Weekly News with Brian 12 to 19 May 2022

This Week with Brian

Including my forebears, a shock announcement, less bonkers than the next one, four points stated, three points unstated, 30p a day, relative or absolute concepts, controlling the narrative, care-home facts, an awful job, all greek to me, strange satisfaction, a reshuffle, people getting ready, a hedgehog-cum-tiger and linguistic winnowing. 

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including pigeons and pavements, questions at the pub, reactions to Sandleford, a rotten borough again, stakeholder engagement, a new depot, Windmill Court, vexatious matters, Hungerford’s renovations, Froxfield’s volunteers, Shalbourne’s meeting, Lambourn’s councillor, East Garston’s bluebells, Eastbury’s bench, Shefford’s hedgerows, Newbury’s estate, Thatcham’s appointments, Brimpton’s rubbish, Cold Ash’s panorama, Brightwalton’s prescriptions, Hampstead Norreys’ cakes, Thales’s closure, Mortimer’s party, Burghfield’s costs, Aldermaston’s decision, Wantage’s advice, Letcombe’s register, Grove’s tree, Marlborough’s 712th, Bedwyn’s EVs, Aldbourne’s vacancy, Swindon’s anniversary, Bishopstone’s flowers and Shrivenham’s hub – plus our usual supermarket dash 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

• My name, Brian Quinn, might make you think that I had Irish ancestry: and you’d be right. Indeed, my grandfather in Dublin was the first person ever to put Guinness in half-pint bottles. It made him a small fortune until his dissolute brothers got their claws into him and managed to drink and gamble a good part of it away.

[more below] 

This connection is, however, of no help when trying to understand how several aspects of life on that island are organised, particularly in the northern bit. I don’t understand the regular political log jams. I don’t understand the religious sectarianism. And, sure as hell, I don’t understand the so-called Northen Ireland protocol. It doesn’t seem anyone else does either. Either that or it’s insoluble, like that conundrum of trying to get three houses connected to three utilities without any of the pipes crossing. You get so far and then it all goes bango.

The problem seems to date back to just after the 2016 Brexit referendum when someone made the shock discovery – you read it here first – of the existence of a land border between the UK and the EU. In retrospect it’s amazing no one noticed it before. Anyway, there it was. A hard border between the North and the Republic was politically unacceptable in Ireland. A soft border between the UK and the EU was politically unacceptable in Brussels. Anything that threatened to undermine Brexit or the Good Friday agreement was politically unacceptable in London. What has followed is a series of exercises in imaginative bureaucracy, diplomacy and administrative arrangements that work only for as long as, like the Emperor’s new clothes, everyone believes in them.

Then on 10 May, the UK Foreign Secretary made a statement which seemed to suggest that she would scrap part of the deal. The first paragraph of this BBC article sums it up perfectly: “The UK has rejected EU plans aimed at reducing the impact of the post-Brexit treaty for Northern Ireland, saying they would make things worse.” That’s it in a nutshell: conflict, disagreement, rejections and a reference to an agreement which no one much likes, no one understands but is probably the least bad thing. Why didn’t we see this coming in 2016? Did none of us look at a map?

And, of course, it’s all our fault. Most the muddles and inequalities caused by England’s expansionist ambitions are hundreds or thousands of miles away, out of sight if not always out of mind. This one is right on our doorstep. It’s also the oldest. Ireland was conquered, almost by accident, by the Earl of Pembroke in 1169. Henry II immediately exercised his droit de seigneur and said “I’ll have that.” The bit that’s left in his descendant’s property portfolio is certainly getting its revenge.

• The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations (aka Michael Gove) has suggested that neighbours could be allowed to vote on developments, including house extensions, in their streets. The only purpose this seems likely to serve is as something that can be ditched in a week or so in favour of something slightly less bonkers. I could say a number of things about it but will restrict myself to one: if the intention is to bog local authorities down into holding referendums and to re-open hyper-local grievances on a more or less weekly basis, it could hardly be faulted.

