Local News Mar 4 – 11

Local News

Including cuts and yet more cuts, meeting your town councillors, Art for Hungerford, butterflies in Swindon, opera in Wantage, markets in Newbury & Thatcham, talking dogs and a song about a cat.

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Earlier this week, West Berkshire Council voted through its 2016-17 budget including cuts of some £10m. The final stages of the public consultation are now under way (closes on Monday 7 March) after which it’s widely expected that a further £6m worth of cuts will follow. The budget was passed ‘with a heavy heart’ according to one councillor. It’s been suggested that a few principled resignations might have been one way of expressing this sorrow though I’m not clear whether this would have achieved very much.

The Newbury Weekly News has this week given excellent and detailed coverage to this crisis – no other word seems to suffice – as they’ve been doing for some time and I won’t try to replicate that here. None the less, a few points seem worth making.

In particular, see page 9 of the Newbury Weekly News which lists 30 alternatives to cutting funding, most of them excellent. A number of these would have been far easier to accomplish were more time available.

This edition of the paper also carries several articles on the importance of public libraries, including one referring to a recent talk at Newbury Library by local author Robert Harris and another describing the experience of younger library users in the area.

It was reported that some councillors said that they never imagined how they could be needing to present and approve such proposals. However, at a meeting in Lambourn last week the former council leader said he had been aware that savage cuts were on their way since about 2010. Something of this nature must have been expected.  I’ve suggested here what West Berkshire Council (indeed all councils) might have done to ease the transition and prepare for whatever catastrophe was visitied upon us (and might need to do in expectations of future ones). I intend no knee-jerk criticism of much of the excellent work which council officials do, much of it unseen and (until now) taken for granted. Others may have specific complaints and it’s perhaps a shame that some of these are being aired in quite the way they are. The current atmosphere lacks cordiality. This crisis has certainly sparked a debate about local government; perhaps the Cinderella of the democratic process, which I suppose makes national and European parliaments the Ugly Sisters. We can now see how important is Cinderella is. I predict and hope for a higher than usual turnout at the next local elections if we are not to be turned into pumpkins.

The problems are by no means over. In 2019-20 it’s planned that all business rates will be released for local councils to spend. I’ve heard it said that this will provide adequate funds for many of the services that are now being cut. I think it far more likely that the government will instead lumber councils with additional expenditure and that the net result will be less money, not more. Some of you may remember David Cameron’s passionate description of his vision of the ‘Big Society‘ in 2010. Well, it seems this is it. Everyone happy with it so far?

Some people, including 2015 Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Judith Bunting, fear that the service cuts will force people to move away from the area. If this extends to businesses, it will obviously also reduce the business rates the council can raise, and keep, after 2020.

Westminster’s decision to impose the cuts at high speed and to grant transitional funding of only £2.8m over two years) makes no financial or social sense and so must be part of a political strategy, presumably to minimise concerted opposition. It almost seems vindictive, the kind of way invaders behave in order to whip the population into line. I’ve certainly not heard of any more rational or charitable explanation.

I wrote to local MP Richard Benyon last week and have recently received a reply which can (with his permission) be seen here, underneath my email to him. It’s obviously good news that he is continuing to fight for West Berkshire and I’m sure we all wish him every success. Any further developments will be reported here. I also find his comments about the anomalies in the Business Rate system interesting, and depressing. This doesn’t bode well for a smooth transition in 2019-20. If there is a long-term solution to the vexed problem of local-government funding it seems to be unclear to everyone at present, including those responsible for devising it. I was also struck by his last phrase, ‘in the next few weeks.’ That’s the timescale we’ve been allowed. I’m sure Mr Benyon will welcome any correspondence which will help strengthen his case during this alarmingly short period.

This unseemly and unnecessary haste has led to accusations that some of WBC’s plans for some of the details have not been properly considered. The plans for the Hungerford Children’s Centre, for instance, have been branded ‘vague’ by one of the governors; and there seem to be uncertainties over some aspects of the status of the Lambourn Library. The challenges being faced are certainly unprecedented.

Amongst numerous such complaints, the withdrawal of subsidised travel on Hungerford’s CHAIN Handybus service has attracted its fair share of criticism. Users of this service (and many others) are not in a position to shop around in the market economy to get the best deal. The people using this have paid taxes for maybe 50 years, and now this. Something’s gone very badly wrong here…

Hats off to Birch Copse Councillor Emma Webster who announced after the 16% increase in councillors’ allowances was also voted through at the council meeting that she will be donating her £1,000 extra to community groups in her ward.

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.

The last chance to have your say about the wide range of proposed can be had by clicking here to visit the consultation document from West Berkshire Council. Remember that this is the only method by which comments will be accepted. You must respond by Monday 7 March.

The letters page of the Newbury Weekly News, has expanded in recent weeks and is currently in fact six pages. Subjects covered this week include the voting behaviour of local councillors; possible legal threats to the library closures; some trenchant observations about individual councillors and council policies; one blaming the government not the District Council, another blaming the District Council not Newbury Town Council and a third blaming Newbury Town Council; the suggestion that West Berkshire is not large enough to manage its own affairs efficiently and should merge with others; complaints about the dangers of school journeys without bus services; an endorsement from 2015 Independent candidate Barrie Singleton for Liberal Democrat Judith Bunting’s credentials as an MP; and a suggestion – which might have carried more weight at this season in any previous year – that Newbury Town Council should plant more daffodil bulbs in Victoria Park. It’s a broad church, in other words. The letters page of Newbury Weekly News is an important part of our local democracy as well. We’re lucky to have a good local paper here and to live in a country where papers are able to publish such letters without fear of being closed down by the government or having their offices torched by extremist thugs. Buy a copy and read them for yourself. And keep on reading Penny Post as well, of course.

Activities this week in Hungerford Library include the book group, rhyme time, art group, free computer access, dyslexia support, craft and chat – and books, of course.

Local democracy can be witnessed first hand at a full (and public) meeting of Hungerford Town Council from 7pm Monday 7 March at the Corn Exchange in Hungerford. If you want to ask a question it would be useful but not essential if you could in advance  contact claire.barnes@hungerford-tc.gov.uk or call 01488 686 195.

Any local vexillologists will be able to see the raising of the Commonwealth flag over the Hungerford Corn Exchange – be at the Town Hall steps by 9.45 on Monday 7 March.

Meanwhile, residents of Thatcham can meet their councillors in a less formal setting: two of them will be at The Broadway between 10am and 12 noon on Saturday 5 March to hear your views and answer your questions.

Good news for Hungerford: Arts For Hungerford is an new not-for-profit group that aims to provide a year round programme of high quality arts events for Hungerford and the surrounding communities. Click here for more information.

As mentioned previously, 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.

As mentioned last week, the various unitary councils in Oxfordshire are investigating some form of merger to increase efficiency (something which some have suggested could be considered in Berkshire as well). For news of the progress, click here.

If you want to find out about your family history, a genealogy expert will be on hand at Wantage Library on Tuesday afternoons to help with your genealogical puzzles. Call 01235 763 841 to book your free session.

I like cats and don’t like dogs. That’s the way some of us are. I like this talking dog, though (I hope he’s being sincere about wanting a kitten, though I doubt it). It brightened up my day at any rate.

And when you’ve finished giggling at that, click here to see the latest of Nick Ball’s excellent Quiet Desperation. John Middleton has (not before time) gone to see a shrink but doesn’t quite seem to have got the hang of it…

Thatcham Town Council has taken over the management of Thatcham’s Friday Market from Friday 4 March. Its main aims will be to increase the number of stallholders (both occasional and regular) and visitors. The markets on 18 and 25 May will be part of the nationwide ‘Love Your Local Market’ campaign supported by the National Association of Market Authorities and there will be range of other events and activities to co-incide with this. For more information on any aspect of the new arrangement, call 01635 863 592 or email rosie.huxtable@thatchamtowncouncil.gov.uk

Click for this month’s neighbourhood police updates in West Berkshire & North Hampshire  and police advice for South Oxfordshire & Wiltshire.

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.

Click here for more on the ‘Where I live’ Newbury photography project organised in conjunction with the Newbury Twin Town Association.

Newbury Town Council is is to install wheelchair-friendly play equipment in Victoria Park.

Following public consultation, West Berkshire Council has made changes to its Fare Payer scheme for school pupils for use on existing school transport contracted by WBC within the West Berkshire district. Click here for more information.

If you want to support Action for the River Kennet‘s Ramsbury Community River & Wildlife Project, one of the ways you can do this is voting for them with the tokens at Tesco in Marlborough.

Congratulations to West Berkshire Council’s Run England scheme which has recently picked up an award for its work.

The Sainsbury’s Sport Relief Mile race, part of Comic Relief, takes place on Sunday 20 March in, amongst other places, Marlborough – click here for more information.

Calling all singer/songwriters in the Swindon area: the organisers of the Little Big Festival on Saturday 14 May are looking for performers. Click here for more information.

An initiative has been launched by Swindon Council to consult with the public about the future of matters including the library service and the future of Lydiard Park. Click here for more information.

Swindon’s residents are also invited to contribute to a butterfly-inspired community art project at Swindon Central Library.

The Artisan Market in Newbury will become a regular monthly event from Sunday 27 March.

Fans of Benjamin Britten have the chance to see a local production of Noye’s Fludde at Wantage Parish Church on Saturday 12 March.

The Great Shefford Defibillator Group is having a fund-raising coffee morning and cake sale from 10.30 am to 12 noon on Saturday 12 March at the Village Hall.

Several good causes have received valuable financial support recently, including: Great Western Hospital’s Radiotherapy Appeal (thanks to Evelyn William’s heroic and to most of unimaginable achievement of rowing across the Atlantic despite suffering from sea-sickness and enduring a hurricane); The British Heart Foundation (thanks to swimmers at The Kennet Leisure Centre); Cancer Research UK (thanks to the ongoing donations from The Swan in Newbury); Newbury Samaritans (thanks to local shoppers); Parkinsons UK (thanks to Monique Warham).

  And, like the last peal of a church bell striking midnight, we come again to the song of the week. I’ve always had a weakness for songs that tell a story with a bit of ambiguity; that have guitar solos; that have good tunes; and (perhaps a slightly guilty pleasure and one which critics of my own songs have expressed) that have lush arrangements, with strings and saxes and all sorts. One that ticks all these boxes is Year of the Cat by Al Stewart, one of the most articulate lyricists these islands have produced. The album of the same name has some other lovely songs on it as well but this one does the business for me every time. It also references Casablanca, unquestionably the greatest film ever made. Late 70s folk-rock-pop, call it what you will, gets no better than this. Alternate with the previously recommended London Calling by The Clash if you need more salt and less sugar. Somewhere between the two is the perfect distillation of that period, for me at any rate. Hippie drop-out or class warrior? Listen to the songs and be both again for a bit…

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Brian Quinn


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