This week with Brian 15 to 22 February 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including guns and cats, more or less, precision or rounding, good enough, eleven out of ten, deselections, improved verges, net gains, flood reports, the right focus, a possible ban, a motor-cycle brawl, life and death, a brief CIL pause, AI bats, 28 A-levels, Larry David, something new, coming out in Argentina and a blue whale.

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

I normally try not to repeat my themes in this column from one week to the next. However, the onset of the election, a continuing concern about the issue of accurate reporting and a chance encounter with a much respected BBC R4 radio programme caused be to go for a part two…

[more below]

• Guns and cats

My rant last week was on the subject of reporting that is, through lack of resources or connivance, inaccurate. This week I came across another reason: stupidity.

I was listening to BBC’s excellent More or Less, in which Tim Harford “explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.” The 10 January episode, Death, Taxes and Missing Cats, had two stories which caught my attention.

The first was the claim that firearms offences in London increased about 25-fold between 2022 and 2023. The other is that about 180 cats go missing every minute in the UK. The first of these was reported in the Telegraph, relying on data from the Mail. The second was published by the pet micro-chipping company Identibase, relying on data from Admiral Insurance.

Both figures are clearly preposterous. If gun crime in the capital had sky-rocketed to this extent surely someone would have spotted it? (In fact, it’s increased by about 1%). As for the cats, that would mean that every cat in the UK goes missing about eight times a year. It’s absolutely bonkers that these were reported without any kind of checking.

More or Less‘ team looked at these and discovered some very basic misunderstandings about statistics at work. In the first case, the policing database from which the figures were taken had a line for “other firearms offences” which had indeed increased by this amount. These were, however, to do with licensing issues (cases of which had risen due to extra enforcement, different recording or new legislation) and so nothing to do with what any rational person would understand by gun crime. None the less, the stat got repeated.

Even more surreal was the cat story. A statistic from Admiral suggested that about 265,000 cats were currently missing. With splendid disregard for the laws of logic, this was expressed as being about 180 cats going AWOL every minute. This is where Identibase got the c180 per minute from, simply by assuming that this feline attrition was repeated every day and dividing the approximate 265,000 by 24 hours and 60 minutes.

• Precision

Any sensible person looking at these two stats would, even if they had a deadline to fill, surely have asked themselves if they they could possibly be right. The most likely explanation is that they didn’t as in each case the “stats” suited the story they were trying to tell. The figures could be cited as having come from another source, thus removing responsibility from those who repeated them.

There’s another aspect to this, which I’ve deliberately avoided. The cats story referred to “264,933” missing animals and the firearms one to a rise of “2,533%”. These are very precise figures, which conveys the idea that they’re accurate. The writers may have felt a two-way pull here: the exactitude made what they were reading seem more solid and so, perhaps, were also likely to make their readers think the same thing.

Precision can be misleading in other ways. Some years ago I attended a council meeting at which a police spokesperson said that incidence of a certain crime had increased by 16.66% in the last year. This figure made me suspicious and, on questioning the officer after the event, I learned that it had risen from six cases to seven: 16.66% certainly, though this was hardly a useful way of expressing it. Any percentage variation when the base is less than a hundred is misleading. 16.66%, however, sounds like a crime wave: which was perhaps the intention.

• Good enough

I repeat my plea that the idea of “good enough” be taught in schools. Unless you’re an accountant, a statistician or presenting the maths part of Countdown, a rough answer is usually adequate. I don’t know exactly what 255 divided by seven is but I know that it’s thirty-something. Three percent of 720 is about twenty. That’s generally good enough. If I had to work these out on a calculator I’d probably get the decimal point wrong or divide when I should have multiplied. If I do need an exact figure, at least this estimate gives me something to check against.

“Good enough” also applies to other subjects. The fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 is enough for most purposes. Defining the time of year (late), the month (October) or the date (14) is only necessary if you want to showoff, or place it before or after another event. In most cases, you don’t.

