This week with Brian 18 to 25 May 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including will it ever be done, the university experience, the warming threshold, unexpected help, facing up to a new species, Jacob’s unintended consequences, Harry’s pantomime, a rare platypus, a new team, a new leader, dirty water music, five-all, four Prime Ministers, high harmonies and way to go .

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

• Is Brexit done or isn’t it? Will it ever be done? There appear to be a number of aspects which have delayed implementation, including one which might leave electric cars manufactured in the UK open to tariffs of 10% if sold in the UK after 2027. The company that owns Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroen and Fiat, called Stellantis (which could easily be the name of one of the wizards we didn’t meet in The Lord of the Rings) recently  announced that it might have to pull out of the UK if the government doesn’t re-negotiate the Brexit deal.

[more below] 

This deal – or perhaps it’s hundreds of different deals – is almost certainly the most complex divorce settlement in history. It was, and remains, a matter of delight for the army of international lawyers the UK government has doubtless needed to employ since 2016. I’m not sure if it’s desirable that large companies can rock up to Whitehall and demand that international treaties be re-written, but it’s certainly very logical from their point of view if they can pull it off. The Brexit glue has not yet hardened, so why not try to bully or blackmail the government into trying to bend the model into a different shape? The whole matter was presented to us in 2016 as a simple, binary choice. Nothing so nuanced as this was mentioned during the campaign. Well, of course it wasn’t…

The above-mentioned BBC article quotes Rishi Sunak as saying that “I believe in Brexit.” This is an odd remark, akin to saying “I believe in wasps.” It also calls to mind the very first line of The Godfather: “I believe in America.” We all know what happened after that.

• There are many different ideas about what the university experience ought to be but surely one of them is to hear opinions which challenge your own. Changing your mind about anything is, like changing gear in a car or changing chords on a guitar, a skill that needs to be learned. When I was an 18-year-old undergraduate I thought I knew, in a moral sense, pretty much all there was to be known. My further education would merely be to provide evidence for my pre-conceptions.

I think – and hope – that the following three years disabused me of at least some of these fallacies. To a large extent, the whole business of life is a process of trying to re-mould ourselves from the person that our upbringing conditioned us to become into the one that we want to be. University can be one of the hinges on which this process swings.

All this can’t happen, though, if speakers at university events are banned because their views are deemed by students’ unions or other groups to be offensive. This has recently become an issue, again, because of an open letter written by a number of Oxford professors to defend the fact that the “gender-critical” academic Professor Kathleen Stock has been invited to address the Oxford Union.

If such an event is taking place and you disagree with what the speaker will say – or (which may not be the same thing) with what you think they will say – there are several options open to you:

  • You can not attend it.
  • You can go but only as a protestor outside.
  • You can attend it purely as an observer and take no part in any debate or Q&A.
  • You can participate and challenge the speaker’s view.

All are perfectly rational and reasonable reactions. What is not is denying the person the chance to speak at all.

After all, if they are wrong and you are right, as you believe, this will provide you with confirmation and a chance for your opponent to condemn themselves out of their own mouth. There’s also the possibility that you could have your view slightly modified: not, perhaps, sufficiently to make you change your position immediately but enough to suggest that the way the other person looked at the matter wasn’t completely deranged. There’s an advantage to this, as to be aware of possible objections to or deficiencies in a point of view you hold will make you a more powerful and nuanced advocate of it.

If the speaker is cancelled, you could claim that you’ve won: but at what cost? Your opinions haven’t been challenged or tested and so you’re no better off. It’s like a football match where you’re given a 3-0 win because the other team failed to show up. Sure, you get the three points: but what have you learned? If we’re all going live in an echo chamber where only views that we agree with are received, then social media can provide plenty of that. This is not the role that universities are meant to fill.

• The most depressing news this week has been that the world is likely to exceed the 1.5º “warming threshold” by 2027, which strongly suggests that climate change is accelerating and not slowing down. It’s hard to see how, given the amount of conflict, competitiveness and distrust there is between the world’s nation states, this problem can be addressed. The worry is that the instability that underpins a lot of the strife on our planet is caused, directly or indirectly, by this very problem. Some places are becoming uninhabitable and basic resources are becoming more scarce, while clampdowns and repression are seen as the answer to unrest which might contain the problem for a while until it erupts once more.

• Might artificial intelligence provide the solution? This article in The New Yorker paints a generally bleak view of AI this might threaten our dominance of the planet; which by many good opinions we no longer deserve, if we ever did. “Humanity’s insatiable inquisitiveness has propelled science and its technological applications this far,” the article ends. “It could be that we can stop the singularity [the point at which AI escapes our control] – but only at the cost of curtailing our curiosity.” 

Perhaps the best thing we can do is bottle our curiosity, ask ChatGBT to solve this mess, accept the results, and hope we can co-habit thereafter. Or wait for it to tell us what to do. Or wait for it to do it itself.

On looking back at the above paragraphs, I’m slightly alarmed to see that I’ve regarded AI as a separate species from us, not a product of our own intelligence. This is increasingly, though unspokenly, something on which many views of the matter are predicated. It is or has the capacity to be something in its own control. The very fact that this might be true is a bigger game-changer for our view of ourselves than even the existential threat of climate change. The idea that there is something or someone else that is more powerful than us has for millennia been the central plank of religion and for several centuries the central plank of science fiction. Gods and aliens have previously been hypothetical though powerful forces in our lives. Have we now created some hybrid version of these?

• I find it hard to accept that I agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg – who has been called The Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century – on anything but I do side with him on his comment that the introduction of photo ID has “upset a system that worked perfectly well” and that the number of cases of fraud in previous elections were vanishingly small.

I do not, however, agree that this made it harder for Conservative supporters to vote, as he claimed: but here we enter a subjective world about voter suppression in which all sides could claim a disadvantage. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that this caused a lower turnout nor that it affected any identifiable group. Rees-Mogg’s comments were more designed to suggest that the disastrous results of the local election for his party were due not the Conservative’s national rifts and turmoil, nor his government’s systemic underfunding of local councils, but rather to some unfortunate working of the law of unintended consequences.

Prince Harry is not very popular in some quarters, so a report of his being caught up in a high-speed paparazzi chase such as led to the death of his mother is both eye-catching and likely to engender sympathy. A spokesperson is quoted by Reuters as saying that he, his wife and his mother-in-law were involved in a “near catastrophic” car chase with press photographers after attending an awards ceremony in New York. The NYPD was, however, keen to play down the incident, Deadline quoting a spokesperson as saying that “there were no reported collisions, summonses, injuries, or arrests” as a result. Sky News claimed to have spoken to the taxi driver who picked them up for one leg of their journey who said that “I don’t think I would call it a chase” and “I never felt like I was in danger.” Take your pick.

The Sussexes have a complex relationship with the media, feeding the very monster that they claim should be destroyed. After his blink-and-you-missed-it appearance at the coronation, perhaps Mr Sussex thought it was time he was back in the public eye. The media love it, of course, even though they’re the villains. Pantomime stuff, all in all. The royal life returns to its traditional activities now trivial matters like the coronation are out of the way…

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

A new team

Details of the new West Berkshire Council Executive were published in this week’s Newbury Weekly News. This surprised me slightly as they will not become official until they are announced at, and ratified by, the first meeting of the new Council on 25 May. I’ll provide a full list of the appointments then. This should also include some more detail about what these roles involve: some are new or cover different areas from formerly.

As these positions are, as mentioned above, only provisional at present I won’t make any further comment, apart from pointing out one error in the article. Jeff Brooks is stated as being the “portfolio lead for government and transformation.” This should be “governance”: large majority though the Lib Dems won, this doesn’t give them a mandate for taking over from Rishi Sunak.

A new leader

Following the local election results and the defeats for both the Leader (Lynne Doherty) and the Deputy Leader (Graham Bridgman), the West Berkshire Conservatives have elected Ross Mackinnon as its Leader. He retained his seat in Bradfield with an increased number of votes compared to 2019 (601 v 543) but a slightly reduced share (57% v 62%). In the 2019-23 administration he was Executive Portfolio Holder for Finance and Economic Development.

In a statement released on 12 May, Councillor Mackinnon said that he would support the new Lib Dem administration when it makes the right decisions but would bring “robust and forensic opposition when it governs poorly.”

“It’s a huge honour to be chosen to lead the Conservative Group on West Berkshire Council,” Ross McKinnon added. “Our returning members have experience across all aspects of Council life and our new colleagues will bring welcome skills, enthusiasm and freshness to the Group. We’re all so grateful to Lynne Doherty for the outstanding leadership she brought to the Council and the Conservative Group over the last four years – she will be sorely missed by us all and has set a shining example for me to follow.

“We pledge to work tirelessly for all residents of West Berkshire in holding the new administration to account. There are ominous signs for the district, not least in the Lib Dems’ reckless pledge to revoke the Local Plan which they previously supported, a move that will cost taxpayers fortunes and put our villages at risk of overdevelopment.”

The full executive, shadow executive and committee memberships will be confirmed by 25 May when the new Council has its Annual Meeting.

Dirty water music

The water companies have recently admitted that they haven’t been performing very well and have promised a £10bn investment on tackling sewage spills. Campaigner Feargal Sharkey (who in a former life was the lead singer of the superb Northern Irish band The Undertones) suggested to the BBC that this is “no apology for the fact we have paid them for a service we haven’t got, and they are now suggesting we pay them a second time for a service we haven’t had.”

One of the many gripes that people have about the water companies is the amount of their “product” that gets lost in transit, about 25% in Thames Water’s case. It seems from this article in the Wantage Herald by Julie Mabberley of the Wantage and Grove Campaign Group, that the attrition of money is even worse. “Of every pound that we paid to Thames Water in 2022,” she writes, “over 50p went to pay for the interest on borrowing and return on RCV, 15p paid salaries and less than 20p paid for the operation and maintenance of the network.”

All this reminded me of a very clear and interesting talk given at one of the Green Weekend events in the Lambourn Valley at the end of April by Charlotte Hitchmough, Director of Action for the River Kennet (I wrote about this in my column on 4 May but the main points are worth mentioning again). She explained that the sewerage 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 above-mentioned BBC article sings the same tune on this, saying that there are a number of ways water companies can spend money to reduce sewage spills, or their consequences. These include increasing the capacity of the sewage system, separating out rainwater and wastewater and installing natural systems such as planting trees which absorb the water. 

We shall see if the water firms can get away with keeping up the same dividends to their shareholders and raising the extra money by charging customers more. They might argue that it’s only by offering attractive returns that they can get people to invest. This may be true but, if so, it seems to prove just how daft the idea was to privatise these firms in the first place. One of The Undertones’ best songs was called It’s Going to Happen. Mr Sharkey and others will be hoping that the double charge doesn’t happen but that an improvement in our water system does. 

Other news

• Good news for bus passengers: fares have for some time been capped and the government has this week announced that the scheme will be extended:  

  • £2 bus fare extended until 31 October and then £2.50 until November 2024.
  • new £300 million government investment will protect bus services into 2025 and keep travel affordable.
  • funding boost will support the bus sector’s long-term recovery, taking total investment for buses to more than £3.5 billion since March 2020.

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 community learning 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 rare platypus that was recently released back into the wild near Sydney.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of a form of grooming, booking the tip, community policing, lost democracy and speeding.

• 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

• Here we are at the Song of the Week. The Bee Gees were famous for their falsetto voices and so were some less famous siblings, the Alessi Brothers. I think they might (unlike the Bee Gees) go down as one-hit wonders: but what a hit. So, click here for Oh Lori.

• So next up must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. The 2012 London Olympics are long in the past but, fortunately, the wonderful TV series Twenty Twelve lives on. Here the team are in a meeting, trying to work out how London’s overcrowded streets can cope with all the visitors: Way to Go.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Aside from having been Prime Ministers, what do Winston Churchill, James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown have in common? Last week’s question was: This week marks the tenth anniversary of Alex Ferguson’s retirement as manager of Manchester United. His final match in charge saw MUFC play West Bromwich Albion. What was the score? Remarkably, it was 5-5, the only time this score has been recorded in the Premier League.

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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