Weekly News with Brian 28 October to 4 November 2021

This Week with Brian

Including huge sums, a strange day, a devastating report, a look back at the dome, false accounting, difficult decisions, one down and four to go, a local spike, PCR PR needed, a dedication, libraries, different randoms, a new name, budget-setting, seven Edwards, go to work (but don’t go to work) and a trustworthy barman.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) eading by example, more on the Lambourn, eyes on Gove, Eagle Quarter, yellow lines, application checking, Hungerford’s evidence, Inkpen’s storage, Kintbury’s toilets, Shefford’s letter, East Garston’s Emma, Lambourn’s meeting, Newbury’s advert, Sandleford’s place, Wash Common’s café, Speen’s contributions, Thatcham’s naming, Midgham’s spam, Cold Ash’s goat, Brimpton’s bulbs, Hermitage’s jabs, Cheddleworth’s roses, Aldworth’s board, Theasle’s delight, Beenham’s bridleway, Mortimer and Burghfield’s cycleway, Wantage’s yarnbombing, Grove’s invite, East Challow’s development, Marlborough’s opening, Aldbourne’s clarifications and Swindon’s water – plus our usual prowl around the area’s websites and FB pages.

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

• Like most people, I find very large sums of money impossible to grapple with, 50p, £100 – I know what they will buy. Start talking in billions, though, and I’m all at sea. The larger the sums, the less real they seem to be. In fact they probably aren’t real, just figures on a spreadsheet somewhere that exist only because enough of us believe they do. Like sub-atomic particles, some of these also seem capable of being in two or more places at the same time or vanish altogether when you try to submit them to any kind of scrutiny.

[more below] 

The annual budget is when all these huge and possibly unreal numbers are showcased, like models on a catwalk, by the proud Chancellor. The last one happened, as you may have noticed, on 27 October. My understanding of these things is limited to establishing whether beer or wine is going to be more or less expensive as a result. My first reaction was, therefore, to ask an expert: so I got in touch with John Shepperd, the Economist at Butler Toll Asset Management.

“It was a rather odd Budget,” he told me, “particularly coming from a Conservative Chancellor. There’s a large rise in public spending, much of which had already been announced.” (There had been 19 pre-Budget press releases, most concerning spending: budget secrecy is clearly a dead concept.) “Public spending as a share of GDP will be heading up to 41.6% by 2026/27, the highest since the late 1970s. But taxes are also going up – many, including  NI, corporation tax and freezing allowances, were pre-announced. The tax burden as a share of GDP up to 36.2%, which will be the highest since the early 1950s. Austerity is clearly now out of fashion and levelling up is in vogue. This leads to much more spending: but sooner or later we pay for it. Finally, borrowing will fall (assuming medium-term 2% or so growth) from nearly 17% of GDP this year to 1.5% in the medium term. Well, perhaps…”

The BBC website described the speech as “upbeat” which must have been music to the ears of the Chancellor’s incurably optimistic boss. It certainly seemed to be populist after these last ghastly 18 months: “on first examination,” the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg suggested, “it has something for everyone.” The budget speech is also traditionally a moment for the leader of the Opposition to show their statesmanlike qualities. This was, however, denied to Keir Starmer, a man so often absent in body or in spirit these last 18 months. On this occasion it was because he had recently tested positive for Covid, the recovery from which was what this budget was all about. Time will tell if this one produces the desired economic effect. Its political effect will be tested sooner and with a clearer result, at the next general election in 2024.

• Before that, however, BoJo will need to brace himself for some stinging criticisms of the test-and-trace programme, a recent Commons report into which has just been released. Politico calls the findings “devastating” and it’s hard to see that other commentators will be kinder. Since we’ve been talking about unfeasibly large numbers, this has cost an estimated £37bn. This would pay for West Berkshire Council’s entire budget for the next 250 years. For such an expenditure, one might expect results. These could reasonable include effectiveness in meeting its stated aim/s, value for money and a legacy. The report seems to find no evidence of any of these.

The money was also spent in record time – even HS2 has not consumed so much cash so quickly – which leads to questions about the role played by expensive consultants and, as a direct result of this, how much expertise (if expertise it was) was brought in-house to deal with future similar problems. This leads one to wonder what the relationship between the public and the private sector should be. If the government hires, trains and manages teams of experts in a wide range of disciplines to act as its experts on everything from IT systems to graphic design, will they always produce better results than external experts? Probably not. If, however, experts need to be drafted in every time there’s some uncertainty about what route to take, will this represent the best value for money? Probably not. One thing that will surely come under scrutiny are the fees these people charge, which The Guardian suggested in October 2020 were sometimes over £6,000 a day. There’s been inflation since then, of course.

