This week with Brian 20 to 27 July 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including awful heat, what can we do, people predictions, Malthus, a wasp attack, revolving doors, record levels, do it yourself, a defection, looking forward to a cup, ashes delight, golden retrievers, whale sharks, a collection of insults, by-elections, long Boris, residents’ news, no one knows and rocking the Casbah.

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

• The heatwaves at present are utterly terrifying and there’s not much more I can add to what everyone knows already. Climate change, abetted by El Niño, has got to be the culprit. The fact that the current ones seem particularly fierce in Europe, the USA and China might make them seem more real to us.

[more below] 

• People

The problem for all of us with regard to climate change is that, individually or on a local level, it often seems impossible that anything we do can have the slightest effect; nationally, most governments are fire-fighting on a range of issues that they dare not take their eyes off for a second; while internationally, there are many even more immediate crises, such as wars. These are likely to be made worse by the effects of climate change, which in turn will create more refugees. So too will the fact that increasingly large parts of the world will become uninhabitable, or close to it.

Meanwhile our population continues to grow. As this graph from Our World in Data shows, it took until about 1800 for the number of humans to reach one billion but only another 125 years for this to double. In the last hundred years we’ve increased four-fold.

The rate of growth is now slowing, and has been since the early 1960s, but is not expected to become flat or negative until the 2080s. By that time, if the predictions are correct, there will be over 10 billion of us. Where will they be living? The World Population Review suggests that an increasingly large proportion of them will be in Africa. Only about 40 of the world’s 230-odd countries currently have a negative population growth – but these do include China, Russia and Japan.

I’m not sure how much weight either of these predictions place on the results of global warming. This article from Population Matters kicks off with two graphs which starkly show that the amount of atmospheric CO2 has since the mid-18th century increased in line with population. Correlation is, of course, no proof of causation but this is far from the only piece of evidence. It’s certainly hard to see what else might be responsible. The consequences of higher CO2 levels also seem to be clearly established.

Scrolling down a bit, one comes to another graphic that’s even more striking. This suggests that no one personal mitigation measure such as flying less, recycling or refraining from meat, or even all of them combined, come anywhere near the reductive effect on CO2 emissions as does having one fewer child.

This refers specifically to the “Global North”, as this is the area where humans produce the most CO2. This will also be relevant to other countries that become more affluent. The article also points out that the study (published in 2017 by the Universities of Lund and British Columbia)  “relied on estimates of future per capita climate emissions which are likely to change significantly, so it must be treated with caution.”

The person most closely associated with population theories is the English economist and cleric Thomas Malthus (1766 to 1834). This is perhaps proved by the fact that his surname has given rise to an adjective. Malthusian. As I understand it, Malthusian theory involves a series of catastrophes. Population growth, he argued, is capable of much sharper growth than is the capacity of the world to produce or harvest the resources that are as a result needed. In short, it’s easier to have a child than it is to feed it.

The increasing birth rates in times of plenty, the corresponding dearth that happened as many (particularly the poor) were unable to feed themselves as demand outstripped supply and the re-adjustment that followed, leading to another period of optimum plenty were, he contended, part of a never-ending vicious cycle in human affairs. Many have disagreed with his conclusions.

(Proof of at least a part of this theory can be found in Europe from the mid-14th century when an estimated one third of the population was killed by the Black Death. Those who survived this and its re-appearances found themselves more prosperous than their forebears. This is proved by the large number of laws that were passed attempting to limit wages and even the clothes that members of the lower classes were allowed to wear; all of them ultimately failing utterly.)

What appears to have happened, and to an extent that Malthus could not have predicted, is that we have actually proved more adept at being able to feed ourselves. This has, however, come at a price, particularly in our reliance on fertilisers, which can cause considerable and insidious pollution as well as unsustainable farming practices.

Nor did he foresee the extent to which our lives and economies would become inter-twined so making one outbreak of an infectious disease into an international crisis within months, or even weeks.

Finally, he could not possibly have anticipated the effects that our reliance on fossil fuels would have had. Nor, I believe, did he predict a catastrophe on the kind of  global scale that climate change seems likely to visit upon us.

• Water

Thanks again to Martyn Wright from the East Garston Flood & Pollution Forum (EGFPF) for forwarding the latest WASP (Windrush Against Sewage Pollution) newsletter. This has been looking at the relationships between the regulators (so far, OfWat and the Environment Agency) and the water companies and the revolving door of jobs, consultancies and non-exec directorships that appears to exist between them.

