This week with Brian 2 to 9 March 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including three blasts from the past, 100,000 messages, Fox in the dock, low on confidence, doing a Croydon, uncertainty and doubt, a bad example, a local scoop, a mushy brain, comparing councils, invisible footpaths, EV charging, life in a Bowie song, social-care costs, good people, surviving the Amazon, forty years ago and Leslie Nielsen.

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

• This week has seen three news stories emerge which date back to the seemingly infinitely distant time of a few years ago. These concern Matt Hancock, the 2020 US “election steal” and the origins of Covid.

[more below] 

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary from 2018 to 2121 and another of those Oxford PPE graduates who seem to dominate our public life, decided after he was forced to resign from his a post as a result of a Covid-busting embrace with an aide that he’d write a book, The Pandemic Diaries. For some reason, he felt that, despite his lavish education, he wasn’t up to doing this himself  and so hired a ghost writer.

He picked Isabel Oakeshott, a journalist who had already had form for betraying confidences (as Aaron Banks would remember for her almost identical treatment of him after ghosting The Bad Boys of Brexit; and as Vicki Price and Chris Huhne would remember with regard to their speeding points fiasco).

Hancock decided to hand over 100,000 WhatsApp messages to her to assist with the writing of the book. This is a strange thing for any politician to do, particularly to a journalist; and particularly to this journalist, who had always expressed her scepticism about a number of the policies, such as mask-wearing (which she described as “political”), that Hancock was espousing.

More recently she decided that, despite having signed an NDA, some of the communications she had received needed to put in the public domain and so leaked them to the Daily Telegraph. How justified this decision was I’m not well informed enough to judge. She claims it was in “the overwhelming national interest” to do so: he claims “a massive betrayal and breach of trust.” They might both be right.

My sympathies are, marginally, with him. He made many mistakes but was doing an almost impossible job at a very difficult time. I find it hard, though, to see how she could have taken his shilling to defend policies she didn’t believe in (so why did he hire her? She’s not that peerless a writer)  and then decide that there was a public-interest aspect that put the whole thing in turnaround. Neither profession comes very well out this debacle. 

Media attention is currently focussing on his decision made in the early pandemic days of April 2020 that testing should not be done at care homes, something that later caused a good deal of upset and which went against the advice from the government’s experts. The justification now being offered by Team Hancock is that testing capacity was then inadequate. However, it seems unlikely that Dr Chris “next slide, please” Whitty would have suggested something that was impossible to execute. There is currently a Covid enquiry taking place, the results of which will probably be published in full in about 2040, so this will doubtless all be grist to its mill. I imagine that Hancock will be wishing he’d done things differently. Mind you, that is something that all politicians must regularly be thinking.

• Next up in the dock we have Fox News. I’ve not watched this for any length of time though it seems many people do. Many dispute that the second word in its name is even remotely accurate. It appears from the results of documents recently assembled as a result of litigation its facing that many of its employees feel the same way.

As this article in The Guardian explains, Fox is currently being sued by Dominion Voting Systems, the complaint being that Fox “allowed damaging lies to circulate about how the election was rigged, with Dominion supposedly flipping votes from Trump to Biden.” Fox in owned by Rupert Murdoch and it appears that his hand lay heavy on the editorial shoulder there. The documents released as part of this action appear to paint a picture of an organisation most of whose staff, at all levels, knew that the election-steal allegations were batshit but who none the less found themselves having to air this drivel in order to avoid losing viewers, and thus revenue. This will come as no surprise to many but it’s good to see some hard evidence that many of the people there don’t believe what they’re saying or writing.

Do we have anything like this in the UK? I suppose GB News is an obvious contender. I’ve never watched it but it seems to be ploughing much the same furrow. Mind you, we have a lot of work to do to catch up with the USA in this regard.

• And finally, and talking about batshit, the FBI has suggested that the likely origin of Covid-19 was not natural causes (such as faecal or other cross-species spread from bats, pangolins or others) but from a “lab incident” in Wuhan. It’s not yet known what the Chinese think about this idea. 

The Wall Street Journal also picked up on this, though in a deeply inept way, claiming in its headline that the US Energy Department had said that this was “the most likely” origin but admitting later on in the article that the judgement was made with “low confidence.” Make your mind up.

• There are places where medicine, science, politics and journalism collide and, boy, was Covid one of these. We all claim that we welcome nuances and explanations of uncertainty or doubt and yet what most of us really want is a clear enemy revealed in plain view through our preferred media outlet. “Scientists unsure of virus origins” would, though perhaps true, get about a dozen shares: “Boris caused Covid”, on the other hand, might break the internet. Scientists deal in doubt: it is their currency. Nothing can conclusively be proved though anything at any time can be disproved. They inhabit a world in which uncertainty hems them in on every side.

