This Week with Brian
Your Local Area
Including leading, disgrace, change, smoothie-chops, woke problems, back to the future, magical thinking, a bad first day, a food fight, inflation, Oklahoma manners, non-competitive running, India in the box seat, book-balancing, scrutiny, water questions, all Greek to me, a pig-nosed turtle, sad, funny and alarming, various winners and many bridges.
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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].
“I will lead in a different way,” the PM told the Tory conference last month,”because that is the only way to create the sort of change in our politics and in our country that we all desperately want to see.” Politico suggested on 4 October that this was an attempt to distance himself from the last thirteen years of his party’s rule. The day before, The Telegraph suggested that he promised to fix the “broken political system.” This system has resulted in an unelected PM replacing another unelected PM after both she and the previous PM had resigned in disgrace, as had various MPs; while others had resigned in a fit of pique as a result of not having been elevated to our unelected House of Lords. Viewed in this light, “broken” is an awfully good choice of words. Were it to have been fixed, however, Sunak might not be our leader.
Open Democracy, commenting on his conference speech, referred to his insistence that “Change is…the Conservatives.” As his party has been in power (in coalition or otherwise) for thirteen years and as his party’s name is derived from “conserve”, this is a a tough sentence for many of us to accept. Kier Starmer, whose party is courting voters who do not labour in the way that applied when it was founded in 1900, must constantly be up against a similar semantic challenge. I can’t think of any better names for either of them. Clearly, neither can they.
Sunak is, we are asked to believe, new; the change personified; forward-looking; sceptical of the past. Then there was a re-shuffle – and, shiver my timbers, what have we here…?
Old smoothie-chops – aka the hapless David Cameron – is back, as Foreign Secretary. So too is Esther McVey, as minister without portfolio. This rather elusive role has been described as that of “Common-sense Tsar” who would be “leading the charge on the government’s anti-woke agenda”.
I’m not entirely sure what “woke” means so, not for the first time, looked it up. Being “aware of social and political issues, especially racism,” the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary suggested, going on to say that “this word is often used in a disapproving way by people who think that some other people are too easily upset about these issues, or talk too much about them in a way that does not change anything.” Other definitions exist.
My uncertainty about this, and all the issues like LGBT rights to which “woke” is related, is perhaps because it’s difficult to have a rational discussion about it. So polarised has the term become that to demonstrate any ignorance about the issues risks being interpreted as outright opposition, while to express any interest or sympathy can be seen as whole-hearted support. Like “fascist”, “political correctness” or “fundamentalist”, “woke” is now freely bandied about without, in all probability, any two people in the conversation sharing an understanding of what it means. In this respect, it seems a perfect word for regular use during an election, during which language is debased and contorted to an extent that is not found outside a marketing agency.
So: back to Dave. He’s a lord now, though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bring myself to call him that. One of the downsides of this, which his Labour shadow lost no time in exploring this week, is that, as a Lord, he can’t appear in the Commons to answer questions. This seems the least of the problems that his appointment presents.
In the last few months, the Covid enquiry has treated us to a re-run of half forgotten names like Cummings, Johnson and Hancock, each flashing before our eyes like identikit pictures from a long-forgotten crime scene. Now the dial is to be wound back even further – back to the days of the big society, “we’re all in this together” and austerity. All these unquiet ghosts have been re-awakened.
And that’s without mentioning Brexit. Cameron called the referendum in a bid to solve a division in the country but mainly in his party, led an ineffective campaign (as even George Osborne admitted) and lost. All that is now likely to flood back over us, just as Covid has. Back to the future might be the slogan for the Conservatives come next year. At least his appointment has helped address one deficiency, that of the declining number of Cabinet members who are Oxford PPE graduates.
Cameron also brings his own baggage to the Cabinet table in the form of his relationship with the financier Lex Greensill, concerning the Parliamentary enquiry in 2021 which said that the the ex-ex-ex-ex-PM had shown a “significant lack of judgement.”
So, we’ve gone back to Cameron: surely we can’t go back any further? I’m sure that Starmer would not want to invoke Tony “Iraq” Blair in his campaign? Oh, hang on…
Meanwhile, the sacked Suella Braverman has written a letter which seems to be modelled on that of Boris’ political inamorata, Nadine Dorries, a month or so ago. You can read the full text of it here. This includes her complaining that her letters to the PM on the subject of the conditions that she’d set out for her accepting the post of Home Secretary just over a year ago had been “met with equivocation, disregard and a lack of interest.” The last two phrases are synonymous, which partly explains why the letter is so long.
She also also refers to his “failure to deliver” on key policies, his “betrayal”, his “magical thinking” (not a compliment) and the fact that he’s “uncertain, weak and lacking in the qualities of leadership that this country needs.”
She concluded by assuring the PM that “I will, of course, continue to support the government in pursuit of policies which align with an authentic conservative agenda.” As with “fascist”, “political correctness”, “fundamentalist” and “woke” mentioned above, “conservative” (with or without a capital C) seems to mean a number of different things to different people. For Suella Braverman, it appears to mean, “I will be leader by the time we fight the next election in about 2030.”
James Cleverley’s first day at the Home Office confirmed my suggestion that being Home Secretary was the one job that could never, in any circumstances, provide its holder with good news. The bad news for the government that day was the decision by the Supreme Court that the government’s plan to send refugees to Rwanda was unlawful. Mind you, if Cleverly were still Foreign Secretary he’d probably have got snarled up on this as well, Rwanda being a foreign country.
That, indeed, is the nub of the problem. The government can pass all the laws and sign all the treaties it likes but the Judges decided, as reported in The Guardian, that there was “a real risk of claims being wrongly determined in Rwanda, resulting in asylum seekers being wrongly returned to their country of origin.”
This is something that a number of human-rights organisation have argued all along is likely to happen. Figures from Our World in Data appear to support this, with Rwanda being down near the bottom of V-Dem’s Human Rights Index (which runs from 1 to 0) with a score of 0.29. This is slightly better than Belarus, Iran and Tajikistan but some way behind Russia, Turkey and Sudan. There would therefore seem to be a real chance that the asylum seekers would be deposited in a place completely beyond the UK’s jurisdiction which presented even worse problems for them than did the place from which they had fled.
It’s also been revealed that the government has so far paid Rwanda £140m but it’s less clear what this has been spent on, given that no one has yet been sent there. Has our government asked theirs to make PPE kit for the next pandemic? Nor is it clear how much the whole scheme would have cost, nor how many refugees it would have dealt with, nor how many this would have stopped arriving in boats.
The headline-hungry Braverman was quick to step into the fray, saying that the choice was to “legislate or admit defeat”, this shortly before Sunak said that he’d take the former option. I can’t see what legislation – if it can be got through parliament at all – will accomplish: the issue seems to be, as the Judges have said, whether Rwanda is a safe place.
The Telegraph reports that Boris Johnson has claimed that the PM should pass a law deeming that Rwanda is indeed a “safe place”. Oh, is that all it takes to make it so? Who knew? Other right-wingers have suggested that the solution is to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Tories’ Deputy Chair, Lee Anderson, has an even more robust solution and one which which avoids all these legal subtleties altogether: ignore the law and “put the planes in the air now.”
This is the kind of food fight the PM might have hoped to avoid, barely a day after a cabinet reshuffle. Mind you, Labour seems in little better shape at present, fifty-six MPs having on 15 November defied Starmer on a vote which exposed a deep division over the party’s policy with regard to the Gaza-Isreal nightmare. The BBC reports that ten frontbenchers have left their roles over the matter. Who’s to say how many members of either party’s front bench will still be in-post and on-message come election day?
• And finally…
• One good bit of news for Rishi S is that inflation has fallen more quickly than predicted. The government will doubtless claim the credit for this though it seems to have more to do with the (independent) Bank of England interest rate rises and falls in the wholesale price of oil and gas. For many, the pain is still there though. Food prices have increased by about 25% in the last two years and fuel prices by about 50%. Better news for home-buyers, though, with prices falling 0.1% in the year to September 2023 according the ONS, as reported by Reuters.
• The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is not the place one would immediately turn to if searching for a piece of testosterone-fuelled video gold. All that changed earlier this week when Senator Markwayne Mullin, previously a mixed martial arts fighter and Teamsters President Sean O’Brien faced off across the room over a series of jibes that O’Brien had made about Mullin. “You want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults, we can finish it here,” the Oklahoma Senator said.”That’s fine,” O’Brien replied. And so on.
The BBC reports that Mullin later told Fox News that he had acted to represent Oklahoma values and that, had he not, “people in Oklahoma would be pretty upset at me.” I can’t tell you much about Oklahoma values. We drove across the state in 1999 on our way from New York to LA but don’t think we stopped, except maybe once to get some gas. I don’t remember fighting anyone, though.
• An ultra-marathon runner has been banned for a year by UK Athletics for using a car in a race (not a car race, a running race). This article on the BBC website said that Joasia Zakrzewski used a car for about two and a half miles in the Liverpool to Manchester marathon in April 2023 and then finished the course “in a non-competitive way,” whatever that means. She later accepted the trophy and blamed the whole aberration on jet lag. Formerly from Dumfries, she’s now moved to Australia. If she wants to change career – she’s 47 now – then, were she to return, I’m sure that based on this brass-neckery, any political party she cared to join would consider making a seat available for her.
• And so we end, as we have done for several weeks in a row, with the Cricket World Cup. India reached the final on 15 November with a strong but not overwhelming 70-run victory over New Zealand. It’s hard to see how any team batting first in weather like that and on such a pitch could fail to lose. I repeat my suggestion that one-day matches be organised with each team batting half its overs first then resuming where each had left off to complete the match. In no sport can winning the toss be more important. In the final they will play Australia who beat South Africa (who choked again) by a narrower margin than might have been predicted after reducing them to 28-4.
I hope India win on Sunday. Australia, the Germany of cricket, have won this often enough. India are also by far the beat team at present: though that counts for nothing. The men’s Hungary football team were undefeated in all but one game for about four years in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, that one game was the 1954 World Cup Final…
Across the area
• Balancing the books
I’ve recently received a press release from West Berkshire Council, the first part pf which reads as follows:
“West Berkshire Council has started work on its 2024/25 budget with a challenging financial position set to continue into next year. The budget will continue to be squeezed due to an increasing demand for services, high inflation making those services more expensive to deliver and Government funding falling below inflation rates. These factors are outside the Council’s control with the impact being a £14m gap between expected funding and the forecast spending requirements next year.
“Work has started over the summer to bridge this gap with £10m in savings and income generation already found which include spend-to-save projects to deliver services more efficiently, and other measures such as removing vacant posts, exploring new income streams and through procurement – including savings through a new telephony system.
“Whilst every effort has been made to protect frontline services, a small number will be impacted by proposals to make savings or generate income. These will be subject to a public consultation with the public invited to have their say before any decisions are made. Subject to approval by the Executive, the consultation is set to begin on Monday 27 November 2023 and will include proposals to:
- Restructure car parking fees – generating up to £450,000
- Close or find an alternative provider to run Willows Edge Care Home – a saving of up to £240,000
- Reduce the frequency of grass cutting – saving up to £220,000
- Restructure funding for Adult Social Care transport services – generating between £100,000 and £400,000
- Reduce funding for gully emptying and bridge maintenance – saving up to £110,000
- Reduce litter and dog waste bins – saving up to £90,000
- Restructure Adult Social Care Care-Home charges – generating up to £80,000
- Reduce the opening hours of the Household Waste Recycling Centres – saving up to £59,000
- Reduce the frequency of annual weed treatments – saving up to £20,000
- Reduce contributions to community transport – saving up to £10,000
These proposals could, the statement adds, “generate up to £1.75m – or 12.5% of the budget gap – depending on the outcome of the public consultation. Work is continuing to find the remaining £2m needed to deliver a balanced budget.”
“We are in a very similar situation to many other councils with funding failing to keep up with the cost of delivering our services,” Councillor Iain Cottingham, Executive Member for Finance, said. ” Some have already issued [Section 114] bankruptcy notices and, while this is not a situation we immediately face, we are working very hard to keep it that way.
“As part of this work we want to be open and honest with residents about the situation and the actions we are taking. Funding for next year is undoubtedly tough and we are doing all we can to protect frontline services and especially those relied upon by our most vulnerable residents. We are on track to find almost 90% of the budget shortfall without affecting these frontline services. I hope residents will take the time to look through our spending proposals and have their say through the consultation.”
You can read the full statement here.
So, you need to find another £2m? Here are a few ideas (some of which have been suggested by others)…
- Increase the green-bin charge. Yes, I know you wanted to abolish this in your manifesto. I agreed with several of your pledges but not this one. It already produces about £1m a year. Increase the charge for the first bin to the £96 charged by Harlow (WBC currently charges £56) and keep the charges for the extra bins at £44.
- Remove parking charges for the first half an hour or so but increase them thereafter.
- Charge a commercial rate for planning applications, in particularly fining anyone who submits a retrospective application according to a sliding scale ranging from minor technical breach to completely taking the mickey (I appreciate this may require national legislation).
- Re-promote the West Berkshire Lottery and keep 10% of the takings for West Berkshire Council.
- Have commercial advertising in libraries.
- Have a look at the pension schemes for new staff.
- Employ more civic enforcement officers to deal with parking issues who, if managed properly, produce more revenue than they cost.
- Generate income from WBC-owned car parks by turning them over to residents’ parking at night.
- Introduce a workplace parking space levy.
• Water questions
There was to have been a long-anticipated and widely-publicised meeting of East Garston Parish Council on 16 November which was to have been attended by senior representatives of Thames Water.
