Weekly News with Brian 10-17 June 2021

This Week with Brian

Lab theory, the party line, data not dates, councils on the edge, international co-operation, evictions, antibodies, boundary changes, taxing the very very rich, computer coding, three monarchs, black pumas, press summaries, parish consultations and twenty twelve.

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

Matters covered here include pizza in Hungerford, sewage in the Lambourn, an EGM in Newbury, a phone box in Thatcham, a consultation in Compton, a clean up in Theale, a scam in Wantage, an opening in Marlborough and a protest in Swindon, plus our usual prowl around the area’s websites and FB pages.

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

• There’s been a lot of press recently about the so-called lab theory, which claims that Covid sprang to life from a pipette rather than a pangolin. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know. It doesn’t seem that anyone else does for certain either. It certainly plays well for anyone who wants to have a pop at China, which contributed to this by being secretive in the first weeks of 2020 (mind you, so would any country have been, despite self-righteous protestations to the contrary). [more below] 

It also plays well for newspapers wanting to sell papers and perhaps for scientists wanting to get attention. US money was funding research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology so, if the lab theory is correct, the US government can’t wash its hands of this completely. The big problem is that, given all these conflicting interests, we’ll probably never know the truth – so whatever happened will probably happen again. However, as a scientist friend has pointed out, even if we did know for sure, it’s not certain that we would learn from our actions (human stupidity) or be able to guarantee no recurrence (human error).

There are in fact two lab theories, which another scientist friend of mine (yes, I have more than one friend) has described as the evil and the inept. The evil one involves a deep-laid plot of James Bond proportions to attack the west. The inept is that lab work on related or naturally occurring viruses was done sloppily and something escaped. The first therefore sees the pandemic as an intended consequence, the second as an unintended one. I know little of science but my history degree taught me that almost all events are unintended, regardless how much planning took place leading to the time-honoured conclusion of “let’s go for it – what could possibly go wrong?” Much the same could be said of the more plausible species-jumping theory. No one planned that this would happen. Having a load of different animals pressed up close which shouldn’t have been anywhere near each other just seemed like a good idea at the time.

• It’s recently been announced that around 80% of the population has Covid antibodies, which is about the figure that the WHO suggested was necessary for herd immunity (the phrase that should never be uttered in Whitehall). So that’s that sorted, then? Well, not quite. Herd immunity only works if the antibodies (most of which would have come from jabs) are fairly evenly distributed throughout the population. However, the age group that tends to mix the most, the under 30s, is in general not vaccinated (although some may have antibodies from a previous infection). Also, antibodies don’t guarantee you won’t be infected. They also don’t last forever, eight months being one estimate. So I don’t think we can throw the face masks and hand sanitiser in the bin just yet.

• The MD column in the latest Private Eye looks at, amongst other things, what it terms the “persistent bollocks” of the “party line” on a number of Covid issues such as herd immunity (that phrase again), care homes and general preparedness. The official enquiry isn’t planned to start until the spring of 2022 by which time these denials will, if consistently persisted with or deflected (“I think that what the British public really wants to hear about is…”), start to become the official Newspeak. The lack of preparedness is, in my view, by far the worst accusation. The others involve reactions in, as it were, the heat of battle. This, however, stretches back to at least 2016 when the pandemic war-game of Operation Cygnus concluded that the country’s readiness was “not sufficient.” It’s true we might have readied ourselves for the wrong kind of threat: but very little seems to have been done at all. Among the errors would seem to have been the continued underfunding of local public-health networks, so that when a test and trace system was introduced it needed to be imposed from above, outsourced to the usual suspects rather than relying on local networks already in place (though under-funded). The government’s distrust of local councils appears to be profound. As a result the country was ill-served in the first six months of the pandemic.

• What effect the spread of the Delta Variant and the recently-revealed increase in hospitalisations is likely to have on what happens on 21 June will be announced on 14 June. The PM has long said that the government will be “driven by data, not dates”. This is a good soundbite but asks the question as to why in that case the dates were mentioned at all. 21 June has already been dubbed “Freedom Day” by many newspapers and any change to this will produce a predictable rush of hostile coverage with BJ being cast as the grinch who stole our summer (he has already stolen last Christmas). I shouldn’t think this will bother him too much but a general climate of populist distrust for the government doesn’t help it communicate other messages objectively.

