Farewell to 2022

At this time of the year, more or less anyone capable of holding a pen is writing a review of what the last twelve months have brought and what the next twelve might hold. I see no reason why I should not do the same…

Farewell to 2022 (though not its problems…)

Internationally and nationally, the field is well covered. Ukraine, inflation, economic uncertainty, climate change and the lingering threat posed by Covid and its offshoots will dominate 2023 along with, if the past is anything to go by, one or two new problems that we can currently hardly imagine.

(One story that has caught my eye recently and which makes me more angry and depressed than I can say is unfolding in Afghanistan. As many predicted, the Taliban is now really cranking up its repression of women, a ban on their attending university being the latest move (indeed, it’s now not possible for them to be educated at all). There appears to be little anyone can do about this abomination. The regime is probably impervious to outside pressure and is swaddled in its own powerful and self-perpetuating dogma of misogynistic bigotry. Any armed intervention seems out of the question, all previous attempts there having proved disastrous. Imposing societal change on another country, even if the moral (whatever that means) right existed to do it, has an even worse success rate. In any event, any states which might be minded to intervene have their hands full right now. All in all, a gloomy coda to the year and further proof that people or organisations will get up to almost anything if there’s little or no risk of being called out. Putin may have made the same assumption – wrongly, as things turned out – in February.)

This survey has a more localised scope, just looking at the area covered by Penny Post. All of these I’ve covered many times during 2022 and none have been fixed or resolved to the extent that they won’t be mentioned again in 2023. As we cover the work of the councils in the area particularly closely, and as these councils are the authors of or involved in many of the main local issues or projects, it’s on these that we concentrate.

Local politics

The main backdrop to the first half of 2023 will be the 4 May elections in West Berkshire and the Vale of White Horse (Wiltshire and the Vale’s parent authority Oxfordshire CC will not be holding elections again until 2025). In both districts the result will be at least some new councillors and possibly different political administrations. Before then, however, there will be a lot of hissing and biting. We’ll be covering this but will do our best to focus on what the candidates have in common and how beneficial or feasible their comments and proposals seem to be.

I’ve written elsewhere about how party politics at a local level is in many ways a corrosive influence. Although we seem to be stuck with it, we should still demand something better from our representatives in the way of civility, respect, co-operation and transparency. Local councils frequently complain that it’s hard to get enough candidates, and a wider range of them. Part of the problem is that municipal language and behaviour, both in public and behind the scenes, can stray way beyond robust discussion or fair comment.

General council initiatives

Most things local councils do are apolitical and non-discretionary. Examples of the latter include expenditure on social care, refuse collection, roads and education. The services must be provided but councils have a reasonably free hand to decide exactly how the money is spent.

Less discretionary in all aspects is distributing specific grants from central government for certain projects. Funds will be allocated for matters such as Covid support, refugees and cost-of-living assistance, and possibly only for specific demographics or within a certain time.

In both of these, councils are acting as agents of government. The measure of success is largely measured in negative terms: things should go smoothly but sometimes don’t. If you have not received a payment or service that’s due to you under these schemes, the failure of the system appears total. (See “Having your say” at the foot of this post.)

All councils will have a section of their website where their news is publicised. Click here for for West Berkshire’s, here for the Vale of White Horse’s, here for Wiltshire’s and here for Swindon’s. These councils will also have a range of newsletters covering a range of topics. West Berkshire, for instance, has about 20 and you can sign up for any combination you want. These are a good way of hearing about initiatives of which you might otherwise be unaware.

Local councils, like many bodies, are now digital by default. A vast range of rapidly changing information is now increasingly demanded and the only practical way to provide this is online. Councils are not deliberately excluding the perhaps 15% of the population who are rarely or never online but that is often the result. If you have relatives, friends or neighbours who for this reason may miss announcements that might be of interest, please draw their attention to these. If these request that people contacting the council, the communication should have a phone number for those not on the web. If there isn’t one, that’s worth bringing to the council’s attention if you have the time so this can be improved for others.

It’s worth picking out a few specific recent schemes from West Berkshire that fit into these categories.

Support hubs

All councils were, as well as being legally obliged to distribute allocated central funds, also at least morally obliged to set up some information service to help residents with the cost-of-living crisis. WBC’s Cost of Living Support Hub, like the Covid and Ukraine hubs on which it was based, seems to be successful. See this separate post. The need for this is unlikely to vanish in 2023.

