Local News Dec 21-28

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Including M4 closure, business rate retention, West Berkshire’s libraries, Sandleford again, Citizens Advice in need of help, police and roadwork updates, Tull Way scheme completed, good causes celebrated, England’s only ‘outstandingly legitimate’ police force, the solstice in Wiltshire, new trees in Newbury, a bus takes on a bridge and loses, vanishing angels, cascading trains, a celery-hating dog, the last men on the moon and the celestial turnip.

Click on any highlighted and underlined text for more information on the subject. Some will link to other pages on this site, others to pages elsewhere.

Roadworks updates. Click on the links for news regarding West Berkshire, the Wantage area, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Swindon. Please click here to visit Traffic England’s site for information on motorways and major strategic roads (which include at A34 and the A419). The ‘Map Layers’ toggle can be used to display different levels of information.

• The M4 will be closed westbound between J12 and J13 from 9pm on 21 December to 6am on 22 December.

•  If you use GWR services, click here for details of engineering works over the holiday period, information about 2018 timetables and the long-awaited arrival of the bi-mode trains later next year. A recent press release on the subject from GWR confirms that the plans are ‘robust’ and that one result will be that the closures will result in new trains being ‘cascaded’ to areas where they will be needed after the holiday period. Trains used to be ‘moved’ but it seems we now live in more poetic times.

Neighbourhood policing updates. For the Thames Valley Police’s ‘Your Local Area’ page generally, click here. For specific areas, click here for Hungerford and Lambourn; click here for Newbury Town Centre; click here for Newbury Outer; click here for Bucklebury and Downlands; click here for Thatcham, Aldermaston and Brimpton; click here for Wantage and Grove; click here for Wiltshire East (including Marlborough); click here for Swindon and other parts of Wiltshire; click here for Hampshire.

• Please click here for more about the tri-service station in Hungerford and policing in the area generally.

• A number of community minibus and car schemes provide transport services for – but not exclusively for – older and disabled people. You can click here to find more about the range of services (and volunteering opportunities) in West Berkshire. Click here for services in Wiltshire and Swindon.

District, town or parish council contacts. To view the contacts page for Hungerford TC, click here; for Newbury, click here; for Thatcham, click here. If you live in the Vale of White Horse area, click here (and here for Wantage); if you live in Wiltshire, click here (and here for Marlborough). For Swindon, click here.

• I received an email from West Berkshire Council yesterday headed ‘West Berkshire Council joins Business Retention Rates Pilot‘ (I think they meant ‘Business Rates Retention Pilot’). This made very little sense to me, for the reasons I explained in an email to WBC (no reply received as yet but in fairness it was only sent yesterday afternoon). You can read the press release, my questions and (when received) any reply here.

• I’m even more confused as a result of reading an article on page 4 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News. Local MP Richard Benyon has intervened, saying that in order to balance its books WBC had to make cost savings ‘here and there’. The latest announcement from WBC on the subject talks of £10m-worth of cuts, rather more than ‘here and there.’ It’s equally hard to understand his later remark that £2m is ‘a significant increase’,  ‘20% of the proposed cuts’ being another way of looking at it. Council leader Graham Jones, meanwhile, seems to have changed his mind on the matter. In the press release, he asserted that the money would help provide ‘a solid base on which to build and strengthen economic development in our district’ (I’m not aware that this is currently WBC’s most pressing obligation). In the NWN article, however, he admits that the scheme is only for one year – hardly a ‘solid base’ – and adds that ‘we can’t start spending money if we don’t have it in year two’. Moreover, it’s now hoped that this can be invested in services, with no mention of economic development.

• As the leader of the party to which both Mr Benyon and Mr Jones belong is fond of saying, I want to be very clear. The current funding crisis for local councils was caused by the government reducing the rate support grant from 2015 but not replacing this with anything else until 2020: the new scheme, moreover, will be based on an utterly different assumption: the ability of a council to attract business rates and not its actual needs.  Imagine your boss said you, “we’re going to stop paying you by cheque and will be switching to BACS. However, it’s going to take us five years to do the changeover so between now and then we’ll be giving you less and less and perhaps nothing at all. Also, when the new system comes in what you pay will be based on a factor over which you have very little control. In the meantime, you’ve got the same legal obligations to carry on doing the things you were doing before. Should anything go wrong you’ll still get the blame. If now and again I toss you a small bonus, which will be nowhere close to the amount of money I’m withholding and which may or may not be continued next year, I expect you to be publicly and effusively grateful. Is that all OK with you?”

