This week with Brian 9 to 16 February 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including an impassioned speech, no treaties, moral arguments, the just war, solving the housing crisis, too much change or too little, who’s writing these columns anyway?, a look at the plan, last orders, strange animals, a Pyrrhic victory, a fan club, a separation of powers and four centuries.

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

• Volodymyr Zelenski was on 8 February accorded the fairly rare accolade of being asked to address both houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. You can see a report of this and a video of his speech here. The man clearly has something about him. He was eloquent, impassioned and specific: and also managed, at the very end, to make his concluding point humorously by adding a reference to tea. All this, mind, was delivered in his third language.

[more below] 

• My main concern with all of this is that the UK is finding itself increasingly involved in a war which is not based on any treaty. The main point is that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and so we are not obliged to come to its aid. There was also no treaty that demanded we attack Iraq or Afghanistan earlier this century. The question is thus not of diplomatic obligation but of risk management and morality.

• With regard to the former, Putin has already laid the foundations for this justification. For domestic reasons of his own, he welcomes the idea of the west in league against Russia. One might argue that if it wasn’t going to be Ukraine, it would be somewhere else. One consideration when deciding if you’re going to aid the enemy of another country is whether this would make matters worse than they were already. The answer here is that there was no positive relationship with Russia to lose; just a rather weird one

• The moral argument is far more tricky. Morality has a way of dissolving in many things, including political expediency, religious conviction, financial advantage and alcohol. It certainly seems that popular feeling in the west is powerfully pro-Ukraine. Zelenski’s performances in the last 12 months have been near-faultless. Putin’s on the other hand (admittedly seen through the very thick prism of our media) seems to have been anything but. Both are nationalistic, though Putin’s aspirations are more for the re-creation of the USSR than just of protecting Russia’s integrity and security.He doubtless sees these as the same thing. The Cold War is clearly not over, 30-odd years after we thought it was.

• I’m slipping away from the matter of morality, as so many of us do. Plenty of people have grappled with this idea over many millennia. These various attempts at reconciling human fallibility with the demands of some higher moral authority have created a corpus of work which is often referred to collectively as the just war theory.

Each attempt tries to create, against the prevailing political and religious backdrop of the time, a rationale for why conflict can be justified. Looking back, there is often more than a whiff of self-interest and casuistry about them. During the Crusades, for instance, the argument of the Muslims and Jews having despoiled and defiled the home of Christ was often cited by Christian theologians as the axiomatic point: the fact that God had, though what might with justification have been seen as a hideous practical joke, also allowed both Islam and Judaism to claim Jerusalem as a holy city was conveniently forgotten.

The fact that such justifications needed to be made at all, though, is proof that people were then – as they are now –  concerned about the morality of their wartime actions and keen to establish some defence from a higher authority against later claims by others or their own conscience. Such theological and philosophical ingenuity thus did as much to perpetuate wars as to prevent them. The Papacy did its bit as well, offering a generous portfolio of remission of sins to any who fell in battle against the infidel. Which of us would hold back when presented with these kind of get-out-of-jail cards?

If, however, your land is being attacked, or might be, then far more immediate and visceral considerations apply. The idea of just war isn’t relevant: that is for your aggressor to deal with. It’s not for me to judge how far people in Ukraine are prepared to go to prevent their homes being shelled and bombed. Zelenski has followed the primary rules of effective messaging – keep it consistent and kept simple. He’s asked for weapons. So far, these have been supplied, if not in quite the quantities he wanted.

Here lies another problem. It could be argued that two better courses would have been to give him everything he needed and more and finish the whole thing off; or nothing at all, and stand aside. Is a compromise of some of this and half of that perhaps prolonging this? Indeed, are various geo-political interests best served by having a stalemate there rather than an outright victory for either side? None the less, whether the UK continues to supply all of what VZ wants or just some of it, it’s impossible to pretend that we aren’t increasingly fighting a war by proxy. Whatever the just-war experts might say, t’s impossible to feel anything other than a sense of misgiving about this.

• The PM had a reshuffle last week and one of the changes was the appointment of Rachel MacLean as the new Housing Minister; “She will,” the BBC website claims, “play a key role in attempting to solve the UK’s housing crisis.”  Well, yes and no. She is the 15th person to have held this office since 2010 and the sixth in the last 12 months. It’s not possible for a minister to get a grip on this, or any other, crisis (most departments have at least one crisis on the boil at any time) if the average tenure is less than a year.

The housing crisis is, in my interpretation, the failure of the private sector (to which the government’s home-building strategy has effectively been outsourced) to build enough two- and three-bedroom homes for young people and families. These developers are running businesses and a four-bed home with a dining room and all the other trimmings doesn’t cost that much more to build but commands a considerably higher price tag. These firms are running businesses which have to make profits, not acting as some adjunct of the Ministry of Housing.

The solution is  not to rely on a revolving-door cycle of ministers but to find ways of getting local councils to roll up their sleeves and get back to what they used to do and build such homes themselves. Terrible mistakes were made with this approach in the late 20th century and equally terrible ones (such as in Croydon) have been made more recently with housing companies. However, we have to assume we can learn from mistakes like this. The boom in home building driven by councils from the early ’50s to the late ’70s addressed a clear societal need. If we have a crisis now, as we are so often reminded that we do, then something similar is needed. The current system is not working, for these kinds of properties at least.

• The Church of England was established as a politico-religious compromise by the supremely politico-religiously adept Elizabeth I in 1559. This malleability has continued ever since and, in a time of rapid change such as the last twenty or so years has provided, creates the appearance and perhaps the reality of an organisation which doesn’t know what it believes for more than about twenty minutes at a time. The latest ruction, as reported here by Reuters, concerns the use (or not) of gender-neutral terms to refer to God. Other examples including gay marriage, gay priests and female priests, could also be cited. No one could accuse the CofE of stating its positions and sticking to them in defiance of popular outcries.

Herein lies one of my central problems with organised religion. On the one hand, I can see that for any organisation to adapt in the face of public pressure is good. A religion, however, is surely not about what’s happening here on earth now but about some immutable truth. Has there been any divine revelation to propose this change? If so, I’ve missed it. It therefore looks like something akin to a marketing exercise.

The other extreme is provided by, say, the Taliban. The group seems stuck in the seventh century and regards anything that’s happened since and which doesn’t accord with its own view of creation and its results as being deviant, regardless of the fact the things have moved on since then.

This is the central dilemma which all organised religions face and which none have been able to resolve: do they stick to promoting the original message or revelation that gave birth to them or do they try to adapt their practices to the changing ways of the world? Both, in their different ways, make equally little sense. For many centuries, social and technological change was fairly slow and religion acted as a convenient and useful form of societal glue. Now, ever-stronger forces are pulling the various components apart. Should the glue remain rigid or expand to fit the new space? No one can agree on this.

• We were at a student careers event at King Alfred’s School in Wantage on 8 February. I had a very alarming conversation with another stallholder who suggested that within five years my job would be rendered irrelevant as artificial intelligence would by then have been able to generate such stories and opinions as I spout but better, more quickly and with fewer typos. About time too, you might say. However, how do you know that this isn’t the case already…?

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

A Pyrrhic victory?

On 3 February, a judgement in the High Court determined that WBC “had acted lawfully when it granted planning permission for a new Sports Hub at Monks Lane. The Claimant, Mr Alan Pearce, was ordered to pay the Council’s costs.” WBC leader Lynne Doherty added that “we are delighted that the Judge has agreed that our decision as local planning authority to grant permission for the construction of the Sports Hub at Monks Lane, Newbury, was correct.” You can read WBC’s statement here.

All this is true as far as it goes but it does not mean that the legal and logical tangle that the Council has got itself into with regard to the football grounds in Newbury has been resolved. The acceptance by WBC that Monks Lane was not a replacement for the closed ground at Faraday Road but a stand-alone facility may have helped it win the case but has crystallised another problem. The legal obligation to find an as-good-or-better replacement for Faraday Road – both as a green space and as the football facility it provided – still remains. It therefore follows that no redevelopment of Faraday Road can legally start until this replacement has been built. As four years of searching have not even identified a suitable site for such a facility, immediate progress seems unlikely.

This will not, of course, be a problem if Faraday Road is returned to its original purpose, a solution that seems increasingly logical the more the story develops. That, however, would require an admission from WBC that it has been on the wrong scent since June 2018.

The idea has been suggested that Monks Lane could be a “partial replacement” but this seems like nonsense to me. You can’t have a pitch in one place and the stand in another. This point also highlights the real significance of of the difference between a stand-alone facility (as it now is) or a replacement (as was first claimed).

Presented as a solution to the Faraday Road problem, a case could be made (and was made) both for the expenditure (say £3.5m) and, for the obvious reason mentioned above, the fact that it needed to be in one place. Finding a replacement is a legal commitment that WBC has under the Playing Pitch Strategy and indeed was described by the Executive on 16 December 2021 as being “the number one priority.”

If, however, the expenditure on, and the very concept of, a sports hub at Monks Lane is flipped so as instead to address another issue, that of the shortage of 3G pitches in the district, these arguments vanish. £3.5m plus the lease for a pitch with a stand and all the trimmings in one location may be a good deal if a replacement pitch was the result. As it’s now addressing the 3G issue, though, more pitches in different locations might be a better option (as Sport England itself suggested) and there would be no need for stands or a clubhouse. The Monks Lane sports hub may be an excellent addition to the district’s 3G facilities but that is not the point: it was originally conceived and justified as something else.

Even if WBC finds and builds a replacement facility and puts in an application for Faraday Road, that won’t be the end of the problems. It has been claimed that there is currently a lack of suitable drainage infrastructure which would cost several million pounds to address. This is certain to emerge if any application is made and could ultimately involve another trip to the courts. The end of this long saga thus seems to be some way off.

Requesting a pause

The agenda papers for an extraordinary meeting of WBC’s Full Council on 2 March 2023 includes a “Proposal for consideration by Council as detailed in the requisition signed by Members dated 1 February 2023.” This can be seen here.

This was put up by the opposition Lib Dem group and offers a number of reasons why the current Regulation 19 consultation into the local plan is defective. Most of these directly relate to the specific proposals for THA20, the plans for 1,500 (or perhaps more) homes between Thatcham and Bucklebury. The proponents urge that the Council should “(1) abandon the consultation on the Local Plan which commenced on the 20th of January 2023, so that all relevant issues can be rectified and/or clarified and thereby avoid the risk of the Local Plan Review submission being dismissed as unsound by the Inspector on the basis of a defective Regulation 19 Consultation: and (2) undertake a new Regulation 19 Consultation in the future once these omissions and errors have been rectified.”

Neither ambition seems likely to be realised unless there’s a serious outbreak of absenteeism or disloyalty at the 2 March meeting (which seems unlikely as it’s the budget-setting one so everyone will be in three-line whip mode). Passing the proposals would also mean that the Regulation 19 consultation would need to be paused less than 24 hours before it was due to finish, an epic nonsense by any standards. The Lib Dems obviously don’t think they are going to win this one: what, therefore, is the point of doing it?

The answer may lie in the fact that its target market is not local residents or anyone at WBC but the Council’s forthcoming Executive Director of Place, Clare Lawrence, who takes cup her new role in March. One of her first major duties will be to sign off the final version of the local plan as being in a fit state to go to the Planning Inspectorate. This will happen probably in early April, after the Regulation 19 responses (of which there are likely to be quite a few) have been considered.

This warning shot will, the Lib Dems hope, highlight to her the fact that some feel the plan as it stands is flawed. If she shares any of these misgivings then she cannot issue the certificate under section 20 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act confirming that the plan is, as it were, fully oven-ready. The Lib Dems would like to have aspects of the plan changed and have said that if they were elected on 4 May they would look at ways to accomplish this. The ruling Conservative group wants to have the plan passed as it stands. The further on in the process the plan has progressed, the harder it will be for reverse gear to be applied; so, the Lib Dems would prefer that the plan had not been submitted before the election. The Conservatives therefore have their foot on the accelerator while the Lib Dems are trying to put theirs on the brake.

Normally, the decision to send the local plan to the Inspector is debated at Full Council. However, due to the numerous delays the plan has experienced, this needs to take place during the pre-election purdah period (from 22 March) during which councils may not make announcements which could be seen as likely to confer political advocate. Fearing that such a discussion would fall foul of this rule, the administration decided on 1 December that this decision would be delegated to the senior officer. There therefore won’t be an opportunity to have a debate between the elected members. In the absence of that, the Lib Dems appear to feel that this requisition is the best way of getting their message across. What weight Clare Lawrence gives to these concerns remains to be seen.

A final point: none of the above should be seen as a reason for people or organisations not to make their comments as part of the Regulation 19 process. You can click here to see a separate post on the subject which includes the link to the consultation and some advice as to a few places from where you might like to get help or advice should you need it.

The Turkey/Syria earthquake

West Berkshire Council issued a statement on 9 February saying that it “is shocked and saddened by the consequences of the devastating earthquakes that hit the south eastern area of Turkey, on the border with Syria, in the early hours of Monday morning.” The statement also adds that people wishing to donate money should “follow the guidance of the Charity Commission to ensure that contributions are made safely, so your generous contributions benefit those that you want to help.” It then provides a suggested list of charities. More information 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.

• West Berkshire Council is “inviting residents and businesses across West Berkshire to take part in our draft Local Transport Plan survey by providing your views on our draft priorities and objectives to improve transport facilities and travel options.” You can read more here.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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 in this video of the some of the oddest creatures I’ve ever seen.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of the Monks Lane judicial review (seven of them), Laura Farris, PCSOs, stamps and the Watermill Theatre.

• 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. Another Ronnie Lane song, from the same Faces’ album as was last week’s – Last Orders Please about a man running into an old flame in a pub and (in my view) being about to tempted into re-lighting the fire. Or maybe not.

• Which brings us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. Anyone who can make a good sketch out of something as daft as the Billie Piper Fan Club gets by vote; and the wonderful Big Train mob did just that: here it is.

• And we sign off with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Who are the only two male cricketers to have scored test centuries for two different countries (one of these did the second of his a few days ago)? Last week’s question was: Which country has three capital cities? The answer is South Africa: Pretoria (executive capital), Bloemfontein (judicial capital) and Cape Town (legislative capital). On one level, perhaps no a bad idea given that the three functions are meant to be separate: on the other, think of all the lovely opportunities for expenses claims this affords, not to say opportunities for infidelities.

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