Food recycling

Councils may also have to implement new aspects of government policy. Once such concerned needing separate recycling for food (if put in the black bins this ends up in landfill and produces harmful methane). West Berkshire’s scheme appears to be going well. It attracted criticism when the food caddies were introduced in the autumn but our advice was (i) that the officers have given this some thought so try it for a few months first and (ii) that the council had to implement this anyway. Here’s a recent statement from WBC on the subject.

EV charge points

Councils can also be tasked with helping to meet general government targets. Housing numbers are the best-known ones: but there is also a goal for EV charge points, the plan being to have 300,000 nationwide by 2030 (ironically, this is the same as the annual targets for home building, and as this article in Forecourt Trader points out, seems even less likely to be met). In March 2022, the government produced this guidance for local authorities which made the comment that “local leadership in this transition [to EVs] is crucial.”

So, how well is your local authority doing? This map from the DfT suggests that whether by total devices, rapid-charge devices or devices per 100,000, West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire are all doing quite well, West Berkshire being in the top 10% of authorities by all three measures. Of course, these are the total devices in the district, not just the ones the council has been responsible for. Could the councils have done more to instal devices in their own car parks or to encourage others to do so elsewhere? Certainly WBC could be in Hungerford, the progress (or lack of) with getting points installed in the station car park having been repeated feature of the Town Council meetings for the last year. The above-mentioned Gov.uk guidance admits that “this is a new and complex area for local authorities which can lead to actual or perceived barriers to a successful rollout of EV charging infrastructure.”

With all these, and the many other things that councils are responsible for, if anything is in your view not being done properly, or quickly enough, or at all, you need to let them know. See the section at the foot of this post.

Out of sight, out of mind

There are two aspects of local life which we don’t generally think about: however, when they go wrong near us we can’t think about anything else. These are planning and flooding (particularly if involving sewage).

Both are technical, complex and divisive: suffice it to say that the real power regarding what actually happens is held by, respectively, developers and water companies. Both are private and profit-driven and so dance to a different tune than do councils. Both also have far deeper pockets. Councils probably wish that they had more powers, or more clearly-defined ones, than they currently do and certainly wish they had more money to enforce their decisions. The tensions arising from these relationships are going to be with us for some time yet.

We’ve covered, often in detail, many stories on these subjects in 2022. Several have their origins years or even decades before then. Some feature in our weekly news sections while other have their own posts. We’ll continue to cover these in 2023 and beyond. Here are just three of the ones we’ve reported and comments on, and will be again.

  • WBC’s local plan (a gargantuan document which has been many years in the making and which will, when approved, set the rules for all planning decisions over the next decade and a half). This willl, from 6 January to 17 February 2023, be undergoing what is scheduled to be its final public consultation (known as Regulation 19). There will be much to be said about this in the first few months of 2023. A large number of people and local bodies will be doing just that and we’ll be covering this.
  • The Lambourn Valley (and other parts of our area) suffer from overflowing sewerage systems, caused by groundwater flowing in through the many cracks in the pipes. This has the knock-on effects either of sewage bursting up into homes or needing to be pumped into our SSSI-protected river. Neither is a satisfactory long-term solution and in recent years a combination of local and national pressure has forced Thames Water to be more proactive in its repair schedules. Much work was done in 2022 but, as groundwater levels were generally low, these haven’t really been tested yet. As before, we’ll be covering this (particularly when levels start to rise, which they usually do in the spring) and will spread any messages and do what we can to press for faster and better action.
  • The nutrient neutrality regulations overlap flooding and planning. In essence, they demand additional mitigation measures for new developments in certain areas (the Lambourn catchment was one of many nationwide added to the list in March 2023). The above-mentioned comment from Gov.uk about EV charge points that “this is a new and complex area for local authorities” could equally well be applied to nutrient neutrality. It would be going too far to say that interpreting these has paralysed WBC’s planning department in 2022 but it certainly hasn’t helped; and has led to at least two decisions which appear to be perverse. This will continue to be a factor in 2023 and beyond. We’ll be watching what goes on.

Projects and conduct

Finally, we turn to matters which are in the gift of councils to manage and control, within the limits of their legal competence. These range from projects they themselves have initiated or have become closely associated with, through to how councils conduct their procedures and treat their residents and members. You can see a list of some of these below.

I’m not going to append any comments here: all have been covered in 2022 (and often before) and a search in Penny Post for any of the terms will provide plenty of results.

All are going to be live issues as the election drawn closer. This is not because any are inherently political in an idealogical sense (although many have become politicised at a local level): however, either these are matters on which you can have your say, or something has gone wrong (sometimes over many years), or risks doing so, and questions need to be asked about where we go from here. We shall continue to ask these questions, and to report on those posed by others, and on the answers or proposals that are offered.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the pieces of local business (in addition to those mentioned above) that remain unfinished as 2022 draws to a close:

  • The London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE) in Newbury.
  • The Faraday Road football ground in Newbury.
  • The new sports hub and Monks Lane in Newbury.
  • The Sandleford development between Newbury and Greenham.
  • The plans for 2,500 (now, perhaps, reduced to 1,500) homes between Thatcham and Bucklebury.
  • The proposed closure, now seemingly reversed, of Sovereign’s Windmill Court in Mortimer.
  • The plans for solar farms including in Bloomfield Hatch near Mortimer and in Enborne.
  • The proposed re-development of the Kennet Centre (known as Eagle Quarter) in Newbury.
  • The proposed Watermill Bridge development in Wash Water.
  • The neighbourhood development plans (NDPs) in the area, including in Lambourn, Marlborough, Newbury and Hungerford.
  • The town-centre strategies for Hungerford and Thatcham.
  • The long hoped-for re-opening of Wantage Road Station in Grove.
  • The seemingly ever-widening gap between development and infrastructure in the Wantage and Grove area.
  • The plans for the colossal reservoir between Wantage and Abingdon.
  • The environmental standards of the new development at Chestnut Walk in Hungerford.
  • The progress towards meeting the demands of the climate emergencies declared by all the local councils.
  • The question marks that continue to hang over how some Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) issues have been handled in West Berkshire.
  • The continued impasse between West Berkshire Council and the community-transport provider Readibus.
  • The questions about how some councils’ procedures currently work, including regarding scrutiny, oversight and members’ access to information.
  • Whether councils are doing all they can to respond to local concerns about speeding and HGVs on unsuitable roads.
  • What councils can do to improve monitoring and enforcing planning conditions.

These are just the main ones: there are many more, while others will emerge in 2023. We’ll do our best to continue to cover these as fully as we can.

Have your say

Consultations. There are normally several going on at any one time and information about many of these will be provided by Penny Post. Some (like the local plan) are both important and technical and we’ll offer suggestions as to whom you might want to contact for advice before making your response.

Service failures. Processes sometimes break down and if so you have a right to complain and have the problem explained and remedied. The first thing is to establish (a) if this is indeed the council’s responsibility; and (b), if it is, who at the council you should contact. The websites for West Berkshire Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Borough Council will answer these questions for those areas. Oxfordshire is two-tier and so responsibilities are split between Oxfordshire County Council and, in the Wantage and Grove area, the Vale of White Horse District Council. Some matters may be the responsibility of your town or parish council, or other bodies.

If you don’t receive a response in a reasonable time or are unhappy with the response you do receive, you can also contact your district, borough or country councillor/s (also known as ward member/s, or division member’s in county councils). Some wards or divisions have more than one member. You can find details of councillors for West Berkshire Council, Wiltshire CouncilSwindon Borough Council, Oxfordshire County Council and Vale of White Horse District Council. These people are elected to represent you and provide a free service if you need help.

You might also want to cc your local parish or town council Chair or Clerk. Even if the matter is not their responsibility, it’s good that they know about this (particularly if it’s an issue such as planning enforcement or bin collections) as they’ll have their own communication lines to whoever can help sort it.

Taking it further. If you’re still unhappy after these contacts then other avenues are open to you but it’s nor possible to generalise about what these might be in each case.

Social media. Bear in mind that posting a comment on social media will not be regarded as a formal means of communication by a council unless it’s expressly said that it will and will certainly not be regarded as a response to a consultation or a planning application. There’s also no guarantee that it will be read by anyone who is in a position to help. That’s not to say that this is not a useful way of highlighting a problem that the above methods can’t resolve or publicising a campaign or a petition.

Contacting Penny Post. You can email brian@pennypost.org.uk if you have a problem that none of the above methods have solved and we’ll do our best to advise on how this might be addressed. We also welcome hearing from anyone whose experiences echo or relate to any stories that we’ve covered or might cover in the future. Any communications will be treated in confidence.

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