This week with Brian 24 November to 1 December 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including Argentina and Germany, a few protests, strong medication, a defeat for the Scots, an employment disconnect, get me out of here, gun law, green roads, an inspector calls, our parody policy, a local plan, playing politics, sniffer dogs, bomb dogs, a musical box, Macbeth and four double goal-scorers.

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 World Cup has started and, although, I’ve said I wouldn’t watch any of the games (and haven’t), one cannot escape the results and perhaps a quick look at the highlights. The standouts so far have been Germany and Argentina both losing their first matches, in both cases after being 1-0 up at half time as a result of a penalty and then being over-run by spirited opponents in part two. Both the victories, for Japan and Saudi Arabia respectively, were from what I understand well deserved. The Japanese fans also helped to clean up the stadium’s rubbish after their victory, which I can’t imagine the English ones doing.

[more below] 

FIFA, which organises this event, is an odd beast. Its President made a strange and impassioned speech on 19 November, on the eve of the World Cup. I didn’t watch more then a bit of it: what stuck out for me was – aside from the fact that he seemed to have taken some strong medication shortly before – why he needed to say it in the first place. All this “I feel Qatari, I feel gay” rubbish – what was all that about? The decision was taken to award the World Cup to Qatar years before – when there was a different and even more peculiar administration in charge of FIFA – so why did he need to apologise, to justify or to explain? The tournament was about to kick off. Nothing short of an asteroid strike was going to change that. Why indulge in this apologia? A seemingly very weird bloke, at the head of what’s definitely a very weird organisation.

• The World Cup has so far produced several protests, due partly to the craven and disorganised way FIFA has caved into some last-minute requests by the all-knowing and all-wise Qatari top dogs who briefly find themselves the arbiter of global morality. No booze at the grounds; no LGBT armbands; no Welsh fans going to the match with the USA with rainbow hats in case the entire population of the country suddenly turns gay as a result. However this is too big a stage, and there are too many global problems, for the players to avoid making some statements.

The Germans, in response to the armband ban, covered their mouths before their match with Japan. Far more bravely given the likely consequences when they go home, the Iranian team refused to sing their national anthem before their match with England as a result of the shocking repression against women that is going on in their country. This video also has some views from Iranian fans in Qatar.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish government cannot hold an independence referendum without the UK government’s consent. That seemed clear to me from my understanding of what the law said but Nicola Sturgeon decided to have the matter confirmed by the court. I don’t care if Scotland wants to go its own way but I can’t help wondering if the rest of us should not be asked about this first, just as both parties need to agree to an amicable divorce.

It also seems to me that the SNP is largely composed of unedifying political opportunists, which doesn’t incline me to think they’re right. The trouble is that the dispute just drones on and on. Scotland’s glory days were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when its scientists invented pretty much everything; this is just one website devoted to this. Sorry guys, but I think you’ve missed your moment on this one.

•  Penny Post promotes a good number of local jobs each week. Speaking to the employers, there seems to be an increasing problem with finding applicants for jobs and also a disconnect between the positions that are available and the people who want to fill them. This article on the BBC website looks at the fact that 2.5m people are now out of work because of a long-term health problem. The number has jumped by half a million since the start of the pandemic.

• The list of fatal shootings in the  USA goes on and on, the latest being six people in a Walmart store in Virginia. I hope I never get that unhappy with my life that I try to solve my problems that way. More importantly, if I do, I hope I never live in a country where to own and use a gun is regarded as a human right.

• I that the new Tweeter-in-Chief has decreed that “all Twitter accounts engaged in parody must include “parody” in their name, not just in the bio – tricking people is not OK.” This obviously made us here at Penny Post Towers think about our own policies, as we do some stuff that’s real and some that’s not.

During a top-level meeting just now while waiting for kettle to boil, I can confirm our policy as follows: everything we write is as truthful and factual as we can make it and is certainly based on events that have actually happened or people who actually exist, except for the bits that aren’t. It’s up to you to work out which is which. I hope that’s clarified our position.

