This Week with Brian
Including coming from every angle, another leaky boat, more bad stuff, driving alterations, masking up, no good deed unpunished, state scepticism more dirty water, lots of dolphins, five changes of direction, four improvements for oversight and scrutiny, three minor matters, two sports, one person rushing it, African winners and Sheila taking a bow.
Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including Chestnut Walk, almost connected at last, local champions, football under scrutiny, media silence, balancing the books, orcs and goblins, use it or lose it, a proposed cat, Hungerford’s volunteers, Chilton Foliat’s power, Froxfield’s increase; Shalbourne’s drains, Lambourn’s planting, East Garston’s television, Great Shefford’s application, Newbury’s watermill, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s poster, Hamstead Marshall’s change, Thatcham’s club, Woolhampton’s gratitude, Cold Ash’s clouds, Hermitage’s magazine, Brimpton’s pole, East Ilsley’s ducks, Hampstead Norreys’ shelves, Compton’s deadline, Chaddleworth’s news, Aldworth’s bins, Ashampstead’s CIL, Theale’s applications, Aldermaston’s appraisal, Burghfield’s fair, Wantage’s EVs, Grove’s complaint, Marlborough’s stalls, Ogbourne’s silks, Ramsbury’s transport, Bedwyn’s bells, Aldbourne’s ash trees and Swindon’s waste – 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
• I’ve kind of switched off from what’s going on in Westminster. BoJo seems to have stuff coming at him from every angle at the moment, ranging from yet another party (his birthday) to animals being evacuated from Kabul and accusations of Islamophobia. The Met has also got involved, although many will not view this intervention with any great confidence given the reputational damage the force has recently suffered. Timing seems to be everything – which report will be published first might provide political advantage one way or another for him. The confusion and conflation of accusations might help a wily operator like him. Meanwhile, minor matters like climate change, a possible European war and a continuing pandemic have been largely knocked off the front pages.
Your Local Area
• For darkly light relief, one can always rely on Prince Andrew, who seems to be in an equally leaky boat to our PM. The fact that the man clearly feels he can take advantage of the privileged yet responsible position that he has inherited, something his mother and his three other siblings understand they cannot, makes him beyond my sympathy. There is a lot that can be argued against the monarchy but even worse would be to have to elect a president who would, if other countries are any guide, either do damn-all or else meddle in things beyond their remit. The monarchy is, to transfer Churchill’s comment about democracy, “the worst system of all, except for all the others.” It would be great if we could get rid of this over-entitled and – despite his recent demotions – still over-titled sleaze-ball, though. No idea which way all the court actions will go. Some last-minute, face-saving deal will probably be done, as it often is if you have deep enough pockets.
• I don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine either. Bad stuff always a few hours away from happening, day after day. Thank god I don’t live there. Nothing much to add. Not being much help this week, am I?
• One thing I do know – but only because Penny told me this afternoon – is that the Highway Code is going through a pretty major revision. Here is Gov.uk’s summary of this. The aim seems to be give more protection to anyone not driving in an enclosed vehicle: however, any cyclist, motor-cyclist, pedestrian or horse rider who believes that car, bus and lorry drivers will, come 29 January when this comes into force, automatically be fitting in with these proposals might be in for a nasty surprise.
Some of these changes also place obligations on cyclists to be more aware, for example by leaving a car-door’s width between them and any car when passing it. This seems to be common sense. Years ago I was knocked off my moped in Piccadilly by a man who suddenly threw his car door open so he could tell the driver in front that their break-lights weren’t working. I, and my moped, were shaken but fine but his car door wouldn’t close afterwards, providing as good an example of “no good deed goes unpunished” as I can think of.
The Daily Mirror has run a story about how you can now be fined £1,000 if a driver opens the car door with their right, rather than their left, hand. I’m not sure which hand I use but I always look in the mirror or over my shoulder first. (I did manage to run over Penny in our drive a few months ago, I admit, but that was nothing to do with mirrors or hands. My story is that she…this is all ancient history so I don’t think I need go over it again. Her foot was quite a mess, though. Sorry, again.)
I don’t know when you last looked at the Highway Code. For me it was just before my driving test in…well, I’m not going to tell you how long ago that was. Thing is, I’ve been driving since before some of you were born, with not one accident that was my fault, much of it in the unforgiving landscape of London. I’ve since lived for 25 years in a lovely village where pedestrians, cyclists and horses are everyday road companions and I like to feel I’m aware of their needs. My instinctive London-born defensive driving attitude has resulted in my avoiding numerous potential collisions where I’ve been aware that someone pulling out has not looked. Some of these were cyclists. All in all, I think I’m a good driver.
That’s the trouble – we all think that. For the government to tell us that we might be bad drivers is, perhaps particularly for men, to take an axe to the root of our self-esteem. So, cyclists et al, don’t expect too much change too soon. And, while I’m at it, you might try not moving to the middle of the road and accelerating when you come to the one place where we can safely pass you on a windy road.
• Despite new government regulations, some supermarkets have asked that people continue to wear face coverings in their shops. I’m sure a lot of smaller retailers would agree. That seems fine with me. The people who work in shops are entitled to be protected from the threat of infection. For some, needing to close while they’re isolating or ill can be a financial game changer. If I don’t have a mask on me and need to go into a shop I now feel as under-dressed as if I have my flies open. (I realised after coming out of the Co-op in Hungerford earlier this week after having been swimming and with no mask in the car that both these social solecisms were true.)
• The BBC website reports that around 80,000 NHS staff remain unvaccinated in England (out of a total workforce of about 1.2 million) ahead of the deadline that all workers must at least have had their first jab by 3 February or face being moved to a different job our even dismissed. Some, including the employee from Cumbria mentioned in the article, might argue that if the aim is to protect patients then the stricture might, for three reasons, be unnecessary. NHS staff have immediate access to PCR tests so can know with confidence if they’re infected. Secondly, they use much better masks and other PPE than is available, say, to supermarket workers. Thirdly, being vaccinated may reduce the severity of your infection but doesn’t dramatically reduce the risk of passing it on to others.
This is clearly a difficult issue and has long been so. My personal view is that everyone would have the jab but I can see that many choose not to do so for reasons that are clearly deep-seated. I think they’re wrong but my barking at them about it isn’t going to make any difference.
Gov.uk figures, as reported by the BBC, say that only 9% of the population is unvaccinated: so the NHS’s figure of about 7% unjabbed is actually better than the average. The NHS is not, however, a typical organisation in that most if not all its staff, certainly in front-line services, work there because they care about people and want to help them. What is clear is that for nearly 10% of the population, government messages on the subject, repeated every day for over a year, have not worked.
This may be due to considerations unrelated to medical concerns. As the Brexit referendum showed, if the government tells people to do something there will be a significant number of people who will, for that very reason, do the opposite. This may well be because their previous dealings with official instructions have not been to their advantage. If so, this state scepticism – maybe a more accurate term than vaccine hesitancy – could easily translate itself into other forms of non-compliance regarding a future emergency (such as climate change, perhaps). The better the government behaves and the higher the standards it itself demonstrates, the more likely sceptics are to give its instructions the benefit of the doubt. That is yet another reason why partygate is so important as the resulting distrust may well undermine adherence to the government’s future policies. If these policies happen to be sound and significant, then any non-compliance is likely to be to the detriment of us all.
• The front-page story in this week’s Newbury Weekly News contained yet another example of pollution in the SSSI and SAC-protected River Lambourn. Penny Post contacted Action for the River Kennet about this and we’ll be covering the issue more fully next week. One point that really sticks out from the story is the rather alarming admission from the Environment Agency that, because of budget cuts, the regulator “will not be taking any further action in this instance.” If the EA can’t investigate a fairly simple pollution case involving a clear source and cause, what chance does it have in adhering to its assurance of late last year that it would be prosecuting water firms for the much more complex instances of illegal discharges into our waterways? Not a lot. What’s the point of having a regulator if it’s not funded properly? Champagne was doubtless opened in the boardrooms of the water companies up and down the country after this announcement.
• Some of you have read my ambitions for five changes of direction I proposed for myself, inspired by reading an article in Village Views. If you want to know how I’ve got on in January, the answers are: (1) none at all (if you don’t include prawns); (2) not sure, but trying; (3) the issue has disappeared because in general so have they; (4) am reading another Iris Murdoch book, so possibly not; (5) not yet. You perhaps don’t need to click on the post link above (but please do) to see this is probably a reasonably typical audit of any new-year ambitions.
• I often seem to end this section with the sport, as do most newspapers. The nightmare of the Ashes is over for the men, though not for the women who seem to be having all their matches abandoned because of rain (and well done to Hungerford’s Lauren Bell for being part of the squad). The football is dominated by the Africa Cup of Nations, which seems to be producing more red cards than goals in the recent stages. There are other sports apart from football and cricket, so I’m told, but – as with the events in Westminster and Ukraine – I don’t really know anything about them: not that, you might say, that I know about anything that I write here…
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 1,655 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 17 to 23 January, up 321 on the week before. This equates to 1.044 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 1,002 (926 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.
• As mentioned in our Newbury Area Weekly News section this week, anyone wanting to see some reasons why they should not become a district councillor could do a lot worse than look at the YouTube recording of the first two hours (from about 10 minutes) of the meeting of WBC’s Oversight and Scrutiny Management Commission (OSMC) on 25 January. The general remit of WBC’s OSMC can be seen here: the first sentence defines it as being “responsible for examining, or reviewing, the decisions, policies and services of West Berkshire Council and in some cases those of other organisations and partners to improve the lives of local people.” It therefore has an important role to play in managing local democracy and the behaviour of a council which touches many aspects of our lives. Every council will have one of these, under this name or something very similar. Some will have separate ones for different areas of its activities.
I don’t pretend to know how these meetings are planned and organised: but no one looking at the proceedings of the above-mentioned one could claim that they’re currently perfect. This is what I’d suggest to improve them:
- The chair. One thing this fiasco – is this word fair? Yes, I think so – made clear to me was how important this role is. The chair can close off debate, rule on the presence or not of witnesses, accept or not points of order and generally exert considerable influence over every stage of the proceedings. When I researched this exact matter in September 2021, I discovered that a number of neighbouring councils, including the Vale, Wiltshire, South Oxfordshire, Basingstoke and Hart, had OSMC chairs who were of a different political party from the ruling group. It’s therefore not a crazy idea and might make people a bit more convinced that the outcome has been impartial.
- External evaluation. If a sufficient number of members agree, a matter might be looked at by another authority. True, it may not be familiar with the constitution of the authority in question but this would be offset by the advantages of their being able to take a dispassionate view of the issues. Also, the more understanding councils have of the way their neighbours do things, the better. Who knows, they might even learn something from each other?
- Preparation. It should be mandatory that, at least three days before an OSMC meeting, the chair, the person proposing the motion, a representative from any other party not covered by the above, the officer responsible for the topic and the monitoring officer must meet to discuss and agree how the meeting will proceed, what issues are admissible, whether witnesses can be called and the estimated timescale for the discussion. This would have avoided the grotesque procedural arguments that took up the first hour of WBC’s OSMC this week. This wasted the time of a lot of members and officers, all of whom would have had better things to do like analysing WBC Covid figures or cooking dinner.
- Participation. Nothing against Howard Woollaston in this case, or any other portfolio holder, but the purpose of the OSMC is to scrutinise. Executive members should be regarded as witnesses and only allowed to speak if other witnesses are called as well.
There – that should sort it out. Let me know how you get on under these new arrangements…
• West Berkshire Council is changing some of its bin collection dates – click here for details.
• 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.
• Click here for the latest environmental 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.
• The animal of the week are these “hundreds” of dolphins off the Pembrokeshire coast. We all love dolphins, perhaps because they just seem – like cats – to be fooling around most of the time.
• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of: investment in fossil fuels; Laura Farris; dog mess; face masks; and red coats.
• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: many local charities (thanks to West Berkshire Council’s Community Fund); Currige Primary School (thanks to the Ministry of Defence); Swings and Smiles (thanks to six hikers from Basingstoke); Andy Super (thanks to Ross Lennard).
The quiz, the sketch and the song
• And here we are once again at the Song of the Week. In a typically self-serving piece of repetitive pomposity, Morrissey (from The Smiths) has recently written an open letter to Johnny Marr (from The Smiths) asking him not to refer to him in any of his publicity. Like Lennon and McCartney, together Morrisey and Marr’s work touched on genius: individually, I’m less sure. Sheila Take a Bow is one of my favourite songs of theirs, so that’s what I’m offering this week.
• Which must mean that next up is the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Again, this is from a movie, Ocean’s Eleven in this case. This is a little scene between George Clooney and Brad Pitt about why Clooney’s chararacter is so set on robbing three Vegas casinos and which turns into a lovely aside about the timing of a speech – Did I rush it?
• And so we end with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Not counting the current tournament, how many countries have won the African Cup oil Nations, currently at its quarter-final stage in Cameroon? Last week’s question was: 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? He’s number nine in line, a rank that could rise if his nephews William and Harry have any more children. I don’t think anyone would wish that the number were lower.