This week with Brian 19 to 26 October 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including lots of candidates, a look back to ’83, indoctrination, Covid questions, lost passwords, speaking with one voice, dealing in doubt, investment, speaker confusion, belt and road, pure and fair, a simple game, the fool on the hill, water, refugees, refuse settlement, a recycling award, a black panther speaks, Colonel Bogey, The Smiths, the longest day and Belsize Park.

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

With the news from the Middle East providing fresh layers of horror every day, I thought you might welcome something in a slightly lighter vein by way of a change. One matter that certainly ticks this box is a look at the candidates in the two by-elections in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire in Thursday 19 October.

[more below]

• Candidates

By-elections are notoriously fickle guides for judging the outcome of a general election. Their main purpose is to give the incumbent party a bit of a kicking before everyone reverts to voting, at the serious election, according to who they want (or least don’t want) to form the next government. For a loyal but disenchanted Conservative voter, a protest vote in either of these two contests will probably get the message home without undue risk of their losing the seat, so vast are the majorities. Labour is, however, about 17% ahead in the polls which means…well, I don’t know what it means. Anything could happen, I suppose.

By-elections also present an opportunity for minor parties which can’t normally command much attention to get time in the sun. Few were as diverse, divisive and toxic as the infamous Bermondsey by-election in 1983 when I lived in the constituency (see my belated report on it here). 16 candidates stood on that occasion (for reasons I explain, it should have been 17), which was then a record. It’s now only joint fifth in this league table, the top spot going to the contest in Haltemprice and Howden in 2008 which a staggering 26 people contested. Five of the candidates did not even manage to attract that number of votes. The field included Make Politicians History, Church of the Militant Elvis, David Icke, someone called Mad Cow-Girl and no fewer than 13 Independents.

Neither Tamworth not Mid-Befordshire can offer such riches but there are still a few stand-outs.

In Tamworth’s election (caused by the resignation of Chris “pincher” Pincher for drunken groping), there’s a candidate for UKIP. The Brexit business now being over, I don’t quite understand what this party is doing out and about any more, but there it is. Two of the things he promises are “defeating the woke madness” and “stopping the indoctrination of our children”, though he doesn’t say what particular indoctrination he’s against. The study of European history? The theory of evolution? The metric system?

Meanwhile, Britain First’s candidate vows to “deport every foreign criminal, every illegal immigrant and send back every boat”, which is simply a milder version of what successive Home Secretaries have been saying for some time.

Mid-Bedfordshire was once held by Nadine Dorries, She promised to stand down in the early summer but took her time about it, in the process prompting some tetchy emails from local councils in the constituency. The BBC quotes one local party member as saying “It’s bad enough when an MP packs it in to take a seat in the House of Lords. She has packed it in because she didn’t get one.”

Those vying to fill her shoes include the former Mayor of Flitwich, standing for the Monster Raving Loonies, who promises to “replace employees of the Border Force with GP receptionists” to “dramatically reduce the number of people getting in” and to sort out train delays by “setting all clocks late by at least 10 minutes.” 

Another candidate wants to tackle air pollution and the shortage of social housing: laudable aims, though his name of Prince Ankit Love, Emperor of India might put a few people off.

Other parties standing there include ones called Mainstream, True and Fair and the English Democrats. The latter candidate not only rejects the pursuit of net zero but also “all the profane novelties which have plagued modern society.” There could be quite a lot of these. It will certainly be bad news for games companies, social-media outfits and those who earn a living from buying things to put in Christmas crackers if the English Democrats sweep to power. 

• Covid

The Covid enquiry grinds on, providing a steady drip-drip of embarrassment to the then government of the day and which paints a picture of an administration at odds with itself and run on a strange mixture of whims, contradictions and misunderstandings. Yes, I know that there was a crisis and I know that the situation was unprecedented as regards the reaction demanded from the public: but the mixture of flip-flopping and flip-flamming just got too much, as we’re starting to have proved to us. On the latter point, the enquiry will in due course be looking at some of the PPE contracts, many of which are microcosms of HS2 as regards quality control, deliverability and value for money.

