Weekly News with Brian 28 April to 5 May 2022

This Week with Brian

Including porngate, untested patients, more questions for BoJo, a lightning-fast reaction, a warning for motorway service stations, sympathy for a put-upon mother of four, enforcement, sweet Virginia, good luck everyone, a community bus, five sheep and 20 cows.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including engagement time in the valley, spreading the word, the bell tolls, surveying the needs, committee matters, Hungerford’s repairs, Kintbury’s care home, Lambourn’s youth provision, Shefford’s churchyard, East Gaston’s bluebells, Newbury’s plaque, Greenham’s dogs, Boxford’s pub, Shaw-cum-Donnington’s flowers, Thatcham’s history, Cold Ash’s river, Brimpton’s litter, Bucklebury’s trees, Compton’s meeting, Brightwalton’s fîete, Aldworth’s EV, Chaddleworth’s drains, Theale’s signposting, Burghfield’s scarecrows, Bradfield’s hall, Padworth’s news, Wantage’s market, Grove’s growth, Challow’s art, Marlborough’s objection, Crofton’s boiler, Bewwyn’s greening and Swindon’s election – plus our usual mooch 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

• Move over partygate – porngate is roaring up in the rear-view mirror. It was recently revealed at a meeting of the 2022 group of female MPs, which is calling for an end to sexist behaviour in Westminster, that an unnamed front-bench Conservative MP was seen watching pornography on his mobile in the Chamber during a debate and in a committee. Aside from the tackiness of the whole thing, it also makes me wonder how well he could have been doing his job.

[more below] 

Perhaps we need to understand BoJo’s premise that the best way of dealing with a problem is to, as he puts it, “throw a dead cat on the table”, so making everyone talk about that instead. It’s possible to imagine him asking for volunteers to commit or admit to some nasty crime to take the heat off him, perhaps in exchange for the promise of a seat in the Lords once the dust has cleared. Watching porn on a front bench – there are therefore people behind you who might notice – seems pretty dumb to me so it’s as likely as anything that thing was pre-arranged. Or it wasn’t but was just dumb. Anything’s possible.

• A more serious, though less eye-catching, problem may well result from the judgment by the High Court on 27 April that the government acted unlawfully in discharging untested patients from hospitals into care homes in the early months of the pandemic. This case was brought after two women who had lost relatives to deaths from Covid in care homes took Public Health England and the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock to court. The verdict is, as The Guardian suggests, “a significant blow to ministers’ claim to have thrown a “protective ring” around the vulnerable residents.” The government’s policy was described as “irrational” in the judgment.

Much of what happened in 2020 is now seen to have been irrational, including the way some of the PPE contracts were awarded and the way police forces interpreted some aspects of the lockdown regulations. Clearly, though, the situation was unprecedented. Whether the government could have been better prepared is a separate issue. Much seems to turn on how much was known or suspected about asymptomatic transmission. In this context, the allegation that Public Health England failed to tell ministers what it knew about this seems even more alarming.

Still to come is a public enquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, which is expected to begin soon. What with that, and partygate, the rest of Boris Johnson’s first full term is likely to be dominated by questions about the past rather than, as he would prefer, discussions about the present for the future, however long that proves to be for him.

• The judgment didn’t find in favour of the applicants on all aspects of the case so it’s quite possible there will be appeals by both sides regarding aspects of the ruling that they don’t like. As was mentioned on BBC R4’s The World at One on 27 April, one problem for any appeal, or for anyone in a similar situation seeking to use this as a precedent to launch a case of their own, is that it’s impossible to prove how any particular person was infected. What does seem clear, though, is that care home residents were collateral damage in what government spokespersons claim was the over-riding aim of preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed, resources and attention being diverted to that.

To some extent, residents in care homes have been pushed to the side anyway as societal norms now sanction the state to provide for our elderly members the same level of care as would previously have been provided by extended families and local communities. This might in some cases and cultures and ages have been better, and in some cases worse, than what the British government aims for. 2020 will not, however, be remembered as one of the UK care system’s finest years.

