This week with Brian 13 to 20 October 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including total ignorance, defending the system, the energy market, a big reform, helping or hindering, investment zones, going solar, a psycho night-club bouncer, the tip of the iceberg, libertarian drivel, fat-bear voter fraud, political abuse, a forest, four birthdays, the Acropolis where the Parthenon is and a certain number of Popes.

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

• There are an awful lot of things I don’t understand. Quadratic equations, computer programming, American football, the novels of Henry James, opera, how cars work, bridge bidding, company accounts, the Gulf Stream: the list goes on and on. I’m not particularly proud of this, but just saying. Some of these things I don’t understand because I’ve never applied myself to them. However, one might have hoped that some of this stuff might have rubbed off over all these years and left at least a patina of knowledge. It seems not; looking back at these black holes, and many others I could have mentioned, I have to admit that my ignorance in these areas is virtually total.

[more below] 

• To this I might add my almost total lack of knowledge of how the energy market works. For decades I didn’t think about it particularly: it was just the gas or whatever bill. For the last 15 years they’ve been pretty stable and then all hell breaks loose.

Although an increasing amount of the electricity we consume – perhaps 40% – comes from renewables, much of the rest is provided by gas. Moreover, 85% of UK homes have gas boilers (as opposed to <50% in Germany and France). We appear to be addicted to the stuff (though less so here in the Lambourn Valley, which has no gas supply; which makes it all seem even more unfair).

• The government’s plan, in so far as I understand it, appears to be to reform the complex machinery that provides, or should provide, a satisfactory compromise between allowing energy companies to make a decent profit and ensuring that domestic and commercial consumers get a fair deal.

Earlier this month, it launched a consultation document (Review of Electricity Market Arrangements) which seems clearly to accept that the current system is outdated.  On p14, the document states that “the underlying wholesale market arrangements had largely been designed for a fossil fuel-based electricity system. We now need a set of market arrangements – both the underlying structure and the policies which fit into that structure – which can deliver a cost-effective transition to the future larger, cleaner and more decentralised electricity system we will need, as well as ensuring a smooth transition away from our remaining fossil fuel generation capacity.”

The most recent manifestation of this was, as reported by Reuters on 11 October, the announcement of “a temporary revenue cap on low-carbon electricity generators, which the industry said was a “de facto windfall tax” on renewable energy producers. Opinion differs as to whether this is a windfall tax, and thus a U-turn (the government says not). Energy Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is quoted by Reuters as saying that the move was about correcting the discrepancy between the amount some power generators can make due to the design of the country’s electricity market. Another point of view is provided in this article in The Guardian. Others exist elsewhere.

I don’t know how much the problems with the current mechanism could have been predicted. However, as this is based on the price of gas, which we’re trying to move away from using, surely it was clear this was going to need a major overhaul quite soon. Wouldn’t this have been better done when prices were stable and low and any temporary blips thus less dramatic? One can’t blame Liz Truss for this as she’s only been in office for five weeks – it seems so much longer – but her party has been, jointly or on its own, since 2010. The present situation could be compared to an attempt to install a sprinkler system in a building which has already caught fire.

Nor is it easy to believe that Mr Rees-Mogg has fully bought in to the idea of climate change. The fact that renewables account for an increasing amount of power generation makes them now impossible even for him to ignore. What worries me is that the continued expansion of this source of generation depends in part on local energy projects, particularly with regard to solar arrays. Will whatever shiny new plans the government proposes help or hinder such initiatives?

• There are several proposed solar farms in our district of West Berkshire which we’ve been covering in some detail. One is a fairly modest scheme in Enborne south of Newbury proposed by a local charitable trust which owns some land; the other is a fair larger project further east near Mortimer, proposed by West Berkshire Council (WBC). The former has yet to be determined (ironically, mainly because some reports that WBC needed to produce have not been published) while WBC’s plan has been approved. Both received objections based on the fact that agricultural land would be lost. Would it?

Well, no. Firstly, solar panels are not a permanent change to the landscape in the way that building homes or factories is. They have a life span of perhaps 25 years, by which time it’s to be hoped that better technology will have appeared (as emails did to replace faxes).

Secondly, even if all the solar arrays required to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050 were deployed on farming land, this would use less than 1% of it. It could be argued that if we want to make our farmland efficient as a means of producing food then the best move would be for us to eat less meat but I appreciate that’s getting off the point.

Thirdly, as this article in Scientific American in June 2018 points out, some crops grow better under solar panels than they do in full sun. They’re also wonderful for bio-diversity and for pollinators. They also help – every little helps – to make us less reliant on carbon-emitting fuels, both the supply and the price of which are beyond our control: which is, I think, where we came in.

• As regards the government’s general economic direction of travel, this seems more than ever to be piling all the chips on economic growth. If taxes and NI are going to be cut, benefits are not going to be cut (as the PM said on 12 October) and help offered to households (though perhaps not on the scale that many would wish) then we seem to be left with an impossible financial equation. The cost of borrowing has risen, as a result of the mini-budget (again, Mr Rees-Mogg disagrees), and so not only the government’s repayments but also mortgages have gone up too.

As with the energy-price reforms, I’m again struck by the fact that these changes are only happening now that the symptoms have really flared up. (Covid was a bit the same: the warning signs were there, as the dummy-run Exercise Cygnus proved in 2016, but it was only when we were all pulling on face masks that things were taken seriously.) The image that comes to mind about the new lean-state economic direction, in contrast to the above-mentioned one about installing sprinklers in a burning building, is of people frantically trying to change the wheels on a car when it is accelerating more or less out of control down the fast lane of the M4.

• One of the tactics that the Chancellor proposed for economic growth was the creation of Investment Zones. As the deadline for expressions of interest is 23.59 on 14 October, as there a number of eye-catching features and as there’s also a political dimension, it seems worth having a closer look at these – see the Across the Area section below.

• If you spend as much time in swimming pools as I do, you will be concerned by this story which says that the temporary closure of some pools due to energy costs is “the tip of the iceberg” – not perhaps the happiest image for a water-related activity but the point is clear. The article goes on to say that Swim England is calling for the “vulnerable’”industry to receive additional financial help to ensure “vital” pools, which are a lifeline to millions of people, are not forced to close.

• “There is,” Shakespeare observed, “no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” However, a quick glance at a photo of the face of General Sergei Surovikin just screams “psycho night-club bouncer” to me. He is Putin’s latest solution to the problems that have beset his special military operation in Ukraine. Let’s see what havoc he can unleash. He looks like a serious hard-ass: then again, so do many of the Ukrainian fighters. It seems increasingly unlikely that peace with honour – which has ever been the only way conflicts can stop, if only for a generation or so – can be obtained here. Meanwhile, we’re all participants, if only through our fuel bills.

• Not being American or a fan of libertarian conspiracy drivel, I was until recently only vaguely aware of Alex Jones and his long-running prosecution as a result of his denial of the veracity of the Sandy Hook School shooting in 2012. His robustly expressed, and completely unhinged, view of the matter was that it had been faked by a shadowy liberal coalition to drag down the US gun lobby. On 12 October it was announced he had been ordered to pay $965m in damages to the victims of his bile. I don’t get what happens next. He can’t have that kind of money – or can he? Is it possible to earn the best part of $1bn just for spreading what even he now admits was nonsense?

If so, this changes everything. OK, here goes – the Holocaust never happened. The moon landing never happened. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA. Mossad caused the 11 September 2021 attacks. How am I doing? You like it so far? To keep it coming, just send me a cheque…

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

Investment Zones

The Chancellor in his mini-budget speech on 23 September referred to “targeted action in local areas.” What might this involve?

This is what he said in his speech:

“We will liberalise planning rules in specified agreed sites, releasing land and accelerating development. And we will cut taxes. For businesses in designated tax sites, for ten years, there will be accelerated tax reliefs for structures and buildings and 100% tax relief on qualifying investments in plant and machinery. On purchases of land and buildings for commercial or new residential development, there will be no stamp duty to pay whatsoever. On newly occupied business premises, there will be no business rates to pay whatsoever. And if a business hires a new employee in the tax site, then on the first £50,000 they earn the employer will pay no National Insurance whatsoever.

“That is an unprecedented set of tax incentives for business to invest, to build, and to create jobs right across the country. I can confirm for the House that we’re in early discussions with nearly 40 places like Tees Valley, the West Midlands, Norfolk and the West of England to establish Investment Zones.”

Now, I have no idea if West Berkshire Council has expressed an interest in signing up although, as it has a Conservative administration and as it will hold elections next May for which this could be the manifesto pledge from heaven, I would be quite surprised if it didn’t. This Gov.uk FAQ document on the subject doesn’t give a timescale for when applications would be determined, beyond saying that “We will work quickly, fairly and accurately to process all applications received and will issue further information to areas at the earliest possible opportunity.” I think we can take it that the winners, if I may put it like that, will be announced well before the May election but not so far before that any problems in the scheme become clear. There seem to be several of these.

The first is that it’s not clear how many Investment Zones (IZ) HMG plans to set up. The above-mentioned FAQ, in answer to this very question, says that it “anticipates setting up a specific number” of these. What on earth does that mean? Any given number is specific. It’s what numbers are all about. Whatever the “specific” number is, this risks creating a two-tier system with some districts being subject to a wholly untried set of rules. It’s impossible to shake off the idea that there’s a political dimension to this.

The second is that the riff running through the speech – as it did through Robert Jenrick’s proposed reforms in 2021 – is that the planning system is the principal cause of what is often called the housing crisis. “We will liberalise planning rules in specified agreed sites, releasing land and accelerating development” was the phrase he used. There are many other problems with the way development currently happens, including land-banking, the increasing dominance of large developers, the number of granted permissions that are being sat on until market conditions are most propitious for a build-out, the casual out-sourcing of this aspect of government policy to the private sector and the inability of private developers to provide anything approaching the number of affordable and social-rent homes that are required. If planning decisions are slow it may be because the people making the decisions are trying to consider all the implications. It may also be that years of under-funding for local councils have left many planning departments woefully under-staffed, particularly as regard enforcement. Successive attempts to reform the system have not been successful.

I concede that it’s a tough problem. Two improvements might be, first, to simplify and speed up the updates and scopes of the local plans, which currently take an insane amount of time to produce; the other is to offer some meaty incentives to councils to set up housing companies to buy land and build their own properties. The current proposals, which effectively seem to be by-passing both the current safeguards and the problems in the system, appear akin to saying that the Police need to be removed from certain parts of the country as their activities, though resulting in catching some criminals, risk being inconvenient to those who are trying to get to a growth-related meeting and so need to drive at 45mph through a village.

The third is that development in the AONB – which covers nearly two thirds of West Berkshire – is likely to be permitted. Mitigation measures appear to be optional. There appear to be no reference to environmental obligations regarding habitat preservation. Nor do the regulations appear to suggest that any serious action will be taken to prevent further increases in pollution of our rivers, from which numerous other problems (literally) flow.

The fourth is the reference to “specified agreed sites.” This seems to suggest that within a given district different rules would apply to certain locations. Assuming I’m right, and assuming that WBC launches an expression of interest, and assuming it’s successful, then the London Road Industrial Estate is likely to be at the top of theist of  sites that will want this special treatment. This will not, however, vanish away the problems of surface water problems, land ownership or WBC’s obligations to Sport England regarding football provision. There will also be a selection process as to how such sites will be chosen, the criteria for which seems unclear.

The fifth is that it’s hard to see how this level of de-regulation is compatible with meeting the needs of the climate emergencies which most councils have declared.

Finally, three of the four “places” the Chancellor mentioned are combined authorities and Norfolk is a county council. All contain within them planning authorities. Perhaps these examples were picked merely to refer to areas that most of us would have heard of. However, if the focus for planning reforms is to be at this level of often aspirational co-operation it’s likely to cause unexpected problems in the relations between the various tiers of local government. Perhaps this disruption is part of the plan.

(One council in our area, Oxfordshire, has already said that it plans to decline the invite to participate in the scheme. You can see the full statement from OCC here.)

Certainly the carrots in the IZ proposal are more immediately compelling than the sticks, which will come later. To wheel out another cliché, the devil will be in the detail. The cynic in me suggests that a significant part of the devil won’t manifest itself until after the local elections on 4 May 2023.

Abuse, political or otherwise

Following last week’s West Berkshire Council Full Council meeting, I’ve been sent a number of comments by members. Some of these have also appeared in the letters section of the Newbury Weekly News and there’s also a front-page story on the subject. The issue was specifically raised as a result of a motion put forward by Council Leader Lynne Doherty condemning abuse of Councillors, something which it’s very hard to disagree with. Whether or not this was the intention, the debate raked over some old ground and drew attention to matters that had long been dormant.

It’s often hard to know where rumbustious political knockabout ends and something darker starts. To a large extent it’s subjective. Your mood, how much you like the other person, how wedded you are to the issue being discussed, your background and your personality all come into play and no two people are going to draw the line in the same place.

Offence is also not merely given: it also needs to be taken. Some remarks like “all black people should be repatriated” are, today at least, objectively offensive. By contrast, to say “the Pope is wrong about abortion” is subjectively offensive: it might be offensive to Catholics or pro-lifers but that doesn’t mean one cannot say it (as long as you have a rational argument to support the statement). The first of these remarks would probably not have been objectively offensive fifty or sixty years ago so the definitions change over time. Even with objective truths, the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet.

How we view a comment also depends on our own standpoint. A member of the Socialist Workers’ Party would probably regard being called “a hard-line leftie” as a compliment. Say that to a Conservative, however, and it might be seen as an unforgivable insult. Some time earlier this year, Conservative Councillor Alan Law compared Councillor David Marsh’s Green Party to the Khmer Rouge. I doubt he really believed this, perhaps had not even thought the matter through. It was just something to say to grab a headline and make a point. David Marsh was free to feel be offended or not. I’ve seen quite a few tweets and letters by councillors (of all parties) directed at other councillors (ditto) which are a lot closer to the bone than this example. These things tend to escalate. No one one wants to back down and everyone wants the last word. As Nigel Tufnel explained in This is Spinal Tap, you turn it up and turn it up and suddenly you’re at 10 out 10. Then where do you do? To 11, of course…

Once you get to 11 out 10 and beyond, the sky’s the limit. One of the articles of faith of the batty QAnon group in the USA was that the country was ruled by a cabal of satanic pedophiles – that’s about 20 out of 10. Accusing someone of these kind of crimes is pretty serious, even if the claims are so absurd that they can be laughed off. Charges of lesser crimes might, however, stick better. What about calling someone a “sadist”? That’s pretty personal. You could add that they were also “troubled” and “had a darkness” inside them. Is that abusive? This happened only last week when “an ally” of the PM levied these charges at Michael Gove. (This prompted Number 10 to take the surely unprecedented step of issuing a statement saying that the PM did not think one of her parliamentary colleagues was a sadist.)  With this example coming from the top, is it any wonder that local councils – which in many ways ape and imitate the adversarial Westminster model – sometimes find themselves at 11 out of 10?

Another point mentioned at the debate was Council Leader Lynne Doherty’s statement that another, unnamed, councillor had said that she was “occult”. I haven’t seen the tweet but it’s been suggested to me that the origin of this lay in a comment by an opposition member that the Conservative Government was “a cult” (a sentiment recently also expressed by the Chief Economist at UBS Global Wealth Management). This had, either through mis-hearing or the howling madnesses that often result from the live captions during recorded debates, turned itself into “occult”. In any case, occult is not so bad. Dictionary.com describes it as “of or relating to magic, astrology, or any system claiming use or knowledge of secret or supernatural powers or agencies – beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or understanding; mysterious – secret; disclosed or communicated only to the initiated.” I could live with that. Moreover, some of the phrases – including “mysterious”, “secret” and “beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or understanding” – seem to be fairly good descriptions of political life at any level.

Lynne Doherty also suggested that there were members of the Council who tried to “dehumanise us and shut down debate.” This is as accusation which could be levied at every party in respect of all the others, in this district and elsewhere. As I suggested in this article, dehumanising your enemy is an important, and perhaps vital, first step to winning a political battle. As for shutting down debate, many would argue that, regardless of which party is in charge, the cabinet system of government does that pretty well on its own.

Abuse takes many forms, one of which is bullying. As the closer your relationship is with someone and the more often you see them the more effective bullying is likely to be, if follows that this is more likely to be conducted by members of your own immediate group: of your own party, in this context. The PM, or perhaps her mysterious “ally”, could be accused of bullying Michael Gove. The former Home Secretary Priti Patel was found guilty of breaching the Ministerial Code on this point. Former Speaker John Bercow was described in an independent report as “a serial bully.” Labour MP Christina Rees for suspended for bullying on 13 October. Many other examples probably never reach the public eye. It’s not to be supposed that these are limited to central government.

Obviously, wrongly accusing another member of being, say, a sex pest, a stalker or thief is just plain wrong (even if the defence is that one was speaking metaphorically) and need to be dealt with. There’s also a lot else that can be seen as worse than it really is if this is looked at some time later, out of context or as an election looms.

Pretty much all the councillors I know are decent people who have gone into the game not for the money or the glory but because they genuinely want to make a difference and, as the phrase goes, “put something back”. Once the political tribalism kicks in, however, the dial on the amp tends to get cranked higher and higher. My views in this are apolitical as I don’t see that any party, in West Berkshire or anywhere else, comes out of this particularly well. Then again, as mentioned above, with Westminster as an example this perhaps isn’t terribly surprising.

Other news

Schools are being invited to participate in a competition to rename the London Road Industrial Estate.

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

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 animals of the week are, as they were last week, the bears taking part in fat bear week in Alaska. Click here for the full story, which involves a repeat winner, 500lbs of salmon and a case of voter fraud.

• There are eleven letters in this week’s Newbury Weekly News. Aside from two very short ones about food-waste collection and the Newbury show, all of the rest are concerned with three related matters: the London Road Industrial Estate (three); the mini-budget (four); and local-political spats (two). I suspect this will set the tone for the section between now and early May.

• 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. Let’s wind all the way back to March 1980 and an excellent example of the less-is-more school of song arrangement from The Cure. It could have been called I’ve just Bought a Flange Pedal: but it wasn’t. It was actually called A Forest: and here it is.

• And next up is the Comedy Sketch of the Week. There are many wonderful moments from QI. One I hadn’t seen before yesterday made me laugh so much I nearly popped a rib. The first five seconds are wonderful and then it just keeps getting better. So here we go: They say of the Acropolis where the Parthenon is.

• So that brings us to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is one I’ve asked this before but I’ll ask it again because I love it so much. How many Popes are there per square kilometre in the Vatican City? Last week’s question was: What do Liverpool footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, BGT’s Simon Cowell and Russian big man Vladimir Putin have in common? They were all born on 7 October, in 1998, 1968, 1959 and 1952 respectively.

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