Weekly News with Brian 2 to 9 June 2022

This Week with Brian

Including drawing the line, a bulging in-tray, the medal positions, remote control, respect, resignations, Jack Sparrow, Basil Fawlty, Tony Blair, Captain Mainwairing, José’s haul, divine right, not an animal, what they think, what they do, a 20-minute set and six queens.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including eight looks back, jubilee events, Hungerford’s decoration, Chilton Foliat’s picnic, Kintbury’s art, Froxfield’s electors, Lambourn’s streets. East Garston’s peace, Newbury’s blooms, Chieveley’s plaque, Thatcham’s energy, Cold Ash’s speeds, Brightwalton’s address, Ashampstead’s address, Compton’s shop, Beedon’s route, East Ilsley’s pond, Theale’s service, Burghfield’s café, Mortimer’s windmill, Wantage’s science, East Hanney’s playscape, Marlborough’s volunteers, Bedwyn’s busses and trains and Swindon’s lunch – plus our usual frolic 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

• This long weekend is, we have been told, a time for the people in this country to put aside their personal and political differences and settle down to four days of hard celebration – not only looking back but also looking forward to better times to come; and giving thanks for the sure hand of a leader who has already guided the nation through so many dark and uncertain moments and who surely, now as never before, is deserving of our respect and support.

[more below] 

That is at least what the PM will be hoping. For him, these four days off could not have come at a better time. Aside from removing all possible ambiguity about the work event/social event distinction which he’s found so troublesome in the past, his hope is perhaps that the country will awake on Monday with a hangover so profound that all his problems of the last few months will have been forgotten. The much sought-after line will have been drawn; a new page turned; people will, finally, have moved on.

There are, however, reasons to suggest otherwise. Without going into too much detail, there are accusations that he has changed the ministerial code to help “save his skin”; reports of an increasing number of Conservative MPs calling on him to step down; tales of alarming NHS waiting lists; suggestions that the problems in the Metropolitan Police may not just be due to “a few bad apples” as well as other suggestions that police forces across the UK are not performing as well as they might be; the continuing impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol; and a cost-of-living crisis that is, in fairness, beyond the power of any one country or leader to solve. If you add to that the conflict in Ukraine and the largely un-fought war against climate change and you have an in-tray that is fairly bulging at the seams. The long break may offer a temporary respite but none of these are going to be cured by four days on the lash. Mind you, it may seem so at the time. Worth a try, I suppose.

• If there is to be a leadership election, and thus perhaps a new leader, many political commentators are wondering who might be the next one. The Guardian (other views exist but few of them without breaking through a paywall) suggests that, in this order, Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunk are currently in the medal positions. I was glad not to see Priti Patel’s name on this list (though she may be on others). She genuinely scares me, an impression reinforced every time I hear her speak as it appears she’s being operated by remote control by someone I can’t see. She’s certainly no stranger to the flexible aspect of the ministerial code, having been found guilty of bullying staff in 2020 and then being backed by the PM. If BoJo can set it aside when he chooses, one wonders why he felt the need to change it at all.

This Guardian article reports that three ministerial aides, including Newbury MP Laura Farris, are expected to resign from their government jobs “in order to be more independent as members of the privileges committee that will sit in judgment over the prime minister’s honesty.” I wrote to her on 30 May asking if she could confirm this but have so far yet to receive even an acknowledgement (which normally happens automatically within an hour or so). Here are her contact details if you’d like to ask her about this, or anything else yourself.

• There have been two celebrity court cases recently. One, involving Captain Jack Sparrow, reached its conclusion on 1 June: another, involving the wives of two Premier league footballers, might still be dragging on and I can’t find the energy to look up what happened or might be about to. This article in The Atlantic suggests that this “is a clash between different ideas of celebrity.” I’m not terribly interested in this: but both cases might,  be of interest to the 4,000-plus people who, as of 23 February had, according to The Guardian, been in prison awaiting trial for more than six months, over half for non-violent offences. I don’t know if these libel cases logged up the system at all but it can’t have helped. Any of us could at any time and for a whole raft of reasons find ourselves swelling the number of those on remand.

• Unconcerned by all of the above, Putin continues his war in Ukraine. The idea that it’s an attempt to be-Nazify the region still seems to be going strong, although I doubt anyone really understands what this might mean. I certainly don’t. Of course, people in those countries had Nazis big time and for real in the 1940s: for civilians, our closest brush was perhaps Captain Mainwaring saying “don’t tell him, Pike” in Dad’s Army. Call it what you will, it’s just another invasion. The Nazis thought the Jews and the Slavs were sub-human, the Catholics and Protestants each thought the others were heretics, the Crusaders thought that the Muslims had despoiled the holy places of Christ, the Romans thought the early Christians were trying to topple the empire – if you’re starting a war and want to get you people on message, the trick is to come up with a populist pretext, keep it simple and stick to it.

