Weekly News with Brian 7 to 14 April 2022

This Week with Brian

Including an imperial weigh-in, not at all misleading, the six Ds, not telling (or not hearing), a rugby-team of children, plenty of cash, non-dom stuff, a missing letter, ten thousand pairs of eyes, life in 2314, homes for Ukraine, fat cats, teasing the dog again, no one knows, Barney’s atom bomb and a birdhouse in your soul.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including Homes for Ukraine, recycling reminder, chasing pavements, the last box, the last mile, Educafé, the town can’t take it, TLC for Queen Anne, Hungerford’s blooms, Inkpen’s scouts, Shalbourne’s speeds, Froxfield’s meadow, Lambourn’s awards, East Garston’s station, Newbury’s gin, Chieveley’s pond, Enborne’s consultation, Thatcham’s broadway, Cold Ash’s flowers, Midgham’s hall, Compton’s contamination, West Ilsley’s newsletter, Beedon’a assets, Theale’s quiz, Beech Hill’s pavements, Mortimer’s relocation, Burghfield’s pavilion, Wantage’s surgery, Grove’s gardens, East Challow’s paths, Marlborough’s April twin, Wilton’s windmill, Ramsbury’s pigeons, Aldbourne’s surcharging and Swindon’s elections – plus our usual jog 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

• Jacob Rees-Mogg has weighed – using imperial measurements, we presume – in to the Partygate debate, saying that the PM didn’t in fact mislead parliament over whether regulations were broken. iNews reports he told LBC earlier this week that “the remark was based on information he had been given by other people, and it was not his fault if that detail was wrong.” Oh, I feel a whole lot better already. I thought for  a ghastly moment we had a PM who told lies: in fact, it’s only that he’s surrounded by people who tell lies, or who make up the most expedient version of events, and that he doesn’t bother to check. That’s OK, then. Our leader’s reputation is intact.

[more below] 

Trouble, since we’re being so precise about this, this isn’t quite what actually happened. The Guardian has picked out seven cases where he referred to this. His story shifts from an unequivocal denial that anything had been done wrong, to the fact that he had been “repeatedly assured” that this was the case, to this being true for “all the evidence that [he] could see”, to the slightly feeble “I certainly broke no rules.” It’s not yet clear if the Met takes the same view of the last one. As mentioned last week, allowances need to be made as he doesn’t seem to have the truth/lie distinction that most of us take for granted.

JRM described the whole business as “fluff” and fundamentally trivial.” This is all out the handbook of political responses:

  • Deny (“It didn’t happen.”);
  • Deflect (This is just “playing politics” and “media tittle-tattle.”);
  • Delay (“It would be inappropriate of me to say anything until after the enquiry.”);
  • Denigrate (“fluff” and “fundamentally trivial.”);
  • Distract (“I think that what the British people are really concerned about is…”); and
  • Draw a line (“We need to move on from this.”).

This sequence is followed by politicians at every level, including ones I know round here. Admission, apology and action to prevent it happening again are less commonly seen. A shame. They’re seen as signs of weakness but are in fact the reverse.

• The Ukraine war – for war, rather than “special military operation”, is surely what it is – appears to have got bogged down in a hideous and violent stalemate with each side accusing each other of all manner of atrocities to an extent that even a war-crimes trial with Putin in the dock, as people are increasingly suggesting should happen, is unlikely to get to the bottom of. The Guardian suggests that Putin’s problems stemmed from not having enough people around him who were prepared to tell him uncomfortable truths (or it may be that they did try but, sitting as he is wont to do, on his own at the end of a long table, that they told him but he couldn’t hear).

I’m reluctant to draw a parallel between this unfolding horror story and the “fluff” of Partygate: but by claiming that our PM was given only the story he wanted to hear, Rees-Mogg has potentially made the difference between his boss and Russia’s big man seem, in this regard, only to be a quantitive one.

There was a very powerful story on this point I heard years ago: I can’t find the source so am paraphrasing. Shortly after he took over the USSR from Stalin in the 1950s, Khrushchev presided at one of those massive and interminable congresses which Communist regimes specialise in. He was promising, amongst other unattainable goals, a cession of the internal brutalities of his predecessor. At one point, questions were passed up to the podium: I imagine that all were pre-arranged and this one might have been too.

“If you disagreed with Comrade Stalin’s purges,” Khrushchev read, “why did you not speak out against them?” He put the paper down and looked round the vast hall.

