Weekly News with Brian 17-24 June 2021

This Week with Brian

Heaven must wait, self-interested altruism with Doctor Jab-Jab, a low star sinks lower, corporate defensiveness, a perfect storm, unpacking grenades, variant Ringo, a trip to Middle Earth, regulation 19 on ice, good causes. a once-in-a-century vulture, a sledgehammer, ten winners and twenty twelve revisited.

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

Matters covered here include a worship of Mayors in Hungerford, a boardwalk in Froxfield, permitted discharges in the Lambourn, water pressure in Woodlands, battle lines at the Newbury Showground, a surprising development in Thatcham, a cat burglar in Burghfield, a hornet in Hamstead Marshall, scam recovery in Wantage, an orchard in Marlborough, a consultation in Compton, a protest in Swindon, an alliance to the north east of Thatcham, Sandleford, Readibus and urban explorers –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

• So, freedom day has been denied us, most newspapers falling over each other in an attempt to show what perfidy this represents by HMG. Some argue that with death rates running at about 15-20 a day and with hospitalisations rising far more slowly than the number of cases, the economic and societal damage of another four weeks of restrictions will be worse than the Covid risks, considering that over 30 million of us are now double jabbed. [more below] 

None the less, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Earlier this year, the government set out four tests, all of which needed to be passed before the next stage could be moved to. Three (vaccine progress, the effectiveness of these and the lack of NHS pressure) would seem to have been met: the fourth (new variants) clearly has not.

None the less, the PM persists in giving mixed messages. 21 June was a date fixed in most people’s head, despite the fact that the government would be guided by “data not dates”. On this occasion, the data has won. However, he said this week that he was “confident” that the new 19 July date wouldn’t be missed. Why make himself a hostage to fortune yet again? He’s fond of displaying his classical erudition and so will know that, after Delta, there are 20 further letters in the Greek alphabet after which the variants are now named. These weren’t called John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason – there’ll be more than four of them and probably more than 24. Indeed, The Mirror suggested last month that the UK government was watching 27 variants, which already takes us well past Omega. Naming them after Beatles’ songs might be a better answer. If this were done alphabetically, Delta would become the All My Loving variant. OK, perhaps this idea needs a bit of work…

• Which leads to the extent to which the vaccination programme is being evenly spread. According to The New York Times (quoting Our World in Data), as of 14 June 70% of the vaccines globally had been administered in just six of the world’s 225-odd countries – China, India, the USA, Brazil, the UK and Germany (which account for about 44% of the world’s population). Only the the USA and the UK have anything close to 50% of the population “fully vaccinated” (a misleading term, perhaps, as it implies full protection) although in the UK at least about 80% have antibodies as a result of one or two jabs or previous infection. India has only double jabbed, less than 4% of its population; Brazil only 11%. (China’s figures don’t differentiate between the number of first and second doses, perhaps because it is relying on a one-jab solution). In all, about 2.4 billion vaccines have been administered. The world’s population is the best part of eight billion. This would require (assuming two jabs) 16 billion vaccines. However, these don’t confer lifelong immunity, unlike exposure to measles. It may be, therefore, that this is the kind of number that will be required, perhaps modified to take account of new strains, each year

The G7’s pledge to supply a billion vaccines to poorer nations by the end of 2022 therefore doesn’t seem to do that much to dent this problem. It should be possible to produce enough of this things. The problem may be (as well as the cost) sorting out the distribution issues, which in some areas of the world are extreme. It’s perhaps fortunate that the virus has so far most affected countries with mobile populations which tend also to be richer, and thus better able to respond.

This goes beyond altruism or morality. All the major variants that have emerged so far have spread quickly and effectively thousands of miles from where the mutation was first identified. The bigger the hotspot, the more likely it is that something will emerge that is perhaps more virulent but certainly more transmissible (were it not, it would not be spreading) than its predecessor. Where this happens is almost irrelevant as sooner or later it will end up everywhere else. Think of our own written communication methods. Letters, then faxes, then emails, then social media in turn increased our power to spread information and so we gravitated towards using them at the expense of the others. A Facebook post is a lot more transmissible than the three that preceded it, and so this method has thrived; the same can be said of the Delta variant. Further variants of both will emerge which will succeed or not on exactly this criteria. Their similarity is proved by the enduring use of the phrase “going viral” for a post or whatever that  succeeds in replicating quickly. Whether a Facebook post is more virulent than a letter or the Delta variant more virulent than the Alpha is slightly beside the point – for both, transmission is everything and damn the content.

