Weekly News with Brian 8-15July 2021

This Week with Brian

This week, Brian discusses a written-off day, pessimism, Danish sandcastles, pandemic legacies, land trusts, a Covid paradox, major litigation, a very British conclusion, DC and the PM again, hidden cameras, diverse opinions, Timelord 2, Dad’s Army, sea lions, exquisite drumming, Nebraska and George Smiley.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including an error in Hungerford, a festival thumbs-up in East Garston, land bids in Newbury, litter in Membury, development in Thatcham, a possible nature reserve in Boxford, tug-of-war in Wantage, memories in Grove, yarn bombing in Marlborough, a closure (or not) in Swindon, an al fresco meeting in Stratfield Mortimer, Readibus, CIL, EV charge points and several consultations – plus our usual tour of the parish and town council websites.

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 combination of a Mac that’s about to die on me (sometimes takes 10 minutes to open up MS Word or Photoshop and then locks up, amongst other naughty things) and the football has basically written off Wednesday (and explains the comparative brevity of this section)

[more below] 

A new Mac has been procured but I know that setting it up is going to be a nightmare of its own. Passwords won’t work, applications won’t re-install, files won’t copy…I know this will happen because (a) despite having used Macs for decades, I don’t really know what I’m doing; (b) it’s all happened before; and (c) I’m a pessimist. The second two also perfectly describe what it’s like being a football-loving Englishman. OK, Wednesday worked out but I can’t see our beating Italy after the way they played against Spain.

• Being pessimistic by nature, as I am (and Penny is not) leads to a number of evils, of which pessimism becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy is the most potent. I try to apply a distinction, however, between the things I can control and the things I can’t. I can control how many lengths I swim each week, how well I can write a song or a story or a column or how effectively I can conduct business arrangements. I therefore try to impose some realistic optimism on these. I cannot, however, control the outcome of general elections, global catastrophes or football or cricket fixtures. The great thing about thinking the worst will happen (as in my experience with the above it often does) is that from time to time you are pleasantly surprised: the rest is merely a confirmation of the expectation of failure. Optimists, on the other hand, must spend a lot of their time in tears. This seems a useful almost-reversal of Pascal’s wager, which suggests that you might as well believe in god as, if he doesn’t exist, then your view doesn’t matter but, if he does, then it matters very much. Pessimists can be happy as well: we just pick our moments.

• One definition of optimism, however, would seem to be suing Google, Facebook and Twitter at the same time and expecting success. That’s what PotUS XLV Donald Trump has decided to do on the grounds that he was censored by them. Actually, he said it was “a very beautiful development for our freedom of speech,” the word “beautiful” being one of which Trump is particularly fond. I wonder if he’s getting Rudy Giuliani to lead his legal team. One of the most memorable phrases from the protracted US election and its aftermath was that “Americans have decided that they want a President they can have on in the background,” not something that could be said about Trump during his time in office. Biden seems to be on in the background: then again I haven’t been following events there that closely. That’s probably for the best. When the USA is on the front pages too often it’s generally bad news.

• The Covid regulations are relaxing but the infections are soaring, a seeming paradox that can be made sense of only by the fact that vaccinations continue to be taken up, and appear to work (judging by deaths and hospital admissions), and the fact that the PM has decided that if we don’t relax now we might not do it until next year. If the number of cases gets up to the level of January’s peak (over 60,000 a day) then we could be in for a lot of long Covid cases (perhaps 5% of those infected), which appears to strike, if not at random, then at least in ways we don’t yet understand. There’s also what seems to be a disparity between the easing of restrictions and the easing of quarantine regulations: if double-jabbed people who’ve tested negative are going to be locked up at home until mid-August this could undo many of the economic benefits that the re-opening promises, to say nothing of the pressure on the NHS, and will doubtless lead to widespread non-compliance. The Guardian suggests that as many as 10m people could be forced to self-isolate over the rest of the summer.