The media, and social media, on the other hand, has little time for such academic indulgences. Truth may be a result of what it creates – just as justice may be a result of the legal system – but this is often an incidental consideration. All of the above three stories demonstrate this to some extent.

I’m just the same, in my own little way. No one pays to read what I write but every click on this or anything else adds an extra unit to our claim that we command an audience which our commercial partners can benefit from.  If you like this idea, then please encourage others to subscribe. If you don’t then, unsubscribe from our newsletters, the option for which is clearly stated each time, and we won’t bother you again. No hard feelings either way.

• This week I’ve been looking at council tax rates and related matters (see “Comparing councils” below) and so my attention was caught by the leading story in the Rotten Boroughs section of the most recent Private Eye (1593) with a headline that reads simply “£540 million!” This is eye-watering sum is, as the first sentence explains, “the amount of debt the London borough of Croydon wants the government to write off” adding that “no local council has been allowed to default on its debts before.”

The reasons for Croydon’s apparently inexorable decline into insolvency over the last few years seem to be many and various. It’s worth noting, though, that it’s not the only municipality in a leaky boat. The article goes on the say that according to the Local Government Association English councils face a collective £2.4bn shortfall due mainly to rising staff and energy costs.

The problem for the Minister, Michael Gove, as the article concludes, is that if he lets Croydon off the hook he’ll have a lot of others knocking on his door. On the other hand, a council is not like a company which has gone bust and loses money for its shareholders. It can’t just stop trading. The people likely to suffer are the residents.

I asked WBC’s finance portfolio holder Ross Mackinnon if he was tempted to indulge in a bout of reckless spending and questionable property deals and rely on being able, if it all went wrong, to call Mr Gove and ask for a write-off. His answer was, you might not be surprised to learn,  “no.” I appreciate this isn’t much of a scoop, but remember – you heard it here first…

• One thing that is worrying about this is that it is alleged that it’s the Croydon Council-owened homebuilder, Brick by Brick, that was largely responsible for these losses. I increasingly believe that councils need to set up property companies and, probably in partnership with developers, build the homes (often “affordable” or social-rent) that their districts need and which the private sector is unwilling to provide.

This is seen by some as a menacing and regressive piece of socialism that harks back to the days of heavy-handed central control between the end of WW2 and the late 1970s. Against that I’d argue that the current solution isn’t working. Stories like this, however, tend to undermine the whole concept. I can imagine municipal leaders up and down the country discussing the idea and, before long, an opponent arguing that “we don’t want to do a Croydon, thank you very much,” whereupon the idea is shelved for another year. If that’s the result of this then Croydon’s failures and problems will have spread far beyond its own borders.

• It seems there’s been a breakthrough in the Northen Ireland Brexit issue. Has there? Hasn’t there? Is it an act of genius or another failed compromise? This BBC article might help. I can’t, as anything to do with this turns my brain into mush…

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

What lies beneath (and on top)

As mentioned last week, I’m delighted that my suggestion to WBC’s Countryside Officer Paul Hendry about the council being able to provide a utilities search for community tree-planting groups has borne fruit. This page on WBC’s website has since been updated to reflect this and shows what help the council can offer such organisations.

A utilities check establishes if there are any pipes or cables underneath the proposed site which might at any time need to be excavated, so potentially damaging what’s been planted. Such precautions would avoid a repetition of what happened here in East Garston recently. Last year I and many others planted about 150 metres of saplings only to discover a couple of months ago that most of them would need to be dug up to replace a sewer which ran underneath.

If you contact WBC about this for any projects of your own (and community groups are urged to take advantage of this service), you will obviously need to specify where exactly the proposed planting will be. National Grid or lat/long references are good but not all online maps show these and the numbers involved can be dauntingly long for the uninitiated. A more foolproof method is provided by What Three Words which will specify any location to within three metres. I am, for example, writing this from “delighted waiters handbags”, which is rather lovely. If I go down to make a cup of tea, then “bikes sing digesting” will find me. It’s rather like living in a David Bowie lyric.

