Weekly News with Brian 9-16 September 2021

This Week with Brian

Including social-care funding, honest payslips, a courageous decision, remote-control politics, travel traffic lights, no reply, proper whack, proper scrutiny, the Rashford swerve, refugees, cars, floods, a feline teenager, a limited service, JFK, Taliban talk, repeating the past, rising rates, four thousand holes, five seconds, cheese graters and hard work.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including an EGM looms, two football applications, questions on the new homes, cross-border horse trading, buried treasure, Hungerford’s newsletter, Froxfield’s beer, Inkpen’s bulletin, Lambourn’s consultations, East Garston’s access, Wash Water’s rubbish, Hamstead Marshall’s hornet, Thatcham’s heritage, Cold Ash’s balloon, Crookham’s police, Peasemore’s fox, Chaddleworth’s photos, Hampstead Norreys’ shop, East Ilsley’s vehicles, Aldermaston’s church, Padworth’s mites, Stratfield Mortimer’s refreshment, Wantage’s markets, Marlborough’s list, Ramsbury’s pavement and Swindon’s groundwater – plus our usual dip into local websites and social-media 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

• The long-awaited – it was first promised for the summer of 2017 – reform of the social-care system was unveiled this month; or at least the first step, that of working out how it’s going to be paid for. West Berkshire Council’s Leader described the PM’s move as a “courageous” one on 7 September. It was seen as such by many commentators in terms of whether the tactics were right. As regard the timing, “overdue” might have served better.

[more below] 

Personal contributions to care costs will be capped at £86,000 and there’ll be a hike in NI of 1.25% (which I think is really 2.5% as employers will also contribute). The smart move seems to be to introduce, from 2023, a separate charge in addition to NI and PAYE called the Health and Social Care Levy which will form a separate line on payslips and P60s. The idea presumably is that there will be more acceptance if people see the money’s going to that source. Parliamentary debates on the measures started this week. One Tory MP, Jack Brereton, told the BBC that this was “probably the least worst option.” As for the changes to the way social care is changed, how much of this extra money will go to the NHS and how much to social care and how much to the NHS, and who will decide this, I’m far from certain.

Not being any kind of an expert in this, I’ve asked three people who are – West Berkshire Councillors Graham Bridgman, Joanne Stewart and Alan Macro who have portfolio or shadow portfolio involvement in these areas – to let me have their initial thoughts. I’ll bring you these as soon as they’ve had time to reply.

• The idea of having lines for major and recurring aspects of expenditure in your payslip is an interesting one. To some extent council tax bills do this, splitting out what goes to the charging authority, what to the parish as the precept and what to the police and fire services. What would happen if on your payslip there were also, as well as NI, PAYE and the new H&SC levy, lines for HS2, nuclear weapons or government consultants? Mass civil disobedience, probably. The sums are in all cases large enough to justify the detail.

• There was a Conservative MP – can’t remember his name – on R4’s The World at One on 8 September (were any other party to be in power then the party name could probably be swapped). He was asked a simple question about the timing of that day’s debate into the social-care costs. He answered with an irrelevant statement about hospital waiting lists. He then launched into an attack on the opposition’s handling of some aspect of the matter before starting to specify the various things “which people are concerned about”; not what he thought they were concerned about or what the few he’d recently spoken to had told him they concerned about but “people” – the whole lot of us; like he knew. I switched off at that point. Not for the first time, I had the strong impression of a minor politician being operated by remote control from his party’s HQ. 

• Moving on from answering the wrong question to not answering a question at all, if you feel like emailing the press office at the Department of Local Government, Housing and Community Development with a perfectly civil and simple request about a consultation earlier this year, don’t expect to receive a reply until you’ve repeated the operation at least three times. I say “at least” because I’m on my fourth go (the last one cc-ed to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State). If you know anyone who works for this press team (a long shot, I agree, but you’ve got to ask), could you ask them to check their inbox? The whole way I’ve been treated is proper whack.

• I don’t use this last phrase much myself – though I and others may start doing so – but it seems that Swale Borough Council in Kent does. In a move that surprised five local planning applicants, this and other even more obscure, surreal or obscene reasons for refusal were added to their planning decision notices last month. The council has issued a statement explaining this was due to an IT testing error: error it certainly was if a junior member of staff could get access to a document that needs to be authorised by the Head of Planning. Decision notices can only be overturned by a judicial review: as the people who conduct these don’t tend to work for the minimum wage, a fairly hefty bill is in prospect. The service had been contracted out to Mid Kent Planning Support, so the respective lawyers are probably already already sharpening their quills. Swale BC has already fired the first salvo by observing darkly in its statement that “this is not the first serious problem following the transfer of our planning administration to Mid Kent shared services.” I also suspect that a P45 may have been issued. Quite a fall-out.

Meanwhile, the five applicants have technically had their applications rejected on these perplexing grounds and it may take several months to correct this through the courts. Given how opaque some planning system’s language is, it’s perhaps lucky that they even noticed anything was amiss. For all most of us know, “proper whack” and “I am the chosen one” might be normal municipal terms. First Jackie Weaver and now this – slowly but surely, local government is forcing its way into our consciousness. What’s next? (Thanks to my friend Jon Williams for bringing this gem to my attention.)

• Gavin Williamson, apparently unhappy with the mishaps during his tenure as education secretary, seems to have taken a new step towards getting himself fired. He recently praised the ‘charming’ Marcus Rashford, who he met on a zoom call. The only problem was that it wasn’t the Manchester United forward, but the Saracens blindside flanker Maro Itoje whom he met. Unfortunately for Williamson the two men (both of whom are black) look nothing alike. This has led to calls for the beleaguered education secretary to be sacked. It does seem odd that Williamson got Rashford confused with anyone else considering that the footballer was anything but charming about the government last year, indeed seemed to spend a lot of time doing the education secretary’s job in feeding hungry schoolchildren. This prompted a policy re-think that should forever after be known as the Rashford swerve. (Thanks to my son Michael for bringing this to my attention.)

• The average UK council tax bill, most of which goes directly to your local council without ring fencing, was over £1,800 in 2020. If you have business premises then business rates will be on top. Some, but not all, councils still receive central-government (ie taxpayers’) money through the revenue support grant. All are recipients of a wide range of discretionary funding from Whitehall from projects ranging from Covid support to EV charging points. Local councils decide a wide range of matters including rubbish and recycling arrangements, library services, road maintenance and planning applications; and (effectively as agents of the government), provide services such as non-academy education and social care. The budgets obviously vary vastly but West Berkshire’s projected expenditure in 2021-22 is £143.3m, roughly £840 every year for every inhabitant. Their decisions are thus of some importance.

Most operate a cabinet-style regime which mirrors that in Whitehall. The executive (like the UK’s cabinet) is composed of members of the ruling party or coalition, as are the holders of portfolios (similar to ministerial offices). The full council (like the House of Commons) comprises all the elected members. Many matters are brought before it but, again like the Commons, the agendas are largely in the gift of the ruling party and the voting tends to follow party lines. There are also a number of officers (civil servants, they’d be in Whitehall) who exist to advise but mainly to implement the decisions of the members (ie the ruling party). This cohort is presided over by the CEO (Cabinet Secretary). The officers are salaried and the members draw allowances and, like MPs, can claim expenses. Perhaps fortunately, local government has no analogous organisation to the House of Lords.

Many argue that any system of government whereby ministers are drawn from members of the legislature (as happens in the UK but not the US) is flawed as it immediately creates conflicted interests. Leaving that aside, any system requires scrutiny. The press provides this at all levels, assuming you can trust what you read. More formally, however, at a national level regular scrutiny is provided by the Commons select committees. The knock-about acts of PMQs and late-night debates are the most visible signs of MPs’ work but perhaps the most valuable are these committee sessions. A summons to attend has the same legal force as a demand to appear in court and, once arrived, you are dealing with people discharging a centuries-old tradition of examination. Some witnesses have had their reputations wrecked: reputations have also been made by their inquisitors who have then gone on to hold ministerial office, only in their turn to appear before a committee on the other side of the table and perhaps feel the downward spin of Fortuna’s wheel.

For such bodies, the position of chair is very important. They have the power to influence the agenda and who will be summoned and are running the show once the curtain goes up: admitting questions, cutting off over-long answers, managing the process and summarising the conclusions. In the Commons, the tradition is that the chairs of the 20 select committees are divided roughly proportionately to the number of MPs. Local councils have a number of committees but these are mostly for executive matters such as planning decisions. The main one which has a role in watching what’s going on is the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee (so it’s called in West Berkshire but other local councils give theirs similar names). As these are scrutinising the decisions taken by the ruling party, and as all councils are political, surely the chair should be from the opposition?

I had a look at the composition of these committees from 15 local authorities in our area, raging from Wiltshire to Reading and from West Oxfordshire to Basingstoke and Deane. One is Lib Dem, one Lib Dem/Green, one Lib Dem/Independent, two Labour and the rest Conservative. In five cases, the chair of the scrutiny committee (some had more than one but in these cases the political composition was the same) was from an opposition party and in the other ten it was from the ruling one. This suggests that a reasonable debate is to be had as to which policy should be followed.

As important would be if I had checked (which I didn’t) how many chairs of the ten were also portfolio holders. It turns out that I would have been wasting my time: West Berkshire Deputy Leader Graham Bridgman has since pointed out to me that  the Local Government Act 2000 forbids this conflict of interests. (I also hope that none of the planning committees had a chair from the ruling party when a matter was considered at which the council was the applicant.)

Many issues are political only because, in a complicated world, it’s convenient for us to make them so. This has big risks. A small group of politically aligned people with executive responsibilities can lead to a sense of group-think, complacency or entitlement. To have a decision brought before a scrutiny commission with someone with the same rosette as the decision-makers may not be quite the scary experience that it should be. Many local councils have landslide majorities (of the kind which the PM can only dream about) and these tend to be repeated over many administrations. Some councils are entirely one-party. However, the majority that are not should allow scrutiny to be chaired more widely. After all, if you don’t want a decision to be raked over by an unsympathetic opposition chair you might take more care to ensure that it didn’t need to be scrutinised in the first place. That, surely, should be your primary aim as an elected member.

It appears that the traffic-light system for foreign travel is to change, which should be good news for the travel industry and its clients…oh, cancel that. It’s to be replaced by “a new system.” Who knows what that might mean? The above-mentioned BBC article also quotes a government spokesperson as saying that “our international travel policy is guided by one overwhelming priority – protecting public health.” One could argue that, if that were the case, a lot of decisions taken about foreign travel would have been more draconian. Any government in any situation has a number of competing factors it needs to balance, societal (“save our summer holidays”) and economic being two of them. To suggest that it’s only looking at one aspect is mendacious.

• The Taliban is now in complete control of Afghanistan. A spokesman (I don’t think it would have spokeswomen, do you?) recently said that “we don’t want any internal enemies (or) external enemies.” That translates to me as “don’t even think about invading again and we’ll deal with opposition as we decide.” There are a lot of things and types of people I distrust but violent, misogynistic, bigoted, teetotal, xenophobic, over-religious, music-hating control freaks test pretty high. Why don’t I just come out and say what I mean? I know: I hold myself back too much. But, hey – that’s told them.

• Years ago, a business colleague of mine claimed to have been chatting to Jackie Kennedy at a function in the ’70s. The small talk wasn’t going well and he wondered what would have happened if he’d said “so – who can remember what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been shot?” Anyone over about 25 will remember what happened twenty years ago this Saturday on 9/11 (an event which has also cemented in the world’s mind the USA’s illogical way of abbreviating dates).

I watched part of 9/11 – Inside the President’s War Room the other night and was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, this was – as the liberal, English-speaking, areligious westerner that I am – to some extent an attack open me. On the other hand, I was surprised and at times shocked by the claims in the programme, from everyone from Bush, down that this was not only outrageous but unexpected. How much did the US spend on its spooks? The USA had, after all, been mounting attacks on a range of countries for decades in pursuit of its own ideals. Nothing that’s happened since seems to have improved matters. Indeed recent events in Afghanistan have turned the clock back to about late 2001. The misquoted phrase goes that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. To this might be added that those who try to change the future risk repeating the past…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 775 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 30 August to 5 September, up 287 on the week before. This equates to 489 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 332 (292 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• As the above paragraph shows, West Berkshire’s Covid rates have shot up recently and a recent meeting of WBC’s Local Outbreak Engagement Board on 6 September seemed unsure as to what the reasons were. No one obvious cause suggested itself at the meeting. Hospitalisations of WB residents have increased (at Royal Berkshire at least) from about 20 to about 50 over the last month but deaths remain close to zero.

One possibility for the rise in cases compared to other areas is that previously low infection rates in the area have resulted in low immunity rates. Another is that this has been the result of increased testing in the 11 to 24 years groups in WB, in which by far the largest increases have been found, compared to that done by other councils. Clearly, the more people you test, the more positives you’re like to find. I’ve asked Matt Pearce, WBC’s Service Director for Communities and Wellbeing if he has an update and will report this as soon as I have it. He’s a busy man and normally gets back to me pretty quickly: so if there’s no further news on 9 September (I only emailed him the questions yesterday afternoon), I’ll cut him some slack and hope to share his thoughts next week.

• West Berkshire’s residents and organisations have responded in a number of ways to the Afghan refugees who have found themselves in the district. Please see this post from WBC for what the official plans are and for the ways in which you can help.

• The long-term funding of the Readibus service in West Berkshire remains uncertain. As previously reported, this community transport service had for many years been funded by WBC but relations have recently somewhat broken down. Some of the financial shortfall has been made up by contributions from town and parish councils. A Readibus spokesperson told Penny Post on 9 September that “we’re continuing to meet the needs of those who needed the service during the lockdowns in the pandemic to ensure that they can still get out safely,” although, pending a final settlement, the service is more limited than was the case a year or so ago.

Click here for more information about the Enterprise Car Club which is aimed to encourage car-sharing in the district.

• A reminder that you can click here to see the latest newsletter from the WBC Library Service which includes the 2021-21 annual report.

• 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. You have until 3 October to make your views known.

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.

• 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 our enigmatic ginger cat Simba. He’s half-adopted a family up the street in East Garston and sporadically comes back in one of two moods: (i) reeking of perfume and demanding food, then fighting with his tabby sister before going out again; or (ii) offering us two days of purring and constant attention. The uncertainty every time he rocks up makes us fawn over him (which does nothing to influence how he behaves). It’s like having a sulky teenage son who needs to be propitiated, ignored and worried about in roughly equal measure. I have four sons: none has provided me with me with quite the emotional challenges this cat has.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, letters on the subject of how the Tories won the medals, symptom spotting, Newbury bus station and the green-bin service.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: The Thames Valley Air Ambulance (thanks to the Morrisons Foundation); Oxfordshire NHS Foundation Trust (thanks to David Wilson Homes and Oxford Spires Scaffolding); TRIBE Freedom Foundation (thanks to Dr Tom Crossland); Parkinson’s UK (thanks to villagers in Ramsbury); Young People and Children First (thanks to the Thatcham Rotary Club’s annual duck race); Diabetes UK (thanks to Leighton Harkness); The Motor Neurone Disease Association (thanks to the tera party at Englefield).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re at the final chorus with  Song of the Week. Another song inspired by one of my sons’ playlists: Hard Work by John Handy. Gratifying to see Michael pick something that was recorded 16 years before he was born.

• Time for a quick coda that I’ll call the Comedy Sketch of the Week. James Acaster does a very good line in deadpan, Jack Dee-type humour and his perplexed diatribe about cheese graters on Mock the Week is a good example of this. (He’s certainly right about one thing: who amongst us has ever used the side with the three curvy slits?)

• And so we fade out with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What happened after five seconds of the Wold Cup qualifying match between Tanzania and Madagascar on 7 September? Last week’s question was: How many holes were there in Blackburn, Lancashire in 1967? The answer, of course, is four thousand, a fact Lennon gleaned from a newspaper while writing his part of A Day in the Life. I say “his part” because there’s a bit by him and then a bit by McCartney and they’ve been bolted together so you can see the joins so I don’t buy the idea I’ve read several times that the song is their masterpiece. Mind you, as it’s by The Beatles that still makes it better than pretty much anything else of its kind (except for Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, obviously. And a couple of others).

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