Weekly News with Brian 3 to 10 February 2022

This Week with Brian

Including Abigail’s party in Westminster, excuses and defences, bruised backbenchers, wasting time, speaking out, policing pollution, utterly confused, levelling up, waterproofed beavers, landlords and buyers, Omicron’s new skin, two driven men, Tony and Control, the overload, triple landlocked and 14 winners.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening)

including heating help, minding the gap, jumping the gun, football coming home, will the eagle land, a three-course meal, alternative plans, welcoming the refugees, snowdrop season, Hungerford’s dogs, Inkpen’s bulletin, Kintbury’s bin, Lambourn’s plans, Shefford’s postponement, East Garston’s foursome, Welford’s archives, Newbury’s show, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s parking, Greenham’s photos, Thatcham’s youth,  Woolhampton’s volunteers, Bucklebury’s farm, Midgham’s membership, Cold Ash’s grazing, Brimpton’s map, Hampstead Norreys’ gong, Yattendon’s cars, Compton’s cp-options, Beedon’s grant, Theale’s open mic, Padworth’s jumble, Bradfield’s shield, Aldermaston’s conservation, Burghfield’s Fayre, Beenham’s code, Englefield’s accidents, Wantage’s parking, Grove’s dancing, Marlborough’s emptying, Aldbourne’s housing and Swindon’s beating – 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

• In a strange case of a local hunt asking a fox to give evidence to one of its committee meetings, the Commons Select Committee on Standards invited Private Eye’s Editor Ian Hislop and two of its journalists Solomon Hughes and Richard Brooks to testify at its hearing last week. You can watch the video of this event here. The idea was, laudably, to get some views as to how MP’s standards could be improved. The result produced some interesting admissions but was at times excruciatingly embarrassing.

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It was immediately clear the MPs had no idea how their slightly alarming guests should be handled. At the very first exchange, the otherwise urbane and confident Chair Chris Bryant struck a false note of jovial bonhomie from which the discussion never recovered. Hislop is impervious to this kind of charm and flattery, as they should all have known, and batted back every attempt at ingratiation. The MPs alternated between this approach and an attempt at forensic honesty. Bernard Jenkin asked why it was that politicians seemed not to understand why the rules existed, nor what exactly they were, nor why they should be obeyed, remarks that were answered with the bemusement one would expect. The gasbag member from South Leicestershire Alberto Costa (more on him in a moment) then tried to combine flattery, anecdote and an earnest discussion about process, with equal lack of success. Neither of these worked. As for Hislop, part of him seemed to be performing on Have I Got New for You? and employing a jocularity that didn’t quite sit with the seriousness of the issues discussed. All in all, it wasn’t an entirely happy meeting of minds.

Private Eye’s team, however, stuck to its guns and refused to be distracted by issues that were either irrelevant or over which the committee had no remit. The rules about MPs’ standards should, the journalists asserted, be clearly enforced and robustly policed. Declarations of interest should be publicised at election time and at the next parliamentary opportunity after a new appointment. Donations, gifts and the like should be recorded in the register of MPs’ interests in more detail, including explaining what the donation or gift was for. The companies and individuals involved should be specified by more than just their name.

These are not difficult issues to grapple with and could have been sorted in a brief email exchange. It was good knockabout stuff: but anyone who invites three Private Eye journalists to a discussion that invites criticism at a time when there are some easy topical targets is in for trouble. The general awkwardness of the MPs was perhaps even more alarming. In some ways, it was like watching the most toe-curling TV show ever written, Abigail’s Party.

• I mentioned Alberto Costa earlier. At one point he quoted an aspect of Ian Hislop’s Wikipedia entry at him, as a prelude to a descent into an absurd rabbit hole about procedure which was smashed back across the net. He prefaced this by saying that Wikipedia “is never a site to go to for any facts.” As well as being complete drivel – and perhaps actionable – it also asks why he was wasting the committee’s time in quoting from such an allegedly unreliable source at all. The statement particularly jars when coming from one of the 650 people who have recently seem to have had grave problems in telling fact from fiction or, as Bernard Jenkin had admitted earlier, right from wrong.

I hope he will apologise for this slur, though I doubt he will. Politicians rarely apologise for anything unless compelled to do so. This was kind of why this select committee was meeting at all.

Number 10 can’t be a happy place at the moment. As well as many staff wondering if they’re going to get fired or censured for their party planning, according to the BBC, more Conservative MPs are breaking ranks or threatening to do so, at least 17 of them having submitted letters of no confidence. Others have been dismissive. iNews reports that Conservative MP Connor Burns said that he didn’t think most people would classify a gathering of people eating cake and singing Happy Birthday as being a party, which is certainly an interesting point of view. His colleague Richard Bacon claimed that, compared to what some other politicians have done, the Prime Minister eating a piece of birthday cake was a “relatively minor offence.” Is he going to specify these other offences? As mentioned above, and as the Select Committee on Standards admitted that MPs have trouble understanding and adhering to laws, there could be quite a lot of them.

Nadine Dorries, one of the PM’s staunchest supporters, went a step further, referring to her rebellious colleagues as “selfish” and “a handful of egos” and that their actions are “really not helping their constituents.” All three remarks sound rather desperate, in particular the third. If West Berkshire is anything to go by, residents are putting a lot of pressure on their MP to take a stand on what is widely seen as, at best, hypocrisy and perhaps something a lot worse. Are they expected to ignore these calls?

Many Tory backbenchers will also still be bruised by their appalling whipping during the Owen Paterson debacle and feel no great love for the leadership. `Rebellion is a high-risk strategy, though. It only needs another 37 Conservative MPs to write to the 1922 Committee to trigger a leadership contest, which could produce a result even worse than the current situation. The whole matter would doubtless then be swept under the carpet and no lessons learned. If BoJo were defeated, that would also be the third time in a row that we had a PM who had only been elected to the role by members of their own party.

On a separate front, there’s been more fury about £9bn of PPE equipment which was, according to The Guardian, “either substandard, defective, past its use-by date or dramatically overpriced.” Clearly the circumstances were far from ideal, but even so. In many cases, normal procurement processes were by-passed. Questions are being asked about that too. Questions are also being asked about the timing of the Met’s announcement that it was, belatedly, going to look into partygate, so diluting much of the content of Sue Gray’s report. The force has been under heavy criticism on other issues, culminating in ‘tensions” between the PM and the Home Secretary as to whether the Commissioner was up to the job.

The PM then decided to launch a strange offensive of his own, accusing Kier Starmer of failing to prosecute Jimmy Saville when he was the DPP. This seemed to backfire. He then went to the Ukraine to try to sort things out there, a trip to a country allegedly on the brink of being invaded by one of the world’s largest armies seeming perhaps to offer a degree of tranquility he could not find at home. His intervention certainly was not welcomed by Moscow, which called him “utterly confused” and described British diplomacy  generally as “a waste of time.” Not a great week so far for him, then.

• There’s a new Omicron variant, currently known as BA.2, a name that probably won’t please the PR team at British Airways. These viruses do this mutation thing a lot so it’s no surprise. The results are not always as depressing as the word “mutation” suggests and it so far doesn’t seem to be causing the scientists any great concern. The UK stats over the last week have been wobbling around quite a bit but seem to be on a plateau. The overall figures are complicated slightly by the fact that from 31 January people who’ve been infected more than once now get counted more than once. The mortality figures I find increasingly hard to trust as they include deaths “with Covid” as well as “from Covid”: the more people who get infected, the more of the former there are likely to be. Hospitalisations are falling, which is perhaps the best news, about 15,000 now compared with nearer 20,000 a few weeks ago. I know several people who have it and none seem to be that serious. Hope that continues.

Levelling up is not likely to affect this area too much but the latest attempts at announcing plans to address the UK’s unwelcome status as one of the world’s “most geographically unequal major economies,” as the BBC puts it, has attracted a lot of criticism. The very laudable goal perhaps suffers from being so directly expressed: this might be one of those times where large regeneration projects in the north should be just done without trying to benchmark them. Investment in sustainable energy, good-quality housing stock and railways seems a no-brainer.

One of the best ways of getting money into communities is to ensure that local councils are adequately supported to give grants and support local services and not have to rely on predatory business-rate increases. It might take a bit of thought to work out how some councils can be given more funding than others but there must be enough evidence of deprivation and need to support the money going where it’s most needed. Some councils will screw up, of course – as some PPE providers and testing labs did – but most won’t.  There would also be a lot more local buy-in to the idea, and thus also local political support which could help re-build the Conservative’s red wall. However, in any major government initiative, the big consultancy firms (some represented by former MPs) are first in line on pay day. Local councils are towards the back due to Whitehall’s endemic distrust of local democracy.

• I’ve never liked The Goons, perhaps because I heard too many bad imitations of their sketches in my childhood. When we were offered some last-minute tickets to see Spike by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman at the Watermill in Bagnor I was a bit hesitant. Very glad I changed my mind (thanks, yet again, Penny). I had no idea that Spike Milligan was so much the brains behind the show, despite Sellers and Secombe being regarded as “the talent”. An email exchange with someone who actually knew Spike Milligan has confirmed that I need to think again. He was, I also learned, bi-polar, as so many of our greatest creative talents have been, and driven by a number of demons to create and entertain. This can’t have made him an easy person to live with; but then, I don’t have to. I have the luxury of only needing to pluck the fruit of his life, not scrape my skin on its inevitable thorns. My first step might be to read his novel Puckoon.

• Thirty-nine years ago I was living in Bermondsey and witnessed first-hand the by-election there, one of the most toxic events in post-war British politics. My eye was recently caught by an article about the main actor in this drama, Peter Tatchell, who had just turned 70. I dug out his email address and sent him the link to an article I wrote a few years ago about the event. He replied within a few hours and sent me a reminiscence of his own and his permission to publish it. I’ve added this to the same post. It was, he told me, this by-election experience that made him embark on what has proved to be a lifetime’s work of campaigning for social, gender and sexual equality. I never knew how many times he had been assaulted, what hatred he had received, what sacrifices he’d had to make. This kind of commitment shows real bravery and of the kind most of us can only imagine.

Like Spike Milligan, he was a driven man. Both were driven by very different things but neither even thought about throwing in the towel. I’m glad that a chance theatre invite and glance at a website made me learn a bit more about these two people. One is, after all, always learning…

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 1,893 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 24 to 30 January, up 107 on the week before. This equates to 1,195 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 1,062 (1,002 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

West Berkshire Council speaks out

Last week, spokespersons for West Berkshire Council said they were unable to comment on what was happening at the Regency Hotel in Thatcham, which had cancelled all booking until the end of June, explaining that they had been told to refer all enquiries to the Home Office. On Friday 28 January, WBC decided that enough was enough and that the matter needed to be addressed so the fact could be established that the hotel was being used to house Afghan refugees. The statement also contained a warning to people who had been circulating less nuanced views on social media. I understand that the Home Office was informed that such a statement would be issued.

I applaud the decision; also the criticism in the statement about what I was told independently were some pretty vile remarks. Speculation and comment had reached a pitch where the needs of keeping residents informed trumped central-government policies or, for that matter, journalistic etiquette about questions being answered to the questioner rather than in a public statement. WBC had to show some community leadership: not to have done so would have been to cede the ground to the less accountable world of social media.

This is part of a national issue. There are currently 37,000 Afghan refugees living in hotels or other accommodation in the UK at a cost of £1.2m a day, Home Secretary Priti Patel told a Home Affairs Committee this week. The housing crisis, so-called, is bad enough at the moment and many people who might have been waiting for housing could be excused for asking what the government’s priorities are.

We have to wind back to 2001 for the answer to this. Since the 9/11 attacks, the UK government has spent an estimated £30bn on operations in Afghanistan, a figure dwarfed by the USA’s estimated $5.8trn. The current situation offers nothing in the way of security or reward for either its inhabitants or for its – depending on your point of view – invaders or protectors. It would seem the more you spend on a foreign operation, the bigger the hangover will be. However, if these people are still living in hotels in sixty years time at the same rates, this would still not exceed the cost of what the UK government spent on the involvement which caused it. Britain has a shameful record dating back to the “great game” of the 19th century in trying to meddle in Afghanistan, each of which has ended in disaster. I would not wish the Taliban on my worst enemy but it’s an unarguable fact that the west’s involvement there has done nothing to deter them, and probably the reverse.

So if anyone wants to blame anyone, don’t blame the refugees, or West Berkshire Council. Blame rather the hideous geo-politics that allowed this to happen; and blame also human nature. The best that can be done now is to try to deal with mess that has been created without causing any more suffering and brace ourselves for the next catastrophe that the world’s arms dealers and cornered politicians will create for us to have to endure and pay for.

Policing pollution

I mentioned last week about the story in the Newbury Weekly News which contained yet another example of pollution in the SSSI and SAC-protected River Lambourn. I spoke to Charlotte Hitchmough from Action for the River Kennet (ARK) who said that the Environment Agency had returned to the site (despite previously having said the incident wasn’t important enough to bother with) and installed an extra silt buster, making three in all. These seem to be doing the job. It’s less certain from where the reported sulphurous smells came: hopefully the EA will be looking into this too.

