This Week with Brian
Including the X factor, being lucky, back to basics, Adolf’s fault, effectively bankrupt, hundreds of services, migration pay-back, policing the gnomes, Spanish football, a giant hamster wheel, seemed like a good idea at the time, compost, the first hundred days, the one-year rule, pandemic hounds, turning back the clock, angry executives, Devon’s coasts and three words.
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 [email protected].
There was a point on Thursday when we didn’t think we would get this, or anything else, finished. As those of you who got our apology email last night will know, we had one of those IT nightmares that make you yearn for the days of quills, parchment and carrier pigeons. Sort of fixed now (we hope). I’ll write more about this next as one of the reasons for the crash provides quite an instructive story. Anyway, apologies for the delay, is what I’m trying to say.
Your Local Area
RAAC is certainly this week’s acronym with PMQs on 6 September being dominated by the matter, all manner of accusations being levelled at the government including that Rishi Sunak was a “cowboy builder.” The PM claimed he acted decisively. It’s certainly true that action was take, The bigger questions were whether not should have been taken in July, or in 2018 when the extent of the problem first became clear, or in 2010, when the new “we’re all in it together” government led by the hapless David Cameron decided to cancel the school building programme.
In her resignation letter to Rishi Sunak, Nadine Dorries said that “It is a fact that there is no affection for Keir Starmer out on the doorstep. He does not have the winning X factor qualities of a Thatcher, a Blair, or a Boris Johnson, and sadly, Prime Minister, neither do you.” It’s hard to disagree with this. There have been some positive bits on news recently but, rather as Biden is finding across the water, none seem to cleave to him. Rather, he seems smitten with what could be called bad luck. He announced a migrant boats week and the figures rocket and his flagship barge has to be evacuated because of Legionnaires’ Disease. The new school year starts and schools have to close.
Thatcher, Blair and Johnson – and Churchill – were lucky PMs because they had circumstances they were able to turn to their advantage and had the panache to do so. The debacles of the poll tax, Iraq and partygate will mark them down, but Dorries was right to say that had that X factor. So too did Churchill: and, in a very different way, Wilson (the last two were the only PMs since WW2 who lost an election and then stayed on for long enough to win the next one, which shows staying power if nothing else).
Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary at the heart of all of this, has been given a tough time this week. I’m not sure this is entirely deserved. However late the decision was, closing or not closing the schools would have attracted equal opprobrium. I rather like the idea of a minister saying, as she though off-mic, “does anyone ever say ‘you know what, you’ve done a fucking good job, because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing?'” That seems a fair summary of what has happened so far. As this article in The Guardian also points out, she’s not one of the white, male Oxford-educated PPE graduates who seem to make up most of our cabinet at any one time.
The whole business is an omni-shambles that seems to date back to the chaos of the late 2010s when no-one could think of anything apart from Brexit; or to the austerity government of most of the 2010s; or to the quest for cheap building solutions in the from the 1950s to the 1990s, partly due to the need to repair infrastructure damage caused by, and address social inequalities exposed by, WW2; or, if you’re taking the long view, Adolf Hitler. Anyway, we have to deal with it now. It should have been sorted ages ago but it hasn’t.
Meanwhile, the Loughborough University team that alerted the government in the first place has said that “tens of thousands” of other buildings needed to be checked as well.
Anyone who dives deeper into what I write for PP each week will know that I try to cover the work of the local councils in our area, mainly West Berkshire, as closely as I can. Different councils provide different services (our administrative geography is in a rare old muddle) but all have had severely increasing costs. This is particularly the case where social care, adults and children’s, forms part of the council’s responsibilities. In West Berkshire’s case, this accounts for over 50% of its expenditure.
It’s well known that increasing life expectancy creates increasingly complex challenges for the social-care system. No proper reform of funding this has been carried out for decades. This is due to the inadmissible truth that we simply cannot afford to provide the same level of care as was promised when the welfare state was established after WW2. No government can face up to saying this: but, in the meantime, the burden of providing this care falls on councils.
The government can say that it is their responsibility to sort this out. The reality is that this is a national problem for which the councils are merely statutory agents of Whitehall. They cannot stop providing social care to balance their books, in the way that a private company can shed a service: as Boots has recently done by stopping providing an automatic repeat prescription service.
Councils cannot became bankrupt in the way that a company can but they can (on the sole authority of the chief financial officer) issue what’s known as a Section 114 notice, which is to admit that it is effectively bankrupt. New non-essential spending must be stopped and the possibility exists of direct control from Sw1 – a kind of combination of being in special measure and being on a very public naughty step.
Why does this matter to those of us who don’t live in Birmingham (or Croydon or Thurrock of other S114 victims)? Two reasons.
First, because councils provide hundreds of different services, many of them unglamorous. If you don’t live on the edge of the health, age, disability or income scales or have dependents who do then you might not benefit from these. However, the way society is organised is predicated on the idea that spending about 80% of an area’s income on about 15% of its population is morally and socially just.
The providers of most of these services are local councils, which for a long time, in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, have not been funded properly. If the services they provide collapse then so too does the social compact that has been in place since the late 1940s.
Secondly, Birmingham is not only the largest council (in terms of population) in the UK but also in Europe. If, many other financial officers in challenged authorities up and down the land must now be thinking, it can issue a S114, what’s the shame in our doing so? We should be prepared to see more of these.
It was suggested to me this week that the challenges we in the UK have with asylum seekers are as nothing compared with those faced by other European countries, the source being an online article a national paper to which I don’t have access. These figures from the US-based Pew Research Centre claim rather that the UK is accepting more of the “unauthorised immigrants” that its population would suggest.
The details of which country is accepting or being subjected to (depending on your point of view) more or fewer of these people who are (again depending on your point of view) escaping persecution or merely seeking a better life is in many respects irrelevant. Anywhere that offers a moderate climate, a stable system of governance, an inclusive welfare state and pre-existing multi-culturalism is going to be attractive to refugees of all kinds.
The UK possesses all of these advantages. It could be argued that we exploited these for the best part of two centuries across about a quarter of the world and as a result grew rich, something that as a nation we still retain. The migrants who want something better are, perhaps, a reveals of the colonial movement that Britain was som much part of.
These historical speculations aside, the crisis – no other word seems to serve – is the result of a number of chickens coming home to roost. Climate change, wars (many of which had their origins in Europe, wherever they were fought) and centuries of global inequality have led to what we are now seeing on the small boats.
You don’t do this kind of thing unless you’re desperate. Turning them back is like trying to stop the tide with a piece of plywood. Fixing the problem would involve a time machine. Expect, therefore, more of the the same. The migrant crisis is a barometer of our global satisfaction index. At the moment, is has to be regarded as pretty low. We can try to stop the boats but that ain’t going to stop the problem.
One of the signs that all other approaches have been tried to fix a problem, and that these have not succeeded, is when the latest approach is described as being “back to basics” or “common-sense”. The latest exhortation to the police from the Home Secretary to solve more crimes contains both these phrases. The new directive that “all reasonable lines of enquiry” be used to solve more crimes including small thefts and shoplifting offences sounds great but it’s slightly like passing a law that says that water must from now on flow uphill. This article in Police Professional looks at this issue but is short on any detail as to where funding might come from for what will, presumably, be a considerable extra workload.
The article makes two points which caught my attention. The first is the Home Secretary’s claim, or implication, that the first job of a place force is to be “victim-focussed.” This is a moot point. Many might say that the first job of the police is a more general one, to support the edifice of the state.
The second is the claim from Minister for Crime and Policing Chris Philp that “there is no such thing as a minor crime”. This creates another eye-catching headline but makes about as much sense as saying that there’s no such thing as a minor injury.
Years ago, sitting around chatting with some friends late one night, someone asked us to suggest what was the most frightening thing each of us could imagine finding unexpectedly. After some thought, one person suggested “finding a clown in my wardrobe.”
I knew exactly what he meant: they’re creepy things at the best of times. I was reminded of this when reading this story which had been pointed out to me by Penny Post’s occasional Wales and Cambridge correspondent, John Williams. It appears that gnomes are being left in people’s front gardens by burglars in North Wales. The police suspect that, if they aren’t removed within a few days, the thieves know the house is probably empty and can safely be broken into.
If this is true, it seems like an ingenious, if rather risky, undertaking. It could on the other hand just be someone who likes gnomes and thinks that there should be more of them seen around the place.
This also set me thinking of how the new policing guidelines (see “Basics” above) might be applied to this. Is leaving a gnome in someone’s garden a crime? It’s clearly not theft as you’re adding, not removing something, although that defence wouldn’t work for someone leaving a bomb in a restaurant. Trespass may have happened but I’m not sure if this is only a civil matter. In any case, the gnome could have been lobbed into the garden from the street. Littering, then? Is that not a civil matter as well? If, as is alleged, the motive were sinister then that would make it a criminal offence but you’d have to prove intent. The “I just like gnomes” defence might work well here.
According to the Home Secretary’s new guidelines – and as there is, according to the Minister , “no such thing as a minor crime” –this will the same level of resources as would be used to investigate a mass shooting. I look forward to news of some early arrests.
• And finally
• Spain’s women have recently won the World Cup but the occasion has not led to the outpourings of joy in the Spanish FA that one might have expected. The fall-out from that kiss continue, lawyers now having got involved (never a good sign), while the trophy-winning manager, Jorge Vilda (who is seen as a close ally of the disgraced but not departed Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales) was sacked last week. And now the female players are going on strike over money. Look – if winning the competition is causing you this many problems we’d be happy to play the match again.
• The above-mentioned PP correspondent John Williams is on fire this week as he’s also drawn my attention to this wonderful story of a man from Florida who tried to cross the Atlantic in what was in essence a giant home-made hamster wheel. To make matters more exciting, the article reports that he set off on his voyage “as officials were preparing for the arrival of a major hurricane.” Mind you, people were probably just as scathing about some of da Vinci’s ideas. “What’s that, Leo?” they’d ask as he proudly showed them a drawing of his latest contraption. “It lets you travel underwater,” he replied. “I haven’t thought of a name for it yet.” “Goes underwater?” they laughed. “Get out of here, you crazy renaissance man!”
• This reminds me of my favourite ever seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time story which I shall now once again relate (I haven’t managed to find the article so have to rely on memory). About 25 years ago a man, this time from California, thought it would be quite fun to levitate himself. He tied several large helium-filled balloons to a garden chair and, armed with only an air rifle to shoot the balloons when he wanted to descend and a six-pack of beer, cut the rope.
Unfortunately he’d got his maths wrong. Rather than rising gently to about roof-level, the chair shot up to about three thousand feet, giving him the fright of his life and completely spooking the passengers and crew of an airliner coming into land at nearby Los Angeles Airport. His gun (and his beer) having been lost during his ascent he had lost all control over the situation; if indeed he had ever had any. He drifted around for a bit like Winnie-the-Pooh until the balloons started to deflate of their own accord: then he slowly came back down to earth, only to get tangled up in some mains electricity cables just before he got there.
He survived the incident, presumably a wiser man. I can’t recall what he was charged with: where would you start? Anyway, don’t try this at home, kids…