This week with Brian 20 to 27 April 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including a frustrated defamation, less sinister but sadder, a 109 bus at the South Pole, the SNP’s tense war, picking holes in asbestos, being about good enough at maths, covering the contest, election radio, a candidate’s shelter, a nasty chemical, a new politics, you know where you stand, pole-dancing bears, Nottingham Forest and Cary Grant.

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

• What the BBC described as “one of the most anticipated defamation trials in recent US history” was pulled at the last minute earlier this week when the two parties agreed an out of court settlement. The victor (to the tune of $787.5m) was Dominion which makes voting machines that were used in the 2020 US elections. The loser was Fox News which had repeatedly claimed that the machines had been instrumental in rigging the result against Donald Trump. 

[more below] 

A statement from Fox said that the settlement “reflected its commitment to the highest journalistic standards,” which is interesting because it shows that the company can’t really have any idea what any of the words mean. Schadenfreude was, however, one term that all the other networks clearly understood. CNN’s Jake Tapper said that this part of the statement was “difficult to say with a straight face.” He made little attempt to do this.

The situation could have been worse as the sum was about half what Dominion was asking for. Both sides clearly felt that the lottery of a court case would be unwelcome with the stakes that high. The fact that Fox was prepared to get the chequebook out to that extent shows what a poor case it had; also, its reluctance to have its editorial decision-making process examined in court.

The problem, as the documents released when the case was lodged show, is there don’t seem to be any editorial decision-making, at least not for editorial reasons. Audience retention, advertising revenues, political dogma and malice all seem to test far higher. A depressingly large number of Americans still believe the 2020 result was a steal (although most seem to find it hard to produce any evidence from a credible source: PolitiFact reported in 2022 that when Republicans were asked on what their misgivings were based, “the majority” cited the utterances of Donald Trump). The majority, however, do not believe this: the released documents show that none of Fox’s staff really believed them either. What was important was to make this the story for their viewers.

This would seem to make Fox a less sinister but far sadder organisation than it might have appeared before: for here we have a case not of a media group controlling its viewers but something that looks very much like vice versa. Other litigation looms with another company, Smartmatic, claiming $2.7bn. With this precedent so painfully fresh in the mind, Fox’s lawyers can’t be viewing the next round with any enthusiasm. Nor can Rupert Murdoch.

He’s got form on this, of course. Back in the late 1980s, The Sun published a series of articles about Elton John which everyone knew were baseless and, more importantly, unverifiable. In a similar last-minute settlement just before the curtain went up on the courtroom drama, the two sides settled, The Sun paying Elton John £1m in damages.

Picking a fight with a pop star is one thing. Peddling a distorted version of a major political event of international interest is something quite different. Do we have media groups in the UK which do this as a matter of policy? Some say that the BBC is a hotbed of pinko liberals. Over the last year or so we’ve heard Tory politicians favouring phrases like “anti-growth coalition” and the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” but none of these vague terms of political knock-about is directed from, or against, a particular media group. One comparative newcomer, GB News, hasn’t, as some predicted, sunk without trace and has the ambition of being the country’s “number one news channel” by 2028. Most of our national papers have some kind of political bias. Brexit and Covid presented many opportunities for all media groups to get their version of the truth in our faces but they were largely dealing in allegations that were either general, hard to prove or may in some cases have been correct. Accusing a large corporation of being a conspirator in distorting the election results of the most powerful country in the world is a whole different thing.

• The only comparable case I can think of was years and years ago with the Sunday Sport. It ran a story claiming that a number 109 London Routemaster bus had been found at the South Pole with Elvis Presley at the wheel, or something like that. A journalist from another paper asked the owners how such an obvious piece of nonsense could qualify as news. “We’re not saying that this actually happened,” the MD replied, “merely that it was alleged.” Who alleged it? the journalist asked. “Well,’ the MD replied, “we did.” Fox News clearly learned this lesson all too well. What the Sunday Sport realised, though, is that if you are going to make up idiotic stories, better to aim them at a dead singer who can’t sue rather than an angry corporation which can.