Then you have the gruesome spectacle of the then and the current PM seemingly unable to find or unwilling to release crucial texts and messages. I’ve just decided that I’m not going to vote for any party again unless the leader can give me a categorical assurance that they know the password for their phone.

As for the regulations (remember all those tiers?), they were almost impossible to make sense of. Police forces also interpreted them in wildly differing ways, at times straying well beyond the boundaries of common sense. For a lot of the time, no one knew what they were meant to be doing or not doing. This is not, however, an excuse that BoJo can logically use as he signed off the rules. Few summaries of the early stage of the confusion are better than this brief clip by Matt Lucas. The situation didn’t get much better in the months and years that followed.

Our son Adam was in Vietnam for a six-week trip when Covid struck and ended up staying there for eighteen months. From what I can gather the country seemed to have two different tiers. Tier one was a complete lockdown of virtually everyone and everything with armed police roaming the streets and local vigilantes reporting people who were breaking the rules. Tier two was business as usual.

This has a delightful binary simplicity that few could fail to grasp. Tier one was also possible there because the population seems to have some respect for, or perhaps fear of, their government: also because Vietnam’s recent history has given it a very tough lesson in how to deal with existential threats. Neither of these apply to the UK. Certainly our political leaders are not held in particularly high regard. What’s coming out the Covid enquiry is unlikely to improve this.

We were frequently told, and probably all wanted to believe, that “the best science” spoke infallibly and with one voice. This was not the case. One might as well talk of “the best politics”. The Guardian contrasts the “Go hard, go early and go wider than you would have” position of the government’s then Chief Scientific Addvisor Patrick Vallance with that of Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh. Woolhouse claims that this would have worked were the aim to eradicate the virus but said that he didn’t think, even “from very early on that this was even the remotest possibility.”

The result was the restrictions of lockdown – which as we now know were followed in different ways by different people – the long-term consequences of which were, he believes under-estimated. He terms the whole lockdown business “a failure of public-health policy.” To make matters even more confused, he supported the regulations at the time but has since changed his mind.

There was a similar divergence between government and science as a result of the the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme in 2020. the current Chief Scientific Advisor to the government,Angela McLean, referred to the then Chancellor and current PM as “Doctor Death” in September 2020. Professor John Edmunds said that “It was one thing to take your foot off the brake but another to put your foot on the accelerator,” However, the government obviously felt that, for political and societal reasons, some relaxation was needed. Both points of view have merit even if, epidemiologically, the scientists were proved right. 

The novelty at the time was that scientists were speaking on the same podium as government and were, it appeared, therefore on an equal footing with our elected leaders, their SPADs and their spouses. Politicians deal in certainty, or pretend that they do. “Brexit has been done”, “turn back the boats”, “£350 million a week for the NHS”, “we have the answer, the other lot doesn’t”. At times of crisis you need, in order to engage public attention and buy-in, to give a precise summary of where matters are, even if this is complete fiction. “The enemy has been pushed back to there”, “we have re-grouped here”, “the number of casualties is falling”, “we’re going to win.” Scientists were drafted into this partly because it was obviously a situation on which science would have an opinion and partly because it was hoped in Downing Street that quoting “the best science” would give an imprimatur to the decisions that it took.

This might have worked, in part at least, if Downing Street had understood what the scientists were saying and not, as Patrick Vallance claims, rewritten advice to suit its needs and used experts as “human shields” for the government. It was also suggested that “Cabinet ministers were given scripts to read out, and conclusions were drafted in advance, so problems were simply not grappled with.” None of this is the way a good scientist would approach a problem.

It’s also true that, as mentioned above, the scientists did not speak unanimously. Although it deals with empirical things like numbers, science principally deals with doubt. A scientist can’t prove that all the air molecules in a room won’t suddenly decide to gather in one corner but can only suggest why this is very unlikely. Even matters such as evolution, the big bang, photosynthesis or climate change can most accurately be termed not proven facts but merely the best theory we have at the moment. To believe, as most people did five hundred years ago, that everything revolved around the earth was perfectly logical based on the evidence of their senses and the available technology. Now we know better: or think we do. In five hundred years time, people may laugh at heliocentrism and, in their turn, be equally certain that they are right.