• One then is faced with the immediate implications of the £10m (or perhaps now £8m) worth of cuts WBC has to make in 2018-19, by far the most savage concerns the proposed slashing of the budget for Citizens Advice West Berkshire, as reported here last week (click here for more information and to respond to the consultation). This matter, like the rate support issue, is covered on p4 of the NWN and also has some comments from Mr Benyon which combine his normal refusal to criticise the council with the clear implication that he thinks the CAWB cuts are wrong, as indeed they are. WBC’s consultation document says that about 90% of the savings will be ‘made from within the council, through making further efficiencies such as re-tendering contracts.’  This poses two obvious questions. Firstly, if these savings could have been made before without affecting services, why weren’t they? The second is that if these cuts will affect services, which ones might be at risk?

• I also think Mr Benyon’s observation about the libraries is an over-simplification, as he seems to imply that the closure of only one out of the proposed six was is something WBC should get the credit for. I concede that the council has been faced with some awkward choices largely not of its making (though, as I suggested, it could perhaps have prepared for these). However, the current survival of the branch libraries is due to the increased use of volunteers, which may or may not prove to be viable. In the case of Hungerford, a completely different model is being adopted as a result of considerable work by the Friends of Hungerford Library and Hungerford Town Council, a scheme which, in fairness, WBC now seems whole-heartedly to endorse. Mr Benyon made no mention of this or, if he did, it wasn’t reported. Finally in this article, Mr Benyon was asked how he would respond to the criticism that the funding cuts were the responsibility of the Conservative government (see above). It was unlikely he would agree with this self-evident truth and he didn’t: instead he said that if more business rates could be retained then the problem ‘would be resolved’, a moot point and one that brings us more or less back to where we started.

Hampshire Council is considering starting to charge for a number of services, including bus passes for the elderly and household waste recycling: according to the Newbury Weekly News, its funding gap in 2018-19 will be £140m.

• The letters pages of the Newbury Weekly News this week includes a letter for Newbury’s mayor listing some of the highlights of the year, an appeal to the local councils to improve their plastic recycling services, a checklist of some of the uncosted and unadmitted problems caused by Brexit so far, another suggesting that Brexit won’t make that much difference, and some thoughts from the Say No to Sandleford campaign. There’s also a photograph of a dog which dislikes lions, giraffes and celery, though whether individually or only in combination the caption doesn’t specify.

• A reminder that the annual December crackdown on drink- and drug-driving was announced last week by the local police forces. The clampdown also extends to texting.

• West Berkshire Council is seeking to address the problem of dog fouling. Click here to report any cases and to see a map of the area with known problem areas marked.

Thames Valley Police has recently been graded ‘outstanding’ for efficiency and ‘good’ for legitimacy in the recent PPEL report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services – click here for more, which includes some background on what the odd-sounding ‘legitimacy’ category means. Only two other police forces were ‘outstanding’ in efficiency (Durham being the other) while only the police service in Kent is ‘outstandingly’ legitimate.

• Please click here for the latest news from Hungerford Town Council.

• A reminder that there will be an important meeting at 7pm on Monday 22 January in the Corn Exchange to discuss Hungerford’s proposed Neighbourhood Plan. You can find out more by clicking here (you’ll need then to scroll down a bit).

• Please click here for the latest news from Newbury Town Council: and here to see NTC’s archive of monthly newsletters.

• As is the case with every such proposal, the latest plans submitted for the redevelopment of Pearl House in Bartholomew Street have met with a mixed reaction. See page 2 of this week’s NWN for more.

