Weekly News with Brian 15-22 July 2021

This Week with Brian

This week, Brian discusses sick Macs, all the memory you’ll ever need, ties or no ties, penalties, representation, rising stats, racist drivel, self-interested altruism, masks and masks, two domains of discourse, the American solution, an extra wave, chronic hiccups, mad, bad and dangerous, beggar man and reacting to a new road.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including Hungerford’s roundabout issues, Great Shefford’s flood delays, Lambourn’s newsletter, Newbury’s ground and show ground, Thatcham’s physical separation, Wantage’s pedestrianisation, Marlborough’s recycling, Swindon’s petition, Beenham’s green light, Stratfield Mortimer’s refresh, Compton’s deadline, the Hound of the Baskervilles, CIL, swimming and Eagle Quarter – 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

• For those of you who have been fretting and losing sleep over my Mac problems (see last week), I can give the reassuring news that I am now fully digital again. The speed with which the new one does stuff makes me wonder how I put up with the old one for so long.

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Everything slowed down by tiny degrees, each creating a new and very slightly worse normality: rather like the ageing process. It was when Photoshop took ten minutes to launch last week that I realised something was seriously wrong. Fortunately I found a superb Mac expert who came here and copied everything over and set the new one up for me. He’s been working with these things for the last 30-odd years and so knows his stuff – if anyone has a Mac which needs some TLC, email me at brian@pennypost.org.uk and I’ll give you his details.

• It’s strange thing but every top-of-the-range desktop Mac has always cost about £2,500: a sum you need to think carefully about now but one which, 30-odd years ago, put you into bank-loan territory. In the late ’80s I was running the production and editorial side of a publishing company and was getting fed up with the crazy typesetting coding system we were using and the even crazier typesetters, grumpy old dinosaurs who didn’t work on Friday afternoons and never returned your calls and whose mood wasn’t improved by the growing fear that their skills was about to be swept away for good. I persuaded my fellow directors we needed to spend about £25,000 on a Mac network: an obvious choice as very few page layout and graphics programmes were then available on PCs. The big day arrived and the kit was installed. At the heart of it all was the server, a Mac 2 as I remember, a tiny screen on top of a box about the size of a deep-freeze drawer. “How much data can it store?” someone asked. He beamed round at us. “40 megabytes,” he said reverentially. “All you’ll ever need.”

• There was a time, and perhaps it’s with us still, when your type of job was defined by what kind of computer you used. In the ’90s it was hard to escape the impression that in general PC users (or the male ones at least) wore ties to work and Mac users didn’t. I’ve never owned a PC and have terrible problems when I try to use one. I pretend this is just because of unfamiliarity but I suspect a strong trait of rather unattractive snobbery is at work. I have absolutely no curiosity about how any electronic or mechanical object works and so am fairly useless at fixing them and stick to what I know. I accept that this isn’t a very attractive trait either. Still, I never said I was perfect.

• It’s also true that England’s footballers are not perfect at taking penalties but, then again, the whole thing is such a lottery, etc, etc (and one we never seem to win). The Italians were unaccountably chaotic in the first half and, if we’d scored another goal then, we’d have walked away with it. The second half was the other way round, extra time about even. Quite why, with a minute to go of extra time, Southgate brought on two players just to take penalties will have to be filed under “seemed like a good idea at the time.” I remember the Brazilian Zico, a renowned penalty expert, being subbed on during a World Cup game in the ’90s just after a spot kick was awarded and promptly missing it. Too much pressure.

It’s also statistically unfortunate that the two England players who scored penalties were white and the three who missed were black, so creating a wonderful false syllogism to justify all the racist drivel that has poured out of social media over the last few days. Doesn’t take much, does it? If it were a boxing match, I think Italy just shaded it on points and I have to admit they were worthy winners. However, this is the best England team, and the best manager, I can remember. Southgate has his own penalty-taking horror film from his time as a player but I hope he’ll be able to stay around for a while yet. Work in progress. Hopefully the 55-year gap between finals will be shortened as I don’t think I can wait until 2076, when the final of whatever competition it is will probably be played on Mars.

