Noel Wilkes, a true Evesham hero

On the way to Tesco on Saturday evening, I passed what appeared to be the immediate aftermath of a road accident just outside St Ecgwins Club in Evesham High Street. A man was lying in the road, being attended to by passers-by. I briefly considered stopping, but made a decision not to as there were already several people present, and I don’t have any in-depth first aid training, so I’d have simply been adding to the numbers for no good purpose. So I drove on. By the time I made the return journey, the road had been closed off by the police and I had to take a diversion to get home.

So it wasn’t until today that I learned two things: The accident had proven fatal and the victim was Noel Wilkes.

Noel was a veteran of the D-Day landings and, even at the age of 90, an active member of the Evesham Royal British Legion. I can’t claim to have known Noel well, but during my time as Mayor of Evesham last year I had the pleasure of his company at several events organised by the Legion. And it was a genuine pleasure; Noel’s enthusiasm for his task was obvious and, despite the impressive array of medals he was entitled to wear at ceremonial occasions he wore his history lightly. He never boasted of his achievements, but was always willing to answer questions and share his knowledge. Noel was one of that rare breed of men: a genuine hero of war who lived up to that label in peacetime. Until the very last day of his life he was dedicated to serving his community.

Noel Wilkes

My thoughts, prayers and sympathies go out to Noel’s family. Losing a man of his stature is always a tragedy. To lose him in such a manner is doubly so.

RIP Noel Wilkes. You truly fought the good fight.

Auf Wiedersehen, Ukip

Economic migrants leaving their homes in a poorer country to find work in a richer one.

If, like me, your musical memories consist of the likes of Duran Duran, Blondie, The Human League, The Sex Pistols and Bon Jovi, then you’ll probably also recognise my opening paragraph as the backstory for the hugely popular 1980s ITV comedy, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. For those who don’t remember the series, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the plot:

The first series, co-produced by Witzend Productions and Central Television for ITV in 1983, is the story of seven out-of-work construction workers from various parts of England who are forced to look for work in West Germany, although it focuses initially on three men from Newcastle upon Tyne making the journey to Germany, with the others being introduced along the way. (The title refers to their farewells to their wives and girlfriends – “Auf Wiedersehen” being German for “Farewell” or “Goodbye”, and “Pet” being a North-East English term of endearment).

Back in the early 80s, it wasn’t at all uncommon for British construction workers to look for work elsewhere. In 1983, the year that Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was first broadcast, unemployment had hit a record high. The late 70s had left the UK as the “sick man of Europe”, with strikes destroying industries and the economy in tatters. The Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 proved the nail in the coffin as far as Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was concerned, and in May of that year Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Four years later, in 1983, a snap election saw Thatcher’s Conservative party retain power with a landslide victory over a demoralised and bitterly divided Labour.

Despite her electoral achievements, though, Thatcher’s government had yet to achieve the economic success that was later to be the hallmark of her administration. Unemployment continued to rise throughout her first term, and it wasn’t until Arthur Scargill’s disastrous attempt to use the NUM against her in 1984 that the power of the unions was finally broken. In 1983, things still looked pretty bleak. And, for the ordinary working man, there was a double whammy: the effing Tories in power and no jobs to go to. Putting up with a government you didn’t vote for is a lot easier when you’re still doing OK on a personal level. But many in the traditional heavy industries were a long way from that.

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet drew on that background. As, too, did other seminal drama series of the time, such as Boys from the Blackstuff. Although nominally a comedy, Pet was rooted in the same realistic backdrop of poverty and unemployment in the North of England.

Germany, by contrast, was doing pretty well in 1983. Inflation was among the lowest in Europe, unemployment was also low, and the German economy was growing steadily. The construction industry, always very sensitive to the overall economic health of a country, was doing well there too. Britain’s economy was actually growing faster than Germany’s at the time, but from a much lower base. We had a long way to go to catch up.

It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that many British construction workers followed the path depicted in Pet. Germany offered plenty of work, and paid higher wages. To be sure, it also meant leaving your comfort zone and living – often in cheap and crowded accommodation – far from home in a place with a different language, different money and different food. But for those willing to make the move, it was worth it.

Fast forward three decades, and we’re still seeing a large number of people from a poorer country leaving home to look for work in a richer one. The difference is that this time, it isn’t Brits moving to Germany, it’s Eastern Europeans moving to Britain. But if you disregard the nationalities, what’s underneath is remarkably similar.

Just as in the early 1980s, what we have in the 2010s is a rich and financially successful country – the UK now, Germany back then – proving a magnet to jobseekers from countries that are much further behind on the economic growth path.. For 1980s Britain, read 21st century Poland, Lithuania and Romania. We have become the destination, and not the point of departure.

