This Week with Brian
Including seven COPs, an apology, a kind-of apology, external jobs, wrestling in Westminster, wound licking, a tidal wave, systems of trust, an extended library consultation, two things ditched this week, electric trains, collapsed cats, red crabs, America gone wrong, miscellaneous small items and two nearly identical counties.
Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including speeding, improving facilities in the Valley, a recreation space, Watermill Bridge, Grontage, three questions for Ofwat, upping the precept, Hungerford’s exhibition, Kintbury’s books, Lambourn’s secretary, Eastbury’s trees, East Garston’s piano, Newbury’s ale, Greenham’s Hockneys, Hamstead Marshall’s saplings, Speen’s cafe, Thatcham’s photos, Cold Ash’s sunrise, Hermitage’s wreaths, Brimpton’s signs, Yattendon’s well house, Aldworth’s delay, Beedon’s closure, Hampstead Norreys’ parking, Brightwalton’s broadband, Chaddleworth’s grit, Theale’s blooms, Beenham’s wolf, Padworth’s show, Aldermaston’s glow worms, Wantage’s donation, Challow’s crafts, Marlborough’s lunch, Aldbourne’s manhole, Ramsbury’s inspiration, Swindon’s busses – plus our usual prowl 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 [email protected].
• COP26 has, as we all know, been and gone. I spoke to seven people from our district, some of whom went there and the rest of whom were observing it carefully from afar, and asked for their immediate thoughts and reactions. These were a climate-change scientist, three West Berkshire district councillors (all environmental experts), a town councillor (ditto), the Technical Director of a local sustainable fuel company and a student. Click here to read what they had to say.
Your Local Area
• I’d like to make an unequivocal apology about my coverage of the Owen Paterson fiasco a couple of weeks ago. An egregious error was recently pointed out to me which I feel I must refer to and express regret for any confusion or distress it may have caused. On all but the first occasion I mentioned his name I spelled his surname with two “t”s. Please accept my sincere regret for this mistake and for any distress this might’ve caused. Other than that, I stand by what I said.
• On which subject, I recently received an email from our MP Laura Farris in response to mine asking why she had voted in favour of the Leadsom amendment (supporting the government) on this issue. She first referred to the problems which “colleagues on all sides of the house” feel about the current system. That’s as may be but the time to change the rules is not, as I suggested before, at half time. She went on to refer to the pressures that were placed upon her and others to follow the party line and admitted that “it was unusual – actually I think unprecedented – for a vote on a matter of this nature to be whipped. I cannot say for certain why this decision was taken.” This seems to be admitting that the whole thing was, as the PM himself recently put it, a car crash. She added that she was “glad that the Government did the right thing the following day, even if the process by which it got there – and in which I accept I played a part – was regrettable.”
Farris, and many of her colleagues, were placed in an abominable position, trapped between the party whip on one hand and due process on the other. Her comments, in this email and elsewhere make clear (without saying so explicitly) that bullying and manipulation were involved. These tactics clearly work though hopefully they’ll work less well in the future. She and the other MPs are representatives of their constituents, not of some party machine for which none of us have ever voted for. The power that the executive has over the legislature (which is also responsible for scrutinising it) is alarming. Backbench MPs such as Laura Farris have my sympathy, even though they were fully aware of this paradox when they stood for office and even though she virtually always votes in support of the government, whip or no whip. It would be great if they could all march up up to the PM on their first day and say “please don’t assume I’m going to do what you want if it offends the known wishes of my constituents or my conscience.” I accept this isn’t likely, That is, however, what they are are all there for, despite how much they might be regarded as lobby fodder. Hopefully, some thought is being given to this kind of reaction the next time it comes up. A lot of wounds being licked in Westminster, I suspect (and hope).
• The whole business is clearly being taken sufficiently seriously, even by our PM, as there is now a move afoot to limit the kind of external jobs MPs can do. I’m amazed that an MP can even do that job, never mind a second one. They’re not paid that badly. But it’s what they do immediately afterwards that’s even more concerning, with the revolving door between Westminster and the boardrooms and consultancy areas of interested parties spinning as freely as ever.
• All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are also coming under scrutiny. These are informal committees into which, with absurd hyperbole, the BBC describes as having had £30m “poured” into them over the last five years. Additionally, the claim has been made by the Chair of the Parliamentary Standards Committee Chris Bryant that they’re being used as a “backdoor” into government policy. You can see a full list of these APPGs here. As well as having friendship ties with most of the countries of the world they also cover issues as diverse as diseases, bingo, almshouses, jazz, legal aid, rugby league, the wood panel industry, hill farming, nutrition, pensions and wrestling. I’m picking these out to show the wide range of things MPs feel they need to involve themselves with, not to ridicule the causes. These may have backdoors to undue influence but there are surely ways of dealing with that rather than just by undermining the whole idea of these groups. I’d rather they spent time discussing these kind of things than moonlighting in the city.
• I think all of us are a bit nervous when we call our GP surgery. Normally we have something wrong with us (which never shows us at our best) and, particularly at busy times (ie the last 18 months) calls are rarely answered quickly. The longer the wait, the greater the anxiety. For the receptionist answering this might be the twentieth call of the day they’ve taken. How would you feel? Finally you get through. You’re both, for different reasons, stressed. Questions might be asked by them which you feel intrusive, or demands made by you which they feel are impossible. This isn’t the perfect basis for a relaxed chat. This article on the BBC website addresses some of these issues and refers to the problems many overloaded surgeries are facing.
An old friend of mine is currently working as a receptionist in a surgery in Sussex. What did she think of this article?
“Rings true,” she told me. “Sometime it’s like a tidal wave of constant demands. What the article doesn’t say is that receptionists are often shouted at by patients venting their frustration at delays (we don’t have enough doctors, and not nearly enough face-to-face appointments). There are also not enough admin staff to process things like GP’s letters and sick notes, DVLA, PIP and UC forms, patients who need their medical records printed out and copied for demands relating to anything from firearm applications to enquiries from insurance companies. There are not enough hospital appointments, so referrals from a GP get put on a seemingly endless waiting list over which we have no control. Until recently we didn’t have enough pharmacists to process prescriptions. Referrals to physiotherapists and other specialists can take months. What it also doesn’t say is that the sense of going into battle every day brings about an enormous camaraderie. And, by the way, reception, secretaries and admin staff tend to be paid less per hour than they would get at a supermarket.” Bear all this in mind when you next call your surgery.
• This BBC article suggested that Covid deniers are now shifting their attention from doubts about the virus to doubts about climate change. The fact that one website, interest group or individual can be sufficiently expert about one of these to disarm all the science, let alone both, seems laughable. We’re not dealing with science, though. We’re dealing with faith. Climate or Covid denial is often predicated on “not enough evidence.” Most people – including me – wouldn’t know what this kind of evidence looked like. Nor had they probably looked for it before any previous medical procedure. Some people have turned any kind of jab encouragement into an assault on personal liberty. It’s actually a public-health issue. That’s it.
It’s pointless to pretend that any of us, unless we’re uniquely skilled, has the ability to understand most of what we need to. For the difficult stuff, particularly scientific and medical knowledge, we rely on systems of trust. This is what vax deniers and climate deniers are, for whatever reason, trying to undermine. Scientists deal in doubt: any theory can only be disproved. Conspiracists deal with certainty, based on their faith that science is wrong and that a dark plot is afoot. The fact that anti-vaxing and climate-change denial – two things that have no particular connection – can slide so easily into each other makes both causes seem even more absurd. Libertarian objections can easily be added to oppose anything we find personally inconvenient. Conflation is ever the friend of conspiracists, and therefore often the enemy of truth.
• Most of us will have pranged a car at some point, or been pranged by someone else, often resulting in a good deal of expense which, so often, the insurance covers fails fully to cover. Few of us, however, will have crashed a vehicle that cost £100m, so spare a thought for the pilot of an F-35 fighter who ended up ditching his stealthy jet in the Med this week. Not surprisingly, an investigation is ongoing. £100m – you could build a mile or so of HS2 for that.
• As it happens, slightly less money will be needed for this project than previously thought. The government has recently announced that the eastern branch of HS2 up to Leeds will, like the F-35, be ditched. Instead there will be a more piecemeal programme of improvements in the midlands and the north which will produce results “up to 10 years earlier than planned.” You can see the announcement from the Department for Transport here. Included in the plans is “the electrification of more than 180 miles of route, meaning that 75% of the country’s main lines will be electric.” Network Rail claims that “nearly half” of the country’s network is currently electrified (although Statistica put this figure in 2018 at 37%). This compares, again according to Statistica, with 53% in Germany, 58% in France, 72% in Italy and 100% in Switzerland.
• As I think I’ve mentioned before, one or more of our three cats have worked out how to jemmy open the bathroom window. This morning they straggled in between six and eight o’clock like a group of teenagers returning from an all-night rave, covered with mud, burrs and general nocturnal stuff, and collapsed on the bed for ten hours. They got up when feeding time came round. If I get any choice in the matter, next time round I’d like to come back as one of them…
Across the area
• 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 area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area.
• The BBC reports that there were 725 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 8 to 14 November, up 141 on the week before. This equates to 458 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 410 (352 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.
• 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 2022.
• WBC’s Education team has announced that a consultation on school term and holiday dates for 2023-24 will be launched early next year.
• 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.
• 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. This has been extended until 15 December. WBC says that the response has been good but that more feedback is needed from younger people and families. 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. 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. This closes on 28 November. 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 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.
• 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 Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon.
• 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.
• There’s often a letter in the NWN which annoys or confuses me. This week’s nomination is from Anthony Pick who takes issue with the fact that last week there were eight letters critical of the way Laura Farris voted during the recent Paterson fiasco (there were three more this week for him to study). He’s keen to blame this on politically motivated malice but he immediately opens himself up to the same accusation by indulging in a brief and questionable hagiography of the government’s policies in other completely unrelated areas. He also describes how promptly she responds to all his letters, defending her against a charge that no one has made (at least not in relation to this issue).
• The animals of the week are these red crabs in Christmas Island in Australia , “tens of millions” of which are doing their migration thing at present.
• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as those referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of parking for volunteers, West Berkshire Council’s budget, cannabis salvers and Greenham justice.
• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: Newbury Women’s RFC (thanks to Abstract Bodyworks, Belvoir Newbury, Jones Robinson and Wessex Woodland Services); thRoyal British legion (thanks to AB Walker and Sons); the Old London Apprentice’s defibrillator appeal (thanks to Donna Parking and friends); West Berkshire Community Hospital (thanks to Greenham trust, the Peter Baker Foundation and the Storey Charitable Trust);
The quiz, the sketch and the song
• And here we are already at the Song of the Week. If you’ve ever performed live and discovered that something (like a broken string) has completely snookered you (as I have), then this clip of the wonderful London Grammar performing America might strike a chord. It starts off with a bit of chat for a couple of minutes; then they start playing; and then…
• So next it must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. The TV comedy show from way back when Not the Nine O’Clock News certainly had its moments. Here are a few of these, described as Miscellaneous Small Items.
• So that only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which two English counties differ by only one letter? Last week’s question was: How many MPs have had have had Standards Commissioner investigations upheld against them since 2014? The answer is – and perhaps it surprises you and perhaps it doesn’t – 130 (out of 650).