• Another result of any delay in easing lockdown (whichseems more and more likely) will be what effect this will have on council meetings. A bewildering decision by the government in April insisted that these revert to in-person events after 7 May, despite (a) social-distancing requirements remaining in force for at least a further six weeks; (b) many council meeting venues being unable safely to accommodate all the people who might want to attend; and (c) that these had been conducted remotely perfectly well for over a year: indeed, public attendance had increased, member absenteeism had fallen and people ranging from the local MP to local journalists were able to attend who might not otherwise bothered to have done so. (In fact, such meetings could continue remotely after 7 May but their decisions would be open to legal challenge, a risk few councillors would wish to take.)

The key point here is that the in-person requirement only applies to meetings at which matters are voted on. Annual parish and town assemblies (this is the season for them) were thus able to proceed, as these are normally a resumé of the year’s events. Some councils went through the convolution of converting committees (which make decisions) to working parties (which don’t). The working parties then make recommendations which some small group (generally the Chair, the Vice Chair and the Clerk) approve, their having being given time-limited delegated powers for this purpose. These decisions would then be ratified at the next full meeting after 21 June, whereafter life would, so it was hoped, return to normal. (This work-around is easier to do if the council has full powers of competence, which includes the need to have a fully qualified Clerk.) One parish council Chair I spoke to about this said that they found this arrangement “hideous.” Many councils rearranged meetings for before 7 May and deferred other meetings until after 21 June. Some experimented with hybrid ones (some people in the venue, others online) which often proved to be beyond the capacities of the council’s technology. Others have cancelled any June meetings altogether. The hope for all was that a major issue, like a contentious planning application which might interest a large number of people, didn’t crop up.

However, if social-distancing requirements continue into July, the democratic deficit will become more pronounced. Higher-level councils, which generally have better venues and which make more important decisions, have been forced to adapt, though few members of such councils I’ve spoken to have been happy about it. As for parishes, though, most people are oblivious to what the council decides. Many members are co-opted or elected unopposed, so any democratic failure can be seen as being small. They cannot decide, only offer an opinion, on matters such as planning applications. In many cases, they are strongly guided by their Clerks (who are unelected). Does, therefore, the fact that their meetings have been restricted really matter?

Well, yes, it does. Delegating powers to the executive (the Clerk in a parish) from the legislature (the councillors) is a pernicious drift and one that has, with far more important results, also been followed by some higher-level councils to handle planning decisions that would normally go to committee. The government does it too and the Speaker of the Commons has more than once rebuked HMG for expressing “contempt” for parliament. Covid has already shifted life away from democratic decision-making, as might happen in a war. The result is that more decisions are taken by people who are not really answerable to anyone apart from those who appointed them. People like Dominic Cummings, for instance. He himself described it as “crackers” that someone like him should have been given as much power as he was, which perhaps tells us all we need to know about the problems of an over-powerful executive.

Secondly, councillors tend to be in the higher-risk groups (their average age is 59) . Yes, they will have been jabbed but a councillor doing their job properly will be out and about a lot. Many do not care to increase their risk by meeting in a village hall that may not conform to all standards. There are over 10,000 local councils at all levels in there UK involving perhaps 150,000 people plus any public participants. Many will be member of more than one (parish or town councillors can also be district councillors). They cover every corner of the country. This all looks like a number of super-spreader events waiting to happen.

Finally, it’s completely unnecessary. As mentioned above, there were few problems (and huge advantages) with remote meetings. The government claimed the reversion was because primary legislation would be needed to extend remote working. This was legally challenged but failed. If true, the person/s for drafting the legislation should be fired. It’s a strange irony that the one occasion when executive powers could be used to benefit the democratic process – by extending the ability for councils to hold remote meetings if they chose – it was suddenly announced that the national democratic process would be required but that it didn’t have time to deal with it. West Berkshire Council’s Leader Lynne Doherty, who has been vehement in her opposition to the government’s policy on this, told Penny Post this week that there was a chance that, if social-distancing needed to be extended, that time might be found in Westminster to get a piece of parchment out and write the law. This goes beyond Covid, too. All organisations need to work in a smarter way, using whatever technology has to offer. The government needs to encourage this and stop being so patronising to the organisations which have proved very effective at dealing with the emergency, rather than making life difficult for them.

