Weekly News with Brian 20-27 January 2022

This Week with Brian

Including on-off-on-off, our darkest hour, careful what you wish for, Greek letters in waiting, no praise from JVT, mistakes and apologies, three billboards, five switch-offs, five-letter words, avocado X-rays, calling back a call-in, bi-lateral relaxation, spreading the news, alone again, the grand old Duke, a jitterbug and a special miaow.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including a radical past, Dr Jab-Jab, utmost integrity, a moment to reflect, no leisure in OX12, freedom of information, a tech amnesty, Hungerford’s clock, Shalbourne’s grips, Lambourn’s camp, East Garston’s puddles, Shefford’s objections, Newbury’s awards, Falkland’s prickles, Greenham’s photos, Thatcham’s permits, Woolhampton’s brewer, Cold Ash’s balloon, Compton’s budget, East Ilsley’s grit, Ashampstead’s missed date, Brightwalton’s apology. Chaddleworth’s beacon, Theale’s consultation, Mortimer’s station, Burghfield’s requests, Wantage’s waste, Grove’s air, Marlborough’s jubilee, Ramsbury’s recyclers, Swindon’s threshold and Shrivenham’s volunteers  – plus our usual dash 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

Boris and Novak  have both been on-off-on-off – no visa, no party, visa, party (but I wasn’t there), no visa again, another party, another visa, no party, no visa again, apology, deportation: now what? Novak’s Australian adventure is over (and he may find it hard to get into the USA, the UK or France unless he rolls his sleeve up). What about BoJo’s British one?

[more below] 

Many of those who wanted a narcissistic, capricious, volatile and morally dubious Churchillian leader to “guide” us through our darkest hour of Brexit and the even darker one of Covid have had their wish granted in spades. A defection to Labour and a brief encouragement from David Davis to “in the name of God, go,” –  which the PM affected not to understand (but which seems simple enough syntactically and which was, I can exclusively reveal to him, first uttered by Oliver Cromwell in 1553 to the Long Parliament) – were the highlights of the recent political knockabout. He’s also had accusations of blackmail to deal with, as well as all the usual grief that comes with being PM of country of about 70 million people during a pandemic.

• For anyone who wants to see BoJo relegated to the backbench, I offer a word of caution: be careful what you wish for. A “safe pair of hands” is often demanded at such times and this often leads people to consider the current Home Secretary: it’s an unglamorous job which generally only produces bad headlines but for which one needs “grip”. The current incumbent, Pritti Patel, would scare many of us senseless if she became PM. One of BoJo’s few wise decisions has been to keep her as far away from the media mics as possible recently, although this has left her free to promote the appalling Police, Crime and Sentencing bill, as unpleasant and divisive a piece of legislation as I’ve seen for a long time. Whenever I hear her speak, I get the impression that I’m listening to someone being operated by remote control, perhaps by Captain Scarlet’s perennial enemies the Mysterons, or by Daleks. At least BoJo, with all his manifest failings, is obviously a human being.

• The real test for any leader, on a national or a local level, is not how many mistakes they make but how they deal with the aftermath. An apology –preferably not forced after you’ve been backed into a corner – is a good first step but it’s what you do to avoid a repetition for you and your successors that will define your legacy. Investing serious money in science both to combat viral outbreaks and climate change seems a no-brainer. With a certain amount of support (to repaid in later tax revenues) the businesses in this country can probably largely look after themselves. What’s needed is a massive step up in the role of the state to lead on these two issues. We need to respect those who are meant to inspire us, which is a huge consequence of partygate at present. However, there’s no point in having a new PM if they aren’t going to accept the fact that we live in deeply difficult times and that something super-Churchillian is required. I don’t see who it might be.