We’re all only animals with a thesaurus and a smartphone, kept to a basic level of civility towards our neighbours for only as long as it suits our interests to do so. Meanwhile, the USA has promised to equip Ukraine with some stonking new weapons. Moscow has said this might inflame the conflict. Basil Fawlty-like, Washington has said well, you started it: and invited Putin to stop it.  Except Putin can’t, without losing face ands respect. “Respect”, that word that has become so potent these last few decades in gangster, and gangsta, films and imagery, is all anyone in power craves. There are two views: you demand it as your right or you earn it by your deeds. The former is, sadly, by far the more prevalent. This is perhaps why we are remain subject to, rather than citizens of, the systems which rule us.

• To return to the first and hopefully mildly misleading paragraph, this weekend is, in the UK at least, all about the Queen. Although she was born into a role which traditionally demanded respect she has also shown that she’s capable of earning it. She doesn’t really seem to have put a foot wrong in seventy years (the misjudgement following Diana’s death possibly excepted, though that was a national emotional hot-spin  the consequences of which must have been impossible to call). This is in contrast to the alpine sense of entitlement shown by her capricious sister and her ghastly second son. My best reason in favour of keeping the monarchy is that it avoids the need to elect a president every five years. They would either meddle in things beyond their competence or else be as ceremonial and formal as the monarchy now is, in which case I don’t see it makes much difference.

In any case, our elected representatives in the Commons are not currently covering themselves in glory. The House of Lords, with its bloated appointed or hereditary membership, is sui generis to an exceptional extent and has successfully defied all attempts seriously to reform it. In fact, of the three parts of the legislature, the monarchy is the only one that is functioning in broad accordance with popular expectations. Perhaps the jubilee will be a time for the monarch to re-asset the divine right of kings, dissolve parliament and rule by decree: maybe for a year, just as an experiment. I await the Queen’s address over the weekend with interest…

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 114 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 16 to 22 May, down 25 on the week before. This equates to 72 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 71 (82 the week before).  See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

What the residents think

West Berkshire Council has recently published a residents survey, which you can see here. This has some useful insights into people’s perceptions of the district and, in particular, of the council. I was, however, immediately brought up short by a confusion as to when the data was collected (late 2019 and late 2021 were both mentioned in the first few pages: enquiries revealed that the first was a typo) and by some of the charts and tables being slightly confusing. I have asked for some clarifications.

The survey was sent to 5,000 randomly selected households across the district, each ward being represented proportionate to its population. 1,248 (almost exactly a quarter) responded though not all answered every question. This approach, rather than sending questionnaires to the whole population, was presumably done on the basis of cost. The authors claim that this has a +/- accuracy rate of about 3% which seems acceptable for such a broad-brush approach. However, many of the samples by ward are very small. Anything less than 100 risks making percentages derived from these misleading.

As with all such things, the results tell us a lot more about the views of those who complete surveys than of those who don’t. As the questionnaires were posted, it also tells us more about people who open what might look like junk mail (the message “important survey information inside” or similar doesn’t work for a lot of people), read it, find a pen, answer questions by hand, locate the envelope and post it. This combination of tasks was once second nature for many of us but now can seem like a bit of a chore. Perhaps partly for this reason, people over 65 were about four times more likely to respond than were those under 44.

The surveys could have been emailed as well but, even if GDPR permitted this, the details WBC held would presumably be all of people who had contacted the council already. However, one of the purposes of this was to get the views of the “hard to reach” group. The fact that about half of the responders had, aside from replying to the survey, not contacted the council in the previous six months suggests this was at least partly successful.

Older people were also more likely than younger ones, and women more likely than men, to be satisfied about “the way WBC runs things.” I don’t know how I would have responded to such a vague question as my own experience, on various issues, spans the entire range of possible answers. Even more difficult would have been the questions about whether people would speak positively or negatively about the council and whether or not it acts upon the concerns of its residents (the question didn’t specify whether these concerns were limited to what the council could control). In both cases, many would have opted for all possible responses, depending on the what aspect was on their mind. For both of these, the survey reported that WBC performed above the national average, though I’m not sure if this was the result of the identical questions being asked of people in different districts.

Matters of concern were led by the questionnaire, noise, rubbish, vandalism, drugs and drunkenness being the five likely problems suggested. You can see the summary of these on p52 and the actual data on pp79-80, although thew two sets of figures don’t in all cases agree.

How the council communicates was also looked at, with about 57% saying that they were kept very or fairly well informed (I suspect that were the question to have been asked in late 2019, as the typo on p4 suggested, the results would have been a lot less positive). This is despite the fact that about 20% said they weren’t interested in receiving WBC’s increasingly wide range of e-newsletters and a further 40% weren’t even aware that they existed. About 75% said that communication by email was one of their favoured methods (this was by far the most popular, by post being the second most favoured at 29%). About a quarter said they’d like to be contacted by phone but, with about 70,000 households in the district, I can’t see that happening.

About 13% said that they would like to receive information by social media but I was surprised that You Tube was included as an example. I suppose technically it is social media but it seems different from FB and the rest of them as its main focus is on providing searchable content rather than immediate interaction. WBC’s You Tube channel (another recent improvement) has some very valuable content including recordings of meetings. FB, Twitter and the like are great for a quick message, as long as you happen to be looking at the screen as or soon after the message has been posted and don’t expect much in the way of nuanced explanation.

Two of the five main recommendations touched on communications “utilising both digital and non-digital channels. The Council should,” it continues, “focus on improving day-to-day communications with residents and explore how to better consider what residents say, whilst also explaining the rationale behind why a decision has been taken. Efforts should also be made on improving awareness on e-bulletins provided by the Council to increase the sign-up.” Another point adds that “it is important to make sure that alternative methods are readily available for those who are less willing to use digital platforms.” 

This highlights a problem faced by all organisations: most people expect information immediately, digitally and often interactively whereas a still sizeable minority want it in writing. A web post can’t easily be turned into a good printed document particularly if, as is increasingly common, it has onward links. Printing it costs money though the biggest cost comes when you put the stamp on.

And who do you send it to? A council might know or suspect that, say, 20% of the people it wants to reach prefer print but it can’t be sure which 20%. You can’t post stuff to everyone so the option is generally to post it to no one and so leave yourself open to accusations of discriminating against the non-digital population. All councils, including WBC, have my sympathy in trying to square this circle.

What the council does

Earlier this week, WBC’s Leader Lynne Doherty told a press briefing that there were some aspects of the above report that were critical of the council. I asked her which of these would be her top priority to fix. She suggested one which perhaps owes more to perception than reality: that WBC did not provide good value for money. (This is despite a recent report by Money.co.uk, referred to last week, which suggests that it is one of the top 10 districts in this regard).

She suggested, and I agreed, that this might be because people were unaware of what a council like WBC was and, perhaps more importantly, was not responsible for.

Anyone who reads what I write at all regularly will know that, while I don’t always agree with some of the decisions taken by WBC or other councils in the area we cover, I’m very keen to defend and support their roles as custodians of local democracy. I have also done my best to explain how some of the processes work and how people can influence these decisions. The same goes for town and parish councils, which often find themselves in a similar position with regard to WBC as WBC does with the government. In the case of the Vale of White Horse there is an additional level, as the Vale is one of five districts within, and in some cases under, Oxfordshire County Council. These are all complicated relationships which affect our lives in many ways.

I had intended – but once again time has defeated me – to try to summarise what these councils are responsible for and how significant each are is. One of the best ways of measuring this is by determining how much money is spent in each area of its operations. WBC has a very clear graphic for this (though a couple of points require some explanation, which I’ve asked for and confidently expect soon after the long weekend). Wiltshire (which exercises the same responsibilities as does WBC) and The Vale of White Horse (which does not) do not have such quick-glance information to hand so I’m pressing them to sending me something similar to what WBC has long provided. More on this hopefully next week.

Other news

• Hot on the heels of the jubilee comes Carers’ Week (6 to 12 June), “an annual opportunity to celebrate the work unpaid carers do and raise awareness of the support available.” You see WBC’s statement on this here.

• WBC recently reported that about 150 hosts for Ukraine refugees have been through the various checking process and that there are currently about 190 guests in the district. The hosts need to inform WBC when their guests have arrived: if they don’t, the monthly payments from the government won’t arrive.

Click here for a summary of WBC’s actual v budget performance for 2021-22 which claims that the council has “successfully balanced its budget.”

Click here for information about some of the jubilee events taking place throughout the area.

• Most bus journeys starting in West Berkshire over Jubilee weekend (2 to 5 June 2022) will be free. This is obviously great if you have a bus service (as we here in the Lambourn Valley used to have to Hungerford).

• 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.

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 to visit WBC’s business website.

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by WBC.

Click here for the latest libraries newsletter from WBCl.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest environmental newsletter from WBC.

• 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 not an animal but this seagrass off the western coast of Australia which covers an area of 70 square miles and which scientists have now established is one one plant, probably grown from on e seed which fertilised 4,500 years ago.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of affordable homes, getting to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, an opportunity in Boxford and no confidence.

• 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 to take your put on your tux or frock for your visit to the Palace garden party to the accompaniment of the Song of the Week. This isn’t one song but several from what many regard as one the greatest live performances ever: Queen’s 20-minute set at Live Aid in 1985.

• And, as you’re standing in line for your cucumber sandwiches, there’s time to reflect on the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Not a sketch but one of my favourite scenes from the excellent film The Queen featuring Michael Sheen (looking even more like Tony Blair than Tony Blair did himself) and Helen Mirren.

• And, if you finally get the chance to meet HMQ but can’t think of anything to say, you could try the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Since the Norman Conquest there have been 945 years in which there have been kings or queens (we have to take off 11 years for the interregnum following the Civil War). In this time there have, not counting pretenders and the like, been 43 monarchs. Six of these have been women. How long in total have these queens reigned for? Last week’s question was: José Mourinho this week become the first person to have done what? Won all the major European trophies: the Champions League (with Porto and Inter Milan); the UEFA Cup (with Porto); the Europa League (with Manchester Utd); and the Europa Conference League (with Roma). In fairness, no one else could have won the last tournament as it was only competed for for the first time in 2021-22. He couldn’t have won the Cup Winners Cup as that was abolished in 1999, the year before he became a manager.

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