Weekly News with Brian 9 to 16 December 2021

This Week with Brian

Including stumbling and giggling, power and personality, restrictions or protections, missing letters explained, over by Christmas, avoidable super-spreaders, a new leader, a new baby, a uranium duck, growling fish, The Godfather after penalties, last call on the libraries, right next time, Frank’s base and wishing on a star.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including a bumper issue, the B4000, a speculative windmill, life on the road, new homes, infrastructure (or not), Hungerford’s balloons, Froxfield’s drain, Kintbury’s star, Lambourn’s Santa, Shefford’s hamper, Welford’s auction, Woodland’s protection, Newbury’s advent, Hamstead Marshall’s saplings, Enborne’s opposition, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s dancers, Chieveley’s verges, Thatcham’s windows, Crookham’s cottage, Cold Ash’s frost, Woolhampton’s jabs, Bucklebury’s education, Chaddleworth’s services, Compton’s final hurdle, Hampstead Norreys’ hours, East Ilsley’s tour, Theale’s lights, Burghfield’s breath, Mortimer’s destruction, Padworth’s water, Wantage’s parking, Grove’s pitch, East Hanney’s tender, Marlborough’s memorial, Aldbourne’s pavement, Ogbourne St George’s signs and Swindon’s jumpers – plus our usual sleigh-ride through 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

• The spoof press conference at which former Downing Street spokesperson Allegra Stratton stumbled and giggled through questions about a Christmas party at Number 10 has rightly caused widespread anger and, amongst Conservative MPs, councillors and party members, dismay. One question I have is why on earth the event was recorded. It’s like breaking into someone’s house with a jemmy in one hand and a phone on a selfie-stick in the other. One explanation is arrogance; two others are indifference and carelessness. I don’t know which is the worst crime in a government.

[more below] 

Before any of you start accusing me of political bias, this isn’t a uniquely Conservative party problem. It’s more to do with the distorting effects of power. It also shows that any organisation is to some degree a reflection of the person at the top. If the Downing Street staff are prepared to break rules they themselves have helped frame, lie about this afterwards and then be shown to have indulged in some look-at-me slapstick, that’s perhaps because they’ve seen the PM doing it. It’s not helped by the fact that he’s been leading the country for two years which has been dominated by Brexit and then Covid, circumstances which perhaps convinced him that normal rules of conduct, in so far as he understand these, weren’t required and that a maverick war-time approach was needed. Churchill got away with it (until the ’45 election) but BJ, a lesser man, doesn’t seem to be able to. (Churchill was a flawed strategist and politician but found his moment, to which he rose, thrust upon him: Johnston is more flawed, and thrust the Brexit moment upon himself, and us, which he thought would be the defining moment of his career. He has since had to deal with Covid, for which he has proved unequal.)

There was a Conservative MP on BBC R4 this week who defended the PM, saying that he couldn’t be expected to know about everything that was going on in Downing Street. Sorry, no. BJ has had a week to find out if there had been a party since the allegations surfaced and repeatedly claimed that all regulations had been followed. As the regulations on 18 December last year prohibited such gatherings of any size, how could they have been followed? He was asked this very question at a press conference on 8 December and he described the disastrous event as a “rehearsal”. Really? A rehearsal for what? Something even worse?

Like the Barnard Castle and Owen Paterson debacles (as well as some of the procurement questions), this knocks away another bit of the scaffolding that shores up the trust we have in the government. Many of us did not vote for him but I suspect that most want to believe that our government is, if at times misguided, at least fundamentally honest and even-handed. Even our leader’s public persona – his USP – which he has long portrayed as an occasionally mildly engaging mixture of Churchill, Billy Bunter and Winnie-the-Pooh, has now assumed a more sinister aspect. His buffoonery now looks like a diversion technique, his support of his friends like favouritism and his rhetoric like sophistry. Every remark or intervention, it seems, is not piece of knock-about fun,  perhaps with a serious message, but something calculated to to distract, defend or deceive. This is what a handful of people had to say about the issue.

Thursday 9 December saw three further arrivals in the prime-ministerial in-tray. The first was confirmation that there would be an investigation into three problematic parties in the months before Christmas 2020. The second was the news that his party had been fined £17,800 by the Electoral Commission as a result of inaccurate reporting about the source of funding for the re-vamp of the Downing Street flat. The third – which was I’m sure a source of joy but which could also go down as the last thing he needs right now – was the birth of a new daughter, his wife’s second child and his seventh. With a recently re-furbished flat at his disposal and Christmas coming up, this is surely the perfect moment to throw a party.

• New Covid restrictions were introduced on 8 December, the details of which you can read here. We’re now being encouraged to work from home and face masks are now required in a range of indoor settings including cinemas. One expert on the BBC’s World at One that day suggested that the use of the word “restrictions” might be a problem for public acceptance and that “protections” might be better. Best of all would be a widespread belief that they applied equally to everyone; which brings us back to the question of trust.

• Information is being gathered quickly about Omicron but not as quickly as the virus itself is spreading. In the UK, cases are doubling every two to three days. Some evidence, including from South Africa, suggests that it may cause milder infections (though there are major differences between there and the UK, including the average age and the number of people jabbed, lower in both cases in SA). It certainly seems to be more transmissible, perhaps doing so twice as fast as Delta (which was itself twice as transmissible as the original). Nor is it yet clear how much protection the vaccines afford. The antibodies, Omicron seems able to outwit (so causing infections). However, vaccines stimulate a wider range of defences including T cells (so perhaps leading to lower hospitalisations).

What all these uncertain numbers turn out to be will be rather important. A hypothetical two cases on a Monday doubling every two days would give you 256 infections by the end of the fortnight: were they to treble, however, there would be over 4,300. The best outcome would seem to be an accommodation with the virus in its ever changing hues much as we have done with flu, helped by continued vaccination and by immunity being boosted by infections which don’t require hospitalisation. The worst outcome is…well, the experts should, I am reliably informed, know more in a couple of weeks. So, this aspect of the uncertainty, if not the pandemic itself, should be over by Christmas.

• I asked last week what had happened to the ten or so variants between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet. Private Eye’s most recent MD column has obligingly provided the answer to this, pointing out that others were named, from Epsilon to Mu, but fizzled out as they weren’t able to out-compete Delta. As the author, Dr Phill Hammond, pointed out, “there’s nothing remotely surprising about the emergence of Omicron.” Homo sapiens, after all, emerged as the dominant group of higher primates through evolution (ie mutation). It took us about a million years, so respect is due to Omicron for having accomplished this in about eight months. Others will doubtless overtake it in equally rapid time.

• There are 333 local councils in England with about 20,000 councillors in all. There are also about 9,000 parish and town councils which might each have on average seven members each. There are also Clerks and other officers who attend meetings. All in all, we’re talking about at least 100,000 people, about the same as the population of Worcester. These meet regularly, often (because of committees) several times a month, in various combinations. They involve a lot of talking and take place in every corner of the country. Councillors tend to be more than averagely involved in local affairs and so mix with others. When I add the fact that, in 2019, the average councillor was a 59-year-old man – that sex and that age group being of above average risk for Covid – it’s easy to see that these could be seen as over 9,000 avoidable super-spreader events.

Avoidable how? There are these things called Zoom and Teams and others which enable groups of people to talk and decide matters online. There were even protocols agreed in Whitehall by which voting could take place online. These produced no particular problems or abuses I’m aware of. It was decreed in 2020, given the emergency, that matters could proceed in this way.

As it proved, there were a number of advantages of this virtual life. District councillors, certainly in West Berkshire, can’t claim mileage allowances for visiting parish meetings, something they should do as often as they can. Many have jobs or other commitments which make physical attendance at a specific time and place difficult (perhaps mainly women with child-care responsibilities and younger people, exactly the kind of people councils need to attract). Most councillors know each other and so don’t need face-to-face engagement. Some council chambers are not sufficiently large to accommodate all their members according to government restrictions, or those that councillors might see as prudent based on local conditions. (Many of these venues conspire to be both draughty and over-heated at the same time.) Digital events can be recorded, so assisting minute-taking and can be watched later. Interested parties, ranging from those next door to a planning site to experts on a particular issue to the local MP, could drop in to meetings for the relevant bit and then log off. Journalists could more easily cover them, sometimes (in my case) two at the same time. For all these reasons you’d think that the government would encourage remote technology to ensure that municipal democracy could function safely, efficiently and in a carbon-neutral way.

Not a bit of it. In April 2021 the government announced that, from 7 May, meetings could no longer be conducted remotely (or, to be exact, that they could be but that online votes might be subject to legal challenge). This led to a number of convolutions by councils, including turning committees into working groups; and an appeal, which failed on the grounds that primary legislation would be required to extend the permission (my argument was, and is, that, if so, whoever was responsible for drafting the Coronavirus Emergency Regulations bill should be sacked). It also resulted in my writing this, on 1 April 2021, which had a lot more edge than my previous articles penned for 1 April.  Whitehall’s decision treated local councils – which had at every level proved so effective in dealing with the sharp end of the Covid response – like children. It was also to deny technology any role in local democracy, which doesn’t help inclusivity.

Since the decision was taken eight months ago, I’ve discussed this with West Berkshire Council’s Leader Lynne Doherty several times and she broadly shares these views. After the PM’s announcement on 8 December I asked her if she felt a return to an optional online format was a logical part of the latest stipulations about working from home. She said that she was asking the question. Pandemic or not, it seems a good way to organise things, particularly if we want to get a wider range of people involved. So, the next move is from the current Minister, Mr Gove. What’s it to be, Michael? At least 100,000 people are waiting on your decision.

• End of an era in Germany where Angela Merkel, Chancellor since 2005), was on 8 December replaced by Olaf Scholz as the leader of the world’s fourth largest economy, this following a long period of political horse-trading since the election in September. He’ll be leading a coalition which appears to have some enlightened policies. We’ve been through Blair, Brown, the hapless David Cameron, May and BoJo in that time.

• So, the Ashes started down under the other day. You’ve got to stay up to see the start of that, haven’t you? I needed a bit of a lift and a few overs of England’s solid defence and punishing the odd bad ball to the boundary was just what I needed. What a mistake that was. Rory Burns clean bowled for the first ball, not just of his innings, nor even of the match, but of the series – what’s that? A platinum duck? A uranium duck? I immediately switched off and then back on again ten minutes later and suddenly we were 17–3. Against the Aussies, this hurts. That was the first day. Then on the second Australia were batting and the nightmare got worse. Some of you might say “grow up, it’s only a game.” No, it isn’t – it’s the Ashes…

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 993 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 29 November to 5 December, up 134 on the week before. This equates to 627 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 513 (446 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• I’ve heard some reports about the recent Full Council meeting at West Berkshire Council and there’s also a letter about it in the NWN. It lasted for five hours and still didn’t get through all its business. Five hours – that’s like a football match with extra time and penalties followed immediately by The Godfather. Too long, too much. As well as tributes to recently deceased councillors it seems that time was spent on uncontroversial motions on which a number of members wanted to have their say: meanwhile there was at least one matter of genuine importance that didn’t get debated at all. I’m no expert and it’s none of my business (not that either of have stopped me from an expressing an opinion) but the complaints that I’ve heard, and not just about this one, seem to suggest that each one is trying to accomplish too much and as a result accomplishing too little. I don’t know if or how this can be changed but it’s something worth looking at. Above all, the length – a football match or a three-hour movie are both great, but not both.

• On Saturday 11 and 18 December, bus travel will be free from West Berkshire on Reading Buses, Newbury & District, Stagecoach and Thames Travel. This festive offer, supported by West Berkshire Coucil, is intended to support local retailers and minimise traffic congestion by encouraging more people to use the bus. This replaces free parking which has been provided by West Berkshire Council in previous years. Note that this doesn’t apply to services going into or out of West Berkshire to Marlborough or Swindon.

• 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 Council’s Giving Tree campaign is back and WBC is “teaming up with local domestic abuse services to wrap up Christmas for those in need.” Read more here.

• See the Weekly News sections for Hungerford, Newbury, Thatcham and the Lambourn Valley for details of new Covid booster vaccination centres which will be running in Hungerford, Kintbury and Lambourn on certain days in December.

Surviving to Thriving, a joint venture set up by WBC and Greenham Trust, has 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 very keen to hear from you.

Click here for information on changes to WBC’s online payments system which have recently come into force.

• 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 libraries newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from 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 these fish on a recovering reef in Indonesia which, apparently, whoop, croak and growl.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of contempt, problems with recycling appointments, vexatious behaviour, EV tariffs and migrants.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: several local causes (thanks to Greenham Trust – see here for a full list); the Yattendon and Frilsham Sports and Social Trust (thanks to the Classic Vehicle Day); children in Swindon (thanks to Ntegra); Swings and Smiles (thanks to Lauren Quine and also Apple Print and Creative); Thatcham Rotary Club (thanks to recent Santa fun run); Barnado’s (thanks to Downe House School); Newbury Cancer Care (thanks to the Thatcham Photographic Club).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And here’s the Christmas party that’s the Song of the Week. Making mistakes and then trying to cover them up seems to be a bit of theme this week – but don’t worry, as Gerry Rafferty reminds us, you can Get it Right Next Time. Or not, as the case may be.

• Sorry, it’s been cancelled, so you’ll have to make do with the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Sticking with that idea, many of us would have had bosses who were for whatever reason impossible to deal with, who are known to be innately untrustworthy and yet for some mad reason we keep on believing that, this time, they’ll have changed. Does that ring a bell?. The Distracting Boss on the excellent Big Train is a pretty good example of this depressingly common syndrome.

• It seems the party might (or might not) have happened, but whether you were there or not (if it happened), here’s the  Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question (and you can see I can’t leave this subject alone) is: Which film featured the song When You Wish upon a Star?  Last week’s question was: Where are the headquarters of the Williams F1 team, founded by Frank Williams, who died this (last) week? William HQ is to be found in Grove, a mile or so north of Wantage (although it’s becoming increasingly hard to tell when one place starts and the other ends).

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