This week with Brian 1 to 8 February 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including public inquiries, speed and cost, Fitzgerald’s maxim, independence, two different results, extrinsic behaviour, watching trailers, a green light for pharmacies, not fully informed, getting more of the stuff, passing off, changes at the top, green-bin thoughts, Whitehall’s response, a good conference, flood relief, pangolins, singing about and laughing at taxes, Walt Disney and unicorn country.

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

One thing we can’t claim we’re short of the Britain at the moment is public inquiries. They’re certainly getting more popular, with the Institute for Government reporting that there were 69 public inquiries launched between 1990 and 2017, compared with a mere 19 in the previous 30 years. Crest Advisory observed in October 2022 that this is “perhaps the busiest period for public inquiries that the UK has ever seen, with more than a dozen currently in operation,” a figure which Wikipedia says has since risen to 15. There are three particularly high-profile ones at present, concerning the Post Office scandal and the UK and Scottish responses to the pandemic, with the long-running Grenfell Tower one struggling for coverage in their slipstream. All of the others involve medical issues, child abuse or the conduct of the police, immigration services or the military. (The net might soon be spreading wider as on 1 February the beleaguered Thurrock Council said it would ask the government to hold a public inquiry into its own recent collapse.)

[more below]

• Inquiries

Whether or not these are all things that most exercise our concern or indignation, they’re probably all problems that will react best to this kind of examination. They’re all also apolitical (or ought to be). No one seems to agree one why this way of investigating issues has recently become so popular.

One depressing possibility is that there are more and more of these kind of injustices that need examination. Another is that politicians can use these as a convenient way of shelving the increasing nightmare of being asked about the issue in parliament. The phrase “it would be inappropriate to comment while the inquiry is in progress” has become a commonplace. This situation can persist for years: the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry was established in 2015 but has still not produced a single recommendation and others are scarcely more rapid.

It also may be true that the more inquiries that are convened, the more acceptable this becomes as a means of investigating matters. Inquiries, in other words, may produce results but they certainly produce more inquiries. I also suspect that the fact that these are now often live-streamed to an extent that even a decade ago they were not, makes them more popular with those who conduct them, creating some useful additions to a barrister’s showreel.

As for the media, a meaty public inquisition is the gift that keeps on giving, particularly if it can be backed up with some eye-catching footage. Both these groups are in a strong position to lobby for an inquiry being the only solution to a particular debacle.

• Speed and cost

Crest Advisory suggests that “newspapers and politicians often lament the time and money” that inquiries spend. This seems to disprove the proposition above, but it’s necessary to remember F Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim about an intelligent person being able to hold two opposing points of view in mind at the same time and still be able to function.

Publicly, this concern for speed and cost plays well. Privately, as suggested above, both groups often want the things to go on for as long as possible: in the media’s case until people have lost interest; and in the politicians’ until after the next election.

The eternal trick that politicians need to pull off – and we are seeing plentiful examples of this at present – is to demonstrate you’re doing something about a problem without allowing enough time for the results (which may be disappointing) to become obvious. Life in a pre-election period is increasingly to be watching a series of exciting trailers for a film which, on its release, may prove to be a complete turkey.

• Public support

This concern about time and cost doesn’t seem to be shared by the public. Crest looked at six aspects of inquiries that people valued: getting the evidence to reach conclusions, independence, getting public trust, transparency, timeliness and cost. These were rated in that order, with the last two way below the other four – “the vast majority of the public, to some degree, takes the view that ‘if an inquiry is worth doing, then it’s worth doing properly.” This is encouraging.

Other findings painted a more mixed picture. Although independence was highly valued, about a third of people doubted that the inquiries were wholly independent of the government. This perhaps has a lot to do with who chairs them. The Institute for Government asserts that those run by nurses, doctors, teachers, professors, scientists and judges were all trusted by more than 80% of the population. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those chaired by politicians were trusted by fewer than one in five.

The establishment seems to have learned from this as all of the current inquiries are chaired by judges or, more commonly, ex-judges. This perhaps represents a useful extension of a career path and, moreover, one which people seem to welcome.

Crest’s research also suggests that public confidence in an inquiry’s independence peaks in the 25 to 34 age group and declines thereafter; that men are twice as likely as women to be “very confident” in this aspect; and that non-white people were about 50% more likely to have this view than white people.

As for how they are conducted, 40% of people believed that they had juries and the same percentage thought that they had the power to send people to prison. Neither are true. Most people would lack the will, stamina and personal resources to serve on a jury for such cases: while the idea of the Chair despatching people to chokey would seem only to replace one injustice with another.

