This week with Brian 7 to 14 March 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including musical oratory, hope for the indies from Rochdale, defining localism, and then there were two, interminable spectacles, a good Scrabble score, three views on the pre-election glitz, fat dogs, a dry canal, shop-lifting, council finances, some quick fixes, leaflets postponed, no amendments, a mob of kangaroos, my old school, a string of bacteria, Battersea Power Station and a trouser fire.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

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Further afield

The Rochdale by-election was a strange and disorganised spectacle (though not quite as strange and disorganised as the tempestuous Bermondsey by-election I lived through in 1983). Rochdale featured a Conservative candidate whose vote share fell by nearly 20% (not bad by recent Tory standards), a Labour candidate who had been disowned by his party and a Lib Dem candidate who might as well not have turned up at all. Comfortably in second place was the independent David Tully, a vehicle-repair shop owner who stood on the platform of localism. His result is the more remarkable given his campaign only started four weeks before polling day.

[more below]

• Oratory

Out in first place was, of course, George Galloway. Some see him as a principled campaigner, others as a devious opportunist: but few can disagree that he’s one of the finest orators this country has produced. Blair had it; Obama and Clinton had it. Sunak and Starmer definitely do not have it – our PM sounds like a tetchy head teacher addressing a fractious school assembly while Starmer often seems to be parodying an old-fashioned solicitor reading a will. Although Johnson had it, his successor Liz Truss could barely string three words together. Biden certainly doesn’t have it and nor did either Bush. Oratorial skill is clearly not a pre-requisite for being elected.

I thought I’d take a look at this dangerous and compelling skill from Churchill to Trump and from Thatcher to Paisley. All seemed to suggest a particular musical instrument or style, so I offer you a fake barrel organ, trombones through marshmallow, the theme from Monty Python,’s Flying Circus, Jeff Beck’s guitar and The Last Post.

• Rochdale

Moving back to Rochdale, as mentioned above the independent David Tully came a comfortable second, standing on the simple message of “localism”. Might this mean that the independents’ time is coming? Many might hope so, but perhaps not enough in any one seat to make a difference.

Since 1997, only Martin Bell (Tatton), Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) and Peter Law and Dai Davis (both Blaenau Gwent) have stood as independents and won (Richard Taylor managing also to be re-elected). All of these were as a result of very particular local circumstances. Very particular local circumstances prevailed in Rochdale but the large parties will probably have closed their wounds here before the big one.

None the less, it does leave the door ajar. We have one such independent here in West Berkshire: Adrian Abbs, a former Lib Dem councillor who resigned from the party last year after a rather contentious and, to some, unedifying selection procedure when he applied to stand for the new seat of Reading West and Mid-Berkshire. Post-Rochdale, how did he rate his chances?

“Rochdale was certainly an unusual election,” he told me. “The result blew a hole in the usual argument that you have to be a member of party to win.” He pointed out that the various independents including David Tully polled over 25% of the vote, more than the Conservatives, Labour and the Greens combined (and not a great deal fewer than those three plus the Lib Dems). He also suggested that Galloway was an independent for all practical purposes.

“It without doubt shows that voting independent is not what the parties claim, ie a wasted vote,” he added. “It shows that change is possible if people want it.” The problem is one of finding a sufficiently strong cause (as Richard Taylor so expertly did regarding Kidderminster Hospital) which exposes a gap that the main parties aren’t exploiting. Assuming this doesn’t exist locally, the hope for Adrian Abbs, and the many other independent candidates, is that the fact that they are not from a main party might just be enough.

“The Rochdale result encourages me to work even even harder,” he said, pointing out that he was standing on the same platform as was David Tully – “a local businessman who wants to work on behalf of this constituency.”

Time will tell if this rallying call will prove sufficient. When the big parties’ big guns are trained on us in the big contests, Napoleon’s adage that “God is on the side of the big battalions” becomes all too real. However the message of Rochdale is also one of disenchantment with many of the aspects of the current system. This is doubtless something that all the big parties are currently reflecting on, big-time.