Yes, it’s true that we’ve had a tough few years here as well, following the global crash at the end of the previous decade. But we’ve also weathered the storm more successfully than many other countries. The UK is now one of the most vigorous economies in Europe. Unemployment and inflation remain low, despite the downturn. According to Dan Hannan MEP, writing in the Daily Mail, we have created more jobs over the past four years than the other 27 members of the EU put together. So it isn’t surprising that the UK is an attractive source of work for people from other parts of the continent. They’re coming here because we have been so successful.

This is the point that the anti-immigration complainers are missing. The reason why we have an immigration “problem” is because we don’t have an economic problem. Even with the late-noughties recession, we’re still light years ahead, metaphorically speaking, of where we were in the early 80s.

Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher’s economic legacy was indisputably a success. So – let’s not be partisan about this – was Tony Blair’s. It’s arguable that the wheels came off under Gordon Brown, but to be fair that wasn’t entirely his fault. And, unlike the long drawn out car crash of the Wilson/Callaghan years in the 70s which in turn took over a decade to untangle, the downturn under Brown has been swiftly reversed under David Cameron’s coalition government. We’re already back to within touching distance of the 2008 peak.

The simple fact is that immigration and economic prosperity go together. Every successful economy has net immigration. In particular, every successful economy has net inward economic migration – the kind of temporary migration that saw Geordies working in Düsseldorf in the early 1980s and sees Poles working in Evesham in 2014.

So how do we fix the immigration problem? It’s simple, really. We turn the clock back to the days when nobody wanted to come here, but our workers wanted to go elsewhere. We create mass unemployment so that there are no jobs for the immigrants to take. We screw up the economy so that other countries are richer than ours. We promote rampant inflation so that our money becomes worthless. And we watch the economic migrants – our own as well as those from other countries – go elsewhere while Britain gets left behind. Never mind Ukip Calypso, this is what we’ll all be singing if Nigel Farage gets his way:

Of course, we all know that things did eventually get better after The Specials released that single in 1981. In the long run, it was Thatcherism that rescued Britain rather than destroyed it. But we had to go through some pretty dark days to reach the sunshine. Those are the days that Ukip would take us back to if they could.

Fortunately, there is another way. Instead of harking back to some fondly-imagined (but badly remembered) past, we can continue to build on what we’ve achieved over the past four years. It’s time to say Auf Wiedersehen, Ukip.

A brief history of local government in Evesham

When considering Evesham’s history, the things that come to mind tend to be the obvious ones: the founding of the Abbey as a result of Eof’s vision, the battle of Evesham, the ongoing dispute between the Abbey town of Evesham and the castle town of Bengeworth (which the Abbey won), and finally the destruction of the the Abbey leaving us with just the Bell Tower standing. But I thought it might be interesting (to fellow politics nerds, anyway) to look at some more recent history and trace how Evesham came to have its current form of local government.

Local government as we know it in Evesham started in 1605 when the town was granted a Royal charter by James I. Town charters were by no means new – the very first was granted to the City of London in 1075 – but they were only granted as and when the townsfolk could persuade the king to grant one, and it wasn’t until 1605 that Evesham got theirs.

Records show that Evesham’s Royal charter was granted on the request of Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son and heir to the throne. The young prince in turn appears to have been influenced by his chaplain, the Reverend Dr Lewis Baylie, who happened to be combining his royal duties with serving as the vicar of Evesham at the time.

Henry never lived to ascend to the throne, dying of typhoid fever at the age of 18 in 1612. But his name lives on not only in the town’s charter (and his emblems on the town’s coat of arms) but also in one of Evesham’s most distinguished institutions. The charter also formally united the neighbouring towns of Evesham and Bengeworth as a single government entity, and thus marked the end of Bengeworth’s independent existence.

Grant of joint incorporation of the towns of Evesham and Bengworth, under the name of the Mayor, &c., of the borough of Evesham; with confirmation of their former liberties, and grant of new ones, including license to have a schools called “The Free Grammar School of Prince Henry.”

As well as subsuming Bengeworth into Evesham and giving one of the region’s most prestigious schools its name, the charter created a town council comprising several aldermen and headed by a mayor. The council was exempt from certain levies paid to the king, and had the right to raise its own taxes and operate a market (the charter market, of which today’s market is the direct descendant).

That gave Evesham, for the first time, a measure of control over its own finances, with income from taxation and the market available for the council to spend as it saw fit. The first Mayor of Evesham was Robert Allen, of which we know little other than the fact that he was a “Gentleman”, that is, a member of the upper classes and a landowner.

In fact, the majority of Evesham’s early mayors were Gentlemen, interspersed with the occasional Esquire (in social terms, ranking slightly above a Gentleman), a few Reverends and even a Baronet – it wasn’t until 1762 that the first occupational title appeared on the name boards, and not until 1836 when occupational titles became predominant.

These early members of the town council were not elected. The very first members were appointed by the charter, and subsequently appointed their own successors when necessary to fill a vacancy left by retirement or death. So, although Evesham had a certain amount of self-governance, it was not democratic self-governance. For more than two centuries, Evesham was governed by a self-perpetuating clique consisting predominantly of the upper classes with a smattering of clergy and wealthier tradesmen. The thing which changed that was the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.

