Weekly News with Brian 11 to 18 November 2021

This Week with Brian

Including a self-interested overhaul, several conflations, belt and road, the problems of co-operation, winners and losers, bullying and manipulation, art or publicity, a real doctor, a campaign of fear, adult social care, 190 days a year, in praise of kiwis, tempted, more quiet desperation, Bury’s record and Farouk the bear.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including best value, chalk streams, ale rage, Faraday’s fences, the view from the Ridgeway, Hungerford’s curve, Lambourn’s racing, Shefford’s crafts, Woodland’s near-miss, Newbury’s wood, Chieveley’s shelters, Thatcham’s quiz, Cold Ash’s extinguishment, Midgham’s pothole, Hampstead Norreys’ caterpillars, East Ilsley’s pond, Beedon’s closures, Compton’s allotments, Ashampstead’s footpaths, Burghfield’s brethren, Theale’s MUGA, Padworth’s newsletter, Aldermaston’s leak, Wantage’s postponement, Childery’s award, Marlborough’s monochromes, Ramsbury’s teacher, Bedwyn’s bells and Swindon’s recycling – plus our usual trip around the 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

• I had a comment from someone regarding what I’d written about the Owen Patterson business last week saying I was uninformed and politically biased. If so, I hope they’ve kept out of the newsagents and away from the TV and radio this week as I’ve not read anything that suggests what I wrote was inaccurate. As for politically biased, the accusation is missing the point. The matter has a political dimension because one party is in power and the others aren’t. However, it could have happened under any administration. The problem is not about a political ideology but about power and, specifically, how MPs are regulated (or regulate themselves).

[more below] 

One MP whom I contacted this week said that “many colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons think the process by which MPs are investigated is currently not right,” citing as one example that there is not an appeals process. This point was rebutted by the Chair of the Standards Committee Chris Bryant, writing in The Observer on 7 November. He listed a number of examples of the “determined” way the government tried “to give Patterson a get out jail card” including by lobbying, spreading “noxious rumours” about the committee members and misrepresenting the process (including the alleged lack of an appeal system: Chris Bryant asserts that this does in fact exist).

So, the MPs think these scrutiny procedures are not right. There are a number of things that are also not right about public life including aspects of the criminal justice system, Universal Credit, the family courts, the way the police sometimes behave and the treatment of the Postmasters who fell foul of the Horizon system. There are many victims of an alleged injustice every day. The consequences are often worse than a 30-day suspension from work and a bit of reputational damage. None of them are able to get the system changed in the way that was attempted in the Commons and certainly not at the convenient moment when the verdict is about to be confirmed. MPs do.

The above-mentioned member also said that the two issues – the vote on Owen Patterson’s suspension and a wider discussion about reviewing the system – were conflated because “there was a view” among some MPs that he’d been treated unfairly. That may be so. There would also be a “view” by the supporters of anyone who’s just lost access to their child or been deprived a fair trial because of poor summing-up from the judge. The fact remains that he had been found guilty under the prevailing system. It’s been in place for, I think, 18 years. To repeat my question from last week, if it’s as utterly rubbish as was recently alleged, why was it not changed before?

The answer to this, The New Statesman suggests, is that “MPs are trying to overhaul a system that is finding them increasing guilty.” 130 MPs have had Standards Commissioner investigations upheld against them since 2014: over half of these have been in the last three years. We’re dealing with a very small group of people, only 650, so statistical wobbles are to be expected. However, the NS claims that “MPs’ standards have been slipping for several years.” The article also shows that such breaches are now at their highest level since the expenses scandal in 2009, a comparison that few MPs would welcome.

That’s not the end of it. Seven other MPs currently have cases against them pending, in all but one cases relating to Paragraph 14 which deals with MP’s interests. Then there’s the case of the former Attorney General Sir Geoffrey Cox who is accused of breaking rules on MP’s use of offices. He has said that he doesn’t believe that he broke the rules but will abide by the judgement of the Commissioner or of the Committee on the matter. So, is the system broken or not? I’m confused.

• Worse still for the government is that the “sleaze” issue has itself become conflated with something else, the question of the various contracts awarded during Covid. The clear link here is Randox, for which Patterson was a consultant and which was awarded contracts worth nearly £350m but was was forced to withdraw 750,000 testing kits to care homes. There are plenty of other names, however, many of which can be found in the eight-page Profits of Doom section in the most recent Private Eye. Irregular procurement methods, high costs and indifferent results are the recurring themes. All will probably be looked at more closely in the coming weeks and months (and probably years).

• Even COP26 couldn’t escape from this scandal, the PM feeling moved to tell his audience on 10 November that the UK was “not remotely a corrupt country.” The problem with this approach, as I discovered with my children, is that you say “you mustn’t hit the cat” and they hear “hit the cat.” The unfortunate conflation – which seems to be the word of the week – of “UK” and “corrupt” may be a result of this.

Our PM is at his best – and thus possibly his most dangerous – when he’s making tub-thumping speeches which portray him as a mixture of Winston Churchill, Billy Bunter and Winnie-the-Pooh. His opening address at COP26 was a good example of this: high on evocative phrases, lofty aspirations and humorous asides but short on detail. Detail seems to be where he falls down: that and a few other places. It is for these rousing homilies that he probably feels he was destined. First Brexit, then Covid and now climate change have given him stages he could only have dreamed about ten years ago. But can his affectedly bumbling charm do the business with other leaders and their negotiators? All his rhetoric hitherto has been for purely domestic consumption.

• As for COP26 itself, the environmental results when finally examined are likely to be a lot less than what many wanted but perhaps as much as could be expected, given the convention at such things that a unanimous statement be issued which will inevitably be a lowest common denominator. One surprise announcement was a joint statement by the USA and China promising action. I get the feeling that if China really wanted something to happen then it could happen really quickly. We’re talking about a country that has built nearly 40,000km of high-speed rail lines this century, to say nothing of the alacrity with which it’s managed to press ahead with its Belt and Road plan, a form of modern economic colonialism. This isn’t just restricted to the government: The Hindustan Times reported in June 2021 that a developer built a removable and earthquake-proof 10-storey building in Changsha in 28 hours.

• Why is that when confronted by an existential threat we are incapable of co-operating? Covid and climate change have both proved we can’t do this very well on the level we now need to (ie globally). The answer, I suggest, is in our genes. Like all animals, we are programmed to survive at all costs, certainly until we’ve procreated. And we developed social structures to assist this basic aim – you only need to watch an Attenborough film of wolves, lions, ants or dolphins attacking their prey en bloc to see that we’re not the only species to do this. And we do this pretty well up to a certain point. The farming revolution of about 12,000 years ago would have been impossible otherwise. 

This completely changed our lives and our relationship with the world. And it’s taken 14 millennia for this to become clear but we are, right now, reaping a bitter harvest as a result. Why?

For, I suggest, two reasons. The first, specific, one is that this made us masters (or so we thought) of the environment. Our hunter-gatherer behaviour was abandoned and in its place was a more settled form of life in which we needed to control the part of the world we occupied. Once started, the tendency was towards greater immediate results and thus greater exploitation. It has taken this long for the consequences of this to become clear.

The second, more general, one is that any investment in a particular piece of land inevitably led to questions of its ownership and thus its protection against invaders. As a result, legal and military structures evolved to define and defend what had been created. Through a number of evolutionary diversions such as feudalism this led to the creation of nation states. There are now about 220 of these (the precise number varies depending on how you define them) each of which has varying levels of competence to decide its own behaviour. The Brexit referendum in 2016 shows how powerful this calling card of self-determination can be.

The problem with human co-operation is also two-fold. Firstly, we cannot co-operate personally with more than a few (Dunbar’s Number suggests 150) other people before relationships start becoming problematic and a sense of common purpose or interest too diffuse to be functional. As a result, political, social and economic structures evolved to create points of identification with increasingly wide human ambitions. The lord’s demesne, the guild, the village, the town, the county – these have led to the country, about the largest unit most of us can grapple with. The EU, the USSR and to a certain extent the USA and other federal countries with strong component states suffer (or suffered) from having mixed calls of loyalty.

The biggest problem, though, is that these national states exist only because of their opposition to others. There is no problem which all countries can agree even is a problem, still less on how it might be solved. All tend, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, to disagree with many others on an impossibly wide range of matters. Were they to agree all the time, it would undermine why they exist as separate countries at all. It’s as if a new gene has been created, mainly in the hectic development of the last five hundred years, that makes the survival of our country, culture or way of life more important than that of us personally.

Like warring siblings united by common threat, a sense of global affinity might exist were we to have been attacked by Martians a couple of hundred years ago. We weren’t, so we don’t have it. Can we thus solve problems like Covid and climate change that transcend national boundaries? Unless we can re-wire ourselves pretty fast, it seems like a big ask.

• Climate change will, like all other areas of human activity, produce winners and losers. The winners are slightly hard to spot in this but will include prescient and wealthy people living above flood zones in temperate parts of the word (from which, perhaps, life’s winners have generally been drawn). There will be a lot more losers whose desperation to escape may overwhelm even the fierce frontiers of nation states. From this destabilisation we will all be losers.

• Covid infection rates are currently hovering around the 35,000 per day as a seven-day averages. The most recent and ever-excellent MD column in Private Eye 1560 looks at how groupthink, political in-fighting and inertia prevented the lessons from various pandemic-modelling exercises from being followed through into government policy. It’s worth stressing that “MD” isn’t just some casual nickname that’s been bestowed upon the author. He’s a qualified and practising doctor and so knows whereof he speaks.

• Congratulations to New Zealand for reaching the final the T20 World Cup, at England’s expense. Our score was probably 20 short of par on that wicket and the Kiwis had several players who could punish this, and did. I think these are two best short-format teams in the world at present and hope NZ win the final (particularly given they’re playing Australia). The the 2019 World Cup final between England and NZ was one of the great limited-over matches. If you want to see the highlights of this extraordinary encounter, click here.

• We’ve been hugely enjoying the TV series The Outlaws which describes the various tribulations, dilemmas and temptations faced by half a dozen disparate people doing community service in Bristol. One of these, in real life, seems to be that Christopher Walken – who brilliantly plays a charming but unreliable grandfather – painted over a Banksy mural during the filming. My knowledge or appreciation of visual art is zero (give me words or music any time) but I’m sufficiently aware of this man to suspect that matters might be other than they appear. Who cares? you might say: it was only a piece of graffiti – or was it great art? Or both? Is it greater art for now no longer existing? Would it have been any less so were it to have been a forgery that was believed to have been genuine? Is it just a publicity stunt by (a) Banksy or (b) the BBC? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions…

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 585 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 1 to 7 November, down 206 on the week before. This equates to 369 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 352 (429 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• Newbury MP Laura Farris has explained her reasons for supporting the government during last week’s Patterson debate (see p4 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News). Her apologia paints a pretty sorry picture of life in Westminster with the tactics being used amounting to bullying and emotional blackmail. She also said she felt uncomfortable that politicians are asked to pass judgment on themselves. As mentioned above in the Across the Area section, this has been happening increasingly often of late. If MPs can be persuaded to a course of action this easily then she may have a point.

I accept that it’s not an easy job. She is a representative of her constituents, a member of her party and a potential minister (assuming she aspires to this). These are often incompatible (as no fewer than eight letters on the subject in this week’s NWN have shown). None the less, it’s the one she signed up for.

The Patterson debacle has also made people a lot more sceptical of an MP voting against their constituents’ interests, as recently happened with the (defeated) Wellington amendments about sewage discharge. Many people round here probably had never heard of Owen Patterson before last month until he drew attention to himself. What they do know about, however, is sewage because at some seasons they see it bubbling into or floating past their homes.

• The same paper has another article about our MP, describing on p3 how she had long been subjected to a “campaign of fear” by a deluded constituent which included his sending her “terrifying” emails. There are ways of getting your MP to change their mind but this isn’t one of them. Politicians from all parties have, quite rightly, condemned the threats and harassment and welcomed the suspended sentence and restraining order which hopefully marks the end of this.

• As mentioned last week, 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, about this. He put us on to WBC’s officer responsible for waste who supplied the following statement:

“We have investigated this with the help of our waste contractor and our findings do not support the information in the social media post. The collection vehicle used was hired, temporarily brought in by our contractor to help manage an increased volume of recycling. This has a split back design to enable collection of different waste streams at a time: paper and card in one section and plastic/tins/aerosols in the other. Unlike our usual vehicles, it does not have another compartment for a third waste stream for glass.

“This vehicle collected recycling from the Turnpike area twice that day, glass and plastic/tins on its first round and paper and cardboard on its second. The vehicles carry designated wheelie bins so that they can empty pre-sorted recycling to be loaded into the correct compartment of the vehicle to ensure the recycling is not mixed. This reduces the amount of manual handling and means they can collect from multiple houses before going back to the vehicle.

“The wheelie bins are green and therefore this sometimes causes confusion that this is a garden/food waste bin – this is not the case. It may not be obvious to an onlooker that this vehicle has a split-back design as they look similar to a general waste vehicle. The twin-pack vehicle does not have any on-board CCTV unlike our normal collection vehicles. However, we have been able to confirm there was no significant contamination reported at the recycling sorting facility where the vehicle would have tipped at the end of its round.”

The Council’s waste team would be happy to address any other related questions. Please send any queries to recycle@westberks.gov.uk. If you live in another district such as the Vale of White Horse, Swindon or Wiltshire, and have similar concerns then please get in touch with them.

• 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.

The portfolio holder Joanne Stewart told Penny Post on 10 November that WBC is keen to hear from anyone who feels that adult social care might be a concern to them or to others, now or in the future, and that people should submit any comments that they feel should be relevant. She admitted that this was a “hefty subject” – rightly so as it account for about 45% of WBC’s expenditure – and it’s possible that not everyone would be able to appreciate all the aspects that it covers, None the less, if you have point to make on even none area which concerns you then do so, even if you have nothing to say on the others.

This consultation comes shortly after the announcement of the government’s long-overdue proposal on adult social care, the full implications of which for local councils are still unclear. I asked Joanne Stewart if government policy might derail any plans WBC has. She said that she hoped not and that all councils needed to be “agile in their response to whatever comes down the pipe rom Westminster.” She added that as part of this process, officers and external organisations were also meeting to consider specific areas such as mental health and dementia.

• WBC’s Education team has announced something that I never imagined possible: a consultation on school term and holiday dates for 2023-24. This will be launched early next year. I have four children, all now past school-bag days, but always thought that this term times were fixed by some arcane and immutable process, much like the date of Easter. It never occurred to me this could be the subject of discussion. The only fixed thing seems to be 190 days of schooling starting in early September: beyond that, it’s all up for grabs. So, one term of 190 days followed by one long holiday? If that’s what you want, this will be your chance to say so. On a more practical level, the consultation will be useful in trying to harmonise dates as closely as possible with those of neighbouring authorities: no easy job as most, including West Berkshire, have several of these. More details on this when it’s announced.

Surviving to Thriving, a joint venture set up by WBC and Greenham Trust, has recently exceeded its fundraising target of £300,000. It is aimed at all not-for-profit organisations operating in West Berkshire and will provide varying sizes of grants (from £500 up to a maximum of £30,000) that will help them to carry out their activities (possibly online), make one-off purchases or set up new initiatives to help to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on mental health and wellbeing.

• 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. 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.

• 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.

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.

• The animal of the week is Farouk the bear who had, I hope painlessly, a camera strapped to him in Turkey to record and understand his behaviour. Then he met another bear…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of sewage, cross-border recycling charges, the lack of food vouchers during the recent half term and Covid complacency.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: Falkland Cricket Club (thanks to its recent fireworks display); Newbury Lions Club (ditto); Chieveley Village Hall (ditto); Thames Valley Air Ambulance (thanks the the friends and family of Harvey Sims); Newbury Cancer Care (thanks to Boys in Bras); Swindon City of Sanctuary (thanks to the National Lottery); Hospitality Action (thanks to the invisible chips at The Three Swans in Hungerford); the Royal British Legion (thanks to Hungerford Arcade); 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. I do like a bit of Squeeze and here’s a particularly good example: Tempted. Rarely, it’s not sung by Glenn Tilbrook but by Paul Carrack who was with the band at that time. Check out the exquisite backing vocals.

• So the next thing must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. I enjoyed (again) the offering from Nick Ball’s Quiet Desperation that I mentioned last week so much so here’s another one: The Shrink.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How many MPs have had have had Standards Commissioner investigations upheld against them since 2014? Last week’s question was: Which English team has the best record in FA Cup Finals in terms of goals scored per final played? Not Arsenal, not Manchester United, not any of the usual suspects. The answer is Bury. They beat Southampton 4-0 in 1900 and Derby 6-0 in 1903. As these were their only finals, that gives them an average of five goals scored (and none conceded) per final. No other team comes close.

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