This week with Brian 25 May to 1 June 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including accurately impersonating idiots, Suealla’s speeding, Bo Jo’s messages, sentience, a crowded island, checking the figures, PPE in the incinerator, a new team, new shadows, water in the Wellingtons, a cow on the run, heavy disguise, a little opinion poll, placing the conversation and too much Oxford.

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

• If anyone is in any doubt that the higher levels of British government are staffed by people who, if not idiots then seem happy to impersonate them, then one need look no further than the officials or politicians or whoever who decided to no-platform – that is, I believe, the mot de jour – Dan Kaszeta, an American but UK-based expert on nerve agents who was due to address a chemical weapons conference this week. More important, it was felt (according to this BBC article) necessary for the MoD to “trawl through his Twitter account on which he poked fun at Liz Truss, expressed anti-Brexit views and criticised asylum policy.” Well, which of us hasn’t?

[more below] 

This is all beyond dismal. One of the things I’ve always quite liked about the idea of being English is that I can say pretty much what I want and I’m not going to get hauled out of bed at three in the morning by the secret police. This is kind of the same thing. The conference was deprived of an expert and the UK government (probably) made an enemy, both of them needlessly. And any day now we’re going to have to listen to some spokesperson criticising some other regime for clamping down on dissent.

The BBC article quotes the official response as saying that “social media accounts of potential speakers must be vetted before final acceptance to the programme. The vetting is impartial and purely evidence-based. The check on your social media has identified material that criticises government officials and policy. It is for this reason and not because we do not value your technical insight, that I’m afraid that we have no choice and must cancel your invitation to the CWD conference.”

This might have made sense if he had been invited to talk about government officials or government policy. He hadn’t been. He said that he would not have spoken about policy matters at the event. Given the specific nature of its remit, it would have been professional suicide were he to have done so. What a fiasco.

• I know it was an emergency and I know that something had to be done quickly but the sheer scale of the wastage of PPE kit during the pandemic is only slowly becoming clear. A recent Freedom of Information Act request asked “how much surplus personal protective equipment the government plans to dispose of through (1) reselling through the NHS, (2) incinerating, or (3) putting in landfill; how much of this has been achieved so far; and at what cost.”

The answer, provided on 24 May, was that “There are currently no further plans to resell surplus stock, including through the NHS or utilising landfill as a method of disposal. It is likely that energy from waste will be used as a means of disposal.

“The number of PPE items excess to requirements that have been sold or sent for disposal up to 28 February 2023 are: sales 161.2 million items; disposals through recycling 1.468 billion items; and disposals through energy from waste 1.4048 billion items. Our records show that the spend for disposal of surplus PPE in financial year 2022/23 was £16,423,267.”

I can’t think of anything to add to this apart from “wow”; and why were so many of them deemed fit only for the incinerator? I think there’s an enquiry looking into this.

 • Some years ago, I was nabbed for speeding and because I hadn’t been going too much over the limit was invited to go on a speed-awareness course rather than have the three points. This took place in a hotel in Newbury and sitting opposite me was someone I knew reasonably well. She made no attempt to acknowledge me and so I did not press the point. A few weeks later we exchanged an email on a separate matter and I asked if it had really been her there, rather than a doppelgänger. “Yes,” she replied, “but I thought you might not want to be recognised.” I replied that my reticence had been because I had thought the same about her.

The point here is that the Home Secretary Suella Braverman – Attorney General when it had happened – was caught speeding a year ago and was given the same choice as I was: course or points. There’s nothing funny or clever about driving too fast: anyone can do it. My mother was killed by a speeding driver. None the less, I have done it myself. A speed awareness course is not a pleasant experience – although they’re a lot worse in France, where they last two days – mainly because all of you have screwed up and are now, effectively, being given a detention. I can quite see why anyone might want to have this conducted privately. It never occurred to me to ask.

