This week with Brian 21 to 28 March 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including Micheal Gove, extremists, holding their tempers, definitions, bad timing, bedtime rituals, an anarchist slogan, bonkers intentions, inflation confusion, Edward Heath, a dodgy light, a frightening concert, a sinking flagship, suitable poetry, an exclamation mark, stoned rats, no weddings and the whole of the moon.

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

Michael Gove – who many would think had enough to do presiding over the collapse of the local-government system – has recently been responsible for creating a new definition of extremism. As this excellent overview in The Conversation points out, there are a number of problems with it. Does it in fact address the issue of protests, its stated intention? Is it a dangerous example of rule by ministerial decree? Why is there no appeal process? Does it replace the existing definition of extremism provided by law or is it in addition, to be used as convenient?

[more below]

• Extremists

The main issue that his statement addresses is the slippery one of knowing to what extent organisations or people really are as benign as they appear. He detailed one case, that of Shakeel Begg who effectively took the Met and Lewisham Council for a ride in 2016. Other such cases are referred to. I’m not sure that a new definition of extremism (which is the aspect of this that has made the headlines) will help. If Shakeel Begg was able to lose a libel action eight years ago then surely the laws as they stood were adequate. Adding another description of what the problem is doesn’t really move things along.

What’s needed is better decision-making. This seems promised with “a new counter-extremism centre of excellence” in his department. In her reply, the Shadow Minister Angela Rayner asked a number of questions about the details of how this would operate. Gove provided a few (column 457) and stressed that its work would be “rigorous”: a word that can mean a number of different things, not all of them good, and so perhaps not exactly the reassurance many would have wanted.

Angela Rayner concluded by saying that “we need much stronger action to tackle the corrosive forms of hatred that devastate lives and corrode communities, but today’s statement does not go far enough.” She also added, quoting the Archbishop of Canterbury, that “it is for political leaders to provide ‘a conciliatory tone’ and to ‘pursue policies that bring us together, not risk driving us apart’.”

Gove then thanked her for the “constructive, detailed and consensual approach” she was taking, though it seemed to fall rather short of this. Perhaps he was striving, on this day of all days, not to be seen to be branding her as an extremist. Whether both sides will be able to hold their tempers as well during the election is another matter.

Gove also observed that “most extremist materials and activities are not illegal and do not meet the terrorism or the national security threshold.” If this is a crucial part of the problem, one might ask why this wasn’t fixed years ago. However, making something illegal does not in itself cure anything. Look at drugs: legislation’s worked really well there, hasn’t it? Or the various sumptuary laws defining what apparel could be worn by what rank or regulations to limit wage increases, which in England were particularly prevalent in the decades after the Black Death when the socio-economic balance was completely changed. These were re-issued many times for the simple reason that they did not work.

Idealogical conviction, addiction or a desire for ostentation are motivations that are impervious to legislation. In each case, there are deeper forces at work. In today’s inter-connected world, these are even more beyond the power of one government to fix than they were in the late fourteenth century. Gove is not fixing the problem of extremism – he can’t – but is addressing the way the government reacts to some of its specific results. In the course of trying to do this, his new definition will be remembered: he perhaps hopes that enough people will see this as an attempt to nail down the problem with masterful precision, at least until the election comes round.

• Definitions

If defining something once and for all were good enough and abided by, there would only need to be one English dictionary and no arguments about the difference between imply and infer. Definitions shift according to time and context. Anything that’s too rigid risks creating more problems than it solves. In fact, Gove’s statement suggests that the new definition is a good deal less important than the admission that in the past the government and other agencies have lacked discrimination in how they have, to use his phrase, chosen their friends.

People like Shakeel Begg presented several different faces to several different organisations and managed, it appears, to have fooled them all. Perhaps Gove should bear in mind the words of Le Carré’s immortal George Smiley, that the more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.

• Timing

This could have been better as well. All agree that anti-semitism and Islamophobia have shown an unwelcome spike in the last six months but this is more to do with external circumstances which the government can only react to, not fix (unless we’re going to try another armed intervention in the Middle East).

Michael Gove’s definition of extremism includes “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance.” This seems neatly to describe the remarks of Conservative donor Frank Hester regarding Diane Abbott MP, who “should be shot” and “makes you want to hate all black women.” Sunak managed to make a bad situation worse last week by first refusing to condemn the remark, then appearing to do so only after one of his ministers had taken the lead. We all know that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. It also seems that the distinction between an extremist and a loyalist is defined only by the amount of money they’re prepared to contribute to the organisation that specified the distinction.

• Election

When I was very small, my dad had a bedtime routine for me. “Is it coming now, or is it coming later?” he would ask slowly. “Or is it coming when you’ve forgotten all about it and are thinking about something else?” At the last word, he would tickle me under my arm, creating all the mingled howls of fright, shock and pleasure that this simple human interaction always produces. (I’ve always wondered why we can never tickle ourselves. I’ve just done it. Nothing happened. If, however, you came and tickled me in the armpit – now there’s an offer – I’d squeal like a three-year-old.)

Where was I? Oh yes: the election. It’s coming: but when? Whenever this eventually happens, few contests in this country can have been anticipated with such unmitigated gloom by the incumbents. The Conservatives’ level of support is currently only a point or so more than it was when Truss resigned in October 2022, a nadir from which loyalists might reasonably have thought that only significant improvement was possible. Labour has had to do very little more than pass the ball around in midfield, although has had a few defensive scares over matters such as the Gaza ceasefire and the Rochdale fiasco.

It’s also increasingly clear that, despite the mendacious promises made by Brexit, most of the problems the country faces are either incapable of solution without concerted international effort (such as illegal migration, Ukraine or climate change) or require a point of view longer than the five-year electoral cycle to accomplish (such as adult social care, the NHS and planning reform). Given the vast disparity between what an enthusiastic new administration promises and what its civil servants, for sound reasons or not, allow to happen, it’s easy to see that the predicted result will probably change nothing. As the anarchist slogan in the 1970s maintained, whoever you vote for, the government gets in. Seldom has this seemed so true, nor the ability of any government to effect change more constrained. None the less, we should all go out and vote.

Well, yes, of course we should: it’s our one moment in the sun. The trouble is that neither team’s captain is that inspiring. The Conservatives seem to be considering changing theirs, yes, again, rumours of a proposed right-wing coup having abounded over the last few days. In an article in late 2023, The New Statesman dismissed this as an immediate threat for Sunak but suggested that “the right’s recapture of the party leadership looks only a matter of time.” Even though some senior Tories described the rumours as “bonkers”, the mere fact that they needed to have been denied tells its own story.

The idea of the party considering, yet again, defenestrating one PM and elevating another in their place without going to the polls might seem odd. However, one has to go back half a century to Edward Heath (1970 to 1974) to find the last person who both became and ceased being leader through the supposedly traditional method of deciding such things of a general election. Every single one of his successors – although some won elections in-between – either jumped ship when it suited them or were ousted when it suited their party or thrust themselves to the front when either of these happened to their predecessors. For the Conservatives to stage another coup now would thus be to continue a long tradition of opportunism. Not, on this occasion, that it would be likely to make any difference. Anyway, who would want the job right now?

• Inflation

Good news for most is that the inflation rate is falling and is expected to hit the Bank of England’s 2% target by mid-summer. The markets seem also to be betting that interest rates will reduce at about this time. However, the Bank appears concerned about “sticky inflation” (defined by The Street as being “sustained increases in wages and prices on certain consumer goods that usually don’t change frequently or drastically”) so rates may stay high for a bit longer yet.

Rates stayed unchanged on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of this. The Bank of England was criticised for “putting caution above growth.” Governor Andrew Bailey stuck to his guns, however, saying the the Bank needed to see inflation fall further, but added the rate dropping to 3.4% was “very encouraging and good news”. He argued that policymakers had to be “convinced” price rises were slowing to the target rate of 2% annually.

The government will doubtless be claiming the credit for the fall in inflation but it doesn’t really have much to do with it. Far more important has been the policies of the (independent) Bank of England and the general fall in global energy prices.

As the BBC’s Economics Correspondent suggests, although this target may indeed be hit it might not feel like it. Interest rates are unlikely to fall any time soon and, as well as the resulting higher mortgage costs, rental prices are also rising by more than inflation. In addition April is, as TS Eliot reminded us, in many ways the cruellest month. This is when a lot of annual increases come into effect including from the usual suspects like the water and rail companies. Thames Water’s charges will rise by an average 12.3% in April and rail fares in England have already increased by nearly 5%.

This is also the time when the council-tax bills arrive and, for reasons we’ve explained elsewhere, most authorities will have hiked these by the maximum 4.99%. If you have the misfortune to live in an area which has declared a S114 notice and the council has been granted an exemption from this limit then the increase could be double this.

In the short-term, therefore, inflation is indeed falling but not particularly as a result of anything the government has done. The underlying problems, however, remain. Inadequate progress with alternative energy sources, in which the government has an important role to play, still leaves the country vulnerable to international price hikes. As for our crumbling infrastructure, although many aspects of this have been privatised, Whitehall for several decades appears to have been asleep at the wheel in ensuring that those responsible have been doing the necessary work. The problem with council funding, meanwhile, is mainly caused by the increasing costs of social care, in which they are effectively acting as agents of the government but without being properly paid.  

The good news is therefore the result of forces beyond the government’s control: the bad news, on the other hand, is the result of things it has not done or could have done better. It was doubtless ever thus…

• And finally

• Spoiler alert: Putin won the Russian election, getting 87% of the votes. Sounds like a bit knife-edge to me: surprised he didn’t ask for a re-count. There was also a concert in Red Square (a bit of which I watched but the link for which I can’t now find). Not speaking Russian, the lyrics and speeches were a closed book to me but they sounded bloody frightening. They were also delivered with the deadpan, blank-faced focus on the middle distance that one often sees when the people uttering them know that Someone Important is Watching, as AA Milne might have capitalised it. Six more years, then. Bad news for Ukraine; and for all of us. Remember, this man believes that the dismemberment of the USSR was the worst geo-political mistake of the twentieth century.

• The Rwanda Bill staggers on but continues to suffer reverses, including some defeats in the Lords on 20 March. The result of this is a further delay and a return of the legislation to the Commons on 15 April after the Easter recess. It’s tempting to see this flagship project as instead resembling one of the boats it’s trying to stop – hard to manoeuvre, impossible to land legally and carrying far more hopes and expectations than it can reasonably deliver. So tempting, in fact, that I’ve not resisted it.

• Another small triumph for people power, or at least common sense: HMRC has announced that it will not be closing its tax helpline between April and September after all. Even though my tax return is fairly simple, the thought of doing it almost bring me out in hives each time. The idea that the government’s failing to help me give it what I owe and will then swoop down and distrain upon my chattels doesn’t improve my mood.

• Driving back from the Hungerford Town Meeting this evening, the car in front of me for most of the way had something badly wrong with its rear lights. They would often flicker, one would sometimes go out and hard breaking made the left-hand ones turn orange. Part of me wanted to have the car stop near my home so I could tell them: then I remembered the alarming story a friend told me some years ago.

She was driving along in a town when a man pulled alongside her and made frantic hand gestures. Not knowing what mayhem or madness would ensue were she to stop, she kept going. The man continued to drive parallel for a bit and then, for five seconds, completely vanished from view. When he reappeared, it was clear what he’d been doing. He had obviously had a box of ready-made signs on the floor of the passenger area and had been searching for the right one. Her last vision of the man was his triumphantly holding up a neatly printed and laminated sign which read “Your left-hand brake light isn’t working!”

Public spirited: yes; totally sane: no. I still have visions of him cruising the streets on the lookout for people with a dodgy indicator. So, when the flickery-light car went straight on at the Queens Arms and I turned right for home, I let him go. That bloke would probably have followed it for miles…

Across the area

• CIL reactions

As I mentioned last week, Jeff Brooks made a statement at the start of the Executive meeting on 14 March on the subject of CIL. 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. WBC has also issued a statement on the matter here.

As many of you will have noticed, I’ve written about this many times since I first did so on 3 December 2020. In the years that followed, it became increasingly clear that something had badly slipped anchor. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know exactly how much money was spent by WBC on defending its position. I do know that at least £14,000 was expended on the campaign that culminated in the defenestration of then WBC Councillor Claire Rowles in March 2022.

Jeff Brooks said that the statement was just that and not an item for debate. Despite some mumbled protests, not easily audible on the recording, I think he did the opposition Conservatives a favour here: for what could they have said? Disagreeing with his assessment (which few who have followed the matter would have had any serious issues with) would have made them look like a bunch of meanies; agreeing with it would have invited the question of why, in that case, they had allowed the situation to persist.

All the reaction I’ve heard to the statement was positive. Here are a few examples:

  • Maria Dobson, in many ways the highest-profile victim of this, said that the day after the statement that “our journey for justice is far from over, but last night marked a significant step forward. Thank you to everyone who has supported us along the way. Together, we will continue to fight for what’s right.”
  • Another person who experienced a savage CIL payment and who learned of the recent developments through Penny Post said that “I am delighted that WBC is now addressing the charging of CIL for residential extensions. The CIL team at WBC was, in some instances, aggressive when seeking to collect CIL charges from residents and showed little empathy for those that had fallen foul of the CIL documentation, some of which was due to an oversight or failing by the CIL team in providing proper and timely communication with householders.”
  • Former WBC Councillor Claire Rowles told Penny Post that “I have always maintained that the Council’s stance on this issue was morally and ethically wrong. I am pleased that justice has finally been done for all the residents who have been unfairly charged due to administrative errors which was clearly not the intention or spirit of the legislation.”
  • David Marsh, the Leader of the Greens (and the Minority Group) at WBC, told us that “some residents have been made to feel like criminals and charged large amounts of money simply because they made a mistake with the complex paperwork, or an agent acting on their behalf did so. Instead of accepting that they had got this wrong, the previous council administration doubled down and even victimised one of their own councillors who spoke up on behalf of her residents. The new administration has done the right thing.”
  • Clive Taylor, Labour’s sole representative on WBC, told me that he echoed David Marsh’s comments. He also said that he “would have liked to have heard the attempted response from the opposition. However, I expect Councillor Brooks had good reason for not wanting to take comments or questions on this matter.” (I suggested above that this non-response possibly suited everyone.)