• Another thing that the new measures seem to be relying on is people’s good judgment and common sense. These haven’t always been in evidence over the last 18 months and in any case tend to dissolve rapidly in alcohol.

• Meanwhile, the loose ex-cannon that is Dominic Cummings has recently claimed that the government is ignoring scientific advice in re-opening on 19 July; also that BoJo himself admitted that it would be “ludicrous” were he to become PM. This is in addition to DC’s claims that it was crazy he was employed by the government in the way he was, that Matt Hancock should have been sacked numerous times and that the PM had said his then Health Secretary was “totally fucking hopeless”. I know all too well that you never know how much you’re capable of hating someone until you work with them in a time of crisis or financial loss: but if even half – a quarter – of all the allegations that have been flying around are true, and if these relationships are typical, it makes you wonder how anything in government got done at all. These kind of feelings don’t come from nowhere. I guess that power, like money, is a kind of superglue for dysfunctional relationships. If you can keep a healthy balance sheet and avoid serious problems you can get on with people you hate or distrust indefinitely. Take either of these away, however, and everything falls apart very fast.

• The MD column in the latest Private Eye observes “how British” the end of Matt Hancock’s time as Health Secretary was, coming not because of a series of alleged professional errors and misjudgments (which are listed) but because of being caught in a clinch with his girlfriend in his office. The Daily Mail quotes former cabinet ministers Alan Johnson and Rory Stewart as saying there had never been cameras in their offices during their time in government. How do they know? One has to assume that, unless Mr Hancock was into something a bit weird, that he thought the same. This won’t be last we hear of him, or of her, as questions are piling up about the awards of jobs and contracts in which Mr Hancock was involved, including Gina Coladangelo’s appointment. If even a fraction of the stories about dodgy procurement reported in Private Eye‘s Profits of Doom section, and in other media sources, are true then any enquiry is certainly badly needed.

• Going back, sort of, to football, Denmarks’ excellent team may have lost to us but in the field of sandcastle building the Danes are world champions, as this brief video shows. 21m high is impressive.

• An increasingly common reaction to any event that is remotely pleasing is the creation of a campaign to have this commemorated with a national holiday. I’ve just received the preposterous suggestion from Change.org that this happen if (big if) England wins the Euros. Goodness me, if they did this in Germany or Brazil every time the country won a tournament no one would get any work done at all.

• And still with one hand and one eye on the various web pages relating to Wednesday’s result, there’s an interesting article on the BBC website about how Gareth Southgate has embraced diverse opinions, something the FA is not famous for. The article suggests that corporations like Google also realised that “innovation was drying up” as a result of recruiting people whose attitudes and backgrounds matched those of the people recruiting them. This tended to produce the echo-chamber effect, which all regular users of Facebook will be well aware. Back in the day, I recruited a lot of people for a publishing company for which I ran the editorial and production side and can see the truth in this. My main determining factor was to pick people I could get on with. This could be translated as a lazy management attitude as these people either already shared my views or seemed to be amenable to adapting to them. Having reached a certain position of power, I wasn’t prepared to welcome people who might challenge it. I suspect this puts me on a par with about 98% of other employers. It takes a brave person to realise that the qualities that got them to where they are might not be the ones to get things to next level. Excuse me for a moment while I go away and re-evaluate my life…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 191 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 28 June to 4 July, up 73 on the week before. This equates to 121 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 212 (122 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• West Berkshire Council has three offices: in Market Street, West Street and West Point. The plan is to consolidate these all into the main Market Street block, this being, as Chief Executive Nick Carter said earlier this week, a long-term aspiration which had been accelerated by the home-working experiments demanded by Covid. The aim is that all staff will be expected to work in the office at least one day a week but that anyone who wants to work there all the time – and 20% of staff have said they either cannot or do not wish to work from home – will be able to do so. Free parking spaces for staff will also be reduced, active (or public-transport) travel being encouraged. Employees who live close to central Newbury or near places that have good bus or train links to it are more likely to lose their free spaces at the expense of those who do not or who need cars to do their jobs (which is likely to involve some subjective and unpopular decisions). The move is, Nick Carter claimed, likely to cut WBC’s carbon footprint and a spokesperson later confirmed that this would be “740 tonnes of CO2 per annum. This equates to a reduction in the Council’s carbon footprint of 6.3%.  78% of this reduction is estimated to come from transport and 22% from accommodation. These figures are based on a 2019/20 baseline.” It was also likely to save an estimated £400,000pa, and more in the long term as the West Street site needs major renovation. Nick Carter also said that the long-term plan was to move the whole council operation to a more sustainable and efficient site: this would still be in Newbury and WBC has committed to remaining there.

