This week with Brian 23 to 30 March 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including three systemically flawed things, a quibble with the Baroness, BoJo at bay, holding to account, PotUS’s top ten, Winnie-the Pooh and the Chief Weasel, outflanking the inspectors, craving certainty, heliocentrism, spitting parents, various retirement ages, only one winner, looking in the letterbox, eight bells toll, escaped lions, a wishing well, water-bottle envy, a football anthem and the one-party council.

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

Further afield

• The news recently has been dominated by three entities which are regarded by many as being systemically flawed and in desperate need of reform, although all three have long resisted this. I’m talking, of course, about the Metropolitan Police, ex-PM Boris Johnson and ex-PotUS Donald Trump. All have been having what might be termed as a challenging week. The re-examination of their ‘mis-deeds’ has also rolled the clock back so that we seem to be living through the dark days of 2020 all over again.

[more below] 

• The Casey Report into the Met was expected to be bad but I don’t think anyone thought it would be as bad as this. “Institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic” is not a phrase anyone wants to read about their place of work, any more than the ominous remark that “public consent is broken.” Barely was the ink dry on the 360-odd pages than Baroness Casey and the Met’s Chief Sir Mark Rowley were trading blows over his quibble about some of the language used, particularly “institutionally” on the grounds that it was “politicised and ambiguous.” Casey hit back, according to The Guardian, saying that “When people say something’s become “politicised”, it’s often a get out of jail card for the word “difficult”. I’ve heard it so many times, I’m sorry, you’re dealing with a dinosaur…”

This is not good news. Policing is largely based on an unspoken contract that the police can be trusted to be honest and even-handed. If that disintegrates there’s the risk of people taking the law into their own hands. Whether or not the Met is disbanded and reconstituted – it’s hard to see how such a massive undertaking can happen – reform will take years; and for years after, doubts will remain. The perception of wrong-doing might also spread to other forces, all of which already have problems of their own in terms of recruitment and retention. All the culpable officers have thus caused a problem that stretches across the country and well into the future. When trust vanishes, a number of evils follow.

• In the same way, when a minister stands up in the Commons and makes a statement, MPs are entitled to expect that this is true and that, if perhaps through inadvertence it is not, that it will swiftly be corrected. Whether or not BoJo lived up to these standards is a matter that the House of Commons Select Committee on Privileges, chaired by the redoubtable Harriet Harman, is considering.

On Wednesday, the former PM was bullish, irritated and defensive in roughly equal measure. Part of him clearly wanted to be anywhere else: another part, which often got the upper hand, relished this return to the limelight. You can see some of the highlights and analysis here. Some of his supporters claim that this is a political witch-hunt and that “what the British people want is for us to draw a line under this and move on to doing our job and dealing with what they are really concerned about” (I put this in inverted commas because, although no one said these exact words, it’s a pretty fair amalgam).

Some of these people are MPs: I think they must be deluded to think this and border-line insane to articulate it. It’s tantamount to saying that it’s OK for them to be lied to as long as this is done by a member of their own party. If the former PM misled the House deliberately or recklessly then we need to know, end of.

To accept that it’s OK for parliament to be lied to is like saying that it’s OK for the Met to be rotten – it completely flies in the face of what the whole point of these organisations is. Sorry, peeps, but you both have to be better than us and operate to even higher standards. As it is, they risk seeming to be debased versions of the rest of us, lying and sleaze-balling around like characters out of a Scorsese movie, drunk on an alpine sense of entitlement and believing that rules only apply to people foolish enough to be constrained by them.

• Which brings us to the third of our defendants this week, ex-President Donald Trump. He’s facing charges arising from the accusation that his hush-money payment to a porn actress before the 2016 election was subsequently disguised as a legal payment and so amounting to a fraud. In normal circumstances, this would be the undisputed nadir of a US President’s term: but, so bizarre was the Trump term and its chaotic aftermath that future historians may not even rank this incident in his top ten most infamous moments.

It appears that the expected hearing has now been delayed, so prolonging the opportunities for the world’s press to write “what might happen next” stories. One thing that might happen next is another disjointed mobilisation of his supporters. According to Newsweek, 40% of American adults believed in November 2022 that the 2020 election was stolen. That’s about 84 million people.

