This week with Brian 9 to 16 November 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including chickenpox, immunity, measles, gasbaggery, batshit, refugees, dead pigeons, hogging the bandwidth, pester-power, inert gases, Lord Gnome’s eggshells, a practical example, fighting talk, £10,000 fines, from the letter-box, India’s to lose, disinvestment again, dog and cat, learning a manoeuvre, many bridges, contronyms and the flood.

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

The Covid enquiry continues and much of the recent evidence would have left former Health supremo Matt Hancock hiding behind the sofa. Messages and texts from former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill described Hancock as “totally incompetent” when reacting to Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-busting but eyesight-affirming trip to Barnard Castle and suggested that he should be “sacked to save lives and the NHS,” a twist on the then government slogan that he admitted in retrospect was “inappropriate.” He also said that he’d asked Johnson if he felt that Hancock was “the right person to lead the next phase”, whatever it was thought the next phase involved. However, what Sedwill’s testimony is most likely to be remembered for is the suggestion that parties be held across the land.

[more below]

• Chickenpox

No, not those kind of parties – they came later – but ones that involved the suggestion that children with Covid deliberately spread it to others (so, chickenpox parties but without the chickenpox) with the aim, presumably, of building up herd immunity. He apologised for this at the enquiry this week, adding that “he never intended for the exchanges to be made public.” This seems an odd defence, slightly akin to a burglar claiming that the only problem with his crime is that there was an eye-witness.

The suggestion was a bit batshit – the words seems appropriate to use, considering one of the theories of where Covid came from – for a number of reasons.

First, it’s well known that if you have to get chickenpox much better to do so as a child than as an adult; also that exposure generally confers lifelong immunity. No such things were known about Covid. Second, what was known about it was that it was a member of the virulent and aggressive SARS family and so needed to be treated with a huge level of respect. Third, there was at that time no certainty about which age group, or any other group, which was more likely to be affected by it and nor was enough known about how it was transmitted. Finally, it was also known that it was likely to mutate. The last thing you want at an early stage of an outbreak is surely to give it the chance to do this by splashing it around.

Mark Sedwill is not a scientist (his degree was in Economics). However, he was the chief Civil Servant at the time so it’s reasonable to assume that anything he suggested may have, like a virus, been passed around and gained some traction, with or without mutations. Plenty of other crazy ideas did. Boris Johnson briefly pinned his hopes on blowing air from “a special kind of hairdryer” up the nose while his then counterpart in Washington suggested on live TV  that bleach injections would probably do the trick.

Other miracle cures or preventatives that did the rounds included garlic, bananas, sunlight, cocaine, rum, saltwater, methanol, fish-tank cleaner, toothpaste, lemongrass, nicotine, llama blood, cow urine and anything white. There were also a number of things worth avoiding, including heat, cold, damp conditions, dry conditions, dogs and mobile-phone signals.

Everyone was desperate at that time. For the first time in living memory there was something abroad that threatened to affect everyone (in that regard, it was perhaps a useful curtain-raiser for the main event that has somehow never quite happened, that of dealing with climate change). Some of these “cures” were no less odd than the medieval methods which included leeches, vinegar, inhaling smoke, eating crushed emeralds and rubbing the affected area with a chopped-up pigeon. Disinfectant and hair dryers hadn’t been invented then otherwise they’d probably be on the list too.

• Measles

There’s another side-effect of Covid which may yet come back to haunt us. In past times, the only inoculations we tended to have were childhood ones like MMR and polio, topped up recently with seasonal flu jabs for those in certain groups. There’s growing evidence that take-up rates for the traditional jabs are falling. In November 2022, the WHO reported that “Measles vaccination coverage has steadily declined since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a record high of nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose: 25 million children missed their first dose and an additional 14.7 million children missed their second dose.” Coverage of 95% is regarded as the safe level to protect a population. The global coverage is currently well below that, with only 71% of children having their second dose, the lowest figure since 2008.

There seems little doubt that Covid has been hogging all the bandwidth when it comes to vaccinations, the WHO admitting that “routine immunisation programmes were badly disrupted” as a result. The effort of organising, publicising, sourcing and paying for all the traditional inoculations was challenging for many health services as it was: add Covid on top and many have had to choose.