Dominic Cummings appears to be unpacking his grenades slowly. His latest contribution was the suggestion that the PM had called Matt Hancock “totally hopeless.” There was another word, of six or seven letters, between these two that was redacted – what could that have been? Were Commings to have lived in an earlier age, he would probably now be dead: medieval and Tudor monarchs didn’t put up with this kind of disloyalty. Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile has hailed Hancock as a “genius”. So that’s cleared that up, then.

• The hapless David Cameron appears to have achieved an ignominy possibly unique in British politics. Most PMs who resign as a result of an election or, in his case, a referendum defeat enjoy a later honeymoon period in which their career is re-evaluated more favourably: even Gordon Brown, who never won an election, benefitted from this. Cameron, however, has accomplished the seemingly impossible by having his star sink even lower than it was when he left office (which was pretty low). The Sunday Times reported on 13 June that he would be “singled out” when the findings of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of the effectiveness of standards regulation in England were published. The summary now has been, and the ex-PM was accorded his promised time in the sun in clause 74.

This addressed the concern about “the transparency of informal lobbying” by which “routine phone calls or texts” do not need to be reported. This is why Cameron’s “deluge” of WhatsApp messages and texts were not included in departmental disclosures. This seems bonkers, particularly as the report goes on to admit that informal lobbying “appears to be an increasingly common way for external organisations to attempt to influence government.” It remains to be seen what limits will be placed on ex-ministers and how effective these will be. Not many and not very is my guess.

• Then we have a similar story concerning the donations made to the Conservatives by John Bloor of Bloor Homes which, as The Sunday Times suggested on 13 June (and other papers, including the Mirror, have done since), seem to bear an uncomfortable temporal relationship with the favourable outcome of planning applications called in to be decided by the Secretary of State (essentially the highest form of appeal for a problematic or controversial development). Both these adjectives could fairly be applied to the Sandleford application in Newbury, which The Sunday Times cites, the inquiry into which by the Planning Inspectorate on behalf of the Secretary of State has recently concluded. A member of the Say No to Sandleford campaign group penned this article for Penny Post last week which makes just the same point about influence (among other matters).

• Another point the article makes – and which is echoed in an excellent piece by local campaigner Julie Mabberley in this week’s Wantage & Grove Herald – is that the government’s claims that the planning system is over-complex and that, by implication, the planning authorities are the villains of the piece are utter tosh. A bigger kink in the hose is the result of over 1.1 million permissions – about six times more than were built last year – being being sat on by developers because it isn’t yet convenient for them to build them. (They’re private companies, after all, not agents of government policy.)

• The private sector is very good at building houses with four-plus bedrooms in new estates and studio or one-bed flats in commercial conversions under permitted development rights. More problematic are two- and three-bedroom homes, for sale or for affordable rent. These are, however, exactly the kind of properties that couples with young children need and which are already in short supply. The existing problem has been made a lot worse recently, certainly in this part of the country, by the perfect storm of (i) the end of the ban on eviction orders; (ii) an over-heated sales market, fuelled by the Stamp Duty holiday and the general rush to the country which appears to have persuaded some landlords not to renew leases but to cash in on their asset/s; and (iii) the reluctance of some other landlords to give tenancies to people on benefits, even though this discrimination is not lawful (though loopholes exist) and even though these have recently had a lower rate of default than private tenures as they are underwritten by the government’s UC payments.

I spoke to Nina Clark, whose lettings company has operated in the Hungerford area for many years. “We’ve had an increasing number of calls from West Berkshire Council’s Housing Options team – who are all superbly efficient and friendly, by the way,” she told me. “A lot of the questions are the same, about two- or three-bedroom properties. Increasingly, I find myself giving the same answer, that I currently hardly have any on my books. My message to anyone who might have come into such a property is that there’s never been a better time to rent – if so, please get in touch.” As market inequalities have a way of adjusting themselves, it’s to be hoped that by the end of the year the situation might have eased slightly. However, the underlying problem is the lack of supply, which will take years to work through to the purchaser or tenant.

• We’re told that the Metropolitan Police is not institutionally corrupt, despite evidence recently provided at an enquiry into the Daniel Morgan case which dates all the way back to 1987 and which said that “the Met had put protecting its own reputation above finding Mr Morgan’s killer.” As a relatively new convert to Line of Duty (we’ve just finished series two) I find the statement all too easy to believe. Involvement in any organisation has the effect of institutionalising us and making its needs seem more important than anything else.

As for Line of Duty, I learned this week that HM the Queen is an avid fan. This strikes me as slightly odd – I can understand her being into Downton Abbey, which she also is (“so she can point out the mistakes” according to The Times) but Line of Duty is a bit close to home as it considers how her law-and-order representatives behave. I suppose this proves how good she is at suspending disbelief and following Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still be able to function. I think this a grown-up way of describing multi-tasking: which, as I’m a man, I am unable to do.

• This proves yet another example of corporate defensiveness (I’m talking now about the Met’s behaviour, not my two-dimensional mind or the Queen’s viewing habits). The government, the Post Office, the BBC, the NHS with its whistleblowers, several local councils and now the country’s main police force – all seem to have as their first reaction a closing of ranks around a problem rather than any attempt to deal with what caused it. All seem also to be horrified at the though of any kind of external scrutiny. I’m sure this isn’t unique to these organisations, nor to this country. One of Paul Morgan’s relatives told the investigative panel that “at almost every step, we found ourselves lied to, fobbed off, bullied, degraded and let down time and time again.” The statement could as equally have been said by anyone who has suffered at the hands of any of the others.

• Come to think of it, UEFA is another outfit that could easily be added to the list. The latest controversy is its statement that players who move bottled drinks of which they don’t approve away from their tables at press conferences will get fined. The money won’t hurt players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba but it does seem slightly dumb in these super-woke times to expect a Muslim to effectively endorse a type of lager. The sponsors call the shots and pump in the money which pays the players and covers the fines which goes back to UEFA and probably back to the sponsors as some kind of penalty payment for dissing their products so it probably all evens out.

• I got the fright of my life just now when I clicked on the wrong tab on the BBC website and came across this. After thinking for a few seconds that brain had packed up or that I’d been transported to Middle Earth, I realised I was looking at the BBC Scotland website in Gaelic. I spect a few unprofitable minutes wondering how “Atharrachaidhean ann an taic-airgid bho Bhòrd na Gàidhlig” was pronounced and what it meant. I was getting nowhere fast so clicked back to the English site, which suddenly seemed both rather dull and quite comforting by comparison…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 61 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 7-13 June, up 23 on the week before. This equates to 38 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 44 (30 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a much more local level to be obtained.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that is has obtained “high recognition for record-keeping about its historic environment” from Historic England. I’m not saying it ain’t so, but none of the links in the press release take me to the results of any report which confirms the statement that “West Berkshire Council’s Historic Environment Record was audited by Historic England in 2020-21 and obtained the highest and second highest rating in all four service areas.” [Since writing this, WBC has contacted me to point out that once of the links did take me to a Historic England document, with two further clicks taking me to this page: which confirms what WBC said (which I never doubted but I always like to check). The areas for future work include the digitisation of the reference collection. I’m happy to set the record straight on this.]

As mentioned, last week, 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.

• The next stage of the consultation on West Berkshire Council’s local plan (known as regulation 19) was to have started by now but it seems it’s been pushed back until at least October. One of the reasons, I understand, is that there has been a very large number of comments, many of very detailed and some handwritten. I imagine a good number of these would have referred to the 2,500-home plan for Thatcham. It’s always possible that the senior officers and Executive members are taking advantage of the pause to say: “let’s just go over this again and make absolutely certain this is really the brilliant idea we thought at the time…”

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 (and confirmed on 14 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. See also this post

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

• 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 animal of the week is this Egyptian vulture which the BBC suggests has been seen in the UK for the first time in more than 150 years. (The article also quotes a twitcher as saying that it’s a “once in a century” sighting – both these statements can’t be true).

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those mentioned elsewhere, lacrosse, Soviet gulags, Sandleford, greenfield v brownfield, London Road and the new football ground.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Guys Hospital (thanks to Julie Mullins); several charities (thanks to the pop-up shop at St Peter’s Church in Marlborough); Hungerford Town FC, Parenting Special Children, The Living Rainforest, West Berkshire Mencap and the West Berkshire Therapy Centre (thanks to Greenham Trust’s double match funding day); the Newbury Soup Kitchen (thanks to the Newbury Freemasons); the Wessex Cancer Trust (thanks to customers at the Rendezvous restaurant at the Basongstoke and North Hants Hospital); Lambourn British Legion (thanks to the Armed Forces Covenant Trust Fund); Parkinson’s UK (thanks to Johnny Pride).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• Lordy, here we are at the Song of the Week. We all have a handful of songs with personal emotional associations so powerful that even a mention of the title is enough to bring the past flooding back. One of mine is Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel. I’m not going to tell you why. Great song (and great video).

• So it’s time for the Comedy Sketch of the Week. I enjoyed the Twenty Twelve extract I suggested last week so much that here’s another: Way to Go.

• And we come to land with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Who is the only person to have directed both his father and his daughter to an Oscar-winning performance? Last week’s question was: How many different countries have won the European Championship? The answer is 10 (Germany, Spain and France – the only multiple winners – plus once each for the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark and Greece). I do not see there being a new name on the cup this time around.

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