This week with Brian 6 to 13 April 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including secret films, poor investigating, America’s motley crew, the SNP’s finances, blue and orange, laying down the law, what we are voting for (and not), that report again, three leaders, the iman’s cat, the end of the day, out for her blood, only three in the world and not giving in to pressure.

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

• Maybe my brain’s a little messed up or maybe the BBC has got this story wrong: see what you think. Tory MP Scott Bibby was, according to this article on the BBC website, “secretly filmed by undercover reporters saying he could table parliamentary questions and leak a confidential policy paper.’ Then he was asked to forward his CV and other personal details whereupon he became concerned that “what was being asked of me was not within Parliamentary rules” and so “contacted the Commons Registrar and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner who clarified these rules”: after which, he proudly admitted, “I had no further contact with the company. I did this before being made aware that the company did not exist and the individuals claiming to represent it were journalists.”

[more below] 

If these events happened in this order then, on reflection, I don’t think it’s me that’s messed up. A few questions, Scott. How can making these promises in a meeting with strangers be either bright or OK? Why did the request for a CV suddenly trigger an awakened conscience? How could it have been necessary for these points to have needed explanation from parliamentary experts? Finally, what did the fact that the company didn’t exist and that the the people you spoke to were journalists have to do with what you said? Surely if you’re an elected official you establish these things first? Surely you also don’t say this stuff. My mind boggles. Actually, it doesn’t. This is depressingly familiar.

• Nor do things seem much better for the Met Police, whose Chief Constable has admitted, as reported in The Guardian,  that “four in five allegations of sexual or domestic violence by police officers need reassessing.” This is depressing on so many levels, one of which that investigating things is surely what a police force is there to do. The BBC also suggests that he “cannot sack officers found guilty of wrongdoing.” Amidst all this PR carnage, spare a thought for the people in the Met’s HR department trying to design recruitment adverts.

• There will be an election in the USA next year. One of the possible candidates, the incumbent Joe Biden, will be over 80 while one of his possible challengers, former President Donald Trump, could be in prison. A member of one of America’s political aristocracy has recently put himself forward – Robert Kennedy, the vaccine-denying nephew of JFK. He has summed up his platform as being “to end the corrupt merger between state and corporate power that has ruined our economy, shattered the middle class, polluted our landscapes and waters, poisoned our children, and robbed us of our values and freedoms.” Good luck with that one, Bob.

• Trump’s problems with being clear about what money was actually spent on is being mirrored in Scotland where former SNP CEO Peter Murrell is being investigated over claims that about £600,000 – rather more than The Stormy Daniels hush money – was misappropriated and used not for ear-marked work on the independence campaign but on day-to-day costs. On the face of it this doesn’t seem like a huge transgression, unless some of the money disappeared from the SNP altogether: but I guess people who donate money for one reason should be able to expect that that is where it will be go. Mind you, all of the SNP’s work is ultimately devoted to independence. If that were achieved, would there be any point in it? That could be a defence, Pete. 

All of this fiscal jiggery-pokery surely explains why Murrell’s wife, former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, stepped down recently, despite her claims that this had nothing to do with it; that she didn’t know; she wasn’t there. The worse news might be for her party, which has been an election-winning machine for the last two decades. However, as about half the population seems to want independence and as the other main parties all seem to be strongly unionist, I guess the SNP can behave exactly how it wants and still get the votes. Time will tell.

Elections and the elected or the would-be elected have slightly been the theme of this briefer column: perhaps unsurprisingly as West Berkshire and many other districts are having elections on 4 May (if this is happening in your area, be sure to remember to bring photo ID when you vote). It is therefore to this that I shall now turn…

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

The blue and the orange

I recently had a look at the main election document provided by the West Berkshire Conservatives, and you can see my thoughts on that here. This week I’ve had a look at similar material produced by the local Lib Dems, which you can read here.

As I mentioned in the preamble to both, such things are often more revealing for what they leave out: put them together and the issues start to make more sense. I’ll be having a look at the Green Party’s material next week, and hopefully Labour’s as well.

Laying down the law

It seems I am not alone in this kind of exercise. Alan Law, who is not again standing as a councillor for Basildon, has written a letter to this week’s Newbury Weekly News which is the prelude to what, if the Editor agrees, will be series of communiqués on what he sees as “the six main ways the council impacts our lives”: payment of council tax; education; social care; roads; the environment; and planning, housing and business development. This covers about two thirds of WBC’s expenditure (in 2022-23), as this chart shows: another aspect he could have added were waste and recycling, on which about 11% of the money goes. This is probably the one service that all of us consciously use every week.

I look forward to reading his thoughts in the following weeks. I’ll also be interested to see if he can resist repeating once again his watermelon joke to describe the Greens…

What’s the point?

Alan Law also rightly points out that local elections are not (or should be) seen as referendums on our central government. He is also right to stress that there are many things that local councils have no power over, including immigration, energy prices and national pay deals. He could usefully have added a further clarification.

