Weekly News with Brian 16-23 September 2021

This Week with Brian

Including plan A and plan B, a war of attrition, buying power, Swale’s travails, sponsorship opportunities, looking over the fence, shuffling the pack, all in it together, rough and tumble, dolphin fun, contrafibularity, lots of containers, I want to tell you and a quick penalty.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including an what NADAS is, football financials, 2,500 pitches, Hungerford’s objections, Denford’s bridge, Lambourn’s newsletter, Shefford’s incinerator, Newbury’s volunteers, Boxford’s greenway, Hampstead Marshall’s prang, Thatcham’s foresight, Cold Ash’s flowers, Bucklebury’s disappointment, Hampstead Norreys’ bells, Beedon’s fallen bus stop, Compton’s roof, Yattendon’s vehicles, Ashampstead’s pond, Theale’s circus, Aldermaston’s ramp, Padworth’s alarms, Beenham’s vacancy, Burghfield’s blossom, Wantage’s almshouse, Grove’s station, Letcombe’s register, Marlborough’s questions, Crofton’s steaming and Swindon’s plan – plus our usual prowl around the  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 government has set out its autumn and winter plan (no roadmap this time) for dealing with Covid. This document from Gov.uk gives the detail and this one on the BBC website provides a summary. Plan A focusses on testing and on vaccines (including boosters for those aged 50+ six months after their second jab and, for the first time, single jabs for those aged 12-15). There’s also a plan B should matters start to slip anchor. This looks quite a lot like lockdown-lite.

[more below] 

When the Health Secretary made his announced in the Commons on 14 September, the mention of a return to mandatory facemarks was greeted with some boos: after all, this is for some MPs not a medical issue but a burning civil-liberties one. The key test, he said the following day, was the amount of pressure on the NHS. “Back to panic stations” was the Daily Mail’s helpful summary of this on 15 September while the Daily Express called the PM “Mr Sensible.” The Guardian suggested that scientists have told the government to “act urgently” to prevent 7,000 hospitalisations a day.

Infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the past had three sharp peaks (March 2020, October 2020 and January 2021) which then reduced quite quickly as a result of lockdowns and, eventually, vaccination. A fourth rise in infections in June did not produce the same rises in hospitalisations or deaths. For the last month or so all these have been on a plateau (slightly falling cases, slightly rising hospitalisations and deaths) which is a shape we haven’t really seen before. It’s like a war which has seen three violent but inconclusive battles after which both sides then settle down to a period of attrition, watching to see what the other side does and thinking about what they might do next. Politically and militarily, the question then is what constitutes an acceptable level of violence.

The defenders’ (ie the UK’s) death toll is currently about 1,000 a week with about 8,000 hospitalised casualties. Is this an acceptable level? If the government had suggested so in March 2020 the answer would have been a resounding “no”. Now it seems to be “yes”. Of course, an army can only fight so many enemies at once. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the number of people waiting for NHS treatment has grown by 20% since Covid turned up and that the waiting list could grow to 13 million (about 20% of the country). Covid currently causes about 12% of deaths so the NHS and the government needs to be increasing its defences on other fronts. This involves a gamble that vaccine efficacy won’t wane too fast and that no perilous new variants emerge.

This winter is likely to be a grim time for the NHS. The lockdowns last year, as well as slowing Covid’s spread, also reduced a huge range of infections, including flu, that are transmitted in much the same way. With most restrictions now removed and an 18-month backlog for other conditions, hospitals and surgeries are likely to be just as busy and death rates may well increase. Fewer might be directly attributed to Covid but its indirect effect will be severe and long-lasting. To return to the military analogy, it’s as if the attacker has shifted from all-out assault to terror campaigns against easy targets like crowded places and vulnerable people. Much the same can be said of  the planet’s assault on us through climate change. For all our brain-power, we are being out-thought by two entities – one very small and one very large – that cannot think at all, or at least not in the way we understand the word. If that doesn’t give us some cause for hubris then it’s hard to see what will.

• I mentioned last week about the reforms to social care. I asked three West Berkshire Councillors who are much involved in this issue to give me their initial thought and they have duly obliged. Portfolio-holders Joanne Stewart (social care) and Graham Bridgman (health) said that WBC has been lobbying for this “for some time” and said that the reforms will “create additional pressure on both workforce and staffing budgets”. They said that, despite the promise of more help to local councils (which are the primary providers of social care), the financial impact remained to be seen. They added that WBC would “play an active role” in any discussions on the impact on social care and the health service. 

Shadow social-care portfolio-holder Alan Macro (Lib Dems) suggested seven serious problems with the system including recruitment and retention challenges, the financial difficulties faced by providers, the hidden issue of free care provided by relatives and the current £24,000 asset threshold which led to many recipients having to sell their homes. The current reforms, he said, “only address the last problem (and don’t prevent everyone having to sell their home).” He also pointed to some ambiguities in the £86,000 lifetime cap on personal contributions which might create worse problems.

All agreed that the detail was complex and in some cases unknown. Hopefully all can also agree, at every level, that this is not a political issue. After all, our personal standard of living since the early 1980s has to some extent been maintained by successive governments of all colours buying power with tax cuts. The results can now be seen with an increasing disconnect between demand and supply for a number of services including social care. In this area, the gulf is widening every year as longer lives produce more complex, and thus more expensive, health and social-care demands. Covid and Brexit have not helped recruitment, while the sector also has increasingly high compliance costs. Social care also relies, as do many aspects of our lives, also relies on an often uneasy relationship between central-government demand for policy adherence and private-sector demands for profits. Reform is long overdue. Let’s hope this can provide it.

• The problem I mentioned last week at Swale Borough Council in Kent – where a junior officer working for a contracted service added facetious reasons for refusing planning applications to decision notices as part of the testing of a new system, these ending up being published as legally binding decisions – will cost about £8,000 to fix through a judicial review. Aside from the farcical elements of the story, this article also highlights the uncertainty that the applicants face. I imagine the legal problem for the council is that as these decisions are firm until set aside, no other conclusion can be reached until that’s happened. The article doesn’t reveal the fate of the junior officer involved. In twenty years’ time this will be a good dinner-party story. Right now, I bet they’re feeling a bit stupid.

• I know next to nothing about tennis but it seems something pretty remarkable happened at the US Open last week when Emma Raducanu won the women’s competition aged 18, having had to qualify and without dropping a set. That seems a bit like sixth-tier Hungerford Town FC winning the FA Cup without conceding a goal. This child of Romanian and Chinese parents was playing under the UK flag against a seemingly equally excellent Canadian who is half Ecuadorian and half Filipino. That seems to do the cause of multiculturalism a good turn. It didn’t take long for an article to appear saying how much Raducanu could or should be earning as a result of this. She seems to have a wise head on her shoulders and be surrounded by good people so hopefully this won’t destroy her, as it has many others.

• Last week I wrote a few paragraphs about local democracy and the way that this was politicised in the way that committees were often organised. Before I go any further I’d like to thank West Berkshire Council’s Deputy Leader Graham Bridgman for pointing out that national legislation prevents any members of a council’s executive (the local cabinet) from sitting on an overview and scrutiny committee (which is a bit like one of the Commons select committees, whose deliberations are given good publicity in high-profile cases, which exist to investigate government actions). This is good news. However, my point was that the chair should also be of a party other than the ruling one. As my research into 15 local councils showed, this is the case in only a third of cases; enough to show that it’s not a stupid idea.

Why does all this matter? Money is one aspect, our council tax bill being one of the largest cheques most of us need to write out unless we’re that year buying a car, a house or a really nice guitar so it’s good too know the cash is spent correctly. It also matters because words like transparency, inclusivity, equality and fairness are freely used, particularly at election time, and – if to preserve the integrity of the English language if nothing else – it’s worth checking up on from time to time on how these are applied in practice. It also seems important to write about this just to test that I still can do so without being arrested. So far, I’m still at liberty, so that’s OK.

When looking at municipal stuff like this in these internet times, it’s pretty easy to find out what other authorities do. There are hundreds to look at, many of which will in terms of population, area, economic activity or geographic location be comparable to the one under consideration.

Looking over the garden fence to see what the neighbours do can be a very useful exercise. I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of press releases from councils in our area and had hundreds of conversations with local councillors or candidates. I can’t remember one of these referring to, or perhaps even being aware of, how similar authorities arrange the matter being discussed. Any cross-fertilisation that happens tends to be along party lines and so, perhaps, merely re-enforces existing views.

The conclusion is that each council exists to a large extent in its own bubble in which the West Berkshire or Vale of White Horse (or Conservative or Lib Dem), or whatever, way is the only way.  A press release proving that best practice used elsewhere had been followed would cut more ice with me than some of the verbiage and platitudes that are sometimes used. Of course, just because other people do things doesn’t make it right but it least gives you some basis of comparison. It’s also possible that, were such comparisons made before the decision was taken, some of the results would have been different.

• Mr BJ had a Cabinet re-shuffle this week. The three major casualties were (i) Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, (ii) Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and (iii) Local Government and Housing Minister Robert Jenrick. Their most heinous recent crimes have been (i) going on holiday just before the long-announced US withdrawal from Afghanistan (does the man not have advisors?); (ii) not being able correctly to identify his tormentor-in-chief from last year, Marcus Rashford; (iii) either the awful proposals for reforms of the planning system, or not being able to get enough houses built, or a delayed fall-out from last year’s Westferry printworks debacle.

Their respective replacements are (i) Liz Truss, former International Trade Minister and yet another Oxford PPE graduate; (ii) Nadhim Zahawi, a science graduate and was the minister responsible for the vaccine roll-out; and (iii) Michael Gove, who has shown disloyalty to both BJ and his predecessor and who was previously the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, effectively a minister without portfolio to deal with whatever the boss says (mainly Brexit in Gove’s case).

What difference any of this will make is anyone’s guess. We’ve got a whole lot of muddles to sort out and maybe these people will do better than their predecessors, or maybe not. The in-trays are always overflowing and more problems come at us every day. The Utopias that democracy and capitalism promised us seem as far away as ever. Then you look around at the ghastliness so many other have to endure and our lot doesn’t seem so bad. And yet, as Covid and climate change are showing us, we’re all in this together, The hapless David Cameron didn’t envisage this interpretation when he said that during the 2010 election but he was right: and I never thought I would ever write that

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 353 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 6 to 12 September, down 419 on the week before. This equates to 223 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 267 (332 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• After a bit of an alarming spiker, West Berkshire’s Covid rates have normalised a bit recently (if 353 cases a day, as it was on 16 September, can be considered “normal”). As mentioned, I asked WBC’s officers about what might have caused this spike: increased mixing over the summer, loosened restrictions and increased testing were suggested, though these would apply equally to every district. They admitted that “it was not completely clear” why WB’s rates were higher than its neighbours. They agreed that more people aged 11 to 24 (which is where the spike really was) have been tested recently but I’m not clear if West Berkshire did so more than its neighbours (which would explain it).

• West Berkshire Council’s donation target for Aghan refugees staying in Berkshire has been reached. The request was met in just four days and all items were gifted by local residents and businesses. More information can be found here.

Politicians claiming that their party has been responsible for a particular benefit which is then angrily rebutted by someone else is part of the knock-about and rough-and-tumble of political life and perhaps not to be taken too seriously. WBC Councillor Howard Woollaston sparked just a spat the other week, claiming in the NWN that Conservative’s initiatives in the ’90s were partly responsible for the recent successes in the Olympics and Paralympic Games. Local resident Stephen McKinnon took exception to this attempt to politicise sport in this week’s paper and he should therefore also thank the Labour Party for setting up the NHS. Not being able to wait for next week’s instalment (if there is to be one), I asked Howard Woollaston for a response. He duly obliged. “I wholly commend the Labour Party for setting up the NHS,” he said – all very apolitical so far –”as well as the massive injections of capital into it particularly over recent years under successive Conservative administrations.” That should spark a retort. “Thankfully,” he went on, “the NHS is safe under both major political parties.” Now he’ll have the Lib Dems and the Greens on this case as well…

• A reminder that taxi fares are proposed to increase (by 5%) for the first time since 2013 in West Berkshire. It’s been suggested that one of the advantages for the cabbies will be reducing the need for change as the various trigger distances will now end in, as Councillor Graham Bridgman put it “a nice round zero.” (The day will come when coins have vanished altogether: this might mark another small step on the journey). The decision will be made in November. More information can be found here.

• 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 animals of the week are any one of these 300-odd dolphins stampeding through the ocean off Southern California at insane speed. No one seems to know why they suddenly decide to do this, fleeing or hunting being two unproved possibilities. The truth seems much simpler. They’re pretty bright, highly social and very fast so they’re probably just doing it for fun, because they can.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subject of green bins, the rSPCA, sparrowhawks, Singapore, consumption and the Greenham Control Tower.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Speakability (thanks to Newbury Mayor Billy Drummond); Mary Hare School (thanks to Katie Mills); Bruce Boats (thanks to Timothy Griffin); Macmillan Cancer Support and Retraining of Racehorses (thanks to Victoria Cartmel and Dan Whidbourne).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we’re deep into the deciding set with the  Song of the Week. At the Hungerford Market on Sunday, the duo Scampy did a very good version of a Beatles’ song that I’ve always liked but isn’t covered too often, George Harrison’s I Want to Tell You. Here’s the original.

• Now we’re serving for the match and here comes the Comedy Sketch of the Week. We’ll have a bit of Blackadder, I think in which Dr Johnson learns that he hasn’t captured quite all the vocabulary of our post-Norman tongue – C is for Contrafibularity.

• Match point, to be decided by the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The world’s largest container ship, the Ever Ace, docked at Felixstowe last weekend during her maiden voyage. How many containers can it carry? Last week’s question was: What happened after five seconds of the Wold Cup qualifying match between Tanzania and Madagascar on 7 September? The answer was that a penalty was awarded, perhaps (it awaits confirmation) the fastest ever.

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