Including libraries, the ‘Big Society’, Lydiard Park, driving courses, astronomers, leopards, CALM, hard shoulders, a quiz, Village Agents and an Irish love song.
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• According to some so far officially unconfirmed reports, it seems that all of West Berkshire’s libraries apart from Newbury’s will close. Libraries aren’t like hospitals where it makes some sense to concentrate expertise and facilities in a smaller number of centres. Their use is a matter of choice and there are very many worse ways of spending one’s time. As Cervantes said, there is no book so bad that it does not have something good in it. Reaction to the threatened closures has been immediate and unanimous. Local author Robert Harris described the move as ‘extremely foolish,’ libraries being a ‘vital part of our lives.’ They are also used for more than just borrowing books, with many events (including Library Fest) and activities taking place there. For many it is also a valuable social resource providing amongst other things access to the internet. A Friends of Hungerford Library Facebook group has been set up. A petition can be signed here. The full details of these and other cuts will be made available on 15 February and a consultation period will then follow (this will be publicised: please make your views known). The cuts seem likely to include virtually every aspect of the council’s activities including transport, day centres, grants to voluntary organisations and children’s groups. To repeat my observation of last week, it doesn’t seem to me that the pain of the 2008 financial crisis – if that is really what this all about: let’s hope there’s not a libertarian ideological agenda at work here – is being equally shared.
• Various plans are being put forward as to how the libraries might survive. Volunteers is one possibility, although particular skills are needed. Another is to make a small, perhaps voluntary, charge for borrowing books although it must be admitted that such things tend to put people off using the service, particularly when they’re introduced for the first time. A problem here, as David Piper of Hungerford CHAIN has pointed out, is the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. Section 8 of this prevents libraries from making charges for library facilities although it appears that the Secretary of State does have the power to alter this without needing to repeal the law. What might have worked well in 1964 is perhaps less relevant now. In July of that year, The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night was released. The Post Office Tower in London was completed. Winston Churchill was still an MP. The internet was, or might have been, an international fishing organisation, Macs were what you wore, mobiles were things babies had over their cots and a PC said ‘hello, hello, what’s all this then?’ and the robbers said ‘it’s a fair cop, officer.’ Ross Kemp, Bonnie Langford and Sandra Bullock were born. Perhaps the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act hasn’t aged any better. Who is the Secretary of State responsible for libraries? I don’t know. Whoever you are, if you’re reading this, have a look at it and see if you can come up with any better ideas. Otherwise you’ll have no libraries left to be responsible for. Then what will you do? Oh, and if you need 50 reasons why libraries are good things, have a look at this.
• As well as libraries, a vast range of other services are likely to be cut. The announcement on 15 February from West Berkshire Council will concern these as well. To see a list of the likely targets, click here. To pick just three examples, West Berkshire Mencap claims it will need to stop nearly all of its children’s services, Hungerford CHAIN will no longer be able to accept bus passes on its Handybus and the Willink School is still fighting to retain its bus service. The consultation period will only last for three weeks and it’s vital that you make your view about this known through the council’s website.,
• In July 2010, the recently-elected Prime Minister David Cameron launched his ‘Big Society‘ initiative, describing it as his ‘great passion.’ This was intended to empower communities, encourage people to take a more active role in their local life (mainly through volunteering) and generally transfer power downwards. From mid-way through the parliament the phrase became less and less used and didn’t crop up in the 2015 election manifesto at all. It’s possible someone suggested to the PM that lectures on good citizenship from a plutocrat were not helping the government’s popularity ratings. What was clear at the time, and is even more so today, is that this was designed to provide an ideology to underpin financial austerity. Worse still, it was trying to hijack the entire vast fabric of voluntary work in this country by making it seem to be all the government’s idea. How many of the various schemes that were championed have been successful, and how many of them would have been successful anyway, I couldn’t say. One of the stated aims was to prevent an over-centralised government from turning public-sector workers into ‘weary, disillusioned puppets of government targets,’ a phrase which seems perfectly to describe the position of numerous local councillors and council officials today.
• One final point while I’m still on my soap box: if there is going to be any change to the way public services such as libraries, transport and children’s services are operated then there needs to be some period of handover and investigation. It’s not realistic to announce massive cuts in December and expect that by March the ‘Big Society’ will have swung into action and in every case have provided a socially cohesive, financially durable, locally relevant and fully compliant solution. Once gone, many of these services will be hard to revive (and will cost money to close). The next local elections will take place before the next general election and, as these cuts have officially been implemented by local councils, it’s them that will dissipate some of the public anger. The ‘Big Society’ clearly means or meant different things to different people. To me, it seems that what has been devolved downwards to local councils and communities is not the power but the responsibility. The power stays in Whitehall; for it is from there that the purse strings are controlled.
• As if in response to the last plea, it seems that a very small stay of execution may have been agreed with an extra £1.4m for the next two years being awarded to West Berkshire which might, perhaps, provide some breathing space to consider how best the many affected local services can be continued. Newbury MP Richard Benyon says he has ‘been working hard to get a change of tack from the government,’ and that West Berkshire ‘has been hit is a very unfair way.’ (Only two other councils in England are likely to lose a higher percentage of their central grant). He also pointed out that further reviews are being undertaken, one of which will be based on the number of elderly people in the county: this has grown in recent years but the government’s figures on which the calculation is based are at least ten years out of date.
• Although particularly severely affected, 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 the problems faced by 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 last few paragraphs have been unusually long but I make no apology. Our public services are facing a decimation of proportions unprecedented even during Margaret Thatcher’s government. Many of the subsequent sections will, as ever, refer to matters which might be regarded as ‘Big Society,’ although happening anyway…
• A new arts club, Happiness Arts, is opening next week in Marlborough from Thursday 18 February. As well as providing a wide range of art-related activities participants can also end up with a nationally recognised Arts Award.
• 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.
• The decision as to the future of the White Hart Inn in Hamstead Marshall has been deferred by West Berkshire Council until early March.
• Hungerford Council has officially taken over responsibility for the six defibrillators in the town.
• Congratulations to the new Village Agents in Newbury, Shaw-cum-Donnington, Beenham and Brightwalton who have recently been appointed by Volunteer Centre West Berkshire.
• It seems that men are less likely than women to contact health and help services. West Berkshire Council, along with others in the area, in encouraging men who are facing tough times to contact CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) in confidence from 5pm to midnight on 0800 58 58 58.
• On Monday 15 February at 11.00am, the Mayor of Newbury, Cllr Howard Bairstow will unveil the second of Newbury’s blue plaques at 62 Northbrook Street (the site of Scope Charity shop). This will be to mark the birth place of Francis Baily (1774-1844), four times elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society. Baily was one of those hyper-energetic multi-talented coves who crop up so often in 17th and 18th century history. His passion was astronomy but he spent most of his life working for the Stock Exchange and also publishing works such as Tables for the Purchasing and Renewing of Leases and The Doctrine of Life Annuities and Assurances (you probably have well-thumbed copies of these at home). Not content with that he then became President of the RAS for a total of eight years and developed the thermally stable alloy, known as Baily’s metal, used to define the standard yard of 39 inches. Renaissance man or what? The blue plaque seems deserved.
• A scheme to offer short-term car use to Newbury residents has recently been launched by Co-wheels car club in Partnership with West Berkshire Council. Click here for more information. As there are likely to be fewer buses in future the timing for this is opportune.
The new Shopmobility Scheme in Marlborough should soon be operational and will help people with mobility problems to get around the town centre independently. For more information, click here.
• Commiserations, or so it would seem, to Rebecca Sheinman who operates the excellent and excellently-named Carpurchino in the mornings at Hungerford station. I’m no expert in these things but it appears from the article in the Newbury Weekly News and from talking to her today that she may well be bang to rights about having to pay for a Street Trader’s Licence. The problem seems to hinge on what the original act meant by ‘street’. I hope anyone from West Berkshire Council reading this will go easy on anyone who gets up at god-knows-when to supply caffeine and flapjacks to the hungry commuters who, without these stimulants, would do a far less good job of representing Hungerford’s economy at the meetings they attend in London, probably one of the main reasons for their journeys. She’s certainly helped get my morning head in gear more than once.
• Paying 5p for a plastic bag could be a worthwhile investment: click here to see how Tescos can use the money so raised to pay for local community grants
• The Newbury Twin Town Association has launched a photographic project on the theme of ‘Where I Live’.