• SNP politician Katie Forbes earlier this week said that the SNP “will be in trouble” unless it sorts its financial problems out. That’s a very interesting use of the future tense. Do we take it that she thinks it is not in trouble now? The Treasurer and the former CEO have recently both been arrested, while a leaked video from March 2021 in which the then Leader Nicola Sturgeon warned – no, instructed – the members of the SNP’s ruling body to “just be very careful about suggesting that there are problems with the party’s finances.”

As mentioned before, the SNP is the only elected party in Scotland that wants independence. As about half the country seems to favour this, the SNP will continue to get about half the votes there and therefore send about 50 MPs to Westminster to exercise a perhaps decisive and certainly disproportionate influence, despite the fact that the vast majority of us didn’t have the opportunity to vote for them. The mother of parliaments is also the home to the mother of all muddles.

• When I was a child in Earls Court there was a gas fire in my bedroom that had a backing made of a grey material called asbestos. This was, I was told, to help make it safe and warm. Asbestos was very good a being a fire retardant and insulator, just as Thalidomide – which my mother also took when pregnant with me, though with no ill-effects – was very good at dealing with morning sickness. We now know that their blessings were not un-mixed

Fortunately, I was never moved to pick holes in this grey material to see if I could set fire to it. Asbestos is, I understand, harmless if left alone: but once the fibres are broken off and become airborne then you’re in trouble, Few places are more likely to have materials kicked, scuffed, proceed and poked than schools: it was therefore shocking to read this article in The Conversation which suggests that in 2019 asbestos was present in over 80% of schools in England.

“In April 2022,” the article reports, “a UK Work & Pensions select committee report recommended the gradual removal of all asbestos from UK buildings over the next 40 years – with priority placed on the most hazardous types of asbestos, and also those buildings at particular risk, including schools. The UK government rejected this recommendation, pointing to the very low risk of exposure where in-situ management is effectively implemented. The Health and Safety Executive suggests that a “rush to remove asbestos” would pose a more significant risk in terms of asbestos exposure. However, our analysis suggests this does not take full account of the condition, and day-to-day use, of many UK schools.”

What the current situation is I’m not sure. It seems to be yet another example of something that – like fossil fuels, opioids and CFCs – seemed to promise an easy solution to our problems and yet produced far worse ones. Nature sure as hell has a way of showing us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

• There are some interesting things to look out for in the night sky this weekend with Lyrids meteor showers peaking on Saturday and Venus shining brightly just below a thin crescent moon on Sunday. Thanks to Steve from the Newbury Astronomical Society for the heads-up (literally).

• Rishi Sunak has told us all that we must get better at mathematics and that we should all learn it until we are 18. A number of other countries do this so it clearly isn’t impossible. However, the ambition seems to have a problems.

  • Firstly, the above-mentioned report says that “around a third of young people fail to pass GCSE maths.’ So, there’s your problem straight away. More early-years teachers are needed. Trying to get someone to learn something at eighteen is perhaps ten times harder than doing when they’re six.
  • Secondly, where are these teachers going to magically appear from, particularly given that we’re apparently  an innumerate country?
  • Thirdly – and I speak as one who has always found numbers difficult, particularly big ones – I don’t think that enough attention is paid to the concept of “about good enough”. This applies to most day-to-day maths problems. For example, there are about 56m people in England and about 9m people in London. The capital therefore has about 15% of the population. If you want the exact figure you can work it out on a calculator but this is roughly what the result should be and this is generally about good enough for most purposes. If the exact number comes out at 1.5% or 150% then you’ve made a mistake with the decimal point. First estimating roughly what the answer should be is the most useful skill you can be taught about maths. In most cases the exact number doesn’t matter – unless you’re an accountant, a tax collector or an engineer, in which case Mr Sunak’s strictures don’t apply to you anyway.
  • Fourthly, there’s something called dyscalculia, which seems to mean that numbers look like gibberish. Why should these people tormented any further? If you’re dyslexic you are a recognised protected species.
  • Fifthly, it seems that your predecessors in government, the brief Truss-Kwertang experiment, displayed a lack of grip of the workings of practical mathematics despite their having been elevated to offices of state where it might be assumed that numeracy was a necessary qualification. How many maths teachers might the money lost in last summer’s madness have paid for?
  • Finally, and despite the last point, is not basic literacy equally important? People who can’t read or write properly at 16 are just as disadvantaged as those who can’t add or subtract. The time to deal with this is not then but when they start school. Pack the expertise and resources into the first five years of schooling.

