This week with Brian 29 February to 7 March 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including none left, conflation, Islamophobia, other controllers, another bombshell, a crooked house, a breach of tradition, a blow on the whistle, a look at a leaflet, subjective criticism, humble pie, killer dolphins, a harvest moon, the leap day, budget time, the Penrith Tearoom, the only station and the first songs.

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

There will be a general election soon: only the PM can decide when. Whenever it happens it seems likely that the C0nservatives will suffer. Most recent polls give Labour a lead of at least 20%. The vagaries of our election system, the rise in support for Reform UK and the many new or revised constituencies as a result of the (apolitical) work by the Boundary Commission all make the result in terms of seats particularly hard to predict. The Conservative party is already losing MPs at such an alarming rate that one might wonder if, come polling day, it will have any left.

[more below]

• Islmophobia

Last week, the BBC reported that the PM “faces the prospect of another difficult by-election after an independent panel upheld a 35-day suspension of Blackpool South MP Scott Benton.” Far more high-profile was the recent defenestration of Lee Anderson, the former Deputy Leader of the Conservatives who resigned in January over his opposition to the Rwanda bill. His latest transgression was to make a pronouncement on GB News on 24 February that “Islamists have got control [London Mayor Sadiq] Khan and they’ve got control of London.”

This seems like a deeply silly remark which has, of course, since been elevated into a massive political spat. Anderson’s has been stripped of the Conservative whip and poor old Sunak suddenly as another problem on his hands.

The backlash has been predictably immediate. Sadiq Khan branded the remarks “anti-Muslim, Islamophobic and racist.” The first two effectively mean the same thing but you need to have three things in a political list – two looks a bit feeble while four or more risks people not being able to remember them. On 27 February, The Guardian said that Lee Anderson “has form” on this matter and also quoted a former MEP Sajjad Karim on the issue of the Tories’ alleged Islamophobia. “I can go back to about 2012 or 2013 when I first started to detect some of this type of talk,” said. “But the party really has to get a grip of it now.” Sunak, meanwhile, told the BBC that he “believed Lee Anderson’s comments about Sadiq Khan were unacceptable because they conflated “all Muslims with Islamist extremism”.”

Except they didn’t. I’m no fan of Lee Anderson and his claim about the take-over is almost certainly bonkers. Although he may believe it, he did not say that all Muslims are extremists. That’s a conclusion that’s been jumped to by his opponents, of whom there are plenty. The Conservative party has a very thin skin on this matter, as Labour does on anti-semitism; perhaps understandably in both cases. Times Radio said that the Tories were “tearing themselves apart” over this matter. Mind you, it doesn’t currently take much to accomplish this.

Lee Anderson  might argue that if one of the world’s most important cities, and its mayor, are being controlled by any interest group it’s surely his duty to point the matter out. He claims that Islamists are involved but the same would apply if the alleged controllers were the Catholic Church, the National Housebuilders Federation, Microsoft, the Test and County Cricket Board or the Flat Earth Society. The question is whether his allegations can be substantiated. He’s almost certainly wrong. So too are many of those who’re criticising him.

• Honesty

I’ve mentioned several times about the misleading design of some election leaflets, leading people to think they’re newspapers. The words used in the material is frequently even more disingenuous. An email from Full Fact recently landed in my in box and referred to a recent PMQs question from Liz Saville Roberts, the Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, about whether the PM would sign the campaigning group’s pledge for an honest election. Her remarks were greeted by a mixture of groans and laughter. Sunak ignored the suggestion completely and took the opportunity to make some points about the performance of the Welsh government. All business as usual, in other words. You can see the exchange here from 14′ 50″.

Polling shows that trust in politics is at an all time low,” Full Fact’s Chris Morris observed. “With a general election just around the corner, politicians need to take this seriously. Four political parties, Plaid Cymru, Alliance, SDLP, and the Green Party have already committed to sign our pledge. Other party leaders need to take a hard look at their duty to restore trust in our democracy and sign the Full Fact pledge for honest election campaigning.”

Sadly, I’m not holding my breath. There are some fairly significant omissions from the list of parties. None the less, I applaud Full Fact’s attempts to extract some kind of commitment to honesty from the others and hope that those who’ve signed will live up to their promise.

I’ll be having a look at the claims made in all the leaflets I get to see relating to the constituencies in the area we cover. I’ll apply the same approach to each (I am not, never have been and never will be a member of a political party) and highlight aspects which are misleading or wrong. The first I’ve so far had, from Laura Farris, the Conservative MP for Newbury, is looked at it the “across the area” section below.

• Disarray

The Commons’ Business Committee has been hearing evidence from the Post Office about its handling of the postmaster’s scandal. This includes what the Chair, Liam Byrne described as “bombshell revelations about a boardroom that is in disarray, a chief executive [Nick Read] who is under investigation and a chief executive who has sought to resign, even though he told us on oath that he has not”. The committee also heard that the compensation figure is now expected to be north of £1bn and there are continued assertions that the money is not getting through. Meanwhile, the Post Office board appears to be in utter disarray, as is its relationship with the government. 

It still seems inconceivable that no plan has been announced for prosecuting some of those who were in charge during this lengthy debacle. Maybe there is a plan but, like everything else about this for so long, it’s all a secret. Handing back honours that they should never have come within a hundred miles of being awarded in the first place isn’t nearly enough. I can’t think of anything that would garner Sunak more plaudits than announcing some high-profile defenestrations from among the PO’s current and former board. Mind you, with his luck, that would probably backfire on him as well, with unconnected people with the same names being arrested or important deadlines missed. If anyone can turn good news into bad, he can.

• Whistleblowers

We hear a lot about whistleblowers at the moment, many of whom get revenge meted out to them for their pains. One such is David Neal whom Priti Patel appointed as the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in 2021. Since then, according to The Guardian, he’s written 15 reports on problems with the immigration system. When he discovered that, rather than being acted on, they were “gathering dust on a Home Office shelf” he opted for direct action, sharing the information with The Guardian, The Mail and the FT.

Predictably, he’s recently been sacked for being “excessively critical.” Critical, yes; excessively, many would argue not. “He’s been very robust,” said Diane Taylor, a Guardian journalist who specialises in immigration matters said. “He’s stood up to the Home Office – the reports that he has been able to publish have been strong. And obviously they didn’t like that.” Well no, they wouldn’t. This doesn’t mean to say that his comments aren’t true. You also have to ask questions of Priti Patel’s decision to appoint someone, at some expense, to tell her department things that it was going to ignore.

“David Neal’s story seems to be increasingly familiar,” Karen Reeve from West Berkshire Action for Refugees told me when I asked her about this. “We’ve seen the bizarre, illogical, cruel decision making and incompetence of the Home Offices immigration practice first hand in our own districts hotels: so am I surprised David Neals been effectively gagged? – no.

“It needs a consensus from the population to offer sanctuary to others. We got that in the case of the Ukrainians, because there was a common enemy (Putin) and the government showed leadership and supported the schemes. With the rest of the world’s conflict zones, it is not politically willing to be seen to be supportive so we end up with inhumane warehousing of the problem – literally.”

• And finally…

• Not every pub lives up to its name – you rarely see a Queen, a King or a Prince of Wales sitting at the bar of your local, nor a coach and horses parked outside – but the Crooked House in Staffordshire certainly does: or did, as it was burnt down in what seems to be an arson attack last August after which the owners took the unwise step of demolishing it. To describe the pub as wonky would be an understatement. I doubt this lopsided appearance was what its eighteenth-century builders had in mind but it’s what resulted. Now someone will have the job of trying to replicate its pleasing imperfections, for South Staffordshire district council has insisted that the pub be rebuilt to how it was just before the fire. This article in The Guardian says that this result was the ambition of a 35,000-strong FB group, probably a lot more people than ever actually bought a drink in the place. It’s fairly rare that councils have the stomach to insist that unauthorised building our demolition work be un-done and, even if they do, the owner can appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. This route is open to the owners of this pub. Whatever course of action they take, everything will clearly be conducted under intense public scrutiny. Aside from anything else, South Staffs council appears to have managed to recruit up to 35,000 unpaid enforcement officers.

• If you want to make a success of your business, perhaps the best thing you can do is be shafted by a digital giant. According to the BBC, Tesla ordered 4,000 pies for an event – some event – which at the last minute it cancelled (why?), leaving the pie company in California in the lurch. The owners resorted to social media, including probably whatever Twitter is known as these days, to complain. To his credit, Elon Musk stepped in and paid the bill: one hopes he also gave a tongue-lashing to whoever at HQ had decided that this was a good way of behaving. Perhaps in an attempt to make amends, Tesla then placed a further similar order. This, doubtless with massive delight, the pie shop turned down as it was completely chokka with other orders as a result of the publicity this fiasco had given them.

• I’ve not been following the furore that closely but it appeared the the Speaker broke with a Commons tradition by allowing a Labour amendment on the debate on Gaza to be considered, which led to howls of protest from many other parties that he had done this to help his former party. As this article in The Guardian suggests, all the three main parties are largely in agreement about what should happen. Like Netanyahu, Hamas or the residents of Gaza care about our protocols.

• As anyone who knows me will be aware, I have no love at all for Manchester United. Following the team’s delightful 2-1 home defeat to Fulham last week, the current occupant of the not-quite-as-good-as-Alex-Ferguson hot-seat, Eric ten Hag, criticised the former player and current pundit Jamie Carragher for being “subjective” in his criticism of his side’s performance. Well, guess what, Eric: criticism sometimes is subjective. Also, Mr C is, as I’m sure you can tell for his accent, a former Liverpool player so don’t expect lashings of objectivity about Man U from him. In fact, I find most of his pronouncements quite fair. If Mr ten Hag can understand his Scouse accent then he probably speaks English better than I do. But, as he’s Dutch, that’s probably true.

• Today is the leap day, that extra 24 hours tacked onto the end of poor old February to give it a bit of dignity and also to stop the calendar from slowly going haywire. I know someone born on 29 February and he told me for three years out of four he celebrates both 28 February and 1 March and, when the real day comes round, ties it on big time. He at least doesn’t seem to have been inconvenienced by the rarity. Others who are or were in the same boat include Pope Paul III, the footballer Ferran Torres, the cricketer Sean Abbott and the actor Joss Ackland. I think it would dead cool to be born on 29 February: being born on 29 August, I couldn’t have missed this by a wider margin. So, it’s my half birthday today…

Across the area

• Budget time

As mentioned last week, the 2024-25 budget will be debated and (unless half the members get confused as to what side they’re on) passed at a full meeting of West Berkshire Council on Thursday 29 February. I mentioned that there will be a few opposition amendments, probably including:

  • The Conservatives will be proposing that the green bin charge, rather than being cut (and costing WBC £100,0000) should be frozen or even increased. I’m completely with them on this, and argued this point in this column on 1 February (scroll down to “The green bins.”)
  • The Minority Group will be looking at £3.5m that it claims could be saved from the capital budget in areas such as IT systems, full-fibre to schools and document archiving. It will also propose advancing the work on improving the classrooms at Falkland School and returning this to the 2024-25 budget. I understand that is likely to be seconded by a Conservative to demonstrate cross-party support.

We’ll take a look at the discussion and the outcomes in this column on 7 March 2024.

• The leaflets are coming

Its being election time – a season of uncertain duration which could last only until May or drag on top into early 2025 – local printers are rubbing their hands at the prospect of some chunky orders. First one off the blocks in the Newbury constituency is from our incumbent, Laura Farris (Conservative). To its credit it’s at least obviously a political leaflet rather than something disguised as a local newspaper.

On the front, she lists six things to support the headline claim that she’s “getting things done for West Berkshire”. These include cutting waiting times for autism diagnoses, securing £3m of investment in the West Berkshire Community Hospital, achieving a national expansion in free childcare and introducing new laws on domestic abuse. It’s true that she did make some contributions to these. An MP can do just this kind of lobbying for particular projects: so hats off to her for any she’s managed to accomplish. Some of these, however, are national schemes which don’t mean she’s done whatever she did on these just for us, as the leaflet asserts.

Two other claims which are exclusively local might merit a bit more scrutiny. The X34 bus from Newbury to Harwell offers an express service but has been accused of failing to serve the communities in-between, some of which may also have residents who work at the science complex. It would also be worth finding out how well-used it is.

She also refers to the fact that super fast broadband coverage increased “to 98%” since 2019. Mentioning a period of change – though she doesn’t say from what – which starts with the year in which you were elected is not proof of anything in particular. Superfast Berkshire has been working on this issue since 2013. The figure was about 98% in May 2021 according to Kennet Radio but neither of the quotes in that article, nor elsewhere that I’ve been able to find, suggest our MP made any particular difference to this. In the absence of further proof, the remark must be filed as true but not useful.

Overleaf, she looks at the “chaos and Lib Dem run council”, referring to West Berkshire . The first complaint, in capitals for greater emphasis, is that the the Leader “walked away after eight months”. It’s true Lee Dillon took a sabbatical and also true that the way this was done might have infringed WBC’s constitution. She might have added that he’s taking the sabbatical to concentrate on trying to defeat her in the Newbury constituency.

The next claim is “councillors resign in Newbury and Thatcham.” This is wrong. It’s true that two members of the town councils have resigned but this is nothing to do with WBC. As her headline referred to “council” in the singular, it didn’t include these. In any event, people resign elected office for all kinds of reasons, many of them more honourable than those which have recently caused the downfall of some of her Conservative colleagues in Westminster.

The council has also, she claimed, failed on promises made, including on fixing potholes. The precise claim in the manifesto was “Fixing potholes first time and dangerous ones within 72 hours. Enabling the reporting of potholes via a West Berkshire mobile app.” I’ve written to the portfolio holder to ask where WBC is on this. It’s worth pointing out that several of the promises have been, or are being, met. Have a look at the list of pledges for yourself and see what you think.

She also mentions that the Lib Dems “planned to rip up [the] £1.5m local plan.” This was also an election pledge which the administration tried to keep but was prevented from doing by the government. The £1.5m was not the cost of the plan but what WBC admitted were the possible costs of withdrawing it. The matter is far too complex to be dealt with in one sentence. This is a sentence which continues “risking uncontrolled housebuilding”. Given the age of WBC’s local plan and its housing land supply of more than five years this is far from the immediate threat that the remark suggests, though it’s true that the risk will increase the older the current plan becomes.

Finally, she says that WBC announced a “firesafe of property”. This refers to WBC’s decision to disinvest from its speculative property investment portfolio of about £60m. The word “firesafe” has been used by local Conservatives to describe this but this is, to excuse the pun, inflammatory. Although the fund the previous administration created seems to have done quite well, there are risks associated with it which the newly-elected administration wishes to reduce. This is also in accordance with her government’s own policy, as evinced by its changes to the PLWB loan regulations and its shifting definition of what the proceeds of these sales can be spent on. The suggestion that this “at further cost to Council Tax payers” is not proved. There’s also just this risk from leaving matters as they are.

Finally, the appeal to the pockets of “Council Tax payers” is a familiar rallying cry. Most councils will be raising theirs by the maximum they can in order to protect services and, frankly, stay solvent. For many councils, most of their expenditure involves matters such as social-care provision in which they’re effectively acting as agents of the government. Complaints about Council Tax rises should thus be addressed to Laura Farris’ boss as much as to the Leader of WBC, on sabbatical or not.

• Flood reports

Again 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 the budget, Ukraine, a car-club offer, road updates, the Health and Wellbeing Board annual conference, soil conditioner, public meetings, spring cleans, everyone active, voter ID and the Hungerford poetry festival.

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 giving away soil conditioner (compost, basically, but for some technical reason this can’t be so called) at the Newbury and Padworth recycling centres on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 March. More information here.

• The Let’s Get Active Fund (LGAF) is back, with £40,000 available to improve access to physical activities in West Berkshire.

• 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.”

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 murderous dolphins: we have an image of them as bright, shiny and fun-loving but the truth seems a little darker.

• 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

• So we arrive at the Song of the Week. I happened upon this rather lovely version of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon by The Brothers Comatose and AJ Lee. “Comatose” is about right as the brother on the left can hardly keep his eyes open. Nothing comatose about the playing, though.

• Swiftly followed by the Comedy Moment of the Week. I thought about a bit more from Count Arthur Strong but then happened across this scene from Withnail and I in the Penrith Tearoom.

• And, in last place, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is the only station on the London Underground that has the word “station” in its name? Last week’s question was: What do Flowers in the Rain by The Move and Video Killed the Radio Star by Buggles have in common? The answer is that they were respectively the first songs to have been played on Radio One and MTV.

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