• Vladimir Putin has warned that any outside intervention in the, as it is termed, “special operation” in Ukraine will be met with a “lightning-fast” reaction. Many might think this is a bit rich coming from someone who rules a country which is itself outside Ukraine. The point of course is that he doesn’t see it that way: Ukraine is, to him, part of Russia. To hang fast to this idea reduces the matter to the status of a civil war. Meanwhile, the BBC quotes the UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as saying that Russia should be ejected from “the whole of Ukraine” although it’s less clear how this can be accomplished without a Third World War given that Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO. The time to have addressed this point came and went in 2014 when he invaded Crimea and was allowed to get away with it.

• We bought an electric car this week – see this separate article for why and from whom and how the first few journeys have gone – one of the results of which was that I had to make a 20-minute pit stop at Membury Services. There are a number of bad things about the UK’s motorways – making them “smart” being one – but one of the very good things is that the signage is consistent. There are numbers for exits (though I’d prefer fewer things like “8/9” and “16b”) and always the same protocol to advise you of an exit. To drive on a motorway is to suspend most of your volition and human rights. There’s a system at work and some common rules, the disobeying of which has immediate consequences. In a way, it’s quite relaxing. If there’s a jam ten miles before the next exit there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it apart from wait. The signs control everything. In a mad way and in a mad world, driving on a motorway is a lot less stressful than any number of other activities which are predicated on an abundance of choice.

All this changes immediately when you enter a service station. No one visits these places for pleasure. You need petrol or electricity or coffee or food or a toilet or an HGV park. Although these are for practical purposes part of the motorway, the signage – on which our passive participation in the motorway experience depends – collapses. Each has different styles, forms of words, colours and designs. We are in auto mode at this point and need clear, consistent binary choices. None are provided. Once, with very little petrol in the tank, I found myself confused into getting back onto the motorway having missed the sign for the filling station. The other day at Membury it took a long time, and some reversing, to locate the EV charge points. When I rule the country – and watch out Arsenal supporters, rugby fans, opera lovers and cold callers for some pretty drastic changes to your fundings and freedoms – I shall require motorway service stations to have all signage done identically across the country, white on blue like the motorway ones. You have been warned. I’m coming for you – it’s just a matter of when.

• As we approach the jubilee celebrations in early June, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on the sadness that parents feel when the standards they have tried to set are not replicated, indeed are perverted and abused, by their children. I’m a father of four myself and am pleased to report that I have nothing but pride and delight in what my sons have so far accomplished and the way they’ve conducted themselves in these strange times.

Poor Elizabeth Windsor (95), however, is in a very different boat. This woman has a son called Andrew who has indulged himself in all manner of unfortunate business dealings, friendships and relationships. From the consequences the last of these his doting mother has had  to bail him out, even though he’s reached an age at which most people have learned to solve their problems without maternal help. He has, for reasons that many find obscure, been given numerous honours, one of which relates to the city of York. Of this he has recently been stripped. This has got to hurt. So, when the June bank holiday comes round, I hope you will all join me in raising a glass to a parent of four, one of whose children turned out to be a complete – well, you can fill your own word in here…

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 324 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 17 to 23 April, down 305 on the week before. This equates to 204 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 200 (305 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Enforcing the decisions

A planning authority can impose as many conditions as it likes on planning applications but if these aren’t enforced then it might as well not bother. These can cover almost any aspect of an application and might range from hours of operation to the felling (or not) a of a tree as well as more fundamental matters such as whether the building being constructed bears any relation to that for which approval was granted. Many of these might be irksome to the developers: so if there seems a reasonable chance that they won’t be caught out, these can get quietly dropped. On other occasions, people might genuinely forget or fail to understand the conditions correctly.

