Weekly News with Brian 29 April to 6 May 2021

This Week with Brian

We’ve decided to go for a new look from this week. From now on, you’ll find the links to the regional sections on the right: just click to go to the area you’re interested in. This also contains the archives of the previous few weeks’ reports for that area. Each weekly section has summaries of and links to parish and town council meetings, and news on a range of  local issues including campaigns, planning applications, development controversies, council initiatives and other community matters. If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

BoJo’s headaches, sub-postmasters, the High Court speaks, juggling the agendas, smart motorways, house-building stats checked, a car parking challenge, lateral-flow tests, spray-painted lambs, dog teasing and the song of a baker.

• There have been several unedifying or unwelcome news stories recently. In no particular order these involve sleaze, party donations, procurement, home decoration, Covid mortality, leaked stories, lockdown timings, tax breaks, the European Super League and the re-emergence of the irate Dominic Cummings and the hapless David Cameron into public life. What all these have in common appears to be the person, and personality, of the First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. All of these stories have broken in the last couple of weeks around AB de Pfeffel’s head. The Electoral Commission has already launched an enquiry into the Downing Street renovations, specifically the source of the funding for this. On 26 May, a further enquiry will begin in Westminster into the handling of the pandemic, at which Dominic Cummings will be testifying. Further enquiries, and leaks, will doubtless follow. [more below>]

These seem set to bedevil the PM for some time; and this just at the time when he was hoping to be announcing next stage of the roadmap out of lockdown. One might even feel sorry for him. Did he, for instance, actually make the “let the bodies pile high” remark that many have claimed? His reputation has travelled before him on this one as it’s so much the kind of thing one could imagine him saying. He’s shown himself fond of such rhetorical flourishes in the past. In this and other ways he is the author of his own misfortune.

This strange man, who would have us all see him as a mixture of Cicero, Winston Churchill, Billy Bunter and Winnie-the Pooh, appears to be guided by three things. The first is putting his own personal advantage above all other considerations. The second is what could most kindly be called a difficult relationship with the truth. The third is a deep-seated desire to be liked and a genuine distaste for standing up in public and delivering bad news. Viewed through these prisms, all his actions and their consequences become both reasonable and consistent.

• Returning to his predecessor-but-one, the hapless David Cameron (who has problems of his own to deal with), the latest Private Eye points out on p7 an obstacle in his current defence. If he was not an employee of Greensill then he would fall foul of the lobbying rules, such as they are: if on the other hand he was an employee then the many flights in Greensill’s private jets he appeared to have taken would be regarded by HMRC as taxable benefits in kind.

• One of the most widespread miscarriages of justice the country has seen appears to have been partly remedied recently with the quashing of the convictions of 39 sub-postmasters. The scandal started back in 2000 when the Post Office’s Fujitsu Horizon system began to show alarming discrepancies which could be interpreted as either (a) a sudden outbreak of large-scale fraud by about 10% of the sub-postmasters or (b) something wrong with the system. The Post Office went for option (a). It’s not clear how many were prosecuted over the following 14 years but The Guardian estimates about 900. Many were imprisoned, many more had their reputations tarnished; a few killed themselves. This judgement would seem to open up the way for a more comprehensive settlement than has so far been offered and which has, as the FT reports, largely been eroded by legal fees. One thing that hasn’t happened so far, but may yet, is any prosecution of those who worked for Fujitsu or the Post Office (or both) and who were responsible for this. One thing that has happened since the judgement has been the resignation of the PO’s CEO Paula Vennell, CBE (a title she was awarded in 2019 “for services to the Post Office and to charity”) from her non-exec roles elsewhere and her position as a Church of England minister: proof, if proof be needed, that ordainment confers on its recipient neither a monopoly of the truth nor a functioning moral compass.

The mindset involved in this kind of business is perhaps best understood if one imagines a game of poker played for very high stakes. As soon as you place your first bet you’re making a statement about your intention of winning. A canny player will know when to fold: but for many, the size of the pot starts to outweigh all other considerations. The more money I’ve invested, the twisted logic runs, the better my cards must be. If I fold now I not only definitely lose what’s in there but I suffer repetitional damage. So you stay for another round, and another, hoping that your opponents weaken before you do. In the case of the law (and politics) there’s also the matter of being forced to admit you’ve been wrong. The longer the case or issue goes on, the deeper the hole you’ve dug yourself into and the harder any orderly retreat is. In so many cases, the problems we find ourselves in are largely the result of traps that we have built for ourselves.

