This week with Brian 14 to 21 March 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a new pandemic, 60 billion chickens, brutish and short, make your mind up, the worst possible system, agreeing at last, the pursuit of perfection, a legal deal, auditors, McArdle rates, fancy dogs, a potential aquatic collapse, a green leaflet, a statement, a farewell to Karl, four unique monarchs, 20,000 times and two ladies.

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

There was a less than encouraging headline in The Conversation this week: “The next pandemic is already here.” The article that follows refers to the H5N1 strain of bird flu in which the author, biologist Diana Bell, describes how she first became aware of its species-jumping potential as far back as 2005 when she wondered how a Vietnamese civet that mainly ate earthworms could have succumbed to the disease. She pondered if the strain “posed a bigger threat to the world’s wildlife than previously imagined.” Nearly two decades later, the article’s preamble asserts, “her worst fears have all but come true.”

[more below]

• Pandemic

Diana Bell certainly doesn’t pull her punches. It’s been known since 2006 that 48% of all the different groups (“orders”) of birds contained a species in which a fatal infection of bird flu had been reported. A wide range of mammals, including primates have also long been known to be susceptible. Scavenging and predatory animals seem particularly at risk. The disease is now killing animals in every continent, including Antarctica: this week, ten cases were confirmed in penguins in South Georgia. Since 2020, H5N1 has also been identified in 13 species of aquatic mammals.

It’s got to us too. Nearly 900 human cases were reported in 2022 and 2023 of which a harrowing 52% were fatal. These were mainly in South East Asia – for now. Remember when we thought Covid was just a local outbreak in Wuhan? How long did it take to spread around the world? A month? Two?

“How can we stem this tsunami of H5N1 and other avian influenzas?” Diana Bells asks in conclusion. She lays the blame squarely on “the incubator” of intensive poultry farms.  “We need to completely overhaul poultry production on a global scale,” she suggests, and “make farms self-sufficient in rearing eggs and chicks instead of exporting them internationally. The trend towards megafarms containing over a million birds must be stopped in its tracks.”

Easier said than done. We’re talking about a global industry that is currently worth about $300bn. Including the three that we have here at home, there are an estimated 26bn chickens in the world (outnumbering us by about three to one). About 70bn chickens are killed each year, a figure that seems inconsistent with the previous one until one realises that many are killed at about six weeks. As for the space they take up, what free-range chickens require, in the EU’s legal definition, is one square foot inside and 13 outside. This may not seem that wonderful but their battery relatives can expect little more than the size of an A4 sheet of paper in which to pass their lives.

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes described the human condition as essentially “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Living as they do in farms of a million-plus birds, the first of these can’t apply to battery chickens. The other four certainly do.

The problem, as I freely admit, is that chicken meat is tasty, nutritious, comparatively heathy and easy to cook in a thousand different ways. Because of the industry that has developed to produce chickens, it’s also cheap. This is good and bad. Good, because we need to feed ourselves. Bad because these animals can be bred in industrial conditions and quantities to lower costs. Leaving ethical question aside for one moment, this has led to exactly the problem with H5N1 that Diana Bell discusses above.

Cramming together a lot of different animals which were never meant to be within five hundred miles of each other seems to have been the primary driver for Covid, though the jury is still out on that. The research referred to above suggests that cramming the same species together isn’t great either. Any intensive cultivation of any food, or feeds for animals that we then eat, or for the animals themselves, involve production on this industrial scale.

This tends towards the increase in cross-species diseases, the continuation of monocultures, the increased use of antibiotics, decimating river pollution from chicken manure and the increasing severing of the connection between what we eat and where it comes from. The last argument has all but been lost and the attempt to reverse it could perhaps be seen as little more than a first-world middle-class concern. However, it’s a good cause and one which can perhaps make us all take stock.

The first four, however, are real threats. Pandemic assaults, the loss of biodiversity, decreasing disease resistance and the loss of natural pollinators are all amongst us now. It looks like a perfect storm to me, and one that could overwhelm us more quickly than climate change.

Here at PP HQ, we’ve gone flexitarian, which to us means a vegetarian diet with occasional meat dishes where we can be sure of the provenance. However, were all the world’s 26 billion chickens to die overnight – not impossible given H5N1 – and we all shifted to eating something that was grown, the industrial processes would be continued and probably intensified.

Food is a necessity: it’s also a business. If you’re running one then your primary obligations are to your shareholders (for legal reasons) and to your customers (for commercial ones). The planet doesn’t really get a look-in. Perhaps it’s this, in the context of what we eat, that needs to change.

