Peppard News was delighted when John Howell agreed to give up time to be interviewed for this newsletter. I went to see him one Saturday morning in mid-July when it was pouring with rain. I remarked that my chances of spending the afternoon gardening were scuppered and John countered that he had roses to plant and if he didn’t get them planted that afternoon or the Sunday, he wouldn’t have a chance because he was in London the rest of the week and going on holiday the following weekend.
Born and brought up in Tooting, south London; his was not an affluent family – in fact they lived in a small terraced house with no bathroom. He can remember the zinc bath being brought out for bath-time. He went to primary school in Streatham and then Battersea Grammar school. At Edinburgh University he studied archaeology when the very last student rector was in place. That student rector was Gordon Brown! After Edinburgh, he continued in the academic world to gain a doctorate in archeology at Oxford and then as a research fellow at Liverpool. He followed a successful career in broadcasting and business – focusing largely on the, then, communist bloc and its fall.
John’s interest in politics had begun at about the age of 15, when he perceived the Conservatives as the party that provided individuals with the opportunities to advance. Much later, this was reinforced when he worked in central and eastern Europe and observed that, under communism, all enthusiasm and imagination was crushed.
John always had an ambition to be an MP but didn’t feel it was feasible when he had a young family and in those days parliament was very family un-friendly. There is a substantial personal cost to anyone wishing to stand as an MP and at that time John simply did not have enough money to campaign. Parliament is more family-friendly nowadays but John still spends Monday-Thursday in London. He did try commuting at the beginning but found he had to be up by 05.00 and then didn’t arrive home until well after midnight.
John has lived with his wife, Alison and their three children in Warborough for 20 years . Alison is a full time teacher and he believes that in pursuing her own career, this has helped her cope with their disjointed family life. With his knowledge of the local area, he particularly wanted to stand as our MP. Indications were that, after Michael Heseltine and then Boris Johnson, the constituency was ready for a ‘normal’ MP – an unknown, backbench MP able to divide his time more equally between Westminster and his constituency. He feels that one of the joys of being an MP is that there is no job description and it is up to each individual MP to spend their time in the best way that they see fit. With several towns and 120 villages within the constituency , he is not kept idle. It can be a seven day a week job but nevertheless he is happy in his position.
Although he finds his constituency work worthwhile, it is the cut and thrust of Westminster that excites him. He is the Private Parliamentary Secretary to Sir George Young, the Leader of the House and also to Greg Clark, the Minister for Decentralisation. When in opposition, John wrote a paper called Open Source Planning that now forms the basis of the government’s planning reforms. John is absolutely passionate about putting planning issues and the provision of housing back into the hands of the local population.
We talked about John’s constituency work: many MPs have to deal with issues around housing and immigration and he admits that there are possibly less of these problems in this constituency but he is adament that no-one should be complacent as there are real pockets of poverty in the South Oxfordshire area. John became quite heated at this stage – it is something he feels very strongly about. Equally strong is his insistence that he cannot, will not and should not deal with planning issues – these are not within his remit. Although he strives to be a good constituency MP, he is keen to point out that MPs’ primary role is to sit in the House of Commons and make legislation.
When he has any time left, he loves music: in particular conducting. He is a church organist In Warborough and has seen the choir grow and sing in more churches since he joined some years ago.
Not surprisingly perhaps, for an MP, he also loves acting! He is an enthusiastic member of a small troupe of amateur players whose speciality is murder mysteries. They will happily perform for charitable causes and will often help to raise £1,000-2,000. Charities in Peppard take note!
I had explained to John that I am not a journalist and he was endlessly patient throughout the interview whilst I scribbled away at my handwritten notes. My lack of expertise was evident when I asked what was, in retrospect, a very silly question. I asked if John was interested in furthering his parliamentary career. This is, of course, a bit like asking an athlete if he would like to win an Olympic gold medal! Although John answered in an incredibly diplomatic way, the answer was really ‘Of course’. In my view it is only a matter of time before the name John Howell becomes a household name throughout the country rather than just in South Oxfordshire.
I hope he managed to plant his roses.