Weekly News with Brian 20-27 May 2021

This Week with Brian

Horizon in court, corporate defensiveness, the Indian variant, the Swiss cheese analogy, musical doors, all change on the railways, a final prediction, a chat with the pubs, low bases, lead-free, arboreal creatures, Superfast nearly there, what watch? and long distance love.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday).

Matters covered here include re-lining the pipes in East Garston, no comment on Hungerford’s appeal, Thatcham’s and three other councils’ thoughts on the new homes, ReadiBus clauses, escaped cows crossing the border, Wantage’s late post, Marlborough’s 711th Mayor, Chaddleworth’s war record, a correction from Lambourn Surgery, strange tree work in Theale 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

• What seems to be one of the most flagrant abuses of recent times, the persecution of a number of postmasters and sub-postmasters by the Post Office (PO) as a result of the flawed Horizon accounting system, was in large part resolved recently when 39 of the the 42 appellants against their convictions had these overturned by the Court of Appeal. [more below>]

The judgement runs to 447 paragraphs (many of which refer to an earlier civil action in December 2019) and will make very uncomfortable reading for anyone at the PO or software company Fujitsu who was involved in these prosecutions or the development and verification of the software. The judgement made it clear that the PO was aware as far back as April 2001 that Horizon had serious bugs. “Oppressive”, “inexcusable”, “complacent”, “disturbing”, “confusing “contradictory” and “wrong” are just a small selection of the words used to describe the PO and/or Fujitsu’s handling of the affair. There are lots more where they came from.

One of the remarks that stands out for me, and which seems to typify the attitude of corporate defensiveness which underpinned the problem, is clause 24. This refers to a meeting at the PO in August 2010 when it was clear (as it had been for some time) that all was not well on the Horizon front. The discussion, as summarised in the judgment, demonstrated far more concern about repetitional damage than establishing the facts. At one point, an independent review was proposed (“not,” the PO claimed, “because of any doubt about Horizon but in order to help give others the same confidence that we have.”) The warning then given by the PO’s Head of Product and Branch Accounting was that any such review would need to be disclosed in court and that “any perception that POL doubts its own systems would mean that all criminal prosecutions would have to be stayed. It would also beg a question for the Court of Appeal over past prosecutions and imprisonments.” In other words, it was a high-risk strategy. As well as the possibility (which the participants must have realised was more like a probability) that a review would reveal problems, the fact that it had been conducted at all would suggest weakness which could undermine the raft of prosecutions then under way. The best thing was to circle the wagons and tough it out. As regards the Horizon system itself, this cost an estimated £1bn. The more you spend on something, the less likely you are to doubt its worth.

This corporate defensiveness is seen a lot in organisations, including government and local councils. It’s easy to make a wrong decision – we all do it every day. Leadership and responsibility are proved by how well we respond to what follows. Unfortunately, the response is more likely to be covering traces and putting up smokescreens and diversions. The more the decision is criticised, internally or externally, the more stubborn the defence tends to be, the more ingenious (and often disingenuous) the justifications become and the less likely the magic and disarming phrase “I’m sorry” is likely to be heard. Criticism is dealt with as being politically motivated or designed to sell papers. The smaller the group that was involved in the decision, the tighter the ranks close and the more likely it is that this group will make similar bad decisions in the future. A paranoid siege mentality can develop which makes you more likely to distrust opinions expressed by anyone outside your close-knit group. Calls for enquiries are resisted ostensibly because of cost, time or the other side “playing politics” but really because of the genuine fear that something will be discovered and – as the Post Office realised – the fact that even agreeing to an enquiry is to suggest that there’s something to enquire into. If any litigation has been entered into, a retreat becomes even harder as that raises the awful spectre of needing to refund costs and dealing with all the old cases that then get re-opened. It’s not a great backdrop against which to make decisions; yet it’s one that, to some extent and at some time, all of us who have ever had to make decisions have found ourselves in.

Above all, at these times of threat and peril the atavistic and reptilian part of the brain kicks in. You’re part of a group: there’s a higher cause at stake; individual cases don’t signify; all that matters is the survival of the pack. It makes no difference what party or group is in charge as all are equally prone to this. As Orwell remarked at the end of Animal Farm, we all risk turning into those we replace.