• Different results

From what I’ve seen of the Covid and Horizon ones, I’m very pleased they’re happening. They’re very different issues and I think the inquiries have exposed these differences very well.

The Covid one shows unprepared governments in a state of panic, buffeted by all manner of conflicting forces. New aspects of public life like fast-tracked PPE contracts, Whitehall diktats about personal behaviour, communication with the police about enforcing these, the needs of the largely forgotten population in care homes and, perhaps above all, the sudden reliance on science were suddenly front and centre of everything. It’s impossible to pretend that any government anywhere got top marks. Ours was possibly in the relegation zone (the inquiries will confirm this, or not).

However, what most strikes me is quite a nuanced picture of reactions, ranging from compassion and efficiency to arrogance and incompetence, from our leaders and their advisors when it was suddenly discovered that a fox had got into the chicken coop.

The Horizon inquiry is otherwise. This is telling an increasingly shocking story of collusion, mendacity, insensitivity, stupidity and corporate defensiveness by two organisations on a scale which I don’t think has been exposed before.

There also seems to be increasing evidence of a failure of a fundamental legal principle, that of disclosure. On 31 January, The Guardian reported that “the lawyer responsible for deciding to prosecute a Post Office operator who subsequently lost her business, and suffered a ruptured thyroid from the stress of the ordeal, has told the inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal that he was never shown information that may have stopped the case going to court.” This is far from being the only such instance.

It’s these two kind of issues that public inquiries – which should always be chaired by current or past judges, I’d argue – need to deal with. It’s to be hoped that the results will back up all this effort. On this point, the Institute for Government is pessimistic: “of the 68 public inquiries that have taken place since 1990,” the organisation observed in 2017, “only six have been fully followed-up by select committees to see what government did as a result of the inquiry.” Let’s hope that this changes with the current crop.

It certainly seems unlikely that the main bad actors in the Post Office horror film can escape with their reputation untarnished. Whether any of them will serve any time as a result of their transgressions remains to be seen. Some of us might be wishing that the 28% of the people who told Crest that inquiries could send people to prison were correct. There certainly seems to be enough evidence. At least it’s all coming out now.

• Stateside

A mystery that many of us are pondering, with increasing alarm, is why it is that the more court cases and controversy Donald Trump attracts, the more popular he seems to become. Scandal, accusations, malpractices – none seem to stick. Blair and Clinton were both like that.

Poor old Sunak seems to exhibit this in reverse, even slender bits of possible good news failing to cleave to him at all. Even his party seems slightly to have lost the will to live: I mean to say, things have come to something when the Conservatives cannot even mount a successful rebellion against their leader, as they failed to do a couple of weeks ago. For several years, this has been their USP.

Trump, however, has seemed to elevate himself above these petty political disputes. Unlike Sunak, he’s both willing and able to see the whole thing as being Just About Me. This is a useful tool in an election when you’re voting for one person rather than, as in the UK (at national or local level) where you’re voting for a representative of a particular party which is (currently) led by a particular person who may or may not be in office this time next year.

For Trump, everything has always been about him and it’s important to understand someone like him on his own terms. Most of us are not like him but that doesn’t stop a sufficiency of people accepting his worldview. This involves little nuance but plenty of certainty and is mainly predicated on good and bad, us and them and winners and losers.

George Monbiot in The Guardian goes a step further and regards his success, and also his problem, as being deeply psychological. Trump is, he argues, an extrinsic. These people are “attracted to prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth. They are strongly motivated by the prospect of individual reward and praise. They are more likely to objectify and exploit other people, to behave rudely and aggressively and to dismiss social and environmental impacts.” This seems to sum him up perfectly. This was, Monbiot suggests, something that Reagan also exhibited.

He further suggests that the problem is even more deep-rooted. “For well over a century,” he suggests, “the US, more than most nations, has worshipped extrinsic values: the American dream is a dream of acquiring wealth, spending it conspicuously and escaping the constraints of other people’s needs and demands.”

All of this has become normalised. Should Trump win again – which seems increasingly possible, bizarre though this is after the January 2021 fiasco at the Capitol when most people thought,”well, that’s him screwed for all time” – it will, Monibot argues, be partly as “the result of values embedded so deeply that we forget they are there.”

