Politics, pah] We're all in clover: When the hottest issue is where to site the noticeboard, who wants to stand for election? Ruth Picardie goes to Oxfordshire

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The Independent Online
'WE'VE got all these facilities now . . . water, 'lectricity, sewerage, gas; there ain't much we want.' So says Tom Irons, an elderly farmer, when asked why no one has bothered to stand in the local election for The Bartons, a cluster of villages in west Oxfordshire.

The rest of the country is alive with the sound of leaflets dropping through letter-boxes and activists pounding the streets, defending VAT on fuel, attacking the crime rate, promising better housing. In The Bartons, however, life continues uninterrupted: a daily bus to Oxford; a fortnightly visit by the library van; meetings of the Dorn Quilters and the Barton Wives.

The only frantic activity is on the farms. 'Twins again this morning,' says Tom Irons, who has 120 acres and, with his son-in-law, 100 cows, 70 lambs, a few pigs and some chickens. Few people - not even Mrs Irons, retiring chairman of the parish council - knew of the forthcoming local council elections on 5 May - and that theirs would not take place.

Life in The Bartons - comprising Middle Barton, Westcott Barton, Steeple Barton, Over Worton, Nether Worton and Sandford St Martin, population 2,000 - appears to be so idyllic that politics has become redundant. 'I can't think of any key local issues,' says the West Oxfordshire chief executive, Neil Robson. The retiring independent councillor, Geoff Bosley, who has outgrown the 374 acres he farms with his brother and has bought a dairy farm in Wantage, had difficulty remembering his MP's name. 'Bit disappointing really,' says Mr Bosley. 'Very rarely turns up.'

A colony of small blue butterflies thrives in the disused quarry; orchids grow in the woods; the F-111 jets that used to swoop over from nearby Upper Heyford have been sent back to America. Yet the area is no 'dead zone' of elderly people and farmers, tourists and weekenders (the M40 is only five miles to the east). Well-maintained council housing and careful private development have ensured that the village school is thriving (160 pupils and an indoor pool). There are two pubs, a general store, a garage. Unemployment is 4 per cent, crime is low and there have been no run-ins with New Age travellers. 'Once,' says James, a young man with long curly hair who runs the hairdresser's and has evidently just blue-rinsed Mrs Irons, 'someone moved my sign down the road. Another shopkeeper rescued it for me.'

Although solidly Anglo-Saxon and, at national level, safely Tory, the community appears also to be an accepting one. The new video shop - more a hut than a store - is owned by Annick Scriven, a French woman who used to be in the Communist Party. Her boyfriend, Sam, is Kenyan. 'I love it here,' she says. 'People help you. You can have more close relationships here.'

The burning issues of the moment are not tax increases, nor whether unemployment figures are fiddled, but the positioning of the Middle Barton noticeboard - moved from the playing fields to the main road, but still people aren't happy. Traffic-calming measures - red markings along the middle of the road - have also provoked grumbles. 'People don't like the way the road looks now,' says 29-year-old Sarah Robinson, who runs the Fox Inn. And Annick was refused planning permission to put up a sign outside her video shop, on the grounds that it would spoil the view for the houses opposite.

So what is being done about the missing councillor? West Oxfordshire district has scheduled a by- election for 26 May, for which nominations close next week. Everyone agrees that candidates should be local, regardless of political affiliation. But who? There are a handful of political activists, but the duties of a district councillor are hardly cutting-edge. 'People ring me if their heaters aren't working,' explains Mr Bosley. 'Not exciting stuff,' says Eric Bennett, a Lib- Dem activist from nearby Chipping Norton. 'You can see why people aren't clawing each other's eyes out to stand as candidates.'

For the power-hungry, the parish councils are far more important. 'I've seen some ferocious battles,' says Mr Bennett. 'At one meeting, to discuss the location of a gyspy site, there was a near riot. It was mob rule. The man from the county council was lucky to get out alive.'

There are four great local families, captains of industry all, but they tend to exercise their civic

duties in more paternalistic ways. The Wills, heirs to a tobacco empire, donated the land for the Sandford St Martin cricket club; the family allows locals to walk on its land, and children to fish in the lakes. The Mayors, who own a huge sawmill business, provide free housing and free wood for employees.

The weekenders are obviously out of the question - most do not even come down every weekend. 'You see them play the country man,' says Annick, 'in their Range Rovers and big green boots, but they don't mingle. They even bring their food down from London.'

Everyone else is too busy. The Webb brothers - John, Robert, Ron - who run the shop, start the milk round at 4am and work flat out in the post office, counter and back office. Farmers' lives are already full of committees - 'milk committees, National Farmers Union committees,' says Mr Bosley. 'Sometimes I don't have a night at home.' Even farmers' wives such as Mrs Irons, who 'don't agree with unions, not even the Mothers' Union', are busy with EU paperwork.

The only one with time to spare seems to be old Tom Irons. But, as he says, water, lights, sewerage, gas are laid on. 'We're all satisfied.'

Sandra Barwick is away.

(Photograph omitted)

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