“Who wrote this?” he asked. Total silence.

“I repeat, who wrote this?” Ten thousand pairs of eyes flicked nervous glances at their neighbours or stared down at their shoes. No one spoke.

“That,” Khrushchev finally said, “is why I didn’t say anything.” It seems that little has changed there.

• The sanctions continue, the BBC recently reporting that Putin’s daughters Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova and Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova had been named and shamed by the US. Putin has other children as well, including perhaps as many as five with former gymnast Alina Kabaeva who has been dubbed “Russia’s most flexible woman.” These seem to have been kept well under the radar: like Karla in Le Carré’s Smiley novels, the man is very secretive about all his covert operations. Our own PM, admits to seven but there may be more. That makes up perhaps an entire rugby team between the two of them. At least they’ll have this in common to chat about when the peace negotiations happen. if that ever happens; and if, of course, BoJo is invited to participate. I see no particular reason why he should be.

A major donor to the hospital favoured by the Queen is on the sanctions list too; as is the owner of European and World champions Chelsea; and quite a few others. We haven’t even started talking about political donations. One way and another a lot of money that’s sloshing around has probably been through Russian hands. If someone comes to you offering a bucket of cash in exchange for a bit of respectability, the tendency is to take it first and ask questions afterwards; and probably only you yourself are asked where it came from.

• I don’t understand anything much about tax or money – even if it’s explained to me carefully and I get it, then I blink or cough and it’s gone – but this story doesn’t look very good: the Chancellor’s wife is non-domiciled in the UK for tax purposes. Her husband is worth, according to the Daily Express, £200m. Allow for media hyperbole and say that it’s actually 10% of that. £20 million is still far more than I’d know what to do with. Mind you, if all he had was a Ford Fiesta, a £600 overdraft and a three-bed house in Pinner with a whopping mortgage, everyone would be saying “how can he be Chancellor – what does he know about money?” He certainly knows rather more than I do and has also written out quite a few large cheques in the last couple of years – perhaps not all to the right people – though that now seems to have stopped.

• The Daily Express has recently run a story about the “fat cat bosses” of local councils. I’m not sure that I have a general view on this. On one level, they’re public employees; on the other, they do jobs which often or exceed in complexity those of similarly-paid workers in the private sector.

The CEO of a unitary authority, for instance, could be seen as running a company which provides all or some aspects of education, health, social care and leisure, as well as approving (or not) plans, repairing roads, emptying bins, making investments and running libraries. Not very focussed, is it?

It gets worse. Half the services are outsourced through long-term contracts that may or may still be appropriate, while several of the institutions answer to or are run by organisations like health or education trusts which are beyond your power to influence, though you still have to deal with the consequences. Perhaps half your expenditure (on social care) is spent by you but acting as a government agent; while all of your activities are prescribed, limited, regulated, overseen and controlled by rules and processes which no private-company boss would entertain for a second: you’re even told how you must conduct your meetings.

On top of that, at any moment, a pandemic, a wave of refugees or some other challenge will need immediate action. While all this is going on, you are trying to de-carbonise your district but have no real idea how to accomplish or measure this as no one has ever tried before. The organisation has to a be solid, dependable face of government, an innovative problem solver, a cash generator, a nanny, a head prefect, a master and a servant, all at the same time.

As CEO you also have to work with – in fact, technically, work for – a group of elected members who often come from different parties, generally with agendas so mutually exclusive that pleasing more than a bare majority of them on any given issue is impossible. This friction may rise to insupportable levels in the months leading up to an election. You have to be even-handed in your dealings with all of them and be prepared for the fact that the ones who aren’t in power may be so in the future. If you are new to the job there will be a number of unresolved problems left over from your predecessor which have been the subject of feisty debate for so long that it can prove next to impossible to understand what the issues actually are and who, if anyone, is right. You also have, in WBC’s case, about 160,000 shareholders in the form of residents, some of whom believe that everything you’re doing is wrong, or should be being done by someone else, or shouldn’t be being done at all.

