Weekly News with Brian 26 May to 2 June 2022

This Week with Brian

Including being thrown under the bus, the big things, remembering gunfire, Picts and Celts, not going back, immediate solutions, urban creep, value for money, free busses, too many ducks, Matty’s rag, José’s first, some kind of joke and a Chinese vase.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including pavement problems, the common parts, the Nutrient Arms, no sale at NADAS, looking at alternatives, OX123. future, Hungerford’s comedy, Shalbourne’s clerk, Inkpen’s trees, Chilton Foliat’s power, Froxfield’s flexibility, Lambourn’s address, Shefford’s sewers, East Garston’s application, Newbury’s playgrounds, Boxford’s pub, Hamstead Marshall’s gravel, Thatcham’s beacon, Cold Ash’s taxi driver, Hermitage’s lawnmower, Compton’s dates, West Ilsley’s smash, Chaddleworth’s fête, Theale’s singer, Burghfield’s Santas, Mortimer’s boxing, Beenham’s art, Wantage’s cooking, Hanney’s news, Marlborough’s quorum, Savernake’s access, Aldbourne’s carbon and Swindon’s tree-keepers – plus our usual hitch-hike 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

• So, Sue Gray’s report about partygate has come out and we’ll all be reading plenty about it in the days and weeks to come. The PM was faced with two choices: to admit that he knew things were happening that shouldn’t have been but blame it on a confusion about the rules (which he had been responsible for); or throw most of his team under the bus. In general he chose the latter announcing at a recent press conference that “the entire senior management team has changed.: Except, as The Guardian witheringly points out, the man at the very top.

[more below] 

Given the number of events which took place – some of which we leaving dos for various members of staff, which perhaps tells its own story – it’s impossible to believe that he could have had so little grip on what was going on that he didn’t know or at least suspect that matters were not as they should be. It’s also now clear that the evidence of the events literally spilled over into the following day, with empty bottles, wine stains and vomit left to be dealt with by Number 10’s staff. It’s impossible he could have been unaware of this.

Any normal person in his position would surely at some point have considered the possible downside if the truth got out, as it tends to do. He didn’t, which only leads to the conclusion that he didn’t care. Plenty of leaving dos, including funerals if one class them as such, were not taking place across the country at this time. Some of those involved are now wishing they’d taken a fine instead.

• I was talking about this to a West Berkshire Councillor who is a supporter of his party but not of the PM. They suggested to me that, though this appalling business confirmed what they thought about him as a person and as a leader, the PM had none the less “got the big things right.” These big things, which followed each other with a seamlessness that almost seems pre-ordained, are of course Brexit, Covid and Ukraine, with inflation coming up pretty fast in the rear-view mirror.

I made slightly non-committal noises at the time as this was a digression from our main conversation and I wanted to think more on this. I have now done so.

  • Brexit. The “leave” vote was BoJo’s (and Farage’s) creation. Without them, it would probably have gone the other way: without Farage bullying the hapless David Cameron, it wouldn’t have happened at all. However, to describe him as having got it right on Brexit is slightly like praising someone for sweeping up the glass after they’ve just smashed your front window. Except the glass isn’t cleared up. As mentioned last week, the huge surprise of the discovery of a land border between the UK and the EU, coupled with the terms of the Good Friday agreement, makes a permanent solution impossible for as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the UK. Perhaps BoJo thought his “dead cat” distraction technique would fix things. That doesn’t work with Ulster politicians, who’ve been dealing with dead cats thrown from London since about 1690. Yes, he got the main deal over the line but this was to fix a problem he himself helped create, partly by printing lies on the side of busses. Even if our departure has been beneficial, smooth and without unresolved issues – none of which apply or, in the first case, can yet be proved – I don’t think he can fairly be praised for his role in it.
  • Covid. Few governments came out of this with much credit. Yes, it was unprecedented, but a number of charges can be laid at the government’s door. Care homes, PPE procurement, centralised test and trace and confusing regulations are but four. There will be an enquiry into this so we might wait til then: while at the same time hoping that Covid doesn’t stage a comeback tour in the autumn.
  • Ukraine. Too early to tell. He’s made many of the right noises but so has every other western leader. The UK is less reliant on Russian gas than are many others, such as Germany, so he can go a bit further that Scholz can. This is something the PM has inherited, not created. Time will tell whether his, or the UK’s role, in this tricky situation proves to be beneficial, or indeed have any importance at all.
  • Inflation. Too early to tell. See also below.

