Weekly News with Brian 4 to 12 November 2021

This Week with Brian

Including the Patterson swerve, more thoughts on an odd budget, Welby’s comparison, emissions, banking crimes, what we can do, hard months ahead, surreal fish, the tall woman with the lighter, cats being cats, a blackbird, a good record and the girl at the bus stop.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including a moral question, pros and cons, a tale of two fences, new brooms, a Trojan horse, the wardens arrive, unsung heroes, Hungerford’s newsletter, Shalbourne’s orchard, Lambourn’s applications, East Garston’s films, Newbury’s lights, Thatcham’s journey, Cold Ash’s colours, Midgham’s shrubs, Brimpton’s flooding, Beedon’s address, Hampstead Norreys’ monkey, Chaddleworth’s fundraiser, Compton’s communications, Theale’s withdrawal, Padworth’s sale, Mortimer’s market, Aldermaston’s ladies, Bradfield’s poll, Wantage’s café, Grove’s dogs, Marlborough’s air, Bedwyn’s bench, Ramsbury’s diary, Aldbourne’s re-wilding and Swindon’s EV points – plus our usual whistle-stop tour of websites and FB 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

• Until recently I hadn’t been following the story of Owen Patterson MP very closely: indeed I was unaware of his existence (as he probably was of mine) until a few days ago. It then seemed that an almighty row was brewing after the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner recommended he be banned from the Commons for 30 days following what the BBC calls “a damning report” into his conduct by a committee of MPs. The denouement, when the matter came to be ratified by the Commons, did not disappoint.

[more below] 

Patterson and his supporters, who seemed to include almost every Conservative MP, claimed that his hearing had not been fair and that the decision was thus defective. After a heated debate, a motion (the “Leadsom amendment”) that the judgement be suspended pending a review into parliamentary standards was passed by 18 votes. A number of MPs supporting the motion said that they had grave concerns over the system and the PM referred to the element of personal tragedy in the case, as Mr Patterson has said that the stress of the case was a major contributory factor” in the suicide of his wife last year.  I know nothing of this and have every sympathy for Mr Patterson and his family as a result: but, the last time I checked, the suicide of a spouse did not invalidate the findings of a parliamentary committee. As for the problems with the regulations, these have been in place for the best part of 20 years. If MPs thought they were so rubbish, why didn’t they change them before?

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg said this is not “anything like the scale of the intense political crisis” of the MP’s expenses scandal in 2009. Her conclusion is that this one is less serious. I disagree; this one’s worse (and is, in fact, more relevant to the cash for questions scandal in the 1990s). The expenses scandal was like a number of football players taking advantage of a lax referee to cheat. This one is more like the administrators changing the rules at half time because their favoured team is 3-0 down and one of their players has been given a red card. Any Conservative MP who voted in favour of this amendment, and thus against the proper findings of the House of Commons and an independent commissioner, should hang their heads in shame.

The following day, the whole exercise was rendered doubly pointless. Firstly, the government changed its mind about the whole thing and agreed to hold the vote again. Secondly, Owen Patterson announced he was resigning, thus making this second vote meaningless. Feelings were running high, with Wellingborough MP Peter Bone having his constituency office vandalised overnight as a direct result of his decision to support the Leadsom amendment. All the MPs who followed their whips into the “ayes” lobby have had had their reputations for independent thought tarnished for no point of principle and no practical result. Meanwhile, a review of the procedures of policing MP’s conduct will now proceed after cross-party discussion: it seems amazing that any other way could have been contemplated. The government has bullied the House; re-awakened memories of several past scandals; then backtracked. All in all, a complete fiasco on every level.

• Even a financial ignoramus like me could see that the recent budget was a bit odd. John Shepperd, the Economist at Butler Toll Asset Management kindly offered some immediate thoughts last week: see below for some further reflections on what seems to be at least as much of a political as an economic statement.

“Few Budgets are game changers,” he told Penny Post. “There is always plenty of media comment and most is quickly forgotten. Perhaps this one is a bit more significant, not so much for the pure economics of the expenditure/revenue mix, but the approach. The Treasury Secretary Simon Clarke said it represents “a major shift in Tory philosophy”. Indeed it does. Perhaps for this reason, reaction in The Telegraph (and elsewhere) was very hostile.”

But perhaps this a very smart budget? After all, Blair won three General Elections by shifting to the middle ground and “New Labour” was to a large extent watered-down Conservativism.

“Indeed:,” he replied. “Perhaps this budget is really looking to the next General Election and the need to retain the famous northern Red Wall seats. It may not work, of course, but you can see where it is going. It also leaves the Labour Party likely to struggle with a coherent alternative given a genuine large tax-financed, increase in public spending. But – and there is a “but” of course – the near-term economic outlook is poor, and worse than Sunak would like to admit. The Office for Budget Responsibility has stressed that higher inflation (up to 5%) and higher taxes will hit real incomes so that that they will in aggregate continue to decline before positive growth resumes in 2023. As Paul Johnson of the IFS said “millions will be worse off in the short term”, and that includes both low and middle income families. And the “short term” is not just this winter, but the whole of 2022. Oh, and one final point: did it slightly slip under the radar that Sunak said he has written to the BoE “to reaffirm their commitment to achieve low and stable inflation”? A nudge to raise interest rates, perhaps?”

• The former oil executive and current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently said that “world leaders would be cursed” – I guess he should know how this works – if they failed to do something at COP26; also that this would amount to the only relevant part of their legacy, regardless what their other triumphs or disasters. Nothing too controversial there.

He went on to say that, were they to fail, “people will speak of them in far stronger terms than we speak today of the politicians of the ’30s who ignored what was happening in Nazi Germany – because this will kill people all around the world for generations.” On being asked by his interviewer if failure to act on climate change was worse than allowing genocide to happen, he said that “this will be genocide by negligence and recklessness that will in the end come back to us, or to our children and grand-children.” He was later forced to apologise “unequivocally” for comparing the politicians of the ’30s with today’s governments. adding that it was “never right to make comparisons with the atrocities brought by the Nazis”.

He didn’t do this, however, so I don’t know why he’s apologising. His criticism was towards those who failed to act against the Nazi atrocity, not those who committed it. The implication is that the Holocaust cannot be compared to anything except itself. This in turn assumes it’s the worst atrocity that humans could ever inflict on each other. Some might say that the policies of Stalin and Mao were worse in their death tolls, if perhaps not in their single-minded evil intent. How do you compare such nightmares, anyway? Perhaps his failing was in trying to compare two things which are completely unlike in every way except, as he suggests, in their outcomes.

I’m not sure how much politicians in the ’30s were aware of what was going on in Nazi Germany. Every account of the liberation of the camps in 1945 that I’ve read suggested a level of shock and bewilderment at the the scale of the horrors that had taken place there. Welby could have apologised for being unfair to our rulers of 80 years ago, or for even suggesting (which in fact he didn’t) that today’s politicians were acting like Nazis, for whom the Holocaust was a clear policy. Better might have been to compare it to Mao’s Great Leap Forward, of which the tens of millions of deaths were (perhaps) an unintended consequence. Even (perhaps particularly) archbishops need to pick their words, and their analogies, with care.

• As for COP26 itself, the general impression I have is of huge gusts of blah-blah-blah and other emissions, some of which came from President Biden’s 20-car motorcade en route to the summit. The BBC web website is more optimistic, suggesting “so far, so good-ish.” Some bad actors do seem to have been exposed. The British banking system has been heavily criticised for its role in subsidising carbon-producing companies, Barclays being singled out for particular criticism in The Guardian. The Big Issue asserts that Britain’s five largest banks pumped over £40bn into the coal industry between 2018 and 2020 and that this has increased by 40% since the Paris agreement in 2015.

Every country could be criticised for not doing more. India’s commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2070 was derided by some but others agree that for a country of that size and complexity it’s perhaps realistic. Without Russia and China – sulking in their tents, some have said, though the USA and the EU might have done the same were the conference to have been held in Moscow or Beijing – perhaps nothing much could be accomplished. We’re all still too worried lest any action we take will confer some benefit on our international rivals.

• For most of us, it’s hard to know what we can do individually to improve matters as we are to a large extent trapped by our personal circumstances. Most people in this rural part of the country need private cars and EVs are quite expensive. Most of us can’t afford heat pumps or solar panels. These solutions also shift the problem onto what resources are used in their creation and, when the time comes, their recycling. Eating less meat is certainly one option, and one we’re adopting. Wearing more clothes rather than turning on the heating in our (bitterly cold) house is another. How much difference this makes is another matter: but helping to normalise a more restrained attitude to consumption is a perhaps a good thing and also the best many of us can contribute.

Smart motorways have long attracted controversy, many claiming that the massive costs and the dubious safety benefits make the whole project a poor idea. The House of Commons Transport Committee has this week recommended that “safety risks on all-lane-running smart motorways should have been addressed by the Government and National Highways (previously Highways England) before the motorway schemes were rolled out. Safety improvements to all-lane running smart motorways should have been delivered in a timely fashion. Instead, promises to prioritise improvements were broken.” Whether this committee recommendation is accepted out takes the Owern Patterson swerve (see above) remains to be seen.

• Covid infection rates are currently up and down, hovering around the 40,000 per day in the seven-day averages. Professor Jonathan “Boston United” van Tam said that with Covid levels “running this hot, this early in autumn season”, hard months were ahead. He urged people to get their jabs, boosters and flu vaccines (all of which are available free on the NHS, by the way: if anyone tries to charge you for one, they’re a scammer). You can also use the test centres in West Berkshire (and elsewhere) where problems were reported last month: these were due to failures at the processing lab involved, not at the locations where you had your PCR test.

• I’m indebted to Penny Post’s occasional random-news correspondent Jon Williams for drawing my attention to this wonderfully surreal story of a flight-load of people waiting for their luggage at Heathrow and being confronted by nothing except an interminable succession of boxes of frozen fish. I’ve always thought there was something particularly strange, quirky and off the wall about fish. It seems others agree. A high point of Peter Cook’s later career was when he would phone in to (I think) LBC and pretend to be a love-lorn fish-obsessed Norwegian. The answer to the question “how many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?” is “a fish.” Years ago I spent a drunken evening with a friend who was at odds with his two bosses. We agreed that the thing that would most fry their minds would be for them to find a halibut in their desk drawers one morning. Like so many 2am plans, this wasn’t put operation. Halibut are quite expensive, after all…

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 788 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 25 to 31 October, down 381 on the week before. This equates to 497 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 429 (498 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• There have been reports circulating on social media in West Berkshire of garden waste and separated kerbside recyclables (such as cardboard, plastic, tins, glass) all being mixed together in one compartment of a recycling lorry. We thought we’d go straight to the top and ask the relevant portfolio holder, Steve Ardagh-Walter, if he knows about this. He hasn’t got back to us yet but we know that Thursday is a busy day for WBC’s executive members. We’ll let you know what he has to say.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a consultation on its draft adult social-care strategy (2022-2026) “to give service users, staff and other local people and organisations the opportunity to share their thoughts on what the priorities should be over the coming years.” This will run until Monday 3 January.

• It’s also worth stressing that the problems with PCR tests in the area in September and October had nothing whatsoever to do with the testing centre at the Showground, the staff or the equipment. The issue was entirely caused by the Immensa processing lab in Wolverhampton. Other test samples from other parts of the country were affected in the same way.

• 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. Click here for details: 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 (I said the last week but time has defeated me, again). You can read more about the survey here.

• 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 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 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.

• 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. If you like cats, then this compilation (one of about 17 billion on there internet) of cats being, well, cats night amuse you.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of the sports hub at Monks Lane, the football ground at Faraday Road, a nomination for the council, Aldi and gas-guzzlers.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: Race of Remembrance (thanks SSGC); Newbury Cancer Care (thanks to Boys in Bras); BBOWT (thanks to the recent event at the Thatcham Discovery Centre); Breast cancer Now (thanks to A-Plan); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust); Citizen’s Advice (thanks to donations from several parish councils).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And so it’s the Song of the Week. A friend sent me a link to a version of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird the other day. It was decent enough and superbly played by a trio but seemed to miss the simplicity of the the original: so here the original is.

• So the next thing must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. We all screw up and often our attempts to make things better…well, they often don’t. Here’s a beautifully observed moment from Nick Ball that well repays the 1′ 06″ of toe-curling embarrassment it engenders in any of us (like me) who’ve ever been in this kind of situation – The Girl at the Bus Stop.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which English team has the best record in FA Cup Finals in terms of goals scored per final played? Last week’s question was: What was dedicated on this day (28 October) in New York in 1886? The answer is that woman permanently giving a light to some equally vast but invisible person, the Statue of Liberty.

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