• Localism

Various studies have looked at how “local” an MP or candidate is to their constituency, sometimes with the intention of castigating ones who are not. The problem is to define what “local” means. Birth, education and residence and/or employment there for a certain number of years have all been used as criteria. None make an overwhelming case for selection or election. Constituency boundaries also change – only about 10% of them will be completely unaltered for the next election compared to 2019 – which might leave some candidates with previously impeccable local credentials suddenly the wrong side of the line.

There’s also the question of whether local connections test higher than familiarity with the ways of the Westminster snake-pit. Someone born and bred in the heart of the constituency may understand its problems but may be less capable at addressing them than some parachuted central-office nominee. The main thing an MP can do for their area, aside from constantly raising matters in debates is getting projects funded or speeded up in the area for which they can, with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy, claim credit. Those selecting a candidate might prefer someone with connections at HQ in favour of one from the constituency.

In any case, if you’re not a member of the local party, or don’t decide to stand as an independent, the choice of candidate is not something you can control. Many of us vote for our preferred party regardless of the name alongside it. We may know nothing about them: but the local party, in its wisdom, has chosen the best person for the job. This is the spell that the independents are trying to break.

Having served on a local council is a traditional proving ground for MPs. It certainly gives an insight into adversarial debate and the challenge, so eloquently expressed in Yes, Minister, of the constant tension between elected members and the officers or civil servants who exist, or so the theory goes, to translate the will of the people, expressed through these representatives, into action.

In the two seats that affect West Berkshire – Newbury and the new Reading West and Mid-Berkshire – I’m currently aware of nine candidates (five and four respectively). Of these, four are current members of West Berkshire Council, one a member of neighbouring Wiltshire Council and one a former West Berkshire Councillor and current Newbury Town Councillor. You only have to speak to four of the five current or former WBC members for ten seconds to tell from their accents that they weren’t born or brought up in the district. That doesn’t make a jot of difference to me – they’ve put down roots here and engaged with the local community through election to a job which involves a vast amount of work (and which garners scant reward or praise) and thus might be sufficiently battle-hardened to fight the fight at a national level.

There’s still the issue of “are they local?” in terms of residence, or occupation. Although I don’t think this matters that much any more, expect the candidates to be thin-skinned about it. Those who were born or who live in the constituency will play the aspect up. Those whose connections are more indirect or non-existent will play it down. Just you watch…

• And then there were two

The US election proceeds on its mysterious and protracted way and now seems set to produce a repeat of the previous contest. I think this is the first time this has ever happened. Even if I were to go to night school for a year I doubt I would ever understand how the process works any more than I’ll ever understand American Football. Indeed, both seem similar to me: interminable spectacles, with brief periods of bone-jarring action interspersed with long pauses, contested between two groups of wealthy heavyweights with celebrity endorsements, during which only a few people are allowed to touch the ball and all culminating in dancing girls, fireworks and vapid soundbites. Perhaps I’m just betraying my ignorance and parochialism here. If so, it won’t be for the first time.

And yet the US elections matter. The USA may no longer be absolutely undisputed top dog as it was in those simpler times between 1945 and 2001 but it’s still a big hitter. Indeed, this mission to return it to its former glory is part of the reason why Trump, despite his carnival of legal actions, is so popular and will probably win. He has a simple remedy for accomplishing this which seems basically to be “screw everyone else.” Biden’s message is, as it must be, more nuanced: perhaps for that reason, I’m not aware of what it is.

One also doesn’t want to be ageist but Biden would be 86 and Trump 82 by the time of the 2028 election. The previous holder of the record was Ronald Reagan, who was 77 on Inauguration Day in 1989. For Aging, read experience, of course. Biden has plenty of that in elected office, Trump none apart from his last stint. Both will be claiming that in each case this gives them the edge. None the less, I can’t recall such a dismal choice.

• And finally

• The Budget just happened, full of pre-election glitz. Here are three reality checks. The first is from Full Fact; the second is from local financial experts Butler Toll; the third is from BBC Verify.

