Weekly News with Brian 29 July to 5 August 2021

This Week with Brian

This week, Brian discusses Lambeth’s nightmare, a couple of questions, incompatible interests, declining figures, picking quarrels, official secrets, affordable homes, police procedurals, a CEO’s interview, several consultations, voter ID, Timelord2, Honda, a minor swing, the Primate for All Ireland’s chronology, a 747’s wings and Acorn Antiques.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including Faraday Road, community champions, community larders, more re-openings, Hungerford’s roundabout, Thatcham’s library, Newbury’s two short lists of five, Eastbury’s orienteering, Lambourn’s festival, Stratfield Mortimer’s refreshment, Wantage’s de-criminalisation, Marlborough’s judgement, Swindon’s museum, Ogbourne’s octypus , Compton’s objections and Great Shefford’s scheme – plus our usual trip around the various parish council websites and local 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

• Even by the standards of the historic child-abuse scandals that have recently been uncovered, this week’s report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse into what went on at a number of care homes in the London Borough of Lambeth for over 30 years from the early 1960s is deeply shocking..

[more below] 

Over 700 complainants have so far come forward, to which roll-call of victims must be added those who have yet to do so or who have died. Speaking to the BBC’s World at One on 27 July 2021, the Secretary to the Inquiry, John O’Brien said that this horror story was the result of systemic failures at every level: “whatever corner we looked in,” he said, “we found everything going wrong everywhere.” He added that hardened as he was to such issues, he found it hard to read more than a few pages of the report without needing to take a break. As he himself would admit, no breaks were available for the victims. Some were as young as five.

For a while in the 80s I lived in Lambeth. A more ineptly run council I have never encountered. Rates demands were often not sent for years and then all arrived in one go accompanied with menacing letters. It appeared incapable of responding to many routine enquiries. Walking past the town hall one night I was struck by the piles of black bags and overflowing bins in the car park: an authority that can’t even clean up its own rubbish is surely in deep trouble. Throughout that turbulent decade, the main item on their agenda was a war to the death with the Thatcher government. Some councillors were elected to pursue this platform and little else. This distraction was cited by the enquiry as one of the many reasons why this repeated nightmare of abuse was allowed to continue (see the Report’s conclusions, point 24 [of 47]). The excellent police dramas Hinterland and Line of Duty both had very similar plot lines about high-profile cover-ups of child abuse in children’s homes. The IICSA report suggests that in Lambeth the reality was even worse, and went on for a good deal longer, than the writers of these TV series felt was plausible.

One might wish to think that such awful events are found only in fiction or back in the last century. Sadly, there are plenty of recent cases from Bradford and elsewhere. These stories tend to take a long time to break and even longer to be properly investigated, so reluctant are victims to come forward and so adept are abusers in covering their tracks. There’s therefore no room for complacency. What happened in Lambeth could have happened anywhere else: indeed, it could be happening anywhere now.

I therefore wrote to the appropriate portfolio holders at West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon Councils to ask two questions:

  • Are they aware of any un-investigated allegations of child sexual abuse at any children’s home or similar establishment run by the council or its predecessor/s?
  • What assurance could they give residents these abuses, on any scale, will not be repeated; or that, if any were identified, that they would be examined quickly and dispassionately?

Once I’ve heard back from them I’ll put the responses in a separate post. One has already contacted me to say that a proper response would take more time that the couple of days I first allowed them so I’m happy to wait for a week or so for answers which will, I’m sure, provide the necessary reassurance.

• The government has modified the blunt instrument of the ping = 10 days self-isolation approach and has expanded the list of sectors where a combination of proof of double jabbing and tests will replace quarantine. Sky News reports that these areas include working in prisons, defence, communications, space, fishing and HMRC, emergency-service workers and those employed in transport. This makes economic and logistical sense but doesn’t seem logical as a health measure. These people are as likely as anyone else who follows similar precautions to spread the virus. As mentioned last week, this probably doesn’t matter as much as it did as so many more people are now vaccinated. What it most clearly reveals is the tensions of trying to do something for two different reasons – keeping the economy moving and preventing transmission – which are inherently incompatible.

• People seem to be taking matters into their own hands by deleting the app, sometimes with the encouragement of their employers. The Business Secretary is quoted by the BBC as saying that “the rules are clear and I think they should followed.” He only “thinks” the rules should be followed? All sounds a bit Barnard Castle to me.

• The number of cases appears to have declined in the last week. Someone on R4 on 28 July (didn’t catch his name) suggested that was because the age group which are responsible for the most transmission (18 to 30) are now building up antibodies. He also suggested (though he admitted this ran contrary to his own anecdotal evidence) that they were moderating their behaviour. Another is that fewer tests are being done, as this Gov.uk chart shows. I’m surprised that the infection figures don’t include the number of people tested and express the first as a percentage of the second. (This wouldn’t be as simple as it sounds, however, as one would need to distinguish between the number of tests and the number of people tested: also the numerous home tests leave no official record for those who test negative. The only way in the foreseeable future that we’re going to see no cases is to stop all tests. With daily deaths currently around 100, this makes one wonder what other things we might test for which routinely kill many more people.)

• A headline on the BBC website this week reads “Official Secrets Act: do government plans threaten investigative journalism?” The answer to any such question has always got to be “yes”. Any reform to this kind of thing will always tend towards to more and not less control. Why bother otherwise? You can read the article here.

• The situation here will have to deteriorate very badly to reach the levels of state control found in China though. The billionaire businessman Sun Dawu has recently been jailed for 18 years for a string of offences. I know nothing of the man or his alleged crimes and, for all I know, locking him up could be a good thing. However when one of the charges is for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” you do begin to wonder. If that were a crime in this country there’d be very few people at liberty. It seems perfectly to describe the behaviour of many social-media users.

• As I’ve suggested many times, the private sector is not the right vehicle for providing affordable homes. It’s quite good at building four- and five-bedroom houses in new estates in affluent areas, and at using permitted development rights to convert office buildings to bedsits and one-bed flats (many, but not all of which, have things like windows). The problem lies in-between, particularly with two- and three-bedroom dwellings which are neither particularly profitable to build nor can generally be obtained from commercial conversions. Hardly surprising, then, that some councils have set up their own housebuilding companies. The results have been mixed.

This report from Inside Housing reported that, as of February 2018, 58 such companies have provided a combined total of 528 homes, hardly enough to register more than a blip on any national graph. This 2019 article in The Guardian paints a more optimistic picture, with developments in Nottingham, Doncaster and Bournemouth among those singled out for praise. At the other end of the scale, there are the organisations like Cambridgeshire’s This Land and Croydon’s Brick by Brick, regularly cited in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, which have accomplished virtually nothing apart from accumulating debt and, in the latter case, contributing to the council’s bankruptcy.

All this suggests that local councils are, despite being given homebuilding targets and a statutory responsibility to deal with homelessness, not being given enough central support when it comes to solving the problems. They are, in this as in other matters, the victims of several major policy changes over the last 50 years. Traditionally major home-builders and owners, councils have recently lowered their rates of construction. About 4,000 homes were built by councils in 2018-19 and, although this is more than they constructed in the whole of the first decade of the century, falls far short of the 100,0000 or so that local authorities were routinely building each year until the late 1970s.

As for ownership, fewer than half of local authorities now own any housing stock at all: as The Guardian points out, this made something of a nonsense of Theresa May’s abolition of the borrowing cap in 2018 as these councils had no property against which they could borrow. As for those that do, the article goes on to say, they know that any homes they do build could be snapped up by the right to buy policy. As for whether there is any need for affordable homes, about 58,000 were built in 2019-20 (barely 1% more than the previous year). Research by Heriot-Watt University claimed that 145,000 affordable homes, more than double the actual number, needed to be built, an aspiration quoted in the 14 January 2021 Research Briefing by the House of Commons. Any situation which fails by more than 50% to hit a target for a basic human need can fairly be called a crisis.

Nor does it seem that the proposed legislative changes will solve the problem. At present, Section 106 agreements between a planning authority and a developer kick in when a development of more than 10 houses is built. This places an obligation on the developer to provide a certain percentage of affordable or social-rent homes (generally 40% on greenfield sites) or make a financial contribution. Inside Housing reported last year that the proposals under the government’s white paper would increase the threshold number to 40 or 50. Even when agreed, such conditions can be overturned. Viability assessments can be produced – and there are property consultants that exist for no other purpose than to produce these – which can claim that a development would be non-viable were the agreed number of affordable homes to be built. These often succeed and, even if they do not, soak up vast amounts of time by planning departments in combatting them. Residents of Hungerford, to pick just one town close to home, will need no reminding of this with regard to the Lancaster Park development. (West Berkshire Council rightly turned down a revised application from Bewley Homes to set aside the entire social-housing provision on these grounds, but it took the best part of a year and may yet be the subject of an appeal).

We also have to look at ourselves. Part of Bewley Homes’ motive was probably that it felt that the value of the “premium” houses on the new estate would diminish were there to be a social-housing component. All of us are all supportive of any housing development except when it’s within our own line of sight. We’re also possibly over-obsessed with property ownership, the value of our home being part of our wealth portfolio, despite the fact that a move (unless downsizing or to a much cheaper area) is likely to occasion at least £50,000 in fees and costs of various kinds. The demand for more housing is also being driven by a range of factors including social mobility and higher divorce rates, neither of which are the government’s direct responsibility to cope with. None the less, we are where we are: and many of us seem stuck there. A lot of people are trapped in places they don’t want to be and living with people they no longer want to live with. Others are prevented from finding work because either house prices are insanely high or travel times are insanely long. A small, but increasing, minority are finding themselves locked into an extreme form of negative equity by bills for replacing cladding on high-rises. This is an intensely complex, emotive and important subject and no one is suggesting there’s a quick fix. All that seems certain is that outsourcing it to the private sector is not the solution. For the government or local councils to take more control of housebuilding may seem to some a retrograde step. If, however, we want young families whose breadwinners are doing important jobs to have decent homes reasonably near their work, and if we want to ensure generally that everyone has somewhere to live which won’t bankrupt them, then this seems like the only option. Current government plans appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

• I very rarely watch TV but must confess to a weakness for police procedurals. One of the best I’ve seen recently has been Line of Duty, which we came to fairly late and have only this week finished. The best feature of it was that in almost episode the main set-piece was an interview in which, as often as not, the tables would be turned towards the end. I found it totally compelling even though the final episode did end on a rather ambiguous chord. The producers probably said to Jed Mercurio, “look, Jed – may I call you Jed? – this time you’ve got to write an ending that, if we don’t commission a new series, won’t lead to 50,000 letters of complaint.” This trick was just about pulled off. I dealt with my withdrawal symptoms by writing about what AC-12 might be up to now while waiting for the next commission – which you can read here. And before you ask, yes I know they aren’t real people…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 385 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 19-25 July, down 246 on the week before. This equates to 243 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 332 (495 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 launched a consultation (which closes at midnight on Sunday 5 September) into the lido at the Northcroft Centre, a much loved facility which, just having celebrated its 150th birthday, is in need of some serious TLC. One of the options might be to shorten it. It’s currently 72 metres, 22 metres longer than an Olympic pool. This seems an odd length to pick: a conversion to imperial measurements (which would have been used at the time) makes in 236 feet and two and three-quarter inches, which makes even less sense. (72 metres is 10% wider than the wingspan of a 747 and about 75% the height of Big Ben, if that helps.) If it is converted to 50m – perhaps with an eye on a future Olympic bid – WBC should bear in mind the fate of a pool in, I think, Luxembourg which was built to exactly 50m, to the fraction of a millimetre. It was only then that it was realised they had forgotten to take into account the thickness of the tiles…

• Another West Berkshire consultation (which closes at midnight on Friday 30 August) covers the region’s bus services, . “Covid has caused a significant shift from public transport to the private car,” the press statement observes, “but we need to shift back quickly by making essential improvements to local public transport as normal life returns. Buses are the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to do that.” If there were a bus service from the Lambourn Valley to Hungerford (which there used to be) I would use it. The article also kicks off with the interesting observation that “busses are the country’s favourite mode of public transport.” I’m not sure “favourite” is the right word as it implies an element of choice that in many cases doesn’t exist. “Most used” would be more accurate.

Nick Carter will be stepping down as West Berkshire’s CEO next month and we’re grateful for him to have found time from his hand-over work to do an interview with Penny Post which you can read here. This reveals what the role of CEO in a unitary authority involves, what significant challenges he’s faced in the job, his biggest achievement, his biggest regret and the all-important questions of his Desert Island Discs choices of song, book and luxury item (his first choice of which I was forced to reject as I was worried he might use it to escape, which wouldn’t do at all).

• The Newbury Weekly News reports this week on p12 about a debate on a motion put forward by Green Councillor Carolyne Culver that WBC should call on the government to scrap its plans for voter ID cards (which was defeated by 21 to 17). Councillor Ross Mackinnon suggested that most of “our European friends” use voter ID. A quick bit of research suggests this isn’t quite the case: in France, for instance, these do exist but are not the only way one can vote (so what’s the point of them?). France in any case has a mania for documentation which I’m not sure we should be quick to follow. (When my parents lived there when I was a teenager, the local policeman flatly refused to believe that English people had no ID cards. He told me, on several occasions, that I needed to carry my passport with me at all times, an instruction I ignored.) Councillor Mackinnon also added that most cases of fraud are “completely undetected.” If they’re completely undetected, how can he know this? One might as well argue that no evidence of something is proof that it’s happening.

Most agree that instances of UK voter fraud seem to be vanishingly small. The Electoral Commission reported that in the 2019 general election there were 164 allegations, only four of which led to convictions. Even if all these 164 were illicit, this is 0.00034% of the votes cast. If all these had been only in two most marginal seats (Bury North and Fermanagh & South Tyrone) it would indeed have changed the results there, but only if all fraudulent votes had all gone the same way (more likely they would have been cast in the same rough proportions as were the genuine ones and so would have made no different whatsoever). The cost is likely to be vast and the government’s record at bringing in such projects on time, on budget and actually working is not great. The cards could also themselves be forged, unless every polling station had expensive equipment which would only be used every few years and so which would probably seize up or go missing in the interim. Also, what are the chances that you’ll be able to find your card when you need it? All in all, it’s an expensive solution which probably won’t work to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Does the government not have more important things to be worrying about?

• This week’s Newbury Weekly News has on p7, an article which considers UNISON’s objections to West Berkshire Council’s plans for flexible working and the disposal of two of its three sites, an operation which has been given the slightly alarming name of Timelord2. I haven’t been able to contact UNISON but I did reach out to WBC, which reached back to me with the following statement: “Please see the report which went to the Executive on 15 Jul (click here to do so). This sets out details of our staff engagement (including discussion groups, and a six-week consultation), the key themes to emerge from staff and the organisational response to those. Where appropriate, the Timelord2 project has been refined as a result of this feedback. Further to this, we have made a commitment to review these arrangements after six months. I would also add that we have a project team which will be working with managers and staff to ensure a smooth transition to the new model.”

• West Berkshire Council has announced that garden- and food-waste collection services will be suspended until 3 August. This is due to a combination of the pingdemic and the chronic shortage of HGV drivers. (The Vale of White Horse has introduced similar measures for identical reasons.)

• The same council has announced that it has “signed off agreements to fund 26 local businesses with a total of £112,852 through the Welcome Back Business Grant scheme.” This was designed to “support temporary changes, events and innovative measures that will allow these businesses to drive footfall to our streets as West Berkshire re-opens fully this summer.” More details can be found here.

• 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. 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.

• This year’s Library Summer Reading Challenge is under way 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 black-crowned crane, one of the residents of Beale Park – a wonderfully dramatic creature that looks as if it has stepped out of a 1980s night club.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes correspondence on the subjects of hedge cutting, face masks, Covid passports, Aldi, rubbish and the NHS App.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: West Berkshire Community Hospital (thanks to Gavin McLaughlin); the Motor Neurone Disease Association (thanks to Forresters and the Old Boot Inn in Stanford Dingley; and to Stuart Bates and Charlotte Nichols); New Life Special Are (thanks to the recent event at Calcot Golf Club); Viva! (thanks to Henry Reed-Denness); Spurcroft Primary School (thanks to Chancellors); Julia’s House Hospice (thanks to Neil Wheeler).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re at the Song of the Week. The Sant Andreu Jazz Band from Barcelona is a constant delight and this version of Minor Swing is no exception.

• Lordy, it’s time for the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Acorn Antiques was…well, Acorn Antiques and, like much of the stuff the late, great Victoria Wood did it’s rather hard to describe in a word. In case you’ve never caught it, or fancy re-living the moment, here’s the first episode.

• And your starter for ten with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The Summer Olympic Games are currently taking place in Tokyo. When was the last time the city hosted this event? Last week’s question was: What happened in 4004BC? What happened then, according to the Primate of All Ireland James Ussher (1581-1656), was the creation of the world (he further narrowed it down to 23 October). Modern scientific estimates place the age of the world at about 4.5 billion years. Take your pick.

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 lin

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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale