Weekly News with Brian 2 to 9 September 2021

This Week with Brian

…a grim story, long-range forecasts, on the back foot, 200 symptoms, selfishness, psychopathic self-deception, levelling up, beer shortages, CR7, old friends, teenage jabs, many holes, broken toasters, seminary debates, blatant hypocrisy, unconfirmed arson, a re-confirmed injunction, comedy animals, a tailwhip, not pleasing everyone and a pair of duellists.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including a consultation (or not), graffiti, eagle photos, Oxfordshire’s differing housing numbers, 40 years on, Hungerford’s roundabout, Froxfield’s festival, Lambourn’s meetings, Shefford’s withdrawal, Newbury’s library, Greenham’s orchids, Thatcham’s wellbeing, Bucklebury’s reaction, Cold Ash’s footpath, Hermitage’s NDP, Ashampstead’s arms, Aldermaston’s show, Brimpton’s attack, Compton’s army, Theale’s applications, Bradfield’s spat, Wantage’s health centre, Grove’s station, Marlborough’s clock, Mildenhall’s recruitment, Swindon’s museums – plus our usual zoom around the websites and FB pages in 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

• This article on the BBC website about the situation in Afghanistan makes pretty grim reading for those other than the Taliban. It’s full of tales of recrimination, regret, reprisals and desperate justification, coupled with warnings about a raft of possible future problems ranging from an increase in money laundering to the further spread of terrorism. There’s also what must be, for Washington, a humiliating video in which some of the vehicles abandoned by the US are driven through, or flown over, Kandahar. It also quotes a top US General as saying that the Taliban are “ruthless.” It’s good to have that confirmed.

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• Our Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is under the cosh at present amid accusations that the UK’s part in the retreat was mishandled. In a slightly Trump-like move, he recently blamed this on “failings” in British intelligence reports, their conclusion being that matters would take longer to unravel than they did.

This seems to me a bit like planning a large outdoor event and relying only a long-range weather forecast which suggests that it “probably won’t rain.” Surely any responsible minister should, particularly for something as big as this, have a plan for the possibility that it’s going to bucket it down all day. He’s been on the back foot ever since the revelation that he delegated a call to the Afghan government to a junior minister (the call never happened): the very best allegation that can be levelled at him for this is one of shocking manners.

Nor does he seem to know how many people the UK might have evacuated are still stuck there. He also doesn’t seem to know when he went on holiday. I’m also wondering how a Foreign Secretary could have thought that going on holiday a few weeks before the long-announced 31 August withdrawal of US forces was a good idea.

• Moving on from that to Covid – the fun just keeps building this week, doesn’t it? – the UK’s daily infection figures seem to be hovering around the 35,000 mark. Better news is that the seven-day average of deaths is about 100, a great improvement on January 2021 when it was sometimes 12 times higher, while hospitalisations are about five times lower than then.

These last two stats, however, ignore the more insidious impact of long Covid (or post-Covid). No one yet knows how long this in fact is, nor how many people suffer from it (Wired looks at this confusing issue, while the British Medical Journal suggests that the cases are “under-reported in GP’s records”) . There doesn’t even seem to be any clear agreement as to what symptoms GPs should be looking out for, nor for how long.

Private Eye’s ever-excellent MD column in the 3-16 September issue says that there are 200 possible symptoms covering “every bodily system.” Many of these could presumably easily be mistaken for something else. MD devotes most of his latest piece to this issue and this includes looking back at 19th century reports of similarly disparate maladies which followed ‘flu outbreaks. The man knows what he’s talking about as his main job is working with children with this condition. He lists several different symptoms, treatments, reactions and outcomes, ending with the question of whether all his patients in fact had the same condition. “Who knows?” is his frank answer. “We must,” he goes on to say, “tread carefully and do the research.”

• This last point leads me to wonder what long-term planning and investment might be going into this and a swathe of other areas that, as recent events have surely showed beyond all possible doubt, need long-term planning and investment. I don’t know what the answer to this is. I merely mention it so that the next time you meet or write to your MP, you can ask them.

• The phrase “levelling up” has become a simplistic and self-evident commonplace of government communication recently but I caught a bit of The Hangover on BBC R4 on 1 September which suggested that its implementation might be more complex.

The point was made that, whereas previously cities had thrived and smaller towns in their hinterland had struggled, Covid had reversed this trend. A guest on the programme cited the example of Nottingham. This has a large retail sector which had recently struggled (along with the associated business rates and parking revenue for the City Council). By contrast, the market towns in the county were thriving.

