This week with Brian 30 March to 6 April 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including housing the asylum seekers, an apology from The Guardian, a new leader, out of the bottle, coronation punctuation, looking at the paperwork, precepts and council tax, sharing a ride, an Ofsted clarification, a sleepy cow, crossed lines, tempted, you’ll never walk alone and the universal donor.

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

• As I’ve mentioned before, if a Conservative government wishes to get the troops behind it then issuing a stern message on a matter relating to immigration often does the trick. This duly happened this week, with the announcement as reported by the BBC that various sites, including ferries and former military bases, will be used to house asylum seekers rather than hotels. The proposal would, it was suggested, save on the current cost of putting them up in hotels, currently running at over £40m a week.

[more below] 

There is one such hotel in Thatcham where Penny helps run a weekly craft and textiles activity for the residents, some of whom have been there for over a year. If the costs have been mounting up, this is surely because of the awful delays in processing their cases. Finding alternative accommodation (which will not come without capital costs) seems slightly like buying more buckets rather than fixing the leak in the roof.

Another problem seems to be that, according to the above-mentioned BBC article, a number of councils have threatened judicial reviews into the decisions to create the new centres. Some of these reviews appear to be supported by local MPs, often Conservative ones, including former Home Secretary Priti Patel. The idea of having a comparatively low-cost migrant centre is a good idea unless it happens to be in your council area or constituency. With local elections in many areas looming up on 4 May, many councils are keen to show that they are not going to roll over whenever the government makes an announcement that might not play well with their residents.

On 20 March, Penny discussed these plans with someone who is involved with refugees in the area. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” they said. “These kind of solutions have been proposed before. Some of the proposed sites require planning permission which in some cases hasn’t even been applied for yet.” This is clearly a difficult problem on a number of levels. The root causes, however, lie perhaps thousands of miles away and sometimes hundreds of years in the past. Countries like Britain and France grew rich on the profits of their empires. This might, perhaps, be part of a payback.

• Speaking of which, The Guardian – that most respected left-of-centre broadsheet – has this week “apologised and announced a programme of restorative justice after identifying the Guardian founders’ links to transatlantic slavery.” It’s hard to imagine any organisation with a long history, or any city or town that began to flourish in the 18th century, that isn’t tainted in this way.

Scotland has recently elected a new SNP leader and First Minister. I know little of its political system but I know that there are plenty of exiled Scots amongst our subscribers: all of you, if you are living up to your remarkable forebears, are doubtless busy inventing things. So, this is for you.

My first comment is that the SNP, which has been the largest party in the Scottish Assembly since 2007, must indeed be a broad church if it’s able to number amongst its members a liberal Muslim and a border-line creationist – and that’s just looking at the recent candidates for the top job.

The second is the fact that the party is the third largest in the UK Parliament – even though the party’s avowed policy is to leave the UK. This paradox is, whichever way you look at it, a nonsense waiting to become a serious problem. The constant demands for independence are as un-ignorable as were the “leave the EU” clamours in the Conservative party which the hapless David Cameron finally gave in to in 2016. “Scexit” doesn’t roll off the tongue but, call it what you will, it’s not going away. Then, if this happens, there’ll be “ScotBack”,when the newly-independent country wants to join the EU. All this will probably go on for decades. The problem is perhaps less the political activity that will surround all this but the neologisms that we’ll have to get used to in order to understand it.

• This column is not written using AI: but it could have been and, as I’m increasingly forced to accept, if it were it might be better. This BBC article says that “key figures in artificial intelligence want training of powerful AI systems to be suspended amid fears of a threat to humanity.” Hang on – weren’t these people who signed the open letter responsible for starting the whole thing? The horse or the genie or whatever is now out of the stable or the bottle and surely that’s that.

• I mentioned last week about a headline concerning what I thought was a warning to “spitting parents” which turned out to be something less exciting. Today, I’ve just seen another one. What I saw on the BBC website was “Coronation Street party deadline is looming.” I know this is a popular TV series but I couldn’t see why this deadline for this party was a big deal in the real world. Closer examination, including a click, revealed, that it was actually “Coronation: Street party deadline is looming.” The colon I missed first time as the capital “S” trumped it. But why put a capital letter after a colon anyway if the word isn’t a proper noun? Also, “street party” is here being used as an adjective to qualify “deadline” and so should be hyphenated. “Coronation street-party deadline is looming” would have caused me no problem.

There are two possible conclusions from this. Either the BBC’s subs were not concentrating or it’s a clever piece of subliminal advertising. But Corrie isn’t even a BBC show. There are clearly forces at work here which I do not understand. I should, having clicked on the link, tell you the story is actually about the need to apply for street-closure licences in good time (in fact by 31 March in West Berks). Sound advice, but massively less interesting than the brief glimpse into a parallel universe that the mis-reading afforded me…

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

Looking at the paperwork

I mentioned last week that I had had a look at the leaflet produced by the Conservative party for the elections in West Berkshire Council. In this separate post I considered the claims this makes and suggest some sources which can be used to check the assertions or to get more information. The intention was to inform or suggest areas of doubt, not to create division.

In a conversation on another matter with WBC’s Leader Lynne Doherty on 29 March, she asked if I was going to subject the leaflets of the main opposition parties to the same scrutiny. I assured her that I would. I also pointed out that a different approach might be needed as the incumbents (the Conservatives) were essentially defending a record whereas their opponents were essentially attacking it and providing alternative solutions.

I have received suitably comparable materials from both the Lib Dems and the Greens and it was my intention to add something to the above-mentioned post this week. I plead two excuses, however.

The first is is that one of the Lib Dem’s main claims relates to an issue, connected with adult social care, with which I was wholly unfamiliar. I immediately asked both the portfolio holder, Joanne Stewart, and the shadow, the Lib Dem’s Alan Macro, for further information. Alan Macro has provided some useful information but Joanne Stewart has been ill and has not been able to get back to me. I don’t want to write about this issue until I have heard both sides so will therefore hold the whole matter of the other parties’ manifestos and leaflets over until next week.

The second is sheer pressure of time. As I have covered events in the district as closely as I can over the last four years it’s impossible to pretend that the imminent election doesn’t crank the dial up a bit further. There have been various posts, articles and interviews – some published, some pending – that all take time to chase, edit or compile: much more, time in fact, than I had predicted. More on the other parties’ communiqués will therefore follow next week.

Council tax and precepts

Speaking of which, I have recently received a press release from the West Berkshire Conservatives the main thrust of which is “Conservative councils keep taxes low.” It includes the statement that “An analysis of official statistics has found that Conservative councils charge on average £80 a year less council tax than Labour for the average home and £21 less than those run by the Liberal Democrats for a Band D home” and cites this article in The Daily Telegraph as the source. I haven’t had a chance to check this. The statement may well be a perfectly fair one.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that not all councils raise the same percentage of their revenue from council tax. West Berkshire is at the higher end of the scale and there’s nothing wrong with that. Other councils derive the majority of the revenue from other sources (for some years in the 1990s, Wandsworth charged no council tax at all). This other income could include revenue from council-owned properties, fees for admissions to tourist attractions and from car parking charges. It may be – and I only offer this as a suggestion – that councils with such advantages may tend to be Conservative and therefore find it easier to keep council-tax rises low. It’s also a possibility – indeed an expectation – that a council which raises its council tax may be doing so to provide an additional service which would otherwise have to be paid for. Looking at council-tax increases divorced from other revenue sources or how well the money is spent is therefore slightly meaningless.

It was exactly this issue that a report by Money.co.uk sought to address in June last year. This looked at “the UK regions getting the best return on their council tax,” by which ranking WBC came a very creditable eighth. What the report did not do, however, was find that WBC “provided the best services of any council in the country,” as is stated in the press release. I have looked at this claim and the Money.co.uk report in some detail and you can see my article here and come to your own conclusions.

The press release also says that “Liberal Democrat controlled Newbury and Thatcham Town Councils put their Council Tax up by 6.4% and 9.75% respectively, compared to our 4.99%.” This is an odd remark.  For one thing, town and parish councils do not set council tax but instead request a precept from the parent authority. Both these towns did indeed raise their precept (though Thatcham’s was by 8.75%, not the 9.75% as stated). However, to take the case of Thatcham, the £95.60 parish precept charge per band D property only accounts for about 4.4% of the town’s total band D council tax bill of £2,174. By raising the precept by 8.75%, Thatcham Town Council therefore increased the overall council tax bill for band D residents by less than half of one percent, not by 9.75%.

Parishes are not limited as to their precept rises whereas authorities that raise council tax are. The most that these can increase by without going to referendum is 4.99%, 2% of which must go to adult social care. WBC’s figure of 4.99% is presented here as an act of restraint. It could be translated as “the most we could charge.” That’s not to say that this is reckless. On the contrary, councils have faced huge inflationary pressures like the rest of us and need to raise money to support vital services. This could be expressed, as the press release puts it, as “a real-terms cut of 5.06%” but to prefix this by saying it has “given” this to residents implies an act of generosity. If WBC had been able to raise its council tax by more it would probably have done so, as would many other authorities.

