Weekly News with Brian 30 June to 7 July 2022

This Week with Brian

Including a difficult issue, mid-term contests, doing the maths, a typical response, new boundaries, a landau to the wrong postillion, tomatoes or trusts, farming finances, peeing in the sea, census time, pausing the plan, Basie’s boogie, Glastonbury tickets, over 16 hours and your name, sir?

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) including a joint venture, consultees at work, a piecemeal approach, a café date, political omniscience, a possible name-changer, Hungerford’s festival, Inkpen’s history, Lambourn’s plans, East Garston’s pain and glory, Shefford’s shelter, Newbury’s pride, Stockcross’ re-rising sun, Speen’s questions, Chieveley’s dogs, Thatcham’s rainbow, Cold Ash’s orchids, Brimpton’s speeds, Compton’s roadworks, Chaddleworth’s saga, West Ilsley’s speeding, Theale’s club, Mortimer’s show, Burghfield’s decision, Englefield’s heritage, Wantage’s square, Hanney’s news, Grove’s parish, Marlborough’s movies, Berwyn’s run, Ramsburry’s correspondence and Swindon’s swindogs  – plus our usual prowl 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

• For many, Roe v Wade might until recently have been two alternative ways of crossing a river. We now know that it’s a bit more serious. The recent decision by the US Supreme Court to remove abortion as a constitutional right, which Roe v Wade established in 1973, has re-opened a particularly bitter fault line in US politics. The aftershocks of this have already been felt in the UK, with the matter being debated in parliament within a week of the US ruling.

[more below] 

I’m very far from certain what I think about this. It’s also one of those debates where to express any opinion at all is to unleash a torrent of criticism from one side or the other. Few issues seem to show more clearly the divide between the conservative and the liberal and between the religious and the secular and to throw open the whole business of freedom of choice and individual liberties, on the assumption of which so many aspects of our society depend.

Taking the anti-abortionists’ views at face-value, all these considerations are irrelevant given that another life is at stake. At what point “life” begins is thus an immediate issue and there are any number of debates about this, based on philosophical, medical and religious standpoints. I can see the argument that says that life starts at the moment of conception and that to debate the possibility of any later date is sheer casuistry. (Some, including the RC’s, believe that even contraception is wrong but that can be left to one side for the moment.)

Existence starts then, the pro-lifers say, and anything that’s done to end this is nothing short of murder. In a few countries, including Malta and El Salvador, the laws are indeed so strict that even suspicious miscarriages can result in lengthy jail sentences, one woman in the latter country claiming she had served 10 years in prison due to a stillbirth.

On the other side of the debate is, at its extreme, the idea that we all have the right to control and decide whatever we put into, or take out of, our bodies and that the question of abortion is an absolute natural right. Greater nuance is provided by the arguments that abortion is justified in cases of pregnancy as a result of rape or incest or where the life of the mother is in danger. Some countries, including El Salvador, don’t even accept this last argument. More difficult still are arguments based on, as mentioned above, questions of timing or the possible health of the baby.

My main concern about the pro-lifers, whose views I have not studied too closely, is that their strong opinions are based on a construct of religious and political conservatism that, perhaps, has little to do with the issue of abortion. It does, however, provide them with a clear example of how the  will of God and the arrogance of man have come into conflict; a clear battleground on which to defend other more blurred convictions. Politically, a pro-life stance has been normally associated with the reactionary right. This is perhaps odd, as libertarianism generally defends freedom of choice. Ayn Rand, regarded as one of the the founders of libertarianism, said that “an embryo has no rights” and that “the living take precedence over the not-yet-living.” Pro-life libertarians, on the other hand, believe that even the not-yet-living have rights which should not be over-ridden by any human actions. All in all, we’re clearly not dealing with a straightforward argument.

Any religious objection to abortion seems to me to collapse utterly on theological grounds. The salvation of the immortal soul being infinitely more important than that of the transitory body, it’s impossible to see what the religious objection to abortion is: having manifestly committed no sin, the soul of an unborn child cannot therefore be compromised. More insidious still is my nagging suspicion that anti-abortion rhetoric is just a way of men using a moral dimension to, once again, tell women what to do. (I’m aware that there are plenty of women who are anti-abortion, perhaps for one of the other reasons suggested above.) If you forced me to make a choice, I would have to say that I’d tend to oppose on general principles pretty much any opinion held by someone of conservative religious views – a loose definition, I concede – and that therefore I’m pro-choice. Some doubts linger, however…all in all, not an easy one.