In some ways more problematic than underground utilities are rights of way such as footpaths. They can also be equally invisible. A footpath may not be marked with signs; it may already have part of its route blocked; it may not even ever be used: a footpath, however, it remains and changing it is, as this separate article shows, not a simple business. (This is actually good news as it would not be a good thing if landowners were easily able to divert of close footpaths to suit their interests. This sometimes happens anyway, of course, but anyone doing this will know that they can be forced to open them again.) Footpaths can be found in the most unlikely places: until recently, for instance, there were two footpaths running across Bath Racecourse which have since been officially re-routed

If you are planning to plant a hedge or similar, the best first step – even before doing a utility check – is to take a look at this map (this only covers West Berkshire but all districts should have something similar): go to the “Layers” tab at the tope (which looks like three sheets of paper) and then open the “Countryside” sub-menu and click on “Public Rights of Way.” If your proposed hedge blocks a footpath then you might want to re-consider the location or, if the path is known to be no longer used, take a view as to the risk. Another option is to leave a 1.5m gap for the footpath: however, if the purpose of the planting is to provide a wildlife corridor then this may negate the exercise. Finally, be aware that their might be other restrictions as a result of any historic monuments, though a hedge unlikely to cause any problem for these.

If you need more information, the Countryside team at WBC will be happy to advise. I trust that the teams in other districts will prove as helpful as WBC’s has been.

Comparing councils

Last week I wrote about a claim made by the West Berkshire Conservatives in their manifesto that the district was the “best overall” in the country. This attracted a certain amount of comment (which I welcome).

After I had written this, WBC’s Leader had the courtesy to send me a spreadsheet supplied to WBC last year by the publishers, something  which her colleague with whom I’d been corresponding about this claim did not see fit to do. 

In this separate post, I have, with a bit of expert help, looked at the report and the spreadsheet that provided its conclusions. There’s nothing of substance that I’d change from what I said last week.

Much of what I wrote looked at the problems with getting measurable data, according each criteria proper weight and coming to a conclusion; and how misleading it can be to use intermediate data to prove a point that it was not designed for. Any sensible claim of “best overall” would, for example, need to consider more than the six very specific ones used in this report.

The most telling criticism of this attempt to get the data to tell a different story struck me quite late on. If the intermediate and unpublished Money.co.uk ranking was a useful measure of overall excellence, surely effectively bankrupt councils like Slough, Thurrock and Croydon would be right at the bottom. They weren’t. Croydon – which has recently asked the government to write off over £500m of debts – was ranked as the 125th best council out of 304. Looking at such catastrophic failures was not the purpose of Money.co.uk’s report: it was merely trying to show what bang for the buck each region got in respect of its council tax bills. Any claim of municipal supremacy based on a ranking in which Croydon in in the top 40% of councils in England is clearly meaningless. This is why the professionals at Money.co.uk did not publish these unweighted rankings in its report nor try to infer more from the data than it was able to support.

More surprising was that the WBC Conservatives, having been in possession of this spreadsheet for about eight months, did not look beyond the clumsy “best overall” conclusion and fail to spot several things that that the spreadsheet quickly revealed. Most of these, and one in particular, painted the district in a better light than did its already impressive Money.co.uk ranking in eighth place for value for money from council tax.

Social-care costs

On 22 February, thew BBC published an article with the headline “Social care costs see thousands chased for debt” and adds that “over 60,000 adults with disabilities and long-term illnesses in England were chased for debts by councils last year after failing to pay for their social care support at home.” I had no idea if West Berkshire was one of these councils but thought it worth asking what its position on the matter was. Here is, in full, the response received from a spokesperson following my raising this with portfolio holder Jo Stewart.

“At the start of the pandemic we recognised the impact ‘social care support at home’ had on many residents and their incomes, so in recognition of this we paused enforcement action. As we move forward to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic, we are beginning with enforcement work again in respect of payments owed to us.

“All customers provided with adult social care services will go through a financial assessment to calculate how much they can afford to contribute towards the services provided which is based on the WBC Adult Social Care Charging Policy. In relation to the 129 customers, where the debt recovery process was instigated, this related to the issuing of reminders to pay the assessed contribution at the early stages of the debt recovery process. However, it would not be as straightforward as saying that all adults had disabilities and long-term illnesses.

“As a local authority, where customers are vulnerable or have disabilities, we work closely with customers, their relatives and wider support groups to recover the financially assessed contribution for services provided and try to do this in the most sympathetic way possible dependant on the customer. Where customers fall into arrears we will work with them to try and organise an affordable payment plan and decide on the appropriate actions.

“As a local authority we have a responsibility to ensure that customers are provided with the relevant services but we also have a responsibility to ensure that any amounts due are paid. We work hard to ensure financial assessments are correct in the first place so people only pay what they can afford. Enforcement action is a last resort and we work with people who are struggling financially to offer help to look at ways we can help.”