• Assuming any of the above misfortunes were raised in their rather sinister bromance-of-convenience in Moscow, Xi and Putin must have been genuinely confused as to what all the fuss was about. Corrupt police forces? Lying to parliament? Dodgy payments? And the problem is? I know it’s hardly mature to make jokes about people’s appearance but Xi has drawn attention to this so much that he kind of invites it: so here goes. This photo of them on the CNN website looks like Winnie-the-Pooh shaking hands with The Chief Weasel from The Wind in the Willows, both of them high on something nasty and having just agreed a cunning plot to poison Ratty and Christopher Robin.

• See below in the Across the Area section (Ofsted: an inadequate ranking?) for some thoughts about our national schools inspectorate, which have recently been given a very local and tragic twist.

• This links back to what is a familiar theme in this column: our desire for certainty. Everything is now ranked, and graded. X is 12% better than Y, A is four points lower than B and all the rest of it. These are often spurious, misleading and – as Ruth Perry’s case has shown – sometimes fatal. A few weeks ago, I took a detailed look at a misleading claim made by a political party which had just this aim of establishing pre-eminence.

I now feel that my rebuttal of this (which I stand by) was in some ways beside the point. I was criticising the claim on grounds that its author/s didn’t regard as relevant. They were dealing with certainty; this is not the same as dealing in truth, but – particularly at election-time – can be portrayed as a passable and comforting substitute for it. Theirs was based on a quick and superficial look at a spreadsheet designed to demonstrate a different point. I was dealing with uncertainty. The whole of my above-mentioned article is full of qualifications, exceptions and nuances relating to the data: what it said and did not say, when and how it was gathered, its limitations and so on. It’s not a glib and punchy one-phrase claim of excellence that we demand and, at election time, expect. Why, therefore, did I bother to write it at all?

Posing this question makes me ask the same thing of so much of what I’ve covered in the last five or six years. I have always both disliked and distrusted simple statements which are designed to elicit a particular response. However, to cover an election is to be subjected to these the whole time. These articles often take many hours to research and write but I must accept that every nuance, every doubt and every qualification pulls the results further away from the clear conclusion that many of want.

None the less, I refuse to fall into the easy and lazy trap of “four legs good, two legs bad”, which is so prevalent at election time. The world is massively complex and I am a poor interpreter of it: but I shall continue to try. Sometimes, I change my mind or accept criticisms from others, in which case I re-visit the issue. That’s certainly something that would be welcome on some matters from our representatives in the weeks leading up to 4 May, though I’m not holding my breath.

• I’m never sure whether the passage of time is bringing me closer to or further away from the moment when I can officially retire from the activity that, as the above paragraphs suggest, may be pointless. Of course, these days, retirement is often not the clean break from a nine-to-five life that was previously officially terminated by an indigestible meal, a tedious speech and the presentation of an unreliable clock. I may, after a certain time, be retired and yet not-retired: like being dead and yet undead. How scary is that?

Fortunately, Butler Toll Financial Advice and Asset Management is able to provide some more relevant information about when this horrible event might happen. It appears government ministers have pushed back proposals to accelerate a rise in the state pension age to 68. The state pension age is currently 66; under existing legislation, this is due to rise to 67 between 2026 and 2028 then to 68 after 2044.

“The government was reportedly looking at bringing forward the rise to age 68, to 2037-39: however, according to the Financial Times, this decision has now been pushed back to after the next election,” says Butler Toll. “There are a number of reasons why the government might change its position. Firstly, life expectancy has fallen in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, which could take the urgency out of increasing the State Pension Age. Secondly, I suspect a more immediate factor might be that scrapping the Lifetime Allowance (seen by critics as a tax break for the rich) and then increasing the State Pension Age to 68 for people who depend on the state pension might trigger a revolt by the UK public. The Treasury will be acutely aware that the French government has faced violent protests over its plans to hike its retirement age.

“Although we don’t tend to react as the French do to unpopular policies, there must be some concern among Tory MPs that there could be a backlash from voters in the next election especially from those currently in their early 50s, who would be affected by the current proposals. The Department of Work and Pensions is due to publish its next review into the State Pension Age by 7 May.”

• This afternoon I read (or thought I had) a headline on the BBC website that ran “Spitting parents face fines for refusing medication.” I thought about this for a moment. I had no idea this was a national problem and wondered what kind of medication might be available, and regarded as essential, to treat this. I read the headline again. The questions in my mind didn’t go away. It was only when I clicked on the link and saw the headline of the article that I realised it actually said “Splitting parents face fines for refusing mediation.” This made sense, though in a much less interesting way.

