This week with Brian 16 to 23 May 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including thirty a week, a slight knock, spice empires, an unsustainable model, hung or not, a lack of inspiration, but for the grace of God, Hell on Earth, bailing out, a green leaflet, abatement, leadership problems, waiting for a kitty, doing it in the dark, Thames Water, George Smiley, John Huston, Django, the shortest motorway and going for an English.

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

Earlier this week I caught a bit of an interview on the radio with Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall. He was, as celebrity chefs generally are, promoting book. This one was a variation on the previous five-a-day advice about fruit and veg and focussed instead on 30 plants a week. Assuming the same definitions for both measures, the 30-a-week seems like a better bet for those who don’t like vegetables. I didn’t worry about not having this detail revealed to me (if it would have been: perhaps you had to buy the book) before my journey finished, as not eating enough fruit and vegetables is not one of my vices. Indeed, I don’t see how I could eat any more than I do.

[more below]

• Spices

There were several other bits of good news he revealed. Pulses, seeds and nuts are all excellent things as well and I also eat those in large quantities. So too, it seems, are spices, which also feature strongly in my diet. It seems that not only do many of these have beneficial properties but also that in conjunction they can produce even greater benefits which, Mr F-W said, scientists didn’t fully understand. This all may well be true. If so, great. However, I just like the taste.

All of this took a slight knock the following morning when I read on the BBC website that “concerns are emerging regarding the safety” of spices that are produced in and exported from India. “Last month, Singapore and Hong Kong halted sales of some spices produced by Indian companies MDH and Everest over suspected elevated levels of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing pesticide.” These are only two suppliers, albeit large ones. The article claims, though, that other firms have also been implicated in the same concerns. As recently as last month, police seized a mind-boggling 60,000lbs of contaminated spices in Gujarat.

It seems that residual pesticides are largely responsible. The industry is worth about $33bn a year and demand is growing. The rewards for producing more of them are thus considerable. In other words, because of my fondness for pinches of this and that to, literally, spice-up my increasingly plant-based diet, I have become part of the problem.

It was ever thus. In the Middle Ages the rich paid vast sums for conspicuous signs of consumption, particularly silk and spices. Most of the European empires that dominated the world from the early-modern period had spices pretty much top of the list of profitable monopolies and commodities. No one will know how many people were killed to protect these interests. The prices often remained astronomical: in 1660s London, a pound of pepper cost over three times the average labourer’s wage. Several empires, Portugal’s in particular, was built on this one commodity. Now it’s so commonplace and comparatively cheap that most people don’t even check the price.

But where do all these things come from? What else might be in them? Also – and this is an important issue for many – have they been ethically produced?

As to the last question, very little that one doesn’t produce oneself can be completely so described. Mind you, it probably never could be, though that doesn’t make present-day exploitation any better. Establishing the source of everything we consume is impossible. To a large extent, this moral responsibility is one we’ve out-sourced to national or pan-national arbiters of standards and safety, organisations which are themselves fallible and capable of being deceived, corrupted or insouciant.

Consumer ethics are for many at the mercy of price and convenience. The hard fact is that, if we want to survive in the best way we can, we can’t allow ourselves to care too much about provenance.

One consideration that seems over-riding, though, is that if we ate less meat and more plants then not only we but the planet would be better off. Greenpeace estimates that “the vast majority of European crop production is used to feed animals and create biofuels, rather than feeding people.”

Getting nutrition from plants via animals is not an efficient way of going about things. In many cultures, including our own, meat has traditionally been as conspicuous a sign of wealth as spices once were. Now, some meat (particularly chicken) is often so cheap as to raise serious concerns about where and how it’s been produced. About two-thirds of antibiotics are given to animals, not humans, and the residue from these spills into our waterways, creating a public-health hazard that is perhaps even more alarming than that caused by sewage.

And then there’s the farting and belching. Your average cow produces about 200 pounds of methane a year, a gas which although less long-lasting that CO2 is considerably more planet-warming while it’s in the atmosphere. To produce more land to grow crops to feed livestock, forests are being cut down. According to Our World in Data, an area the size of Portugal is deforested every year.

And, on top of all this, the world’s population is growing (though, admittedly, more slowly than fifty years ago) by about 70 million people a year, about the population of the UK.

These figures all seem unsustainable. An individual person moving to a more plant-based diet isn’t going to change anything much on its own but it seems like a fairly easy step to take and in the right direction. This also helps normalise the trend and encourages more restaurants and shops to offer more and more such dishes. Spices make this an easier gastronomic step to take: but now, the BBC’s news shows that even this is problematic. There is, it seems, no such thing as a risk-free lunch.

All we can do, in this and so much else, is to hope that in this ever more complex world we can on each occasion make the least bad choice.

