This week with Brian 29 June to 6 July 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including mixed feelings about a coup, serious hard asses, the last refuge, water excuses, the first phase, the first 50 days, boundary changes, the state of the schools, a kangaroo court kicks back, dog bins, green bins, the files of Police Squad, two years old after one day, solstice babies and the Mayor of Simpleton.

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

• Obviously, the big news recently was that at one point it seemed as if there was going to be a coup in Russia. Many of us, feeling that Putin might be on the way out, might have said “great.” Then, after having seen a few clips of Yevgeny Prigozhin in action, we might have changed that to “oh, hang on a moment…”

[more below] 

• Wagner

I don’t speak a word of Russian but listening to Prigozhin’s inventive-laden diatribes – of which this is a pretty fair example – you don’t really need to. He claims the war in Ukraine would have been over in a week if he’d been in charge and even a few moments in his digital company makes you realise he means it. He and his Wagner army have now decamped to Belarus, seemingly having been bribed by Putin to leave Russia. I don’t want my medieval history degree to seem more relevant to present circumstances than it really is, but having a large private army turn against the state which has sanctioned it and then decamp to another one rarely ends well.

I think we can take it as read that Wagner is a scary bunch of serious hard asses. A good number of them were sprung from Russia’s prisons, which on their own makes them alarming. Then there’s Prigozhin himself. Most organisations take their character from the person at the top: ’nuff said.

Also, there are perhaps as many as 50,000 of them. If Wagner were a country, that would put it 62nd on the list of largest number of active military personnel, about level with Singapore and Cuba and slightly more than Belarus, its new hosts. God knows what fresh hell Prigozhin is going to stir up there. Ukraine is saying that this is the beginning of the end for Putin. Possibly: but all this shows that whoever replaces him may be no better.

Wars that go badly – and this one can surely be so described – have a habit of being very unforgiving to their originators, even if you have Vlad’s grip on official messaging. Increasingly desperate measures are demanded to try to make a bad situation better. Patriotism – famously defined by Samuel Johnson as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel” – is a good card to play: and both Prigozhin and Putin have played it. If you have them, nuclear weapons can also be casually mentioned.

Even more crazy plans might be tried. One possibility, a remote one I admit, is that the whole coup thing was a put-up job by Putin. “You think I’m bad?” he’s telling the world. “Take a look at this guy…”

Finally, you have the name of the organisation. “Wagner” was apparently the call-sign used by this group of mercenaries which was formed during the first Chechen war in the 1990s. Wikipedia says that “while the group is not ideologically driven, elements of Wagner are linked to neo-Nazism and far-right extremism.” If so, the name seems apposite. Richard Wagner was not a composer noted for his moderate political views. If the group had been called Mozart or Vivaldi people would have said, “ah, that’s nice.”

I doubt that Putin has had the time or inclination to ponder on the irony of the fact that he has been using an army with strong fascist sympathies and named after one of Hitler’s favourite composers to de-Nazify Ukraine.

• Water

• Moving closer to home, Thames Water seems to be on the brink of collapse. Its CEO Sarah Bentley departed unexpectedly this week and it’s been revealed that the country’s largest water company is having trouble servicing its £14bn debt and finding the additional promised investment to fix its creaking systems, which includes massive sewage discharges and the loss of about 250 Olympic swimming pools’-worth of water a day through its pipes. The Evening Standard reports that a Thames Water spokesperson said in May that “extraordinary energy costs” and “two severe weather events” had affected customer service and environmental performance. I think the problems go a bit deeper than that.

The Independent quotes Environment minister Rebecca Pow telling the Commons that “there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes with Thames Water to ensure that customers will not be impacted. And there is a process in place if necessary to move us to the next stage.” The last sentence seems ominous. Putin could have written it.

Opinions differ on whether privatising water was a good thing. This 2019 post from CIWEM provides several different points of view, some in favour and others not. This article from The Guardian in 2022 describes the change as “an organised rip-off.” Take your pick.

Opinions also differ about other privatisations. In my view, telecoms worked quite well whereas the railway has not. Certainly what prevailed in either of these sectors in the early 1980s was beyond awful and so something had to change. Privatisation makes a lot more sense when, as with telecoms, aviation, cars or electricity, you have a genuine choice. With trains and water you don’t and so a false market has to be created, stretching the ingenuity of management consultants and the patience of the market and of consumers. 

Thames Water ‘s outgoing CEO has trousered £1.6m in pay and compensation this year for presiding over a service that’s widely regarded, including by these Wiltshire schoolchildren last week, as woefully inadequate. inews quotes Thames Water chairman Ian Marchant as saying that “I want to thank Sarah for everything she has done since joining the company in 2020, building a first class executive team and leading the first phase of the turnaround of the company.” In the light of more recent news, which could not have been a surprise to Mr Marchant, it’s hard to know what to make of this remark. Not a great look, Ian. The market seems to feel the same.

The chaos at water HQ is not going to be good news for our rivers. TW has built up a lot of debt, not only to make investment but also to pay dividends. Despite having paid no external dividends for the last five years, through what the Financial Times calls “byzantine” financial arrangements, it was able to pay about £1.4bn in 2022. Thames Water needs to pay dividends to attract investors and at the moment it can’t be seen as a very attractive proposition. Water companies used to be seen as one the safest investments around – after all, they deal with pretty much the only thing we can’t do without – but no longer. The irony is that this comes at a time when we’re demanding even more of them.

There are three things needed for a utility organisation such as this to prosper. The first is having a fundamentally sound infrastructure network with all the assets accurately identified and promptly maintained. The second is having a clear plan of investment which is properly and transparently funded. The third is having a strong and effective regulatory system and clear relationships with organisations such as expert charities and local councils. At present, none of these apply.

• Boundaries

• The Boundary Commission has published its final report into how parliamentary constituencies will change from the next election in England and also the other parts of the UK. This is an independent exercise that must be ratified by, but cannot be debated or interfered with by, parliament. It reflects the fact that people move around and so constituency boundaries will, if let unchanged, become unrepresentative. The most general drift is probably from city centres to suburbs and rural areas.

Every area will have a change of some kind and you may hear some bleating from local or national politicians about how these are dividing communities or deliberately creating political advantage. Pay no heed to this drivel. The exercise is based on the recent government requirement that all constituencies should be +/- five per cent of the average size for that country (there are a few exceptions for island constituencies like the Isle of Wight and Anglesey/Ynys Môn). “Commissions must give primacy to the 5% rule but may also consider other factors,” the guidelines explain. “These are existing constituency boundaries, local ties, local government boundaries and special geographical considerations, such as size, shape and accessibility of a constituency.”

In our part of the world, there are two pairs of major changes. The Newbury constituency was previously largely co-extensive with West Berkshire but will now be carved into two: Newbury and the snappily-named Reading West and Mid-Berkshire. The border between them is along a line drawn roughly from Midgham to West Ilsley. In Wiltshire, the former Devizes constituency has retreated west and renamed as Melksham and Devizes, so leaving room for a newbie in the form of East Wiltshire, broadly centred on Marlborough. In the Vale of White Horse, the Wantage constituency doesn’t seem to have changed much, except that it will henceforth be known as Didcot and Wantage. Across the UK, England will get ten more seats at the expense of Wales (eight) and Scotland (two). Northern Ireland’s allocation won’t change.

It would seem that these changes might give a small amount of help to the Conservatives at the next election but, as mentioned above, it’s pointless to start looking for conspiracies in this. What does seem certain is that there will be a good deal of scrabbling about for deals, with sitting MPs, their party HQs and others deciding where their best interests lie under these new arrangements. Ultimately, we should be more equitably represented as a result. The quality of those who are in fact elected is, of course, another matter.

• Interference

• The Common’s Committee of Privileges has issued another scathing report, this time referring to a “co-ordinated campaign of interference” in the Committee’s work during the partygate enquiry. It doesn’t make very happy reading for the seven MPs and three peers (which include past and serving ministers and four people who were on Johnson’s now infamous resignation honours list) that it names. Several have them have refuted the allegations, claiming that their comments were an expression of freedom of speech.

The annexe to the report provides a number of specific examples of these attempts to belittle the enquiry. Some of the more colourful phrases are “a witch hunt”, “a kangaroo court”,  “a gross miscarriage of justice”, malice and prejudice”, “a disgraceful and possibly unlawful conclusion,” “a political committee against Boris Johnson”, “biased” and “Kafkaesque.” Donald Trump probably wouldn’t have used the last term but he could easily have come up with all the other ones.

One of the conclusions suggests the Commons should confirm that “it considers that where the House has agreed to refer a matter relating to individual conduct to the Committee of Privileges, Members of this House should not impugn the integrity of that Committee or its members or attempt to lobby or intimidate those members or to encourage others to do so, since such behaviour undermines the proceedings of the House and is itself capable of being a contempt.” Once again, we wait to see what view the PM will take and how many members support the report. There would seem to be an important point of principle involved. If I had to choose between agreeing with the members of the committee or the people that it has recently named, I know where my vote would go.

• And finally

Asbestos, raw sewage, dangerous wiring and crumbling concrete are just some of the failings highlighted in a recent National Audit Office report. This is not, however, an investigation into dodgy building sites or non-league football grounds but a survey of Britain’s schools.

It claims that 700,000 pupils are currently being taught in buildings which suffer from at least one of these faults. As with the above-mentioned water companies, our infrastructure seems to be falling apart. What’s needed now are some of those amazing Victorian engineers and navvies. In the absence of a time machine, though, what’s needed is a programme of repair and renewal. The government would say that we can’t afford to do it. Increasingly, however, it could be argued that we can’t afford not to…

Across the area

• Dog bins

There have recently been a large number of problems reported with dog-waste bins not being emptied regularly. Whatever parish you’re in, if you see an overflowing dog bin, we recommend the following two-pronged approach.

  • Report the issue on this page of WBC’s website. This will ensure that the matter is recorded which makes it much more likely to be dealt with.
  • Send an email to your parish clerk. The chances are that, as in Lambourn, they are well aware of the issue and have been working to get it sorted. The more often they hear of problems, the more likely they are to pass these on the WBC, and them on to the contractors. Parish council contact details can be found at the foot of this column.

WBC’s “report a problem” page works pretty well and, as mentioned above, makes the issue official. If the matter is not WBC’s responsibility, it will pass it on to the relevant body. Please note that posting on social media does not constitute a complaint. By all means go ahead and do this, but after you’ve reported it officially and if it still hasn’t been fixed after a reasonable time has passed. Hopefully dog bins won’t be featuring in future complaints: but, even so, there’ll always be something else…

• The first 50 days

The end of last week marked 50 days since the local election results were announced. This therefore seems like a good time to see how things are going with some of the election pledges made by the incoming Lib Dems, including some of those that they identified as “the big six”. 

There were a good number of manifesto promises but a lot of them would seem to be impossible to pronounce on quite yet as they’ll take time to implement and measure. On others, however, there should be some discernible progress. Many of these are matters that we’ve written about many, many times in Penny Post.

I sent the list below to WBC’s Leader Lee Dillon. The text following the dash I took from the Lib dem’s manifesto (sometimes from more than one place). The text in italics are his responses, received on 22 June, or my comments. He stressed that though he was happy to provide an update now, he also wanted “to share this news with residents with more detail at the appropriate time (and when formal decision have actually been made, and the opposition have had a chance to be briefed and inputted too).” He also pointed out that, officially, the new council began its life on 25 May when the first meeting was held. This would make 2 September the hundredth day, a milestone which we’ll mark in a similar way.

  • The local plan – we will take all available action to change the flawed local plan. “We’re working through with the officers what each option entails . Nothing is off the table.”
  • CIL – cancelling the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) demands made to homeowners who made a mistake in their planning application process, and carrying out a full review of West Berkshire’s CIL process. “A paper will be coming to the Executive within 100 days.”
  • Football in Newbury – cancelling the wasted £10m the Conservatives are planning to spend on the Monks Lane “Sports Hub”, keeping the plan for a 3G pitch but ending the waste on the clubhouse, stands and ongoing payment to the rugby club. Immediately returning the grass to bookable football space. Agreeing outline plans with the Newbury Community Football Group for a new pitch with an enhanced stadium and facilities. The only response to this was about the state of the pitch which has recently been mowed; which wasn’t quite what I was after. There are several other matters to be resolved on this and Monks Lane: more information when I have it. 
  • Readibus – re-establishing funding for the ReadiBus service to operate in West Berkshire and not imposing non-disclosure agreements/’gagging orders’ on our service level agreements with local charities. “This will be coming to the next Executive on 6 July.”
  • Scrutiny Committee – ensuring an opposition party councillor chairs the Council’s scrutiny committee, unlike the last 18 years of Conservative rule. “Done!” (see last week’s column for my report on this.)
  • Advisory groups  – opening advisory groups to public scrutiny rather than the secretive Conservative approach. “Advisory Groups have been opened up. Also at October’s full council we will be presenting a paper on the Joint Public Protection Committee which I hope will find cross support and enable an opposition member to have a seat too.”
  • Community forums – re-establishing community forums to pro-actively invite residents’ input and feedback at in-person meetings. Committing to report back on our resulting action plan within four weeks of each meeting. Not responded to, doubtless due to an oversight: however, I’ve since established that this will be going ahead but discussions are still taking place about details such as attendance and frequency: more details to follow when available.

Lee Dillon also referred to a few matters which I hadn’t raised: Potholes (there was s strategy day on this on 28 June, results to be announced); the climate emergency (the new solar farm will be discussed at the next Executive on 6 Jul.); the pedestrianisation in Newbury (further news in early July); and the green-bin charge (“this season’s bill were ready to be issued and so we offer an additional rebate next year to cover this charge.”)

• Tipping the scales

Last week, I suggested that the government’s latest exercise in micro-managing councils (banning authorities from charging for disposing of waste from DIY work in an attempt to deter fly-tipping) may undermine WBC’s plans to scrap or reduce the green-bin charge due to the lost revenue that would result from the government’s new policy.

In fact – and I’m grateful to the leader of WBC’s Conservative group for pointing this out to me – this DIY-disposal revenue only amounts to about £30,000pa. Mind you, that’s another £30,000 that will either have to recouped by getting more revenue from somewhere else or will require savings of one kind or another. It all adds up…

Laura’s record

There have been quite a few letters in the Newbury Weekly News recently concerning our MP’s support for former PM Boris Johnson.

One writer this week says that the fact that she voted in favour of the recommendations of the Privileges Committee last week proves that she was not, as a previous writer had claimed, “in-lock step with BoJo.’ No, it doesn’t; only seven MPs voted against this. All it really proves is that she doesn’t want to commit political suicide.

He also criticised the previous writer for being “unfair” about her, a charge he feels is all the worse because the previous writer does not live in Ms Farris’ constituency. I do hope the day will never come when we are only allowed to criticise our own MP.

So is Laura Farris an unquestioning fan of Boris, as the earlier letter to the NWN suggested? A better way of getting a sense of how an MP votes than relying on selective examples in letters is to have a look at The Work for You: here’s her section on this site.

The summary says that “on the vast majority of issues votes the same way as other Conservative MPs” and that she has “has hardly ever rebelled against her party in the current parliament.” This paints the picture of not so much a diehard Borisite but someone who’s loyal to the party leader, whoever it happens to be.

The big question, of course, is whether her constituents – for whom, as the above-mentioned website points out, she works –  feel that the same level of loyalty has been shown to their interests. The time for us to pass our judgment will come up some time before the end of next year.

• 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 animals of the week are these ones, each one uglier than the one before.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of Paddington Bear, bins, voting against the plan, prosperity and asa accessible hospital.

• 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. probably – no, I think definitely – the best band to come out of Swindon was XTC whose stock in trade was intelligent and spiky pop. This is one of my favourites of theirs: Mayor of Simpleton.

• Which takes us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. Here’s one of many wonderfully silly scenes from the files of Police Squad.

• And so, finally, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: In which country, until this week, would someone born on 31 December have been officially two years old the following day? Last week’s question was: What do the Prince of Wales, Ray Davies and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common? The answer that they were all born on 21 June. Only one of the wrote brilliant songs, though.

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 linkDespite having paid no external dividends for the last five years,

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