Something of this nature was taking place during the pandemic. Research into all aspects of Covid took place at breakneck speed and new aspects of its likes and dislikes were emerging and being debated at a far greater pace than could ever be incorporated into any political messaging. We thus had the strange situation of a group of people who had sold certainty to the electorate trying to have this supported by another group of people who were, for the best possible reasons, unable to provide it. Both sides are, as the various revealed messages have shown, clearly piqued at the other’s inability to understand the very different nuances of their responsibilities.

It’s perhaps suggestive that there has only ever been one UK Prime Minister with a science degree (Thatcher). Most of the rest have been Oxford PPE graduates. It’s also worth noting that Thatcher, more than any other PM since Churchill, had an absolute and so perhaps unscientific certainty about what she wanted to accomplish, certainly on social and economic policy. I’m not sure where this leaves my theory: in tatters, probably. But in suggesting a reason to oppose my own proposition, I am, perhaps, demonstrating good science. I doubt, however, that this would make me a good politician. I can live with that.

• Investment

The National Infrastructure Commission has said, as quoted in Business Green, that “public and private infrastructure investment needs to rise by tens of billions of pounds to deliver on net zero and levelling up ambitions, saving households thousands of pounds a year in the process.” The Guardian adds that the NIC’s report claims that investment of “about £30bn a year from the taxpayer and £40bn to £50bn a year from the private sector, would result in savings to the average household of at least £1,000 a year, higher economic productivity, and a better quality of life in the future.”

I don’t know how this test or these figures might have been seen in the 1830s when the country was on the cusp of building a network of railways, water pipes, sewers and roads that are to a large extent the ones we still use to this day. It seems both dismal and inexplicable to me that the world’s sixth-richest country seems to have so little confidence in its own ability to create assets that would be enjoyed by the bulk of the population thirty or eighty or a hundred and ninety years hence. All we seem to have come up with recently is HS2, the money wasted on which “could have covered the purchase of over 280,000 new homes across the locations that were due to benefit from the high-speed rail network” according to this article in Mortgage Strategy.

Of course, building housing would not have required the same level of involvement by management consultants as did HS2. This seems to be the main group of people that Whitehall wishes to propitiate, spending in their direction being the sharp end of £3 billion in 2022. What would Brunel or Bazalgette have said?

• And finally…

• The nerve-wracking business of England’s qualification for a football tournament has been overcome following the 3-1 defeat of Italy this week. There are some encouraging signs – if Jude Bellingham is not the best player in the world at present I’d very much like to know who is – but we must remember that qualification for a major finals is only the cue for a massive outpouring of popular optimism followed by a defeat on penalties. As Gary Lineker observed, “football is a very simple game. For 90 minutes 22 people chase a ball around a field and in the end the Germans win.” Or the Italians. What baffles me is that the England team is being described as a “golden generation”, akin to that in the early 2000s. Neither of them won anything. Hats off also to Scotland, who qualified from a tough group with two games to spare. Wales’ fate remains uncertain. The two Irelands are out.

• Hats off also to both Afghanistan (who easily beat England) and Holland (ditto v South Africa) in the other important tournament going on at the moment, the Cricket World Cup (Apparently there’s a game called rugger or something that’s having one at present as well but you’ll have to look that up for yourself). This is just the kind of thing that the game needs. The current format is brilliant: the ten teams play each other once and the top four in the table make up the semi-finals. Pure, fair and simple.

• If you want me to explain what’s going on with the attempts in the USA to elect a Speaker for the House of Representatives then I’m afraid I can’t. To hark back to the previous two paras, it seems a bit like having the teams on the field but no one able to agree who the referees or umpires should be. This is, though, the most powerful nation on earth, so people are watching. Then we have the prospect of the US election, which looks like it will be conducted between the same two people as before (which I think is unprecedented). Both of them or their relations are embroiled in high-profile court cases, which seems to be a kind of seal of authority to contest for high office in that country. China, Russia and others must be looking on with a mixture of amazement and satisfaction.

