This week with Brian 8 to 15 December 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Apologies – I forgot to update the link from last week in the 15 December 2022 newsletter.

For those of you who clicked on this, please click again here to go to this week’s column.

 

Including not going mad, not very surprising, nation states, UK and US definitions, from our Hamburg correspondent, a new coal mine, the upper house, breaking the planning impasse, life in dark water, WBC’s Hub, pensions, views on the local plan, a free service, Uruguay twice, France again, 5705, client or salesman, several records and JFK’s number. 

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

• Vladimir Putin has given the world the reassuring news that Russia has not “gone mad” and would not use nuclear weapons first. This is a fairly qualified definition of sanity but it’s the best we’re likely to get. He also said that the war in Ukraine was likely to be “a lengthy process.” This certainly seems to be supported by events since February. The word “mad” can mean two things. In its mainly UK contact, it means insane. In its US one, it means “really angry”. In my view he’s both sane and cross: not a great combination.

[more below] 

If we start from, and for the purposes of this paragraph accept, his premises that (i) Ukraine is really part of Russia and (ii) that the dismantling of the USSR was a geo-political disaster, then the invasion was completely rational. There are very few positions which can be described as objectively rational in any case. If I were to steal and smash your car after a high-speed joy-ride, that might seem completely bonkers to you but might, depending on where I’m coming from mentally, make perfect sense to me. Most countries I can think of, including Spain, the UK, France, Belgium, the USA and China, have taken enormous pains and spent vast sums of money and depended countless lives in either subjecting other territories, maintaining control over them or seeking either to recover or control them once they flew the coop.

Nation states, by definition, control chunks of land. The more land you control, the more powerful you are, just as in past times the farmer with fifty cows was more powerful than the one with three. How we go about doing this is another matter. Many exercises in turning the clock back in this way have not worked: but many have. Everyone knows that we live in England and most will be aware that this was essentially a re-naming of the old kingdom of Wessex. But how many of us remember the names of the other six kingdoms that Wessex conquered, or the countless smaller ones that they had in their time subdued? Both Germany and Italy were, until the 19th century, a patchwork of tiny states, almost all of which are now forgotten. The victors are not always right but sure as hell they write the history and draw the maps.

These days, however, such attempts at repression are more problematic, particularly as the war is (unlike some) being fought in a blaze of publicity. Even a hundred years ago, you could commit genocide and people in the next country would be completely oblivious. Now every atrocity, every assault and every statement is recorded, photographed and commented on. No one is going to forget this, in the way that some of Putin’s less spectacular assaults on smaller neighbours may have been. His motives for launching the invasion may have been rational in his eyes but he certainly won’t be able to re-draw the map as if Ukraine had never existed.

As regards mad in the US sense of being cross then, yes, he must be. This was meant to have been a lightning smash-and-grab ram-raid but has turned into a ghastly  war of attrition. This could be a result of the advice he received (or perhaps didn’t). In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the press baron Lord Copper (modelled on Lord Beaverbrook) surrounded himself with sycophants who had two responses to questions: “Absolutely, Lord Copper” if they agreed with him and “up to a point, Lord Copper” if they didn’t. I think Putin’s inner circle may well have restricted themselves to the first.

• A number of not-very-surprising news stories this week have included: fresh strikes; Volodymyr Zelensky being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year; and Baroness Mone deciding no longer to sit in the House of Lords pending an enquiry into her conduct regarding PPE contracts.

• Much more surprising was the news on 7 December that the German security services thwarted a plot by, as The Guardian described the Reichsbürger, “a motley crew of unlikely characters” and “a conglomerate of conspiracy theorists” to overthrow the German state and install a minor aristocrat known as Heinrich XIII as leader. On the face of it, this seems like something from a Tintin story (or perhaps the above-mentioned Scoop) but the authorities thought it was real enough. Germany’s twentieth-century history doesn’t admit of any complacency about radical right-wing groups muscling their way into power. There’s also a much more recent precedent from 6 January 2021 in the USA. The forces Trump assembled then could fairly be described with the same phrases as quoted above.

Fortunately, Penny Post has a Hamburg correspondent: you can read what he thinks about this strange and alarming story by clicking here.