It’s not strictly true to say that councils are limited to 4.99% in all cases. Those that get into an utter financial muddle can raise them by more. One of these is Slough which, as the press release correctly states, has put its up by 10%. The release states, also correctly, that this is run by Labour. Another example could also be found in Thurrock, which has been granted the same dispensation for the same reason. This council is controlled by the Conservatives.

Finally, the Labour Leader Kier Starter announced on 30 March that, were he in power, council-tax rises would have been frozen this year and the shortfall “paid for with funds from an increased windfall tax on energy firms.” Talk is cheap, of course, and he’s not in power so we’ll never know what he really would have done. However, his statement and the WBCC press release show that, come election time, while we might be considering our services, the state of the environment and promises of equality and fairness, we are certainly looking at the bills that we pay for all this.

Ofsted: a clarification

Last week I wrote about the schools inspectorate under the heading “Ofsted: an inadequate ranking?” I stand by the points I made but with one clarification. This was pointed out to me by a local teacher. I re-wrote a couple of sections in the light of her comments but just wanted to set the record straight for anyone who read this before I’d made these changes.

Originally, I said that Ofsted’s rankings did not include any subsidiary grades for specific areas of the school’s work whereas CQC did do this for care homes. This is not correct: Ofsted does provide these. However – and it’s a big however in my view – CQC’s are clearly displayed and colour-coded on the first page of the report whereas Ofsted’s are buried in the document itself. 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 the first page: certainly, it is the overall grade for schools that, as a result of this emphasis, people generally remember. The other point is that it seems clear from these different approaches that CQC regards these nuanced distinctions as an important part of the initial impression whereas Ofsted does not. This is a simple presentational and design issue that would be very easy to fix.

My other points are unaltered, in particular the length of time that can pass between one inspection and the next and, just as seriously, the fact that an inspection is not automatically triggered by the arrival of a new Head Teacher. I also strongly feel that any publicity about grades by schools should state the date of the inspection. That’s if they mention them at all, of course. As I said last week, some schools have, in protest, decided to remove all mentions of their ranking from any on-line or off-line literature. It will be interesting to see how the organisation responds to this kind of snub.

There is also a letter on the subject of Ofsted from the prospective Devizes parliamentary candidate for the True & Fair Party which you can see in this week’s Newbury Weekly News.

Becoming Liftshare-aware

Many experts think that transport solutions such as lift sharing and on-demand buses are the best way forward to reducing our carbon emissions and air pollution problems. These schemes are particularly appropriate for rural communities such as ours but they are different to what we’re used to, namely jumping in a car, hiring one for our exclusive use or looking up a bus timetable.  They also require a critical mass of users before the benefits are truly felt. But the time for these schemes has definitely arrived: the climate emergency is forcing us to change some of our transport habits and digital communications now enable such solutions to work in a way that would have been impossible even a decade ago.

West Berkshire Council is currently piloting the Liftshare scheme for residents in Hungerford, East Garston, Great Shefford and Chaddleworth. As we are down to one car these days, we will occasionally be looking for lifts ourselves and Brian is also happy to offer lifts on his regular trips from East Garston, via Great Shefford to Hungerford so they will be on the system soon. It’s easy to register so hopefully we can get used to the idea of planning ahead a bit more before we travel. Of course there will still be many times when we grab the car keys and rush out of the door but if we need any motivation to change our habits, it’s worth reading this week’s report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

If you are often travelling alone and wondering how inefficient it is when others are probably doing similar journeys, or you don’t have a car and could do with a lift, then this could be for you. You only share with people who you choose to connect with so you remain in complete control.  Only residents with West Berkshire postcodes can sign up to the group so it’s very much a local initiative which will give residents the confidence to try it out.

This is a positive step for the community, the environment and your bank balance too. Please find out more and give it a go by signing up for free here. For it to work, those who are happy to share their journey need to sign up as well as those who would benefit from receiving a lift, otherwise the matching up doesn’t happen.

Other news

• West Berkshire’s Youth Offending Team is celebrating an overall rating of ‘Outstanding’ following an inspection by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation. More details here.

Click here for important information about voting in the elections on 4 May.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that it 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.

• A reminder that bus journeys 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.

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 animal of the week is Doris the cow, faking sleep in the Isle of Wight to get out of being milked. Or perhaps she was just ill…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on planning reforms, hospitality problems, potholes and energy efficiency.

• 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. Let’s just dive straight in with no chat: Tempted by Squeeze.

• What follows must therefore be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Thanks to Prof JC for sending me this three-minute-long saucy-seaside-postcard of a sketch from The Two Ronnies: Crossed Lines.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What blood group is known as the universal donor? Last week’s question was: 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? The answer is Carousel.

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