• The Indian variant is causing a certain amount of havoc at the moment, not least among those (such as our PM) who claim that any relaxation of lockdown restrictions are “irreversible.” 21 June seems endangered at the moment. However, evidence seems to suggest that the current vaccines are effective against this mutation. As the UK has now jabbed about 37m (56%) of its people once and about 21m (32%) twice (more than any other major country), this is encouraging, but still some way short of the 80% that the WHO reckons constitutes herd immunity. For the government, the nightmare is introducing relaxations and then being forced to retreat. As Dr van Tam observed on 19 May, we have to take responsibility for managing the risk (to my delight, he repeated his “don’t rip the pants off it” war cry) to ourselves and to others. To put the figures into perspective, on that day, there were three Covid-related deaths. In the period June 2019 to July 2020, an average of four people were killed on the roads each day and about 60 people killed or seriously injured.

• One of the best descriptions of his we can protect ourselves against Covid (or any other threat) is provided by this superb visual analogy of a Swiss cheese (with holes in it). The point is that no one protective measure will guarantee safety but the more you apply, the more protected you’ll be.

• Uefa has decided in its wisdom that the Champions League Final, between two English teams, will be contested, at least not as was originally scheduled, in Turkey but in Portugal, this being a country into and from which the vast caravanserai of UEFA dignitaries can travel without undue restrictions. The logical choice was somewhere like Villa Park to which such supporters of Chelsea and Man City as recould travel easily. Do you want a prediction? OK: Man City 3 Chelsea 1. I’m normally wrong about these things, though.

• A few weeks ago I replaced the seals on the double doors in my study that open onto an east-facing balcony. Not well enough, it seems. Earlier this morning, when an unseasonal (whatever that means in this country) near-gale was beating against the glass, I was almost lifted out of my chair my a loud, low and mournful note that filled the room. This turned out to be coming through a gap at the top of one of the doors. It repeated itself several times and I established that it was always the C# two octaves below middle C. Then there was another note: an A this time. Whether this was through a different gap or the same gap at a different airspeed I haven’t been able to establish. (I’m expecting that the next note will be an E, after which if the wind is just right it might start arpeggiating A major.) The sound is perhaps like what a bassoon would sound like if blown through marshmallow. I quite like the idea of having musical doors. Would they add anything to the value of a property? It’s not something you often see on estate agents’ details.

• It’s recently been announced that there will be a major shake-up of the railway system after what the Transport Secretary termed “years of fragmentation, confusion and over-complication,” a situation which had been created by a previous Conservative government, in the 1990s. (I remember reading back in the day that the privatisation ensured that, for example, a station, its broom cupboard, the broom and the employment contract of the person who used it to sweep the platform were all held by different companies, so preventing any attempt at turning putting the system back together.) What I’ve never worked out is how the competition works. If I want to take a train from Hungerford to Paddington I have to use GWR, paying whatever price it charges and following whatever timetable it specifies. Where does the competition come in? A number of critics of the latest plans have used phrases like “lacking substance” and “a missed opportunity”, as you would expect. Perhaps the most surprising remark was made by the Transport Secretary himself who asserted that there was “no hidden agenda.” I’m afraid that this immediately made me think that that there was one. What a suspicious mind I have…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 54 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 10-16 May, up 25 on the week before. This equates to 34 cases per 100,000. The average area in England has 13 (17 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.

• Pubs are now open indoors and I figured that, with the weather being what it is, most publicans would be pretty glad about this. I called up a few to find out…

“We’re hugely relieved that we can welcome people back inside,” said Jack Greenall of The Pheasant in Shefford Woodlands. “We’re really grateful for their support and have a lot of hope for the future.” Tim Hirst at the White Hart on Hamstead Marshall admitted that “we’ve lit the fires. It was fun being in the garden, tucked up with great big fleecy blankets, but the recent gales were a challenge too far for us.” “It’s great to have customers inside again,” said Duncan Jones at The Five Bells in Wickham, “and makes us feel like some normality is coming back. Now we just need summer to arrive!” Freddie Tulloch of the Queens Arms in East Garston admitted that “we thoroughly enjoyed our first month of opening in the marquee and hope everyone who came appreciated the shelter and the heaters.  However, the weather has not been kind to us so it is lovely to be back in the warm and getting back to some kind of normality. Hopefully we can look forward to a long, hot, lockdown-free summer.” Ben Milroy of the Crown and Anchor in Ham described the move indoors as “a joy after a cold few weeks outside.” I also spoke to Ian at The Chequers in Charney Bassett. “I’d love to chat,” he said “but I’m flat out pulling pints right now,” a remark which tells its own story.