• Polls

Following a chastening time in the local elections, Rishi Sunak came up with the unexpected suggestion that the UK was heading for a hung parliament. This article in The Conversation suggests ways by which, under some predictions, this might be argued: The Guardian is more sceptical. Both articles agree that people vote differently in general elections; also about the sheer overwhelming state of the national polls which have remained largely unchanged since the end of the Truss debacle.

Then there’s Reform UK. The Guardian points out that this only stood in one in six of the council wards, suggesting “its impact at the general election could be greater, with the party leader, Richard Tice, pledging to stand a candidate in every constituency.” Moreover, “in the wards where the party did stand, the Conservative vote was down by 19 points. Labour experienced a slight boost in vote share in council wards where Reform stood.”

A lot can happen before or during a campaign which might still be six months away. Sunak has made a big play with the surprisingly good economic growth figures (we’re assuming for present purposes that economic growth is in every circumstance a good thing) but the question is how many people not already pre-disposed to vote blue will have felt any benefits.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg claims that there are several things that could go wrong for Starmer and that “there’s plenty of danger ahead.” One of the problems she warns of is complacency. Neil Kinnock, who managed to lose the 1992 election when most believed that this was impossible, will doubtless be quick to remind Starmer of this.

There’s also always going to be more risk when there’s no clear positive message from either of the big parties. The main mantra is that the other lot are simply not to be trusted and that to let them in would be a total disaster. This a simple but high-risk strategy. As The Conversation points out, “the failures of the Conservative government have handed [Labour] a golden opportunity to regain power after 14 years in opposition. But it is worth remembering that the Remain campaign lost the Brexit referendum in large part because it lacked an inspirational message.”

• Inquiry

The PO Inquiry is moving through the increasingly senior people involved in the fiasco. So far it’s mainly concentrated on those who acted under orders or who represented the company but the gaze is moving remorselessly upwards. As I’ve mentioned before, if one result of this is that large organisations are, following the “there but for the grace of God go I” principle, encouraged to take a long hard look at their own corporate blind spots, that will certainly be something gained.

Several years ago I wrote an article called Hell on Earth which considered different visions, metaphorical or otherwise, that we entertain about a place of after-life punishment. I recalled the view of one of my former schoolmasters who had suggested, with every appearance of sincerity, that when our time came each of us would find ourselves in the centre of a vast room surrounded by everyone we had ever known who were witnessing a real-time replay of everything we’d ever said, done or thought.

Something very similar seems to be happening to the witnesses being called at the Inquiry. Many have professed an alarming degree of IT ignorance but all must now understand that just deleting an email or shredding a document rarely makes it completely disappear. Few of us are asked, with the full glare of public scrutiny, to defend sentiments we’d expressed perhaps two decades before. Many of my observations from the 2010s probably wouldn’t stand up so well now: or yours, perhaps. On being forced to re-read some of their remarks, many squirmed. On 14 May, for instance, the PO’s former communications supremo Mark Davis admitted that emails he sent defending the integrity of Horizon now appear “ludicrous.”

However, perhaps the most jaw-dropping admission thus far came on 15 May when the company’s current government affairs and policy director Patrick Bourke admitted he had briefed Paula Vennells in 2014 to assert that the potential unsafe convictions of sub-postmasters “pales into insignificance to the bigger, social, mission of the Post Office”.  He went on to remind her that “you are in charge of an organisation that has, at its heart, the determination to improve people’s lives (often the most vulnerable in our society). Indeed you have obligations in this regard.”

The current mission statement, or whatever it is, on the PO’s website, makes no claim to having a responsibility to improve people’s lives. The government, a local council or the NHS amongst others might fairly say as much but not the PO. In any event, by this measure it has clearly fallen short. Any organisation that has such an over-inflated view of its purpose is suffering from the worst kind of corporate self-delusion. Believing that it’s above the normal laws of human conduct is then an easy step to take: indeed, Mr Bourke said this in as many words. This is what the whole business is really all about – and, perhaps, not just for the Post Office.

• And finally

• More uncertainty for Thames Water, with a report in Reuters that “some of the company’s shareholders were expected to quit the board after they refused to inject more than 3 billion pounds ($3.79 billion) of equity.” The article concludes with the summary that “public outrage over pollution and the prospect of higher bills has put the regulator under pressure to ensure consumers get value for money, but investors say they still need to make returns, resulting in a stand-off over Thames Water.” That seems to sum it up.

This BBC article suggests that China’s spy threat is growing and that the West has struggled to keep up. “China’s spies see acquiring Western technology as a top national security requirement,” the authors claim. “Western spies say their Beijing counterparts share information they have gathered with Chinese state-run companies, in a way that the West’s intelligence agencies do not with their own domestic firms.” The article covers several aspects of China’s covert international ambitions. I put the point about the IP security to a friend of mine who’s a Professor of Computer Science.