• It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Piers Morgan, but during this discussion involving the journalist Isobel Oakeshott (who fabricated the story about David Cameron having sex with a pig while at Oxford and was accused – the worst crime a journalist can be charged with – of betraying a source regarding Chris Hunhe and Vicky Price in 2013) he seemed to make the right call.

On some new TV show or other, Oakshott defended former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s fee for appearing on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of here! on the grounds he would be making a substantial donation of the reported £400,000 to charity. She added that, in addition to this, the’d be giving 45% of it to the state as income tax which “is a form of charity in itself.” Piers Morgan rightly ridiculed the suggestion.

Mind you, it’s got me mentioning her name, hasn’t it? Perhaps that’s all her strange remark demanded. I’ve fallen for it, hook line and sinker. Her support for him couldn’t of course have anything to do with the fact that she’s co-written his Pandemic Diaries.  It seems a bit pathetic that someone needs to employ someone to re-write their diary for them. In any case, think I can survive for the rest of my life without buying 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

An inspector calls (but not that often)

Doubtless inspired by an article I wrote about the recent and controversial Ofsted report at Inkpen Primary School on 3 November (click here and scroll down to An inspector calls), on 22 November the BBC published an article on the subject of the nature and frequency of the schools’ watchdog’s reports.

This made two points that surprised me. If true, these seem to cast doubt on the entire system.

The first is that between 2012 and 2020, “schools judged outstanding were revisited only if specific concerns were raised.” However, four out of five “outstanding” schools revisited in 2021 had their gradings reduced, some all the way down to “inadequate”. How can a school be outstanding on Tuesday and inadequate on Wednesday? Parents must be very confused by this.

Secondly, on average the schools visited had not been inspected for 13 years while some had not been for 15. The article quoted Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman as saying that the ones visited in 2021 were “the schools that have gone longest without being inspected, so are probably slightly more likely not to remain outstanding.” I don’t understand the “slightly more” in the context of the 80% that had been downgraded.

To me, it seems more like being stoped by a traffic cop who asks if your car has an MOT. “Oh, yes,” you say, “I had it done in 2007.” “That’s fine, sir,” he replies. “What could have gone wrong since then?”

The time lag for schools rated “good” doesn’t seem a great deal better. Inkpen Primary last had a full inspection in October 2012, almost 10 years before its most recent one in July (though there was a “short inspection” in 2017). A lot can change in that time. I don’t know which is worse: parents sending their children to a school that’s not as good as its rating claims, or shunning one whose rating suggests it’s less good than it really is. As I suggested in the above-mentioned article, a downgraded ranking is  not the disaster it appears, as measures and perhaps funding will have been put in place to address any problems.

In any case, what do “good” and all the rest of the grades really mean? Again as I suggested on 3 November, a glance at the six-page Inkpen report paints a very nuanced picture which can not be summed up in one phrase. There was much that the report commended. The problems there seem mainly to have been procedural rather than relating to harm, neglect or poor education.

I’d therefore advise prospective parents to read the reports (which are rarely very long) for any school they’re considering rather than just looking at the headline grade. I’d also advise, in the manner of the UEFA co-efficient system for ranking football clubs, that they pay successively less mind to any report the longer ago it was published.

I’ve never worked in the education sector but I do have four children, now all safely through the school system. This much I know: nothing changes the character of a school, for better or for worse, more than does the appointment of a new Head. So, this is what I suggest to Ofsted – ensure that you do an inspection at least one term, and no later than three terms, after a new Head has taken over. That’s got to focus everyone’s minds. In the case of Inkpen, however, the inspection took place on pretty much the last day of the previous Head’s time in office. What therefore does this inspection tell us about what’s going on there now? Not a lot, perhaps. That’s certainly  the school’s, and WBC’s, contention. Whether this will result in any change to the report or the grading seems unlikely. However, if you’re a prospective parent, it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a lot more to Ofsted gradings than meets the eye.