I appreciate that this is a bit of a long-term plan, Rishi, and so not the quick-fix solution your initiative demands. However, the longer you leave the problem, the harder it is to solve it. Waiting until someone is 16 is surely already about ten (or perhaps nine, or eleven: something like that, anyway) years too late…

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

Covering the contest

West Berkshire (and many other districts) goes to the polls in the local elections on 4 May 2023. We’ve produced a number of articles relevant to this which we hope will be of interest and use in helping you make up your mind who to vote for on the big day and you can see links to them all here. These include the need for voter ID, a list of all the candidates (with some of them answering some questions), a ward-specific questionnaire, the views of the leaders, election radio specials, a chat with the Returning Officer, some background reading and an excursion into a parallel democratic universe.

Kennet Radio’s Local Election Special

I’ve been joining Jeremy Sharp on Kennet Radio’s series of election specials which discusses various themes with 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 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 on Friday 14 April covered planning, development and housing. The guests were Caroline Culver (Green Party), Alan Law (Conservative Party), Clive Taylor (Labour Party) and Tony Vickers (Liberal Democrat Party). You can listen to that here.

The third one will be on Friday 21 April from 4pm to 5pm and will cover governance, structure and finance.

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 new politics

We recently received an interesting open latter from Peter Tompkins, one of the candidates for the Hungerford and Kintbury ward, which also appeared in this week’s Newbury Weekly News. His main point is that politicians should work together more. “We need,” he writes, “a politics that starts with agreement, rather than argument. We need a politics based on respect for each other, rather than just identifying our differences. My suggestion is that we begin every political debate by talking about all the things we agree on. When we understand how united we can be, we realise how much we actually can achieve when we work together and we create the space to listen to each other, even to challenging and diverse opinions.”

The problem we have currently is that, as Brian mentioned in this separate post, there is a distinct sense that by dint of winning an election the ruling party has acquired a monopoly of the truth; also that there is a wider municipal truth that is contained within the council and that opinions from anyone outside the bubble are not seen as being relevant, particularly if they disagree with the prevailing wisdom (we must stress that this is general observation and not a political one). Housing is a case in point. We’ve mentioned several times, and will do so again now, that the current system may be excellent at providing three- and four-bed homes but is not doing so well at providing affordable and, in particular, social-rent ones. According to the most recent Private Eye, 0ver 200,000 social-rent homes have been sold through the Buy to Rent scheme and not replaced.

Peter Tompkins agrees. He rightly reminds us that a number of desirable changes are down to central government and so can form no part of a useful local debate. He adds that what “our council does have the power to do is to create a new generation of council-led affordable and sustainable homes. And I think this, more than anything, could have a positive impact on housing issues in Hungerford and Kintbury.” This is, or ought to be, an apolitical issue, though a return to municipal house-building may be seen as tainted with big-state socialism. The way I would prefer to see it is as investment for the future, as HS2, sewerage upgraders and solar farms are. WBC is planning to build a large solar farm itself, so the idea of intervening in the market clearly isn’t anathema.

On this point, he says that WBC “has already started piloting projects, the people working on it are dedicated, caring and hard working. But I want to bring even more energy and urgency to this task.  If elected, I pledge to dedicate myself to helping resolve housing issues for the people of Hungerford and Kintbury”: and on hopes, by implication, for the whole district as well.

He adds two other points. One – understandable given the election – is to mention that his great grandfather was a butcher in Hungerford and that his great grandmother chaired Hungerford Town Council in the 1940s. Local credentials never hurt. The other is to pay tribute to two of the local councillors who will not be standing on 4 May, Claire Rowles and James Cole whom he described as “inspiring” and that they will be “sorely missed.” Let’s see who makes the cut to fill their big shoes.

