Weekly News with Brian 10 to 17 February 2022

This Week with Brian

Including the ghastliness of warm white wine, an appeal to Sir Courtney, Starmergate, two long years, three tips for first-time buyers, council meetings (again), Kurt’s cats, possible advice from hapless Dave, rants from funny Dave, Arctic sponges, Mary’s prayer, life in the hot seat, more than 70 years, cherry trees, takeaways and Nebraska.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including a GP shortage, galloping ahead, a vision at the crossroads, West Berkshire’s new town, a voice for youth, devolution and reorganisation, demographic change, Hungerford’s schools, Chilton Foliat’s pole, Lambourn’s wellbeing, East Garston’s concerns, Shefford’s woodland, Wickham’s first aid, Newbury’s coffee, Wash Common’s fake news, Enborne’s ownership, Speen’s possible NDP, Thatcham’s donation, Woolhampton’s volunteers, Brimpton’s victory, Cold Ash’s projects, Yattendon’s vehicles, Compton’s high jump, Hampstead Norreys’ tarmac, West Ilsley’s pond, Beenham’s bells, Theale’s presentation, Aldermaston’s lorry, Wantage’s limits, Grove’s flashback, Hanney’s news, Marlborough’s engineers, Bedwyn’s co-option, Aldbourne’s verges and Swindon’s Wally – plus our usual perusal of 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

• Another photo of another partygate party has been leaked to the press: this wasn’t one of the ones the police are looking into so that brings the total number of such gatherings to…actually, I’ve lost count. The picture shows three people. The man in the foreground with the tinsel has the truculent expression of someone about to start an argument; then there’s a woman whose face has been pixelated out (or perhaps it’s a mask); then, oddest of all, there’s the PM who looks like he’s trying to put on a dickie bow, perhaps having forgotten that he already has a tie on.

[more below] 

Never mind any hypocrisy or law-breaking: for me, this picture brings back the absolute ghastliness of social events in offices. I’ve been to quite a few in my time and am lucky that I probably will never go to another one. Offices are for working in and can’t be turned into fun palaces just by putting some tinsel round your neck. One might as well try to hold a religious service in a goods lift or a table-tennis tournament in a grain silo. Drinking warm, cheap white wine out of plastic cups or chipped mugs is one of the vilest pastimes ever conceived. If that was the only way I could get a drink then being a teetotaller would come easy.

With this particular bash, however, the situation seems even worse. There’s nothing to show that they weren’t drinking the fizz out of the bottle, perhaps with a shot of the hand sanitiser as a chaser. And what’s that thing on the desk, bottom left? It looks slightly like fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Is that meant to be some kind of metaphor? Harsh lighting, gloomy pictures, a fight about to break out, soggy snacks, BoJo wearing one too many ties – what an utterly dismal evening that must have been.

One of many: for, amazingly, this kind of thing kept on happening. It’s becoming increasingly clear that such gatherings were taking place in SW1 on an almost daily basis. It is for sorry events like these that reputations have been tarnished, careers wrecked and countless hours of time spent on investigations. When you wake up with a howling hangover and wonder if the night before was worth it, the answer is almost always “no.” With these, it must have been possible to be sure about their futility, on every possible level, about 40 seconds after they started.

(I might see what our resident art critic Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist, has to say about this latest image. I think you’ll agree that he pretty much nailed Eighteen People at a Meeting just before Christmas. If anyone wants to send me some encouragement I’ll try to pluck up the courage to ask him.)

These prejudices aside, I’m not quite clear what the obsession is with the booze consumption at these sad beanos. It’s true that social distancing regulations tend – as do so many other social niceties – to dissolve fairly quickly in alcohol: but the real point is that these events shouldn’t have been happening at all. After all, Winston Churchill, a man to whom BoJo would dearly like to be compared, hardly drew a sober breath during World War Two and that turned out all right. I don’t recall the regulations saying anything about “stay two metres apart, or three metres apart if you’re a bit pissed.”

• Meanwhile, the side-show of Starmergate continues, this referring to BoJo’s defence-into-attack of last week when he accused the leader of the Opposition and former DPP of failing to prosecute Jimmy Saville when he had the chance. Well, if we’re going to spend parliamentary time on lambasting all those who knew that the cigar-chomping DJ was a serious wierdo but did nothing about it then we really are going to be here all day. The simple point, however, is that the PM made this a personal attack, though later “clarified” it by claiming he was referring to Starmer’s responsibility for the entire department he ran. This is not what the PM said in parliament and so has to go down as another lie. This excellent summary by the BBC’s Ros Atkins has more on the spat.

• The emergency Covid legislation runs for two years and so will lapse on 24 March if the government does nothing to renew it. On the contrary, it now appears that it might be wound up sooner, perhaps later this month, providing, as the PM put it on 9 February, “the current encouraging trends in the data continue.” It seems incredible that these have been in place for a mere 23 months. If you want to re-live the progress of the various measures during the first year of this, here’s a rather good chart from the Institute for Government.

• My eldest son Michael has pointed out to me – and I hand the keyboard and mouse for this section over to him – that Kirsty Allsop caused a bit of a to-do this week with her comments on home ownership. During an interview with The Times, she said she felt enraged when young people complained they couldn’t afford a home. All they needed to do, she proposed, was give up luxuries like Netflix and foreign holidays and move back in with mum and dad for a few years. Somewhat satisfyingly, the rage she felt towards this maligned demographic was returned with interest. The idea that Netflix, and its financially ruinous £10 a month price tag, could contribute to home ownership is so farcical as not to warrant a second thought. 

At least doing without Netflix is possible. While giving up evenings out and the odd holiday (both of which Covid has helped with) is within the realms of reality, for many young people, however, living with their parents isn’t an option. Even where it is, this hermit lifestyle would need to continue for several years in today’s property market to afford a house. The prospect of sitting in your childhood bedroom during your late teens and 20s is a pretty bleak sacrifice for a two-up-two-down in some new-build development. (This is exactly the kind of property that developers find uneconomic to build with the result that there’s a bit of a shortage). There’s enough of a mental-health problem in the country as it is. 

Of course, no young person has an automatic right to being able to buy a home when they choose at the price they can afford. What wound people up was the fact that Kirsty bought her first property with family help 30-odd years ago since when, as this article in The New Statesman reveals, “UK house price growth has significantly outpaced the rise in average earnings.” With this in mind, Michael has revised her tips to provide genuine support for those looking to get on the property ladder: (i) go back in time to 1992; (ii) try not to enjoy yourself; (iii) have rich parents with spare cash or a spare room.

• OK, here I go again – cover your ears if you’ve heard this before. Just because Covid might be on the turn, that doesn’t mean that council meetings need to be conducted in person in order for votes to take place without the threat of later legal challenge. Whitehall appears to treat like councils like a stern paterfamilias might have handled his diverse brood in a Victorian novel: a firm conviction that they should stand on their own feet, aligned with a complete lack of trust that they will then do anything other than screw up; a small amount of regular pocket money topped up with occasional lavish presents, many of which must be used for purposes he specifies; the general impression that, despite persistent evidence to the contrary, he could manage the tasks they are allocated far better, if only he had the time; and the suspicion, never voiced but often inferred, that there are some with which he is on terms of almost incestuous familiarity and others whom he regards as hopeless and disloyal runts.

I’ve listed elsewhere about 14 reasons why remote meeting are better, if the councils choose to do this. I’m not alone. I know West Berkshire Council’s Leader Lynne Doherty shares my view on this (if perhaps not on everything I write). At least 10,000 other people also do as they have signed this petition on Change.org. Please add your name. It’s really all about making sure that these people who need to make grown-up decisions are treated like grown ups.

• Around five billion videos are watched every day (and that’s just on Youtube). One of these a few days ago was of West Ham defender Kurt Zouma kicking his cat. From a brief clip I saw it looks like they were Bengals which command Premier League-level transfer fees: so looking at it in purely financial terms it’s a bit like whacking golf balls into the side of your Porsche (he might do that as well). I’m very fond of cats so, on that level it’s really nasty too.

But it’s the PR angle that baffles me. He certainly knew he was being filmed and everyone uploads everything these days. How did he think people were going to react? No more mystery on that one as West Ham, many of its fans, one of its sponsors, one of his sponsors and the RSPCA have all reacted in the ways one might expect. I know professional footballers are widely regarded as being a bit thick but this really is almost off the scale, surpassing even some of Mario Balotelli’s mishaps (the most famous of which was letting off fireworks in his bathroom). It’s a dumb as…oh, I don’t know – holding a party during lockdown, say, and letting people take photos of it and assuming that (a) nothing would leak out and (b) no one would really care. Yes, that dumb.

• Maybe the hapless David Cameron should have a word with Kurt Zouma as DC’s a West Ham fan; or an Aston Villa fan: he doesn’t seem certain on this point (they both play in the same strip so you could see why someone who probably knows nothing about football but was told by some focus group that he needed to “have a team” to win votes might get confused). Maybe the claret reminded him of the Bullingdon Club, the blue reminded him of rowing along the Cherwell and everything else was just a brain-fade blur. This sage might advise Zouma that, the world having turned against him, now would be the time to hide out in a Farrow & Ball decorated man-shed and write some dreary memoirs…

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 1,749 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 31 January to 6 February, down 141 on the week before. This equates to 1,104 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 805 (1,062 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Life in the hot seat

We recently interviewed WBC’s new CEO, Nigel Lynn. You can read this in full here (which includes a rather surprising luxury object for if he gets cast away on a desert island). I’d like to pick out a few points from this.

Looking over the fence. I asked how his previous employer, Arun District Council, compares with WBC. He made a couple of observations and then added that “each could learn from the other.” I suggest that this should go further than the matters he referred to. The Penny Post area covers mainly West Berkshire but also parts of four neighbouring authorities. On several occasions I’ve spoken to members or officers at WBC about an issue and asked how this was handled in the Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire, Swindon or Basingstoke & Deane. Not once have I received anything but a variation on “I don’t know.” 

This baffles me. Often ten minutes work on the web or twenty on the phone was enough to provide the answer. There is clearly a WBC way of doing things, or a Vale way or whatever: but these are not universal truths (how can they be when they are often different?). There should be far more cross-border discussions, dialogue and best-practice sharing (and that includes, for the councillors, talking to those from a different political party). These links could also make it easier for neighbouring councils to get involved in contentious matters like oversight and scrutiny issues that touch on ethics or planning applications where the authority was itself the applicant. WBC has recently had some high-profile discussions on both these issues that might have benefited from a bit of dispassion from across the county line.

Political neutrality. In answer to another question, Nigel was quick to stress that his role is politically neutral and that he has worked under the leadership of the three main national parties at one time or another. (His role can be compared to that of Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service: Lynne Doherty, the Leader of West Berkshire Council, is Boris Johnson under this analogy and Lee Dillon is Kier Starmer.) However, human nature being what it is, affinities are perhaps more easily developed with those in power than with those who are not. I cast no aspirations on his predecessor Nick Carter (whose interview you can read here) but it’s a fact that for the last 14 of his 16 years in the role the rosettes were blue. A change of CEO is thus a good thing. Political neutrality needs to be tested to be proved and can do with a refreshment every now and then.

Unfinished business. The question I asked (“Inevitably, there will be some pieces of unfinished business or work in progress which you’ll have inherited. What would you say the main ones are?”) produced a perfectly reasonable response from his politically neutral standpoint. However, I think there are a number of other issues that have been allowed to fester for several years and which demand resolution. I’ve written a lot about these things before and will continue to do so: the way CIL charges have been handled in some cases; the way Readibus has been treated; the football grounds (past and future) in Newbury; the associated muddle of the whole LRIE development; and the plan to create a new town the size of Hungerford between Thatcham and Bucklebury.

In all but the last case, WBC has already painted itself into a corner as a result of a number of decisions that seem to have originated in about 2018, from which it has generally failed to extricate itself (the new sports hub does represent a partial solution and has least has got something done, though many feel more strongly). The Thatcham plan risks falling into this category. In a lot of cases a five-letter word, starting with S and ending with Y and with two Rs and a round-shaped vowel in the middle, might have worked, and could do yet: indeed, in the case of Readibus, the Local Government Ombudsman has recently demanded that this very word be used. There are some things that need a re-boot and hopefully the new CEO can help accomplish this.

Good work. I asked him what WBC does particularly well and he said that it has “excellent front-line services and communicates well with residents.” I’d largely agree with this. I haven’t had time to follow the looking-over-the-fence policy myself in this instance and so can’t say how other authorities do this but WBC produces a good number of relevant, reasonably regular and informative newsletters. It holds regular press briefings. Its communications officers answer most (but not quite all) questions without (too much) prompting. The overall response to Covid in the district has been excellent, I think, for which Matt Pearce and his team deserve a lot of credit. Government assistance schemes have also been promoted promptly. Yes, of course there have been times when summaries about initiatives or awards have, how can I say it, lacked precision compared to the sources to which they refer or where the reference to the most relevant document has been almost hidden in a one-word link: but that’s always going to happen (it would be great if it didn’t, though). Which leads onto…

Room for improvement. I also asked, as you do, what could be done better. Nigel suggested, in the context of volunteer groups, that “there is much more we could be doing to involve the “third sector” more. I think that by strengthening our links, we might be able to offer even greater local services, by locally committed volunteers who really want to get involved in changing their areas for the better.”

Of course, one might say, a CEO of a council would say that. These groups provide services and support that in many cases, 20 or so years ago, were the council’s responsibility. The hapless David Cameron in 2010 made a fumbling attempt to articulate this change in his remarks about the big society, which were soon ditched. A shame, as it might have provided a useful intellectual construct to help deal with the results of his austerity policies.

The reality is that the voluntary sector is now a vital part of how society functions, something Covid showed all too clearly. Whether in each case the voluntary services can provide what is needed is a matter of co-incidence  of local need being met by local help.

The biggest problem, however, is one that the volunteer sector can perhaps do little about, the question of early-years support. If any council wishes to trim its social-care budget – which for WBC accounts for about half of its expenditure – there are perhaps some services that are softer targets than others. This is not a poor country and every pound spent appropriately on people before they start school will be repaid a hundred-fold in the lack of later issues.

If Nigel Lynn needs a case to champion to support this view, I can do not better than to advise him to have a look at this post about Hungerford Nursery School (which has received five consecutive “outstanding” Ofsted reports) which has none the less been fighting a full-scale funding war with Whitehall. I should add that WBC has been unstinting in its support for the school: this is not a funding stream that it controls. 

The luxury object. Sorry: you’re going have to read the interview (see link above) for this. It wasn’t what I would have chosen, put it that way. But, if we were all the same, what would be the point of interviews? Or anything, really?

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has launched an initiative that will see cherry blossom trees planted to remember residents who died from Covid.

• 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.

• West Berkshire Council has awarded a contract for a new integrated drug and alcohol service in West Berkshire. The new service will be delivered by WDP, “a leading drug and alcohol charity”, and will begin on 1 April 2022.

• 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’s Meet the Buyer event takes place on 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 very soon) 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.

Surviving to Thriving, a joint venture set up by WBC and Greenham Trust 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) to 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 aren’t animals but giant sponges that live at the bottom of the Arctic Can and thrive by hoovering up the remains of organic life that settles on the sea bed: proof if proof be needed that nature has a lot to teach us about recycling.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of: refugees; windfall taxes; the cost of Brexit; quick tickets; and the impact of EVs on the National Grid.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: brighter Futures (thanks to the Royal Wootton Bassett & District Rotary Club); Newbury Cricket Club (thanks to Newbury Town Council); Swings and Smiles (thanks to the Woolton Hill Village Market); numerous local charities (thanks to parish and town councils and Greenham Trust).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And here we are putting our tinsel round our necks for the Song of the Week. I loved this song when I first heard way back in whenever it was and I love it still. Now you can too – Mary’s Prayer by Danny Wilson. Danny Wilson was the name of the band, not the singer: they named themselves after main character in the Sinatra film Meet Danny Wilson. This naming decision could have been predicted to cause a lot of confusion, and it did. Indeed, it was one of the reasons the band split up. Great song, though.

• Time for some warm Prosecco out of a chipped coffee mug to wash down the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Not a sketch as such but as good as: some of the rants from one of the funniest men on the planet, David Mitchell, during Would I Lie to You?

• Having finished recording and uploaded the results to Facebook, you can now turn your mind to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Elizabeth II recently clocked up 70 years on the throne. However, she has some way to go to catch up with Sobhuza II, the Paramount Chief of Swaziland. For how long did he reign? Last week’s question was: 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)? Step forward Nebraska for this strange and singular honour.

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