Including council cuts, local government finance, Swindon crowd funding, rail services, police news, sewage filtration, broadband, leopard update and a man playing an accordion…
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• The current situation regarding the council cuts, particularly in West Berkshire but also in neighbouring councils, has now gone beyond awful. This has received wide publicity on social media, elsewhere in Penny Post and in local publications such as the Newbury Weekly News so I won’t reiterate. Well, maybe a bit…
• As might have been predicted, there has been a good deal of response to these announcements. Please click here for more information on the various reactions to the cuts in West Berkshire, including links to some of the organisations which have been set up to oppose or mitigate these.
• I am in discussion with The Prime Minister on the subject – that’s to say, I’ve written to him but he hasn’t so far replied. You can read the letter here.
• The more I think of this, the more it seems that West Berkshire Council is being cast, or perhaps has cast itself, in the role of impotent bystander at a cataclysm it could not have predicted and cannot influence. I wonder how true this is. Could more have been done to warn organisations, indeed all of us, to prepare for this financial apocalypse? Perhaps, like Cassandra, they did but we weren’t listening. I know that there were questionnaires issued about library usage last year but these sort of things happen from time to time and I don’t think it was clear to many how parlous the situation was. Could they have been more prudent, proactive or parsimonious? I don’t know the answers to these questions. One thing’s for sure, there are now a lot more accusations flying around about their handling of projects and the possible costs. This is only to be expected. A lot of old wounds are likely to be opened up. This will not make reasoned debate any easier.
• Indeed, West Berkshire Council has recently received the ultimate censure, a mention in Private Eye‘s ‘Rotten Boroughs‘ section about the planned library closures. To be fair, I read this column, indeed the whole magazine, most fortnights and can’t remember WBC being mentioned here before. Some of the stories the Eye reports here about the hypocrisy, corruption and incompetence of councillors and council officers are truly hair-raising.
• What makes the situation even more bizarre is that local government funding – which has been in a mess for years, ever since the Poll Tax, itself an attempt to solve the horrors of the rating system – is in a period of profound change. The government has some commendably radical plans which will include allowing councils to keep all their business rates and to phase out the grants from Whitehall, although according to the Local Government Association four out of ten councils doubt that this will happen within this period. West Berkshire currently collects £84m in business rates but keeps only £17m of these so this will make a considerable difference. At present, though, it remains reliant on the Revenue Support Grant; it cannot raise Council Tax by more than 2% without triggering a referendum; its reserves are, according to leader Roger Croft, ‘dangerously low’; and it cannot touch the majority of its business rates. If the government is serious about giving more autonomy to councils why does it insist current funding be removed before new funding is put in place? The result will be that, by 2020, a large number of services which everyone agrees are important don’t exist any more and will cost a good deal of money to re-start (if they are re-started), to say nothing of the problems caused in the meantime. It’s rather like telling an employee you’re going to stop giving them a monthly cheque and instead pay by BACS but that this system won’t be set up for three years so you’ll just have to muddle along until then. If the government is set upon this strange course of action, could the council not have anticipated this? Is it even now too late to suggest a temporary tax or redeemable bonds for two or three years to plug the temporary shortfall? Can loans not be taken using the security of the future income? These things take time to organise, though: and time is running out.
• Moving out of area but still in Berkshire (or what was once Berkshire), the Wokingham MP John Redwood has written an interesting letter to a constituent (see the discussion at 6pm on Wednesday 17 February at We’re Affected by Council Cuts for more) saying, inter alia, that ‘local funding reductions represent a choice by councils.’ As I suggested last week, it seems that politicians are aware that the local council elections will take place before the next national ones and are keen to ensure that the councillors bear the brunt of our displeasure. I don’t believe that the HQ of the national parties, particularly the Tories, care very much or at all how many local councillors they win or lose. The results give bragging rights for a few days, that’s about it. All councils of whatever hue are equally subject to Whitehall’s financial caprices.
• Leaving aside for a moment whether the cuts are necessary to this extent and what the local councils might have done to anticipate or mitigate them, what seems particularly shocking is the timing which allows weeks or at best months to find alternative ‘Big Society’ solutions. I tried to express this in my letter to the Prime Minister.
• Nor do I understand why West Berkshire, Wokingham and Windsor seem to have been the most savagely hit in percentage terms. I’m wondering if someone at Conservative HQ didn’t say ‘I know – let’s pick three rock-solid Tory councils and hit them hard to show we mean business and so no one can say we’re favouring our own. We’ll choose them alphabetically – one way is as good as another.’ Then someone else had the bright idea of doing it in reverse: no one would spot that. But isn’t one supposed to be rewarded for voting for a council and an MP of the ruling party? This would never happen in North Korea…
• To have your say about the wide range of proposed cuts, please click here to visit the consultation document from West Berkshire Council. Remember that this is the only method by which comments will be accepted.
• Finally on West Berkshire’s tribulations, three comments from the letters pages of the Newbury Weekly News, all from local parliamentary candidates in 2015. Judith Bunting (Liberal Democrats) suggests that the reduction of services breaches the council’s obligations under the 2002 Local Go0vernment Act. Peter Norman (Apolitical Democrats) highlights a series of ‘bad decisions’ taken by West Berkshire Council, including not being prescient enough to foresee the current financial chaos. Barrie Singleton (Independent) makes similar points and suggests that the council as currently constituted is ‘God’s punishment,’ which seems a bit extreme: but feelings are certainly running high at the moment. All have stressed that they’ve been making these and other similar points for some time. All also had the courage to make a stand in a rather bruising election campaign for causes they believed to be right so their opinions deserve an extra airing here.
• As mentioned last week, we’re well aware that West Berkshire is not the only council in the area which is facing Westminster’s demands for draconian cuts. Click here to find out more about similar issues in the Unitary Authorities of Wiltshire, Swindon, Hampshire and Oxfordshire, the District Council of Vale of White Horse, and the Town Councils of Newbury, Marlborough, Hungerford and Thatcham.
• Swindon Soup is a new crowd-funding event (next meeting Thursday 25 February) to help raise funds for local initiatives – click here for more information.
• If you know anyone in the Newbury area who deserves to be recognised for their services to the community, nominations are now open for Newbury Town Council’s Civic Awards – click here for more information.
• On the subject of trains, the Newbury Weekly News has reported that there will be consultation on a £500m plan to create a new rail link from Heathrow to Reading and various points west. This will be very useful on the rare occasions I need to go to Heathrow: what I need to do more often, though, is to go from Hungerford to Paddington without the delays and uncertainties of changing at Newbury, which still seems the likely outcome post-electrification.
• Newbury’s historic Shaw House has now re-opened (1am to 4pm every weekend until the end of September).
• Click here for the latest news from Great Bedwyn Parish Council, including consultations on local bus services and information about changes to the rail franchise.
• Employment practices and habits are changing fast, no doubt about it, and an increasing number of people are trying to strike a satisfactory balance between working from home, working in an office or working somewhere that’s neither of these, like a coffee shop. Coworking is one solution to this – to find out more and in particular how a new initiative in Swindon plans to make this more easily available, click here.
• A new sewage filtration unit has been installed in Aldbourne to reduce the risk of sewer flooding. Has such a system been installed in Lambourn? This problem is, or perhaps was, endemic there.
• As regular readers of this column will know, there are quite a few things about this planet that annoy or mystify me. One of these is the increasing extent to which compliance with regulations ranging from health and safety to planning obligations are affordable only for large organisations. I’m not suggesting that large organisations have lobbied for this situation…well, I suppose I am saying that. Anyway, a very recent example concerns the proposed Artisans’ Collective at Barr’s Yard in Hungerford which – until this was resolved at a West Berkshire planning meeting on Wednesday evening – was threatened as a result of needing to comply with the snappily-named Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM) requirements far in excess of what seemed relevant and certainly of what was affordable for a development of that size and kind. It doesn’t always seem clear how much discretion councils have in such matters and it can often take months of delay before a sensible decision is reached. I can understand how some regulations need to be set in stone – no one would argue, for instance, that a large hotel development ought to include adequate parking spaces for guests – but there are cases which are less clear-cut than this. Most people want to comply with regulations but in return they need to know that these can where possible be adapted to reflect individual and real-life circumstances. This isn’t an impossible trick to pull off: judges do it every day.