• Racism

The Guardian reported this week that Conservative Party uber-donor Frank Hester observed in 2019 (it’s not clear why the story has only recently appeared but you can probably guess) that Diane Abbott MP “makes you “want to hate all black women” and said the MP “should be shot”. The BBC reported on 13 March that “the government’s position on Mr Hester’s alleged remarks zigzagged all day. Ministers first thing said the comments were “unacceptable” but wouldn’t describe them as “racist” or “sexist”.”

Subsequently, a spokesperson for the PM said that ‘the comments allegedly made by Frank Hester were racist and wrong.” The PM himself said on 13 March that, despite this, he wouldn’t be returning the money. The same day, Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake said he’d be happy to accept further donations from Mr Hester.

Well, make your minds up. Frank Hester doesn’t seem to have denied the allegations, indeed has acknowledged them by apologising. Again quoting the BBC, he added the remarkable qualification that his words “had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”. This interpretation leaves me slightly gasping for breath: his comments were entirely about one black woman in particular and also all the others in general.

There’s also the question, which his apology doesn’t seem to deal with, of inciting violence against MPs. This is a truly pernicious evil which undermines everything about democracy, a concept which this country has, often admittedly with disastrous consequences, gone to war over several times in the Middle East. This doesn’t make democracy despicable, merely incapable of being imposed by force, or there, or quickly; or, probably, imposed at all. It’s taken us in Britain from – opinions differ – the 1210s, the 1260s, the 1530s, the 1640s, the 1680s, the 1830s or the 1910s to get to grips with democracy and turn it into something that approximates to fairness.

It’s still not perfect. As Churchill remarked, it’s the worst possible system of government, except for all the others. None the less, having a major party donor advocating the assassination of representatives with whom he disagrees takes the idea of political partiality to a wholly new level.

The affair has had the effect, seemingly impossible in an election year or at any other time, in making Kemi Badenoch and Diane Abbott agree about something. To have been able to accomplish this brief and surprising rapprochement between otherwise implacable political foes at this time suggests that Mr Hester’s injection of £10m into the political system many not have been entirely wasted.

• Photos

Last week, a woman asked her husband to take a happy snap of her and their three children and then sent them off to the national press. The result, as we now know, was a serious PR problem.

Spoiler alert: the woman was the Princess of Wales and her health has recently been the subject of some public interest. She describes herself as an amateur photographer who occasionally experiments with editing. Three points strike me.

First, why did she need to edit this? Her children all seem perfectly presentable in a WASP-ish kind of way. What level of perfection was she after? We don’t even know what the original was like so have no means of judging if there was any deception – the kids pulling each other’s hair, for instance, or mum being sick. As I know with Photoshop editing, once you start it’s hard to stop.

One also wonders what else she did, and why. Look at the windows in the background; the putty on them looks a bit ragged. Might she have been tempted to smooth that out to provide a perfect backdrop? Or perhaps – and here the madness really starts to bite – they were perfect but that she tweaked them to appear less so and thus more like yours and mine?

Second, the editing is proficient but not – that word again – perfect. For many purposes, where there was less scrutiny, it might have passed muster. However, for such a snap at such a time, why take the chance? She obviously prides herself on her photographic skills and perhaps has little else into which her creativity can be channelled: but Kate – Catherine, Your Highness – think of the wider economy. Hundreds of professional photographers would have done this for free in exchange for a credit (not that you couldn’t have afforded to pay them) and would have ensured that no edits were necessary.

Third, what must your brother-in-law be thinking? Harry’s been claiming for years that the press fabricates information. Now it seems that just this kind of factual insouciance is to be found in his own family. Secretly, he must be delighted.

• Wet and warm

There’s an interesting – I pick the word with care – letter in this week’s Newbury Weekly News from Hamish McCracken. He often contributes views on the matter of the, as he puts it, “climate change ideology”. His beef this time was that February 2024 was not, as he said the BBC had claimed on 1 March, the wettest or the warmest on record.

In the rest of the letter, he switches between talking about “warmest” and “wettest” so it’s not completely clear which point he’s making. There’s also the general confusion which always attends domestic statistics as to whether we’re discussing the whole of the UK or one or more of its four countries. For example, the Met Office’s statement on 1 March (on which the BBC’s “bogus” claim was based) said that February was, according to provisional data, the warmest February for England and for Wales but only the second warmest for the UK. The statement goes on to say that “the UK’s 10 warmest Februarys on record in a series from 1884 now include 2024, 2023, 2022 and 2019.”

I spoke to an expert in such matters on 14 March who pointed out to me that “whether this February was or wasn’t the warmest or the wettest in the UK is irrelevant to whether climate change is real. What matters is global mean temperatures: and the data clearly shows that temperatures are increasing.”

This is supported by a good deal of scientific evidence, including the black chart in the Copernicus website. Berkeley Earth also suggests that rising temperatures are closely correlated with carbon dioxide emissions. It gets worse: James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, has argued that global warming is accelerating, probably due to climate feedback loops such as the reduction in cooling human aerosol emissions and the loss of polar and Greenland sea ice.

Indeed, considering rising temperatures here in the UK is doubly irrelevant: these may in fact fall if, as a result of climate change, the Gulf Stream shuts down. This is something that, at current trends, some scientists believe could happen by the end of the century and perhaps sooner.

All in all, it seems depressing that we’re even still arguing about this. No reputable scientist would ever maintain that any measurement or theory results in total proof. What science does provide is an overwhelming balance of probability based on an increasing amount of data, modelling and observations. It was, for instance once believed that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth. This was perfectly logical given the available methods of measurement but we now have a better theory that the opposite is the case.

We’re all entitled to our opinions but I have no trouble in accepting which one in the climate-change debate is based on solid science and which, perhaps, on commercial self-interest.

• And finally

Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyers have argued that she should be freed from her 20-year sentence for helping disgraced financier and her former fiancé Jeffery Epstein abuse young girls on the grounds of a decades-old deal with US prosecutors. I perhaps won’t be alone in finding the legal machinations of a member of this discredited, litigious and mendacious family pretty repulsive.

Private Eye continues to watch the PO enquiry and suggests that the next stage will be to look at how Horizon’s defects were covered up for so long. “Among the watchdogs that didn’t bark,” Eye 1619 suggests “are the auditors.” It singles out EY and PwC. Neither seemed to raise an official flag, despite EY having expressed concerns to the PO as far back as 2011 that the outsourcing relationship with Fujunsu “creates a degree of complexity for the Post Office in dining assurance that there are adequate IT general controls in place around [its] business critical systems.” Seems like a fair summary based on what we now know. So, given that EY strongly suspected it then, why the hell were these concerns not raised formally? It appears that subsequent discussions convinced the bean-counters that the claims would not stack up in court so the matter was not pursued. All this makes one wonder what the purpose of auditors is.

• And still with Lord Gnome’s latest organ before me, I read in the Rotten Boroughs section another example of the consequences of the increasing number of section 114 notices (effective admissions of insolvency) that local councils have been forced to issue. This involves the parachuting in to troubled authorities of Whitehall appointees. The Eye cites one such, Tony McArdle, as being on £1,000 a day to sort out Croydon and, now, Nottingham. This is despite the fact that he’s so far failed to address Croydon’s difficulties – severe enough, one must admit – and has had this contract extended by an extra year. Given how many other councils might soon find themselves in the same boat, one wonders whether Whitehall has an infinite supply of McArdles to zoom into the un-loved provinces and restore financial order.

• Most of the readers of this column will be labouring under the triple yoke of Thames Water’s inadequate investment, rising charges and inept PR. If you live in a different area, your boat may be just as leaky. This article in The Guardian on 12 March refers to “intensive discussions are between ministers and the regulator Ofwat on the emergency rescue plan in case of the collapse of the ailing privatised water company.” It also quoted Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney as saying that the government’s “keeping the details of the contingency plan secret amounted to a cover-up.”

We’ve been covering the water problems in the Lambourn Valley particularly closely, including having taken a look at an apologia which has recently been sent to our local councils for onward distribution. Several people who’ve contacted me have said that, although no fans of public ownership, this might be the only solution. An orderly retreat from the folly of the late 1980s’ privatisation is one thing: what’s perhaps even more alarming than the present paralysis is the prospect of some hastily-assembled quango whose suits, working at McArdle rates (see above), start a massive cost-cutting process to balance the books. The first casualties could be the middle-ranking and local staff, many of whom know what they’re doing, rather than those who’ve been presiding over the fiasco thus far.

All we want round here is a system that works. Some engagement is now being accomplished with the current staff. To have to start again with some new appointees may not advance matters if this is done in a rush. If the worst happens to TW – and this seems increasingly likely – I hope that, a year or so on, all the campaigning groups round here will not be wishing for a return to the devil they knew…

Across the area

• A CIL statement

I don’t know how many times I’ve written “Community Infrastructure Levy” or “CIL” the last four years: several hundred at least. As most readers will know, this is a developer contribution levied on certain types of development, the assessment, collection and enforcement of which in West Berkshire has led to a number of contentious problems. Due to minor paperwork errors, of the kind that even VAT or HMRC inspectors would make allowances for, some residents have faced life-changing invoices for properties that should not have had CIL charged on them at all. Some people have quibbled with my comparison between this and the PO scandal but I stick by it. The two appear to share an uncomfortable number of similarities.

The Lib Dems made addressing this problem one of their election pledges and the new administration, and in particular the current Acting Leader Jeff Brooks, has spent much time working with officers to establish how many such cases there might be (perhaps as many as twenty). In parallel with this, consultants have also been looking at WBC’s current CIL policies and making suggestions about how these can be improved in the future.

With the first anniversary of the election approaching, and also the possibility of an examination of the matter by the Scrutiny Commission, Jeff Brooks decided to use the Executive meeting of WBC on 14 March to make a statement on the subject. This speech – which is probably one he’s been looking forward to delivering since he was re-elected to WBC in 2018 – pulled no punches and seemed to offer as much as any of the victims could reasonably expect.

You can listen to his statement by watching the video recording of the Executive meeting: it’s pretty much the first item and takes place before the meeting proper starts. You can also read the complete text in this separate post.

Hopefully this will mark the beginning of the end of an issue which, as Jeff Brooks put it, “has darkened the good name of West Berkshire.”

• The election leaflets

These keep coming. This week, I look at the one from Carolyne Culver, standing for the Greens in the new Reading West and Mid-Berkshire seat.

Her priorities include several improvements – including to the NHS, leisure facilities, renewable energy, building more social homes, funding councils properly and protecting and restoring the natural world – which contain no sources of funding.

The key word she uses is, perhaps, “invest”: this being the idea that the role of government is to take a long-term view to provide the right environment and infrastructure and thus – but perhaps I’m reading too much into the Green’s manifesto – allow society and business to develop in accordance with these. Different people have different views as to how beneficial state involvement is. For my part, all of these ideas are ones the PP has at different times argued for.

One point she makes that I completely agree with is the return of Thames Water to public ownership. Nothing could be worse than what we have at present.

She also suggests that we should ” encourage an honest discussion about the benefits of immigration and the contribution that immigrants have made to this country. Our population is ageing, and our working age population is shrinking.” These seem to me all self-evident truths. However, an “honest discussion” about anything that touches on the toxic culture wars that prevail at every level at public discourse seems, unfortunately, to be wishful thinking. That’s not to say that I don’t agree with her.

Not previously having been an MP, the achievements she lists are on a local level and I can’t find fault with any of the ones she picks out. She’s right to mention that her residents “know how hard I work for the community” (in the Ridgeway ward) that she represents.

Her problem, of course, is that she represents a minority party which lacks financial muscle.and is thus, under our system, unlikely to have its overall support translated into seats. The promises the leaflet makes are consistent with the principles Carolyne Culver has lived by when serving on WBC since 2019. As all I’m doing is looking at the content of the leaflet, rather than the nature of the candidate, I’ll leave matters there.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes Council Tax, soil conditioner, spring cleaning, school attendance, careers, Hungerford’s pod, Aldermaston’s bridge, flooding, consultations, International Women’s Day, WBC’s Youth Justice and Support team, libraries and the last days of a 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 has backed a bid to pick litter from streets and public spaces during Britain’s favourite environmental charity’s clean-up campaign: “Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean” campaign, which runs from 15-31 March, is calling for residents across West Berkshire to show their pride in their community by taking part in the mass action litter pick.”

• 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.• 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.”

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 fancy dogs at Crufts last week. Being firmly on team cat, in the interests of editorial harmony I refrain from further comment.

• 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 once more at the Song of the Week. Karl Wallinger, formerly of The Waterboys and the leader of World Party, has just died. There are a couple of friends we had in common: but, more than that, I mourn the passing of another great musician, songwriter and communicator; and, perhaps even more directly, one of my own generation. There are several songs I could have picked but this one is both representative of his talent and relevant to the problems of our times: Is it Like Today?

• And just behind is the Comedy Moment of the Week. I think I’ve done this before but, what the hell: French and Saunders’ Two Ladies does it for me every time.

• And, gasping in last place, it’s the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What makes William II, Edward V, Edward VI and Elizabeth I unique among English monarchs since 1066? Last week’s question was: 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? The answer is a staggering 20,000 times (apparently – I’ve never tried).

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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