This week with Brian 11 to 18 August 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including reflections on Auntie, a rearguard action, paywalls, adverts, interest groups, fifteen stories, the meaning of Brexit, low and dry, maintaining the status quo, doing what we can, a nightingale sings, a new record, hedgehogs, cool in the pool, three monarchs, Gabriel’s flood and Belushi’s ultimatum.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday evening) 

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

• There are a number of ways one can get a snapshot of the nation’s mood and preoccupations. For some it might be the first few pages of their favourite newspaper, for others a quick flick through some favourite social-media posts. For me, it’s a glance at the BBC news website.

[more below] 

Perhaps because of my age or background, the BBC is something that I want to trust and believe in. You might say that for these very reasons my trust and belief are suspect as habit has failed to reflect changing realities. My answer to that “show me something better”.

Most major media sources have retreated behind paywalls, or are so over-run with adverts that it’s often hard to follow the articles, or are paid for or influenced by often alarming interest groups whose aims may not always be immediately apparent. Some people have told me that the  BBC’s articles are simplistic or dumbed down: but this could be translated as concise and readable. More detailed coverage on virtually every subject is only a click away. In any case, I’m not sure I want a university-level analysis of every topic. The lake of my mind is quite large but rather shallow so I doubt I could cope with this approach.

The articles are created by people who care about writing (albeit in a personality-free style) and who bother to research things and quote sources, all of which puts the results some way ahead of most social-media posts. They also avoid the worst excesses of sensationalism (as they don’t need to sell copies), which puts the results some way ahead of most newspapers. Something that’s free, regularly updated, clearly written, avoids overt terror tactics and has no adverts tests pretty high with me.

The BBC has long been fighting a rearguard action against plans to close it down in its current form. The forces ranged against it include but are not limited to Conservative Party libertarians, private media groups such as Fox News and the social-media giants. As my default position is one of general disagreement with the views and ambitions of these, that gives me another reason to like Auntie, as the BBC is known. It’s an excellent nickname: it conveys the idea of someone old-fashioned and prim and proper who is none the less happy to give you a consoling hug when you’ve scraped your knee but, when the mood strikes her, to dance round the kitchen table with a glass of Chardonnay in her hand and Mama Mia going full-blast on the stereo.

This is not to say that a glance at Auntie’s website is always a comforting, celebratory or relaxing experience. This afternoon I had a look at it, as I always do at this time of the week, in a search for inspiration for this column. I was met with fifteen stories, each in its own way more depressing than the previous one. It was as if we were in the middle of a war – oh, hang on: we are in the middle of several.

Sorry if what follows is a tad depressing but it does seem to be the reality. Also, you know what they say: a problem shared is a problem halved. So, here goes…

• First up was Rishi Sunak saying that he would rather lose the Tory election campaign by doing the right thing than “win on a false promise.” It seems fair to assume that if Liz Truss wins, as she probably will, he won’t be moving back into Number 11. He was the convincing winner amongst the MPs but seems to be falling some way short among the 150,000-odd party members, suggesting an alarming disconnect between the grass roots and its official representatives. I’m not sure if that’s bad news for the rest of us or not. He is also quoted as referring to his “moral responsibility”, a phrase which is rarely heard from a politician other than at election time and should always get our alarm bells ringing. Still three weeks to go on this one.

• Then we have”consumer expert” Martin Lewis telling us that the energy crisis is “on the scale of the pandemic” and that government support needs to “double up”. That certainly seems to be what’s happening to the predicted rise in energy costs. This has completely blind-sided me and, I suspect, pretty much everyone else.

• On the same theme, we were then told that supermarkets are not passing on lower fuel prices to consumers. I know it may be hard to believe that supermarkets could behave like this but there it is: the RAC has spoken.

• The next story is from across the pond and covers the latest furore surrounding ex-PotUS Donald Trump, a man who has mercifully been comparatively out of the news recently. It seems he’s refusing to answer questions as part of a New York State investigation into his business practices. This follows an FBI search of is Florida mansion earlier this week. It’s obviously enough to make him feel that he’s the victim of (another) liberal-Democrat-media conspiracy.

• Back to Blighty and we learned that 25% of the families who’ve taken in Ukranian refugees don’t want to continue doing so once the six months is up. This could be translated (and here comes a quick kick on the shins for Auntie under the tea-time table) as saying that 75% of people are either happy to do so or haven’t decided. I don’t think I could cope with even an old and dear friend living in our house for more than about two weeks: when you consider that the Ukrainians are complete strangers to their British hosts, have escaped from a situation which most of us can barely imagine and that the two parties have no common first language in which this can be discussed (or, in today’s parlance, “unpacked”), the 25% figure is pretty impressive. The subliminal message seems to be that there’s some pushback going on to what was a few months ago widely seen as axiomatically a good thing.

• “Russia must exit Ukraine nuclear plantthe next headline shouted. This would have been an alarming enough observation a couple of years ago: now the two countries are at war and that the Zaporizhzhia (what a scary word: lots of “Z”s always spooks British people) nuclear power station is being used as a kind of human shield, it’s elevated to terrifying.

• Two domestic health stories followed. The first told the story of a woman with stage four breast cancer who claims that the NHS let her down at every stage of her treatment: perhaps Covid was the culprit here, perhaps not. The other concerned the possible return of polio, a disease consigned to the past tense these 20 years, after concerning amounts of the virus were found in London’s sewers. A childhood vaccination campaign has been launched.

• There was then an article about the Broadway show which will adopt facemark-only nights, proving that Covid is still alive and well.  Figures have recently been falling in the UK but, as we’re reminded whenever we make an investment, what can go down can also go up and vice versa.

• There were then two articles of the kind which, as a parent, I cannot bear to read, about the death of a child and about the disappearance of a young woman.

• Scarcely better than these two were two stories of sexual domination: Marcus Mumford admitting that he was abused as a six-year-old; and the revelations of the “dark side” of Britain’s most decorated footballer Ryan Giggs.

• Then there was a piece about an Iraqi actress who is suing The Economist over claims that it used a picture of her to suggest that Arab women were fatter than Arab men. I haven’t read the article and have no view on or interest in the subject but it might suggest yet again that anything remotely critical of anyone needs to go straight to court.

• Finally, there was a report of one dead and three injured in a shooting incident in the island of Skye, not somewhere normally associated with such things.

• In addition, the BBC news page’s top menu bar has four headings which weren’t there three years ago but which are likely to be for some time: War in Ukraine, Cost of Living, Coronavirus and Climate. Of the above 14 stories, Covid only featured one and climate not at all, despite the fact that our crops are dying, our rivers and reservoirs are drying up and another heatwave is on the way. It’s also significant that the top story, about the Conservative leadership race, was certainly not the most important.

• All this has, like our departed River Lambourn, left me both low and dry. Many of the above stories are down to the normal awfulness of some aspects of our behaviour, which are beyond the ability of any government completely to suppress. Others, however, are not.

Perhaps the aspect the depresses me most is that our government’s reaction during the pandemic showed just how quickly it could act when it came to retaining or supporting the status quo. The furlough scheme, grants to local councils, eat out to help out, lockdown, bounce-back loans and the eye-watering PPE contracts and consultancy payments were – in decreasing order of effectiveness or rectitude in my view – were at least done quickly. No such urgency has been shown about the climate emergency. Why? Because this involves changing things, an altogether more hazardous undertaking.

The government’s pandemic response was essentially to put the economy and society into a state of suspended animation for as long as the virus was at large. Climate change – the clue’s in the name – involves making a serious commitment to re-assessing many existing assumptions. As the world in in a rare old geo-political mess at present, with half a dozen powerful players at each other’s throats in a variety of combinations and for a variety of reasons, this requires also the courage to do something unilateral.

• The UK is not a part of the EU, Russia, China, India, the Arab world or the USA. It is the sixth richest country in the world. It has a seat on the UN Security Council. Its capital is, after New York, regarded as the most powerful city in the world. If Brexit meant anything, wasn’t it an opportunity to show some world-class leadership on climate change? If Brexit was so empowering, why should we be fearful of any repercussions? If Brexit was so liberating, why should we be so afraid of doing what our government must know is right? Instead we have seen delays and compromises on important measures, backtracking on fossil-fuel use, compromises on CO2 targets and a general lack of urgency and leadership. What was the point of Brexit – what is the point of the UK? Are we going to try to use this divisive and fanciful separation from a larger group for some great purpose that perhaps was not previously realisable: or are we going to pull up the drawbridge and sing folk songs of merrie England as we wait for night to fall?

• There are some positive things as well…

Many young people (16 to 25) seem far more aware and informed than I was at their age about the problems that we face. They may not always be right – which of us are? – but they are not always wrong. Their views need to be taken seriously, whatever political or other movement they have chosen to espouse. After all, it is their future more than ours which is at stake.

Local organisations (including councils and voluntary groups) performed brilliantly in the pandemic, often despite the actions of central government. Such bodies can make a difference. The key factor is how much Whitehall recognises how ignorant it is of local conditions. During Covid this happened automatically and immediately as a result of the thousands of community groups that supported vulnerable people and, unpardonably later, when it realised that local councils knew more about their areas than the government did with regard to test and trace. Can this be extended to climate change and energy independence? It can if there is a statutory predisposition applied in favour of community energy schemes such as solar farms and an immediate planning requirement to assume that new developments will include features such as ground- or air-source heat pumps (rather than, at present, these being in the gift of developers to offer, or not).

None of us, including Putin, Xi Jinping or Biden, can change the world, much as they all  pretend they can. All of us can, however, change the part of the world we can influence, even if it’s only our own family. Whether it’s to do with carbon emissions, water usage, plastic recycling or lawn mowing, we can all do what we can to normalise different ways of behaving.

Most people don’t have the luxury that most of us in West Berkshire the the immediate area have to indulge our youth, support our local organisations and refine our habits. For the majority of the world’s population, the immediate need is to find the next way of feeding their family, regardless of the consequences (as increasingly applies to all of us). We are all who we are and where we are, not anyone or anywhere else: but, whatever we can ourselves do, we should certainly try to do it…

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; Burghfield area; Wantage area

Hedgehog highways

The words “hedgehogs” and “planning” are not often found in the same sentence but all that changed a few weeks back when Newbury Town Council resolved to request that all new developments in the town include a 13cm hole in the bottom of fences that allows hedgehogs to move freely between gardens. What followed was a statement from WBC; an article on the BBC website; another, different statement from WBC; a revision to the BBC article; several letters to local media publishers; and a public petition.

This separate post takes a closer look at the issue and discusses what this tells us about the problems of planning enforcement, the overburdening not only of developers but also of officers, normalising environmentally-friendly features of new builds and a PR opportunity for developers.

Cool in the pool

As I’ve mentioned a few times, swimming is my thing: indeed, apart from walking up and downstairs to my study about twenty times a day, digging in the garden where Penny tells me to and uncorking bottles of wine, it’s about the only exercise I get. My eye therefore alighted with some alarm on this story on the BBC website with the ominous headline “Swimming pools: concern as closures across the UK are announced.” The article reports that 60 have closed in the last three years. Six authorities have lost a total of 15 pools in this time.

We’ve been here before, of course, with the libraries about seven years ago when WBC at first felt that the only solution to a funding problem (caused by the government) was to close them all, except for Newbury’s. Thankfully, sanity and people-power came to the rescue. A combination of imaginative ownership solutions, community support groups and volunteer recruitment (which, to its credit, WBC eventually embraced) reversed the decision with the result that all the libraries were saved.

The crisis affecting the pools is, however, more complex and not just restricted to money. Rising heating costs, a shortage of vital chemicals, staff shortages and a drop in customer numbers have all contributed to what is described as our old friend “the perfect storm”. On the last point, the pools were closed for long periods during the pandemic and it seems in many cases that numbers have not recovered to pre-Covid levels. Each authority will be nervously looking to see just what a dent in its finances this has caused and what can be done about it. In WBC’s case, the management of these is up for tender with a final decision being made early next year. It will be interesting to see what changes the new managers (if new they be) propose.

I asked Leisure portfolio holder Howard Woollaston if we were likely to see West Berkshire featuring in any list of pool closures. “There is currently no intention of closing any of the pools operated by West Berkshire Council,” he reassured me. Hopefully that word “currently” will apply for a long time. Closure is certainly a pretty desperate option. Closing anything of this nature takes time and is deeply unpopular (a relevant consideration, as many authorities including WBC have an election on the horizon). Staff need to be laid off and paid off. A closed building is a magnet for vandals and arsonists so security and insurance are still needed. Swimming pools are hard to convert to another purpose and, like any facility, the longer they are closed for the more expensive they are to re-open. All in all, one wonders if some of the councils that have rushed into closures are finding that, in the short-term at least, their costs have actually increased as a result: close leisure in haste, repent closure at leisure.

No matter what assurances are offered, swimming pools might be seen as a soft targett, as were the libraries. Councils could gamble that costs and material shortages will eventually normalise and that customer numbers will eventually rise. How long a council can sustain such a policy depends on how healthy its finances are. Let’s hope that WBC and the other councils in our area like the Vale and Wiltshire have both  enough in the bank and the will to keep these places open. In the current climate, the same could be said about all non-statutory services provided by any council at any level. We can take heart from the saving of West Berkshire’s libraries: none the less, closure services at any time is always an option. We have been warned…

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has issued a statement on the subject of a consultation on  “Moving traffic offences”, which could be read one of several ways (I think the comms team meant “Moving-traffic offences), which you can read more about here. The consultation closes on 20 September.

• From the same council, click here for details of the 2020 Summer Reading Challenge.

• West Berkshire Council is hoping to secure £4.5 million for a series of local projects following bids made earlier this week. “If we succeed in securing a share of the Government’s UK Shared Prosperity Fund,” this statement reads, “we would use £1 million of that money for projects focussed around four main themes.  These include: re-designing Newbury Wharf; creating new sports facilities in Purley on Thames; supporting local culture and heritage activities in rural communities; and giving advice and guidance to businesses to help them thrive.”

Click here for news of summer events and activities for families and children in West Berkshire.

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.

Click here for the latest museums newsletter from WBC.

• 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 WBC.

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 is this nightingale which seems to be playing about three different instruments at once.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of the CoE’s views on homosexuality, slow action on climate, traveller provision in West Berkshire, fixing the NHS, a day of reckoning approaches and a low mark on the economy.

• 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, here we clumsily land at the Song of the Week. Peter Gabriel’s first (eponymous) solo album is so full of emotional memories for me that I can hardly bear to listen to it. The time has surely come to rise above these: so here is its closing track, Here Comes the Flood

• Which bounces us into the Comedy Sketch of the Week. John Belushi was…well, John Belushi. Here he is issuing an ultimatum to Saturday Night Live’s producers in 1977.

• And that crashes us into the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What record did Will Sneed set on 10 August 2022? Last week’s question was: What makes the years 1066, 1483, 1689 and 1936 unique in English history? These were the only ones in which there were three monarchs: for reasons of, respectively, conquest, ambition, revolution and abdication.

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area please click on the appropriate link

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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale