens of good folk around Gloucestershire who I read about every week who raise funds for charities, for loved ones. Call it my reaction to the horrendous, unjust war in Syria and the thousands of refugees and children who are forever scared. Call it my deep sadness at people’s sometimes malicious reactions to immigrants in the UK while, in the same breath, they talk about retiring to a timeshare in Spain.

 Call it what you will; it’s time we thought of each other. That’s why I smile when I think of our friend’s daughter, Amy Carr, who, this weekend, is shaving off her long beautiful hair to fundraise for Cancer Research UK and St Roses School. And Amy is just 13. Amy who – in a society which places increasingly alarming pressures on young teenagers to look a certain way at all times, what with selfies and all – is thinking of others first. She’ll be shaving her head this Saturday 12th July at 11am in Stroud Farmer’s Market. So pop along (see you there). Or donate at mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/amycarr1.

 Yes, let this be the summer where we really do stuff. But not, this time, just for ourselves, but, like Amy, for others, too. Then what a summer of all kinds of sun it will be.

3rd July 2014

VAT charging for NHS car parks is immoral

Ah, the pasty tax. Remember that? The proposal to charge VAT on a heated up Cornish that culminated in amusing pick-and-mix snaps of politicians eating at Greggs attempting to look like the ‘common man’. Who were they trying to kid?

 And so to Gloucestershire NHS trusts and their car park charges with added VAT. See, in the letters pages last week, I happened upon a reader saying that Gloucester hospital car park charged VAT. VAT! Did you know that? I most certainly didn’t, and I tell you what, I immediately Googled ‘NHS VAT car park charges’, and oh my, what a turn up for the books it was; I had poked the hornet’s nest.

 You see, ask any hospital chief why they charge as high as they do for car parking and you’ll get an answer like this one from a Leeds Infirmary services manager: “Parking charges…are in line with other nearby car parks to ensure there is no incentive for non-hospital users to take spaces needed for patients and visitors.”

 Now as I first did, you may think this is a reasonable answer. Until you delve further. See, turns out that in 2006 the Department for Health published a document entitled, “Income Generation: Car park charges – best practice for implementation” where, under ‘How much should we charge?’ it states, and I quote: “It must be remembered that you are in competition with both other means of transport and alternative car parking facilities”. So it’s not really about creating a deterrent for non-hospital users then; it’s about competing with other car park providers for customers.

 Indeed, the same document goes on to say this: “When self‑managing a paid car parking facility it is important to adopt a disciplined approach and treat it as a distinct business, separate from the rest of the healthcare body. “

 And that is why they charge VAT at 20% on car park charges – because they treat car parks like a business, not healthcare. Charging VAT on already sky-high car park fees is ridiculous. Why are they not VAT exempt? What next? VAT on prescriptions? And why did the coalition abolish pasty tax proposals yet still keep the hospital parking VAT..?

 Maybe if the media – and us – slammed this hospital car park VAT as much as we did with the hot pasty debacle, then maybe we can end this immoral tax on the sick.

 

26th June, 2014

Sort this public transport mess out

I remember when we first moved to Gloucestershire and we went to look at the train times. Great, we thought, we live not far from the Cam and Dursley station – we can catch the train to work – one of us in Bristol, the other in Cheltenham. Result! Except it wasn’t, a result that is. Blimey, it wasn’t at all. You see, what we soon discovered to our amazement was that we could not catch a train that would get us to work on time for 9 a.m. Unbelievable. There was a fantastic train station almost on out doorstep and could we get to work on time by using it? Could we heck.

 And so to Cam and Dursley train station and the parking there of. The other week, it was reported that rail users are becoming increasingly frustrated at the limited parking available at the station. A problem that was raised six years ago, it appears that little has been done to remedy the situation, despite user numbers tripling since it’s opening back in 1994. The situation is made worse by the fact that the bus that goes to the station is not synchronized with train times, meaning if you get the connecting bus, you could miss your train. And all I can say is I am not surprised.

 In a report by policy group Centre for Cities, it was acknowledge that, since the bus deregulation in the 1980s and rail deregulation in the 90s, urban transport systems have become more fragmented than ever. And what is the result the report highlights? Yep, you’ve guessed it: the different UK transport systems don’t link up properly. Meaning we miss our trains, we don’t always know when a buss is coming and even when they do, it costs us the earth. Now compare this to, say, Seoul in South Korea where the user-friendly public transportation system is centered on an integrated metro-bus system, meaning everything runs in a coordinated, on-time structure. In fact, it’s so contemporary throughout and extremely useable for visitors, with English language announcements and Wi-Fi access soon to be rolled out on subway trains.

 Now sure, I’m not arguing for Wi-Fi on our trains and buses (although that would be great, please), I’m simply asking for them to be a) on time b) integrated with other public transport and c) cheap. It is not much to ask, and yes, I know finances are hard, but here’s the thing: if buses and trains are now privatized, where do all the profits go? Because, from what I can see, it isn’t into improving the systems the privatized transport companies provide.

 So come on Gloucestershire County Council, pull your finger out and get this train parking/bus situation sorted. Because if it means we can all get to work on time, then the one thing that’s holding you back will actually benefit from your bold decision: the economy.

19th June, 2014

It’s time to question the role of faith schools

I’m going to say something and it’s going to be little controversial: I don’t agree with faith schools. There, I’ve said it. It’s something I’ve debated in my head for a   year or two, and now, these past couple of weeks, faith schools have been in the press.

First the school inspection body Ofsted said that Head teachers claimed there was an organised campaign to impose a “narrow, faith-based ideology” at some schools in Birmingham. Then, in a bizarre twist, the Home Secretary, Theresa May and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove had to be reprimanded for squabbling over the issue, with Mr. Gove later announcing that all schools should promote, and I quote, “British Values.” Yet Mr. Gove set up Academies to ‘govern themselves’ yet here he is interfering, insisting we promote British Values when, let’s face it, most people don’t even know what that means. Thank goodness for diversity.

But thing is, they are missing the real issue: the very existence of faith schools themselves. I used to be a governor of a faith school in Cam. And while the school is wonderful, one thing that I since have not been able to come to terms with is the fact that faith is the third admission criteria before geographical consideration. This means that a child whose parent(s) attended the local church for more than two years but lives far away will take priority over a child living down the road from the school. And in my eyes, that is wrong, whether it rarely happens or not. Indeed, I will go as far to say that it is discriminatory.

And that is the issue. Because, see, decide on who comes into a school based on family faith and you may as well begin selecting on all types of criteria – colour, race, whether your parents are gay. But, of course, we wouldn’t, would we, because that’s just plain daft. And immoral. So why does the state openly allow schools today to select by faith?

 Faith schools certainly have a lot to offer, and there are any good examples across Gloucestershire. But surely if this latest faith school issue in Birmingham can teach us anything, it is this: we are all equal and should be treated as such, with equal access to a good education. And what better way to teach that valuable lesson than through the schools themselves.

12th June, 2014

It’s time politicians learnt some manners

It’s sad to know that whether you’re in Gloucestershire or London, people act the same. And by people, naturally, I mean politicians.

 Last week in Nailsworth it was reported that the town council had a spat over committees. Ah, how delightful, how unsurprising: politicians squabbling over an issue their electorate are not concerned about. The squabble concerned the re-introduction of a sub-committee system following a six-month trial period. Six months. Give me strength. Eventually, the council voted the system in, only for the deputy-mayor to then argue that sub-committees were a waste of time, and for several members to subsequently protest at the change, despite the council voting in favour of the system. This then all led to an argument breaking out, with one councillor threatening to leave the meeting.

 And the daftness of all this, the unnecessary rattle-out-of-the-pram reactions, the ‘I will walk out’ statements, the silly protesting on what has been a democratically-made decision reminds me of London and of the Punch and Judy politics that is Westminster. Because, the way I see it, politicians have a tendency to regress as soon as they walk into any political chamber. Whether it is a council room, the House of Lords or the backbench during Prime Minister’s Questions, many elected members shout, jeer and – why oh why – even laugh sometimes. Do they not realise how bad this looks? And how do we, the electorate, react to this appalling behaviour? We loose all confidence. Never mind that I personally think the sub-committee system is a load of bobbins, the point is that the school ground squabbling that preceded the vote was wholly unacceptable.

 Yes, please, politicians, debate major issues – poverty, the foodbank crisis, more playgrounds, fighting crime, making more efficient use of our council taxes – anything but the petty shambles that is the current approach to their discussions. I expect my children to act with better manners; indeed, how do they think kids growing up will ever want to engage in politics if these councillors are the example they are being given?

 It’s high time councillors and elected members all over Gloucestershire and the UK got real and got some manners. Who knows? They could surprise us and actually start acting differently, acting like, heaven forbid, grown ups. Otherwise our response to their bad behavior will be swift and decisive: we will vote them out.

5th June, 2014

The changes to child support agency are morally wrong – and it’s the children who suffer 

My dad left home when I was seven. He left no forwarding address; he left no note. He simply upped and went and my mum had no idea where he had gone. She had three children under eight to feed.

 This was the early 1980s and there was no help and no government intervention whatsoever, in fact, it was not something people talked openly about back then. Indeed, fathers leaving their families to fend on their own was commonplace, just part of life. Times then, I recall, were hard. My mum, having given up her working life to raise us, was suddenly faced with mounting bills and no income. She was not a woman to rely on benefits, so she went out, retrained, leading to jobs as a bookkeeper then auditor and later, in a career turn, as a qualified nurse. And all along my father paid nothing to our upbringing.

 That’s why the news over the past week or so that parents are to be charged for the Child Support Agency (CSA) to ensure they pay for their children’s way dismays me so much. The new proposal is that if an agreement cannot be resolved amicably, then a 20% fee will be added to the maintenance payment, while the receiving parent will be charged 4% of the amount given.

 Now, sure, the easiest argument here is to say that couples should sort this out themselves, but that was not an option for my mum. My father did not communicate at all or take any responsibility despite her efforts, so what was she to do? And if she was to be charged for a service to find him, could she afford it? Heck no. Every penny was vitally – and sensibly – accounted for.

 The new changes not only mean many women will suffer financially, but it means the children suffer too. Because, unlike my father at that time, I know many dads today support their children, but a 20% charge could not only mean they take a huge financial hit, but, ironically, it may affect how often they can afford to see their kids.

 Whichever way this goes, charging for child support is morally wrong, which is why we should all protest against the CSA changes, because, at the end of the day, believe me, from experience, I know who will suffer the most from these immoral fees: the children.

29th May, 2014

Time to let our kids play out more

When I was a kid I was never inside. Show me a summer’s day and I’d show you a gang full of children, Grifters in tow, playing out and about all day long, only coming home when your mum shouted for you because it was time for tea.

 And so to Dursley and a new play scheme. Set to be piloted on some of Dursley’s residential streets, ‘Playing Out’ is a street play event lead by neighbours for neighbours to restore street play as part of a normal, healthy everyday life. Or in other words: just being a kid. And it couldn’t come sooner.

 See, fast-forward, ahem, a couple of decades or so from my youth, and how things have changed. Gone are the long, lazy summer days where you see children of all ages batting a tennis ball on the road or playing a massive game of tag on the grass, and in are the goggle-eyed kids glued to computer games/TVs. The figures are dire. In a survey of 2,000 parents it was found that children spend only 5.5 hours a week playing outside, and that figure reduces to just 4.4 hours at the weekend. And what do parents think? 44% of those surveyed wished their offspring played out more, while 43% admitted to relying on schools and clubs for their children to get some fresh air activity.

 As a mum to two girls, I know exactly what this means. When I was young, we didn’t worry about cars or dodgy people, we just went out. But these days, boy do we worry. Cars, drugs, pedophiles – we hear it all. Only last week at a Cam school a lewd act by the school fence was reported (in fact, it was outside my daughter’s school). So yes, I am very wary about my kids’ safety. But at what cost?

 See, the amazing thing about free, unstructured, old-fashioned play outside is that children get to develop long-lasting skills: creativity, how not to be bored, resilience, independence, trust – all skills no amount of timetabled activities can bring.

 So that’s why the Dursley Playing Out scheme is wonderful. Because we should let our kids out more, let them be free, yet safe. Do that and not only will it make them better adjusted to life, but it will shape them into being the one thing every parent wants: happy.

22nd May, 2014

Constituents are not just for election time

It’s at times like these, I feel used. Take the other day: I nipped into our lounge and saw two cars pull up. Out of them spilt a group of smartly dressed, serious-looking folk, a bunch of leaflets in their hands, and that is when I knew: they were electioneering. And as they popped on their smiles, the thought hit me like a slap on the face: why do politicians only come knocking at our doors when they want our vote?

 For today is Election Day. And, if you cup your hand against your ear, if you listen very carefully, you will hear the collective sigh of our community: for Thursday 22nd May in Gloucestershire and UK-wide is election day, not only for local council positions, but also for European Members of Parliament – and candidates want your vote.

 Now, look, let me make my position clear: I believe in voting. The right to vote was fought for and is our democratic entitlement. Yet, more and more recently, voting has become hard. Because, truth be told, we have, as a nation, lost our faith in our political representatives. The election expenses scandal continues, for example, with just last week Lord Hanningfield facing a year-long suspension from Parliament for “failing to act on his personal honour” over expenses claims. And then there’s the joke that is weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time, where, each Wednesday, MPs sit in the House of Commons and laugh and hurl jibes at each other, and we, the public, are supposed to think that this is progress. And don’t even get me started on the mislaid promises that are election manifestos.

 Knowing who to vote for, see, is messy when they all seem the same. But do you know what would help? Politicians who engaged more with the community, who, instead of falling into line with party policy, did the right thing and genuinely listened to the needs of their constituents.

 So how about they knock on my door when there’s no election, just to ask if there’s anything I would like improved in our area. Because you see, only come to talk to us when you want something from us, and we won’t help but feel used. So, this year, let it finally be the one of the politician who’s genuinely interested in the people, not the party. Now there’s something worth our vote.

15th May, 2014

We should never take nature for granted

There are some things we take for granted. For example: each other. We don’t half take each other for granted, assuming, as we do, that our other halves will put up with whatever dirt we dish out to them. But, only when they frown, only when they refuse to cooperate or even, if we’ve gone too far, leave us, do we stop and think: I really should have treated them better.

 And so to a road called Everlands in Cam, when, some time ago now, a whole row of bushes was ripped out from the roadside. Just like that. One minute they were there, next: gone. And I cannot for the life of me understand why.

 See, these bushes guarded the edge of a field used by many sports clubs: Cam Bulldogs Football, Cam and Dursley Tennis Club, and Cam Cricket Club, with the facilities run by Cam Sports Club. Thing is, the bushes – brimming with juicy, fat blackberries come September, which my kids and I would annually pick – was replaced with a fence, but trouble was that every time a football rolled over to the new fence, the ball would slip on to the road between the fence slats. Why? Because the bushes were no longer there to keep the ball at bay.

 Some time on, and nature has dominated once more by growing tall nettles in the bushes’ place. But the damage has been done: nature has been interrupted. Sure, the fence looks good, built by a fine chap who’s a cracking builder, yet the question still remains: why were the bushes ripped out?

 See, take nature for granted and you will, quite literally, lose your ball. But, mercifully, good news is a foot. This year, Stroud District is sowing wildflower seeds on road verges around the district. Over 17 million seeds will be sown on approaches to Stroud, as well as in areas of Cam and Hardwicke. And of course, this means good news for nature, especially for bees and pollinating insects.

 The bottom line is this: we should never take nature for granted. It is our duty to protect where we live, because, treat it badly, rip it out and replace it with wood and concrete, and there will, ultimately, be only one looser in the fight to survive: us.

8th May, 2014

We all have a responsibility to bring back our girls

Sometimes, we live our lives completely closeted. That’s what we do in the west. World events happen around us and, while we notice them, while we take on board what is happening – wars, deaths, extreme weather devastation – it doesn’t really affect what we do on a regular basis, so we don’t act on it.

 Three weeks ago, in Nigeria, 230 schoolgirls were abducted by Islamist insurgents. The mass kidnapping of the 16 to 18 year olds has shocked Nigerians, a nation largely dulled to the violence that has ravaged the north-east of the area for five years. Families are distraught, not knowing what has happened to their precious daughters: whether they are safe, whether they are harmed. Indeed, recent reports are now indicating that the schoolgirls are being forced to marry their kidnappers. And as devastating as this is, the problem is being exasperated by the fact that the Nigerian government has done little to intervene, refusing, even, to provide assistance when approached by the girls’ parents for help.

 Now, you may read this and be rightly shocked. And then you may return to your cuppa, to your daily routine, and the plight of these schoolgirls may be forgotten. But, this time, try to take a second to imagine something: what if this happened here, in Gloucestershire? What if a class of girls were abducted from a school where we live, say in Yate, Dursley, Thornbury? If the kidnap occurred here, we know what would happen: something would be done about it. Immediately, the government would issue orders to find the girls and free them. We have MI5, GCHQ, secret services, police, the army all at our disposal, and without a doubt they would be used to rescue the girls. And we, as a nation, would demand something be done, fast. And yet the Nigerian schoolgirls have been missing for three weeks – three weeks – at the time of this going to press, and little as happened.

 The only thing that separates us from Nigeria is sea and land, after that we are all the same; and that means we deserve the same. So let us shout. Let us lobby. You can sign a petition for their release at www.change.org. Let us demand that these girls are rescued. And let us never ever forget that a world exists out there and we have a responsibility to it.

 

1st May 2014

Yes, we can think for ourselves

Here’s a question for you: are you an adult? Here’s another: can you make up your own mind? Simple questions, right? Questions to which of course you know the answer (Yes! To both!) Because we are grown ups – me, you – we are adults with our own brains. We can reason, ascertain logic, risk assess a situation – so how hard can thinking for ourselves be?

 Turns out, according to UK culture, quite hard. So hard, in fact, that we have to be told what to do. Take the other week when the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) forced holiday company Centre Parcs to withdraw its TV advert following complaints that the ad “irresponsibly” encouraged parents to take their children on holiday during term time. What a load of rubbish. By making this judgment, the ASA is basically saying that we are unable to absorb information and make a decision on it by ourselves. The advert, for a holiday offer, showed families with children on a Centre Parcs break, however a sub line said that the offer was not applicable to school holiday times. Yes, you could argue here that Centre Parcs is being a bit underhand, but can’t we figure that out by ourselves? And what if we do take a holiday in term time, then receive a fine? Will we point at the ASA’s judgment and say, “But it wasn’t our fault, Centre Parcs made us do it!” It’s a nanny state approach that, ironically, allows us to be free of blame, like kids being told what to do all the time instead of being allowed to figure it out all by themselves.

 This nanny state mentality stretches everywhere. Take a look at the roads in our county. Drive through Berkley, Thornbury, Yate, and there are flash signs telling us to, “Slow down!” But compare this to France where the signs their flash signs simply display the speed you are driving at, with a sad face if you are driving too fast, and a smiley face if under the limit. So, instead of being ticked off, French drivers receive information in order to make a decision by themselves. As adults. Taking full responsibility.

 So here’s some helpful information, UK Government: we can think for ourselves. Yes, this was an information column brought to you by Nikki Owen. What you do with it next is up to you…

24th April, 2014

It’s about time we got more responsible

What would happen if we were all more responsible? The other week new mobile speed camera locations were announced in the county, and I’m sure many an eye will have rolled. Speed cameras, see, are the understandable subject of much controversy. Some folk believe that speed cameras are akin to being watched, that they are there purely for councils to make money. Why, some say, can’t we drive fast? And sure, driving fast is fun; the feeling of exhilaration as everything on each side becomes a line of blurred shapes as your dial drives up and up to the highest number. And then you crash. Or hit someone. Or someone dies.

 The thing is about speed cameras is that we shouldn’t need them. We are all, as it goes, us grown ups – me, you, the fella going past you in the truck – responsible adults who drive day in, day out to get from A to B. And, the thing is, it’s that word – responsible – that is the key here. Because just think what would happen if we were all just a touch more responsible every day, if we all acted as we should, travelling through our communities being kind, thoughtful, doing acts of good not bad, being great people. What would happen? I’ll tell you what: we wouldn’t need speed cameras. Not a single one. We wouldn’t need them because we’d all be driving in a responsible fashion, doing as we should every single day.

 Stretch this theory of being responsible one step further, and just think of the potential it has. Take police cameras on street corners – we wouldn’t need them because no one would hurt anyone else. Locks on doors? Heck, who would require locks if no one ever stole anything? The same applies for prison as a deterrent, for rules and regulations – none of them would ever even exist if we all acted as we really should: with 100% responsibility for ourselves.

 Of course, this utopia, some say, is unrealistic. In 2012, for example, in Gloucestershire alone there were 1079 collisions which resulted in 1447 casualties, and of these 255 were killed or seriously injured. But maybe if we all acted even just a fraction more responsibly, not only could it lead to the end of speed cameras, but it could lead to something even better: a wonderful place to live.

17th April, 2014

Sorry saga that needs to be put in spotlight

Sometimes I think MPs have lost touch with reality, I really do. Take Maria Miller and her recent resignation.

 The former Culture Secretary resigned following unprecedented press pressure for the discrepancy in her MP expenses claim. Here’s what happened: in 2012, questions arose as to whether Mrs. Miller – who funded the acquisition of her home with an offset mortgage – had failed to cut her mortgage claims as interest rates fell. This was investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards, who cleared the MP of making false expenses claims, but decided that Mrs. Miller over-claimed by £45,000 for expenses towards mortgage interest payments and council tax on the family home in London. It was recommended that the MP should repay this exact sum.

 However, the Commons Committee for Standards – a committee where the 10 MPs who sit on it have a vote and the three lay members do not – decided Mrs. Miller only needed to pay back £5,800 to cover over-claiming of mortgage expenses. It also said Mrs. Miller should apologise to the House of Commons because her “attitude” to the commissioner’s inquiry had breached the parliamentary code of conduct.

 And so began the public outcry, an outcry with which I totally agree, and here’s for why: if Maria Miller were in any other role in any other industry, such an enormous discrepancy on an expenses claim would result in an immediate sacking. But what did David Cameron do? He supported Mrs. Miller and said that we should all move on. In Gloucestershire, too, our local MP Neil Carmichael when questioned about the situation was quoted as saying it is, ‘time to move on’, as if saying sorry for it means it’s all dealt with.

But it’s not dealt with, not in the eyes of the people, and to say the opposite, as Mr. Carmicheal did, is utterly out of touch with reality. Because the people see this expense claims scandal for what it is: double standards. On one hand the government lambast benefit cheats, yet on the other they just let their Culture Secretary say sorry for over claiming. If we are to have any society to be proud of, politicians need to do two things: listen to the people and face up to reality. Maybe then they will be more like everyone else. And, maybe then we will have faith in them again.

10th April, 2014

Parents need to park better outside schools

I’ve deliberated for some time about writing on this topic, contentious as it is. You see, the topic is: parking, or, more specifically, parents parking and the attitude there of.

 For years now I’ve been doing the school run. Years. And each time I go there, each time I walk up the path towards my daughter’s school – Cam Hopton, on Hopton Road – my heart sinks. And here’s for why: some parents don’t always park safely. I know this subject will create uproar in many, but, do you know, it’s got so bad, it’s become so critical that I have finally decided to speak up about it now, today for one reason and one reason only. And that’s not to annoy people; it’s not to vent my frustration. No. The reason is this: to stop a child from being knocked over.

 You see, when parents park, as (mercifully the minority) do outside Cam Hopton on the zigzag lines by the school, what they are doing is running the risk of hitting a child. And, more worryingly, they are running the risk of endangering a life. And if you think I’m exaggerating, consider this real scenario: a woman in a car, after pulling up on the zigzag lines to drop off her child, reversed her car on to the path – and this path was being used, at the time, by children. She said she checked her mirror, but some of these kids were tiny. Unbelievable. You don’t reverse on to a path of kids. That day, it was only luck that no one got hurt.

 Cars that park on zigzag lines outside schools, on corners, on paths (yes, really) make it harder for children to be seen. That is why the yellow lines are there. But the problem has got so bad that South Gloucestershire council, last year, launched its first parking enforcement car. And guess where it began its watch? Outside a school.

 I know many parents say they are in a rush, and they park on the zigzag lines because they have to shoot off. But we are all busy. That’s a parent’s life, yet, as parents, we also have responsibilities – and one of those is to think a little. Set off five minutes earlier, walk maybe, anything that will mean that at no point are we putting children in serious danger. Because no one wants that. Ever.

3rd April, 2014

Tax me, please

I understand tax. I do. In fact, I like tax. Tax, you see, pays for stuff. Sure, that’s a basic way of putting it, but bottom line, what would we do without tax? We would not have police, nurses, prisons, roads, schools, teachers, traffic lights, playgrounds.

The list, as they say, is endless, the one that tax pays for, all the elements around us that we use day in day out that we don’t even think about. The list is massive. And that’s why tax is good, because without it, how would all these things we take for granted exist? The answer is, naturally, they wouldn’t. Or, actually, they would, but they would probably only be available to those who could pay through the nose for them. And we are mercifully not, ladies and gentlemen, the USA where only the wealthy get decent healthcare, so happy days.

 And so to South Gloucestershire County Council and their imminent surcharge for the emptying of green bins on routine rounds. From March 31, the council is imposing a £36 fee for green bins across the district. Okay, you may think, so what? We get charged all the time. And you’d be right. But here’s the difference: the surcharge is an opt-in payment. That means people can choose not to pay it. And that could have huge consequences, the biggest of which is that folks will stop recycling. It could also result in longer queues at the local recycling centre.

 Now, I imagine the thought process behind this surcharge was to give people a choice. But I think the council is missing the whole point of what makes tax work, which is this: we have to pay it. We have to. No opt-out, no avoidance. No choice. And that’s what makes it work. Just think. What if the government said, ‘You can now opt-in to pay for education, you don’t have to pay for it if you don’t want to.’ What would be the outcome then? I’ll tell you: a huge drop in funding, that’s what.

 So my message to South Gloucestershire council is to be up front. Make the surcharge a tax, because taxes work. And recycling is vital to our environment. So enough with the opt-in bobbins, just charge us already and let’s get on with making where we live a better place. Whether we like it or not.

 

 

27th March, 2014

Give schools more money – it’s simple maths

Schools. A subject close to my heart. Not just because I have two daughters in the school system right now, although that, to be fair, is a huge contributing factor, but also because I have seen into the day-to-day financial workings of a school, and I can tell you this: it is not easy.

 I have been, you see, a school governor. Four years I was in the role, chairing committees, and I will tell you something: I was shocked. Why? Because schools – – specifically primary schools – get hardly any money to function on. It’s appalling, really. Take the staff costs. Teachers, head teachers and all other personnel wages can take up to 80% of the school budget. 80. Now, even if you’re a bit bobbins at maths like me, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that that only leaves 20% left over for everything else. And just think what that has to cover: heat, light, building repairs (which can be huge – trust me, I was the Chair of the Premises committee) – and all this is before we’ve even considered the essentials, namely books, paper, pencils, glue, art paint, card, crayons – the list is endless.

 I remember sitting in a finance meeting once and being told the amount per head that was due to the school that year. It was so small, we didn’t know quite how things would pan out. And this, you understand, is with a very strong, experienced finance team and manager running the school with accounts in the black.

 Look, I tell you all this for two reasons. One: we need to know the reality. Expectations of performance by schools are crazy. The government demand, for their own political gain, so much of schools yet they give them very little resources to do it on. So little, in fact, that schools have to often rely on fundraising to get the extras they need.

 The second reason is that, finally, additional money has recently been announced for Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire schools. £9 million extra. And it’s about time – but it’s still not enough. If we want schools to perform, then give them the means to do so. It’s not rocket science – it’s just simple maths. If we expect our kids to add up and arrive at the right answer, then surely we can expect our politicians to do so as well.

20th March, 2014

Smarten up shops for posterity

I love history. I do. Show me a history book packed with images from a time now gone, and I’ll show you me, immobile for the next hour or so, fascinated as I am over just how different things used to be, how altered life was back then.

 And so to Dursley high street. The woes of our local retailers is a topic I have written on before. If you are not familiar with my opinions on high streets, here you go: they are vital to the success of our community and we should shop there as much as we can. So far, so clear. But is it? Is the solution to the high street in the UK as simple as just getting away from out of town malls and taking a meander, instead, to the local bakery?

 Life has changed since the heady heyday of high streets in yester-year. They used to be so busy, so in demand, so well looked after. But now it is 2014, and everything has changed.  It’s tough. Studies have shown that the UK high street loses one shop every hour. Matthew Hopkinson, director of The Local Data Company said of it: “Town centres will have to adapt faster than ever before to maintain their attraction to consumers.”

 The trouble is, while some retailers are taking this advice, there are others who spoil it for the rest. On Dursley high street, some vendors don’t bother to keep their shop fascia looking good, and when shop fronts look a mess, so does the town, and who wants to spend their cash in a scruffy town? Silver Street in Dursley has seen help from the local council, yet still there are some shops that are not kept well, that look shabby, unloved.

 The solution is simple: retailers must make an effort. Let’s face it, when our high streets look good, we all benefit. Retailers sell more, we shop there more – heck, they can even grow tourism, win awards. As ever, we as consumers, have a responsibility to campaign for better, to shop local as much as we can, walk that bit further rather than hop in our cars.

 Because, when someone looks back at our time in a history book, we want them to see this: that we all respected where we lived. Now that’s an image to be fascinated by.

13th March, 2013

Local councillors must respect their responsibilities

We all know that what happens outside our county can affect those living in it, right? We also know that, as adults, if we have responsibilities then we should take them seriously, because people rely on us, depend on us.

 And so to Conservative councillors staging a walk out at Stroud District Council last week. This unpredictable action was against a motion to back a national campaign for a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on big banks. The motion contended that cuts to local government – and the subsequent loss of public services – could be overturned if a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) – or ‘Robin Hood tax” – was levied on large financial institutions by Whitehall, therefore creating extra revenues for the Treasury, which, in turn, would avert the need for such deep cuts to local services.

Now, to me, this FTT seems like a fine idea. We all know the banking sector was – and in many ways still is – badly regulated. The results have been catastrophic: a global financial crash, increased poverty, people struggling day-to-day, jobs scarce, wages frozen, services slashed. Crucially, the Government has a responsibility in all this, a responsibility to act, to do something, something that will help send a message to the banking sector that says we will not accept debilitating, careless malpractice. And the fact that this message will help prevent cuts at a local level? Cuts that directly affect us, the people, the ones that pay directly for the banking woes? Well, all the better for it.

So why then did the conservative councillors walk out? In a pre-prepared statement, Councillor Pearson accused the motion’s backers of ‘political posturing’ and claimed the district council was being used as a platform for debating issues which did not affect local people.

But here’s the thing: Councillor Pearson is forgetting that what happens outside the county affects those within it. The Robin Hood Tax impacts on local people because it can help prevent service cuts, and therefore our councillors are obliged to debate it, not walk out and miss not only the FFT discussion, but, as it turned out, another motion too, on local government finance.

To leave the chambers in such a way, to not even remain and debate their position, shows a lack of responsibility to the electorate. We should protest against these types of political dramas, because, at the end of the day, it’s us who suffer.

6th March, 2014

A society without welfare support is not a good one

Have you seen the film, Les Miserables? Or the play? It depicts France in the 1800s, a time when poverty was rife, when the rich got richer and the poor poorer. There was no money, no state welfare support, only poverty, a lack of food and a lack of housing. And why? Because the attitude then was if you have money, you’re okay. And if you don’t? Well, tough.

 Fast forward a century or two, and sometimes I wonder if that attitude has changed. You see, last week it was announced that Stroud District Council are to build the first new council houses in the district for over 30 years. The work in Minchinhampon is part of the council’s £15 million programme to construct 150 new homes in the next five years, and in my opinion, it couldn’t come at a better time. We are, as a nation, in the middle of a housing crisis for those in real need. And if you don’t believe me, consider the figures: last year, between April and June, only 220 new council homes were built in the whole country. Yup – 220 for the entire UK, never mind Gloucestershire, and this is despite a record 1.8 million households being on the waiting list for a new home.

Trouble is, there are some who think councils should not provide housing. Take this reader’s comment the other week about the announcement of the new council builds: “I’d have to work for years to afford a house in the desirable Minch, or I could give up now, have a few babies and the council will give me one! Hurrah!” Some are of the opinion that all council house residents are scroungers or lazy or both. Or, like the commenter here, believe women have babies just to get a house. All this is rubbish – and I know from experience: both my husband and I were brought up in council houses, and we are proud – of our roots and our hard-working parents.

 So, I ask you, if we did not have council houses and welfare support, what sort of a society would we be living in? I’ll tell you: we’d be living in a society that believes that if you have money, you’re okay. And if you don’t? Tough. But, thankfully, this is not the 1800s. This is 2014. And Les Miserables is just fiction. Isn’t it?

27th February, 2014

If we don’t look out for each other, what else do we have left?

A few years ago, I went out for a run. It was December and, even though it was two in the afternoon, there was still ice on the ground. But, off I went anyway.

 Only, five minutes in, I slipped, toppled and hit my head on the edge of the curb. I was knocked clean out for I don’t know how long. When I came too, I managed to haul myself up, but I couldn’t see properly. That was because the blood from my head wound was trickling into my eyes. I did what I could, stemmed the flow and looked around for help.

 There, on the other side of the road, was a girl, maybe 18 years old or so, walking her dog. She saw me and stopped. Of course, she looked horrified. There was I, blood pouring out of my head, holding out my hand, saying, ‘Help.’ And did she? I’m afraid to say, no, she didn’t. She gulped and walked right past.

 Now, I told myself: I must look a little frightening right now, so maybe she was too scared to help. So next, I tried to walk home. Perhaps, I thought, I will see someone else. And, in fact, I did. Several cars drove by. They weren’t going fast, so I attempted to wave them down. A few drivers looked at me – and drove on. By the time I made it home, I was covered in blood. And no one had stopped to help.

 Recently, the Gazette published an article about an elderly jogger who was knocked over by a cyclist. She was injured, her top lip split in half. And while I was shocked at the picture of her face, I was relieved to hear that someone had stopped to assist her. Because that’s what we should do: we should help each other. We live in a society that is so busy, filled with people who are so preoccupied with their own lives that, for some reason or another, they do not stop, not only to think of others, but not even to help them.

 I have learnt my lesson. I will never go out running in the ice again. But if you ever see anyone in trouble, please, in some appropriate, safe way – help them. Because if we don’t look out for each other, what on earth do we have left?

20th February, 2014

Neknomination – just say no

Hands up if, when you were young, you did daft things? You’ve got your hand up, haven’t you? Of course you have, and why wouldn’t you? Being young is synonymous with being that little bit more reckless, that little bit more of a daredevil. We’ve all been there. Like the time I stood on a table in a University bar and downed a pint of Guinness because I was the Vice President of the Student’s Union during ‘The President’s Pub Crawl.’ Hmmm, it seemed like a good idea at the time…

 And that’s the thing: at the time, it seemed like a good idea. But it’s only when we look on it with the benefit of hindsight, that we realise that what we did was not only a bit daft, but, often, downright stupid.

 And so to Facebook and the latest craze called Nek Nomination. Believed to have originated in Australia, Nek Nomination is a Facebook game where people are nominated to film themselves downing or ‘necking’ huge amounts of alcohol, often taking extreme action, such as nominees mixing bizarre ingredients in to the drinks whilst doing things such as jumping into freezing water. Having quickly gone viral, here’s the dark side to the game: it has now been linked to two deaths in the UK and a further two in the Republic of Ireland.

Parents and teachers are now so concerned that Chipping Sodbury School has warned parents to be vigilant against their children taking part, after it was revealed that several students were being nominated in the game.

Now, I fully support everything that can be done to quell this craze, but haven’t we seen this type of thing before? And not just in my generation, but in every one before me, too. Humans have a history of doing crazy, dangerous things. It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it okay, but it still happens. The trouble is today with social media and the Internet, the capacity to submit to peer pressure on a grand scale is now out-of-control.

We, you see, in our day, could run from peer pressure because there was no Internet. But, young kids today do not have that same safety mechanism. So my message to them is this: resist. Listen to us folk who have been there done that: it’s not worth it. Maybe that’s the message that should go viral.

13th February, 2014

Let’s all support women’s sport

I love my sport. I do. I have always been in to sport and, call me daft, but I’ve signed up to do a triathlon in May. Swimming, cycling and running. I know, I know…

 And so to women’s sports and the lack of coverage of. From 6th-23rd February, it’s the Winter Olympics. Snowboarding, slalom skiing, skating and more. The good aspect of the Olympics –whether it be summer or winter – is that there is more of a balance on which gender receives coverage. But here’s my gripe: this does not translate in to every day national sport reporting.

 Take women’s football. My daughter was the mascot for the Liverpool Women’s team last year and she was made up. Not only that, but the women’s team went on to win the league. Yup – win. But did it make the headlines? Nope. Not a dickey bird. All we heard was that the men’s team didn’t come top. And how about cricket? We never heard the end of it when the blokes lost – lost – the Ashes, but hands up if you know that the England women’s cricket team retained their Ashes title against Australia? Yes, the women won the Ashes. But was it in every media outlet? Was it celebrated? Will there be an open-top bus trip through the capital? No.

 And it is wrong. This lack of emphasis on women in sport is wrong. And, the trouble is, it’s having an effect. According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, 80% of women are not doing enough exercise to stay healthy, with only 5% of sports media coverage dedicated to women’s sport, and just 0.5% of commercial investment going to women-only sport. Yet, at the same time, over 60% of sports fans say they would like to see more women’s sport on TV.

 Gloucestershire has great women’s sports. Just the other week, in Hockey, the Dursley Vixens won 4-0 against Lyndey, proving that women not only participate in sport, but they utterly rock at it, too.

 So what should we do? Ladies – we should get active. Parents – we should encourage our daughters to do a sport, to try it, to feel the benefit of it not only in body, but in mind, too. Then, perhaps, the more we do, the more we will shift the emphasis and maybe, finally, sport will truly be for all.

6th February, 2014

No more school inspections

What is the point of school league tables? I mean, seriously. What is the point? I say this at a time when in Gloucestershire, the performances of secondary schools at key stage 4 level have been published. The results, which are based upon last summer’s GCSEs, have been variable. Wonderfully, there have been some amazing gains. Rednock School in Dursley, for example, has just come in the top 18% of schools nationally for its results, with 70% of pupils achieving grades C or above. Similarly, over in Thornbury, the Castle School saw 70% of its students achieve grades A* to C, whilst the John Cabot Academy hit 74%.

 However, while these schools have scored high, according to the league table, others have not.  Brimsham School in Yate had a figure of 59% of pupils above grade C, and Chipping Sodbury School achieved a level of 57%. Yet, what this figure does not reflect is that it is in line with the South Gloucestershire average.

 And here is why I have an issue with league tables: they do not compare like for like. Comparing schools is like comparing apples with oranges. Yes, they are both fruit, but, ultimately, they are different. Schools, you see, are filled with people, children, and year on year, they change. Life happens. It all shifts. Every time a new, fresh group of students enters a school, you cannot compare them to even the pupils in the previous year, never mind compare them to another school.

 In the UK, we live in a system of inspection. Our teachers are inspected, so too our schools, our doctors, hospitals, police. You name it. And those in favour, say that inspection makes people accountable, makes people better. But consider this: in Finland, there are no school inspections. Pupils sit their first exams at 16. And, crucially there are no league tables. And do they fail? No. When it comes to international results, Finland consistently scores top.

 So, my message is this: we should celebrate our schools and all their achievements. And how should we do that? By getting off their backs and letting the teachers do their jobs. No inspections. Because, as soon as we relieve that pressure, as soon as we learn to trust that professionals are trained to do their job, then, finally, we won’t require league tables to tell us how well our children are doing.

30th January, 2014

Dogs must be kept under control

When the dogs ran up to me, I screamed. I was running in a field in Dursley close to our house. No one was around. Then a man came. He was going for a walk. With two dogs.

 At first, I stopped. Dogs and me do not mix. Then I breathed out. The dogs were on a lead – or so I thought. The next thing I knew, the two dogs were running towards me. As they came nearer, their breeds were clear: one Dalmatian and one Rottweiler. I lost it. I mean completely and utterly had a massive melt down. ‘Please, please, please,’ I said over and over. My dog phobia was well and truly kicking in. At first, the owner was cross with me, then, mercifully, when he realized I wasn’t shouting at him but just was petrified of dogs, he abated, pulled the dogs to him and kept hold of them. I ran very fast out of the field that day.

I tell you this because last week it was reported that across in Thornbury a stranger’s dog ran into a garden and mauled a family guinea pig. Just like that.  Like the pet was a toy. Now, some may say that this was only a pet that was killed, not a person. So what? Yet, in reality, it is just as important. And here’s why: dogs, uncontrolled, can be dangerous. Bottom line. Yes, I have heard the explanation given when a dog runs up to a stranger: ‘Oh, it’s okay, he’s harmless/he loves kids.’ And that may well be the case. But all it takes is one time, one wrong move. So why let dogs run up to people at all?

 The answer is dogs should stay under the control of their owners. And if you think that’s not necessary, that I am exaggerating, then consider this: more than 200,000 people are estimated to be bitten by dogs every year, and for the last five years this figure has been steadily rising.  Legal changes, though, are a foot. New legislation could see tougher sentences for dog owners, with a possible 14-year sentence for an owner whose dog kills someone.

 So, my message is this: please, control your dogs. Letting them run up to people is not a good idea. We share the space in which we live. So lets share it safely.

23rd January, 2014

Why the victims of crime never really recover

I arrived home alone in the middle of the night. I opened the door and looked down. There, on the mat, was a notice from the police. I picked it up and read it: there had been an attempted burglary on our house. The back door window was smashed in; the wooden frame was broken. The burglars, the police said, had been spotted. The hammer they had used to bash the window through had made such a noise, it woke up our neighbours. And our neighbours called the police.

 That was several years ago. Even now, I remember that feeling. I remember how, on reading the note, even though my head ran through the logic – police, locked doors, secure windows – I was still scared. I couldn’t sleep at night for many weeks afterwards.

 The reason I am telling you this is because crime and the real, direct effects of it is not something we hear much about. One look around our county and we see what is happening. Only recently, thousands of pounds of bike equipment were stolen in Berkeley. Jewellery was stolen in Bradley Stoke. An assault was carried out in Yate by someone on a moped. And while all these crimes differ, one thing links them all together: the effect on the victims.

 I spoke to a lady the other week. She was the victim of a crime. She was very brave, very dignified. She told me what had happened – the crime details – but what was so thought provoking, so heart-breaking was how she said the crime has affected not just her life, but that of her children’s, too. They were all so scared. They dreamt about what had happened. They were scared to go to sleep at night. And it made me think that this, this reality, this utter devastation, is what criminals need to hear. Maybe if they realized what it does, crime, then maybe they would think twice. Maybe.

 If you are the victim of crime, the Gloucestershire Constabulary do have something called ‘Restorative Justice’ now, where you can tell the offenders exactly how you have been affected – if they have been caught. And perhaps that is the point, the catching of criminals. Perhaps if we had better deterrents, there would be no victims in the first place. And maybe then, we’d all sleep better at night.

16th January, 2014

We should be awarding our local heroes

What makes a hero? I mean, what really makes one? What makes someone not only amazing and selfless, but, at the same time, worthy of recognition for actions past?

 It has been New Year’s Honours time. MBEs. CBEs. Knighthoods. You know the score. As ever, the usual suspects have bee tripped out. Celebrities. Sports people. Actors. We expect this of the whole thing, the showman ship of it, we expect it,  the thank you mechanism for politicians and the like. Take the hairdresser of David Cameron, for example, who has been given an MBE this year simply for services to hairdressing, services that just happen to include the Prime Minister as a client. Sure, the hairdresser raised money for charity running a marathon, and that is to be commended. But, really? The PMs hairdresser?

 And so to local heroes and what makes them. See, when it comes to noticing what people do every day, I don’t look nationally or internationally. No. I just look to where we live. Every day, people in our community do things that are amazing. Things that, on a New Years Honours list level, are never really registered. Mercifully, mind, some are. Take the Girl Guide leader from Purton who received an award this year for services to children. Or the Avon and Somerset police inspector who received an MBE for developing policing policy in Kosovo.

But, there are so many more people who deserve to be recognized. And no, I’m not talking about local politicians or celebrities, but people, real people in Gloucestershire who make the place better, brighter, happier. Take Steve from the award winning Old Spot in Dursley, who, after years making the pub into the success it is in the community, is moving on. You shall be missed. Or a friend of mine who took on, with no complaint, her sisters two kids after her sister walked out on the kids and the grandmother died. Or the Girl Guide and Scouting leaders I know who give their time voluntarily, every week to provide our children with valuable, life-essential skills.

 These are the types of people we should be honouring. Because it is the people we see every day in our community that make it better. Heck, you make it better. And when that magic happens, everything improves. So to you all, out there, I give you an award. Congratulations.

9th January, 2014

We are a nation of spoilt brats

We are a nation of spoilt brats. There, I’ve said it. It’s been mulling in my mind for some time this has, and I figure, since it’s a new year and all, it’s high time I got it out.

 See, these past few months I’ve been watching what’s been happening in our county, our country – and I don’t like it. We have been moaning. Oh my, how we have been moaning. Nothing, it seems is good enough for us. The queues at the doctors’ surgeries are too long. Moan. The ambulances don’t come fast enough. Moan. The NHS doesn’t work hard enough. Moan. Why isn’t my TV as big as neighbours? Why don’t I have loads of money? Why should I have to work when someone else doesn’t? Moan, moan, moan, moan.

 And I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of people complaining about pretty much everything. Because we do that, complain about everything – we do it. Think. Something comes on the news, some piece, say, about nurses not caring, or about GP waiting times being longer than ever, and what do we do? We complain. We complain that the whole country is going to pot, and, in a way, we are right. The political system, in my mind, borders on corruption, and don’t get me started on education. But do you know what? We are lucky. We are lucky to live in a country that has the only free-at-point-of-entry health service in the whole world. Our education is free (Universities aside…) We have free prescriptions for those who need them. We have a life-saving welfare system – even if the coalition is trying to dismantle it.

 We have all this and yet we still moan, still demand. Anyone looking in from a less fortunate country would marvel and wonder what on earth we had to complain about. Yet we throw our rattles and we have a tantrum, all because our Sky Plus box isn’t working or our bins haven’t been collected or our post is delivered late one day. We act like spoilt brats. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as guilty as anyone at times, but all the more reason to step up and get real.

 So enough of the moaning. If it’s that bad, do something about it. But if it’s not, ask yourself: how lucky am I? And the answer may be all you need.

2nd January, 2014

The alternative New Year’s resolution

Ah, ‘tis 2014. Happy New Year to you. How’s it going so far? Made any resolutions? What’s that? Not yet. Well, let me be of help.

 See, this year, I am going to buck my normal trend of not actually making any resolutions. Normally, they don’t really work. Take giving stuff up. How many times have you said, “Right, this year, I’m going to go on a diet.’ Or, “This time I really will get to the gym.” It comes as no surprise that a new year sees gym membership rocketing – 68% of us resolved to get fit in 2013, yet, figures show that by the end of January, over a third of us cancelled our membership. Oh dear.

 But, this year, I am going to make some resolutions. Yet, they will be different. I am not going to resolve to give up chocolate, for example. This, for me, is the definition of impossible. Show me a bar of Green and Blacks, and I’ll show you a happy Nikki. So chocolate: keeping that. Ditto on coffee. I have tried, countless times, to give the stuff up, but I just love it too much. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go overboard, but my absolute favourite time of day is 5 a.m. in the morning when it is just me, my laptop and a huge pot of freshly ground coffee. Ah, life is good.

 So, with all that out of the way, here’s what I am going to do: I am going to set resolutions that will help make a difference to others. Yup, 2014 will see me committing myself to two causes I feel passionately about, causes that, I hope, in some minor way, I will be able to help. My first good cause is Meningitis Now. A Gloucestershire based charity, it is one I feel strongly about, having suffered from Meningitis myself. The other cause is education. I think Michael Gove is trashing our schools, so this year I am going to do what I can to lobby for an education structure more like that of Finland.

See, I think we do spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. We think about what we have, what we don’t have, what we wish we had. Maybe if we all made just one resolution to help others, 2014 could really see great change. Better than gym membership, right?

26th December, 2013

An increase in MP’s pay? That’s just daft.

There are times when I do feel daft. You know, those times when you think you understand something, when you believe that everything makes sense, yet actually, the reality is completely the opposite.

 Well, welcome to one of these occasions. You see, you may be very aware of MPs and the proposal to increase their pay. This month, it was announced that The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) wants to raise salaries by £7,600 to £74,000 in 2015. Now, while Prime Minister David Cameron calls it “inappropriate”, and Labour leader Ed Miliband requested talks between the party leaders and Ipsa, here’s the thing: neither of them has signed the paper openly opposing the pay rise. A week after Labour MP John Mann tabled an Early Day Motion demanding the increase to be just 1%, in line with the rest of the public sector, only 10 MPs – and not one Conservative – have put their names to it.

And so here’s where I think I’m daft. You see, I would have thought it was absolutely obvious that an 11% pay rise is a ridiculous idea. We are living in tough times. Winter fuel bills are rocketing. All over Gloucestershire, pensioners are struggling to make ends meet. Teachers from Yate to Cam, and Chipping Sodbury to Berkley are paid peanuts. So, on that basis, how on earth could MPs think it was okay to want an 11% increase? I watched an MP on TV justifying the rise by saying politicians work hard, and that, if we want to attract the right caliber of candidate, then we should pay out. Bobbins. Absolute bobbins. What about the teacher? The policeman? The refuse collector? Aren’t they worth something? Don’t they deserve the best pay, too? In the 2013 budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced that the 1% public sector pay cap would be extended to 2015/16. How on one hand can he do this, yet on the other effectively green light an extra 11% for himself? So much for all being in this together.

But, there is something we can do. We can protest. And we must. Because we are not daft to think this is wrong. You can sign an e-petition on the proposal at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk. You can lobby your MP. Speak to them. Because life must be fair, and an 11% rise when others’ wages are being capped? That’s not fair at all.

19th December, 2013

No more door-to-door sales

So, there I was one evening. I was in the house on my own with my young daughters. It was dark outside. The lights were on, but aside from the radio, there was no sound. And then there was a knock on the door.

