This week with Brian 25 January to 1 February 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including making it up, a possible re-enactment, leadership gaps, tough talk, different ways, the tyranny of vested interests, financial beauty contests, late and over budget, a citizen army, the infamous kiss, two sleaze-balls, two changes at the top, Brideshead funding, a chilled lion, flood recovery grants, action on the move, an EV letter, acorn antiques, baby’s coming back, Norway and a national unicorn.

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 [email protected]

Further afield

The Post Office enquiry continues to amaze and appal, with more stories emerging of investigators seemingly unaware of the concerns about Horizon (something that seems impossible to believe) and unwilling even to consider that this might have a bearing on the cases. This week’s hearings also looked at issues in Scotland, which of course has a separate judicial system. Concerns were expressed that the Post Office lacked the necessary expertise to deal with cases there and there was also the suggestion that some investigators were not as familiar with the criminal prosecution process as they ought to be. Stunningly, one of the prosecutors said he “could not recall” having had any training on Horizon (ie he didn’t) before wading in with the truncheon and handcuffs. 

[more below]

• Re-enactment

One might think understanding a software system and the prevailing legal system were pre-requisites for investigating and prosecuting users of the programme for alleged fraud. It seems not.

I’m struggling to imagine how the PO boss would have briefed the investigator Robert Daily on these matters. As this took place in Scotland and as we now know that Scottish politicians (also perhaps Scottish PO investigators) delete their WhatsApp messages as a pre-bedtime ritual, that seems to leave the field open to me to suggest how this conversation might have gone…

“Robert, thanks for calling. As I said in my WhatsApp message – oh, you’ve deleted it, good – look, we need you to investigate these Postmasters north of the border about the thefts…well, it’s this software thing…what’s it called? Hang on – Horror-something: oh no, Horizon…you’ve not heard of it? Well, why should you? What is…oh, I think it’s a spreadsheet of some kind, not very hard…well, quite – if the Postmasters use it then it can’t be that difficult…you want what? Specialist training? For you? I don’t think so – you’ll pick it up…and then what? Well, you’ll be taking them to court…well, yes I know it’s a separate legal system, but…no, we can’t provide training on that either but…You’ve never done that, have you…?…mmm…mmm…look, it doesn’t do to be too modest about these things…you’re worried about not knowing about Horizon either…Bob, I think you’re over-thinking this. The Fifth Floor’s said that they’re obviously all wrong’uns and so…well, there you are…no, we certainly do not want any “not proven” verdicts. Just dive in and we can deal with any problems as they come up. And I don’t mind saying that the board will not be unappreciative of your work. Don’t worry about all the detail, that’ll be…exactly – there’s sure to be a You Tube video explaining Horizon and Scottish prosecutions…ha, ha…and Bob, listen – there are going to be a lot of these, so let’s get cracking…good man. Give ’em hell. Talk soon.”

Was it like that? Better? Worse?

• Reverend

In the circumstances of its having been the only publication, along with Computer Weekly, that has been banging away about this for so long, I think we should all regard Private Eye’s coverage of this scandal as being a pretty good source. Eye 1615 tells me something that I hadn’t really clocked before, which is that the disgraced former Post Office CEO, Paula Vennells, is a Church of England priest. 

It appears that she also achieved a senior role connected with the Church’s vast stock of under-used buildings and, despite more pressing commitments from her main day job, in 2019 found the time to write a report into governance problems on Team Canterbury. These included “unstructured ways of working, gaps in leadership…and poor behaviour.” As the Eye commented, “she should know.”

• Re-invention

The latest Eye also highlights what seems to be the dismal case of current Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake who, despite some tough talk about coming down hard on those responsible, has also claimed that Mr Bates v The Post Office had nothing much to do with the government’s change of focus on the problem as it had already started to look at “different ways” of dealing with the issue before the programme was aired. Yeah, right.

The Eye helpfully offers a statement from the government’s own Compensation Advisory Board last summer. This stated that there was already enough evidence to conclude that, without clear evidence to the contrary, all the PO convictions were unsafe. This could, as I suggested last week, have been dealt with through the courts rather than with the proposed legislation. This will create an unfortunate precedent for the government to be intervening in the judiciary. Many countries have gone down this slippery slope, few with good results..

• Re-affirmation

All that said, I feel rather happier about being English than I was a few weeks ago. The fact that there’s now an enquiry in full attack mode and that the senior staff of Private Eye, Computer Weekly and ITV are not all in prison makes me feel quite content. Yes, it took two decades; yes, people’s lives have been blighted; yes, those responsible are still swanning around in churches, government departments or the City: but at least and at last it’s all coming out. This would not happen everywhere.

What’s depressing is the extent to which the prevailing orthodoxy propounded by a state monopoly was accepted as underpinning the monopoly’s defence and that any attempts to undermine this were dismissed, suppressed or ignored. The belief in the integrity of Horizon seems to have amounted, in the absence of any evidence to support it, to an article of faith. Imagine there was an organisation that claimed that the sun rotated around the earth or that the priest could turn bread and wine into flesh and blood and vigorously persecuted those who claimed otherwise. That could never happen, could it?

The moral seems to be that the tyranny of vested interests will always be amongst us. Regardless of their competence, some people will always be promoted beyond their competence and to a point beyond which their actions can’t be criticised lest it cast doubt on the whole institution. The assumption of infallibility is not only a papal sin. We’re all complicit, every time we accept that those on the Fifth Floor always know best. 

It’s often said that we learn more from our failures than from our mistakes. Hopefully there are people at the top of the Post Office and Fujitsu who are pondering this truth. I still think these lessons would be better learned for them in a world stripped of future directorships and preferments and, perhaps for a brief time, in a cell similar to that which several of their victims were cast.

• Elections

The election campaign is already hotting up: and it hasn’t even started yet. The latest intervention was from former minister Simon Clarke who has called on the PM to step down to avoid his party suffering a meltdown at the polls. There was also a particularly feisty session of PMQs on 24 January in which Sunak and Starmer – neither of whom will ever win any awards for oratory or invective – did their best to land some heavy punches on each other.

There are also two by-elections coming up on February and the local elections in May, in none of which the Conservatives seem set to do that well.

• Councils

These elections will be played out against an increasingly gloomy picture of local-government finances with several teetering on the edge of issuing a Section 114 notice (a declaration of effective bankruptcy). There certainly are cases of woeful mismanagement, some of the previous 114 victims having fallen into traps of poor investment or dodgy housing schemes. In the councils’ defence, many did so because the planning and land system could not provide social housing and government funding could not provide income. They therefore went and played the casinos of the investment market, with all the variable results that this presents.

We have a strange hotch-potch of municipal structure in this country, perhaps the oddest being the mix of single-level and two-level councils. Oxfordshire, for instance, has a County Council (responsible for, amongst other things, social care) and five districts (responsible for, amongst other things, planning). Two of these, the Vale and South Oxfordshire, are conjoined in all but name and are even currently working on a joint local plan.

Move south, however, and Berkshire’s CC was abolished in the late ’90s, to be replaced by six unitary authorities which perform all the functions. Berks and Oxon are not that different from each other and so to suggest that these two different models are ideal in each case is rather specious.

Then you have metropolitan boroughs, combined authorities and a whole different set of manners in London; and we haven’t even talked about the devolved governments and their offshoots in the countries of the UK, England not being one of these. Councils elect their representatives in different years, some with an all-out system and others with a progressive change each time of a half or a third.

All of this blurring works to the advantage of central government as it’s possible for Whitehall to divide and rule and to apply different rules and opportunities to different councils. Aside from council tax, what remains of the revenue support grant, the retention of a small part of the business rates they collect and such sums as they can raise from their own activities (some of which backfire), councils’ main source of income is through a series of financial beauty contests by which authorities are invited to bid for funding ring-fenced for specific projects.

These may not always accord with what the authority most needs funds for. Thus we have, in West Berkshire, the slightly odd spectacle of a cycleway on the A4 in Newbury that serves no particular purpose, completed a few years ago, while currently the authority is considering cost-saving measures which will include removing the majority of rubbish and dog bins and clearing gullies less often. This calls to mind Sebastian’s comment in Brideshead Revisited when Charles Ryder asks him about whether he has a proper allowance for university. “Mummy likes everything to be a present,” Sebastian replied. I’m not sure that Brideshead-style funding works any more.

For those that have this responsibility, by far the largest part of a council’s outgoings are on adult and children’s social care. These occupy about 60% of West Berkshire’s budget. In this they are acting as the agent of Whitehall, with discretion about how the money is spent but no discretion about the aims and outcomes. Increased and more complex demand has torpedoed a lot of previous certainties, as has inflation. There are hundreds of more services councils need to provide, from re-cycling our rubbish to managing most of our roads and from dealing with our planning applications to running the libraries.

Social care, though, is the big one. That’s where the cost increases have really been biting. Many councils have argued that they are sinking as a result of these demands. The Local Government Chronicle fears the government’s £600m funding boost for councils “will not meet the needs of communities.” Some have already succumbed and are now ruled by direct diktat from Whitehall. Others will follow. It seems like an avoidable mess. 

The local elections will be full of these claims from our local councils on which we rely for so many services. As with the Postmasters, it’s hard to believe that they are all wrong…

• And finally…

• The Hinckley Point C nuclear reactor is running behind schedule and over budget. When was this not said about any British infrastructure project (OK, this is being built by the French) costing more than about £500?

• Britain’s top soldier has claimed that we need to have a “citizen army” to defend the country against an attack, probably from Russia. Grant Shapps the Defence Secretary said that we are moving from a “post-war to a pre-war world.” I guess this puts us level with most of the other countries on the planet.

• The most infamous kiss of 2023, that inflicted on Spain’s captain Jenni Hermoso by then Spanish football supremo Luis Rubiales after the World Cup final – which she claims was not consensual – seems set to go to court. Almost every other detail of the match has been forgotten, including perhaps Spain’s defeated opponents (England).

• The more court cases Donald Trump gets involved in, the better he seems to do in the polls. Enough voters must see all this litigation as part of carefully orchestrated plot to do him down and react accordingly. The fact that he’s a sleaze-ball, a fantasist and a liar doesn’t matter at all. We’ve had one of those…

Across the area

• Flood recovery grants

On 6 January, the government announced that “flood-hit communities impacted by Storm Henk (2 Jan to 8 Jan) can now apply for thousands of pounds from the government to help them recover.” The financial support will be available to eligible areas in England that have experienced exceptional localised flooding.

The five groups which can currently benefit from this are: flooded households in eligible affected areas; households and businesses significantly affected; small-to-medium sized businesses in eligible affected areas; eligible flood-hit property owners; and farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land. Support will be available through councils which will announce further details on eligibility and how to apply.

A statement from West Berkshire Council has recently clarified the situation in the district. “We’ve received a number of requests asking how you can access grants from central government following the recent flooding. The flood recovery grants are currently only available once West Berkshire has reached a threshold of 50 properties impacted by internal flooding (residential and commercial) which have been reported to either the Environment Agency or the council.”

At this stage, West Berkshire has not reached this threshold, therefore it’s been unable to apply for the funding. Should it hit the threshold, the government will be advised and any eligibility for grant funding will be communicated to those affected.

Therefore, if your property has been impacted, or you know someone whose property has been flooded, please make sure this is reported to both the Environment Agency and the council with any details (including photos):

• A change at the top

West Berkshire Council has announced that Lee Dillon will be taking a sabbatical from his role as Leader of the Council with effect from Thursday 1 February.

“Lee will continue to sit on the Executive,” the statement says,  where he will be involved in key decisions and discussions, and will remain the portfolio holder for Public Safety. Councillor Jeff Brooks, currently the Deputy Leader, will become Acting Leader and take on the responsibilities associated with the role.

The move follows a previously stated intention by Councillor Dillon to put himself forward as a candidate at the next general election. The new arrangements will be in place until after the election has been held – which must be by January 2025 – at which point they will be reviewed by the Executive group.

“It has been an honour to serve as Leader since the elections last May, ” Lee Dillon said. “Stepping aside, for now, has not been an easy decision. However, we have put in a place, and are delivering on, an ambitious Council Strategy and have an Executive who are settled into their roles and committed to delivering for local residents. We are in a good position to face the opportunities and challenges in the year ahead and I look forward to continuing to play my part on the front bench. Councillor Brooks is an experienced councillor and he has my full support. I look forward to continuing to work with him for the benefit of West Berkshire residents.”

• …and another change at the top

After twenty-five years at the helm of the Volunteer centre West Berkshire, Garry Poulson has decided he will retire in March 2024.

In his farewell letter he says that he has “managed to take the charity forward in several new directions and hopefully have succeeded in maintaining the integrity of the charity without mission drift. He adds that taking on the Council for Voluntary Service role seven years ago was “a major milestone and that has become a key and vital element of our work.”

You can click here to read his full valedictory statement as well as a tribute from the Chair of the VCWB’s trustees. We’d like to congratulate Garry and all his colleagues for the excellent work that the VCWB has done in the district. There have been many achievements particularly worthy of note: the work the organisation did during the pandemic is probably the one to single out.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes flooding advice, the Pang Valley exhibition, Badgers Hill, careers, postal and proxy voting, consultations, their finest hour, e-resources at libraries, a LGBTQ+ safe space and cervical cancer screening.

• 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

• A letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News has asked why (as WBC Councillor Adrian Abbs and others are trying to ensure happens) public money should be paid to provide infrastructure purely for EV owners. He adds that such motorists should make their own arrangements for refuelling , as those who drive petrol cars do. I therefore assume that, the next time he goes to grab some unleaded, that the correspondent will not mind being presented with a bill for building the filling station.

• West Berkshire Council has secured “£1.3 million in Government funding for vital highways maintenance.”

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

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

• 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 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 animal of the week is this pet lion which was filmed in the back seat of an open-topped car in Bangkok. She seemed very chilled; or perhaps was just slowly selecting which of the passing moped riders she was going to leap on. The police intervened before this could happen.

• 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

• Here we come to the Song of the Week. This songs’ been covered several times but here’s the excellent original by the sadly short-lived Jellyfish: Baby’s Coming Back.

• So leading to the Comedy Moment of the Week. A bit of Acorn Antiques, I think:

• And thus finally to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which country has the unicorn as its national animal? Last week’s question was Which is the only country that has never lost a football match against Brazil? The answer is Norway – Played four, won two, drawn two.

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