There’s also the question of the housing  targets, currently – and so far unattainably – 300,000 net additional dwellings a year (which takes into account conversions and renovations of derelict properties as well as new builds). 243,000 in 2019-20 was the closest we’ve come to that. Gove had previously tried to play down the importance of the absolute targets: in his latest statement he said that the pursuit of this goal alone was meaningless if the homes were “shoddy, in the wrong place, don’t have the infrastructure required [or don’t] contribute to beautiful communities.” Let’s have a look at these points.

Shoddy. This is down to the local planning authority to police. National standards prevail when permission is granted but many LPAs, including West Berkshire, don’t have enough enforcement officers to deal with the realities, including whether what’s being built bears at least a passing resemblance to the approved plans. That needs to be sorted out.

In the wrong place. An interesting observation. In the wrong place for whom? LPAs will determine where development can take place but, unless they own the land themselves, cannot magic up houses in a particular location to satisfy a policy aim. The system has been out-sourced to the private sector. If a developer feels it can profitably sell 200 homes in a certain location and can get permission, then that’s what happens. The government may wish that it were building 200 homes of a different kind in a different place but it doesn’t own the land and isn’t taking the risk. The market makes most of these decisions. The market, or so decades of Conservative orthodoxy has told us, is rarely wrong. So what does “in the wrong place” actually mean?

Don’t have the infrastructure required. In theory, developer contributions (via S106 agreements or CIL payments) mitigate the effects of what they’re building. These are different systems (not all LPAs use CIL though they have been able to since 2010) which have, individually or in tandem, often failed to address the real problems. Certainly, there have been some great projects created from these but not all the suns have solved the problems the development has posed. Developer contributions for the proposed 2,500-home plan in NE Thatcham will, for instance, cover half the cost of the new secondary school. The other half will have to be paid for by West Berkshire Council. Developers are only obliged to mitigate the effects of their own homes, not to redress the deficiencies of the past. In Thatcham, Grove and Wantage, to pick just three places in the area we cover, the provision of infrastructure has certainly failed to keep up with the amount of development.

Aside from money, there’s also the question of space. Even if there were the cash, there is often no longer enough of this in these areas to create parks, schools or leisure centres in the places where they’re needed, or to expand existing ones. This is a creeping problem which isn’t immediately obvious: new facilities (like Wantage and Grove’s new leisure centre) may be promised but then cancelled. Developers can also wriggle out of making some of their contributions, in cash or in kind, through viability assessments. All in all, there are plenty of ways communities can be short-changed.

Contributing to beautiful communities. What on earth does this mean?

There are also three other conditions that the SoS4LUH&C&MinIgR, as Michael Gove is doubtless known in internal memos, could have added:

Are of the wrong size. The free market is really good at creating two kinds of properties; studio flats through conversion of commercial property under permitted development rights; and three+-bed homes on new builds. The gap in the middle is one- and two-bed homes, with gardens, for young people and families. These aren’t profitable to build yet a lot of communities badly need these.

Are of the wrong kind of tenure. Many people want to, and can afford to, own their own homes. Others cannot. As a glance at this chart from Statistica shows, housebuilding by local authorities virtually stopped in the mid-1980s. The ones built by them before then were rented but the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government forced them to sell those thy had and forbad them from re-investing the proceeds into new stock. We are therefore where we are now. A certain proportion of “affordable” – a term which means different things to different people – and social-rent homes are a condition of any application, 40% of these in combination being required in most cases on developments of more than 10 homes. One of the first tasks of any developer successful with an application of this kind is an attempt to whittle this down through viability assessments. This might be compounded into an S106 agreement with a payment involved: however it’s far from clear to me how this is used to create affordable or social-rent homes elsewhere.

Developers are running businesses and don’t exist to execute government policy. Imagine you were running a shop and Michael Gove phoned you up one day and said, “from tomorrow you’re going to have to sell your stuff to 40% of your customers at or close to cost.” What would you say? I’d say “open your own shop, Mike.” That’s what needs to happen. Look at the above-mentioned Statistica graph, at the number of homes that local authorities were building between 1945 and 1980. OK, some of them were horrible (I lived in one in Bermondsey) and would’t have passed any of Mr Gove’s tests. But can we not assume that they can now do better?

Do not have the most ambitious standards of sustainability. So we come to the sweating walrus in the room that is climate change. We’ve got to do a lot better on this, very quickly. Government regulation has been slow and, given the time that planning authorities take to get their local plans adopted, this delay is even more culpable. The suspicion is that every day of delay is another day of effective lobbying by developers to have the proposals watered down. The time will come, though it hasn’t come yet, when developers will only build houses to the best standards because otherwise buyers will be worried as to whether they can can sell them on. To get this kick-started, government regulations – which should immediately be adopted into all local plans without debate – is essential.

For houses that are rented this is less important, but in such cases the developer surely has the same moral responsibility to ensure that tenants are, through insulation or sustainable power or heating, protected from the worst effects of the price rises with which we’re all too familiar at present. Local authorities are also encouraging us to reduce our carbon footprint so they should be sure to set an example when the, increasingly rare, opportunity comes their way to build something of their own.

I must therefore refer once again to the inglorious initial performance of West Berkshire Council with regard to the Chestnut Walk development in Hungerford (the re-development of a former care home into eight social-rent properties in conjunction with Sovereign Housing for which an application was lodged last year). This was, in the view for the Town Council and one of the ward members, stunningly unambitious in terms of sustainability and was opposed with sufficient vehemence that a re-think was agreed. The results of this have yet to be confirmed. Hopefully something better will emerge. In passing, I’d add that this is exactly the kind of trouble that a good parish or town council and good ward members should be causing and I salute them for doing so.

• Trouble is relative and there’s worse going down elsewhere. How much we notice it, though, is increasingly a matter of personal will or interest triumphing over the coverage that media organisations decide. Judging by most websites, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been pushed back into the “recurring stuff” area. This isn’t how Putin imagined it. For reasons previously mentioned, I’m very doubtful about many of the reports, from whatever source. A war in progress has no clarity and most of the commentators we read are pre-disposed in one direction. On the other side, even the most loyal Russians must be starting to ask questions though I’m not sure what answers they’re getting. Any government in wartime wants to control the narrative. Churchill did too.

• Which leads me to the man who thinks he is a re-incarnation of him, our PM; and thus to partygate; and thus to Starmergate. The Leader of the Opposition has said he’ll resign if fined. That’s, perhaps intentionally, placed a lot of pressure on whoever has to make this decision.

Any consideration of this depends on whether morality, veracity and hypocrisy are relative or absolute concepts. Are any of these affected by the scale of the crime or by the implications of a verdict? Aside from the penalties, is lying about a parking ticket worse than lying about a murder? We’re dealing here with something in-between, but something about which both both the participants made such a big deal, either in telling us to to follow the rules or ridiculing those for not having done so. It’s certainly possible that the Labour Party is so incompetent that it rejoiced in attacks on BoJo without realising that it had left its own back door wide open. It’s right that we should demand from the people who make our laws higher standards than we should reasonably demand of ourselves. Meanwhile 50 more fines have been delivered to Number 10. Quite apart from anything else, this is turning into quite money-spinner.

• Conservative MP Lee Anderson has claimed that foodbanks are largely unnecessary, the real problem being poor people who can’t cook. I spoke to the manager of one local food bank who said that they have recently been seeing a wider range of people coming in. Many of these are perfectly able to cook – an increasing number are pensioners who’ve been cooking from scratch for longer than Mr Anderson has been alive – but, with all the other cost increases, are unable to afford to pay for the food. This is despite the fact that, so Mr Anderson claims, it’s possible to eat for only 30p a day. I’m not sure where this figure came from: the 1970s, perhaps.