Following on from the Representation of the People 1832 (better known as the Great Reform Act), which had abolished the “Rotten Boroughs” in the process of taking “effectual measures for correcting diverse abuses that have long prevailed in the choice of members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament”, the Municipal Corporations Act aimed to do the same to local government.

178 town or borough councils were reformed immediately by the Municipal Corporations Act, and another hundred followed over subsequent years. Evesham was one of the initial 178. The changes brought in by the Act were far-reaching and created a body which, for the first time, would be clearly recognisable as the predecessor of that in which I serve today.

The newly-reformed municipal boroughs, or corporations, were obliged to publish their accounts, and were subject, for the first time, to external audit. They also had to employ a salaried town clerk and treasurer, who could not be a member of the council. But the most significant change was that all members were now elected, representing a system of local wards which also still persists to this day.

As you might expect, this significantly changed the composition of the council. Previously, the mayoral name boards had been overwhelmingly dominated by members of the upper classes. From 1836, occupational titles started to become more common. By the late Victorian era, Gentlemen and Esquires had become as rare as non-gentry had been earlier. The last member of the gentry to appear on the boards was Henry Smith Esq in 1904. And Evesham’s first female Mayor, Amy Nightingale, held the office in 1944.

Following the Municipal Corporations Act, the Victorians would continue tinkering with local government until the turn of the century. Most of what we now consider “tranditional” local government was, in reality, a Victorian (or immediately pre-Victorian) invention. But this was predominantly at county and city level, market towns such as Evesham avoided further reform until well into the 20th century.

The Representation of the People Act 1948 had a relatively modest effect on Evesham, with the only significant change being the timing of elections – these were switched to the now-familiar first week in May. Other post-war legislation was, again, concentrated on county level and left Evesham unscathed. It wasn’t until 1974 that reform again meant changes to the town.

The Local Government Act 1972 was certainly the biggest change to local government in England since the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, and arguably the biggest ever. Whereas previous reforms had addressed the composition and constitution of local government, the Local Government Act reformed its boundaries. And some of the new boundaries were radically different from what had gone before.

The legacy of the Victorians was essentially a county-based overall structure, with an ad-hoc system of boroughs, towns, cities and parishes beneath it. Evesham, as a major market town in Worcestershire, had more local autonomy and more power than, for example, Pershore, but less than Worcester. The new legislation aimed to create a uniform two-tier system across the country, with counties at the upper level and districts below them. Both counties and districts would be based on population geography rather than traditional geography. And Evesham, being a medium-sized market town, bigger than a parish but smaller than a city, fell fairly and squarely into the gap.

The outcome was that Evesham, for the first time since 1605, was reduced to the status of a parish. The borders of the new Evesham Town Council were much more tightly drawn than its Borough predecessor, and most of its powers were transferred to the newly created Wychavon District Council.

Fortunately, the Royal charter granted by James I was not rescinded, and remains the charter of the new Evesham Town. We retain our coat of arms, including the crown and the Prince of Wales feathers, as well as the right to operate a market. We still also have limited tax-raising powers, and we still have to employ a town clerk. But, apart from the property we own or manage, we have no direct powers over the administration of the town.

Probably the best illustration of the difference between the powers of Evesham council then and our powers now is to look at our bridges. Workman Bridge, named after the Mayor who oversaw the project, was constructed by the town and funded from within the town. The first Abbey Bridge, opened in 1928, was built by the county and Evesham Corporation working together. The new Abbey Bridge was built by the county without any input from the town, and if we want to as much as put a banner on a lamppost on the new bridge we have to get permission from Wychavon.

It’s all a long way from the height of Evesham’s powers in the late 19th century. But we’re still here to do our best for the town. And there’s plenty of potential still for the future.

I’ve got a song going through my head…

Right! now
Oh oh oh oh oh oh…

I am an alarmist
I am a pessimist
Don’t ’bout a lot
But I know what I’m scared of
I wanna destroy confidence

‘Cause I think we’ll be all diseased
In the city

Ebola in the UK
It’s coming sometime, maybe
Into Heathrow on a dodgy airline
Your future dream is a manic scream

‘Cause I think we’ll be all diseased
You’re gonna have to flee

How many ways
To infect you and spread?
Some of the best, some of the rest
Outsiders are the enemy, outsiders are anarchy

‘Cause I think we’ll be all diseased
So run away from me

Is this the IFPI?
Or is this the BPI?
Or is this the NHS?
It’s epidemic in the US
And very soon in our country
Another council committee

I think we’ll be all diseased
And I think we’ll be all diseased
And I think we’ll be all deceased
No rest in peace

Just in case there are any irony-challenged individuals reading, the above is a parody of the tin-foil hat brigade’s response to Ebola, and not a reflection of my own views.