This week with Brian 26 January to 2 February 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including a solemn vow, not worth the entrance fee, carelessly acting properly, seatbelt-gate, Bo-Jo’s finances, trouble at the Met, exciting new pork markets, an apology, a couple of reminders, a water map, digging for victory, weird cats, amusing eyebrows, Istanbul (not Constantinople) and the top deck of a bus.

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

• About this time last year, Penny and I solemnly sand jointly wore a vow. This we re-affirmed with even more solemnity yesterday. It was quite simply this: that in future we would get our tax returns done by the end of June. The renewal of our vows was caused by serious, border-line near-non-performance last year and in every previous year I can recall. I finally did my 2021-22 one on Wednesday: for her it’s a task for Friday. The weekly Penny Post newsletter comes first, as I hope you agree.

[more below] 

The pathetic thing is that neither of ours are that complicated. However, certainly for me and perhaps for you, the mere thought of doing this or any similar online form-filling makes me almost physically sick. This terror and nausea is felt in inverse proportion to the time that remains for the task’s completion. In May or June – even though all the information needed for me to do this is available –the warning signs are so faint that they can be dissipated by a smaller or more immediate need like wanting to scratch my ear.

As with all the best horror stories, the tension builds inexorably until (round about 10 January) it’s finally clear that action must be taken. By then, however, I’m in a state approaching mental paralysis. The emails or calls to people who can provide information I realise I need are aborted, sometimes mid-dial, out of a sense of embarrassment that I have yet again left these enquiries so late. This fails to recognise the fact that when I finally ask for this stuff, as I know I must, it will be later still.

Then, the denouement arrives, with our hero at his computer, various half-understood notes to hand. As thrillers or slashers go, however, it’s pretty disappointing. Almost all of the questions turn out either to be quite undemanding or ones to which I have answers. The background music pumps menacingly but there’s nothing to see. I press the final button and it turns out that HMRC owes me £4.60. Not worth the entrance fee, the movie-goers feel as they file out. The plan is to do the sequel a bit earlier in the season next year.

I may have been almost late; I may have been weak and inadequate; I may have been nervous; but I don’t think I was careless. Even if I were, the sums involved are likely to be tiny and could as easily have been to my disadvantage as to HMRC’s.

• But there’s the thing: I’m not the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Nadhim Zahawi, however, was Chancellor when he made what turns out to have been a false return and then had to negotiate a multi-million fund settlement and fine. At the time of writing, he is also the Chair of the Conservative party.

As this article on the BBC website explains, “HMRC concluded he had made an “error” that was “careless and not deliberate”. In a later statement, Mr Z insisted he has “acted properly throughout.” I don’t get this at all: if he’d acted properly, he’d have filled in his return correctly. As ever, Ros Atkins’ podcast on the subject provides a good summary of the main issues. 

Plenty has been written about this and my own knowledge of tax matters leaves me ill-placed to offer any useful additions. However, two things seem obvious…

  • If, as he first claimed, he derived no benefit from the trust funds which held the You.Gov shares, why did he feel he should settle the tax bill and the fine?
  • If he did feel that he should have paid the tax because he had benefitted, why did he not declare this in the first place?

“I acted properly throughout.” Come off it, Nad: if you were the main financial man in the land and these days you have to be squeaky clean. You don’t seem to be on this one, so you really have to go. In many ways, his remaining as Conservative Party Chair is even more damaging for the Tories than the fact that this carelessness took place when he was Chancellor, as this reinforces for many people the idea that sleaze in the party is not only normal but also tolerated.

He might be a great bloke in so many ways but why Sunak hasn’t dealt with this is a mystery. On 25 January, the PM denied he was being weak over the decision. However, the mere fact that the question needed, and with good justification, to be asked has done the damage.

• The upside for the PM is that all this has taken attention away from the fact that he was snapped, and fined, for not wearing a seatbelt recently. Despite some effort by some media groups, seatbelt-gate never really got off the ground, did it?

• Nor, so far, has £800,00-loan-brokered-by-future-BBC-Chair-gate. What seems odd to me is why our last PM-but-on would need a loan of £800,000 at all. This article suggests some reasons: but against this must be set the assertion from Private Eye 1590 that this could be covered by the income from a mere four hours of “lectures to right-wing think-tanks in the USA.” Doubtless ferocious alimony payments, or ferocious greed, are responsible.

• There are truly awful stories surfacing about the behaviour of not only individual officers in the Metropolitan Police but also about the whole organisation. Sky News reports the current Commissioner as saying that “two to three criminal cases against officers are expected to go to court every week in the coming months,” a shocking admission which probably conceals more than it admits.

Whisper it quietly, but there’s no reason to believe that other police forces are untainted by the same problems. All the more important, therefore, that the bodies that are set up to scrutinise them should be as effective as possible: which in turn demands that their representatives, which includes those nominated by local councils, are appointed in a way which leaves no grounds for criticism. Never has it been more important for everyone connected with the police to do things by the book.

In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised. Certain organisations attract people whose motives subvert whatever high ideals might be demanded. If you’re a pedophile, for example, a job in a school, a scout group or a church will be attractive (which is not of course to say that all those in these jobs do so for those motives). In the same way, it’s pointless to pretend that people who enjoy controlling and dominating people aren’t attracted to the police. All four of of these are also organisations which are able to close ranks against criticisms. Few are as effective as the church, C of E or RC. Both have proved to be superbly adept at deflecting criticism and moving offending members elsewhere rather than bringing them to justice. It seems that something similar has happened in the Met and possibly other forces elsewhere.

It’s deeply sad that the Police, which I see as being vastly more important as a guarantor of social stability than any of the other professions mentioned above, has become so degraded. Any dealings we may have with clerics are matters of personal choice. Dealings with the police are generally matters of necessity. It’s important we continue to respect any officers we come into contact with, providing they assign the same respect to us. A country’s police force is one of the bits of mortar that secure the bricks in the wall that separates us from the dark place of chaos that lies outside it. 

• My eye was caught in the most recent Private Eye by a proud claim that a recent Brexit-inspired trade deal between the UK and South Korea would open up “new pork markets” These will, it seems, be worth massive £1m over the next five years for the UK economy, ie £200,000 a year. Well, that’s our post-Brexit hangover sorted, then. The article goes on to quote the Centre for European Research’s estimate that Brexit has already cost the UK £33bn in lost trade investment. As my hopelessness with my tax return has amply demonstrated, I’m not seen at my best when dealing with numbers: but even my slender numeracy skills suggest the figures for the long-promised Brexit Bonanza aren’t really stacking up…

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

Also as mentioned previously, after two delays, West Berkshire Council statutory Regulation 19 Consultation on its local plan got under way on Friday 20 January and will last for six weeks. Please click on this post on WBC’s site for more information and for a link to the consultation.

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.

An apology

We have in the past published or made reference to press releases from one party on WBC in relation to another’s behaviour; most recently in mid 2022 from the Conservatives regarding a comment made by a Lib Dem Councillor. Here’s another one, as summarised in a press release from the West Berkshire Green Party on 23 January 2023.

“WBC Conservative Councillor Ross Mackinnon, has issued an apology to an opposition councillor after a panel found that a social media post by Councillor Mackinnon was “discourteous, disrespectful, and abusive  A complaint was made by West Berkshire Green Party that a tweet from Councillor Mackinnon about Green Party Councillor Steve Masters breached West Berkshire Council Councillor’s Code of Conduct as well as the Nolan Principles requiring “respect for others”.

“In response West Berkshire Council’s complaints panel found that :“The tweet by the Subject Member used language and accused Councillor Steve Masters of posting “lies and innuendo” and characterising him as acting “creepily”, was discourteous, disrespectful, and abusive. The Panel also considered that the tweet was personal in nature and that there is a likelihood of it potentially damaging the reputation of Councillor Masters and potentially affecting his wellbeing.” Councillor MacKinnon was asked to withdraw the  tweet, and issue an apology to Councillor Masters, with the wording approved by the Council’s Monitoring Officer which he has now done.”

Well, that’s OK then: all part of the political rough-and-tumble. Or is it?

More and more I’ve been struck by the idea in local political discourse that members of one political party regard members of the others as being beyond the pale. In fact, and given the limited areas that local councillors can actually control, they should agree about more things than they ever seem to be prepared to admit. Representing their residents and helping to deal with their problems are surely the most important.

When the election on 4 May comes round, try to ignore the polemic that Twitter has been throwing at you and reflect on what your previous local councillor/s have done for you or others you know, and vote accordingly. This isn’t a general election, after all, merely a way of selecting the people who have the necessary courage and tenacity to support their residents who need help, even if it means breaking a few plates at the local party HQ.

Working together

This post on West Berkshire Council’s website covers some recent work to plant fruit trees at the community orchard in the green space site at Poplar Place/Almond Avenue in Newbury. The trees “will be of benefit to the whole community, including nearby residents and organisations such as the Scouts and Dingley’s Promise based in Poplar Place, as well as visitors to the area who can take advantage of the fruits growing for their own personal use.”

Councillor Richard Somner, the Executive Member for Planning, Transport and Countryside at West Berkshire Council, praised the initiative and congratulated all those who had worked hard to bring the project (if not yet the trees themselves) to fruition. “This is such a great example of what can be achieved by working together and everyone involved should be very proud,” he concluded.

Indeed. The header photo picked out two of the people who, spades in hand, were certainly doing their bit. How gratifying it is to see both ward members for Newbury Speen, Lynne Doherty (Conservative) and Steve Masters (Green), working together so harmoniously. 

Water, water

We’ve mentioned before about this interactive map which Thames Water has recently launched. I understand that TW is the first water company in the UK to do this: if so, hats off to them for that. It’s worth pointing out, however, that there’s one problem with it.

The site accurately records current discharges, or, if not currently discharging, the last individual discharge but not the whole recent history. A discharge of four hours would thus be reported accurately but if this were followed by one of 30 seconds then this would be the only one shown and the four-hour one would vanish from the map (though not, one imagines, TW’s records). This point was made at a recent Lambourn Flood Forum meeting by Martyn Wright from East Garston and it appears that TW have accepted that this is something that could and should be improved. I’ve suggested that, if this change can’t immediately be made, that a note be added explaining this limitation and directing people to where they can get more information about discharges from a particular place. Without this, it may be nothing but the truth but not the whole truth and so falls short of providing the transparent information that it claims.

It was also pointed out to me on 26 January by the equally vigilant Action for the River Kennet that the way information is reported elsewhere could bear improvement. This is by default done by calendar year which obviously splits many high-groundwater periods in two, so making it hard to get a picture of recent activity. Better would be, and for the map as well, to display data either in a rolling 12-month period and/or a period specified by the user. All more work for the IT water boffins, of course, but important if the information is to do what it says on the label. I’ll be keeping my eye on it and will let you know when or if any improvements have been implemented. 

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 assorted felines. The internet is run by cats, or so it often seems, and here are four and a bit minutes of “cats being weird.” Does what it says on the tin.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects the NHS, levelling up, the local plan, Brexit and a police dog.

• 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 here we are at the Song of the Week. The They Might be Giants song last week went down well so I’m happy to fall in with John Williams’ suggestion that we stick with the same band (the same album, even) this time round. Here’s their wonderfully dotty version of the wonderfully dotty ’50s song by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon, Istanbul (not Constantinople).

• Which brings us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. I’d never heard of Jimeoin (pronounced, I’m told, “Jim Owen”) until my friend Prof JC sent me a link. I’m glad he did. The man certainly manages to extract a good dose of comedy from his eyebrows. So, without further ado, here he is

• And we sign off with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What do Dudley Nichols, Marlon Brando and George C Scott have in common? Last week’s question was: Where did George Harrison’s audition for John Lennon and Paul McCartney take place? The answer is on the top deck of a bus in Liverpool. Just think what might not have been were Liverpool then to have had single-deckers on that route…

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