Now, we don’t get many callers come the evening time – normally, friends and neighbours phone ahead. So, I approached the door with caution. Inching it open, I peered outside to a smiling man with a fluorescent bib that said, ‘Shelter’- the homeless charity. ‘Good evening, madam, and how are you?’ he said. I frowned. This man was at my door at 8 p.m. And I didn’t like it. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘but I’d rather contact Shelter on the Internet.’ The man was not taking no for an answer. ‘If I could just…’ he said, but I wasn’t looking at him, I was looking into the road at the swarms of fluorescent bibbed people approaching the doors of my neighbours. And you have to bear in mind that some of my neighbours are in their 80s. ‘Why are you out at this time of night?’ I said. ‘You’re going to scare people.’ And, with that, he promptly left.

Now, the point of all this is that door-to-door sales, in this day, in this age of burglaries and violent crime and 24-hour media coverage, is wrong. The example I gave you above was mild. Another day, a young lad came to my door selling, I don’t know, I think it was a new drive – and he got so aggressive when I said, ‘No,’ that he swore and left. I locked the door fast that day. Mind, it turned out that this lad was part of a wider scam and, in the end, the police were involved and I had to give a statement. It just goes to show.

So, while I understand many Gloucestershire businesses are legitimate, my message to door-to-door sales is this: don’t do it. If we want to buy anything, we’ll contact the company direct. And if, as a homeowner, you are ever unsure about who is at your door, if the sales person is acting inappropriately – you can report them to their company and to the police. Maybe then, if we speak out about what it’s like to be on the receiving end, the whole system will get better.

12th December, 2013

The life and death of Nelson Mandela affects us all

This Sunday will be the funeral of Nelson Mandela. An icon of our times, for 27 years, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island in South Africa. South Africa, at that time, was in the middle of an appalling system of Apartheid. White people and black people were, under the country’s law, ordered to live separate lives; black people’s rights did not exist in the same way as those of white people. Poverty for those living under the Apartheid system was extreme, and while many white’s enjoyed good education, good healthcare and owned plenty of land, the black people of South Africa had to endure illness and illiteracy, living in slums, often with no water, no electricity. No dignity.

 So in 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed, it was a momentous moment. I remember my mum making us watch his release on TV, saying, ‘You are watching history here,’ and she was right. Mandela’s release was historic, not only because he had been in prison, unjustifiably, for so long, because it marked a turning point in our society. In our lives.

 Now, most of us know what Mandela’s passing means, how significant the man was. Yet, one comment about it on the Gazette website read this, ‘What has this got to do with our area?’

 Well, let me tell you what it has to do with our area: everything. No other man has ever – ever – made an impact on the world more than Mandela. He was a man of pure moral compass. And that moral compass, that definition of what it is to be a good man, to be a good person, permeates everything we do in the world – no matter where we are. Whether it is in Yate, Chipping Sodbury, Durlsey or Berkley – we should all be affected by the death of Nelson Mandela. Because we were all affected by his life.

 Nelson Mandela stood for redemption not retribution. He believed in forgiveness. When he was elected as President, the first black President of South Africa, he invited his jailers to the party. He did not wish them ill – he wanted to let them join in the new future.

 So, when we think of Mandela as his funeral approaches this Sunday, we must think of the legacy he left for us all when he said this: A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.

5th December, 2013

Abused women need support

Before I wrote this week’s column, I hesitated. I hesitated because the subject I am going to talk about is something that is personal to a friend of mine. But, today, she has given me permission to tell you her story.

So here goes. Growing up, my friend witnessed her father hurt her mother. He was a drunk, see, her dad, and boy did it have an effect. My friend told me that when her dad was drunk, he was like a different person. He was dark, mean and he shouted a lot. The time she recalls the most was when he pulled her mum’s arm behind her back. My friend and her siblings begged him to stop, and, thankfully, he did. But when he came back from the pub, on hearing my friend out of bed, the father stormed into the room and slapped my (then 9-year-old) friend red-raw on the backside until he got too tired to carry on.

I tell you this – this very personal and emotional information – because my friend has got brave. And on her behalf, I have had enough of fathers who think that shelters for abused women should not exist. Last week was National Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week and, throughout Gloucestershire, there was a series of events to promote the services and support available to victims, with the message that domestic abuse and sexual violence on any level are not to be tolerated – now or ever.

And so back to fathers who think these essential services should not exist. Here is one comment from a father in response to an online Gazette article about the National Domestic Abuse Week: “When are all these do gooders going to verify facts before rushing round giving support to women who deliberately lie about “abuse”?”

Words fail me. I understand women lie. I understand that not all fathers are bad. In fact, mercifully, the majority are amazing. My friend just got unlucky; now her dad is sober, with a new family, and she is happy for him. But the plain fact is, some men can be abusive. If you are a woman experiencing abuse – get help. If your kids are suffering – get help. And if you really are a good father – please just accept that schemes designed to help abused woman are not ‘do-gooding’, but absolutely, life-changingly essential.

28th November, 2013

Is turning off the street lights at night really that bad?

Sometimes, the thought of something can be worse than the reality. I know how it feels. It was my 40th recently, and, turns out, this whole getting older lark is not quite as horrendous or soul destroying as I anticipated.

 But I digress, because this week, I want to talk about light, or, more specifically, streetlights. You see, last week, it was reported that Sodbury and Yate residents have begun a campaign to end the partial night lighting that was introduced by South Gloucestershire Council earlier this year. The Facebook campaign is against the fact that, between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m, the street lights are turned off in Sodbury and Yate.

 Now, the first reaction of most people when they hear that lights are being turned off is one of fear. The dark, especially in streets, can be something to be scared of, and often, quite justifiably so. When councils across the UK began introducing partial lighting schemes as a way of cutting costs in the economic downturn, critics slated the idea saying that it would lead to an increase in crime. And, at first glance, this seems to make sense. Under a blanket of darkness, criminals can carry on without being seen, right?

 But here’s the thing. These statements by critics were not based on facts. They were based on fear. And, when it comes to running our streets, facts are what we have to look at. And the fact is that, so far, turning off the streetlights at night does not seem to be increasing crime. In Chelmsford in Essex, for example where a similar scheme has been trialled, there has been a continued reduction in crime of 4.2%. Not only that, but since switching off the lights, anti-social behaviour has reduced in the area from 80 incidents to 55.

 I understand that people in Sodbury and Yate are concerned about crime rates and safety when it comes to streetlights. I would be too. But we must look at the facts. And the facts that say by turning off the lights now and then, we can save 2,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year. The facts that say, actually, crime rates do not increase when we use partial lighting. So, next time we are concerned about something, we should ask ourselves whether the thought of it is worse than the actual reality.

21st November, 2013

Pick up the poop, dog owners

Oh. My. Days. I am livid. Livid, I tell you. And here’s for why: dog poop.

 Dog doodle and the none-picking-up-of is something I have written about before in this column. It drives me up the wall. It makes me so mad, I sometimes, quite literally, cannot speak. And I think you probably have the measure of me enough by now to know that the inability to speak does not strike me often.

 Look, dog poop is natural, of course it is. Icky to consider, I know, but when a dog has to go, they have to go. That I haven’t got a problem with. It’s when their owner’s do not clean up the poop – then I have a problem. And the problem becomes even bigger when the dog poop is left out side a school.

 I was faced with this issue last week outside my daughter’s school in Cam. Come three o’clock in the afternoon, the field out side the primary school was packed, delightfully, with children running, skipping, jumping, or, in my daughter’s case, riding her bike. It’s lovely, seeing the kids happy, carefree, having fun. But on this occasion, thing’s weren’t so lovely. Because, as I turned, I saw my daughter come up to me, trailing her bike, visibly distraught: there, on her bicycle seat, was dog poop. And not only that, but it was on her hands, too, where she had touched the seat.

 She held her hands up, saying, ‘I can smell it, mum! I can smell it!’ One quick look at her bike revealed that she had ridden through dog poop – it was on the wheels and must have flicked up on to her seat. I then had to check her trousers, her new jacket – everything. Mercifully, the school reception was still open, and, even though they were busy preparing for parents’ evening, the (lovely) school bursar let my daughter wash her hands in the sink, and gave me some paper towels to clean the seat. My daughter walked home that day.

Now here’s the ironic thing: there is a dog poop bin right outside the school. So there is no excuse. If you own a dog, clean up after them. It is your duty. If you always clean up: thank you. If you don’t, I hope hearing the reality of the consequences will make you clean up. Now.

14th November, 2013

Say thank you for all those blessings

Sometimes, there are some words we just don’t say enough. We forget, as the world races by and life takes over us like gloopy green slime, that there is a time to stand back and look at what’s around us.

 And what’s around us is great. We live in a county that not only is admired nationally, but celebrated internationally, too. Just think about it. What is it about where you live in Gloucestershire that makes it great? Many a famous landmark springs to mind. Westonbirt Arboretum. The Cotswold Way. The French-style market town that is Chipping Sodbury. The Cheese Roll. Polo matches. Royalty.

 But, trouble is, when do we ever use words to express our feelings on where we live? And I don’t mean words that dress everything up; I mean words that indicate we are grateful. Because you see, when we pop into town for some milk or when we go for a stomp across the fields or when we walk along the newly paved paths that were once bumpy, we forget to say one word: thank you.

 Now, look, don’t worry, I’ve not gone all soft and fuzzy on you here, but I have seen something that made me think. And that something is an article in last week’s paper about a former Dursley mayor who was the lead figure in the construction of Durlsey swimming pool. Michael Cornock MBE died on Wednesday 30th October. His MBE was awarded following years of his hard work and endless contribution to the community. And I read about him and I sat and thought. I thought about the pool, the pool in Dursley that I use every week, that I would be lost without. And then I thought about the rest of the town, the rest of the county, of Yate, of Thornbury, of all the places I have visited. And I thought: when have I ever said thank you for everything I use in the county? When have I ever thanked the people who work hard to make where we live better?

 So I am saying it now: thank you, to everyone – thank you. And next time you nip into town or to the pool or to use a service, see how it feels to say thank you, even in your head. Because we don’t say it enough, and I can tell you now – it feels good.

7th November, 2013

Can things really only get better?

You may have guessed by now that I am not always on the side of politicians. Indeed, many a time, I am appalled at their words and actions.

 See, what concerns me more and more these days – in fact, ever since the last general election and the cobbled together excuse that is the coalition government – is that politicians are in it for themselves. Now, look, I know many may gasp at this opinion, and fair enough. Who do I think I am, right, tarring everyone with the same brush?

 So, let me explain a little. Way back in 1997, I was in my twenties and politically active. I supported my chosen party not just by turning up at the polling station, but by pounding the streets, helping the then prospective MP talk to people and get the vote. It was an exciting time. By then, we had been enduring consecutive Conservative governments, and the country was tired. But, as our constituency was an ‘at risk’ Conservative seat, they sent in Ann Widdecombe to pay a very publicised visit. And that is when my eyes were opened to real politics. Because, when we held our placards voicing our opinions, not only did opposition supporters try to stand in our way, but we were openly pushed and pulled, one of us even falling to the ground. As one experienced campaigner told us: this is the reality of Westminster, where politicians live in a bubble of how to stay in power, and they forget what they are really elected for.

 Years later, once the expense scandals came rolling in, I couldn’t help but feel dismayed. No wonder, I thought, there is voter apathy. However – and here’s the pivot – I am wondering if the tide is turning. Take the work of our local council leaders. Geoff Wheeler’s ‘Leader’s Diary’ comes to mind. In it, he writes of the good that is being done by him and his team around Gloucestershire. A youth consultation session. Events that offer youngsters career advice. Rememberance Day representation. The list goes on. And I read it all and I think, maybe things are changing. Maybe, just maybe, politicians are realising that if they want our vote, they have to really work. Not for themselves, but for us – real people, experiencing real life.

 And so, as the 1997 landslide victory song goes: things can only get better.

31st October, 2013

Riff raff comment is just so out of order

It’s funny sometimes how we view each other, isn’t it? Well, I say funny, I mean odd.  And when I say odd, I mean downright rude.

 I say this because I was doing a little Internet research last week, and stumbled upon a comment that made my jaw drop. The comment was in relation to the proposed development of two new, big name supermarkets in the Stroud area, developments that, while controversial, are welcomed by many. The comment was this: ‘There will soon be plenty of shopping destinations for the riff raff.’  Oh. My. Days. The commenter then went on to say that, in a couple of villages, people are starting to feel left out, and the commenter hopes that a high quality retailer will open in their area soon.

 And so to being rude. Everywhere around Gloucestershire, new retail developments are being built. Just last week, it was revealed that Sainsbury’s are in the consultation phase for a proposal to open one of their ‘Local stores’ in Coalpit Heath. Now, when major retailers come into an area, we are right to question if they should be there. We have a duty, I believe, to support our community, and that means shopping in local, small shops. But supermarkets have a place, too. They can provide people with choice. They introduce healthy competition into the market. They offer lower prices for people and families when they really need it, during a time of economic challenges and questionable taxes and the increased use of food banks.

 And sure, some may not agree with this view of supermarkets, and that is okay. We are all entitled to our opinion. But when we describe people who use regular shops as ‘riff raff,’ a line has been crossed. Because who are we to judge? I shop sometimes in Lidl because you know what? It’s cheaper there. So am I riff raff? Is the single mum with five kids riff raff? Can you only not be riff raff if you shop each week in the M&S Food Hall?

 It’s rude opinions like the one from the online commentator that cause our country to regress. The sooner we all accept people for the way they are, the better life becomes. And then we realise that the only ‘riff raff’ are the people who look down their noses at others.

24th October, 2013

It’s time the Tories stopped blaming the poor

New figures show that more than 100 tenants are facing debt in the Stroud District as a result of the bedroom tax. This welfare ‘reform’ that reduces housing benefit if a claimant is deemed to have an extra bedroom, is not only plunging people into arrears, but is also causing Stroud District Council to make emergency payments of £6,539 to help tenants remain in their homes.

This news comes at the same time that the Trussell Trust announced that the demand for food banks is increasing. In Gloucestershire there has been a huge rise, with the Trust reporting a 159 per cent increase of the use of the emergency food supply boxes in the county.

 So, please, bare this in mind when you read this next. Because, while most people have sympathy for people in plight, while most people look at those struggling to pay the rent on a property that has an extra bedroom just so their two children do not have to share a bedroom as it causes no end of family complications, some regard these situations differently. I refer here to Cllr Gordon Craig, a Conservative councillor who, in reference to the bedroom tax, was quoted last week as saying this: ‘I’m concerned that some people are in arrears by choice because they may think that others will pick up the bill.’

This is a, frankly, shameful thing to say and pandemic of the attitude of some on the right side of politics who, quite honestly, have absolutely no clue what it is like to live on or below the poverty line. By saying people have chosen to be in arrears is an outrageous slur. Conservatives bad mouthing people with an extra bedroom, for me, is as bleak as a wind swept moor.  It is drastic welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax that are plunging people in the UK into further poverty. And what is the reaction of the government? Do they sympathise? No. Michael Gove the Education Secretary, said that people turn to food banks because, ‘they are not best able to manage their finances.’

 The Trussell Trust said that some were returning their tinned goods because they were so poor, they couldn’t afford to heat them up. Yet the Conservatives continue random outbursts that paint the poor as manipulators. So I ask them this: who is the real manipulator here? And why?

17th October, 2013

Criminals have to know they will be caught

I am about to discuss a topic I find tricky. I find it tricky because it makes me cross, and I’m not a lady who gets cross easily. The topic is break-ins. It is a subject I have broached before – and it is something I have had personal experience of.

In my time, I have the following happen to me: a shed broken into and garden equipment stolen; one car stereo stolen; a sat-nav taken; and the back door of our house smashed in with a hammer by a burglar. Mercifully, I was away when it happened, but returned to the property, alone, to a police note. I didn’t sleep very well that night. And this is just me. Over the past year, in Cam and Dursley, I have noticed a distinct rise in burglaries. Some of these crimes have been reported in the press, others – and there are many – have not been in the news, but have happened just the same and with devastating consequences.

And so to the police. In Dursley, the police are currently urging local residents to be more vigilant with their home security following a spate of break ins. They are keen for the prevention of crime and are urging residents to protect their properties and not to put valuable items on display. Now of course, this is good advice. And, for the record, I really do think highly of our police force and the hard work they do. But here’s the tricky bit. You see, despite all this hard work the biggest problem I see isn’t simply people leaving valuables on display. It is this: burglars think they can get away with it. To me, this is the singular biggest issue we face at the moment when it comes to theft. There are many people I know who have had their properties broken in to and nothing has happened. No one has been caught; no suspects have been put forward. In one case, even though the PlayStation stolen from our neighbours could be tracked (the thieves logged online with it!), still no one was caught and charged.

 This is not right. How can crime be ever prevented if those perpetrating it know that, nine times out of ten, they will get away with it? Yes, we should be vigilant. But making criminals know they will be caught: that has to be the answer.

3rd October, 2013

What makes behaviour anti-social?

What makes behaviour anti-social? I ask this because last week it was reported that a quiet path in Thornbury has been subject to anti-social behavior courtesy of a group of teenagers.  According to local townspeople, the behavior has included smoking cannabis, daubing graffiti, littering and making noise.

The situation has become so intolerable that town councillors have joined with local police and the local authority, and have applied for a grant from the district’s Safer Stronger Community Groups (SSCG) fund to fence off part of a path and remove a paved area at the back of the road favoured by the gathering groups.

Now, when I read this, my first reaction was one of dismay. I know people in my own area in Cam who have been through not just harassment, but graffiti  daubed on their fences, bad language, vandalism of their homes and the ultimate – theft. In some cases, the acts have been carried out by people of differing ages, but, sadly, in most cases, it has been the work of teenagers.

 And so, to understand this, I go back to the question of what it anti-social behaviour. Clearly, the situation in the Thornbury neighbourhood warrants this very label. What is social about vandalism and graffiti? Nothing. Loud noise, too, goes against the realms of social boundaries. Bottom line: there is no excuse. No matter what these young people are experiencing in their lives, creating this kind of disturbance is unacceptable.

But what if we did ask why this sort of incident occurs? What if we did ask what is happening in young people’s lives that leads to this? We only have to look around to find the answer. The social effects of depressed economic conditions, combined with more erosion of general community spaces due to commercial developments, ultimately leads to conflict between the local area, police and young people over the utilisation of public spaces such as streets, parks and fields.

The official definition of anti social behaviour is behaviour that lacks consideration for others and that may cause damage to society. The question is, how many of us does that apply to? And how little of others’ lives do we really understand? How isolated from each other are we? And suddenly, when we ask these questions, the solution, as a community, seems so simple: alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

26th September, 2013

It’s important to remember who people really are

Three years ago, my husband’s Nanna had a stroke. She was found, the morning after, in her sheltered housing accommodation having been there all night, in her armchair, unable to move. We were all devastated. Nanna is a remarkable woman.

 At the time of the stroke, she was 92 and had been living independently, having a ball and being just the most amazing person ever. If I could be half the woman Nanna is, I would be doing a good job.

 At first, the effects of the stroke weren’t huge, but, as time passed, she began to deteriorate. The first trigger was moving from the hospital to a temporary nursing home. When we visited, Nanna was quiet, distant. Here was a woman who, after her husband had tragically died from Emphysema through a life of mining slate, was used to living life as much as possible, just as her late husband had said she should. She enjoyed regular visits by us, her family. She was used to sitting up late with my husband – her grandson – and I remember once, in 1997 during the landslide Labour victory, Nanna and my husband (then fiancé) stayed up until 4am celebrating the Labour win with whiskey.

But all that was, bit by bit, staring to go. We were told that Nanna, in addition to the stroke, had breast cancer. It was treated swiftly and carefully, and Nanna was dignified throughout, but it was another blow. Everything was steady until the next dip – Alzheimer’s. After a scan following the stroke, doctors had detected the beginning of the disease at the base of her brain. And from then on, it accelerated. She moved into her current nursing home and since then, the woman we once knew has gradually disappeared. It is awful. There are times when my husband can’t even speak, because he misses the woman she once was so much. And because he couldn’t change it, instead, he and two close friends climbed the three Peaks Challenge and raised over £700 for Dementia charities.

Nanna is still declining. She’s 95 in November. Every day, she gets worse. But we can help. Not just by visiting her, but by donating money, by doing challenges, by even helping at nursing homes. Because even though life can throw a cloak over us, underneath we are still the same person. And that’s worth hanging on to.

19th September, 2013

Pride needed for Dursley

It’s autumn, which, in our house, signals one thing: Grand Designs is back on TV. If you don’t know the series, a quick synopsis: a family self-build a house and a TV crew record the process.  Normally, the homes are built as new, but the first week’s episode saw a family renovate instead. The building in question was a once glorious, now derelict, 1920s cinema. It was in a Yorkshire mining town that was trying to rebuild itself, but struggling in the face of economic challenges.

And so to Dursley and it being named a ‘Crap Town.’  Back in July, Dursley was nominated for consideration as one of the UK’s ‘crappiest’ towns in a controversial book entitled ‘Crap Towns.’ With the final list due to be published in a book on October 7th, Dursley is now on the shortlist and the final decision of the town’s fate will be announced some time this month.

Since this ‘title’ was first hailed back in July, I have held off from saying anything until now. You see, on one hand, there is a lot of work still to do in Dursley. Like many towns around the UK, Dursley has its fair share of 1970s toilet-block style buildings along side decaying Victorian edifices that used to be tall and glorious back in their day.  But there is another side. During the 11 years I have been living in this area, I have seen so many good changes. There are flowers planted in the centre and entry areas into Dursley. The town council and tourist information buildings have been renovated and look smart. Local traders are trying hard to provide varied, local shops. Heck, we even have a cracking little Italian restaurant now.  And even the controversial arrival of big retailer, Sainsbury’s has been a positive addition.

And that’s why I am going to stand up in defence of Dursley.  It’s not crap. It’s brilliant. Brilliant because it is doing something about making things better – and it’s working. And we can all be a part of it. In Grand Designs, when the family renovated the old cinema to live in, it rejuvenated the town with locals feeling revived about their area. And we should do the same. We should renovate, clean, tidy, campaign. We should be proud. Now that’s something I’d like to see Dursley nominated for.

12th September, 2013

Wind turbines – it’s time for a compromise

Sometimes nothing anybody does is right. Whether we change what we do or stop altogether, often the original complaint simply morphs into a new one and the whole cycle reboots. And while yes, normally we can ignore the complaints, there does come a time when all this complaining has to stop – and listening starts.

That’s why I am going to talk about wind turbines. I have, in the past, written three columns on this subject. It has been fiery. It has raised debate in what turns out is a very emotive, very polarised subject – and I can understand that. I have, after writing on the topic, had many an indepth conversation with friends and neighbours and it has given me more insight in to people’s thoughts on the pros and cons of the alternative energy source.

But there’s a problem. You see, it was reported last week that a wind turbine could be erected close to the area of a previously rejected wind turbine project in Oldbury. The new plans are for a 77-metre turbine at Pound House Farm in Thornbury – this is roughly two miles from the site in Stoneyard Lane where developers originally wanted to build four 127-metre high wind turbines. They lost on appeal in 2012 when Rockhampton councilors and Oldbury and Hill members protested that the scheme would destroy their area’s character, causing immeasurable long-term harm. Now, while I do not agree with their reasons, four 127-metre turbines are reasonably high. So it’s great that the new proposal is for a smaller development – just 77-metres of turbine .

So smaller – that’s better, right? Wrong. “Although it is much smaller than the Stoneyard Lane wind farm, in some ways it will be more visible because it will be stuck up the top of the hill,” said the Rockhampton Parish Chairman.

And it is here I drop my head into my hands. Because, even though the wind turbines are smaller, that’s still not good enough for the Parish. And not only that, but the Parish Chairman believes they will be more visible.

More? This is ludicrous. We need alternative energy. We can’t, as a community, go on stomping all over every wind turbine proposal, demanding our own way based on aesthetics alone. So when people try to compromise we should listen. That much we owe. Because if not, what sort of world are we living in?

 5th September, 2013

Sometimes improvements can lead to change

Wouldn’t it be great to keep everything the way it is? When life stays the same, every day becomes so normal. And we start to not even notice it.

And so to Stinchcombe Hill and Hardings Drive in Dursley. A developer has proposed to extend Hardings Drive. The idea is to run the road up next to Cockshoot and Westfield Woods, where the developer will then build houses that will nestle between the existing streets of Dursley and the woods. Naturally, there has been opposition. A significant argument against the development is the environment. Not only will construction disrupt wildlife, but the woods act as a sponge for rainwater. The concern is that replacing woods and land with concrete and brick will reduce the rain absorption capacity, putting homes in the immediate area at risk of flooding.

So far, so understandable. The opposition is basing its opinions on sound, factual deliberations. And then I read the other reason for opposing the development: it will spoil the views. As one resident said: “We would lose our views of the wood and so would lots of other people. This is just not on. This will be destroying the pleasure of our property.”

Now look, I get it. I do. We all want nice views where we live. And the last thing we want is for some development to spoilt that, or, even worse, devalue our properties. But here’s the pivot: we don’t own the views. When we buy a house, we do not own all the land we see from our windows. And that means it may be developed on. Yes, we have a right to protest if we believe that development to be unacceptable – but for factual reasons only. Areas change. If we base our house buying predominately on the scenic views – views that, after a while, we get so used to we don’t even notice them – then we are in for a fall.

It’s down to this: not everything remains the way it is. We have to accept that we cannot expect or control everything around us. We should stop and ask ourselves if life, if what we see every day, has become so routine we don’t even notice it anymore. Because perhaps a change can make us see it again in a different way. And it may just be even better.

29th August, 2013

Why can’t councils just get stuff done?

Oh my days. I’m sorry, but what is it with councils? Seriously, I really do wonder sometimes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, councils, the people who work there, day after day, I know they are doing what they can. The thing is, I wonder if the dots are always connected.

Take, first, the road up through Uley towards Stroud. What an utter mess that had been. Potholes not simply peppering the tarmac but driving huge welts through it, gaping like enormous seeping wounds left utterly unattended. It’s been lethal to drive on, absolutely lethal. I drive I small car and at one point, the potholes were so big, that I had to swerve to avoid them, narrowly missing the steep drop down to my right. But the most surprising aspect is that these potholes have been growing, becoming more dangerous for over a year. A year. And nothing was done about it. In fact, it took residents to campaign about the road before the local council took notice and paid for the resurface.

Meanwhile, over in parking, Gloucestershire County Council last year made a £1.6 million surplus from parking charges. In addition, Stroud District Council generated a surplus of £217,000 for such charges. Now, here’s the odd thing: by law, any revenue councils collect from parking is to be spent on highways, for example – yes, you’ve guessed it – road re-surfacing. So why then such the long, long wait for the Uley road to be re-surfaced? Why with the considerable surpluses accrued by the councils, did it take a campaign – a campaign – to ensure the road was fixed? And I’m not just talking a few bumps on the surface here – I’m talking seriously large, definitely dangerous holes not only for drivers but for cyclists, too.

The Local Government Association (LGA) blames the amount of roads in poor condition on “decades of underinvestment from government” plus recent freezing weather and flooding which has caused an estimated £1 billion-worth of damage. Certainly, the combination of excessive flooding and hot weather plays havoc with tarmac. But, when it comes the road in Uley, I don’t think there is an excuse. Because it took too long for the council to fix it, with such large car parking surpluses, it took too long. It’s that simple. So please, councils – don’t do it again. It’s just, literally, too dangerous.

22nd August, 2013

Don’t mess about when it comes to child car seats

So there we were the other week in our car. I was driving, so my concentration was set on the road ahead. We had, in our care, our two daughters, the most precious cargo in the world, and my priority was to drive as safely as possible. But then my husband said, ‘Oh my goodness, you have to see this.’ And as I could not look, he relayed to me this: two children were in the back of a moving car, no more than six years old, no seat belts, each of them half standing. Meanwhile, a baby slept in a cot on the far seat.

 And so to responsibility and the police carrying out car child seat checks in Thornbury. Last week, it was announced that South Gloucestershire Council’s road safety team, along with Avon and Somerset Police, were to carry out child car seat safety checks at Thornbury Fire Station. Now, it seems, to me, like a useful service, these checks. How good it is of the police to provide parents, child-minders, grandparents with such a service, such advice. Because yes, sometimes, laws change and we need to be aware – and the police can help with that.

 Yet, a part of me thinks that, advice or no advice, we should, as drivers know about car seats. It’s not, as they say, rocket science. But, it seems, not many people know the details. For example, for a child to travel in a car without any car seat at all, including a booster, they have to be over 1.35 metres, or 12 or 13 years old. There are other rules, too, depending on age and height, but, tellingly, at the end of the car seat law section on the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ (ROSPA) website, it states the following line: it is the driver’s legal responsibility to ensure that the child is correctly restrained.

 And that says it all really. It is the driver’s responsibility. We, me, you – they are our children in our cars and no amount of advice or checks by police will change the fact that the buck stops with us. I, for one, will be double-checking my girls’ heights, despite being sure that we are abiding the law. Because, checks or no checks, our children are the most precious cargos we will ever transport in our cars.

15th August, 2013

Keep our local services

Well you go away for two weeks and everything disappears. Okay, so not disappear per se, but, at the very least, change. What is it with the powers that be and their ability to mess with things? Why is it that councils, governments, health trusts and police boards deem it permissible to ripple their hands through the normally calm waters of what keeps us safe, until we are all bobbing up and down not knowing which way is up nor when the storm will pass?

 I refer to several situations here. First up is Thornbury Police Station. Earmarked to be torn down and replaced with sheltered housing now for some time, it signals an end to local police presence in the area. Sure, Avon and Somerset police has said that they are seeking suitable alternative locations, but as yet that has not materialized. In the meantime, what do residents do for a police service, one that is there, immediate, on their doorstep?

 Second, is the ambulance provision based in Dursley. We are, quite literally, in trouble without the men and women paramedics who provide this vital service. So why then is there a proposal to move the Dursley Ambulance site? Currently, an ambulance and rapid response vehicle are both based in Dursley, but the South West Ambulance Trust announced that they are not renewing the lease to the site. This means that the ambulance to the area will be based instead in Stroud, with the rapid response vehicle at Vale Hospital, Dursley.

 Now here’s the thing: yes, change happens. Yes, we have services throughout the county that we can call upon. But what is being missed is that locals need a local service, and when it’s messed with, it intrinsically affects the core of why it is there in the first place: to help local people. Last week, my friend’s son had a sudden, unexpected allergic reaction. He went down hill fast – it was serious. My friend immediately took him to the local Vale hospital and do you know what she said? She said if the local hospital wasn’t there, where she could take him to within minutes, then she doesn’t know what would have happened.

 The solution is simple: keep our local services. Cut them, mess with them too much and not only are the decision makers messing with our communities – they’re actually messing with our lives.

22nd July, 2013

Don’t make assumptions about people so quickly

I travelled to England from Ireland when I was a toddler.  Then, I didn’t have a clue what was happening. All I knew was that we were on a boat, it was fun, and that we had a new house in a new country. As time ticked by, mercifully, people were nice to our family. We were different. The area we moved to, up North, was unused to newcomers with their Irish accents and their white pudding and rashers and endless cups of tea. To most we were a novelty; to many, we were friends. However, I recall as we played with the local kids that, from time to time, unkind phrases would be uttered, about where we came from, all because of our different accents and ways.

 And so to Thornbury where opposition is growing against plans for a travellers’ site. The proposed site – for a traveller family with 13 children – is next to a quarry. Temporarily unused, the firm who own the quarry have expressed their opposition to the travellers living so close to the area. Their reason? Safety. According to the firm, the site has significant mineral reserves, which would pose a threat. Now, to me, this sounds like a very understandable reason to oppose the site. It is logical, unemotional and based on fact.

 But not all opposition seems to be based on the same factual reasoning. See Thornbury Parish Council – a Church Parish, no less – is opposing the site on what I can see are unreasonable grounds, saying as they are, that the mobile traveller homes would be out of character with the surrounding area. To boot, the Town Council are claiming that the site would bring down the value of the surrounding properties. This is despite the fact that a study commissioned by Parliament found no link between the creation of travellers’ sites and a drop in property value.

To me, it seems that these two councils are not being fair. They are not looking upon the travellers with clear eyes; instead it appears they are seeing what they want to see: a new family to the area about whom they have made huge, clouded assumptions. I moved from Ireland as a toddler. That was 37 years ago. Surely, if we have learned anything in that time it is this: prejudices don’t work.

18th July, 2013

I was survived Meningitis – now it’s time to save others

39 years ago I contracted Meningitis. I was a baby at the time, oblivious as I was then to the life-threatening situation I faced, unaware that the hospital room I slept in, cried in and was treated in for three weeks was there to protect me and others from the deadly virus. Back then, vaccination against Meningitis was non-existent. The development in medical science was burgeoning, but slow, and technological advancements were only just beginning to sprout.

 But 39 years is a long time. And, wrinkles on my face aside, a lot as changed. For me, I was one of the lucky ones. First of all, I survived. I contracted, at 5 months old, one of the most deadly forms of Meningitis. If it wasn’t then for a concerned GP returning to our house, I suspect I probably wouldn’t be here telling you the tale today. I was fortunate in other ways, too. My hearing, sight, limbs – all of them were unchanged by the side affects of the virus, and, aside from my horrendous habit of falling asleep on the sofa, I am fully functioning.

 So when I read last week that a mother from Wotton-under-Edge is campaigning for the NHS to adopt a life-saving Meningitis-B vaccine, I was both pleased and dismayed. Pleased because this mother – and thousands like her – never give up. Despite what she has been through, what she has lost, she is campaigning, tirelessly to make a change. My dismay, therefore, comes from the fact that in this day, in this age of modern society, it still takes people who have suffered to campaign for something that the government should be automatically adopting. The new vaccine championed by the campaign, is ground breaking.  The founder of Bristol-based Meningitis UK, said, ‘In 30-years, this vaccine is the most significant development in the fight against the disease since I lost my son 30-years ago.’

 We have ourselves, therefore, some options. First, support the campaign. Contact Meningitis charities, fundraise, help. I, for one, shall be setting up a direct debit. But then, go one step further: lobby. Lobby your MPs, contact as many people as possible and get the message out, get this vaccine funded on the NHS – your NHS. Because this vaccine can save lives. 39 years ago, as a child, I survived – now it’s time for the NHS to ensure the survival of all our children.

11th July, 2013

It’s not always possible to have your own way

I do wonder sometimes if, these days, people want things their own way all the time. It is a sign of the society in which we live. Just peek at the TV, on the Internet, and there’re you’ll see, in all it’s gory glory, a parade of people who expect everything – even though it’s not theirs to have.

 And so to garden centres. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been hearing about the perils of Fourbouys Garden Centre in Cam near Dursley. Having built a warehouse upon its premises, the centre now faces the demolition of the warehouse following an order by Cam Parish Council to take it down. So far, so acceptable. Except that it’s not. You see, the warehouse, the one that the garden centre built – it breeches planning regulations. What was only supposed to be a single storey building for storage was actually made into a two-storey facility– and on that second storey was a fully fitted kitchen and shower.

 The garden centre immediately began a campaign against the proposed demolition. I have seen the signs: “Save our Garden Centre” reads the banner by the roadside; leaflets too, bearing the same motto have been pushed through my letterbox, urging me to sign a petition against the demolition. But, the thing is, it is not a petition I can sign. You see, while I commend a local business wanting to do well, the bottom line is they did something they shouldn’t – and now they are backtracking. Why didn’t they build what they had permission to build? Why ignore what they had been told, only to do whatever they wanted, only to complain when, effectively, they had been found out? Their reaction – protesting at what is actually their own doing – is systematic of a growing culture of wanting everything.

 The garden centre owners should have played by the rules – like we all have to. What would happen if we all ignored planning rules, or any rules, for that matter?  What sort of community then would we be living in? If we disagree with rules, then we should definitely speak up; we should lobby local councillors, MPs, contact newspapers, stating our case. But please, let us not start complaining if, instead, we do something we shouldn’t and then get caught red handed. Because that is not an approach anyone will want to save.

4th July, 2013

Stop being judgemental on mothers with babies

Sometimes we all get too judgmental, expect too much. We are, as a society, on 24-7 watch, it seems, as to how our fellow human beings behave. Social media does not help. Twitter, Facebook, You Tube – people throwing about judgments like confetti.

 And so to breastfeeding. Last week, on the Gazette website, was a picture and caption that caught my eye: the mums and children of Yate Breast Friends at the annual picnic in Kingsgate Park. And it made me think. You see, breastfeeding, to me, is something that, over the years, has become something of real exasperation, and here’s why: mothers are given a hard time.

 Breastfeeding is tough these days, that’s for sure. Last week was National Breastfeeding Week, but you wouldn’t have known. You wouldn’t have known because in 2011, the Department of Health withdrew its funding for it, despite the number of women in the UK nursing their infants falling fast. At the same time, UNICEF claims that breastfeeding could save the NHS some £40 million if women were given help to breastfeed for longer.

 And this is where, to me, mothers get a hard time. Breastfeeding could save the NHS £40million? So, if mothers do not breastfeed, are they squandering NHS funds? Well, of course not, it would be daft to stretch the data to that conclusion, but this twaddle is what can be directed at mums. Then take another angle, the one where breastfeeding is not celebrated – nor even supported by Government – but stopped. The one where a woman can feed her infant in a café discreetly, and yet be frowned at by customers or even asked to leave. And what if you whip out a bottle of formula? What then? I remember with my second when she was two weeks old and breastfeeding had failed, feeling guilty that I was feeding her with a bottle because breastfeeding had been hyped, by the midwives, as the bee all and end all.

 And so, there is only one conclusion: leave mothers alone. Stop, everyone, heaping on mothers huge expectations and judgments on top of what is already the biggest responsibility of their lives: their child. We must not judge each other, but instead, accept. Because otherwise, one day, these babies, breastfed or not, will grow up and marvel at how we, with our judging and our expectations, have completely let them down.

27th June, 2013

It’s time we all got some manners

The problem with life is that there is never enough thoughtfulness. Not these days, anyway. Life today has become all about speed, about ourselves, about completely forgetting that there are, everywhere, others around us, others in this modern society that we live in, one that, if you blink, you miss the rate of change faster than a flash of lightening.

 And so to manners. Manners are something that we take for granted. Brought up, as we were, as children, as box-fresh human beings wide-eyed at the growing world, manners were, like the foundations of a house, a requirement. But, just like a house, without manners underpinning society, the building will start to crumble, not obviously at first, but bit by bit, until, eventually, it’s torn and broken and irretrievably shattered.

 Take Chipping Sodbury, for instance. Over there, on Horse Street, residents are complaining that, since the start of the Waitrose supermarket development, parking has intensified on their roads. Not only that, but cars have been parked in front of residents’ driveways, blocking them in, making access impossible. Now, the immediate reaction here is to blame Waitrose. The development has shaken everything up, creating chaos where there was calm in terms of where people deposit their cars. But Waitrose is not to blame. The people blocking the driveways are to blame, and all down to one thing: lack of manners.

 If these drivers had manners, they wouldn’t dream of blocking someone’s driveway. Yes, they may be in a rush, yes, there may be limited parking spaces, but they have to have some manners, some mechanism in themselves that stops and ask, ‘Would I like someone to block my drive so I couldn’t get out?’ to which the answer would be ‘no’. So why, therefore, do they do it?

 In this society of ‘me first’ there has to be some moment where we pause and ask if we are acting as we should, if we are planning, preparing enough. Because if we don’t, if we carry on blocking driveways or not teaching our kids move over to let others past, or, as with our local school, parking on yellow hazard lines that are actually there to protect our children, then the foundations that we live on will begin to crack. And before we know it, society has crumpled into a heap around us and we are left picking up the pieces.

20th June, 2013

When is too old to drive?

When is too old to drive? It’s an awkward question – in fact, it’s a question I’d never really deliberated until the other day when I, quite literally, walked by a car accident in Cam.

It was at a roundabout and, from first sight, the two cars involved were a mess; metal crumpled and bumpers broken, littering the road, causing a back up of traffic. I stopped, as you do, to check everyone was okay, and, mercifully, they were. The owner of the car that had been crashed into was, understandably, shaken. She was trying to talk to the gentleman in the car that had collided into her, and so I looked at him too, and, from what I could see, the man in question was upset and confused. But not just that – he was clearly over the age of 65.

Now, look, I’m on my way to 40 this year, so, suddenly 65 does not seem that old. Heck, 70 is the new 60; 50 the new 40; 30 the new 20; and…well, you get the idea. The last thing I want to do here is imply there is an age where you should just stop and wait for God. No way. My saying is, ‘I’m not going down without a fight,’ and by that I mean: keep going, live life, let nothing – certainly not age – stand in your way. But, thing is, when it comes to driving, when it comes to, what is effectively a metal box that kills people, the theory on age starts to attract debate.

While there is no upper limit to the driving age, the DVLA guidelines are that, once at the age of 70, drivers must renew their license and then renew it again every three years after. But, if we think on this, we could recall many drivers –young, old, middling – who drive erratically or speed or don’t look where they’re going, so many in fact, that the one common factor ceases to be “age” and begins to be “ability”.

 And so, what it boils down to is this: driving is about mental and physical ability. We all, as drivers, have a responsibility to assess ourselves – whatever our years – and ask if we are competent in our cars, meaning, age aside, we stay – and keep others – safe. Because while age is just a number – life is not.

13th June, 2013

Solve both speeding and obesity – walk instead

I’ve been reading Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. Gloucestershire born and bred, Laurie Lee was born in Slad near Stroud to a house creaking with people and vegetables and bread and life. Reading it, the book, the celebrated novel, is to be transported back to that time when the days were so different to now.

 It was a time, in the 1920s, when Gloucestershire was not connected. There were no motorways, no cars, no regular train routes. Wherever a person was born was were they died. Supermarkets didn’t exist, growing, as families did, their food in the garden, foraging in fields, buying bread from the local bakers. And walking. Everyone walked everywhere, cars being rare, even horses being a luxury to ride on the back of. If you needed something, you either grew it, bartered, swopped or walked to the village for it.

 And so to speeding and Wotton-Under-Edge. A petition has been put forward to attempt to reduce the speed limit on the B4058 from 40 to 30 mph. The petition from local residents states that, “there is a history of accidents, near misses and damage to property on a stretch of the highway.” While the council says that they will continue to monitor the stretch of road concerned, I cannot help but think of what life has become. When, during a time of transport revolution, did everything become so fast? How, in this day of modern medicine and intelligent technical developments, did we turn in to a nation of speed and obesity, the highest in Europe competing next only to the USA for overweight citizens?

 And then I think to Laurie Lee, and I think of how much more simple life was then, and the answer to what we need to do becomes clear: we need to walk. We all, as a county, need to quit speeding, get out of our cars, put on our boots and darn well move. Yes, there are remote villages with limited access, and yes, in modern society there is a place for vehicles and progress, but there is also a place for the past – and from it something to learn.  We may not be in the 1920s, but this is still Laurie Lee country, and if walking everywhere worked 80 years ago, it can still work for us today.

6th June, 2013

Is it time to get rid of the role of mayor?

I read the other week that the town of Dursley has a new mayor. Well, I say new, turns out the mayor has been re-elected, now in the post for her ninth successive term. And I sat and I read that and I thought, ‘I never even knew we had a mayor.’ And then I thought, ‘Shouldn’t they be elected?’

 Now – and forgive me here for my original blindness to this whole situation – but I would have thought that the position of mayor, of leader of an area, of a figure head who, laden with tradition, is pivotal to a town, should be something we should have a say in. With such an historical position, why did we not, as residents, as citizens with an obligation to vote, get to directly elect them?

Well, as it happens, there are two mayoral election systems: directly elected vs. local-authority elected. Directly elected mayors were introduced under a tirade of controversy in London in 2000. The idea was that this person would be elected into the role by the public; whereas local authority mayors – like the Dursley role – are chosen by our local councilors, picking their candidate from already elected council members. This type of mayor has similar powers to a Leader, say, of a Cabinet, and, like a directly elected mayor is, wait for it, accountable for their actions.

Now, call me daft (actually, don’t), but I see two problems with all this. One: there is seemingly minimum difference between each mayoral role; and two, it is all about power. And it is that power, that ability to wield decisions – that is what it is all about. Because the role of mayor is synonymous with power and with power comes a cloud that distorts what really needs to be done, what really matters. And what really matters is not status or tradition, but issues and lives.

So, why do we not just take it away, this power role of mayor – one that can confusingly be either elected directly by the people or chosen quietly by a cabinet – and have simply a leader instead? That way, instead of the focus being about power, pomp and tradition, we can have a focus of doing good, of making change, of speaking for the people. Now that’s something I would like to read about.

30th May, 2013

There are two sides to every story

Some things just make my heart sink. Poverty. The Gaza conflict. UK politics. You name it, there’s something nationally and internationally that I can look at today that makes me think that the world needs to stop, just for a moment, and take a long hard look at itself.

 And so to mobility scooters. Over the past few months, a story has been unfolding regarding a man, his mobility scooter and whether he can park it at the private complex in Dursley where he lives. Almost every week there has been something about it in the papers. And not just reports. On the letters page, too, there have been comments from local people on the situation, giving us their opinions on what they view as an outrageous situation. Why can’t, they say, a man park his mobility scooter where he wants? What on earth, people cry, is the committee at the complex thinking, berating an old man in such a way, a man who fought for his country? Words have been used to comment on the decisions made by the committee, words that, if I’m honest, I do not want to repeat, words that I am appalled people have used.

 Appalled because the words, the way in which the committee is being attacked, makes my heart sink. You see, I don’t regard “mobility scooter gate” as those on the letters pages do.  I do not look at the committee of the complex in question, the committee who has had to make this decision, and think, ‘how dare they’. No. I look at it all, the nasty comments, the cross words, and I worry for the elderly committee members, for their well being at having to go through this so publicly. Because these situations, they bring out the worst in people, they bring out the mud, the slinging of it, mud that, when it hits, ends up blurring the vision, blurring the lines of decency.

 There is a saying that I’m sure we are all familiar with: there are two sides to every story. It is a saying we would all do well to remember. It is a saying we should stop to consider before we speak, before we cast judgment on people, on a situation. Because without that, your heart starts to sink and you realise you’ve never taken a moment to stop and take a long hard look around.

23rd May, 2013

Don’t waste money on changing exam grading

A ball is a ball. You might call it something else, like a sphere – or heck, if your feeling crazy, even a square. But, when the day is done, the ball will still be a ball.

And so to exam grades. Last week, Education Minister, Michael Gove, announced that a radical change to the grading system for GCSEs is in the offing. Now, if you’ve read my column before, you may know that I am not a fan of Mr.Gove, the meddler that he is in the education of our children, a system that, if you project 30 years ahead, is the most vital area for which the Government is responsible. Get education right, and you get the country right.

So why on earth do we have yet more changes? Take the latest one – the grading system. Currently, GCSE papers are graded with A* as the highest mark down to G as the lowest. So far, so simple. Except now Gove is proposing a numerical system where 1 will take the place of A* and so on until you reach a G grade. The reason given for the change is that a numerical system would make it easier for universities to differentiate between candidates, allowing the more competitive institutions to award places to the brightest students.

And so I bring you back to balls and what we call them. You see, as far as I can tell, whether you use the alphabet to grade exams or numbers, the outcome is still the same: a result. And that’s what this is all about – a result. A result for our children, thousands of students across Gloucestershire sitting GSCEs right now, from Katherine Lady Berkley School in Wotton to Winterbourne Academy in Yate. Their results are their reality – and no Government grading system meddling will alter that, never mind the money it will cost to change it all, money that is desperately needed elsewhere for standard things like books, pencils, excellent teachers.

Back in April, the Department of Education came under fire for apparently stonewalling questions about its own “exceptionally poor performance”.  So, perhaps if Michael Gove spent more time improving his own department than he does shaking up the education system, our children would stand a better chance. Because, at the end of the day, when they’re out in the world, a ball is still a ball.

16th May, 2013

Should pubs be just for drinkers?

It’s true, with the weather as good as it has been, I like a cool drink in a pub garden as much as the next person. In fact – and don’t take this the wrong way – I like pubs. Not particularly to drink more than one glass of red, you understand, although that, to be fair has been known.

For centuries, pubs have been at the heart of a community. A few years ago in Uley, its public house was closed and it made a huge difference to the area.  But, while they certainly have their place in society, I can’t help but wonder if pubs – which remember, are commercial enterprises that sell alcohol to make money – should effectively take on the position of, what should be a council run community centre?

And so to the Full Moon pub in Wotton-under-Edge and the garage site that neighbours it. Following a need for more social housing in the area, Stroud District Council has notified the garage tenants that they are being given notice on their lease contracts. The plan, it seems, is to use the land where the garages sit in order to build essential social housing. So far, so tricky. The issue, however, has worsened as developers are now considering knocking down not just the garages, but also the Full Moon pub to make way for new, much needed homes.

The local residents are up in arms. Despite the troubled history of the pub, locals are defending the Full Moon saying that it is used by the skittles team, for dominoes and by the cribs team, as well as by elderly people. And while I think this is great, I do think – why? Why does it take a pub to the do the job of the community centre? What mixed message does it send out to younger groups in society? See, we chastise teenagers for gathering at a shop corner with cider, but, at the same time, we applaud locals for drinking pints in pubs whilst playing skittles. Yet, because that pub is the ‘heart of the community’ we green-light it.

Yes, we love a good pub. Yes, pubs have a place. But saying we want to meet as a community in pubs, means we have to admit that other groups will meet elsewhere. And if we complain, we must admit something else, too: our double standards.

9th May, 2013

When people disagree with us, we must respect that

Disagreeing with something can be hard. Disagreeing with something when you are the only one that does, is even harder.

 Over in Olveston, for some time, agreement has been the main order of the day. It’s all down to a talented chap who owns a listed house in the village, and who, in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee, screwed eight foot by eight foot panels to his gates and painted on them a giant illustration of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The paintings were received with such joy from the villagers that the painter created more illustrations to depict popular times, including Olympic scenes and Andy Murray at Wimbledon. What strikes me here is how delightful this is, how nice – how very British.

 And then someone complained. It was just one resident, one person from the village who took an aversion to the paintings, but complain he did. To the local council. And now, the council planners have decreed that the paintings defy listed building regulations, and they have to go.

