THE BLOG
13/05/2014 10:21 BST | Updated 12/07/2014 10:59 BST

Only Good News... That Too Has Its Challenges!

Last week the Banbury Guardian, the newspaper of record in the largest town in my constituency, devoted almost all of its front page to me, with a headline, the type size of which one would normally associate with "The Sun", and a photograph of me large enough to illustrate why my children call me "Sir Cumference Hippo", together with follow-on headlines in a type size usually associated for when Banbury beats Brackley at football. At a first glance at the cover of the Banbury Guardian, a reader may have thought that the story was either that

• I had raided a Post Office Piggy Bank, or

• I had run off with a Sunday School Teacher (male or female), or that

• I had defected to UKIP!

In fact the story was a perfectly reasonable news item about my outside interests.

A perfectly legitimate story for a local newspaper to cover.

The fact is that the Banbury Guardian could have run an almost identical story any week over the last five years, since Gordon Brown, when Prime Minister, introduced changes which required Members of Parliament not only to register their interests but also to publicly record in the Register of Members' Interests the exact amounts of payments received and the number of hours worked.

In accordance with the rules, I have been publicly recording payments and hours in the Register of Members' Interests for the last five years.

Indeed, it would have been a perfectly legitimate story and issue for the Banbury Guardian to have raised at the last General Election, if they thought it a matter of public concern when I clearly set out in my Election Address that ever since I had been elected in 1983, with the exception of the eight years during which I was a Government Minister, (itself a full-time job in addition to being a constituency MP), I had always had outside interests as a practising Barrister and Company Director and if re-elected, I intended to continue to have outside interests.

However, this was not an issue that the Banbury Guardian considered appropriate to raise during the last General Election campaign.

So why now?

The Editor kindly made it clear in the paper's Editorial - simply that he thought it was a story that would help him sell newspapers. Indeed, he went so far as to say that he thought that a large headline and photograph of me on the front page of the Banbury Guardian would help him sell the largest number of copies of the paper over a six month period.

I am flattered.

I like the Editor of the Banbury Guardian, Jason Gibbins. He is a decent guy and trying to run a successful local newspaper in the middle of technology change as more and more people access news on the internet is not easy. Indeed last week was "Local Newspaper Week" so I am more than happy if I can help the Banbury Guardian sell more copies.

But it struck me that there was something more.

This story "broke" (if you can describe a story which could have been given almost equal coverage for any week for the last 250 weeks as "breaking"), at 11.30 last Wednesday morning.

Breathless text messages sent to me during Prime Minister's Questions ensued asking for a comment because the newspaper's final deadline was 1pm on Wednesday.

I then realised that the Editor of the Banbury Guardian had got to almost his Wednesday lunchtime deadline without having any front page story.

Indeed, the week before the whole of the front page had been devoted to an item on pot holes in one of Banbury's streets - admittedly particularly bad pot holes - where the Highways Authority had already acknowledged and confirmed that the road needed repair and the only issue seemed to be that the local Labour Councillor who had raised the issue had not been able to persuade officials in the County Council's Highways Department, to drop everything that they were doing everywhere else in the county as the road is scheduled to be repaired and resurfaced in a few months' time, in October.

It then occurred to me that in reality only bad news sells newspapers, and the problem for the Editor of the Banbury Guardian is that the area has run out of bad news.

The economy in Banbury and Bicester is growing fast.

Many leading local flagship companies are moving or have moved to new and enlarged premises so that they can increase production and increase the number of people that they employ.

Such companies include Prodrive (who make Formula One cars), export-award winning engineering firms such as Norbar Torque and comparatively new to the area innovative businesses such as Crompton Technology (now part of United Technologies). Meanwhile in Bicester, long-standing firms such as E. P. Barrus recently announced that they want to move to enable them to double their size.

There are also hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses prospering and over five hundred companies locally are now training apprentices.

When I was first elected as MP for Banbury just over thirty years ago, the unemployment rate locally was nearly 15%. Today, the unemployment rate is just 1% and the numbers of unemployed continue to fall steadily month by month.

There are 650 Parliamentary constituencies in the UK, and there are only 22 constituencies with a lower unemployment rate than mine - three of them other Oxfordshire constituencies, which gives some indication of the strength of the economy as a whole, of which more later.

For those who remain unemployed locally, many have particular challenges: they may be lone parents or people over 50 who are trying to get back into the world of work.

That is why the Banbury and Bicester Job Clubs - both of which I helped establish, and have been going for over five years during which time they have helped hundreds of people back into the world of work - are focusing their efforts along with other Job Clubs in the area, such as the Sunshine Centre, in focusing help on the unemployed who have particular issues or are working with Banbury and Bicester College to try and ensure that those who need essential skills to get work, can acquire those skills.

We will not be satisfied until there is zero unemployment locally.

However, I suspect that the unemployment rate in my constituency is lower now than at any recorded time.

In addition, there is a huge amount of new building and construction work now taking place in the area.

House building sites, which had been given planning permission some years ago, such as Bankside in Banbury, are now seeing new houses at a more than weekly rate.

In Bicester, work on Britain's first Ecotown has started and the District Council has just bought sufficient surplus brown field land from the MOD to build a further 1,900 houses which is intended to be the largest self-build housing project in Britain.

Such is the strength of the economy in Banbury and the surrounding area, that there are two substantial complementary retail developments which are in the final stages of securing planning permissions.

