Weekly News with Brian 25 November to 2 December 2021

This Week with Brian

Including second jobs, the alien corn, the municipal workload, gender bias, low bases, a new thing, a call for sites, a CIL letter, good causes, 22 oddballs, salads and laundry, cricket and football, Peter and John, Robert and Alison, one letter difference and Dorothy Parker in mid-sentence.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including another outstanding Ofsted, high-street speeds, a political football, mitigating development, community health on OX12, Hungerford’s extravaganza, Crofton’s boiler, Inkpen’s tokens, Kintbury’s locks, Lambourn’s agenda, East Garston’s crimes, Shefford’s under fives, Welford’s bugs and bats, Newbury’s advent, Hamstead Marshall’s wildlife, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s contribution, Thatcham’s quiz, Bucklebury’s trees, Hermitage’s wreaths, Cold Ash’s magic, Hampstead Notteys’ candles, East Ilsley’s toys, Beedon’s places, Chaddleworth’s chargers, Theale’s lights, Bradfield’s hall, Burghfield’s music, Wantage’s art, Grove’s stoves, Marlborough’s carols, Ramsbury’s inspiration, Bedwyn’s field, Swindon’s tributes and Highworth’s petition – plus our usual tour 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

• There’s an article by Wantage MP David Johnston in this week’s Wantage and Grove Herald which is an unashamed defence of his profession with regard to MPs’ second jobs. He starts with the assurance that he personally has no outside employment or earnings and that there are no allegations about him behaving improperly or using his role as an MP to enrich himself. I’ve no reason to disbelieve either of these statements. What his intro manages to do very well is to sum up concerns people have about what some of his other colleagues are up to. He himself admits to being concerned, but only about “the tone of the current debate”. If so, he needs to take this up with his namesake and head prefect, Johnston, B, who was, on his own admission, responsible for crashing this particular car.

[more below] 

David Johnston makes some statements in his article which seemed worth having a closer look at. He kicks off the the observation that “the vast majority of MPs” spend all their time on their constituents. Leaving aside the fact that those who have ministerial office, opposition front benchers, whips, the Speaker and his deputy clearly do not, I assume he means that most MPs don’t have second jobs. The actual figures for this vary depending on what period you look at and what you count as a job. Private Eye said in November 2021 (issue 1561) that 99 MPs had second jobs. The Guardian reported on 9 November that “more than 90” Conservative and three Labour members did but didn’t specify about the other parties. National World claimed on 10 November that 148 MPs “spent some time on a second job” between January 2020 and August 2021. If we assume a figure of 100 at any one time, that’s about 15% of all MPs: hardly a tiny minority. Mr Johnston added that members from all parties have outside interests. Though true, the large majority are from his own, as the above-mentioned Guardian article makes clear.

He goes on to say several times that only a small number of MPs have done anything wrong. As well as not being a ringing endorsement of the probity of his colleagues, this doesn’t seem quite the way the Standards Commissioner might summarise it. The New Statesman claimed on 4 November that 140 MPs have had Standards Commissioner investigations upheld against them since 2014. There have, so far as I can estimate, been about 950 different MPs during this period. That’s also about 15%. (He adds that the MPs who have crossed the line “are accused of breaking laws that already exist” – presumably all are as I don’t see how you can break a law that doesn’t exist.)

He then repeats the old trope that activities outside parliament can “bring valuable experience and knowledge to legislation.” This has always seemed to me a specious argument. While a few MPs (including the hapless David Cameron) spent their whole adult life climbing up the greasy pole inside the party machine (often starting with the Oxford Union), most had previous experience in the real world. That they need more experience is rather to suggest that they weren’t properly qualified for the job of MP when elected. Imagine if you landed an £82,000 a year position and told your boss that the only way you could do this job properly was to go out and get another one. In any case, the majority of MPs don’t feel this way as they don’t have extra employment. Does this mean that the more outside a work an MP does, the more they feel they need the experience and thus the less good an MP they would be without it?

Mr Johnston mentions that some MPs have family businesses or are farmers (I’d have thought that solicitors or trade unionists would be more numerous examples), write books or give speeches. (The latter can certainly be lucrative: Theresa May made over £1m from speeches in the 12 months following her resignation as PM while Tony Blair can command up to £6,000 a minute.) He goes on to mention that some are on the boards of companies. Some of these may have no relevance to government policy but others do. What he doesn’t mention is the c-word – consultants.

The BBC website states that “MPs are strictly forbidden from getting paid in return for advocating a particular matter in parliament.” However, there are other ways influence can travel. If that were not the case, why would companies want to employ their services? Some MPs have blithely suggested that if their constituents don’t like what they’re doing they can always vote them out. Two problems with this: first, constituents might have to wait for the best part of five years to do so; second, as this 21 November article in The Guardian suggests, MPs in safe seats are more likely to have second jobs. And we haven’t even mentioned what might be adrift is the House of Lords, one of the largest and certainly the most peculiarly constituted legislative assemblies on the planet. All in all, it’s not a great look right now.

Although he’s not my MP, David Johnston represents a neighbouring constituency and everything I’ve seen and read about him suggests that he’s an excellent advocate for his residents. He certainly produces a lively newsletter full of local engagements and causes. The assumption that bubbles up throughout his article, however – and this despite his assurance, which I accept, that MPs are never really off duty – is that it’s somehow a part-time job, or one that can be treated as such: effective representation of an average of 72,000 people can , should you wish, safely be combined with doing something else. (This may date back to the time when some seats were almost hereditary: in Somerset Maugham’s short story The Alien Corn, written in 1931, one character is asked about her slightly wayward son’s prospects and replies that “after all, there’s the family constituency waiting for him.”)

If I paid the kind of money that MPs receive, or that some of them get from outside work, I’d want their undivided loyalty and attention. As mentioned before, the Owen Paterson debacle has shown that they’re already subject to two separate and sometimes incompatible forces – to support their party in Westminster or to represent their constituents. A certain amount of their time must be spent drafting emails or articles explaining, either to their whips or their constituents, why at certain times they chose one and not the other. To this, some add a third pressure from an equally powerful source, an external employer. Are these people masochists?

Plans to reform or refine the current system of standards and their enforcement are, after this horrible car crash of a start, now being looked at. Private Eye claims that only 10 out of the 99 MPs who currently hold additional jobs would be affected by the plans the PM is currently proposing. I wouldn’t mind their being paid more if in return they gave up any external work and focussed on their jobs. If we ban MPs from having second jobs and can tough it out for ten years we’ll probably then wonder how on earth this was ever permitted in the first place.

• Just to get a bit of perspective on this, I spoke to West Berkshire councillors today to ask them what their workload was like (I forgot to ask if I could quote them and so I won’t but they are both effective ward members). One, who has no portfolio, reckons they spend about 25 hours a week on municipal stuff, which includes wading through at least 30 or 40 council-related emails a day, some important and detailed. The other, who does have a portfolio, reckoned that 35 hours a week would be an average for ward and WBC work combined. Both said that the work involved reading often vast documents before meetings: 400-page ones are not unknown. Moreover, you’re never really off duty: at any moment the phone could ring and you could be confronted by a local crisis for which you’re expected to have an immediate solution.

For this, they receive a basic allowance of about £7,700, out of which they’re expected to cover costs including phone and broadband bills, business stationery and professional subscriptions. Travel expenses can be claimed for going to committee meetings but not when going to parish council ones: this seems neither to advance local democracy nor be fair on those members who have large wards with multiple parishes. Additional benefits range from £19,242 for the Leader of the Council to £1,155 for the (largely honorific) role of Vice Chair. The large majority of West Berkshire councillors are retired, semi-retired or self-employed. The few who have a formal employer – which includes at least one portfolio holder to my knowledge – will need to make compromises with either their company or their council involving unpaid leave or being unable to attend certain municipal events. Being a councillor therefore demands, as well as the willingness to work a good number of hours often not at times of your choosing, being able to relish (or at least tolerate) the often divisive cut and thrust of the council chamber and the committee room.

• None of this seems to make becoming a councillor particularly attractive to women. Indeed, our own district of West Berkshire has the second worst female representation rate in the country according to Fawcett, with six female councillors out of 43 (14%). (In fairness, the article also suggests that very few councils are at 50%.) There are, of course, several reasons other than their gender why someone might not get elected. It therefore seemed sensible to look at the number of male and female candidates who stood in 2019 rather than just those who were elected.

There were 142 candidates in all but I’ve ignored three who had ambiguous first names. Of the rest, 38 (27%) were female and 101 male. Two of these lost to men by very narrow margins: were 13 votes in Clay Hill and 22 in Burghfield and Mortimer to have been cast differently, WBC would have eight female councillors rather than six (a slightly more healthy 18.5%). Re-allocating 1,075 votes in three other wards would have resulted in 11 female victors (25%), a result more or less in line with the percentage of women who actually stood.

This excellent article by Gillian Durrant reflects on this disparity, as does a piece on p12 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News which discusses this issue with three female WBC councillors, one from each party. I spoke to Gillian Durrant, who was a Newbury Town Councillor from 1997 to 2007, about this. She pointed out that in 2019 the Labour Party fielded the most candidates of any party, although none of these would have stood any chance of election. The Conservatives and the Lib Dems both had a “poor” percentage of women standing. I also asked her if people were more likely to vote for a male candidate (I’d heard evidence both ways). She thought that “she didn’t think they did,” adding that the situation was exacerbated by the fact that a large number of candidates (most of whom were male) stood for re-election and so would benefit from name recognition among voters. She also suggested that there was some reason to believe that a sufficiency of people votes alphabetically – so, if there is anyone out there called Amanda Aardvark or Amy Abacus who fancies the municipal life, this could be your big chance.

• The other point worth taking from this is the danger of using percentages for very low bases. That only 14% of WBC’s councillors are female looks pretty alarming: yet from recollection at least six results where women finished second were pretty close. 12 out of 42 female councillors would have been about 29%, a far more healthy looking figure and only a couple of seats away from matching the 34% of female MPs. Much the same can be said about increases in Covid rates in small areas. Some months ago I was started by the fact that one part of the district had seen cases rise by 200% in a week. Checking revealed that this was in fact two cases rising to six: a lot less alarming. On some sites, case rates were expressed per 100,000 people even for areas that had one tenth of that population. This created the impression at first glance that the problem was ten times worse than it was. Statistics are very dangerous unless (as well as being properly collated and reported) they involve pretty large numbers and percentages are pretty misleading if the total is less than a hundred.

• Speaking of women and men, as I was a moment ago, on a drive back from seeing one of our sons at Nottingham university last weekend we listened to an interview with Caitlin Moran on BBC R4. I knew she was prolific and successful but never realised at what a young age she started writing for Melody Maker. One of the points she made towards the end was that (I’m paraphrasing) men are feeling slightly left behind these days. Over the last fifty or a hundred years women’s horizons and opportunities haver increased massively whereas for the blokes the only real change has been not having to wear a bowler hat. I laughed, as I was meant to, which perhaps made me accept the statement a little too readily (ditto).

Do I, a man, feel left behind? I don’t think so. I’m aware I’ve had opportunities which, were I to have been a woman, I might not have done. I absolutely welcome the increasing role that women play in every aspect of life. Stories about what’s happening to girls and women under the Taliban I find almost impossible to read, so annoyed and depressed do I become. However, it’s impossible to pretend that the two sexes (yes, I know there are others) are identical: so, her remark set me thinking about how my life as a man has changed during my adult life.

Although my childhood was spent in a time of high sexism, my father (a writer) worked at home and my mother (a publisher) in an office, something my friends found really odd. That perhaps give me a head start. Thinking about Caitlin Moran’s remark about the lack of increased opportunity, I much prefer making a salad or sorting out the laundry to negotiating with suppliers or doing the hard sell on the phone and so am glad I live in an age when, as a man, these are considered reasonable preferences. I am therefore liberated. Things that men can now do, or are expected to do, or do through choice, and which would have been mostly off the map fifty years ago, include cooking, washing up, changing nappies, changing the sheets, hoovering, dusting, washing and cleaning. I’ve got no problem with any of these: in fact they’ve opened new horizons for me. I can decide how the sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases are sorted in the airing cupboard and which basket is used for the clean clothes and which for the dirty ones. That’s an achievement. It falls a bit short of a legacy but it’s a start.

More worrying, though, are some of the left-over views from the past. The default position seems to be that, regardless of personal competence or past disasters, the male in a relationship is responsible for and has an intuitive understanding of all domestic mechanical and electrical objects. Anyone who knows me at all will be aware that this is far from universally true: but if the car coughs, the toilet vomits or the Mac sneezes, it’s somehow me that ends up on the front line, pointlessly opening bonnets, wielding plungers or tapping keys. I immediately assume responsibility, even if I can’t fix it; which I normally can’t.

Worst of all are BBQs. I’ve no idea where the idea came from that men were natural recreational fire-lighters – I suspect from Australia – but every time I’m left in charge of one it always seems to go out or explode. And yet this experience, as with cars, loos and all the rest, does nothing to diminish my pathetic and atavistic connection with them and the reliance that females tend to place on my ability to sort therm out. It’s probably a sad residue of the old hunter-gatherer instinct. The world has left me nothing to hunt and nothing to gather but my reptilian brain can’t accept this. Just give me a knife and some vegetables or a pile of dirty clothes and a washing machine and I’m quite happy. But, Caitlin, if you could get rid of some of the old ideas as well that would be even better.

• And if all this isn’t enough to worry about it seems there’s a new and heavily mutated Covid variant that may yet unleash itself upon us all. B.1.1.529 is the name, which at first glance might seem to be the version number of your web browser. Except it isn’t. It’s an actual thing, perhaps come to get us. Oh, great…

• Being a lover of both cricket and football (there are no other sports in my view), my eye was caught by two stories that broke on 24 November. The first concerns the former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan who was accused of making a racist remark to a group of Asian players at Yorkshire CCC in 2009, a charge he denies. No trial has happened and I’m not sure it will or can but he was dropped from the BBC team covering the forthcoming Ashes series. It seems that no officials from Yorkshire are likely to face any penalties. I don’t know how the accusation will be able to be proved one way or another unless it comes to court.

On the same day, another issue was resolved this way, the Real Madrid and France forward Karin Benzema being convicted of involvement in what seems to be a squalid and bizarre attempt to blackmail fellow French professional Mathieu Valbuena over a sexually explicit video. Benzema has always claimed he had more honourable motives in the affair. It certainly seems odd that a Real Madrid first-teamer should feel so short of cash that he needed to resort to blackmailing a colleague. Although he suffered a period on the liste de merde and didn’t play for France for five years before he was convicted neither the French FA, nor Real Madrid, seem bothered now he’s been found guilty.

Clearly national broadcasting authorities and sporting bodies have their own views about how justice works which don’t seem to be the same as those of the courts. In retrospect, it’s a shame the BBC wasn’t so assiduous with regard to Jimmy Saville, a man who is now known to have been hiding in plain sight for decades. That was, of course, a long time ago, when BBC R1 DJs were kings and women did the washing and made the salads and put up with whatever merde was dished out to them. Autres temps, autres moeurs, as Benzema and his compatriots would say…

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 892 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 15 to 21 November, up 155 on the week before. This equates to 563 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 450 (410 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.

• West Berkshire’s Lib Dem Councillor Adrian Abbs has said that WBC has admitted that it will not hit its target for the district being carbon neutral by 2030 (in fairness, there are many aspects of this WBC can’t control), the current progress being 1.8% towards the goal. The council’s own carbon footprint is, he added, set to reduce by 88% by 2030 – “not bad,” he suggested, “but still not meeting the target.”

I put this to WBC’s portfolio holder, Steve Ardagh-Walter. He said WBC was “broadly on track” for its municipal contribution. He also pointed to two major new initiatives, involving electricity purchasing policies and a new solar farm, concerning which he is “reasonably confident of success.” He agreed that the district’s carbon neutrality would not be hit by 2030, something he said “was recognised when the strategy was drawn up.”  He added that government’s 2050 carbon-neutral target was “challenging but expensive.” So, do-able, then, given enough effort and investment.

• On 25 November, West Berkshire Council ‘s Planning Policy team issued the following statement. “As part of the evidence base for the Local Plan Review (LPR) we are undertaking a focused ‘call for sites’ for office development. Between 26 November 2021 and 24 December 2021 we are inviting landowners, developers and the wider public to submit potential development sites to be considered for office use only. Submissions will form part of our Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessment (HELAA). The HELAA will not make recommendations on which sites should be developed but will make a preliminary assessment of their suitability and potential.” To find out more, please click here.

• A letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News re-opens the matter of CIL (community infrastructure levy) payments which have been charged to people developing their property even though the developments were CIL-exempt, the problem being an oversight with the paperwork , the kind off thing that can for instance be adjusted on a VAT return. The letter is from Maria Dobson, one of the people who has suffered from this and provides some fairly direct thoughts about WBC’s conduct in the matter. An even larger case remains unresolved in Upper Lambourn. Other instances may well exist. You can read my thoughts on the issue here.

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.

• West Berkshire Council, and other councils across the country, are now 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 (so not long now to play what-if). 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 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 animals of the week are any of these real oddballs from around the world. 22 strange animals you probably didn’t know exist is the headline: I’m still not 100% convinced some of them aren’t photoshopped.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes , as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of towpath speed cameras, free parking, Covid tests, smart v dumb and financing politicians.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: several local causes (thanks to GreenHam Trust – see here for a full list); Children in Need (thanks to the Newbury 41 Club); Hungerford Cricket Club (thanks to several donors including the Berkshire ~Community Foundation, GreenHam Trust, the Town and Manor of Hungerford and Hungerford Town Council); the Royal British Legion (thanks to the residents of Brightwalton).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And here we are already at the Song of the Week. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss have turned into a bit of a duo in recent years and here they are delivering an excellent version of Randy Weeks’ Can’t Let Go.

• So next it must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. These two high-octane businessmen who, unfeasibly, run a health club are among Fry and Laurie’s more memorable creations. Here they are in scotch-drinking, oath-mangling, jaw-cracking form – John and Peter: daaamn!

• So that only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Dorothy Parker once said when at a particularly animated party that “if all the women in this room were laid end to end…” – how did her remark end? Last week’s question was: Which two English counties differ by only one letter? These near twins are Herefordshire and Hertfordshire.

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