This week with Brian 2 to 9 February 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including Mr Raab, bullying as the junior partner, Boris once again, political verbs, abuses of language, actions not words, dangerous dogs, Vlad the Regaler, relying on the law, teachers, a perk of the job, various budgets, beautiful murmurations, wonderful debris, classic misinformation, three capitals and three refusals.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• I’ve never met Dominic Raab but everyone seems to agree that he’s a tough and demanding boss. “Good” could be one reaction to this – if you’re running a government department you surely have to be. Raab is now facing 24 separate allegations of bullying brought by civil servants. The PM is being asked what he knew about these allegations before he appointed him to his latest Cabinet role – an aspect of the story that seems to be becoming more important than the alleged human consequences of the allegations – and Sunak is saying that he was not aware of any formal complaints. Both he and his opposite number Kier Starmer were recently falling over each other at PMQs to try to prove that the other was “weak” in dealing with personnel problems in their own parties.

[more below] 

• On one level this raises, for Sunak, alarming memories of the very similar questions Boris was asked about Chris “pincher” Pincher before appointing him as a whip last summer, and the very similar answer he gave about only relying on official complaints. BoJo was, however, already in a sinking ship. Moreover, Pincher’s conduct related to sexual predation, which tests far higher than does bullying as a workplace crime.

Bullying is also subjective. Some people deeply get under my skin and have the capacity to intimidate me while others, who are objects of equal dismay to others, have no power over me at all. I’ve been told that I intimidate some people, but I can honestly say that I’m always surprised by this news.

When I was growing up, and probably when Mr Raab was too, bullying was seen as an inevitable part of childhood and only clamped down on if there was an imminent danger of death or serious injury. The hierarchies of the public-school system certainly formalises the idea of, as Larkin put it, man handing on misery to man. Once you’d become senior you could dish out what you yourself had received. Some people claim to have toughened by this: for others, it would have left deep wounds, the significance of which may not be immediately apparent..

If, at a formative age, something is learned as being OK, or OK in certain circumstances, then is becomes hard-wired as a default reaction to certain situations. Casual racism and sexism were similarly part of my childhood experience but these neural pathways have, I hope, largely been re-wired.

No rational person would today claim that one’s sex or race conferred any sense of inferiority. However, I suspect that to have been bullied still carries a connotation of weakness in the face of an adversary: to make a claim against someone is thus to admit to a weakness in oneself. Bullying as a workplace problem also hasn’t been on the agenda for as long and people are still trying to work out the signs, boundaries, proofs and tests. It’s also something that can, unlike the other two examples, be immediately changed by an alteration in personal or professional circumstances.

Let’s for a moment take two examples, an SAS unit and a nursery school. Racism and sexism in either of these places would be equally wrong, equally easy to prove and equally counter-productive. What about bullying? If an SAS Captain and a Nursery School Head were to job-swap and behave exactly at they had done in their normal roles, it’s likely that both organisations would collapse within a few days. That doesn’t mean that one is better, tougher or stronger than the other. Both of these highly-qualified and supremely dedicated professionals are trying to achieve the  identical aims of getting their immediate subordinates to do their very best (and then a bit more) to protect, inspire, empower and teach the people, be they soldiers or children, for whom they are responsible. Different manners are required in different situations.

So – to return to Mr Raab – how does this work at the top level of government? Do different rules apply for them? If so, where is the line drawn above which things are done differently? Are top-level civil servants expected to be top-level tough? Sunak made a very revealing comment recently when he was quoted by the BBC as saying that “I’ve been very clear that I don’t recognise the characterisation of Dominic’s behaviour.” Well, of course he wouldn’t have done – he was his boss. The observation proves nothing.

• The PM’s comment also evinces another well-documented (certainly by me) piece of political parlance, that of the verb “to be clear.” I wrote an article about this, narrated by an invented professor of Neological Linguistics, in the book we published a couple of years ago (a few copies of Unaccustomed as I Am still available, from the excellent Hungerford Bookshop and elsewhere). I was stuck with how many times Theresa May employed the phrase to rebut accusations that were becoming tiresome or awkward and under which it was desirable, to use another hideous political phrase, to draw a line. As with so many such phrases, it’s generally only used when the exact opposite of clarity prevails.

• On the subject of what people say v what they do, I still vividly recall about 20 years ago going with Penny to someone’s house in the area to ask for help with an event Penny was organising. All went well until the woman’s parting remark, which sent a chill down both our spines. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not one of these people who say they’re going to do something and then let you down.” She never showed up.

• Another example of official abuse of language can be found in the horrible story of the four-year-old girl from Milton Keynes who was recently killed in a dog attack. The police described it as “a tragic isolated incident.”

Was it isolated? if one means, “has this dog killed other people?”then it probably is isolated. If one means, “has this breed of dog killed other people?” then we don’t know as the breed hasn’t been identified. If one means, “is a dog attack an isolated (ie unique) incident?” then emphatically it isn’t. This article in The Independent suggests not only that hospitalisations due to dog attacks increased by more than 100% between 2002 and 2018 but also that fatal attacks have more than doubled in the decade following the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act compared to the decade before.

One inference is that this evinces the futility of legislation, particularly where this touches on either emotional connections or subtle distinctions. Regarding the latter, the Independent article suggested that “by blanket banning four specific breeds – Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro – the legislation may have created a general complacency that all other dogs are safe.”

It’s also true that dogs and humans build very strong bonds – the more dangerous the dog, the more powerful the connection – and I can see that any government attempt to interfere in this is akin to telling someone who they are allowed to marry. The relationship creates libertarians of us all.

There’s also a belief amongst dog owners, often unsupported by the facts, that their pets are both benign and completely under their control. Several years ago I was out somewhere and quite a large canine moved quickly towards me with motives I had no time to analyse. I don’t care for dogs at all and so backed off. “Don’t worry,” the owner said, “she’s only playing.” “That is, ” I replied, “the last sentence some people ever hear.”

My deep dislike of dogs isn’t the issue here. What is is the fact that many of us might feel that, as long as we’re on the right side of the law, everything is OK. The law in this case established the idea that some dog breeds are dangerous and banned them. There are many other factors that can turn a dog situation critical. Perhaps this leads back to the earlier remarks about bullying – large dogs, like over-bearing bosses or demanding cabinet members, are dangerous animals, capable of inflicting enormous harm. We need to accept that they are products of their instincts, upbringing and ambitions: as we are all.

• On the subject of dangerous animals, Vladimir Putin has complained that, 80 years after the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, “we are again being threatened by German Leopard tanks.” Well, yes: why’s that, Vlad? He then regaled us with the old trope that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary to rid the country of Nazis. Oh, I see. So he’s against the idea of a country having a government based on a highly nationalist and xenophobic ideology, which represses people it sees as being in any way deviant, which is expansionist and acquisitive and which is effectively ruled by one man who is held in such terror that no one dares tell him anything apart from what he wants to hear? Well, I’m sure we’d all go along with condemning that.

Teachers have been much in the news because of the recent strike. You can read here from The Guardian and here from the BBC two of many articles on the subject.

I am lucky enough to have four wonderful sons, all of whom have now emerged from the school system and are happy and functional adults, two in work and two at university. It has always baffled me that governments seem to penny-pinch when it comes to early-years care. It’s an utterly false economy, as any skimping creates problems for the next generation to deal with. Doing my bit as a father in trying to teach my own sons things – including guitar chords, French irregular verbs, the moral dilemmas of the Crusading movement, front crawl and how to cook an omelette – have left me in awe of people who do this, at any level from nursery to post-graduate, as a job. Sure as hell I couldn’t. I salute you all…

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 for West Berkshire

A further reminder that West Berkshire Council’s statutory Regulation 19 Consultation on its local plan will run until 3 March 2023. 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.

Budget-setting time

West Berkshire Council has started the final process of finalising its 2023-24 budget. This will be discussed at a the Executive on 8 February – the papers and agenda for which you can see by clicking here – before going for discussion and approval at the Full Council meeting in March.

This has been produced against a challenging backdrop of issues including rising inflation and interest rates, a greater demand for adult social care services and continuing lack of clarity about what the long-term financial settlement from central government might look like.

Since the revenue support grant was removed, WBC’s funding from Whitehall has either been to support specific services, such as social care, or in response to specific problems, like Covid. This approach is perhaps slightly like having your boss pay you with intermittent and capricious lump sums, some of which have to go on certain things, whereas you might prefer a regular salary for you to spend how you wish. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Certainly the current method gives central government more control, which is what central governments generally crave.

It’s important to remember that, however the funding is provided, councils in many ways act as agents for the central government, providing certain statutory services at a local level. A council cannot decide to stop providing these but does have varying degrees of control on how they are provided and how much is spent on doing so. Adult and children’s social care accounts for about half of WBC’s expenditure, and rising, a pattern which is repeated elsewhere. Other matters such as education, highways and planning are also on the municipal must-do list.

As regards raising revenue, a council’s main source (about 75% in WBC’s case) is council tax. Here it is also constrained. It cannot increase this by more than 2.99% without going to a referendum. This has only happened once in the UK, and that was roundly rejected. The question was floated as part of WBC’s budget consultation last year but, as about 60% of the 376 people who responded disagreed with this suggestion, it wasn’t taken further. 

Councils can also charge another 2% but this must be ring-fenced for social care. Business rates provide the second largest source of revenue. In addition, councils can, and increasingly do, charge for services ranging from car parking to green-bin collections. They also receive revenue from investments although, as some have discovered the hard way (see below), this is not guaranteed.

I spoke to Councillor Ross McKinnon, the finance portfolio holder at WBC, on 1 February. He assured me that the proposed budget would not result in any cuts to front-line services. He also stressed that costs, particularly in the big area of social care, were rising both due to inflation and to increased demand. In addition, he was keen to point out that there was “nothing speculative” in WBC’s investment portfolio.

Some councils came very badly unstuck in this regard in the 2000s – whisper the phrase “2008 Icelandic bank collapse” in a number of council chambers including Kent, Northumberland and Haringey and you’ll still see some shudders. In retrospect, the investment strategies then adopted by some councils could be likened to taking a huge sack of cash down to the local casino and putting it all on the red. Measures have been introduced to curb this, including tightening rules for borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board. However, the tighter money gets, the more likely people and organisations are to look for a long-priced winner. The best way of removing the temptation would, as mentioned above, for the government to ensure a fair and long-term settlement.

It also appears that there is still a pandemic hangover, in West Berkshire at least. This is seen in reduced income from, amongst other things, car parking and leisure centres to the tune of about £1.5m. In addition, funds to support general or specific aspects of Covid recovery are now drying up. A decline in car parking is a good thing for the environment – if not for WBC’s coffers – and could be the result of more people are walking, cycling or using buses to work or shop, or working more from home. As for the leisure centres, these obviously have some pretty eye-watering energy bills to pay and they are also suffering from usage not yet having returned to pre-Covid levels. The virus caused many changes to our behaviour and it’s not yet clear how permanent these will prove to be.

Given that most of these issues are not unique to West Berkshire, it’s hardly surprising that the councils in this area have all reacted in similar ways when setting their budgets. Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Swindon have all opted for a council tax rise of the maximum 4.99%; all have also issued statements referring to the hard choices that have had to be made in order to balance the books and continue to offer they services that they are obliged to provide and undertake the projects that they wish to accomplish. West Berkshire is a couple of weeks later in its cycle than the others but I’m told that a statement on the main points will be provided after the Executive meeting on 8 February. A further confirmatory statement will doubtless be provided after the March Full Council meeting. Then it’s a case of waiting for the council tax bills to arrive; always something to look forward to…

The Community Fund

Seven local charities will share more than £15,000 following successful bids to the West Berkshire Community Fund.

The West Berkshire Community Fund is “one of the good causes supported by the West Berkshire Lottery. From every lottery ticket sold, 50p goes towards a cause of the player’s choice and 10p goes into the Community Fund. Players can also select the Community Fund as their charity if they have no particular allegiance to a specific good cause. The fund is allocated annually by West Berkshire Council with good causes able to bid for additional funding to support specific projects.”

For more information, click here.

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.

• There’s a letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News from planning portfolio holder Richard Somner which refers to recent letters on the subject of choosing new street names in the Pinchington Lane development, one proposal so far being that they be named after the “so-called peace protestors”. He points out that the consultation on this was run not by West Berkshire Council but by Newbury Town Council; also that it is WBC that will make the final decision. The NTC consultation he disparages on the grounds that members of the NTC administration have “familial links to those people they are proposing.” I’m not sure how fair this accusation is but in any case he’s merely drawing attention to the fact that, admittedly less so now than in the past, councillors tended to name roads after themselves, their partners and their paramours. I think it was regarded as a perk of the job. Might we expect to see “Somner Street” as one of the proposed names here?

• The animals of the week are these starlings doing their amazing murmurations, in this case late last year in Somerset.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of trust, traffic, ethics and pedestrians.

• 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. Inspired by my visit to the Hungerford Repair Café last weekend (about which you can read here and which help people fix stuff that would otherwise be debris in the skip or tip), here’s one of my all-time favourite songs by The Faces. The LP on which this appears, A Nod’s as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse, was the first one I ever bought, which might explain it. I say “by The Faces” but, like all their best songs, it was written by Ronnie Lane and is much more in his reflective and melancholy mood than the louder rockers that Wood and Stewart tended to come up with for the band. There are many versions of this wonderful song, including a later one by Lane himself, but I think this is the best version. Ronnie Wood’s guitar playing is a particularly tuneful and melodic delight. So – click here for Debris.

• Which brings us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. Not rib-busting, eye-watering comic hysteria this week, but a lovely 12-second clip from the movie which I, and so many others, think is simply the best ever. Here Rick explains to Louis how he was misinformed.

• And we sign off with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which country has three capital cities? Last week’s question was: What do Dudley Nichols, Marlon Brando and George C Scott have in common? The answer is that they all turned down Oscar, Nichols as Screenwriter for The Informer, Brando for Best Actor in The Godfather and Scott for Best Actor in Patton.

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