This week with Brian 19 to 26 January 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including a never-ending spat, culture wars, three differences, two conspiracy drivers, trusting the fuzz, frightened men, more strikes, a young man with a beard, hats off to the stats, the local plan finally kicks off, a matter of strategy, ten endangered animals, 19 legitimate children, the illumination of the fleet and a birdhouse in your soul.

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 latest spat in the never-ending war of attrition between the governments of the UK and of Scotland erupted recently after Westminster said it would block the enactment of the the Gender Recognition Bill which had passed at Holyrood. The main provisions of this will be to reduce the age at which Gender Recognition Certificates (GRCs) can be obtained from 18 to 16 and also reduce the formalities which are required, including dispensing with the need for medical certification.

[more below] 

The Scottish government claims that this will simplify and streamline a system that’s currently anything but. The UK government, as stated in this policy paper, feels that the law would pose a number of serious contradictions and paradoxes as regards existing legislation including the 2010 Equality Act. It has therefore said that will invoke Section 35 (a weapon which it has not so far used in its relationship with Scotland) which is, in effect, a veto.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sees this as London “stoking a culture war”, whatever that means, and also a “direct attack on the institution of the Scottish Parliament.” Both sides are marshalling their legal arguments and checking their thesauruses. A trip to the courts appears inevitable.

Nicola Sturgeon is perhaps right about a culture war, but not in the way she intends. There are two differing views about the future composition of the UK at work and the presence of a separate parliament for Scotland eloquently highlights these. The relationship is pregnant with all manner of conflicts and confusions.

One comment in the policy paper sums this up very well. The author is considering the implications of the fact that someone may have a GRC issues in Scotland which is not a legal document anywhere else: “It is practically and legally undesirable for all, including in particular the individual holder of the GRC, that a person will have one legal sex in Scotland and a different one in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

As the UK is one country, this is clearly a genuine complication, much as if West Berkshire had a different definition of blood-alcohol levels or of age of sexual consent from the rest of the country. There’s much to be said for having as many common regulations as possible within a particular political region.

Hang on, I hear you say – the USA has a federal structure and that hasn’t done the country any harm. The states have considerable powers and don’t hesitate to use them. What’s the problem?

Do you know, I thought you were going to ask that. There are three main differences.

  • The first is that the USA was conceived from the off as a federal system so, at least as regards the founding members, matters have been in place for nearly 250 years. England and Scotland have only formally be one political thing since 1707 but for most of the time since Scotland had no assembly. The Scottish parliament was only established in 1999. Some battles have yet to be fought.
  • The second is that the USA has a constitution which defines these relationships whereas the UK does not. Apart from various provisions in the legislation, like Section 35, there’s no ultimate rulebook under which all dealings between the two bodies need to operate.
  • The third is that, the last time I checked, neither Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas nor any of the other ones wanted to leave the USA. Scotland, or its current government, wants to leave the UK. Everything the SNP ever says is couched in these us v them terms. The latest issue is no exception. Indeed, it seems to provide a good opportunity for both sides to flex their muscles.

This isn’t going to go away. This devolution solution is essentially a nonsense. Either you’re one country or you’re not. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments. England doesn’t. Why? Because it’s assumed that this aspect is looked after by the current Westminster set-up. But that’s the UK parliament with powers over the others, as recent events have shown, not a parliament for England.

It’s a mess. Let Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales, which is far more integrated into England than the other two, go their own way if they wish. Arguments like the GRC one will continue to happen with Scotland. Northern Ireland’s problems are in some way even more acute, given the in-the-EU-but-not-in-the-EU position it’s been forced to adopt. The UK is broken. We have four different football teams. Let’s try having four different countries and four different parliaments to match. 

• Politicians and commentators have understandably been falling over each other in order to condemn the self-admitted long-term police rapist PC David Carrick. A friend of mine was raped by a policeman back in the ’80s and  she told me that the protection method he used then was, it seems, much the same as Carrick used much more recently: “I’m a serving policeman – who’s going to believe you?”

