The House Magazine

Posted on 15th January, 2018

The New Year arrives, as is now customary, to the accompaniment of a fusillade of text messages on my iPhone. One of them, from a longstanding Iranian friend, expresses the hope that this will be the year when democracy is delivered to his homeland, and that there will be no bloodshed. News bulletins later in the day report the deaths of 13 protesters in street clashes. A grim start to 2018 for the people of Iran.

Wednesday takes me to the Wirral, where I attend the funeral of an elderly cousin: a bleak occasion, leavened by the memory of a remarkable woman. She was a member of a team that performed pioneering open-heart surgery in the United States in the 1950s, and later travelled around the world alone – a daunting undertaking even today, much more a half century ago. I saw her rarely over the years, but whenever we met she made it a happy event. The church is full, a tribute to a joyful person who was loved by many.

On Thursday, I travel to Ruthin, the county town of Denbighshire, where I have a meeting with the town council to discuss the future of the National Westminster Bank building, which closed to business several months ago.

The bank is of exceptional architectural and historical interest. It was formerly the courthouse, and was constructed in 1421 to replace an earlier building that was sacked by Owain Glyndŵr as the first act of his rebellion in 1400. The building, a half-timbered, grade II* listed structure, is one of the most prominent features of the town square, which, as a whole, is one of the finest in Wales. Everyone agrees that it must not be allowed to stand empty, and the council is exploring the possibility of buying it for use as a town hall and exhibition space.

During our discussion, the councillors and I agree that the closure of banks in the rural areas is becoming a significant problem, leaving large swathes of the country without access to adequate banking facilities. As I walk back to my car, my iPhone pings. It is an e-mail from Barclays Bank, informing me that, regretfully, they have decided to close their branch in Ruthin.

The week has been full of environmental news: Michael Gove’s speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, the Environmental Audit Committee’s proposal for a 25p “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups and China’s announcement of restrictions on the import of plastic waste. My visit on Friday to a constituent whose business is recycling plastic is therefore timely. His company, Plastecowood, is the only one of its kind in the world. It takes used household plastics and turns them into a material that can be sawn, shaped and hammered, just like wood. He reports a significant surge in demand. Good for him. He is in the right business at the right time, and we will need many similar businesses in the future.

Saturday takes me back to Ruthin for another meeting with councillors, this time to consider the proposed Barclays closure. The bank, like the NatWest, is also housed in a fine building on the square: Exmewe House, birthplace of Thomas Exmewe, a goldsmith who became Lord Mayor of London in 1517. I dictate a letter to Barclays, using the app on my iPhone, asking for an early meeting to discuss their plans.

I say goodbye to the councillors and walk back to my car. Before driving off, I take a moment to check my own bank balance, using the very clever and convenient app on my iPhone.

The first two days of the new term are taken up by a well-flagged ministerial reshuffle. At the end of the first day it’s hard to see what’s changed (though sympathies to the likeable James Brokenshire and best wishes for an early recovery).

Day two sees a lot of changes in the middle and junior ranks. Most of the new appointments are hugely merited; I’ve no doubt a future Prime Minister is among them. Very sorry, however, to see the immensely capable Philip Dunne and the genial John Hayes leaving. This is a brutal old game.

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