This week with Brian 22 to 29 June 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including Titanic obsessions, sinking phrases, jingle and mingle, a constitutional elephant, keeping a-hold of nurse, a new Britain, four problems, two sports, the early stages of a marathon, an awful prediction, sportswashing, dragonfish, the Acropolis and the Parthenon, scrutiny, micro-management, the Liberals, three linked people, more than 16 hours and a great leap forwards.

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 can think of few more awful things than being put in a very small submarine and sent down to the bottom the ocean with a group of strangers. All of these, particularly the first two, are regular features of my nightmares. At $250,000 a pop, a ticket for the Titan is also probably the most expensive you can buy, even more so than for a peak-time train from Hungerford to Paddington. And now, it’s all gone horribly wrong. The rescue mission seems to have tried just about everything but sadly to no avail.

[more below] 

Like many people, I went through a phase of being very interested in the Titanic. Why has the disaster exerted such fascination? Perhaps it’s the hubris caused by the “unsinkable” claim: although I now learn that the ship was only claimed to be unsinkable after it sank. The fact that Wikipedia has a whole section devoted to “legends and myths” about the ship shows just how the stories around it have grown.

For me, the most haunting aspect was the idea of this vast thing, with all its passengers, staircases, trombones, tuxedos and caviar, just suddenly vanishing into the unimaginable depths as if it had never been: the revenge of a pitiless and indifferent planet to our dreams of grandeur –and on its maiden voyage, too. When the wreck was re-discovered I, probably like everyone else, was gripped by a morbid fascination which re-awakened all my childhood memories of reading about it.

The disaster has also given us several phrases: the band played on, women and children first, the tip of the iceberg, rearranging the deckchairs and, of course, (in an ironical sense) unsinkable. My favourite remark about it was made decades later by Lou Grade: “it would,” he said, referring to the vast financial loss made by his 1980 movie Raise the Titanic, “have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.” Those who attempted to rescue the Titan may well be feeling the same.

• Morbid fascination is probably a good way to describe Partygate, which continues to unravel. The latest casualty is London Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey whose staff hosted a Christmas gathering in 2020. The  event was first exposed in December 2021 but more damning evidence in the form of a video has recently emerged. Bailey himself has apologised, saying of the event that “it obviously turned into something once I’d left, I didn’t realise that.”

Really? The theme – jingle and mingle, which was helpfully printed on the invite – might have given him a clue. If he didn’t bother to flearn what took place perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t become Mayor. To compensate him for this disappointment, he has since been given a peerage and his campaign manager Ben Mallet, an OBE. There are calls for these and indeed all of Boris Johnson’s resignations honours to be rescinded.

• If the Labour Party gets elected then all peers, deserving or otherwise, may become an endangered species. The BBC reports that the opposition “has insisted it still wants to abolish the House of Lords, despite planning to increase its size by creating new peers if it wins the next election.” It needs to ennoble 90 more people, each of whom would need to agree to back abolition, to create a sufficient majority. A couple of years ago, I wrote A constitutional elephant: a quick look at the House of Lords and considered some of the strange facts about this institution. Perhaps the most remarkable conclusion was that many attempts have been made to reform the Lords but none have succeeded in doing much more than tinkering with it.

Now, Sir Kier has dug out his elephant gun and promised to have a pop at this rogue animal himself. His plan of attack is laid out in clauses 37 to 39 of A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy which was, I understand, largely authored by Gordon Brown. This makes the statement, twice, that the Lords is “indefensible”. In fact, however, many have mounted effective defences of its strange composition and functions: although, it must be admitted, the main reason for its survival is that it’s too difficult to agree what should replace it.

These forces of inertia are mustering again. The BBC quotes Lord Speaker Lord McFall as arguing for reform rather than abolition. A labour spokesperson has admitted that the process might be staggered with some “interim reforms.” Tory MP Sir Simon Clarke, has described Lords abolition as a “terrible idea.” Lord Mandelson has warned that, “without agreement from other parties, Labour’s plans risk dragging the party into a “quagmire”, soaking up “acres of time and energy” that would be better spent on other priorities.” In other words, as Hilaire Belloc put it, “Always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse.” 

The document then goes on to say that the second chamber it envisages would “safeguard the new constitutional basis of the New Britain.” I don’t know what either of these phrases mean. The fact that the second “New” is capitalised suggests “New Britain” is a thing, like “New Improved Daz” or “New Labour.” But what sort of thing? The next paragraph goes into a bit more detail, saying that it will “ensure that the constitutional limits on government power are obeyed, that power is truly shared with the devolved legislatures and across England, and give voice explicitly to the different nations and regions of the United Kingdom.” It will, in fact, be “an Assembly of the Nations and Regions.”

This title, which has about as much zip as the small-print of a parking ticket, also contrives to make the new body seem uncomfortably similar to the China’s National People’s Congress which the Lords increasingly resembles as regards its size. Hopefully, future plans will provide more detail. One point is repeated in the next section, that Lords2, as I shall call it, should have “a new role of safeguarding the UK constitution.” The problem is that there is no UK constitution, just a hotchpotch of convention, statute law, judicial decisions and whatever happens to be expeditious at the time.

So, are we to have a written constitution? If so, who will draft it? That seems to be the bigger question. It’s very hard to safeguard something that doesn’t exist. Already, before it has even come into being, Lords2 has been handed an impossible task.

Strings are attached as well.  This new responsibility will be “subject to an agreed procedure that sustains the primacy of the House of Commons.” So, if the House of Commons violates the constitution, however defined, Lords2 has no power because the Commons has primacy. As regards the two big details, the document has this to say: “the precise composition and method of election [will be] matters for consultation.” All in all, I’m not sure that we’re much further forward.

Aside from my perhaps slightly catty remarks made above (perhaps unfairly as this is only a first draft), there seem to be four big problems with realising the ambitions of this document (which go further than just creating lords2).

The first is the fact that the government and representation of the UK is an utter muddle. Scotland, Wales and (when they can agree) Northern Ireland have their own parliaments. England does not, a situation shared only by the Vatican City in Europe. Until this can be resolved, an organisation which ensures “that power is truly shared with the devolved legislatures” will only make this contradiction worse.

Secondly, the document has much to say about local government, talking about “greater long-term financial certainty”,  “new fiscal powers” and “new economic partnerships.” However, the prevailing attitude of central government towards councils for as long as I can recall is one of distrust. (I put this very point to former WBC Leader Lynne Doherty last week. She suggested that, with particular reference to the pandemic, “it was not so much a lack of trust as a lack of understanding…in time they understood we were often better placed to do and our feedback was acted on.” She may well be right: but if so, I wonder if lack of understanding would be an even more egregious failing by Whitehall.)

The Labour Party’s A New Britain makes her point in a different way: “When Covid hit, our faulty wiring was exposed, with central government and local government too often at odds with each other and local leaders rightly complaining that centrally imposed uniform decisions were not founded on an accurate understanding of local needs.” Lynne Doherty led a Conservative administration. If a Tory local-council Leader and a Labour former PM can express virtually identical sentiments, we would seem to be looking at something approaching cross-party consensus. Until this problem is fixed, it’s hard to see that the reforms would produce anything useful. Unfortunately, history provides very few examples of people or institutions voluntarily ceding power.

Thirdly, the nascent plans for Lords2 talk of “power [being] truly shared with the devolved legislatures and across England.” These would act to cement geographical divisions. What seems more useful would be something that reflects interests rather than location. For example, a lot of people feel that more influence should be given to bio-diversity and climate change in our decision-making. Others feel equally strongly about inequality and social justice. Having, as the document implies, the determining factor being the area you’re in, these considerations will be subsumed by regional or national interests. Points of view which transcend these divisions will be under-represented.

This leads to my fourth objection, the spectre of proportional representation. Only this can enable views not based on local concerns or conventional political loyalties to be represented. To have this for Lords2 would, however, be to admit it might make sense for the Commons. The two large parties would rather put their heads in a vice.

• Right, onto more important things: the Ashes. What a game the first test was. I’d rather see England loose playing like this than watch a plodding draw or a grinding win. The weather played an important part, reducing the number of overs to an extent that happily produced a nail-biting finale on the last day, and some unwelcome conditions at the start of England’s second innings, which speeded the match along to its dramatic conclusion. So too did Ben Stokes’ surprising declaration with England 393-8 and with a centurion at the crease.

If this match doesn’t make people fall in love with test cricket then I don’t know what will. Football is the sport that gets my pulse racing: but five-day cricket is longer and more subtle drug. I understand that there are also other sports available. None are in the same league as these two.

• Still with sport, former Manchester United player Gary Neville has called on the Premier League “to stop the transfer of players to Saudi Arabia until it is certain the integrity of its competition is not being put at risk.” I agree with his ethical point but football is, as is so much else, a commercial entity.

Money is a very pure firm of motivation. Saudi Arabia has a lot of it and has decided it wants to create one of the top leagues in the world by buying some great players most of whom are at or beyond their sell-by dates. By that logic, no players should be able to be bought by PSG, Celtic or Bayern as their dominance of their leagues does more to put its competitions at risk than any moral judgements.  Even if they could be implemented, these form no part of the thinking of football’s administrators. They’re running a business. The Saudi experiment is just more sportswashing and should be treated with the contempt that it deserves.

• The Covid enquiry continues, with the main theme so far – expressed by a number of politicians – being lack of preparation. This can’t have been due to the lack of dummy runs, like Exercise Cygnus. There’ll be plenty more coming out about this. At present we’re only a few hundred yards into a marathon. The procedure for awarding PPE contracts are still some way in the future but their time will come.

• I shall end with the ghastly conclusion of Boris Johnson’s political career: or perhaps, given his capacity for recovery, of this part of it. The vote to approve the findings of the select committee’s report into whether he misled the Commons over partygate was passed by 354 to seven. The veteran Bill Cash made a speech during the debate that was a masterpiece of sophistry, essentially arguing that as no one had managed to understand exactly how the rules applied then it was impossible to say that BoJo had misled the House as to whether he’s broken them.

Bill Cash is a lawyer, so allowances should be made. Even so, this ignores the fact that the then PM had set the rules and announced them; and that there was a moral question involved. Cash’s arguments also amounted to a dismissal of the long work of the committee which was in the final stages of its work conducted against an awful barrage of intimidation by the subject of the enquiry. The result of the investigation, and the vote, has shown that Boris Johnson is a bully, a liar and manipulatively ambitious. Do not, therefore, rule out his re-election as PM at some future date…

Across the area

• The first scrutiny

The first meeting of WBC’s Oversight and Scrutiny Commission (OSC) since the election took place on Tuesday 20 June at 6.30pm. Click here for details of the agenda and the link to the livestream broadcast.

It wasn’t the liveliest council meeting I’ve witnessed but it did show that the new Chair, Carolyne Culver, had her own views about what the important role of this committee should be and was prepared to assert herself. Due to the change of administration, a number of matters considered will have their origins in the previous regime.

One such was the Monks Lane sports hub, which was called in under there old administration and was on 20 June referred back to the Executive with some recommendations from the new Chair as to what aspects should be considered. These included legacy costs, legal fees and the implications for the Playing Pitch Strategy. All of these matters are in the gift of the Executive to accept to not, as it decides. None the less, they have been asked.

“A councillor from an opposition party yesterday chaired the OSC for the first time since the new administration was elected,” a recent statement from WBC said. “The OSC is responsible for reviewing how we are doing in terms of the decisions we take, and our policies and services. The invitation to an opposition party to chair the commission is one of the priorities set out by the new Liberal Democrat administration following the elections in May. The Chair of the Scrutiny Commission is Councillor Carolyne Culver (Green Party).”

“Speaking about the move, Leader of West Berkshire Council Lee Dillon said: “This move will allow for a more independent scrutiny of the work of the Council – ensuring we are accountable and transparent in what we do. I’m grateful to Councillors Culver and Boeck for agreeing to take on these roles and look forward to working with the committee in the future.”

“Councillor Carolyne Culver added: “We made a good start last night, discussing the establishment of a group to look at lessons learned from the Covid pandemic and examining call-ins including the Monks Lane Sports Hub. We also discussed our work programme for the next few months including early-years care, educational attainment for children on free school meals, sewage and water infrastructure, as well as the progress on the council’s environment strategy. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Commission.”

The Scrutiny Commission generally meets four times a year. You can find future meeting dates and how to attend or stream the meetings online.”

• Pausing the plan

Ross Mackinnon, the leader of the WBC Conservative opposition, penned a letter to the Newbury Weekly News this week with the heading “Lib Dem view on local plan will cost us dearly.” (That’s the letter’s only mention of the correct name, or abbreviation, of the party: elsewhere they are the “Liberals”, a completely different political outfit.) He starts with gracious congratulations to the Lib Dem’s at last month’s election before moving into his main theme: the new administration’s desire to pause the examination of the local plan in order to reassess the housing allocation for NE Thatcham (THA20) to which so many are opposed.

He makes a number of correct points about the importance of the plan, the need for policies and more housing and the cross-party nature of aspects of the work. He then moves on to the volte-face by the Lib Dem’s Tony Vickers (which he describes as a “cynical reverse ferret”) and quotes the link for this column from 24 November.  This is the section he’s referring to:

“The Liberal Democrats are broadly content with the district-wide policies in the Local Plan that we’ll be asked to vote on next Thursday,” [Tony Vickers told Penny Post]. “We certainly won’t be voting against the motion to publish it for the Regulation 19 consultation. 

“However, we are surprised at how late members of the Planning Advisory Group were asked to comment on the Sustainability Appraisal (SA) which forms an important part of what will be sent to the Planning Inspectorate for examination in public later this year (according to the administration’s ambitious timetable). We found numerous instances of apparently rushed final drafting in just a quick reading of the SA.” He went on to say that “We reserve the right to comment quite radically on the proposed North East Thatcham site allocation in our response to the Reg 19 draft.” [Which they did.]

As it happened – and this is Ross Mackinnon’s point – the Lib Dems did vote against that motion. I suspect that rather than being a change of heart it was a piece of political tactics, the party sensing the need to put clear water between their position and the Conservatives’ on the matter.

My understanding is that there was cross-party support for the policies; the nitty-gritty of the work. Where the Lib Dems did have a problem – certainly their representatives on Thatcham Town Council did and I’m pretty sure all the  WBC members did as well – was with the concentration of housing around NE Thatcham. It’s unfortunate that these two parts of the plan – the policies and the site allocations – can’t be done as separate processes, and in that order.

Ross Mackinnon says that “withdrawing the plan and starting again from scratch would set us back years.” That is not, however, what the council wants to do. It’s just THA20 that’s the problem. Whether the Planning Inspector will feel that this particular thread can be removed from the jumper without the whole thing unravelling remains to be seen.

The Lib Dem’s stance might have been clearer if they’d abstained on the motion to proceed with the plan, as Carolyne Culver of the Green Party did: she didn’t care for THA20 either but also didn’t want to oppose something that as a member of the Planning Advisory Group she’d spent years working on.

Ross Mackinnon also paints two other images. The first is of a development free-for-all as a result of planning by appeal. I think that’s unlikely any time soon as WBC’s current plan still has some life left in it and the district has a adequate housing supply (which will reduce the chances of a successful appeal).

He also suggests that our villages may have to take up the THA20 sites but “without the infrastructure to support them.” Thatcham already has an infrastructure deficit: many villages, however, have an infrastructure surplus, with schools, halls, shops, bus services, roads and the like (though, I admit, perhaps not surgeries) with fewer users than they would like or can comfortably support. In any case, there’s a strong case to be made for new development being spread around the district rather than put in one place.

He concludes by saying that the Lib Dems “are in a mess.” It’s certainly not an ideal situation. The plan was submitted at the last possible moment by the previous administration. Politically, it would been remarkable if it had admitted that the impending election might result in a new riling group, partly on the basis of opposition to THA20, and as a result deciding to hold fire. There was no over-riding need to do it in April. However, politics doesn’t work like that, sadly. I’m sure the Lib Dems would have done the same were the situation have been reversed. If there are costs and delays as a result of this re-think then no one will benefit.

• Tipping the scales

The new administration has said that it wants to abolish, or selectively reduce the charge (currently £50pa) for fortnightly green-bin collections. This produces over £1m of revenue each year through a system that seems to work quite well. I don’t have any problem with this and rather doubt that many others do either. If you don’t use a service it’s reasonable not to pay for it.  I know that this might lead people to argue that if they don’t have children they shouldn’t contribute to education costs and the like: but this is a specific charge for a specific service. One might as well abolish car-parking charges and put a few quid on the council tax which would be paid by drivers and non-drivers alike.

This ambition may have been undermined by the latest in the series of unwelcome bits of Whitehall micro-management, a ban on fees to get rid of DIY waste in England which about a third of councils currently charge for. It’s expected this will come into force later this year, the aim being to deter fly-tipping. If this is going to outlaw WBC’s charges described here then there’ll be a hole, perhaps six figures deep, in the finances. This might perhaps tip the scales and prompt a re-think about the green-bin charge.

There’d be no disgrace if so; after all, the new administration didn’t come up with this idea. Will it deter fly tipping? These figures from Gov.uk suggest that about two thirds of fly tipping involves household waste, which councils have not  been allowed to charge for the disposal of since 2015. Fly tipping has increased since then, so that didn’t seem to work. There’s no reason I can see why extending this will work any better.

• News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

• The work on upgrading the Lido at the Northcroft Centre in Newbury continues and it’s still hoped this will be open some time in July. You can click here to see a brief video which provides an update of the progress.

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.

• 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 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 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 mysterious, alarming and unexpectedly illuminating deep-sea dragonfish.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of cyclists on the pavement, ‘delusional” people who believe in climate change, the postal service, supporting Boris and remoaner mandarins.

• 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 it’s time for the Song of the Week. Billy Bragg is playing Glastonbury this year (as are a few other people). Partly inspired by what I wrote above about Labour’s plans, here’s his Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.

• Which takes us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. Another chance to see one of the best two minutes ever from QI (and there are a fair few to choose from): They say of the Acropolis where the Parthenon is.

• And so, finally, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What do the Prince of Wales, Ray Davies and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common? Last week’s question was: The summer solstice (21 June) is almost upon us. How many hours of daylight will there be that day in London?  The answer is 16 hours 38 minutes and 22 seconds. It’s all downhill from now until December.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate link.

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