• Hats off to Vladyslava Krapyvka who has taken over Yr Oen yng Nghasnewydd. There – if that sentence doesn’t get lots of Scrabble points then I don’t know what does. In English, the lease the Ukrainian refugee has taken over is that of The Lamb in Newport. We wish her all the best.

• Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a deep antipathy, indeed fear, of dogs, including those Labradors that just about everyone else on the planet seem to find so adorable. My main experience of them is that they spend their whole time eating. It now transpires that this is genetic, and so not their fault. My opinion of them has not , however, changed.

• It seems incredible that a short water channel that connects the world’s two largest oceans is in threatened but apparently the Panama Canal is in danger of running dry. No, I don’t understand it either.

Spare a thought for this woman in Tonteg in Wales who was hauled upside down and off her feet when the shop shutter she was leaning against was opened up and caught her belt in the edge of the frame. As one of the YouTube comments says, it gives a fresh meaning to the phrase “shop-lifting”…

Across the area

• Council finances

I’ve mentioned this before and I make no apology for mentioning it again. The problems faced by local councils are widespread, deep-seated, far-reaching and – unless something is done to fix them – long-term. They are, as I’ve also mentioned before, acting largely as the agents of central government in areas such as children’s services, education, adult social care and flood relief (not every council has all these responsibilities as some areas like Oxfordshire are two-tier). They are treated in many ways not as partners but as distrusted employees who are tolerated as necessary evils but paid as little as possible.

Matters are not helped by leaked opinions such as this one from Jeremy Hunt which effectively accuses them of being the author of their own misfortunes. The observations seem neither true nor helpful and will only increase the divisiveness that exists. The reference to spending on diversity, for instance, which the LGA has said accounts for a minute fraction of municipal expenditure, is at least partly a result of national legislation.

On 6 March I spoke to WBC’s Executive member for Finance, Iain Cottingham, to learn his views. WBC has recently set its budget and, like many authorities, cannot be viewing the immediate future with optimism.

One of the problems, he suggested, was that Council Tax was not only a knee-jerk reaction to the vacuum left by the demise of the poll tax but is also a system that’s regressive, full of anomalies and generally badly in need of a refresh. There’s also the other main way councils collect money, business rates. Few councils retain all of these (WBC keeps about a third), the rest going to Whitehall to be redistributed to areas whose ability to raise such charges are less but whose needs are greater. There have been suggestions recently, including from a Commons Select Committee, that this redistribution is not working as well as it might. If one is talking about inefficiency, therefore, Whitehall should perhaps look to its own performance before pointing the finger elsewhere.

I then asked him of what, were he to have the power, he would do to help keep the wolf from the door. “One thing that needs to be looked at urgently is the question of regulating children’s family services,” he told me. The issue was, he explained, that following a number of problems in the ’80s and ’90s, councils have been keen to move out of the children’s care-home business and rely on the private sector. A number of companies have moved in but, with no cap on the rates that can be charged and a general shortage of provision, the negotiations are conducted much as is a food auction during a famine. Councils have a statutory duty to provide this care and, in specific cases, are often forced to do so by the courts. Not having any idea either of how many children they’ll need to provide for nor how much each will cost is not a happy recipe for a budget. Some kind of cap to make the whole business a bit less Wild West would, he argues, be a big help.

Picking up on my point about councils acting as agents of government, he also suggested that local authorities should continue to administer services such as social care but that these should be directly funded from Whitehall. This would also remove much of the need for redistribution of business rates, which is really a rather long-winded (and seemingly inefficient) way of getting round this problem.

He also referred to the number of agency staff that WBC employs, which had risen from £7m to £12m between 2019 and 2023 and has since been reduced to about £9.5m. There are good reasons why some agency staff will always be needed but the suggestion was the WBC had been using this recruitment route more freely than many other authorities (this was also backed up by some research I did, though it proved hard to get reliable and comparable figures from enough councils). The point here is that these staff are very expensive, a lion’s share of the money the authority pays sometimes going to the agent.

None of Iain’s Cottingham’s suggestion, as he admitted, could be introduced overnight (though all might form part of a longer-term solution). One that could is my proposal that, for the next couple of years, councils be allowed to retain more of their business rates (say 15% more this year and 7.5% next). This could, to protect those paying, be accompanied with a freeze in increases over the same period and, perhaps, the stipulation that a certain percentage of the increase be returned to business-rate payers who can demonstrate hardship as defined by some national definition. In 2023-24, WBC retained about £27m of its business rates. My suggestion would let it keep about an extra £4m this year and £2m next. This would in these times make quite a difference.

A problem would, I admit, be those councils which currently are net recipients of business rates, ie receive from retained rates and government top-ups, more than they collect. Whitehall would need to match the increase in this case itself: new regulations about non-doms have been promised in the budget, which might help.

Any money spent should be seen as an investment against the twin evils of increasing deprivation caused by forced reduction in council spending and also – not a tiny sum, I’d have thought – the cost of running councils who’ve declared S114s (notices of effective bankruptcy) from SW1. Governments of whatever hue can blame whoever they wish for council’s funding problems. They are in reality partners but are often treated as parasites: universal scapegoats who have been given important but unglamorous tasks to fulfil and blamed if they cannot accomplish them. True, there have been some spectacular cases of municipal incompetence, but soo have there been in Whitehall. They should all be trying to accomplish the same ends. So much for “we’re all in this together.”

I also spoke to Ross Mackinnon, the Leader of WBC’s Conservative opposition group and who was Iain Cottingham’s predecessor as the council’s Keeper of the West Berkshire Purse. He suggested that a reform in the way pension contributions for WBC’s employees are made would lead to some significant economies. “At present,” he told me, “from day one, these must be paid into the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) which is an expensive way of dealing with the issue.” He wasn’t suggesting that employees should not be looked after – and also admitted that this would require legislation – but rather that a defined contribution scheme, which prevails in the private sector, would be more realistic and would save a good deal of money for WBC.

I’m no expert, but the LGPS is perhaps a survival of not only the job-for-life idea when the progenitors of it were first introduced but also relies on the assumption that public-service benefits would always be able to be funded by the councils without concern. As neither of these conditions seem any longer to apply, perhaps the time has come to obliterate the distinction.

• The leaflets keep coming

Further to my look at Laura Farris’ flyer last week, I’ve since received three more. Grappling with our web-hosting company has, however, dominated the last few days so I’ve not been able to devote to them the time they deserve. One for next week. Plenty of time: after all, the election isn’t for ages – or is it…?

• The budget

I also said last week that I’d have a closer look at the debate on WBC’s budget but, as mentioned above, the gremlins have had other ideas. The main take-away is that it was passed with no opposition amendments – including some very sensible ones – being accepted or, seemingly, even seriously entertained. This was in contrast to last year’s meeting when the Conservatives accepted three amendments from the Greens.

One decision that seems particularly odd was not advancing the funding for the decaying Falkland School by a year, despite the fact that the buildings are in a shocking condition. I understand that the ward member has received a few angry emails on the subject. Maybe some change of heart can be arrived at before the place slides into a condition that might make repairs even more expensive.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes the Health Scrutiny Committee, the 2024-25 budget, Newbury Station, careers, secondary school places, town council by-elections (complete with the by now obligatory photo of a dog outside a polling station); the health and Wellbeing Board Annual Conference on 19 April; public meetings; Shaw House Community Garden; school governors; flood reports; and World Book Day.

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 kangaroos who staged a stampede across a golf course in Australia. Apparently the collective noun for kangaroos is a mob, which seems about right on this evidence.

• 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 be at the Song of the Week. What better than Steely Dan? Not much, to be honest. Every track they’ve done is brill, My Old School perhaps being even briller than most.

• And coming up just behind is the Comedy Moment of the Week. It’s Count Arthur Strong o’clock again: this week he explains about his Trouser Fire.

• And, as ever in last place, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: If all the world ‘s bacteria were joined together in a thread, roughly how many times would this be able to wrap around the Milky Way? Last week’s question was: What is the only station on the London Underground that has the word “station” in its name? The answer is Battersea Power Station (also the newest station on the Tube map).

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