• We had a couple of by-elections last week, which were a disaster for the Conservatives, a fairly muted success for Labour and the usual probable false dawn for the Lib Dems. It’s always hard to read too much into mid-term contests but the fact that the two constituencies are very different made everyone do their best to do just this. Certainly, a number of Conservative MPs must be anxiously working out the maths regarding the next election, which must happen before 24 January 2025: MPs talk of the needs of the country and of the party but their main consideration is probably whether they will retain their seats.

Despite his love-him-or-hate-him personality, BoJo has always been touted as a man who can win elections (and, to be fair, he has won a lot). That part of his reputation has taken a bit of a knock. The fact should not be forgotten that both by-elections were called due to crimes by the previous MPs even more egregious than those of which the PM has been accused and, in the case of partygate, convicted: watching hard-core porn during a Commons debate and sexual assault against a minor. These at least reduced the PM’s own real or alleged transgressions to a more manageable level.

In the aftermath of these defeats, he made a wonderfully typical response, that “the voters are heartily sick of hearing about me and the things I’m alleged to have done wrong.” In other words, shoot the messenger. He is, however, the leader; the big man; the boss. The government is his government: he has made that plain. He cannot now separate himself from it just to suit his convenience. He also said that his undergoing a “psychological transformation” was “not going to happen.” Well, no. It can’t. Too much work would be involved. His strange psychology has served him very well so far. Why change it, even if he could? And to what? And what would Carrie say?

• One MP who might be anxiously contemplating the next election is our very own Laura Farris, BoJo’s ultra-loyal member for Newbury. The Boundary Commissioners have proposed that the constituency be divided. Everything roughly east of a line from roughly Midgham to West Ilsley would be put into a new seat, provisionally called Mid Berkshire, which would also incorporate some of the western parts of the Reading West and Wokingham constituencies. (It’s worth mentioning that the Boundary Commission’s work is apolitical and designed merely to ensure that constituencies are all roughly the same size and fall within a range of between about 70,000 and 77,000 voters each. The current Newbury constituency, with about 83,000 voters, is thus too big. Laura Farris has said that she “cannot argue with the logic” of what is proposed.) This article in Newbury Today (from June 2021) has more on this. A final decision will be taken by about this time next year.

• Whether Laura Farris will want to stand for or, if she does, be selected for or, if she is, be elected for either of these constituencies remains to be seen. Loyalty to your leader can be seen as a good quality although there is always the question of whether this can be squared with having represented your constituents. Time will also tell if her adherence to brand Boris, should this become toxic, will suggest that she has hitched her landau to the wrong postillion.

Before then, she has a more direct role to perform as she is a member of the Privileges Committee of the House of Commons, now under the Chair  of the redoubtable Harriet Harman, which will consider the next frame of the partygate car-crash movie, “whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament over parties in No 10 during lockdowns.”

• The continuing war in Ukraine and the disruption to just about everything may, perhaps, make DeFRA and the government re-think its priorities on food production. According to the 2021 Food Security Report, the UK is largely self-sufficient in grains, meat, milk and eggs but but can only produce 50% of its vegetables and 16% of its fruit. In the past, the Channel Islands (not part of the UK but benefitting from a close association with it) produced a good chunk of these  though are now more inclined to seek wealth in other ways. Perhaps there moment has come for the monarchy to impose its admittedly ancient rights over these crown dependencies and demand that tomatoes rather than trusts be grown there. I’m not holding my breath on this one.

How long these statistics will hold true is an open question. This article on the BBC website suggests that farmers are cutting back on food production as the costs of fuel and fertilisers soar and make some kinds of farming uneconomic. The above-mentioned article also claims that farmers’ costs are rising even faster than consumer prices. The government has claimed that a number of measures have been introduced to help support agriculture in the UK.

Recent government plans for reforms of the planning system (since abandoned, it is hoped) proposed zoning the country into various areas dependent on their suitability for development. A more back-to-basics approach might be to start with identifying land that is suitable for growing crops and safeguarding that. With suitable mitigation, houses can be built in a large number of places: lettuces are a different matter. The same report said that over 70% of the UK’s land area is used for agriculture but that the majority was used for grazing. Finding a way of moving our food consumption into something more plant-based would thus be a huge step forward, both environmentally and in terms of food security. Aside from the other criticisms it faces, meat production is by any standards an inefficient and environmentally damaging way of creating nourishment.