• Putin has little to giggle about, however. Nor, it seems, does Xi Jinping, his belt-and-road initiative for complete transport, infrastructure and investment dominance of the world by next Thursday having run into a few problems. One is the accusation of “debt-trap diplomacy”, whereby developing countries are persuaded to part with mineral or other rights in exchange for costly infrastructure projects which are paid back on the never-never. It seems that a number of countries like Malaysia, Kenya and Tanzania have had second thoughts. Xi probably isn’t worrying too much, however, as it seems to have fixed some domestic problems (though others remain) and produced some diplomatic benefits. In any case, nothing seems to be working perfectly for anyone at the moment.

• It seems that Stella McCartney, who has quite a famous dad (as she’s probably fed up with people saying) has applied for permission to build a house in north-west Scotland. Two things about the story caught my eye. The first is that the proposed house seems to be stunningly ugly and will, I imagine, garner quite a few objections. The second is that it’s near the village of Lochailort, which is also the name of the owners and (if permission is granted) the developers of Newbury’s Kennet Centre, a building that’s in urgent need of being pulled down and replaced by something else. A call to Lochailort’s MD Hugo Haig confirmed that the company had nothing to do with this but just happened to have been named after the village. He also pointed out that it was one of the locations used in the excellent film Local Hero.

It being a remote area, it will be a long and winding road to get the building materials on site if the council lets it be and, if so, contractors can be expected to be here, there and everywhere in the district. It’s to be hoped that the site is sound enough to carry that weight. She might be termed a fool on the hill by the area’s Mother Nature’s sons for proposing such a scheme but she clearly wants to get it into her life. On the plus side, it’s probably a good place from which to follow the sun, while the proposed low-level design would make it easy, should she be so moved, to come in through the bathroom window, [I think that’s enough Beatles’ songs. (Ed.)]. However it could prove a difficult location to get someone to drive their car to come out to fix a hole, particularly as Stella McC might well be the kind of person who wants it done by yesterday. [Please stop now. (Ed.)]…

Across the area

• Emptying the bins

Following recent reports that there might be a refuse-collection strike in the disrteict, BBC told Penny Post on 16 October that “an agreement on pay has been reached between GMB union and Veolia. This removes the potential for disruption to our waste services and so we are pleased to confirm these will continue as usual.”

• Refugees

As mentioned last week, 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-flopping 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

Also as mentioned last week, 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.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers poetry, black history month, Thatcham Library, road updates, Badgers Hill opening, recycling, celebrating excellence, careers, public meetings, numeracy courses, household support, half-term and Halloween activities and a wedding fair.

• 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

• Congratulations to WBC’s Waste Team which was one of the four finalists in the Circular Economy Achievement category at the recent LARAC (Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee) conference celebration awards.

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 is this black panther which (sort of) narrates grew story of one hunt. We’ve got a cat just like him, right down to the white mark on the chest, although fortunately ours is only about eighteen inches long.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of realism, support from Adrian, missed targets, reduced speeds and obesity.

• 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 come to the Song of the Week. Haven’t had The Smiths for a bit so let’s remedy that. I’ve picked Ask: partly because Johnny Marr’s guitar parts and sound are both particularly gorgeous; and partly because it contains possibly my favourite lyric of all time – “Spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg.”

• So next it’s the Comedy Moment of the Week. Some more Dudley Moore, this time with him sat at the piano and performing the Colonel Bogey March in the style of Beethoven. It’s not often one can say of a piece of music “what a funny coda”: but one can about this one.

• And, bringing up the rear, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What was, or will be, the longest day of the year in 2023 in the UK? Last week’s question was: What’s the only tube station in London that has a “Z” in its name?” The answer is Belsize Park.

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.a

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