• Passing off

It’s well known that there are now fewer printed local papers than there were and those that still exist have seen their circulations fall. At the moment, though, people in many parts of the country might feel that this trend is being reversed as there are suddenly a number of “publications” appearing which look like local papers but which aren’t. These feature mastheads with the name of the town or districts followed by a suitably newspapery title like “Herald” or “Gazette”, all set in the kind of fonts beloved of the local press. Underneath will be an eye-catching headline stating that only one party can win here, that a particular candidate is leading the field, perhaps accompanied with a graph.

A casual reader could easily subliminally accept the statement as fact, coming as it seems to do from a printed source of the kind that many of us were brought up to trust: perhaps, it must be admitted, because back in the day that was pretty much all we had by way of information sources.

According to Byline Times which looked into this last year, a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said that “there are no rules against parties imitating local newspapers, or from hiding their party name in party-political materials. However, the watchdog has previously condemned the practice.” The only legal requirement is an imprint showing the name of the printer and promoter but this doesn’t have to be that prominent and for obvious reasons frequently isn’t.

This isn’t a new problem, the Press Gazette having called out several of the main parties before the 2019 election. In late 2023, Full Fact launched a petition to stop political parties using misleading tactics to gain votes, and to stop” the practice of dressing up campaign materials as local newspapers and even polling cards.” The petition has so far garnered over 14,000 signatures, including mine.

In their quest for verisimilitude, political parties can come embarrassingly unstuck. Byline Times describes how Derbyshire Conservative MP Robert Largan distributed a “newspaper” titled the High Peak Reporter – despite the name of the title being owned by an actual newspaper group. “I guess we should be flattered,” Quest Media Network’s CEO commented, “but we’re not.”

Although this practice doesn’t seem to be illegal (as long as there’s an imprint) it is pretty dismal. If I see one of these things I immediately mark down the party responsible and wonder why it needs to sink so low. There are also two ironies at work here. The first is that, although political parties often moan that newspapers doesn’t cover stories fairly, here they are disguising themselves as newspapers themselves. The other is that the perception of politics and politicians have suffered as a result of the bogus stories that now circulate feely everywhere, and here they are compounding the problem. If these fake newspapers don’t count as fake news then I don’t know what does.

• And finally…

Pharmacies will be given the green light to prescribe medications for a number of conditions that previously required a visit to a GP. Whether this is an admission of the high professional competence of pharmacists or a recognition that for many people getting a GP appointment can take weeks or longer is uncertain. The problem for many might be the lack of privacy. Many of us find it hard enough to share problems one-to-one in a GP’s room. Most pharmacies – with their long queues and security screens that mean you sometimes have to raise your voice to communicate – are not equipped for private discussions about personal habits or urinary tract infections.

• To an unprecedented extent, wealth, power and commercial influence in the world is in the hands of a very small number of people and corporations. We’ve all become complicit in this through our reliance on them. Remove Apple, Amazon, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter (as was) and few others from the digital equation and life for many would grind to a halt.

Elon Musk is one of the plutocrats involved and I was staggered – and also in some ways not staggered – to learn this week that in 2018 he had a $55.8bn pay deal awarded to him by Tesla. This came to public notice as a result of a decision by the Delaware Supreme Court to annul this. How much power this body has in the matter remains to be seen. What seems incredible is that the judgement accepted that the directors “did not fully inform shareholders.” No matter how large a company, how can $55.8bn be overlooked? Perhaps the bigger the sum is, and the person to whom it’s being paid, the easier it is to conceal it.

• The Labour Party has come under fire for saying that it will “not reinstate a cap on bankers’ bonuses if it wins the next election,” as reported in The Guardian. This might have been one of the few things that Truss-Kwarteng got right. Pretending that you can stop these people is pointless.  The CBI claims that “research finds no evidence that the bonus cap significantly constrained growth in the total remuneration for material risk takers (MRTs), but rather led to a slower bonus growth and a sharper increase in fixed pay.” The thing to remember about bankers is that they deal in money so will always find a way of getting more of the stuff, no matter what restrictions are imposed. One might as well legislate against wolves attacking sheep. It’s what they do…

Across the area

• Setting the budget

WBC has recently announced the draft of the first budget under the new Lib Dem administration. The main aspects are reduction in reserves to about £4m (less than the government advises), a rise in council tax of 4.99% (the maximum without a referendum), continuing expenditure on social care (which now accounts for over 60% of the Council’s budget) and the need to find further savings. The last of these will mainly be funded through “efficiency, transformation, income and reshaping”, phrases that will acquire more meaning when the papers are studied and the matter debated more fully.

There will be three public outings for the budget. As this statement from WBC confirms, it is due to be considered for approval by Council on Thursday 29 February. Ahead of that meeting it will be reviewed by both Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday 6 February and Executive on Thursday 8 February. Each of these is open to the public to attend in person at the Market Street offices in Newbury and to stream online via the Council’s YouTube channel. It hasn’t previously been normal for the budget to go to Scrutiny but this has been introduced this year as it follows best practice from many other authorities.

WBC recently ran a series of consultations on some proposed cuts in about ten different areas, including on matters like gully emptying, community transport, litter- and dog-waste bins. Most of these will not be preceded with.

This is sensible. Aside from the fact that they were estimated to produce only small savings (which may not in any case have been realised, as is often the way), they were clearly widely unpopular. Many of these services would have withered away or been taken on by parishes. In such cases, the charges would have ended up on the precept, resulting in no saving to residents. Such services are easy to stop but hard to re-start. Bins than are no longer being emptied need to be removed and it’s unlikely they would ever have returned. On this point, most residents seem to feel that more rather fewer bins are needed. A good call.

A cynic might say that these cuts were never seriously contemplated but were suggested just so the Council could be seen to be listening. I prefer the view that the questions were asked, the people spoke and the ideas were modified or abandoned. This happened under the last administration when the then Social Care portfolio holder, Joanne Stewart, changed her mind about the closure on Notrees care home in Kintbury after a similar exercise.

On which point, the proposed closure of Willows Edge care home has been paused and I understand that a review of WBC’s continued management of its three care homes will also be conducted. Most authorities have completely out-sourced this to the private sector and the current arrangement doesn’t seem to present many economies of scale for WBC.

There’s also been a welcome contribution of £25,000pa to spend on cleaning the district’s road signs, some of which are filthy to a point which renders them illegible and thus possibly illegal. This is small change compared to what a court case could cost in the event of a claim following a serious accident.

All this is being acted out against continuing uncertainty about the support the government will provide. Politicians of all parties are naturally concerned that the authority/ies in their constituency may slide in the dreaded Section 114 condition of insolvency and calls are mounting for some serious support.

The government is also encouraging authorities to disinvest from their speculative property portfolios: WBC has about £60m of such assets and has already announced it plans a phased withdrawal. Currently the proceeds can be spent, as well as on infrastructure, on “transformation” expenditure, much of which looks very much like normal day-to-day expenditure to me and so rather like living off capital. It may be that these regulations will be loosened still further.

This may be a good way for the government to help prick this property bubble, reduce municipal risk and stave off the need for Whitehall handouts. It isn’t, however, a long-term solution to anything as this money will eventually run out. It also benefits councils like Spelthorne with its bloated speculative portfolio at the expense of councils which have been more prudent in this regard and therefore have less to sell.

Better would be to allow councils to retain more of the business rates they collect. Currently about 70% of these are handed over the the Treasury. In WBC’s case, the £14m gap could be bridged if the council were allowed to keep 45% of what it collected (or, rather less likely, its total business-rate income would need to double).

• Whitehall’s response

As I was typing this last sentence, one of the officers at WBC helpfully sent me a link to this report recently published by the Commons’ Levelling up, Housing and Communities Committee. Amongst many other matters, this deals expressly with the matters of business rates and capital expenditure. On the latter point, paragraphs 49 and 50 summarise the Committee’s view as follows:

[49] “We welcome the Government’s call for views on local authority capital flexibilities and believe that additional flexibilities may play a useful role in enabling local authorities to support themselves in times of financial distress.”

[50] “However, local authorities’ use of capital funding for revenue expenditure is not sustainable and at best it can only be a temporary solution to short-term financial pressures. We have concerns that the Government, if it does grant these additional flexibilities, may delay its engagement with the more fundamental reforms to the funding system which we believe are urgently required. There is a risk that local authorities, in using these flexibilities, are drawn into fire sales of local assets, or unsustainable borrowing, in attempts to bridge their chronic budget gaps. This could drive poor value for money for local authorities and their communities, and exacerbate existing financial distress.”

Regarding business rates, paragraph 55 says that “Given that some local authorities collect significantly more in business rates than others, and that an authority’s ability to generate business rates is not correlated with its spending needs, the scheme is also designed to be partially redistributive.” The report goes on to highlight several problems with the current system, the main one being that it does not make this re-distributions fairly. 

Paragraph 60 concludes that “The business rates system is overly complex, outdated and in urgent need of reform. The baselines used in the business rates retention scheme are over 10 years out of date and their continued use is causing a significant misalignment between the level of funding distributed to local authorities and those authorities’ spending needs. There is a disproportionately negative impact on those authorities in the most deprived parts of the country. The Government committed to a Fair Funding Review for local government in 2016 but is still to deliver on this commitment and it is not clear to us that it will do so.”

Releasing more business rates will, therefore, only provide a partial solution and, as the report suggests, is likely to provide the greatest benefit to the councils that need it less. An imperfect but quick solution would be to have bands so that councils which have the greatest demand, howsoever defined, could retain a higher percentage. This could be limited for two years, pending something more long-term. Anything seems better than the current log jam which, as the report notes, has been in place now for over six years.

• Back to the budget…

Iain Cottingham told me on 31 January, there are things that the public will be pleased with about this budget. That may be so. One is the fact that, despite the worryingly low reserves, the Council is not yet in imminent danger of a 114 notice: or, perhaps one should say, in no more danger than is any other fairly well-run authority. Sadly, that on its own no longer seems to offer a guarantee of protection.

There is, however, one aspect that makes no sense to me at all…

• The green bins

At the election, the Liberal Democrats’ pledges included removing the charge on collecting garden refuse, which was later changed to phasing this out. The budget proposes that the charges be reduced from £58 to £55 at a cost of about £100,000pa.  The service is popular and well used: as far as I can estimate, about 70% of the households that would ever use it already do so. Under these plans, the 30% of the households who probably have no need of a green bin are each paying c £3 a year to subsidise those who do, or can – not a huge sum, but a subsidy in the wrong direction.

Nor is the service currently expensive. A quick survey of ten neighbouring councils reveals that the charge for a single bin (some, including WBC, offer discounts for extra ones) ranges from £60 to £80. This ignores the one-off charge that some councils, though not WBC, charge.

West Berkshire’s are already the cheapest in the area and they’ll now become more so. Were the charge to be increased to the average for the area (£67) this would, rather than costing £100,000, raise £300,000. We have two such bins and having someone collect our clippings and weeds twenty-five times a year is very convenient. As flat charges go, it’s also pretty closely linked to an ability to pay.

The suggestion has been made that were the charge to be increased, usage would fall and more people would burn the stuff on bonfires. I rather doubt this. Recently cut vegetation doesn’t burn well and most people have got out of the habit of lighting fires. The majority of those who opted out would probably cut less, make dead hedges on their land or do deals with neighbours.

It’s also an all-in service, which strengthens the council’s position. If you want to save money on petrol, alcohol or fuel you can find ways of consuming less. That doesn’t apply here. No discounts apply for those who only put their green bins out ten times a year. Once you have it you’re likely to keep it as, when you do need it the collection service is a good deal easier than taking the cuttings to the recycling centre.

I also don’t think that I, as a garden owner, should be being subsidised by someone who lives in a flat. In a very small way, that’s exactly what this situation is doing.

• The West Berkshire District Parish Conference

This took place recently. Although I wasn’t there myself (I wonder if I could even have attended), I spoke to a parish councillor who was. This is the third such one he’s been to and this was the best attended. Plenty of district councillors were there (more than he’d seen before) and “there seemed a genuine desire to engage with the audience to gain input and feedback on the information being presented.” He added that “the district councillors seemed to be genuinely interested in working with the parishes in delivering the services our electors want.” This is welcome as the perception (and perhaps also the reality) has in the past often been otherwise. 

He suggested that it was, however, a shame that the timing (the day before the budget was announced) meant that financial issues could not be considered. As the separate section above suggests, though, many parishes will be relieved that some of the proposed cuts to matters such as community transport, gully clearing and dog bins will not now go ahead: this would have left them either with fewer services or the need to raid their piggy banks (and add to the precept) to pay for them themselves.

He added that “there weren’t any council representatives from strategy and transformation. This was disappointing as it would have been good to get underneath the top level information.” Again as mentioned above, transformation is a fairly new and unfamiliar area of municipal expenditure and one which has come into the spotlight because the proceeds from capital disposals can be used to fund this work – whatever exactly it is.

“Overall,” he concluded, “it was a good conference and well worth attending.” 

• Flood recovery grants

To repeat what we mentioned last week, 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.

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):

• Another change at the top

West Berkshire Council reports that Councillor Louise Sturgess has been appointed to the Executive with effect from Thursday 1 February as the Executive Member for Economy and Regeneration, taking over from Councillor Martin Colston who is stepping down.

“Being a portfolio holder is a big responsibility and as I am also a sole trader with my own business, it became clear to me towards the end of last year that I could not meet my Executive, ward, and business commitments, and this was causing ever increasing stress,” Martin Colston said. “I have suffered from mental health issues in the past and the warning signs were all there. So, I have taken the decision to step down from the Executive which will allow me more time to work as a ward councillor for my residents in Newbury Central. I would like to thank all my colleagues and officers for their support and understanding, and I wish Louise Sturgess all the best in her new role.”

“I fully admire and support his decision to step down and dedicate time to his business and mental health,” commented WBC’s Acting Leader Jeff Brooks.

Jeff Brooks is “Acting Leader” as last week the Leader, Lee Dillon, announced that he was taking a sabbatical in order to concentrate on winning the Newbury constituency at the forthcoming general election, which must take place some time this year.

The opposition Conservative group has opposed this move, arguing that “there appears to be no constitutional or legal basis in the WBC constitution or the Local Government Act for a Council Leader to absent himself from his role in this manner.” The statement goes on to say that part 5, section 2 of the WBC constitution “does not provide grounds for this course of action.” The group adds that “the proposed arrangements may well be subject to judicial review, and decisions made improperly by the Council in the absence of clarity of leadership and accountability could be subject to costly legal challenge.”

The issue could, it seems to me, be satisfied by Lee Dillon resigning and Jeff Brooks being appointed in his place, this process being reversed when or if Lee Dillon decides to return. This would merely produce the same results but over a longer timescale. None the less, rules is rules and if they’ve been infringed then I’m sure we can rely on WBC’s legal officers to interpret the document correctly. Hopefully this will not require an expenditure of £3,850 on a QC – as happened in March 2022 – to interpret and explain to the Council a matter in its own constitution.

On a practical level, it was never a secret that Lee Dillon – who also has a full-time job – was going to stand as an MP and he would have received even more criticism were he to fight the seat while still Leader. When we all voted, we voted for a local representative – or, perhaps, knowing little of them as people – for the party they represented. I suspect few would have voted solely to see the leader of the party crowned as Leader of the council. After all, nationally we are now two steps away from having a PM who was the leader of the winning party at the time of the last election, in 2019. Indeed, since 1990 we’ve had six PMs – Major, Brown, May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak – who ran the country with no personal mandate to do so, although their party did. The UK constitution, in the sense that it exists, permit this. The WBC’s Conservatives’ question is whether the Council’s one does in the precise way this changeover has been organised.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes leadership changes, a peer review, community champions, highways maintenance, home upgrade grants, Community Connect in Downlands, family fun, WBC meetings, repair cafés, flood responses and MMR jabs.

• 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 has announced that “local government officers and Councillors from across the country will be conducting a voluntary peer review from 6 February for four days. A peer review is when eight representatives from councils nationwide spend a week collaborating with a council to evaluate its performance, assess its ambition for residents, and determine if adequate resources are in place to fulfil those objectives.” This last took place in this district in 2019. 

A statement from West Berkshire Council says that “proposals to create a new Berkshire Prosperity Board to help drive forward and deliver future economic success across the county are set to be endorsed by all six Berkshire Councils. Under the proposals, all six councils would work together to help seize opportunities to promote Berkshire to investors, businesses and Central Government.”  Such co-operations in specific areas have existed before, here and elsewhere. There’s no suggestion I’m aware of that this is going to lead to the re-creation of Berkshire County Council.

• 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 pangolin which was liberated from animal traffickers and is now making a new home for itself in South Africa. Strange looking beasts, aren’t they? If you want to know why they look this way, then my explanation (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling) can be read here: How the Pangolin Got His Scales.

• 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 find ourselves at the Song of the Week. Given that everyone would have got their tax returns in by 31 December, what better than The Beatles’ Taxman.

• So bringing us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. And sticking with the theme, here’s a short clip from Joe Zimmerman in which he articulates perhaps the most awful aspect of completing a return: Taxes.

• And signing off with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What was Walt Disney afraid of? Last week’s question was: Which country has the unicorn as its national animal? The answer is Scotland. One might say that it’s appropriate that a country that doesn’t exist as a country in quite the way some would wish should be represented by animal which doesn’t exist at all but this is perhaps uncharitable. After all, Scotland has its own parliament, which is more than England does.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate lin

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