Weekly News with Brian 16 to 23 June 2022

This Week with Brian

Including a new Scottish invention, a significant announcement, a realistic prospect, an ethics advisor, land borders, Mysterons, oversight and scrutiny, no complacency, strong drugs, two different results, Darling Nikki, John Candy and quickfire hundreds.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including EV delays, an exemplar development awaited, a pause at the care home, all change at London Road, administrative geography, energy recovery, café society, an ark in the house, Hungerford’s environment, Kintbury’s consultation, Froxfield’s logo, Lambourn’s masks, East Garston’s peace, Newbury’s bounds, Speen’s event, Hampstead’s hornet, She-cum-Donnington’s litter, Thatcham’s enforcement, Cold Ash’s lunch, Brimpton’s review, Chaddleworth’s fîete, Compton’s friends, Theale’s resolutions, Padworth’s jumble, Burghfield’s wards, Mortimer’s bite, Wantage;s bikes, Hanney’s news, Marlborough’s music, Aldbourne’s paths and Swindon’s summer – plus our usual ramble 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

• They may not have the most pleasant weather, the highest life expectancy or the best football team but in one field the Scots reign supreme: that of inventions. The list of Caledonian creations could fill – indeed, has filled – several books and is remarkable for both its range and its sheer size. Just to list a few, in no particular order, we have the telephone, television, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Bank of England, the Bank of France, golf, pedal bikes, the pneumatic tyre, logarithms, hypnotherapy, the decimal point, the hypodermic needle, penicillin, the saline drip, the toaster, the flush toilet, lime cordial, colour photography, friction matches, adhesive postage stamps, Bovril, radar, lawnmowers and Dolly the cloned sheep. An impressive list.

[more below] 

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has, it seems, recently invented something else: a way by which yet another referendum on Scottish independence can be held despite the fact that the PM has said that he will not permit this to happen (the UK government’s approval is required). The FM has said that she will soon make a “significant” announcement as to how this can be accomplished. The last referendum was in September 2014 and resulted in a fairly clear (55% v 45%) decision, and on a massive turnout of nearly 85%, to stay in the UK.

All manner of claims could be made to show that Scotland would (a) be better off or (b) not better off by leaving and, as in the Brexit vote, these opinions largely cancel out. I don’t know if the 2014 referendum was as full of lies as was 2016’s, or indeed any general election, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been. Matters would now be complicated by the fact that the UK is no longer in the EU (Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain). Nicola Sturgeon has said that one of the fist tasks if Scotland did opt to go it alone would be to apply to join the EU but having a customs border between England and Scotland doesn’t seem like such a great idea. I suspect that, for many Scots, independence is attractive as an abstract idea but less so when it becomes a realistic prospect.

• Meanwhile, the problems of the current land border between the UK and the EU, in Ireland, continue to go from bad to worse with the announcement that the EU is taking legal action against the UK government over its plans to set aside some of the post-Brexit deal on the grounds that the arrangements have disrupted trade and power-sharing. The EU might argue that those who leave its club should expect some disruption. As for disrupting power-sharing, almost anything can accomplish this: indeed, disruption seems the normal state of affairs there. The problem is insoluble given all the competing conditions this needs to fulfil. I’m still amazed that none of us seem to have noticed until after the referendum that there was a land border between the UK and the EU. the PM’s supporters have repeatedly claimed that he’s got Brexit done. On this test, he hasn’t and will not be able to.

• The Rwanda solution isn’t working out too well either, the first flight being halted moments before it was due to take off as a result of an decision by there European Court of Human Rights (not an EU institution but part of the Council of Europe, of which the UK is a member). Maybe this is just me but I find Priti Patel deeply alarming (as, perhaps, all Home Secretaries have to be) and so find it hard to separate any policies the espouses from the Mysteron-type way in which her statements about these are delivered.

• I read this week that the PM’s ethics advisor has resigned. What’s surprising – shocking, even – is not that the man has bailed out but that the PM had an ethics advisor at all. Clearly a difficult job. The BBC quotes the adviser, Lord Geidt, as saying that there was a”legitimate question” over whether the PM had broken ministerial rules over Partygate: well, yes; but that was months ago. On 16 June, it emerged that the final straw was hit being put in “an odious position” over an issue involving the Trade Remedies Authority. The Guardian suggests that finding someone to fill “one of the most tainted jobs in public life” won’t be easy and that it took five months to recruit Lord Geidt after the equally rancorous resignation of his successor in November 2020 following the Priti Patel bullying debacle. It’s alarming that the PM needs an ethics advisor; even more so that he seems incapable of retaining them. Most of us have our own built-in ethics advisor, known as our conscience.

Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column doesn’t take any prisoners and, in Eye 1575, it tells the tale of some awful goings on at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council in order to prevent an examination of some dodgy loans by the council’s Oversight and Scrutiny Commission (OMC). All councils have at least one of these and their role/s can perhaps be compared to those of the Commons Committees on matters such as standards. The Local Government Association has produced this document on how scrutiny at a local level should work.

Some matters (such as the fact that they must be public and that members of the Executive cannot sit on them) are prescribed by law but many (including how many of them there are and whether the Chair is a member of the ruling party or not) are down to councils to decide. Much also depends on the personalities involved and how willing members are to challenge the decisions of the Executive. Private Eye claimed that BCP had “one of the weakest scrutiny regimes in the country,” and cited a 2020 report from Transparency International UK which assessed 50 councils “on how they managed corruption risks, oversight and conflicts of interest.”

