Eric Pickles reckons he's got his finger on the pulse of middle England. In Pickles-world, what is the single biggest issue keeping us all awake at night? Rubbish.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told a conference last week that local councils must protect bin collection at all costs, even if they have to make radical cuts in other essential services. Pickles talked of "an army of angry middle England", irate householders who, on discovering their wheelie bins would be collected fortnightly, and not at all if the bin lid wasn't firmly shut, are likely to rise up, mobilise and attack Parliament.
Forget the poll tax riots, tuition fee marches and G20 demonstrations: Pickles seems to be predicting social unrest on a massive scale if Middle England doesn't get its bins emptied weekly. He keeps promising an end to fortnightly collections and to fines for incorrect rubbish sorting, as if this represents some major breakthrough for modern democracy. Honestly!
Pickles has ordered councils to make huge cuts to balance their budgets. You would hope services that are of particular benefit to the elderly and vulnerable such as mobile libraries, meals on wheels, and home help for the infirm and disabled might be protected. You'd hope that Sure Start nursery centres for the young, which enable lower-income mothers to go out to work, might be ring-fenced. But you'd be wrong – charities say 250 are set to close. In the mad world of Eric Pickles, the wheelie bin is king, more important than library books, local transport and childcare.
Over the past few years an unhealthy obsession has grown up around refuse collection, with widespread moaning about the allegedly complicated array of sacks and containers into which we are requested to file our detritus. There have been howls of misery about being given calendars setting out the strict rota of when to put out clear sacks, garden waste and landfill. You'd think we had been told to stand by our front doors and have our toenails ripped out, instead of being asked to do a bit of basic sorting to reduce the amount of crap that has to go into landfill.
The wheelie bin has become a potent symbol of everything we hate about local authorities. Local papers fill pages with complaints about bins not being collected if lids are open, bins not being collected if they are not positioned correctly, and bins that have secret snooping devices installed in them to police their contents. The latest development in this stormy saga revolves around the number of bags a household will be issued in a year. Several councils plan to issue just 80 large sacks a year for landfill, and any more rubbish than that will have to be taken to the local dump and recycling centre.
What's the big deal? Families of five will get 100 rubbish bags a year, after all. The Tory-led council in Berkshire introducing this system says it will save it £922,000 a year. Hopefully that means more libraries and more home help. Try as I may, I can't get worked up about all this, but Eric Pickles disagrees, telling delegates "rubbish is the most visible and frontline service in return for what they [residents] now pay – the best part of £120 a month in council tax ... there is genuine anger that over the last decade council taxes have doubled and bin collections have halved".
This is a gross simplification of a complicated equation. Councils have to provide a huge range of services. Top officials are clearly paid too much. The cost of transport and fuel has rocketed. There has been plenty of EU legislation to be complied with relating to recycling levels, along with agreed reduction in the volume of landfill. Councils are bullied by vociferous groups of residents obsessed with having bins collected every single week.
We need to take responsibility for our own mess. Why is it so hard to reduce it and take bottles, cans, clothing, shoes and paper to recycling bins when we visit the supermarket? In 50 years' time, when social historians look back at life in early 21st-century Britain, will we be derided for our niggling obsession with the wheelie bin? Early Christians built wonderful cathedrals, structures with magical properties which were the focal point of communities. Our threadbare values will be summed up by our slavish devotion to wheelie bins.
Stammerer or swan, they are all chick flicks now
Last week I went to my local cinema to see the most popular films in Britain, both of which have grabbed Oscar nominations – Black Swan and The King's Speech. At both, the audience was overwhelmingly female, groups of women on a night out, girls who'd come straight from work. At Black Swan, the relatively few men (about 5 per cent, from where I was sitting) seemed to be there on sufferance; when the movie reached its overwrought conclusion, a couple of them had the cheek to laugh. I'm surprised they weren't attacked on the way out.
Neither film lives up to the hype. The King's Speech (audience about 60 per cent female) is a worthy, traditional period drama, built around two brilliant performances, reminiscent of a classic BBC Sunday night costume drama, like Stephen Poliakoff's The Lost Prince. Black Swan is pure hokum; the story of an ambitious self-harming anorexic is hardly a horror classic in the same league as Rosemary's Baby. The real story is the power of the female audience. Once Hollywood delivered action films aimed at older teenagers – loud, brash, shallow. Now, movies women can relate to are delivering huge profits.
Area of Outstanding Ugliness
The Court of Appeal has ruled that polytunnels – surely the ugliest structures to blight rural England – can be erected in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Herefordshire council had given permission for the offending structures on a farm near Ross-on-Wye. When a local conservation group went to court to get the decision reversed, the judge ruled in its favour, saying the council had failed to carry out an environmental impact assessment, in accordance with EU directives.
The Appeal judge disagreed, because the land was already used for farming, and could not be considered "semi-natural". This is catastrophic for country-lovers. This decision must be reversed; otherwise polytunnels will be sprouting all over unspoilt wilderness.
New life for has-been politicians?
Much sneering in some quarters at the news former home secretary Jacqui Smith is to present a Radio 5 Live documentary on the porn industry. Yes, the same Jacqui Smith who was highly embarrassed when it emerged her expenses included claims for the rental of two adults-only films, watched by her husband while she was away.
This is a smart booking by the BBC – Jacqui obviously has lots of experience of the porn industry, in her former work capacity, not to mention on the domestic front. She lost her seat and is a highly intelligent woman who needs to work – so everyone's happy.
What next? Lord Mandelson presents a documentary on super-yachts? Nick Brown on the history of bare-knuckle boxing? Gordon Brown on working-class comedy? I can see a series emerging here.