• A recent email from the online petitions website 38 Degrees tells me that ASDA has removed all the food banks and charity collection points from its UK stores. This seems particularly insensitive timing as well as bad PR. If you want to see if it can change its corporate mind, click here.
• I never suspected that Marlborough had an air-pollution problem, but apparently it does; two, in fact: one is the pollution; another, according to a local town councillor, is trying to get Wiltshire Council to help address the issue.
• A reminder about a driving course aimed at young people: West Berkshire Council’s Driving Experience Day for young moped and scooter riders will be taking place between 9.30 and 4.00pm at Greenham Business Park on Sunday 28 February.For more information and to book your place call 01635 519984 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
• West Berkshire’s Library Fest is now under way and there will be a wide range of activities in most of the libraries in the area until late April. Given the current news, the timing for this could have been better: or perhaps it’s ideal. All the more reason to support it more than ever this year.
• Calling residents of Great Shefford, Shefford Woodlands, Woodlands St Marys and Brightwalton: if you’re interested in finding out more about the proposed ultrafast pure fibre broadband service, Gigaclear will be hosting open meetings next week to explain more about this. The mettings, all starting at 7.30, will take place in the Village Halls at Brightwalton on Tuesday 23 Feb; Woodlands ST Marys on Wednesday 24 Feb; and Great Shefford on Thursday 25 Feb. Please click here to register your attendance at any of these events..
• If you want to find out more about offering apprenticeships, Newbury College will be hosting ‘Apprenticeships Explained’ breakfast on Saturday 23 February. Please email email@example.com or call 01635 845 229 for more information and to book your place.
• Looking way ahead, but save the date now – East Garston’s bi-annual festival of music and general fun (called Garstonbury – geddit?) will take place this year on Saturday 11 June.
• Several good causes have received valuable financial support recently, including: Berkshire Community Hospital (thanks to the Soroptimists who took part in the pancake race; Nabugabo Community Learning Centre in Uganda (thanks to attendees at the recent charity dinner at Pangbourne College); the Dingley Centre (thanks to the English Provender Company); Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, Whizz Kids and Living Paintings (thanks to staff at AWE).
• Several of you clicked on the item from the BBC website about the leopard that ran amok in an Indian school. The good news is that it was captured and that no one was badly hurt. The bad news is that it’s escaped again…
• And so, ladies and gents, we once again arrive at the song of the week. This time I’m going for the lovely Play Misty for Me by Shakespeare & the Bible (the only band to have been mentioned in every episode of Desert Island Discs) and written by friend Owen Jones (he’s the one playing the accordion). He’s relevant to the first few paragraphs of this post as in the late ’80s, the time when Mrs Thatcher was starting to go seriously bonkers, he decided he’d had enough of the divisiveness and inequality in this country and debunked to Germany. He’s lived there ever since working, amongst other things, as Gunter Grass’ gardener (presumably this sometimes involved cutting Mr Grass’ grass though I don’t know how well this rather feeble joke translates). If things carry on like this here I might go and join him. He’s done some good songs with attitude but this is one is written more in sorrow than in anger and chronicles yet another episode in our infinite capacity to dig ourselves into emotional elephant traps. He’s over this week and I’m seeing him on Saturday so if you like it (or even if you don’t – Penny Post is an equal-opinion employer) post a message below and I’ll pass your comments on. I may have mentioned this song before but I really like it and wish I’d written it myself so I’m mentioning it again – so there.
Local News February
Local News Feb