Friday, 20 June 2014

Social housing in Felsham

In her report to the June meeting of the Parish Council, Penny Otton pointed out that MSDC and Babergh DC are to apply for funding to build new council houses.  But the key point was "although this will provide some new social housing they will be subject to market level rents and the right to buy (after some years) [unspecified]".

The scandal of building houses with public money and then selling them off where they end up in the hands of private landlords who make massive profits is seldom publicized.  However,the Daily Mirror (5 March 2013) has done us an important service in highlighting this untenable situation:

.... Meanwhile, the private rented sector has almost doubled in a decade and 8.5 million people are tenants – one in six households.
Experts link the crisis to Mrs Thatcher’s decision to sell off council homes to tenants at a discount.
Right-to-buy proved popular, but our investigation has found 30 years later, the next generation has not benefited.
Controversially councils were not allowed to spend the cash on building more homes.
We used the Freedom of Information Act to ask city councils how many of their ex-flats, where they still own the freehold, were being sub-let by the leaseholder.
The 13 that responded told us in 32% of the properties, the leaseholder had an “away address” for ­correspondence – a clear sign the flat was being rented out.

We are fortunate in having a district councillor  who opposes unfair rent increases.  A year ago I wrote to Penny Otton saying:
Just to say how much I support your stance opposing rent increases at this time.

Don’t fully understand all the ramifications of housing policy but it strikes me that if this increase goes ahead we will see more defaulting on rent payments, more debt and greater reliance on housing benefit.  Seems to me that we need policies which keep rents lower across the board. 
Apparently private rents went up last year by 4.3%  Private landlords will make a killing while the Government picks up the bill for benefits – looks to me like money going straight from public coffers into private ones.  With rents  kept high because of housing shortage any policy of converging public with private rents has to be unfair and plays into the hands of rentier capitalists in the short term and fails to look to long term improvements. 
Earlier this year I carried out some research after a parish councillor argued for higher rents for council house tenants.  The following is the summary that I circulated to members of the council.

Rents increased in this sector 3.1% last year.  When you read that average wages/salaries went up by only 2.1% in the same period you realise how some people are feeling the pinch. See BBC report. 
 In some occupational areas like Health, workers have seen a drop in wages of over 12% if this report is accurate.  Another report states that workers in Britain's public sector are £23 a month worse off this month compared with this time last year (in real terms).
Such workers who are tenants in Felsham will find an increase of £13.40 a month quite a challenge when you also realise that food and other costs are increasing considerably. (Oddly enough, my enquiries came up with an unspecified, but doubtless, considerable increase in Housing Association rents in Felsham:“The housing regulator maximum increase for the for the period 01/04/2013 – 31/03/2014 is +3.1% plus £2 per week (£8.67 per calendar month)” [Orwell Housing]) Nationally, commercial rents continue to rise and have reached quite extraordinary levels though I have no figures for our local area.  Renting privately when 43% of your income goes on housing costs, compared with 19% spent by mortgage owners, is a disgraceful state of affairs.  See:  
Rents in the Association and Social housing sectors will only become manageable when commercial rents are regulated.  Not only should we regulate private rents we need to allow councils to build thousand of new homes, reducing reliance on extortionate private rents and thus reduce public subsidies to landlords through the housing benefit scandal. At this time, when the Coalition government is waging war on the poor, should we be raising rents at all?  If you think I am exaggerating the current state of affairs check out this local story which gives an indication of what is happening in our (relatively wealthy) neck of the woods:

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Democracy and the parish council

In general, democracy in Felsham is healthy and the Parish Council functions efficiently.  However, there are several caveats.

1.  Parish Meetings vs. Parish Councils
I recently attended the Gedding Parish Meeting and was very impressed by the way the meeting was conducted and by the large number of parishioners that attended.  The following evening, the Felsham Annual Parish Meeting was relatively poorly attended and the 'audience' consisted mostly of councillors and reportees of village bodies.  It went through my mind that the institution of a parish meeting is perhaps more democratic than a Parish Council with elected councillors.  Arguable and debatable?

Interestingly, and this is not generally well-known, a parish meeting can be called at any time if a particular issue needs to be discussed to which the whole village can be invited and participate fully just like the Gedding Meeting.  I researched this and it appears that the following is the correct procedure:
Parish meeting
A parish meeting may be convened by the chairman of the parish council or any two parish councillors, or in a parish council without a parish council by the chairman of the parish meeting or by any representative of the parish upon the district council, or in either case by six electors for the area for which it is to be held (Local Government Act 1972, Sch 12, para 15(1)(d).  The parish council may also convene it but is under no obligation to do so unless its consent is required before the parish council does certain acts.'
 So, six parishioners can call a meeting.  Meetings cannot begin before 6pm and notices specifying the time and place and business of an intended meeting and signed by the conveners must be affixed in some conspicuous place or places in the parish and in addition, the conveners may give such publicity to the meeting as seems desirable.
 Ordinarily the minimum notice required is 7 days, but if any of the business relates to the establishment or dissolution of a parish council, or to the grouping of a parish with another parish it is 14 days.

