Weekly News with Brian 9 to 16 June 2022

This Week with Brian

Including no confidence, our real concerns, moving on, more mutations, predators, parasites, cat scams, golf in the Gulf, pessimism and empathy, a new anthem needed, on the busses, love and pride, 202 years, four hemispheres, six letters and don’t call me Shirley.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including train pain, rules are rules, Watermill Bridge, 2,500 homes again, a Platinum Champion, a dangerous café, Hungerford’s newsletter, Inkpen’s hall, Shalbourne’s assembly, Lambourn’s horses, East Garston’s exhibition, Newbury’s blooms, Speen’s conditions, Hamstead Marshall’s gravel, Enborne’s utilities, Chieveley’s recognition, Thatcham’s travel, Cold Ash’s experience, Compton’s picnic, Chaddleworth’s fête, West Ilsley’s AGM, Theale’s thanks, Aldermaston’s pallets, Burghfield’s bill, Mortimer’s rhymes, Wantage’s p[lan, Letcombe’s register, Marlborough’s grants, Bedwyn’s complaints and Swindon’s dogfight – plus our usual Maypole dance 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

• Contrary to my prediction last Thursday that the jubilee weekend would leave everyone so loved-up, tired-out or hung-over that all previous problems including political scandals would be forgotten, this week produced a short, sharp shock for our leader with a no-confidence vote that was won  by 59% to 41%. This would have been a resounding victory at a referendum or general election but was rather less so when, as in this case, the electors were all MPs from the leader’s own party.

[more below] 

The next general election must be called by 24 January 2025 (but could be sooner) so we’re probably only about half-way through this parliament. The result suggests that 148 Tory MPs are, aside from any moral scruples, already worried about hanging onto their seats. 

After the vote, the PM (as quoted in The Guardian) made the following  observation: “It was a very important day because we are able now to draw a line under the issues that our opponents want to talk about and we are able to get on talking about the issues, what the issues that I think the people want…and what we are doing to help them and to take the country forward. That is what we are going to do. We are going to focus exclusively on that…”

• However, I’m not sure what these plans are to “take the country forward.” BoJo’s premiership has been dominated by very specific issues which succeeded each other in almost unbroken succession and which were essentially day-by-day rather than strategic things: Brexit (for which he was responsible); Covid (for which he wasn’t); partygate (for which he was); Ukraine (for which he wasn’t); and the cost of living crisis (which flows from most of the above, so do the maths). I don’t see any grand vision. OK, there’s the “levelling up” one but that is so vast an amorphous an ambition as to be beyond any possibility of immediate conclusion. (In any case, much of the work that was done on this was pre-Covid. Then, for instance, large towns cities were often benefitting at the expense of the smaller towns that surrounded them. Since then, this has in some cases been reversed.) Levelling up means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

It seems likely theatre will be a swathe of eye-catching, tax-cutting, red-tape-slicing, Brexit-respecting, vote-garnering  measures introduced in the next few weeks to help change the agenda. This will not effect some magical change in our PM’s personality. He is is still a man who has a very complex and self-interested relationship with any notion of truth.

• It’s the vernacular of the reaction to political crisis that appeals to me. In my 7 to 14 April 2022 column, I suggested that there were six classic stages in the handbook of political responses to a crisis:

  • Deny it – “It didn’t happen.”
  • Deflect it – “This is just playing politics” or “media tittle-tattle.”
  • Delay it – “I have set up an enquiry and it would be inappropriate of me to say anything until after that has reported.”
  • Denigrate it– “fluff” and “fundamentally trivial” (which was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s judgment that week).
  • Distract from it – “I think that what the British people are really concerned about is…” and
  • Draw a line under it –  “We need to move on from this..”

It’s easy to see that the PM’s post-match comments have filled in the last two points almost word-for-word. The other four had at that time already been ticked off. So, point six having been reached, what happens next? Is that the end of it? No: it just vanishes underground, to re-surface at some later date in a mutated and unwelcome form.

• I don’t know how much the letters page of the Newbury Weekly News can be seen as a barometer of the national mood but there are six letters on the subject this week, none of which can fairly be seen as supportive of the PM or of our local MP Laura Farris. She has recently said that she will not be revealing how she voted in the no-confidence motion as this might prejudice her work as a member of the Privileges Committee. This might be fair enough, and perhaps a bit like asking someone how they voted in a general election. However, it’s perfectly clear that she does have an opinion on the matter (as do her Conservative colleagues on the committee) as every single Tory MP voted in the no-confidence motion and there were no abstentions. We just don’t know what it is (though it’s probably fairly easy to guess).

Chris Bryant having recused himself “because of views expressed on social media”, the new Chair will be Harriet Harman: not a person I would want to be cross-examined by. Despite Jacob Rees-Mogg’s distaste for the idea that such a body should be chaired by a member of the opposition, that’s what happens. Seems like a useful safeguard to me and one which local councils might want to emulate with the Chairs of their Oversight and Scrutiny Commissions. Currently only about a third of the ones in our area have their OSCs chaired by a member of the opposing party: West Berkshire is not one of them.

• It appears that Harvey Weinstein’s misfortunes have recently increased with this announcement that he “will be charged with two counts of indecent assault against a woman in London in the summer of 1996.” A couple of years ago, Penny, our two sons and I watched the wonderful and shocking film Untouchable about this media monster in total silence (which doesn’t happen very often in our house). Here’s the trailer: watch the whole thing if you can. It’s excellent.

• Last night, I watched another film that I’d seen before: Parasite, which was shown at the Valley Film Society in East Garston. What an utterly excellent movie this is as well.

• Saudi Arabia clearly has a problem. For decades it’s been able able to be as awful as it cared to be because we – in which I include myself – needed its oil. That’s really all it has to offer. Now that things are starting to shift away from this, it’s trying to buy reputation. The latest attempt is through what is to me the stupefyingly dull sport of golf,. The way the the BBC’s Ros Atkins tells a story is always worth listening to to, and his take on this piece of self-interested hypocrisy is no exception.

• On to more cheerful things – the jubilee. I have two awkward personality traits (amongst many others). The first is an inmate sense of pessimism; the other is an almost unhealthy degree of empathy with events that fail, or might do. The latter has for decades prevented my attending stand-up comedy shows unless I’m 100% sure the acts are not going to die before my eyes. With any open-air event in England, of which there were hundreds planned in this small part of it alone, this leads me looking anxiously at the weather forecast for weeks before-hand.

Some parishes have been planning their events for a year or more and the thought of these being rained off and all that effort wasted made me almost sick with anxiety, even though I’d nothing more than help promote them. The two that most concerned me were the ones in our village of East Garston and in Hungerford, our local town (where Penny also organises an open-air market on the first Sunday of the month). Every day, the forecast seemed worse and worse.

I need not have worried, at least not for these two (I hope that, wherever you are, you event was similarly blessed). Neither of these events were inconvenienced by rain, except at the very end of Hungerford’s massive picnic in the Croft Field when the heavens opened just as the national anthem was played. This seemed somehow symbolic: “go home now.”

If we have to have a national anthem (and it seems that we do) it’s perhaps a reminder that the dirge we’re stuck with could be improved upon. Jerusalem has a far more inspiring and modal tune, and far more thought-provoking and poetic lyrics from William Blake, than what we have to listen to at public events. We’ve all heard enough of it recently. New monarch, new song, perhaps…

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

Bus survey

West Berkshire Council has recently launched a survey about bus travel in the area and how the services could be improved. The opening paragraph of the accompanying press release sound a clarion call for this mode of transport: “Buses are,” it assures us, “a vital part of public transport in the UK – allowing teenagers to go to college or school, enabling pensioners to see their family and friends, to go shopping if you don’t have a car, travelling to events and connecting people to work opportunities they would not otherwise consider. Buses sustain town centres, strengthen communities and help towards protecting the environment.”

Last week, I referred to the residents’ survey which WBC had recently published and referred to the perennial problem this and other organisations face in getting the views of the “hard to reach” groups. People who use busses are surely very easy to reach – you put posters or leaflets in the business themselves – but this obviously won’t find people who currently don’t use buses, perhaps because the services no longer exist. I don’t know whether people who’re likely to be tempted onto buses are “hard to reach” (which might include the fact that they don’t tend to be online that much or at all) but I suspect they probably are. If so, it’ll be interesting to know how WBC plans to contact them. As mentioned last week, I have sympathy for councils in this matter as everyone now expects to be communicated with in the way that they prefer. There about half a dozen possible methods: unfortunately, in virtually no case does WBC know which one any one person would most welcome.

Portfolio holder Richard Somner suggested in the same press piece that “we know bus usage is fast becoming an alternative way to travel and commute.” This would seem to be contradicted both by the need to do such a survey at all and by this statement from Government Business in January 2020 that “journeys by bus have declined by 15 per cent outside of London in the last 10 years, with the proportion of the population who are bus users also dropping.” It’s hard to see that the pandemic would have improved this. The government’s National Bus Strategy has an increase in bus usage as its central aim but admits that “this can only be achieved if buses are made more practical and attractive as an alternative to the car.” This may be the case in urban areas but it’s hard to see how this can ever apply in a rural district like ours.

Councillor Somner’s comment refers to busses as an “alternative” means of transport. That may be the case for many people but for some it’s their only option. One reason why people might need bus services, perhaps of a specialist kind, is because they have mobility problems which prevent their walking or driving. How lucky West Berkshire therefore is to have a community transport company like Readibus which has been providing services for such people in the district for over 30 years. One would imagine that, with an ageing population and a growing awareness of the mental-health benefits of being out and about, such a service would be all the more strongly supported. In fact, the reverse has happened. The relations between the two organisations have soured over the last four years as a result of a botched consultation and a legal wrangle of WBC’s making, regarding which the council’s explanation of what is intended and the clause in the document it is asking the charity to sign are in flat contradiction to each other. The fact that these people are now more stuck at home as a result at least will give them more time to fill out the survey: assuming WBC can reach them, of course.

You can click here to complete the survey. Responses must be in my midnight on Sunday 3 July.

Grazeley’s sunshine

For many years, the word “Grazeley” was synonymous with a leviathan of a development proposal, a 15,000-home new town on the edge of the district. That project, perhaps to widespread relief, was ended by the extension of the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone (DEPZ) a couple of years ago. The site remained, however: what could be done with it with these new limitations?

WBC’s plan, an application for which has recently been lodged, was for a a 57,000-unit solar farm. This would, as reported on p10 of this week’s NWN, provide enough power for about 7,500 homes. I recalled that Lib Dem Councillor Adrian Abbs knew a good deal about this technology and had long been interested in the project so I gave him a ring on 9 June to ask him what he thought.

“This is a good start,” he told me. “In fact, a motion about this to Full Council was one of my first actions after I was elected to WBC in 2019. My two immediate thoughts are that it could be at least twice the size and that there needs to be a provision made to store the energy. The thing about solar power is that it’s generated more or less in inverse proportion to when it’s actually needed.”

This reminded me of another, far smaller, project in Enborne. I contact a spokesperson for this who told me that, although storage was not part of the original application (which has yet to be determined), it was now being considered.

This set me thinking about self-interested altruism. In the last few months energy prices have not only rocketed but, it’s now clear to an extent not seen since the oil crisis of the 70s, are subject to the vagaries of geo-politics. Now far more than then, we have the ability to create our own energy. If we do so, it’s natural to want to hang onto it. Selfish, right?

Well, yes. But that can also be good. Cheap and efficient electricity storage is in some ways the holy grail of sustainable technology. If this is driven by the interest of local councils, community groups and individuals then it’s far more likely that solutions will be developed. An identifiable market calls far more loudly to the private sector than do rules and regulations. The next step will be to encourage people to generate their own power and to find ways to help those (such as flat-dwellers) for whom this may be impossible. However, if we can find ways to store the stuff efficiently, even for 12 hours, this will be a big start. Greed can sometimes be good. 

I hope these plans at Grazeley kick on quickly, though. The extension of the DEPZ was in part an EU initiative and its repeal could yet be something proposed by the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, Jacob Rees-Mogg. It seems unlikely, I know: but in the current political climate, anything is possible.  

Other news

• This is 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.”

• 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 animals of the week are our cats. Why? Because they contribute absolutely nothing except sitting around looking cool and we feed them and look after them. What a scam…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of football pitches, plastic waste, eating cake and common ground.

• 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, as you’re taking down the bunting, have a listen to the Song of the Week. We had Queen last week so let’s have King this time. Not quite so famous and a bit of a one-hit-wonder but with one excellent song: Love and Pride. Ah, the 80s – the hair, the clothes, the videos, the synths…

• Perhaps you have an early summer getaway planned? Think again with the Comedy Sketch of the Week. As none of us are likely to be going up in a plane any time soon – even if the situation at the airports has improved you still have to get there: there’s a train strike and, let’s face it, who can afford to drive to an airport and then pay the parking charges? – you might has well have a look at some of the things that could happen to you in the unlikely event you actually got onto a plane and it actually took off. Here are a few scenes from Airplane, which still remains a bit of a classic in my eyes (and don’t call me Shirley…).

• And so you sink back into the deckchair in the garden and try your hand at the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only country in the world that extends across all four of the world’s hemispheres? Last week’s question was: 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? The answer is 202 years, give or take depending on if you’re rounding this. That’s an average reign of about 33 years for the Queens compared to about 20 for the Kings.

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