Weekly News with Brian 23-30 September 2021

This Week with Brian

Including gas shortages, pigs in blankets, fighting talk, police cars, Fifi the llama, bleach injections, a pause for planning, a five-year supply, Polonium 201, two email errors, the Bazalgette Principle, claiming credit, collective clout, on the busses, Harry’s game, London to Exeter by container and a cage fighter.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including medical assertion, a showground pause, traffic, Henry II, Hungerford’s grants, Chilton Foliat’s tree, Lambourn’s applications, Newbury’s relief, Hamstead Marshall’s wildlife, Boxford’s thanks, Thatcham’s charges, Woolhampton’s artist, Yattendon’s cars, Stanford Dingley’s leadership, Frilsham’s orchard, Cold Ash’s WAG, East Ilsley’s pond, West Ilsley’s coffee, Compton’s school, Beedon’s seeds, Theale’s flowers, Padworth’s shelter, Wantage’s newsletter, Stanford’s capsule, Kingston Bagpuize’s award, Letcombe Regis’ volunteers, Grove’s tea, Marlborough’s coaches, Woodbridge’s fire, Bedwyn’s lights. Aldbourne’s dogs and Swindon’s streets – plus our usual tour 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

• It’s been a bad week for gas. Prices of the fuel are rising steadily and bankrupting several small energy firms, which won’t encourage many to use any but the big six in the future. As for CO2, the sworn enemy of Homo Sapiens, it appears that there’s a shortage of this as well. According to this BBC post, it’s used for carbonating beer, encouraging vegetable growth, stunning pigs and poultry before slaughter and packaging food. Coupled with the news last month that Brits could face a catastrophic shortage of pigs in blankets in December, the signs do not look good for those who (unlike me) enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner. Boris promised to save Christmas from Covid: it seems that the festivity has other enemies.

[more below] 

• Quite what a foreigner who translated “pigs in blankets‘ literally would think of us I can’t imagine. It’s certainly less misleading than sweetbreads, less lewd than spotted dick, less cruel than the French biscuit langue de chat and less off-putting than the German cake Kalter Hund (thanks to Mr Jones for the last one). “Pigs in blankets” creates a cuddly if surreal image but in fact describes the single most repulsive aspect of the traditional Christmas meal. They’re always either under-cooked, over-cooked or forgotten about altogether and left in the back of the fridge: more collateral damage in the mad, drunken, headlong panic to create the perfect festive meal. Millions of families being deprived of needing to cook these ghastly things in December will probably result in a significant improvement to our collective mental health: one less pointless thing to worry about. 

• President Biden has said that the USA will continue to supply hundreds of millions of Pfizer doses to poorer countries, so making the country an “arsenal of vaccines.” This doesn’t seem like the happiest phrase. Earlier this month, The Times of India reported how JB had announced “the end of an era of major American military intervention abroad.” The phrases live on, it seems. In much the same way, no amount of soft-soap talk by the British police in the 70s (not that there was a lot of that then) could disguise the fact that they tended to arrive at the scene of the crime in vehicles with names like Avenger, Hunter and Escort: their American counterparts favoured the Raptor, the Charger, the Pursuit and the Gran Fury. If automotive determinism were a phrase (it is now), these would be good examples. As for me, my first two cars were a Ford Anglia and a Mini. So, I’m a little Englander, then. Well, perhaps I am – your car doesn’t lie.

Llamas are very strange-looking animals: part giraffe, part goat, part enormous rabbit and part confused pantomime horse. They are now quite common sights in the countryside where they’re used for guarding flocks of sheep. They are also incredibly tough and were the canal barges, the railway engines and the road trains that enabled to mountainous Aztec empire to last for the best part of a century. It now seems that they might also provide a cure for Covid as a result of the nanobodies they produce in response to an infection. A llama called Fifi was the one signalled out for praise by the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxfordshire. The results can then be administered through a nasal spray rather than a needle, which would please the squeamish.