It now seems that something like 800 historical allegations against officers will be re-opened: and that’s just in the Met. It would in the circumstances be amazing if all of them were to be exonerated. However, to review cases against this kind of news backdrop is likely to lead to some charges being proved simply because, for presentational reasons, a certain percentage will have to stick in order to make the exercise look as if it’s worked. That will also lead to injustices.

Everyone has also been quick to point out how this undermines our faith in the police service as a whole: and they’re right. The relationship between the public and the police is a delicate one and depends largely on the circumstances of the encounter. The trouble is, as anyone who has used an airport since 9/11 will be well aware, that putting someone in a uniform can create horrible tyrannies. A good police force is also the best defence against even worse tyrannies from organised criminals, abusive partners and all the rest. It’s hard to know what the answer is. Something is clearly rotten in the Met. How and if it can be rooted out is another matter and one that concerns us all.

This article in The Conversation suggests that a belief in conspiracy theories can be linked “to people’s lack of control in their lives.” Not a great surprise, perhaps. The article goes on to report on experiments carried out by the publication which concluded that “when a hostile environment primes us to search for meaning, we may find a conspiracy explanation appealing.” This doesn’t seem that surprising either. So, what’s going on?

There are two main drivers for conspiracy theories. The first is ignorance on the part of the recipient coupled with as often as not bad communication on the part of the organisation accused of the conspiracy. I see this every week. People aren’t sure what their local council, say, does and assume that something that’s wrong with their life (and which can’t be more easily blamed on the government) is the council’s responsibility. The council doesn’t explain – or does, but doesn’t get enough people to read it – what its role in the matter is. The gap of awareness that’s created is a perfect breeding ground for suppositions of mutual incompetence. Residents accuse the council of being wrong, the council accuse complaints of being vexatious. Everyone lives largely in their own bubble in which points of view that accord with those they’ve previously expressed are prioritised. So too do councils.

We’re all in a bubble and those outside our our own are the enemy. It’s this easy to believe that those who don’t understand what we regard as self-evident truths are deeply misguided and thus to attribute sinister motives for the reasons for being divergent for our own view. I’ve used councils as an example: any other organisation that has some level of power over us would do as well.

These tensions between individuals and organisations have been with us for centuries. What hasn’t is the internet. If we want to stop conspiracy theories, or other pernicious ideas, then we should switch it off. We can’t: it’s gone beyond that point. Thirty years ago, were I to find aardvarks sexually attractive or believe that a conspiracy of aardvarks was about to take over the world, I would either have to believe these things in silence or march about with sandwich boards and risk getting lynched.

Now, I can go online and there’s a chance (not a very great one with these examples, I admit) that I would find like-minded souls all over the world. These people then become my community. Those who attack it are the enemy. I am weaponised and activated as a result, regardless of how bonkers my views are. My community has validated my beliefs and, in extreme cases, made my madness something acceptable to a sufficiency of people to normalise it.

This also works in a positive way, of course. Victims of injustice, sufferers from rare diseases and people who have harmless interests that have no local adherents are all empowered and enriched by their connection with like-minded souls. Conspiracy theories are just the dark side of the moon on this. I’m happy to accept this side-effect. Anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s part of present-day life, just as lice were in the fourteenth century. We have to roll with it.

• Today I needed to get some census data for an article on Hungerford. As one might expect, the website is quite fearsome for an outsider. After all, it needs, for each census,  tables, summaries and the like regarding all the information from all the 50-odd questions filled in by all 70 million-odd people – I think that’s about 3.5bn pieces of data. A lot, anyway. For anyone who needs assistance with this, I can offer the reassuring news that the staff at the Office for National Statistics are absolutely brilliant. They answer the phone quickly, know what they’re talking about, are helpful and send you what they say they’re going to. Many other organisations, including banks, telecoms firm and utility companies, could learn a lot from them (but probably won’t).

• Meanwhile, the strikes continue. Here’s a guide to who’s doing, or not doing what, when. All subject to change, of course.