• A reminder about two driving courses aimed at young people: West Berkshire Council’s Driving Experience Day for young drivers at the Madejski Stadium on Wednesday 17 February (see www.drivestart.co.uk/book for more information); and, 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
• Still with roads, there are plans to turn the hard shoulder of the M4 into a fourth lane between junctions three and 12. This will involve converting it to a ‘smart’ motorway which, if the M25 is anything to go by, means that the speed limit changes about ever three miles. Removing the hard shoulder seems to me utterly insane. If they aren’t useful then why do they exist? I was involved in a car accident on the A34 last year that was entirely caused by people driving at motorway speeds on a road with no hard shoulder. As Reading Borough Council has pointed out, amongst other objections and concerns, accidents on roads with no hard shoulders involve disproportionately more disruption. For more information, visit the Planning Inspectorate’s page here. One result might be that a use is finally found for those absurd dot-matrix signs on the side of and looming over the M4, and other motorways, every mile or so. I have never once seen them convey any information that was accurate, relevant or could not have been as effectively shown with a simple hazard light (which are already in place, I think). What’s the point, when driving on the M4 in April, of being told that there will be roadworks between junctions 8 and 10 of the M1 in May? Am I supposed to pull over onto the hard shoulder and note this information down? Sometimes the signs helpfully tell you how far away a particular town is, the implication being that the town moves around and this is just how far away it happens to be that day. More than once there’s been massive congestion after a junction but no warning of this on the signs before it. At other times there are dire warning of traffic queues which turn out not to exist. Once I saw one which just said ‘Think’. Driving on motorways is unsettling enough without the signs describing events in a parallel universe. The best use I can think for them is telling jokes. ‘Knock, knock,’ the first one might say. ‘Who’s there?’ the next one would ask a mile later. Or limericks – they’d fit, one line at a time. (For a piece of fiction – or is it? – concerning parallel universes and the M4, click here…)
• The next few months will be crucial to the future of Lydiard Park Swindon Link magazine has organised a public meeting at 7pm on Monday 15 February at Arclite House SN5 5YN. Places are limited: please book in advance. For more information, click here.
• West Berkshire’s Library Fest gets going from Saturday 6 February 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.
• More from Nick Ball’s Quiet Desperation can be found here. His alter ego John Middleton has now added pomposity to his other inept traits.
• A reminder to residents of Great Shefford that you are invited to a meeting at 7.30 on Thursday 25 February at the Village Hall at which Gigaclear will be able to answer any questions about the proposed ultrafast pure fibre broadband service. Please click here to register. There will also be a quiz night at the Village Hall from 8pm on Friday 12 February – call Theresa Penny on 07788 657 832 for more details.
• 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 call01635 845 229 for more information and to book your place.
• To celebrate forthcoming Valentine’s Day, here’s a heart-themed quiz for you set by Julian and Dorothea Rota of Bertram Rota Booksellers in Kintbury – there’s a £25 Bertram Rota voucher for the winner.
• Bingo evenings will be taking place in Thatcham on Mondays and Fridays at the Laburnum Centre in Stirling Way from 7.30pm, organised by Friends of Age UK and Age Concern Thatcham.
• Several good causes have received valuable financial support recently, including: 40-odd local children who have been victims of domestic abuse (thanks to West Berkshire Council’s Christmas Tree Giving appeal); Heartstart Thatcham (thanks to the recent event at Thatcham Parish Hall); Cancer Research and Moreley Lunches (thanks to the recent event at the Corn Exchange in Hungerford) Helen & Douglas House (thanks to the coffee morning at West Berkshire Council).
• A letter in Newbury Weekly News this week with a message worth repeating from the NewburyToday Facebook page – clean up after you dog on Snelsmore Common (and everywhere else).
• I used to have a train set but I don’t any more (my dad sold it without telling me). If you have or don’t but would like to, visit the Newbury Model Railway Show from 10am to 4.30pm on Saturday 13 February at St Bartholomew’s School.
• Thames Valley Police has launched a campaign to recruit more Special Constables – click here for more information.
• If any of you own a leopard (and there are some odd pets out there), this is why you shouldn’t let your child take it to school as part of a show and tell. Apparently several wild large cats are living in the thickets and hedgerows around here, one of which has been dubbed ‘the Beast of Berkshire.’ Thank goodness they don’t seem to behave like this one. The big-cat problem is not restricted to rural areas: in 2014, police in East London received several reports of ‘a small tiger being forced into a car.’ There must be something in the Highway Code about not doing this.
• And here we are once again at the song of the week. I mentioned July 1964 earlier. As well as the other people I referred to, Jim Corr, of The Corrs, was born in that month. The Corrs did a cover of a Phil Lynott song called Old Town which was OK, but his original version is better: so here it is. Released on his first solo album in 1982, it’s a lot less rocked-up than his Thin Lizzy output. It’s a good piece of slightly mawkish pop, with a strong, simple and terse hook and a couple of lovely instrumental breaks. If you’ve ever been ditched by someone and felt a bit rough about it, give it a listen.
Local News February
Local News Feb