This article from the Nuffield Trust paints a slightly more complex picture as regards the UK, suggesting that inoculation rates plateaued in the mid 2010s and have since declined, a trend which Covid has exacerbated. One reason might be that these diseases were, round about that time, no longer regarded as problems. The UK was, for instance, given measles-elimination status by the WHO in 2017. Perhaps this gave enough people sufficient reason to cross another problem off their list.

As both the above points show, humans – and organisations – can only cope properly with one serious crisis at a time. When the sabre-tooth tiger attacks, you cease to worry about the rats eating your grain. You might beat the tiger off but, when you come back inside, the rats have profited from your lack of attention. This is something the WHO is currently taking steps to address.

I remember watching a TV advert when I was a child and seeing words like “mumps”, “diphtheria” and “polio” flash up on the screen, each one being read out by someone who might well have been Peter Cushing. I immediately burst into tears and insisted that I was inoculated immediately.

Perhaps such a direct approach to the target audience, utilising all the proven results of mass manipulation and pester power, should be tried again. I’m sure that the current cabinet ministers can find among their neighbours and drinking acquaintances enough people to take on the task of sorting this in exchange for whatever sum they might demand, as with the PPE procurement. Alternatively, the government could always use the thousands of procurement experts it already has and try to do this properly, using professionals. I’m not a voice-over artist but can, if I’ve had enough red wine, do quite a passable Peter Cushing impression. The normal credit, Rishi, and see my agent about the fees.

The irony, if that’s the right use of the word, is that these “traditional” jabs are once-only and in most cases confer lifetime immunity. I’m no scientist but they are in this respect rather like those inert gases on the right side of the periodic table like neon and helium that seem to have few uses apart from creating spectacular coloured lights and making people talk in squeaky voices. SARS, flu and Covid things, on the other hand, are like those funky, spunky and jumpy elements you find at the bottom of the periodic table which seem to be one thing and then, before you’ve got your electron microscope in focus, have turned into something else and created a lot of potentially fatal havoc to anyone who’s come into contact with them. You don’t hold chickenpox parties with these guys.

• Speech therapy

The King’s Speech was screened earlier this week and was dominated by a moving portrayal from Colin Firth of the challenges faced by…sorry, the researcher has sent me the wrong Wikipedia link.

This was, of course, the first time since the early ’50s that the government’s programme has been announced by a King. As this BBC article summarises it, this “outlined 21 laws that ministers intend to pass in the next year-long session of Parliament. Around a third have been carried over from the previous session, or previously published in some form.” There were a number of omissions, including legislation on hunting trophies and conversion therapy.

There was also, the Local Government Chronicle noted with regret, “nothing for central government.” This is a time-bomb that the government is hoping will not go off before the next election. Section 114 notices (admissions of effective bankruptcy) have already become commonplace. The default reaction from Whitehall is to blame these on municipal ineptitude. This may in some cases be the trigger event but the cause lies deeper (a matter I look at below).

One of the things that any government, perhaps particularly a Conservative one, can be guaranteed to do in the run up to an election is to announce further legislation to show it is tough on crime. King Charles had several examples of this to announce, including longer sentences for the worst offences.

This is fine as long as two conditions can be satisfied: whether there are enough prisons to hold these people; and whether the country’s police forces are held in high enough regard to convince people that the enforcement is being done in a way that people regard as equitable (by all the standards by which is judged) and are trusted.

These points were put to a government minister (I forget which) on BBC R4’s World at One on 8 November. Unfortunately, they were at the end of a list of other questions relating to crime and justice which, with a masterful display of gasbaggery, the minister managed to spin this out so as to avoid the last issue.

It is on this that everything depends. Trust cannot be enforced by legislation. Despite the manifest integrity and diligence of most (but clearly not all) officers, trust in the whole policing system is currently low.

If at this point in the discussion my attention slightly wandered, it was because I was waiting at Hungerford’s contraflow on my way to the pool and studying the damaged building that has, for the last eleven months, been the cause of this one-way delay following a high-speed accident last December. It has recently been announced by Thames Valley Police that, despite the motorist having racked up pretty much a full-house of traffic offences, no prosecution will follow. Both the Town Council and the ward members have raised the matter to the level of the Chief Constable and the PCC and a rethink is now promised.