• The Secretary of State for Local Government’s announced recently that all local councils must revert to in-person meetings after 7 May regardless of whether it is safe, convenient or environmentally efficient to do so. This was challenged by Lawyers in Local Government, the Association of Democratic Service Officers and Hertforshire County Council. On 28 April, the High Court announced that it would not allow the appeal and that “the Secretary of State was correct that primary legislation would be required” to change the regulations after this date. The judgement admits that there are “powerful arguments in favour of conducting remote meetings.” It also adds that “the decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how, and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views.”

This is an extraordinary statement, and one which could as well be applied to meetings of any kind which might lead to discussion or disagreement. Surely councils can resolve these “competing views” for themselves? The places aren’t staffed by children. The decision not to prepare the necessary legislative time to allow them to do so was arrogant, patronising, regressive and anti-democratic: not really a great surprise, then, as the decision came from Whitehall.

I spoke briefly to West Berkshire Council Leader Lynne Doherty about this on 29 April. “I am extremely disappointed that the legislation was not been extended,” she said, “but am determined to make it work to enable decision-making to remain with elected members and accessible to the public.” The government is still continuing its call for evidence on the future of remote meetings so it’s to be hoped that a more rational solution might eventually be arrived at. Anyone can take part in the consultation here (which does not take long). This will close on 17 June 2021.

I also spoke to Claire Barnes, the Town Clerk at Hungerford Town Council. This normally meets every month and also has several committees. “We’re trying to move all the May meetings to before 7 May and all the June ones to after 21 June, this being the date when, according to the roadmap, in-person gatherings will be easier to organise,” she told us. “Anything urgent that comes up in the meantime will need to be dealt with by working parties, delegated powers or meetings that are quorate even if not all are able or willing to attend. Fortunately we have no contentious issues on the horizon that might lead to high levels of public attendance – though of course these can happen at any time.” If something major did crop up, the only solution during this period would seem to be to hold it outside and pray for good weather.

The government regulations only apply to meetings at which voting takes place so a number of discussions could continue remotely and their recommendations put to a late in-person meeting to ratify. Hungerford is also fortunate in that, as Claire Barnes is a fully qualified clerk, the council has full powers of competence, enabling decisions to be taken through delegated powers. Many other parishes are not in this situation and rely more on matters needing to be agreed at meetings. Hungerford is also fortunate in that it has a building which includes one very large room. Again, many others do not.

The BBC’s Reality Check column looked at five claims made by the PM and PMQs on 28 April. One of these was that “it’s this Conservative government that has built 244,000 homes in the last year which is a record over the last 30 years.” As the article makes clear, this is a piece of de Pfeffel-piffle. This refers not to built homes but to net additional dwellings including conversions of granny flats and the like. I imagine it also includes (though the BBC piece didn’t mention this) the insidious permitted development rights, by which commercial space can be converted to residential without going through the planning system. The BBC quotes the actual number of new builds as 148,620. This was a fall (due to Covid, no doubt) compared to the 173,660 that were built in the 12 months to 30 June 2019. All of these figures are some way below the 340,000 that are, according to Showhouse, needed each year until 2031.

The BBC also rightly points out that only about 1% were built by local authorities, so making the claim that the government has built them meaningless. The problem is also the kind of homes. The above-mentioned Showhouse article suggested that of these 340,000 homes, research suggests that 145,000 need to be “affordable” of various kind, 90,000 of these being for social rent. The Guardian reported in November 2019 that fewer than 38,000 of these had been built in 2018. Constant examples, such as in Lancaster Park in Hungerford, remind us that the private sector will use every trick in the book to avoid building such homes, which are less profitable to sell and, they claim, diminish the value of private-sale homes in the same estate. Why should they do otherwise? They’re running a business. Imagine you had a shop and Housing Minister Robert Jenrick called you up and said that from now on you’d have to sell 40% of your goods at a lower price. You’d probably say, “look, Bob, if you want some people to have cheaper food, open your own shop.” That’s what the government needs to do: build more homes itself (to proper standards) or get its councils to do so.

• Anyone using the M4 or many other motorways recently will have noticed that they seem to be full of interminable roadworks. This is probably because your route is being converted to a smart motorway, the main difference being that the hard shoulders are converted into running lanes with lay-bys for those in trouble. Originally, these were meant to be 800m apart. Recent smartening work has increased this to 1.5 miles, a distance some way further than that which according to the AA most drivers would be prepared to (or be able) to drive  without pulling up in the inside lane (the former hard shoulder). The government has now decreed thatthe lay-by gap should, “where practicable”, be reduced to one mile, still some way short of what’s safe. The most recent Private Eye also suggests that the government’s figures (which claim that fatal collisions are “less likely” on smart motorways than their dumb predecessors are based on erroneous data, including periods when there were hardly any of the former. They’re not that cheap, either, costing between £4.5m to £9.2m per mile. Is it all worth it?

All I can say about dual-carriageways with no hard shoulder is that about five years ago on the notorious A34 I had to stop behind a car with a puncture, had nowhere to go and was rear-ended by someone who didn’t either (you can read the full story here). I don’t claim this is overwhelming evidence but it makes me a bit doubtful about them.

• This has got to be one of the oddest quests I’ve ever seen: a man in south east London has recently completed a self-imposed challenge of parking in each one of 211 bays in his local Sainsbury’s. “It kind of feels like the old Panini sticker albums, but a really boring version of it,” he said. I suppose I kind of get this. About the only challenge I have each week is to swim a certain number of lengths in the Hungerford pool and get kind of annoyed (but not that annoyed) if I fall short. But parking bays…?

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 23 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 19-25 April, up four on the week before. This equates to 15 cases per 100,000. The average area in England has 18 (18 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a much more local level to be obtained.

• Lateral flow tests – which although not perfect have proved to be of great value in identifying asymptomatic Covid cases – are available in West Berkshire for key workers and others who are not already in a testing programme. See here for more information. Note that some of the arrangements (in Thatcham and Hungerford) have recently changed.

• West Berkshire Council, in partnership with its waste contractor Veolia, is trialling four new recycling banks to increase collection of plastic waste. The banks will be for the collection of plastic pots, tubs and trays and are now available to use. These will be at the Paworth and Newbury recycling centres, at Hungerford station car park and the Kingsland Centre car park in Thatcham.

• West Berkshire Council says that one in six people who invested in the Council’s Climate Change Bond liked the idea so much they have donated their interest back to the scheme.

• West Berkshire Council and Greenham Trust have jointly set up a £200,000 Surviving to Thriving fund to enable voluntary and community sector organisations in West Berkshire to apply for grants to fund projects aimed at helping improve the mental health and wellbeing of local residents impacted by Covid-19.

• Local residents are being invited to help shape WBC’s Active Travel plans (consultation closes 23 April).

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

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

• See also the sections for Wantage, Marlborough and Swindon below for initiatives from Vale of White Course Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council.

• West Berkshire Council has 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 animals of the week are the pair of lambs which can be seen on p16 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News. Shame though: they haven’t been born five minutes and already some graffiti artist has had a go at them with the spray paint.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those mentioned elsewhere, ones on the subject of the football ground, the London Road Industrial Estate, Clay Hill by-election, emailing a milk order, disruptive protests and cat and dog calendars.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Families in Marlborough (thanks to the Devizes and District Foodbank); The Pink Place (thanks to KJ Smith Solicitors); Citizens Advice West Berkshire (thanks to several parish councils); Whitelands Park Primary Schoolm(thanks to Yopa’s tech for Schools); The Princess trust (thanks to Shay Perrins); the Alexander Devine’s Children’s Hospice (thanks to Special Auction Services).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And so we roll up to the Song of the Week. Last week I went all 2020: let’s dive back a bit and have a listen to Song of a Baker by The Small Faces from 1968.

• Hello again, Comedy Sketch of the Week. Done it before but I’m going to do it again as it makes me giggle every time I watch it: Ultimate Dog Tease (aka Bacon – the Maple Kind).

• And we come in to land with the Quiz Question of the Week. For last week’s question, I’m going to direct to you to our latest prize quiz on the subject of farm produce which gives you the chance to win £75-worth of vouchers from Karen and Neil Millar-Ward’s fruit and Veg stall at Hungerford, Thatcham and Marlborough, Cobb’s Farm Shop in Hungerford and Honesty’s coffee shops throughout the area. I’m a bit strapped for time and lacking in any trivia inspiration, so that’s my pick for this week as well.

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area please click on the appropriate link.

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