The newsletter stresses that it is “not alleging impropriety on the part of the persons named in the following blog but we are seriously questioning the processes and people that are supposed to protect organisations, their staff, and the public, from the risk of corruption.” The point was also made in a recent article in The Guardian

The most recent newsletter asks a number of questions, including about some staggering dividend payments and whether all regulations regarding conflict of interest were being followed as assiduously as they might be. Again, I must stress that it falls short of making any specific allegations but does sow some seeds of unease. It also suggests that there is “compelling evidence that [OfWat’s] measures to manage risks involving conflicts of interest and therefore corruption are wholly unfit and must be reformed.”

Going back to the revolving-door business, this is a tricky one. When matters in a particular area are going well, there appears to be no problem. Expertise is, so the case for the defence runs, staying within the sector, people are moving from job to job and bringing new experience, fresh views and best practice to their new employers. Non-exec directorships and consultancies can be viewed in the same way. These diligent free-market experts are sharing their wisdom and everyone benefits.

When there’s a problem, however, all these sentiments tend to be reversed. The executives are suddenly opportunists, moving on from one business to another (often after a generous severance payment) at the time that’s most advantageous to them. The talk of shared wisdom and fresh perspectives is replaced by cynical accusations of their being poachers turned gamekeepers (or vice versa). Every motive suddenly becomes immoral; questionable; devious.

The truth (and I know this is such a cliché) lies between the two. However, to suggest that organisations like WASP only exist to stir up trouble is specious. There clearly is something amiss with the way the regulatory system works. All of us are seeing enough signs of it. The warning bells should surely be ringing and organisations like WASP and EGFPF are helping to press the button. All this is kind of important because water is one of the few things we can’t do without. That and air, of course. No one has yet found a way to privatise that: so far…

• Houses

This report from Full Fact draws attention to a recent difference of opinion between the two main parties about whether recent housebuilding was “at record levels” (the government) or “at its lowest rate” (the opposition). Full Fact’s conclusion was that the “number of ‘net additional dwellings’ in England has reached record highs in the last few years, but these figures only go back 30 years. Other historical data suggests higher records were set decades ago.” The more detailed report also produced data to show that the number of new builds was nowhere close to record levels and far below the government’s own target of 300,000pa.

These figures obscure a more subtle reality. Net additional dwellings is essentially new builds + conversions  – demolitions. The conversions can be the creation of a large number of bedsits from a redundant office building. These are often done under permitted development rights which give the planning authority very little influence over what is converted (but all the problems for having to deal with any infrastructure needs or mitigation that might ensue).

I’ve mentioned many times before that it’s pointless to cast developers as the permanent villains in this relationship. They exist to make a profit and will build the properties that will maximise this. These might be five-bed houses at £1m a pop. The fact that this many not accord with national or local policies is not their concern.

There are huge benefits for districts which manage to provide the kind of housing that people need. In the past it was argued that the government had a vital role to play in determining social and demographic behaviour (see the comments above under “People” with regard to the aftermath of the Black Death). Most would agree that this is not the case now. If it wants to have a vibrant, functional and sustainable local economy, a district needs to ensure that it has housing available for anyone from millionaires to part-time carers. Current government policy doesn’t provide for this. The answer, as I’ve suggested several times, is that a local council needs to build the required size homes itself.

Votes

By the time you read this, the counting will have started in three by-elections in Uxbridge & South Ruislip, Somerton & Frome and Selby & Ainsty. The main purpose of by-elections is of course not to ensure full democratic representation but to enable media groups (not Penny Post) to take photos of dogs outside polling stations.

These seats were held by the Conservatives but have become vacant as a result of a series of self-inflicted wounds of the kind the party has recently specialised in. As one un-named Conservative told the BBC, “In one seat it is about lies. In another it’s about drugs. And the third about not getting a peerage. How do you defend any of that?” The references are to, respectively, Boris Johnson, David Warburton and Nigel Adams.

It could have been four but Nadine Dorries has said that, despite having promised to do so, she will not, according to The Guardian, stand down “until after she gets answers from ministers about why she did not get her peerage.” Many might feel that this kind of behaviour is in itself a powerful argument for reform of the House of Lords. Meanwhile, her Mid-Befordshire constituents are effectively unrepresented as I can’t believe that she can really have her mind on the day job.

The above-mentioned BBC article describes a feeling of gloom in the Tory ranks which far exceeds the normal expectation management one finds in such cases. One party loyalist put the blame on a condition they termed “Long Boris.” “We’re going to lose them all horribly” another Conservative is quoted as saying.

Lose them all they might: but win or lose, “horribly” is a good word to describe the events that have led up to all three contests.

