This week with Brian 1 to 8 December 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including ladies in waiting, the scribbling classes, cringe on all foursly, an insane price hike, wind turbines, a planning pre-disposition, Christianity or football, Germany calling, our old friend Covid, a local plan, doing the right thing, no losses, a viewer complains, don’t stop, an eleventh-century king and beautiful camels. 

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

• I have no particular problem with the royal family – a president seems a far worse fate as they will be forever meddling – but I’ve always found it hard to understand the vast array of what are, for want of a better phrase, hangers on. I have a medieval history degree and so am no stranger to some of the strange roles like Seneschal, Steward, Dapifer, Sheriff, Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Groom of the Stool that many aspired to. Then some had real power: now those that remain are just ceremonial echoes. If they want to keep the roles active, and the salaries or reputation that goes with them, is to behave themselves.

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This cannot be said of the late Queen’s lady-in-waiting Lady Susan Hussey who this week got into a horrible racial mess with a black British charity boss invited to the Palace for an event about domestic and sexual abuse. Shake hands, ask them if they had a good journey, smile and move on. The woman in question was at the late Queen’s side since 1960 so you’d imagine that some sense of comme il faut would have rubbed off on her. Seems not.

• There’s also a sub-industry in all this in the form of the members of the scribbling classes who are styled “royal correspondents” or “constitutional experts”. The former politician Norman St John-Stevas was one such, a man who demonstrated throughout his life an almost slavish devotion to the royal family, the Queen Mother in particular. He was elevated to the peerage in 1987 as Lord St John of Fawley. Private Eye, in what still ranks for me as one of the best perversions of an official title I’ve ever heard, referred to him as “Lord Cringe On All Foursly.”

Many others, most of whom are less spectacularly named or parodied, continue to derive good incomes from interpreting the various happenings at the royal residences and offices. I doubt anyone will ever offer me one of these jobs. Just as well, as I have no taste for hanging around for hours at the end of long driveways waiting for Range Rovers to swish past.

• The cost-of-living crisis really seems to be biting. Penny was talking to someone in Newbury yesterday who said that she’d just had a letter from SSE saying that her shop’s electricity bills were going to go up from £35 a month to just under £600. “What are you going to do?” Penny asked. “I’m going to close,” the woman replied.

• Business Secretary Grant Shapps has been criticised for talking “rubbish” following his comments that onshore wind turbines are “now so large, they can’t even be constructed onshore. They are so big, the turbines wouldn’t be able to be carried by roads. They have to be put offshore.”  

This is slightly in contrast to this report in The Guardian which says that “Downing Street appears likely to allow new onshore wind projects in England after years of an effective ban.” Quoted in the same article, Shapps said that “local people to have a very, very keen say” in whether wind farms were located in their area.

• What does this mean? From what I’ve been able to find out, this means that the decision to approve wind farms or not has been passed down to local planning authorities. I’m also not clear if there is any over-arching national policy about a pre-disposition in favour of wind-farm applications which will (rightly in my view) trump any local objection to them. If it doesn’t then it should.

The local plans created by planning authorities take a tortuously long time to develop and implement and I’m far from certain that the eventual adopted results, the best part of a decade after their commencement, really nails what the district needs. Nor am I in favour of planning policy being made up on the spot by officers or committed; nor does having diktats passed down from Whitehall to which all decisions must adhere regardless of local circumstances please me.

The last few phrases perhaps explain now one the reasons why reforming the planning system has for decades proved impossible. On the one hand, the government wants to impose various targets or policies: on the other, it doesn’t want either to get bogged down in looking at individual cases more than necessary nor face accusations of being Stalinist in its central control. Te result is that planning authorities have to make their own decisions. How much latitude who’ll they be given?

• In the case of solar farms and wind turbines, the matter seems to me to be one of crushing simplicity. The best thing that we as a country can do right now is to insist that all planning authorities have a pre-disposition in favour of granting them (just as local councils have, more perplexingly, an obligation to be pre-disposed in favour of granting gambling licences).

Both of these – and, to be fair, gambling premises – share one thing: they are not permanent. Putting solar panels or turbines on land doesn’t result in an eternal agricultural utility loss, as some opponents claim. Plants can be grown below solar panels and they also help promote bio-diversity. Like fax machines, perhaps, both may in 25 years’ time be seen to be hopelessly outdated and merely a stepping-stone solution. Let’s hope a better one has since been developed. The arrays and turbines can then be dismantled and the uncontaminated land returned to its original purpose.

Now, however, we have sore need for this intermediate step if Putin, price hikes and our fossil-fuel addiction are not going to kill us first. This is, for now, the way forward. The government needs to put policies in place without delay to compel planning authorities, whatever their local plans say, to regard such applications favourably, rather than passing the buck. We’re facing an existential crisis, of which eye-watering rises in energy costs are a symptom. I’m a great supporter of local democracy but this is even more important than that.

• Initial results from the 2021 census suggest that, for the first time, fewer than half the population of the country identify themselves as being Christian. I’m amazed that the figure is that high. The census question was, as I recall, quite un-nuanced and relied on selecting from a number of drop-down options which might have led many people, through lack of interest or exhaustion, to have selected the religion of their upbringing.

Statista’s figures suggest that slightly over 850,000 people go to church once a week, down from nearly 1.1m in 2009. According to the BBC, 46.2% of the population of England and Wales are Christian (about 27.3m people). This means that only about one in 32 people who say they’re Christian regularly go to church.

What’s the obvious comparator? Looks like football to me. This statement from the Premier League claims that about 27m people watched live games in 2020-21, which qualifies them as football fans, about the same number of people (though perhaps not the same people) who regarded themselves as Christians. As regards actual attendance at the shrine, the four top levels in the English pyramid attract on average 39,000 fans per match (Premier League), 17,000 (Championship), 10,000 (League One) and 5,000 (League Two). This comes to about 71,500. However, the football season only lasts for about 10 months so this would be annualised at about 85,800.

It would therefore seem that Christianity and football are neck and neck: both appear to have the same number of general adherents and active participants. Which is more likely to crop up in the average conversation, though: an argument about the respective merits of consubstantiation and transubstantiation or whether the second goal was offside? Also, at least football produces a definite result, even though we may not always agree with it. Christianity produces nothing definite I’ve ever seen, if you don’t count platitudes and casuistical arguments. Maybe that’s it’s attraction.

However, the statistics suggest that the nature of the Trinity and the application of the offiside law – both of which present equally compelling reasons for serious dispute – are currently neck and neck in the nation’s affections.

• And staying with football, a wonderful achievement by Japan to come top of a group containing both Spain and Germany and beating both of them in the process. Moving on, Germany have been knocked out – bad luck to them as I’m sure all of us would have liked to see them win the World Cup for the fifth time, probably beating England en route as generally happens. What a terrible shame. My old friend Owen, who’s Welsh, lives in Germany and loves football, won’t be enjoying this week very much.

• As regards our old friend Covid, these figures seem (I think) to suggest that we don’t need to worry about it as much as we used to and that it can be regarded as a kind of doubling of the flu risk, of which most of us were probably unaware for most of our lives.

Of course, if the government suddenly decides to tell us that it’s a crisis we need to react to then this perception will change. One can’t help wondering if a dramatic policy akin to lockdown might work if applied to the far more serious problem of climate change. However, it’s hard to see how such a policy might work (although telling people to work from home seemed to help).

The problem is that Covid is fast and climate change is slow. Aesop was right: the tortoise can beat the hare. His reason was the hare’s complacency: we can update that and say that the real problem is that if something doesn’t have an immediate consequence we can’t spare the time to notice it at all. Thus it is that many things creep up upon us: it’s the enemy we don’t see or don’t acknowledge that often kills us…

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

The local plan

As mentioned last week, this mammoth document has recently been published. See last week’s column for a few initial thoughts on this. It made its first public appearance at WBC’s Full Council meeting on 1 December and, after a debate, was approved (21 in favour, 17 against and one abstention) to go forward to the next stage of its life – a public consultation (known as Regulation 19) starting on 6 January 2022. I’ll have more to say about that next week, including comments from some of the participants.

There was one change to the advertised programme: it appears that the Lib Dems had a change of heart about whether they would support it. Last week, we quoted the party’s planning spokesperson Tony Vickers as saying that the Lib Dems “won’t be voting against the motion to publish it for the Regulation 19 consultation.” A statement sent to Penny Post on 29 November, said that they would be voting against it. The reasons for this can be seen in this separate post.

The local plan, or so it seems to me, does two things: it defines policies and it allocates sites. Perhaps I’m being ignorant or naive, but I don’t see why these two can’t be separated. The first appears less contentious and political; the latter is often anything but. Why can the policies not be thrashed out first? When these are consulted on under a Reg 18 and agreed, there can then follow a call for sites with each being considered depending on whether or not it agrees with the policies; which may in the light of this need to be tweaked. Then the whole thing is bundled together, put through its Reg 19 consultation and sent off to the Planning Inspectors.

This may, for all manner of reasons that I am too foolish to understand, be completely impossible. However, against that is the fact that the current approach doesn’t seem to be working that well. There has been a good deal of cross-party work on the plan and yet, after nearly four years, there’s still the capacity for a last-minute political spat which may yet delay there whole thing. To an outside observer, the process looks a bit dysfunctional, not to say slow. As I ended up saying last week, there must be a better way.

CIL payments

I’ve written about this several times in the last few years. The first mention of it was in this article almost exactly two years ago. I have had no reason to retract anything I said here: indeed, further acquaintance with the subject has only served to confirm my original impression. The two cases (there may be others) where Community Infrastructure Levy payments were charged due to a minor paperwork error and even though neither development should have attracted CIL appear to be wrong in many ways, including morally.

Clearly, my feelings on the matter are as nothing compared to those of the two victims of this. One has paid the CIL charge; the other, for reasons which remain unclear, has not and has had the threat of litigation hanging over him for several years. The former resident, Maris Dobson from Kintbury, started a petition to draw attention to this matter. This attracted 1,535 signatures, more than enough to be worthy of consideration by the Council – a considerable achievement at this time of many petitions and which thus shows the depth of feeling and level of unease about the matter – it was presented at the start of WBC’s Full Council meeting on 1 December. This was to have been done by another of Ms Dobson’s ward members, Claire Rowles. She was unwell, however, so it was read out by one of her ward colleagues, James Cole.

The text of the petition was as follows:

We, the undersigned, call upon West Berkshire Council to adopt the following policy without delay: West Berkshire Council will ensure that it charges the correct amounts of money due to it for any and all services for which it levies charges and will reimburse any resident or service user who has been charged in error or has been charged where no charge should have been levied.

Councillor Cole then made the following brief remarks to put the petition in context: “this is about the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL),” he explained, “and how aggrieved Mrs Dobson feels in being charged just over £24,000 as a result of not filling out one form which she was unaware was required. You may remember that there was another case but that was in a different ward.” Councillor Cole finished by saying that “whilst I have not signed this petition, had I been asked to in this case I would have done so.”

The Chairman said that the matter would be reviewed by the relevant officers who will confirm within 10 days what action will be taken. As soon as we know more we’ll let you know. The hope is that the matter will be resolved by Christmas – the question is, which Christmas? Any chance of its being this one? This sorry and unedifying matter has dragged on for far too long already.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has launched a sustainable warmth scheme which offers help “to make homes cheaper, warmer and greener through funded energy-saving improvements.” More details here.

• On a closely related matter, Lib Dem Councillor Adrian Abbs presented a motion to WBC’s Full Council on 1 December 2020: “This Council will introduce a scheme which will begin by focusing on those who cannot afford to undertake basic insulation, or lack the skills, or physical ability to do it. The intent for the scheme would be to allow council to undertake a long-term program which would help towards our enabling of net zero by 2030 for the district.”

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 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 animals of the week are the camels taking part in what appears to be a cross between the World Cup and Miss World in Qatar. I’ve never before heard the phrase “we check all the camels to make sure they’ve not had cosmetic surgery” before.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of petrol prices, white elephants, funding cuts, windfall taxes and a shortage of pharmacists.

• 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. Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac has recently died. She wrote some of the great pop songs, much of the inspiration for these doubtless coming from being in a band the description which the phrases “dysfunctional relationships”, “sexual infidelity”, “excess” and “ego clashes” seem barely adequate. She was also a bloody good keyboard player and a great singer. Here’s my favourite song of hers: Don’t Stop from the band’s classic album Rumours.

• So next it must be the Comedy Sketch of the Week. Complaining about and objecting to and being offended by pretty much anything is a bit of a national pastime. Here, from Messrs Fry and Alurie, is one way of dealing with such grievances: A Viewer Complains.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only country to have won two men’s World Cup Finals and never lost one? Last week’s question was one I asked at the East Garstion Quiz last weekend: In what century was Macbeth King of Scotland? The answer is the 11th. He was king between 1040 and 1057 and seemed to have been OK by the standards of the time (although these weren’t that high).

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