He agreed that, encouraged both by their governments and overseas universities, a large number of Chinese nationals study abroad each year, many in the UK. He disputes that this is spying, though it’s certainly a way of their keeping up with Western tech. He also pointed out that there’s a significant overlap between the work at universities and at high-tech companies, which also take students as interns. Signing an NDO about the work is, he suggests, unlikely to be relevant to a Chinese student once they’ve returned home. If there is a problem, it seems we’re all complicit in it.

On the other hand, he stresses that there’s nothing to stop the UK sending students to China to extract some of their know-how. In a global economy and with increasing overlap between university and private-sector work, this kind of intellectual leakage seems inevitable. As for the more political matters, where’s George Smiley now we need him more than ever?

• Back in the day, many boys – though perhaps fewer girls – if asked what they wanted to be when they grew up would promptly have replied “train driver“. Now that the romance of the age of steam exists only on heritage railways, the main attraction may have vanished. The railway companies, however, have decided to give this dream another chance by suggesting that the minimum age for driving trains be reduced from 20 to 18. The average train driver at present is white, male and 48.

Obviously, at present much of the industry is on strike: but when and if that’s resolved the main benefits seem to be being able to drive 80-odd tons of train at upwards of 100mph and being paid £60,000pa. You must have to be pretty good to be able to balance those great big trains on those tiny rails: for tube drivers, of course, it’s even more difficult as they have to do it in the dark…

Across the area

• A look at the leaflets

This week, my gaze turns towards the flyer produced by Steve Masters, the Green Party candidate for Newbury.

The first part includes a potted biography which is, so far as I’m aware, correct: although he omits the fact that he was also a WBC councillor between 2019 and 2023. He goes on to say that during the cost-of-living crisis he organised a community meeting (which I attended) and supported the creation of community cafés. What result the former had is hard to judge, though there were certainly some powerful speeches and I witnessed a good deal of networking going on afterwards. The latter may well have happened anyway but support is always welcome.

The reverse side takes a couple of digs at his rivals. The incumbent is always open to a number of charges but he has picked Laura Farris’ “claims to care about sewage pollution” being belied by her voting record. She has argued that her opposition to, in particular, the Duke of Wellington’s amendment was less due to her fondness for sewage than her concerns about how this would be funded. This isn’t the time to explore this, however, as I’m only looking at what’s in the leaflet. The claim made by Steve Masters, citing theyworkforyou, is certainly correct.

The rest of the back page concentrates on one matter which has been at the top of his agenda this year, as it has for many others: sewage. The central claim here is “actions rather than words” and he describes actions that he has taken including “offering practical help to residents”, organising a public protest, securing media coverage for the issue and contacting WBC about abatement notices. (The last matter is considered in the section below).

A non-incumbent always has an easier job in making their case but it’s hard to criticise the claims made. The Thames Water card that he plays so strongly might seem like a bold move if we have a dry election period and the issue fades from many people’s minds. However, as the problems since early January have been so acute and the coverage so intense, it’s unlikely local residents will forget in a hurry. The main message on the leaflet may thus resonate for some time.

• Abatement notices

As mentioned last week, on 25 April, I covered in our Newbury Area Weekly News column the fact that Newbury Town Councillor and Green Party prospective parliamentary candidate for Newbury, Steve Masters, had requested that West Berkshire Council take “decisive action” against Thames Water for polluting our communities.

The matter was discussed in a press briefing last week and, on 15 May, WBC issued a statement describing the various work which it has done recently not only to put further pressure on TW generally but also to clean up after it. This includes incurring £10,000 (plus officers’ time) on various mitigation measures, most of which it will probably not be able to recover from Thames Water. Many home- and business-owners will be finding themselves in the same position. So much for the principle of “polluter pays”.

Although neither the statement nor other correspondence I’ve seen says so in as many words, it seems clear that the possibility of using abatement notices was not something that WBC had seriously considered until Steve Masters contacted them. Now it is: although in many cases the “nuisance” as defined under the Environmental Act has since receded (for the moment) and therefore the powers can’t now be used.

It’s interesting to speculate on whether, were WBC to have been aware of the option, any abatement notices might have been issues between January and April when the sewage nuisance was far worse; and whether these would have produced any better outcomes.

I’m not sure that we can always rely on town councillors to point out to the district the actions it has the power to take, or in some cases be compelled to take, to protect its residents. If an abatement order was an option but not used when it could have been, WBC would appear to have failed in this duty. Whether it would have made any difference is, as mentioned above, a moot point. There’s also the question of whether the council has any more powers open to it of which it’s currently unaware.

• The Leader

The change of leadership at West Berkshire Council produced a statement from the local opposition Conservative group which accused the former leader Lee Dillon of showing “a total lack of commitment” to residents. This is all part of the traditional political knockabout which is commonplace at all times, particularly this time: the more so as Lee Dillon is the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for the Newbury seat and local Tory leader Ross Mackinnon is similarly engaged for his part in the neighbouring seat of Reading West and Mid Berkshire. Obviously, the Conservative party knows a good deal about changing leaders in mid-term, the last four (May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak) all having come to power despite someone else having been in charge at the previous election.

These general points aside, there are a few things in the statement that are worth looking at.

The first is that the suggestion is that “sources close” to Lee Dillon suggest that he was removed by his own colleagues. I put this to the current leader Jeff Brooks on 15 May and he told me that this was “utter rubbish”. For the want any more information, these two statements cancel out (though at least the second is attributable).

The statement adds that “Dillon’s replacement comes in the same week he quit as West Berkshire’s council leader, fuelling speculation that Lib Dem Lee jumped before he was pushed.” I don’t quite follow this. If the suggestion is that there’s something sinister about a departure and a replacement happening in close succession, then I disagree. In any case, I understand that the timescale was a lot closer than that, Lee Dillon’s resignation being one minute before the start of last week’s Annual WBC Meeting.

The statement then turns to criticise some other aspects of the new administration’s performance:

  • Their refusal to accelerate funding essential refurbishments for Falkland School.” I agree that this didn’t seem to have been very well handled at the time.
  • “Their failed calamitous stunt to withdraw the Local Plan.” This is unfair. Withdrawing the plan was an election pledge. It was made harder by the previous administration’s decision to submit the draft just before the election and was only rendered impossible by a decision from Whitehall.
  • “Passing motions containing outright lies about Home Office asylum policy.” I disagree with this. I looked at this complex and divisive matter in some detail in October 2023. This was after having spoken to Karen Reeve from West Berkshire Action for Refugees whom I think knows more than anyone else in the district about this.
  • “Naively announcing that they would sell all the Council’s commercial property by a fixed date.” This is certainly a point of view; but the administration argued that announcing the policy was both important and also not synonymous with launching a fire sale, as some described it. Although the investments the previous administration made seem to have been successful, the feeling was that the portfolio was risky and that disinvestment was in any event being encouraged by the government and PWLB borrowing regulations. Nor do I recall that there was ever a fixed date for this.
  • “Their callous refusal to consult disabled residents before extending pedestrianisation of Newbury town centre despite having to postpone that pedestrianisation because they forgot about planned roadworks.” Again, opinions differ about the consultations. My view is that sufficient opinions had been expressed during the masterplan responses and that the only way to see how things worked was to try it and be prepared to make changes as needed. I agree with the Conservatives that the roadworks issue wasn’t a great look.

It also refers to the fact that this all came at a time when West Berkshire Council has “dropped more than 100 places in a league table identifying England’s worst-performing councils.” No source is provided for this assertion.

I’m afraid the local Conservatives have form on this. Before the 2023 elections a clumsy attempt was made to present the partial results of a survey as being something other than what it was, in the process foolishly missing several opportunities to show the council’s performance in a good light. Any such surveys or league tables need to be treated with a lot of caution and need to be dismissed altogether if the the source document itself can’t be produced.

One thing the statement rather surprisingly doesn’t mention, but which I did last week, is the fact that Lee Dillon had one portfolio role (Public Safety) before announcing that he wanted to step back to concentrate on his election campaign but, after all this, has ended up with two (that plus Community Engagement). Questions could fairly be asked about whether he can devote the necessary time to these in addition to everything else he has on his plate.

You can see a statement from WBC about all the appointments to the new Executive here.

• Residents’ news

Click here for the latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council.

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

Click here for a statement from West Berkshire Council concerning its recent peer review.

• West Berkshire Council is continuing to assist the local community through the Household Support Fund until autumn 2024. The funding “aims to support households who would otherwise struggle to meet essential housing costs to help them with living costs.” Read more here.

• The examination of West Berkshire Council’s local plan is now under way. Click here for more information about this including (in annexe A) the day-by-day timetable. You can also click here to see the recordings of the sessions (these were briefly unavailable earlier this week but I’m now assured that these have returned and will remain).

Information here from West Berkshire Council about Foster-care Fortnight (13 to 26 May).

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

The animal of the week is another dog tease, as so many of enjoyed last week’s: Dog wants a Kitty.

• 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

• And now we arrive at the Song of the Week. Thanks to Jon for suggesting this gorgeous piece of music: Django by Èlia Bastida, Josep Traver and Joan Chamorro (he’s the bassist, whose facial expressions at various points in the performance are well worth checking out).

• So thus we come to the Comedy Moment of the Week. You’ve seen it before and, if you click you’ll see it again: Going for an English by the cast of Goodness Gracious Me.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What unique distinction does John Huston have (it’s to do with Oscars)? Last week’s question was: What odd distinction does the A8(M) road in Scotland have? The answer is that, at 280 metres, it’s the shortest motorway in the UK.

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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