• It seems that Covid regulations are about to be relaxed which, if so, might be more for political than epidemiological reasons. The infection stats are going up, then down, then up again. The hospitalisation ones seem to be falling. The death stats I increasingly don’t trust given that so many people now seem to be infected that to class any death as caused by Covid if the deceased tested positive within the previous 28 days appears perverse. As for the seriousness, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence just today of (a) someone who had it so badly that he now suffers from sleep apnoea and (b) someone who had it and didn’t even realise it was more than a cold until he tested positive. The extremes are some way beyond this, ranging from death to total asymptomatic oblivion. What happens next? Who knows. The chances are that mutations involving greater infection but less virulence are coming, but Omicron may not be the last word. There are other Greek letters still unused…

• If the regulation about the compulsory wearing of face masks is to be repealed then that places shopkeepers in an awkward situation. They may deal with hundreds of people every day and it’s not always possible to transact matters behind a perspex shield. For many, being ill and missing work is a catastrophe and many will prefer that people still wear face coverings. I shall continue to do this as a courtesy to shops, particularly if they have a sign requesting this. They will not, however, be able to insist on the matter or refuse to serve those who’re unmasked. 

• The ever-excellent MD column in Private Eye commented in issue 1565 on the fact that Sir JVT‘s departure from the Whitehall jungle was accompanied by a speech of fulsome congrats to his professional colleagues. “Curiously,” Dr Phil points out, “he forgot to single out any politician for praise.”

The BBC reports that U2 frontman Bono has said many of his band’s songs makes him “cringe”. This is an interesting reaction to your back catalogue. My list of bands whose music I instantly turn off when I hear it includes U2, Eurythmics, ABBA, The Who and Bob Marley. I don’t expect you to agree with all or perhaps any of these: but what are yours?

• An astounding fact was told to me by Neil at the fruit and veg market stall in Hungerford this Wednesday. If an avocado has a “ripe now” symbol on it then it’s been through a dedicated x-ray machine – each of which costs £200,000 and of which there are but two in the country – to determine if it is indeed ripe. He proved this by slicing open one with such a mark on his stall. It was rock hard to the touch but inside was just as you’d want it. I bought an avocado as a result but remain slightly uneasy about the whole idea. Do I really need avocados? I don’t any longer live in Islington (where I suspect they might now be mandatory). 

• Have any of you tried Wordle? Utterly brilliant and addictive – click here to see this wonderfully simple and infuriating five-letter word game. Thank goodness the makers have restricted you to one a day.

• The debacle of the Ashes finally lurched to its awful conclusion this week. The final act was not, however, England’s last wicket falling in the final test but a party – that word again – involving both English and Australian players. A dose of bi-lateral relaxation after five tests is great but it’s somehow depressing that this one involved the police. The ones in Downing Street so far haven’t. They may yet. Over to to you, Sue Grey…

Across the area

• 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 1,330 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 10 to 16 January, down 612 on the week before. This equates to 839 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 926 (1,447 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• A number of pharmacies, surgeries and other places such as mobile centres are, as we all know, offering Covid jabs and boosters. These will in general be available through the NHS website but some are also offering clinics where people can book directly or drop in. Although local councils like West Berkshire, Wiltshire and the Vale of White Horse provide information about such services, it’s important to stress that they don’t make these decisions but merely relay what the local health trust, NHS HQ or other bodies have decided. By their nature, details are often decided at short notice and may be subject to change. The communications departments of your councils are making heroic efforts but can only pass on what they themselves are officially told. People are advised to keep their eye on local publicity from their pharmacy or GP and to use the NHS website: increasingly this is likely to provide appointments at times and places convenient to you as the system now has more capacity than it did before Christmas.

The communication problems for councils also extends to how they spread the word. The pandemic has speeded up the trend towards digital rather than printed information. This suits both the fast-moving nature of events and the convenience of the vast majority of the population. There remains, however, a sizeable group, perhaps 10%, who never go online at all and are thus excluded from all of this. Even if a council could print leaflets on all these matters and afford to do so, they have no means of knowing which people need to get stuff in this way. They are not indifferent to this problem but it’s impossible to see how they can address it. Parishes, however, are better placed as they will know more accurately which of their residents require offline information: most are continuing to publicise arrangements that are relevant to their residents. One of the positive things that has come from the pandemic is the increased role that such organisations have played and the way in which this hyper-local knowledge of who might need what kind of help or information has been put to practical use. Your councils at every level are thus doing all they can to spread the word – but remember, they are only the messengers in this.

