This Week with Brian
Your Local Area
Including gods, cultural glue, a mini-EU, distrust, new/old housing targets, isolation, poking the stick, crumbling Australians, a prize for many women, reading the almost unreadable, refugee policy and reality, aquatic scrutineers, emptying the bins, a look at the plan, 26,000 hairs per square inch, hello, a synonymous anagram, this is a low, and the only Z on the map.
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].
What’s going on in Israel and Gaza is beyond ghastly and I don’t feel qualified to add anything much to the millions of words and oceans of tears about this particular horror show. The cradle of civilisation is currently not living up to its historical name.
Having one small area of the world being the birthplace of, and sacred to, the world’s three largest monotheistic religions has long been problematic. Like members of a fractious family, they have enough in common to give them plentiful grounds for disagreeing with each other. The Prophet Mohammed arrived at an elegant solution by regarding Christians and Jews as being “people of the book” who had strayed from the true path but were none the less accorded a measure of toleration, even protection. Matters have gone downhill since then. The trouble with monotheistic faiths is that they have intolerance built in. If you’re a Christian, you believe that Jesus was the son of God. There’s no wiggle room on this. Anyone who doesn’t believe this must therefore be wrong.
Polytheistic religions were far more pragmatic. Every time you conquered another country, you just added a few of their gods to your pantheon: or, in the case of the Romans, adopted all the Greek ones wholesale and changed their names. They were also a much better reflection of the world’s manifest imperfections. In Greek Mythology, Zeus was notionally top dog but the other gods could, and did, subvert his plans in shifting alliances. A bad harvest, a military defeat or a deadly plague could all be ascribed to the displeasure or capricious malice of a particular deity, which could in turn be adjusted by prayer or sacrifice. The divine world was a reflection of the chaos of the one down below and so made a good deal of sense. Come to think to it, it still does.
Religion remains a central aspect of so many lives because it was, for centuries, used as a cultural glue by the emerging nation states and because it provided the main source of education, almost always by men. Hand-in-hand with patriotism and class or caste, religion became something you were born into and could only with difficulty escape. The monotheistic aspect left you with no choice in your favoured deity and no option but to accept that those who believed otherwise were in error.
None of this greatly mattered as long as the religions were physically distant from each other. In the Middle East, however, by a hideous accident of geography and cultural history, the world’s three monotheistic religions were in each other’s faces. For many centuries the Muslims were in control but the conquest of Jerusalem after the First Crusade in 1100 changed that for good. Imperialism, capitalism, nationalism, fundamentalism, socialism and other -isms besides have since been added to the mix. The upshot is that the area that was known as the cradle of civilisation is, and has been for centuries, one of the world’s major geo-political fault lines. The conflicts don’t always resolve around religious lines but they do often enough to make it clear to me that this is something we could well do without. Except, it seems, we can’t. It’s been part of us for too long.
The BBC reports that, according to information that’s come to light in the Covid enquiry, Boris Johnson “thought it was “wrong” for the prime minister to hold regular meetings with Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon during the pandemic.” His concern was that it “could make the UK look like a “mini-EU of four nations”.”
Sorry to burst your bubble on this one, BoJo, but that’s exactly what the UK is. Each of the four parts of the UK has its own government which has control over a wide range of matters including health policy and, then at least, lockdown rules. Not to discuss matters with them was kind of dim and divisive.
In fact, if you were looking for an example of a country which in many ways mirrors what many Brexiteers felt were the worst aspects of the EU, one could do worse than choose the UK. Here we will find the dominance of one entity over the others, a series of confusions about areas of jurisdiction, an unelected head of state, a very peculiar legislature, different legal systems and one country which is on a knife-edge about whether it wants to leave the union altogether.
Not that the UK government did much better with communicating with its local councils, which it seems to distrust even more than it does the devolved regions. When responsibility for test and trace was belatedly passed down to the local organisations that actually knew the area, there was a distinct improvement in response and communication (certainly here in West Berkshire). We may yet have cause to test this proposition again.
Kier Starmer has said that he wants to stop the block on homes being built and has promised that in the first five years of a Labour administration, 1.5m net new dwellings will be built. This is exactly the same as the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year, a figure that was last hit in 1977. Promises have also been made to “get tough with developers who tried to wriggle out of their social obligations” and to “free up funds for councils and housing associations to build more homes for rent.” This would also include, as reported in The Guardian, “ignoring local opponents of development.” A new generation of new towns was also pledged.
