This week with Brian 14 to 21 December 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a rebellion quelled for now, £290m, a poll-date prediction, more disgrace, poor infrastructure, liberal democracies, benign dictators, presidents doing time, the latest wonder drug, sub-postmasters, just one ingredient, withdrawing the plan, the CIL bills, on the buses, crazy creatures, the largest animal, 43 quintillion, Alan’s meltdown and only sleeping.

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 government managed to get the second reading of the Rwanda bill through parliament though the day saw a serious and rather grim-faced charm offensive in the shape of invites to Number Ten, bacon sandwiches and vague promises of future tightening up. In the event, no Tory voted against it and only 30 abstained.

[more below]

• Rwanda

This, however only postpones the problem. It still has a way to go through parliament and will then be sure to be tested in court. At this point, it will be clear whether the treaty and the act address all the legal concerns that led to the latest thumbs-down from the judges.

There’s also the question of the cost, which risks turning the project into a mini HS2 and with about as little to show for it. £240m has been spent on this so far, with £50m promised for 2024. As the Shadow Cabinet member Yvette Cooper waspishly but correctly observed, so far more Home Secretaries (three) than refugees (none) have been sent to Rwanda.

• Election

Round about October, you start hearing phrases like “well, obviously you’re not going to be able to get that this side of Christmas.” An election has the same paralysing effect. Any parliamentary bills that have failed to jump all the legislative fences are humanely put down and there’s a general sense of not wanting to start anything which might not be able to be finished.

In this country, elections can be held whenever the PM decides. Sunak has until 17 December 2024 to call an election, which means that 28 January 2025 is the last date on which it can take place. To have an election campaign over the holiday period would seem to be bonkers and would probably precipitate a backbench revolt.

There are enough of those as it is. This article on the BBC website looks at some of the challenges facing the PM. The Conservative party is, so insiders claim, “addicted to division” and possessed by “an insatiable appetite for regicide.” The above-mentioned Rwanda bill – which conflates a number of issues including Sunak’s key pledges, legislative skill, political aptitude, financial prudence and the familiar growling trope of immigration – is likely to expose any divisions still further.

Sunak also appears to be constructed of a kind of anti-matter wholly opposite in nature to that of pre-Iraq Tony Blair in that no good news seems to stick to him. True, there hasn’t been a great deal of good news recently. He did try to claim credit for the fall in inflation, though this had more to do with energy prices and the actions of the (independent) Bank of England.

Worse still for many of his MPs, he’s never fought an election as a PM and is therefore not leading the country on the basis of a manifesto with his own paw-print on it. Some must be yearning for a return to BoJo who, whatever his failings, is good at winning votes. Perhaps less so now, though.

The changes decided upon by the Boundaries Commission – which have left only a minority of constituencies wholly unaltered – adds an additional layer of uncertainty. Here in West Berkshire, for instance, we have a new seat, Mid-Berkshire, wedged between Newbury and Reading West, which creates effectively three new seats in terms of previous political certainties.

To add to Sunak’s problems, yet another Conservative MP has disgraced himself, Blackpool South’s Scott Benton having been suspended for 35 days (more than long enough to trigger a recall petition) for “giving the message he was corrupt and ‘for sale'”. I suspect the last thing Sunak wants is a by-election which, given Benton’s slim majority, he will almost certainly lose.

In the light of all this, it seems amazing that he’ll hang on for too much longer. May and October are the traditional months for elections so I’ll predict that the next contest will take place in one or the other, probably October. We shall then see what we see.

• COP28

This may not have achieved as much as many would wish but at least, as Reuters reports, there was a commitment “to begin reducing global consumption of fossil fuels”. The fact that the event took place in Dubai, a place which perhaps more than anywhere on earth is associated with the wealth and glitzy bling that only fossil-fuel wealth can provide, was seen as many as in bad taste. I suppose the good thing is that, if an agreement (even with such limited objectives) can be reached there, of all places, it has to mean something.

Some might say that the statement is akin to the crew of the Titanic agreeing after a long meeting that they were “committed to looking carefully at plans for possible passenger evacuation.” On the other hand, as Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide remarked, this is “the first time that the world unites around such a clear text on the need to transition away from fossil fuels.”

Are the alternatives ready? Just looking at cars, the EV charging infrastructure in the UK and in many other countries is not quite there yet. We have for decades been used to pulling up at one of the country’s 8,365 filling stations and getting enough fuel to travel to the other side of the country without having to download an app, wait for half an hour for someone else, find we have the wrong kind of cable or discover the charger is on the blink. This is the experience we have had with our short-range 2014 Nissan Leaf. If you have a longer-range EV you should be OK as you can do all your charging at home.

If I seem to be making much of our own difficulties – which are first-world problems by any standards – I make no apology. We think of the world as 220-odd countries but we’re in fact about eight billion people. What each of us finds a problem, whether this is selfish or not, will translate into pressure on our elected representatives to mitigate and thus will, at government level, feed into a policy.

There need to be vast changes, not all of them immediately beneficial to all, for an industrialised economy to change how it powers itself. This is tough. The hitherto failure of a coherent EV charge network rather proves this point.

No government has ever got elected by promising that things would make life under its term of office harder, more expensive and more difficult and that alterations in behaviour patterns would be needed. In fact, there are numerous opportunities and benefits from the green transition, just as there are numerous benefits from jumping into a swimming pool. What’s alarming for many is the change from one state to another.

One reading of what I’ve just suggested is that liberal democracies present the most serious obstacle to change. It’s true that China is hardly a role model for climate progress: but, if the leadership realises that the future lies in that direction, then the entire might of the state will be swung to support that policy. The policies in Western Europe and North America will always be governed by the hunt for the floating voter, the chase for the middle ground and the desire to avoid any programme that might produce unwelcome news come the next election. All of these forces are likely to incline towards the status quo.

Multiply all this by the number of liberal democracies, and add to this the number of countries which can’t be so described but whose leaders derive a good deal of personal benefit from the current situation, and then square it by the general impossibility of getting any significant number of countries to agree even that the sun rises in the east without creating a major diplomatic incident, and we perhaps have some idea of why matters have moved so slowly.

A benign global dictatorship is perhaps needed for a few years, led by (say) Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. I’d vote for that. Oh, hang on – you don’t vote for dictators, do you?

All in all, I can’t see an easy way out of this. Those of us who have the luxury of adapting our lifestyle choices – which represents the vast majority of the problem – are only prepared to do so if we can avoid the worst immediate consequences and can see others doing the same until the changes become normalised. Even in a crisis, this makes for a slow process.

• And finally…

It seems that US President Joe Biden might be at risk of being impeached. I can’t pretend to understand US politics very well: however, given the legal problems his likely opponent Donald Trump is having, is it possible that the election next year will be a run off between two men, both of whom might be doing time come Inauguration Day?

Scientists have recently announced that a cure for why some pregnant women suffer from debilitating nausea may be a bit closer. There was a wonder drug for hyperemesis, as the pros call it, in the late 50s and early 60s which my mum took when pregnant with me – Thalidomide. Fortunately, perhaps because she was taking so many other tablets that the NHS prescribed at that time, the side-effects for me were annihilated. Others were less lucky and took years to get any kind of justice.

• Much the same can be said for the scandal of the prosecution of the sub-postmasters as a result if the Horizon fiasco, possibly the biggest miscarriage of justice this country has ever experienced. Many of those implicated in the matter, working for the Post Office or Fijutsu, are still at large and living comfortable lives.

This is in marked contrast to the suicide, bankruptcy and reputation trashing that has been the lot of the victims. I suppose it’s ultimately all a questions of whether you can look at yourself in the mirror. Some of those responsible clearly don’t. It was a shocking travesty. The government announced earlier this year that “Postmasters who first took High Court legal action against Post Office over the Horizon IT system and exposed the scandal can now apply to a new compensation scheme.” The statement might have added that a few prison sentences would be dished out as well.

Thames Water – which last week was summoned to explain its local performance in East Garston – has even more serious matters to contend with than the wrath of our Parish Council and my fellow residents. It was recently called before the Common’s environment, food and rural affairs committee where it admitted that it was struggling to raise money and to service its £18bn debt. Ofwat has, for the first time according to The Guardian, suggested that administration would be a viable option.

Thames Water’s Chair managed to mix up loan and equity during an explanation about the company’s finances and structure which one committee member said was “an absolute shambles.” Ian Bryant MP also observed that ““69% of the nation wants the water industry nationalised. I think after listening to this, it will be 100%.” Many others, in East Garston, in Westminster and in many places in-between, are increasingly coming to the same conclusion.

• One thing that I’ve noticed, particularly in this month, is how hard it is to get bread which doesn’t have something else added to it. Hungerford’s Tesco last week had bread with cheese, bread with olives, bread with goodness knows what else but, on that occasion, no bread on its own. Same with cheese – you have to be very careful you’re not buying something with walnuts, cranberries, coffee beans, fish fingers or one of a hundred other toppings or additions. Memo to supermarkets: the only ingredient needed for bread is bread. The only ingredient needed for cheese is cheese. 

In the same vein – and this theme was developed when I mentioned this gripe of mine on Kennet Radio last week – there’s a strong case for powerful, robust, hard-hitting etc legislation to combat one of the great consumer problems of our time: the wilful disregard of crisp manufacturers to stick to standard packaging colours. Let me explain this to them. Plain crisps are in red packets, salt and vinegar in blue and cheese and onion in green. Toadstools and pistachio, venison and strawberry and all the other ones can have any colour you like. These three are a different matter. Any other colours are wrong. Long jail terms for the entire board of directors should do the trick. And then, once we’ve established the rights and wrongs in this, we can apply the same approach to the water companies…

Across the area

• The CIL nightmare 

This is a subject which we’ve covered in detail for the last three years, most recently last week when I reported that one of the victims of this, Roger McCabe, had received a letter from WBC saying that no further action will be taken against him.

It’s important to note that Mr McCabe had not paid the sums that were demanded of him. Others – perhaps as many as 15 to 20 – did, after much protest, settle their bills. These were as a result of minor paperwork errors which triggered CIL demands for sums on developments which should not have been liable for them.

In the May election, the incoming Lib Dem administration campaigned on the basis of several issues, one of which was “Cancelling the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) demands made to homeowners who made a mistake in their planning application process, and carrying out a full review of West Berkshire’s CIL process.”

I understand that some of the other victims who did pay the charges have received letters from WBC on the subject, though I’m not sure what these say nor what their reaction is. When I have more information on this I’ll let you know.

• Withdrawing the plan

The local plan is the bible – though a lot longer – for planning authorities to use when making decisions about development in the district, This is a multi-billion pound and area-changing issue so needs to be handled seriously. Local plans have a life of about 15 years but are seen as a bit flyblown after about ten. The important point is that if a plan is said to be flawed or outdated, or if a council cannot demonstrate that it has at least a five-year supply of housing land, a developer has a better chance of winning a planning refusal on appeal. Such actions can be highly expensive for the loser.

The business of refreshing a plan takes about six years. West Berkshire’s was, according to the previous Conservative administration, regarded as complete just before the May election. It was submitted to the Planning Inspector in March 2023. This can be likened to sending off a long piece of homework for marking.

The Lib Dems had one major problem with the plan. This was the allocation of initially 2,500 but later amended to at least 1,500 homes in NE Thatcham. Their election manifesto had as one of its planks that they would take “all available action to change the flawed local plan”. It currently allows too much development on green spaces in North East Thatcham and Theale, without the necessary supporting infrastructure.”

The word “available” is worth remembering in the light of what follows.

It’s important to stress that, having made revising the plan if at all possible a manifesto pledge, the administration has to explore all the options to accomplish this. Not to do so would be unleash howls of protest from the opposition parties about pledge-breaking: even though, in the case of the Conservatives, having the Lib Dems give up on this is exactly what they want to happen.

Having been elected, and the plan having been submitted to teacher for marking, there were three options: (1) pass it as it was; (2) ask the Inspector to allow it to be tweaked; or (3) withdraw it and start again. For the first six months of its tenure, the administration made the case for 2. This was recently knocked back by Whitehall. Perhaps it was felt in SW1 that to pull this thread out of the jumper would risk having the whole thing unravel. Some have suggested there was a political agenda at work.

This left options 1 and 3. Option 1 would be to break a manifesto pledge. Option 3 would be to incur a good deal of expense for WBC and at a time when its finances, like those of so many other councils, are under strain.

The manifesto pledge promised “all available action” to amend the plan. Therefore the only choice left is to withdraw it. As a result, a special Full Council meeting of WBC has been called on the doubtless unpopular date of 19 December to discuss this. The agenda can be seen here.

Even the briefest glance at the main document provides a fairly nightmare vision. The cost of the process, the timescale, the likelihood of planning appeals, the risk of the old plan being determined unsound, the possible erosion of the key test of a five-year housing supply are all detailed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a document from a council which advances so many reasons why the proposal it’s advocating is such a bad idea. There seem three possible reasons for this, in no particular order:

  1. The first is that WBC’s officers, who would have drafted the detail, wanted there to be no doubt they’d warned WBC about the consequences of withdrawing the plan and starting again. Their understandable reluctance to re-commence the business might have played a part in the phrasing. Both might have trumped the more positive view the administration wanted to portray.
  2. The second is that WBC wants to be seen as reacting to popular pressure during these financially tough times. The debate could conclude with a motion that, given the costs involved and the feelings expressed in the debate, it’s felt that the less bad option is to pass the plan as it is.
  3. The third is that the document was written for the benefit of Whitehall. If anyone from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities reads this, they may be inclined to say – as they have in the past to other councils – “too many problems: submit what you have.” Not to do so would result in planning powers being withdrawn, as South Oxfordshire was threatened with in 2019 and as Erewash was told a few weeks ago. WBC can then say “we tried all available means but our hands were tied.”

The Conservative opposition group has and will make much play over this dilemma that the administration faces. To its credit, it provided a thorough update of the local plan which involved a lot of valuable cross-party work. NE Thatcham, however, was known to be a divisive issue. Were the plan not to have been submitted in March 2023, the process would have been far easier to manage and a result might by now have been achieved. As it is, there remains only a binary choice which will, depending on what happens, not satisfy the democratic will expressed at the election or the needs of the Council’s finances. Either way, it’s the residents who will have been short-changed. 

• The man on the bus

If on Saturday 16 December you’re on a bus in West Berkshire and you see a man anxiously scanning a timetable or crossing something off on a list, that could well be Newbury Town Councillor Steve Masters. He has set himself the task of trying to ride every bus out of Newbury on that day. His bus-a-thon starts with a departure on the 3X to Hungerford at 6.50am and ends just after midnight with him rolling into the bus station on the Jet Black service from Thatcham. We’ll be hoping to join him on the Number 4 between East Garston and Lambourn in the late morning.

“I am doing this is to highlight the free bus days here in West Berkshire,” he told us, “and also to draw attention to  the gaps in the current timetable. These could, if addressed, reduce social isolation, improve economic mobility and the dependency on cars across the district.” You can follow his progress here.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes the local plan, a budget consultation, free bus travel, Christmas waste collections, a look back at the summer reading challenge, the lifting bridge at Aldermaston, Greenham’s orchard, public meetings, depression research, something better than presents for children, a carol concert, festive photography and West Berkshire Museum on TV.

• 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 says that it has reduced its overspend by 50% in the last three months.

• West Berkshire Council’s Community Learning team says that it is “celebrating a bumper year” in its work to provide “a wide and innovative service to adults and families across the district.” The statement adds that “2022-23 has seen a significant increase in the number of adults attending courses, returning to pre-Covid figures and class sizes on the up for both digital and face-to-face courses.”

• More information on the town-centre strategies in Newbury, Thatcham and Hungerford can be found here.

• More information on community warm spaces in West Berkshire can be found here.

• North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) has announced the official launch of its new identity, North Wessex Downs National Landscape. Read more here.

• 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 until 11 December (so not long now).

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 any of these so called “crazy” animals behaving in ways which are hysterical, irritating or bizarre, as you decide.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of reversing failures, a new approach, a fresh strategy, government funding and the postal service.

• 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

• Which leads us to the Song of the Week. As mentioned last week, the 43rd anniversary of John Lennon’s death has just passed. Last week I suggested his best post-Beatles song so, this week is my favourite Beatles one: I’m Only Sleeping. It includes what is, I think, the first occasion of a backwards guitar part, played by George Harrison.

• So next it must be the Comedy Moment of the Week which is another one from QI in which Alan Davies has a meltdown.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What animal, so far as we currently know, is the largest ever to have lived? Last week’s question was: How many different permutations are there on a Rubik’s Cube? According to Art of Problem Solving, there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 of them, just over 43 quintillion. If you don’t believe me, or them, try doing it for yourself.

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 links. 

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