Playing Politics

It seems from COP27, and numerous other recent examples at every level from local to international, that there’s a crisis in how important decisions are made. I don’t know if things were always like this, or are like this now because the decisions we need to make relate to particularly difficult issues. It may be that, thanks to the web and social media, everyone (including me) now has an opinion which they immediately express, so creating a wall of discordant background noise.

Whatever the reason, it appears that the current methods of decision-making, particularly with regard to combatting climate change, are broken. It’s true that or elected representatives have mandates based on their manifestoes but these are so general and so capable of avoidance that they aren’t worth a great deal. Worse still, the adversarial political system benefits those who can create divisions. Most of the really big problems the country faces are apolitical, in the sense that there is no clear solution based on conventional partisan orthodoxy. Climate change and the cost-of-living and energy-cost crisis are currently the two obvious ones. Solve those, you might argue, and a lot of other issues go away as well. What use is political dogma in these? None at all, I suggest.

Citizen’s assemblies have been suggested as one way to solve the problem and I shall find out a bit more about these. They sound like a good idea at first glance.

Our national politicians will have to wait until perhaps 2025 before being held to account. Locally, the day of reckoning here in West Berkshire and in many other districts will come on 4 May 2023. For reasons I’ve pointed out in this article, political groupings at this level are slightly pointless as there’s only quite a small percentage of the budget which is discretionary rather than a statutory duty; also that much of this discretionary part is spent on things which are the result of local need, rather than the pursuit of political dogma. Councils like WBC are very constrained in what they can do and yet they, and others, portray their political allegiances as if the principles that these parties follow nationally can actually be applied here.

I get it that having blue, green, orange or red badges is a convenient way of understanding in a very general way what the candidates stand for. However, and particularly at election time, this all looks uncomfortably like a playground battle. Once break has ended, everyone goes back into the classroom and sits in their allotted seats, doing whatever teacher tells them.

What I would like to see in the coming elections, in West Berkshire and elsewhere, is less about what the parties differ about, but what they agree on.

Here’s an example: social-rent and affordable housing. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who disputes with the idea that the lack of affordable accommodation in West Berkshire cannot be addressed by the private sector: the council needs to step in. West Berkshire Council has not built a single house since it was established in 1997. As these figures from HMG show (see fig 1.1 on p9), the number of homes that local councils nationwide build is now vanishingly small.

Bucking this trend, WBC has expressed aspirations to becoming a home-builder. Great. It needs land, however. So, when land comes up for sale it needs to buy it. A site with planning permission near the railway station in Hungerford with planning permission (it doesn’t get any better than this) recently came up for auction. I was told that WBC wasn’t going to make an offer as it didn’t have a property company set up. If this is a vital first step, which I rather doubt, why hasn’t one been set up? Is it a failure of political will or of administrative reluctance?

WBC has entered into a joint-venture with Sovereign Housing, the main housing association in the district, to develop two properties in Hungerford and Newbury (and doubtless others elsewhere) to provide social-rent homes. I don’t know when the Newbury one was first mooted but the Hungerford site (at Chestnut Walk) has been available and empty since 2017. The recent reasons for the delay have been the subject of several separate articles in Penny Post: the clear point is that the joint venture is not working. This is perhaps Sovereign’s and WBC’s interests are not aligned.

The delay tells its own story. There is (a) a need for social-rent housing in the town and (b) a site that could provide it. Nothing has happened for five years and counting. WBC needs to get a grip on this and make some progress. This doesn’t have to be political, does it? Can all the parties not agree that whoever wins, WBC will immediately start building more homes?