• The government has, with the unsurprising support of ever-loyal Newbury MP Laura Farris, approved a cut in the amount of foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of our GNI, a reduction which The Guardian puts at about £4bn. This is, the newspaper says, “a temporary measure…because of the economic damage from Covid.” Pretty much everyone has suffered from Covid, all over the world. It all seems very short-sighted to me. If Covid (and climate change) has taught us anything it’s that when one of us in the world sneezes we’re all likely, one way or another, to catch a cold. It’s a bit of a cheap and easy shot I know, but this reduction is about what Amazon’s UK corporation tax bill last year would have been were its £17.5bn of UK sales to have been charged at the normal 19% (it actually paid £293m.) Aside from the ethical aspects, there are two major results from increasing global poverty (which this aid reduction is likely to trigger).

The first is that increasingly large numbers of people will want to leave their countries, many ending up being drowned in the English Channel: or, if they survive, being handed over to whatever organ of the state deals with refugees, of which I mercifully have no experience. The other is that poverty breeds bad governance and the appeal of extremism, which breeds civil wars, which breeds regional instability, which often results in the involvement of an army –sometimes ours – at vast expense. This intervention almost invariably makes the situation worse and triggers innumerable instances of the law of unintended consequences.

At such times as we now face, we should be increasing our support for countries less rich than ourselves to enable education, particularly for girls, healthcare and economic self-reliance and seeing it as self-interested altruism. The repetitional damage in this post-Brexit world will also be immense. This decision has shattered any lingering hope that our current government has any kind of moral compass.  If it’s felt that the aid is being spent in the wrong way or ending up in the wrong hands, that’s a separate issue which applies equally it we’re giving £10bn a year or £25. Internal political considerations seem to be the factor here as it doesn’t make any ethical, financial or diplomatic sense to me.

• I don’t want to single out Newbury MP Laura Farris here, but the issue also exposes a fundamental problem with our own system of government. MPs are elected to represent their constituents but, once in Westminster, they are subject to a range of other pressures that leaves them conflicted. If your MP is the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, the PM, a Minister or the leader of any of the other parties, you cannot expect the same level of service. It’s like having a parish priest who also happens to be an Archbishop. If you then add all the members of the governing party who fancy ministerial office and all the members of any party who fancy mounting a coup against their leader and so have their minds on other matters and you’re getting close to a 2/1 or 3/1 shot that your MP is always going to put your interests first. Again, I must stress that I’m not picking anyone out, merely making a general point that political office and democratic representation are fundamentally incompatible. The USA has a better solution, with a complete separation of powers: you can be in Congress or in the government but not both.

We accept the current system in the UK because it’s been around for a long time (which, in this country, tends to make things OK). PMQs, at which the government and the opposition cross swords, is the most visible aspect of life in the Commons but is not a good example of what it does or should do. The current situation, where the government has a comfortable majority, risks undermining parliament’s authority. Both the current and the previous Speaker have made trenchant interventions to defend this. The system, however, permits such “contempt” (not my word but current Speaker Lindsey Hoyle’s).

As for the other aspects of our legislature, we have the House of Lords – an organisation that still includes Anglican clerics and hereditary peers in its cohort and whose members are so numerous that it can only function at all because of the persistent absenteeism of most of those qualified to attend – and, finally, the monarch, who hasn’t refused to ratify legislation since the early 18th century and who seems to exist as a kind of nuclear option in case the government wanted to abolish elections or make Sagittarians walk backwards on Thursdays. So, there we have it: a tricameral legislature, one part dominated by the government, the second a largely impotent anachronism and the third a rubber stamp.

• The PM has recently been back on the levelling-up trail, offering in a recent place “the skeleton of a plan” – perhaps not the happiest image he could have picked – which will, amongst other things “rewrite the rulebook on devolution” and offer local councils “the tools to make things happen for their communities.” The proposed planning reforms seem to be moving in just the opposite direction, as does the rather uncertain way by which local councils are funded. Labour tautologically dismissed the speech as “gibberish nonsense.”