If precision is something also worth distrusting, so too is rounding and the qualifications that are attached to the results. 17.5% can be described as “nearly one in five” or “just over 15%” depending on what point you want to make. It might also suggest that the idea of “good enough” has been applied, which might in turn suggest that the writer has paused not only to consider the exact figures but also decided to express them in a way that was easy to understand. We should be wary of the qualifications like “nearly” or “just over”, however. In fact, we should be wary of everything.

Two final thoughts, both old tropes. The first is the epigram attributed variously to Disraeli, Mark Twain and others that there are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics. The other is the joke that 73% (substitute any other number) of statistics are made up on the spot. The first may well describe most people’s general suspicion of the figures that are quoted at them; as for the second, you don’t even need to make dodgy statistics up if you can find them somewhere else.

• Eleven out of ten

The reticent and publicity-shy US Republican front-runner has come out with another cracker: countries that haven’t paid their NATO dues should not be defended if they’re invaded: indeed, Trump encourages countries like Russia “to do whatever the hell they want.” In effect, he’s using Putin as a debt-collection agency. On a diplomatic level, the suggestion is completely scary. On an economic one, though, it’s perfectly logical, providing you can assume the mindset of a mobster or a loan shark.

It seems true that the vast majority of NATO members are in default if one considers their commitment each to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence. According to US News, only eleven of NATO’s 31 members would have passed this test in 2023. Trump seems keen to destroy the alliance. All members apart from the USA and Canada are in Europe. Twice in the last century, the USA reluctantly got involved in European disputes that went viral, both of which had their origins in ancient rivalries fuelled by colonial ones. In both cases, the interventions came at the price of the empires being disbanded, to America’s advantage. The ancient rivalries, however, simmer on. To a lesser extent than the Middle East but still more than the USA is happy with, Europe continues to produce more history than it can consume locally.

It cuts both ways, of course. After the 9/11 attacks, NATO members – or those like the UK which we able to be bullied, deceived or seduced – took part in US-inspired retaliatory measures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam we somehow managed to stay out of. I’d say the scores were about even.

It’s impossible to know when Trump speaks whom he is addressing: it could be his supporters; the floating voters; the participants in his carnival of court cases; the world at large; himself. What’s certain is that nothing he utters and nothing that’s thrown at him seems to do anything other than make him more popular. Three and a half years ago, Americans voted for a president they could, for a change, have on in the background. Now they seem to have decided that Nigel Tufnell was right after all and that eleven out of ten is the way forward.

• Deselections

Labour has de-fenestrated another candidate for alleged anti-Semitic remarks. The last casualty is Graham Jones (not West Berkshire Council’s former Leader and current Lambourn pharmacist but another one) who was to have stood for Hyndburn. This follows the party’s withdrawing support for Azhar Ali in the Rochdale by-election for the same reason.

Anti-Semitism seems to be a fault-line in the Labour Party particularly during the Corbyn period: though it should be pointed out that Islamophobia has been an accusation hurled at the Conservatives. In these highly charged times, we can expect to hear more of these kind of accusations and perhaps not just against the two main parties.

By electoral law, Azhar Ali’s name will still appear as the Labour Party’s candidate on the ballot papers in Rochdale on 29 February, the deadline having passed for this to be changed. I don’t know who, if anyone, the Labour Party is encouraging its supporters to vote for. Not, one imagines, its former MP George Galloway, standing this time under the banner of the Workers’ Party of Britain. He has said that his candidature is “to teach Labour a lesson”. You can see a full list of the candidates here.

The by-election has been called because of the death of the previous MP Tony Lloyd in January 2024. At the 2019 election, his majority was nearly 10,000. A couple of weeks ago, this would have surely been easy to defend. Now, one can’t say. It’s not even sure if Labour wants to defend it anyway. Whoever wins can enjoy a few months in the seat and then they’ll have to go again.

