Local News March 18 – 25

Local News

Including more cuts reaction, library and leisure centre reprieves, perverse valuations, consultation statistics, council announcements and meetings, Newbury Talks, Lydiard House, twin towns and the tale of a well-known Bognor restaurant owner.

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Around half of the responses (see also below) to the recent consultation by West Berkshire Council concerned library closures and a temporary reprive has been granted to all the libraries in the area except (unless any other group can come forward) Theale and Wash Common with £475,000 of the transitional funding being allocated to help keep the remaining ones open until, as Council Leader Roger Croft says, they can move “to a more sustainable funding model (involving) partners, community groups and parishes.” You can read more details here in a communication recently received from West Berkshire Council.

Meanwhile, Newbury MP Richard Benyon has formally asked Local Government Minister Greg Clark to investigate the ‘perverse’ methodology of the Valuations Office Agency, the agency which gives the government valuations and property advice relating to taxation and benefits. Mr Benyon referred to this matter in his recent letter to me. At present, West Berkshire Council retains only about a quarter of the business rates it receives. The planned changes from 2019-20 will see councils retaining all business rates, which will then become one of their main sources of funding: so any inequalities in the system will therefore be around four times more serious than they are now. Aside from this issue, the new system seems to contain an inherent flaw. An area which cannot attract enough businesses, and thus raise enough business rates, will probably also have a higher than average demand for expenditure on a range of services including social care. I suspect that West Berkshire and the adjoining areas are fairly well placed but other areas may suffer heavily under the new system (whatever exactly it turns out to be – the details have yet to be finalised).

At first glance there seemed to be a discrepancy between the figures provided by the Newbury Weekly News and by the BBC as to the proportion of people who had responded to the various sections of  West Berkshire Council’s recent consultation. On closer examination, both were right: but the former was looking at the number of people who responded (7,278) and the latter at the number who had added comments (4,981). The Council has pointed out that responses without comments tell them very little, generally only whether someone is a user of a service but not whether they oppose or support the proposed measures nor what other suggestions they have. There are likely to be more consultations in the future so, when completing them, please take an extra few minutes to make your position clear. I’ll also be suggesting that the council makes this point even more clearly on the consultations themselves.

Looking merely at the 4,981 consultation responses with comments, by far the largest number (2,307, 46.3%) concerned the libraries, followed by theatres (1,619, 32.5%), public transport (327, 6.6%) and children’s centres (309, 6.2%). As well as revealing the services that many people are concerned about, these figures may also suggest that people who use libraries and theatres are more likely to fill in consultations than those who use children’s centres or public transport. Of all the people who replied, only 50% of those who did so about theatres added a comment, whereas 84% of the people who  wrote about libraries did so. Indeed, of the 2,297 people who responded but didn’t comment, 70% were contacting WBC about theatres. I don’t know whether this part of the consultation was different in some way so as to suggest that comments weren’t required. In my experience, theatre-goers seem more than averagely willing to express opinions about most things: certainly few places are more deafening than than a theatre bar.

A further round of cuts totalling some £6.7m, is to be voted on by West Berkshire Council on Thursday 24 March. To view the entire 236-page Public Document Pack which includes the Agenda (and likely conclusions) of the Special Meeting of West Berkshire Council, click here. For more information on how the transitional funding has been allocated (subject to ratification at this meeting) please click here.

As reported in the Newbury Weekly News, Councillor Alan Law recently described the budget reductions as ‘small’ as they were only a tiny fraction of the value of the local economy, which he valued at £5.25bn and which was set to grow a 2 to 3% this year. This doesn’t seem to be a particularly useful observation. For one thing there is no direct link I’m aware of between corporate and municipal revenues: most business rates are not currently locally retained and are anyway calculated on a system that our local MP for one believes to be ‘perverse’ (see above). Nor am I aware that economic growth (whatever that proves to be, and forecasts have recently been revised downwards by the OBR) automatically results in higher council revenues. Finally, there is no trickle-down effect by which corporate wealth alleviates the effects of council cuts. Moreover, much of this £5.25bn is, I imagine, based on the fact that some large companies happen to be based in the county: they could leave, as Bayer recently did. I’m not sure that anyone who has lost services on which they rely will be greatly comforted by the fact that they’re living in a wealthy area, any more than an impoverished football fan will rejoice in their local club being full of millionaires.

One local volunteer told the Daily Mirror that she was “very sad” about the closure of the children’s centre in Chieveley. “If it closes down,” she explained, “then I shan’t be volunteering because there will no one to volunteer for.” Well, that’s not quite true, is it? Every week I seem to mention David Cameron’s 2010 Big Society initiative. I thought that one of the points of this was encourage local groups to take responsibility for some of the services previously provided by councils. The problems that the council services were doing their best to combat don’t vanish just because these services are removed. I doff my cap to her for having volunteered at all, but also suggest that she ask the Prime Minister to explain to her once again how this Big Society business is meant to work. She should be able to get through to him: after all, she is his mother.

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 council by-election in Victoria Ward in Newbury caused by the resignation of Emma Green will take place on Thursday 5 May.

Congratulations to the Newbury Weekly News which has been nominated in two categories for the 2016 newsawards.

It seems that Kintbury’s Jubilee Centre has been saved with a team of local volunteers set to run the building and facilities from Friday 1 April.

Another chance to see how Newbury Town Council is responding to the funding crisis: their response is reproduced in full here.

A reminder 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  letters pages in the Newbury Weekly News continue to make some trenchant points. One, the shortest, asks what those who campaign against the cuts would have done differently from the current actions of the councillors whom they now condemn. One possibility, as I’ve suggested before, would have been for these councillors to have made some preparations for handing over threatened services. Some councillors have claimed they saw this situation coming. If so, I’ve seen very little evidence of their having planned for it.

On Saturday 19 March, Lydiard House in Swindon will re-open with a new exhibition telling the stories of some of the people from the area who fought in WWI and WWII.

If you run a business in or near Great Bedwyn, click here to see details of a survey which is being conducted as part of the Neighbourhood Development Plan.

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.

The first of what promises to be a fascinating series of talks takes place at the Corn Exchange, Newbury on Sunday 20 March, organised by new not-for-profit group Newbury Talks. Click here for more information.

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 Community Hall from 10am to 12 noon on Saturday 19 March.

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 continues and there will be a wide range of activities in most of the libraries in the area until late April.

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.

Residents of West Berkshire are invited to nominate anyone aged 19+ for a Learner Achievement Award which celebrates excellence in adult learning. There are several categories – click here for more information.

Local campaigners still hope that The White Hart in Hamstead Marshall can be saved as a pub. At the latest meeting, the team voted to submit an application to West berkshire Council to have the pub listed as an Asset of Community Value.

Residents of Chilton Foliat and the surrounding area are invited to contact the new Village Hall chairman Nick Davies if they are interested in joining the committee – email village.hall@chiltonfoliat.com

I’d often wondered why Marlborough was twinned with Gunjur in The Gambia – this article explains the background to this and how the relationship works in practice.

Congratulations to the Aldbourne Band which has qualified for the National Brass Band Championships in the Albert Hall.

Poor John Middleton paints himself into another social corner in this week’s episode of Quiet Desperation.

Several good causes have received valuable financial support recently, including: Home-Start Kennet (thanks to the Big Lottery Reaching Communities Fund); Christian Aid (thanks to pupils at Downe House); Marie Curie (thanks to shoppers in Hungerford); Heartstart Thatcham (thanks to the Kennet School); Macmillan Cancer Support (thanks to Martin Williams of Thatcham); The Stroke Association (thanks to Kingsclere Primary School); The Fair Trade Foundation (thanks to pupils at Silchester Primary School); West Berkshire Action for Refugees (thanks to 1st Hungerford Cubs); the Great Western Hospital (thanks Leanne Deane of Swindon).

  It’s the last paragraph, people, and that means only one thing – the song of the week is tuning up for us. I put a song of mine called Mortal Sin up on my Soundcloud account recently. A friend who listened to it emailed me and said she thought it was a bit like Genesis, not a band that was in my head at all when I was writing and recording it. None the less, the past sometimes sticks in odd ways. I thought about this and did a bit of on-line listening. Despite being part of the obligatory 1970s prog-rock soundtrack, I never greatly cared for them then and don’t now. Their stuff was all too self-consciously and self-importantly ‘wacky’ for my tastes and did go on a bit as well. Then I remembered one little gem tucked away on their Nursery Crimes album, the oddest piece of pure English whimsy as you can hope to find – Harold the Barrel. I’ve always had a soft spot for songs that tell odd stories and this certainly does that. I love the biographical details and his mother’s concern that he shouldn’t jump of the roof wearing a dirty shirt as the BBC was there filming it all. I listened to a couple of other tracks from this album and the production seemed surprisingly muddy. Strange that such a serious bunch of musos didn’t spend a bit more time on this detail. On this jaunty but slightly sinister little song, it matters less. It’s amusingly dark and darkly amusing. It also has a lovely ending. Try it for yourself.

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Brian Quinn

Local News Mar

Local News March

 

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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale