Weekly News with Brian 19-26 August 2021

This Week with Brian

This week, Brian discusses royal greatness, a supreme compromise, windows into men’s souls, an abusive relationship, Uruguay’s GDP, two contented elephants, missed exam results, a driveway accident, a 30-year vision, municipal alibis, a blurred low, Billy Piper’s fan club, a very long distance and 500 nights.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including Lawrences’ Lane, the Showground’s first EGM (of two), fire at Faraday Road, NHS blue, Hungerford’s makeover, Froxfield’s beer, Shalbourne’s show, Lambourn’s produce, East Garston’s wicket, Newbury’s masts, Boxford’s bell, Thatcham’s correction, Chaddleworth’s land, Peasemore’s power, East Ilsley’s sheep, Beenham’s greening, Stratfield Mortimer’s cheque, Wantage’s answers, Letcombe’s sluice, Grove’s fees, Marlborough’s movies, Manton’s speeding and Swindon’s crocodile – plus our usual whistle-stop tour of websites and FB pages across the area.

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• There are many candidates for the accolade of best English monarch (and rather more for the worst). How might this be measured? If an unflinching sense of duty were the main criteria it would be hard to ignore our current Queen or her father George VI. Strong cases could also be made for William I’s effectiveness, Henry II’s organisational skills, James I’s intelligence and Henry VII’s financial acumen. However, for overall achievement – as well as being a leading candidate any of the above-mentioned categories – to me there’s one clear winner. Step forward Queen Elizabeth I.

[more below] 

One of her first and most lasting actions on acceding in 1558 was the so-called Elizabethan Religious Settlement. This was a highly adept compromise between the increasingly polarised views of Protestants and Catholics which had caused such discord over the previous decade. The various liturgical and organisational arrangements were a superb example of how to cause the least upset to the maximum number of people and the most upset to the minimum number. True, the Catholics were still persecuted but not to the same extent that persecution was measured in many parts of Europe. As a means of healing a divided nation it could hardly have been bettered. England was spared the bitter religious wars of the next 150 years that affected virtually every other state (the English Civil War of the 1640s had a strong religious aspect but was mainly a political conflict). Nearly 500 years later, the Church of England is still with us. It’s hard to think of any other governmental action, with the exception of the Glorious Revolution and (possibly) the establishment of the welfare state, that has for so long produced exactly its intended results.

Most religions claim to have been established on the direct authority of the god in question, or his prophet. The Church of England is perhaps unique in that it is self-evidently a human creation, skilfully purpose-built to solve a specific problem. This has made it better able to adapt (a relative term as no religion has really adapted to the changes of the last two centuries) than many others. It is still, for better or worse, the established religion of the country and, like the modern monarchy, has defied all attempts to supplant it. I’m not arguing that these pillars are therefore unmitigated blessings, merely that they do exactly what they say on the tin. 

I concede that any number of evils were exported under their names during colonial times, but this was not a uniquely English failing. These days at least, neither monarch nor church demand unquestioning adoration and, as a result, are freed from a widespread excess of vehement hatred. The Church of England makes no demands of us other than those which we make of ourselves. Its doctrines (unlike abortion laws in many Catholic countries) do not tend to flow over into present-day secular life. In short, the Church of England is something that is easy to have on in the background.

• Exactly the opposite can be said about the Taliban. They’ve now taken control of Afghanistan, managing in a few weeks to turn the clock back not a mere 20-odd years to before the US invasion but in all probability to a more distant age, perhaps the middle of the 13th century. General Sir Nick Carter recently told the BBC that “it may be that this Taliban is a different Taliban to the one that people remember from the 1990s,” a statement that may be designed more for external consumption: it certainly doesn’t seem to have gone down well with UK veterans. Meanwhile, a Taliban spokesman announced on Al Jazeera on 17 August that “we are going to allow women to work and study. We have got frameworks, of course. Women are going to be very active in the society but,” he added menacingly, “within the framework of Islam.” As this “framework” is entirely in the gift of a group of men to decide, this might not mean that much.

He also said that the Taliban had “evolved and will not take the same actions it did in the past.” This could, of course, mean something better or something worse. There were also wider-ranging promises about the lack of reprisals against those who had previously opposed them and, even less convincingly, press freedom. Boris Johnson told an ill-tempered Commons on 18 August that the Taliban would be “judged on its actions not its words,” something which fell far short of the outright condemnation some were hoping for. Press coverage of the UK’s and in particular the USA’s role has been brutal.

I don’t think anyone seriously believes that the situation will, if the Taliban gets the control and acceptance it wants, be much different from what happened before. They have god on their side, after all. What could be a stronger justification than that? Their current claims are a means to an end. (These remind me of Roger McGough’s pithy poem: “There are Fascists pretending to be humanitarians, like cannibals on a health-kick eating only vegetarians.”) The BBC website quotes someone who has been through all this before: “Living under the rule of the Taliban regime is like being in an abusive relationship. At first it’s good. They make lots of promises, they watch their steps, they even deliver on some of their promises. But while you are being lulled into a false sense of security, they are making their plans.”

The reason for all this soft soap is that the UK and other western powers want to get some of their past employees out of the country and the Taliban wants diplomatic acceptance to allow it to get bedded in. What will happen afterwards is anyone’s guess. The UK and the USA must be smarting at the fact that Russia and China – for whose governments concerns about religious tolerance, women’s right and press freedom don’t test that high – seem to have already made successful overtures to the new regime. The fact that the Russians were engaged in a ten-year war against the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahideen, in the 1980s and that this group was, for the same period and for the same reason, funded by the USA has all been conveniently forgotten. The realpolitik wheel turns pretty fast in that part of the world.

Many, particularly the numerous soldiers and non-combatants who were injured, might ask what has been achieved. In the above-mentioned Commons address, the PM said that the UK had “succeeded in its core mission to stabilise Afghanistan,” a statement that is impossible to credit, particularly given the recent scenes of misery and chaos at Kabul airport. As for the cost, the US alone spent about $1,000bn there between 2001 and 2019: this is as if the entire GDPs of Uruguay, Croatia or Ghana had been devoted to the project. Many companies will have grown fat on this mission. Meanwhile, as ever, it’s the inhabitants – particularly the women and children – who will pay the price and it seems that, insha’Allah, there is nothing to be done about it.

So, were the Virgin Queen to descend from whatever hybrid paradise she helped envision and be resurrected in present-day Kabul, what could she teach the country’s new rulers?

Firstly, she might encourage them to ponder the wisdom of her remark that she “did not want to make windows into men’s souls,” meaning that although she was prepared to enforce a single official prayer book she did not want to over concern herself with how people interpreted it.

Secondly, she could remind them that politics is the art of judicious compromise and that an inflexible belief doesn’t guarantee success.

Thirdly, she could point to her legacy – a peaceful succession and an enduring religious settlement were the Tudor obsessions and ones Elizabeth discharged with stunning success.

Finally, she could remind them that she was, according to her famous Tilbury speech on the eve of the arrival of the Spanish Armada, “but a weak, feeble woman.” Get along with you, Liz. You were about as weak as a willow tree and as feeble as a tiger. If you decide to return and throw in your lot with the Taliban they’d probably be able to survive and thrive. They should be so lucky.

• There must have been some other things going on in the world this week but I can’t think what they are – oh yes, two are Covid and climate change, those two alliterative twin goblins that the Taliban has managed to knock off the front pages. Nothing much has changed there, except that both have got marginally worse. Meanwhile, these elephants peacefully refresh themselves while our attention is elsewhere.

• I promised last week that I had some wise thoughts about the exam results and their effect on universities, gleaned from two wise professors of my acquaintance which I was to have shared with you this week. Time has defeated me so this remains on the spike for now.

• One of the reasons I’ve had less time then I would have liked these last seven days is that last Friday I managed to run over Penny. The result of a rather confused 20 seconds on our gravelled drive (where she was kneeling weeding out of sight) was that her right foot looks as if it’s been briefly dipped in a food blender. Living with a normally highly active woman who’s been forced to spend most of the last seven days on the sofa has curtailed some of my activities as well, including writing the above-mentioned paragraph about the exam results (that’s my excuse, anyway). It could have been a lot worse, of course: it could have been the other end of her body and she could be the kind of person who holds, nurtures and exploits grudges against husbands who run them over. Fortunately, neither applies…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 392 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 9 to 15 August, up 24 on the week before. This equates to 247 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 292 (284 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• Last Friday, West Berkshire Council’s CEP Nick Carter retired and the Council’s Leader Lynne Doherty west on holiday. Within hours, two dramatic events took place in the district – a fire at the football ground in Newbury and an extraordinary planning infringement in Thatcham. I’m not, mind you, saying that their alibis need to be checked, nor that the events are connected, nor that acting Leader Graham Bridgman or interim CEP Susan Halliwell (both of whom I’ve spoken to about these issues) have failed in any way to deal with the situations: merely that it’s a timely reminder that entropy is everywhere and that it strikes when we least expect. For more on these, see respectively the Newbury Area Weekly News and the Thatcham Area Weekly News sections.

The slightly surreal upshot is that two planning applications will, for the sake of good order, need to continue to grind their way through the system; one, in Newbury, to obtain permission to demolish a building which may already need to have been demolished (because of the fire) by the time the application is heard; the other, in Thatcham, to consider an application for a development which has already started and which the Council is doing all it can to stop. All clear so far?

• None of us like having people with clipboards coming round to tell us what to do but with regulations and rules comes the need to police them. Planning enforcement officers are a case in point and there seems no doubt that WBC doesn’t have enough (I believe that is has two whereas the Vale has six). This is rather like having lots of legislators but no police officers. We’ve referred more than once to cases where breaches have not been properly investigated, including in Edington about four years ago and, last month, at Lancaster Park in Hungerford with regard to a closed-off footpath. An article on p2 of this week’s NWN looks at this issue and also highlights the issue of retrospective planning permission, quoting a parish council chairman as saying that these amount to a subversion of the planning process. I believe that WBC has a budget agreed for an extra officer but they no appointment has yet been made. When will this happen? As these instances (and particularly the above-mentioned Thatcham debacle) shows, there’s plenty of work to be done.

• The local plan is a constantly updated document of considerable size and complexity which defines every planning authority’s policies and acts as its Bible when reaching decisions. It periodically requires a major refresh to ensure that it accords with national legislation, incorporates any neighbourhood development plans which have been made and that it considers all the district’s strategic planning needs for the following 15 years. WBC’s plan is entering the final throes of this refresh process. There are prescribed hurdles this needs to cross, culminating in five stages (known as Regulations 18, 19, 22, 24 and 26), at the end of which the plan is adopted.

West Berkshire’s was due to come before Full Council for approval in October which would then be followed by a public consultation (Regulation 19). However, on 20 July 2021 (the day before parliament rose for its summer holidays), the government confirmed that all local plans needed to look up to 30 years ahead if significant extensions to existing villages and towns form part of the strategy for the area. There was, therefore, no immediate holiday for planning officers. (Imagine making a plan in 1991 to govern virtually any set of circumstances that prevail today and you have some idea of how difficult this is.)

West Berkshire’s Planning Policy Manager Bryan Lyttle told Penny Post on 17 August that although this “didn’t mean that the whole exercise would need to be re-started” some aspects of the existing plan, particularly with regard to the proposed 2,500 homes in north east Thatcham, would need to be reviewed. As a result, he said that the October Council meeting to discuss the plan has been cancelled and he could not comment on when this might eventually happen. One problem is that the government’s changes to the National Planning Policy Framework have come without guidance notes, without which no firm decisions can be made. This is perhaps like receiving all the parts for a complex piece of self-assembly machinery that you must start using immediately, even though the instructions will not be available until some unspecified future date.

Tony Vickers, WBC’s Lib Dem spokesperson on planning matters, said on 19 August that this was “not a surprise” as the government was “in a complete muddle over planning and housing policy, making it almost impossible for local government to plan ahead.” He also pointed out that the north east Thatcham plan lacked the 30-year vision that the regulations now demanded. He added that looking this far ahead would demand that all new homes be built to carbon-neutral standards which is not currently happening. You can read WBC’s official response here.

The problem for any planning authority is that the less up-to-date its local plan is, the easier it is for planning to proceed not according to policy but by a more speculative process which relies on appeals to the Planning Inspectorate. WBC’s Deputy Leader Graham Bridgman told Penny Post, also on 17 August, that the Council had so far “successfully fought off almost all appeals made to Planning Inspectorate based on claims that WBC did not have a demonstrable housing-land supply for the next five years.” It’s unclear by how much WBC’s process will be delayed as a result of this nor whether the Planning Inspectorate will accept this as a mitigation in any appeal which claims that the plan is not up to date and fit for purpose. WBC is at least not in such a bad position as Horsham, whose Regulation 19 consultation was due to start on the day of the government’s announcement.

However, it seems that this perhaps should not have been quite such a surprise, for the changes were not made “without notice” as WBC’s above-mentioned statement claims. Paragraph 22 of a consultation on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework published in January 2021 proposed that “where larger-scale development such as new settlements form part of the strategy for the area, policies should be set within a vision that looks further ahead (at least 30 years).” The text of the final document is substantially the same, merely adding the phrase “or significant extensions to existing villages and towns”. This, and the mention of “new settlements” are, however, provided as examples. The key and consistent phrase is “larger-scale developments” which, by any definition, would include north east Thatcham. It would be interesting to know why WBC took the view earlier this year that the new regulations would not affect its plan.

• Details of West Berkshire Council’s holiday activities and for programme can be found here.

• 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.

• Another West Berkshire consultation (which closes at midnight on Friday 30 August) covers the region’s bus services. 

• 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.

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

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by 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 Milly the cat, the friendliest feline in Wantage, who recently failed to turn up at the many shops she frequently visits: following appeals on FB and here in PP, it transpired she’d been hit by a car and had broken her leg. See the Wantage Area Weekly News for more on this as well as other stories (most of which are not about cats).

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, correspondence on the subject of planning reform, noises at the Racecourse, Nick’s risks and climate change.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Over the Rainbow (thanks to Janet’s Puppy Skool [sic]); Down’s syndrome Group (thanks to Swindon Bus Company); the Samaritans (thanks to shoppers in Newbury); Diabetes UK (thanks to Leighton Harkness); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust); New Life (thanks to Sue King from Lambourn Surgery).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So welcome once again to the Song of the Week. The lovely This is a Low by Blur gets my nod this week.

• Followed by the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Big Train was one the best TV sketch shows I can recall, partly because it had genuinely good actors. This sketch has that in spades and also unites 1950s accents with a much more contemporary obsession – click here to enter the strange world of the Billy Piper Fan Club.

• And rounding things off is the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is 243,042km long? Last week’s question was: What has 11-year-old Max Woosley from Devon just done for the 500th consecutive time? Slept in a tent. He first started doing it in March 2020 to raise money (£640,000 and counting) for the North Devon Hospice which cared for a neighbour who died of cancer and left Max his tent. Earlier this month he clocked up his 500th consecutive night under canvas.

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 

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