This week with Brian 8 to 15 June 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including the eye of Sauron, too much information, an exceptional exploit, eye-watering fines, gulf golf, hats off to the hammers, taking responsibility for milk, sleeping on the wing, life in first gear, a lost decade, 138 games, Major Donaldson, the Amazon’s discharges and a perfect way.

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

• I haven’t been following Prince Harry’s legal battle with the Mirror over his phone hacking claims very closely but this part of the tustle seems to have ended in a draw. The barrister for the newspaper group, Andrew Green, appears to be a formidable advocate, described as a “beast” and, slightly more oddly, as having “an eye-of-Sauron-like focus on client expectations”. I shall bear this interesting marketing image in mind next time I dip into Lord of the Rings. However, he doesn’t seem to have landed any knockout punches. As for Harry, he neither crumbled, nor lost his temper, nor revealed any embarrassing secrets about the royal family, any of which, on past performance, could easily have happened.

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It’s quite easy to believe that the Mirror did indeed knowingly authorise phone hacking, although Piers Morgan has a different take on this. After all, this was alleged to have taken place between 1991 and 2011, something of a journalistic Wild West period. Harry, however, cuts a rather ambivalent figure. His mother’s death and his fish-bowl upbringing can explain a lot but he went off the rails a few times in his youth, then did so again, in spectacular fashion, with his recent revelations in his book Spare and the associated media circus.

The royal family has long been, to put it mildly, a tightly buttoned-up institution, taking its lead (as so many organisations do) from the person at the top. Diana provided a spirit of rebellion but she was, after all, only royal by marriage and so didn’t really count. Harry, on the other hand, is of the line and so was expected to play the game. Instead we’ve have had a torrent of vitriol and accusations directed more or less broadscale as well as rather more information about his “todger”, his virginity loss and his wife’s natural affinity with seals than most people find to be comfortable breakfast-time reading.

Many of us said we wanted a royal who would be a bit less up-tight and apparently emotionally stunted. Well, now we have one. In fact, what we really wanted was for the royals to continue to be just as they were so that we could feel better about own levels of self-awareness. This chat-show-heavy gushing Californian-style soul-bearing has taken many of us by surprise. This is a new form of royal re-invention (and one which, I suspect, his mother would have approved of). The indiscretions of the ruling family have traditionally taken the form of sleazy sexual liaisons and, in recent years, even more sleazy cover-ups. Speaking of which, at least Harry is not Prince Andrew, or whatever his ghastly uncle is officially known as these days.

• The cybercrime group Clop – which is already, as they say, known to the Police – has launched an attack on a number of companies, including the BBC and Boots, whose outsourced payroll company Zellis uses the MOVEit software to transfer data. Clop’s demand said that “this is announcement to educate companies who use Progress MOVEit product that chance is that we download a lot of your data as part of exceptional exploit.” The last phrase seems to have been taken from the same Anglo-Russian handbook of menacing euphemisms as was “special military operation.” The group has requested that the victim companies, rather than Zellis, contact them to discuss ransom payments.

I could understand this better if Clop had encrypted the data and demanded a code to decrypt it, or if the information had genuine security or embarrassment potential. Does payroll information? I’m not sure that these days bank account details on their own are enough for someone to scam money (I may be wrong); as for the salary amounts, if Clop had hoped to extract value from revealing what the top earners at the BBC are paid then they’re about five years too late. It seems the vulnerability was discovered quite recently. When this happened, MOVEit is quoted by Sky as saying that “we promptly launched an investigation [and] alerted MOVEit customers about the issue.” Maybe this is how Clop heard about it.

I spoke to a friend who’s an expert in such matters who said that there are plenty of other software products that are known to be a lot more secure than MOVEit, whose reputation has taken a serious knock. So too, he suggested, might the finances of the affected organisations as the issue brings them into the world of GDPR infringements, the fines for which can be eye-watering. Maybe, therefore, the UK government will prove to be a bigger beneficiary of the hack than Clop.

• I know even less about golf than I do about Prince Harry’s trials. I was, however, aware that a recent Saudi-sponsored breakaway tournament, LIV, had caused as big a split in the game as did Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in the late ’70s: though here the stakes are immeasurably greater. This week, though, there was a massive rapprochement. Both parties are now loved up, if you believe the official announcements, to an extent that seemed impossible only a few days ago.

The advantage for the PGA, the official body, is that it puts an end to divisive and expensive lawsuits and the need to increase prize money from static revenues to compete with the upstarts. The advantage for LIV appears to be that it has bought its way into the palace. Ewan Murray in The Guardian here takes a scathing look at the convoluted and compromised positions of some of the main actors.

This is not confined to golf, of course. Football is now swamped with Gulf money. Tennis and F1 may be next. The term “sportswashing” may soon need to be added to the OED, if indeed it isn’t there already. There is, of course, no law that says that such major events need to take place in liberal democracies just because that’s where they were invented. Four of the 2023 F1 races will be in the Gulf, the last Olympics was in China and the last two World Cups in Qatar and Russia. Sportswashing is clearly a thriving business and likely to become more so.

• Sticking with a sport I know far better, hats off to West Ham for winning the Europa Conference League. I’ve always had quite a soft spot for them; also for David Moyes, who suffered the catastrophic disaster of following Alex Ferguson as manager of Manchester United which – as with Frank O’Farrell when he succeeded Matt Busby – was only ever going to end badly.

• It could be argued that use-by dates are a major contributor to food waste. The website ApprovedFood.co.uk claims that 670,000 tonnes of nosh are thrown away in the UK each year “because food labels have been misinterpreted. The majority of this could have been eaten. This costs households an average of £470 year in wasted food annually.”

What caught my eye was the announcement from M&S that it was going to scrap use-by dates on milk. I was repeatedly made to drink milk at primary school and, with the possible exception of Jerusalem artichokes, have never tasted anything as disgusting in my life. It may have been off or it may have been just what milk tastes like: I never knew as I’ve never drunk it since. Cheese, butter, yogurt – no problem.. Milk – no way. The BBC article quotes the retailer as saying that “the supermarket chain urged customers to use their judgement on whether the milk is safe to use.” Gosh – we should use our judgement rather than rely on labels? That’s a first.

You can probably tell with milk, like you can with eggs. I probably shouldn’t be saying this – maybe I have a really good immune system – but I’ve eaten stuff from our fridge or freezer that’s been way past any date mentioned on the packaging and had no ill-effects at all. I’ve only had one serious case of food poisoning, from an incredibly expensive fish restaurant in Nice. They say that most accidents happen at home: perhaps not with food…

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

Life in first gear

I mentioned last week that although there are town-centre strategies in place for Newbury, Thatcham and Hungerford (the first being more advanced than the other two) this does not mean that any of the ideas that have been put forward so far will reach fruition quickly, or at all. The process will be long and will require much discussion and consultation with a range of interested parties. The fact that in West Berkshire, and many other districts, there is now a new council administration doesn’t make a great deal of difference. All the election produced was a new driver, not a new car. The municipal engine rarely gets out of first gear and no destination is ever reached quickly. I’m reminded of a remark made by a Spanish ambassador in the Americas during the reign of the notoriously cautious Philip II in the 16th century: “if death came from Madrid,” the diplomat sardonically observed, “we would all live to a very old age.”

To the natural distaste of councils to step on the gas must be added a level of micro-management practised by the government. Rather than fund councils properly, Whitehall’s favoured method of distributing money is to have a bewildering series of grants for specific projects which are ring-fenced and time-limited. This might mean, to pick a hypothetical example, that councils can apply to a fund to have more public recycling bins for plastic and cans installed in town centres. If successful, they will need to have done this by a certain date. They cannot, however, spend it on bins for recycling paper or for general waste: for these there may (or may not) be another round of funding which the council’s officers may (or may not) hear about it time and which they may (or may not) be successful at applying for. Some councils are better than others at working this system and these may not always be the ones that have the most need of the money.

I don’t know how much time in Whitehall is spent administering these grants not how much time is spent by council officers in applying for them but I’d bet that the money saved by abolishing this system would be more than any sums that councils might spend foolishly. Yes, they can make mistakes; but so can the government. Virtually every time a large IT project or a defence contract is awarded one can almost hear the sound of high-denomination banknotes being torn up. The system also sends out the message that the government doesn’t trust local councils. If so, that’s almost to say that they don’t trust the people who elected them.

It may therefore be that any projects which emerge from these town-centre strategies are driven less by what the town needs than by what funding happens to be available at the time. The best that we can all do is engage with the process so that a case can be made for what’s needed, then hope that the funding can be secured without too many restrictions. But don’t expect anything to happen quickly: first gear, remember…

A lost decade

This recent article on the BBC website suggests that MPs have warned that “some pupils are facing a “lost decade” of progress in schools in England if action is not taken.” The piece claims that it could take 10 years for the gap between disadvantaged children and others to narrow to what it was before the pandemic. One method suggested was to improve the uptake of the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), which was set up in November 2020 “to help children catch up after Covid lockdowns disrupted education.” It seems that over £200m in the fund was unspent in April 2023.

The article provides one explanation of why this might be. It quotes Nigel Atwood, a Head Teacher from Birmingham, as saying that he’ll not be running NTP from September 2023, citing problems with affordability, capacity, and bureaucracy. “We have so many little bits of pots of money that is ring-fenced and it can be really difficult to spend it because capacity is not there,” he told the BBC. “What we need is the money, and the staffing to be able to give the children what they need.”

All this seems depressingly similar to what I suggested in “Life in first gear” above. Whitehall’s micro-management is not, it seems, restricted to councils.

Turning to the wider question of whether Covid had widened a gap that will take some time to close, I asked Richard Hawthorne, Head of John O’Gaunt in Hungerford what he felt about this. “I think this report is accurate,” he told me. “There is certainly a wider gap between disadvantaged students and others. Tutoring has had some impact here because we employed our own (rather than through agencies) but it’s hard to say if this impact is significant enough.

“I worry just as much about the welfare of students. There doesn’t seem to be the level of service and support that can meet the growing need for wellbeing and mental health support and a severe lack of support for disadvantaged families (the health and social care argument).  If you can’t access the curriculum because of other disadvantages in your life, then whilst tutoring won’t harm you, it just won’t be enough to close the gap.  This is the nettle I think we need to grasp…”

The first meeting

The Executive of West Berkshire Council will meet for the first time since the election changed its membership and political complexion from blue to yellow. This can be likened to a meeting of the Cabinet but with members of the opposition able to ask questions. You can see the agenda papers and other details of the meeting (including the link to the video of the event) by clicking here. There’s quite a lot of detail to absorb for those with the time and desire to do so: the agenda pack alone runs to 180 pages.

One of the matters being discussed will be the performance of the Council compared to its stated objectives. You can see a summary of this here. it contains, as for all councils, a mixture of good and bad marks. Obviously on this occasion the current administration will have had no hand in either setting these targets or trying to achieve them and so any defence of poor performance will need to come from the Conservatives. However, I’m sure the Lib Dems will realise that under-performance may have happened for reasons that owed nothing whatsoever to party politics but were more down to local, national or international issues. Hopefully there might be a bit of a coming together by members of all the represented parties to help address them as best they can.

Other news

West Berkshire Libraries will be challenging primary age children to read up to six library books in the Summer Reading Challenge between 1 July and 15 September and to collect free incentives from their local library for their achievements as they read, with medals and certificates for everyone who completes the challenge. More details here.

• West Berkshire Council’s Procurement and Economy team will be hosting the 2023 West Berkshire Council Supplier Fair at Shaw House in Newbury RG14 2DR on Tuesday 13 June from 9.30am to 4pm. Attending these face-to-face events is an effective way to meet key buyers, learn about the latest opportunities and gain an insight into the procurement process.  Click here for more information and to register

• West Berkshire Council is planning to invest an additional £1.9m on ahousing scheme for displaced people to help provide an additional ten homes. More details here.

• Good news for bus passengers: fares have for some time been capped andthe government has this week announcedthat the scheme will be extended.

• 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.

Click here for information about help available with thecost 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 animals of the week are swifts, which can spend up to ten months at a time in the air, never landing on anything in that time. This certainly does my head in.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of the London Road Industrial Estate, pharmacies, Sandleford, net zero, an open letter to a pavement cyclist and an open day.

• 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 already at the Song of the Week. Very of its time, this song: but then again, so many are – the wonderful Perfect Way by Scritti Politti.

• Which means that next is the Comedy Moment of the Week. Time for a another dose of Fry and Laurie. This one relates, if it’s true (which it isn’t) how and why the D-day secret was revealed in advance to the Germans – Major Donaldson.

• Which only leaves, as night follows day, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Roughly how many Olympic swimming pools-worth of water does the river Amazon discharge into the Atlantic every second? Last week’s question was supplied by Ed James of Wimbledon Debenture Tickets and was as follows: “How many games comprised the final set of the first-round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon 2010?” The answer is a staggering 138, Isner eventually winning 70-68. The match has inspired a book, a song, a mockumentary and also a tournament rule change. Bizarrely, the two players met at Wimbledon again the following year, also in the first round, Isner this time winning in straight sets: this game lasted one quarter of the eight hours 11 minutes that were required just for the last set of their 2010 marathon.

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.

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One Response

  1. Re: Walking the Walk.

    “trialing an extension to pedestrianisation hours in Newbury town centre.”

    I’m ALL for this! Naturally, as I don’t drive, and in an ideal world, I’d LOVE to ban ALL cars EVERYWHERE!

    But, of course, I know this wouldn’t be popular with car-drivers, and, in this world, isn’t likely to happen anyway.

    However, fair enough that the hours up to, say, 10am, should be open for deliveries and disabled drivers only.

    “others argue that the anti-car movement has gone far enough and it’s time to push back, particularly as an increasing number of vehicles are now electric.”

    Electric cars are still CARS. They may not be fuel-polluting, but any car in a pedestrianized place feels invasive.

    Plus I find the noise of car-door-slamming abhorrent and jarring!!

    I want to be able to sit out at a cafe and be able to relax, NOT be rudely-startled every time by this gross unmindfulness.

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