• And finally…

• Just to show how far back in time the Post Office scandal reaches, a Labour minister has admitted to the Inquiry that “he wishes he had asked more questions” about the matter. Pat McFadden was in charge of the PO from 2007 until the 2010 election and admitted that the matter “did cross my desk.” We have to hold people to account for this issue but I’m not sure that politicians can be expected to bear all the blame. Ministers are told what they are told by someone who has been told by someone else and some of them (though not him) are barely the job long enough tobtake delivery of their business cards. The Post Office and Fujitsu are the two organisations we need to focus on, I think.

• More out of curiosity than any hope that I would be entertained or enlightened, the other day I watched the BBC’s four-minute highlights of the Super Bowl. The sport makes no sense to me. The clip confirmed my impression that it’s a cross between a rugby match in which the action stops whenever anything happens and a mass brawl between two fully-helmeted motor cycle gangs, all presided over by referees who appear to be dressed in Juventus kits. Baseball I kind of get because we all used to play rounders when we were kids: but it’s not cricket. This American football thing, though, is a complete blur. Can anyone explain the attraction to me?

• This year’s showdown was enlivened by the involvement of Taylor Swift who’s romantically involved with one of the players. She’s also in the spotlight for being the subject of a regular blog by one Jack Sweeney who publicises information about the private jet usage of several celebrities, including Taylor Swift. Her lawyers have claimed that this amounts to harassment and stalking and that the matter is of “life or death concern” to her. Well, couldn’t that be said about crossing the road?

This article in The Conversation claims that “a public interest ban on big oil and gas companies engaging with and influencing politicians could be in the pipeline” in a similar way that already exists with the tobacco industry. The article adds that fossil-fuel firms “actively engaged in deception (and), denial“and now increasingly use delaying tactics. A hearing on the matter took place at the European Parliament on 14 February.

• Most people who take A-levels do three or four. Mahnoor Cheema from Slough has decided that she didn’t want to “narrow down her academic options” and so has decided to “go the extra mile” (actually the extra six miles) and take 28. “It doesn’t really tend to take up a lot of time,” she said. Really? She already has 34 GCSEs, so I guess she should know…

Across the area

• West Berkshire’s verges

There are about 700 miles of road in West Berkshire, slightly more than would be needed to connect Newbury and John O’Groats. About 75% of these (525 miles) are rural, so making the total length of verges with vegetation about 1,050 miles: quite a lot.

In each case a one-metre strip nearest the road is the responsibility of the highways authority (WBC in this case) to manage, regardless of who owns it. Traditionally the main concern was for sightlines and general tidiness, to which end there were generally two cuts a year between March and September. That was pretty much that: a one-size-fits-all solution.

Over the last few years, our attitude towards verges has changed. Rather than being awkward bits of land wedged between a road and a fence or hedge, they’re now known to be vital habitats and wildlife corridors. Bio-diversity is now important, and rightly so. In these climate-changing times, wildlife needs all the help it can get. This applies particularly to our pollinating insects and the flowers on which they feed.

Some verges are better suited to this role than other. Counterintuitively, the fewer nutrients there are in the soil, the larger the number of plant species it can support. Getting soil into this nutrient-poor condition is, however, time-consuming. Rich soils (often found on river banks) are dominated by plants like nettles to the exclusions of almost all else. Nettles are useful things in their own way but they do tend to take over: like us humans, perhaps.

For decades, then, the council did the simple two-cut routine, satisfying immediate policy needs but perhaps not much else. As awareness has changed, so some verges have been left in the summer and wild flowers encouraged. This could look great but led to confusions and misunderstandings with contractors and landowners as well as, perhaps, unrealistic expectations from the public. Some might have thought that the verges would magically become colourful havens throughout the summer; others may have suspected the no-mow policy to be just municipal greenwashing to save money. There was also uncertainty about which verges would respond well to what kind of intervention and management.

Clearly, what was needed was a proper survey of these valuable but variable habitats, followed by a plan of action and some clear explanations from WBC as to what was happening and why.

The first of these kicked off about three years ago when WBC commissioned BBOWT to provide a survey of the district’s verges. A report on the achievements so far was presented to WBC’s Environmental Advisory Group on 29 January 2024. You can see the 15-minute presentation here from about 57′ 30sec. The main conclusion was that the verges which had so far been surveyed have been divided into high, medium and low grades as regards biodiversity. BBOWT has suggested three possible options as to how WBC develops the project from here.

There are two drawbacks to the data. The main one is that only about a third of the verges have been surveyed. It’s to be hoped that one of WBC’s decisions will be to continue this work so that the whole district can benefit: to start and not complete would seem to be an opportunity missed.

The other is that each verge has been divided into strips of 500 metres with the whole length being graded accordingly. This seems like a broad-brush approach as it’s possible that examples of all three grades would be found in that area although only one grade would be allocated to it.

I raised that point with BBOWT’s Simon Claybourn. “Cost is obviously one factor,” he told me. “In many ways, it would be ideal to have 50-metres as the unit.” The problem is that there are about 65,000 25-metre verge strips in West Berkshire and, budgets being what they are, that might be pushing things. He added, however, that the grading isn’t just a crude matter of defining the strip by whichever grade took up the largest share of the length. “If there’s a particularly valuable bio-diverse area within a strip this would, as it were, get extra marks,” he explained. “The result would be that the whole of this area was allocated as high grade, even though not all of it was.”

He added that there were also the practicalities of the contractors’ to consider. Potentially having to stop and start the cutters every 25 metres would increase costs, errors and delays. As with so many things, decisions need to be taken based on several competing factors.

One thing that’s certain is that we now know much more about the district’s verges than we did three years ago. West Berkshire has some way to go before it matches Dorset (over the last few years most of its low-grade verges have been improved, so increasing bio-diversity and reducing and simplifying future management costs) but there’s no reason we shouldn’t aspire to this.

I also spoke to Paul Hendry, WBC’s Countryside Manager ,who’s been leading this project from the Council’s side. He agreed with my suggestion that one of the results of this project will be that WBC will be contacting more verge owners to discuss how they and the Council can work more closely together. In some cases, this might even result in the landowners needing to do less work. Grants may be available. He added that it was hoped that the results of the surveys done thus far would be added to WBC’s (excellent) online map and that any future research, if commissioned, would follow.

Once BBOWT’s report is provided, the ball is then in WBC’s court to agree the next steps. “I’m looking forward to seeing this document,” the Council’s Executive Member for the Environment Stuart Gourley told me. “We can then consider the recommendations and agree how to proceed.”

Finally, what can we all do to help this? Lobbying is probably the best immediate action. Make sure that your parish council and your ward member/s knows that you feel this project should be supported and suggest any verges that you think deserve special protection or intervention. Guerrilla gardening is not a recommended option (although if any group, including a parish council, wishes to adopt a stretch of verge than this will be considered: contact Paul Hendry in the first instance).

Biodiversity isn’t only on verges, of course: Simon Claybourn reminds us that “wildlife gardening is something that anyone with even a postage stamp of green can take part in,” following the no-mow May (and let-it-bloom June) principle. “Lots of small patches,” he concludes, “add up to a much greater whole.” You can also encourage traditional cottage garden flowers such as lavender, hollyhock and foxgloves that are all beloved of pollinating insects and reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides. More ideas can be found in this section of BBOWT’s website.

You can find more information on the verges project here. You can also contact Paul Hendry on Paul.Hendry@westberks.gov.uk.

• Net gains

On a related matter, this statement from West Berkshire Council says that the authority is “proactively gearing up for the implementation of crucial legislation aimed at conserving and enhancing biodiversity across the district.” This refers to the “Mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) legislation will come into force for major planning applications to ensure the natural environment and habitat for wildlife is in a better state than it was before the development. BNG will be applicable to minor sites starting from April 2024, and is anticipated to expand to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects by November 2025, some exemptions apply.”

As with all planning matters, there’s a gap between what developers are expected to provide in the way of mitigation and what they can afford, or claim to be able to afford, to do. I have some sympathy for them. The root cause of our housing crisis is the grotesquely inflated value of land when there’s a whiff of planning permission. Leaving that aside, though, developers are running businesses. For better or for worse, the delivery of the UK’s housing policy has been out-sourced to the private sector whose first loyalty is to its various shareholders, not to government policy.

The WBC statement recognises, this. “The BNG legislation suggests on-site biodiversity net gain is preferred,” it concludes, “we recognise it will not always be possible to achieve sufficient biodiversity gain within a development site. We are looking at opportunities to work with landowners and other interested parties to put forward sites and schemes that could help deliver positive off-site enhancement of local biodiversity.”

Well, the section above (“West Berkshire’s verges”) provides a perfect opportunity. If the WBC/BBOWT project is to be concluded, more money will be needed. Sinking some extra dosh into aspects of a development may soon forgotten. What will not be is a partnership with WBC and BBOWT to contribute to the surveying and improvement of a stretch of verge which could also confer some naming rights. “This verge has been improved with the help off (say) Bewley Homes”, for instance. Seems like a win-win to me. It gets even better: as WBC has recently announced that it will be spending some money on cleaning the sometimes filthy road signs in the district, that means that these sponsorship messages will actually be legible.

• CIL questions

The meeting of West Berkshire Council’s Scrutiny Commission (SC) which was to have been held on 27 February has been postponed, probably until the following week. Details of the Commission, its membership and (when confirmed) the date of the meetings can be found here.

One of the matters that the SC intends to look at is the vexed question of the CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) charges in the district. As we’ve reported many times, there are an increasing number of examples of cases where the way the charges have been levied and payment demands enforced appear to have fallen well short of what residents might expect from their local council. When this postponed meeting takes place it will be considering CIL but only to decide whether scrutiny of the subject will take place and, if so, what form it will take and what aspects will be covered. If it agrees to delve into this then more information will be provided about how people can get involved and the date/s of future meeting/s. As soon as we have more news on this we’ll let you know.

• Flood reports

As mentioned before, residents are encouraged to report any recent flood damage to their properties. There’s a government scheme which needs to be triggered by a certain number of responses in each district if it’s to apply there and West Berkshire’s has currently not quite been hit. To make a report Weill thus not only potentially trigger compensation for you but also for the others in the district who’ve applied. Also, the more reports WBC receives, the more it can put pressure on the relevant bodies to get better measures put in place to help deal with future incidents.

You can read more in this separate post. Other districts such as Swindon, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire may be in a similar situation. Contact the appropriate authority (see list below) for more information.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes community champions, registered charity banks, biodiversity, roads, flooding precautions, registering to vote, Curridge Primary School, MMR jabs, public meetings, chair-based wellbeing sessions, coming songs, board games and an Egyptian experience at the West Berkshire Museum.

• 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 is urging residents to responsibly recycle textiles by donating saleable clothing items to charity shops or by using registered charity collection banks or Council provided collection points across the district. The emergence of several unaffiliated textile banks across the district are being investigated due to suspected false claims that they “support people in need.”

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.”

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

• 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 animals of the week are these bats who are the unwitting, but seemingly obliging, participants in an experiment with some Israeli scientists to use AI to help understand animal communication.

• 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 are again at the Song of the Week. Traffic’s When the Eagle Flies was their last album for 21 years (which might be some kind of record, if you’ll excuse the pun but there was really no way of avoiding it). Here’s the opening track, Something New. My word, Steve Winwood can sing. And play piano. And guitar. And Moog synthesiser…

• So next it must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Larry David at his finest in this speech “in tribute” to Steve Martin.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s questions is: What is the approximate diameter of a blue whale’s aorta? Last week’s question was: If you were to drill down from Beijing through the centre of the earth and then out the other side, in what country would you emerge? The answer is in Argentina.

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 link.

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