All of this seems sensible, although it does raise some questions. The first is that having office space that can accommodate only, say, 60% of the staff at any one time is likely to be risky if more decide that they wish to work there (as would be their right). The result might be some overspill facility which would lead back to exactly the same situation that exists at present. The second is that the carbon reduction applies to WBC’s own figures but takes no account of what future tenants of the West Street site might consume. If the building is inefficient then it makes little difference who is using it. I shall raise these points with him (if he hasn’t read them himself and responded) and let you know. One question I did raise was whether WBC would succumb to the commercial landlord’s temptation of using permitted development rights (which effectively by-pass the planning system) to convert the West Street offices into tiny studio flats for sale as pied-à-terres, which satisfies immediate financial gains and ticks boxes at the expense of providing the kind of housing the area needs. He assured me that it would not.

• The main takeaway (in modern parlance) I had from this is that the whole relocation project is known internally as Timelord 2 (what happened to Timelord 1?) It’s impossible to accuse any scheme with a name like this of lacking ambition.

• A reminder that West Berkshire Council has launched a six-week consultation (ending 4 August) into the draft Berkshire West Health and Wellbeing Strategy. See here for more details. This “aims to drive positive change to tackle the underlying causes of poor health and wellbeing across West Berkshire, Reading and Wokingham (the three local authorities within the Berkshire West Integrated Care Partnership).”

• WBC has announced a second round of grants for local infrastructure projects proposed by community groups for the benefit of their residents and businesses. In March, WBC approved over £495,000 in community grants ranging from £10,000 to £100,000. Successful bids included the renovation of village halls, clubs, and scout halls and improvements to sports and playground facilities. The new funding pot will come from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funds set aside for the 2022-23 element of the three-year capital programme established by the 2021-22 WBC budget. Bids are now invited from community groups to be received by Tuesday 31 August. Final decisions will be made as part of the 2022-23 budget debate next year. Click here for more.

• Local MP Laura Farris invites everyone in the Newbury constituency to join her pre-COP26 forum which she will be hosting next Friday 16 July from 2.00 to 3.30pm. Please email laura.farris.mp@parliament.uk if you want to join. “A number of great speakers are lined up,” she said on her FB page. “They’ll be talking about everything from re-wilding to transport decarbonisation and it will be an excellent opportunity to bring residents, community groups and national and local experts together. I would love to hear from you all at the event.”

• You can keep up to date with what Laura Farris is up to (or, at least, what she puts on her FB page) by clicking here.

• As the private sector is not able to build a sufficiency of affordable homes, and most councils now don’t build any homes at all and many young people and essential workers are being priced out of accommodation (particularly in areas like West Berkshire), one option is for communities to sort matters out for themselves. A free seminar on 16 July organised by Connecting Communities in Berkshire will look at how parish councils and other bodies can set themselves up as a community land trust and help solve this problem for themselves.

• It’s already clear that there are going to be several pandemic legacies (increased home working, “amusing” face masks and the word “zoom” used as a verb are three). Another is booking systems for services for which you previously just turned up at. Hungerford Leisure Centre, which I go to about four times a week, requires swimming slots to be reserved in advance. At first I found this irksome but then got used to it: so I wasn’t at all dismayed when I was told that they’ll probably keep it going. I can see there are benefits to both users and organisers in knowing how busy the place is likely to be in advance. A similar situation exists at WBC’s recycling centres in Newbury and Padworth where the booking system is set to be retained: assuming a survey last month was representative, 70% of people were in favour of this. More controversial is the retention of the limit of one visit per week.

I spoke to the portfolio holder, Steve Ardagh-Walter about this. He said that there was a slight element of “nudging behaviour”, the implication being that people were making several part-loaded trips when one fully-loaded one would be more efficient. That’s fair enough as all layers of government are entitled to nudge, covertly or otherwise. However, the once-a-week rule seems to be based on a logical fallacy. If you’re doing DIY or garden clearance, you might create more than one car load of stuff and probably don’t want to have it sitting around for ages while you disposed of a part each week – you might prefer to make two or three trips in one day and get it all sorted and then perhaps not go back for a year. Steve A-W said that exceptions could be made in such cases but this would involve the tedious business of going online to request it, and officers’ time in deciding whether or not to grant it. Much better would be not to limit visits to one a week but to 13 a quarter. This would create exactly the same nudged result, require exactly the same booking system with a small tweak and be more in line with what people are likely to want. The point has also been raised by Lib Dem Councillor Jeff Brooks that the restriction represents a reduction in the service. This is true but, with the variation I suggested, I doubt many people would be inconvenienced. Going to the tip can hardly be classed as a popular lesiure activity. Another aspect is that, if the booking system is partly for the convenience of the staff, the staff in question work for Veolia, not WBC. Might that therefore result in a reduction of what WBC pays Veolia, or an extension of another aspect of the service such as slightly longer opening hours?

• West Berkshire Council is extending its Free School Meal voucher scheme into the school summer holiday period (25 days in total) for eligible children.

• This year’s Library Summer Reading Challenge started on 1 July with an environment theme that “will inspire children to stand up for the future of our planet.”

Click here for information about lateral flow tests available in West Berkshire.

• In the 2021 spring holiday, 15 primary schools took part in a new trial to provide children aged between five and 11 who receive free school meals with fun activities which also taught them how to keep fit and healthy. The Department for Education has given West Berkshire Council more funding to expand the Holiday and Food Activity (HAF) programme to a further 13 schools. In addition, there are plans for community activities for children aged 12 and over. More details here.

• 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 for initiatives from Vale of White Horse Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council and the various towns and parishes.

Click here to visit the website for West Berkshire Council’s Community Support Hub. You can also 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 sea lion that photo-bombed an interview (about sea lions) in Chile.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes correspondence on the subjects of the Kennet Centre/Eagle Quarter, face masks, expense claims, road building, undermining democracy and why Newbury can have a bridge but Thatcham seemingly can’t.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Tree of Life (thanks to Chantal Dean); Action for Children (thanks to Beale Park); The Downs School (thanks to the recent colour run); Prostate Cancer UK (thanks to Toby Bartlett); local schools (thanks to Greenham Trust’s Laptops for Learning scheme); several local charities (thanks to the East Garston fete).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re at cruising altitude with the Song of the Week. A friend sent me a link to something I hadn’t heard before: smooth jazz with some seriously good drumming (which reminds me of the Purdie shuffle favoured by last week’s choice, Steely Dan). It’s a whole album I’m offering, so if you like the first track you can just keep going: The ACT Years by Terri Lyne Carrington (who’s also the drummer).

• Time to fasten our seatbelts for the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Others may disagree but in my view there has never been a sitcom that’s come close to Dad’s Army. This is one of the most famous scenes but I could have picked a hundred others which have delighted me: Don’t tell him, Pike.

• And we come into land with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: In Le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, what was George Smiley’s nickname from the words of the nursery rhyme? Last week’s question was: Which is the only triple landlocked US state (ie you have to pass through three other states to reach the sea)? The answer is Nebraska – so, if you’re planning a beach or surfing holiday, you can cross this state right off your list.

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