• A lot of other things have been proposed as Covid cures, some perhaps telling us more about the people suggesting them. Steam, sesame oil, garlic, cocaine, very strong alcohol and injections of bleach being some of the more memorable. When shuffled into this list, llama spray is by no means the oddest.

• Polonium 201 hasn’t, to my knowledge, featured as a Covid cure although this might just be a matter of time. As my son Michael pointed out to me today, however, it was involved in in one of the most peculiar murders of recent years. The European Court has recently declared that Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian spy turned UK citizen who was famously poisoned with the radioactive substance at London’s Millennium Hotel in 2006, was indeed murdered by the Russian state. This news comes as no surprise. Who else would want to kill him? How many jobbing assassins have access to Polonium? What other world power would assassinate someone in a so elaborate a manner? At times you wonder how much time Putin spends watching James Bond films.

This news has coincided with the identification of a fresh suspect in the equally bizarre attempted murder of Sergei Skripa in Salisbury, this time using the Novichok nerve agent (so ticking the same boxes as the case above). It’s unlikely that these developments will amount to anything tangible either. Russia has completely denied all involvement in both events and the chances of successfully extraditing suspects seem as likely as Putin turning the Kremlin’s main reception room into an LGBT nightclub. For those that want justice however, some minor comfort can be found: at least any future Russian assassins might be more wary of being filmed in swanky London hotels or major tourist spots like Salisbury Cathedral. This probably won’t hamper their efficiency but will perhaps at least reduce their levels of visitor satisfaction while on-mission.

• There are a few toe-curlingly awful things you can do with emails. These include (i) writing something uncomplimentary about the sender and then replying, rather than forwarding to a third party; and (ii) writing something uncomplimentary about a third party and then forwarding to them, rather than replying. Right up at the top of the list, though – particularly in these GDPR times – is not using the blind cc option. This doesn’t matter if all the recipients know each other. But let’s say the information is very sensitive and that the recipients are all in fear of their lives after an invasion of their country by people who would love to know who they are.

This is what the MoD did with regard to 250 of its interpreters in Afghanistan. They already seem to have been short-changed by the British state, perhaps (or perhaps not) because of the then Home Secretary’s holiday arrangements last month. The MoD has been forced to refer itself to the Information Commissioner’s Office, a humiliation akin to being made to walk into a police station with your hand on your own collar saying “I’m nicked.” My (free) email programme flashes up a great big warning when I try to sent to more than five open recipients. The MoD’s system, which probably cost at least £200m, seems not to have this feature. At least it shows the ministry has fully embraced the digital age: its traditional way of leaking information was to leave it on a bus, in a pub or in the unlocked boot of a car.

Then, blow me down, a couple of days later it was announced that the MoD had done it again. Back to the nick with you…

• Michael Gove, the new Housing Minister (his full and newly created title is a lot longer than that) has decided to pause the controversial planning reforms proposed by his predecessor Robert “Westferry” Jenrick. One of the problems cited was that a number of Tory backbenchers were worried that they were so unpopular that it cost them their seats, a complaint which, if made by a sufficiency of MPs, clearly has to be taken seriously by the senior officers. A better reason was that the plans were in many ways bonkers. They would, as well as removing a lot of local decision-making and dividing the country into three planning zones, put even more power in the hands of developers. If Mr Gove’s new bill included a commitment that the government would, through local councils, build most of the social-rent and affordable homes that were needed, a big part of the problems in the current system would vanish. Others would also be solved by allocating planning authorities ring-fenced funding to spend on enforcement offers, the lack of whom in some areas (including West Berkshire) does a lot to undermine the work done by the officers and, indeed, the whole system.

• One of the cornerstones of the planning system is the local plan which all authorities must have and periodically update. This might be termed the instruction manual and major source of reference – I was about to say the “bible” but that offers opposing views on pretty much every point – for making decisions. If the plan, which includes being able to demonstrate a five-year supply of land for housing, is out of date then the authority runs the risk of being the victim of what’s known as “speculative planning” or “planning by appeal”. A large UK developer was recently quoted in Private Eye as saying that it expressly targeted planning authorities which were in disarray in this respect. The image that springs to mind is of a pride of lions carefully assessing which of the antelopes in a herd seems to have a bit of a limp.

Just such a situation was recently played out in South Oxfordshire when, according to this week’s Wantage & Grove Herald, a proposed 150-home development in Didcot was approved by appeal by the Planning Inspectorate due in part to “the lack of a demonstrable five-year supply of deliverable housing land.” South Oxfordshire DC’s current local plan was the subject of a major political spat last year. The new Lib Dem administration from May 2019 strongly disagreed with its Tory predecessors’ finalised but unadopted plan and wished to start again. Robert Jenrick, the then Housing Minister, threatened to remove SODC’s planning powers unless it adopted the plan it had inherited, which it duly did. If this plan is now shown to be defective, who therefore is responsible? One for the electors in 2023 to discuss and disagree about, no doubt…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 341 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 13 to 19 September, down 11 on the week before. This equates to 215 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 271 (267 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• West Berkshire is, like many others, a unitary authority with just the one tier of government: Oxfordshire on the other hand is not as it has a County Council divided into five districts. The general drift is towards the unitary model. Berkshire County Council was abolished, and Berkshire’s six unitary authorities established, in 1998 and there are no current government plans I’m aware of to alter this. A couple of recent press articles may, however, have given a different impression.

One is this article in the Local Government Chronicle which said that “the six unitary authorities in Berkshire have all agreed they will submit an expression of interest in a new county devolution deal with the government.” More information on this initiative can be found here. I asked WBC Leader Lynne Doherty about this.

“All six Berkshire council leaders are in the early stages of exploring the option to secure a ‘county deal’ from government to support investment in the economy and infrastructure of the county,” she replied. “This follows changes announced by government to the way such investment is managed. At this stage, council leaders have agreed to have an exploratory discussion with government. This is not about creating a needless combined authority or directly elected Mayor, which would simply bring an additional level of administration and cost, but about how we can support strategic investment benefitting all council areas, our residents and businesses. As with all our discussions and decisions, we are guided by what is best for West Berkshire.”

The other press article  that might have suggested imminent municipal upheaval was the front-page story on this week’s Newbury Weekly News under the headline “‘County council’ to return?” and with a first sentence saying that “talks to recreate Berkshire as a county council…are taking place.” I checked this again with Lynne Doherty. She re-iterated her comments above (these were also quoted later in the NWN article, so rather undermining the headline and the first paragraph). She also stressed that no part of the discussions involved the re-creation of an extra tier of government and that she had seen nothing from Whitehall to suggest that it would impose any new structure: rather the intention was to encourage neighbouring councils to co-operate on certain aspects, as already happens with Local Enterprise Partnerships.

I then suggested that the traditional county of Berkshire now comprises several very different areas. Do these county deals need to be based on traditional boundaries? Was there any thought of a body comprising, say, West Berkshire, South Oxfordshire, the Vale and Wiltshire (which have more in common with each other than WB does with, say, Windsor or Slough, as Lynne Doherty herself admitted in the above-mentioned LGC article) which may have more need of a bit more collective clout?

She told me that this didn’t form part of the current discussions (which are based on traditional county boundaries) but that further detail was awaited when the white paper was published. However, the recreation of Berkshire CC doesn’t seem to be part of the plans. Some people would support such a move and the the LGC article mentions that Berkshire’s unitaries are “relatively small” compared to others. The article also points out that two of them, Slough and Windsor & Maidenhead, had recently run into financial problems. Yet this is not a problem faced only by small unitary councils, Northamptonshire and Croydon recently having found themselves in even choppier waters. A change back to a two-tiered system (or the creation of a larger Berkshire unitary authority) w0uld be disruptive and a very good case would need to be made for it. The PM’s latest county deal initiative doesn’t seem to have this intention.

• This is recycle week and West Berkshire Council’s slogan is “step it up”. This post has some useful advice and statistics. Over half of households, for instance, still put items in black bins that can be recycled. Many more items can now be recycled than was the case ten years ago, including stuff that might not be put in a house’s main bin (normally in the kitchen) but in places like bathrooms. Food waste needs to go in the green bin, not the black one. We all know that recycling is good – the use of plastic might not be the great enemy when combatting climate change but disposing of it and other waste products properly is important. However, there are a couple of obvious practical obstacles.

One is that there is something of a disconnect between what can be recycled at a recycling centre in any given district and what can be collected from homes. If continued UK citizenship depended on scoring eight out of 10 in a quiz local recycling arrangements, the legal population of the land would dramatically reduce. Could more stuff be collected at the kerbs?

I put this to Steve Ardagh-Walter, West Berkshire Council’s portfolio holder for the environment. “It’s a fair question,” he said, “and increasing this is certainly something we aspire to. However, there are logistical and financial problems. The pingdemic and HGV-driver shortage make it difficult to recruit enough staff – you’ll remember that earlier in the summer we had to suspend green-waste collections for a few weeks for this reason. We also have to be sure that any dedicated kerbside collection of different materials would produce a sufficient yield. Setting up any new service is costly and complex and in this case ideally needs, amongst other things, new bins to be supplied for the new items.”

He went on to say that what West Berkshire is currently concentrating on is setting up not only recycling bins in town centres such as in Newbury and and Hungerford but also increasing the number of containers that can recycle specific items in more rural areas. A list of these can be found here. You can also use this link to visit Recycle Now’s website – enter your postcode to find the nearest recycling banks to you (this provides more than the WBC one as it includes out-of-district locations and smaller ones in the car parks of places like supermarkets).

The other problem is space. Many households simply don’t have the room to store several different bins. Generally, this is more of a problem in towns. One solution is to encourage residents of certain urban postcodes to store as much as they can in one bin and then offer a sorting service at the centre. For rural areas, more dedicated recycling units could be added to village-hall car parks and the like, to be replaced by kerbside collections when enough material was collected to make this more convenient method viable.

A long-term solution for the storage issue is to ensure that all houses in new builds have enough space for double the number of recycling bins that the local authority currently collects at the kerb. (This follows what I call the Bazalgette Principle, after the Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette who built London’s sewers. He told the government that he’d estimated the maximum capacity the city currently needed and then doubled it to allow for expansion. His network is still operational today.)

This, however, would require a national initiative so I’m not holding my breath. Any proposed compulsion on developers to build homes to anything but the most immediately profitable standards is watered down by lobbying or evaded by post hoc negotiations with the planning authority.

One useful thing, though – which has nothing to do with developers but would require as much political will – would be to make recycling arrangements a central responsibility. As the long-running spat between West Berkshire and Hampshire has shown (for many Hants residents the Newbury and Padworth centres, which are far closer to them than the ones in their own district, can’t be used without payment), this shouldn’t be a local issue. iI we’re serious about recycling, the government needs to ensure all the major recycling centres are open to all and that they all recycle the same stuff. That will in turn enable manufacturers to be compelled to print on every piece of packaging what can and cannot be recycled in the UK. At present they can’t as local arrangements vary and they have no way of knowing in what district the product will be used.

• This week also saw World Car-free Day on Wednesday 22 September. Penny as usual went off to the wonderful Educafé in Newbury on the bus. My Wednesday trip, however, is to Hungerford where I swim and go the equally wonderful market to stock up on most of our weekly edible, drinkable and readable needs. This is eight miles away  and there is no longer a bus service. The last time I got on a bike ten years ago I slipped a disc, which is still with me. A 16-mile walk, half of it with shopping, is not on. What am I to do?

This post on WBC’s website invited me to “give my car a break” and suggested some ways I might do this. 30 years ago this might have been easier as villages like East Garston were more homogenous. The word couldn’t be used now. If I could find someone who wanted to go to Hungerford for about 11.30am every Wednesday and return at about 2pm I’d leap at the chance of sharing a ride. All our lives follow different orbits, however. I could use a supermarket delivery service and exercise by running but I don’t want to. I prefer visiting markets and small shops and chatting to people and swimming. I like to think this doesn’t make a bad person although this press release slightly makes me think I might be.

The suggestions made are perfectly good ones as far as they go but have little relevance for me (the proposition was also made quite late, this press release only being published on 19 September). This set me thinking about what could have been done that was a bit more imaginative.

My best idea was that WBC re-activate for a short period some of the bus services that were axed about four years ago, or create some new routes the need for which might have emerged since, such as from new housing developments. This would take a lot of organisation and publicity. Let’s say they’d be free for this period. This would take a lot of money. Let’s also say that staff were on each to ask questions of the passengers as to what would men them use the service in the future. This would take a lot of personnel. I get all these things. However, it’s easy to issue a press release with some good advice after which everyone forgets about the issue. (I don’t go to church but imagine that a good number of people attend a service on Sunday and then say to themselves “well, that’s that done for this week.”) There is, I understand, money available from the PM’s initiative to get people back onto public transport. This could be a good way of using this for a practical purpose. Any thoughts on this?

• I received a press release from West Berkshire Council on 22 September telling me that it had “picked up a national award for digital transformation“. Sounds interesting, I thought: let’s have a closer look. (You can read more in the first article here: it’s not currently on this page of WBC’s website but imagine that it will be soon.) The details of the award can be seen here. I offer 16.66% of the congratulations to WBC, as opposed to the 100% that the headline invites, as the winning entry in the MJ Local Government Awards Digital Transformation section was as a result of co-operation between all six councils in the traditional country of Berkshire.

On questioning the choice of headline, I was told by a WBC spokesperson that “in the absence of a central Berkshire comms function, the individual local authorities have each been charged with preparing their own releases so I am sure you will see similar from each of the Berkshire six.” I’ve looked at the other five’s websites but haven’t seen any mention of the award so far. I wonder if they’ll be more honest about their role. That said, I applaud the result and am happy to take my 16.66% of the reflected glory as a West Berkshire resident.

• 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 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 Fifi the potentially Covid-busting llama (see Further Afield above).

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subject of traffic, waste, jabs, street pastors and court fees.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: Marlborough Rugby (thanks to The Hills Group); Ballet at Athehampton (thanks to Waitrose); Speakability (thanks to Martin Colston); Camp Mowhawk and The Music Club (thanks to Amelie Turnbull); Afghan refugees (thanks to numerous people – see also pp6-7 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News); Parkinson’s Research (thanks to Gary Shaughnessy); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust); several community groups in Hungerford (thanks to Hungerford Town Council).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So so it’s at pre-application stage with the Song of the Week. A displacement-activity session of word-association-football-match-box-seat (you know, when you look one thing up online and ten minutes later end up at something quite different by following links in the successive posts) led me this afternoon to the 1980s TV drama about the Troubles, Harry’s Game. This is particularly famous for its theme tune by the Irish band Clannad: so I had another listen to that. Beautiful and slightly haunting, though not quite my pint of Guinness. Here it is. I seem to remember the programme itself was pretty good so I might try watching that again and listening the music in context.

• And it’s gone to the planning committee in the form of the Comedy Sketch of the Week. As I think I’ve mentioned before, my friend Nick Ball made some wonderfully and toe-curlingly funny sketches under the name of quiet desperation, which perfectly sums up the social pickles the main character gets into. This time, our suited but inept hero comes across his frightening and burly new neighbour unloading an alarming collection of objects out of a removal van and offers to help. What could go wrong? Click here for The Cage Fighter.

• But the developers have appealed, so the matter is to be decided by the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The author Raymond Chandler described LA and having all the personality of a…what? Last week’s question was: The world’s largest container ship, the Ever Ace, docked at Felixstowe last weekend during her maiden voyage. How many containers can it carry? The answer is (apparently) 23,992. If they’re all 40-foot ones and you put them end to end they’d stretch from London to Exeter and cause no end of confusions. I think I’ve got that right: please check my maths and let me know if not. I think, however, that this is a hypothetical problem.

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 link. 

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