• That book written by the young man with the beard whose name escapes me has now become the UK’s fastest-selling  non-fiction book with over 467,000 copies sold. Some members of his immediate family may quibble with its being called “non-fiction”, of course. And still, despite all the publicity, he continues to rail against the press.

As a friend pointed out to me following my comment on this last week, “Harry and the press richly deserve each other. I look forward to Harry finding a purpose in life endlessly fighting a battle he can’t hope to win, while being sustained by all the publicity provided by the very thing he is trying to slay…” Wish I’d thought of that.

This BBC article reports that “The UN secretary general dispatched [to Afghanistan] his deputy Amina Mohammad, the UN’s most senior woman, with a team which also includes the head of UN Women, Sima Bahous” to help deal with a deepening humanitarian crisis in the country. One aim is to get the rulers to reverse the ban on female aid workers. What is about women that makes the Taliban so frightened…?

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 West Berkshire Health and Wellbeing Conference

As mentioned last week, this is being held on 31 January from 2pm to 5pm, and everyone is invited to take part. A recent statement from WBC says that “this year’s conference is themed around the local response to the challenges posed by the rising cost of living and is open to anyone in West Berkshire who has an interest in Health and Wellbeing. In addition there will be a ‘marketplace’ where voluntary sector organisations and service providers will be available to discuss what they do.

“The conference will take place as a hybrid meeting with face-to-face places in the Council Chamber in Newbury limited to 70 attendees, and the option the attend virtually via Zoom. Early booking is advised, particularly if you would like to attend in person.”

For more information and to book your place (which is free), please click here.

The local plan for West Berkshire

After two delays, West Berkshire Council is “pleased to confirm that the statutory Regulation 19 Consultation will start on Friday 20 January and last for six weeks.” Please click on this post on WBC’s site for more information and for a link to the consultation.

A district’s local plan is the ultimate source of reference (subject always to any changes in national legislation) for planning officers and planning committee members when making decisions about planning and development. These generally have a life cycle of 15 years. WBC’s current local plan runs until 2026 and work has been taking place on updating this since 2018.

The final draft was submitted to WBC’s Full Council on 1 December 2022 and was approved to go to public consultation. This stage, which is known as Regulation 19, was due to have run from 6 January to 17 February 2023: as mentioned above, it will now run from 20 January to 3 March 2023. This is an opportunity for everyone in the district, individuals and organisations, to have their say.

The document is important but also long and complex, to an extent that might make large parts of it unintelligible to anyone but a planning expert. In this separate post, we’ve suggested some local people or organisations whose advice you might want to get before making your comments.

Even if your community is. not affected by any housing allocations, there still might be aspects on which you want to comment. The above-mentioned article suggests that there will policies that are relevant to particular sectors like racing, hospitality and farming in which you might wish to comment. Also, if you are concerned that your community doesn’t seem likely to provide adequate “affordable” homes it would be worth checking if the local plan has given enough support for rural exception sites, more information on which can be found here.

Two looks back at 2022

A reminder about two looks back at 2022 – how long ago New Year’s Eve already feels – one from me and one from WBC Leader Lynne Doherty. You’ll see that we both cover many of the same things though not always in exactly the same way.

You may have your own views on either or both of these summaries. You can add your own comments by either using the “leave a reply” box at the foot of each post or by emailing me at brian@pennypost.org.uk. You may also feel moved to write your own review of 2022. If so, let me know.

A matter of strategy

West Berkshire Council has also launched another consultation on its draft strategy 2023-27. In an unfortunate quirk of timing, this six-week exercise almost exactly overlaps with the vastly more important above-mentioned Regulation 19 consultation on the local plan. The two should not be confused.

This strategy, as the preamble states, “explains what we want to prioritise and improve, whether that’s a statutory service such as emptying bins, fixing potholes or safeguarding vulnerable children, or a new area of focus such as reaching zero net carbon. It also explains how we propose to achieve our priorities and work with our communities and partner organisations to deliver the strategy.”

I’ve had a look through the document and, for reasons I explain in this separate article, I’m not convinced that the document fulfils all of these goals. However, as I’m at pains to point out, it’s certainly worth a look if only to see what is missed out and to get an insight into what WBC regards as important ambitions (though with no specific suggestions as to how these can be realised).

To repeat my earlier point, this is nothing to do with the Regulation 19 consultation. There’s no doubt which will be easier to read: the Draft Strategy including its notes runs to 21 page; the local plan, including its notes, is more like 10,000.

Three letters

The letters page of the Newbury Weekly News can normally be relied upon to offer a range of forthright opinions not found elsewhere in the paper and this week’s is no exception. There’s one about the festering problem of Community Infrastructure Levy payments having been wrongly changed, from one of the victims of this injustice. The paper heard from another one last week. I’ve written about this loads of times before and, sadly, expect to do so again.

There were also two letters on the subject of the Council’s Customer Charter, a draft of which can be seen on p53 of the Executive agenda pack for the January meeting. I’m not sure if it’s going out for consultation but, to an even greater extent than the above-mentioned strategy draft, it would be hard to know where one would start criticising all the self-evident truths that it contains. One of the correspondents asked whether the various targets, including being polite and acknowledging emails within two days, applied to members as well as officers, and suggest that it should.

The writer also suggests that the mere fact that this document needed to be produced suggests that some of its basic aspirations are not currently being met. This may be a tad unfair as all organisations need a set of ideals it needs to aspire to. However, I know of several specific cases where the council is not achieving anything like these standards. Hopefully, once these are adopted, all these failings will magically disappear…

The other letter contrasts the publicity which has been given to this with that accorded to the vastly more important Regulation 19 consultation (see The local plan above). The same criticism could be levied against the draft strategy (see A matter of strategy above). At the very least, the timing of having all three of these coming out at the same time is unfortunate. The unwary could believe that all were different names for the same thing and so miss the really important Regulation 19 one.

There’s a distinct sense of a lot of things being rushed out at the same time. One wonders if the two lesser matters could not have been got out of the way in Q4 of 2022. The local plan could have been done a bit earlier, too: but that’s a different story. By an irony, that fact that it’s been delayed twice has probably, though unintentionally, drawn more attention to it than if it had started on 6 January, in the gloomiest and most depressing week of they year.

Other news

• A reminder that bus journeys across West Berkshire are capped at £2 for a single journey and £4 for a return journey until 31 March 2023 as a result of a government-funded scheme.

• Health and care partners across the Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West Integrated Care Partnership (BOB ICP) are asking for the public’s views on a set of proposed priorities to support improved health and wellbeing.

• 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.

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

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 ten endangered creatures that the conservation charity Fauna and Flora International is keeping a close eye on in 2023.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of street names, Paddington Bear, a missing parcel, Faraday Road (again) and CIL (again)

• 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

• And so it’s the Song of the Week. I offer you a strange and wonderful thing from the early ’90s with multiple key changes: also, almost certainly, the only song every written from the perspective of a blue canary-shaped night-light: Birdhouse in Your Soul by They Might be Giants.

• Which means that next must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Continuing the theme of lights, in 1937 the BBC decided to get Lt Cdr Thomas Woodroffe to commentate on the the illumination of the fleet at the Spithead Royal Naval Review. None of the fleet was as lit up as was the Lieutenant Commander who sounded as if he had drunk half a bottle of scotch before going on air, and probably had. Worse still, for about five minutes the BBC couldn’t get to him and have someone less pissed take over (or perhaps no one noticed). Fortunately, someone had the good sense to press “record” at the start, which means that I can share this with you. Old-school broadcasting at its finest.

• And so we bring things to a close with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Where did George Harrison’s audition for John Lennon and Paul McCartney take place? Last week’s question was: How many legitimate children did King Edward I have? The answer is 19 and doubtless several illegitimate ones too. Christmases must have been expensive…

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