This week with Brian 3 to 10 November 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including keeping an eye out, reviewing the pledges, let us be clear, what the British people deserve, bad news every day, Spikevax Bivalent, picking a fight with Stephen King, boundary changes again, guilty as charged, several horsemen, trusted local journalism, 50 things to do, an Amur leopard, Hi Jo, an Indian restaurant and 39 twins or sisters

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

• Rishi Sunak clearly had a dilemma over the last week or so with regard to the COP27 Summit: whether to stay at home and keep an eye on Suella Braverman or whether to go there and keep an eye on Boris Johnson (who had said he was going to attend). In the end, the latter threat seemed to have proved the greater. It was possible, Sunak might have reasoned, that some leaders might have thought that BoJo was still the PM: possible also that BoJo might have done so himself and started signing treaties and promising summit meetings. The problem for Sunak is that it now looks as if he was, firstly, unaware of the importance of attending the event (perhaps more for symbolic reasons) and, secondly, that he is capable of being bounced or shamed into changing his mind.

[more below] 

• Changes of mind might also apply when he returns as the PM has said that he will “review the pledges he made during his summer Tory leadership campaign.” This is doubtless better than just running head-first over an idealogical cliff like his predecessor did but it slightly smacks of someone who, after the first round of play in a rubber of bridge, says “Sorry – I know the contract I won for seven spades but actually I meant two diamonds – OK if we change?”

The mind-bindingly long summer leadership campaign left the candidates with too much time in which to promise the earth: the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it one last month left little time to retract or qualify any of the pledges. I know that the country and the world are changing fast at the moment, but the general trajectory of problems now seem much as were forecasted during the debates a couple of months ago (it’s just that there’s not much we can do about them). Is where we are now any great surprise? 

I hope that Sunak’s pause for thought will produce some positive results. The trouble with political pledges is that the success or otherwise of what you promise to do can never really be proved as there’s so much else going on. To evaluate them is like trying to conduct precise electrical measurements while standing under a tree during a massive thunderstorm. It’s all in how you present the results afterwards. We’re not at afterwards yet. When we get to afterwards it will be too late to do anything about now (or then, as it will then be).

Suella Braverman, meanwhile, has problems of her own. The fall-out over the horror film that’s unfolding at the Manton refugee centre in Kent – her handling of which has drawn criticism from the local MP, the Conservative Sir Roger Gale – has been compounded by her use of terms such as “invasion” to describe the problem, which has drawn criticism from just about everyone.

Less noticed in her statement on the matter were two remarks that prefaced this observation. Perhaps these political usages are obsessions only to me.

The first was the use of the compound verb “to be clear about.” This was used about every five minutes by Theresa May and basically says “I’m going to tell you something that you won’t agree with but it’s the way things are going to be for as long as I’m in charge of this.”

The second was the use of the phrase “The British people.” This is often in sentences like “what the British people are really concerned about”: in this case, it was even better: “The British people deserve to know.” You can’t argue with that, can you – clarity and the right to know, both promised before we even get to what she’s actually talking about.

She also admitted that the immigration system was “broken”. It seems to be. This chart from the BBC (using data from the Home Office and the MoD) suggests that about 20 times the number of people have so far in 2022 crossed the English Channel in migrant boats as did in 2019. The article goes on to say that the figures have increased since the plan was announced earlier this year to send some illegal immigrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda “for processing, asylum and resettlement.” All kinds of problems have been predicted with this. However, as it’s one of Braverman’s articles of faith we’re probably stuck with it for as long as we’re stuck with her.

How long that will be remains to be seen. Another problem she faces – and which has caused her to resign once already this year – is her seeming inability to distinguish between emails sent from her personal account and ones sent from her, presumably, far more secure government one. Sunak needed her in the Cabinet to appease the right wing of the party. If I have to have her, he might have reasoned, I might as well make her Home Secretary. That’s the one job whose incumbents generally hold such views, so she won’t be that remarkable. Braverman is testing this theory to destruction.

The other thing about being Home Secretary, Sunak might also have thought, is that it’s the only job in the country where in no circumstances is it ever possible to announce good news. Whether it’s a crisis with asylum seekers, a flare-up of prison riots, a scandal of Windrush-style disasters or the humiliation of disgruntled police officers turning their back on you at a conference, the news is always one of unremittingly negative. Where better, therefore, to put her than the Home Office?

• 3% interest rates? That’s still a lot lower that it was when I emerged blinking into the adult world in the ’80s. Not good news for people borrowing, that’s for sure. The Bank of England finds Liz and Kwasi guilty as charged in contributing to all this. 

