Jenny, our vicar, called round for coffee the following morning. We’d agreed to meet, to start putting together a steering committee. Now traditionally everybody holds meetings involving the vicar in the vicarage. The problem with this is that, with the vicarage being as it were, the natural haunt of clergy, that’s where people phone when they want the vicar for something. So if you hold your meeting there, it’s always interrupted by phone calls or even people dropping stuff off. So I’d invited her to drink coffee with my lady wife and me, and have the meeting then.
By way of celebration I broke open a packet of Jaffa Cakes and we got down to business.
I had also invited young Tess Wainwright. I’d been interested in her comments about affordable housing. Tess has what she describes as ‘a part time job with the council.’ I suppose that to a dairy farmer’s daughter, thirty hours a week can only be regarded as part-time. Especially when the council introduced flexitime and in the first week she’d got all her hours in by the time she clocked off on Wednesday evening. When her line manager asked her why she had done this, she merely explained that it allowed her to do four days a week relief milking.
When everybody was sitting comfortably and had mouths full of coffee and therefore couldn’t interrupt, I started the meeting. “I thought we ought to deal with the affordable housing side of things first.”
Well that got a smile from Tess, and Jenny nodded her agreement. So before either had a chance to spoil everything by saying something, I continued. “So I thought Tess here was the perfect person to take things forward.”
To be fair, Tess didn’t splurt coffee all over me. Jenny had some go down the wrong way and we had to wait for her to get over her coughing fit. When she had regained control I continued. “After all, Tess strikes me as the idea person. Firstly you’re committed to it. Secondly you work in the same building as the planning department.”
“Well it’s not as if they’ll speak to us in the back office.”
Jenny interrupted her, “Tess, you work on payroll. I suspect they consider you one of the more important people in the organisation.”
But Jenny turned to me. “I can see why you’d consider Tess, but, without being nasty, has she got the experience?”
“Tess,” I asked her. “How long have you been doing the farm accounts?”
“Since I was twelve. My mum had bad depression after our John was born, and there’s no point in leaving it to my dad. He always says that if he’d wanted a clerk’s job, he’d have worked harder at school.”
“And who deals with the Rural Payments Agency, filling in all the forms and chasing them up over errors in their paperwork?”
“Me, I suppose. And I have to deal with the inspectors when they turn up, unannounced. To be honest, that’s mainly because my dad struggles to be polite to them.”
“I also remember your dad telling me how well you coped with the VAT inspection a couple of years ago.” I turned to Jenny. “I rest my case. After dealing with the people she has had to deal with, a few planning officers should hold no fears.”
It was obvious that Jenny had been won over. “I hope you do take this on, Tess. And we’ll do everything we can to support you.”
My lady wife interrupted the conversation. “Before she talks to planning officers, she’ll need to know what you want to build. Affordable housing yes, but do you want starter homes, or retirement bungalows for people to retire to or what?”
“I had a quick google last night, Jenny commented. Apparently you can build twelve houses per acre, and you’ve three acres. You could have both.”
“We don’t want little boxes.” Tess was emphatic. “And some people will want a bit of garden.” She’d got the bit between her teeth now. “For a starter home, just look at the young people round here. For Geordie and me we’ll need enough space to park a Land Rover and trailer, as well as my car. Then he needs somewhere for his three working dogs to sleep. If you take his mate Alan, he does forestry work and dry stone walling. So he really wants a garage he can back a van and trailer under cover and lockable so he isn’t having to load and unload it every night when he comes home from work. We need houses that are the base for a small rural business.”
I listened to the discussion with interest. “Remember we probably do want some of the area as a village hall carpark as well. Also there may be other facilities we could put there.”
My lady wife smiled at me as if I was a not particularly gifted pupil who had suddenly excelled themselves. There are times when you can tell that you’re married to a retired teacher. “Yes dear. So basically, before Tess can have a chat with the nice people in planning, she will have to be able to show some sort of local need.”
“A survey?” I asked.
“Oh that won’t be a problem, work out the questions and I can get Young Farmers to go round door to door asking people, if that’s what it takes.”
I could just imagine Tess doing that. Dropping off a survey form with the comment that the Young Farmers Would come round, and Would expect a completed form. I did have a brief frisson of guilt. Had I created a monster? Certainly I had no doubt that in forty years’ time, Tess would be the sort of lady who holds the community together, quelling unruly meetings with a single steely glance, and reducing local government officials to nervous acquiescence. The one consolation was that by that time, I would be safely dead.
I left them discussing matters and went to make more coffee. Through the open door I heard them talk over whether Tess ought to make a casual informal approach to see what the planners were looking for. It was pointed out that it was at least theoretically possible that they wanted the same things as we did, and even if they didn’t, doubtless things could be fudged. A name was mentioned, apparently somebody senior in the planning office, and I heard my wife comment, “I’m sure I taught him.”
Somebody else mentioned the ‘Housing Hub,’ which is run by ACTion with Communities in Cumbria, as an obvious first port of call. When I walked back in with the refilled cafetiere it seemed everything had been decided. Then as she sat back with a refilled mug of coffee my lady wife commented, “Oh yes, and whenever possible, use the word ‘community’. It works wonders.”
You might not have realised but it’s now ‘Village Halls Week.’ As somebody who, one way or another, has spent a lot of time in village halls in various places, I’m a believer in their importance. So I thought I’d celebrate them a bit. So the story will continue.
Now if you’re lucky enough to live in Cumbria there is ACTion with Communities in Cumbria, our Rural Community Council, on hand to help.
If you’re in the rest of England you want ACRE, Action with Communities in Rural England.
Alternatively, when you just want a good book
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As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.
I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”