I also spoke to Bags of Taste, which, amongst other services, offers “a comprehensive programme that gives you the head start to a better diet and healthier finances.” I asked if they were aware off any evidence that supported Mr Anderson’s claim: absolutely not, I was told – considerable and recent research has found no correlation between poverty and cooking skills. The spokesperson also pointed out that cooking skills were only one part of the problem. One also needs the time, the right equipment (including ideally a hob, an oven, a fridge and a freezer) and the ability to pay the energy bills.

The issue is – surprise, surprise – a lot more complex than Mr Anderson’s eye-catching generalisation suggests. Some truth can be found by reversing his proposition: while it’s demonstrably not fair to say that poor people can’t cook, it is true that not being able to cook, and thus buying more ready meals, will make you poorer. Obviously, essentials like food and power make up a high percentage of a low income family’s expenditure and all of these are rising. It’s particularly expensive to be poor these days.

• We’ve mentioned before, as have others, about how the government’s policy of moving patients from hospitals to care homes without testing them for Covid in the early days of the pandemic has recently been ruled unlawful. The central plank of the government’s defence was that asymptomatic transmission was not expected from Covid.  I’m therefore forced to choose between our habitually truth-dodging PM and the 15 warnings on the matter between 3 February and 15 April 2020 that the MD column in the most recent Private Eye has cited. Which would you be more likely to believe?

• I read this week that this is only the third state opening of parliament that the Queen has missed, the other two being due to pregnancy. What an awful occasion they must be for her – sitting on a clunky old seat in a draughty building with the eyes of the world on you and reading a programme of often unrealisable policies with many of which you might disagree to a bored group of legislators and peers who’ve already had all the main aspects leaked to them. Charles was forced to do the honours this time round. I imagine he would have found some of these points even more uncongenial and, despite his strong feelings on many matters, there’s nothing whatever he can do about it. Welcome to the monarchy, Chazza…

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 170 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 29 April to 5 May, down 76 on the week before. This equates to 107 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 108 (123 last week). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• There have been some changes at the top table at West Berkshire Council with one new member on the executive and a re-arrangement or portfolios. It’s a reshuffle – that’s the word I was looking for. Click here for more.

• On Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 May 2022 there will be a give-away event at the Padworth Integrated Waste Management Facility (IWMF), Padworth Lane, RG7 4JF, between 10am and 4pm where residents will be able to pick up Veolia’s locally produced soil conditioner for free.

• West Berkshire Council’s Children’s Services has retained its Good’ status following the latest inspection from Ofsted.

• West Berkshire is set to receive an allocation of £1m from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to help level up communities. A statement from WBC said that “The funding will be used to deliver projects that fall under the three priorities of the scheme: communities and place, supporting local business, and people and skills. We are also set to receive a £674,525 allocation for the Department for Education’s Multiply programme to improve the numeracy skills of local adults who need it.”

• 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.

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 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, continuing the strange theme of last week, the lowland streaked tenrec from Madagascar which looks like a cross between a hedgehog and a tiger.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of refugees; plastic waste, flaws and disorder, a wrong name and traffic lights.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently including: several local charities and organisations (thanks to Greenham Trust and town and parish councils); Daisy’s Dream (thanks to the family and friends of Jane Cleary); Arkell Dyslexia Charity (thanks to Paula Darch). See also the separate news area sections (see links above) for more.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So, up looms the Song of the Week. Here’s a wonderful version of the Curtis Mayfield song People Get Ready by Eva Cassidy: thanks to Prof JC for sending me the link.

• Which means that next must come the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Fry and Laurie created some memorable characters, some of which were variations on the theme of the ghastly, jargon-spouting middle-management blokes. Here are two of them, Gordon and Stuart, ordering a meal in a Greek restaurant: It’s all Greek to Me.

• And finally it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is remarkable about the circumstances in which Keith Richards wrote the song Satisfaction? Last week’s question was: What’s the only (or so I believe) English adjective that inflects according to the gender of the noun it describes? The answer is blond/e. All the other pointless affectations of gender and adjectives agreeing with the noun have been lost: a happy result of English having been a peasant language for about five hundred years, such latinate niceties rightly bring considered unnecessary. Why blond/e survived this winnowing I have no idea.

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