“Countryside versus Thatcham” part two

Last week on Kennet Radio, Jeremy Sharp and I interviewed four candidates, one from each party (Carolyne Culver of the Greens, Alan Law of the Conservatives, Clive Taylor of Labour and Tony Vickers of the Lib Dems) on the subject of housing, planning and development. You can listen again to the occasionally robust exchange of views in the programme by clicking here. Councillors Law and Vickers are also conducting a debate in the letters pages of the Newbury Weekly News.

Last week, Alan Law (under the heading of “countryside versus Thatcham,” which made it seem like a judgement in a court case) justified his party’s plans for the large development to the north east of the town and criticised the Lib Dem’s approach to this and housebuilding policies generally. I made a number of comments about this in a section in the Thatcham Area Weekly News section on 13 April. Many of his points appeared to assume wide agreement that more homes in any particular area would be unwelcome. I said in my article that this depended on what kind of homes they were. Most people agree that we need more smaller homes, whether social-rent, shared-ownership or for sale. Many communities might welcome such developments.

This week, it was Tony Vickers’ turn to reply, claiming that Alan Law has “misrepresented” his party’s policy on planning and housing. I suggested in the above-mentioned piece last week what the Lib Dem’s position on these was and his letter appears to confirm this. What I said was:

“As I understand matters, the plan is to place about 700 of them in sites in or just outside Thatcham which have already been proposed but which have not so far found favour with WBC; about 550 in brownfield sites in the Newbury and Thtacham settlement areas; and about 200 in other parts of the district, including in villages. If you exclude Newbury and Thatcham and the parishes affected by the DEPZ, that’s perhaps 40 parishes. 200 homes would be an average of five in each parish: and some parishes have more than one village in them. This doesn’t seem overwhelming, as Alan Law implies.”

Tony Vickers’ letter goes on to make a number of points including about the need for the AONB to be a working landscape, the importance of achieving more sustainability in house construction and a promise to “learn as much as possible about the plans of the many large estates and social housing providers,” this presumably in an attempt to see if land trusts or rural exception sites can be established which will provide housing without incurring the massive land costs that normally apply when there’s a sniff of a planning application in the air. He also refers to the party’s Viable Villages proposal which would aim to ensure that these not only had the right housing mix but also enough residents to support the infrastructure that already exists there or nearby. All of these seem like ideas that are worth discussing.

Whether they can be, in a constructive and cross-party way – particularly right now during an election – is another matter. New ideas are certainly needed: as, perhaps, is a new way of agreeing and implementing them.

You know where you stand…

Alan Law was back at his writing desk this week, on this occasion penning the second of his three promised essays on the main differences between the Conservatives and the rest. This week’s theme was council tax and expenditure. His letter is headlined “You know where you stand with the Tories”: a statement which can be read in more than one way.

He starts off by criticising the Lib Dem’s lack of financial detail in their manifesto and also on their refusal to set an alternative budget at the meeting in March (which slightly surprised me). He then turns to the Lib Dem’s record in setting very high council tax rises when they were last in power in the early 2000s and contrasts this with two years of 0% rises under the Conservatives in the early 2010s. I don’t know enough about these periods so can’t really comment. There may have been perfectly good reasons for both these decisions; though the point should be made that the Lib Dems didn’t subsequently retain control whereas the Conservatives did. There may be other reasons for this, too.

He then refers proudly to the fact that the Tories’ last council tax increase (for 2023-24 was “4.99% compared to 10%+ inflation.” What he doesn’t say is that this is the most that it could raise it by without going to referendum (which no one does) and that most councils took the same view.

Next he runs through six claims in the Lib Dem manifesto which would, he claims require £4 to £4.5m of extra costs which would need to be added to council tax or cut elsewhere to balance the books. The third option is that these sums could come from other sources of revenue though I agree with him that, if so, it’s not clear what these would be.

