Including more cuts reaction, democracy generally, relief funding, town council meetings, otters, pike and trout, UFOs, Newbury Talks, Fairtrade Marlborough, Hungerford Youth Club update, tree planting, litter picking and Bernard Cribbens trying to move piano.
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• The Newbury Weekly News has again given good coverage to the local funding crisis. Stories on pp8-10 include one WBC’s councillor’s reluctance to let his child walk to school along the route his own council has recommended; accusations that the increasing reliance on volunteering is turning West Berkshire into a ‘DIY District’ (which might not be such a disaster were more time available transfer some of the responsibilities properly); the closure of the public toilets at The Wharf; some pleas in song and in verse; and accusations that the library consultation is ‘a sham’. All are as depressing as they are predictable.
• Newbury MP Richard Benyon didn’t support the government in the recent Local Government Finance (England) bill but he didn’t vote against it either: he was marked as ‘absent’, which may be different from abstaining in the way a tie in cricket is different from a draw but I’m not well enough versed in parliamentary etiquette to comment. If, however, your local MP is Ed Vaizey (Wantage), Robert Buckland (South Swindon), Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon), Claire Perry (Devizes), John Redwood (Wokingham), Alok Sharma (Reading West) or Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) you probably already know that they supported the bill to reduce the funding your council receives. I’m sure they welcome your questions on their decision. You can find their details via TheyWorkForYou should you wish to contact them. I have already written to Richard Benyon and he has replied: both can be seen here.
• Much has been said about the £1.4m relief funding which West Berkshire will receive over the next two years. This is part of a £300m, two-year package announced by Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, last month. I’m sure that the way this was allocated among the various councils was based on logic but for the life of me I can’t work out what this was. Let’s have a quick look at three councils: West Berkshire, Hull and Oxfordshire. Respectively, their populations are roughly 155,000, 259,000 and 655,000. I’m aware that population is only one way of measuring the need for funding: Hull, for instance, is one of the most deprived unitary authorities in the country according to many of the measures used in the Department for Communities & Local Government 2015 Indices of Deprivation so one might reasonably predict it to receive proportionately more relief grant than the others. Taking West Berkshire’s £1.4m as being correct (which many dispute), Hull might therefore expect to be receiving £2.3m and Oxfordshire £5.9. Wrong. Oxfordshire is getting £9m and Hull nothing. OK, let’s try another way – if Oxfordshire’s £9m is correct, West Berkshire should be receiving £2.1m and Hull £3.6m. Or we take Hull’s £0.0m as correct and…my calculator has just blown up. So, in West Berks we’ve either been screwed or are lucky to have got anything at all. Work it out. I can’t. At least one of Oxfordshire’s MPs must have written a damned good letter to himself, that’s all I can say. Welcome to the Big Society.
• There was another vote in the House of Commons this week concerning Sunday trading laws and whether the current limit of six hours that applies in England and Wales should be increased. I don’t have a strong opinion but if I can see that the current arrangements provide protection for employees: after all, it’s not as if shops aren’t open long enough anyway. The bill was defeated, partly due to the Scottish Nationalists. Why a party which didn’t contest a single seat in any of the areas to which the bill would apply could vote on the issue is one thing: what’s even stranger is that the situation in Scotland is more liberal than elsewhere so the SNP was voting against the the very arrangements that apply in their country (which, as this decision has been devolved, Westminster MPs cannot influence). This is another example of how bonkers our democracy is. By any rational system of representation, the Conservative’s 37% of the vote in 2015 would not have given them a majority and the SNP’s 4.7% of the vote would not have given them 8.6% of the seats; while the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens, which between received nearly 25% of the votes were rewarded with only 10 seats, 1.5% of the total. The argument often used against PR is that it’s important for MPs to have a connection with the area they represent, but this is specious: at the last election fewer than half the MPs were born in the region (never mind the constituency) that they were elected to serve. Of the eight MPs mentioned in the paragraph two above this one, only Richard Benyon and, by recent association, Justin Tomlinson had any particular connection with their constituency before they were elected to it. (London and Scotland were the two areas in which more current MPs were born than there are seats: in other words, they produce more politicians than they can consume locally.) What seems more important is that the voters should have a connection with and and influence on the people they elect; but, living as I do in West Berkshire, any vote other than for the Lib Dems or the Tories is a waste of time, ink and paper. All this may seem like a huge digression from ‘Local News’ but the fact must be faced that not only the way local councils are treated and funded by the government but also the way in which the national MPs are voted for is in disrepair: and yet it is still vitally important the process be taken seriously. The EU has its problems but at least the voting system is rational. Westminster’s manifestly isn’t.
• It’s also clear that the public finances are in a terrible mess and the situation only seems sustainable for as long as the economy grows and, as importantly, interest rates remain low. I don’t want to over-do my catty remarks about Mr Cameron’s Big Society speech in 2010 and how this policy was quietly dropped but in a way that was a shame as it had some sensible points (although poorly presented). A wholly new approach to how we are governed and govern ourselves and how we pay for and organise our services is needed. This could have been the start of it. As matters turned out, it wasn’t.
• We’ve received an article from Newbury Town Council about how it is responding to the funding crisis which is reproduced in full here.
• It has been decided that Hungerford Town Council’s annual Town Meeting will be put back a week until Thursday 31 March (7pm in the Town Hall) to avoid a clash with West Berkshire Council’s meeting on Thursday 24 March which will will decide the fate of, amongst other things, the Library and the Children’s Centre. It’s to be hoped that by then West Berkshire Council will have been able to provide complete details of the costs and other issues involved in running these services. Without this it’s clearly quite hard for any other organisations to step in.
• The invective has been ramped up still further in the five letters pages in the Newbury Weekly News. Read these for yourself on pp20-24.
• 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.
• Well done to everyone who collected litter in West Berkshire recently in freezing conditions. Hopefully we can keep the place a bit cleaner in future even in the Queen isn’t coming to visit.
• An excellent idea is set to be launched this month: Newbury Talks, a not-for-profit volunteer group created to organise interesting talks by talented speakers on a wide range of topics. The first talk, at Newbury Corn Exchange 3pm to 4pm on Sunday 20 March, will be scientist, broadcaster and Edinburgh Fringe performer Dr Kat Arney on the subject of family, heridity and genetics: tales of six-toed cats, zombie genes and stickleback hips (which sounds like a town in Mississippi) are promised. Further publicity on future events will be given in Penny Post in due course: in the meantime, for more information on this venture please contact Trevor Mathers on [email protected]
• Well done also to those who planted saplings in Hungerford’s Triangle field last weekend, partly to provide a natural screen for the Community of Hungerford Theatre Company‘s recently-installed storage units. (One of the planters was my wife, Penny ‘Penny Post’ Locke: and as I wrote this, I realised that this is why there was a garden fork and spade and various other earthy implements in the back of our car earlier this week.)
• 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.
• Some good news for Hungerford: a youth club for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder is scheduled to open in September at the Hungerford Youth and Community Centre. A committee has been formed and links to Spectrum and Oasis Youth Clubs have been created. If you’d like to find out more about this upcoming club in Hungerford, please contact Vicki on [email protected]
• And more good news for Hungerford: a reminder about Arts For Hungerford a 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.
• And yet more good news (unless you happen to be a pike); Rob Starr of Hungerford Town & Manor told a recent meeting that otters are returning to the waterways in and around Hungerford. This restores some balance to the eco-system as they feed on pike which had until recently been increasing at the expense of trout, which the pike feed on (and which taste a lot better than pike).
• 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.
• Congratulations to Marlborough which has, after a year-long campaign been awarded Fairtrade status. Click here to learn more.
• 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.
• And, if you were mulling over the idea of applying for the job of Town Cryer in Marlborough as reported here a few weeks ago, you’re too late: the position’s been filled.
• 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.
• Moving up the valley, if you live in or near Lambourn and want to find out more about Virgin Media’s plans for Superfast broadband in Lambourn, there will be an information event at the’s Community Hall from 10am to 12 noon on Saturday 19 March.
• If you think you’ve seen UFOs in the sky recently and your friends tell you that you’re going bonkers, you may not be: show them this story…
• 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, West Berkshire being arguably too small to benefit from economies of scale that apply in many other areas). For news of the progress, click here.
• Each Friday seems to heap fresh social misery on the hapless John Middleton from Nick Ball’s superb Quiet Desperation. He can’t even walk down an alleyway without messing it up…
• Thatcham Town Council has now taken over the management of Thatcham’s Friday Market and aims to increase the number of stallholders 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 activities to co-incide with this. For more information call 01635 863 592 or email [email protected]
• 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.
• For more on West Berkshire Council’s Fare Payer scheme for school pupils click here.
• Don’t try to park in the Northcroft Lane West car park in Newbury on Monday 14 or Tuesday 15 March as it will be closed.
• Community Groups in Berkshire which support nature and wildlife are invited to apply for grants from the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust before the end of May 2016.
• There will be Work and Careers Fair at Newbury College on Wednesday 16 March.
• Local campaigners still hope that The White Hart in Hamstead Marshall can be saved as a pub. If this happens it will hopefully emulate the success of the excellent Tally Ho in Hungerford Newtown
• Fans of Benjamin Britten have the chance to see a local production of Noye’s Fludde at Wantage Parish Church on Saturday 12 March.
• 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. Consultation events take place in various locations until Thursday 17 March.
• There are a lot of roundabouts in Swindon, magic or otherwise, on that we can all agree. The one at Bruce Street Bridges has recently been rebuilt and, since its opening, has been causing some confusion.
• Several good causes have received valuable financial support recently, including: Alexander Devine Hospice (thanks to shoppers at the Aldworth market); the Nephrotic Syndrome Trust (thnaks to pupils at Bradfield Primary School); The Theale and Thatcham Blind Club (thanks to James Thompson of Kennet School); the Grange Community Centre (thanks to Thamesdown and Stagecoach).
• And, once again, we lurch towards the song of the week. George Martin’s recent death might suggest something by The Beatles but I’ve resisted that temptation (having already nominated one of theirs a month or so ago). The connection of George Martin and The Beatles was perhaps the luckiest in popular culture. Without him, they might well have sunk through inattention. McCartney’s melodic near-genius would probably have survived but, without the leavening of Lennon’s wry wit and Harrison’s thoughtfulness, the results might have been unpalatable to anyone lacking the necessary sweet tooth. And, without The Beatles, George Martin would have been little more than a talented footnote in EMI’s novelty record output. Together, however, they redefined popular music and, in some ways, changed the world. George Martin spent much of his early musical career producing light-hearted songs with elaborate sound effects (experience he’d use to stunning effect on the later Beatles’ records), of which Bernard Cribbens’ Right Said Fred is a superb example. So, I’m going for that. It didn’t change the world; but then it didn’t try to. It was designed to make us laugh then and it makes me laugh now and I’m not exactly falling over things that do that for me at the moment. Just over two minutes is all you have to invest in this one. I defy you not to crack a smile at least once.
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