Many of the pubs have taken advantage of the fallow period to make some changes to the fixtures and furnishings. We’re looking forward to visiting as many of these as possible in the coming weeks and months. Well done to all of them for managing to stay open. long may this continue.

• 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 (see also lower dowen for more on this).

• 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.) A couple of letters in this week’s NWN also drew attention to the fact that 98% ≠ 100%.

• 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.

• I feel I should take issue with 33.3% of one of the letters in this week’s NWN in which the writer seems to be accusing West Berkshire Council’s Leader Lynne Doherty of being evasive about the Covid rate. Yes, the rate has risen recently but my research suggests that this is mainly due to two or three localised outbreaks, as as happened before. There has been one case of the Indian variant reported. This zoom-able map shows more. There has always been a reporting lag of about five days. As to Ms Doherty’s point that when you’re dealing with a low base the figures can be misleading (particularly when expressed as a percentage), this is statistically self-evident. A first glance at the 15 May stats on the above-mentioned map, for instance, shows a rise in cases of over 33% in Newbury Central & Greenham – alarm bells time, surely? Well, perhaps not. There had previously been three cases and now there were four. I think West Berkshire Council has done pretty well on this. As the recent admission of the failure of the national T&T system have shown, it’s only a shame that local councils weren’t given more responsibility for this sooner than they were. I’m sure everyone in West Berkshire, in the Council and elsewhere, will be keeping a close eye on the figures over the next few weeks. I’ll certainly be doing so.

As for the other two points, Laura Farris’ column in the NWN last week indeed did not mention what seems to be the alarming failure in red-listing India more quickly. True: but nor did she mention dodgy PPE deals, the spiralling costs of the PM’s flat re-decoration, the hapless David Cameron’s lobbying antics, the deafening silence about adult social care or any number of other things which would show the government in a bad light. One thing you cannot accuse our MP of is being disloyal to the leadership. As for the accusation the the new Mayor of Newbury was breaking social-distancing regulations I didn’t see the photo so, like Arsène Wenger, I can’t say whether or not he was offside.

• The animal of the week is this cat (and her kittens) which took up residence in a bird’s nest in Amersham. Perhaps it was emulating West Berkshire Councillor Steve Masters who also went arboreal not far away (in Wendover) in 2020 as part of the anti-HS2 protests. I’m not sure what the bird thought about the arrangement but cats don’t worry themselves about things like that.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those mentioned elsewhere, ones on the subject of Facebook, trains, dog mess, birds copying electronic signs and a handy cut-out-and-keep guide for anyone who doesn’t know what the term “lead-free” means.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: The Friends of Savernake Hospital, Marlborough Poverty Action Group and Motor Neurone Disease (thanks to the Mayor or Marlborough); St mark’s School in Kakinada (thanks to Liz Jackson); the Trussell trust and FareShare (thanks to Tesco); West Berkshire Homless (thanks to Amazon); Citizens’ advice West Berkshire (thanks to several parish and town councils in the district).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And so we choose (well, I choose) the Song of the Week. I’ve probably suggested this before but I don’t care as it’s wonderful: Long Distance Love by Little Feat (yes, they spelled it like that).

• Goodness me, it’s the Comedy Sketch of the Week already. Once more time, not a sketch. This is a short scene from unquestionably the greatest film ever made which manages, in six words towards the end, three of which are the same, to create a delightful, and delightfully funny, little scene, one of many in the film. So, click here for the “What watch?” exchange in Casablanca.

• And we come gently against the buffers with the Quiz Question of the Week. For this week’s question, I shall again refer you to the current Penny Post quiz with a chance to win £75-worth of local market and produce vouchers. Last week’s question was: The Queen opened the new session of Parliament this week. How many times has she done this? 67 in all.

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