Residents of the town will need to look no further than this decision to wonder whose interests the police processes are benefitting.(I draw a distinction between this and the local TVP team, which wasn’t involved in this case and seem rather cross by the outcome.) I don’t drive without insurance, or when off my face, or at 60mph down a High Street and if I have an accident I stop and report it. I’m wondering now why I bother.

None the less, the promise of tougher sentences is always a crowd-pleaser. Dealing with hunting trophies and local-government finance are less so.

• And finally…

• Still with the above section in mind, the nation’s police forces are now well used to receiving torrents of criticism, some of it justified and some of it not. The main target has been the Met which, as well as doing the Dixon of Dock Green duties in our capital, has come under particular fire in recent years for a series of high-profile prosecutions involving serving officers and widespread accusations of systemic racism and sexism. Surely the Met has some friends left?

The one thing they can generally rely on is the support of the Home Secretary, a role traditionally filled by a right-leaning hard-ass who can trot out well-sounding platitudes and aspirations (as mentioned above) whenever required. This is despite the fact that the Home Secretaries often don’t come up with the funding that’s asked for. Still, you can’t have everything. Tough words are what’s needed, particularly with an election coming up.

The Met must have been particularly irked by the recent public swipe taken at them by a woman called Suella Braverman who accused them of bias in the way the force handles protests. This is fighting talk which looks very much like undermining the police service. Someone ought to report her to the Home Secretary.

In fact, as a couple of minutes’ research on the inter-web thing revealed, it seems that she is the Home Secretary. How utterly extraordinary. How did that happen? Further research revealed that a senior Conservative MP told the BBC that “the home secretary’s awfulness is now a reflection on the prime minister. Keeping her in post is damaging him.”

Being Home Secretary must be an awful job as there is never anything but bad news to deal with. Perhaps she’s had enough of it and this is her way of resigning. Over to you, Rishi.

• And still with politicians, pandemics and the police – there seems to be no escape from them this week – it appears that the then Home Secretary Priti Patel now feels that the £10,000 on-the-spot fines were “not proportionate” and that she had “pushed back” against it at the time. Not hard enough, it would seem. Pushing in the other direction was the PM, who told her that “the overriding message should be about tougher enforcement and bigger fines.” I see. Remind me again, how much was he fined?

• Pretty much an entire double-page spread in Private Eye 1610 was devoted to letters for and against the text-only cover of the previous edition on the subject of the Gaza-Isreal conflict. The Editor claimed that “at the last count” the “large number of letters” were split 10:7 in the Eye’s favour. Issue 1610 had a “special non-offensive cover” with a photo of four Labrador puppies, one of them saying “Humanitarian paws, anyone?” Like most people, I’m increasingly confused as to where the line between fair comment and something else lies, nor what constitutes offence, nor whether you can not give it but only take it. To discuss this conflict is certainly to walk on eggshells, which is what Lord Gnome has been doing for seventy years. And no, I don’t know what I think of the cover myself.

• Let’s wind up with the cricket. My decision to switch my allegiance from England to Afghanistan proved wise as they won their next two matches and, for a glorious moment, looked as though they were going to beat Australia until Glenn Maxwell plated one of the great one-day innings. Afghanistan could still sneak into the semis, which England can’t. it’s looked like India’s tournament to lose for some time – which means that they just might…

Across the area

• Investments again

I wrote last week about West Berkshire Council’s decision to dispose of its property portfolio, purchased for about £62m in the late 2010s and which currently produces about £1.2m-worth of revenue. The current administration believes that this now represents a risk, as well as falling foul of changes to the borrowing terms from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) a couple of years ago. This is also a response to a recent exhortation, directive or instruction from Whitehall a week ago that, as reported in The Guardian, “councils are ultimately responsible for the management of their own finances, but the government has been clear that they should not take excessive risk with taxpayers’ money.”

The plan to disinvest seems sound, for the reasons I expressed last week. Members of the local Conservative group disagree, perhaps not with the idea but with the way that it was publicly announced, so perhaps depressing the revenue that can be expected from any sale. Three members of the last Executive were quick to criticise this aspect. Ross Mackinnon, the previous financial portfolio holder, current Leader of the WBC Conservative group and investment trainer by profession, called it “commercially damaging and naïve.” Howard Woollaston, a holder of various portfolios since his election in 2019 and who has spent his entire career in property sales and management, described this as demonstrating “a lack of commercial awareness.” Tom Marino, also a member of the previous Executive, suggested that this was a “cack-handed fire sale.”

I put these accusations to the current portfolio holder Iain Cottingham, whose CV includes managing the finances of organisations whose turnovers dwarf that of West Berkshire Council. He pointed out that not only were such investments now forbidden via the PWLB but also that the government had recently issued its warning about risk management. The decision to announce the matter was done in the interests of transparency and was also agreed by the officers and the advisors. He also refuted the idea of a fire sale and stressed that discussions with interested parties had already taken place. There was no reason why the current book prices (the value displayed on the accounts) should be regarded as a maximum.

The debate about how and when the announcement should have been made will rumble on and will be called in to the Scrutiny Commission. This will at least provide an opportunity for all to see what advice was offered. As regards the actual announcement, the cat is out of the bag. It might be more useful to look at why this is such a hot issue.

The funding of local councils is in a state of crisis. For at least the last decade, they have been expected to do more and receive less funding. The majority of the services that WBC provides is for social care for adults and children and there are also a number of other statutory responsibilities (such as being there flood, planning and highways authority) which it has to fulfil. It also has to collect and re-cycle our rubbish, fund our libraries, license our pubs and provide a host of other services.

In general terms, funding for this is through council tax, the share of business rates its allowed to retain, charges for services such as parking and green bins, contributions from developers and grants from central government. The final two, the last in particular, are often ring-fenced and impossible to predict. WBC’s officers have proved pretty adept at getting money from Whitehall and this needs to continue.

There’s one extra item on this list, which is what we’re discussing: income from investments. About twenty years ago, PWLB loans became freely available to local councils – cheap money at fixed terms. Who can therefore blame them when they started to use these to fund a property-speculation bubble by investing in property outside their area for profit? After all, they weren’t getting the support they needed from Whitehall, which has long regarded local councils with suspicion.

Although the PWLB loans were designed to lead to infrastructure developments in the district, the government could not have been either surprised or disappointed when they increasingly became used for speculation. Not only did this mean that any failures of investment were down to the councils but also that, as long as the returns continued to be be positive, the heat was taken off Whitehall by demands for money. In effect, the teenagers were being sent down to the casino to earn their pocket money, using tables rigged in their favour by the low PWLB rates, rather than pestering mum and dad for a regular settlement.

The recent government instruction that councils should be aware of risk is, when added to the 2021 change forbidding of PWLB borrowing being purely for yield, an attempt to redress the consequences of two decades of under-invesment without addressing the causes. Local councils are vital parts of life, whether recognised or not, and to allow them to fail (as many have done through Section 114 notices) is also a failure of central government policy.

The irony is that councils are sitting on a lot of cheap money that they’ve borrowed in this way. However, if they sell the investments, they can’t use this to plug any gaps in their day-to-day expenditure. This is probably a good thing as living off capital is never ideal. None the less, councils are in the invidious position of having lots of money invested in things which the government now doesn’t approve of and not enough money for the things that the government says it must be providing.

One result may be a wave of infrastructure projects by disinvesting councils. These could be new ones or schemes that have already been budgeted for which are brought forward. It seems less probable that the councils pay back the debt to the PWLB as it’s unlikely they’ll be able to borrow money as cheaply as this in the foreseeable future, or at all.

It appears that the government has come up with another way of helping councils out of this problem, which Whitehall itself created. This is by taking a more flexible view of what counts as capital expenditure and therefore what the proceeds of any sale can be spent on. Anything to do with “transformation” seems to be OK. This is defined by the LGA as being anything done by councils which “fundamentally change their systems, processes, and skills to achieve measurable improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, and resident satisfaction.” This could therefore not only be the cost of IT hardware but also the salaries of the staff working on its implementation.

If the result of all this is therefore better infrastructure and more efficient councils then the whole process will have achieved its purpose. A shame, however, that didn’t accomplish this immediately, rather than taking a long and potentially ruinous route through the casino.

West Berkshire has so far fared well from its investments. Others have not. Some municipal portfolios are running at less than 70% occupancy which would, were this to befall WBC’s, probably reduce the net income to zero. Woking’s problems have been compounded by some poor property decisions and others, including Spelthorne with its £1bn-plus exposure, must be starting to feel a bit jumpy.

So far, the raft of section 114 notices have mainly been due to more eye-catching failures, such as Croydon’s disastrous housing company, Thurrock’s non-existent oversight and Birmingham’s catastrophic IT and HR problems. However, as this article in The Guardian suggests, many more may follow, including ones previously regarded as well-run. With collective investment borrowing of close to £8bn in 2016 to 2020 alone, it’s only a matter of time before some of these start to implode.

West Berkshire Council has decided that it dare not stay in the game any longer. As mentioned above, opinions differ as to whether the decision to announce a phased disinvestment was prudent. I shall leave that to the politicians to battle out. However as regards creating a bubble now in danger of bursting, by allowing so many cheap loans for speculation, by creating the funding uncertainty that made this a temptation for local authorities and then saying that the whole thing was a bad idea and that councils now need to disinvest, the blame lies squarely with successive governments.

• Move along, please

The government has recently announced that a number of temporary refugee centres are to close. One of these is the Regency Park Hotel in Thatcham which will close its doors for asylum seekers on 12 December. A government statement said that “suitable alternative accommodation” would be found for them. Where and when have, as Karen Reeve of the West Berkshire Council for Refugees pointed out, rather more difficult questions to answer and ones that she’s being asked every day by the anxious inmates.

On 9 November, MP Laura Farris published an article on her website. One of the reasons this can now happen, she points out is that there has been “a rapid increase in the Home Office’s processing times.” If so, then this must have dramatically have improved since I covered this very matter on 12 October. The delays were just one part of the problem: there was also the mixed messaging, the late or non-arrival of letters and the staggering amount of errors in the documentation. Has all that been resolved? I understand that in Thatcham there are 40 people who have been waiting for a decision since before June 2022 and 60 more who have been waiting for not quite as long.

She also adds that “the Home Office has been able to access better-value accommodation so that commercial hotels can be phased out.” Certainly the £8m a day price tag is pretty steep. The Regency Park Hotel was first used in January 2022, nearly two years ago. That’s a long time to wait for better-value accommodation to turn up. If the Home Office decided to open up a property-letting arm I don’t think I’ll be using it.

She also, rightly, says, or at least implies, that West Berkshire has a housing policy into which these people, when eventually released from this holding pen, must take their place. I’ve not heard any suggestion that there’s been any queue-jumping.

Her concluding paragraph I find rather confusing. “Local authorities must have the capacity to provide housing, education and other support services for refugees,” she writes. “Surely no one would suggest we reduce the numbers we accommodate lawfully under humanitarian schemes to accommodate those arriving via people smugglers by boat.” I’m not at all clear what point is being made here.

I asked the above-mentioned Karen Reeve, who has been at the sharp end of all these problems since the refugees started arriving, if she had any comment. “I’m angry with Laura Farris’ continued politicising and attempts to reframe this matter,” she told me. “She calls hotels ‘temporary measures’ if she thinks being stuck in a hotel for 19+ months is “temporary” measure she’s on another planet! Also,” she added, in reference the last paragraph of Laura Farris’ statement, “most of the asylum seekers arrived by plane not boat.”

“The issue is entirely of her government’s making,” she continued. “Had it processed cases as it should they wouldn’t have had this issue at all and would’nt be costing us, the tax payer £8m a day. These are real people we are talking about, left in limbo, perpetual anxiety and powerless at the hands of an inept goverment and incompetent immigration service and now we add insult to injury by uprooting them again.”

Karen Reeve also takes issue with Laura Farris’s statement that “of the 175 beds available, only around 100 are currently occupied.” This is, she retorts, “overclaiming the numbers. There have only ever been around 100 placed at the Regency Park. It was was supposed to have gone up to 175 but never did: another waste of money by the Home Office in purchasing single beds, mattresses and bedding.” She adds that she wonders who got the contract for that.

Others might be asking the same thing. It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the PPE procurement fiasco, of course, but it all adds up. Meanwhile, these beds and bedding might be needed as it’s quite possible that the “better-value” accommodation, wherever that proves to be, doesn’t come with features like that.

• From the letter box

This week we received the following letter from Tom Marino, former WBC Councillor and Executive member, which we’re happy to reproduce in full.

“Earlier this year, when my Conservative colleagues and I lost control of West Berkshire Council, I was obviously disappointed. However, I accepted the result and a part of me even retained a small sense of optimism that the new administration would keep the ship that we’d so ably piloted afloat and not run the area that I love, and was proud to represent, into the ground. Regrettably, this is already happening, and at alarming speed.

“I doubted that the Liberal Democrat administration would keep many, if any of their campaign promises, particularly within the first 100 days of their tenure, but even the most steadfast bar chart enthusiast must surely be wondering when, if ever, they’re going to get anything done. Changes to CIL charges, Neighbourhood Notification Letters, cancellation of the Sports Hub (thankfully), the list of failures goes on and on. You can publish as many cushy videos of Faraday Road as you like guys, you’re not fooling anyone.

“Now of course the first reaction from our new orange overlords has been to blame everything, predictably, on the old lot. Consistently. However, given that their draft strategic priorities look eerily similar to those published by the Conservatives last year, the leadership’s complete lack of know-how, resignations and social media gaffes, and as we have seen this week with the cack-handed firesale of the commercial property portfolio, business sense that would make subprime lenders look competent, I’m sorry guys, it just won’t wash

“I shudder to think of what West Berkshire will look like by the next local elections in 2027 when, hopefully, sanity will again prevail.”

Note from Penny Post: This article looked at the administration’s progress in its first hundred days and was published on 8 September 2023. The 200th day comes up on 11 December so I’ll try to do an update for then…

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers football, Speedwatch volunteers, Castle@Theale, Community Champions, careers, fostering, care leavers, the next community forum, Newbury’s PSPO, consultations, alcohol and drug use, from the Nile to Newbury and their finest hour.

• 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

• West Berkshire Council is calling upon local residents to nominate deserving individuals and groups for the Community Champion Awards 2023.These are, a WBC statement says, “a brilliant opportunity to say thank you to people who have done something special for their local community and honour those individuals and community groups who have gone above and beyond to support residents throughout West Berkshire this past year.” Nominations will be open from 6 November, 2023, for five weeks.

• 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 this dog and this cat from Cornwall, the dog having alerted the owners to the fact that her feline housemate had fallen down a hundred-foot mineshaft. It all ended happily, which is more than you can say for most news stories at present.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of volunteers, thanks to Keith, thanks to Greenham Trust, a cruel approach and a vigil.

• 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. There are some records that, when you hear just a few bars of one song, have the power to transport you back to the time you first heard it. For me, one of these is Peter Gabriel’s first album, called (as were the next three), “Peter Gabriel.” Like most of his stuff, it seems to have stood the test of time pretty well. The track from it I’ve picked is Here Comes the Flood. He claims that it “wrote itself” while he was running up a hill with his eyes closed, so I suppose we should be grateful he ever made it home to write it down. (It reminds me, musically and lyrically, of my favourite Bowie song, Oh! You Pretty Things.)

• So here comes  the Comedy Moment of the Week. Only twice have I been to see a stand-up performer where I laughed so much that I thought I was going to injure myself. One was Al Murray; the other, many years before, Eddie Izzard. In this sketch he suggests how Dr Heimlich might have invented his now world-famous Manoeuvre.

• And, floundering at the back, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: If you took a one-way journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, how many bridges would you cross? Last week’s question was: The words bound, buckle, fast and screen are all examples of what? They are all contronyms, words that have opposite meanings. To walk fast, for instance, means that you’re moving quickly but to be stuck fast means that you’re not moving at all. A film is screened so it can be seen but a part of a room is screened so that cannot be. And so on.

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 lin

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