There are other problems. As with the national picture, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis are two of the big ones. These aren’t political issues: and yet, as we move towards May, every effort will be made to make them seem so. The problems in the planning system, public-transport issues (including the reduced rail service from Hungerford and Kintbury), early-years provision (particularly with regard to WB’s two maintained nursery schools in Hungerford and Newbury), recycling – these are just some of the things that are surely apolitical. (Some like the London Road Industrial Estate in Newbury and the fate of the town’s past or prospective football grounds have, I admit, become toxically politicised or at least personalised: which perhaps comes to the same thing.) 

If I were in charge of things [Oh God, here we go again – Ed.] I’d put the leaders of the parties that had any chance of winning any seats on 4 May in a room and tell them this. “You can have as much coffee, tea, water and sandwiches as you want – but you’re not coming out until you can come up with at least three things, supported by at least a hundred words of detail, on which you can all agree. Stuff like “we want West Berskhire to be be nice and everyone to like each other” ain’t going to cut it – it’s got to be something you can do something about. Get in there – I’m locking the door…”

Let’s suppose that they all agree that, amongst their other resolutions, a housing company is required to build social-rent homes in the district is needed. That’s good to say now as the officers will realise that, no matter who wins outright or what coalition they’re confronted with, this is going to be something they’ll be asked to sort out. So, why not start now? There will need to be at least two others, remember…

If any of these outcomes are what you most want to see happen, it suddenly matters a lot less which party you vote for as any combination will have the same policy on this or these matters. You can then consider, based on whatever evidence is available, which candidate is likely to be your most effective advocate. Let’s not forget, they’re elected for this reason, not to pump some party line.

Also, if the party leaders are locked in a room for however many hours it takes, they might get the idea that they’re all after many of the same things and that, on this local level, party differences are fairly meaningless.

I’m not holding my breath about this. Expect instead, as 4 May approaches, the usual mixture of tweets, statements, FB posts and all the rest convincing us that the opposition parties are completely awful, deluded, playing politics and all the rest of it. And then, whoever wins, the same cycle of blame and shame will continue. There’s got to be a better way…

The local plan

This long awaited document, which has occasioned thousands of hours of officers’ time, has been published and will be presented (and, presumably, approved) at West Berkshire Council’s full council meeting on 1 December. There will then be a five-week period for people to read ad digest this (or as much of its 3,100pp that they can). On 6 January 2023, the final public consultation, known as regulation 19, will start, running until 17 February. The officers will spend the following month or so studying all the responses (many of which are likely to be very detailed and technical), addressing any matters these have raised which require changes to the plan (for instance, if some aspect is in breach of national planning, or other, laws) and writing a summary of these points. They will then probably pour themselves a stiff drink.

The whole thing – plan, appendices, Reg 19 comments and summary – will then be signed off by WBC (regulation 22) and sent to the Planning Inspectorate. The Inspectorate’s aim is to start studying submitted plans within four weeks. This will obviously not be a quick job and it’s unlikely that the plan will be adopted until 2024. Of course, if the Inspectors find things in it that displease them then it might take longer still.

The latter stages of this are very close to, and may run into, the period known as pre-election purdah when there are restrictions on communications and announcements by the authority which is going to the polls (see more on the LGA website here). The election is on 4 May which means purdah will start on 23 March. As the restrictions could be taken to include the signing off of a new local plan, it’s been stipulated that this be done by an officer (so making it seem, or actually to be, an apolitical action). This means that, if the consideration of the responses takes longer than expected, the plan will not get held up (any more than it has been for various reasons already).

A statement from WBC on 24 November said that “The plan includes proposals for approximately 9,000 new homes in West Berkshire through 2039, ensuring a mix of new homes for growing families, first-time buyers, downsizers, and everyone else in our community. This will include infrastructure proposals to support new development while also providing additional services to our existing communities.” The plan also “emphasises how development can address the climate crisis and safeguards the district’s valuable assets.”

One planning expert (not from WBC) to whom I spoke on 24 November pointed out what seems to be a surprising omission: there doesn’t appear to be any mention of the troubled London Road Industrial Estate. Surely it’s not possible that it’s been forgotten about…?

I contacted both the opposition parties for their initial thoughts. The Greens promised me something as soon as possible but the members said they were completely snowed under with council and ward work. Tony Vickers (Lib Dem) was able to supply the following statement:

“The Liberal Democrats are broadly content with the district-wide policies in the Local Plan that we’ll be asked to vote on next Thursday. We certainly won’t be voting against the motion to publish it for the Regulation 19 consultation. 

“However, we are surprised at how late Members of the Planning Advisory Group were asked to comment on the Sustainability Appraisal (SA) which forms an important part of what will be sent to the Planning Inspectorate for examination in public later this year (according to the administration’s ambitious timetable). We found numerous instances of apparently rushed final drafting in just a quick reading of the SA.”

He went on to say that “We reserve the right to comment quite radically on the proposed North East Thatcham site allocation in our response to the Reg 19 draft.” (For more on how this might affect Thatcham, see our weekly Thatcham and area news column.)

Click here for more information on the local plan on WBC’s website. The documents are being added in chunks, the most important first, over the next week or so.

This is a colossal undertaking and which takes a vast amount of time (about five years so far). One might fairly ask whether this process can be done in a way that’s a bit more streamlined and fleet-footed. One for Whitehall and Westminster to consider. However, reforms to the planning system seem to move even more slowly than does the planning system itself.

In the absence of any changes, WBC’s officers will be able to take a couple of weeks off once this is put to bed: then they’ll need to get the pencils out again as it’ll be time to start on the next one.

Other news

Click here for a statement from West Berkshire Council about how is is, in conjunction with VolkerHighways, “dramatically reducing its carbon footprint by focussing on carbon-reduction techniques and materials.”

• All bus services in West Berkshire will be free all day on seven days days in November and December – click here for details.

• The search has begun to find this year’s Community Champions to recognise the amazing contributions local residents make to West Berkshire. The closing date for nominations is Monday 2 January. More information can be found here.

• West Berkshire Council’s annual Giving Tree campaign to support victims of domestic abuse and their families over Christmas is now open to receive donations. Click here for details.

Click here for a summary of how West Berkshire Council feels it’s doing on its journey towards carbon neutrality. Other points of view exist about this and I shall try to bring you some of these next week. One point that seems quite pertinent is that whereas the original climate emergency referred to initiative for West Berkshire as a whole, the ambitions no0w seem more to be focused on the Council’s own carbon footprint. Tat said, there have certainly been some good local initiatives, some done by individuals and voluntary groups and others (like the proposed solar farm near Mortimer) by WBC.

• 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.

• 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 animal of the week is Jac the sniffer dog which is able to discover problems deep underground: the springer spaniel has an apparent 100% success rate at identifying oil and hydrocarbon gases through earth and tarmac, saving SP Energy Networks’ engineers from unnecessary digging (Jan could probably help with that as well).

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of joined-up thinking, recessions, warm homes, metric v imperial and the Waterside Centre.

• 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

• Goodness me, here we are at the Song of the Week. I’m not a massive fan of so-called prog rock, nor of Genesis. However, the sheer inventiveness, shifting moods and intelligence of some their songs, particularly the early ones, when they were really very young, really gets me. The Musical Box is a pretty good example of this.

• So next it must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Chis Morris’ The Day Today was a wonderful spoof of current-affairs TV shows. Here’s a great example of this – Bombdogs.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is one I asked at the East Garstion Quiz last weekend – let’s see how many of you who were there can still remember: In what century was Macbeth King of Scotland? Last week’s question was: Who are the only four players to have scored in two men’s World Cup Finals? The answers to that are Vava (Brazil), 1958 and 1962; Pele (Brazil) 1958 and 1970; Paul Breitner (West Germany), 1974 and 1982; and Zinadine Zidane (France), 1998 and 2006. Only the two Brazilians were on the winning side both times. The other two were winners in the first of the finals in which they scored and losers in the second.

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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