I’d be very ill-qualified for the job of a council CEO but, were I to find myself in the role, the largest sum of money quoted in the Express would seem like not nearly enough. Some officers are a lot better than others, of course, and – unlike councillors – there’s no way of voting out the bad ones after four years. One sanction exists for both, however: the threat of a paragraph all to yourself in the Rotten Boroughs section of Private Eye. Mind you, some councillors and officers appear in this so regularly that perhaps it’s not the sanction it once was. Perhaps the Express is right after all. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence…

• I write a lot of words each week. About six months ago I had to buy a new keyboard because about ten of the letters had faded off the buttons due to finger pressure. The new one is now going that way: but, so far, only one letter has completely disappeared. Would any of you like to guess which it is? A pint the next time I see you for for the first person who gets it right – use the “Leave a reply” box at the foot of this post with your answer.

• Apparently the odds of having naturally-conceived identical male triplets are about 200 million to one, so this family from Liverpool is pretty unusual (the three boys have just celebrated their first birthday). As there are about 681,000 live births in the UK each year, the next indistinguishable male trio should therefore be along some time in 2314. I can’t help feeling, though, that it was a mistake to give them all very similar names, all starting with the same letter. I can see a lot of post getting mixed up…mind you, by the time they’re old enough to start getting letters probably no one will be using the post any more. As for how we communicate in 2314, it’s anyone’s guess. Either 29G quantum solar telepathy (you read it here first) or smoke signals and scratch marks on bits of wet clay, depending on whether you think we’re  progressing as a species or not. The jury’s out on that one, too…

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 district, county or borough 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 1,455 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 27 March to 2 April, down 485 on the week before. This equates to 918 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 712 (909 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Homes for Ukraine

A West Berkshire Council (WBC) spokesperson provided the following statement to Penny Post on 6 April which we’re happy to publish below in its entirety. The general sentiments and the references to the central-government scheme, if not the local statistics and contact details, will be equally applicable of residents of other areas.

“WBC is proud of its record of welcoming those fleeing conflict to the district and we are working closely with our partners and the voluntary sector to support those arriving from Ukraine.

“The Homes for Ukraine scheme has seen significant interest locally with over 50 households, which are spread across the whole district, volunteering to take part. The number of individuals due to arrive changes daily and is subject to home suitability and DBS checks, so we cannot confirm precise numbers. Ukrainian nations are being matched with potential hosts via personal connections and the voluntary sector. The Council does not have a role in this process. Those arriving will not be staying in council-managed accommodation, but the private homes of residents. It would therefore not be appropriate to give detailed information about where the Ukrainian nationals will be residing. Our Public Protection Partnership has started to undertake home-suitability checks and will also be providing welcome packs to hosts to help them understand their own duties and how we can help them to welcome their guests.

“We have not yet received full details of how the £350 payment can be made to hosts but will be ready to administer these payments as soon as guidance has been provided.

“WBC has a statutory safeguarding responsibility to all those who reside in the district, which includes our Ukrainian guests. Many of them will have experienced significant trauma and witnessed the destruction of their homes or the death of friends and family members. We know the public will wish to respect their privacy and will understand that we will not be revealing details of the personal circumstances of those coming to West Berkshire. Support for both hosts and guests can be sought via our Ukraine Support Hub, which can offer signposting and information about social care, access to employment, school places and other council services. This can be contacted on 01635 503579 or ukraine@westberks.gov.uk

“Local people who wish to contribute but are not acting as hosts can donate via the Good Exchange, where WBC and Greenham Trust will be match funding the first £25,000 of donations up to a value of £50,000. To date, around £10,000 has been raised.”

Chasing pavements

Many people in Hungerford and elsewhere will doubtless be looking more carefully at the pavements – not things that generally get much attention – after the widespread reports, in Penny Post and elsewhere, about poor work done at three sites in the town. I spoke to one of the senior highways officers at WBC on 7 April about this. He confirmed that, as mentioned in the article on pages 1 and 7 of this week’s NWN, the remedial work will start soon at no cost WBC. Volker, the council’s main contractor, has held its hands up on this. What it has said to its sub-contractor about the debacle has not been revealed but it’s possible to guess the tone of the conversation.

The resurfacing involves, WBC told me, “a slurry seal dressing which is a commonly used cost-effective treatment to fill surface defects whilst significantly extending the life of pavements.  By reducing the amount of material removed and imported to the site it minimises the carbon impact of the surfacing work.” This has been around for some time and is not a new process. It’s unclear why Volker’s quality control didn’t spot the problem, nor why the sub-contractors reckoned this would pass without comment. I imagine both parties will be a lot more careful now.

The work in Hungerford was part of a £300,000 programme at 24 sites across the district. It seems that these kind of problems have been identified at half a dozen, in Hungerford, Newbury and Beech Hill, all of which were done at the end of the project and all of which are being fixed. As a rough guide, if you see some resurfacing of this kind being done on pavements you can assume it’s costing perhaps £10 per square metre: This bill for Clark’s Gardens in Hungerford, for instance, was about £6,500. So, if you see something that looks sub-standard, in a street a couple of hundred yards long, that’s the kind of money involved (about £250 per property is another way of looking at it). The best way to let WBC know is to use this web page. or call 01635 551 111. You could also contact your district councillor (some areas have more than one): they – or at least their roles – exist in order to help address issues like this. Also – unlike highways contractors – their services are free.

Collecting the waste – a reminder

From autumn 2022, food waste in West Berkshire will be collected weekly (on the same day as your usual recycling and rubbish collection) using eight new purpose-built vehicles. WBC’s contractor Veolia currently collects food waste every fortnight in the green bin ((even for those who do not have a garden waste subscription). The plan is that most properties will be provided with a 23-litre kerbside caddy with a lockable lid which can be stored outside with other recycling containers. Residents who share a bin store in flats and communal properties will receive a different sized bin to share with neighbours. All residents will also be supplied with a handy five-litre kitchen caddy to collect food waste in before emptying it into their bigger kerbside caddy outside.

WBC has long encouraged residents not to place food waste in the black bins as when this rots it produces methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times worse that CO2, when disposed of. Currently, the contents of the black general-refuse bins are sent to Energy from Waste facilities where they are combusted to generate electricity. Fortnightly collections, however, are too far apart for many people’s needs, particularly in hot weather. WBC is thus conducting a to make people aware of the forthcoming changes and to learn more about their recycling habits and their thoughts on other aspects of the new system.

I spoke to WBC’s Waste Manager, Kofi Adu-Gyamfi, at the Hungerford Town Meeting on 30 March. He stressed that WBC really wanted to hear people’s views on the scheme so that, if necessary, tweaks could be made to it before it was implemented.

You can click here to have your say on this matter. The survey will remain open until midnight on 3 May 2022.

Other news

• The most recent minutes from East Challow Parish Council confirmed that the Vale Council has “increased its input into planning enforcement.” I take this to mean that it’s recruited more officers: if so, it might want to tell West Berkshire Council where it gets them from as it could so with a few more. The minutes go on to express the paradox that it’s there will be “a more proactive approach (which is necessarily reactive, of course.” Surely it can be both: investigating cases where complaints have been made and swooping down unannounced to check that everything is being done by the book. Pro-reactive, maybe. Or something like that.

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

• The question of which documents could be disclosed to district councillors and which could not was considered by West Berkshire Council at its full council meeting on 17 March. You can read my report of the discussion (which needed in some confusion) by clicking here.

• West Berkshire Council is encouraging people to pledge to do their bit to clear up the litter that blights the natural environment during the Great British Spring Clean 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.

• 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 Museums 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 animal of the week is this dog that wants a kitten, and isn’t shy about telling its owner about this. Delightful stuff.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of sewage, politicians, lateral-flow tests, red tape and cynicism.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: several local charities and organisations (thanks to Greenham Trust and parish and town councils); War Child (thanks to Suzie Burnham and Sophie Addison); Nancy Carter-Bradley (thanks to Bayo’s single); Polska Akcja Humanitarna (thanks to Sounds Like Women).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we are at the Song of the Week. There haven’t been many songs written from the point of view of a canary-shaped child’s nightlight: indeed, this is the only one I can think of – Birdhouse in Your Soul by They Might be Giants.

• Next we glide into the Comedy Sketch of the Week. I used to enjoy the US police comedy Barney Miller back in the day and came across a couple of clips by chance. It’s pretty much as I remembered it still made me chuckle: a gentler and less frantic version of Brooklyn 99. In this scene, Barney and his team arrest someone for being in possession of an atomic bomb.

• And to bring things to an end, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Who is the father of Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova and Maria Vladimirovna Vorontsova? Last week’s question was: Which country has more inhabitants, the UK or France? I thought this was a shoe-in for France but it seems from further research that, as they say on QI, “no one knows.” Different sources, probably from different dates, show different figures (as they so often do). They’re both in the late 60 millions, which is quite a lot. Certainly France, which is about 2.3 times bigger, is a lot less crowded. England, which has about 83% of the UK’s population but covers just over half its area, has a population density of 270 people per sq km, compared to France’s 119.

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