This is in many ways a return to the socialist ideals forged in Atlee’s post-war government and which persisted as a consensus until Thatcher drove a tank through it. The country’s housing needs in those decades were certainly considerable and many have argued that they are scarcely less so now. The fragmentation of the traditional family and increased social mobility have probably contributed as much to this as rising population: as has the fact that, although necessary and good at the time, a lot of the stuff built in the late 20th century was a bit rubbish. Much of it is also in the wrong place or the wrong size. Nor is most of our existing housing stock in a condition that could be called environmentally sustainable, or capable of easily being converted to this. One of the new government’s first tasks in late 2024 or early 2025, of whatever complexion it is, is to get a grip on the Future Homes Standard and establish some rules that can be followed.
There are two big problems here. First, as matters stand pretty much the entire government housebuilding programme has been outsourced to the private sector which dances to the tune of profit rather than government policy. Second, local planning authorities have been financially impoverished for years and are often unable to enforce conditions that are imposed. They also have to meet centrally-set housing targets.
The whole system also operates against the backdrop of speculative land banking which has turned potential housing sites effectively into a trade-able commodity. All in all, the connection between social need and actual supply has been severed. It could therefore be argued, as some have done, that the planning system and the hosing system are both broken.
It’s certainly hard to see how the current system can provide enough “affordable” or social-rent homes. I’ve lost count of the number of planning applications where the developer has tried to reduce or eliminate this demand, sometimes successfully simply because affordable homes aren’t as profitable. Nor is it easy to see how homebuilders will construct dwellings that have the extra costs of sustainable features until the day comes – and it hasn’t come yet – when purchasers refuse to pay top-dollar for ones that don’t: much like, about forty years ago, we all expected homes to have central heating.
State intervention has a useful role to play in dealing with a crisis or redressing the naked instincts of capitalism. I’ve long thought that if the government wants to have more affordable and sustainable homes it needs to build them itself, or empower its councils to do so. It’s too early to say if Labour’s rhetoric is any more than that. There are a lot of vested interests that these days legislation cannot overcome. The test will be not so much what is promised in a year or so’s time but what, if elected, his government will be able to provide.
On the theme of buildings put up in the late twentieth century sometimes being a bit rubbish, in mid-october there are still stories of kids who are having to have lessons on-line at home because RAAC has caused all or part of their schools to close. It’s Covid all over again.
We’re so lucky in that the pandemic only affected the last couple terms of our youngest son’s A-levels. Humans are intensely social animals and we learn pathways through relationships and the moods and needs of others by example. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Covid babies are still struggling with social skills.
I can offer a personal perspective on this. I was the only surviving offspring of parents who were, being in their early 40s, then regarded as elderly. I lived much of my childhood in my own head, full of Winnie-the-Pooh, train sets and the wolves who lived under my bed. One day when I was about six, my parents set up a tent in the local park in an effort to get me to interact with some children of my own age. They were intrigued and clustered round. I interacted all right: I went in with a sharp stick and poked it at any face that I saw coming through the opening.
I don’t feel too bad about this now (though I’m not proud of it). A part of me is still poking sticks at people who want to get too close. My parents dealt with their appalling son by packing him off to boarding school: although one was a nest of paedophiles, I managed to escape that and become moderately socialised (with a few strange incidents along the way). None the less, I’m aware that half a century later I still regard many aspects of the world with distrust and my own company as something to be guarded against intrusions.
For many kids less fortunate than me, Covid and RAAC and other forms of social disruption like dysfunctional families, abuse or neglect leave lasting scars that, for the victim, take a lifetime to recover from and, for the state, take a lifetime to repay. In the past, early-years intervention was often callous and counter-productive. Now it is in general not. There are a lot of wonderful organisations like the Hungerford Nursery School and Centre for Children and Families that can help avoid a lifetime of problems. For reasons which escape me, this and the country’s other maintained nursery schools have been under a funding axe for as long as I can remember. Address any issue early and you’re OK. Leave it too late and it becomes really expensive, or can’t be dealt with at all.
So, Kier Starmer, housing is important: but early-age care is even more so.
• And finally…
• One of the strangest things about the Cricket World Cup so far has been seeing the Australians completely crumble not once but twice: so much so, indeed, that against South Africa they effectively gave up the run chase half way through and started trying to play test-match cricket to protect their net run rate (which is used to determine placings when teams are level on points). Oddest of all is that they don’t seem to have any fight, which is not something I’d expected to write about them. They don’t play England until 4 November by which them they might have got their mojo back (or hopefully not).
