This week with Brian 27 April to 4 May 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including a vaccine denier de-whipped, a minister de-frocked, changing the system, a chance for the elephant, poking the bear, covering the contest, three lots of sticks and stones, the complete paragraph, not easy, potholes and payments, work experience, a hungry moose, staying or going, Sir Humphrey, Erin Brockovich and five vowels.

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

• Tory MP Andrew Bridgen has recently had the whip withdrawn after making “dangerous” claims about Covid vaccines. The Guardian suggests that his casting out will “probably” be permanent. The main charge is his referring to a statement allegedly made by a cardiologist, whom he never identified, that the vaccine was “the biggest crime against humanity since the holocaust.” Really?  The ONS has reported that there have been 52 deaths from the vaccine, about the same number of people who die in the USA in car accidents every 12 hours.

[more below] 

It seems like half a lifetime ago when I ran into my first in-the-flesh vaccine denier, in a corner shop just across the road from the centre in Ludgershall where I went to have my first jab. Twitchy, angry and incoherent, he seemed to be straight out of central casting, though it’s now clear they come in all shapes and sizes.

He muttered about the fact that there was “no evidence” the jabs were safe, something others have repeated. However, I doubt whether he or any of the others would have had the faintest idea what medical proof looked like. I certainly wouldn’t. In the circumstances, to have paused for this would be like finding yourself about to drive over a bridge to escape a pack of ravening wild animals but refusing to cross until you’d examined the accreditations of all the people who’d built it. Sometimes you have to take a chance and trust that the experts know what they’re doing.

• So, Dominic Raab has finally left government, swishing off with a resignation letter that did a pretty good job at undermining the investigation into his behaviour and which also, in its first paragraph, managed to claim the moral high ground. He’s clearly a difficult person to work for, being demanding, detail-driven, impatient of failure and at times verging on the aggressive. This might make him a nightmare neighbour or GP but I’m not sure it makes him a bad minister.

He later moved on to what might be a far more serious allegation. Speaking to the BBC’s Chris Mason on 21 April, he said (as quoted in The Guardian) that “what you’ve got [is] the risk here [from] a very small minority of very activist civil servants, with a passive aggressive culture … who don’t like some of the reforms, whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s parole reform, whether it’s human rights reform. [They’re] effectively trying to block government…”

So here it is again, back in plain sight: the Yes, Minister conflict is still amongst us, with Sir Humphreys everywhere threatening the ambitions of our democratic representatives. It’s an old trope and one which Lynne Truss and Suella Braverman were happy to use with their anti-growth coalitions and tofu-eating wokerati. The key thing here is to make the accusation sufficiently general, both in terms of the aims and the membership of this group, so that the whole thing becomes a piece of political knock-about, some of the mud from which might stick.

Andrew Bridgen’s mistake – and perhaps Raab’s as well – was to make this rather more specific, in the former case demanding that the source be produced. Raab has scattered his fire a bit more widely: but in suggesting the civil service, or parts of it, are systemically opposed to change and obstructing government policy, he’s making a very serious charge that he might yet be asked to produce evidence for. If left to hang, it may well do more damage to the way we’re governed than will the “low bar” for tests of bullying to which he refers so scathingly in his resignation letter.

• Whether our system of government could do with change is another matter. One hears a lot about distrust of politicians and disengagement with the political process, particularly when there’s an election on. It might be worth stepping back and considering what governments are meant to be doing, and what they actually do do.

If they are meant to be providing stability and protecting us from threats, then one might look at the most serious problem facing the planet and see how they’re likely to cope with that. Many (though, I concede, not all) would agree that this threat comes from climate change. This also will affect everyone: only a nuclear war or a global epidemic (neither of which can be ruled out right now) can say the same.

Governments, and indeed people, are pretty good at reacting to a clear and immediate threat. In September 1939, life suddenly must have seemed quite simple (it was perhaps the “phoney war” that followed for the next few months that set everyone’s nerves on edge). Covid, although we couldn’t see it, had clear and immediate symptoms. Climate change, however, is in a collective sense invisible. Dramatic weather events take place now in one place, now in another: but it’s possible in each case to argue or hope that these are just one-offs and unrelated. In any event, all efforts are focussed on dealing with the immediate consequences. We’re quite good at that, too, though less good at preventing them.

Another thing about climate change is that it’s long-term. The governments of democracies operate on four- or five-year cycles. Lip service is paid to long-term planning but everything is really focussed on the next election. Decade-long projects can be cancelled or modified by a new administration. Also, many long-term projects are frankly little more than short- or medium-term projects that have gone wrong.

So, if democracies are too short-term, are the role models therefore to be found in places like Russia and particularly China? Here power is subject to no such vagaries, your tenure in office being simply the length of time that you can hang onto it for.

Few round here would argue in favour of that. Even if we were to embrace a period of autocracy in order to solve climate change, there would be massive disagreement as to what the “great 15-year plan” or whatever it was called should aspire to. This wouldn’t be much of change, though, as no government seems to be able to accomplish this at present. Progress in almost every case has been lamentably slow. In the UK, Brexit, Covid, Ukraine and inflation have successively taken centre stage in our national preoccupations. These are the immediate threats that demand attention. Climate change doesn’t go away just because it’s not addressed. However, when we’ve done our best to deal with the current problem and take five minutes to look around us, it’s just possible to see that it has imperceptibly crept a little bit closer…

So, what we need is a part of our governmental system which is both well established and which is not prey to the short-termism of the electoral cycle. Fortunately, and perhaps uniquely amongst democracies, we have just such a body. So, step forward the House of Lords. Could this be your moment?

In this article in December 2022, I described the upper chamber as “a constitutional elephant.” It’s certainly a very odd institution whose current composition resembles the results of a game of consequences. However, the fact that we have something that is mainly appointed, rather than elected, might be useful starting point. Getting it reformed and filled with the right people on the right terms will be hard task: but should we not at least try? Similar initiatives could also be set up locally.

Ultimately, how well any society deals with any problem that requires collective action depends on a broadly shared view of how serious that problem is, particularly compared to all the others. One criticism that can be laid at the door of capitalism is that it places too much emphasis on individual, rather than collective, success and also on individual, rather than collective, threats.

Imagine a group of our ancestors five thousand years ago seeing what looked like a tiger bearing down on them. A collective response is urgently needed and they would probably have provided it. In our case, however, one person is saying “Oh no, it’s a tiger!”; the next is saying “no, it’s only a cat, but quite close to us so it looks like a tiger”; the third is saying “it’ll probably go after the tribe over the hill so it’s not our problem”; while the fourth is denying there’s anything there at all. This group, if not that time then probably quite soon, will all get eaten.

China’s role in world affairs at present is equivocal to say the leas. The situation in Ukraine must in many ways be ideal for its plans for what I suppose we can call soft global domination. The best thing is always to have your two biggest rivals at loggerheads so you can play one off against the other – all very Nineteen Eighty-Four.  A few weeks ago President Xi jetted in to Moscow for a chat with Vlad; this week he had what Sky News termed a phone call with Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy that was “long and meaningful” , whatever exactly that means. In February, the country published a 12-point peace plan for resolving the conflict which is a masterful example of seeming to say a lot but actually saying very little. Its main aim seems to be to admonish the west and to poke the bear a bit: the temptation to do both these things while they were occupied elsewhere was clearly irresistible…

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 Democrats). You can listen to that here.
  • The third one on Friday 21 April covered governance, structure and finance. The guests were Jeff Brooks (Liberal Democrats), Charlie Coral (Labour), Lynne Doherty (Conservatives) and David Marsh (Green Party). You can listen to that here.
  • The fourth and final one will be on Friday 28 April from 4pm to 5pm and will cover health & wellbeing, social care, leisure and culture. 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.

Sticks and stones

As might be expected, the letters pages of the Newbury Weekly News (and our inbox) has several last-minute apologias and attacks. Here are three that caught my eye. On each occasion I gave representatives of the party concerned the opportunity to respond.

The first was from WBC and Conservative Leader Lynne Doherty, which was mainly aimed at the Lib Dems.

She starts by listing some of the achievements of the last four years. Many of the examples include matters that were either enacting national requirements (food-waste bins) or in response to an un-ignoreable groundswell of opinion (the climate emergency). She then makes some comments on the Lib Dem’s manifesto. I have already had a look at it and you can, if you wish, see my thoughts here.

Her main closing remark was that she is concerned by “the direction of travel being set: a closed society, unwelcoming to visitors and those wishing to buy homes in the area, an anti-car society for the largely rural area and one which will put our AONB at risk.” I contacted the local Lib Dems to see what they had to say about this.

“We don’t recognise any of the accusations made here,” the party’s deputy leader Jeff Brooks told me. “There is nothing in our manifesto that could reasonably give rise to any of these conclusions.”

Next up was Alan Law, currently the Conservative member for Basildon who is not standing at the election, whose letter is mainly aimed at the Green Party.

He suggests that they “do not understand how local government works,” that they are a “single-issue party” and that they “try to outdo the Lib Dems in opposing simply for the sake of opposing.” I contacted the  local Green Party to see what they had to say about this.

Councillor Law says the Greens don’t understand how local government works,” WBC Green Party Leader Carolyne Culver told me. “I was a councillor in another district 20 years ago, and have studied and taught politics. Also, the Greens are not a single issue party. At West Berkshire Council we have campaigned about the climate emergency, called for more social and affordable housing, worked with community groups and churches during the cost of living crisis, petitioned to hold Thames Water to account for dumping raw sewage in rivers among other issues. Saying we are single-issue is lazy stereotype.

“The Greens don’t try to outdo the Lib Dems in opposing for the sake of opposing. The Conservatives accepted some of our budget amendments recently and we backed their budget. They once proposed a motion against pavement parking and we voted for it while the Lib Dems voted against. We three Greens have voted in different ways before because we don’t believe in having a whip who coerces and bullies their fellow councillors. We have seen the Conservative group tear itself apart recently from bullying and attempts to coerce backbenchers.”

Finally, we have one from Lib Dem Thatcham Town Councillor Simon Pike, which is mainly aimed at the Conservatives.

He takes issue with comments made in a previous letter from the above-mentioned Alan Law about whether or not the draft WBC local plan provides for enough social-rent or affordable housing in the AONB (which occupies a large part of the district): he maintains that there are not and that Alan Law “cannot have read his own council’s evidence base for the local plan review” before writing his letter, published on 13 April 2023. I contacted Alan Law to see what he had to say about this.

“This is typical selective lifting of data out of context to make an incorrect electioneering point,” he told me. “The 152 figure [quoted in Simon Pike’s letter] for the AONB includes a genuine “current need” of 27; plus 29 “existing households” who have a need/desire to move to alternative accommodation; plus an estimate of 173 “newly forming” households. Simon Pike conveniently ignores the commentary contained in paras 4.58 to 4.63 and beyond of the latest Needs assessment which explains the caveats around these figures.”

Turning to the question of the overall house-building targets, he says that “the Lib Dems now admit they too would build 750 new greenfield homes in NE Thatcham. See Councillor Vickers’ letter from last week’s NWN. He also now admits they would build an additional 200+ houses in the AONB. These would be added to the 414 homes in total we Conservatives, based on verifiable evidence, have proposed in the Local Plan for the AONB. And finally,” he concluded, “the AONB is everyone’s backyard. And no, I do not want an excess of unwanted homes in this backyard! We put them where the infrastructure already exists or where it can be easily enhanced.”

As I have mentioned previously, the questions of how many homes need to be built, and where, and of what kind they should be, are emotive ones and have not so far proved easy to address. I take Alan Law’s point about the AONB being a protected area but, as residents of Hungerford discovered when permission was granted for Lancaster Park, exceptions can be made. The Lib Dem’s point that villages in the AONB need to be viable – which can involve having more homes to cater for local need – seems to have some merit. The result of the election next week will determine whether any aspects of the local plan will be amended.

As to the debate about whether there should be more homes, social-rent or otherwise, I suppose where you stand on the issue largely depends on whether you feel the current housing situation caters for your needs or not.

You can’t win

 It was drawn to my attention this week that something I’d written about the campaign had been quoted in a Lib Dem election leaflet delivered in Thatcham (and perhaps elsewhere) on 26 April. This came from my look at the Lib Dem’s political material which you can see here.

What I was quoted as having written was “it’s right to say that the Greens have no chance of winning as they’re only fielding 18 candidates.” This is the truth but not the whole truth. The full paragraph I wrote in response to the statement that “Only voting Lib Dem can beat the Conservatives” was:

“This isn’t true. As the table that’s helpfully printed above this claim shows, there are currently 24 blues, 16 oranges and three greens. 22 seats therefore gives any party a majority. The Conservatives would thus be defeated if the Greens took three seats off them and the Lib Dems stayed as they were with 16. The leaflet is, however, right to say that the Greens have no chance of winning as they’re only fielding 18 candidates.”

The point, of course, is that the Greens can beat the Conservatives by winning more candidates than them, or by winning enough seats to deprive them of their majority. It’s simply not possible for them to be able to win an outright majority as they aren’t fielding enough candidates. This was not, however, the supposition I was addressing. Doubtless space constraints were responsible for the Lib Dem’s selection of just this sentence.

The leaflet could also have added, were more space available, that the Conservatives have no chance of winning control of Newbury Town Council as they are only fielding ten candidates and there are 23 seats available. Following the same logic as above, the blues could, however, ensure that the Lib Dems lost their current majority if they and the other parties between them win at least 12 seats.

It’s not easy

WBC Leader Lynne Doherty’s above-mentioned letter to the Newbury Weekly News also included the comment that “It’s not always easy being a Conservative.” Not having been a member of that, or any other party, I couldn’t comment. I’m not sure that it’s harder being a Conservative than anything else. I suppose it depends where you live. If I had to be a Conservative, I’d rather be one round here than in Barking and Dagenham which has 50 Labour councillors and none from any other party. 

Were she to have written “it’s not always easy being a councillor” then I would agree with her (again, without any first-hand experience). I’m full of admiration for anyone who’s brave enough even to consider doing this job – for job it truly is, or should be, even if it’s not remunerated as such. Hats off to all of you.

Her comments then take a darker tone. “With the odd exception, I know that [the Conservative councillors] all share the same values of fairness, individual freedom, personal accountability and the rule of law.” I’m fairly sure I know which members constitute the “odd exceptions” she’s referring to.

Assuming for the sake of argument that she’s correct about this, two questions follow: were they this way in 2019, in which case why were they selected? Or have they changed into something unacceptable since then, in which case why? It could also be argued that some Conservative members have fallen out of favour through having exhibited an over-abundance of some of these traits.

Potholes and payments

Still with the NWN’s letters page in front of me, there’s one from Julian Waghorn from Bucklebury which touches on two matters.

The first are the district’s potholed roads. I’m fairly sure that this is a regular national complaint and I’m also unsure how much any blame for this can be laid at the door of the current administration. Short of grabbing whatever national grants are available (which the officers probably do anyway) and making sure the Highways Department is as well funded as it can be, there’s perhaps not a great deal the elected members can do unless they’re going to go out and fix the damned things themselves. There has been a lot of extreme weather recently – and we should brace ourselves for more – which, because of water’s fondness for expanding when it freezes, has caused this problem. I don’t think they’re particularly Tory potholes, put it like that.