This will be of great encouragement to independent shops and “shop local” campaigns  but makes a nonsense of some pre-Covid government funding decisions. West Berkshire has no settlements of the size of Nottingham – whose population is 40,000 more than that of West Berkshire plus the Vale of White Horse combined – but even on our smaller level this seems to make sense. The last 18 months have conditioned us to take the local road (in many cases also the one previously less travelled) and realise that there was more in our local town than we’d thought. Online shopping has filled a pretty big part of this gap as well.

The idea of “levelling up”, one with which few would disagree, has become more subtle and elusive. The various funding opportunities are many and complicated – one councillor quoted on the above-mentioned programme said that his authority in Lancashire had needed to recruit extra staff to deal with this – but that perhaps makes them more responsive to local differences. Let’s hope so: dealing with local differences is, after all, what this is all about.

• Last weekend I spent an utterly delightful 48 hours with about 10 of my old – a qualification that’s increasingly laden with two meanings – friends in the Forest of Dean. The trip also co-incided with my birthday (no, I’m not going to tell you whist one but will only reveal that Lenny Henry did, and Michael Jackson would have, gone past precisely the same milestone that day).

We talked about a great number of things, one of which was just this point about long-term planning and how humans need to become less selfish. At one point I had a sudden thought which may not be very original but it seemed so at the time (I started talking before I’d fully worked it out because, with this lot, everyone has an opinion on everything and you need to get your marker down fast).

Selfishness was, I suggested, vital to our survival. Everything needs to look after number one. With a lot of creatures, including humans, apes, bees, lions, wolves, dolphins and a whole lot more, this evolved into a tribal bonding because each species realised that a defined level of co-operation would confer further advantage. Humans (and a few others, like termites) have extended this to country-size tribes.

As history has shown, this is, both internally and externally, a pretty perilous structure and one beyond the wit of most human leaders to maintain. We’ve been staggering along like this for about a thousand years, most states finding that only systemic repression of dissident views can produce anything like stability.

Now, however, we’ve been presented with two things – Covid and climate change – which require global co-operation. Very little that’s happened with the acute problem of Covid has suggested we’re up for this challenge; while climate change, a rapidly worsening chronic condition, seems almost to have been forgotten about.

What humans are really good at is dealing with an immediate problem (look at the vaccine development, for instance) for which we welcome trans-tribe co-operation up to a point and for as long as the problem remains theoretical. What we’re utterly hopeless at is carrying out any long-term plan which might, along the way, disadvantage ourselves or our tribe. This conclusion doesn’t fill me with optimism. My only rather selfish though is that I’m glad I’m however-old-I-am rather than 23, the average age of my four sons. Sorry, guys.

• One medical breakthrough that at one point seemed set to cure all our problems was what is now known as the Theranos scandal (rather than “opportunity”, as it for so long was). The company’s founder Elizabeth Holmes claimed that her special machine could detect a massive range of conditions – including, perhaps and it were it around then, long Covid – from a few drops of blood. In 2014 the 30-year-old’s company was valued at $9bn. All this unraveled between 2015 and 2018 and she’s now coming up for trial and looking at 20+ years if found guilty of a raft of charges. Rupert Murdoch claims to have been stung for £120m so it’s unlikely she’ll be given a soft ride from his media outlets.

I know nothing about the science (or lack of it) or the ways by which the money was raised. My question is merely this: how much does someone who orchestrates a scam on such a vast scale come to believe that it is for real? I like to think I’m a very bad liar but Penny often tells me that each time I tell an anecdote I change it slightly, the last version I tell then being the official one. I laugh this off by saying that the adjustments are just for comedic effect and that I’m not trying to con anyone: but I can see why she’s concerned. It’s perhaps only a quantitive difference between what I do at a dinner party and what Elizabeth Holmes did with investors and supporters (who included Bill Clinton, a man who knows a thing or two about charming lies).

I don’t know which is worse – to come to believe something that you once know was false or flawlessly to act the part of an honest person. Neither’s that great. It might be worth looking in the mirror every now and then to check how we test on these measures.

• Moving on from psychopathic self-deception to the shortage of beer, my eldest son recently drew my attention to a problem he recently encountered in Tooting and which others seem to have done elsewhere.

