Local News Mar 9-16

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Including Council Tax rises, business rates now and in the future, county boundaries, good causes celebrated, traffic and fire-service news, roadworks, post-box fixers needed, councillors needed, police updates for March, litter, tennis returns to Newbury, National Apprenticeship Week, progress at Hungerford Library, Roman Swindon, mayors in action, decision-making in the 1080s, a strange tale from Canada, CATS, cats and cucumbers, sails on the windmill and a little bit of Little Feat.

If you would like to add your thoughts to anything in this post, please use the ‘Comments’ box at the foot of the page. Once moderated, your comment will be visible to other users.

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.

Click on the following links for details of planned roadworks in West Berkshire, the Wantage area, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Swindon. Click here for news of lane closures on the A339 roadworks in Newbury over the next nine weeks or so. Roadworks at the Greenbridge Roundabout in Swindon have reached their ‘final stages’. Please click here for details of long-term roadworks that will be affecting the M4 between J12 and J13 from mid-February.

Click on the following links for neighbourhood police updates in West Berkshire (March’s updates  here for Hungerford and Lambourn; here for Newbury Town Centre; here for Newbury Outer; here for Thatcham and area; here for Bucklebury & Downlands) & North Hampshire  and police advice for South Oxfordshire & Wiltshire (Marlborough‘s page here).

A number of the sections in Local News – and, indeed, other articles in Penny Post – encourage you to contact your district, town or parish council. Links are usually provided in these cases but for general reference here are some you might find useful. 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.

As expected, West Berkshire Council recently voted through a 4.99% increase in Council Tax for the forthcoming year. Acting Leader Graham Jones described the situation as a ‘perfect storm’ – a phrase beloved of politicians, conveying as it does a sense of the problem  beyond the power of humans to influence, mitigate or control – with falling revenues and rising demand for services (particularly social care).

This opens up a host of other issues, including what we expect from social care and how this should be funded; also whether West Berkshire or other councils should or could have made more provision for the rainy day which has been coming ever since the 2008 financial crisis: indeed, in 2015, the then Minister for Health, Norman Lamb, in a meeting with Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Judith Bunting, refused to allocate more money to West Berkshire’s social-care costs on the grounds that funds had already been provided but that the money had been spent elsewhere. On reading the report of the debate on West Berkshire’s recent budget debate on page 3 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News, I’m struck with how distressed the Conservative councillors were not only with the necessity of the cuts but also with the damage the consequent council-tax rise has done to their party’s reputation for financial prudence. There was no mention that I could see of the fact that the decision to cut funding to councils several years before a new system (based on business rates) was put in place was the work of a Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne. It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that this timing lapse was politically motivated.

Not that the proposed new funding system is going to solve all the problems. Newbury MP Richard Benyon, speaking to the Newbury Weekly News, said that this disconnect between revenue and demand is ‘a temporary hiatus’ until the council can retain all its business rates, perhaps from 2020. I think this is a very dangerous assumption. For one thing, the details of the plan are still uncertain. For another, the amount of money any council can raise in this way will obviously depend on how many businesses are in the area: West Berkshire has lost several in recent years, including Bayer. To make matters worse, there are already disputes about employers which are based in one area but for whatever reason are paying their business rates to another, rather like the slightly squalid arrangements by which large companies officially locate in countries (such as Ireland) which offer lower corporation tax even though their main business is elsewhere. It’s been argued that councils should be attracting businesses: that’s true, but they have other responsibilities as well. The more a council’s revenue derives from the presence of businesses in its area the greater the risk of questionable deals in order to keep these businesses sweet. Moreover, it’s fanciful to suggest that the government will give councils more money without also asking them to take over more responsibilities. It also seems – and here West Berkshire will be better off than many areas – that a system that funds councils not according to its needs but according to how many businesses it can attract is fatally flawed: if there is a connection between these two things it’s probably an inverse one. I don’t like political conspiracy theories but both the the nature of the new funding and the timing of its introduction look very much like political rather than human or even financial decisions.

Another point Richard Benyon makes in the NWN article – referring to how six authorities in the area are seeking to co-operate to cope with the funding crisis – is that ‘our local authority is too small for the services it should be providing.’ He may well be right; but if so, the general problem of size is not restricted to West Berkshire. There are 326 districts in England (all the non-metropolitan districts, London boroughs, unitary authorities and metropolitan boroughs). England has about 53 million people, which makes about 162,500 people per district on average. West Berkshire’s has 156,000 inhabitants, so by this measure is about the right size. However, nearly two thirds of the councils – over 200 – have smaller populations. If Richard Benyon is right, therefore, there’s something deeply wrong with the entire structure of local authorities. One problem with reforming them is our national obsession with having administrative boundaries closely based on, and preferably exactly following, the ancient frontiers of the traditional counties. As most of these pre-date the Normal Conquest, they’re fairly meaningless demographic divisions: one might as well raise present-day taxation based on the landholding in the Domesday Book. If the size and boundaries of local government needs reform it follows that its funding does too. The whole system perhaps needs tearing up and re-thinking. I don’t see that happening. You can click here to see what steps in this direction are being proposed by the councils in Oxfordshire.

I just want to say one thing about the Domesday Book and then I’ll move on to more immediate matters (so skip this paragraph if you wish). Nowadays, a previously unattempted project like this would take at least a couple of years merely to be agreed by various NGAs and focus groups and perhaps another six months to get through Parliament. There would then be a massive IT project launched to process all the information that would take a several years to commission before being found defective. Meanwhile, in the face of numerous objections the project would be gradually getting watered down until it became meaningless. Finally, following a change of government, the whole thing would be cancelled. (The fiasco of the identity cards has some of these features.) The Domesday Book involved all the usual difficulties of eleventh-century travel and communication as well as the Herculean task of itemising every major asset and landholding detail in communities utterly unfamiliar to the officials, all of which would have been described in Anglo-Saxon but rendered in Latin. Despite all this, the whole project (apart from a few counties) was conceived, executed and written up in a mere 16 months. I’m not saying let’s have another ruler like William the Conqueror but, my word, the man did get things done. If I had to be stuck in a desperate situation with three other people on whom I’d have to rely to get matters sorted, I’d pick him, one of those Victorian engineers with a big hat and a bigger beard and pretty much any past or current Australian test cricket captain.

Going back to business rates for a moment, the new revaluation is about to take force and some businesses – including the Wellington Arms in Baughurst – a facing increases that they are struggling to understand.

Council Tax is also rising in other council areas: Wiltshire’s by 4.99%; Vale of White Horse’s by 4.3%; and Swindon’s by an average of 4.99% (read more here).

Please click here for news of revised plans which have recently been submitted for the 119 homes (now 100 homes) in Hungerford. Although the consultation for this ends soon (15 March) a decision is likely to be deferred until after the formal approval by the Secretary of State for West Berkshire’s Housing Site Allocations Development Plan Document (HSA DPD) and Policies Map which might not be in place for another couple of months.

Still in Hungerford, discussions are progressing well with the positive and imaginative plan – which has been recognised as such by West Berkshire Council – for operating  Hungerford Library as a CIC or similar. Congratulations to Martin Crane, Helen Simpson, Keith Knight and anyone else who was responsible for this idea which seems to have, in modern parlance, both traction and legs.

At a recent meeting of Hungerford Town Council, Sergeant Holly Nicholls reported on the progress made by Thames Valley Police in improving its customer services and the increased use of civilian inspectors (usually retired staff with experience). The Police Station is up for sale and services will soon be based at the Fire Station with officers working at Newbury at the start of the day and then coming to Hungerford. Please click here to visit the Thames Valley Police neighbourhood page for Hungerford: for information on other parts of West Berkshire and surrounding areas please see the top of this post.

There will be an open meeting of Hungerford Town Council on 23 March – click here for the agenda. Members of the public are welcome to attend.

The Case of the Damaged Post Box is no nearer a solution (see the ‘Street Furniture’ section of the Hungerford Town Council March update for more): the repair costs are confirmed as being £2,000; the Council is unanimous in wanting it replaced but recognises that this is a huge sum to pay; the police have no record of any incident so making it impossible to make an insurance claim. Anyone with suitable skills and equipment to fix this should contact Hungerford Town Council.

A reminder also about the annual litter pick in Hungerford on Sunday 2 April (meet at the Town Hall steps at 10am).

Meanwhile, Wantage mayor Steve Trinder has promised to address the habitual problem of litter in the town centre.

And a similar plea here, this time from a resident of Lambourn.

And back to mayors, a report here from Marlborough‘s chain-wearer about a recent event concerning the town’s Fairtrade status.

Still in Wantage, the issue of the closure of the Wantage Community Hospital isn’t going away: campaigners have recently accused the local NHS Trust of withholding information about the decision.

Click here for the March update from Wantage Town Council.

If you fancy becoming a town councillor in Marlborough, the Town Council there is launching a ‘recruitment drive’ – click here for more.

It’s often said that cats are one of the most searched-for topics on the web. Possibly CATS – Community Asset Transfers – are less popular though there are certainly more of them about. This is the act of one body (often a district council) transferring an asset (such as a youth club) to another body (such as a town council) which will then be responsible for it. Something of this nature may be happening with the Hungerford Library (see above); it is also the plan for saving the Youth Club in Marlborough. Both cats and CATS are beguiling at first glance but often come with hidden drawbacks (such as a big repair bill or the tendency to sharpen their claws on furniture).

Another example of a CAT in action can be found here, with news that the Lydiard Park Heritage Trust has been chosen as the preferred bidder to take over the running of Lydiard Park.

What’s that? You want a video of an actual cat? OK – here’s one, proving that many cats (but not our cats) are scared out of their wits by, of all things, cucumbers.

If you thought that Swindon didn’t have a rich Roman past, think again…

The tennis courts in Newbury’s Victoria Park reopened on 6 March following a major refurbishment costing over £100,000, all funded by the proceeds of successful legal action resulting from the Parkway development and a grant from the Lawn Tennis Association. There’s also a new booking system which can be accessed here.

Youth Groups in Thatcham have benefitted by nearly £6,500 as a result of grants awarded by the Town Council.

We’re just coming to the end of National Apprenticeship Week, about which you can read more here. The idea remains just as valid and rewarding for the other 51 weeks, of course.

There’s still time (just) to sign up for West Berkshire’s Energy Switch scheme.

The sails will be returning to Wilton Windmill on 15 March – click here for more.

Monday 13 March is Commonwealth Day and various councils will be conducting short ceremonies and raising the Commonwealth flag. These include Newbury and Hungerford.

And in a spirit of Commonwealth solidarity, a story here about a town in Canada which developed an unexpected problem with its water supply.

The River Kennet in this part of the area is (I think) regarded as being in quite a good state: this is not the case further downstream in Reading, however.

The Newbury Corn Exchange‘s 101 Arts Outdoor Creation Area has received a £750,000 grant from the Arts Council.

A number of good causes have received valuable support recently, including: Mencap (thanks last week’s event at Newbury Racecourse); the Rosemary Appeal (thanks to the recent pancake race in Newbury organised by Soroptimist International – click here for a video of this Penny made); numerouns good causes (thanks to Greenham Common Trust); various local charities (thanks to the opera evening organised by Hungerford Rotary Club); Little princess Trust (thanks to Cameron Kemp of Burghclere); Prospect Hospice (thanks to the DW Fitness Gym at the Orbital Centre in Swindon)

And so we arrive once again at the Song of the Week. I mentioned BBC Radio 6 Music last week: I’ve heard a lot of good stuff on it recently but, annoyingly, much of it in short car journeys when I’ve missed what the band was; so I can’t recommend anything from them. Instead, I noticed that this weekend sees the birthday of Bill Payne, sometime keyboard player with the wonderful Little Feat, a group that mixed up country, blues, pop, funk and soul in a way that was utterly their own. The band’s main man Lowell George had the voice of a gruff angel and a slide guitar sound that could cut a donkey in half. My favourite album of theirs is The Last Record Album from ’75: and one of my favourite tracks is All That You Dream, co-written by Payne and guitarist Paul Barrère. As I always say, or always mean to say, enjoy.

And as usual, the Quiz Question of the Week brings this post to a brain-teasing conclusion. This week’s is: What do Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Somerset have in common? (It may help if I add that only 15 other counties are involved in this comparison). Last week’s was from a quiz held at The Crown in Kingsclere (thanks to Les for the question) which raised over £450 for the Lewis Moody Foundation: In what year was the first patient treated by the National Health Service? The answer is 1948 (click here to read more).

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Brian Quinn

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