This week with Brian 13 to 20 April 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including Danker’s hanky-panky, President O’Biden, sowing salt, Sgt. Pepper’s look at the housing figures, a one-second window, three colours, three leaders, secret groups, an election special, the devil in the office, a world of water, waiting for the wolf, a robotic space snake and three enclaves.

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

• I’ve never really been sure what the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) does. During my formative years it seemed to exist as the opposite voice to the TUC, espousing the version of the truth that the employers wanted to hear in opposition to that of the unions. It was like the Cold War, it seemed: each one needed the other to validate their existence. And then it all changed. Strikes on that scale vanished: industrial strife became more complex and less obviously polarised; a new order took over. All the above-inflation wage demands and witty picket-line slogans were in the past.

[more below] 

Seems not. By an irony – the CBI, about which most of us have probably been oblivious about for the last 35 years   suddenly had an opportunity to resume its ancestral role now that strikes have again become commonplace. Just when the CBI’s moment seemed to have again arrived, its CEO Tony Danker – I can’t imagine what his behind-the-back nickname might be – and, perhaps, others became involved in yet another sorry tale of inappropriate behaviour. These accusations now come at us about once a week. Who’s next?

President Biden has been on a rapid tour of both parts of Ireland as part of his visit to co-incide with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. The trip has included visiting “distant relatives” in Carlingford, which is just in the Republic. Has there ever been a US President who has not claimed to have Irish ancestry?

• You hear of some strange and pointless crimes but covering a recently-planted allotment in salt and so ruining the crops (as happened recently in Harlow) is off the scale in several ways. Doing things like nicking a traffic cone, keying a car or kicking over a dustbin on the way back from the pub are heat-of-the-moment things. Covering an allotment in salt is not something you just do. For a start, you need a lot of salt; then you have to get it there and break in to the garden (carrying the salt). All of these stages would surely have provided the chance for the person to pause and ask themselves “what the hell am I actually doing?”

There’s also something darkly, almost Biblically, portentous and symbolic about sowing the ground with salt – wasn’t that what the Romans did to Carthage after they’d razed it? If the person responsible is ever caught I’d be fascinated to learn their motives. It all appears to have ended well, however, for the article reports that the owner of the plot (which was used to help feed people in the area on low incomes) has been flooded with donations. The next thing is probably that she’s going to get disaster-trolled by people claiming that she did it herself.

• My attention was recently drawn to an article in the 6 January issue of Private Eye which took a look at the state of homelessness, housebuilding and social-home provision in the country. A few excerpts from this make grim reading for those who believe that there is not a problem here. 95,000 households (including 121,000 children) spent last Christmas in temporary accommodation. This is twice as many as in 2013. 1.2m families are on local authority waiting lists. 11,000 homes were sold under the Right to Buy scheme in 2021-22 but less than half of these were replaced. 

Moving on to affordable housing, the Eye says there is “better news” with 59,000 completed or acquired in 2021-22, an increase on the year before. Worryingly, however, only 7,500 of these were social-rent, the rest being the expensive “affordable rent” and shared ownership types. Wind back to 2011-12, Lord Gnome points out, and we had an almost identical number of total completions of this kind but 38,000 of these were for social rent. This was, the writer notes, before the government cut investment in this area.

“Investment” – that’s the key word. Over the last few decades there seems to have been a major change in how housebuilding is regarded. Once upon a time, it was seen as an investment, as creating assets which would provide a vital societal benefit in the same way that roads, hospitals and railways do. Now, however, pretty much the whole business is regarded as being much better dealt with by the private sector, as is duck tape, fish fingers, lager and all the rest of it. 

Just take a look at the figures (I’ve been looking at the ones on Statistica). The high-water mark for house building was in 1968 with about 425,000 completions, 226,000 of which were put up by local authorities. This is more than the number of homes built in total in any year since 1989. In 2020 there were about 160,000 completions – well down on the 300,000 which the House of Commons Library believes is needed, although an improvement on the early 2010s.

Above all, the number of homes that are built by local authorities is now vanishingly small. Only 2,630 were built this way in 2020, about the same number as were completed every five days in the year Sgt Pepper was released. Things don’t seem to be Getting Better: and, it’s had to know how, if She’s Leaving Home, she’ll be able to afford to find anywhere else to live. We need to be Fixing a Hole or two in the current system. Councils generally don’t have the expertise to build but they can partner with those that do – get by, in other words, With a Little Help from their Friends [That’s enough Sgt Pepper puns – Ed.]  As the article in the Eye concludes, “the housing prospects for 2023 look bleak.”

• Looking at the 59,000 affordable housing completions in 2020-21 made me wonder how well our district of West Berkshire was doing. West Berkshire has about 0.25% of the UK’s population so I reasoned – employing a piece of doubtless wobbly logic that would make a statistician or a planning officer beat their head on their desk in despair – that one might expect that the district would have built 0.25% of the affordable homes, ie about 148. In fact, as this report kindly provided by WBC’s Planning Department confirmed, 169 had been built. So, by this test we’re doing quite well. In terms of overall housing, I’m sure WBC would like me to add that its net completions exceeded its target of 525 homes in all but one municipal year since 2017-18.

• The planned ESA mission to Jupiter’s moons has recently been called off due to the risk of lightening. Apparently there is a one-second window for the take-off as the business of reaching Jupiter involves going round Venus. Even I know that’s in the other direction but it needs to do a sling-shot manoeuvre to take advantage of gravity and clever stuff like that, so all the planets need to be in the right places. One second? No pressure, then. It seems there’s one such window a day for the rest of April. If it doesn’t make it by then I don’t know what will happen. Maybe they should have got Wallace and Gromit to do it

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, the orange and the green

I recently had a look at the main election documents provided by the three parties currently represented at West Berkshire Council (Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens) and you can find links to my thoughts on all their claims, blames and promises in this separate post. This also has links to articles about other aspects of the election, including the role of the Returning Officer and the need for voter ID, as well as links to some previous articles we’ve written about matters that are still live issues as we approach polling day. There’s also a link to a short story that describes an election disaster the likes of which I hope none of the current crop of candidates have to face.

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 you can read their answers by clicking here.

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 was on Friday 7 April from 4pm to 5pm and the theme was the environment, transport and the countryside. The guests were David Marsh (Green Party); Adrian Abbs (Liberal Democrats); Suzie Ferguson (tbc) ((Labour); and Steve Ardagh-Walter (Conservatives). You can listen to the programme by clicking here.

The second one was on Friday 14 April and will cover planning, development and housing. The guests will be Caroline Culver (Green Party), Alan Law (Conservative Party), Clive Taylor (Labour Party) and Tony Vickers (Liberal Democrat Party). You can listen to that here.

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.

A world of water

Following the above-mentioned programme on Kennet Radio, we received an open letter from Paula Saunderson. She is the Flood & Drainage Warden for Clayhill in Newbury and has over the last few years made a number of contributions to the many discussions in the district about flooding and the environment. We’re happy to publish her comments in full in this post.

This leads me on to another point. We’ve had many dealings with Paula over the last few years and she seems to be very well informed about flooding and related matters: possibly, I might venture to suggest, more so than many people employed by or elected to West Berkshire Council. Her experience and knowledge also draws on how other councils manage matters. Others from outside the municipal bubble could, in their own fields, also be so described. I’m not sure if there’s any way that such people can be co-opted onto advisory groups or similar so that their expertise can be harnessed. No one has a monopoly of the truth. 

Secret groups

There’s a letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News from Councillor Howard Woollaston referring to an interview with the West Berkshire Green Party Leader Carolyne Culver, which appeared in the same paper last week. He takes issue with her description of the advisory groups as being “secret”. There are three of these (covering planning, the environment and transport) and, as Howard Woollaston rightly says, are cross-party and are intended to delve into particular areas and then provide advice for the Executive. 

As advisory groups cannot publish their agendas or minutes, as their meetings are not recorded or open to the press or public and as their discussions cannot afterwards be shared with anyone else, the word “secret” seems an awfully good one to use to describe them. Indeed, even the possibility of anything leaking out is enough to get the dogs called in. A couple of years ago, the then CEO Nick Carter summoned the leaders of the three political groups to his office for a dressing down when it was discovered that two councillors had sent advisory-group agenda packs to private emails. Whether they should be secret is a separate issue – the Lib Dems and Greens both think that they should not – but claiming that they are not secret now doesn’t seem to be a useful starting point for any discussion.

Howard Woollaston concludes by saying that in her interview Carolyne Culver “failed to mention the acceptance by the administration of two Green amendments during the budget debate” in March. The omission is pardonable as I don’t think the interview was intended to have been an exhaustive report of everything she and her party has done in the last four years. In fact, Howard Woollaston is wrong here: the administration accepted not two Green amendments but four.

He is gracious enough to say that these had “real value”: he could have added that, given the mutinous state of the local Conservative party at the time, there was a real risk that the amendments would have been voted through if the leadership had tried to oppose them. Also, conceding some points to the opposition is politically smart in an election year as it kills any suggestion that the administration always acts in a one-party way. This advantageous card can then be played as the polls draw closer: as, indeed, it just has been.

Indeed, the Green Party does not deny this. She may not have mentioned it in her interview, but Carolyne Culver told me on 13 April that “nearly 20,000 leaflets have been distributed across our target wards with a main story saying four Green amendments were accepted by the Conservatives.” So, there’s no secret about that. The same cannot, however, be said for any of the matters Carolyne Culver, Howard Woollaston or anyone else might, or might not, have discussed at the advisory groups.

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.

• 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 rather sinister robotic space snake that will be used for exploring extreme environments in space. As long as it stays away from me…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of fines, leaflets, potholes, irony and vouchers.

• 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, here we are at the Song of the Week. I’m going to pick one of my own this time and I’ll tell you why. About a year ago, one of my oldest friends was diagnosed with cancer. Last week he died. When I first heard the news, one of my first actions was to write and record this reflection on this inevitability: Waiting for the Wolf. RIP Nick.

• Which brings us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. Big Train again and the wonderful Devil in the Office.

• So, finally, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only football club which has won the European Cup more often than it has its own national championship? Last week’s question was: There are only three of these in the world. One is in South Africa and two are in Italy. What am I talking about? I’m talking about enclaves, independent countries which are entirely surrounded by another one. The three are Lesotho, San Marino and the Vatican City.

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 bee

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