This week with Brian 21 to 28 December 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a car crash, Galadriel on TV, another league table, a huge mess, a slim majority, welcome to my new skin, indifferent success, three religious targets, hope for a rising sun, blue whales, a plan denied, beautiful animals, on the buses, dinner with the the in-laws and home alone.

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

As car crashes go, the one inflicted on herself by Michelle Mone, elevated to the peerage by the hapless David Cameron in 2015 for services to the lingerie industry or whatever it was, is right up there. Prince Andrew would probably have nodded grimly to himself when watching it as it would have brought back memories of his Pizza Hut/”I don’t sweat” fiasco. Mone and her husband Douglas Barrowman agreed to the interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg to set the record straight about what they were like and what their motivations were. These goals at least they have achieved.

[more below]

• Mone

Everything about this, from the claim that she was the saviour of the government’s PPE strategy, such as it was, to the weasel words about the non-declarations of interest and from her admission of her family’s beneficial relationship with the trust to her portrayal as a victim of some kind of press witch hunt, is deeply dismal.

She appears to be suffering from what a friend of mine delightfully termed de Pfeffel-Johnson Syndrome, characterised by seeing truth as an elastic concept that can wither in the face of self-interest. I’d suggest that we’re also dealing here with an advanced case of Streisand-Maxwell, sufferers of which use litigation both as a failed attempt to silence unflattering stories about them and as a deterrent for any further accusations.

Mone admitted that she lied to the press, saying that this was not a crime. It isn’t: but she missed the point that the questions the press were asking concerned her own apparently undeclared interest in the company; which may be a crime. She also threatened legal action against those who wrote stories about these allegations, which were in fact true. Is Talking Complete Bollocks with Intent to Commit Perjury an offence? Perhaps it should be.

It was also later alleged by The Guardian that Mone and Barrowman had retained the services of a journalist-cum-PI to investigate the source of articles “revealing that they had been lying to the public.” However, these stories were – on her own later admission – true. Perhaps they thought that, if it could be proved that they had been leaked in secret, that this would discredit them. Hasn’t worked so far.

The interview also suggested that a senior government official had suggested that a payment could make the legal action that PPE Medpro was and is facing from the government “go away”. This is a very serious charge. Can it be substantiated? Can the government win its case? Was the PPE supplied defective? Time will tell.

I don’t know what advice Mone got before the interview but it seems someone suggested to her that she should deck herself out as much as possible to look like Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings. If so, that advice stuck.

The bit that really grated with me was her repeated assertion that the lies had been to protect her family: protecting them, it might be argued, from the consequences of her having lied in the first place. Politicians are adept at using this intrusion as a means of closing down questioning, even when it’s their actions rather than the media’s which have caused the problems. Dr Johnson (no relation) observed that patriotism (referring to a dishonest appeal to this) is the last refuge of a scoundrel. I wonder if “or family interest” should be added to this epigram.

• Homes

Perhaps “or create a league table” should be added to Dr Johnson’s phrase as well. Michael Gove has recently suggested that “councils in England which delay or block housing developments for no good reason will be named and shamed.”

He named and shamed seven in his recent speech, all of which have no local plan. Planning Resource suggests that “uncertainty about the direction of national planning policy and the subsequent slow down in local plan-making” will result in nearly four out of five local authorities having no up-to-date local plan by the end of 2025.

This depends on what’s meant by “up-to-date”. Local plans are meant to last for 15 years but the government appears to regard any older than ten as containing policies that might be slightly fly-blown. Given that they take perhaps seven years to prepare, the cliché of painting the Forth Bridge springs to mind.

This also ignores the councils which have their plans in the long stage of examination or which have apused them (as West Berkshire ought to have done) because o impending elections and the uncertainty created by Whitehall. 

The solution to so many government problems has been league tables. Schools, care homes, universities, hospitals – all these and others have been subjected to the easy tyranny of a metric which provides consumers of the services with an easy guide to how well each is performing. The results, certainly with Ofsted’s school reports, contain a good deal of nuance in the short reports which follow. Few read these, however. In a busy world, it’s only the headlines of “good” or “inadequate” that are zoomed in on.

Will councils be any different? In any case, what does it matter in terms of choice? You can’t say “my council is doing badly in terms of approvals so I’m going to move the acre of land I’ve just bought elsewhere so I can get a better decision.” As a vote-winner, this might also be a busted flush.

Unless they’re professionally involved in it, most people generally don’t think about planning  – or other boring but necessary matters like sewage – at all. The only exception comes when it affects them personally or might do so, in which case they can’t think about anything else. This binary on/off approach doesn’t lend itself to rational debate.

I also can’t see any reason why a planning authority would want to refuse an application ‘for no good reason’ as that would (a) almost always involve its going against its local plan, if it has one and (b) leave it open to an appeal from the developers, which can cost a lot of money.

Nor do I see why any authority would want to delay planning decisions, which seems also to form part of Gove’s graphs. The most likely reason why applications are delayed is because the authority can’t afford to employ enough planning officers to deal with the volume of applications and the ever-changing government regulations.

The planning system is, like the social-care one, in a huge mess. The preferred way of reforming it seems currently to be piecemeal, as with this announcement and the publication on 19 December of the new National Policy Planning Framework, as well as various oblique references to future measures, such as in the Autumn Statement. I’m certainly interested to see how Gove’s definition of planning refusal “for no good reason” can be measured and expressed in a league table.

He might also add that the hand of central government is already heavy when it comes to handling local plans which, following a change of administration in the elections, the new administration wishes to amend. Spelthorne, Erewash and most recently West Berkshire have recently fallen foul of the dreaded letter from Whitehall saying that they cannot amend the plan (and principally the site allocations within them) and must pass them as they stand. These are “local’ plans: or not the local, it seems.

More on the issue in West Berkshire can be seen below (“Across the area”).

• Bone

The by-election merry-go-round seems set to continue. The latest Conservative MP to have lost or surrendered their seat – this time because of a recall petition – is Wellingborough’s Peter Bone who was “found by parliament to have subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct.” He denies the charges. He had a majority of over 18,500 last time out but, as recent results have shown, this counts for very little at the moment.

Unless Sunak decides to call a very early election, there will therefore be another contest to fight. There could be two, if the Commons finds Blackpool South’s Scott Benton guilty of inappropriate lobbying and a recall petition has a similar result. His majority was only about 3,700 in 2019 which, on current showing, doesn’t look like nearly enough.

• Covid

Yes, you heard me correctly. Covid. Variant JN 1 – which you might think was a Korean boy band – is now regarded by the WHO as a “variant of interest.” I find this a lovely phrase and one we’ve heard before, though not for a couple of years. So, it’s officially still here, in a new skin and a new guise: not that there was any doubt about this. Winter is, as Chris Whitty reminded us, its traditional hunting ground.

Click here if you have four minutes you want to burn listening to a song I wrote about this very virus-mutating thing back in 2020, Welcome to My New Skin.

I know plenty of people who have this lurgy right now. The huge nightmare for the government must be the idea of needing to apply any restrictions again, the more so as it’s in the middle of an enquiry about how it handled the last one. Moving back to politics, despite what’s been suggested by some Conservative grandees that we’re all so over the Covid measures and partygate, people are interested in this. Many observers were bereaved and all of us were affected in one way or another.

It’s rare that we get to see a forensic examination of something that involved the government’s decisions and actions taken only a few years after the events. The fact that this is happening at all is something we should applaud. Sunak would, I’m sure, applaud it too, though I suspect he would have preferred that this wasn’t happening in the run-up to an election.

I don’t think I could cope with another lockdown and all the uncertainties about slogans, tiers and random police enforcements of regulations. Above all, we’ve been getting startling testimony that the Number Ten machine didn’t have a grip on things either, something that most of us probably wanted to believe.

We also now know that “following the best science” is not as precise as it appears. Science changes from hour to hour and has to be filtered through political, legal and economic considerations before it can become policy. Then you have the problem of ensuring that everyone – including, note,  those who framed it – understands it and follow the rules.

The UK’s success in this last time round, from the PM down, can only be termed indifferent. It’s hard to expect anything better if it has to happen again.

• And finally…

• I do feel sorry for the Roman Catholic Church at the moment – well, I don’t, actually. I can still remember my father stammering abominably on the telephone (by that time of his life he’d mastered the face-to-face dialogue but not the phone) as a result of having been taught to write with his dominant left hand strapped behind his back by nuns. I strongly suspect, but cannot prove, that this was the least of the indignities he suffered during his Catholic education. If you have twenty minutes to spare, you could do far worse than spend them in the company of Stephen Fry explaining at a debate why he does not regard the Catholic Church as a force for good in the world. I found little to disagree with in what he said.

And now, the most successful and long-lasting organisation that Europe has produced has announced that “priests can administer blessings to same-sex couples as long as they are not part of regular Church rituals or liturgies.”  However, “it should in no way be confused with the sacrament of heterosexual marriage. Priests should decide on a case-by-case basis and ‘should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing’.”

Well, that’s cleared that up, then. So, these people who were born that way are not quite as evil as they used to be. Or not really that evil at all. Or something else. So much learned debate about this, so many attempts to define the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, so much pointless expenditure of wonderfully crafted intelligence and so much carefully argued persecution: and this piece of political equivocation is the result?

• Changing religions, “highly confidential” documents obtained by the BBC’s Persian network suggest that the judiciary in Iran is planning to set up “mobile courts” in public places like shopping malls to punish dress code violations. They also show schoolgirls could face action by the education ministry and that celebrities could be jailed for up to 10 years for “promoting corruption”, whatever that means. Is there not enough misery in the world already?

• Meanwhile, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Isreal/Gaza conflict is in danger of turning into something truly horrific. The Middle East has always created more philosophies, religions and history than it can consume locally. Many of us may therefore be feeling the effects of this before long .

• Enough on this. After all, it’s Christmas. The last thing any of us wants is to be given a complete downer by all the infinite complexities, contradictions and hypocrisies of religion at a time when we want to spend time with our families and friends, eat huge amounts of food and pray that the days will once again start getting longer. The way the world’s going I’m not entirely sure about the last one; but, here’s hoping…

Across the area

• Pulling the plan 

I wrote last week that there had for some months been three things that could have happened to the disputed local plan: 1 pass it as it was, 2 tweak it or 3 withdraw it altogether. Option 2 was removed by the planning inspectorate last month and, on 19 December, option 3 was removed by the Ministry of Local Government. That left option 1. WBC therefore had to cancel its motion at the special Full Council meeting to withdraw the plan. The event still went ahead and there was a debate but it was all a slightly pointless affair.

Passing the plan as it stood is not what the Lib Dems wanted but it does have the benefit of avoiding the formidable risks that the agenda papers outlined. I imagine that this outcome will also be popular amongst the officers: the thought of having to start again must have been causing some sleepless nights. In addition, there will be new rules on how local plans need to be created but the details of these are not yet clear.

By an irony, the new National Planning Policy Framework was published on the same day the minister sent his letter. Planning is always complex and full of ambiguities and that applies even more than usual at present.

The Conservative opposition made much of the fact that the Lib Dems were being irresponsible by even suggesting such a course of action but it’s hard to see what else they could have done. They had made a manifesto pledge to use all available methods to change the plan and this is what they were doing. Whitehall then stepped in, as it has done elsewhere, and that was that. Whether, as the Conservatives suggested, the administration always thought this was a likely outcome (all agreed that it was) is neither here nor there. They had to try.

It was suggested that preparing to withdraw was a high-risk strategy. I disagree. The Conservatives claimed that the administration was hoping that the government would “come to its rescue” by insisting it proceed with the plan it had. Even if this hadn’t happened, WBC still had the option of saying that “after due consideration and noting the views at the meeting” it now felt that, although withdrawal was still an available route, it wasn’t a safe one.

If the meeting was slightly pointless in that there was, because of Whitehall’s intervention, nothing to decide it was also rather fractious. Some members used this as an opportunity to re-state their reasons for either supporting or opposing the plan while others used it to attack the government. The Lib Dems were repeatedly accused of making promises they couldn’t keep even though they had been prevented from doing this first by the Planning Inspectorate and then by the Ministry.

The one point all agreed on was that the plan had many good things in it and that it had received cross-party input: but even that led to disagreements, including several affectedly amazed enquiries as to why, in that case, the Lib Dems wanted to ditch it. The fact is, as everyone present was perfectly well aware, the only serious point of division was NE Thatcham. I still wonder why local plans are not done in two stages with the policies agreed first and then the sites allocated.

At one point, the Conservative’s Leader Ross Mackinnon treated to the meeting to an interesting and unexpected analogy, likening the Lib Dem’s actions of going for what had been described as the “nuclear option” of withdrawal to the events leading up the Chernobyl disaster. This, and the suggestion from the administration that this would have failed the Just a Minute test of no deviation, at least changed the mood for the better. It was also a step up from the usual dismal comparisons with the Titanic, a particularly contorted example of which, referring to this very issue, can be seen in the letters section of our local paper this week.

That aside, the contributions from the Conservatives were surprisingly underwhelming considering how much they must have been looking forward to the discussion. One member offered comments which contained some basic factual errors. Another suggested that the proposed withdrawal amounted to an insult to the planners. A third employed the lazy and ghastly phrase “playing politics” but, for extra impact (or so they thought) with the word “reckless” in the middle.

Whenever I hear “playing politics” I know that the discussion has run out of useful or original things to say: and so it proved. It also drew attention to the fact that, as would have been increasingly clear to anyone watching that, were there to be no political parties involved at this level of council, matters might not have ended up in this way: a forlorn hope, sadly.

The one thing the Conservatives did not say, but which the Lib Dems did on several occasions, was that we were where we were largely because the previous administration submitted the plan to the inspector as one of its last acts before the local elections. Were it not to have done so, matters would have been far easier to resolve.

In May the people of West Berkshire spoke (and, despite what was suggested, the result was a lot more than just a protest vote against the government). Sadly, three things – the premature submission of a divisive plan, changes not being allowed by the Inspector and the eventual insistence of the Minister that the current draft be passed – prevented this voice being heard.

The second and third things were only necessary because the first had happened: so we need to look at that event as the starting point of the issue, not the local election result or either of the more recent decisions from Whitehall.

• A new town

During the above-mentioned debate, the point was made by Thatcham Councillor Owen Jeffery that the proposed development of NE Thatcham would amount to a town the size of Hungerford being wedged between Thatcham and Bucklebury. This would, of course, only be the case if the original 2,500 allocation were built. That’s now been reduced to “at least 1,500” but it must always be assumed that when a site or, in this case, an adjacent group of sites are not fully developed that one is merely waiting for part two. 2,500 homes times an average occupancy rate of 2.4 people gives us 6,000, almost exactly Hungerford’s population.

A place of that size deserves its own name: what might that be? Contracting NE Thatcham would give us Nethcham, which might work. In the same way, so too might Swucklebury. Others may prefer Bucklebury Blight. In due course, there may be a naming competition run in conjunction with a local school.

However, there is no local school there and under the current proposals this won’t be fixed until the project is very far advanced and many people have moved in. This question of infrastructure is at the nub of the problem. The comparison with Hungerford having been made, it’s worth having a look at what this town of 6,000 people has to offer its residents.

Hungerford has a secondary school, a primary school, a SEN school, a nursery school, a surgery, a pharmacy, a fire, police and ambulance base, a physio clinic, several dentists, a vets surgery, football, cricket and rugby clubs all with clubhouses, a tennis club, a bowls club, a social club, an environmental group, food, arts, history and theatre groups, several churches, several meeting venues for hire, a hotel, a dozen or more restaurants, cafés and pubs, several bus services, several playgrounds, a common, a library, two supermarkets, two petrol stations, two A roads, two leisure centres, two swimming pools and a railway station (complete with a bridge over the railway line, much to Thatcham’s envy). And I haven’t even mentioned all the shops. What will Nethcham/Swucklebury be able to offer by comparison?

Indeed, looking back at that list it’s probably true that Hungerford’s infrastructure in many ways exceeds that of the whole of Thatcham, a town which has over four times as many people. All agree that Thatcham has been ill-served by successive waves of development. What is promised by the current proposals is not likely to improve matters.

• A look back at 2023

In our eight regional news sections, we look back at some of the main stories we covered (often many times) in 2023. Many of these are still live to some extent so they’ll be back next year and joined by new issues that need explaining, probing and commenting on.

See the links at the top and the bottom of this section to take you to the area/s you’re interested in.

• The man on the bus

Newbury Town Councillor Steve Masters set himself the task of trying to ride every bus out of Newbury on on Saturday 16 December. We joined for part of the journey (not to check up on him, you understand, but in a spirit of support and encouragement) and, to our delight, ran into someone we know on the Number 4. You can read Steve Masters’ account of his bus-a-thon in this post.

The free travel is also available on the buses on Saturday 23 December: more information can be found here.

I’ve asked WBC if they can let me know how the number of passengers on Saturday 16 December compared to an average Saturday and will hope to have an answer in the new year. I don’t know how much this cost WBC (I’ve asked that too) and I imagine given the current state of its finances it can’t afford to make this a more regular event. None the less, buses are for life, not just for Christmas. I’ll also be enquiring if they’ve looked into whether any large private companies in the area might be willing to sponsor a similar initiative at other times of the year.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes a look back at 2023, a message from our leader, WBC’s Christmas opening hours, waste collections, a Ukrainian party, the Council’s strategy, the local plan (see also above), a financial overview, a budget consultation session at the Willink Centre on Wednesday 3 January, pedestrianisation in Newbury, community learning, household waste charges, consultations, flood risks, household support, scam and flood warnings and the junior doctors’ strike.

• 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

Click here for West Berkshire Council’s statement following the withdrawal of its withdrawal of its local plan (this odd sentence makes more sense than it might seem at first glance). See also “Pulling the plan” above.

• West Berkshire Council has announced a “comprehensive support package for residents facing winter challenges.”

• The Council also looks back at some of its highlights from 2023.

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.” 

• 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.

• 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 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 which Business Insider picked as being the most beautiful. They’re certainly very colourful.

• 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. My eldest son Michael’s birthday was on 20 December, my third son Adam’s was on 21 December and Penny’s is on 30 December – so what else could I pick but the Beatles’ Birthday?

• So next it must be the Comedy Moment of the Week I thought, well, it’s Christmas coming up but I couldn’t think of any really good seasonal sketches. So I asked Mr Google and he suggested a couple which were OK. One was a dark and surreal and not quite funny enough one when a woman takes her boyfriend to meet her twisted family for a festive lunch. That got me thinking about awkward meals; which led me at once to the best of its kind I’ve ever seen – Nick Ball’s wonderful Dinner with the In-laws.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How many siblings did Kevin have in the 1990 Christmas comedy film Home Alone? Last week’s question was: What animal, so far as we currently know, is the largest ever to have lived? Well, it seems like it’s our old friend the blue whale which can weigh up to 200 tons. No dinosaur yet discovered even comes close.

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