“If someone told me that Wetherspoons would run out of beer in normal times I’d have thought they’d had one too many,” he said. But normal times, of course, these aren’t. The delicious irony here is that Tim Martin (the owner of Wetherspoons) was one of the main non-political figures behind Brexit; which is being blamed as a main reason for the driver shortage; which is, in turn, leading to supply-chain problems. “The idea of not being able to get a pint in a Wetherspoons is a deeply disturbing one,” he went on, “despite the fact I rarely find myself in one. The prospect of asking for a drink only to be greeted with blank faces and apologies has really brought the HGV driver crisis home for me in a way that Tesco’s shelves empty of sushi never could.” First-world problem this may be: but when you walk into a pub and ask for a pint of beer and they say “we have no beer,” you get the powerful sense that an important anchor is starting to slip.

• West Berkshire Councillor Adrian Abbs has written an article, which you can read here, which wonders if Extinction Rebellion might want to consider refocussing its activities and applying more pressure on the world’s largest polluters. He also suggests that “consuming less would be the most effective short-term thing any one person in the UK could do but it obviously has large economic considerations.”

It certainly does. “Expand or die” has been the guiding principle of every economic policy. To consume less takes an axe to the root of this assumption. Maybe “consume smarter” would be a better way of looking at it. Continued consumption is sustainable if the things we consume are recyclable or, failing that, long-lasting and repairable.

To pick one example, we have two toasters which don’t work due to in each case to a doubtless tiny malfunction which our most recent visit to a repair café failed to cure. If we can normalise the idea that if something that can’t easily be fixed is badly designed, no matter how elegant its contours, we’ll moving in the right direction.

• Here’s a piece of breaking news that none of us would ever have suspected: “Religious groups in UK are failing children over sex abuse,” this BBC headline reads, referring to the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The terms “shocking failings” and “blatant hypocrisy” are used and the accusation is made that “leaders discouraged reporting abuse to protect reputations.” You don’t say.

• The new football season has, as usual, hogged the back and some of the front pages. The complete collapse of Arsenal in the first three games, each performance seemingly worst than the last, is a high point for me. However, the big one is Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United, a deal which which was accomplished  as quickly as one of his step-overs. I’ve got a certain amount of time for him. I remember many years ago watching an interview with him on the Jonathan Ross show – conducted in English, his third language – and he seemed to me to be funny, self-aware and thoughtful. Yes, he has a massive ego but so do so most people whose antics we pay to watch. He’s also rather good at what he does. The big question to me is where they are going to play him, United not being short of attacking options. Perhaps they’re just relying on his name to sell some shirts…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 487 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 23 to 29 August, down 55 on the week before. This equates to 307 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 292 (316 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

16- and 17-year-olds are now being offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and these will be provided at the Northcroft Centre between 1 and 4 September. Please see this page on West Berkshire Council’s website for details. There are about 4,200 people in this age group in the district and about 40% have been vaccinated, which means there are about 2,500 arms awaiting their shot. For the country as a whole, 77% of people have received two jabs and 88% of people one. The lower rate among the 16/17 group is because vaccinations have only been offered to them fairly recently.

• The district’s two big recent stories have reached a period of pause. The fire at the football ground at Faraday Road – almost certainly arson, though no official confirmation is forthcoming – has resulted in the club house being entirely demolished following advice provided by third-party building-control experts from Bracknell Forest Council. As for the illegal development at Lawrence’s Lane in Thatcham, a judicial hearing on 31 August confirmed the injunction against any further work bering carried out and this will last until 27 September: more news expected round about then. Meanwhile, as mentioned before, both the relevant planning applications continue their slightly surreal journey through the system.

• Last week also saw the submission of the planning application for the proposed sports hub at Monk’s Lane which some claim (though others do not) is a replacement for the disused Faraday Lane ground. You can read West Berkshire Council’s statement on the matter here. For more on this, see the 26 August section in our Newbury Area Weekly News.

The subject of the football ground was raised at WBC’s Overview & Scrutiny Management Commission on 31 August at which the opposition Lib Dem’s planning spokesperson Tony Vickers claimed that “there is no planning policy in place currently that supports what the Executive aspires to achieve [with regard to the London Road Industrial Estate and the football ground]. Avison Young pointed that out in their report last year. It is still true.” He also added that “millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been wasted on a redevelopment project of very high financial risk without first ensuring that the key element (according to the Conservatives) of moving football out of town is sound in planning policy terms.”

These points have some merit but should have been raised – and perhaps were raised – in the months leading up to the ridiculous closure of the football ground in June 2018. Now, with a planning application on the table and a gleaming new facility promised, it risks looking to an outsider like an arcane debate in a seminary. A number of things, including the recent fire, have conspired to shunt discussion about how we got to this point into the realm of political polemic, at which most people lose interest.