• If a district councillor feels that a planning application needs more careful scrutiny then they can “call it in” to be discussed at a planning committee at which the various interested parties can have their say and the matter is voted on by a group of councillors broadly reflecting the council’s political composition. It can take a month or so before the matter comes to committee and in this time the contentious issues have sometimes been addressed, or an undertaken has been given that they will be. The logical thing is then for the call-in to be cancelled. In West Berkshire at least, however, this cannot happen: call-ins are, it seems, written in stone and the matter must then be brought forward, debated and voted on even if there’s nothing really to discuss. This seems an unnecessarily controlling and potentially time- and money-wasting policy. Such committee meetings are long and technical enough as it is. If anyone living in another district knows their planning system to be more flexible in this way, please let me know. 

The officers certainly seem to be tough on not permitting any extension to the 30-day period during which a call-in can be made. Alan Law, an experienced ward member, recently discovered that an application in Ashampstead could not be called-in because this period had passed. He told the Parish Council that he had argued that more time should be allowed to take into account the Twixmas closure: officers told him, however, that they were “adamant they would not give any latitude mainly because this had been abused in the past.” Perhaps the same argument could be used for not allowing call-ins to be withdrawn, the fear being that they will be used as bargaining tools to get changes made. If this approach produces the desired result then I don’t see what’s wrong with it.

• West Berkshire Council invites all residents who have an interest in improving health and wellbeing in the area to take part in a virtual conference from 10am to 12.30pm on Friday 21 January. This will look at five different aspects of the issue: “(1) how can we work together to reduce the difference in health between different groups of people; (2) how can we support individuals who are at higher risk of bad health outcomes; (3) how can we help children and families in their early years; (4) what is needed to promote good mental health and wellbeing for all children and young people; and (5) what is needed to promote good mental health and wellbeing for all adults.” For more information, click here.

• West Berkshire Council has launched a new grant scheme to support businesses in the district. The Additional Restrictions Grant Challenge Fund is an opportunity for local businesses to apply for grants of up to £25,000 to fund projects which will stimulate growth and recovery, under the categories of either Green Growth or Digital Improvements. The deadline for applications is 13 February 2022 and successful businesses will receive their grant in early March. More details can be found here.

• The successful holiday activities and food programmes run by West Berkshire Council last year will continue in 2022, funding having recently been secured from the government. Those who are entitled to participate will be contacted by their schools in good time.

• West Berkshire Council is accepting applications for a new grant scheme to support businesses in hospitality, leisure and accommodation that have been impacted by Omicron. See more details here. There is currently £1.52m allocated to this fund. WBC has received 43 applications so far (but welcomes more).

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.

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 animal of the week is Barnaby the cat, lost for many months, who was identified by his owner when she called the local vet on another matter and recognised his distinctive miaow in the background at the surgery where he had recently been handed in as a stray. 

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of our MP and the PM, diesel dinosaurs, sports pitches and war-time memories. There’s also a photo of a sheepdog that “hates the vacuum.” Well, don’t we all – give me somewhere with a few air molecules every time…

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: many local charities *(thanks to local councils and Greenham Trust); Victoria’s promise (thanks to Ed Smith); Loose Ends (thanks to many local donations); several local charities (thanks to the Wiltshire Community Foundation).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And here comes the Song of the Week. Another wonderful piece of music – the Jitterbug Waltz – from Joan Chamorro’s Iberian jazz prodigies.

• Followed, as it always is, by the Comedy Sketch of the Week. But this certainly isn’t a sketch and it isn’t even comedy: but it is a superb pice of acting and invective from Frances McDormand in which she takes on the self-important local priest in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

• And coming in for the bronze medal is Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Prince Andrew has recently been unceremoniously stripped of many of his roles and titles. Yet the Queen’s second son is still what number in line to inherit the throne? Last week’s question was: Which Gilbert O’Sullivan song changed rap music? The answer is Alone Again (Naturally) which was sampled by Biz Markie concerning which O’Sullivan sued in 1991, and won: the upshot was that songs which involved samples – which rap songs frequently do – need first to obtain the permission of the copyright holders.

aFor 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