Boris Johnson, as I’ve mentioned before, likes to portray himself as a mixture of Winston Churchill, Winnie-the-Pooh and Billy Bunter. The first hero looms the largest, though. To be a successful war leader is, depressingly, the goal to which most rulers aspire. Four PMs before BoJo have had this opportunity in the last hundred years. Churchill, his hero, succeeded. Eden was destroyed by Suez. Thatcher succeeded with the Falklands. Blair was destroyed by Iraq.

Each one of these only had one war to deal with. Boris has had three, although one was self-created, the second was against an invisible enemy and the third was one in which he can’t directly take part. He will, however, probably remembered more for partygate than anything else: as either a liar or someone who didn’t know or couldn’t accept what was happening in his own home while he was lecturing the rest of us about how to conduct ourselves. Churchill’s popular legacy is an image of cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace in 1945. As Sue Gray’s report has shown, Boris’ legacy is likely to be a broken wine glass and a pool of vomit in the corner of a Number 10 meeting/party room and, in the background, the braying voice of a 20-something PPE graduate cursing one of the cleaners. 

• There has been yet another gun atrocity in the USA, this time in Texas where 19 primary school pupils and two teachers were murdered. As a father of four, I can’t bear to read these stories. I can still remember where I was when I heard of the massacres in Dunblane and – particularly – Hungerford. The fact that we can remember these events in our country is good as they are mercifully rare. I don’t know how anyone but activists can keep track of those in the USA. As this BBC article points out, the number of people killed by guns each year in the USA (about 55% are suicided) is over 45,000, more than the population of Newbury. Only 52% of Americans in November 2021 thought that stricter gun controls should be introduced and 11% felt that the regulations that already existed were already too strict. Only nine out of the 50 states (plus Washington DC) have any kind of restrictions on assault weapons.

The USA was founded on the idea of a constantly expanding frontier state, with guns being – so the logic ran – a necessary part of this. No one increases their own sphere of influence but at the expense of someone else – just ask the Celts in the British Isles. However, that was then, for us and for the Americans. However, we don’t go round with weapons on the back seat of our car in case a Pict or a Celt ambushes us at a red light. Who are these enemies against whom Americans are still fighting? In many cases, they seem to be in their own heads.

For all of my adult life the USA has been the supreme world power and one which the UK cosied up to. Increasingly, this certainty is being undermined by the muscle-flexing of other idealogical monsters elsewhere. As for any moral superiority, just look at the US’s military interventions over the last fifty years. And then you have these gun laws. The country’s collective psychology seems to be stuck in the time when it still had something to prove. I’ve had some great times there, notably driving from New York to LA with Penny, but I don’t think I can ever face going back again if it involves buying in to all this nonsense.

Inflation is now close to 10%, largely caused by the changes in the energy price cap and the war in Ukraine, and the government has introduced measures to soften the blow,  When an increasing number of residents of the world’s sixth richest country are forced to choose between spending money on food or power, as this BBC report suggests, you know that something has gone wrong.

A windfall tax has been one of the quick-fix options proposed to deal with this, thought this is unlikely to provide a permanent solution, As this blog by Ros Atkins points out, the government is ideologically opposed to raising taxes (although Atkins says that the UK tax burden is now at its highest rate since the 1940s). The same blog also quotes  the PM as saying that such a move would discourage energy firms from investing in new technologies, thought BP at least refutes this. However, companies which already invest in renewable energy are concerned that if it extends to them that this would “destroy investor confidence.”

The reality is that a windfall tax, though perhaps popular, won’t make much of a difference to the sums needed and would set an unwelcome political precedent. A more equitable tax system which applied all the time would be better. Also, as the pandemic proved, it’s possible to write out very large cheques. Of course, the more money that’s introduced into an economy the less it’s worth so perhaps the cure might be worse than the disease. As in the pandemic, though, many people’s concerns are very immediate so immediate measures might be adopted.

• After numerous delays and cost over-runs, the Elizabeth Line has finally opened (apart from Bond Street station). It’s also not yet possible to journey along the whole line without changing at least once but that should have been fixed by this time next year. I imagine that the contractors and TfL realised that if it wasn’t opened by the jubilee weekend the whole project would start to look a bit ridiculous. It has done, just.

