This week with Brian 2 to 9 November 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including something odd in the seventeenth century, a long run in prospect, an ample justification, three flawed people, dysfunction, all for one, bad arrows, no guarantees, bottom of the table, dismal pumpkin stamping, council investments, investigations, all the animals, Shakespeare and the Bible, strange words, an awful conference call and a very short reign.

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

Something odd happened in England in the 1640s and ’50s. As a result of the Civil Wars and the Revolution and interregnum that followed, the structures of government all but broke down and a huge number of ideas appeared about how things might or should be done better. A quarter of all books published in the country between 1475 and 1700 saw the light of day in these two decades. A vast number of tracts, edicts and pamphlets were produced. Although some were burned, censorship was fitful and mainly ineffective. For the first time, people then (and historians now) could see the workings of the state and the thought processes of the rulers and the ruled first-hand.

[more below]

• Enquiry

Something slightly of that nature is taking place at the Covid enquiry. This finally got going in June 2023 and is set to run for some time yet. We’re not used to seeing all the messages, texts, notes and whiteboard presentations of those in power laid bare and pored over, and live-streamed, in forensic detail by lawyers. There was a bit of a tustle to get all of the leaders to release their WhatsApp messages, not helped by several cases of password amnesia and some convenient deletions. Eventually, everything was gathered, indexed, filed, redacted, digitised, collated and distributed and the caravanserai lumbered into action, Heather Hallett presiding.

As in the mid-17th century, this is a rare opportunity to see the machinery of government in operation. We normally only see the results, or perhaps the small parts that directly concern us. Most of the time we look no further than this. For two reasons, though, Covid was different.

First, when you have over 230,000 deaths from one previously unheard of source in a few years, the relatives and the survivors are going to want to understand what went on. Second, the way that the matter was handled at the top left pretty much all of us with the increasing suspicion that the ship of state was not being piloted as well as it might have been, either because the ship was damaged or because the officers were making mistakes or bickering amongst themselves about who should hold the wheel or in what direction and how quickly it should be turned.

So far, the findings of the enquiry have amply justified all these concerns. The over-arching defence is that this was a problem unprecedented in its speed, ferocity and uncertainty and that few countries acquitted themselves brilliantly. Against this can be argued that the UK is rich, had run several dummy exercises in the years before the pandemic, that the NHS had been allowed to get into the condition of a set of badly worn tyres and that, in the final analysis, a government’s main role is to protect the country against existential threats.

The hearing earlier this week mainly featured two people: the former PM’s former advisor Dominic Cummings and the former Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen McNamara. In their very different ways, both painted a picture of the Cabinet and Cabinet Office, Number Ten, the Department of Health and the civil service existing in a state of increasing mutual distrust. Both suggested that the fact that there was no plan to follow, and no successful attempt to create one as matters developed, caused many of the problems that ensued.

However, as McNamara commented on 1 November, the deep-seated problems that she discovered in the Cabinet Office in the early months of the pandemic “didn’t come from nowhere.” All organisations take their characteristics from the people at the top: so let’s have a quick look at Johnson, Hancock and Cummings.

Two things seem to have come out of the recent testimonies. The first is that Cummings distrusted Johnson and Hancock; that Johnson distrusted Hancock; and that Johnson (who despite supporting him after the Barnard Castle debacle) distrusted Cummings. Hancock may well have distrusted all of them. The statements from Cummings this week were particularly weird. Many of his remarks showed how little faith he had in BoJo, despite the fact that he had helped get him into Number Ten in the first place.

The personalities of the three main actors are also worth considering. The former Downing Street Director of Communications Lee Cain told the enquiry earlier this week that the then PM had “the wrong skill-set” to handle the crisis. The same could be said of all three of them.

Johnson has, as has now been proved, a relationship with the truth so distant that they might be said to be living apart. He also has the journalist’s desire to file any copy at the last minute, the narcissist’s compulsion to be noticed and the politician’s desire to be liked. All the testimony also suggested that he didn’t understand the science, changed his mind frequently and was obsessed with the economic rather than human aspects of the crisis. He also said that the elderly should “accept their fate” and wondered if a “special hairdryer” – presumably made by people he knew – could deal with the virus. Donald Trump would have been proud of him.

Hancock appears, based on the calm and compelling evidence of Helen McNamara and others, to have been both a fantasist and a liar, regularly referring during the early months of the crisis to initiatives which he claimed to have sorted, many of which turned out not to have been realised or even started. We seem to be dealing with a man who, however brilliant his Oxford PPE degree, was unfit for a role in a crisis. To remove him might, for Boris, have been to admit at a febrile time that he’d made a mistake. So Hancock’s tenure continued until he was released from it by a lockdown-breaking snog with his assistant: a suitable end to a career, in the circumstances.

As for Cummings, it’s perhaps better to pass over most of his utterances in silence. As the enquiry chose not to redact any of his profanities, we shall not either. Two might suffice. He described the Cabinet as “useless fuckpigs” and the above-mentioned Helen McNamara as a “cunt” whom he’d like to “personally handcuff and escort from the building.” Asked if this made him a misogynist, he denied it, claiming he was “much ruder to the men.” He admitted at the enquiry that, following the 2019 election, one of his plans was to oust BoJo and replace him with someone else. He appears to have been drunk on his own powers of iconoclasm and manipulation.

This, then, was the leadership team on which we were relying in the early days of the crisis.

Helen McNamara painted an even darker picture, of a dysfunctional Cabinet Office and Number Ten that were odds with each other and within themselves. People were “working outside their structures and their competences” and as a result were unhappy, stressed and panicky. On her return from a bout of Covid she took steps to address this.

A May 2020 report that she and her opposite number at Number Ten produced described, in a footnote that didn’t make it into the final report, the atmosphere as one of a “superhero bunfight.” She later wrote of her concern that the crisis had led to “a circumnavigation of Cabinet governance” with the bizarre result that sometimes the Shadow Cabinet members were better briefed and informed when asking questions of the Chief Medical and Chief Scientific officers than were the Cabinet members themselves.

There were also details she mentioned that tell their own stories. One that sticks in my mind is that it took seven months for hand sanitiser to get installed by the door between the Cabinet Office and Number Ten which had a touchpad and handle that were being used hundreds of times a day. 

None of this gives a good impression of how our system of government works. A crisis will expose the flaws: but the flaws remain when the storm or earthquake has subsided. So far, the enquiry has shown that three deeply flawed people were in charge in the early days and twisting terms like “the best science” (with not a science degree between them) to suit their own ends. And still the enquiry grinds remorselessly on. A lot more to follow, I suspect.

• Trolling

The athletes Bianca Williams and Ricardo do Santos have said that they are shocked by the amount of money – currently over £150,000 – that has been raised for the two Constables who were sacked by the Met for gross misconduct following their botched and allegedly racist arrest in 2020. I take her point, although people can give money to whomsoever they choose.

On the matter of Williams’ claim that they’re being trolled as a result of having caused these officers to lose their jobs, however, I’m right with her. I would love to know how many of the people whom she said had posted such messages would dare to have said the comments to her face. None, probably. I suggested during an April-fool article a few years ago that this was something Facebook was looking into. Perhaps Mark and Elon might want to consider making “you’re going have to say this to the person yourself” and “you’re drunk” reasons for not posting comments or messages.

The trolling is bad enough. What’s more worrying is that the “all for one and one for all” attitude of a group in combat seems to be part of the Police’s mentality: that anyone who criticises a fellow officer is wrong, no matter what. The Hell’s Angels (see Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels) and football hooligans (see John King’s The Football Factory) both display the same sentiment. These groups are, like gangs, consciously and perhaps joyfully outside what most regard as society’s rules. This attitude by them is thus completely rational: to whom else will they turn for support but themselves? For the police –who are meant to protect us against such infractions – to have similar mindsets is, however, deeply disquieting.

• Stamping

Opinions differ as to whether Halloween is a bit of harmless sweet-gathering fun, an ungodly celebration of the profane or an irritating cultural import from the USA. My response, since my children have grown up, is simply not to answer the door when the bell rings after dark on 31 October. Then again, I’ve always been on Team Bah Humbug.

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC reported that a priest in the Czech Republic had taken a more robust attitude to the matter. “Leaving the rectory on Sunday evening,” he wrote, “I saw numerous symbols of the satanic feast of ‘Halloween’ placed in front of our sacred grounds. He therefore stamped on them, as the photo shows. “I acted according to my faith and duty to be a father and protector of the children entrusted to me and removed these symbols,” he added. He later “apologised for the vandalism in an open letter to the mayor and published on the village Facebook page” and said it had not been his intention to harm anyone, especially not children.

How pathetic. Either he believes that celebrating Halloween is wrong or he doesn’t. If he does, then he should focus his message on children not following Satan. if he doesn’t, he shouldn’t stamp on their pumpkins. To do this, and then apologise on Facebook, seems the most dismal of all outcomes.

• And finally…

Predatory behaviour is everywhere, even in the air. The BBC reports that a recent investigation into allegations of a “toxic culture” in the RAF’s Red Arrows display team has found “predatory behaviour towards women was “widespread and normalised”. Examples included unwanted physical contact, sexual texts, invitations to engage in sexual activity, and women being seen as “property.” Remember this next time you see a fly-past.

Reuters reports that the UK government has scrapped guarantees on nearly £1bn of bank loans handed out to ailing businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, “leaving lenders on the hook for some of the borrowings that will not be repaid.” The whole business of these loans is, I believe, another thing that the Covid enquiry is looking into, or ought to be. It’s a long list.

Bottom of the table and likely to stay there or quite close: it’s not a great look for England, the defending champions of the Cricket World Cup. South Africa and the hosts India looked nailed on for the semis, plus any two of the four currently below them. It’s really hard to see what’s gone so badly wrong. England’s teams always seem so astonished when they win a major sports tournament that they go into a massive decline thereafter. That breath-taking super-over victory against New Zealand at Lord’s in 2019 might have been years ago. In fact, of course it was. Sic transit and all that…

Across the area

• Investments

West Berkshire Council’s Executive met on Thursday 2 November (you can see the documents here) and one of the matters considered was the Council’s investment strategy. Currently WBC has property assets valued at £51.5m, although these have dropped from the £62m (including costs) spent on purchasing them. Herein lies part of the problem.

Municipal investment in commercial property has long been controversial. Given the financial constrains they face, it’s easy to see why councils were tempted to use cheap money from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) to buy real estate to supplement their income. In 2021, the government changed the rules to cool this frenzy. Councils cannot now borrow primarily for financial return. In addition, the money is not as cheap as it was, PWLB interest rates being about 6% now compared to about 3% in 2020.

There’s also the question of whether investment, if it’s made at all, should be concentrated in the district. Of WBC’s current investments, only 29% by purchase price and 12.5% by number are in West Berkshire. Other assets include a filling station in Tipton, a supermarket in Northallerton and a bank in Eastbourne.

Although these have traditionally produced net revenue of about £1.2m a year, there’s no guarantee this will continue. Indeed, as the council’s agenda pack points out, there’s evidence to suggest that it might fall. All rental income carries the risk of periods without a tenant or local factors affecting the value of the return. This has previously been “managed through allocation of general fund reserve to earmarked reserves…but for 2023-24 no provision has been made due to pressure on the Council’s overall reserve position.” In plain language, that translates as “the safety net’s been taken away”.

The current portfolio is also not compliant with the council’s own strategy. In 2018 it was agreed to limit exposure by having caps on matters such as the size of a single investment or single tenant. One of these was limiting acquisitions in a single sector to 40% of the whole, and 35% in the case of offices. However, 41% of the current holding is in offices.

All in all, it could be argued that continuing to invest in commercial property for financial gain or speculation (which is what this is, the properties having been bought before the regulations changed in 2021) was looking like a less and less good idea.

“The main issue is one of risk management,” Iain Cottingham, WBC’s finance portfolio holder, told me on 2 November. “It’s true that so far we’ve been very lucky with full occupancy rates and high yields. However, this could change.” It could, in short, only get worse.

He also pointed out that owning property came with responsibilities for maintenance and repairs. There’s currently £2.3m set aside for this though this is, contrary to what you might have inferred from another article elsewhere, not an immediate liability but a ten-year provision. These costs could, of course, increase. So, in the light of further extreme weather events, might the insurance premiums. Iain Cottingham also pointed out that managing the portfolio was “a bit of a distraction” from the council’s core business.

I spoke to Ross Mackinnon, the Leader of WBC’s Conservative group, who was the portfolio holder for finance between 2019 and 2023. He told me that he could see the logic of what the Council was trying to do but questioned some of the figures in the report and the timing of the announcement (which might depress the prices that could be realised).

I put this last point to Iain Cottingham who said that due process needed to be followed. He also suggested that WBC needed to act quickly. A number of other councils with similar portfolios were coming to similar conclusions, so already starting to create a buyers’ market.

It’s worth stressing that WBC would not, under the new rules, be allowed to make such investments now: so, by divesting, it’s adopting best practice. The £1.2m of revenue will go but so too will an increasing level of uncertainty. The key point, however, is the PWLB interest rate.

The current money was borrowed on a fixed rate of about 2.5% but would now cost more than twice as much. Selling the assets, even at a loss, will enable WBC to access the money and use it for other projects. Ross Mackinnon’s fear is that when the loss on the portfolio value is known the money might not be quite as cheap as hoped: however, it seems likely, and the Council clearly believes, that this is the best way forward given where we are now. It has already made it clear that doing nothing is not an option.

So, what can this money be spent on? In each case, the government will need to approve the purposes. It mustn’t be designed purely to generate income, we know that. It also can’t be spent on salaries, plugging gaps in expenditure on social care or office parties. It can, however, be spent on infrastructure that meets the above condition: also on “transformation” which can include improving systems and efficiency.

Iain Cottingham was also able to confirm that all the investment would be made in the district. This would not only give the council more control and influence but also tick an important box when it comes to getting the best value for anything that’s spent. This doesn’t have to merely be a cash value but also a wider societal benefit. This is not something that can be satisfied by a petrol station or a retail park on the other side of the country.

One obvious candidate would be social or affordable housing, The private sector is good at building four- and five-bedroom houses and carving studio flats out of old office blocks but weaker on the stuff in-between. This would be an opportunity for WBC to help fill this gap and solve some of the problems of the current housing-supply system. There would also be rental income which, although not reaching the astronomical rates of the private sector, should be respectable. I also doubt that there would ever be much problem about occupancy.

This idea certainly appeals to WBC’s Green Party councillor David Marsh. “We’ve been arguing against the current investment portfolio policy since we were first elected in 2019,” he told me on 2 November. “We’re delighted that this administration now agrees with us and is taking the first step to rectify this. This is a wonderful opportunity to invest in the district and provide some much needed housing stock at reasonable rents.”

If you accept (which many don’t) that remote investments for profit are a good thing, it could be argued that those made by Ross Mackinnon and the previous administration were good ones, as even his successor Iain Cottingham seems to agree. The new administration feels that the risks now outweigh the advantages and the time has come to cash in the chips (which, it’s now clear, were bought at a bargain price) and move on to another and more local table.

Whisper it quietly, but if the disinvestment goes smoothly then we could be looking at the best of both worlds. That’s not something that happens every day. Even more rare, and more welcome, would be to get all the parties on WBC to agree that each has played its role in this and deserves its share of the credit. That, however, might be asking a little too much…

• Investigated or not?

I wrote last week about the story of local councillor Adrian Abbs’ failed attempt to get himself nominated as the Lib Dem Councillor for the new constituency of Mid Berkshire. I’ve since had some correspondence with various people and one aspect of the point on which the dispute chiefly turned – whether either Adrian Abbs or the ultimately selected candidate, Helen Belcher had used as endorsement – has been pointed out to me.

Lib Dem rules forbid only “written” endorsements: so, as the regulations stand, Helen Belcher’s spoken reference to Mark Pack cannot fall foul or the system whereas Adrian Abbs’ submission of references possibly might. Rules is rules: but it still seems odd to me that a statement can be made verbally and then reported in writing and that this somehow is of a different order of thing from one that was written in the first place. Anyway, that’s what was decided.

It was also suggested that it would be unfair on Helen Belcher to say she was “parachuted” into the seat, as I suggested had happened. I concede that this is my opinion and one that might not be the case. I am frequently wrong. However, it is a bit what it looks like: and it does happen. My suggestion that party HQs ,of all colours, agree in advance that they will nominate people for some seats and leave the local parties to deal with the rest was a perfectly serious one.

Anyway, I’m happy to set the record straight on these points.

The tale was briefly given another twist earlier this week when a story appeared on, and then vanished from, the NWN site claiming that The Lib Dems are “investigating the conduct of a former councillor in West Berkshire who resigned from the council in a row over the selection of the Reading West and Mid Berkshire candidate.”

Adrian Abbs didn’t know anything about this. I left a message with the local HQ but they’re between officers at present so the lack of response so far can be excused. In any event, Adrian Abbs is no longer a member of the party so any investigation would seem to be rather pointless.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers fostering, bad weather, postal votes, road closure, bus fares, new bus services, school transport, childcare support, the archaeology of the eastern parishes and public meetings.

• 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

• The government has announced that the Single Fare Cap Scheme has now been extended to 31 December 2024. The scheme provides affordable bus travel for everyone across England, allowing passengers to travel at any time of the day for £2 (£4 return). The list of participating operators in West Berkshire can be found here.

Click here for more information on getting involved in a Berkshire-wide project to develop a Local Nature Recovery Strategy (LNRS).

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 all or any of then ones in the stunning Planet Earth III.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of standing or not, UN day, cleaning the memorial, poverty, pensions and Eagle Quarter.

• 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. A piece of broadcasting history was made on Sunday. Only one band has ever been mentioned in every episode of Desert Island Discs – not The Beatles, not the Stones, not even the Bay City Rollers, but Hamburg-based Shakespeare and the Bible. Last week, on Professor Lesley Regan’s turn to be a castaway, they were featured as well. Click here to listen to the lovely Metemorpheme which S&theB’s Owen Jones wrote about Lesley Regan’s brother, a close friend of his, following his untimely death. It also features towards the end a sumptuous bit of guitar from Max Eider.

• So next it’s the Comedy Moment of the Week. From the wonderful Twenty Twelve, here’s a lovely scene that the pre-dates the etiquette and connectivity problems that we’re now all too familiar with when using Zoom – The Conference Call from Hell.

• And, bringing up the rear, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The words bound, buckle, fast and screen are all examples of what? Last week’s question was: Who was the only person to have been King of France for his entire life? The answer is King John I who reigned from the moment of his birth on 15 November 1316 to the day of his death five days later (his father Louis X, had died in June). This also marked the end of a remarkable 329 years of direct father-to-son succession in France. John I’s life can not be said to have been either long or full of achievement: but no one can deny that it was consistent.

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