It’s well known that West Berkshire Council has for some time been short of enforcement officers. Changes are now being made, though opinion seems divided as to how effective these are proving to be. “There have been significant changes in the personnel in the WBC enforcement team and a catching up process is in place,” the minutes of Bradfield Parish Council’s meeting on 5 April reported. “Letters are being sent out with different officers to those who have considered cases referred to in the letters. Essentially the whole situation is not productive.” The minutes then go on to report on several instances where WBC has advised that an enforcement case has been closed: these decisions the Parish Council has challenged, asserting in each case that a breach has been committed and remains unaddressed.

A bit more work is needed on this back at HQ, it seems. 

A community bus

West Berkshire Council has recently announced that it has funded a new community bus for the Newbury and Thatcham Handybus service: you can read more here. The vehicle “has been adapted to be fully accessible and was successfully funded through the Council’s Capital Grant Fund, which is available for all local community transport operators to bid for. The new service will provide an opportunity for those who are unable to use public transport to access local town centres.”

From the Handybus’ inception in 1986 up until a few years ago, WBC provided all the vehicles so this could be seen as no more than a partial return to what had gone before. The statement also implies a commitment to supporting those unable to use conventional public transport. Until about four years ago, this was exactly the service being provided by Readibus. Since then, WBC has cut the community transport provider’s grant, thereby decimating the service. Last year, Penny Post was contacted by many Readibus customers who were upset and bemused by why this had happened, Readibus having previously been provided transport for about thirty years without any problems. The relationship has since sunk into legal wrangles over WBC’s insistence on a gagging clause (the council doesn’t like the term but that’s effectively what it is), a practice which has been exposed as wrong in many ways by many charitable groups as part of a nationwide campaign.

Well done to VCWB and Handybus for securing this grant. Hopefully the new vehicle will do something to redress the gap in this aspect of the council’s community-transport provision for its residents with mobility problems over the last few years.

In other sections…

• For information about how the Eastern Area Planning Committee (which will soon be considering the application for Burghfield’s café) works, see the Theale area column.

• For the latest on the proposed youth club in Lambourn and the roadshow dates for the parish’s NDP events, see the Lambourn Valley column

• For information about the proposed closure of the Notrees care home in Kintbury, see the Hungerford area column.

• For further thoughts about the “survey” concerning Newbury and Thatcham, see the Newbury area or Thatcham area columns.

• For the no-show of the Vale’ plans for Grove, a village which is now only about 40 metres away from Wantage, see the Wantage area column.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council’s Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) Challenge Fund has closed and the Council has announced that it will distribute £696,601 to 44 local businesses through the scheme, “following a very competitive assessment process.”

• West Berkshire Council’s new business website has recently launched, the intention being “to give businesses all the latest information and support channels they need to start up, relocate and grow in West Berkshire.”

• West Berkshire Council is offering eCargo bikes for businesses in the district to try out as part of a new environmental scheme.

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

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

• 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 animals of the week are these five sheep who ended up spending the night on a roof of a house in Yorkshire.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of wood anemones, rose-tinted spectacles, a remarkable resident, a careful driver and doing the decent thing.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: several local charities and organisations (thanks to Greenham Trust); St Mary’s Church in East Ilsley (thanks to John Hibbert); Newbury Cricket Club (thanks to all those who contributed to the new pavilion); Swings and Smiles (thanks to Thatcham Major John Boyd).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So we arrive at the Song of the Week. I enjoyed Happy from the Stones’ Exile on Main Street so much last week that here’s another from the same record – Sweet Virginia.

• Next we fade into the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Not really comedy but…well, it is comedy but something far darker as well. Good Luck, Everyone, the last scene of Blackadder, set in the trenches of 1917.

• And to bring things to an conclusion, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is the only word in English that contains all six vowels in their correct alphabetical order? Last week’s question was: The largest shark that is ever known to have lived was the Megalodon, which grew up to 20m long. It’s stomach is estimated to have had a capacity of 10,000 litres. Assuming cows existed then and were part of its diet, how many cows could it have eaten to leave it full? That’s about 20 cows: assuming cows were around then and were aquatic. Well, even if they didn’t and weren’t, that’s what it would be, apparently and approximately.

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