  • The first of his examples, abolishing the charge for green bins which he says would reduce WBC’s income by about £1.2m. I completely agree with him. Aside from the fact that it seems to work quite well, it doesn’t seem right that people with no gardens should subsidise the pruning and clipping consequences of those who do. I do think that there’s a discussion to be had about what services should be included and what paid for but the more I think about it I don’t think this is the place to start.
  • The second is about increasing bus services at evenings and weekends. He suggests £0.5m for this but I’m not sure on what basis.
  • The third is cheaper parking “How much cheaper” he asks. He suggests that to offer a free hour would cost £800,000 but again I have no immediate way of checking this. An argument in favour might be that reducing parking charges might have the effect of stimulating commercial activity and thus maintaining or increasing business rates.
  • The fourth is restoring the subsidy to Readibus which he claims would cost £230,000pa. This has surely got to be a typo. The very last paragraph of this summary of the relationship between WBC and Readibus (supplied by Readibus’ trustees to Penny Post on 14 February 2023 – not a very appropriate date considering the content) refers to “over £20,000 of budgeted grant funding  (in accordance with WBC’s own grant-funding formula) to ReadiBus has been withheld over the course of the last three years,” which is £7,000 or £8,000pa. Even if he’s referring to the figure before the 68% cut in 2019, that only takes it up to about £23,000. Looks like an extra digit has crept in.
  • The fifth is re-doing the local plan. This is quoted at £1.5m but, once again, I don’t know if this is fair nor whether he’s assuming the same level of work as would the Lib Dems. In any case, if the local plan is wrong, as the Lib Dems claim, then surely they should fix it, if elected to do so?
  • The sixth is the cost of “making West Berkshire carbon-neutral by 2030.” This should be “making West Berkshire Council carbon-neutral by 2030″ but in any case this is a WBC current policy and one that all parties share. No costs are provided here. All in all, I’m mystified why this is included.

He then adds that the “Greens are very much aligned with the Lib Dems with their budget” (despite the fact he’s said that there are no budgets). I don’t know what the Lib Dem and Green leaders would think about this but from my examination of their policies. I’d agree that they share a number of aspirations. This may be no bad thing. He does make the comment that the Greens would “abolish the council’s commercial investment programme which contributes c£1.2m pa.” One reading of this is that the party would cash everything in and hand back the capital borrowed to the Public Works Loan Board. What the Green’s manifesto actually says is that  “we will sell the council’s commercial property portfolio and invest locally in schemes to directly benefit the people of West Berkshire.” 

I contacted a current Green Party councillor, Steve Masters, for clarification on this point. “We would invest instead in socially equitable schemes,” he told me. “These would provide not only income but also social and affordable homes and thus help to create the good mix of housing that the district so badly needs.”

This too doesn’t seem to be an insane idea. Alan Law is right to say that costings need to be provided for alternative plans. However, nothing that I’ve seen in either the manifestos or this letter have provided any more clarity. If you speak to any of the opposition candidates over the next couple of weeks you might want to ask them about this. I shall be doing so and will let you know what I learn.

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 animals of the week are these pole-dancing bears from David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of looking after the rich, football coming home, secret groups again and petrol prices.

• 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, already it’s the Song of the Week. We have interviews of varying lengths with about 45 candidates in the forthcoming elections (all have been asked, not all have answered) and one of the things I’ve asked is their choice of desert-island song, book and luxury item. It’s possible that this sudden searchlight into their private lives is the one that, of all the questions, causes them the most disquiet. Be that as it may, it’s given me the chance to  have someone else think about this question for the next couple of weeks. So, for today, I’ve gone with the choice of Clive Taylor, Labour Party candidate for Tilehurst Birch Copse, who couldn’t face life on a desert island without Gimme Shelter by the Stones. Who am I to argue?

• Sp next can only be the Comedy Moment of the Week. If you like screwball comedies then a lot of the ones in ’40s involved Cary Grant. One of the finest is His Girl Friday, also starring Rosalind Russell who matched his 90mph delivery shot for shot. This scene, involving a murderer hidden in a desk, a mother-in-law to be being hefted out the room and a quick-fire dissertation on the power of the press is a pretty good taster.

• So, finally, we’re at the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which film deals prominently with the material hexavalent chromium? Last week’s question was: Which is the only football club which has won the European Cup more often than it has its own national championship? The answer is Nottingham Forest – English champions for the only time in 1978 and European champions in 1979 and 1980.

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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