• Even more crackpot seems to be the approval for the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria, a decision that the Chair of the government’s advisory Climate Change Committee (CCC) called “absolutely indefensible”. If there were some immediate result that would mitigate the cost-of-living crisis then there might be a scintilla of justification for it: however, as the BBC reports, the CCC said that 85% of the coal produced by the mine would be exported. The assessment of the Planning Inspector who made the final decision was that the effects of the development on carbon emissions would be “relatively neutral.” This term is as meaningless as “very unique” or “with all due respect.”

• The planning system in this country is in a muddle from which no reforms seem likely to extricate it. The local plan process takes half of eternity for each local planning authority to define and is then overtaken by events, including new government regulations and policies. As I mentioned before, it’s like a huge elephant which has collapsed across a road: moving it and agreeing where it should go next are equally impossible so it’s easier just to work round it, tiresome and time-consuming though this is.

The main problem is that the entire home-building programme has been outsourced to the private sector which has, quite reasonably, different imperatives from the government. National regulations demand that a certain proportion (normally between 30 and 40%) of homes in developments of more than ten dwellings are “affordable” or social-rent. These are, however, not economical for developers to provide. Before we rear up and start burning effigies of homebuilders, imagine that you’re running a shop. One day, Rishi Sunak phones up and says, “from now on you’re going to have to sell 40% of your stock at cost, or close to. It’s our policy.” If I were the shop-keeper, I’d say “Oh yeah? Well, if it’s your policy, open your own shop.”

That’s what needs to happen. The trouble is that councils have completely lost the knack of building. 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. Whereas in the heyday of public-building (between WW2 and Margaret Thatcher) there was a clear and common purpose, now the skill sets and assets are split. There were, it’s true, some pretty gruesome mistakes made then: but if we don’t assume we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past then we might as well give up on everything.

A new model is needed and which doesn’t rely on the permanently stuck-in-the-tunnel train of government reform. In any case, the government can’t solve this problem on its own. What’s needed is the encouragement of partnerships to construct homes that aren’t just four-bed houses with large gardens in pricey areas.

The four key participants are currently the government (which can set some general rules and reward adherence to them); local councils (which have to define policies, meet housing targets and respond to their residents’ needs); private developers (which have the skills and experience to build the things); and housing associations (which can manage rental properties). These general divisions of expertise and interest being accepted, it shouldn’t be impossible to set up agreements by which the latter three parties set up joint ventures with each doing what they are best at and sharing the profits.

What’s missing from this? of course – land. In any one district, all four of these organisations will own some that’s suitable. The trouble is that some is land-blanked as an investment, some is tied up in covenants and some is just left because there isn’t the expertise or the certainty as to how it can be developed. If all the expertise were pulled together with, in each case, everyone doing what they do best and getting a share of the proceeds proportionate to what they contribute, something might happen.

At present, not enough is happening. People need homes, and often not of the kind that the current system provides. Councils need to meet targets. Developers want to be kept busy. Housing associations would welcome more properties to manage. The current system isn’t working. Everyone seems to be sitting around blaming the shortcomings of the current regulations and waiting for a magic wand from SW1 that is never going to get waved. The present situation is also highly adversarial, with local councils, developers, government policy and local communities often at loggerheads. This can all be solved, or improved, by local partnerships which can, if they succeed, act as exemplars for others. All the tools to do this are to hand if only we’re prepared to try something different. More of the same ain’t going to cut it.

• Speaking of which, Kier Starmer recently announced that, were Labour to come to power in the next election, he would abolish the House of Lords. Good luck with that, and you’ll have my vote if it can be replaced with something more rational. Many have tried to abolish it: only Oliver Cromwell (and then briefly) succeeded. I’ve written about this extraordinary institution before: here, for instance.

• The average Pension Credit award is worth over £3,500 a year and those who claim by 18 December could also be entitled to an extra £324 cost of living payment. Click here for more information.

• And how could we end but with a bit of sporting news. As to me there are only two sports, cricket and football, it is to these that I shall restrict myself. England’s recent test victory against Pakistan set several records and has been hailed as (I’m paraphrasing) a triumph of white-ball (ie one-day) mentality in a red-ball (ie test-match) setting. As for the footy, it’s very hard for me to imagine we can beat world champions France and I think they’ll win 3-1 and then go on to lift the trophy again, something that hasn’t happened since Brazil did it in 1962. I might be wrong of course: I often am…

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.