2.  Rules of debate and STANDING ORDERS
When I was first elected to the Parish Council three years ago, I was amazed how informal the meetings were.  In fact there was little regard for Standing Orders and accepted rules of debate. Nobody appeared to address their remarks through the Chairperson and sometimes discussion seemed aimless and even farcial.  I wondered whether I had drifted into a rehearsal for a FAGENDS pantomime.  At a recent meeting I proposed that "the council proceed to the next business on the agenda".  Nobody seemed to know what I meant, even though it is part of the approved Standing Orders.  It is rather like having a school rule that says - DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS - where the children a. do not know the verb 'to walk' and b. do not know what 'grass' is.  All seriously embarrassing.

3.  Elections and co-options
Sometimes there is a vacancy for a councillor.  Accepted practice in Felsham is to ask for volunteers to come forward, provide CVs etc, and then an election by 'in situ' councillors takes place.  There are problems here and one very succinct exposition was recently aired on the CPALC site:

What do you think?


Friday, 13 June 2014

Felsham & Gedding Parish Plan 2012

The local historians of the future looking back to 2011 and 2012 will find the Parish Plan both interesting and informative.  But how accurate is the picture of village life presented by the Parish Plan's Report?

At the recent Annual Parish Meeting for Felsham, the chairman of the Felsham & Gedding Parish Plan Steering Group presented her final report and formally closed the Group while acknowledging that many sub-committees spawned by the action plan were still functioning.  She was the only spokesperson to get a resounding round of applause at the meeting and it was certainly well deserved.  Subsequently it may seem a little churlish to voice some criticisms of the Parish Plan process and its conclusions.  Nevertheless it is standard practice in social research to conclude a study with some sort of evaluation but I would like to stress that the informal analysis that follows is an independent and personal view.

1.  The Questionnaire was too long and cumbersome
From the off, criticisms were voiced about the complexity of the some parts of the questionnaire that was sent to all parishioners in Felsham and Gedding. Some people found the introductory section, where recipients were asked for personal details, both unnecessary and intrusive.  It was also unclear how the Steering Group were going to analyse and present their findings in a statistically satisfactory fashion.  The final booklet, however, was not only very attractive to look at with it excellent graphics, it was a thoroughly good read.  In the back of my mind though was the carping thought that could this have not been done more cheaply and easily if the exercise had been broken down into smaller chunks and with better use made of Web apps. such as "Survey Monkey".

2.  The BIG SOCIETY and the distribution of the questionnaire
The introduction to the questionnaire stated that the exercise was a reflection of the Tory's policy of the 'big society'.  What exactly this means is still open to debate but it appeared as an attempt to emphasize the voluntary over the paid contribution to society's well-being.  Subsequently it seemed inappropriate that parishioners were invited to complete the questionnaire with a 'carrot' of money that they would be eligible for when their questionnaire number was entered into a raffle.  I think the total amount available was £50. Offering an inducement to parishioners to complete a questionnaire has implications for the validity and reliability of the conclusions drawn.  Could some people have just filled in their responses in a haphazard fashion just to be entered into the draw?
An interesting parallel can be drawn with the 'donating of blood'.  In this country we have always depended on volunteers and we have some of the best quality blood around.  In other countries, including the USA I think, payment for blood has led to a poorer quality of blood being supplied.  People are not supplying blood through altruism or other intrinsic motivations but through necessity or other extrinsic motives, and this has led to people donating blood that has not been properly screened, perhaps from drug addicts etc.

3.  The questions in the questionnaire did not provide enough alternative responses
To take one example:  A village sign for Felsham.  If my memory serves me right, the question was 'Do you want a Village Sign?  Yes/No.'  Many people answered Yes (including myself) and a committee is now progressing the action with a sizeable budget to help get things moving.
Now, what is the purpose of a Village Sign?  Perhaps the main reason is that it can provide a focus for village identity.  However, as many people have pointed out Felsham already has its village pumps as a reference point, so it is actually unclear what can be added.  I have made some stab at finding some worthwhile historical references which could appear on a sign but they are not that obvious.  [By the way, what has happened to the excellent pub sign for the Six Bells Inn?]
Perhaps the question should have been broader providing a range of different options relevant to the village. For example:
Place in order of preference
  1. Village sign
  2. Museum case of historical documents and artefacts
  3. Village information board
  4. Village trail of listed buildings and places of note
  5. Shelter for pump on Upper Green with seats
4.  The Parish Plan as a mandate for the two villages
The report from the Steering Group was adopted and accepted by both the Gedding Meeting and the Felsham Parish Council, and over many months was the subject of numerous and lively discussions and the production of a comprehensive action plan.  However, there appeared to be some assumption written into the report that it was a 'mandate' for the two elected bodies and this has given rise to some problems both legal and practical.  A 'mandate' is 'an official order or commission to do something' but within the context of  the parish council this cannot be the case.  Parish Councillors are not elected on a mandate but to represent parishioners.  For example, I was elected on a platform "to work for a greener, safer Felsham" which I have tried to do to the best of my ability.  I did not stand for election to carry out the conclusions of a parish plan without question or criticism.
This issue came to the fore recently in a parish council meeting where lengthy and sometimes acrimonious discussion took place concerning the experimental grass-cutting regime on Lower Green.  The Minutes of 24 March state:
... It was confirmed that there was no interest identified from the parish plan for a wildlife area on Lower Green or anywhere else in the parishes...
The implication of this statement was that as the Parish Plan did not sanction a wildlife area then there could not be one.  This is clearly nonsense.  The Parish Council does not require the permission of a report to sanction any action within the village.  Councillors cannot be mandated.  
Something similar happened in the Report's section on LOCAL DEMOCRACY.  Some respondents complained that they did not know their local representatives.  We are not told how many thought this but, even so, the action plan stipulated that personal profiles of parish councillors should be published on the website, in the Village News, and on the Noticeboard.  Innocuous enough you may think, but in fact involved some invasion of privacy.  Not everyone wants a Facebook page and neither does everyone want their personal details splashed all over the internet.  However, despite my personal opposition, the Council agreed to publish the profiles and subsequently I was forced to resign my position as website administrator, a job I thoroughly enjoyed doing.  I outlined my reason in a NALC blog:

   It might seem to many people a trivial matter but I think there is an important privacy principle at stake here.  The silly thing is that it is so unnecessary.  We are a small village and if people want to know what we look like they can attend our monthly meetings plus the occasional “surgeries” that are held in the Village Hall.
 My fellow councillors and Parish Clerk disagree and point out that our District and County Councillors are fully described on-line.  But I feel that at a Parish level it is a different matter entirely and that councillors should be able to opt- out from having similar profiles published.  If new candidates standing for the Parish Council knew in advance that their picture and personal profile were to appear on a website that is a different matter.  They can then decide not to stand in the first place if they felt this was inappropriate for them.

Try a Survey Monkey questionnaire here.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Parish councils and the law of defamation

The current spat between Felsham Parish Council and the Editorial Team of the 'Village News' continues. (See Agenda item 15 for meeting of 20 May 2014: "To consider any action in response to a recently published article in Village News")

One of the words thrown about in the discussion was "defamatory".  This has been defined like this:
A defamatory statement is one “which tends to lower a person in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally or to cause him to be shunned or avoided or to expose him to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to convey an imputation on him disparaging or injurious to him in his office, profession, calling, trade or business” (Halsbury’s Laws of England).
This definition can be found in the NALC LTN 30 for March 2013.  The same article goes on to state:
Public and local authorities (including local councils) can NOT be defamed. This is now settled law: the House of Lords held that it was in the highest interest of the public to allow a council to be subject to scrutiny and criticism, and it would be contrary to such interest for local authorities to have any common law right to bring an action for defamation.
If the Council were to cry "defamation" every time it was criticized then accountability to local electors would be completely undermined. Thus:
 Parish Councils cannot be defamed!


Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Felsham shoemakers from 1840 to 1910

For the last fifty years or so I have used the Bury shoe repair shop owned by the Curry family.  This business has thrived in the town for over 180 years and is now situated in Cannon Street.  On the walls of the shop there are many old photographs.  One shows three generations of shoe-menders:

"Little Wonder" Curry's shoe makers and repairers

Shoe-makers shops were a common sight in both town and country during the 19th century, though in small villages like Felsham the cobbler's workshop was probably in one corner of his small living room.  A bench, chair and a set of shoe-making tools was all that was required to set up in business.

The Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket has an excellent re-construction of a shoe-mender's workshop representing the trade at the beginning of the 20th century:

Shoe menders work bench

In 1841 Felsham had three shoemakers which suggests that there was considerable demand from the local population, which even if you include Gedding, never exceeded more than six hundred people throughout the 19th century.  Their names were John Green, William Gill and William Cornelius. The first two lived on Upper Green, while Mr Cornelius had his workshop on the south side of The Street.

Map of Felsham village centre showing where the shoemakers and other craftsmen lived

Ten years later, Felsham still managed to support three shoemakers.  Joseph Gladwell, living on The Street, and Henry Aves, living on Upper Green, were both aged thirty-one and described themselves as Master shoemakers.  The third shoemaker was John Green.

By 1861, John Green had left the village.  (He was to die in his native village of Haughley in 1875 aged 73).  Joseph Gladwell and Henry Aves were joined by a James Last who was described in the Census Returns for Felsham as a "tailor and shoemaker of 17 acres employing one labourer and a boy."  I am rather tickled by the fact that a shoemaker should be called LAST because this, of course, was the name of the 'model' on which the craftsmen worked or shaped the boots and shoes.

James Last hailed from Whepstead and the Census recording his household in 1861 reveals that in addition to employing a labourer and boy, he had an apprentice in the tailoring side of the business.

Tailor and shoemaker of 17 acres employing 1 labourer and boy

Earls Colne
Tailor's apprentice
Living on Annuity
House Servant

It is interesting to note that Mr Last was first and foremost a tailor and that the shoe-making business was perhaps only a sideline.  I wonder whether this over-lap between trades was a general feature of the time and whether craftsmen working in leather developed a variety of skills which may have included saddlery and harness making?  James Last was also a small-holder of 17 acres and it would be interesting to know how far the farming of this land contributed to his over-all income.  Moreover, the mention of an elderly boarder staying in the house suggests that he would have been in receipt of some 'board and lodge' income though she may have been a relative.  That the family was able to employ a young house servant suggests that William Last was comfortably-off.  

The shoemakers of Felsham contributed to the general self-sufficiency of the village in early Victorian times before the advent of factory-made shoes, sold via pedlars and village shop-keepers, began to undermine their monopoly. Who were their customers? Were they only farm labourers and their families or did their clientele include farmers and other members of the rural middle classes?

James Last continued as one of the Felsham shoemakers for many decades and the final mention in the official records show him residing in the village Townhouse in 1891.  William Last [his son?] continued the trade of shoe-maker in the village at least until 1911 when he was about seventy years of age.  He may have lived in one of these cottages on Upper Green:

Undated photo of Upper Green but probably taken in 1910
 or thereabouts
Shoemakers are seldom mentioned in the Felsham Church records which makes me wonder whether they were non-conformists.  Further research is required including an examination of the records for local Baptist and other dissenting religious organisations for this period.

Religious Dissent is one thing, political dissent is quite another. Politically, it is unlikely that our village shoemakers were of a dissenting frame of mind for deference to the 'powers that be' was deeply built into local rural society; nevertheless, it has been convincingly argued that, traditionally, shoemakers adopted a radical outlook on life.

Eric Hobswbawm, one of the great British historians, commented on the proverbial radicalism of shoemakers in his excellent book, "Uncommon People" (Abacus, 1998), and points out that they were very active in the Chartist movement:
... in 1830 the average riotous parish had from two to four times as many shoemakers as the average tranquil one. [p.27]
Shoemakers were often thought of as being intellectual:
“A cobbler once in days of yore/Sat musing at his cottage door./He liked to read old books, he said,/And then to ponder, what he’d read.”
The shoemaker’s reputation as popular philosopher and politician predates the era of industrial capitalism and extends well beyond the typical countries of the capitalist economy.  The patron saints of the craft, Crispin and Crispinian, were martyred because they preached unorthodoxy to their customers in the workshop in Soissons in France.

The shoemakers of the larger Suffolk villages and in the towns like Stowmarket may well have had a more radical streak.  Certainly, in the industrial north:
He is, typically, a cobbler, an old man and the sage of his industrial village: ‘He has a library that he rather prides himself upon.  It is a strange collection… there is the … “Wrongs of Labour” and “The rights of man”…. (EP Thompson, “Village Politician”, 1849)
Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the trade’s intellectualism derives from the fact that a shoemaker’s work was both sedentary and physically undemanding.  Probably it was physically the least taxing labour for men in the countryside.  As a result small, weak or physically handicapped boys were habitually put to this trade. 

In this respect, EP Thomson mentions a certain John Pounds:
John Pounds (June 17, 1766 - January 1, 1839) was a teacher and altruist born in Portsmouth, and the man most responsible for the creation of the concept of Ragged schools.   After Pounds' death, Thomas Guthrie (often credited with the creation of Ragged Schools) wrote his Plea for Ragged Schools and proclaimed John Pounds as the originator of this idea ).  Pounds was severely crippled in his mid-teens, from falling into a dry dock at Portsmouth Dockyard, where he was apprenticed as a shipwright. He could no longer work at the dockyard, and from then onwards made his living as a shoemaker.

The shoemaker’s work … permitted thinking and discussion while working; his frequent isolation during working hours threw him on his own intellectual resources; he was selectively recruited from boys with a likely incentive to compensate for their physical handicaps; the training of apprentices and the tramping of journeymen exposed him to the culture of the trade and to the culture and politics of a wider world….

Sadly, without diaries, letters or reminiscences, we will never know what our local shoemakers thought and did.