• More contentious still is the seemingly never-ending matter of the Sandleford development, revised plans for which were turned down this week by West Berkshire Council. The recurring accusation, justified or otherwise, is that the two developers involved have been unable to work together sufficiently well. This perhaps casts doubt on the viability of any similar multi-run projects in the future. The larger the scheme, the greater the chance that more than one company will be involved.

• 17 semi-mature trees have been planted in Victoria Park (horse chestnuts, limes and beeches) which will replace those that needed to be felled in the recent A339 road-widening.

• Please click here for the latest news from Marlborough Town Council.

• The local funding problems are by no means restricted to West Berkshire. Click here for Marlborough News Online’s coverage of how a pound a month could save Wiltshire from a ‘minimal’ police service.

• The same source describes the recent opening of the Marlborough Youth & Community Centre (and offers some more colourful verbs to describe the event should you need them).

• Tomorrow, 22 December, sees the winter solstice. Few counties have as many sites associated with the ancient festivities surrounding this event as does Wiltshire and you can read more about what’s going on into places in the county, Stonehenge and Avebury, by clicking here. In passing, I’d add that the article states that 22 December is thus the shortest day of the year: one level it is but another it isn’t. The same can be said in reverse for the summer solstice. With this thought in mind, you might want to have a look (or another look) at the Penny Post 2017 Quiz.

• As regular readers will know, the Marlborough section of this post is normally a good place to find stories about vehicles wedged under bridges, overturned in lanes or crashed into buildings (something that also forms part of the above-mentioned quiz). This incident didn’t happen in Marlborough but it could have done. The bit I like best is the wonderfully relevant advert on the side of the bus.

• If you live in Ramsbury, you should know that your tennis club is officially the best in Wiltshire.

• Click here for a communication from The Bedwyn Pub Company concerning its campaign to get the Cross Keys in the village re-established as a pub.

• Please click here for the latest news from Thatcham Town Council.

• The Tull Way Flood Alleviation Scheme is now complete – click here for more.

• Click here for details of bus services in and around Thatcham over the festive season.

• Please click here for the latest news from Wantage Town Council.

• Click here for the story of Wantage’s disappearing angels.

• Any car parks operated by the Vale of the White Horse Council in selected towns will have free parking on certain days in the run up to Christmas: in Wantage, for instance, it’s every Friday. Click here for more.

• Details of service changes over the Christmas and new year period from the Vale of the White Horse Council can be found here.

• Legal & General has bought nearly 80 acres of land near Shrivenham on which it plans to build a 515-home estate stating in late 2018.

• Junction 16 of the M4 is undergoing a major facelift: click here for an update.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently, including: West Berkshire PALS (thanks to staff and shoppers in Sainsbury’s in Newbury); Fir Tree School’s Autistic Spectrum Unit (thanks to West Berkshire Council); Alexander Devine Hospice (thanks to Kingsclere and Cheam Schools); Elderly residents in Tadley (thanks to Tadley Fire Station); Friends of Angel’s Orphanage (thanks to the recent Winter Concert); numerous local charities and not-for-profit organisations throughout the year (thanks to organisations such as the Greenham Trust, local councils and Hungerford Town & Manor).

• And so it’s time for the Song of the Week. As this will be the last Local News til the New Year, we’re looking for something that you can play over and over again: more than just a single song, in that case. Wagner’s Ring Cycle? No. Dark Side of the Moon? Possibly. I’m going to suggest The Clash’s superb double album London Calling. If you just want a couple of songs then from this in my view the stand outs are the incandescent title track and Hateful.

• And finally the Quiz Question of the Week winds things up. Last week I directed you to the Penny Post 2017 Quiz which contains a superb prize from the Queens Arms in East Garston and that’s the suggestion this week. Last week’s free bonus question was: this day (14 December) in 1972 saw the last person ever to visit…where? The answer is the Moon, after Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt completed the Apollo 17 mission. If anyone else is going to be going up there, former cricketer Freddie Flintoff would be a interesting choice as he’s just announced that the world is either flat or turnip-shaped. That seems as good a place as any to leave matters for this year. Have a great festive period and see you again in 2018.

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Brian Quinn

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