More damaging still will be the accusations of cosiness which existed, and may still exist, between those awarding the contracts and those receiving them. The excuse was that the emergency demanded that red tape be cut through. This wasn’t entirely convincing as government procurement experts can presumably be speeded up in an emergency and some form of accountability and proof of due process should be part of any politician’s calculations. The only justification can be if, against all the odds, you produce a miraculous result from a seat-of-the-pants approach. The PM is fond of this way of doing things and this may have been got away with if the test-and-trace had proved to be a success. All the reports so far suggest that it hasn’t been.

• All of this slightly reminds me of the Millennium Dome, a money-no-object article of faith by the then Labour government and which failed to hit its ambitious visitor and revenue targets. When the time came to sell it, there were any number of problems with who owned what which confounded several initial offers.

In fact, the story had a happy ending. In May 2002 AEG bought the site for £1 plus 15% of its profits from the venue for the next 25 years. The Guardian reported in March 2020 that it had been the most popular music venue in the world for every year since 2007. In 2018, Forbes reported that the venue had made about £146m from the O2 in the previous decade, so resulting in a £22m return to the taxpayer. This doesn’t come close to the estimated £700m construction (and doubtless management-consultancy costs on top). Nor is it the legacy that Tony Blair and his mates might have wanted or planned for. None the less, it is being used. Whether the current test-and-trace system will be being used in 20 years time seems a lot less certain. £700m, £37bn – what’s the difference? The more I think about these kind of sums, the more interchangeable and the less real they seem to be.

• The most recent Private Eye points out, in its lead story on p7, that “false carbon accounting” underpins the alleged green credentials of tree-burning generators, one of which is subsidised to the tune of £2m a day. These are figures that even test-and-trace consultants would regard as excessive. The article contends that some biomass burning may be beneficial, but not this industrial level of consumption.

• Whether it’s in matters relating to choice of energy suppliers, plastic use and re-use, planning considerations, choices of vehicles and a host of other matters, we are all now increasingly forced to make decisions every day. Often we are incapable of making the right one on all or every point, or rely on expert advice which later research might prove to be biased, unreliable or plain wrong. Advice from government or local councils is very broad-brush and is habitually motivated by political considerations which are, for climate change, irrelevant.

Brexit turned us all into economists and sociologists and Covid turned us into epidemiologists and statisticians; climate change is turning us into a nation of scientists and environmentalists. For all of these roles, most of us are ill prepared. This unexpected transition into a demand for high-level expertise has never happened before, certainly not in my lifetime.

Solving either Covid or climate change also requires a degree of co-operation that, even within a particular country or even district, seems impossible. Six hundred years ago, it might have been so, as almost all of us had a shared understanding of what our roles in society were. Now, we are not cogs but individuals. Societal relationships have, to a greater or lesser extent, fractured in the face of the pervasive worship of the interests of the self as being the supreme arbiter of our decision-making. Wealthy individuals, companies or countries have the greatest ability to change their ways of life to combat climate change. They also the most to lose by conceding ground to their competitors by so doing.

We have long measured our personal, corporate and national success by direct financial comparators. As mentioned above, huge sums of money are largely illusory and so can be spent on anything for which we have a sufficient collective will. There was little evidence that addressing climate change was a primary aim of the budget. As Covid’s lockdown regulations showed, albeit fitfully in the UK, consistent national leadership will provide a useful first step against an existential threat. Perhaps climate change’s problem is not getting our attention is because it hasn’t yet caused enough demonstrable deaths, health-system overloads or economic hardship in rich countries. That may change.

• Enough serious stuff – let’s look at football (and not Newcastle Utd). In my predictions for the season back in August I hoped for “anyone but Manchester City” to win the League Cup. This came to pass yesterday after West Ham beat them on penalties in the fourth round, the first defeat they’d suffered in this competition since 2o16. One prediction down, four to go.

Facebook has, it seems, realised that its name is a mash-up misnomer and that it neither encourages people to engage face-to-face nor to read books. It’s therefore today rebranded itself as Meta. I think this rhymes with “debtor” rather than “beater” or “sitar”.  To be quite honest, unless I’m going to use it in a song lyric, I don’t greatly care…

Across the area

• Click here for news from your local council if you live in the Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire, Swindon or West Berkshire.

• Further information on your council’s activities is referred to in the respective Weekly News sections for the nine areas that Penny Post covers – Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area

• The BBC reports that there were 1,240 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 17 to 23 October, up 44 on the week before. This equates to 783 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 498 (489 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• West Berkshire has been having a bit of a Covid spike recently. There have been times when the case rates have been very low compared to its neighbours: October 2021 has not been one of them. Why might this be?

The first answer is that each district will have its own reporting vagaries. At any one time, councils might promote testing in its areas to an extent that its neighbours don’t. It might also be on the border of different health authorities – as West Berkshire is – which might exaggerate these variations. This is a price one pays for having the details of our response managed locally, as is now the case, rather than by a top-down and often top-heavy centralised approach. I trust the responses of our local officers and decision-makers (and base this partly on the fact that I can ask them questions and get answers).

Having so engaged with West Berkshire’s public health team over the last couple of days, it seems to me that there are two main issues responsible for West Berkshire’s high figures. Both are connected with the Immensa fiasco (that seems to be a suitable word). The first is that more people were likely to have had tests as a result of this, so producing more positive results. That said, West Berkshire’s cases are certainly very high right now (though the rise seems to be slowing).

The second is that the increase in cases is particularly high among those aged 10 to 14. This squares with government reports that nearly half of new cases as of 19 October were among those under 19. In West Berkshire, the positivity rate across the whole population was about 15%,. As of 26 October, however, the rate amongst those aged 10 to 14 was about 35% and was as high as 45% couple of weeks earlier. All these rates are now declining. All this suggests that schools have been involved in transmission and that here it was worse because of the large number (it’s still uncertain what number) of false PCR tests were returned. I also asked if there was evidence that a disproportionate number of these Immensa tests were for people in this age group: it seems that they were. The results are thus exactly what one might expect – the most naturally transmissible group for several weeks being made more so by false negative tests.

• The problem with this, a PR issue with which all relevant authorities need to address, is that it has reduced the result of any test to a matter of personal interpretation. We’ve long been told that lateral-flow tests are a bit iffy, particularly if self administered (although it now seems that these are more accurate than we’d thought). PCR tests were, we were told, the gold standard. Now a lot of people doubt this. I’ve heard of two families in the district each of whose members displayed every classic sign of Covid, supported by repeated lateral-flow tests. They took no action because their PCR tests during the Immensa-problem period were negative. If you ran your own business or had a precarious job, why would you do anything else?

There’s a PR challenge to overcome with this. We need, we are constantly told, to trust the science. This lab was set up with a huge amount of government money. Can we trust others like it? The idea that PCR test results are at the whim some company where the staff are, according to The Sun on Sunday as reported in The Guardian, found to be “brawling, sleeping, playing football and drinking on duty” gives anyone who wants to distrust official tests an excellent reason for doing so. This isn’t helpful.

• Since mentioning the Immensa issue last week, an expert in this area has contacted me to confirm that the company was not certified by the relevant regulatory body and that there’s no evidence that the work was managed by someone suitable, such as a Chartered Quality Professional. The conclusion they came to was that the company didn’t regularly check their processes, a view which echoes that of another expert on BBC R4 shortly after story broke. There must have been a serious failure of procedure, and in a place which depends upon this being done properly. The residents of West Berkshire seem to have suffered particularly heavily from this. What steps is the government talking to ensure that similar problems don’t appear elsewhere? We’re dealing, after all, with a new level of testing that didn’t exist two years ago. Immensa was paid over £119m in September 2020 to perform this function. 

• West Berkshire Council is conducting a consultation into how its libraries are used and how that can be made even more relevant to your needs. Here is the link: you have until 15 November to make your views known. Even if you don’t visit a library, WBC is keen to hear from you.

• Households across West Berkshire are being invited to take part in a residents’ survey. The survey is being conducted “to understand residents’ views about the local area and the services we provide.” 5,000 households have been selected at random to receive these, which will arrive by post. I had some questions about how this randomness had been created and asked Council Leader Lynne Doherty. She replied to me with a very full description of the process which I’ll look at next week. You can read more about the survey here.

• West Berkshire Council has also been conducting a survey on its relationships with its 60-odd town councils (TCs) and parish councils (PCs). Council Leader Lynne Doherty gave Penny Post the following summary:

“In a combination of survey responses and participants in community conversation-style meetings, we heard from a total of 56 representatives covering 45 TCs and PCs. This means that we reached 75% of councils through this exercise. Most (68%) reported that their relationship with WBC was excellent or good. A further 28% said they had a fair relationship. Only 5% said they felt their council had a poor relationship with WBC and none reported a very poor one.

“The positives cited about relationships with WBC included visible leaders and responsive officers. Key words to describe the relationship were ‘positive’, ‘collaborative’ and ‘constructive.’ Areas for improvement were that there were differing perspectives and a lack of understanding of the role or TCs and PCs. ‘Frustrating’ and ‘inefficient’ were terms used to describe the relationship.”

• Thames Valley Police has issued a warning to parents regarding WhatsApp scams. The scammers are impersonating their children and asking for money. TVP Officer Wesley Smith released an example on the Thames Valley Alert page, so parents can become more aware of potential scenarios. If you have been a victim of this scam, call Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or refer to the Fraud section of the TVP website for further information.

• West Berkshire Council, and other councils across the country, are now turning their minds to thinking about setting their budgets. This will be influenced by the government’s spending review, set to be published on 27 October although the full details won’t be available until shortly before Christmas. The council has again put forward its Budget Challenge, enabling members of the public to make their suggestions as to where money should be spent. You can see more on this here.

• West Berkshire Council has awarded a major contract to Virgin Media Business to supply full fibre infrastructure to schools, doctors’ surgeries and public libraries by March 2022. Connectivity at 32 locations in West Berkshire is set to be upgraded. The £1.7m project is being funded by Thames Valley Berkshire LEP through the Government’s Getting Building Fund. More details can be found hereThis BBC article suggests that “full fibre” will enables speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second.

• West Berkshire Council has been awarded funding of £695,000 for the new Household Support Fund which will support families across West Berkshire which need it most this winter to meet daily needs such as utilities, food and other essential costs.

• This Christmas, the West Berkshire Economy and Environment departments have teamed up to create a Shop Local Shop Green digital magazine featuring the best independent local businesses with a green agenda for residents to shop in. More details here.

• As part of the district’s recovery from Covid-19, West Berkshire Council partnered with Greenham Trust  to create the Let’s Get Active Fund  (LGAF), creating a £33,660 fund to improve access to physical activities in West Berkshire through proposals developed and organised by local community groups. More information here.

• West Berkshire Council is investing an additional £250,000 to further the support offered to victims of domestic abuse, including children. The funding, provided by the Government, follows the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which has resulted in new duties being placed on local authorities across the country to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation. For more information, click here.

• Another West Berkshire Council’s initiative is its nomination for its 2021 Community Champion AwardsClick here to read more and to make your choice, which needs to be in by the end of October (so not long now). The winners will be announced in January 2021.

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.

Click here for the latest business 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.

• Now we come to the animal of the week. Last night, one of our cats (or perhaps all of them, acting in rare concert) managed to open the bathroom window and escape into the darkness. I wondered if other cats had managed to do this and discovered at least one that had, this rather deft beast from Liguria.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of holistic planning, opposition to the sports hub, a spat about members’ bids, Readibus, two Christian views of the Christian Viewpoint and food vouchers.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust); Daisy’s Dream and Sport in Mind (thanks to the Catherine wheel pub and the recent Newbury Real Ale Festival); Prospect Hospice (thanks to the My Dad’s Bigger Than Your Dad Festival); Citizen’s Advice (thanks to donations from several parish councils).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And we’re into the last of the 20 overs with the Song of the Week. I do like songs that tell a story, display a sense of humour and have a bit of energy about them. This one, which ticks all these boxes in spades, is by my old friend Owen Jones’ band Shakespeare and the Bible and tells the story of his friendship with a man on the other side of the counter: Trust me I’m a Barman.

• And we’re coming up to the final delivery in the shape of the Comedy Sketch of the Week. It seems a long time ago (in fact, less than 18 months) that this first appeared. However, we might be hearing a bit more of this kind of advice if Lockdown#5 or whatever it will be kicks in: Matt Lucas’ very brief sketch which has no particular title but which I’ll call Don’t Go to Work (Go to Work).

• And it’s a match-winning six from the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What was dedicated on this day (28 October) in New York in 1886? Last week’s question was: How many Edwards have been crowned King of England in the last thousand years (since 1021)? Slightly trick question this one. There have been nine Edwards in this time: Edward the Confessor, then eight post-conquest Edwards (I to VIII). However, two of these, Edward V and Edward VIII, were never crowned (which is what the question specified): so the answer is seven. Sure you all got that one right.

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