Having looked at the TIUK website, I think that this is the report referred to (Permission Accomplished). This “assessed, using a simple 0-100 scoring system, how a sample of 50 local authorities from across the country performed against good practice standards recommended by Transparency International UK, the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), an ethics watchdog. The findings are,” the article continues, “undoubtedly worrying.”

The results were banded into six groups, A being 80 to 100, B 60 to 79 and so so on. West Berkshire was one of the 50 councils selected and it was along with seven others in band C (scoring 50 to 59). This may seem mid-table form but WBC was the top group: no council appeared in A or B at all. The majority were in E (20 to 39) and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole was on its own in F (0 to 19). The average score in what seems to be a fairly representative sample by what seems to be an objective organisation was 38.

This report was mainly concerned with “how councils across the country have left themselves open to allegations of impropriety through poor safeguards against improper conduct by those empowered with making planning decisions” but, in doing so, it touches on the most widely-held trope about local councils: that the decision-makers are often corrupt and amenable to undue influence from developers.

The conclusions of the TIUK report don’t prove any specific allegations about corruption but do suggest – through bad practice, conflicts of interest, indifferent scrutiny and inadequate training – that the possibility exists that decisions can be taken for the wrong reasons, or can be perceived as such. None of the councils featured in this report (and, if these are representative, any other ones) thus have any grounds for complacency. If nothing else, it shows that accusations about corruption may not be unfounded and that councils in general seem unconcerned about putting measures in place to prevent this happening. Effective internal oversight is one of the ways that matters can be improved. As the report observes, “weak oversight combined with big decisions almost encourages misconduct, We found that councils often have inadequate oversight to ensure probity in the planning process.”

It seems to me that one of the immediate ways that councils can tighten up on this is to ensure that the Chairs of any OSC are from opposition parties. (I concede that some councils are entirely one-party so that would pose a problem). I did a quick survey of about 30 in our area last year and established that only about a third currently did this (WBC was not one of them). I also wonder if there should be non-councillors on the OSCs, though I also concede that it’s hard to see how these would be selected and how they could remain independent. Perhaps the next job of all OSCs should be to take a good long look at themselves and see if they are really living up to their title and consider how they might evolve.

• Two interesting and contrasting sporting fixtures this week: England’s male footballers’ total capitulation to Hungary in the Nations League; and an utterly different performance by the male cricketers in the second test against New Zealand in which they pulled off an astounding run chase, batting at times as if it were a T20 fixture. I adore football but would like to feel that, because of all the accusations of corruption and scandal surrounding the choice of Qatar as the venue, that I won’t watch the World Cup (well, that will show them). I’m not even sure if football is any longer subject to the normal laws of ethics and morals: being, in that regard if no other, perhaps rather like our PM. Maybe I should get in touch with Lord Geidt, BoJo’s recently-departed ethics advisor, and ask him what he thinks I should do…

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

• West Berkshire Council has recently launched a survey about bus travel in the area and how the services could be improved. You can click here to complete this. Responses must be in by midnight on Sunday 3 July.

• West Berkshire Council had “welcomed” the decision of the High Court to disallow a judicial review in to the granting of planning permission for the Sports Hub at Monks Lane. Additionally the Court has awarded the Council costs associated with defending the challenge. There now follows a seven day period in which an appeal to the High Court’s decision can be lodged.

• West Berkshire Council issued a statement on 10 June in response to Calcot Services for Children allegations: “West Berkshire Council is aware of allegations reported by the media in relation to standards of care and treatment of children and young people by Calcot Services for Children. Calcot Services for Children is a big provider in the region running services including children’s homes, semi-independent living for 16 to 25-year-olds, as well as schools. West Berkshire Council has a small number of children and young people placed with Calcot Services for Children. 

“As a local authority we take very seriously our responsibilities towards the vulnerable children and young people in the district. We have three children placed in these homes and their social workers will be contacting them directly to discuss this with them. In addition, we will be contacting any of our young people placed in the care of Calcot Services for Children over the past three years and arranging to speak to them.We will continue to monitor this issue and take any appropriate steps. However, at this stage we wish to reassure local people that we have had no specific cause for concern about young people from West Berkshire.”

• 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.”

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 these crazy creatures from around the world: if you believe that there is a god that created everything then this seems the proof that s/he was on some pretty strong drugs at the time.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of abiding by the rules, a new low, good stewards and insulation.

• 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 must be time for the Song of the Week. We had King last week and Queen the week before so sounds like it’s time for a Prince. So many to choose from…how about Darling Nikki?

• Which means that next up it’s the Comedy Sketch of the Week. A very mild little scene from a film I love, Trains, Planes and Automobiles. There’s nothing side-splitting about this: just John Candy doing his thing with a traffic cop (which doesn’t work) and which provides a kind of key to the film’s ultimate message – that’s not very profound either but it’s perfectly satisfying. It does exactly what it says on the tin, this movie.

• And to bring things to a close, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: This week, Jonny Bairstow scored a century against New Zealand in 77 balls, the second-fasted ever my an English male cricketer in a test match. The record is held by the New Zealander Brendon McCullum (who has recently been appointed England’s Head Coach) against Australia in 2016. How many balls did it take him to reach his century? Last week’s question was: Which is the only country in the world that extends across all four of the world’s hemispheres? the answer is Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bass) in the Pacific, which straddles both the equator and the international date line.

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