This, perhaps, explains why proof-reading is so hard. People comment that PP, and this column in particular, is not free of errors. In our defence I’ll say that the articles are often written at high speed and with the debatable assistance of the Mac spell-checker. This often has a different idea of what I want to say: the tensions between it and me are sometimes all too obvious. Proof-reading also takes place after the newsletter has gone out (there is never time before) when both Penny and I – and, perhaps, the spell-checker – are pretty knackered.

The real problem, though, is that my mind’s eye often reads what I thought I’d written few hours before, rather than showing me what the computer has actually produced. Something of the same nature happened with the BBC article: having read the headline wrongly once, it was then an uphill struggle to get any different meaning from doing so again. It was only when I clicked through and saw the text at a different size and in a different position that the truth dawned. That’s my story, anyway. Perhaps I just need new glasses, or to concentrate more.

• This is turn suggests another line of thought: much the same can probably be said of ideas. The first thing we learn about a subject (or think about a person) is likely to disproportionately influential and will take a lot of shifting. I can still remember the master coming into our first geography lesson at school (I was about eight at the time) and confidently stating “the earth is the centre of the solar system.” Even at that age I knew this was utter batshit (and so paid little attention to anything else he said). I wonder, though, how many others in the classroom that morning still, to this day, sadly shake their heads when anyone mentions the fact that the earth rotates around the sun.

• We’re largely vegetarian these days but do have certain lapses. I must profess a weakness for the small pork pies from Christian Alba in Hungerford High Street, particularly the pastry. Lots of Branston Pickle, lots of tomato and cumber and a big slice of bread and butter: a feast fit for a monarch. Penny was out yesterday so, at about half three, I came downstairs and started preparing this late lunch. The house was as silent as an empty bell. I sat down and raised the first forkful to my mouth. Then I realised I was not alone.

Six yellow/green eyes were closely observing me. As if from nowhere, all three cats had quietly appeared and were arranged around the table in a way that made it impossible to watch more than two of them at a time. Members of our family though they are, an element of combative stress had been introduced into what had briefly been a moment of solitary communion with my lunch. I reached for the glass of water and was immediately aware of a deft movement across my plate – a slice of the pie had, through a movement too quick for my one-and-a-half eyes to assimilate, been transferred onto the floor and was now being fought over. I roared. The cats fled. The meal was finished, though not in the tranquility I had hoped for.

Now they are all curled up on our bed, providing a perfect model of domestic bliss. I gave them each a brief stroke and they purred. Tomorrow, we go again: but, as with every day before, it’s clear who is going to be the winner…

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

Lurking in the letterbox

In West Berkshire and many other districts the countdown to the elections on 4 May has started. 8am on Friday 24 March marks the official start of the campaign: that is when the pre-election period (formerly known as purdah) officially begins, after which no announcements may be made which might confer political advantage, until the polls close on 4 May.

No such reticence, however, will be displayed by the candidates. The various leaflets have been printed and now they’re being delivered through pretty much every letter box in the district. The first one to arrive with us in East Garston was from the Conservatives. In this separate post I consider all the claims this makes and suggest some sources which can be used to check the assertions or to get more information. We’ll be taking a similar interest in the ones from the other parties over the next couple of weeks.

Out on the beat

West Berkshire Councillor Claire Rowles went out on night patrol with TVP officers (Meghan Adey-Butt and Jack Dilly) on the 17/18 March in Newbury and Thatcham town centres as part of her role as Safer Streets Champion. “Newbury and Thatcham have a bigger night time economy which is why I joined a patrol in these areas,” she explained. “We walked through Newbury town centre and then drove to other parts of Newbury. We also drove through Thatcham town centre and other parts of the town. It was fairly quiet on that occasion (though I understand that isn’t always the case) and we didn’t encounter anything to report – it was, however, interesting to see that the police were highly visible in the town centre and also well received by the public.”

A couple of messages to highlight: first, everyone is encouraged to report all crimes, however small as any bit of information might be significant and can help TVP build a bigger picture; second, as part of the police’s focus on violence against women and girls, the Street Safe webpage encourages women and girls to report any public space in West Berks where they feel unsafe (such dark alleyways, poorly lit spaces, walkways with overgrown vegetation or near abandoned buildings).

Ofsted: an inadequate ranking?

