This week with Brian 16 to 23 February 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including 19th-century aliens, Nicola’s departure, mutual exclusivity on the rails, believing in the market, gaffe of the week, the search for net zero, a massive budget rise, a cunning trap, an un-dead report, assessing flood risks, a broadside from the buses, caught in a murmuration, a very long piece of string, old Dixie and a big train.

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 US government has recently been indulging in some high-altitude clay-pigeon shooting against balloon-like things that may have been Chinese spying objects or perhaps something more interesting like UFOs. US defence experts said a few days ago that they’re “not ruling anything out.” More recently, The Guardian reported that three of the objects shot down may be “connected to “benign” commercial or research efforts.” “Benign” in this sense probably doesn’t reflect the level of litigation that might follow. My interest in the matter was mainly focussed on the idea that, were aliens from goodness-knows-how-many light years away to visit us, it’s lovely that they chose to do so in a balloon. It all seems so charmingly nineteenth-century.

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Nicola Sturgeon has announced her resignation as First Minister of Scotland, a decision she assured people was something “she had been weighing up for some time” and was not connected to the furore surrounding the recent trans-gender legislation in the Scottish Parliament had passed. For many people (including me), she existed as a forthright reminder of the manifest inconsistency in our system of governance, by which a party which is elected only by people in Scotland and which wants to have independence can have 45 MPs out of 650 in a parliament which legislates for the whole of the UK. I have no particularly strong view about IndyRef but the current system is a muddle.

• Much the same could be said about the way the railway network is organised. There’s an excellent article in Private Eye 1592 which looks at the frantic attempts by the new Transport Secretary Mark Harper to reconcile public interest with private ownership. This includes ignoring the fact that there are almost as many (55 million) different fares available as there are people in the UK, a situation which hardly tends towards simplicity.

One comment particularly caught my eye, that he promised “to instil a customer-first culture” before adding that he wanted “the private sector to play its most important role in out railways yet.” As PE pointed out, these ambitions “are mutually exclusive, as the private train firms will be legally obliged to put their shareholders first.”

This seems very neatly to encapsulate the essential logical fallacy that the rail privatisation created, whereby any central-government aspirations for reform in favour of passengers (note the word: people who use trains or other modes of transport are “passengers” not “customers”) have to assume as a pre-condition a system that os increasingly deigned to frustrate these aims.

• Much the same can be said of the housing sector, although here the situation is more nuanced. There is genuine competition here, in that I can choose if buying a house to go this new estate or another, in a way that I can’t if I want to get a train from Hungerford to Paddington. However, an article also in Private Eye 1592, discussing the Skidmore Report into the government’s belated and court-imposed attempts to create a net-zero-carbon policy by 2050, points out, “the private sector is ready to pay for net zero and demands high and secure returns.”

I’m not sure I agree with this. This may be the case with wind or solar farms but it doesn’t address the issue of  a housing developer who is faced with a purely economic choice as to whether adding in extra sustainable features – which might cost as much as £20,000 – can be returned by upping the sale price by at least this amount. If the developer cannot get this, then there is no long-term benefit it can realise. These companies exist to make money, not execute government policy. Like the rail firms, their first interests is to their shareholders.

The obvious answer is some kind of intervention to create a more acceptable face of capitalism. The problem with this is that the whole idea of capitalism is that it produces what people are willing and able to pay for. With trains and homes, however, an increasing number of people can’t afford them. The problem the government has is to decide when an unacceptable level of non-affordability has been reached and what it is then going to do about it. Such interventions in the market are difficult but many would say that, in both these areas, they are now necessary.

• Another intervention in the market is being proposed in respect of energy companies’ profits. The latest to announce figures is Centrica, owners of British Gas, whose 2022 profit of £3.3bn was three times that of the year before, the BBC reports. This has predictably led to calls for windfall taxes. I can see this is a difficult one. Not everyone believes that  the free market is the best way of regulating such matters but many do, including one imagines everyone in government. If you sell or hand over public assets to private firms then they are going to attempt to make profit from them: that’s what they do. The same comment applies as the one from Private Eye quoted above regarding the rail firms: it is to the shareholders that private firms answer.

• The prize for PR gaffe of the week – an award for which there are always a large number of contenders – goes to the Norfolk Southern railway company whose representatives failed to turn up at a public meeting with residents in Ohio. This had been called in order to allay fears about the pollution impacts of the the spectacular derailment of a goods train carrying all sorts of nasty stuff. Not surprisingly, everyone from the Mayor down was pretty hacked off by the no-show. The company said that it become “increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat” to its employees.” If that wasn’t the case then, I bet it is now. Anyway, why not use a video link? Do they not have Zoom in East Palestine, Ohio?

The images of the immediate aftermath of the train crash itself were a bit like out-takes from a high-budget disaster movies. As for the longer-term aftermath – and worryingly for Norfolk Southern – this may more closely resemble Erin Brockovich, the way things are going. The first thing the company should do is sack its PR advisors and then turn up to answer the questions. honestly on the basis that any concealments will probably come out eventually. This advice could also usefully be offered to many other organisations…

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

West Berkshire’s budget

An article on p6 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News offered some startling comments on WBC’s 2023-24 budget (see “Budget-setting time” in this column from 2 February for our coverage of this matter). Two points in the article and its headline struck me particularly forcibly.

The first was that adult and children’s social-care will “cost twice as much” in the coming year. As these were about £75m in 2022-23 , that would mean that they would, in 2023-24, occupy the whole of WBC’s budget. If this were the case then I think this would have cropped up at the press briefing on the subject on 31 January.

I spoke to portfolio holder Joanne Stewart about this who, through a heavy cold, confirmed that the budget for social care had in fact increased by only about 12%. This was mainly due to a triple whammy of higher agency-staff costs (on which all councils with social-care responsibilities need to rely to some extent), pay settlements with WBC’s own staff and the rising demand for the the adult service in particular, both in terms of the number of people using it and the increasingly complex needs which it needed to address. This whammy is not unique to West Berkshire.

The article goes on to say that as the interest rates charged by the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) have “more than doubled” this means that “for the same revenue costs, the council will be able to afford half of the total council-funded capital projects.” This is only true if PWLB interest stays at double the 2021-22 rates for the entirety of the payback period of any new loans, something which seems highly unlikely. Councillor Ross McKinnon, the finance portfolio holder at WBC, confirmed this when I called him on 16 February. He also pointed out that “the Council’s existing borrowing is funded at the fixed rate prevailing at the time of borrowing,” so any current loans will not be affected by the rise.

He also stressed that it is “not true” that the new sports hub is not included in the report.

The article also points out, correctly in my view, the range of uncertainties, imponderables, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, demographic changes and all the rest of them against which the budget-setting process has had to operate. Once again, you can see the above-mentioned column for what I had to say on this two weeks ago.

The local plan’s “flaws”

And still with the Newbury Weekly News open beside me, I read with interest a piece on p2 which refers to an extraordinary WBC Full Council meeting which will meet on 2 March to consider the possible abandonment of the current regulation 19 consultation on WBC’s local plan. The article presents the “major flaws” and “inaccuracies and omissions” in the plan as matters of fact rather than, as is the case, allegations made by the local Lib Dem group in a motion.

When this was brought to my attention last week, my first reaction was that this was something of major importance: a last-minute back-pedal and reverse-ferret on four years of work. If so, it seemed odd that it was buried as an agenda item for a forthcoming meeting. A few phone calls, however, revealed that it was in fact a clever, and completely legitimate, trap set by the opposition.

I covered this, and my interpretation of what its true intentions were, in this column last week. To save you clicking, here it is again:

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 up 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.

Libraries “in crisis”

The headline article in this week’s Newbury Weekly News says that West Berkshire’s libraries are “facing a new cash crisis.” This refers to a report which was part of the agenda pack for this month’s meeting of WBC’s Executive. However, this was withdrawn and not discussed at the meeting, partly because it was felt that more work was needed on it and partly because the report had already booked its place at the March meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee and it was felt that it should go there first, then come back to the Executive afterwards. These facts I discovered when I called the head of the Library Services to ask for a answers to a couple of questions and was told that it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on a document that was still not quite fully baked.

It’s certainly not ideal that a report should be issued and then withdrawn, so leaving it in a kind of un-dead state, alive and yet not alive. An administrative confusion, perhaps. Whether there is a smoking gun here remains to be seen. However, it seems better to wait until the OSMC has a chance to consider this. Click here to see the details of the forthcoming meetings (I’m not sure which of the two March ones it will be discussed at).

It may be that the final report does indeed reveal a serious crisis, though hopefully not to the extent of the one in 2016 which would have resulted, were it not for considerable opposition, in the closure of all the libraries bar Newbury’s. Certainly the voluntary contribution of £1 a head by town and parish councils that was introduced in the wake of this has produced progressively less income: towns and parishes are under their own financial pressures and many seem to feel that this was a short-term measure that has run its course and that this is in any case something that the district should be covering in full. This method of providing funding (which at its high point covered about 10% of the library service’s costs) may not be sustainable.

The article also refers to the number of volunteers, without whom the service could probably not continue in its present form. I think that this was always envisaged as being part of the solution. If, as the article suggests, the shortage of volunteers sometimes results in unplanned closures then this is indeed a problem. Let’s see what the OSMC’s members have to say about all this when they consider the final report next month.

Water, water…

As many of you will have noticed, I’ve written several times about the London Road Industrial Estate and the Faraday Road football ground (the latter is not technically in the former, but nature recognises no human boundaries and the two are in other ways closely connected). The saga continues.

Last week, I recapped on the planning impasse that has in some ways been made worse for West Berkshire Council as a result of its recent success in a judicial review – paradoxes abound in this story. I suggested that, as a result, the possibility of redeveloping the ground – which was closed in 2018 with the intention of development in mind – now seems even more problematic as a result. However, it now appears that there is a yet more serious obstacle, not only to this but also the whole LRIE vision, whatever it happens to be at the time.

This turns on the fact that the LRIE is not only partly in areas of varying severity of flood risks but also that it is through, round or under the site that a number of waterways and foul-water systems make their way. It has long been argued by local residents and interest groups that the area is short of some very serious investment in drainage infrastructure. Environment Agency and Canal River Trust policies would not permit foul water being discharged into the Kennet and these could not be ignored with regard to any planning application which was likely to increase this risk. Indeed, any development may well worsen the existing drainage issues.

This point is recognised in Avison Young’s Environmental Appraisal Report produced in November 2021 which, in sections 7.31 to 7.35 admitted in 7.31 that “a detailed modelling exercise” will be needed. This was referred to several times thereafter as needing to be “site-wide”. Whether the “site” is just the LRIE or the wider area is unclear.

What’s also unclear is why such holistic work was not done previously and why, as would seem to be the case, it has not been done since. Flood risk is assuming ever more importance in the area (as the application for Newspaper House proved). It has steadily risen up the league table of legitimate public concerns through a combination of flood events, national legislation, the impact of climate change and the lobbying of local interest groups. It therefore seems fanciful to think that any planning application in or near the LRIE can proceed without strenuous opposition. (The need for a similar holistic flood risk assessment at Membury, another problematic area, was also expressed by Councillor Carolyne Culver at a recent Western Area Planning Committee meeting.)

The matter of undertaking a full flood risk assessment, from all sources for the whole area, and having plans for surface water and sewage drainage, has been mentioned in WBC public Q&A sessions. However, it seems it has not really got the priority it deserves. Certainly little in the Q&A at the February meeting of WBC’s Executive suggests that the matter has really got everyone’s attention. An update to the LRIE web page has been requested and one would hope it explains how this work is going to be progresses. It’s to be hoped that these will include some nature-based (“green/blue”) solutions: it’s increasingly clear that the right ones in the right places can work well. This approach is also part of the emerging policies in the local plan.

It’s not impossible that any flood risk assessment would decide that the useful open space of the Faraday Road ground, and/or the land beneath it, could be used for some kind of mitigation measure. (It’s also possible that down-stream land could be used for this purpose as well). Who knows what effects other developments might have? For all these reasons, a holistic view of the flooding problems in and beyond the LRIE surely has to be done before any further visions or whatever are entertained. If this doesn’t happen, any future plans will be met head-on with opposition that might prove hard to overcome.

For this to happen, two things are needed. The first is the acceptance that, in the light of a holistic flood risk assessment, any current views of the re-development of the LRIE need to be curtailed or proceeded with only when the necessary works have been done. The second is the acceptance that discussion with local tenants, residents and interest groups is an essential part of the process. Everyone might need to compromise.

To return to the football ground, this therefore seems to be protected from development not only by the legal constraints due to the prior need for a replacement facility which Monks Lane isn’t but also by flood-risk concerns which may require multi-million pounds of investment to fix. All in all, it may therefore be one of the most un-developable sites in the district.

Even if an attenuation pond or whatever needs building underneath it, there seems no reason why it can’t be returned to something approaching its previous use as soon as possible. As it stands, it’s just a reminder of a project that started badly and has not improved since. As mentioned last week, a re-boot on the whole scheme is needed. For those who argue that it’s all on track, I say this: why, in that case has nothing (including a replacement sports facility) been accomplished?

A five-year bus journey

Last week, I referred to a statement from the community transport company ReadiBus which we published. In this, the charity’s trustees described themselves as being “shocked and baffled” by West Berkshire Council’s response to complaint about Council misinformation.

This turned out to be merely the prelude, the hors d’oeuvre or the preliminary sketch for what was to follow. On 14 February we received a longer statement with the headline “The ReadiBus service in West Berkshire: some key issues from the last five years – a summary.” You can read this in full here. It is not a happy tale. Words and phrases like “lack of consultation”, “misrepresentation”. “misinformation”, “discrimination”, “a flawed complaints procedure” and “the Ombudsman’s finding of fault” all appear amongst the sub-headings. This is without doubt a relationship which has got badly soured but one which the charity has not completely given up on.

If WBC wishes to issue a statement of its own on this subject, we’ll be happy to print it in full.

This seems to be another matter that, like Faraday Road football and the LRIE, is badly in need of a re-boot. It’s unlikely that anything much will happen before 4 May (the pre-election purdah starts on 22 March and any announcements after that time which might confer political advantage are banned). After the election, though, and whoever wins, there needs to be blank sheet of paper wound into the municipal typewriter, a deep breath taken and a new start embarked upon. As with the LRIE and Faraday Road, the various solutions  tried over these last five years haven’t worked, indeed have got completely stuck in the mud. Nor have the opponents gone away. If we don’t want more of the same, something has to change. I don’t want to be writing about these stories in the same vein as we approach the 2027 election…

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.

War.Art.Hope is a thought-provoking exhibition that showcases the work of three Ukrainian artists. Click here for more information.

• West Berkshire’s Community Champions have been celebrated in an awards ceremony at Shaw House in Newbury. Click here for more.

• West Berkshire Council recently 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.” 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.

• 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 to be found in this BBC article which covers the experience of a photographer on Bodmin Moor who got caught up in a starling murmuration.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of memorials, masons, bus services, peace women and a finger-wagging for the unions.

• 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

• Why, here we are already at the Song of the Week. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band is my pick this week. No particular reason. I just love it. Is that good enough?

• So that must mean that it’s time for the Comedy Moment of the Week. We’ll stick with the superb Big Train: and this sketch is called, believe it or not, Big Train.

• And we bid you farewell with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: If you were to unravel Canada’s coastline like a very long piece of string, how many times would you be able to wind it around the equator? Last week’s question was: 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)? The answer is (a) Kepler Wessels (for Australia and South Africa); and (b) Gary Ballance (for England and Zimbabwe, the second of those taking place last week).

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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