Although the policies that the plan espouses are generally apolitical, several political or local issues have inevitably intruded. Without any further comment form me, I thus invite you to see this separate post in which the most recent statements Penny Post has received from the three parties represented ion WBC are recorded.

Some coverage of the issue so far concentrates on the political wrangles, including whether or not the document needs to come back to Full Council after the Regulation 19 consultation and before it’s sent to the Planning Inspector. It’s clear that the Lib Dems have an interest in delaying the process as much as possible as, if they win the election in May, they will want to recall the plan for some changes. However, the fries won the last election and control WBC and so, as I understand matters, are largely in control of the timetable. It therefore seems fairly certain that the plan will will get sent for examination by 4 May.

If this does indeed happen and if electoral matters pan out as the Lib Dems hope, the task of tweaking it thereafter should not prove impossible. South Oxfordshire’s new administration tried to do this with theirs in 2019 and ended up being bullied by the end Minister Robert Jenrick into approving the plan as it stood. South Oxon wanted to start with completely different housing targets which effectively meant re-doing much of the plan. West Berkshire’s, however, doesn’t seem nearly as contentious and would mainly be concerned with re-visiting the 1,500-home assumption for NE Thatcham.

It’s worth stressing that members from all three parties have said that there’s a lot of good stuff in it (all three were represented on the Planning Advisory Group that has worked alongside the officers). Indeed, if the NE Thatcham proposals didn’t exist then there would probably be little to argue about. Hang on – what am I saying? With three different political parties in the dog days of what seems to be particularly politicised council there’s never going to be much chance of that. A rogue apostrophe or a split infinitive would probably be enough for one side or another to demand an emergency debate…

The Cost of Living Support Hub

West Berkshire has an enviably large number of voluntary bodies and community groups covering almost every aspect of life. It also has a well established organisation, Volunteer Centre West Berkshire, which helps place people who want to volunteer with the most suitable group and whose knowledge of that sector is thus unparalleled. The district is also fortunate in having a grant-giving body like Greenham Trust (others exist but this is the main one). At a time of crisis, such as we’re in now, all these efforts need to be co-ordinated: that’s where West Berkshire Council (WBC) comes in. The result is the West Berkshire Cost of Living Hub which acts as a centralised point of advice for local residents who’re experiencing problems as a result of soaring costs, particularly of energy.

In this article, we look at how successful this initiative has been, what it can do to help you or people you know and how you can help support its work. It also explains how other organisation like Greenham Trust and Volunteer Centre West Berkshire are working with WBC on this and how you can help support their work.

The Cost of Living Support Hub is a great example of a local success story, so hats off to all those involved in its creation and operation.

A free service – and May the fourth be with you

Wherever you live, in West Berkshire or elsewhere, your ward members are there to help you, particularly with any issues where some intervention with your local council is concerned. Think of them as being like a very local version of your MP. Examples of things they can assist with include non-collection of bins, failure to fix potholes, speeding problems, an unexpected charge or invoice relating to CIL or a similar charge, help with understanding the implications of an unwelcome or complex planning application, flooding, sewage leaks and licensing issues. If these sort of things ever crop up on your list of problems, your first contact should be to your local ward member.

Ward members (also known as district or borough councillors) represent, as the name implies, a ward. This might comprise one or more parishes and there may be one or more members per ward. All are expected to act apolitically on ward issues: so, if you’ve received a confusing, surprising or unwelcome bill from your local council or have an issue with a service, the ward member should be able to act as your advocate even if they are a member of the ruling group. It was after all you, not their party, that elected them. The members exist to help the residents and to keep the councils under scrutiny, not just to peddle and support a particular political line.

You can find the details of your ward members in West Berkshire, Wiltshire, Swindon and the Vale of White Horse by clicking on the appropriate link. (The Vale of White Horse also has another level, Oxfordshire County Council, above it, which the others do not. For simplicity, contact your district councillor first and you will be signposted to the OCC member if necessary). It’s also worth contacting your local local parish or town council (see the regional news sections in Penny Post for details) as these act as a hyper-local eyes and ears and will be able to ensure that any relevant issue has been dealt with by the ward member/s.

The good news is that this service is free. Ward members may have a political allegiance but, as mentioned, their principal role is to represent you. In West Berkshire and may other areas, all of them are up for re-election on 4 May 2o23. May the fourth be with you, indeed. Most of us never need to contact our ward member – like a doctor or a dentist, the relationship is most successful by default. There are, however, times when only they can help.

When the time comes to cast your vote, consider what service you might have received from any that are standing for re-election or ask around for any opinion from others who know them better (your town or parish council is a good place to start). The politics doesn’t, at this level, really matter that much. What’s important is to have a representative who can fight your corner. There’s no guarantee that they’ll do this just because the represent the party you happen to support nationally. Keep it local and vote for the person you think can best argue your case if you need them to. The colour of their rosette is a secondary consideration.

Put your existing ones to the test now – if you’ve got a problem (see suggestions above) that you think they can help fix, get in touch with them and see what they can do.

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.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that it has received confirmation on a £1m investment boost through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) following a plan submitted in August.

Advice here from WBC on keeping safe and warm during a cold snap and protecting the most vulnerable people in our communities.

• 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 these deep-sea creatures, which inhabit a dark and watery world that I fascinating and terrifying in roughly equal measure.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of petrol pricing, acorns, insulation, an explanation required, strategies not working and pay-back time.

• 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

• My word, here we are at the Song of the Week. A great guitar pop song from what was, I think, a on-hit-wonder ’70s band – but what a hit. 5705 from City Boy (complete with a singing drummer).

• So that brings us to the Comedy Sketch of the Week. If you want to buy a computer from Mitchell and Webb, or anyone else, be prepared to be confused.

• And so we sign off with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is another that I asked at the East Garston quiz night last month in aid of the Eat Garston Village Hall: Washington was number one and Biden is number 46 – what number was JFK? Last week’s question was: Which is the only country to have won two men’s World Cup Finals and never lost one? The answer is Uruguay, who won in 1930 and 1950 and haven’t, as they say in cricket, troubled the scorers since. England is the only other country left in the competition (at the time of writing, at any case) that can join the 2-0 club.

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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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for your response. If the Planning Authority is properly advised and have a water tight agreement with the developer there would be no wriggle room for the developer. However I suspect that developers are often able to outwit the ill equipped Planning Authority.
    I can see no reason why Planning Authorities should not be partially funded by CIL payments and thus be able to be run by properly qualified people.
    I do not believe Councils should start building themselves as that is likely to create another costly exercise. I am a great believer in the profit motive and it would work well where the developer is subject to a meaningful agreement.

    1. I broadly agree: developers can and do outwit and wear down LPAs.
      I don’t think councils should start building on their own as most lack the experience. In partnership with others, though, they might be able to get built what the area needs.
      I have no problem with the profit motive either. The fact remains that on its own it’s not getting enough affordable or social-rent homes built.

  2. I totally disagree with Brian’s assertion that the requirement to include a 30/40% social housing requirement in planning consents is not commercially viable. The developers should pay the appropriate price when the acquire the land in the first place and then not whinge that they cannot afford to meet the requirement.

    1. Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your comment.
      You’re right in what you say (though this depends on paying the appropriate price for the land, which is a separate problem). That’s what should happen. However, it doesn’t seem to be working in practice.
      The current arrangements, in which the developers have a lot of power and can use viability assessments and other tricks to reduce the affordable-housing component, doesn’t tend to provide the social-housing etc stock that’s needed. LPAs are unwilling to take developers on in battles about this (though, to its credit, WBC did with Lancaster Park in Hungerford). Whatever the result, all this is in any event very antagonistic, expensive and causes delays.
      Most agree the current system doesn’t provide enough affordable homes and that it’s pointless to pretend that this will change. Councils need to roll their sleeves up and start building these themselves. However, they generally lack the skills: which is why I was proposing a more collaborative solution. Most also agree that (i) the planning system needs reform and that (ii) reforming it is impossible, even if we could agree what the new system should look like. What I suggested isn’t predicated on reform and can be done now. It’s just a suggestion to fix what seems to be a festering problem…

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