The school-inspection service Ofsted has been in the news recently and not in a way anyone welcomes. Ruth Perry, the head teacher of Caversham Primary School, recently committed suicide as a result of the downgrading of her school from Outstanding to Inadequate, as big a fall as one can have. We extend our sympathies to her friends and family. Some local teachers made a stand against this, one at John Rankin in Newbury briefly refusing the inspectors access for in inspection at her own school.

In the days since this news broke, it’s increasingly clear that Ofsted itself would probably be ranked as “Inadequate” by many. It is in the nature of regulators to be unpopular with the organisations that they regulate: even so, the dissatisfaction with the current system appears to run rather deeper than this.

I have four sons who’ve been through school but, even so, I was fairly ignorant of the way the inspection system worked until about six months ago. In late 2022 my attention was drawn to what seemed a flawed inspection at Inkpen school and I wrote a couple of articles about this (See An Inspector Calls on 3 Nov 2022 and Life After the Inspection on 1 Dec 2022 in this archive post). Some things I discovered about the way inspections work made me very uneasy:

  • The first is that all the complex work that a school does is assessed and summarised in a single word by which every aspect of the school is judged. The full reports are clear, brief and should be read. But busy parents will look at “Inadequate” and cross a school off the list. (I concede that other sub-divisions are there, but not on the front page of the report and not-colour coded. Compare the different impressions given by the CQC report for Birchwood Care Home with the Ofsted report for Inkpen Primary School, for instance. One wonders if all readers will look beyond these: certainly, it is the overall grade for schools that, as a result of this emphasis, people generally remember.)
  • Even more alarmingly, some schools have not been inspected for over a decade, which makes the assessment meaningless. Before its 2022 visit, Caversham had last been inspected in 2009. Birchwood House Care Home, by contrast, has been visited seven times since 2017.
  • Thirdly, few things change a school as quickly and dramatically, for better or for worse, than does the arrival of a new Head Teacher. Ofsted inspections should happen within a couple of terms of a new head’s appointment. The inspection at Inkpen was taken in the last week of the old Head’s tenure, which seems utterly pointless. Other timing nonsenses may have been repeated elsewhere.

There are some easy fixes. (i) Abolish the overall grade or at least provide the sub-grades in the same prominent way as the CQC reports do. (ii) Abolish all league tables and encourage all publicity about the report to focus on the summary. (iii) Make it a legal requirement for schools to publish the date of the inspection in any literature. (iv) Make it a legal requirement for schools and Ofsted to say whether or not there has been a change, or changes, of Head Teachers since the last inspection and when the change/s happened.

The DfE has maintained, in response to the above-mentioned attempt to exclude Ofsted inspectors from schools, that this is a legal obligation. An article in this week’s Newbury Weekly News quotes a DfE spokesperson as saying that “parents greatly rely on the ratings to give them confidence in choosing the right school.” The trouble is that this is not what is happening. How can a single and totally un-nuanced grading which might be 14 years out of date tell you anything useful about the place?

Some schools have come up with an ingenious way of subverting what seems to be a broken system – they are refusing to make any reference to Ofsted grades in any literature or websites. If displaying this is also a legal requirement then this puts the schools on a collision course with the government and/or their LEA. If it isn’t, then it represents a real reputational knock to the inspection system. Like so many things, it’s in need of reform. If Ruth Perry’s tragic death produces a change then her family might perhaps be comforted. It would seem that the warning signs have been around for some time.

Eight bells toll

In 2020, Eight Bells for Mental Health was successful in a tender to provide “community-based support and community-building” with the aim of preventing and reducing social isolation and loneliness. I looked at this at the time (see this separate article) as I was unsure whether this was a replacement for the Village Agents scheme which was being closed down; a wholly new scheme which happened to be starting just after the VAs ended; or something in between.

It has recently been announced that the contract for this service will not be being extended after 31 March 2023. I’m hoping to find out a bit more about the reasons for this and the measures of achievement that were used to come to this decision. WBC is, however, keen to assure residents that the range of support services available has increased since the contract was entered into (just before Covid) and, in a statement provided on 23 March, cites NHS Social Prescribers and Care Coordinators, Corn Exchange Links to Thrive project, Educafé and numerous community groups as examples of “services that address reducing social isolation and are supporting residents to become more socially connected and independent.”