This means that Berkshire is on the tube map for the first time since the District Line services stopped running to Slough in September 1885. The Elizabeth Line is technically not a tube line but it has a colour and, like the DLR and the Croydon Tram, is featured on the Tube maps with double lines. This will re-inforce the idea, and perhaps the reality, that Shenfield in the east and Reading in the west are slowly becoming part of London, so making the distinction between the city and the few green areas that surround it even more blurred. Urban creep is everywhere. If the Elizabeth Line is extended to Newbury (not impossible as the Reading to Newbury section is electrified) then I might start to get worried…

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 138 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 9 to 15 May, down 31 on the week before. This equates to 87 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 82 (108 last week). Note that, as of 26 May, these were the most recently available figures. See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

Value for money

I recently received a press release from West Berkshire Council which made the following impressive claim: “West Berkshire Council is among the country’s top 10 districts to provide value for money according to independent research. Money.co.uk analysed a variety of council services including recycling levels, road conditions, crime rate, percentage of good or outstanding schools and care homes. The report found the district scored well on road maintenance compared to other councils and was the highest scorer on social care. Across key areas West Berkshire Council scored out of ten:

  • Road Maintenance: 9.1.
  • Household Waste Recycling: 7.6.
  • Education: 9.0.
  • Social Care: 9.8.

The overall performance score for West Berkshire Council was 8.49 out of 10.”

All these statements may well be true but I wanted to have a look at the report itself. I asked WBC’s press team for the link but was told that, although it would have been much easier for Money.co.uk to have put this on its website, the report could only be obtained by writing to them and asking for it. I did that but have yet to hear a reply. If you want to try you can email press@money.co.uk. If I hear back from them I’ll ask if it can put online: if it is, I’ll have a look at it and give you the link.

Aside from wanting to see the results for myself, there are a few points which are unclear. Does “the country” mean England or the whole of the UK? Does “districts” mean just district councils, or just unitary authorities, or any local council other than a parish? I’d also like to know how WB performed compared to its neighbours. More on this if the report ever pitches up.

Other news

• Most bus journeys starting in West Berkshire over Jubilee weekend (2 to 5 June 2022) will be free.

• West Berkshire Council and the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce are encouraging businesses to take part in an economic surveyclick here for details.

• 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 new business website has 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.

Click here for the best coverage we’ve seen of all things football-related in Berkshire.

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest libraries newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest environmental newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

• West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon Councils have their own web pages relating to the outbreak. Click here as follows for the high-level links for West BerkshireVale of White HorseWiltshire and Swindon.

• See also the sections for Wantage, Marlborough and Swindon for initiatives from Vale of White Horse Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council and the various towns and parishes.

Click here to visit the website for West Berkshire Council’s Community Support Hub. You can also call 01635 503 579 to speak to the the Building Communities Together team. The Hub has also set up two FAQ pages, for residents and for businesses. You can also click here to sign up to receive the Hub’s e-bulletins and click here to see the weekly updates.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. As with the volunteers’ post above, if you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animals of the week are the ducks on our stretch of the River Lambourn. There are too many of them (something which our cats try to do something about) and when they’re spooked they make a hell of a racket. They also murder each other’s offsprings if they feel there’s too much competition for food or shelter by holding them under water, a technique almost identical to that which the males use when mating. They also sometimes waddle up into the garden and steal the chickens’ food. Aside from these problems, we’re very glad to see them each year. The river’s falling quite fast already, though, so they might not be around for much longer.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of bunny homes, Sandleford, pollution, arts therapies, safety barriers and football at Manor Park.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So, it’s time for the Song of the Week. We’re hosting a gathering of some of my university friends this weekend so it seems appropriate to pick something from that alarmingly distant time. There are so many songs I associate with that period but I can only choose one. So, it’s…er…Matty’s Rag by Gerry Rafferty (one of the rare songs which has a fade-in). A lovely song written by a man with plenty of demons for his young daughter.

• Which means that next we’re at the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Let’s have another one from the superb Big Train. This one’s a bit dark but, hey, it’s fiction (or is it…?): Is This Some Kind of Joke?

• And finally it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: José Mourinho this week become the first person to have done what? Last week’s question was: What was unexpectedly sold in Newbury for £1.5m this week? The answer was a very rare 18th century Chinese vase which was sitting around in a family home for 40-odd years until a family friend who was an antiques expert realised its true value. I don’t think we have anything of that nature chez nous – but you might…

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