Even some of the Conservative members must have realised this was the wrong way of handling the matter that it would sooner or later come back to bite them.

Overall, I think the main reaction was one of relief. It’s been a nasty boil for many years and the signs are that it’s now about to be lanced. Jeff Brooks decided that the matter needed to be moved on to the next square on the board and has done so. There would seem to be no going back from his categoric assurances.

The next crucial date appears to be the meeting of the Executive on 16 May at which a report from the officers will be considered, as will the recommendations for how the panel which he promised to consider CIL injustices will be constituted. Assuming that these pass, the work of the panel should be started in June. If anyone has a CIL claim that’s not already been reported, please contact jeff.brooks@westberks.gov.uk.

There remains the question of how WBC’s policy will change to avoid this unhappy result in future. Jeff Brooks’ statement said that the CIL action “may have been legally correct according to a dreadfully poorly drafted piece of legislation [a point that, earlier in his statement, he said had been agreed upon by all the people to whom he spoke about it] but it was morally reprehensible.” This observation goes to the heart of how a council is supposed to engage with its residents. Hopefully the future safeguards will be as unequivocal as his recent assurances about the righting of past wrongs.

• The election leaflets

And so we go again. Newbury MP Laura Farris’ latest one dropped through the letterbox about a week ago. It’s newspaper-style, but the headline “West Berkshire Matters – news from Laura Farris MP” makes it pass my most stringent test of pretending to be a local paper. So, what does it say?

The headline story is under the banner of “easing the cost of living” but only one of the paragraphs referred to this. As mentioned elsewhere, the fall in inflation is not really anything to do with the government. Laura Farris doesn’t expressly say this. She merely states that the PM promised to reduce inflation and that it had reduced. No claim is made for causation.

Much of the rest of the front-page story concerns the success of the UK economy. Without references or footnotes (admittedly difficult in a printed source) I haven’t had the time to verify these. However, economic growth is only one way (albeit the most empirical) of measuring progress. There’s no mention of climate change in this. Then again, I wasn’t expecting it.

Opening the leaflet up and several more claims spring into view under the heading of “a record of action for West Berkshire”. The racing community, farmers, motorists and veterans are all mentioned as beneficiaries of her “action” but, once again, she has professed her ambitions and expressed the actual or hoped-for results without showing that there’s any connection between the two. Her claim about lobbying for the diagnostic services at the West Berkshire Hospital perhaps has more merit.

The Thatcham bridge plan to which she also refers is merely that, a piece of lobbying and one with which not everyone agrees.

As for her claim of holding Thames Water to account – admittedly a seemingly impossible task – claiming to have advanced Thames Water’s work at a sewage treatment work on the Pang which I’ve been assured had already been secured by others and “supporting” water-monitoring work on the Pang which was happening anyway just by making one visit doesn’t really cut it for me.

The back page is mainly concerned with her claim that the new bus service from Newbury to Harwell would “improve connectivity across the constituency”. It doesn’t. The service may improve connectivity into and out of the constituency but as, to the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t stop at any other places it can hardly be said to have improved connectivity across the constituency.

The rest of the back page concerns work she’s done as Minister for Victims and Safeguarding, and was perhaps designed merely to draw our attention to this appointment last November. As the headline of the leaflet was “West Berkshire Matters” and as we’re electing her, or not, as our representative rather than as a minister (that notoriously short-lived occupation), it would seem wrong to comment on her achievements, however worthy they might be.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes CIL changes, the recycling centres, soil conditioner, the nature recovery strategy, roads, the Health and Wellbeing Conference, integrated care, respect for roadwork’s, public meetings, be a better biker, World Social Work day, Easter Activities and a local artisan fair.

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.”

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

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 rats in Louisiana who all got off their furry little faces after eating through the store of confiscated marijuana at a police station.

• 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

• Time once more for the Song of the Week. Following the Karl Wallinger theme, let’d the wonderful The Whole of the Moon by The Waterboys on which he also performed.

• And next is the Comedy Moment of the Week. Here’s some Suitable Poetry from Fry and Laurie.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What is the only English town that has an exclamation mark as part of its name? Last week’s question was: Last week’s question was: What makes William II, Edward V, Edward VI and Elizabeth I unique among English monarchs since 1066? The answer is that they were the only ones who never married (due to age, personal inclination or diplomatic expediency).

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.

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email
Print

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up to the free weekly

Penny Post
e-newsletter 

 

For: local positive news, events, jobs, recipes, special offers, recommendations & more.

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