This week with Brian 18 to 25 April 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including an own goal in Brussels, some interesting things, a burning ship, a new cat, no research needed, there may be more, prayer rituals, looking for twelve jurors, another party whip lost, launching something-or-other, a possible national park, an independent leaflet, floods, nature, a feline litter-picker, buying an engagement ring, stuck up north, every two or three years and last orders please.

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

We learned some more interesting things about the Post Office this week…

[more below]

• Not a clue

On 16 April, the main testimonies were from former CEO David Miller and former MD David Mills – only their bank manager can tell them apart – who, between them, managed to paint a picture of an organisation that was even more dysfunctional than many of us had suspected. A number of points stood out for me.

  • We had more admissions that the top people seemed to be unaware that the Post Office could launch its own prosecutions and had done so many times.
  • When David Mills took over in 2002, he was given no briefing of any kind as to what was going on there. This was perhaps because no one seemed to be expecting him, even the security people not being aware that he was turning up on his first day.
  • At that time, and for some time afterwards, the Post Office had no IT department (outsourced to Fujitsu), no legal department (run by the Royal Mail) and no risk-management department (reasons unclear). This seems an unpromising basis from which to mount a series of risky legal actions involving an IT system.
  • Mills made it clear that his primary job was to stop the PO from going bust. This was something which he perhaps correctly (though irrelevantly in regards to the questions that promoted these statements) stated several times would have been a national disaster: for which, perhaps, read “embarrassment for the government.”
  • David Miller admitted that he should not have told the board that the Horizon system was “robust”, as problems had already been flagged up. This wasn’t some recent meeting he was referring to but one that took place in 1999, just after the system had been introduced.
  • Miller also admitted he had not even read a 2004 report which suggested that Horizon was “clearly defective”, admitting that had he done so he would have taken action. On being asked by one of the lawyers to choose between lying about this or being incompetent, his answer went for the latter.

David Mills seemed marginally the less unconvincing of the two. He stressed several times that he had taken over what he once called “a burning ship” and that all his efforts were being devoted to keeping it afloat. He also made the revealing admission that back in 1999 the Benefits Agency, the other client of Horizon, had lost faith in the system and pulled out. This left the PO in “crisis mode” and that eventually he decided to re-purpose the whole thing and introduce it in one fell swoop. He suggested that his experience of introducing such large changes at the banks he’d worked at was, in fact, that such schemes should be implemented in stages.

That admission having been made, I didn’t see the barristers quiz him on why he didn’t therefore spend more time probing its potential weaknesses, particularly as it was clear he was taking over an organisation that was, he implied, far more screwed up than he’d been led to believe. His main obligation, as he continually stressed, was to save the company from collapse and to do so in a way that met with the approval of the government.

All of this perhaps provides an essential clue as to what was happening. The needs of the company and the government’s approval were everything: the needs of everyone else, including those who worked for it (which the postmasters sort of did) were way behind.

It seems possible that the prosecutions were designed to show Whitehall that the PO was really serious about turning things round; a new cat’s propitiatory mice deposited on the doormat of its owner. In such cases, as any cat owner will tell you, it is the owner who has to clean up the mess.

• …and there’s more

On 17 April, the Inquiry heard from former Chairman Allan Leighton and a former Investigator Jon Longman. Both of their testimonies were variations on the themes of (a) it’s absolutely awful, it should never have happened, etc; (b) I was always told Horizon was OK; (c) I’m afraid I can’t answer that question because I can’t remember.

Then, on 18 April, it was the  turn of Post Office lawyer Roderic Williams, whose testimony included some masterpieces of corporate defensiveness. Given his role, that’s perhaps exactly the position you’d expect him to adopt. He was working for PO, after all. One observation he might particular regret is that “we don’t need to do research into Horizon.”

The infallibility of Horizon was clearly a deeply-felt article of faith, although this claim seems less and less credible the more we hear about the rather dodgy and bodgy way it was created and the increasing number of reports and concerns that were voiced about it. Groupthink on this point must have been obligatory. As axiomatic was the solvency issue; an added complication to which was expressed by Leighton when he pointed out that the separation of Royal Mail and the Post Office was causing its own problems. All concerns appeared to be secondary to these two matters.

• Priorities

Where have we recently seen the prioritisation of the ideology of avoiding large-scale corporate failure at all costs? Ah yes, with the water companies. As I suggested last week, the government’s continuing lowering of the amount of money that Thames Water and others need to invest indicates that it is more concerned about their collapse than it is in ensuring that their functions are properly carried out. Postmasters’ reputations and sewage in the rivers are, it seems, all part of the necessary collateral damage for protecting a colossal lie. The chaos in our railways is another one.

Some public utilities can be privatised and some can’t. To do so with water and railways was insane as there was no competition. The Post Office was a strange hybrid, being both protected in some of its aspects but also subject to intense competition in others. It was the Post Office’s, and the postmasters’, bad fortune that it was run as if a private company (although with only one shareholder, the government) at a time when it was falling into chaos.

The internal governance in the areas that are now being looked at seems to have been almost non-existent. It was a failing public monopoly that was converted into a failing public/private concern. It employed a large number of people on vast salaries who presided over an unsurpassed fiasco, some of whom have proved to have been incompetent or liars, or perhaps both, and certainly unequal to the demands of the role.

One wonders how many other organisations in the country are also in this state of disarray. There are several other inquiries which are proceeding with less publicity, including those involving contaminated blood, faulty cladding and abused children. Then we have government procurement generally (particularly with regard to faulty PPE), NHS whistleblowers, defence contracts, IT projects, HS2 – the list potentially goes on and on. There will be more…

• Shot in the foot

A self-defeating farce was acted out this week in Brussels when the city’s Mayor briefly shut down the National Conservatism conference attended by the likes of Farage, Braverman and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

According the The Guardian, the Mayor’s rationale was that the event “had the potential to cause serious disturbances and that speakers included provocateurs, homophobes, others who had been under police protection in their own country and at least one author of a controversial work about “political Islam”.” This is certainly an interesting raft of accusations: but one could say much the same about any political gathering; or any gathering of any almost kind, come to that.

By the following day, the organisers had appealed to Belgium’s supreme administrative court which ruled that the event should continue. The original concerns seemed, the judgement claimed, to be “derived purely from the reactions that its organisation might provoke among opponents”.

What this has done – aside from perhaps wrecking the political career of the Mayor, Emir Kir – is to make this gang look like victims. Farage and Orbán are highly skilled politicians (not so sure about Braverman) and they will be quick to use this to show that they are being persecuted. The current events in the USA shows just how dangerous a narcissist with a grudge can be.

• And finally

• A school in North London has recently won in court after a pupil brought a case against the school’s policy of banning prayer rituals. Good. The school’s policy seems to be clear about its being non-faith and anyone who wants something different that badly can always find it somewhere else. If people want to pray, then evenings, weekends, holidays and inset days are available for this. Schools have enough work to do as it is.

• Donald Trump is facing criminal charges in New York of falsifying business records and the current problem seems to be to find twelve jurors who are acceptable to both sides. Identifying a dozen people who have no opinion about the man, particularly in that city, would seem to be nearly impossible. Even if this is accomplished, at least one of them will probably get caught in a sting operation, be unable to resist posting their thoughts on social media, catch Covid or go mad, in which case – well, I don’t know what will happen. A trial that collapses in confusion shortly before Election Day is probably Trump’s dearest wish. It seems to one quite likely to be granted.

• Another extraordinary party-whip-removal story has recently emerged, this one involving Tory MP Mark Menzies. It appears from The Times, as quoted in The Guardian, that he “phoned his former campaign manager, now a party volunteer, at 3.15am one night in December saying he was locked in a flat by ‘some bad people’ and needed £5,000 as a matter of ‘life and death’. Hours later, Menzies’ campaign manager paid him the sum, which had risen to £6,500, from her personal savings. She was reimbursed from campaign donations.” Like all the best stories, this one is fascinating because of what it leaves out. There are also allegations about the possible misuse of £14,000 of party funds by Menzies for medical expenses. All of this is just what Sunak needs right now.

• I read somewhere that Meghan Markle, aka the Duchess of Sussex, has recently launched a new range of products. I thought about looking up to see what this was but then decided, I’m afraid, that I really couldn’t be bothered…

Across the area

• Independence

My survey of the campaign leaflets from the various local candidates this week looks at one from Adrian Abbs who’s standing as an independent in the new Reading West and Mid Berkshire seat.

Only a handful of people have been elected as independent MPs since 1950 (in stark contrast to the large number of independent councillors, of whom Adrian Abbs is now one, though not elected as such). Most of these either campaigned on a single local issue or else were disaffected defectors from one of the main parties who were able to command enough votes from personal loyalty. Then you have George Galloway, who demands separate classification. By standing as an independent who promises to be just that, Adrian Abbs therefore does not have history on his side.

His original plan was to stand as the Lib Dem candidate, the party he then was a member of when (he was a portfolio holder on West Berkshire Council after the May 2023 elections). In October 2023, however, in one of those pieces of political sleight of hand that are all too common, he was not selected as the party’s candidate for the seat, despite having won the hustings. After resigning from the party and musing over his options, he eventually decided to stand as an independent.

His leaflet starts off with the assertion that “Politics isn’t working”, a statement that many will find easy to believe, and he paints an equally plausible picture of an election dominated by slogans, mud-slinging and evaded questions. He also makes the point that MPs tend to be lobby fodder, voting in the direction pointed out by the whips. This is not quite true as there have been some high-profile rebellions, particularly from within the Tory ranks, though it’s certainly generally the case. Opinion differs as to whether or not this is a good thing.

The points in his leaflet are dominated by his desire to represent all views, to earn trust and to work hard in the constituency. These claims are no different from those any other candidate would make. He also points to his business background, something that some (though not all) candidates would be able to refer to. The additional advantages he suggests as to why he, as an independent, would be better may for many be offset by the fact that he would have no permanent or natural allies and no party machine. The party machine is apt to be derided but many will see it as the only way that anything can get done.

He also offers his thoughts about a number of issues including energy, the NHS, housing, social care, transport and sewage. It’s hard to find anything to disagree with. There is, however, almost nothing about how these challenges can be solved or paid for: as, in fairness, there rarely is in any other individual candidate’s leaflet either.

The problem for an independent is that the leaflets have not only to sell the candidate but also explain the policies. Those standing for parties can leave the latter job to their HQs. This need to be two things at once shows the size of the problem that any independent faces in order to get elected. Mind you, we live in strange times and respect for the main parties is not exactly running high: so anything’s possible…

 • A possible national park

A group of MPs, including Laura Farris, have come together to call on Natural England to upgrade the North Wessex Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) into a National Park. You can read the full statement here.

In a joint letter to Natural England, the MPs state that “although National Parks and AONBs have the same protection in law, as confirmed by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, there are, however, major differences in purposes, governance, planning protections and powers, and Government funding.”

The MPs make the point that there are increasing recreational pressures on the landscape that the current governance, management, and resourcing arrangements are not sufficiently equipped to deal with. They believe that National Park designation would confer a second, recreational purpose and highlight the resources needed to fulfil that.

Although National Parks and AONBs have the same “highest” level of protection in national planning policy from damaging development, in practice AONBs suffer much more harm from built development within their boundaries and in their setting than National Parks. Local planning authorities in whose area AONBs lie are also subject to housebuilding targets. The MPs refer to planning applications which take little account of the area that is covered by a nationally protected landscape, or the capacity of the landscape to accommodate change without harming the qualities for which it was designated.

“The upgrading of the North Wessex Downs into a National Park would offer further protection to the area from the many towns expanding towards and in some cases across, the National Landscape boundary,” one of the MPs involved, Robert Buckland said, adding that “it would also mean that the area would benefit from vastly greater core funding from DEFRA.”

On 18 April I spoke to Henry Oliver, the Director of the North Wessex Downs (NWD) AONB (it is now known as the “NWD National Landscape” but is still an AONB for legal reasons) to ask what he thought about this.

“It’s an interesting idea,” he told me. “The government has been talking about this for some time and the suggestion that some larger AONBs become National Parks was included in the 2019 Glover Review. There has also been some extra protection afforded to protected landscapes in the 2022 Levelling Up and Regeneration Act.

“It’s worth pointing out that there are three big differences between a National Park and an AONB. Firstly, a National Park is run by a National Park Authority that has powers including being the local planning authority – it therefore makes the planning decisions in its area.

Secondly, National Parks also have a second statutory purpose: to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the landscape by the public.  

Thirdly, as the MPs’ statement mentions, is that there’s a lot more funding available. With that come a lot of extra responsibilities, not only for recreation and planning but also for HR, legal and accounting services.”

Such a move would therefore involve a serious step change. The extra protection for the landscape and the purposes for which it would be used would be welcomed by many, though perhaps not by all.

The intrusion of an additional authority in-between and in some cases instead of existing ones is never trouble-free. The NWD AONB currently encompasses parts of nine separate council areas, most of which are also planning authorities and it’s possible that not all would have the same view of the matter.  The example of the formation of the South Downs NP provides a reasonably recent template for how this would work: much has, however, changed since this was established in 2010, including matters such as CIL charges and neighbourhood development plans.

There’s also the question of the funding. As Robert Buckland pointed out, more money would be available: in its first year of existence, for instance, the South Downs NP received more funding than all the AONBs combined. However, there’s the question of whether the funding would increase to take account of the extra area or whether the same size cake would just have an extra slice taken out of it.

The timing could also perhaps be seen in terms of the imminent-ish election. Housing and development is an important issue, although the two main concerns –  the need for more affordable homes and the reluctance of many communities to accept new development – often work against each other. Landscape protection is also a broadly popular idea. Offering support for a plan that will help provide a bit more clarity in these areas may, they reason, confer some electoral advantage; the more as none of the problems that this might cause will have manifested themselves by polling day.

Indeed, nothing will happen quickly. The South Downs NP was mooted as far back as the 1920s and it took eleven years from 1999 for it finally to become a reality. As mentioned above, there are already legislative changes to beef up the protection that protected landscapes receive. It remains to be seen if the government feels that this will be adequate or whether a new National Park is needed, with all the opportunities, changes and possible disagreements that this might bring.

• Flood grants

West Berkshire Council would like to remind everyone that many of the grants have timescales for applications to be made. One has now closed (business recovery grant) with others closing this month including Community Recovery Grant which closes at 5pm 12 April 2024 and Property Flood Resilience Repair Grant Scheme closing on 30 April 2024. The details of the grants are available on Flood Grants – West Berkshire Council.

WBC has received a number of applications already but would like to ensure all who wish to apply have had the opportunity to do so – “so please do share this information within your community.” Any queries relating to these grants should be sent to floodgrants@westberks.gov.uk.

• Nature recovery

Berkshire’s six councils, led by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, want your help in developing the Local Nature Recovery Strategy for Berkshire through workshops and a county-wide survey.

There’s an event at the Corn Exchange, Hungerford Town Hall on Tuesday 23 April from noon to 3pm, where you’ll have the opportunity to delve deeper into the project, learn how to support local nature initiatives, and share your valuable insights. Register your interest on EventBrite as spaces are limited. There will also be an online session on Tuesday, 30 April via Zoom for those who cannot attend in person. If you can’t make it on the day, complete the survey online.  Share your thoughts, ideas, and priorities until Tuesday 7 May.

For details of how the strategy will work and why it is important that local residents get involved, listen to Penny’s interview here (from 00:40), with Rosie Street, Berkshire’s Local Nature Recovery Strategy Manager.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes primary school allocations, the Health and Wellbeing board, health checks, improving the roads, resurfacing the A4 between Theale and Aldermaston, postal votes, school attendance, public meetings, a look back at the Easter holiday activities and food programme, the City Nature Challenge, the West Berkshire Museum and a film and TV skills bootcamp.

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

• Councillors have backed a motion at the recent Full Council meeting to give people who’ve been in care greater protection.

• A reminder that grants are available for those who’ve been affected by flooding.

• West Berkshire Council has backed a bid to pick litter from streets and public spaces and 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 animal of the week is Tofu, a cat from Stevenage, who has developed an obsession with bringing bits of rubbish back to the family home: a change from the usual mice, as well as bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “cat litter”.

• 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

• Which brings us to the Song of the Week. I just love this song to bits, as you tend to when it’s on the first LP you ever bought. Its having been written by Ronnie Lane helps. So, clear the decks for Last Orders Please by The Faces.

• So next must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. So, Hugh Laurie goes into a jewellery shop and who would be serving there but Stephen Fry. Well, what could possibly go wrong in Buying an Engagement Ring?

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Roughly what percentage of the world’s human population lives in the northern hemisphere? Last week’s question was: “There’s recently been a solar eclipse. Roughly how often do these happen?” The answer is about every two or three years, which surprised me. Then again, I had no idea what the answer was before I looked it up so I guess anything would count as a surprise, wouldn’t it?

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