Firstly, there is the Banbury Gateway development, which is intended to be a regional shopping centre near the motorway, capitalising on the motorway and the strength of Banbury's geographical location.

Secondly and complementary to the Banbury Gateway development, within Banbury town centre is the Castle Quay Two development (CQ2), which is a significant vote of confidence by Scottish Widows and other commercial investors in the strength of the North Oxfordshire economy.

Meanwhile in Bicester, we have just seen the complete redevelopment of the town centre, with the new and enlarged town centre Sainsbury's at Pioneer Square. There is also the prospect of a new and enlarged Tesco store on the edge of the town and a new Business Park between Bicester Village and the motorway.

At a time when economic activity is growing and unemployment figures are at an all time low, crime figures locally are lower than at any other time that I have been MP - whether one is considering reported crime, recorded crime, or by whatever statistic, crime levels locally are low and are continuing to fall.

That is of course bad news for local newspapers because there is less crime to report and less of their newspapers that they can fill with reports of proceedings from the Magistrates Court and Crown Court.

On health, the Horton General Hospital has never had in the whole history of the hospital and in the whole history of the NHS, so many full time equivalent consultant doctors - a fact that had not been reported by any local newspaper until I wrote a letter to the Banbury Guardian pointing it out.

The Horton General Hospital is also one of a comparatively small number of hospitals in the country to have a consultant delivered Children's Service. Moreover, in recent months, the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust has been moving a number of specialist outpatient clinics to the Horton, to make it more convenient for people locally to access specialist services - again, a fact I don't think that has been reported by the Banbury Guardian.

In the last couple of years, the Oxford University Health NHS Trust has managed to save £180 million of running costs and has paid off a historic deficit of £40 million - a turnaround in the Trust's fortunes of some £220 million. In addition, the Trust has managed to pay the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group an extra £5.2 million so that the local CCG could end the year with a small surplus. Most notably, at the same time as this significant turnaround in the Trust's financial forces, the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust over the last couple of years has increased its workforce by 400 and almost all of those 400 are new doctors and nurses.

And absolutely none of that good news has been reported by any Oxfordshire local newspaper.

Meanwhile, in Bicester, we will shortly see the opening of a brand new Community Hospital.

Planned improvements in local infrastructure will see significant upgrading of both Junctions 9 and 10 on the M40. The present Government is committed to and has started work on the East-West Railway Line, linking Oxford via Bicester to Milton Keynes, and in due course, I have no doubt it will eventually link Southampton to Felixstowe via Oxford, Bicester and Milton Keynes.

Moreover, this line is going to be electrified.

It will mean that Bicester will benefit simultaneously from both a North/South and East/West rail link - one of comparatively few towns (as opposed to big cities such as Birmingham), in England to do so.

(Incidentally, when I tried to persuade Ministers in the last Labour Government to support the East-West Rail project, I was politely shown the door!)

So I can understand that with so much good news around and so little bad news locally, it is difficult for editors of local newspapers to find stories, and even more difficult for them to get front page leads.

We shall have to wait and see whether the audited circulation figures prove the Editor of the Banbury Guardian correct - that readers are so interested in my private life that it sells newspapers.

If that is the case, I will feel that I have some obligation to think of other aspects of my private life that might help the Editor of the Banbury Guardian to sell copies.

However, I am not sure that BG readers will necessarily be interested in the fact that I have a full-scale O Gauge Clockwork Railway laid out in the attic of my house - a tribute to the Great Western Railway of the 1920s and 30s, on which my grandfather worked.

I could offer a Banbury Guardian journalist the opportunity to shadow me in my work as Second Church Estates Commissioner - a public duty which I am proud to undertake, and which takes up on average about a day's work a week - but I am not sure that my constituents or Banbury Guardian readers would be particularly interested with the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure which I had to take through the House of Commons this Monday, and which deals with matters such as amendments to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners' Act of 1840, the Burial Act of 1957, amendments to Faculty Jurisdiction of 1964, or to the Patronage (Benefices) Measure of 1986.

There is, however, a serious issue about Oxfordshire's economic success, to which the Banbury Guardian, as far as I can recall, has yet to give any serious attention.

Local Authorities across Oxfordshire had to come together to commission an Independent Survey of Housing Need for the county.

This survey has found that Oxfordshire as a whole between now and 2031 may need 100,000 more new houses to be built in the county than the combined total present housing plans from all of Oxfordshire's District Councils.

The methodology on which this independent assessment is made is that Oxfordshire's economy becomes increasingly successful, one of the most vibrant economies in the UK, itself one of the most vibrant economies in the world, this will lead to the creation of more new jobs locally, which in turn will lead to demand for new housing, which itself will create further economic activity leading to more jobs and thus further demand for housing.

Last week a journalist from the Oxford Mail emailed me to ask whether I wanted to see 100,000 new houses in Oxfordshire between now and 2031.

I emailed back asking how many new jobs did he want to see in Oxfordshire between now and 2031.

I didn't get a reply.

Certainly I think that we need to use every possible inch of brown field land in Oxfordshire for housing and the exact number of new houses for which provision will be made will be a matter for intense debate at the forthcoming Examinations in Public, including Cherwell's, starting in June.

So whilst there may be little bad news around for newspapers such as the Banbury Guardian to report, there is no shortage of serious local public policy challenges, which one would hope that a public newspaper of record would consider worth of reporting.

Economic success, whilst welcome, brings its own challenges, and new challenges, which merit consideration and which we need to get right.