Suella Braverman did. This exchange of letters with the PM showed that she tried every trick in the book to avoid being exposed publicly as a speeder, resorting to the justification that her desire for privacy was because of her “new role as Home Secretary and the necessary security and privacy issues that this raised”, by which logic she shouldn’t ever be allowed to go out at all. At the end of it, she felt it would be better to accept the points and not do the course and explained all this in a missive to her boss. It’s a very long letter from a divisive politician but I think that ultimately she did the right thing. She was entitled to ask and concluded from the advice given and her own reflections that she couldn’t get away with anything that looked like special treatment. Nothing much to see here, in my view.

• The same cannot be said for Boris Johnson, who is now in another battle with the enquiry into the handling of Covid, this time as a result of a dispute over whether a WhatsApp message should be released. Given the way Matt Hancock came a cropper as a result of handing all his to his untrustworthy ghost-writer, BoJo’s reticence is unsurprising. Our former PM now cuts a slightly pathetic figure. His alpine sense of entitlement, his faux-buffoonish demeanour and the manifest proof of his being a serial liar have combined to turn him into a kind of pantomime villain in the drama of public life which he refuses to admit he is no longer at the centre of. In this respect, and many others, he resembles Donald Trump. Both are surrounded by enemies and both see this as proof that they are right. As the satirist Jonathan Swift remarked, “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

• When I saw “superbug”, “antibiotics” and “AI” in the same headline my heart sank: what fresh hell is this? in fact, it seems like good news, with the virtual thingy with the planet-sized brain able to a complete, in an hour and a half, a complex cross-check of possible candidates for bacteria-zapping drugs. Of course, it might just be luring us into a condition of over-dependence on it and then – gotcha! I’m writing about “it” as if it were sentient. Which it is, sort of. Or is it? Or do we know? We seem to be stuck with it, though, just as the parent of geniuses are stuck with these brain-box children whom they must view with a mixture of pride, irritation and alarm.

• Whatever you feel about migration largely depends on where you live and what you do for a living. The recently published net figure for 2022 is a record level of 606,000, something that the PM says is “too high.” This BBC article looks back over the last 13 years of government pledges, starting with David Cameron’s promise to reduce the then figure of 250,000 to below 100,000. Similar promises have been made since though without having the slightest effect on the actual figures. There are also over 170,000 asylum seekers waiting for a decision.

The UK is the 52nd most densely populated country on earth with 276 people per sq km: more than Germany (234), Italy (197) and France (117) though some way short of Macau’s staggering 20,870. Within the UK, there are of course striking differences: you are, for instance, 80 times more likely to be stepping on someone else’s toe in London than you are in Scotland.

Sunak has said that he wants to bring the immigration figures down but it’s less clear how. Also, would this be across all sectors? Is it possible, or desirable, for a government to select who’s allowed in based on their qualifications? If someone arrives claiming to be, say, a teacher, it’s then impossible to stop them then getting a job as a hedge-fund manager. Some professions are badly under-staffed with, for instance, 146,000 vacancies in hospitality and 165,000 in social care. These are, it would seem, not professions that either people already in the UK or those trying to settle here are keen to enter.

• Another shortfall has recently occurred in the London Borough of Havering where, as Private Eye 1598 reports, councillors had to reverse a decision to raise resident’s parking permits by nearly double the amount that had been announced: this was, it seems, due to the wrong figures having been submitted to the council meeting which passed the increases, something which no one checked before they were approved. As a result of the need to back-track, a £250,000 deficit opened up in the budget. An investigation is under way.

The Eye says that this was down to “the sheer laziness of councillors” but that might be a little harsh. The word “voluminous” is a good one to describe the agenda packs for a full council meeting, which the members usually attend in the evening, perhaps after having done a full day’s work. It’s the officers who prepare the paperwork.

Actually, no one comes out of this that well. It could happen anywhere, of course. Proof if proof be needed that everything needs to be checked, and then checked again. Havering’s councillors may not have been in the habit of studying what was put in front of them to sign off. I bet they will now…

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

The new members of the WBC Executive were confirmed at the first meeting of the full meeting of the are council on 25 May and were as follows:

  • Lee Dillon: Leader of Council: Strategy Communications and Public Safety.
  • Jeff Brooks: Deputy Leader of Council:  Governance and Transformation.
  • Ian Cottingham: Finance and Corporate Services.
  • Martin Colston: Regeneration, Growth and Strategy Development.
  • Alan Macro: Adult Social Care and Health Integration.
  • Heather Codling: Children, Education and Young People’s Services.
  • Janine Lewis: Culture, Leisure, Sport and Countryside.
  • Adrian Abbs: Climate Action, Recycling and Biodiversity.
  • Denise Gaines: Highways, Housing and Sustainable Travel.
  • Tony Vickers: Planning & Community Engagement.

Several of these are different from the previous portfolios and one, Martin Colston’s, is wholly new. I briefly spoke to him about this on 25 May and he told me that implementing the masterplan for Newbury, developing the emerging ones for Thatcham and Hungerford, streamlining and harmonising the number of council strategies and roll-outs and getting to grips with the London Road Industrial Estate re-development were all on his to-do list. Many might feel that the last of these would be a portfolio job in itself. We wish him, and his colleagues, well in getting this moving.

New shadows

The opposition Conservative group has also announced its Shadow Executive, which will comprise five members:

  • Ross Mackinnon: Leader of the Opposition. Opposition Spokesperson for Strategy & Communications; Finance; Corporate Services; Regeneration, Growth & Strategy Development. Executive Members shadowed: Lee Dillon, Iain Cottingham, Martin Colston.
  • Dominic Boeck: Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Opposition Spokesperson for Children, Education & Young People; Governance; Transformation. Executive Members shadowed: Heather Codling, Jeff Brooks.
  • Richard Somner: Opposition Spokesperson for Planning & Community Engagement; Highways; Climate Action, Recycling & Biodiversity. Executive Members shadowed: Tony Vickers, Denise Gaines, Adrian Abbs.
  • Jo Stewart: Opposition Spokesperson for Adult Social Care; Integrated Health; Public Health. Executive Members shadowed: Alan Macro, Janine Lewis.
  • Howard Woollaston: Opposition Spokesperson for Housing; Culture, Leisure & Sport; Countryside; Public Safety. Executive Members shadowed: Denise Gaines, Janine Lewis, Lee Dillon.

Ross McKinnon commented that “I know that our Shadow Executive team will give the new Administration a robust and challenging opposition for the benefit of all residents of West Berkshire.”

The Shadow Executive comprises all the members of the previous Executive which survived the 4 May election. The intention is doubtless to put up a team which has the maximum amount of experience. There were plenty of good things done in the last four years so with any luck some of this can be shared and the new administration can benefit from past experience.

This cuts both ways, of course. There were also some less successful policies and decisions and hopefully old scars won’t be pointlessly re-opened in any discussions between the past and the present portfolio holders. The people have spoken, and fairly clearly, and all the members are both grown ups and fully aware that their primary loyalty is to the residents and to West Berkshire, rather than to any political party. So, what could possibly go wrong? But just to be on the safe side, we’ll be keeping an eye on this ourselves.

Water in the Wellingtons

This week’s NWN contains its usual soapbox column from local MP Laura Farris. This week she’s looking at Thames Water and the need to exhort them to greater efforts to stop polluting our waterways. This article would have been partly the result of a meeting last week which she attended along with representatives of Thames Water, the Environment Agency, West Berkshire Council and local flood and pollution groups.

In her article, Laura Farris defends herself against the charge that she and other Tory MPs “voted to allow sewage into our rivers” during the debate on the Duke of Wellington’s amendment in 2021 and cites a report by Full Fact to support this. This isn’t exactly what Full Fact says, however. The report refers that several media outlets at the time “reported that MPs had voted to “allow” water companies to continue dumping sewage into rivers by rejecting the Duke of Wellington’s amendment. But what that misses is the fact that a vote either way would have continued to allow sewage to be released into rivers. [my italics.]