• The Conversation covers the recent Nobel peace prize, won by Narges Mohammadi “on behalf of thousands of Iranian women struggling for human rights.” The article adds that the award comes as women across Iran and around the world “continue to protest the treatment of women in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of morality police, for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s dress code for women.” It’s hard to think of a more idiotic thing than a mandatory dress code for women, unless it’s all the other injustices that are visited upon females in that part of the world.
• The arguments continue as to whether artificial intelligence is (a) the best thing since the last best thing (b) going to kill us all. Another tick on the credit side of the balance sheet was added this week with the news that it seems to be able to help decipher some words on ancient scrolls burned in AD79 when Herculaneum and Pompeii had a little bit of trouble with that naughty volcano. Mind you, is it such a good thing that things can be read which are tightly sealed up or completely carbonised? I don’t know what to think any more. Maybe I can ask ChatGPT to tell me…
Across the area
This issue, already complex and divisive enough, has recently acquired a faintly party-political aspect in the district. In this separate post, I take a look at some of claims that have been made and also compare the official guidance with what is actually happening on the ground. it would appear that flip-flipping and poor communication from SW1 is the real issue. I also suggest that the local parties here in West Berkshire have far more in common than they have differences on this issue. This seems like one of those situations where a united front could produce a lot of benefits.
• Water scrutiny
WBC’s Scrutiny Commission (OSC) met on 11 October and had representatives from Thames Water (TW) and the Environment Agency (EA) in the hot seats. A large number of questions were tabled by councillors, interest groups and members of the public. As well as the people from TW and the EA and the members of the OSC there were also three additional councillors, seven local interests groups and about twenty members of the public (most of whom started off by protesting outside and then joined the meeting as spectators). You can see the agenda, in due course the minutes and a video of the whole three-hour session by clicking here.
“I was very pleased with the meeting,” the OSC Chair Carolyne Culver told Penny Post the following day. “There were plenty of good questions a lot of ground was covered. Sewage discharges obviously featured prominently but the discussion also covered other related areas including surface- and groundwater and the ever-troublesome Northbrook Ditch in Newbury. My next task is to ensure that some positive action emerges from the session.”
One of the things that struck me was the admission from TW that the problems at Northbrook Ditch in Newbury were numerous, complex and serious and required a holistic surface water management plan to address. TW and the EA offered to set up a three-cornered discussion involving WBC in order to consider this. I feel that some of the local experts at the event should perhaps also be invited to participate. One of them at least, Paula Sanderson, appears to know more about this issue than most other people in the district.
There also seem to be some encouraging signs that the EA may be being taken more seriously by the government. For many years it’s been starved of funds, or so it’s claimed, which has made it hard for it to do its job. This seems to be improving. Another additional source of revenue should come when the regulations are changed to enable any fines levied on water companies to remain in the water-management sector, rather than vanish into the pockets of the Treasury.
I was also impressed by how knowledgeable the various interest groups were and how they on several occasions had access to and familiarity with data that surpassed that of the EA and TW. This is obviously good in one way but it’s also slightly depressing that such a level of expertise, data mining and detail retention is required by local charities or by groups run entirely by volunteers. To some extent, they are doing TW and the EA’s job for them – though, of course, without much or anything in the way of official standing. They’re certainly now needed more than ever.
Some attendees were left unimpressed by what they heard. “Although Thames Water set out some of the actions they were doing to address raw sewage discharges,” WBC Councillor Stuart Gourley (whose Clay Hill wars includes the Northbrook Ditch) told Penny Post, “it does not fill me with confidence that they will be able to deliver this and the remedial actions to reduce the discharges that are so desperately needed. Thames Water is currently rated a two-star water supplier (requiring significant improvement) by the EA.
“I don’t feel the actions shared yesterday will shift the dial enough to improve the network and improve our waterways, and it will be our ecology and Thames Water customers that will lose out.”
Howard Woollaston, the ward member for Lambourn (another area which has suffered badly for sewage problems) watched the meeting on Zoom and offered some thoughts in his monthly ward update. He described TW’s presentation as “impressive” if sometimes “economical with the truth” and the EA’s as “wooly” and “not inspirational.”
TW is in many ways in an unenviable position but it’s at one largely of its own making. For decades after privatisation the good times rolled. It’s now clear that insufficient investment was made. Increasing development, deteriorating infrastructure, the reduction of permeability of farmland and climate change have all contributed. All could have been predicted. There then followed the sale by the previous majority shareholders which led to TW becoming heavily indebted. In addition, in the last few years, the company’s track record has been subjected to a glare of public scrutiny, none of it complementary. Investment is being stepped up now (the 2025-30 infrastructure plan shows a 40% increase on 2020-25’s) but more should have happened before.
