This Week with Brian
Your Local Area
Including not such a bad day, no champagne yet, dealing with the leftovers, centralisation debates, two problems for the police, two new lows, expecting less, turning the clock back, a grilling for the DG, significant uncertainty, marking the homework, the pigeon peril, a new portfolio, a selection problem, tumbling dice, always a king, twenty-five hours a day and Hugh’s news flash.
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].
The by-elections in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire on Thursday 19 October seem like a very long time ago, and they are: a week ago, in fact, which as we all know is a very long time in politics. This is particularly the case given all the other abominable things that have been going on in the world. These elections were hailed as a disaster for the Conservatives and a triumph for Labour. I disagree.
Yes, they were a disaster for the Tories in that they lost two safe seats but such things happen at by-elections. However, I don’t think Labour should be ordering the fireworks and champagne just yet. (Mr Wolf had another way of expressing this sentiment in Pulp Fiction.)
If repeated, these vote changes would result in a Labour landslide: but they won’t be. Were by-election results to be followed at general elections we’d have a Lib Dem government. The turnout was also particularly low, some way below the average of about 50% for by-elections. The reason was that a lot of people. mainly Tories, felt they could most eloquently express their position through inertia.
In Mid-Bedfordshire, Labour’s vote was lower than in 2019, which was lower than in 2017. In Tamworth, last week’s vote was slightly higher than in 2019 but 2017’s was far higher than both of these. The idea that there had been any defection of votes to Labour thus doesn’t seem to make sense. The main reason for the defeat was that about two-thirds of the Tory voters on the last two occasions stayed at home. They were thus able to give the incumbents a good kicking by doing nothing: the people had spoken by not opening their mouths. If only half of these absentee Tory voters went back to the ballot boxes come the general election and Labour continued its current trajectory of votes, the Tories would re-take both seats. That seems to me like good news for them.
The by-elections did two other things. First, they gave the opportunity for disgruntled loyalists a chance to vent their spleen without it mattering much. Sunak doesn’t care if the party has two fewer MPS for the next year. Other cross blues up and down the country were not voting in sympathy – not that they could vote in these places, even if they wanted to (which they didn’t). Sunak will hope that’s got the dissatisfaction out of their systems.
The other big plus is that Sunak has got rid of two Tory MPs who, though for some time popular enough to command huge majorities, have in recent years fallen off the bottom the scale in terms of personal performance. Both were also closely associated with Big BoJo, Pincher because his ministerial appointment was the final straw for the Tory faithful in trusting the then PM’s judge of character; and Dorries because she was a slightly crazed cheerleader for the big man for an embarrassingly long time after the circus had been forced to pack up and leave town.
If Sunak wants to portray himself as “the change”, getting rid of these two leftovers was essential. The fact that his party lost the elections, entirely due to its own voters staying away, can be used as proof that it was distaste for the two previous incumbents and all their associations that was the problem. Were there to have been a genuine sea change for Labour then some of these people would have gone red. That, at least, is what I imagine he’s telling the faithful.
Of course, the current government is not well regarded. The Tory party’s internal debacles over the last few years won’t be forgotten. This was, after all, the party that inflicted the Truss-Kwarteng experiment on us, leaving millions of homeowners in the condition of lab rats being injected with anthrax on the principle of “that which does not kill me will make me stronger.” The problem for Sunak is that such good news as there is doesn’t seem to stick to him. In this respect, if few others, Nadine Dorries was right: he doesn’t have that X-factor. Nor, it would seem, does Kier Starmer. That’s perhaps the biggest message from the by-elections – the old was bad but the new isn’t that great either.
The progresss of the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill through parliament has produced two reverses for local government which seem to me further proof that Whitehall and Westminster have no trust whatsoever in the local councils, despite most – notorious exceptions like Croydon aside – having performed far better with matters such as the reaction to Covid than the fumbling, bumbling, one size (or three tiers) fits all approach from SW1. On 23 October, the Local Government Association (LGA) issued a statement concerning two aspects of the recent debate on the proposed legislation.
One concerned planning, a traditional battleground between national and local government. “Councils are extremely disappointed,” the LGA’s statement said, “that the Government has removed Lords amendment 82, which would have enabled local planning authorities to set fees for planning applications at a level that covers the cost of processing them. Currently, planning fees do not cover the true cost of processing applications. As a result, taxpayers are left subsidising planning services by almost £5 million a week. Planning departments are facing a significant deficit (£245.4 million in 2020/21) and experiencing growing skills and capacity challenges.”
These are quite big figures. Every party says it wants to streamline, fast-track or modernise the planning system but appears to forget that it’s a very complex – even over-complex – machine governed by and connected to numerous acts, regulations, judicial decisions and local plans. Charging a fair rate for applications seems logical given the number of things that a local planning authority (LPA) needs to consider. Whether these are always relevant is a separate matter.
There’s also the related problem of enforcement which is, amazingly, not a statutory responsibility for an LPA. None the less, not to be able to do this, as often happens, is to bring the whole process into disrepute. Either more money needs to be put into making the current machinery, including enforcing its decisions, work properly, or you abolish the whole system (as Brussels did in the 1960s and 1970s).
The LGA also criticises another piece of what I see as insane central control, as follows:
“We are also disappointed that Government have removed Lords amendment 22, which would have given councils the flexibility to use virtual meetings technologies at council meetings. This is despite 95 per cent of councils supporting the reintroduction of virtual meetings technology using a common-sense approach. We support Amendment 22B in lieu, tabled by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, which provides for a Minister to bring forward secondary legislation to specify circumstances in which councils may be permitted to hold meetings that utilise virtual meeting technology. We urge Government to accept this amendment.”
This is just bonkers. The virtual-meeting rules were introduced during the pandemic and resulted in an upturn of attendance by councillors, local ward members, local MPs, pressure groups and members of the public. To remove this choice of in-person, hybrid or virtual is the final confirmation for me of the disconnect that exists between our national government and the local representatives who, generally under- or un-paid, provide so many of the services on its behalf.
People of my generation – and my class and ethnicity – were brought up to respect the Police. There is, however, a straight line to be drawn from Dixon of Dock Green to The Sweeney to Life on Mars to Line of Duty that shows this is changing. Many groups have, with good reason, never trusted them. I’m fortunate enough to have not needed to have much to with them. I’ve also remembered my father’s advice that a happy life is largely measured by how little time you spend in the professional company of police officers, lawyers or doctors.
The Police in the UK have two unconnected problems at present, both of which are serious for all of us. The first is that the Police force of our capital city, which is also one of the world’s most important urban settlements, appears to be completely screwed up. This is the latest example of a long-overdue apology for an awful piece of law enforcement at the expense of two innocent people.
The other problem is that there seems to be no money available to investigate any crimes at all. The Gov.uk page for Police funding for England and Wales 2015 to 2023 says that for the financial year ending March 2023:
- £16,987 million in funding for policing in England and Wales has been agreed
- overall funding will increase by £1,111m (7.0%) compared with the previous financial year, in nominal terms
- overall funding will increase by 2.8% in real terms
- funding has grown in real terms for the last eight years, following a decline between the financial years ending 2011 and 2015
This may well be true: but many people and communities feel this is not translating into the resolution of crimes like vandalism, theft and shoplifting that cause personal distress. There also seems to be a low clear-up rate with crimes at the more sophisticated end of the scale including cyber-fraud and identity theft. I’m sure that the 140,000-odd Police officers in England and Wales are all working as hard as they can at whatever it is that they do. The trouble is that it’s increasingly hard to see what this is.
It may well be that a vast number of threats we never know about are nipped in the bud by the Police before they become a problem. It’s also claimed that an increasingly large number of crimes are now virtual and that much police-work is now done online. Both points may be true, but the fact is that there is probably no less physical or visible crime than there was, say, fifty years ago: it’s just that a new layer of cyber-disorder has been overlaid on this which we’re expecting the same kind of officers to solve, and still be on the beat round our cities, towns and villages. The same could be said for our attitude to other aspects of life, such as health care, social care and education, where the gap between what we expect and what we receive is often widening by the day.
People of or about my generation were brought up when when demand for services didn’t outstrip supply, Now it does. Funding for things like the Police, the NHS, the BBC, social care and education needs to increase by an amount that no one would vote for. Money alone can’t solve them anyway as the world is becoming exponentially more complex. We need to pay more – a lot more than any politician would ever dare articulate – to get them up the standard we might wish and which they might once have enjoyed. Otherwise, we’ll have to get used to getting less.
• And finally…
• The clocks go back on Saturday 29 October in the UK and the EU and several other places. The debate about whether Daylight Saving Time is a good thing or not has rumbled on for years. The EU approved the idea of scrapping it a few years ago but other more pressing concerns have intruded since then. I’m surprised that the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg – who would like to turn the clocks back a couple of hundred years, never mind an hour – have not launched a campaign to “give Britain back control of its time”. This is one thing that even he can’t blame the EU for as it was introduced here in 1916.
• The BBC’s Director General Tim Davie has been “grilled” by the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee. I imagine the members greatly enjoy these sessions as there always seems to be some aspect of the BBC’s coverage that displeases them. Currently the main row is about whether Hamas should unequivocally be called a terrorist organisation. Doubtless in anticipation of this, the corporation’s CEO for News and Current Affairs, Deborah Turness, published a blog which explained some of the editorial decisions and the challenges of reporting such a conflict. With regard to the T word, she writes that “The BBC uses the word ‘terrorist’ with attribution. When we mention Hamas, we make it clear, where possible, that they are a proscribed terrorist organisation by the UK government and others.”
A BBC spokesperson added that “every four to five years, as a matter of course we look at our editorial guidelines. That’s next due to happen next year.” The BBC is often criticised for being too this, too that or too much of the other. It’s problem is that it actually makes attempts to be objective, something which most websites, newspapers and television stations do not. Any of these can call a particular organisation terrorists or freedom fighters or whatever they choose: but it doesn’t necessarily make them so.
• Rishi Sunak has said the the UK “will not rush to regulate AI“, according to The Guardian. The report then quotes all the usual stuff about championing innovation, points of principle and so forth. He finally addresses what seems to be the crucial point: “in any case, how can we write laws that make sense for something that we don’t yet fully understand?” Very little about the world and the people that live in it is fully understood so to follow this maxim in all cases would probably result in no laws at all. One of the ways, though perhaps not the best way, that we seek to impose order on it is through legislation – this is right, this is wrong; these are terrorists, these are freedom fighters. Legislation can look at first glance like a moral code but it’s only a reflection of what the legislators can actually get done. Any law is also almost worse that useless if it can’t be enforced (see Police section above).
The Telegraph also looks at the issue of how AI might change, or change us. The article claims that “researchers admit to “significant uncertainty” about how the technology will change given rapid changes in the last year, but said it is “almost certain” that systems will become more capable as large Silicon Valley companies invest increasing sums in the technology.” I don’t think that’s very earth-shattering news. It also refers to the opinion of “experts” as to when “artificial general intelligence” – the point at which AI systems can be said to match and overtake humans – will be reached. Their considered view is sometime between the year after next and 2070. Nobody knows, in other words. But does AI know? Do we dare ask it?
• This point about regulation was touched on in the same address when the PM said that “states should not rely on private companies ‘marking their own homework‘” but I’m not sure if this refers specifically to AI or to everything. Most of us can agree on some things – that the nuclear industry should be centrally regulated but that the TCCB’s definition of the LBW law should not – but there’s a big grey area between. Worst of all, though, is having a system of regulation which manifestly doesn’t work, like a law that isn’t enforced. Step forward, once again, the water industry. The Environment Agency is meant to mark the water companies’ homework and regulate their behaviour. The analogy that springs to mind is of a process-driven teacher with a self-confidence problem who isn’t given enough money to buy the coloured pens they needs to mark the work; and who in any case knows that if any detentions are handed out the unruly pupils will ignore them, while any fines amount to only a few pence from their pocket money.
• Talking about the LBW law, England’s performance at the World Cup seems to be going from bad to worse, the recent defeat by South Africa marking a new low, rapidly overtaken by an even worse defeat to Sri Lanka. I’m going to support Afghanistan from now on. They’re also ahead of us in the table and so a better bet. Proof if proof be needed that just because we invented things like cricket, football, railways, a national health service and the postal service, that’s no guarantee that we’re still any good at them…
Across the area
• Selecting candidates
With a general election looming on the horizon, parties up and down the land are making sure that they have candidates in place for all the seats they’re going to contest. In this article, I take a look at the way these decisions can be made, with particular reference to the recent experience of West Berkshire Councillor Adrian Abbs whose attempts to stand in the new Mid-Berkshire seat were thwarted, despite his having won the vote at the Lib Dem hustings.
• A new portfolio
One of the results of this has been the appointment of Stuart Gourley to replace Adrian Abbs as the portfolio holder for Climate Action, Recycling and Biodiversity. A statement from WBC quotes him as saying that “I have long been a strong voice in my ward for improvements to the River Lambourn and wider flooding issues across Newbury. I look forward to working hard on the challenges and imperatives to help mitigate and reduce the impact of climate change and the ecological emergency. We need to keep the focus on making West Berkshire a cleaner and greener place to live, work and play.” You can read more on his appointment and the role of the Executive by clicking here.
I spoke to Stuart Gourley on 26 October and he was keen to pay tribute to Adrian Abbs’ work on this portfolio, as a shadow until May 2023 and as the actual holder since then. Stuart Gourley stressed that he, and the rest of the administration, continued to pursue the twin goals of SMATE – saving money and the environment – which Adrian Abbs had made one of his slogans.
“We’re also very keen to hear from local groups involved in any aspect of environmental work, from recycling to replanting and from waterways improvements to bio-diversity gain,” he said. “Even if you’ve been in touch with us before, please feel free to drop me a line at [email protected].and let us know what projects you’re working on.” The more he and his team know about what’s going on the more they can, if required and if appropriate, help support and co-ordinate such work. He also added that WBC was keen to learn not only what local groups are up to but also the work being done by other councils and the private sector. “We’re a listening administration” he concluded, “so please do get in touch.”
One of the first items in his in-tray was picking up on the point made by Thames Water at the recent Scrutiny Commission (SC) meeting about the multiple problems with the Northbrook Ditch and, indeed, the whole surface-water issues in the London Road Industrial Area as a whole. At the SC meeting, Thames Water suggested that three-party discussion between it, WBC and the Environment Agency should be set up to see if a holistic plan could be developed to deal with this problem once and for all. He told me that calls had been made that very morning with the aim of getting these started. This will certainly please the SC’s Chair Carolyne Culver who has for some time argued for such an approach (and not just at the LRIE) and who has been working since the meeting on ensuring that sound suggestions such as this that emerged from it are not allowed to drift into the long grass: perhaps “sink into the mud” would be a more apposite phrase.
Finding a long-term solution to these problems – which are clearly not going to get better on their own – will be an essential pre-requisite for any regeneration of the LRIE. This has been on the vision-list of successive administrations without anything much to show for it apart from an access road from the A339 (which created drainage problems of its own) and the Faraday Road debacle. This will also be good news for the down-stream residents who have long opposed any planning application in the area on the grounds of a lack of such a plan. Many might say that we are reaping the bitter harvest of decades of under-investment. That may be true: but we are where we are. Certainly some cheques will need to be written out. The matter of how much everyone will need to contribute to this remains to be seen. One of the problems is establishing exactly who is responsible for doing or maintaining what and the list of people who might find they have skin in the game could include Thames Water, WBC, the government, commercial landowners and riparian owners. The first thing is surely to work out what the problems are, suggested at the SC meeting as being many and various. It’s good that work seems to be getting under way on this.
• Residents’ news
The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers flood defences, careers, the accident at Shaw House, the grass at Faraday Road, social work, a postponed flood exhibition, cycling, pumpkins, and a fundraiser for Educafé.
• 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 (so not long now). 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 pigeons which, so The Guardian asserts, possessed of brains which solve problems in a similar way that AI does. Are pigeons thus the real emery here?
• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of Wilko, MPs, Eagle Quarter, apples and mess.
• 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. We’ve just done an interview with West Berkshire’s first ever Labour Councillor, Clive Taylor. One of the questions was to ask what his desert-island song would be. He selected the whole of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. As I wasn’t constrained by the time limits of Radio 4’s schedule, I let him have it. Good choice. Where better to turn, therefor, for the SotW than this wonderful double LP? Lauren Laverne has just confirmed that I, unlike Clive, must only pick one song from it, so let’s go for Tumbling Dice.
• So next it’s the Comedy Moment of the Week. The British government has been sold…to Honda? Really? No, of course not. It’s all made up. It’s a completely silly idea – or is it? Find out more in Hugh Laurie’s News Flash.
• And, bringing up the rear, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Who was the only person to have been King of France for his entire life? Last week’s question was: What was, or will be, the longest day of the year in 2023 in the UK? The answer is 29 October as it’s the only one which, thanks to DST, has 25 hours.
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