“The Duke of Wellington’s amendment would have required water companies to progressively reduce the harm they were doing, but it did not explicitly state that the practice should be stopped entirely.” It adds that “there is a bit of a grey area here as to what exactly the amendment calls for.”

The other problem with the Wellington amendment, some Conservatives claimed, was it that was uncosted. One MP, Rebecca Pow, is quoted in the report as suggesting that replacing the sewerage network could cost between £150 and £660bn. She pointed out, unnecessarily,  that these were “very wide figures.” The water companies would certainly have us believe that they’re as high as possible, the better to convince us that’s why less has happened than it should, and to prepare us for steep rises in our bills.

What seems certain is that none of the changes we might like to see are going to happen quickly. The water companies face a number of problems in accomplishing this, not all of which are of their making.

  • Technical. The sewerage system is old but the discharge system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. The trouble is that it’s doing so a lot more often than it used to.
  • Environmental. The landscape is changing and becoming less good at absorbing rain which when it falls increasingly tends to do so more heavily.
  • Legal. There are a vast number of private sewers which are connected to the pipes run by the water companies but aren’t their responsibility. Many are poorly maintained with the result that either ground- or floodwater leaks into the pipes, or sewage from the pipes leaks into the ground (both of which have similarly polluting results). Unless all these are adopted by the water companies and brought up to standard – which would be a colossal legal and financial task – it’s hard to see how the whole system can be made secure.
  • Financial. Clearly, fixing everything will cost a lot of money. How much is, as mentioned above, less certain. Who will pay for this?
  • Political. Opinions differ as to whether privatising the water companies was a good idea. Given that it’s now admitted there was under-investment and that billions of pounds go to shareholders, often overseas, it’s easy to make the case against this. However, politicians at the time (the late 1980s) would have had to say that the alternative would have been raising large sums in tax to pay for investment and it’s rare to find an example of a party winning an election on a platform of higher taxes. Also, in fairness, back then it was probably not clear just how much strain the system would be under 35 years later.

The problem is so vast, and affects different communities in so many different ways, that there’s also a strong case to be made for local solutions to be applied. Some, such as creating reed beds to break down pollution and diverting rainwater out of the foul-water system, can be done fairly quickly and without waiting for legislation and action from the top.

There are a number of highly informed and engaged local groups like Action for the River Kennet which could get involved. I don’t know how much local water companies are financially supporting and co-operating with such groups but I suspect both could be improved. This would seem to be a good definition of self-interested altruism (as well as great PR) as local communities and groups would effectively be doing some of the water companies’ work for them.

Other news

• West Berkshire Council has been allocated £275,000 of funding to provide a new school streets scheme and develop improvements to walking and cycling routes. It is part of the council’s “ongoing commitment to boost active travel options for residents whilst also helping to drive down carbon emissions.” More details here.

• 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 cow – and this cowboy. The cow had started onto an interstate in Michigan and became dangerously spooked, as you would. Then the cowboy appears…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of being surprised by the noise, voter ID, left and right. postal failures and Harry Brooks.

• 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. A slight ’70s curiosity, this one, which I came across as a result of one of those this-leads-to-that web searches that can very quickly take you a long way from where you started. I never really got into the band Strawbs but enjoyed this song which features a superbly recorded acoustic guitar and a silver band: Heavy Disguise.

• So next up must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Victoria Wood was one of the funniest, smartest and generally all-round brilliant people this country has produced. Here she is in 1988 with A Little Opinion Poll.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: “FU NE MNX?” “9,VFN 10E MNX.” In what kind of place might this exchange be taking place and what nationality might the second speaker be? Last week’s question was: Aside from having been Prime Ministers, what do Winston Churchill, James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown have in common? The answer (or the one I was looking for) was that they are the only PMs since WW2 who did not got to Oxford University, which apparently is a seat of learning not too far from here: Gordon Brown went to Edinburgh and the other three didn’t go to university at all.

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