This week with Brian 4 to 11 May 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including three distractions, a green weekend, river problems, bio-diverse, getting stuff done ourselves, a leadership failure, waiting for my P45, comparing the councils, Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee brought up to date, covering the contest, no shotgun, ch-ch-ch-changes, creamy old commentators, make your mind up time at the end of the alphabet and Mozambique.

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

• My life this last week has been dominated by three things: the Green Weekend in the Lambourn Valley (of which Penny was an organiser); a funeral; and the final days of the local election campaign in West Berkshire and many other areas, including the Vale.

[more below] 

• The Green Weekend was a highly ambitious initiative, organised by Penny and Pat Glover of the East Garston Eco Group, which involved 25 separate events including a repair café, film screenings, talks by local experts and farm and wildlife walks. I’d like to congratulate them, and all the many other individuals and groups, for a stimulating, diverting and well-organised programme.

I attended several of the events. Three in particular provided food for thought:

• The first was the talk given by Charlotte Hitchmough of Action for the River Kennet about rain gardens and, in general, the problems facing our rivers.

The latter has been a hot topic recently, particularly with regard to the way the sewerage system seems unable to cope with the volume of foul water. This system has as its safety valve a process of discharge, by which overflows are diverted into watercourses in preference to the sewage bubbling up in people’s houses. This is working pretty much as intended. The problem, however, is that, whereas in the past these discharges were quite rare events, they have recently become more common, almost regular, occurrences. Her talk suggested a number of reasons for this:

  • new development (which increases the amount of sewage and decreases the amount of permeable land which can absorb groundwater).
  • Also due to development, the increase in the number of properties which have rainwater draining (usually unnecessarily) into the already-overloaded foul-water system.
  • The cumulative effect of using heavy machinery on fields, which compacts the soil and reduces its permeability.
  • The cumulative effect of mono-culture crops, which has much the same result.
  • The fact that, due to climate change, rainfall tends to be heavier, so increasing run-off from land and adding to the immediate pressure on the sewerage system.
  • The fact that investment in the network has not kept pace with the demands being placed upon it.

Add all these together and the situation that we now find ourselves in is hardly surprising. Click here to visit the section of ARK’s website which offers advice on steps we can all take to improve water management on our own properties, including rain gardens. Many of these will be relevant wherever you live.

• The second was the conservation and organic gardening walk and talk given by George Dolling of Manor House Farm in Great Shefford. George has previously told us about the projects he’s working on but this was the first time I got an understanding of how subtle, inter-connected, beneficial – and beautiful – the work can be.  One of the huge plus points for this was an increase in bio-diversity, both of plants and animals. No less an authority than David Attenborough has highlighted bio-diversity regeneration as a major weapon in our armoury: speaking of whom… 

• The third was the showing of David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet which was followed by a talk by Professor Sir Brian Hoskins. These dispelled any lingering doubts I may have had that the matter of climate change demanded anything other than immediate action.

• What was good about all three of these – and many of other talks and events – was that they weren’t merely manifestos for change which would then be left to some higher authority to implement. There was of course an element of exhortation to our leaders: more important were the many examples of what individuals or local communities can accomplish immediately, according to their means and circumstances.

Diverting rainwater, re-wilding gardens and reducing our own emissions are in our control to influence. Doing so will, as well as being financially beneficial and aesthetically pleasing, help to normalise such activities for ourselves and others; provide a pool of local expertise which can then be shared; and make a small contribution to solving the problem. We also need to lobby our leaders, using these stories of local achievement as ammunition.

For, above all, the weekend showed that there has been a serious failure of leadership at every level on this issue. Progress towards agreed goals has been fitful, slow and frequently compromised by vested interests. We cannot wait for solutions from above. These need to be demanded; but also started locally so that councils, national governments and international organisations see that they are behind the curve. Each of us needs to become an activist and a positive agent for change.

There will be at least 17 new councillors (and probably more) in West Berkshire after the May 2023 elections. The contact details of all 43 members can be found here once all the results have been declared. If you live in another district then a similar page must by law exist on your local authority’s website.

Councillors are elected to represent your views. Lose no opportunity over the next four years to tell them what your views are with regard to combatting climate change, bio-diversity loss, poor building standards, lack of EV charge points and all the other issues that can help your district address the climate emergency which, in West Berkshire’s case, the council itself declared in 2019. The East Garston Eco group and other similar organisations will also be adding their voices to these demands in our area. There will probably be others in yours so you will not be alone. Demand more and demand better.

• Climate change is not, of course, the only problem that’s looming over us (though it is the most serious). Covid, or possible variations of it it, is another. More recently, there’s also the threat of artificial intelligence, or AI, which seems increasingly likely to make a number of jobs, including mine, redundant.

Opinions vary as to when (rather than if) AI might become more intelligent than humans. This inevitably asks the questions “than which humans?” and “what do we we mean by intelligence?” As regards being able to assimilate and process a large amount of information and summarise this to a given length and style – which is one definition of journalism – it’s probably already there.

As I understand it, the big challenge is one of scale. All our brains are different and unconnected and if I learn something this is not automatically ported into yours. AI, however, is digital and so multiple copies of the same “brain” can exist, each of which can be asked to consider the same question in subtly different ways. Each different conclusion can then be combined to produce a vastly more complex view of the subject than I could ever accomplish. Moreover this can all happen in less time than it takes me to make a pot of coffee. People sometimes whimsically say at busy times “I wish I could clone myself.” That seems to have happened.

Ethical and legal concerns as to how this can be limited seem now almost to be beside the point. It is amongst us and is spreading and growing with the speed and success of a mutating Covid virus. Lockdowns and vaccines don’t seem to be the solution. Doubtless this will produce a wave of AI deniers – although these articles may themselves be written by AI. As Kevin Spacey’s character reminded us at the end of The Usual Suspects, “the biggest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world that he didn’t exist.”

Of the three problems facing us, climate change is too big to be seen and Covid too small; while AI may or may not, in any one situation, be present at all, each thing we read now needing to be treated as a kind of Schrödinger’s cat. The one thing they do have in common is that they were all created by us (OK, Covid may not have been but our present-day society provided the perfect medium for its rapid transmission).

That having happened, in each case we seem paralysed by indecision about what to do about them. What’s the next one going to be?

• Many people are perhaps a little hazy about exactly what it is that their local council does. Over the last four or five years we’ve done our best to explain what they do (and do not do) but also looked in detail at some of what they have done, mainly in West Berkshire but also in the Vale of White Horse and Wiltshire. The list is a long one but planning, education, health and wellbeing, libraries, road repairs, recycling and leisure all feature.

Even this top-level summary needs to be qualified. Some of these are effectively in the control of local boards or academies with the council having what could be described as an overseeing role. Others, including road maintenance and waste collection, are the council’s responsibility but are out-sourced to private firms under long-term contracts which may not be capable of as much amendment as some might wish. Finally, not all councils provide the same services. West Berkshire, for instance, is a unitary (single-tier) authority and so handles, amongst other things, social care and planning. The Vale, however, is part of a two-tier system: it is a planning authority but social care is provided by Oxfordshire CC. If you’re confused by this then so is just about everyone else.

• One thing everyone does know, however, is that round about now the council tax bills start arriving. These can be for fairly chunky sums, usually in four figures, and are for many people their only direct contact with their local authority. (As touched on above, there may be many more indirect ones; but we don’t tend to place any value on services that we don’t directly pay for.)

Particularly in election years, councils do their best to justify how they’ve kept bills as low as possible and how they are managing to sweat as much value as possible from the revenue. For most authorities, the first doesn’t apply this year as most have gone for 4.99%. Don’t be fooled by statements that it’s “only” 4.99%. If they have responsibility for social care (and if they have no unused entitlement left over from the previous year), then this is the maximum they can hit you for. The only other exceptions are ones like Thurrock, Slough and Croydon which have got themselves into such a fiscal turmoil that HMG has allowed them to charge more.

There’s also a perennial debate about whether the political complexion of the council tends to mean that you will pay more or less council tax. This article on the BBC website has a look at some of the issues and claims and also points out some of the problems with trying to make direct comparisons.

As regards the value for money, all councils are naturally keen to show that they are doing better than anyone else. Sometimes, a media report may be produced which suggests excellence. These are seized on with glee by those authorities which are painted in a good light. As I pointed out in this article, it’s important to understand the limitations of any such exercises, not the least of which is the fact that different councils derive different proportions of their revenue from this source. Problems can also arrive when, as happened in West Berkshire, the administration party tries to claim more than the data could actually support (and, in the process, missing some aspects it suggested that were both positive and verifiable from the original material). The message for all people handling such claims, as consumers or re-users, is thus to check the sources.

• One of the few advantages of a history degree is that I can tell you the running order and the dates of all the English monarchs since the Conquest, just as others can recite the periodic table, the French verbs that take être in the past tense or all the novels of Joseph Conrad (the titles were about as far as I got with this most unreadable of authors). 

There are a number of fairly similar mnemonics, each known as known as Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee, which are meant to help remember the dates, however, I feel these achieved brevity at the expense of being memorable (a number of convoluted nicknames and phrases were required to make the rhyme scheme hold up). They also contain nothing in the way of memorable information about these people; and ignore transient or disputed figures like Matilda, Henry the Young King, Lady Jane Grey and the two Jacobite pretenders.

With all this in mind, a few years ago I had a stab at writing my own version which addressed these objections (though somewhat at the expense of brevity). As there’s a new monarch being sworn in over the weekend, this might be a good opportunity for everyone to remind themselves of who came before. So here it is: Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee Updated.

A virtually identical version of this is also to be found in my book Unaccustomed as I Am, some copies of which are still available: more details can be found here. Two choices, therefore, one printed and one digital, enabling you to elect the one which best suits your demanding coronation lifestyle…

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

As regular readers might have noticed, we have provided a number of posts about the election, mainly referring to West Berkshire but also in the Vale. The page from which links to all of these can be found can be seen here.

By far the most popular of these was the page which showed the result of our invitation to all the candidates, made via their party HQs, to respond to five simple questions which were designed to flesh out a few general views about their work and provide a bit of personality. Not all the candidates were moved to respond to this. Perhaps this tells us as much about the effectiveness of their party’s internal communications as it does about their attitude to the electorate (or to Penny Post). In fairness, some of these omissions were from the north-eastern part of the district which we barely cover (though we do cover the district as a whole with regard to general decisions and initiatives which affect all residents). We also produced a more detailed set of questions for the seven Hungerford candidates and for the leaders of the three parties currently represented on WBC, to which all those involved responded.

All these posts will be kept active after the election formalities are concluded. These will therefore act as a matter of record for anyone who wishes to check who said they would do or not do what.

The several articles on some of the background issues (see link above) will likewise also remain active. The election will not solve all these as if by magic. However, it’s hoped that the new council, of whatever political complexion it turns out to be, will find a way of solving these. Most have been rumbling on for far too long already.

Finally, congratulations to all the candidates who had the courage to stand in these elections, whether or not you were ultimately successful.

Out for the count

The polls for the local elections closed at 10pm on 4 May and, in West Berkshire at least, the count begins the following morning at 9am. The first stage, which could take several hours, is verifying all the ballot boxes. Totalling up the votes will probably start at about lunchtime with the results expected from late afternoon. It’s the Returning Officer’s hope that all the results will be declared on Friday. If not, due to the bank holiday, the process will be resumed on Tuesday. The process in West Berkshire takes place at Newbury Racecourse but is not open to the public.

You can click here to read an interview we did last month with WBC’s Returning Officer (and CEO), Nigel Lynn.

You can click here to see details of the whole voting procedure. Once the results of the district election have been decalred, the composition of the new council will be updated on this page. The full results will be summarised on WBC’s website as soon as possible after the declarations. I’ll be visiting the count during the afternoon and will have a report on this and the overall figures in next week’s Penny Post.

As well as the elections for the 43 WBC members, there are also four town and parish elections taking place. The first two, for Newbury and Thatcham, are no surprise as these are traditionally political and have contested elections (where there are more candidates than there are are seats). Two parishes, East Ilsley and Stanford Dingley, are also having contested elections because more candidates were nominated than there are seats available. In the other parishes, the elections are uncontested as the number of candidates was equal to or less than the number of seats available. These candidates will be described as having been elected unopposed.

(This is different from the way by which council may later be topped up by co-opting new members. All councillors –whether elected opposed, elected unopposed or co-opted – have exactly the same status. The only difference is if the council has General Powers of Competence which give it greater discretion in how it may act. There are two pre-conditions for this: the council must have a fully qualified Clerk; and it must have at least two-thirds of its members elected (opposed or unopposed), rather than co-opted. If either of these conditions ceases to apply, the council loses its GPC status until these are remedied.)

It’s also worth noting that no parish or town council meetings can happen until after 15 May. This is because the official swap-over day (when the old council is replaced by the new) is on 9 May. Even if the new members are already known, they aren’t formally councillors until after this date. In the case of contested elections, the composition of the council clearly will not be known until the results have been declared. In either case, there then needs to follow a notice period of at least five clear days before the new council can meet.

No shotguns

The Herald reports the tale of a woman who was prevented from voting in Oxfordshire because she tried to use a shotgun licence as ID, the Presiding Officer having to explain that this was not one of the accepted forms. The would-be voter told the paper that “I think the new law is discriminatory against people like myself who don’t easily have access to the correct photo ID.”

On the one hand, I agree with her. I’m not sure why voter ID was introduced given that election fraud in the UK appears to operate on a vanishingly small scale. This page on the Electoral Commission’s website shows that there were fewer than 600 allegations of fraud across all the elections in 2019, only a handful of which resulted in convictions. To me it seems like a pointless affectation of central government, determined to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

On the other hand, the person was clearly sufficiently switched on to the need for voter ID as otherwise they wouldn’t have taken the shotgun licence down to the polling station. Given that, it seems odd that they didn’t bother to check if this would work. As regards not being web-savvy, I have every sympathy: the world is increasingly digital by default and this can cause some people serious inconvenience. However, HMG did anticipate this objection and came up with something called a Voter Authority Certificate which can be applied for by post.

In a way, the oddest part of the story is the fact that woman doesn’t in fact own a shotgun: the weapon was her late father’s and when he died she kept the licence going as a “keepsake.” I suppose it’s better to have a licence and no shotgun than a shotgun and no licence. There’s a part of me that also quite relieved that this is not a valid form of ID for being able to vote.

Other news

• 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 bear which popped out of a dumpster at a school in West Virginia just as a teacher was about to open the lid. Hard to say which of them had the greater shock.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So, we roll up at the Song of the Week. I went to an old friend’s funeral this week and one of the songs played was David Bowie’s Changes. Good enough for you, Nick, good enough for me…

• Which means it’s time for the Comedy Moment of the Week. For reasons slightly complicated to relate, and so I won’t, this funeral also put me in mind of this sketch by Fry and Laurie, Marvellous England Commentators. They’re about to start describing the action at a test match: or are they…?

• So, there only remains the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What do Belgium, Ireland, Australia and Canada have in common? Last week’s question was: Which is the only country in the world with a one-word name which, in English, contains all five vowels? The answer is Mozambique. Yes, I know – some are you are saying “but Y is a vowel.” Well, yes, it can be. However, if it’s going to get included in quiz questions like this it has to make its mind up. Enough sitting on the vowel fence, Y. You’re either in or out – which?

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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