The Agency was quoted in the NWN as saying that “due to budget cuts we are now only able to respond to the most serious environmental incidents.” This is fairly meaningless as “most serious” could mean only two or three a year. Imagine if the police took that view and announced that, despite their remit, they’d only be dealing with things like mass murder and terrorism from now on and be leaving burglaries, car thefts, assaults and all the rest to sort themselves out. In fact, the more the EA investigates, the more money it can get as it has the power to fine guilty parties and charge for the cost of the operation. And yet, despite saying that it wouldn’t be taking any further action in the matter, after a couple of unfavourable mentions in the local press and a big nudge from ARK, they were down there sorting it out.

Does this mean that if a pollution incident is to be successfully dealt with you don’t only need to call the EA’s hotline but also local media outlets, local flood forums, relevant local charities and probably your local MP? Anyone I’ve missed off?

Late last year the EA announced that it was proposing to go after water companies which have, for years, been discharging sewage into waterways all over the country. The statement, which was backed up by one from Ofwat, seemed to show a real desire to respond to widespread criticisms of the Agency’s role. It could be that saving on all these smaller incidents will leave enough resources for dealing with these far larger opponents. If so, the statement about the incident in the Lambourn would have been a good opportunity to mention this. In any case, lots of small incidents can cause as much damage as one big one, as well as giving the idea that pollution below a certain level is actually something else.

Either we have these bodies and the government funds and instructs them properly or we wind them up and have a free for all. At least the latter would save a bit of money. At present, we’ve got the worst of both worlds. Thank goodness for organisations like flood forums and ARK – and local media groups, of course – which keep nagging them. I’m sure, though, that this isn’t how the system was designed to work.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has agreed its 2022-23 budget, the headline figure being a 4% rise in council tax, three quarters of which will go to adult social care. You can read more on Kennet Radio’s website here.

• Local charity Connecting Communities in Berkshire (CCB) has stressed that help is available for those struggling with rising energy bills. CCB has been running a project tackling fuel poverty for 10 years and can provide expertise in supporting low-income families that are struggling with the recently confirmed price rises. For more information, contact Helen Dean on helen.dean@ccberks.org.uk or visit www.ccberks.org.uk.

• West Berkshire Council has changed some of its bin collection dates – click here for details.

• West Berkshire Council will be running a virtual landlord webinar on Thursday 10 February to provide regulatory updates and share best practice of improving standards within private rented accommodation. More details can be found here. Housing portfolio Hilary Cole told Penny Post on 1 February that these landlords forums had taken place in the past but had since lapsed and that “the time is now right to re-introduce them.”

• The following week will see West Berkshire Council’s Meet the Buyer event (Wednesday 16 February 2022, at 2pm via Zoom) at which the Council is hoping to meet “building contractors and tradesmen to work locally on projects that directly benefit our communities.” More details can be found 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 (so not long now) 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 over 40 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 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 beavers in Derbyshire who have been filmed grooming each other, a sure sign that they’re getting on and thus likely to produce more beavers for the local re-introduction project. Beavers, the video explains, are fat and have short limbs which means that they can’t keep their coats in good waterproof condition without outside help, something that inclines them towards social interactions. I’m slightly confused as to where cats fit into this, though. Supremely flexible and long-limbed, they can reach almost every part of their body with their tongue and yet are often see grooming each other. Is this a power thing, or just for pleasure? Anyway, these beavers seem all loved up, which is the point of the video.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of: a possible legal challenge; drifting into war; EV parking spaces; and the Swing Riots.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: many local charities (thanks to grants from Greenham Trust, the West Berkshire Community Fund and parish councils); Newbury Soup Kitchen (thanks to pupils and Thorngrove school); Theale Green School (thanks to Amazon’s Theale depot); Julia’s House Hospice (thanks to people in Swindon who donated Christmas trees).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And here we are at the first jab that is the Song of the Week. There was a time when lyrics meant something: I’m not quite sure when that first was – perhaps in medieval Provence with the troubadours – but only a few people now really do stand-out lyrical stuff that tells a story or expresses an attitude through the words, with the music acting as the framework, rather than just a verse of verbal mush leading to a four-word hook line. Who I think does this well, and why, is a whole separate thing: but there’s one band I’ve come across recently that achieves this, in an Arctic Monkeys kind of way. Check out The Overload by Yard Act. Good video, too.

• Time for your second vaccine with the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Let’s have a bit more Fry and Laurie and their wonderfully wooden parodies of a kind of Ladybird-book version of John Le Carré’s novels: Control and Tony.

• Need a booster? Have it in the form of the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only triple landlocked state in the USA (ie surrounded by states which are surrounded by landlocked states, which are in turn also surrounded by landlocked states)? Last week’s question was: Not counting the current tournament, how many countries have won the African Cup of Nations? The answer is 14, seven of whom have won it more than once.

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