Most of the work a council does is not political. If you had to pick the three main things WBC does you would describe it as a provider of social care which funds education and deals with our waste and is in all these cases effectively an agent of Whitehall. That gives you over two thirds of the expenditure in one short sentence. All of the work and most of the decisions in these areas are by officers. Often they are following national guidelines or instructions. On a local level, and within these constraints, the elected members make the policies and the officers carry them out. This is the same as in Westminster and Whitehall. Locally, however, there is in practice vastly less that a new administration has the power to do. In addition, most of its work as regards development is governed by its local plan, which might have been set by a different administration with different views.

All this is absolutely not to say that it’s pointless to vote: far from it, as Alan Law also states. We should, however, be realistic about what can be changed and interpret any promises in this light. This is one of the things that my above-mentioned considerations at the leaflets have tried to do.

There is much debate about whether a particular council is member-led or officer-led. The tendency and the default drift is probably towards the latter. This may not in all cases be a bad thing. Both members and officers are essential parts of the machinery. Certainly the members need to check that the officers are running things in a way that reflects and respects the interests of the residents the members represent (there are several ways in which this scrutiny could be improved). For their part, officers may also need to tell members that some proposals are unworkable, against policy or perhaps even illegal. In short, the dynamics of Yes, Minister are alive and well in every council up and down the land.

I mentioned that most matters which councils deal with are not political, in the sense that there’s generally no idealogical point at stake. Why, then, have some of them become so? Matters such as WBC’s handling of Covid or the refugees, its ability to obtain external grants, almost all aspects of its social-care provision and the Newbury Lido have not been politicised. On the other hand, the LRIE, Newbury’s football grounds, CIL payments, north-east Thatcham’s housing and Readibus have been. The reason is that the former have gone well and the latter have gone badly. It’s that simple.

The most useful aspect of the election is therefore to shine a light on some of these in the hope that the new administration, of whatever colour/s it proves to be, will retain the good and re-boot the bad. The election is thus your chance to have your say on which members get voted in to do their side of this work.

Money.co.uk again

Another letter in the NWN refers to the matter of the misleading claim made by the West Berkshire Conservatives that the council is the best overall in the country. The writer has come to some of the same conclusions that I did when I looked into this in late February. You can read my thoughts here.

He accuses Money.co.uk of being “opaque in the extreme” about the background spreadsheet. However, I managed to get it from them without too much trouble and was also sent it by the Leader of the Council. This was in marked contrast to the false scents and lack of information I was given by one of her colleagues on the Executive: although this annoyed me and wasted my time, its main result was to excite my sceptical curiosity, both about this and anything else I receive from the same source.

The letter writer adds that “I don’t think the data [in the spreadsheet] is false.” I’m certain of it: as a glance at the sources show, all came from national sources (the exercise would otherwise have been impossible). As my article points out, however, I’m less certain about how useful it is as a measure of a council’s success.

The writer is correct to say that “the Conservatives…should have done a better job understanding the report before using it in the way that they did.”  I would go further and say that if they had fully understood it they wouldn’t have made the “overall best” claim at all.

Worse still, as I also pointed out, the local Conservatives had the spreadsheet for seven months before a mention of the report appeared in a press release. However, it would seem that at no point did anyone look properly at the data and get from it the more nuanced but in many ways more positive (and accurate) stories that it also told. 

The three leaders

I have asked some questions of the leaders of the three political parties currently represented on WBC (The Green’s Carolyne Culver, the Lib Dem’s Lee Dillon and the Conservative’s Lynne Doherty) and they have replied. What I have not had time to do, however, is lay this out. I shall attend to this over the weekend (no bank holiday at Penny Post Towers) and will add the link in here as soon as possible and give this wide publicity thereafter. Apologies for the delay.

Kennet Radio’s Local Election Special

I’ve been asked by Jeremy Sharp from Kennet Radio to join him for a series of election specials which will be broadcast on Kennet Radio. In each programme we shall be covering a different theme and to discuss this Kennet Radio has invited representatives of each of the main political parties contesting seats in the elections in West Berkshire..

The first Local Election Special is on Friday 7 April from 4pm to 5pm and the theme will be the environment, transport and the countryside. The guests will be David Marsh (Green Party); Adrian Abbs (Liberal Democrats); Suzie Ferguson (tbc) ((Labour); and Steve Ardagh-Walter (Conservatives). You can tune in on 106.7FM if you’re in the coverage area: for other options, please visit the website. The programme will also be available as a listen again from about ten minutes after the show has finished.

Other news

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 this cat which jumped onto the shoulder of an imam in Algeria while he was doing his stuff.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of CIL payments, a divine metaphor, broken promises, football in Newbury and dog photos.

• 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, arrive at the Song of the Week. Let’s wind back a few decades and wallow in Al Stewart’s beautiful End of the Day.

• In which case, next has to be the Comedy Moment of the Week. With local elections coming up and the BBC having recently been in the spotlight for allegedly having given in to government pressure over Garygate, what could be more appropriate than a clip from the timeless Yes, Minister which is called, as it happens,The BBC cannot give in to government pressure.

• Which only leaves us with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: There are only three of these in the world. One is in South Africa and two are in Italy. What am I talking about? Last week’s question was: What blood group is known as the universal donor? The answer is O-negative (which is what Penny is, so she gets a lot of calls from the Blood Transfusion Service begging her for some of it).

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