The NHS seems to be in a poor state, something that many (including Private Eye’s MD columnist Phil Hammond) put down to years of under-funding. The particular crisis predicted for this winter due to a combination of Covid and flu may yet happen: too early to tell yet. If you’re eligible for a jab for either of these, my advice is to go for it.

We had our Covid jabs about three weeks ago at Lambourn Pharmacy. The following day I suffered from, in no particular order,  a weariness of the flesh, a feebleness of the mind, a weakness of the spirit, a headache and a throbbing pain in my right arm: aside from the last, not unlike a bad hangover. Penny, who at the same time had the same jab – the wonderfully named Spikevax Bivalent, straight out of Game of Thrones – had no symptoms at all. Nor did I from the flu jab ten days later.

If Bill Gates is now controlling me via the chips that were injected during these inoculations, he hasn’t yet made his purpose clear. I certainly have had no urge to ditch my Mac for a PC, which I think would be the first sign.

Covid rates, having fallen for a long time and then risen, now seemed to have flattened out, for the moment at least. Hospitalisations and, particularly, deaths are also considerably lower than this time last year. There are more than four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after us at the moment but this one at least seems to have lost a shoe.

• On the rare occasion when I go on Twitter it’s like suddenly finding myself involved in a series of unrelated arguments in a pub car park at closing time. For the pleasure of presiding over this rage-fest, Elon Musk has recently paid $44bn for what Wikipedia calls a “microblogging and social networking service.” Earlier this week, he dissolved the board, making him the sole director.

One of Musk’s beefs is about how many fake accounts there are, used by bots or spammers. This article suggests that there are the best part of 400m users worldwide: this one suggests that the best part of 20% of these are “fake or spam.” That’s around 80m users, about the same as the combined populations of the UK and the Netherlands.

The new owner has announced plans to introduce a charge for account verification. Like all changes to anything we’ve got used to, this provoked howls of protest. In this case, the main howler was Stephen King (who has 7m followers on the platform). The horror-meister’s complaints prompted the new tweeter-in-chief on 31 October to slash the proposed cost for this, to $8 a month. This was probably a wise call. The $20 charge was probably a try-on. In any case, who wants to pick a fight with Stephen King on Halloween…?

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

Boundary changes

I referred last week to the imminent constituency boundary changes and the rather peculiar reasons that, either recently or some time in the past, Laura Farris MP offered as to why an alteration to the proposed boundary should be made. She suggested that it was, somehow, vital that all the local racing industry be in the same constituency. I suggested that it might rather have been felt, by her or party, that adding this bit round West Ilsley would boost the chances of a Conservative victory in the revised Newbury seat.

It also seemed possible that she was keen to live in her constituency, something which this change would have accomplished without putting her to the expense and inconvenience of moving house. Mind you, plenty of MPs live no where close to the areas they’re elected to serve. It’s well known that Laura Farris is from Bucklebury. Richard Benyon was from just out the constituency and that didn’t do him any harm.

It’s since been pointed out to me that this exact change was proposed at an earlier consultation stage. The Boundary Commission did not accept it then, perhaps for sound demographic reasons but mainly because it could not. The new regulations the Boundary Commission has to follow mean that no constituency (with a few exceptions like the Isle of Wight) can be more than 5% more or less populous than the average. The proposed Mid Berkshire constituency is already at the lower end of this and making the change our MP proposes would push it some way below the minimum.

The effect of the change would also be to divide the Ridgeway ward between two constituencies, something the Boundary Commission is keen to avoid. Aside from being inelegant it creates problems with local-election literature as these may refer to the local MP. As the Ridgeway ward is currently held by the Green Party it’s easy to see why Laura Farris did not regard this point as being important in this case.

It’s also been suggested to me that the 95/105% rule has been seen by some as favouring the Conservatives: many Labour voters are in urban areas (the populations of which have shrunk) while Conservatives predominate in rural ones (where the population has grown), so creating more seats that might tend to be blue. This might be true but the idea of having a fairly tight range of constituency sizes seems a logical one.

The combination the 95/105% rule and the need to avoid dividing communities or wards where at all possible gives the Boundary Commissioners a fairly narrow area of manoeuvre. It looks like Laura Farris might be living outside her constituency when the changes come into force after the final report in June 2023 and thus in time for the next election (assuming it doesn’t happen before then).

Trusted local journalism

The Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan recently wrote an article for Journalism Matters saying that she was going to be “a champion of journalism” which is “a fundamental feature of our democracy.” Local newspapers, she continued, “act as our neighbourhood watch. They have their ear to the ground of their communities – holding local public services’ feet to the fire, monitoring what is happening in the local courts and providing a valuable platform for causes and community groups.” 

She then turned her attention to national papers; then added that she was going to repeal the crazy, regressive and possibly un-enforceable section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which requires media groups to cover the costs of those who sue them, even if the media group wins.

All good stuff. Talk is, of course, cheap. The real problem for media groups, which Michelle Donelan can do little about, is declining circulation. According to the Press Gazettenon-daily local papers saw a fall of 15% in the period July to December 2021 conspired to the same period in 2021. (Better news for local publications comes from the Press Gazette. which reports on a survey in November and December 2021. This suggests that 58% of people said they would trust news provided a publisher operating in the area it covers, whereas only 31% would trust one that was based elsewhere.)

I might have missed this were it not for the fact that it was mentioned on the Newburytoday site. “Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan,” the sub-heading read,  “explains why local websites and newspapers like the Newbury Weekly News and Newburytoday… are so vital to our democracy.” (The same article is in this week’s Newbury Weekly News).  

The obvious inference from this is that the Culture Secretary had singled out these titles for particular praise: were she actually to have done so, how right they were to draw attention to this in exactly this way.  However, in her Journalism Matters article, she mentions by name only her own local paper in Melksham and not the Newbury Weekly News, Penny Post or any other media outlet.

50 things to do

50 Things To Do Before You’re Five provides 50 activities that parents and carers can support their children to try out and repeat. Click here for more information.

“Each of the 50 Things have been carefully developed by education expert and early-years practitioners following consultation with parents,” the website says. “We’ve made sure that children with special education needs are included and that each of the 50 Things means something across our culturally diverse communities.”

Other news

• As mentioned last week, a service of thanksgiving for the late Queen Elizabeth II will be held at St Nicholas Church in Newbury at 7.00 pm on Friday 4 November. This will be an opportunity for West Berkshire to come together to remember Queen Elizabeth II and celebrate her life. It will reflect her connections with West Berkshire and fondness for horse racing and give thanks for her lifetime of service to the country and its people. Among the almost 500 guests to be invited to the service will be district councillors and town and parish councillors representing communities across West Berkshire and local MPs. Local residents are also invited : there are still some tickets available which can be booked (for free) by clicking here. The service will be streamed online on the St Nicholas Church YouTube channel.

Also present at the church, or outside it, will be the retired race horse Barber Shop, the last foal bred by the late Queen Mother and was owned by the late Queen Elizabeth II. West Berkshire Council would like to thank Mrs Katie Jerram-Hunnable and family for transporting the horse to Newbury for the evening and has confirmed it will be making a donation to the Injured Jockey’s Fund.

• The new weekly food-waste collection system has started in West Berkshire (which receive a communal bin store collection will need to wait until 28 Novemeber). You can click here to see a separate post we’ve done on the subject; and click here to see WBC’s recent newsletter about this. As well as being environmentally beneficial, financially advantageous and legislatively compliant, the scheme may also reduce food waste by confronting us with the consequences of what we throw away. Like any new measure, of course, it will take time for us to get used to it. 

• West Berkshire Council has announced an initiative to help those who have tins of unused paint at home left over for from DIY projects. It will shortly be introducing “a new community paint re-use service at the Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC) at Newbury and Padworth. Community Repaint allows residents to drop off left over paint at either of our HWRCs in the usual way. Staff at the HWRC will assess the paint and see if it is in a good enough condition to be re-used.” Click here for more information.

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 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 the few remaining Amur Leopards, one of the most beautiful and critically endangered cats in the world.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of poor communication, Eagle Quarter; Roger Hallam; household waste; consultations; and imperial measurements.

• 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’s the  Song of the Week. Deaf School are one of my favourite bands. They emerged in the late 70s and could not have presented a greater contrast to the prevailing orthodoxy of punk. Clever, witty, quirky, musically literate and immaculately produced, the band provided us with three albums in their heyday and then three more when they reformed in the 2010s. Some of their songs could be described as a cabaret rock, others as lounge-room punk: some defy any kind of classification that I’m aware of. One such, perhaps, is the first song of theirs I heard, Hi Jo Hi.

• And so we come to the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Few things on TV were as dark as Chris Morris’ Jam. Here’s one of the milder ones: no dialogue, little more than 30 seconds and with two poppadums centre-stage: Indian Restaurant.

• So that leads us finally to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which town, which has a population of under 30,000, has 39 twin towns and sister cities including Abu Dhabi, Athens, Lourdes, Glasgow, Florence and Cologne? Last week’s question was: What is, in English, the only three-letter chemical element? Tin is the answer to that one.

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