The last straw
10 May 2008
Readers may recall the excuses from the past for the late running of trains. The wrong sort of leaves, and the wrong sort of snow. The Government’s plans for three million new homes by 2020 should reduce the autumnal crop of leaves, and global warming already seems to have got rid of the snow. But as Transport Secretary I had to inform myself of the subtle differences in the co-efficient of friction generated by nature’s gifts from heaven.
More recently, I had to inform myself about different sorts of thatch. Again, for many readers, a thatched cottage is a thatched cottage. But, for English Heritage and conservationists, the different types of thatch are matters of great import. My interest in these distinctions was generated by a letter from a Hampshire resident, which began as follows.
“Dear Sir George,
As you are a highly respected MP with a good reputation for trouble-shooting, we are hoping you may be able to assist our somewhat desperate situation.”
Would that all letters began with these complimentary sentiments. The writer’s home had been re-thatched in 1992. She applied to have it re-thatched again with combed wheat instead of long straw, as she was unable to get long straw. Planning permission was refused, although two years before, she had received listed building consent to re-do her adjacent barn in combed wheat, and other nearby properties, including listed buildings, were clad in combed wheat. She was faced with waiting for a harvest that complied with English Heritage’s high standards, while her home deteriorated.
A key role for the local MP is to take up the cudgels on behalf of local folk who are oppressed by a remote and insensitive bureaucracy. (I don’t take up every case because, on examination, there are sometimes very good reasons why the bureaucracy oppresses people). But this case cried out for intervention.
I am grateful to a local thatcher for a crash course on straw vareties, over a beer in Binley. The difference between triticum aestivum, secale cereale, phragmites australis and triticosecale is now crystal clear. Battle was engaged; debate at Westminster was halted last week on subjects such as the 10p tax rate, Scottish independence and the Prime Minister’s resilience, while the member for North West Hampshire had his debate on “Thatched roofs and Planning policy”
Was the offending document – Planning and Policy Guidance note 15 – shredded and put on someone’s roof? Was English Heritage’s policy of “Like for Like” threshed? No; as a former Planning Minister myself, I know that these things take time. But a meeting with the Minister and interested parties was promised, and,
bricks may yet be made of straw.
But this exertion has taken its toll. When it comes to naturally grown materials protecting the top of structures, I was already follically challenged before all of this. As with long straw, recent harvests have been disappointing. While I understand that alternatives are available, I will have to rely on a straw hat to keep the weather out.
 
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015