This week with Brian 15 to 22 December 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including strips of cardboard, a long arm, massive parking fines, immense problems, fusion-collusion, a fax reminder, a constitutional elephant, a customer journey, football stats, a missing champion, the cost of living, in to win, the options have recently changed, Thor the walrus, Heartbreak Avenue, a word with Timothy, six sharps and number 35.

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 holy grails of clean energy production seem to me to be either hydrogen (creating a lot of energy plus water) and nuclear fusion (creating a lot of energy plus helium). Unfortunately for this process (but fortunately in other ways) the strong nuclear force is, well, very strong. (It only operates across minutely small distances, though. Gravity, by contrast, extends for billions of light years but for practical purposes is so weak that we overcome it every time we lift a glass to our lips. It’s therefore quite possible that these two forces could pass in the street and not recognise each other.)

[more below] 

I don’t think scientists could recognise either of them either as they know what they do but have very little idea how. Fusion in particular has been hailed as the great hope and this week a “breakthrough” was announced. As this article in The Guardian points out, however, it’s unlikely to make a significant difference to our energy problems in the lifetime of anyone reading this column.

Immense problems still need to be overcome. Although on one level the reaction created more energy than was put into it, on another it didn’t as vastly more juice was required to power the lasers. The energy also needs to be generated many times a second, rather than a dozen times a week as at present, and output in a way that’s useful, rather than as stuff like high-speed neutrons and gamma rays as currently. There’s also the small matter of the cost and technology involved in building the reactors.

At least it seems to be a proof of concept, which is a big step forward. The Guardian article quotes Oxford Physics Professor Justin Wark as saying that predicting a timescale to solve these and other problems was “like asking the Wright brothers how long it would take to build a plane to cross the Atlantic just after their maiden flight.” The gap in that case was 16 years. A timescale like that would be quite handy for nuclear fusion.

• Meanwhile we seem stuck in a world of dirty energy of various kinds, as well as of cleaner energy like solar, wind and tidal power which, in the light of the above announcement, perhaps have an increasing whiff of intermediate technology. Fax machines, for instance, were the Great Leap Forward in the late ’80s and seemed at the time to offer a long-term solution. They started off by being awful and expensive and within a few years were not too bad.

But how much investment would have been made if some US boffin had said, “listen up, peeps – the internet’s going to be along in a few years. And email. Everything will be immediate, digital and paper-free”? Fax machines would surely have stayed rubbish, or withered like Betamax.

In the same way, many fossil-fuel firms may now say that the best plan is to keep on with what we have until the holy grail appears. Why bother re-tooling up for something that might only last a couple of decades or so? Let’s stick with what we know and avoid wasting valuable resources on things that create carbon to make and will need to be de-commissioned. Big fusion is coming – into which, we’ll be told, research funds are now being poured. Greenwashing is, like, so last year – now we’re scaling up big-time for some serious fusion-collusion.

All this may provide both the summary of fossil-fuel board meetings and of the briefs to their ever-inventive PR firms. The answer is that we have to do the best with what we have now. That’s the only certainty. Our country was largely built by Victorian engineers: men (sadly, almost all men, but that was the way it was) with beards and stove-pipe hats who believed that what we had now was good and could change the world and should be embraced. The creation of an economy built on burning fossil fuels has proved to be a disaster but they can’t be faulted for that. Their sewers and their railways are used to this day and their public buildings are the regular scenes for debating the wisdom of what we should do next.

It would be wise to regard fusion in the way that many of them probably regarded religion – a pleasant long-term insurance policy but of limited practical value for today’s problems. So, let’s get those solar farms, wind farms and tidal barrages built and assume that the next generation or so can solve the problem of their removal and disposal. We can only use the tools we have today, not the ones we might have invented for tomorrow.

• The cold is really starting to bite, particularly in the notoriously cold frost-pocket that is the Lambourn Valley, one of the coldest objects in which is probably our house. The first task every morning this week has been to scrape ice off the inside of some of the worst windows. It’s slightly alarming how many gaps and crevices there still are. We’re busy plugging these with a range of objects ranging from blankets to strips of cardboard, none of which would find any place in a serious DIY manual. Others are doubtless in the same, or even more leaky, boat. At least there’s not much wind, though that may change. Things should be improving next week.

• The ever-lengthening arm of China’s state reached out into the Manchester streets in October and dragged a Hong Kong protestor in through the gates and gave him what amounted to a good diplomatic kicking in the driveway. The UK government had demanded that the alleged offenders waive diplomatic immunity and allow themselves to be interviewed. That was never going to happen.

Instead, those responsible have been flown back to HQ to receive either a kicking of their own or a chestful of medals and promotion. Hard to know which in this inscrutable world. It seems there are no crimes too awful to result in diplomats being compelled to face local justice. If the offenders are, as in this case, from China or, as in the Harry Dunn case in 2019, from the USA then the power of the diplomats’ country provides an additional insurance. The lawyer acting for Anne Sacoolas, who killed Harry Dunn, at one point sought to downgrade the incident by saying that she had been driving perfectly correctly in every way, apart from the fact that she had been on the wrong side of the road. The Chinese government regarding the Manchester street-snatch was this week even more imperturbable, claiming that the departures were a “normal rotation of Chinese consular officials” after completing a term of office.

• Both these crimes are dwarfed in volume but not in severity by the number of parking tickets that diplomats don’t pay. Back in 2014, the coalition government announced that unpaid fines in London alone in between February 2003 and December 2013 was over £75m. In reverse order, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, Japan and the USA were the worst offenders. The situation hadn’t improved by 2020. I assume that, human nature being what it is, UK diplomats are encouraged to do the same themselves. This is how arms races start. The easiest solution would seem to be to clamp them. Mind you, that’s how wars start.

• On Wednesday, Penny had a conversation with our car insurers (it was her turn) to get our uni-returning sons added to our car insurance policy. As usual this seemingly simple task turned into 40 minutes of digital and human Q&A punctuated by pauses while the insurers’ computer (which was really running the call) thought about what it was going to decide. This prompted my running upstairs as soon as my part in this was over and writing Please listen carefully to the options as these have recently changed…

• The House of Lords is a constitutional elephant and that’s all I have to say on the subject. Actually, it isn’t. Click here for more on this deeply peculiar institution.

• So, here we are at what is called the “business end” of the World Cup, a period which is normally marked by England being eliminated. The quarter finals is our normal exit point – in the 16 tournaments which we have deigned to enter or managed to qualify, England has left the party at this stage seven times. Well, expectations weren’t high, and will remain thus for as long as penalties continue to be used to penalise fouls in the area or settle matches that are drawn after extra time. Everyone else seems to be able to deal with them more often than not. We can’t.

More relevant seems to be the fact that only one of England’s squad plays their club football outside the country. It’s often been said that this lack of regular exposure to different styles, players and indeed climates constantly trips us up at the international tournaments. Next on the list of home-based squad members is Germany, 20 of their 26 of whom play in the Bundesliga. Argentina and Serbia had only one domestic-based payer in their squads and Senegal none at all. Including those in England’s squad, 194 of the 832 players in Qatar were based in England. The next most represented league system in Spain’s with 90. It’s not just the Premier League, either: 30 of the players were from the lower leagues, mainly the Championship. By contrast, 21 countries had no players in Qatar from outside their top flight at all. Apart from Saudi Arabia and the hosts, all of whose players are home-based, every squad had at least one player who earns their wages from the English league system. We are certainly giving the world’s star players plenty of time on the pitch. The fact that this is at the expense of up-and-coming English players isn’t the PL’s problem,. Its job is to sell its own product, not act as an adjunct of the FA’s youth policy.

Having what is comfortably the richest league in the world (those of Italy, Spain, Germany and France coming some way behind) certainly helps attract the players. Amazingly, the Championship occupies sixth spot and, taken together, the combined wealth of the two top English leagues exceeds that of 62 of the world’s independent states. Average annual salaries in the PL are north of £3m so a good deal of this won’t find its way into the local economies, with the exception of businesses such as estate agents, jewellery shops, hairdressers and car dealerships in Surrey and Cheshire. We can pay astronomical salaries to attract players from abroad. As far as the national team goes, this doesn’t do much to encourage home-grown talent. In the last four or five years only two genuine English stars have emerged and so far stayed the course, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden. Spain seems to produce one every twenty minutes.

It’s all a question of what you want. Only Spanish clubs have won more major club competitions than have English ones and the English victories are spread across 10 different clubs, as opposed to seven for Spain. Spain seems to have pulled off the trick of combining a successful national team with successful clubs (one in particular, Real Madrid, which has won nearly half of Spain’s European prizes on its own).  Whether as a result of this opulence or not, the Premier League is also a good deal more interesting than most of the others. Each season four or five clubs (and not always the same ones) having a genuine chance of winning the title. Leicester’s 2015-16 triumph is regarded as the prime example of this unpredictability, something that only Montpellier’s triumph in Ligue 1 five years before comes close to matching. That certainly can’t be said of Germany, where Bayern Munich has won the Bundesliga for the last ten years on the trot.

Spain aside, it doesn’t seem possible to be regularly represented in both club and national finals. Club football has always interested me far more so I’m pretty happy with keeping things as they are. Once every two years, however, part of me wishes things were different – though not for very long. I know, as most English people who follow the sport do, that the last eight is as far as we can reasonably expect to go. There are always those moments, though, when you think “maybe this time…” As John Cleese said in the film Clockwise, the tale of a punctuality-obsessed headmaster for whom an important journey goes about as badly wrong as one can imagine, “It’s not the despair – I can stand the despair. It’s the hope…”

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

Scrutiny and oversight

A recent WBC committee meeting considered some issues surrounding the proposed sale of a WBC asset, York House in Newbury. The discussion went some way to deciding the fate of the building but in many ways of greater interest was what it told us about how WBC’s decisions are scrutinised whether the system is all that it might be. Click here to visit the Newbury Area Weekly News section for 15 December, then scroll down to Scrutiny and oversight.

Festive safety

Thames Valley Police and partners across West Berkshire are uniting to tackle violence against women and girls over the festive period, with a particular focus on the night time economy, over the festive period. A working group has been planning co-ordinated actions for Christmas and New Year, from which community feedback will be sought to enhance future activity. or more information, see here.

One of my sons, minding his own business at about 11.30pm in Newbury around this time last year, was thwacked in the face, twice, by a young woman who thought (no particular apology was offered) that he was someone else. So, although I totally get it that women tend to bear the brunt of this kind of stuff, anything can happen to anyone.

In May 2021, West Berkshire Council appointed Councillor Claire Rowles as its Safer Streets Champion. I’m aware that she was publicly stripped of all her committee memberships at WBC’s Full Council meeting on 1 December 2022 (see from 41′) as a result of a so-far unsubstantiated conflict-of-interest issue but this role did not appear to be part of the defenestration. Given the subject of the above-mentioned email, I was surprised to see no mention of her in this statement. Does this mean that WBC has stripped Claire Rowles of this position as well or that the position remains but it no longer regards the views of the person holding it as being important?

The Cost of Living Support Hub

We mentioned this last week but, given the fall in temperatures, this seems even more relevant than ever.

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. Hats off also to all the voluntary organisation in the area which are, despite ever-higher levels of demand and ever-rising costs, continuing to do what they each set out to do. We all thought we’d never need you more than during the pandemic. It seems that we need you even more now.

You’ve got to be in to win

The West Berkshire Lottery has now raised over £250,000 for good causes in the district. The milestone was reached following last week’s draw and comes three years after the lottery launched in March 2019 to help charities and good causes raise funds. “From hedgehogs and painting classes to cancer care and counselling,” WBC’s statement says, “more than 140 local causes have signed up and are available for players to support. This means a £1 ticket helps raise funds for vital work in our community and helps players win prizes too. There are now more than 1,100 people playing the West Berkshire Lottery each week with more than £62,000 paid out in cash prizes since it first started. The draw is weekly with a jackpot of £25,000 for a matching sequence of six numbers, other prizes being £2,000, £250, £25 or three free tickets.”

For more information, click here.

The customer journey

West Berkshire Council’s Customer Journey Task Group was set up in April 2022 in order to examine all the ways that people interacted with WBC, what they felt about the experience and how it could be improved. One could take issue with the phrase “customer journey” but it seems that the exercise itself (which is set to continue at least until March 2023) is proving to be a success. You can click here to see the full terms of reference. The group has four members (two Con, one Green and one LD) plus an officer. (One of the members, Biyi Oloko, is the newest member of the Council which perhaps helps him see any issues with fresh eyes.)

An interim report was made by the Chair, James Cole, to WBC’s Oversight and Scrutiny Management Committee on 29 November 2022. You can click here to read the minutes of the meeting (see item 34). At the top if the page, you can watch a video of the discussion (from about 1 hr 6′).

I spoke to James Cole on 15 December to ask how he felt the work was going. “As those minutes reported we’ve worked well together as a cross-party group,” he said. “I wish this happened more often. Some of our recommendations have already been taken up. There’s still more to do, though and we’re still at it – there’s another session next week (a few days before Christmas) and we will continue until the final report goes public in March.”

So, I asked, if that’s the final report, does that mean that the matter will then be regarded as finished? “I hope not,” he said. “One thing that I would like to see as a result is that this task group should continue. However, rather than try to look at all of our residents’ actions and interactions vis-à-vis WBC I suggest that whoever is chairing Scrutiny next council year could turn it into a rolling task group looking at smaller pieces of the pie and reporting much faster.”

Any attempt by a council to consider by what method, and with what level of satisfaction, residents communicate with it is to be applauded. There’s a big disconnect between what a council thinks people know about its work and what residents actually know (a gulf that Penny Post has done its best to help close). This issue is beyond the remit of the Task Group. What it can do, however, is try to make each “customer journey”, as we must call them, as simple and productive as possible. If this happens, then every person who’s got in touch effectively acts as a free PR service – and every council, WBC included, could do with a bit of that.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has “welcomed the recent announcement from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) on amendments to the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill (The Bill), specifically changes to Community Control and Local Plans, which support the policies already outlined in the Council’s local plan review.” See the full statement here.

• 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.

• 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.

• The new weekly food-waste collection system has started in West Berkshire. You can click here to see a separate post we’ve done on the subject; and click here to see WBC’s 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.

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 is the massive Thor the walrus who was spotted lazing about in Hampshire this week.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of pantos, the local plan, petrol and political grandstanding.

• 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

• Lordy, here comes the Song of the Week. The Maisonettes Heartbreak Avenue is my pick of the pops from 1982. A special prize (actually no more than the warm glow of success) for anyone who cal tell me the link between this and last week’s SotW.

• Which leads us to the Comedy Sketch of the Week. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this to you before but it is one of there funniest sketches I can recall to here it comes again: A Word, Timothy by Fry and Laurie.

• And so we sign off for the year with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: which major key has six sharps? Last week’s question was: Washington was number one and Biden is number 46 – what number was JFK? He was number 35.

And that’s it for 2022: well be taking a seasonal break from all this for a couple of weeks. Have a great break with whatever floats your boat and see you in January.

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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