Much has gone badly adrift with the LRIE project. Scrutiny is to be expected and the Lib Dems are doing the right thing by providing this (I would say the same were the political colours to be reversed). 

• I mentioned last week (and the week before) about the changes to the local plans which many local planning authorities have had to make as a result of changes to the National Planning Policy Framework which were confirmed last month. My interest is the extent to the consultation in January gave warning of the proposed change.

In this I’m hampered by the fact that the document on the Gov.uk website appears to have had phrases added and I’m not clear when this happened (and so who saw what version of the text when). I’ve asked the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for some clarity on this but have yet to hear back. I’ve chased them three times for a reply but have yet to receive one, even the courtesy of an acknowledgement. I can feel an email to Robert Jenrick coming on…

• I wouldn’t want to have been running a library service these last 18 months but that’s the job that Paul James and his team have. You can click here to see the latest newsletter from the WBC Library Service which includes the 2021-21 annual report.

As well as inevitably including some quite depressing figures there are plenty of upbeat stories: “the new Order and Collect service had a strong take-up,” portfolio holder Howard Woollaston commented. “This contributed to almost 2,000 new customers joining West Berkshire libraries. The online e-library usage increased by 87% and the staff launched a series of family events and activities online which received positive feedback and were well attended.” And to think that only about five years ago WBC was thinking of closing all of them except the one at Newbury…

• West Berkshire Council is consulting on its Local Flood Risk Management Strategy (LFRMS). See here for more information. The survey takes an estimated 10 minutes to complete although reading the various documents, including the 75-page Draft Strategy document, would be on top.

I discussed this with one of our new researchers and we were curious to see if, amongst the large and technical issues discussed, there was any mention of smaller sustainable options, many of which are already in use across the country. Rooftop gardens (the Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham has one of these) and permeable pavements are two fairly small-scale and hyper-local methods which play their part and which the community can be involved in the management and maintenance of. No such reference could be found in the Draft Strategy.

I haven’t had time to complete the consultation yet (we’ve got until midnight on Sunday 3 October) but, when I do, I’ll be hoping for a comments box where I can add these thoughts. You may well have ones of your own.

• West Berkshire Council has approved the funding of £900,000 for the addition of a food waste bin to the West Berkshire community. These new bins are part of a refreshing scheme to help save up to £130,000 a year; however, this depends on how the householders take on another responsibility of recycling. A final decision is expected as of Thursday 2 September 2021 and projects to have the new service live by May 2022. See the Berkshire live page here for more.

• From 31 August there were changes to bus timetables in the district, more information on which can be found here.

• West Berkshire Council is running a consultation (which closes at midnight on Sunday 5 September, so not long now) into the lido at the Northcroft Centre

Click here for information about lateral flow tests available in West Berkshire. Note that several changes have recently been made (including the closure of some centres).

• 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. (A more recent one has been sent but it lacked a web address so I can’t link to it.)

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 any one you pick from these superb photos, all of which have been shortlisted for the 2021 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, letters on the subject of plastic, population figures, Laura Farris, the Lockdown Woods and a pound of flesh.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Style Acre (thanks to Grace Kerrigan); Shelter and Women’s Aid (thanks to Jessica Oliver and Charlotte Harris); over 120 groups supporting your people in Wiltshire, Swindon and Oxfordshire (thanks to the Persimmon Homes Building Futures fund); many local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here we are at the Song of the Week. As I might have mentioned, our son Adam returned from 18 months in Vietnam last week and has since been introducing us to some of the stuff he’s read, seen and heard while out there. On the latter, he played some songs by a band I’d never heard of called Men we Trust which I really liked: melodic, synthy, sparse and interesting. Here’s one of theirs, Tailwhip.

• Followed by the rather misleadingly titled Comedy Sketch of the Week. Absolutely no comedic aspect to this at all but merely the last scene from what, if pushed, I might say is my favourite film, The Duellists. If you have seen it, then enjoy the clip (and the music). If you haven’t, then watch the film first as this kind of gives away what happens.

• And so the end with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How many holes were there in Blackburn, Lancashire in 1967? Last week’s question was: What happened at Headingley on 25 August this year that has only happened twice before in test cricket? What happened was, in the England v India test match, that a team batting second overtook the team batting first’s innings total without losing a wicket. If you understand cricket you’ll go, “oh, right.” If you don’t, you’ll go “oh, what?” I never said I would please everyone. How boring would that be?

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