This week with Brian 15 to 22 September 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including strange times, the sentient queue, other Charles IIIs, two days out, not got a clue, as slow as a glacier, a bloody nose, a cat in the grille, more pavement cables, playing politics, seeing for yourself, an upside-down guitar, no white men and meeting the Queen.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (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

• The last week has been a strange time though not, fortunately, as febrile and morbid a period as were the days following Diana’s death in 1997. On that occasion, no one – from the Queen down – really knew what to do and what level of reaction or type of funeral was appropriate. Then, there was a definite air of making it up as you went along. Certainly no pre-planned protocols for the obsequies of the divorced wife of the Prince of Wales would have included Elton John performing a re-worked version of Candle in the Wind in Westminster Abbey.

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No such improvisations will take place this time. Operation London Bridge has long been planned and refined and, probably, secretly rehearsed: eleven days of carefully orchestrated ceremonies and procedures the precision of which one cannot but admire. As anyone who has had to arrange a funeral will know, the various things that need to be done act as a useful way filling the days with practical concerns. Certainly Charles has not had time on his hands, zipping around all over his new kingdom in his performance of the first part of the duties for which he has so long prepared.

The only times he seems to have come unstuck so far involved pens. The first was a tetchy moment at St James’ Palace when it became clear his desk had too many objects on it and several of those in the wrong place. My sympathies are entirely with the King. One can only assume that the table had been set by a millennial who had perhaps never seen a pen tray, and certainly not an inkwell, and thought they were some kind of memory sticks or docking devices for the royal laptop.

Then on 13 September another pen crisis unfolded, following hard on the heels of a what’s-the-date? crisis. He dealt with this problem in the time-honoured male way by thrusting the offending object at his wife to deal with and then stalking off in a huff. Perhaps Docusign or a similar online service is the way forward in the new reign.

• And then there’s the queue, which has rapidly become a thing unto itself. It has its own online presence and its own protocols and rules. It might be on the point of acquiring collective sentience. To find out about it, you just need to type “queue” – Google knows the rest. It’s also growing. “Queue end currently near Bermondsey Beach,” a Twitter post laconically announced at 2.30pm on 15 Sept. “Forecast is cloudy,” it ended, suggesting that the queue even has its own weather. It may already be one of the man-made objects which reputedly can be seen from outer space. After a couple of days with someone in the queue you will surely have learned all that there is to be known about them. People will fall in love there; others will split up. We’ve waited 70 years for a queue like this and we certainly seem to be making the most of it. Queuing is often held up an example of one of the few things in which Britain is still pre-eminent. As this and other websites suggest, however, we aren’t the only ones who seem to have it nailed.

• So, now it’s Charles III: the phrase doesn’t roll off the tongue just yet. Other countries, however, have been there with their Charles IIIs before us, though not always in a completely straightforward way. Let me introduce you to some of them.

Just looking at kings and emperors in Western Europe (if we add counts and dukes in we’re going to be here all day), the first Charles III was Holy Roman Emperor (the ruler of Germany, effectively, in as much as anyone was) between 881 and 888. He seems to have inherited none of his grandfather Charlemagne’s vim and zip and later became known to posterity as Charles the Fat.

Even less happily nicknamed, perhaps, is Charles III of West Franconia (ruler of France, effectively, in as much as anyone was) from 898 to 922, who is known as Charles the Simple. Europe in the centuries following the Carolingian Empire of was in a bit of a muddle and it’s fair to say that neither of these two made their mark on events. No role model so far.

For the next Charles III we need to go east to Hungary, which had one of these from 1711 to 1740. Confusingly, he was also Charles VI when considered in his role as Holy Roman Emperor. Even more numerically blessed was Charles III of Spain (1759 to 1788) who was also Charles VI of Naples and Charles V of Sicily.

The numbers can be confusing in other ways. Although the most recent king of Sweden called Charles was Charles XV, there was no Charles III. For reasons that must have seemed sound at the time (something to do with aligning the regnal numbers to biblical texts), the numbering system started at VII. The third king of Sweden called Charles was Charles IX (1604 to 1611). Norway also had a Charles III (called Charles III John for some reason) but if you were referring to him in his capacity as King of Sweden then it would have been Charles XIV. All clear?

Our own previous Charlies were a mixed bag. Charles I (also Charles I of Scotland) was, in the words of my friend John Williams (who like me studied history all those years ago) was “astonishingly arrogant, selfish, scheming, untrustworthy and prepared to sacrifice anyone for his personal beliefs,” something that we’ve seen a bit of these last three years. As a king, you have to screw up pretty badly to get yourself executed.

His son Charles II was more adept as a politician and managed the seemingly impossible task of getting himself invited back as king in 1660 more or less on his own terms. The drift in Europe at that time was towards absolutism which Charles, after eleven years in exile at the court of his cousin Louis XIV, had developed a taste for. English political circumstances in the late 17th century were, rather different from those in France.

Were he to have had a legitimate heir things might have been different. The odds of this happening lengthened considerably when, on being introduced to his negotiated bride, Catherine of Braganza, he turned in horror to his courtiers and said “you have brought me a bat, not a woman.” No legitimate heirs ensued.

His brother James II rapidly proved even more tricky than had his father Charles I, so provoking another crisis, the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The result of this forms the basis of the constitution which Charles III is subject to. England is almost unique in that for nearly 350 years it has suffered no individually dramatic changes to its system of government. Whether or not this is a good thing is open to debate. Certainly, any Panglossian view of the British constitution explodes when confronted by the bizarre and bloated anachronism that is the House of Lords, a cross between an aristocratic museum, a retirement home for politicians and civil servants and a private members’ club for political donors.

• Returning to the list of monarchs called Charles, the two most famous are Charles the Great, aka Charlemagne, who was already ruler of what is now France and who in 800 re-invented himself as Holy Roman Emperor (a perplexing and internally contradictory institution that survived for over 1,000 years and which was accurately described by Voltaire as being neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire); and Charles V (Charles I of Spain) who was unfortunate enough to find himself running or trying to run the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Low Countries, Burgundy, Sicily, Naples and most of South America while also having to deal with the Reformation.

Both these empires collapsed into confusion and discord almost immediately following their  founders’ deaths. Both careers tell us that any empire, whether created (Charlemagne) or inherited (Charles V) soon becomes impossible to hold together without a unifying theme and overwhelming technological supremacy over your enemies. In Europe, only the the Roman Empire accomplished this for any length of time. Both Charlemagne and Charles V tried to to re-create this. Both failed. Our own Charles will, it is hoped, be subject to no such temptations.

My own vote for the most effective Charles is Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel: even though he wasn’t a king at all. He was the Mayor of Paris and in many ways more powerful than were the kings in those confused dog-days of the Merovingian dynasty. In 732, exactly a hundred years after Mohamed’s death, the armies of Islam had over-run an area extending from the Indian sub-continent to Iberia and had advanced into what is now Central France. At a battle variously known as Tours, Poitiers and the Highway of the Martyrs, Charles Martel inflicted the first significant defeat on the Muslim forces and forced their influence back to beyond the Pyrenees. Were this to have gone the other way, the history of Europe would have been very, very different. It seems unlikely our Charles III, or the country over which he reigns, will need to face such a test, at least not openly.

• To wrench ourselves back to the present, Boris,  must be fuming. He has long regarded Churchill as his hero: and Churchill was PM when Elizabeth II succeeded in 1952. How fitting it would have been for BoJo’s legacy were he to have been her last PM. What a bookend; what a legacy; what a winning phrase on the back of his autobiography. He missed it by two days. It would have been interesting to have seen how he could have contained himself during a period which was all about someone else when he would have been tempted to have made it all about him. Fortunately, we shall never know.

• I mentioned above that those involved in the funeral arrangements know exactly what they are meant to be doing in these eleven days. The rest of us haven’t got a clue. When George VI died it was probably the case that everything pretty much shut down for a week (that’s how the Daily Express described it), certainly on the day of the funeral.

Seventy years on, we have many fewer certainties. Back then, for instance, every man would probably have worn a black tie. I can’t remember the last time I saw a person in the flesh who was wearing a tie at all. Armbands? Dark clothes? How should we express any sorrow we feel? Are outward signs necessary? Are they even acceptable? Is it life as normal or should we spend at least a couple of minutes taking stock? If so, should we be public about this? Is it possible to evince genuine sentiments of loss towards someone whom most of us have never met? Is being royalist, perhaps briefly, cool? What will any online emotions or feelings I express do for my likes and shares? None of these problems faced our ancestors in 1952. The king had died: for a week or so, we mourned. That was, perhaps, it.

• One of the confusions now has been with what events should not happen during the period of mourning. Until today I believed that there was a clear rule that local council meetings must not take place. It’s since been suggested that it’s up to councils themselves to decide (which leads to an anomaly that I look at in the Across the Area section below). Other organisations, ranging from sporting bodies to leisure centres and from event organisers to shops have taken different views which, individually and collectively, admit of no particular logic and are only tolerable because it’s only for a short time.

Few have got themselves into as much of a tangle as has Centre Parcs. In 1952 (were Centre Parcs to have existed then) the damage would have come from mis-judging the national mood by not closing: now, I suspect it will come from having done so. The damage now might not be reputational – if you want that kind of holiday experience in the UK then there aren’t too many other places you can choose from – but in the litigation from broken contracts of provision of service, which may or may not be defensible on the grounds of a monarch’s funeral.

It seems that Putin has received a bloody nose from a Ukrainian counter-attack this week. However, it’s easier to take territory in a war (even if it was originally yours) than it is to hold it. Russia is unlikely to regard this as the final word. The cost in human life is considerable: but one of things I got from looking at the videos of  this aspect of the conflict was how much mess and damage had also been caused, which will take billions of dollars to restore which should have been spent on things to combat climate change.

• I don’t know if Putin has grasped this fact but there’s a real chance that if we carry on as we are for another few decades then a large number of us are going to be dead and the the survivors will have changes to forced upon them. Climate change is not, like Covid or Putin’s invasion, a sudden onslaught with measurable casualties. It’s as slow as a glacier, as remorseless as the tide and, on a day-to-day basis, unspectacular. Even climatic catastrophes like floods, droughts or wildfires can be ascribed partly to other causes and can be viewed in isolation and then forgotten. This does not make its impact insignificant; it just makes it un-newsworthy. You can tell a lot about how a government views a problem by who it puts in charge of it. Liz Truss has decided to put Jacob Rees-Mogg in charge of energy…

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

Queen Elizabeth II: statements from the area’s councils

As mentioned ;last week, on 9 September, a statement was issued by West Berkshire Council. “The Councillors and Officers of West Berkshire Council are deeply saddened by the death of Her Majesty The Queen,” the statement began. “Our thoughts are with the Royal Family. In this bulletin you can read our tribute to Queen Elizabeth II and more about how you can share your memories and pay your tribute.

You can click here to read the communication in full.

Statements were all issued by the Vale of White Horse Council and Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council. Town and parish councils will have also issued their own statements.

West Berkshire’s fund

On 8 August, West Berkshire Council, in association with Greenham Trust, announced “a £100,000 Emergency Cost of Living Crisis Fund to help charities support those affected by unaffordable hikes in energy prices and double-digit inflation.” Click here for more.

Last week we published an article about the background to the cost of living crisis as well as an overview of the various responses on a national, regional and local level. Over the next week or so we’ll be adding the reactions from the local councils and organisations around our area.

Pavement cables (again)

I wrote last week about the potential  problem of cables being laid across pavements to allow people to charge their EVs if they had no off-street parking and there was no EV charging point nearby, and what could be done to mitigate this problem.

My point was, and is, that the lack of any guidance on this issue from WBC (at least one other neighbouring council has provided this) suggests that WBC either lacks the will to demonstrate leadership or doesn’t think that the issue is sufficiently important. If WBC wishes to encourage the use of electric vehicles, adding charge points is essential. I accept that this may take time. However between 25% and 35% of West Berkshire’s residents may live in homes with no on-street parking, many of whom will want to charge their car from their own power if a way can be found to run cables reasonably safely across pavements. Some guidance would be useful as to how people might do this.

My email exchanges with the portfolio holder have not been encouraging. On 8 September he replied to my questions with a three-point answer, only one aspect of which was even remotely relevant to what I had asked. This was that “several types of covered gulley are being trialled in Newbury” but that “these have not progressed as quickly as we would have liked, largely because of challenges with staffing within the team.” (These gullies are a red herring as they will almost certainly be costly and don’t address what people can do for themselves now.)

OK, fine and really sorry about the familiar staffing-problems excuse: but what I had asked was whether WBC had any immediate view on the subject, perhaps involving following Hampshire’s advice. Despite pressing for clarification on this and other related issues I’ve received no reply. It’s thus hard to escape the conclusion that WBC has no particular interest in helping the significant proportion of its residents who rely on on-street parking to be compliant should they wish to buy an EV: which is, as I understand it, one of the things that WBC’s declaration of a climate emergency requires.

Seeing it for yourself

Some councils including West Berkshire, have decided that meetings cannot take place during the period of mourning which ends after the Queen’s funeral on Monday 19 September (others have taken different views). But how does this affect meetings which take place in two parts, one of which is before the funeral and the other after it?

Planning committees meet to decide the very small number of applications which aren’t determined by officers. These can end up with the committee either because they’ve been called in by the ward members (or, more rarely, by officers) or because they have received more than 10 objections. WBC has three such committees: the Western Area, the Eastern Area and the District, the latter being used as a final arbiter if one of the other two can’t decide and for applications which have a district-wide significance. The Western (WAPC) and Eastern (EAPC) Committees meet every three weeks and the District Committee every four to six weeks. By definition, the matters that come before them are important. They are often large and contentious and will, if approved, result in a significant and permanent change to the area.

A week before the committee meets, the members attend a site visit at which officers will explain what is being proposed. Local residents, in support or otherwise, may also be present. For many committee members, this will be the first time they will have seen the location. Attendance isn’t compulsory but is, I believe, strongly encouraged (as it should be). No amount of photos or even videos can replace the experience of being there and getting a feel for the surroundings and the scale of the project.  They also provide sight of the planning system in operation and an opportunities for officers, councillors and members of the public to look at and discuss the same thing at the same time.

The WAPC will be holding its next meeting on Wednesday 21 September, two days after the funeral. The site visit should have taken this week before but was cancelled because of the period of mourning. This makes even less sense given that a Planning Advisory Group meeting took place as normal on 15 September. As matters stand, this is making it appear that site visits aren’t seen as that important. This is likely  to increase non-participation by members and, in time, perhaps lead to their abandonment altogether. It’s true that site visits didn’t take place during Covid (bizarrely as by their nature these take place outside) but that was the result of national regulations. No such law is in force now.

The other point is that it’s possible that, if an application is refused and it can be suggested that a different view might have been arrived at were a visit to have happened, this might constitute grounds for an appeal on the grounds that due process hadn’t been followed. After all, as site visits always happen when it’s legally possible to do so, clearly they are part of the process. This is a remote risk but given how expensive (imagine a six-figure sum) an appeal can be, a prudent planning authority would do anything it reasonably could to reduce it. In this case, all that was needed was a diary change or, better still, a bit of common sense.

Playing politics

Governments, councils and indeed all organisations will always find themselves criticised by people who believe things ought to be done differently. One of the profoundly depressing aspects of public life is the belief that an election victory confers on the winners a monopoly of the truth. A ruling party will rarely if ever admit the other side can possibly have a good idea or wise suggestion. Behind the scenes, where councillors or MPs from different parties have to get along and compromise to get anything done, there must be a good deal of this. In public, however, all parties in general portray themselves as being in all cases right and the others in all cases wrong. Any criticism which emanates from someone with a different coloured rosette can be dismissed as just “playing politics”. From here it’s but a small step to taking issue with opponents personally. After all, if their policies and views are axiomatically wrong, what’s the point of respecting the person who expressed them?

At a national level, governments introduce wide-ranging measures which are genuinely political, in that they adhere to philosophies that support (or oppose) such concepts as capitalism or socialism. At a local level, however, all councillors are to a largely “playing politics.” The reality is that West Berkshire Council, and most others of its kind, is first and foremost acting on behalf of central government as a social-care provider (this accounts for about half its expenditure). Much else is spent on equally statutory and apolitical matters like collecting rubbish, fixing pot holes and running libraries.

In addition, all councils get involved with projects that are discretionary and thus controversial. That’s not the same as saying that they’re political. Looking at some of the most divisive issues in West Berkshire over the last four years – Sandleford, the London Road Industrial Estate, the football grounds, the 2,500-home plan for Thatcham, Readibus and CIL payments – it’s quite possible to imagine these as having been implemented by any of the parties.

The reason they are often seen as political is because the Conservatives have been in power here since 2005 and it’s thus hard to separate the discretionary activities of the council from the political completion of the ruling party. The cut and thrust of elections, and the winner-takes-all municipal structure under the cabinet system of government which West Berkshire follows, deepens these divisions and there adversarial climate. Political game-playing can also be a convenient comfort blanket. It’s a lot easier to keep the faith with a particular policy if you believe that the opposition parties are only attacking it out of political opportunism rather than because it might be flawed.

There are also a number of people from outside the council who regularly offer opposing views. Most have a particular interest on matters including planning, environmental issues, finance, water drainage and sports provision. It’s impossible to generalise about their motives but I think it’s worth starting from the premise that they probably have better things to do with their time, that they really care and that they may know what they’re talking about; perhaps, on occasions, know more than do the people who are refuting the claims (particularly if the council is lacking a senior officer in that area).

Anyone with an interest in and a knowledge of something is not going to write just the one letter and put up with a rebuff. They will write more. The tone of both these and the replies will become more fractious. These may spill into newsprint, websites or social media where, because of being written for a wider audience, the sentiments become more robustly expressed. It often doesn’t take long for them to be branded as vexatious. This, like the accusation of political interest, is perfect way of short-circuiting the issue. Once you can denigrate the character, motives or allegiance of a critic, it becomes a lot easier to ignore what they are actually saying.

Clearly there are cases where complaints are genuinely vexatious. I accept that it’s not easy to spot the difference. Even so, an organisation might use each as an opportunity to reflect on whether it could have done anything better, perhaps merely by better communication. I’m far from certain that this or any other council does a good enough job at listening to, working with and harnessing the knowledge of critics from outside its bubble. On one level, this is logical: “we fought the election and won it,” a party might say, “so now we’re going to do things our way.” That is fine as far as it goes but many of the issues that have caused such dissent are not the result of a manifesto pledge and so have no particular legitimacy.

There are also a couple of self-interested aspects. As The Godfather taught us, it’s often wise to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Furthermore, involving someone in a decision, in however  minor a way, gives them a vested interest in its success and thus makes them less likely to criticise it. Finally, there’s always the possibility – outlandish as it may seem to those in power – that the critics may actually be right.

All in all, there must be a better way of doing things than this. After all, it’s not as if any of the issues mentioned above have been unqualified successes; or even successes at all; or completed; or, in some cases, even started.

Then there’s the S-word. Either because they genuinely believe they are never wrong, or because they fear it least using it will open the twin floodgates of electoral disaster and legal liability, or because they worry it might make them seem weak, I can’t remember a politician of any political complexion say “I’m sorry.” This doesn’t, of course include utterances like “I’m sorry if some people do not agree with this decision,” which conveys no sense of apolog but, all too often, merely a regret that most of us are too stupid to see that it was the right, the best and perhaps the only thing to do.

“There can be no doubt that criticism is good for people and institutions that are part of public life…and should be an effective engine for change.” Which vexatious, politically motivated troublemaker came up with that comment, then? In fact, it was Queen Elizabeth II, in 1992.

I must stress again that is not directed against any one party. We happen to be blue in West Berkshire but I don’t see anything significantly different in the Vale of White Horse (an area I know less well, admittedly), which is orange. It’s really to do with human nature; and with the way local politics operates as a kind of miniature-village version of the Westminster model. This will be brought into ever-sharper focus as we move towards the elections in early May 2023. Whether the new administration, of whatever colour or colours it proves to be, will operate the machinery in a different way remains to be seen.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has issued a statement on the subject of moving-traffic offences, which you can read more about here. The consultation closes on 20 September (so not long now).

• Primary school pupils across West Berkshire are being asked to help name WBC’s new food-waste collection vehicles. “The competition is being run through schools,” a WBC statement says, “and we’re looking forward to seeing some fun suggestions to put a smile on residents’ faces as they venture out across the district.  Book tokens and family swim passes are up for grabs for the schools and pupils who submit winning entries. Details of the competition and how to enter have been emailed directly to all primary schools in West Berkshire. The competition closes on midnight at 25 September. More information on the new food waste service can be found here. I wonder if “Trashy McTrashface” will pick up any votes…

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.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• 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 for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. If you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animal of the week is Sully the cat in Aberdeen who somehow got stuck inside a car grille before be released and returned home, traumatised but otherwise unharmed.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of admitting mistakes, BoJo walking away, Thames Water and food bins.

• 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 are at the Song of the Week. My thanks to Prof JC for sending me this lovely piece of music, Dobla Sento, performed by the Malagasy guitarist, Joel Rabesolo. it’s also proof, if proof be needed, that you can play a guitar any damned way round you like. I mean, there’s no reason why the lower-pitched strings have to be it the top, is there?

• Which brings up the Comedy Sketch of the Week. The Queen was rather a good film and will probably repay a re-watch at some point. In this scene, Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen (who seems to look even more like Tony Blair than Tony Blair does) have their first formal meeting.

• And so it must finally be the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which team won the FA Cup in 1952, the year Queen Elizabeth II became Queen? Last week’s question was: What is (I think) unique about the four senior members of Liz Truss’s cabinet? The answer is that none of them are white men (and only two are men).

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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