• And finally…

• US soldier Travis King obviously had his own reasons to decide why defecting to North Korea was preferable to going home and facing charges resulting from his less than perfect behaviour while on duty in the South. I wonder what the North Korean government will be making of this: a bit confused, probably. Anyone who wants to defect to that country probably has some serious mental-health issues. Based experiences of other Americans, these are not likely to improve.

• What a wonderful women’s ashes (washes?) series that was. Nat Sciver-Brunt was deservedly the player of the tournament by most reckonings. Australia retained the ashes but only because of the weighting for the five-day game. I repeat again, why was there only one test match? The audience is there for more. When watching women’s football and cricket, I am now only barely aware of the fact that I’m watching players of a gender who, even a decade ago, I would have remarked upon. Penny and I went to a domestic Charlotte Edwards Cup game in Newbury earlier this summer and watched Lauren Bell and others deliver fast bowling de-luxe. Don’t tell me that your average man would have been able to deal with that.

• I’m also looking forward to the women’s World Cup which starts this week. Most seem to agree that the USA and England are the favourites.

• And still with sport, what a wonderful day at the men’s Ashes today. An Australian wicket fell to the very first ball and from then on England absolutely bossed it. 290 for 2 after 50 overs would be a respectable score in an ODI: in a test match it’s almost unheard-of. I’d rather see us lose a few matches playing like this than grind out results, Boycott-style.

• My eye was caught by a headline on the BBC website that said “Hundreds of golden retrievers gather in the Highlands.” My first impression was that was that this was something the dogs had done themselves, slipping their leads or kennels and heading north for some crazy canine rendezvous-vous in Scotland. I’ve seen A Hundred and One Dalmatians (about that number of times when various of my sons were young) to know what dogs can do when driven. Turns out it was their owners all gathering them together where the variety was meant to have originated, all of these animals being corralled in front of a decaying castle where they were first bred. If we humans were to do that, then about eight billion of us will soon be descending on north-east Africa…

Across the area

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers a new pump track coming to Goldwell Park, summer at the Waterside Centre, football at Faraday Road, career opportunities, The Castle @ Theale Education Centre, road closures, a new bus service, work experience, Shaw House’s summer fair, the Angels of Ukraine and an outdoor theatre night with the bard of Stratford.

This was published before the news was announced that Newbury’s pedestrianisation plans have, for reasons beyond WBC’s control, been paused. You can find more on this – and much more besides – in our Newbury Area Weekly News column.

• Surveying the buses

A reminder that in 2021 the Government launched the National Bus Strategy setting out its vision of improved bus services and provided authorities with additional funding to ‘build back better’ bus services via the Bus Service Improvement Plans. Its main aim is to get more people travelling by bus but this can, a recent statement from West Berkshire Council points out, ” only be achieved if buses are made more practical and attractive as an alternative to the car.”

“Over the last few years,” the article continues, “we have been working with our local residents to gather thoughts and intelligence on the local bus service. In summer 2021 we asked for opinions to help form the Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) which outlined how we at the Council, alongside bus operators in the district, would improve bus services in order to receive extra finding, which we were successful to be awarded £2.6 million.

“Last summer we asked about the changes and improvements made so far, to find out how satisfied residents were with local public bus services. Now, we want to gather views on ticketing improvements in the last year, the £2 National Single Fare Cap Scheme, your experiences of the service in recent months, suggestions for improvements, changes to existing bus services, and views on new bus services we are expecting to introduce in the coming months.”

For more information and to take part in the survey (which closes on 10 September), please click here.

• 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

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council’s Library Service.

• 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 has challenged primary age children to read up to six library books in the Summer Reading Challenge until 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 is planning to invest an additional £1.9m on a housing scheme for displaced people to help provide an additional ten homes. 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 whale sharks that were freed by divers after becoming entangled in fishing nets off the Indonesian coast.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of consultation, pedestrianisation, a voting record, big buildings, climate change and a dirty subway.

• 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.I’ve had this before but we’re having it again, so there. I do love it so much – Rock the Casbah by The Clash. It’s also proof that drummers can occasionally write very good songs.

• Which takes us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. Let’s have a bit more Blackadder. Not a sketch but a compilation of some of Mr B’s most choice insults.

• And so, finally, the Quiz Question of the Week. This weeks question is: Not counting the three taking place on 20 July, how many parliamentary by-elections have there been since the 2010 general election? Last week’s question was: How many islands are there in Indonesia? It seems that no one knows, so many are there and so ambiguous is the concept of what is an island when it may only emerge from the sea at certain times. About 18,100 would be a reasonable answer if you were pressed.

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 li

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