WBC also points out that “the funding for this contract was explicitly for the delivery of the community-based support and community-building contract (Eight Bells for Community Strength) and not to provide core funding for the existing services of the Eight Bells for Mental Health charity.”

None the less, this does seem to have left Eight Bells with a bit of a problem. The Community Strength work was in many ways an extension of the support it offered previously, and was in many cases provided to the same people. Since the contract was awarded, the group has attracted more clients. From talking to one of the trustees, it is almost impossible to divide the support and the clients into two piles – one for the long-standing core mental-health charity and the other for the contracted service – and even harder, indeed morally impossible, to stop supplying any of the latter after 31 March. Eight Bells will to the best of its ability continue to offer the same level of support to all its clients as it has been doing for the last three years, even though the funding from WBC will cease. Part of its work has always been involved with signposting to other organisations and this will continue. As WBC’s statement has confirmed, there are now more such groups and services available in the area than there were in 2020. It’s to be hoped that no one slips through any of the cracks between them as a result of this slightly short-notice change.

The state of the plan

A statement issued by WBC on 23 March says that the local plan review will be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in the near future. The statement continues: “A lengthy engagement process commenced with stakeholders in 2021 and culminated in the recent Regulation 19 consultation during which approximately 700 representations were received, raising around 1,700 individual points. These representations have now been published online and all the representations received have now been made public on the Local Plan Consultation Portal.”  It adds that “a final review of the representations and the collation of the submission documents to the Planning Inspectorate is now underway.”

It is no secret that many felt that some aspects, particularly with regard to the THA20 allocation in NE Thatcham, were flawed. Delaying the submission for as long as possible, perhaps even until after the election and hoping for a change of administration, was a reasonable tactic – the further along its journey a local plan is, the harder it is to pull it back (as South Oxfordshire discovered in 2019). This can best be accomplished by having as many comments as possible, making each as long as possible and submitting them as late as possible.

This appears, however, to have been thwarted by WBC seemingly having thrown as many people as possible into this part of the work. Getting 700 responses studied and summarised in less than three weeks is a pretty impressive achievement. So, if you’re in a pub near the WBC offices this evening and you see a group of glassy-eyed people muttering “site allocations”, “sequential tests”, “nutrient neutrality” and “policy XT99” to each other, then that will probably be the planners, slowly unwinding.

Some of these submissions were, as mentioned, very long. This may prove to be a high-risk strategy. Planning Inspectors are, I believe, human and so may find less favour with an argument that they feel is ten times longer than it might have been.

The press statement quotes planning portfolio holder for Richard Somner as saying that “I would like to express my gratitude to the communities and stakeholders who contributed to the process, the tireless dedication and work of officers, and my fellow councillors in producing the Council’s next local plan.  This is an important moment for all of us.”

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has announced that is has secured £750,000 “towards two flagship projects… improving and redesigning Newbury Wharf, and the newly renamed Bond Riverside (formally London Road Industrial Estate) regeneration programme.” Read more here.

• West Berkshire Council has fixed over 800 potholes since Christmas, “four times as many as the same period the previous year. This winter has been particularly challenging and a huge undertaking for both the Council’s Highway Maintenance team and our contractor Volker Highways.” Read more here.

• West Berkshire Council has spent almost £2,000,000 supporting vulnerable residents in West Berkshire through the Household Support Fund. Read more here.

• The Council has produced a report “setting out key achievements for West Berkshire’s residents over the past four years.” Read more here.

• The Department of Education has validated a phonics scheme developed in West Berkshire for national use. Read more here.

• 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. Read more here.

• 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 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 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’s sustainable warmth scheme helps “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 these lions that escaped from Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia: briefly…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of WhatsApp leaks, poisonous toads, early adders, a forest cat, fewer cars and the right to strike.

• 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, we come to the Song of the Week. Free’s Wishing Well has always been one of my top faves. This isn’t the original but one performed live, much later, by Paul Rodgers: possibly one of the greatest singers I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Here it is

• What follows must therefore be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Smack the Pony was up last week so let’s go with that again with a bit of Water-bottle Envy.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The song You’ll Never Walk Alone (beloved by Liverpool fans, of whom there seem to be a lot round here for some reason) came from which Rodgers and Hammerstein musical? Last week’s question was: Which is the only local council in England whose members are drawn from only one political party? The answer is Barking & Dagenham, all fifty of whose members are Labour.

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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Penny Post


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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale