Weekly News with Brian 13-20 May 2021

This Week with Brian

Two debatable bills, levelling up, massive voter fraud shock horror, adult social care, the beautiful game, tricky pronouns, a look at the MD, outside stopcock latest, Covid stats, West Berkshire’s spike, safer streets, Girls and Boys, dividing the gate and four (soon to be five) finals.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area.

Matters covered here include sewage in the Lambourn Valley, two victories in Hungerford, Thatcham’s meeting compromise, Newbury’s Eagle Quarter, ReadiBus replacements, a perhaps not-so-delightful development in Hermitage, changes to Wantage’s parking enforcement, Marlborough’s cinema, the Wiltshire PCC election debacle and the usual trip round the region’s town and parish councils.

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

• The Queen snipped the ribbon at the state opening of Parliament this week and read out her government’s plans for the next 12 months. Most of the proposed legislation seems fairly uncontroversial, with two exceptions: the Planning Bill and the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. The first intends to reduce the role of the state and the second to increase it. Both seem to me to be to be deeply flawed and predicated on assumptions that I just can’t share. [more below>]

In the case of the former, this is that the private sector will, if left to its own devices, build exactly the kind of homes the country needs; while the latter assumes that protest is a cause rather than a symptom of society’s unaddressed problems. A further problem with the Planning Bill is that it proposes that all land will be classified as “protected”, for “renewal” or for “growth”. In the latter case, outline planning approval would be a formality if it conforms to the local plan. How areas will be so divided, and by whom, and with what right of appeal, and for how long (circumstances change) remains to be seen. There is a perception, which the white paper encourages, that planning officers are the problem: process-driven bureaucrats whose main aim is to make the system as opaque as possible. While planning is very complex, that’s because the issues are. They are resident in their areas and probably have its best interests at heart. A system which is, even more than it is at present, left to developers to operate as they see fit alarms me. I also can’t see how the required number of “affordable” and social-rent homes will be built under the proposed plans. It’s difficult enough to get this to happen now, precisely because developers have so much power.

As for the PCCS Bill, that’s had a lot of time in the limelight over the last few months. Many the measures proposed in it seem regressive, divisive, political and ultimately self-defeating. A number of people seem to agree. These two will certainly lead to a good deal of public debate and private horse-trading over the coming seasons.

• A phrase we’re hearing a lot of at the moment is “levelling up“. The Gov.uk website has its own summary of the various schemes this encompasses. The phrase is cleverly chosen and has already been adopted by a number of organisations to justify their own ambitions, so keeping it as a current soundbite (something that the hapless David Cameron’s “Big Society” never managed to achieve). This article from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in October 2020 shows just how badly needed such an initiative is. The UK is ‘one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world,” it claims: moreover, it maintains that Covid and Brexit have affected different areas in different ways, so further complicating both the problem and its solution.

If the PM has genuinely set himself this task as his primary aim, if he is really able to focus on it and if he can produce some results then he will have done the country a service. One problem is likely to be the way that the vast sums of money are spent, there being an almost equal distrust for large projects which are implemented by the government (or its agencies) and those that are outsourced to the private sector, accusations of heavy-handedness and graft surfacing in roughly equal measure.

Ultimately, this all comes down to trust; which has to be earned. The PM has not always shown himself to be trustworthy; yet he seems to have hit a main vein with this initiative that combines being genuinely needed with not being likely to outrage a sufficiency of his supporters to cause a revolt. This would be quite a rare trick to pull off: most administrations seem either unable to see or unable to confront what most badly needs doing. Covid has been his friend here. The government has not covered itself in glory by any means, but much of this has been forgiven by the success of the vaccination programme. That seems to be the capital the BoJo is now seeking to cash in with his levelling up. Like any politician, he’s keen to see that a good disaster doesn’t go to waste.

• Some of the measures proposed are inexplicable: why do all cats need to be microchipped? And why on earth do we need photo ID to vote? This isn’t the USA, where massive, uncontrolled, endemic fraud (as we were assured by the man then in charge of the place) takes place at every election. In any case, in most constituencies I doubt that even a thousand votes shifted from one party to the next challenger would make any difference to the result. Maybe they’ve been designed merely as things that can be dropped to appease critics.

• One item conspicuous by its absence was, aside from one mention in passing, any intention to get to grips with the problem of the country’s adult social care; a phrase which is often, and with increasing accuracy, seen with the word “crisis” after it. A green paper was promised in June 2018, and again just after the 2019 election, but has yet to appear. Care needs are becoming more complex and more expensive and the regulatory and compliance issues have increased the burden on providers (Brexit probably hasn’t helped either) but this has not been matched by any long-term financial settlement or a new policy.

Nick Sanderson, the CEO at the Audley Group (which provides services in this area) called this “another missed opportunity” for a system which “has borne the brunt” of the pandemic. He argues that what’s most needed is a “systemic shift in thinking and planning” rather than large-scale investment, the main aim being to focus on independence and “keeping people out of care homes for as long as possible, if not forever.” He also suggests “mandating the provision of high-quality and age-specific housing in new developments,” something that is missing from the government’s proposed reform of the planning system.

Erica Pryce, the Chief Clinical Operations Executive at White Horse Care Trust based in Swindon, stressed that the gap between the need for support and the funding that enabled this to be provided was growing ever wider. “We employ hundreds of staff,” she told Penny Post. “We expect great things of them and they absorb so much responsibility in providing more complex care and support to individuals who in years gone by would have had this overseen by nurses. It is a constant challenge to know the value of our staff is not recognised by their pay, which is often less than for those working in other roles that do not require the same level of responsibility for life and wellbeing.” She added that the lack of any serious mention of the subject in the Queen’s speech meant that “those we support have yet again been let down by those running the country.”

I also spoke to John Prendergast of Bluebird Care, another local provider. He too bemoaned the lack of any mention in the issue in the Queen’s Speech and asked the PM to “provide clarity on how his government plans to tackle the increasing problems of managing an underfunded care sector at a time of exponential growth in demand.” He also referred to the costs, quoting a recent LSE/Lancet commission report which estimates that, just to meet forecast future demands,  “a 4% per annum uplift, in real terms, will be needed for the next 10 years’ of the current health and social budget, an overall increase of £102 billion. This cannot be ignored indefinitely and will ultimately require political courage to resolve.”

• The Champions League Final between Man City and Chelsea will take place not in Istanbul (as originally scheduled) not at Wembley (as later proposed) but in Porto. As this article on the BBC website explains, this seems logical given the various Covid situations in the three countries and their respective attitudes to quarantine. The article quoted Transport Secretary Grant Schapps as saying that this was ultimately a decision for UEFA; in which case anything’s possible and the match will at the last minute be switched to Delhi.

And still with the beautiful game, it’s impossible not to feel the warm glow of schadenfreude with regard to Juventus. The Italian giants were one of the founder members of the grotesque European Super League and one of three clubs still unrepentant about their involvement. One possible penalty is their being thrown out of Serie A (which might have happened were the ESL to have gone ahead and something that’s happened to them before, as a result of a bribery scandal). In addition, Juve now seem in real danger of missing out on qualification for next year’s Champions League, the very competition that the ESL was trying to undermine.

• Writing the above paragraph has made me reflect, not for the first time, on the ambiguity of our pronouns. A school, a company or a council is a singular entity so it would be, say, “John O’Gaunt School is looking for a teacher,” not “are”. However this falls to pieces in, say, a job advert when the organisation wishes to personalise its and so might say “we are a caring school.” This carries a lot more punch that “it is”; but at some point the copywriter has to navigate the transition between third-person singular and first-person plural. Although this column is littered with typos (a different problem, mainly caused by time and by my Mac’s spellchecker, which increasingly makes its own decisions), I spend more time than you might imagine trying to get this right in what I write and in editing things that we publish written by others. There’s one huge irregular verb in this – sport. Football clubs and the like are always referred to in the plural, certainly when describing the players on the pitch but also often when talking about the club itself. Referring to Juventus in the singular in the above paragraph would have been right, but seems wrong. Does this matter? In an age when most communications are probably by text or email, probably not. Nor am I claiming to be a principled practitioner of a dying craft. It’s just something that, whenever I write anything, is important to me. One welcome recent development has been using “they” or “their” as singular pronouns to refer to a male or a female. This is now perfectly acceptable  and a lot better than “he or she” or “his or her”. Everything changes, I guess: but I’m not completely giving up just yet.

• As usual, Private Eye’s MD column in issue 1547 makes some excellent points (see pp8-9). The anti-vax paranoia must surely wither in the face of the lack of any wholesale reports of excess deaths or zombie activity; Chile’s spike after a high vaccine roll-out was caused by releasing lockdown before the benefits could be felt and the reliance on a vaccine type that seems to be less effective than others after only one dose; the PM is very unwise to speak of all the UK’s relaxation measures being “irreversible”; although Covid is a lot worse then flu, the vaccines seem a lot more effective (and will, hopefully, relegate it to a similar level of inconvenience); and the NHS’s formidable performance and “the extraordinary dedication of its staff” was hampered, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, by the results of a decade of austerity. It’s recently been announced that there will be an independent public enquiry into the government’s handling of the cris: it’s to be hoped that MD, aka Dr Phil Hammond, will be invited to give evidence.

• One point he made I find very hard to accept, however. He describes vaccine hesitancy as being “as much about getting access to the vaccines” and that “less than 10% in all age groups and across all ethnic groups do not want the vaccine.” This flies in the face of every survey I’ve seen, and this summary from the ONS in March 2021 which suggests that vaccine hesitancy in some age, ethnic or socio-economic groups is vastly greater than anything that can be explained by lack of access. What this tells me is that if you’re black, in your 20s, looking after a young child or living in a deprived area you’re a lot less likely to accept or to act on any message from central government. No surprises there. Which brings us back to “levelling up” (see above).

• Some of you may have been worried about how the tale of our search for the outside stopcock, which we mentioned last week, has played out. I’ve been struggling to think of anything which can suddenly become so important after decades of not thinking about it at all. These are normally placed on the front edge of your property. Our problem is that our house is built sideways and so with a long border with the road. All of this is marked with a deep grass verge and a dense and prickly beech hedge running for about 4o metres. Digging up even part of this is a mammoth job: so, we dug a slit trench in the front garden infant of the house, reasoning that the water pipe must have taken the shortest route to the mains running down the middle of the street five metres away.

The trouble about digging a hole is that it soon becomes an end in itself. The act of freeing a large sarsen stone ir dealing with a root becomes more important than the search for the pipe. At about two feet down, a pipe finally revealed itself, seemingly identical to the one coming out of the bottom of the leaking internal stopcock in the kitchen. The plan was that the plumbers would freeze it, cut it and add a new stopcock. Fortunately they knew what they were about and realised, before they got the pliers out, that it was actually carrying the mains electricity. Don’t really want to think about how that might have worked out…

Then we called Thames Water again. An hour or so later an amazingly resourceful and knowledgeable man showed up complete with metal detector and dowsing rods. After he had read the runes of the various scars and patches in the tarmac on the road we identified three likely places, hacking into the root-encrusted grass bank and cutting through the razor-like beech shoots of the hedge. On the third one we were about to give up when my hand closed around a round terracotta pipe with a metal cover loosely fitted on top. As I lifted it off, a small swarm of bees, undisturbed these last 40 years, flew out. This was an unexpected final obstacle. Fortunately they dispersed (sorry guys) and we managed to get the water switched off and the leaking internal stopcock replaced.

Please forgive my mentioning this at such length but no one thing, since I had a double tooth abscess about 15 years ago, has dominated my thoughts for so long as has this. One the most basic level, the moral is to discover where your external stopcock is and record this. More generally, it’s a reminder that a thing – any thing – can not exist or lie dormant for years and then suddenly announce itself, usually at the worst possible moment. The less you’ve done to mitigate or prepare for it, the more outrageous the consequent disruption to you life, and the more impossible the solution, will seem. Then you calm down a bit, make adjustments, take advice, make a plan, follow it through and (hopefully) get the situation solved. All sounds a bit like Covid, perhaps. You might beat off one assault but there will be others and from equally unexpected destinations. There is no final victory against all the wild and random things and stuff of this world: the best we can hope for is a reasonable period of truce…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 33 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 3-9 May, down 13 on the week before. This equates to 21 cases per 100,000. The average area in England has 17 (16 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a much more local level to be obtained.

Click here for details of Covid lateral flow tests, which are available at four sites across the district (Hungerford, Newbury, Thatcham and Burghfield); and of home-testing kits. This post also has information about such facilities in neighbouring districts.

• There has recently been a spike in Covid cases in West Berkshire which seems to mainly the result of two unrelated outbreaks in local schools. As both Council Leader Lynne Doherty and Communities and Wellbeing Director Matt Pearce pointed out (as we did when there was a similar situation in Hungerford a few months ago) that rises from small bases can create seemingly dramatic changes when these are viewed as percentages. Lynne Doherty said on 11 May that although the situation was being closely watched there was so far nothing to suggest there were serious grounds for concern.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that the Superfast Broadband Project is now complete in the district with coverage at 98%. This doesn’t include some outlying areas at present including Upper Lambourn (See here for more.)

• 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 has “refreshed” its strategy for next two years – click here for more.

• Councillor Claire Rowles, one of the three members representing Hungerford and Kintbury, has been appointed as West Berkshire’s Safer streets champion.

Sovereign Housing is offering £90,000 of community grants to community groups within three miles of any Sovereign-managed property. See The Good Exchange website for more.

• 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.

• 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.

Click here to visit the website for West Berkshire Council’s Community Support Hub. You can also 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 is Cilla the cat (also the NWN’s pet of the week) who, according to her owner won’t eat “any type of food more than once.” How does that work?

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those mentioned elsewhere, ones on the subject of snakes, dogs, more praise for the vaccination centre, the Waterside Centre and protests.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Young People with Dementia (thanks to Padworth PC); time to talk (thanks to the family and friends of the last John Hampson; the Bob Champion Cancer trust (thanks to Wasdell); the Newbury District Primary schools Football association (thanks tome of the recent winners of the West Berkshire lottery); Kennet School (thanks to Heartstart Thatcham).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And so we cue up the Song of the Week. With summer holidays now, possibly, back on the menu, worth checking out some advice from Blur on the subject in their wonderful Girls and Boys.

• Here we are again at the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Once again, not a sketch but a stark warning from Opening Gambit about an unexpected problem following the announcement that Bill and Melinda Gates are to divorce.

• And we come in to land with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The Queen opened the new session of Parliament this week. How many times has she done this? Last week’s question was: How many European football finals have been between two teams from England? The answer is four, though it soon will be five: the 1972 UEFA Cup (Spurs beat Wolves), the 2008 Champions League (Man Utd beat Chelsea), the 2019 Champions League (Liverpool beat Spurs) and the 2019 Europa League (Chelsea beat Arsenal) have already happened. Man City and Chelsea will contest the 2021 Champions League in Porto later this month.

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