• The country is re-opening next week, at a time when the number of Covid cases is about 10 times higher than it was three months ago (although the hospital admissions and deaths are at about the same level). As about 70% of the population have had one jab and about 53% both (figures that are rising by, currently, about 180,000 a day), this seems to suggest that they work. I know of a few people who aren’t having the jab because of awful reactions from previous inoculations in the past: but for people who object to them on grounds of social engineering, state control, microchip-emplacement, religious fundamentalism or free-floating QAnon-style libertarianism I have no sympathy whatsoever. Just do it. A lot of us are only here at all because our parents had us jabbed against those nasty things like measles.

• One of the changes will be that face coverings won’t be in all cases compulsory in indoor public spaces (though some organisations may still insist on them). However, to suggest that mandatory masks are “an infringement of civil liberties”, as Laura Farris recently did on Newsnight recently, is not a wise or useful observation. This moves the matter into the wrong domain of discourse, turning what is a public-health issue into the much more subjective one of trying to use it to measure our level of personal freedom. The same thing could be said about the smoking ban in pubs, drink-driving laws, wartime rationing and any one of countless other examples of where restrictions need to be placed on our actions to prevent us from harming someone else. In any case, this is a temporary measure and designed to protect and not to enslave.

Moving on from that, one advantage of keeping matters compulsory is that it makes it easier for small shops and the like as they then at least have the law behind them if someone comes in naked-faced. For the foreseeable future, if a shop wants me to wear a mask I shall oblige and may wear one anyway. It could almost be seen as an act of politeness. By extension, Laura Farris’ remarks could be taken as meaning that any shopkeeper who asks that you mask up is making an unreasonable demand of you.

• There are, of course, masks and masks and some are better than others. WBC Councillor Adrian Abbs told Penny Post that he ordered some N99 and FFP3 masks in the early days with a filter capacity of about 99%. However even wrapping a scarf or bandana round your face is better than nothing.

• Adrian also pointed out that back in February 2020 WBC seemed “badly prepared” for what was to come, with no plans then having been made for purchasing PPE kit, for instance. His point is a reasonable one but I would say that any guidance on such issues should have come from Whitehall. I get it that we can all be preparing against every possible risk all the time and that hindsight is a very useful thing, but a large mock pandemic operation (known as Cygnus) had taken place in 2016 which exposed the level of unpreparedness at a national level, which persisted into early 2020. Councillor Abbs has also pointed out that we are currently experiencing not the third wave but the fourth, the previous peaks having been reached in April 2020, November 2020 and January 2021.

• It was impossible to avoid a raised eyebrow (or maybe two) when I read that Brazil’s President Bolsonaro has been admitted to hospital suffering from chronic hiccups. There’s something inherently amusing about hiccups, though doubtless not if you have them chronically. There’s certainly nothing inherently amusing about the Samba-Trump President Bolsonaro. The only time I’ve read of chronic hiccups is in a Somerset Maugham story called P&O. This doesn’t end well for the hiccuper. I seriously doubt that anyone has ever written that exact sentence before. On that high note of unique accomplishment, I shall end this section…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 263 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 5-11 July, up 72 on the week before. This equates to 166 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 304 (212 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 appointed a new CEO, Nigel Lynn, to replace outgoing incumbent Nick Carter, who retires next month.  This statement on WBC’s website describes him as having “a strong track record of leadership in local government having worked at eight local authorities and spending the last 18 years in senior leadership roles. He will arrive from Arun District Council where he has been Chief Executive for the last decade.” Susan Halliwell, one of WBC’s current Executive Directors, will be interim CEO until Mr Lynn is able to take up his new role in the autumn.

Nick Carter has agreed to do an interview with Penny Post which we’ll publish as soon as he can find some time off from his handover responsibilities. This will reveal what the role of CEO in a unitary authority involves, what significant challenges he’s faced in the job and the all-important question of his Desert Island Discs choices of song, book and luxury item. Watch this space.

• I mentioned last week about the booking system at the recycling centres, which will be continuing: less justifiable is the limit on one visit per week. Exemptions can be made, we’re told, but one person who tried to arrange this told me they are still waiting for a call back a week after having asked. The matter was aired at WBC’s Full Council meeting last week, with Lib Dem member Jeff Brooks claiming that it amounts to a reduction in a service which was not consulted on: also that, if it’s nudging residents towards any behavioural change, it’s likely to be less towards re-using waste or fewer vehicle journeys and more towards fly tipping which, he claimed, increased by 30% in 2020 compared to the year before. He also quoted an officer’s response which said that one visit a week was “more than enough for most householders.” This could be translated as “not being enough for some.” As I suggested last week, if there has to be a limit, then 13 visits per quarter rather than one per week makes a lot more sense. Think of your green bin: weeks might go past when there’s very little in it but then you might do some serious hedge-cutting and wish you had three.