TW could claim that at least its discharges system is keeping sewage out of home. However, it’s now being made clear to them that people don’t want it dumped in the rivers either. TW could further claim that there are problems beyond their control, such as domestic drainage mistakenly being connected to the foul-water pipes or badly maintained private sewers overloading the system. These may have some merit but that still doesn’t explain the underwhelming performance to date.
All in all, it’s slightly like listening to someone who’s earned a nice fat salary all their life but not put any of it away and is now complaining that they can’t afford to fix their leaking roof.
All in all, the meeting probably accomplished as much as it could have expected to: few earth-shattering announcements but plenty of questions; no dramatic breakthroughs but plenty of material to work with to ensure that progress is made. It would also have left the two organisations in no doubt that WBC and local residents regard the current situation as serious and untenable.
• The local plan
As previously mentioned, the new WBC administration wants to have a re-think on the draft local plan that was submitted by the previous administration just before the May election. This matter is in the hands of the Planning Inspector. The main change that’s requested concerns the divisive THA20 site in NE Thatcham. The Inspector asked about 75 questions of WBC following its request to pause the process: however, many of these do not concern NE Thatcham but touch rather on other aspects of the mammoth document on which further clarity is needed. These are the kind of things that would have come up during the examination.
It’s no surprise that the technical document of this size contains ambiguities. This all shows just how protracted and cumbersome the whole process is. Reforms have been promised to this, indeed to the whole planning system. Most people agree that there are some things wrong with the current arrangement: The trouble is, no one group or party appears to agree on where best to start on fixing it.
As far as WBC is concerned, there does therefore seem to be recognition from the Inspector that the THA20 changes are reasonable, particularly given the change of administration, and that the changes proposed only affect one part of the plan, albeit a strategic one. The overall housing numbers are unlikely to be changed and there’s also a dispute as to whether so-called “windfall” developments can contribute towards these (it seems odd that they shouldn’t). WBC should also be able to demonstrate that other sites, such as Colthrop, exist and are now being examined as possibilities to an extent that, for whatever reason, they previously weren’t. It also doesn’t seem likely that the Inspector will send the whole thing back and say “sorry, too much work to do – you have to ratify it as it is.”
• Emptying the bins
WBC has said that it “is aware that pay discussions are ongoing” between the GMB union and Veolia, the Council’s waste and recycling contractor. “This is not currently affecting the services we provide, and our waste collections and other services continue as usual until residents are informed otherwise. If talks are unsuccessful, it is possible that industrial action will be taken and will cause some disruption to household waste collections.”
The statement adds that “Veolia and West Berkshire Council officers have together been working on contingency plans to minimise disruptions to residents if a strike goes ahead.”
• Residents’ news
The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers World Mental Health Day, free heating appliance safety testing, emergency gas works, possible waste-collection strikes (see above), careers, legal networking, getting back to work, consultations, local authors, Their Finest House, local drama, Roman activities and dealing with litter.
• 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.
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.
• Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire 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 area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area.
• Other news
• Click here for more information on getting involved in a Berkshire-wide project to develop a Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LNRS).
• WBC is consulting on its draft Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Strategy, which is open until midnight on Sunday 29 October 2023. For more information on this, including how to participate, click here.
• West Berkshire Council has announced some improvements to the district’s bus services, mainly involving Newbury, Thatcham and Mortimer.
• 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.
• The animals of the week are these snow leopards, possibly the most beautiful animals on earth. They’re tough, too, able to withstand temperatures as low as –40º, thanks in p[art to having a staggering 26,000 hairs per square inch all over their body.
• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of refugees, traffic lights, a sporting debacle, diabetes and refugees.
• 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 we arrive at the Song of the Week. I was always more on Team Blur than team Oasis during the great Britpop debate, perhaps because I’m a southerner or perhaps because Liam Gallagher was just a little bit too much. Here’s one of my favourites of theirs from the excellent Parklife LP. it’s also perhaps the only song written about the BBC Shipping Forecast – This is a Low.
• So next must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Let’s have a bit more Pete and Dud – here they are with the silly and slightly surreal Hello.
• And, finally, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What’s the only tube station in London that has a “Z” in its name?” (still smarting from not getting this at the Valley Film Society quiz last weekend as I used to live near there.) Last week’s question was: What connects the word “astronomers” and the phrase “moon starers”? The answers is that they’re anagrams of each other.
For weekly news sections for Hungerford area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area please click on the appropriate link.a