EV charging in the Vale and West Berkshire

Another WBC portfolio holder has also been getting emails from me recently. This time the unfortunate person was Steve Ardagh-Walter who holds the brief for environmental matters. This started on 21 February when I got a communiqué from the Vale of White Horse’s Comms team which included the following:

“Vale of White Horse District Council’s installation of Electric Vehicle chargers at its car parks has seen charging volumes double in its first six months.  In June last year 62 EV chargers were installed across five of the council’s car parks in Abingdon, Faringdon and Wantage as part of the county-wide Park and Charge schemeThe number of charging sessions has gone up by 60 per cent in the first six months of installation. During the same period the average amount of electricity consumed has doubled, meaning that people are now using them for longer charges. Since the first chargers went live in summer 2022 there have been 3,631 charging sessions in the first full six months, which equates to around 169,000 EV miles. This represents a saving 45,863kg of CO2e if those miles had been driven in a petrol or diesel car.” You can read the full statement here.

How was West Berkshire doing in this area? I wondered. On 1 march I received a reply from the portfolio holder. He said that information on this and related matters would soon be added to WBC’s website: I’ll publish the link when I have it. he also gave me a few highlights from this:

  • Since 2019 the Council has installed 35 ‘on-street’ chargepoints and there has been a steady increase in the monthly consumption and usage figures.
  • The Council is in the final stages of signing a contract with a supplier for the installation of up to 250 on-street EV charge points within West Berkshire over the next four years.
  • Members of the public can submit a request for an on-street chargepoint by clicking here.
  • An initial phase of EV chargepoint installations in WBC-controlled public car parks has seen 14 chargepoints installed in six car parks throughout the district.
  • In total there have been 2,411 charging sessions from Dec 2021 up to December 2022, which equates to approximately 162,050 EV miles. this equates to a net saving of approximately 35,506.52Kg CO2e  if those miles had been driven by a petrol or diesel car.
  • WBC is currently in the early stages of planning the next phase of public car park chargepoints, beginning with the procurement of a supply contract, with the provisional target of installing approximately a further 53 chargepoints over the next four years  in WBC-controlled car parks, subject to funding and local conditions such as electricity grid capacity.

Alarming letters

It seems that Sovereign tenants in Hungerford and Lambourn and perhaps elsewhere have received letters from the housing association saying that the rents and service charges are going to be raised, perhaps by 100%.  It then appears that this was followed by another letter saying that the first letter had been sent out wrongly (whether it was the right letter to the wrong people or a wholly wrong letter I’m not sure) and that a third letter would follow. At the time of writing, this doesn’t seem to have been received by anyone. It will be an anxious time, waiting for the next update. Will this news be better, or even worse?

The rent rises are, I understand, capped at 7%pa so this is unlikely to be too savage a blow. Service charges, however, are not capped although they do need to be justified. The problem is for people living in flats or other accommodation where the energy costs are paid by Sovereign and reclaimed through the service charge. These people may have something more serious to contend with.

A number of residents have, I understand, already contacted Sovereign to say that the charges they have in mind are simply not affordable. My advice is that if you or anyone you know has received such a letter to push back and see what happens. If Sovereign is currently unsure of what its position is or ought to be, as this letter confusion suggests, this is your chance to influence what happens. It’s also worth letting your town or parish council know what’s happening. In many cases, including in Stratfield Mortimer and Hungerford, these have proved to be very effective advocates in such disputes.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council will receive £353,000 from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in Round 1 of the Planning Software Improvement Fund to begin a major improvement to its digital services and systems used by applicants and the planning service. Read more here.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that it is “cracking down on littering and fly tipping” in the district – easier said than done but the aspiration is a sound one. Click here to read more on this.

• WBC is also “pleased to announce that we have been allocated just under £1.4 million to directly help local households most in need with essential food and energy costs via the Household Support Fund (HSF). To date, this brings our total HSF allocation to £3,474,248.15.” Read more here.

• A reminder that bus journeys across West Berkshire are capped at £2 for a single journey and £4 for a return journey until 30 June 2023 (this has recently been extended) 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 (see also Tales from Ukraine above). 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 its 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. This closed at midnight on Wednesday 22 March.

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

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.

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 Health and Wellbeing in Schools 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, once again,  some starlings. These ones are executing a stunning murmuration over the rooftops of Lutterworth.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of drainage evaluation, the EU, Faraday Road, election pacts and the HR industry.

• 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

• So, it’s the Song of the Week. It’s not often that this is inspired by something I heard in Tesco in Hungerford but that’s the case this week: Good People by Jack Johnson was playing while I was buying this and that. I’d never heard it before, nor of him, but thought you might like it as much as I did.

• Which means here must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Few series ever made have been as silly as Police Squad. here’s a clip of some of the highlights.

• And we wind up with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: A man recently survived for 31 days lost in the Amazon jungle by eating what? Last week’s question was: The TV series The Gold (which we recommend) is set in the months and years following the Brink’s-Mat robbery at which £26m-worth of gold was stolen. In what year did this mega-heist take place? It took place in 1983, on 26 November if we’re being precise.

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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