 Understandably, villagers have been outraged. I have seen the paintings – they really are impressive. It does seem a touch ludicrous, jobs worthy even, that planners are telling the owner to take them away. The paintings are on moveable boards; they are not painted directly on to the property.

 But I have a concern with this situation and it is this: the wellbeing of the one person who complained. See, not everyone will like everything. The man – even if you disagree with him – has a right to complain, has a right not to like what everyone else does. He has a right, as do we, to voice his opinion, just as much as Olveston residents have a right to enjoy the unusual artwork while it lasts. Singling this man out, naming him – what do we think it must be like for him? To be the sole voice of opposition in a village of people who think the opposite – what must that be like?

 It is something we have a duty to consider. When people disagree with our opinions, we must remember they have a right to disagree. And we, in return, must respect that. Yes, we can talk to them, show them the other side, but we must understand they are entitled to their opinion without being singled out. It’s freedom of opinion, you see. How very British.

2nd May, 2013

We all have a responsibility to help save & maintain our high streets

 “People want, and deserve, a clean and pleasant place to live and function and to ‘call home’”. These are not my words, but the words of The Scottish Towns Policy Group in a report compiled by them in January 2011. The report looked into high streets. It looked at what they have become, what they used to be, and where they could end up in the future. The report may well be Scotland focused, but to all intents and purposes it could be talking about anywhere in the UK. It could be talking about Gloucestershire.

 The past few weeks have seen significant shifts in our local high streets. Last week, I needed some almond butter (really) so I set off into Dursley to go to the Honey Pot health food shop. To discover it was closed. Then the news breaks that the fruit and vegetable store, Bramleys, is also to shut. And it genuinely saddened me.

 See, some seven years ago, my job was changing and, as it stood then, moving away from Dursley was on the cards. We scouted new places to go. We had a list of priorities for a new area. Schools, of course, safety, too. But guess what else was on there? Local shops. See, local, independent retailers are what gives an area its character, its uniqueness. Take that away, transfer stores to generic, national chains and what do you have? Carbon copy towns. You have place after place that look the same, with people shopping, bored as they are at the sameness, the lack of choice.

 And so to the answer.  It’s tempting with closures, to point the finger of blame. Yet, the solution for the amazing places we live, takes not one, not two, but three groups: local councils, local retailers – and us. We all, the three groups, have a duty to the place we call home. Councils can set out clear plans, consider lowering VAT on refurbishments. Local retailers can develop robust business plans, organise promotions to encourage footfall. And us? Well, we have the easiest part – we can spend our money in our local shops.

 Yes, big business still has a place – I’m sure the new Sports Direct store in Yate will help the local economy. But, creating a clean, pleasant place to live and function is no longer the responsibility of one group. It’s the responsibility of us all.

25th April, 2013

The bedroom tax makes the rich and poor divide even wider

Ghettoisation is a word we do not hear much of in this age.  It signifies isolation, poverty, segregation.  Yet now, in 2013, the word is in my head. And it’s all down to one thing: the bedroom tax.

The bedroom tax – or the ‘spare bedroom subsidy’ – came into force on April 1st, and is a reduction in housing benefits for working-age claimants who have at least one spare bedroom in their accommodation. On paper, this sounds sensible. Economically, the UK is in tight times.  The national budget deficit is at £1.1bn. By 2012, spend on benefits had increased by 1.1% since 2010, and expenditure on housing benefit went up by 5.1% in the same period.

Yet, in Gloucestershire, more than 3,000 families will be directly affected by the bedroom tax, people in our communities – Wotton, Yate, Dursley. The Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit Circular states that, entitled to one bedroom each, will be: a couple, an adult aged 16 or over, two children of the same sex (aged under 16), two children aged under 10 regardless of sex, any other child under 16, and a non-resident carer providing overnight care. So why do people need an extra bedroom?

And that question is the problem. See, as soon as you begin to pick in the finest detail what people have, you begin to isolate them. The bedroom tax is dividing and devastating. By saying that people on benefits will be charged for a spare room, the government is creating ghettos, herding people into areas they don’t want to live, all because they have an extra bedroom. Never mind if that room is needed by the mother whose son’s condition means he cannot share, or the two-thirds of disabled people who will be directly affected by the measure.  And if you think it’s okay, then imagine this: you are told to up sticks and leave your home because you have an extra room.

The bedroom tax will make the divide between rich and poor even wider. And what would be next? Telling all housing benefit claimants to live in high-rises? Sounds daft, but really, where is the line drawn? That’s why the bedroom tax – ghettoisation –  is not the answer. Instead, let social housing providers rent their properties on the same day, and therefore minimise arrears. Streamline paperwork. Eliminate hypocrisy. Because, if we ghettoise people, they will, one day, break out.

18th April, 2013

 Thatcherism wrecked our public transport system

I was born five years before Maragret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister. At the time, the country was in disarray. Trade unions were running companies, shortages were a foot. Change had to happen. But change, change that creates a seismic shift, is not always universally consented.

Thatcher’s government made changes that not only altered the makeup of the country, they re-dressed the design of politics entirely. Thatcherism, as it became known, became synonymous with radical change. The abolition of the power of trade unions. The sharp, deep cuts made into the heart of Britain’s mining communities. The irrevocable dismantling of Britain’s manufacturing base. And the deregulation of public transport.

On 26 October, 1986, bus services were privatised. Under the Transport Act of 1985, bus services were tendered out to private companies to run. The results fatally injured our public transport system. Along with the privatisation of the national rail network, the deregulation of buses saw the introduction of new bus services that made profits. Commercial operators ran routes that made money, no longer required, as they were, to cross-subsidise. And so, if a bus route was not turning a profit, they were under no obligation to run it.

And so to 2013. Last week we saw the announcement of the cancellation of the 311 bus service between Thornbury and Dursley. The impact has been immediate and devastating. Local people use the service and are stuck now at what to do. Even local business are being affected. And why? Because the private, for-profit company that runs the service has said that the 311 route has ‘become commercially unsustainable’.  This is the legacy of Thatcherism. A bus service, a deregulated public necessity that is driven not by people, not by social need, but by profit.

When Margaret Thatcher sadly passed away, David Cameron, in tribute to her, tweeted that ‘she gave Britain back its self-belief.’   Many would agree with him. She helped turn the UK from the laughing stock of Europe into a global, respected force. But, she also created a country where it was okay for every man to be out for himself, one where the rich got richer and the poor, well, they struggled.  Yes, Margaret Thatcher was the first woman Prime Minister and that is an amazing legacy. But the deregulation of buses? That is not a legacy. It is a shambles.

11th April, 2013

We need more commuter towns

I’ve lived in Cam for 10 years. A lot has changed in that time. Most notably, industry. Lister Petter moving out. Sainsbury’s moving in. Jobs disappearing, jobs being created. It’s been a constant rollercoaster of work, a constant seismic shifting of employability in the town. But Dursley’s not alone. All over the county we are seeing changes in how towns function.

Gloucestershire is a county than is a force for industry. Downton Transport. The Superdry Group. Messier-Dowty. Bottlegreen drinks. So many major, global businesses reside in our county to work, build, grow.

People travel to these companies – but people also travel further afield, yet still live in Gloucestershire. And they don’t want to move. They don’t want to leave Gloucestershire and its countryside, its traditions, its calmness. And so, with the 2011 census revealing a population growth of 5.7% in the county, commuter towns have developed.

Commuter towns. Even saying the phrase can create great divides. What, people, say, is the good of a commuter town? What can it do? With simply commuters in towns, how can they survive?

Well, they can survive just fine. I see it every day. I see it in Dursley, the town Lister Petter has occupied for years and is now departing from. Yes, it leaves a huge hole in its wake, but it’s a hole that can be filled. By homes, by people. People are coming into the town and it’s changing as a result.

If you think it can’t be done, look at Nailsworth. 15 years ago it was like Dursley, in need of a boost. And that boost came – in the form of commuters. People realised it was a place to live, bring up their families, yet still be able to get on a train and be in London within two hours. And look at Nailsworth now. It is thriving. Deli’s, restaurants, shops. This boom in commuter-ville has helped Nailsworth to transform into a different place. Cool, bohemian – and one where people want to live and spend their money. Money which feeds back into the local economy, creates jobs, attracts tourism.

Being a commuter town is a good thing. Yes, we need industry and without jobs, we simply cannot survive. But an influx of people brings opportunities. I came to Cam as a commuter, and now I’m a resident. And I know many more like me, and hopefully, many more to come.

4th April, 2013

We should stop moaning and finally do something

We moan too much. We do. As Britons, we are a nation of folk who, pelted with incessant rain and waking to grey morning after grey morning, are accustomed to a groan and moan. And, to a certain extent, why not? Winter lasts a long time and even now, in Spring, a time that should be all flowers, and sunshine and skipping through meadows, has been cold and dank. March 2013 went on record as being the coldest ever in 50 years. Enough said.

But moaning, constant moaning, gets us nowhere. Around Gloucestershire, a lot happens that gets our goat. New homes being built where we don’t want them. Gas works creating never-ending congestion in towns. Super prisons. Budget cuts. Lack of sufficient car parks. Our towns are what we know. Yate. Wotton. Frampton Cotterall. We get embroiled in the daily grind that is our lives and we do what is inevitable – we moan. But it has to end, this moaning, this almost national sport that we have created, created to such an extent that it’s dragging us down.

I don’t know, call it tiredness, call it the end of the line, but there comes a time when we have to wake up, all of us, and take a long hard look at what we can actually do. Moaning is not it. Moaning about something wastes energy. You may as well, as my mum used to say, talk to the wall as to moan. No one hears you.

The only answer is action. Action.  That’s what works. People campaigning in the public gallery against the waste incinerator proposal. Fundraisers climbing the three peaks for the Meningitis Trust.  A local primary school blasting its way to a cracking Ofsted report after it was labelled originally as failing. Action. It’s all about taking action. Because if we don’t act, if we just moan, then what?

Take that school, Dursley School. What if its senior management team had simply moaned at the original scathing Ofsted judgement? Nothing would have happened. Nothing. The children wouldn’t now be in a school that the Head and his team put major actions into place to improve. It’s an amazing achievement to turn a school around. But not only that – it’s an amazing message: actions speak louder than words. Because moaning is just words. But doing something about it? Now that’s action.

28th March, 2013

It’s time we all learnt to share

It’s great to share good news. Great. Take the other week. In what can only be described as a major feather in the cap, The Sunday Times declared the town of Thornbury to be one of the best places to live in the South West.

The winners of such a title, selected by the newspaper, were chosen on a range of factors that included transport links, education, property prices and cultural life. It shows that we value these things, that, when it comes down to it, we want to live in towns that provide the best.  But, the problem with towns being declared great places to live means people want to keep it that way. And by keeping it that way, I mean do not change a thing. Nothing. They want to keep it to themselves.

When things go well what it does is create an instinct to protect. That instinct is strong. It’s what drives us as a county to ensure we get funding when we need it. Take that to a national level and you get talk of ensuring that this isle, this British Isle where we live is protected from people who arrive here, looking for work, schools, a better life.

But that better life, that’s the point, or, to be more specific, sharing that better life. When people see a town, a county – a country – that is doing well, that could provide them with what they are looking for to be happy, they want to go there. And why not? We all deserve to be happy. But the trouble is, people do not always want to share in their good fortune.  Awards, accoldaes can bring out the worst in people, making them wrap their arms around what they have and not let go.

 In Thornbury, there is a proposal for 300 new houses to be built in Morton Way. But some locals are saying this is inappropriate, that the new homes could spoil the prise-winning local beauty. This attitude is a tad selfish. Instead of sharing their good fortune, residents are keeping it. Why? Why has it come down to not sharing a town’s success? Yes, we should protect our green belts. Yes, we should preserve the integrity of our towns. But we should share in their successes too. Sharing is what we teach our children. Perhaps it’s time we taught it to the adults, too.

21st March, 2013

Schools are crumbling about us

Schools are in trouble. Not their performance, although the pressure put on teachers and children is beyond ridiculous, and the fact that we expect 4-year olds to knuckle down and score points? Well, don’t get me started. The trouble I refer to here is of the more solid kind: buildings.

School buildings are falling apart – and the government doesn’t seem to care. And by care, I mean do anything. When the coalition came in to power back in 2010, one of the first thing Education Secretary, Michael Gove, did was scrap the Building for Schools programme, a programme that meant dilapidating school buildings would be re-built.

It was a programme that worked. In Dursley, Rednock School was completely revamped to the tune of £30 million, and it meant new classrooms, a refreshed place for pupils to learn.

But now that’s all gone. And as a former school governor, I have experienced the direct consequences. There is no money. None. Schools, successful schools rated Outstanding by Ofsted, are having to mend and make do.

Some are getting help. Winterbourne International Academy has just begun construction of a new site, receiving £19.3million in funding. But this is an exception. In a survey of the 261 schools in the coalition’s priority build programme, of the 158 that replied, only 19 had start dates – and none of the privately financed projects who responded said they had funding secured. In fact, 66 schools said they had heard nothing on their rebuilds

When I was a governor, our school was rated Outstanding by Ofsted, and yet classes are taught from ageing prefabs, and windows leak. And what worries me about this, the worst thing about this situation, is the message it sends to kids – that even if you do your very best, you won’t get rewarded, that you won’t get a decent environment in which to learn. Because, too all intents and purposes, that’s what the Government is saying. To our children.

Some may quote difficult economic circumstances to explain the lack of school funding, yet consider this: over the next decade, the Ministry of Defence could be spending £160 billion on new weapons systems.  That’s no way to spend money. It’s not a future. A future is our children – and their education. Stop that and everything breaks – but this time, it won’t be just leaky windows.

14th March, 2013

Subsidised transport is the answer – not more car parks

Sometimes we look at something, some situation, some issue, and we think we know what the problem is. Not only that, but we believe the solution to the problem is easy, simple, straight forward. So think of that, and now think of car parks. Parking, in this county, in this place of towns and villages and privatised transport, has become a problem. And it’s about to burst.

In Wotton-under-Edge, parking is growing from a spot to a huge boil. Concern has been raised with the proposals to change the Chipping car park in the town. Currently, the car park has 36 long-stay spaces and the proposal by Stroud District Council is to reduce these spaces to 18. Understandably, local people have been angered. Wotton, like many towns across Gloucestershire, relies on an influx of cars, bringing with them folk who work there, shop there, spend their money there. If car park spaces are reduced, the obvious question is how will the town be able to sustain itself? How will the town, when economic times are tough, be in a position to maintain and grow, to allow people to come?

And so to knowing the solution. The most obvious answer is to increase car parking – the maths is simple. But is the solution so simple? See, we live in an age, not just of economic challenges, but of environmental ones, too. If we do the maths, more cars equals more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But, for Gloucestershire and its councils, car parks equal cash. In fact, by 2012, Gloucestershire County Council had raised nearly £30 million from its car parks in three years alone. And yet, at the same time, bus fares have shot through the roof. The thinking is warped.

To me, with this problem, this one of cars, of economics, the solution should not be one of skewed, short-term budget gain, but of long-term development. And that means only one thing: better public transport. Instead of focussing on cars, we should be – the government should be – focussing on creating the best public transport system possible, one where workers can travel to a rural town like Wotton without needing a car – or a car park.

Transport should be subsidised. It should not, like my 1-mile journey from Dursley to Cam, cost over £1.50 per trip. Better public transport is the right solution. The maths is simple.

7th March, 2013

Charge us our taxes & be honest about it

I know what I’m about to say is not the norm, but here it is: taxes are good. Taxes pay for stuff. Without taxes, what do we have? No support, no schools, a dismantled society. Here’s another good thing: honesty.

When South Gloucestershire council announced they were freezing their council tax, I thought, how can they pay for stuff? How, in this world where costs are rising, where, penny by penny prices are rocketing, can less tax mean we can keep our services? Perhaps, I wondered, there is a plan, maybe some lateral thinking. Turns out none of this is happening.

See, South Gloucestershire Council are proposing now to charge for the garden waste green bin collections. £36 per year, to be precise.  It is an opt in fee – and it creates so many issues. First, the fact that people can decide if they want to pay the charge will mean many will opt out.  Second, this is a tax, if not in name, then in looks. And third, it’s dishonest. A council cannot say that they are freezing tax only to re-introduce it via the back door.

One obvious question is what happens if people do not pay this green bin fee. When people choose to opt out, where will their waste go? To landfill. And what then could the council say when that happens? That people were given the option to recycle and they chose to say no.

Yet the biggest danger, the thing that the council must stop and consider is this: where does it end? If we introduce charges that are to all intents and purposes, tax, where do we stop? Do we charge for books at school? For each GP consult? For every time we call an ambulance, like a pay-per-call system? If you think that’s okay, consider this: in the Republic of Ireland, if someone calls the fire brigade, then that caller is charged for the call. So the result? People let the fires burn.

The council say that the surplus created by charging could help protect libraries, but we shouldn’t be held to ransom. Tax provides services we need. So charge them. Charge us our taxes and be honest about it. Because then, not only will we have a better understanding of what the council does, but we’ll also have something else for them: respect.

28th February, 2013

Getting older shouldn’t mean you get forgotton 

It was a sad day.  Over in Thornbury, it was announced that the police station was to be closed. Police stations, like libraries, post offices and schools, are the centre of our communities. Without them we have a fractured society, one that – given the growth of the digital era, computers, the Internet – becomes simply a group of people that drift.

So when the details emerged that houses were to be built on the police station land, it came as a mixed blessing. Good housing helps anchor otherwise drifting communities – and it is in demand.  South Gloucestershire Council has a 5-year housing plan that tries to address local housing needs, including the development of affordable housing. However, it created some raised eyebrows when it was announced that Churchill Retirement Living is proposing to build 36 sheltered flats on the police site.

The question, it seems, is why retired living accommodation? Why, when families are on waiting lists for decent housing, when many nursing homes are calling in the administrators, why are the council considering more sheltered flats to be built? Why not homes for young people?

The answer is this: we live in an ageing population. Like it or not, wrinkles aside, we are a county that is getting older. National statistics show that in the UK the oldest age groups are the fastest growing age groups, with the number of people over the age of 85 expected to double from 1.4 million to 3.5 million in 25 years. That’s a big figure. In the UK we are lucky. We have a national health system that, love or loathe it, is keeping us in check. We are living longer, drawing our pensions, living our lives.

But the thing is, as people get older, good accommodation is needed, sheltered accommodation – and this is why the new Churchill proposal in Thorbury is a good idea. My husband’s Nanna lived in sheltered housing for years and it helped her live the amazing life she did.

Of course, there is the argument that families have the greater need. But South Gloucestershire has a robust plan in place that addresses affordable housing. So we have to face reality. We are getting older. We have to ensure there is enough housing for everyone.  And just because you get older, doesn’t mean to say you get forgotten.

22nd February, 2013

The real cost of the horsemeat fiasco

Horsemeat. There’s been a whole heap of talk about it in the press of late, and for good cause. Shops that we use in Gloucestershire, trusted retailers – Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons, never mind the big food brands like Findus – have all been found to be selling products that contain horsemeat instead of beef.

Commentators have turned to where we shop. Local, they say, why do we not shop more local? That’s a good question. In Gloucestershire we are blessed with farms, rolling countryside where cattle are reared, with farmers working hard, down the road, ready to supply. And local butchers, too, serve us. They open, day after day, winning awards – from Cam to Chipping Sodbury – for their meat, their service and their contribution to the community.

But it is the quality of the meat they sell, the assurance that we know its source for sure, that has drawn the most comments. Isn’t it time, some say, that this horsemeat scandal, this cheap meat fiasco, reminds us all to use quality products, not ready-made tosh, cheap cuts, basic brands?

Look, quality meat is the ideal, sure. But what the quality meat camp doesn’t take into account, what it fails to address is this: quality costs money. Look at those most affected by the horsemeat affair and you’ll see those with less money, those who can’t afford quality meat, who have hardly enough to pay their winter fuel bill, never mind select a rump steak cut. They might go for a MacDonalds instead, because it’s easier or quicker or maybe just they can’t face cooking on nothing. And yet they are judged. But consider this: according to official guidelines, a 5oz rump steak serving is more than the daily guideline for meat consumption. Yet, a Big Mac is within the safe guidelines. Within.

So, before we judge, before we start to pass opinion on who should buy what and where, perhaps we should look at the circumstances. We should look at what people in our county have to put up with, what drives them to make their choices.  Because just like with beef turning out to be horsemeat, scratch the surface of peoples’ lives and a whole heap of issues is revealed that you never even knew existed.

14th February, 2013

Everyone should have equal access to libraries

When I was a kid I used the mobile library a lot. Every week I would be there like a shot. I loved it. Money was tight back then and so the library was vital. A library, you see, was my route to knowledge. Accessible, regular, free knowledge.

Last week saw Gloucestershire County Council unveil their new mobile library service in Saul. In Gloucestershire, the library service has changed beyond measure.  Libraries have been closed, the County Council’s decision has been questioned and the community has been up in arms. Initially, when cuts were announced, 10 libraries were earmarked to be closed in Gloucestershire. With some 600 libraries axed throughout the UK, Gloucestershire County Council’s plans included shelving the mobile library service.

But then people spoke out. Campaign groups rallied and protested, horrified as they were that such a thing could happen. And so came a turnaround. The new mobile library service in Saul signifies this. I welcome it. I welcome anything that keeps libraries alive, vital as they are to making sure we have access to facts, information, knowledge – all for free. But, the trouble is, the new mobile library service is not enough. It is not enough because villages are being missed out. People from many areas are still without access to a decent library service and this is just wrong.

The counter argument of course is to encourage people to move, to get on a bus, in a car and get to a library in another area.  But my problem with that answer is this: it is not equal. The access to knowledge should be a right, not a privilege – and libraries are the pillars of knowledge. Take those pillars away and what are you left with? A dismantled system that creates inequality, that favours the fit, favours those better-off, those with internet access, independence, you name it.

If our county is to be successful, then sustaining knowledge for all is vital. Free, obtainable knowledge. Because this right, this absolutely essential part of life, is something our councils, our government have a duty to uphold. It’s what we vote them in to defend.

It boils down to this: everyone should have equal access to libraries. Young, old, rich, poor, rural, urban – we cannot grow without knowledge.  And while I welcome the Saul mobile library, it’s time that was understood.

7th February, 2013

What to wear should not be so controversial

If you’re a man, imagine this. Imagine having to think about what you wear before you leave the house. I’m not talking about looking smart here. I’m talking about thinking if what you’re wearing will attract trouble. Say you stick on a pair of jeans to go down the pub.  Seems reasonable, right? But what if I said those jeans were the jeans a gang, say, didn’t like and so anyone wearing them may risk being on the receiving end of a beating. You’d probably say that’s daft, that whatever jeans you wear has nothing to do with you being at risk of being beaten up. And you’d be correct.

So why then just recently did a Gloucestershire MP say that, “women should be aware of what behaviour or clothes might put them more at risk and less at risk.” The MP, Richard Graham, made this statement in response to a comment made by Joanna Lumley in which she said, “young girls who are drunk and in a ‘silly dress’ leave themselves vulnerable to rape or being mugged.” Mr.Graham went on to say that his comment was one of risk management, and that “saying it’s about risk management is a million times away from saying ‘she’s asking for it.’”

While I’m glad to hear this, he’s missing the point. Because, the point is that women – anyone for that matter – shouldn’t have to manage this type of risk in the first place.  If so, where would it end, this thinking about the risks of what we wear? How about burkas? How about teenagers who dress as Goths? People in glasses and teeth braces. Kids in certain school uniforms. Punks. Nerds. Bikers.

If we apply Mr.Graham’s risk management theory to them, we are basically saying that if they dress that way, they should accept the, potentially violent, consequences. And that is just ludicrous. Therefore, saying women should think twice about wearing high heels and short skirts before they leave the house, is also ludicrous.

Mr Graham, after some outrage, said he was saying, of his original comments, that he was highlighting that Joanna Lumley was merely right to bring up the issue of women’s clothing and rape. But they’ve got the issue wrong. It’s not whether heels attract trouble. No. The issue is this: we should all be able to wear what we like.

31st January, 2013

The Severn barrage must go back to the drawing board

 Sometimes, I hear something and I think, hey, that’s a good idea. Then, I hear a bit more and think, you know what, if it could just be a little different it would be great.

This week, that’s what I’m thinking about the Severn barrage. Without teaching you to suck eggs, a barrage is basically a small dam that harnesses tidal energy, and there is a proposal to build one across the River Severn. It’s a proposal that’s been around, in several guises, for some time, and last week saw a group from Gloucestershire speak to MPs about the impact the barrage would have.

Now look, if I’m honest, I didn’t know much about the barrage. Dams to me seem to make sense. Tidal energy is massive. The UK has approximately 50% of Europe’s tidal energy resource, with the Severn the potential create up to 10% of tidal energy – that’s equivalent to several nuclear power stations. This alone makes the barrage look like a good idea.

Those for the barrage say that building it not only will generate clean energy, but it will create up to 10,000 on-going jobs, too, many of these in our county. Not only that, but it could safeguard peoples’ homes from rising water levels. This all makes the barrage seem like a great idea. But, trouble is, ideas that you act upon without thinking are a bit like crossing the road without looking – there are risks.

You see, the more I delved, the more risks I found. Take the environment. Harming fish, destroying bird habitats are just two ways the barrage will adversely affect the environment. Then there’s business in Gloucestershire and beyond. Sharpness docks could be at risk, the barrage potentially wrecking its ability to import and export.  Over in Bristol Port, the barrage could create a reduction in the tides – from an 80% flow down to just 20% – and with large ships requiring access to the port, the barrage could affect trade instantly. All this list of cons is on top of the fact that the proposal has already been rejected by Government for public funding.

To me, the solution is simple. Go back to the drawing board. Make the idea different. Develop a barrage proposal that has benefits that far outweigh the negatives. Because tidal energy is alternative energy. And that’s a good idea in anyone’s book.

24th January, 2013

Decisions – the cornerstone of a politician’s livelihood

I never thought I’d say this, but it must be hard being a politician sometimes. They can never quite get things right. Rather like a dog, bounding off from its lead, sniffing a trail, I imagine a politician to spend their time pursuing decisions until, eventually, they find it, victorious, only to be told that they went off without permission.

Decisions are like the cornerstone of a politician’s livelihood. When issues are raised, when policy needs to be defined, politicians are required to make decisions that shape the future. But when should that decision making process involve others, namely, the people who elected them? When should we allow them off that lead and out, decision-making, all by themselves?

Over in Pucklechurch, such a scenario is playing out. Prisons, you see, are changing. Gloucester’s prison, it was announced recently, is to close down. Super prisons, it has now been declared, are to take their places. In Pucklechurch, there is a young offenders’ institution, one which, despite sitting in a town that sounds like it’s straight out a Beatrix Potter book, is potentially to be changed into a super prison. And the locals are not happy about it.

Fair enough. Fair enough that the locals have reservations about what could be a Category C prison in their neighbourhood. But, the real issue, it seems isn’t with the prison itself, but the fact that the decision has been made at all. Local councillors are saying that they and residents have not been consulted on the change to the prison. The main compliant seems to be not that a major incarceration facility will be down the road, but rather that the community was not consulted about it.

And so to politicians and decisions. When should something be decided without consultation? Are we saying that everything that happens in the community should be consulted upon? If so, how would that work? Each road repair, each new sign, every single police appointment? Where does effective consultation start and end?

There is major merit in talking and listening. But, sometimes, hard decisions have to be made, whether we like it or not. We elect, via democratic processes, our politicians so they can make decisions we do not have to or, indeed, want to make. Yes, it can mean we may not like the outcome, but that’s politicians for you. Democratic. Confusing. Messy. Tough decision-making. Politicians.

17th January. 2013

If we applaud fox hunts, the face of our county changes

What if I said I was going to go out and kill a rabbit. Or, that tomorrow, I’m going shove on my wellies, get on my bike and look for a mouse and maybe bash it’s head in. What would you think? My guess is you’d probably be shocked. You’d want to know what on earth had got into me. You might even report me to the authorities.

Well, the good news is, I’m most definitely not going to do any of those things. I don’t like hurting animals just for fun, for the heck of it. So why then in Gloucestershire, do we still have fox hunt meetings?

Over the festive season an estimated 300 plus hunts gathered on Boxing Day. The tradition of men and women dressing in red riding gear, mounting horses with a pack of hounds in tow to chase foxes has been around for centuries. But the hunting ban – one that says the killing of foxes by dogs is illegal – has been in place since 2004, and yet, only recently, a hunt was prosecuted for breaking the ban, acting as if they are above the law.

I understand tradition. In Gloucestershire, certain traditions are what make our county who it is. Cotswold stone, festivals, farmland, villages – it’s our past and our future. But the thing I love about our county the most is its kindness. Gloucestershire is a great place to live. The folk are friendly, thoughtful, caring. Fox killing flies in the face of this, and specifically, the hunts.  Because, even though the ban is in place, the hunts still meet – Berkeley Hunt met in Thornbury on Boxing Day.

When defending an end to the ban, the numbers of foxes are sighted by hunts, rising figures dragged out and paraded as a reason to let them set their dogs off to kill again. Yes, fox numbers need to be controlled. But not by hunts. Because, and this is the point, hunting foxes with dogs is not for control, it’s for fun. It’s like me going to hunt mice with my cat – for a laugh.

And this is why the ban must stay in place. Gloucestershire is a great county, but when we applaud the hunts, the face of it changes. It becomes less friendly. More elite. And eventually people will wonder, heads shaking, who we are anymore.

10th January, 2013

Post offices – the silent guardians of our villages

We all use our towns and villages for different things.  There are different elements of services that we access. Shops. Schools. Town Halls. Post Offices. But, what happens when those services shift?

Over in Berkeley a change is being proposed to the post office. Currently, the post office in the area is housed in a secure area in the local One Stop, but there is now a proposal to move the service to the front counter. This will mean that not only will the service be in a supermarket, but it will disappear into the shop itself via the checkout.

The move is questionable. Services are to be reduced, including car tax and travel insurance. The good news is the post office hours will increase, having to fall in line with One Stop hours. But what does this proposal say about how our villages are changing?

A post office is like the silent guardian of a village. They protect what we have just by being there, by being the centre of the community. But post offices, like banks, have been subject to closure over the years. Yet, post offices aren’t just Pat and his cat, they are anchors. So if we put that anchor at a supermarket till, what does that do?

For years, post offices have been part of grocery stores, for example, often run by local people. Over in Cam, when the post office was threatened with closure, it was a local retailer who saved the service, one which is used daily by residents. But that is in a secure area, with safety, privacy. When you put a post office at the checkout of a supermarket chain, does it mean that the solidity, the anchorage the post office gives to where we live and why, is gone?

Money is not finite and the Post Office system is financially challenged like many organisations today, but it must be remembered what it is for: to provide a service to the community.

That is why it is a public entity. That is why people fight for its survival as it stands, not for it to be swallowed up until it is unrecognisable.  So, maybe, as the Post Office structures changes, we need new community armour. Us. Me, you. We are the new community guardians.

3rd January, 2013

Playing fields need protection

Sometimes things seem so simple. That’s the beauty of a New Year, isn’t it? A time when you think clearly, when you can get outside and walk in the clear spaces around Gloucestershire.Green spaces, playing fields that are protected forever for us all to use.

Or perhaps not. You see, in Dursley the local town council has been deliberating the future of our open spaces. Specifically, the War Memorial recreation ground on KingshillRoad, or “the rec” as us locals know it. Its future is being put into question following the council’s deliberation on whether to accept the fields being handed to the Queen Elizabeth II Fields Challenge Deed. This is something that has been set up following the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And, most importantly, it will create a covenant that will protect the recreation ground forever.

To me, this is a no brainer. We must protect our green spaces as much as we can, and if that means accepting the covenant, then great. More and more our fields are disappearing. The number of UK planning applications to develop playing fields doubled between 1999 and 2009. While yes, development is vital to growth, so are fields. Fields are where people walk, run and play. They are where festivals happen, where the community meets, where children do sports, use the swings. In fact, a third of people using playing fields use them for sport. Open spaces mean we get fresh air and exercise, and to even consider that such fields may go is unimaginable.

The council’s concern with the Queen Elizabeth covenant is that its governing body, Fields in Trust (FIT), would need consulting if any changes to the rec are to be made.  This concern is understandable, but the FIT have confirmed that they wouldn’t object to any changes to the fields if they enhanced their use.

A Dursley Town councillor has said that the rec is ‘already safe as houses,’ hence no need for the covenant. But is it safe? The decision is simple. Accept the covenant. Everything should be done to protect our fields. Open spaces are vital to our communities and without them what do we have? Closed in areas, nowhere to run, talk, see people. That’s something we have to protect this New Year and every year beyond.  It’s that simple.

27th December, 2012

Without talk, there’s no peace

There’s a lot of talk of peace at Christmas time. All those songs, hymns, the trips to Church. Over in Alveston, though, I think all this peace business may have been momentarily forgotten.

There is an issue, you see, over a memorial site and its expansion. Memorial Woodlands has stirred up local residents after submittingan application to more than double the size of the Alveston cemetery from 11.5 hectares to around 31.5.

Now, to me, it’s obvious why local people have something to say. Why wouldn’t they? When there is talk of the expansion of a cemetery close to where you live, of course you’re going to take notice.

The argument against the proposal is that residents fear the creation, as they see it, of a “super cemetery” will lead to an increased volume of traffic to their area. Around Gloucestershire there are many cemeteries, with South Gloucestershire Council running four cemeteries in all. But this is not the point. It is not the point that people disagree with the Memorial Woodlands’ expansion. It is not the point that traffic may increase or may not. It is not even the point that the Memorial expansion could lead to more jobs.

No. The point is that people are not talking. You see, the local campaign group – SABRE- that has been set up in response to the proposal has said that there is no point in talking to the Managing Director of the cemetery as they do not ‘see any value at this late stage in contacting him.’What on earth are they thinking? This is their olive branch. The MDhas been to every single resident’s house that circles the area. He has said he understands their concerns, respects their opinions, and that now they must find a balance. So, how can residents refuse to talk to the cemetery owner, late stage or not? How can they just submit their opposing documents and expect that alone will find a solution?

The answer is it can’t. Not an amicable one, anyway. What if Northern Ireland said, ‘Let’s not talknow. We’ve put our concerns in writing, that’ll do.’ The peace agreement would get nowhere. And that is what this is about. Peace. Talk and we find peace. We find harmony and respect – we find a solution.Now that would make a great Christmas.

20th December, 2012

If you’re going to give, make sure you know what you’re doing

Christmas. It’s all about understanding and giving, and over in Almondsbury there’s been a village shop embroiled in just that.

The shop is run by 90 volunteers and was recently nominated for a regional award. It’s a great service to the community, with the profits they make being distributed to local good causes. But, the shop’s management is now outraged at the HMRC ordering the shop to pay their corporation tax – and I agree with the HMRC.

Thing is, from what I can tell, the village shop seems like a very good social enterprise.  And social enterprises pay tax.  A social enterprise means you are still in business to make a profit, but those profits generated are ploughed back in towards your “Social Enterprise Goal”. Companies such as Divine Chocolate, The Big Issue and The Eden Project are all social enterprises.

The key word in all of this is profit. You see, if the business is making a profit, it is not exempt from tax. The village shop has rightly pointed out that Starbucks does not pay tax. If tax is due, it should be paid.  This applies to everyone. But the shop is saying they have squandered their money on tax. Yet tax builds hospitals, funds schools, provides care – that doesn’t sound like squandering money to me.

When you set up a company you have to consider its status, and if the shop did not have a charity status, then tax it is, and to deny this is naive. The shop was originally set up as a dormant company, so perhaps this is where the issue stems, but they should have sought more advice.

The trouble with the village shop case is understanding. Perhaps if they had understood what they were about to do, they wouldn’t find themselves in this position. They have, so far, been denied charitable status and they need now to re-evaluate. They are very well meaning – it would be a shame to lose what they have created.

It boils down to understanding. Understanding makes the giving all the better, all the more effective. For the sake of Almondsbury village shop, I hope they get some help with what they understand their situation to be, because their giving is wonderful.

13th December, 2012

We can’t let one wind turbine decision set a precident

You know sometimes when you can’t quite believe something? Do you know that feeling? When you hear something and do a double take. Well, that’s me because the application for wind turbines to be built in the Berkeley Vale has been refused. The request, put in by Ecotricity, was dismissed by an independent planning inspector who visited the site back in September.

It’s back in September that I began writing about wind turbines here. And it’s created a whole heap of discussion because wind turbines are like ecological marmite: you either love them or hate them. There seems to be no in between.

And this is the problem. The inspector’s decision has declared no in between now. No more, ‘should we or shouldn’t we’, and this causes me great concern for the future. You see, this won’t be the only wind turbine application Gloucestershire is going to have, but the Berkley Vale decision will play a great impact on them. A precedent has been set and at what cost? At a cost to the environment.

I’ve talked to many people on this issue. Local people. People who would have lived near the turbines. It has made me see their point of view even more, that’s for certain. And I can fully understand their concerns. Potential noise, being a major factor. I also spoke to an ecologist friend of mine. While, for ecological reasons, she is opposed to wind turbine sites in mid-Wales, she has said that the Berkeley Vale site is a good one. It is arable wasteland in terms of biodiversity, low land that is intensely farmed, meaning the turbines would have no damaging ecological impact.

So, why then the planner’s decision? Aesthetics. How things look. The age old argument that wind turbines just look bad. Protestors now liken it to the incinerator proposal, saying that is an eyesore, too. Yes, it is, but it also chucks out stuff you don’t want to breathe in. Wind turbines are clean, fresh air.

It’s time we all paused. We have to look to the bigger picture. This decision has been made, but we mustn’t let it decide the future, we mustn’t let it say that just because we disagree with the Berkeley Vale proposal then no wind turbines should ever be built. That would be a decision no one would want to celebrate.

6th December, 2012

Villages must accept new home builds to survive

‘Without these houses, we wouldn’t be able to live here,’ said my friend. He was referring to the new estate his family live in. It was built some six years back, a small development on the outskirts of a thriving Cheshire village.

His family is just one of many who have moved to the village, bringing with them their children, their money and their vision of a long-term place to live thanks to some forward-thinking expansion planning. So why then, over in Gloucestershire, are people against the expansion of villages?

In a word, tradition. Villages are steeped in it, and those who live there, and have done for years, look to tradition as a guardian of their homes. And they are right to do so. Trouble is, being the guardian of where you live should not include preventing others from living there.

Take Cambridge in Gloucestershire, for example. It’s a small village, close to main travel routes, ideal for commuting families. But a changed development proposal of 24 new homes, including 12 affordable ones, is being fought against, with protesters arguing that there is not enough infrastructure, despite the close neighbouring village of Slimbridge having a primary school.

This whole scenario reminds me of my friend’s village, where traditional housing and old infrastructure meet. The new houses that were built there revitalised the community and still do today. So the question is, shouldn’t all villages have newly-built homes? The residential population of Gloucestershire was 578,600 in 2006 and is forecast to grow by 3.9% to 601,000 by 2016. If we don’t encourage new houses to be built in villages – and affordable ones at that – where will these people live? The more people that live and work in Gloucestershire, the better it is for the local economy, and, of course Gloucestershire is a rural economy, and rural equals village. New homes help villages to continue to thrive.

 When I hear of the objections against village new builds, I always think of my friend. I think how they are so settled, how they love their village, how their kids will grow up there. Because it’s people that keep villages going – without people villages become obsolete. And people need houses to live in. It’s simply something we have to get used to. Fast.

29th November, 2012

Quit the cuts not the community

I used to love the Hovis bread advert. When I was young, we used to pretend we were in it, a lad in a cap, wandering down the road, saying hello to everyone. Community. That advert was all about community.

Some 20 years on, and, at the same time as the owners of Hovis are announcing the closure of its bakeries, so too are other long-held community icons being closed.  The police station in Dursley. The library in Berkeley (now run by volunteers). Post offices. Banks. Local shops. What’s going on? I mean, what makes a community? Because that’s the real question here. If it is buildings, what happens when you dismantle them? If it is public services, like the police, what happens when you take them away?

The trouble is, I think we are just now finding out. Across Gloucestershire, communities as we knew them are changing. Now, I think change is good, embracing the new. Without change, we wouldn’t have, say, lower infant mortality rates or a better educated workforce. But even that is changing. Education is being meddled with by Governments who have their own personal agenda. And as for the NHS? Privatisation is knocking at the door.

When it comes to community we have to be considerate with change. We have to ensure there is a balance, understand what we should shift and what should remain the same so our very fabric is not torn. And how do we do that? We do that by understanding what makes a community tick, what makes it work. Police stations. Effective schools. Banks. Post offices. Libraries. Local shops. Bakeries.

Sometimes change means that something has to give. I understand this. But at what cost? Can we not make changes that do good, that are the right ones? Closing our essential services is not the right change. It’s like bulldozing the foundations of a house. What do we have left when they are taken away? A potentially unstable society. Uncertainty.

Communities are amazing at pulling together in tough times. Just look at the voluntary-run Berkeley library. If only the powers that be could react in the same way.

So what can we do? Stick together. Shop local. Say enough’s enough.  Bend our local MPs’ ears and maybe Government and local councils will listen.  People power is a great thing.

22nd November, 2012

Investment in needy families is the answer, not youth centres

I read last week about a new youth centre opening in Wotton. At the same time, over in Thornbury news emerged that clubs are joining forces to provide youth services in the face of fierce local government cuts.

Now, my instant reaction is to ram my ‘support our youth centres’ stake right in the ground. Our young people get a rubbish deal and I think Councils and Government need to prioritise how they treat them.

But then I got to thinking about youth centres. And more specifically, what they’re actually for. When I was growing up, there was a youth centre in Leyland where I lived. It was a good five miles from our house, so I never really went, but then again I didn’t know anyone who did. And to be honest, there was never a need. I wasn’t a kid who hung round streets swigging cider. Some gathered in groups at the park and stayed out until the small hours. Being an adult now with kids of my own, I don’t want them hanging around the park as teenagers; I want them to be active, busy, and still be part of our family. And this is my thing with Youth centres: are they really the answer?

We have to look to families. Research shows that European youths do far less drink and drugs than their UK counterparts. Why? Family. In an ideal word, a family provides infinite support to children. Not only this, a good family can keep a child active, busy, engaged in thought, supported through life’s ups and downs. But what if that family unit isn’t working? What then? This is where youth centres come in. They are a replacement for families. If done well, these centres have services that help kids build their emotional and social skills, there are structured activities. When done badly, it is just a hall with a pool table, the family equivalent to letting the kids roam without knowing where they are.

The answer is investment in families. Structured long term programmes that show families how to support their children and equip them with skills. No more government cuts in social programmes. Because, help the family and you help the child. And if this works, who knows, we may not even need youth centres, because every child will be getting all the support they need. From home.

 15th November, 2012

Time to think of others not yourself

Sometimes I find myself asking what is going on in the world.  When I was a kid, things were simple. You didn’t steal. You remembered your manners. If you wanted something, you saved for it. You did your best. You were kind to others. It’s rules like this that I live by now, rules I bring my own children up on. But, trouble is, I am not sure others are doing the same.

You see, last week my heart sank when I read that a newsagent in Dursley had been attacked. The father and son working there were stabbed, receiving multiple wounds. Awful, really, really awful. I read the piece and was shocked. I buy my paper at this newsagents from time to time, I have chatted to the owner. What on earth drives someone to stab someone like him? A man who had moved to Gloucestershire to escape growing crime in London. In Dursley centre, a hair salon was broken into, the window smashed. And near Yate, a hay barn was burned to the ground, one of three similar incidents in the area. Mercifully, the number of recorded crimes in Gloucestershire was down in 2011-12 by 4% on the previous year, but why does crime still happen?

We have to look at society as a whole. Life has changed. More and more people grow up expect everything. I mean, everything. Xboxes, iPods, new clothes, new shoes, toys, laptops, wide-screen TVs. You name it, it’s expected. When I was a kid we were lucky if we could phone from the box down the road. Thing is, my mum taught me to do the right thing, to think of others, not just yourself. And this is part of the problem today. We are a society that is growing up thinking of ourselves and not others. That’s why people assume they will have the latest mobile phone. That’s why kids want everything for Christmas. It’s all me, me, me.

So we should think of others, we should walk in their shoes. And when we do, we will find that we start to question. Like, what drives someone to rob a store? Why did that teenager think it okay to break a glass bottle in a playground? The sooner we understand each other, the better society becomes.  None of us should live selfishly.  It’s that simple.

8th November, 2012

Leave party politics out of policing

Politics. Sometimes, just hearing the word makes me want to hide in a dark cupboard. Police. There’s a better word. I know where I stand with that. Or, at least, I thought I did. You see, on 15th November we will be asked to cast our votes for Gloucestershire’s first Police and Crime Commissioner.  The role is new and, to be honest, one that seems completely unnecessary.

In a nutshell, the Police Commissioner will be responsible for Gloucestershire Constabulary budget and over all objectives.  It’s a role that sits apart from the current Chief Constable position which is in charge of the day-to-day running of the police. And here begins my problem. You see, who did the budget bit before? Who set the overall objectives? Surely someone did. And in that case, why do we need to draft in someone else now, in fact, pay someone else a considerable salary to do something that was – is – already being done?

The answer lies in politics. When the Commissioner role was first created, the government cited that people of all backgrounds would apply. All fine and good, until one by one the main political parties put forward their own candidates. In fact, only one Gloucestershire Commissioner candidate is independent from party politics.

Now, as far as I am aware, police officers are not permitted to take part in politics, nor allowed to join a political party. So why then is it okay for someone in the Police Commissioner role to potentially be a politician? You see, the minute you introduce party politics to policing is the minute policing turns into a political game. And there can be only one looser – us.

When Robert Peel set up the police force back in 1829, he said that the public are the police and the police are the public. So where do politicians fit? Not in policing, that’s for sure. Look, I understand that politics shapes general policy, but this should be done in Whitehall, not on our streets. I don’t agree with these elections, yet I have a duty to vote, we all do. But when we do, we should put politics to one side and think about what the police are really for. They’re for the public. For us. Me. You. And not for political parties.

 1st November, 2012

Let’s not gang up on the solar panels, people

Boy, it’s colder now. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got the heating on already. Not only that, but with the nights darker, our house is lit up like a Blackpool illuminations. Trouble is, electricity costs money, and what with the recent hike in energy prices and the coalition failing to get to grips with it, the costs keep rising.

That’s why I was enthused to hear about a property owner in Thornbury who had put up solar panels.  Good old alternative energy. The man’s reasoning for the panels?  To simply try and save money. Great! That makes sense right? Well, according to a group of residents, no. You see, some people in Thornbury want the panels taken down, citing that they’re an eyesore, sticking out like a sore thumb.

Solar-gate, as I now call it, has grown so much that Thornbury and District Museum has joined residents to urge the council to instruct that the panels are taken down.  It’s all just daft.  You see, the property owner has done nothing wrong. His panels adhere to all government guidelines. They are not too large. They make no noise. They simply harness the power of the sun to create free, clean electricity. How can that be a problem?

Now look, I know the debate is that the area  – Castle Street – is a nice looking street. And yes, we need to keep our towns looking their best for so many reasons, including heritage and economic prosperity. So I went and took a look myself, and to be honest, I cannot see what the problem is. Even with the panels, Castle Street retains its charm. To say, as some have done, that these panels are ‘visual vandalism’ is scaremongering. Graffiti is vandalism, not solar panels.

Look at the facts. Solar panels can reduce energy bills by 50% and more. They also help the environment. Clean energy. Not vandalism. Not eyesores. What will really ruin our towns in the long term are views that prevent change. The fact that people are campaigning against this man even after the council has said he is in the clear, even when he’s simply trying to save money, just leaves me cold. And this time it’s nothing to do with the weather.

October 25th, 2012

Hey! Coalition! Leave those hospitals alone.

Hospitals blow my mind. Seriously, they do.  Walk into one and look around. Doctors, nurses, beds, medical equipment – and that’s just one room. Multiply that by a ward. By a floor. By an entire department. And then do the same sum but for the entire county – heck, the country! I’m no mathematician, but that’s a lot of hospital, a lot of people working towards making us better.  And it’s all thanks to the NHS.

Yes, the NHS. Three little letters that, since 1948 have meant one thing: free health care for all. That’s why last week, anti-privatisation campaigners were mighty pleased when the Gloucestershire NHS Primary Care Trust voted to keep community health services in the public domain. That means no third party running them, no private organisation bidding for contracts. But for how long? Around the country, the NHS is gradually being dismantled.  In the North West, ambulance services are soon to be run by the bus company, Arriva.  Combine that with the knowledge that £262m of NHS services have drawn bids from 37 private healthcare companies so far alone. What on earth is going on?

The NHS was set up in the heady days when welfare was a good word. Helping people, regardless of background. But trouble is, introduce the concept of privatisation to healthcare and that ethos changes. The focus is no longer people, but profit. Of course, there are some who say the NHS is a drain on scarce economic resources.  But what is the alternative? A system like the USA where people have to decide if they can afford to go to hospital? A system that discriminates on grounds of income?

Private companies have one objective: to protect their shareholders.  This is why privatisation of the  NHS is wrong. It is the start of a road where we shouldn’t go. One which could eventually destroy our belief of free healthcare for all at point of delivery.  In his recent conference speech, David Cameron said: ‘I’m not here to defend privilege. I’m here to spread it.’  But what if I say that healthcare is a right, not a privilege? The NHS doesn’t always get it 100% correct and it should strive to do better. But, boy, what a service it is. And if you don’t believe me, just take a look around a hospital one day. And do the maths.

18th  October, 2012

Stick up for our future – say yes to wind turbines

There are some things I don’t get. High heels, for example. Why traffic lights take ages to change. The point of Brussels sprouts. This week I am adding in to the mix opposition against wind turbines. As I suspect your memory is sharper than mine, you may recall a column I wrote a few weeks ago on a wind turbine project in Wotton under Edge. Boy did that one cause some feedback. Well, like a lamb preening itself for a slaughter, I’m back. Call me daft. Call me foolish. But I’m still not budging.

You see, it was recently  announced that Kingswood Parish Council objected to two proposed community wind turbines south of the village. Their reasoning? The visual impact the wind turbines would have on the area. My view on this still stands. Wind turbines are beautiful. Like the areas of outstanding natural beauty, wind turbines are elegant and timeless. But, let me stop there. Because, you see, my last wind turbine column prompted some hard-hitting information to come my way saying wind energy increased carbon emissions. I was good. I read it. Then re-read it. And then disagreed with it. And here’s why: it is a myth that wind turbines increase carbon emissions.

Let’s put aside for a minute the fact that wind turbines do or don’t blot the landscape, and look instead at the data. And this is the thing. Data. You see, those against wind turbines argue that, due to the intermittent nature of wind power, it has to be “backed-up” by huge investment in gas turbine power plants, therefore increasing CO2 emissions. Okay. Interesting. Until you look at the data. In a report, the National Grid analysed data from more than 4,000 half-hour periods and concluded without question that wind turbines save about 6.1million tonnes of carbon dioxide. 6.1 million! And with the grid already designed to withstand power loss, the case for wind turbines just gets better.  Consider this: Spain sometimes produces 50% of its power from wind turbines.

Look, let’s be clear. Wind turbines need to be well positioned. But please, please do not ignore the data just because of our traditional countryside views. We’ve had electricity pylons everywhere for years and yet I hear no protests. So come on councils, be progressive. Stick up for our futures. Say yes to alternative energy. Say yes to wind turbines. Please.

11th October, 2012

Enough of the petty and more working together

I don’t know. I do wonder whether sometimes things get a bit too petty.  The reason why I say this is boundary changes. Last week, it was reported that proposals are being made to change the boundaries of villages and towns across South Gloucestershire. Okay, so this kind of thing happens.

The issue here though is that the situation has heated up between Chipping Sodbury and the neighbouring parish of Dodington. Battle lines have been drawn over where the boundary should fall between the two. You may think that all sounds perfectly reasonable. And you’d be right. When change happens, people quite rightly have something to say. But trouble begins when things start to get petty – and this is my problem.

You see, it was quoted that a Sodbury Town Councillor said of the boundary proposals, ‘Dodington don’t help us with anything and now they want us to give them something.’ The councilor is referring to the 40 or so houses in Lilliput Court which could go to Dodington parish council. Now look, I don’t know the area in great detail. I drive through and it all seems very pleasant. But this I do know – that our town councilors and elected members should act like adults. By saying what this councilor has said is childish. Crikey, if my kids said that, I’d be very unimpressed – and they’re eight and ten. What hope do we have as communities to live and work together in harmony if our elected representatives are squabbling like kids over who owns what? All I can say is thank goodness they’re not all like that – there are some sensible ones out there.

 I understand that we can become somewhat territorial on where we live. But boundaries are something requiring us to sit down and discuss the issues without daft squabbling.  As residents, we have a responsibility to air our thoughts, just as town councilors do, but we must all be grown up about it. Because, let’s face it, we’re all in one county, one country – one world.

So please, enough of the pettiness and more statesman ship. Let us all lead by example and teach our kids how it should be done. If we show how issues can be resolved, our kids will follow suit. Now there’s a county I’d like to live in.

October 4th, 2012

The RSPCA needs to grow up

Badger culling. It’s an issue that’s been boiling for some time and, to be honest, it’s one I have avoided wading into – until now.  You see, to me, badgers mean The Wind in the Willows books. Cute little fury things who smell slightly and stand up to Mr.Toad. But of course, there is another side to the cuddly stuff: badgers can spread disease to cattle.

Those in favour of ridding badgers from the countryside say culling them is an essential act to protect famers’ cattle from lethal Bovine TB. On the other camp, those against the cull say it is cruel and unnecessary, citing that vaccination programmes – like one trialled in Wales – are a more effective, kinder disease prevention strategy. Emotions have run high. Anti-cull groups are encouraging direct action and celebrities such as Brian May are calling for people to boycott famers’ milk from Gloucestershire.

As you would expect, the RSPCA has also commented. And it is here I have my biggest issue with the whole situation. In an interview about the culling, the RSPCA Chief Executive said, and I quote, ‘Consumers who care will not want to visit areas or buy milk from farms soaked in badgers’ blood.’ This is going too far, and here’s why. Gloucestershire’s tourism industry generates over £1billion, creating thousands of jobs for our county. And the RSPCA Chief Executive’s statement is threatening that. Yes, it is his right to be against the cull, but to encourage people not to visit the county? Not acceptable. Gloucestershire’s tourism industry has nothing to do with the cull. The RSPCA’s statement puts in jeopardy so many vital areas to tourism. Areas such as Berkley Castle, Slimbridge WWT, Thornbury Castle and many more.

The whole thing smacks of childishness. I understand that the RSPCA feels strongly about the culling, but throwing stones at Gloucestershire tourism is not the answer. The aim should be to reduce suffering not increase it. The RSPCA and all concerned groups have to sit down and work it out, as adults without unnecessary hurt. If we, as Gloucestershire folk have opinions on it, then we should give them – but in a considered, thoughtful fashion. Badger culling isn’t cuddly, nor is Bovine TB. But at least we can act like grown-ups and be considerate of everyone. It’s the least we can do.

September 27th, 2012

Kill your speed, not speed cameras

Speed cameras. This past week they’ve been in the spotlight a touch. In particular ones in Gloucestershire. In fact, one in my home town. Over in Dursley the speed camera on the A4135 Kingshill Road has been making headlines for being responsible for almost half of the speeding tickets in the county. Half. That’s a big number. Over in Alvington on the A48, 424 people were snapped speeding – and this is all in one year. I know a lot of people won’t like this. And the reason is they think speed cameras are a way of making money. There are groups out there who go red with rage at the things. They point out that they do not reduce accidents and that speed is not the only cause of traffic collisions. This is true – to a point. And that’s it – there is a point and this is it: if no one was speeding in the first place, there wouldn’t be a need for speed cameras.

Now I have a confession to make: I have been papped twice by speed cameras. I know, what a muppet. The first was me not realising the change in zone. The second time I was distracted by my kids. But both times the responsibility was mine. I sped. I was culpable for the action. I, in short, was to blame. Not the road. Not my kids. And certainly not the speed camera.

Back in 2011, the people of Yate campaigned against the abolition of speed cameras in their area. 13 fixed cameras were to be switched off and fears were voiced over safety near schools. In Dursley, the A4135 camera is adjacent to Rednock School, and if it was not there, people would be tempted to speed. And what could that mean? Well, to be blunt, a death. That’s the cold, horrible reality. And this is the real issue here. If speed cameras can prevent even one death – one – then it is money well spent. So, for those that grumble about cameras and want rid of them, the answer is simple: don’t speed. As drivers, we must all accept responsibility for our actions and drive safely. Maybe if we all did that then instead of being policed by speed cameras, we would be kept in check by something even stronger – our own conscience.

September 20th, 2012

Should school playing fields be open to all?

 Poor old school fields. They’ve been in the press a fair bit of late. Not only are they being sold off left right and centre, but the Department for Education has been quoting a smaller than actual number of school fields sold. Tut tut. The whole sorry thing got me thinking about something I’ve been pondering for some years now: why are school playing fields reserved just for schools?

Not far from our home in Cam, Dursley, sit the Norman Hill playing fields. Along their perimeter is a County Council sign that prohibits unauthorised use of the fields. The fields are huge. They stretch along the road with views of Cam Peak and are used by local Rednock Secondary School. The thing is a lot of people who aren’t part of the school use them. People walk their dogs on there. Families sneak over the fence to play football. Some (me) run around its edges for a bit of exercise. What’s funny though, is that what you hardly ever see is the school using the fields. I suspect this is because it is not adjacent to any actual school. So why, then, is the field just reserved for school use?

With the threat of more fields facing the chop what needs to happen is an increase of usage. But not in the way we know it. If we want school fields to remain as sports fields, then they must be opened up to the entire community, share the ownership. Yes, there are issues with vandals, people who break glass on the site, cause a mess. But should the minority ruin it for the majority? Should the fear that a field may be wrecked mean that it never gets used?

The Olympics and Paralympics have shown us that sport is a huge motivator. Gloucestershire needs to build on that. Open up the playing fields to everyone. That way the schools – and sports – stand more chance of keeping them, because they are being used. Get the kids out there more. Make sure the fields have long jump tracks, running race markers, events.  Make fields accessible to all and they will be used – only this time with permission.  Rounders, anyone?

 September 13th, 2012

Wind turbines are beauties not blots

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s the phrase, right? Well, last week, it was reported that a school in Wotton had to take down its wind turbine following complaints from residents about the noise it made. I can understand this. You live in your house, you want the right to some peace and quiet. But I couldn’t help but feel dismayed. Not because residents wanted their peace – but because, according to the report, they didn’t think wind turbines should be positioned in areas of natural beauty in the Cotswolds. That depends on what your view of beauty is. Gloucestershire is a glorious county.  Rolling fields, acres of trees and hedges. It’s storybook Laurie Lee territory. But, the thing is, 21st century demands are different to Lee’s time. We use fuel. We have landfill. We are an ever growing population. And to sustain it, we need electricity.

Coal fired power wrecks the environment. Nuclear is risky. Wind turbines, solar power are the antidote. They harness nature not destroy it.  Some think wind turbines are a blot on the landscape. Poppycock. What do they want? High, majestic wind turbines that thrive on nature or nuclear fuel plants that can devastate it? Wind turbines are essential for the future and to oppose them is a mistake. Yes, applications to erect them must consider the immediate area. Animals, wildlife, homes, noise. But I ask you this: how many of us live near the sound of a motor way? An airfield? Bus or train route? A school?

Over in Alveston, a proposed new wind park could generate enough electricity for 5,000 homes. Wind turbines stand tall and majestic, a reminder that if we don’t look after our environment, it simply will not exist forever. What we need to do is reassess our view on what is beautiful. We need to now be realistic and understand that if we don’t change our ways, this stunning county we live in cannot survive in the way Laurie Lee loved. In his day there were few cars on the road, and now look. Times change. The sooner we accept that, the sooner wind turbines will gain their rightful place on our landscape, harnessing the power of nature. Now that will be a sight to behold.

September 6th, 2012

Better shop fronts make better business

I’ve been thinking about branding lately. Not the cattle kind, you understand. I’m talking about the marketing term of making everything uniform for a specific place or product so it works better. The reason this is on my mind is our Gloucestershire high streets. Specifically the shop fronts. Ever since I have lived in Dursley it has struck me how beautiful the area is. There is so much history. The Stinchcombe woods encircle the town hugging it like a kind grandfather. And then I walk down the high street and my heart sinks. It just doesn’t have a look of quality or pride.

Recently a report by TV lady and now government retail guru, Mary Portas, highlighted that Britain’s town centres needed revitalising. This is so true. Thankfully there has been a lot of development recently. Dursley Town Council, like others around Gloucestershire, has invested money in improving the pavements, seating, signage and plants, and it’s all the better for it. But the shop fronts let them down. They are a mixture, like so many towns, of old and new buildings, and it looks muddled, confused.  We need our towns to create better impressions. That way they will attract more visitors and make its residents more proud – and spend more money there.

The answer is towns need to treat themselves and their high streets like a brand. They must make their shop fronts look like they are sitting together, not pulling apart. Town councils should consider ensuring that each shop front sign adheres to a specific colour scheme and font. That way when you look down the high street you see a coherent collection of buildings that speak about who the town is. Chipping Sodbury gets it right, although more pavement café seating would improve the atmosphere and vibrancy even more. There is a question of funding a shop front scheme, yes. But many councils have found grants and other private funding schemes to help revitalise their shopping areas, so it can be done.

Gloucestershire is a beautiful place. If towns reflected that, local retailers would thrive even more. Heritage colours used on shop fronts to reflect our history. Raise the quality of how they look so people will come, stop by, spend. Then our local high streets would be on my mind and everyone’s minds – but this time for all the right reasons.

August 30th, 2012

Dog owners should follow my lead and be more polite

I have confession: I’m not a dog lover. Well, okay, if I’m honest I’m a touch scared of them. Oh alright – I have a huge dog phobia. Normally, I carry on my merry way with my phobia and don’t hit any problems. When I’m out and about in Gloucestershire, sometimes dogs run up to me. I instantly crumble. I say to the owner that I don’t like them. I have even been known to cry (I know). But, while I’m scared, I’m always polite. I tell the owners I have a phobia. I even apologise for it – but I always ask nicely if they could just keep hold of their dog while I pop past.  Yet, this doesn’t always go down well. In fact, the other day when I said I had a phobia the owner actually tutted and said I was a menace. Me. I was just out for a run in Dursley! What gives dog owners the right to insist that everyone else has to like their dogs, too? Shouldn’t we all just live and let live?

The problem gets worse when I have my kids with me. One lady – whose dog jumped up at me – saw how I screeched and said, and I quote, ‘This is just the worst thing you could do to your children.’ Hmm – I can think of worse things a parent could impose on their children than a dog phobia. Luckily, my girls like dogs and actually help me get used to them. But the point is this woman thought I should like her dogs, that I was doing a disservice in not liking them – and she thought she should tell me. This is ludicrous. Aren’t we all allowed to just be who we are, let each other get on with it, phobias and all?

Mercifully, I have lovely dog-owning friends. And I have met some random owners who are more than happy to pop their dogs on a lead while I scoot past. For my part, I know that dogs run up Cam Peak so I avoid there if I’m on my own. So if I can be polite about dogs, can I ask that all dog owners do the same too?  I might not like the dogs, but at least then I’d like the owners.

August 23rd, 2012

Let’s get on our bikes and do something active

Is it me or has the world gone mad? The other day I was in Dursley and a police woman was there. She was chatting to locals – all very good. She was very pleasant. Then an old man on his bicycle rode up. Instantly she said to him, ‘You need to get off your bike.’ Just like that. No preamble, no pleasantries. Just an order. I didn’t stay long enough to see the man’s reaction, but I know I wouldn’t be too chuffed.  Why is it that in Gloucestershire and UK streets, cycles are still seen as a threat? Take Dursley high street. Cars and lorries come down the main pedestrianised area and nothing is said. No police woman to tell any drivers off there. It means you have to pull your kids out of the way and you don’t feel safe. Yet it’s okay tick off a cyclist? What have things come to? Why does the car take precedent over people and bicycles?

It’s not as if there’s a better alternative. Recent price hikes in rail fares announced last week mean tougher times. Ticket prices are set to go up by 6% – higher than inflation. So my question is this: how can we cut car usage if we don’t invest in public transport, if we don’t encourage people to cycle? Alright, I know there are a lot of cyclists out there that are guilty of road sins. Some jump lights. Some worse. And this must not happen. Some even go on pavements. But can you blame them? It’s not much fun cycling with a lorry on your back and cars that don’t give you room. And I’m an adult. For kids it can be daunting.  There’s also a health issue to consider. Obesity, for example, is at 23% in the UK, compared to 11.7% in Belgium, a country which invests more in public transport and cycle routes. The maths is simple: the more active you are, the less obese.  The answer has to be better public transport systems. More investment, not price hikes. We have to push our MPs to do more on this. We’ve got to look out for bikes and give them room. We’ve got to get moving, get out of our cars. Maybe then the world won’t be quite so mad.

August 16th, 2012

Olympic role moedls show us Essex is not the only way…

I wasn’t going to write about the Olympics this week. But then something amazing happened last Saturday: Mo Farah won the double Olympic Gold for the 5,000 and 10,000 metre running races. Straight after his achievement, when asked what it takes to succeed, he looked straight into the TV camera and said, ‘it takes hard work and grafting.’  At the time my kids were enthralled – and it got me thinking: What makes a good role model these days?

One peek at the glossy mags and there’s a reality TV star. We hear about their diets, their love-lives, their new night club, ahem, adventures. Turn on the TV of a Saturday night and we have the X-Factor, The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent. It’s all a fast, high calorie fix to instant fame and riches – and our kids look up these people. They see the fame, the money, the adulation – and they want to be just like them. But who can they truly aspire to? In a survey conducted in May by Girlguiding UK, 55% of girls and young women said that there is a lack of strong aspirational women role models. In fact, many identified stars from TVs The Only Way is Essex as people they want to be like. Oh my Lordy.

As the mum of two girls this stuff scares me. That’s why I am mighty relieved that athletes like Mo Farah are around. Hard work and grafting – that has to be the message. I want my daughters to look up to Jessica Ennis, not Kim Kardashian.  Sport is cool. Around Gloucestershire we have Dursley- based Kieran Slater, earmarked as a future Olympian archer, not to mention Kingswood-born archer Larry Godfrey.  And the Cam Under-11 Cricket girls have just been crowned South West champions. Go girls!

What’s good about our Olympic athletes is that they are humble. Unlike many premiership footballers who flounce past, heads down, these athletes speak to fans. They are nice, they are friendly – and they work their socks off. Isn’t that the message our kids should be getting? Our job now is to keep the Olympic momentum up. Use these athletes as role models now and for a long time to come. And who knows? Our kids might just turn into role models themselves.

August 9th, 2012

What a difference a fortnight makes…

What a difference two weeks make. Is it me or is the whole nation up for the Olympics? I went away on my holidays and, a bit like Gloucestershire and the UK, was tired, a bit disillusioned and struggling to picture the future. I come back and boy how that’s changed. Gone is the grumpy “poor us” attitude and in is the vibrant “we can” attitude. It’s like one huge therapy dose mixed into one. And the catalyst? The London 2012 Olympics.

Now look, as you may know, I’m a sporty lass. I love the Olympics. I love the drive, the commitment, the passion that each competitor needs for their sport.  And the variety on offer is like a pick and mix sweetshop –so many to try! But the amazing thing this time round is the influence of the Olympics on our home turf. We’ve lapped it up. Downed it and asked for more. The question is: how can we keep this feeling going? It feels good right now to live here – and I haven’t been able to truly say that for a long time. Some news reports are chucking out the toys and saying that the Olympics are having a bad effect on London and its tourism, the sport focus diverting attention from the main centre.  Huh? But it’s only for two weeks. Two weeks out of 52. Two weeks out of so many long years. So let’s get behind it. Because what the 2012 Olympics have done is give us what we haven’t had here in a long time: hope. The fever’s hit Gloucestershire, too, with Team GB flags decorating houses and businesses from Yate and Frampton Cotterall to Berkley and Wotton. And the kids love it. They’re ditching the computer games and trying out sports. And even us, ahem, older ones have our eyes on a new sport after it turned out gold rowing medallist Katherine Grainger is 37.

The Olympics are inspiring – a classic tale of strength against adversity. And we can all learn something from that. So my message is this: whether it’s taking up a new sport, changing jobs, standing up to a bully, starting a new hobby or simply smiling at the rain, go for it. We can, right? Because we are all, in effect, Team GB.  Now, where can I get some rowing lessons?

July 12th, 2012

So why aren’t women Bishops yet?

Are we in 2012? Check your calendar, quick. Got it? It is 2012 I hear you say? Well, a piece of news that has slipped under the radar that makes me think otherwise is this: women still can’t be Bishops.  Following snail-pace legislation progress, a last minute series of amendments have recently been put forward which introduce legal safeguards for those opposed to women bishops. Yet, in appeasing those traditionalists, it has meant equal rights taking a huge step backwards.

Now, the last time I looked, progress in equal rights had been made. Women can vote, girls can take all their exams at school without having to leave while the boys stay on, and trainers for us ladies now come in colours other than pink.  Yet, within the Church of England female priests can still not become Bishops.

Back in 1992, legislation was passed to, for the first time, allow women to become priests. It was a break through. Here in Gloucestershire we feel the benefit of that legislation every day. Churches in both Cam and Dursley, for example, each have female vicars at the helm, all of them – like their male counterparts – doing a tireless job for the community and faith they serve. Yet, unlike their male peers, female priests in the Church of England cannot climb the career ladder to be a Bishop and beyond.  And my question is, why? Why in this day and age is the Synod – the church’s governing body – taking now nearly 20 years to make the decision to allow women to, effectively, have equal rights as men? What I do not understand is that, as Christians, how the Church can let this happen. Yes, change is not always welcomed, and I understand some generations may feel uneasy. But I ask you this: without change, would we have the female vote? Would we have the welfare system? Would we have the NHS?

The Church of England needs to listen to the 21st Century and ensure everything is fair – and that means women being Bishops. Yes, some may find this hard to swallow, but I’m sure it wasn’t a picnic watching Emily Pankhurst throw herself under a horse. We should support our women vicars – and the Synod should, too. And with that, we’ll be back in 2012.

 July 5th, 2012

Is your green wheelie bin really a dalek or does it hide the wine?

Green wheelie bins. Hands up if you know what to do with yours. This week in houses across many parts of Gloucestershire, brand spanking new wheelie bins are being rolled out as part of Stroud District Council’s new recycling scheme. This is good news.  For years we have all been using our tiny kerbside recycling boxes, those little green things that let the newspapers fly about in the wind and let the empty wine bottles that you had at the weekend be on full display for the entire neighbourhood to see.

The trouble is, while the wheelie-bin is huge and able to take a lot of recycling, the burning question is this: where on earth are we supposed to put it?  A few weeks ago, a wheelie-bin was delivered to our house in Cam. For a full week, it sat on our drive like a big green dalek. We looked at it. We didn’t know what to do. Should we leave it out in front of the house? Should we move it to the side? In the end we opted to stick it in the garage. But what do you do if you have nowhere to hide it? The answer, it seems is to leave it by the front door or at the end of the path. But, let’s face it, wheelie bins are eyesores. They are big, bulky and in the way – and that’s not all. Arson has been on the rise in the county, with a 20% increase in rubbish fires alone – and some attacks are targeted at wheelie bins.

We have to recycle more, that’s for sure. And our wheelie bins take plastic packaging to glass bottles and more.  It’s one big tick for the environment. So, when faced with a huge wheelie bin by our doors, what should we do? Well, to avoid any fire risks, the official advice is to move wheelie bins away from walls and ensure they are emptied regularly. And what about the bulkiness? We could always dust off our Jubilee bunting and decorate around it? No? Okay then. Let’s simply fill the bins, do our bit – and be thankful that at least no one can see our empty wine bottles anymore.

June 28th, 2012

Yep, dog poo really is worse than Big Brother…

There’s nothing worse than standing in dog muck (well, actually, there are many worse things – famine, war, Big Brother – but we can safely say that standing in dog poop is at least the smelliest thing, if not the worst…) The other day, I stood in some on my way home walking on the pavement through Cam, and not only did it get on my shoes, but all over the hallway at home, too. Our cat went crazy.

Now look, I’m not tarring anyone with the same (muck) brush here, but what is it with some dog owners and dog muck?  Why do some dog owners think it is okay to let their dogs fowl on pavements, fields, roads and not clear it up? Do they not realise the consequences of what they do – or don’t in this case?  June 11-17 was National Poop Scoop Week (really), with dog owners urged to ‘bag it and bin it’.  But will this happen? I remember one time, my daughter was coming in from school and she sat on the stairs, pulled off her shoes and then held up her hand and cried, ‘Mum! I’ve got dog poo on me!’ I looked at her – it was all over her fingers, some in her fingernails and she was distraught.  It is this image – one of a child with dog poop on her hands – that I want to let these dog owners know about. I want to let them see who can be directly affected when they don’t pick up the mess.  And on my Lord, the smell sticks to your nostrils like chewing gum to trainers.

The good news is that a lot of dog owners are responsible, clearing up, using the bins. But the rest let the side down. A walk up Cam Peak, a stroll through Thornbury playing fields – it’s like a dog poo slalom out there. The law is clear. Don’t clean up the mess and it’s an offence with a fine of up to £1,000 attached. But who can enforce it? The answer for us non-dog owners? Tell people to clear it up and tell the authorities if they don’t.  And for dog owners? Easy.

June 21st, 2012

Tackling Dementia one tear at a time…

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Do you ever get that feeling? When you hear some terrible news on the TV, or when everything breaks at once (they always come in threes!), or when your youngest has peeled off the wallpaper in her room and you only put it up the day before (true story).

Well, the news last week that a state-of-the-art dementia care unit has opened in Almondsbury brought home the realisation that in the UK dementia is on the increase. To me, this comes as no surprise. For two years now, my husband’s Nanna has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. My neighbour too, has witnessed her outgoing mother reduced to a shadow of her former self by the disease, her memory now a scattered pack of cards.

The trouble is the authorities don’t know how to cope with it. According to the Alzheimer’s Society there are 800,000 people in the UK suffering from some form of dementia, with a steady growth predicted over the next five years. The result is many go into care, often draining all their life savings. This is not right. Often, it is the families who end up supplementing payments and care, doing everything they can to get the best for their loved ones. Of course, as families, we expect to help our nearest and dearest, but the divide between who can help and who financially cannot is becoming wider.  A recent inquiry by the economist Andrew Dilnot for the Treasury recommended that the maximum anyone should pay in their lifetime for care is £35,000, but this was later rejected by the Government, and the legislation was shelved. And as for state homes, well they are experiencing cuts too, with less staff and more patients.

The answer, for now, has to be for me, you, all of us, to do everything we can. Raise money for Dementia UK by running a race for example, lobby our MPs to push for a fair approach to care provision. And of course, there’s always humour.  The other month we were laughing with Nanna and her friend about shandy, whiskey and how the care home should be in a tent (we concluded the toilet situation may be tricky…). And then Nanna forgot the names of our girls, and we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

June 14th, 2012

Now something’s really got my goat…

Not much really gets my goat. Sometimes, I may tut over someone driving right up my bumper on the A38 (please, get back!) or frown at the bizarre popularity of TV’s The Only Way is Essex (mental note to self: do not let my daughters watch that show).  Other than that, life carries on skipping through the buttercups. Until now.