One of the arguments advanced by Steve Ardagh-Walter, the portfolio holder, for retaining the booking system was that 70% of the people asked were in favour of it. It’s recently been pointed out to me that the question was only asked of those who arrived at the recycling centres. If so, they had obviously navigated the system and got it to work for them. Were there others who had tried and failed to book a slot and so would have answered differently? If so, then the 70% figure is meaningless. It’s always instructive to peer over the fence and see how the neighbours do things (something that I suspect doesn’t happen as often as it might). Wiltshire Council has decided that it no longer needs a booking system and that this will cease from 19 July.

The other question is for whose benefit this is being done. The above-mentioned officer’s report said that “the one-visit-per-week measure is necessary for us to ensure fairness and that a few customers do not block-book and deny fellow residents the opportunity to secure slots.” This is to admit that an irritating restriction has been added to solve a problem that wouldn’t exist at all if there were no booking system, as was the case pre-Covid. I can see there are advantages in knowing when people will turn up but presumably the busy times are already well known. The only people who seem to benefit from limiting the number of visitors are Veolia, the service providers. If Veolia is getting a benefit from this, what is WBC or the residents getting in return?

• 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).”

A recent statement from West Berkshire Council says that “recent data shows that young people aged 16-17 in West Berkshire are seizing learning, employment and apprenticeship opportunities that are arising as Covid restrictions begin to ease. West Berkshire has the highest percentage of this cohort participating in education, employment or training in Berkshire, and the seventh highest in England.” No sources are provided so it’s impossible to say where this information has come from and thus how accurate the summary is.

• 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 on Friday 16 July from 2.00 to 3.30pm. Please email laura.farris.mp@parliament.uk if you want to join.

• 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.

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 to help solve the problem of the lack of affordable homes for themselves, the private sector having proved to be an indifferent mechanism for providing these.

• 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.

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 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 channel-billed toucan, one of the inhabitants of the Living Rainforest near Hampstead Norreys. The post says that the birds rarely fly more than 100 metres at a time: with a beak that size, I’m surprised they can fly at all.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes correspondence on the subjects of Newbury’s football ground, in defence of private transport, road crossings and reforming the system of MP’s expenses.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Newbury Cancer Care (thanks to the mile of pennies); Brighter Futures (thanks to the Rotary Foundation); Grovelands Park pre-school (thanks to David Wilson Homes); Solent Mind (thanks to Darcy Hunt); Help for Heroes (thanks to Falkland Cricket Club); numerous local charities and community groups (thanks to Newbury Town Council); Christian Aid (thanks to several local fundraisers).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re coming up to full time with the Song of the Week. The same evening that England lost to Germany on penalties in the 1990 World Cup semi-final, I was at Wembley for a Rolling Stones gig. Jagger had arranged for a massive screen, of dimensions that perhaps only the Stones’ vast live shows could accommodate and transport, to be lowered to show the victorious moment. Obviously, it was never used. Being the shrewd man that he is, they had prepared for failure as well: the next song they played was You Can’t Always Get What You Want. (This isn’t the, or their, best version of the song but it shows all too clearly why the Stones, and Jagger in particular, were seen as mad, bad and dangerous by the parents of their fans.

• Stoppage time being played as we consider the Comedy Sketch of the Week. When you learn that a new road is about to go past your property, there are several ways you can react. This is how Tubbs and Edward from the extraordinarily dark and wonderful League of Gentlemen dealt with the situation.

• And we go to penalties with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: To the nearest whole number, what percent of its 2019 UK sales did Amazon pay in tax to the UK government? Last week’s question was: In Le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, what was George Smiley’s nickname from the words of the nursery rhyme? It was beggar man. The more I re-read Le Carré’s books, the more I realise what a superb writer he was.

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