He also makes the point that two householders (and almost certainly more) have been “faced with huge bills following errors made in form-filling for S106 payments.” I agree whole-heartedly with his sentiments and we’ve been mentioning this issue for some time. The payments in question are, however, CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) not S106 (Section 196) ones. Both are contributions to local infrastructure by developers but they are applied in different ways and for different reasons. I agree, however, that the sums involved are eye-watering and in many people’s eyes completely unjust.

May the fourth be with you

This article on the BBC website explains some of the things that you can (and can’t do) when voting on 4 May.

Most should already know that one thing you will need is photo ID. You don’t need a pencil, though, as that will be provided. You can bring your dog (as far as the door of the polling station) and your children (as far as the edge of the polling booth). You can wear political clothing but you can’t engage in political discussion in the polling station. You can bring a camera but you can only take pictures outside. You can turn up to vote if drunk, though not if you’re disruptive. You can turn up any time between 7am and 10pm. You don’t have to turn up at all as voting is not compulsory – though hopefully as many people as possible will.

A final message from West Berkshire Council about the 4 May elections

“There’s just one week to go until elections are held – your chance to vote people onto West Berkshire Council, as well as town and parish councils. You can check the location of your polling station and find details of the candidates standing in the district, town and parish council elections on our website.

“We know that sometimes problems can arise at the last minute which may affect your plans. You can apply to vote by emergency proxy (asking someone to vote on your behalf) due to a medical emergency or disability or if your job means you cannot vote in person. To qualify, your circumstances need to have changed since proxy vote applications closed yesterday (Tuesday 25 April).

“If you’ve lost your postal vote, or it has been spoilt, you can contact our Elections team or collect a replacement from our offices in Market Street, Newbury until 5pm on Thursday 4 May. 

“If you haven’t already done so, please set a reminder on your phone or add a note in your diary to bring photo ID if you are voting at a polling station on Thursday 4 May.”

In the event of any problems, including on the day, the Electoral Services team can be contacted by email at vote@westberks.gov.uk or by calling 01635 519464. The phone line will be open and the email inbox will be monitored during polling hours (7am to 10pm) . There will also be people at WBC’s Market Street offices for the duration.

Work experience

We have had sixth-former Sylvia Wild from King Alfred’s in Wantage on work experience with us this week. Aside from the fact that there’s always a newsletter to do on Thursday, no week is ever quite the same at Penny Post but I think it’s fair to say that her week (four days, actually) was unusually varied.

This afternoon, she wrote an article describing some of the things she’s been up to. These included proof reading, fact checking, phoning event organisers, creating web posts, using Photoshop, visiting Educafé in Newbury, interviewing a political baroness (who had some interesting things to say about the House of Lords) and writing an article about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Interspersed in amongst this was a bit of slack-lining in the garden, helping paint some signs for an event this weekend and preventing our three cats from stealing her cheese and pesto sandwiches. We like to keep people busy here…

If any other sixth-form student is interested in spending some time under, as it were, the bonnet of Penny Post, please email penny@pennypost.org.uk.

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 moose which wandered into a cinema foyer in Alaska. Ir eventually decided against seeing the main future and settled for some popcorn instead.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of deep-sea mining, speeding, doctors and nurses and A&E waiting times.

• 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 again at the Song of the Week. What can be more suitable, or more energising, for the last week of an election campaign than The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go?

• Which probably means it’s time for the Comedy Moment of the Week. Again with the election in mind, Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister explains why giving more powers to local communities just won’t work.

• And that only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only country in the world with a one-word name which, in English, contains all five vowels? Last week’s question was: Which film deals prominently with the material hexavalent chromium? The answer is the excellent Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney. This tells the true story of a mother turned paralegal who helped hundreds of victims claim compensation from Pacific Gas & Electric in the 1990s after the company allowed the poisonous chemical to leech into their water supply. Nothing bad like that could happen these days with, say, sewage, could 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 b

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