Local News 20-27 August 2020

Our round-up of local news across the area (and a bit beyond) this week including Hungerford’s letter, Kintbury’s helicopters, Newbury’s environment, East Garston’s dredging, Lambourn’s junction, Hampstead Norreys’ salt, Marlborough’s names, Wantage’s meeting, Grove’s station, Wickham’s vineyard, Hermitage’s NDP, Cold Ash’s clouds, Thatcham’s algae, Letcombe Regis’ Mirandas, Swindon’s spike, Cricklade’s beasts, Manton’s visit, Aldbourne’s water feature, Stratfield Mortimer’s deferral, Burghfield’s cancellation, Aldermaston’s repairs, A-levels, Apple’s value, care-home stats, PHE, PPE, baying for blood, fancy rats, bacon (the maple kind), the Wiltshire border, a 35-year wait, a hone box, a missed text from HQ, a nude laptop chase, an axeman and a jazz butcher. 

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.

Police, transport and council contacts

Information on police, transport (including roadworks) and district councils can now be found on a separate page here.

Links to the websites for town and parish councils can still be found in the appropriate sections below.

Across the area (and further afield)

• A lot has been written and said about the exam ‘results’ in the last week, much of it – including from the Education Secretary – critical of Ofqual. I’ve spoken at length to a professor at one of our leading universities who’s much involved in grappling with the current situation and its long-term consequences and have the following thoughts to lay before you.

The first question is whether the exams should have been cancelled at all. As this article in The Guardian points out, all the main countries in Europe took different measures. In France and the UK they were cancelled, as they were The Netherlands but here the pupils were allowed to re-sit school tests; in Italy they were oral only; in Spain they were slimmed down; and in Germany they went ahead more or less as normal. Hindsight is an easy thing so I don’t want to rake up whether any of these decisions were right or wrong. The point is that any government which cancelled exams had a serious problem on its hands: to replace them, some kind of grading system had to be constructed from scratch and on the hoof in a few months.

The over-arching point is that any grading system is artificial, meaningless, arbitrary: other words exist. The goal was thus to find the least bad system. In the current emergency, ‘least bad’ might be translated as ‘simplest’. The simplest solution is clearly relying on the grades predicted by the schools, perhaps with some weighting to adjust for schools (or even head teachers if they had recently moved schools) which had over the previous three or five years over- or under-predicted overall or in some subjects. That is what many people, including me, thought was happening, more or less. So, I suspect, did the teachers, who were asked to prepare two lists: one of their students’ expected grades and the other with a rank order of students (ie from one to 30 in a class of 30). Anyone reading Ofqual’s ‘interim report (August 2020) would have been encouraged to see, on the first page of the Executive Summary, the following: ‘it was apparent that the best judges of the relative ability of students in a school or college were the teachers who had been preparing these students for their exams.’ However, as the document continues for another 315 pages, it’s easy to see that this was not in fact what was done.

That was clearly Ofqual’s initial hope: but, a few paragraphs later, they explain that to have relied on predicted grades only would have led to massive grade inflation and penalised schools that had been more realistic in their assessments. The body thus embarked on the Herculean and, as events were to prove, impossible task of finding a more equitable solution.

I have no training in stats, maths or education policy and you’d need to be an expert in all three of these to understand what exactly this solution was. The summary and interpretation provided by my academic friend was that, whether due to government pressure or not, Ofqual was looking for a ‘fairer’ and more nuanced approach that was as accurate as possible given the available data.

The snag with this is that you then have to take more and more – and so potentially every – possible factor into account. This led to the body assessing, and thoroughly testing, several different systems, each highly technical and each involving devising fair estimates where the data was incomplete (for instance for new schools, A-level subjects that the the pupil hadn’t studied at GCSE and very small class sizes). The system eventually selected appears to have been to look at the past performance of the school and thus establish how many grades of each kind it was to receive in each subject. These were then applied according to the teachers’ rank orders, the whole process then being filtered and tweaked using a wide range of other criteria. Some of these plugged gaps in the data: some may have added new ones.

One of the big problems of a straight rank order is that, like the Tube map, it’s very good at showing the order of the stations but hopeless at showing the respective distance between them. The presence of a group of exceptional, or badly under-performing, students would have been invisible both to anyone studying the rank orders or the school’s previous performance. Also, many teachers might, on a different day, have ranked the pupils slightly differently whereas they probably would not have changed the predicted grades. The latter were, however, not used in the original model (though they are now). 

The impression I get is that Ofqual executed its remit with professionalism and chose the least bad approach. It was not their responsibility to present this, nor to deal with the political backlash that any new system would have produced. There may have been pressures from the government to come up with something that would not rely only on the  judgement of teachers. As my academic friend said, ‘they were trying to make the meaningless slightly more meaningful but they couldn’t explain what they were doing.’

The ‘they’ here refers to the government itself, rather than Ofqual (which, as a statutory regulator, is in many ways part of it). If there was an explanation of the final process, the reasons for adopting it and the opportunity for people to comment, I never saw it. Yes, it’s hard to distill something this complicated, but that’s what governments have to do. God knows, they have enough ‘communications experts’ on the payroll. In any case, as Einstein observed, you never really understand something until you can explain it to your grandparents. If the idea went wrong, as it has, the government could then have said, ‘well we did tell you what we were doing’. As it is, we have the familiar and unedifying spectacle of ministers blaming an agency (as the DfH is doing with Public Health England – see below) when the real problems were their failing to recognise that any replacement grading would be essentially meaningless, failing to anticipate the likely political backlash and failing to provide adequate communication. 

There’s also the question of appeals. Although the Ofqual report only mentions the word once, the Secretary of State spoke on 18 August of ‘the most robust and extensive appeals process that has ever been put in place.’ This rather suggests that trouble was anticipated. Moreover, as the nuanced Ofqual system had already taken almost factor into account and as there were no papers to re-mark, it’s hard to imagine on what any appeal could have been based. The only informed and consistent, albeit slightly subjective, data that hadn’t been mashed into it was the teachers’ predicted grades, so perhaps they would have been pulled out of the filing cabinet. If these were going to be used for this, then they might as well have been for everything, so saving a lot of fuss, stress and expense. This is, of course, where we’ve now ended up.

As my friend points out, the longer-term consequences are more serious still, though more insidious. The exams are less important than the revision process that precedes them; and the lack of this, particularly for scientific subjects, risks students arriving at university with big gaps in their knowledge (this is perhaps less likely in private schools were pupils were in general kept working during lockdown). In order to be fair and to maintain their student numbers (and thus their revenue), many unis might choose to drop their standards for the first-year exams. If this continues until finals, might this result in a cohort which is slightly but crucially under-qualified? Universities, all of which are facing a savage reduction of revenue as a result of the fall in overseas students, are already grappling with the myriad problems of trying to teach in a wholly new way due to Covid-19. With the threat of next year’s work being interrupted and the inevitable distancing restrictions that will apply from day one, the whole university experience is likely to be diminished for the students.  For all these reasons, in ten years time, when you’re about to go under the surgeon’s knife or have a structural engineer examine your house subsidence, a fair question might be, ‘before you touch anything else, did you by any chance take your A-levels in 2020?’

• And, of course, we have the other political parties baying for blood. The Lib Dems’ Oxford West MP Layla Moran called for the Minister Gavin Williamson to be sacked; as if that would change anything, as he would merely be replaced by someone else who would be receiving the same instructions from the same source. Labour has gone a step further, claiming that the algorithm for the grading system was ‘unlawful‘ as it breaches anti-discrimination laws.

• One of the institutional casualties of the pandemic (in addition to the reputation of Ofqual, see above) is Public Health England (PHE), which Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on 18 August was to be disbanded to replaced with the National Institute for Health Protection. PHE’s main remit had been ‘to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing and reduce health inequalities.’ It was established in 2013 to replace the Health Protection Agency (founded in 2004). The average lifespan of such bodies is thus eight years. I’m in no way qualified to judge how well PHE has performed (a) with its original role in normal circumstances and (b) during the pandemic, though in the latter case it’s certainly had some criticism, including from the government itself with regard to, amongst other things, the way Covid-19 mortality statistics were reported. It would be very easy to argue that bodies such as PHE and Ofqual are established to give the government a kind of buffer against criticism, the relationship between them being close when HMG needs something done but far more distant when problems arise: so that’s what I’m going to suggest. Another question is whether setting up a new national health institution in the middle of a pandemic is a good idea. Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive of the Health Foundation, appears to think not: quoted in Pulse, she said that ‘re-organising the nation’s public health agency in the middle of a pandemic is highly risky, and its justification, or the nature of the change, haven’t been fully set out by the Department of Health and Social Care.’ The reform may produce benefits: The Nursing Times quotes the Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, as saying that the creation of a new organisation would provide a ‘much-needed opportunity to devolve more leadership, more control and more resource’ at local levels. Many might feel that this is what, without any eye-catching top-level reform, should logically be the case.

As to whether PHE is a scapegoat or a fair target for Covid criticism, I spoke to a friend of mine who’s a London GP. He was unwilling to offer an opinion on its pandemic performance but did point out that over the last decade or so the effective and inclusive way by which health professionals designed, reviewed and implemented local public-health initiatives had fallen into disrepair. When I suggested that the track-and-trace should have been handled locally by the ‘effective’ local teams, he questioned my use of ‘effective’ as describing them now. This decline could have been avoided. An analogy – mine, not his – is of a railway system that has long suffered from under-investment and is then suddenly asked to run high-speed trains. (In fact, the local organisations seem to have responding pretty well, introducing hyper-local measures in Liverpool and what appears to be an effective response to outbreaks in Swindon.) At this point, my GP friend said he had to go as his main focus was on planning how his surgery was going to be able to provide its usual autumn flu clinics given the likely increased demand and the considerably longer time it would take to deal with each patient due to the need for social distancing and the use of PPE. He estimated this would take at least five times as long as usual and would incur significant extra costs for his practice.

• A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the country is largely ruled by people who studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. Baroness Dido Harding, who will lead the National Institute for Health Protection, is yet another one.

• If, as I did last week, you see a headline reading ‘Cheeky boar leaves nudist grunting in laptop chase’, you’d have to read it, wouldn’t you? Well, I did: and now you can too.

• It was recently announced that Apple is the first company in the world to be valued at over $2tn. This is a sum so vast that I can’t contemplate it. I have used Apple (or Mac) computers all my working life and, when confronted by a PC, go into a kind of techno-panic, so I think it’s fair to say that I’m on team Mac on this one. However, £2tn is a lot of money. If it were a country, Appleland would be the ninth richest in the world, behind only the US, China, Japan, Germany, India, the UK, France and Brazil. I then wondered then how much tax it had paid in the UK. In 2018-19, The Times reported that this was just £3.8m. Any large sum of money inevitably makes one think of HS2. According to this estimate from The Guardian, each mile of track will cost £307m. This means that Apple’s 2018-19 tax contribution would, if spent on nothing else, build about 10m of the track. Every little helps, I guess…

• The government’s white paper on planning has been published and you can see it here. I made a number of comments on this last week which you can see here if you wish. Remember that the document is currently out for consultation so your response will be influential. 

• For those who want to see a seemingly impressive array of Covid stats, including comparisons across European countries, this report from the Office of National Statistics (published on 17 July 2020) would be a good place to start. 

• The government’s Small Business Grants Fund, the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grants Fund and the Discretionary Grants Fund will end on 28 August 2020. More information here.

• Residents of West Berkshire are being urged to look out for their voter registration details which should arrive soon.

• Several announcements from West Berkshire Council concerning its financial performance, its environment strategy and its Covid-19 recovery strategy.

Click here for advice from the government to help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon Councils have set up their own web pages relating to the outbreak. Click here as follows for the high-level links for West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon.

• West Berkshire Council set up a Community Support HubClick here to visit the website. or call 01635 503 579 to speak to the the Building Communities Together team. The Hub has also set up two FAQ pages, for residents and for businesses. You can also click here to sign up to receive the Hub’s e-bulletins and click here to see the weekly updates. 

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. As with the volunteers’ post above, if you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animal of the week has got to be the dog teased by its owner – see the Comedy Sketch of the Week in the last section below.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News this week includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, two letters about teachers (one of which I think is touch mean-spirited and contains some questionable generalisations), Christmas, cyclists, brambles and pet rats.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (thanks to the raffle at Highclere Castle); Wiltshire Air Ambulance (thanks to the wing-walking Beverley Jenkins); West Berkshire Foodbank (thanks to Dream Doors); Aldbourne Primary School (thanks to Thea Liker and Max Bartholomew).

Hungerford & district

• Latest news from Hungerford Town Council, Kintbury Parish Council, Shalbourne Parish Council and Inkpen Parish Council

• This month saw the publication of the August 2020 Penny Post Hungerford, the best and most comprehensive round-up of what’s been going on or is about to happen in the town. You can click here to read it

• There’s a long letter in this week’s NWN from two Eddington residents which makes several points about the recent Riverbend application. This matter has been covered in some detail in previous editions of this post. The general point, that the current system has its problems, is fair enough but I think they’re being a little harsh on West Berkshire Council. In this case (of a development being built that varied in important details from the application) WBC moved about as quickly as the processes permitted and most of the errors were agreed to be remedied. It’s true that WBC could have insisted that the building be demolished but that would have resulted in an appeal; which (as the writers pointed out) was what happened in the same area five years ago which resulted in HM Planning Inspectorate finding against WBC and permitting a clearly incorrect building to remain. They also mention several times about the excessive power which developers have in the planning process. This is certainly true but, unless WBC starts building its own homes, there’s not much it (and certainly not the officers, who decide the vast majority of applications) can do about this. The current system permits developers a good deal of wriggle room between approval and construction and one can hardly blame them if they take advantage of it. The fact that funding cuts have reduced the number of enforcement officers here and elsewhere has not helped redress the balance.

• Hungerford currently has a vacancy for up to four Town Councillorssee here for more information. The posts will be filled by co-option.

• Hungerford’s Mayor Helen Simpson has expressed her gratitude to the members of the Smarten Up Hungerford team who did such an excellent job of tidying up the War Memorial Garden in Bulpit Lane recently. “Thanks so much on behalf of the Town Council, and indeed there whole town, for your efforts.’ For more information about Smarten Up Hungerford, including how you can volunteer to help it work, see this separate post.

Book now here for a not-to-be-missed event on 16 September when one of the country’s best TV journalists (Jon Snow) will be talking to one of the country’s best thriller writers (Robert Harris) – local residents both – in an event organised by the Hungerford Bookshop.

• Congratulations to Winding Wood Vineyard, between Wickham and Kintbury, which has recently been awarded a gold medal in the WineGB Award 2020 for its 2016 vintage. This will be particularly satisfying for this relatively new vineyard as they lost most of their 2020 crop in a badly-timed frost in the late spring. More information here.

• The most recent meeting of Kintbury Parish Council took place on 6 August and you can access the minutes here. Matters discussed included the new defibrillators, a planned consultation into the possibility of spending CIL receipts on outdoor gym equipment, the consideration of several planning applications, confirmation that the PC would continue its £2,500 contribution to the Library Service and the possibility of extending the station car park. There was also reference made to a complaint about ‘noisy helicopters at night’ – not a usual PC issue – which would be raised with the local MP and perhaps the relevant MoD official.

• Another issue discussed was in response to a question from WBC (sent to all PCs) as to whether parish councillors should be paid allowances. The meeting agreeing that it was not in favour of this. (This is probably sensible. If every parish councillor in the land were paid even the minimum wage for the work they did the already parlous local-government finances would collapse; while to receive any payment, however small, would risk unleashing the cry of ‘they’re only in it for the money.)

• The most recent meeting of Shalbourne Parish Council took place on 16 July and you can get the minutes here (note that they will not appear instantly but will be downloaded). 

• Click here for the August edition of the Inkpen and Coombe Bulletin. If you want to subscribe or contribute, contact gloriakeene@hotmail.com.

Lambourn Valley

Latest news from Lambourn Parish CouncilEast Garston Parish CouncilWelford Parish Council and Great Shefford Parish Council.

• If you drive through Lambourn and Upper Lambourn on the B4000 the landscape opens up and you’ll be passing though a beautiful, rolling landscape dappled with sheep and sarsen stones. This is the far west of West Berkshire. Just before you reach the border with Wiltshire – and the bi-lingual signs instructing you to be ready to show your passport and declare any exotic animals – you will pass some houses on the left and, above those, a farm. This is Fognam Farm, the subject of planning application 20/01264/FULMAJ to provide ‘a rest, rehabilitation and recuperation facility for racehorses, including removal of existing building, erection of new three bedroom managers house, garage store building with office’ and other things besides. You can view the application here (then enter the ref number quoted above). There have already been more than the 10 objections required to mean that the matter will be called in and decided by committee. 

• A proposed development in Lynch Lane is also exciting local interest. The allocated site is for 60 homes but, following a pre-application meeting with West Berkshire Council, the developer is now seeking at least 100. 

• It seems that might soon be an announcement that a longer-term location will be found for the Lambourn Junction.

• Although the groundwater is receding, the underlying problem of the leaking sewage pipes in the Lambourn area (and elsewhere) is not. Lambourn’s District Councillor Howard Woollaston met representatives of Thames Water on 20 August 2020 in a meeting he described as ‘productive and wide-ranging.’ More information to follow as it becomes available.

• This week’s NWN returns to a familiar, 21-month-old riff which we’ve mentioned numerous times, the question of the illegal dredging in the River Lambourn in East Garston. As the article states, the Environment Agency has been approached for a comment, by us and the NWN, but has merely replied that the investigation is complete and that the Agency was ‘considering all possible enforcement options.’ As the company responsible for the dredging has paid for the cost of the remedial work (a five-figure sum), one possible ‘enforcement option’ is to do nothing. I understand that the company is no longer operating in the UK, or at all, and the EA may have decided that pursuing the matter is too uncertain and expensive. As nothing more specific has been mentioned I think I’m free to suggest my own theories. If the EA is serious about protecting such waterways – and its powers of deference –  it might consider issuing a statement along the following lines: ‘if you’re planning to illegally dredge about 100m of SSSI-protected river anywhere, just bear in mind that this will lead to a whole heap of trouble and a bill for about fifty grand.’

• Lambourn’s last remaining phone box is due to be withdrawn from service and there’s a consultation on this which runs until 21 October: you can read more here. The article on Lambourn.org mentions that it’s used about 18 times a month. This may not seem like much but apparently this makes it one of the best-used phone boxes in the district. The concern is, as the article states, that it might be a real lifeline for someone. If you do use it, or know someone who does, please make sure that any views are known.

• I interviewed East Garston Parish Council’s Chairman David Ruse for 4 LEGS Radio recently: click on the link to hear it.

• Our August Valley of the Racehorse newsletter was published earlier this month, providing the best summary of life in the upper Lambourn Valley. Click here to read it if you didn’t get it. 

Click here for the latest news from Lambourn Surgery

4 Legs Community Radio Station will on continue broadcasting during the CV crisis – click here for more

Newbury & district

Latest news from Newbury Town Council, Chieveley Parish Council and Hamstead Marshall Parish Council.

• Probably the most eye-catching photo in they week’s NWN is to be found on p3 and shows Great Shefford resident Bob Morris in the Newbury Retail Park with a large axe in his hands. This was taken either just before or just after he broke the window of a VW in the car park in which was, on this particularly hot day, a dog, which was not enjoying being looked in the car. The video of the event went viral worldwide, as videos of anything that involve someone breaking something or cute animals, or both, tend to do.

• There’s a communication in the paper’s opinion section – sorry, I mean its letters page – headlined ‘Newbury town centre is a hostile environment.’ I was expecting the letter to be about knife crimes, marauding gangs of mutant zombies and automatic fire ringing out from darkened buildings. Instead, it’s mainly about parking, including ‘plagues (not just one plague) of traffic wardens’, the lack of toilets and the fact that there are empty shops. ‘What,’ the writer asks, using a familiar phrase, ‘has the council done to the place?’ He doesn’t say which council he’s referring to: perhaps I can help here.

The parking issue needs to be taken up with West Berkshire. Is he proposing that there be no policing of the traffic regulations? The letter might also be a veiled reference to the recent pedestrianisation: if so, both WBC and the Town Council were involved in this. The change seems to have much to recommend it – many other places are doing similar things – and will be reviewed in a month or so. There’s at least one public loo, at the Wharf, and doubtless others. As for the empty shops, there are certainly a few of those at present, in Newbury and everywhere else. Both councils, particularly WBC which sets the business rates, have ways of trying to make a town attractive for retailers and their customers, but this is a tough time. Neither of the councils can determine exactly what business moves in to a particular retail unit, nor how much rent it will have to pay (unless it is the landlord), nor if it will succeed. Nor can they control Covid-19. Finally, the writer compares the Market Square to ‘the Russian Steppes on a wintry afternoon.’ I’ve never been to Russia but I’ve seen photos and the on my most recent visit to the Market Square (for the busy Saturday market a few weeks ago) it didn’t look anything like that. In any case, last time I checked, neither council is able to control the weather. 

I asked NTC Leader Marin Colston what he had to say on these points. ‘The Newbury Charter Market was one of the few that kept going throughout lockdown,’ he told Penny Post, and has proved very popular with both residents and stall-holders. We have gained several new regular traders and the market square is now pretty much full on Thursdays and Saturdays which we’re delighted about. Newbury Town Council also kept open the public toilets at the Wharf and there are others in the Kennet Centre and in Park Way. Like everyone else we are very concerned about the number of businesses closing both before and as a result of Covid,and have set up a new Town Centre Working Group to look at the challenges and help find solutions. We will be using the shopper survey we conducted on 18 August as one of our initial inputs, including on pedestrianisation. The results will be published in the coming weeks.’

• Speaking of empty retail units, I spoke last week to a representative of the new owners of the Kennet Centre which has said that an unspecified ‘leisure business that doesn’t exist in Newbury at the moment’ will soon be moving in there. No further news as yet but something is expected before too long.

• One can usually expect at least one letter about the London Road Industrial Estate in the NWN’s letters page each week and the latest edition doesn’t disappoint – there are two (see p20).

• The Newbury Youth Work project has been launched. This will provide 12 hours a week of detached work across Newbury, aiming to reach 750 youths each year. It aims to support young people on the streets of Newbury, focussing on those between the ages of 13 and 19, and to protect and provide appropriate information and advice. The project will work in partnership with other agencies to enhance the life chances of young people and reduce the incidence of anti-social behaviour.

• Newbury Town Council will soon start work to install a new playground for older children at Skyllings.

• West Berkshire Council is holding a public consultation (closes 14 September) on extending the current Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) at Speen Lodge Court in Newbury. The proposal is to extend it for a further three years (this will involve restricting access to the public right of way over a highway) in response to ‘issues with anti-social behaviour.’ More information here.

• On Sunday 23 August, the Mayor of Newbury is inviting the public to come and take part in a treasure hunt around the town to raise money for the Mayor’s Benevolent Fund and her chosen charities. To register your place or for further information, please contact mayor@newbury.gov.uk or call 01635 780203. 

• Please click here for Hamstead Marshall.net, which provides an excellent round-up of what’s going on in and around the villageIt also publishes the quarterly Hamstead Hornet – if you’d like to subscribe (which is free), contact Penny Stokes at admin@hamsteadmarshall.net

• Click here for the latest NTC News from Newbury Council.

Compton & Downlands

Latest news from Hampstead Norreys Parish Council, Compton Parish Council, Ashampstead Parish Council, Beedon Parish Council, Chaddleworth Parish Council, Brightwalton Parish Council, The Peasemore Village website, West Ilsley Parish Council and East Ilsley Parish Council.

• See p9 of this week’s NWN for news of the completion of water-feature project at Compton Primary School.

• The Living Rainforest in Hampstead Norreys has released its two dwarf caimans from six months quarantine so they’re now able to take their first look at the visitors, and vice versa (for information about booking your trip, see here). 

• I can exclusively reveal that, if you’re planning to purchase a 60-lite salt bin, you need pay no more than £62.95 + VAT. This, at least, is what the item is costing Hampstead Norreys PC, a fact recorded in the minutes of its most recent meeting on 30 July 2020.

Hermitage Parish Council has produced its August update, which can be seen here. Items covered include the re-opening of the playgrounds, the problem of overhanging branches near the school, news from the community group, the installation of the vehicle-activated sign to detect road speeds near The Fox, the progress of discussions about the PC taking over a patch of ground near Pinewood Crescent which includes some potentially dangerous trees and the date of the next meeting (20 August), which members of the public are welcome to attend virtually.

• See also this page for up-to-date information about Hermitage’s neighbourhood development plan (the parish is one of seven in the district currently working on an NDP).

• The most recent meeting of West Ilsley Parish Council took place on 13 July and you can read the minutes here

• The most recent meeting of East Ilsley Parish Council took place on 14 July and you can read the minutes here.

Thatcham and district

Latest news from Thatcham Town Council, Hermitage Parish Council, Cold Ash Parish Council, Bucklebury Parish Council, Brimpton Parish Council and Woolhampton Parish Council.

• This week’s NWN covers, on p7, the toxic blue-green algae which is causing serious problems for fish at the Nature Discovery Centre. As the article points out, this is a natural phenomena which the recent hot weather, followed by heavy rain, has exacerbated. I put a call into the Action for the River Kennet about the problem and the Director, Charlotte Hitchmough, confirmed this. She added that it tended to be an issue in warm, shallow and still or slowly-flowing water which has too many nutrients (which could be food being given to ducks or sediment being disturbed by a downpour). She also added that if sewage has been allowed to flow into a waterway – there’s no suggestion that this happened here that I’m aware of – this will make the problem very much worse. I asked if this made the River Lambourn vulnerable to the algae (see the Lambourn Valley section above) as sewage has certainly been flowing there. She said that the very cold water in groundwater-fed rivers like the Lambourn tended to inhibit the algae and, when it did appear, it was just at the edges, in shallow and slow-moving sections where the water has been able to warm up. (This is not to suggest that pumping sewage into the Lambourn, or anywhere else that’s cold, thus becomes OK.)

• Congratulations to Thatcham-based Dream Doors for helping t0 provide over 20,000 meals during lockdown – see p24 of this week’s NWN for more.

• The French market will return to Thatcham on Saturday 5 September.

•  Thatcham Town Council has announced a treasure hunt to keep children entertained whilst shopping safely in Thatcham Town Centre – more details here.

• A reminder, as mentioned last week, that the the battle between Thatcham Town Cricket Club and its insurers, Hiscox, over whether the insurer should pay out for lost revenue is about to be fought to a conclusion in the High Court. A sum of about £20,000 is at stake.

Click here to see the latest Cold Ash Community Bulletin. This issue starts with a photo oaf some dramatic clouds and ends with an amusing quote from Kurt Vonnegut. Plenty more stuff in-between, of course.

Theale and district

Latest news from Theale Parish Council, Aldermaston Parish Council, Stratfield Mortimer Parish Council, Englefield Parish Council and Burghfield Parish Council.

Stratfield Mortimer was the first parish in West Berkshire to conduct a neighbourhood development plan (so far it’s the only one, although Tilehurst, Compton, Burghfield, Cold Ash, Hungerford, Lambourn and Hermitage are all at various stages of doing their own). The NDP process involves the local community working with the planning authority to create a mutually acceptable blueprint for development which, once accepted, becomes as much part of the local authority’s local plan as it it had written it itself. One matter which emerged from the process in Stratfield Mortimer was the need to have a new car park for the railway station. This, being a specific commercial decision, cannot be made a policy but can be what might be termed a verified aspiration. This is something the PC has been working on for some time. Some years ago, a plan was put forward for a 100-space car park but, following an expert assessment (which West Berkshire initially disagreed with) this was increased to 150. The matter was considered by the Eastern Area Planning Committee (EAPC) earlier this month and it was deferred, pending further information from the applicant. As District Councillor Graham Bridgman observed to the NWN, ‘we want to encourage people to use rail rather than road transport,’ so it’s to be hoped this will only be a temporary setback. 

A related question is whether the deferment would have been necessary if the EAPC meeting had been conducted under the previous system. As I mention in this post, earlier this year West Berkshire for some reason decided to restrict the way interested parties could participate in these. I’m aware that WBC Leader Lynne Doherty hates the phrase ‘undermining democracy’ with regard to this, but it’s true. I asked one person who’d watched the meeting if they felt that these details might have been teased out if there’s been an old-style Q&A and they felt that they probably would have done. So, Lynne – any change planned?

• The most recent meeting of Aldermaston Parish Council took place on 11 August and the minutes will appear on the PC’s website in due course (until then you can listen to a recording of the meeting). Matters covered included enhancements to the Recreation Ground, repairs to village infrastructure, a couple of uncontentious planning applications and a report from the neighbourhood policing team.

• Perhaps not surprisingly, Burghfield’s Beerfest, planned for late September, has been called off.

• A new public open space to the south of the NDP site in Stratfield Mortimer is on the cards. Discussions are currently taking place between WBC and SMPC about future responsibilities and costs.

Marlborough & district

Latest news from Marlborough Town CouncilAldbourne Parish Council and Great Bedwyn Parish Council.

• Time was when local councillors named new streets after themselves, their wives or their mistresses (yes, almost all councillors were men a hundred or so years ago). Things are done in a more inclusive way now. Marlborough TC is inviting you to take part in just such an exercise.

• And click here for news about the TC’s latest round of grants (deadline 11 September). 

• And another municipal communiqué: information here about changes to the road/pavement layout to create more al fresco areas in the High Street.

• An extraordinary meeting of Marlborough Town Council on 10 August confirmed, among other matters, the re-designation of the Marlborough Neighbourhood Area (which defines the area covered by the NDP) following the withdrawal of the parish of Preshute and the fact that the Mop Fairs have been cancelled this year due to Covid-19.

• The same Council has a vacancy for a councillor to be filled by co-option – more details here.

Marlborough News reports that the Merchant’s House is seeking volunteers: see this section of the Penny Post website for more information on two positions.

• The same website covers the visit of the town’s Mayor to Manton’s Jubilee Field’s new play and picnic area.

More information here on the progress at Marlborough’s new cinema – and how you can get involved.

• A reminder that Action for the River Kennet (ARK) has been awarded £1,500 from the Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response Fund to host guided walks at its Stonebridge Wild River Reserve.

• See here for information from Marlborough Town Council about changes to its services as a result of CV-19.

Click here for a list of current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council. 

Wantage & district

Latest news from Wantage Town Council, Grove Parish Council and Letcombe Regis Parish Council.

• I’d imagine that in these days of politicians being operated by remote control from HQ, if there’s about to be a U-turn on a major piece of policy, a message probably goes out to all the MPs saying ‘don’t write about xyz this week.’  With regard to the A-levels (see Across the Area above), Wantage MP David Johnston doesn’t seem to have got the text. His regular article in The Herald (he alternates the soapbox on p10 with Layla Moran) has the headline ‘Early notes of caution on exam results model,’ a phrase which even earlier this week hardly does justice to the turmoil this caused and to which he refers in the first part of his piece. Correctly identifying trouble ahead, he spent the last two paragraphs discussing the appeals system (which clearly won’t be needed now to anything the same extent). He also says that he believes ‘the government was right not to rely just on teacher predictions as most studies say that between 60 and 90% of these are inaccurate.’ He doesn’t give sources for these studies so one is left wondering. The report from Ofqual (which we must assume has looked into the matter deeply than this Mr Johnston, and perhaps the other one) suggests, on p6, that teacher grades would result in A*s going up from 7.7% in 2019 to 13.9% in 2020: admittedly, this is a huge jump, albeit only relevant to less than a sixth of the students. More relevant is Ofqual’s claim that  B grades and above would increase from 51.1% to 65%, an increase of about 27%. 

• As mentioned previously, if anyone who wants to dig a bit more deeply into the possible re-opening of Wantage Road station here’s a document from Oxfordshire CC which sets out some of the issues. The matter of the station also, perhaps, reared its head in at article on p9 of The Herald this week concerning the proposed revamp of Oxford Station. The plans, the article asserts, ‘fit in with Network Rail’s plans to make Oxford a regional hub by making upgrades to the lines that run through Oxfordshire.’ This might be promising. The most recent meeting of Wantage TC also refers to the fact that ‘the reopening of Grove Station had been put forward for funding’ by Oxfordshire CC.

• The above-mentioned meeting of Wantage Town Council, which took place on 3 August (you can read the minutes here) starts off with a fairly lengthy and to most readers fairly arcane discussion about what can and cannot be recorded in official minutes and what need or need not be made available before a meeting takes place.

• The meeting also referred to a report from one of the County Councillors that Covid deaths in Oxfordshire care homes were ‘50% higher than in any other country.’ No period was mentioned and nor were the actual figures (percentages can be misleading with very small numbers or over short periods). I had a tootle around on the web and had a look at the the spreadsheet available on this page of the ONS website. I took the month prior to the meeting, which showed that, out of the 148 council areas in England, Oxfordshire was 21st (ie 20 counties had had more care-home deaths) with 96. To have been 50% worse off than any other county there would been 408 (the worst county, Hampshire, had reported 272 deaths). 

• The same meeting also reported that ‘there had recently been a HOSC meeting, but no progress had been made regarding the reopening of the Wantage Community Hospital.’ Sadly, I don’t think would have come as a surprise to anyone.

• This week’s Herald has, on p1, a picture of a twister that was photographed over Wantage and Challow on Monday. Though hardly on a Wizard of Oz scale, it’s quite impressive. If your house suddenly disappeared, that might be why.

 • Wantage Town Council has installed several bike stands in and around the market place.

• A reminder about another initiative from the Town Council and the Chamber of Commerce, the Wantage Wednesdaysclick here for more information. Penny was up there yesterday. So far, Wednesdays have seen a good deal of rain, but please persevere: and, remember (see Newbury section above) that the local councils do not control the weather…

• No further news on who will be paying for upkeep of the triangle of land in Grove (see the column from two weeks ago).

• The Vale Council’s leader Emily Smith has written to Arash Fatemian Chair of the Oxfordshire Joint Health Overview & Scrutiny regarding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in care homes in Oxfordshire.

• If you live in the Vale you should have had a yellow letter asking you to confirm the details of everyone over 16 who lives in their property.

• Julie Mabberley’s regular column on p8 of the Wantage & Grove Herald refers to the Wantage and Grove Campaign Group’s response to the District Council Corporate Plan and the Oxfordshire 2050 Open Though Initiative.

Click here for other news from the Wantage and Grove Campaign Group

• The Vale Council is asking its residents the question ‘Were you inspired to keep moving or did lockdown leave you lacking in motivation?,’ referring to how or if people were able to keep active during lockdown. Click here for more information and to respond to the survey

• Click here for information the Didcot, Abingdon and Wantage Talking Newspaper (DAWN) for the blind and partially sighted. The organisers are currently appealing for help to keep the service going – click here for details.

• You can click here to see the August 2020 issue of the Letcome Register which includes, as well as village information, a message from the Parish Council, a letter from the MP, a selection of photos, details of road closures, four Mirandas, three dingbats and two St Augustines.

• Click here for information on the location of defibrillators in and around Wantage.

Swindon & district

Latest news from Swindon Borough Council.

• I dug out quite a few figures last week regarding the Covid outbreaks in Swindon. Time has defeated me in looking into this in similar detail. I understand that it’s one of the areas still on the government’s danger list. This announcement (18 August) from the council has information on a FB Q&A session which was held the following day; while this one (14 August) looks at some the measures the Council has already taken. (In fact, the recent posts on the Council’s News page on its website is concerned with this topic to exclusion of almost everything else.) Meanwhile, the Advertiser reports (20 August) that Swindon had recorded 11 new cases on 19 August, 1% of the UK’s total (Swindon has about 0.3% of the country’s population). If you know any more, let me know and I’ll try to do better next week.

• Swindon Council has received more than £400,000 in developer contributions to make improvements at Coate Water Country Park.

Wood Street in Old Town is to be closed to traffic on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to make the area safer for pedestrians.

• Swindon author Angela Atkinson, the woman behind the Born Again Swindonian website, has launched a guide to her adoptive home town.

• Swindon Link reports that an up-cycled old shipping container donated by Thames Water has a new purpose helping animals at a Oak and Furrows wildlife hospital in Cricklade.

• A 16-month project to replace 28,000 Swindon street lights with LED lanterns has begun.

• A similar project has also started with many of the borough’s traffic lights.

Click here for information from Swindon Council about how Coronavirus is affecting its services as well as other useful information. 

• Click here for details of the many volunteering opportunities at Great Western Hospital.

The song, the sketch and the quiz

• So, here comes the Song of the Week. My friend Owen wrote a very funny article, which you can see here, about a particularly traumatic gig during his time as a member of the band the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy. Cited in this was their song The Jazz Butcher Meets Count Dracula for which I managed to find a Youtube link – and, here it is, engagingly crazy video and all.

• And hello once again to the Comedy Sketch of the Week. This isn’t a comedy sketch but it’s a damned funny piece of animal voice-dubbing. It’s called ‘The Ultimate Dog Tease’ but I bet there are worse dog teases out there. I’m going to call it Bacon – the Maple Kind? Top stuff.

• And so we lurch into the final paragraph that is the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the world’s first $2tn company, as announced this week? Last weeks’s question was: The last Scottish football champions other than Celtic or Rangers was Aberdeen – but how many years ago was that? Staggeringly and depressingly, 35 years: Aberdeen won the league in 1984-85 (the same year as the above-mentioned Jazz Butcher video was released, though that’s the only connection between the two events I’m aware of) and, apart from the two Glasgow clubs, it’s been a shutout since then. Nothing seems likely to change in the foreseeable. England and France have nine different champions over the same period, Italy eight, Germany six, Spain five and Portugal four. 

Brian Quinn

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2 Responses

  1. Brian,

    I applaud your good journalism to question the claim by Oxfordshire CC that they had 50% more Covid deaths than any other county (you printed country by the way).

    As a relatively new Swindon resident I remain impressed (and grateful) for Swindon BC to have three country parks – Stanton Park, Coate Water and Lydiard Park which are readily accessible to all. I was out cycling yesterday and pleased to be able to buy much needed refreshment at Coate Water in the afternoon.

    It begs the question why parks were closed at the start of lockdown when they provide a valuable green amenity particularly for exercising in the open air! Certainly the many other green spaces in Swindon were widely used for that purpose.

    Keep up the excellent work – I follow your comments every week.

    Best regards

    1. Hi Tim,
      Many thanks. Typo noted. On Thursday I write a lot and the brain and the fingers sometimes slip their gears.
      I agree about the parks, particularly as all the evidence seems to suggest that you’re vastly less likely to contract Covid, or anything else, outdoors.

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