Because this week in Dursley, I was made aware of new burglaries committed near to where I live. They were messy, unfair and upsetting. And, worst of all, no one deserved it, not the lovely people whose home was ransacked nor the school that was targeted after its Jubilee fayre. Now, I know all over the word, crime happens, but my point is this: the recent cuts to Gloucestershire police are making the situation worse.  I say this because the crimes committed to the houses of the people I know have had minimum Officer input, often to the point that the victims cannot get hold of the police about the investigation.  And why? Because the police are stretched beyond belief.  It’ s that bad that last month the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire resigned, quitting over the cuts and changes to policing. Even the Chair of the Police Federation, Paul McKeever, said the cuts would create more civil disorder and crime.  And look! Behold!  There are more burglaries!

 Those defending the cuts say that the police force has to contribute to cutting the deficit like all public sector areas. But at what cost to the country? The ironic thing is – besides everyone having to stomach austerity while two-thirds of the cabinet are millionaires – the more they cut, the worse it gets. If they cut welfare, they make life harder for families which can mean more crime. Ditto if they cut education, health, social services, Sure Start, you name it. The answer has to be to combine spend, pooling resources for the long-term, not cutting them, with the aim of creating a society that looks after one another rather than one that lives and takes in selfish isolation. In the meantime, we should buy alarms, hide our valuables and keep an eye out for our neighbours.  In short, we should be a community. It’s a start. Because try as they might, they can’t cut our community. Now that really would get my goat.

June 7th, 2012

Give teenagers a chance – it’s good for us all…

Teenagers. Bless ‘em, they don’t half get it in the neck. Back when I was a youngster, out on my paper round or doing my homework (honest) while I voiced the usual complaints of the world being against me bla, bla, bla, I never ever doubted for a second that when I left education I would walk into a job.  Now, in 2012, while 16-year-olds throughout Gloucestershire still slam their doors and turn the music up so your ears freeze, one thing has changed since my day: the job market.  Youth unemployment world-wide has risen, with the UK figure at 22% – the second highest rate in the G8 countries. That’s why I was pleased to read last week that South Gloucestershire Council is to hire more apprentices.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my traditional idea of an apprenticeship is a quick trip down a pit or tinker with a car. Oh how wrong I am. South Gloucestershire council, for example, will be recruiting up to 60 students a year to work across all areas of their organisation, from housing to catering. This is good. This is positive. But what happens when the scheme is over? Young people in our country are getting the short straw, berated for their manners, their music, their lack of work ethic – it’s just not right. The apprentices on the council scheme will be under contract and will have the opportunity to gain vital experience, relevant qualifications. This too is good. But the trouble is that not enough is being done to ensure there are sufficient jobs for young people in the long term. It’s issues like this that didn’t even cross my mind at 16 as I sported my new leg-warmers.

These days, we expect a lot from our youngsters, and in some instances, this is justified. But, my point is, if we expect so much then we should provide an equal amount of support to them in return. Take respect. Perhaps if we looked at teenagers with the same respect we demand for ourselves, a respect that understood the difficult times that are potentially ahead of our young people, we will get respect in return, and, crucially, this support we show them will help youngsters to get on in life and be good citizens. And that will benefit the entire community. Bless ‘em.

May 31st, 2012

Hang out flags with pride

It’s time to get out the bunting! What’s that? You don’t have any? Well, grab some card and scissors, because this weekend the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations commence. Now, before you shout, ‘Ba-humbug!’, ‘Shush! Pass the Pimms!’ or ‘What’s a Diamond Jubilee?’ (60 years of reign!) let me tell you that according to official figures this weekend around 10,000 street parties are to take place in Britain for the Jubilee – that’s more than for Kate and Will’s wedding.

Now, I have to confess at this juncture that I am, in fact, Irish, but, following a family relocation to Lancashire in 1977 I found myself plonked at a trestle table of sausage rolls, triangle sandwiches and flags celebrating the Silver Jubilee with my new neighbours.  Some 30-odd years later, and while my cheeks are less chubby, we are still expected to wave our flags just like we were then.

And herein lies the problem: flags. Over the years, the little blighters have had a bad press. Take the Union Jack for instance, once a symbol of togetherness now often an emblem for scary far-right views, resulting in the more rational, kind-minded of us who aren’t Geri Halliwell circa The Brits 1997 being too embarrassed to use it. In fact, a quick walk around my local town of Dursley reveals that, apart from shop windows, no flags are yet out. Compare this, say, to the USA where the Stars and Stripes routinely billow in front yards, with Americans taking pride in their country, although sometimes perhaps too much. And this is the point. Should we take pride in our country, too? Well, yes we should. I say this as, effectively, a foreigner to the UK, someone who has grown up here not only loyal to Ireland, but to the UK too.

Look around Gloucestershire, and you’ll see everything from jubilee garden trails in Chalford to tea parties in Coaley. Some say that the Jubilee celebrations are a waste of money, and okay, perhaps given the latest double-dip recession that’s a fair point. But, here’s the thing – the celebrations make us feel better, letting our hair down, if you will, no matter where we’re from. So I say get out your bunting, stick a flag in your garden, and sit back and enjoy the extra bank holiday we’re getting. Cheers, your Majesty!

May 24th, 2012

The drought may be over, but should you be reaching for the hosepipe?

I have some good news! I refer to the recent announcement that Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire have officially had their drought statuses lifted.  What’s that? I hear you say, a drought? With all this rain we’ve been having? It is hard to believe I know, but up until last week, the two counties were still classed as in drought, the water table being at dangerously low levels. But, before we collectively shout ‘hoorah!’ and reach for the nearest hose pipe, it might be an idea to hang on a second.

According to the Environment Agency, groundwater levels remain a concern across England, and, despite reservoirs recovering and farmers breathing sighs of relief, a return to persistent dry weather could lead to further water restrictions, especially for those brow-furrowed farmers.

Now, I like my sunshine as much as the next person, I do. Give me a lounger, some sun cream and five copies of some low-brow magazine and I’m there. But -and this is a big but – when I hear all the talk of droughts and water shortages, I can’t help but feel guilty. Don’t get me wrong, I, like many others, am a bit fed up of the rain – when it was warm the other weekend I was in my shorts and flip flops faster than you can say ‘ice lolly!’ Yet, I cannot help but think that without the extensive, non-stop rain over the past two months, how would things be? I’m no ecological expert, but I am guessing we’d be on high drought alert – up the creek, if you will, with no need for a paddle.

Of course, the Gloucestershire floods of five years ago are still fresh in everyone’s minds, and I can fully understand people’s fears when it rains so much.  However, the fact remains that, when it comes to water, we need to be careful.  I for one will be turning off the taps when I brush my teeth, even if it’s wet outside. And if it’s sunny? Well then perhaps we can all take a second to think what water we can save, maybe hook up a water butt or use the dishwater for the flower beds. And if that helps prevent another drought, then that has to be good news. Now, where’s my ice-lolly?

May 17th, 2012

Save the library, save the world..?

The poor old library is taking the flack again. Much like a baby’s rusk or a Lib Dem manifesto, say, a library in the 21st century is seen as a ripe candidate for a good old bashing. When I was a kid living Up North and effectively in a field (well, okay, by one), our library gave me knowledge, hours of reading and bruises (I used to regularly trip into the door – glass hurts!).

Nowadays, your local library will provide you with the Internet, DVDs and a sore bottom (oh, I can sit reading for a long time). It seems, however, that the county council’s views on how important libraries are to the community differ from my own. Last week Gloucestershire County Council, as reported in this newspaper, concluded not to overturn the decision to reduce the county’s library service. As it stands this will result in the closure of seven libraries, and of the 31 libraries still being supported by the authority, nine will be open six days a week, with the other 22 having varied opening hours. The Wotton library will be open just 12 hours a week. That’s right – 12 hours. Now, I’m no whizz at maths, but that doesn’t seem like a long time to me. Step into to South Gloucestershire, however, and it’s like being in a different universe. In a document to parliament this year, the South Gloucestershire Council stated that their libraries – which are key to their strategy – help to promote local identity and community pride, and maintain sustainable communities. Are you listening Gloucestershire County Council? Hmm, I’m not so sure.

Now look, I understand the economy is up the creek without a paddle, I do. One look at George Osborne’s furrowed brow on Newsnight and you know to reach for the piggy bank. But here’s the thing: libraries are essential for growth. Take them away and we take away our children’s chance to learn and – drum roll, please – for our economy to grow. Maybe if we all used the libraries even more, we could force a more positive decision by the council, even change it. Maybe. Failing that, we’ll all just have to put up with sore bottoms because they would have taken away the comfy reading seats when they close the doors for good. Pass me my library card, quick.

May 10th, 2012

Shopping locally brings a certain satisfaction

There’s something about shopping locally that I love. The other day, I was over in Wotton-under-Edge when I receive a call from my hubbie to suggest that perhaps we could have a nice, kid-free treat meal together at home. ‘But I can’t get to the supermarket to pick anything up,’ I say. He goes to reply when our line cuts off and I am left stood in the street muttering at my mobile receiving questioning looks. Sighing, I begin to walk down the high street and am subsequently amazed at the choice it has to offer. Need a good value present? Check. Post office? Check. Fancy a quick stop for coffee and cake? Always. And as for food choices, there are so many. I end up that day buying what turns out to be a delicious meal bought from the local deli accompanied by fresh French bread and cheese from a new store. In the process, I have a chat with the shop owners, all of them friendly and very helpful. Carrying my bags home, I smile. There’s something about spending money that goes straight back into the local economy that makes me feel happy.

Sitting at the table that night picking on the leftovers, I think about how our shopping habits have changed over the decades and how large supermarkets are now the norm.  After the war, for example, there were no out-of-town stores, and so everything was provided for locally, shopped for locally and all often done on foot, keeping us fit and healthy in the process. My husband taps his tummy and stretches. ‘Shall we go for a walk tomorrow?’ he says. I nod. ‘Ooo, let’s try Chipping Sodbury, they have lovely little shops there.’ ‘Great,’ he says, ‘sounds different.’ And I guess that’s the point. If we made a commitment to shopping locally, say, once a week at least, think of the difference it could make to us and to where we live. It’s not always going to be easy. Food prices are high, fuel, too. We are all feeling the pinch, and of course, supermarkets have their place in our daily lives. But maybe, just maybe, if we bought one thing locally from time to time, it would make us smile. Now that’s got to be a good thing.

May 3rd, 2012

Freedom of playing out is not available for kids today

My kids are growing up. The other week, our eldest asked if she could walk to her friend’s house to play before tea time. Feeling my heart race, I say, ’Yes,’ and then begin to give her some rules. ‘Check the road.’ She nods. ‘Watch out for cars.’ She sighs. ‘And do not, repeat do not go wandering off anywhere without me knowing where you are.’ At this point she puts a hand on my arm and says, ‘Mum, it’s only 30 seconds away.’  Waving her off, I shut the door and wonder if, as parents today, we worry too much about our children. When I was 10, we would all go off in big groups, the local fields our playground, ripe for den building, story-telling and races.

In Gloucestershire, the difference for children today compared to years ago couldn’t be greater. ‘I remember,’ says my neighbour, ‘getting on our bikes and cycling all the way over from Dursley to Stroud to go swimming. We were only 13 or so. We’d even swim in the canal at Slimbridge.’ I sip my tea, unable to imagine my girls doing the same. ‘Of course,’ she continues, ‘there were less cars then. And the local towns had more. Durlsey had two cinemas. In those days, we could just play anywhere.’

Back home, I think about that last sentence. Can our children just go out and play anywhere these days? The answer is a sad no. I certainly think the local councils could fund more play areas and activities, and I believe car drivers need to be more mindful of children. But none of these things will stop my girls from growing up.  I’ll just need a bit of time to get used to it.

April 26th, 2012

What will you be doing for the Olympics?

What do you think of the Olympic Games? At the time of writing this column it is 100 days until London 2012 and it’s come around quick. Now, I don’t know about you, but, while I’m no Paula Radcliffe, I like to run. Since I was 10, I’ve been pounding tracks, hills and roads, clocking up the miles and taking in the scenery, from the sunrise above Cam Peak to the rain-soaked cobbled streets of Berkeley. When I run, everything is pretty much free. Apart from a good pair of trainers, running doesn’t require gym membership or expensive equipment. Anyone of any age can do it – even my kids run cross-country races over in Wotton-Under-Edge, although the promise of a bacon butty  afterwards always helps (ooo, the smell!)

The thing is, as the 2012 Olympic Games announces its new slogan, “Inspire a generation”, it gets me thinking about sport and its importance in where and how we live. Take the expense.  Public spending for the Games is now at around £9.3 billion with the total overall cost predicted to be some 10 times higher than originally estimated.  ‘Mum!’ says the youngest as she listens to a news story about it on the radio. ‘The torch is coming to Gloucestershire! Will our school get some of that money the radio man said about?’ I smile. ‘Not really, sweetie, no,’ I say, but later, intrigued, I hop on to the Internet and take a closer look.

According to Lord Coe, the London 2012 Chairman, they are determined to ensure that, unlike other Games, London 2012 actually does manage to inspire people to participate in more sport – and one way they are doing that is to create more links with schools.  Now, for me, given London is just one area of the UK, if the Olympics can motivate people UK-wide to take up sport, then it’s a job well done. But at what cost? Cuts are being made nation-wide, budgets slashed and jobs lost. Yet, as with the feel-good buzz created with the wedding of Kate and Wills, will the Olympics serve as the boost we all need, now and for years to come? I hope so. In the meantime, I’ll keep on running through the streets of Stinchcombe, Thornbury, Cam and Berkeley. Although, I might just have a bacon butty first.

April 22nd, 2012

Baby group led to a lot of lasting friendships

When we moved to Dursley, I didn’t know anyone. I was 28, my husband two years older, both of us fresh from a move from Bristol. At the time, I was 36 weeks pregnant, my mum living a three-hour drive away, and my friends even further. The house we’d just bought needed a lot of work, and at the time I didn’t have a car. So you can imagine what it was like when, three weeks later, I found myself clutching a new born baby, wondering who on earth I was going to talk to all day and where I was going to go.

I have to admit that the whole thing overwhelmed me a bit in those first few sleepless weeks, until one morning my husband mentioned the local mum’s group in Cam was starting and was I going. After some gentle cajoling, I remember reluctantly loading our milky baby into the pushchair, feeling jaded and nervous at the thought of talking to other mothers. ‘It will be fine,’ said my husband. And, thank goodness, turns out he was right. Because that morning, at that group, I met and made friends who even now I am still in touch with, our babies having sprouted into busy 10- year-olds. ‘Do you remember when mine had colic?’ says my friend one day when we reminisce. ‘He wouldn’t stop crying,’ she says with a faraway look. ‘And remember we went to every playgroup going?’ I say. We smile at the memories of going to Wotton-under-Edge to the baby music group.  ‘It’s Rhythm and Rhyme today!’ my girls still chant, recalling the theme tune we used to sing every Monday morning. ‘I never would have got through those early days if it wasn’t for meeting up with you all,’ says my friend.

I know what she means. Going to that group all those years back was the start of lasting friendships – and my lasting love for this area of Gloucestershire. After miles of pushing a buggy around the shops of Thornbury, down the lanes of Berkeley and up the (many) hills of Dursley, I can finally say that I now know a lot more people, and have made some dear friends. Just a shame I’m not 28 anymore.

April 12th, 2012

God bless good neighbours

What would we do without our neighbours? The other week, when my eldest was ill and I needed to be at a meeting, our dear neighbour came round at the drop of a hat to sit with her until my husband came home. ‘Are you sure?’ I say, grabbing some paperwork. ‘Go,’ she orders, ‘she’ll be fine.’ And with that, I give her a hug and fly out the door. Meeting over, I drive home and find myself wondering what life would be like without the people or places we know around us.

With a cocoa in hand, that night I log on to the Internet and look at a map of the area. ‘Is that Yate?’ asks my husband, having a nosey. I nod. ‘I never realised it was so close,’ I say. He shakes his head. ‘Have you never been to Yate?’ I look at the screen. ‘No,’ I say, ‘never. Nor Chipping Sodbury.’ I blink at the map. Turns out there are several places nearby I still haven’t been to.

It gets me thinking about how odd it is to live so close to somewhere for so long without having ever visited them. So, with the start to Spring being so sunny, I decide one day to take myself out, and armed with a map, I set off on a mini tour off the area to try and get to know it a little better. I visit Kingswood then Wickwar, driving through the countryside, smiling at pretty streets, amazed that I hadn’t visited before. Yate is a hit, with so many big name shops, and bright, busy walkways. It’s so handy. And then it’s to Chipping Sodbury where I hear the clock tower strike and marvel at how the high street looks so French. I return home feeling pleased, vowing to never leave it so long again. Kicking off my shoes, I notice a card. It is from our neighbours, saying how happy they are that we’re happy. It’s so lovely, I have to re-read it. I go straight round. ‘Come on in,’ says my neighbour, smiling. ‘Thanks so much for the card,’ I say. She pats my shoulder. ‘Tea or coffee?’ ‘Ooo, Coffee, please,’ I say, and pop on in for a good old catch up.

April 5th, 2012

Musings on birthdays and growing up – or not in some cases

I do love a birthday. Not mine, necessarily – I’m not too keen on feeling older – but I do like someone else’s. In our house, birthdays are a big deal, so much so that my two girls are now hyper  about preparations for their Dad’s imminent 40th.  ‘Does that mean you’re ancient, Dad?’ asks the youngest, giggling. He rolls his eyes. ‘Dad’s just a big kid,’ says the eldest. ‘Hmm,’ I say, ‘a big kid who hasn’t done the hoovering yet.’  My husband sighs. He lives in a house of women, he knows when to remain silent.

The thing is, when we first moved to Gloucestershire it was on the cusp of his 30th birthday, and it’s hard to believe how life has changed. Once upon a time BC (before children), our lives were late nights, later mornings and city living.  Now, 10 years down the line, it’s all early nights, 5a.m. starts and country parks. And while, yes, we do miss those carefree days, we’re mighty glad we settled in a county were the kids are happy, especially now it’s the Easter holidays. Last week, the girls and I visited the Maunday Playing fields in Thornbury. We used to go there every week when they were toddlers, so going back was a blast from the past that made us all smile. ‘Look! Zip wire!’ they scream, and off they charge leaving me to catch a quick, rare sit down. Hanging on the zip wire, they whizz off, shouting, ‘Awesome!’ I watch as they then run back on, happy, not giving me a second glance. If I ever needed confirmation that they’re growing up, this is it.

That evening, we discuss our days at the dinner table. The Thornbury zip wire is a hot topic. ‘Was it really fast?’ asks my husband. ‘Yeah!’ they both shout. ‘Hey,’ I say, gazing at the evening sun, ‘we should walk up over Stinchcombe to Waterley Bottom again now spring’s here. Cam Peak, too.’  The three of them dissolve into giggles. ‘Mum said bottom, girls!’ says my husband. I watch as he laughs and realise that my eldest was right. He is a big kid. But aren’t we all? My husband then tickles our girls as they eat. I sigh and resume my gaze at the late sunshine.

March 29, 2012

Good deeds blossom to help charities

The other day, I watched a Sport Relief programme that had me in tears. I don’t know if you saw it, but it was the one with comedian John Bishop who, starting in Paris, cycled over 100 miles, rowed the Channel and ran three back-to-back marathons to reach the London finish line. With my kids sat beside me, it got me on to thinking about all the things people do for others. Take Gloucestershire for example. As writing this column is still new to me, I took some time to read the Gazettes that cover the various regions, and while each area is unique, there was one common thread: kindness. ‘What’s that massive daffodil there for?’ asks my youngest, peering at the front page of the Yate and Sodburys Gazette. ‘That’s there to raise money, sweetie. For charity.’  She smiles. ‘I’m going to check on my daffodils from Dad.’ And with that, she’s off.

 The more I glance through the paper, the more I see just how much people do for where they live. Charity dinner and dances in Almondsbury, fundraising jumble sales in Berkley, school fund quiz nights in Wickwar – all these are happening, run by people for people, and it’s simply amazing. It gets to dinner time at home, and talk at the table turns to the Sport Relief programme and what it was for. ‘People in Africa don’t have much money, mum, do they?’ says the youngest. ‘No, sweetie,’ I reply.  ‘Our school does cake stalls to fundraise,’ says the eldest. I nod.  We sit in silence, eating and thinking. ‘Mum,’ says the youngest, ‘I’m glad we live here.’

 And that’s it, really. We’re glad, lucky even, to live where we do, with all these people in the county who help others, every day, from cake stalls to dinner dances. By the time you read this, my family and I will have run the Sport Relief Mile in Dursley. Our two girls will have out run me and my husband, our socks will smell, our feet will hurt. The youngest pops in. ‘Mum, look, my daffodils have grown!’ I smile. ‘Hey,’ I say, ‘maybe they’ll be big and massive, just like the one in the paper!’ ‘Oh, Mum,’ she sighs, ‘that one was plastic.’ Ah.

March 22nd 2012

How things change (but not always for the better)

This is my first column. If I’m honest, I’m a bit nervous. ‘What are you going to write about, Mum?’ asks the eldest on our walk into Dursley. We arrive at the glass box that is the modern town library. I turn to my daughter. ‘Hey, do you remember when this used to be a little prefab behind the back of the fruit shop?’ She gives me a blank stare. ‘Mum, I was about one then. Of course I don’t remember.’ She has a point.

As I follow her into the library, it gets me thinking. This year will be our tenth in Dursley – and, like so many Gloucestershire towns, a lot has changed. Take Rednock School. When we first arrived back in 2002, the buildings were at best retro, at worst leaking. Now it boasts a multi-million pound make-over and a big orange entrance. ‘Mum,’ asked the youngest when it was just built, ‘is that a space ship?’ I glance over; it is on stilts, it could take off. ‘Um, yes, honey,’ I say, ‘yes. School is…one big spaceship!’ She frowns. She was only two. It seemed like a good answer at the time.

The thing is, while talk of spaceships is fun, there is a grain of reality to it. Namely, Dursley has become modern. It started back in 1988, when, while I was busy singing into my hairbrush to Bananarama, the town planners were off approving the new swimming pool, with its now familiar curved glazed roofing, marking a new generation of infrastructure for the town. Since then, Dursley has seen a new supermarket, re-flagged walk ways, and a new town heritage centre, not to mention a re-built fire station and, just recently, Vale Community Hospital.

Back at the library, we pull out a book on local history. ‘Mum,’ asks my daughter, peering at grainy photos of Thornbury Castle, ‘do you think we’ll ever move?’ I glance at the Victorian petticoats in the pictures and realise just how much of Gloucestershire’s modern ways are steeped in heritage.  ‘I don’t think so, sweetie,’ I say, linking her arm. ‘Good,’ she says. ‘Does that mean I can have a TV in my room?’ I sigh. Victorian times this isn’t.

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10 thoughts on “GAZETTE COLUMN”

  1. This issue (the dog poo one) really riles me. I wouldn’t dream of not cleaning up after my two pooches. However it really saddens me that our beautiful green outside our school has a dog poo bin, yet only last month all three of us ended up cleaning our shoes and in my son’s case his school trousers (ewwwwww). If Guide Dog owners can clean up after their dogs then there is no excuse for sighted people!

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    1. Those that don’t clean it up spolit if for the majority that do – like your good self. When the girls roll down the green outside school my first thought is, ‘don’t roll in dog poo!’ if people who left their dog muck around saw kids covered in it as a consequence, they might change their ways! failing that, we could start a poop patrol! Now that would be amusing! Imagine the outfits…

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    1. Hi. Thanks for the cracking comment. Apologies for my huge delay in response – it’s been a long summer and I’ve had a big break. I’m going to look up Tuesdays with Morrie now. I’ll admit – never heard of it. That’s what makes blogging so great – you hear about things you may otherwise. Glad you like the top ten of mine, which, as you said, could be expanded. There are never enough numbers! Nice to meet you.

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  2. Wheelie bins! You have it easy Stroud – inthe Rochdale area we have 4 – yes you read it right – 4 full size wheelie bins to store! Plus a mini windowsill one in the kitchen!!! Dark green for normal rubbish, blue for paper andcard, bright green with blue lid for glass, tins and plastic bottles, and finally a brown one for garden waste and food waste! Plus a mini brown ‘kitchen caddy’ size to collect food waste which we then transfer to the large brown one outside.Recycling is great and good, but takes up a lot of garden space. Husband even extended the flagged area when we were planning the shed delivery to fit them all (at the time it was just 3!) Fortnightly collections work just fine but on the recycling week he has to drag 3 bins down 3 steps up the drive and onto the kerb side. So go for it Stroud council – beat that bin collection!!!!

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    1. hey honey! Four green bins? Holy moly. That’s keeping it real for us wheelie bin stroudies alright! And you had to build extra space to accomdate them, too? keeping Graham busy – like it. Hugs to all xx

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  3. I was starting to think I was the only one who actually loved the sight of wind turbines, in part because all the news usually reports whenever they’re being contested are the crowds that perpetually go “HURR DURR UGLY EYESORE GET RID!”

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