The day before, however, the water giant announced that its Sustainability Director, Richard Aylard, had pulled out as he is “now required to be in the office all day to deal with pressing internal matters.” These pressing matters may or may not include making sure there are enough tankers to deal with the excess water that is now overloading the valley’s sewers, though I imagine he has people to do this for him. It’s hoped that the meeting will be arranged for another date as soon as possible.
Some questions I’d been going to ask then – and will ask now in advance of the re-scheduled meeting – concern TW’s event duration monitors (EDMs) and the map TW which shows the discharges that these measure (up to a point, as we shall see).
As this article on TW’s website explains, “in 2017, the Environment Agency asked all water companies to start monitoring storm overflow activity. Knowing how frequently they discharge gives us insight into the performance of our network and sewage treatment works.” As a statement of the blindingly obvious, this last sentence takes some beating. What’s odd is why it took until 2017 for this thought to occur to them.
There are two other surprises here. The first is that it was only seven years ago that the water industry decided it would be a good idea to measure the overflows from its systems. The second is that these are still known as “storm overflows”, a term which suggests this only happens following a downpour. As we all know, groundwater ingress is a more likely reason for discharges.
The map is clear and easy to use and TW is to be congratulated as being the first (indeed, so far as I know, the only) water company to have produced one. There are, however, two big problems with it.
The first is that while EDMs measure the duration of the overflows, they don’t measure the volume. There are plenty of devices that do do this: they’re called water meters and TW was quick to instal these in homes and charge customers for the results. It appears less keen, however, to instal them to measure its pollution.
It seems that the overflow here in East Garston discharges, when it does, at a fairly constant speed. Others may differ. If they are constant, then an estimate could be made for each discharge which could be expressed on the map. If they aren’t constant, I suggest TW might want to find out how much sewage each one vomits out. There’s a world of difference between an hour-long discharge that’s a trickle and a five-minute one that’s a torrent. In other words, if TW does know, tell us. If it doesn’t, find out.
The second problem is that only the most recent event is shown. This gives a completely lopsided impression of what’s going on. I looked at the EDM map the other day and noticed that Kintbury’s had last discharged that morning, for four minutes. Just before then, however, there could have been one that lasted two days. All the data exists because it’s all been displayed in the past. For the EDM map to be useful, this needs to be provided, either as a list of all past events (ideally with the date range selected by the user) or as a summary of all events over a specified period. This is simply a matter of data processing.
At present, the quite pretty map is akin to someone receiving an elegant and well-produced bank statement which only shows the last transaction and doesn’t mention how much money was involved. Another image that springs to mind is of a person who’s just been found guilty in court and the Clerk says that they can only read out their last conviction. This might not be representative of their criminal career: it certainly wouldn’t be enough for the judge to decide how much a serial offender the accused is and sentence them accordingly.
If these two features could be added, the EDM map would be a useful tool for the increasing number of organisations that, because of the failures of the system, have taken it upon themselves to monitor what’s going on. At present, the map looks good but, in truth, has as at least as much to do with PR as it does with H2O.
I’ve mentioned this in some detail in the last couple of weeks and am not going to do so again, apart from to say that the debate between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives continues as to the timing and nature of the announcement. I shall leave it to the politicos to battle this one out.
The matter has been called in for discussion at the Scrutiny Commission by the requisite number of five (all Conservative) members. I trust the facts that emerge from that will clear the air as to who gave what advice to whom. The date of this will be confirmed in due course.
Hopefully the testimony will include something from the Council’s investment advisors, Montagu Evans, although I understand that, unlike current officers, they can’t be compelled to attend.
• Residents’ news
The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council covers the budget (see also above), the Learner Achievement Awards, free bus travel, fostering, roadworks, pavement resurfacing, poppies to Paddington, public meetings, energy awareness, local authors, Christmas and carers’ rights.
• 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
• 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.
• Click here for more information on the 2023 Learner Achievement Awards.
• 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 these truly weird animals which include the pig-nosed turtle and the rosy-lipped batfish.
• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of commercial property sales, reimbursement, our local MP, Cameron’s return, speeding and a new cycle lane.
• 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’re at the Song of the Week. I’ve had last week’s song by Peter Gabriel running through my head like water for the last seven days. Here’s another one written by him (with Phil Collins) back in his Genesis days: the wonderfully quirky, sad, funny and alarming Harold the Barrel.
• So next up comes the Comedy Moment of the Week. Another wonderful piece of Fry-and Laurieness: It’s all Greek to me.
• And, bringing up the rear, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: The Cricket World Cup Final will take place on Sunday. How many countries have previously won it? Last week’s question was: If you took a one-way journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, how many bridges would you cross? The answer is – given the fact the railway is about 9,289km long – an amazing 3,901.
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 links.,