• There seems to be serious problem of homelessness and evictions building up. The government’s moratorium on evictions ended on 31 May which gives perhaps as many as half a million households which have fallen into rental arrears two or three months to sort their situations out before the bailiffs come knocking. In areas like West Berkshire, which suffer from a chronic lack of affordable homes anyway, this is exacerbated by the over-heated property market (fuelled by the stamp-duty reduction) which encourages landlords not to renew leases but sell up and cash in. The area is one which Covid has helped make attractive to people who want to relocate – pretty countryside, easy transport connections to London and (parts of Upper Lambourn excepted) good broadband being three of the boxes it ticks. The problem is by no means restricted to this area. All I can suggest, short of changing the government’s home-building policies, is that if you’ve inherited a property (particularly a two- to four-bedroom house), there’s perhaps never been a better time to be renting it out.

• Returning again to Private Eye, if would appear from the article of p7 that the much-heralded plan by the G7 group of countries to tax pan-national giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook will actually lead to lower tax revenues, as the new plans – themselves uncertain – will result in the abolition of measures such as the UK’s digital services tax. I studied medieval history at university and it was a given then that the richer you were, the less tax you paid. Nothing really seems to have changed. The problems for the rulers are in some ways identical now as then, for there is always a group of people too powerful to offend. I concede that, now, the problem is that these companies can register themselves wherever the tax system is most convenient and it only needs a few states to break ranks on this (and there are more than a few, some uncomfortably close to home) for the plan to to be badly undermined. The threat of closing them them down won’t work. Life without Amazon, Google and Facebook? Exactly. These and a handful of other companies have achieved what empire-builders down the millennia have striven for – total world domination. You don’t give that up easily.

That said, it’s perhaps not so bad. As I’ve never used Amazon, I’ve not paid a cent to any of these companies and yet I use Google and, to a much lesser extent, Facebook every day. People have asked me if I find it spooky that Google remembers my search history and, I’m sure, displays the results of searches I make biased towards what I’ve clicked on. It’s actually quite convenient. I work on the assumption that anything I type online is sooner or later and in one form or another going to be used by someone else (I hope that doesn’t include my bank details, and try to do that as rarely as possible). It really doesn’t bother me that much. Perhaps it should. The point is that I get all this stuff back that I don’t have to pay for. I can live with that. Am I wrong on this? Tell me…

• The solution will require an unprecedented level of international co-operation. So far, nearly four million people have died from Covid and international co-operation, except perhaps on some scientific and academic levels, does not seem to have increased. Anyway, four million deaths is nothing. 20 million were killed in WW1 which was followed by perhaps 60 million in WW2. There have been one or two other wars since then as well. Four million, Covid? Is that all you’ve got? I’m afraid that, even with the economic damage – which mainly appears to have hit businesses with a severity that’s in inverse proportion to their size – that might not be enough to get our full attention.

• There are going to be some changes made to the UK constituencies by the Boundary Commission in order to ensure that each has roughly the same number of voters. This is caused by people’s irritating habit of moving from one area to another, something I’m sure the government would stop if it could. Certainly, it would wish that there hadn’t been quite the demographic drift from north to south that the revised proposals suggest, with London, the South East and the South West gaining 12 seats. In practice, this will make very little difference as, due to our electoral system, most votes are wasted anyway.

• There are a huge number of things that I know nothing about and can’t do, or can only do so badly that it’s really safer for me not even to try. One of these is computer coding. I use computers every day but have absolutely no understanding of what goes on under the bonnet of my Mac. My excuse is that I never learnt this when young. Of course, they didn’t really exist then. In the late 70s, Cambridge University had one computer (a Phoenix) which was, I think, about the size of a Routemaster bus and about as quiet. A friend who’s now a Professor of Computing there (Cambridge has bought a few more computers since then) told me that a £50 android phone would have more of everything – processing power, RAM and storage. Good therefore to see the Code Ninjas in Newbury (and elsewhere) is helping to get kids interested in this from an early age. If future generations are as ignorant as I am about this then we’re really going to be in trouble…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 38 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 31 May to 6 June, down seven on the week before. This equates to 24 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 30 (17 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a much more local level to be obtained.

• As I’ve mentioned several times, local councils have done pretty well during the pandemic. There are either two or three levels of these depending on where you live and the relationship between the various tiers has a lot of potential for friction and misunderstanding. West Berkshire Council will shortly be launching a consultation with its 60-odd parishes inviting them to suggest what works well, what works less well and what can be improved. This will not be a public consultation but if you’re aware of any particular issue in this relationship which you think may have slipped you parish council’s mind, you might want to let them know.

• West Berkshire Council has drawn our attention to the  – deep breath – Digital Innovation and Technology at the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Places and Transport (ADEPT) President’s Awards. which “was given to the authority and its partners in recognition of the success of the Thames Valley Berkshire Smart Cities Cluster project,” the partners in question being the other five Berkshire authorities. However, the casual reader looking at the robust phrasing of the first sentence – “West Berkshire Council has beaten out local authorities from across the country to win an award” – would be forgiven for thinking this was something WBC had accomplished on its own. You can read the statement here.

• The same council has also launched a Welcome Back Business Grant (not to be confused with the similarly-named national scheme, which has very specific aims), details of which you can see here. This provides “a one-off grant of up to £10,000 to implement temporary changes to welcome additional visitors and encourage more footfall into independent small and medium sized businesses.” At a recent webinar on the subject, one criticism of the scheme, from Newbury BID, was that successful applicants had to fund the work themselves and then claim the money back from WBC. This would not work for companies which had insufficient cash. WBC seems unwilling to pay many up front, and I can see that concern. Is it not possible that the council can pay contractors directly or that some other organisation could provide bridging loans? otherwise, the risk is that the scheme will rule out those firms most in need of help.

• Another source of grant funding is also available, this time for councils and available through the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for the Safer Streets campaign, as reported on p12 of this week’s NWN. West Berkshire Council has recently appointed a Safer Streets Champion, Claire Rowles, and I called her to ask about this. “This is a new post at WBC,” she told me, “and the first thing is to do some research and feedback from residents to find out what and where the problems are. In some cases it might not be money but closer co-operation with existing groups like parish councils, schools and the Police that will create lasting improvements.”

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.

• On 7 June 2021, West Berkshire Council reviewed the need to conduct surge testing in the district due to the increase in the number of Delta cases and resulting surge testing being undertaken in the neighbouring authorities of Reading and Wokingham. The decision was made “not to activate its surge testing programme in West Berkshire at this time because very few cases of the Delta variant, first detected in India, have been identified in the district.” Click here for more.

• And still with WBC, the Council has launched a new campaignRespect our Parks and Open Spaces.

Click here for information about Carers’ Week (7-13 June) in West Berkshire.

• 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.

Click here for the latest Covid 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 animals of the week are these humpback whales filmed by a drone off the coast of New South Wales. That’s one big pod.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those mentioned elsewhere, the Kennet Centre plans, public transport, voter ID cards (what a stupid idea) and polluting companies.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Wroughton Infant School (thanks to Bellway); various Berkshire charities (thanks to the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group); Newbury Gardens Day Nursery (thanks to David Wilson Homes); Parkinsons UK and the Brain Tumour Charity (thanks to Dominic Ward, Rupert Elwes, Rob Sugden and Harry Jack); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And man alive, here we are at the Song of the Week. Thanks, not to the first time, to Prof JC for yet again pointing me to something I hadn’t heard before: Colors by the Black Pumas. Even though the start of the song is pretty damn r’n’b mellow, about half-way through you get to hear a Telecaster in full cry, which in the right hands is a lovely thing to listen to.

• So it’s time for the Comedy Sketch of the Week. the TV show Twenty Twelve, starring amongst others Hugh “Downton Abbey” Bonneville and the now ubiquitous Olivia Coleman, concerned the well-meaning but not terribly competent fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. This scene, Multiculturality, will particularly resonate with anyone who has tried to write a press release by committee.

• And we come to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How many different countries have one the European Championship (which starts this week)? Last week’s question was: What do the years 1066, 1483, 1689 and 1936 have in common, as far as England is concerned? As Ian Hall from Ashampstead (and perhaps others of you) spotted, in these years there were three monarchs on the throne: all other years have had to make do with one and occasionally two. I could have added 1016 but when one goes back too far before the Norman Conquest, this kind of thing gets a bit more uncertain.

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