• If you were to find yourself swimming in the sea off the Spanish town of Vigo this summer and decide that you want to pee in the sea, you could be fined £645, although it’s hard to see how this can be enforced. The accusation is that human urine, though mainly water, contains many chemicals which are harmful to marine life. Perhaps the UK government might wish to introduce similar measures with regard to our water companies. This article in The Guardian suggests that they released untreated sewage into the sea around England and Wales for nearly 218,000 hours in 2021. If you regard each of these as pee (which is charitable) and that each lasted 30 seconds, you get over 26 million separate fines which, times £645, is – my calculator doesn’t have enough spaces to express the number though I suspect that someone in Whitehall might have one large enough. The next thing would then be to start issuing some fines…

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

Census time

The Office for National Stistics has recently released some data about population and household estimates derived from the 2021 census. You can see more here. One of the finding is that West Berkshire has become a slightly more crowded place to live over the last 10 years, though not so you’d notice: the population density has increased slightly from 218 to 229 people per sq km in that period. If you really want to see as few people as possible, then Eden or Powys (both 26/sq km) are the places to head for; if you want lots of them then move to Tower Hamlets in London (15,695/sq km).

More significant is the increased ageing of the population, part of a well-publicised national trend. Across England and Wales, the population rose by over 3.5m between 2011 and 2021: more than half of this increase (1.84m) was among people over 65, a group which now makes up 18.6% of the population. By contrast, the number of people under 25 hardly changed at all during this period.

The ONS data enables one to to rank the 330 local authorities in England and Wales by population bands: the area that has the most people over 65 is North Norfolk (33.4%) and the fewest (ie 33oth place) is Tower Hamlets (5.6%). In our immediate area, Wiltshire is in 108th place (21.9%), the Vale in 168th (19.8%), West Berkshire 1n 171st (19.8%) and Swindon in 264th (15.9%). West Berkshire is thus about 6.5% above the national average. Clearly, the pattern is not evenly spread across this or any other district, Newbury and Thatcham probably having a lower percentage of people over 65 than some of the smaller towns and rural areas. The challenges are how communities will adapt to demographic change (quite a small drop in the number of school children, for example, can have a dramatic effect on a local school’s finances) and how the extra health and social-care costs will be paid for: the longer people live, the more complex and thus expensive their needs tend to become.

The government’s attempts to keep pace with the implications of this – conducted at the glacial scale at which all such reforms work – is a constant work in progress. Much of the actual spending is delegated to local councils: so, in each area, it is on their efficiency and finances that the success or otherwise of the care provision depends. In 2022-23, In West Berkshire, £38 of every £100 spent by the council will go on adult social care in 2022-23 and I doubt many other similar councils would be that different. These ONS figures show, these figure seems set to rise rather than fall over the coming years.

Pausing the plan

Following what I wrote on this last week, I still await confirmation from WBC as to (a) how exactly the finalisation of the local plan (which includes the regulation 19 consultation and its subsequent consideration) can now be accomplished in three months whereas previously it had been expected that this would take nine; and (b) what will happen to planning applications in the Lambourn catchment area while the full implications of the government’s regulations on nutrient neutrality, introduced in March 2022, are being considered. More on this, I hope, next week.

Other news

• A programme of activity to help the district recover from the pandemic has, West Berkshire Council has announced, provided “mental health support, distributed millions of pounds of funding to businesses and supported children and young people across West Berkshire.” A Recovery Strategy closure report is due to be considered by the Executive on Thursday 7 July.

• The latest round of members’ bids (by which local councillors can bit for projects in the ward they represent) has been announced by West Berkshire Council.

• One of the reasons why we turn up heating in our homes is because of draughts so eliminating these is a good first step in reducing both our heating bills and our carbon emissions. A new group, Draughtbusters, is being created to help tackle draughts and poor insulation in the homes of the district’s elderly and vulnerable residents. More details can be found here.

• 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 (so not long now).

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 waste and recycling 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 any one of these rather good photos from The Atlantic.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of park House, doing a great job, doing a less great job, football pitches and Irish passports.

• 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’ the moment for the Song of the Week. After a queen, a king, a prince and a duke in the last four weeks, let’s keep on moving down the list of titles: which brings us to a Count: Count Basie, no less, and his quick-fire 12-bar, Basie’s Boogie.

• So that brings us to the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Keeping another theme going, let’s have another sketch involving police officers: Fry and Laurie this time with Your Name, Sir?

• And to end matters for another week, here’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How much were the tickets for the first Glastonbury festival in 1970? Last week’s question was: We’ve just celebrated the summer solstice: how many hours and minutes of daylight did London experience on 21 June? 16 hours and 38 minutes. The nights are drawing in now, of course – it’ll be Christmas before we know it…

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