This week with Brian 30 May to 6 June 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including shooting in the foot, a missed hangover period, purges, national service, our experience, rip-off degrees, breaking the cycle, gap years, shape-shifting, hardly a word, questions to come, 32 times more likely, thugs and thieves, half term, international fly-tipping, Stormy’s jury, eight players, another leaflet, a CIL statement, losing and winning, Moses parts the waves, a long-lived mammal, a whisky priest and a stranger in blue suede shoes.

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

This week provided proof, if proof be needed, that the Conservatives aren’t the only party taking aim into the sky but instead shooting itself in the foot, Labour having come up with some ill-timed and contradictory claims about the immediate future of Diane Abbott. The veteran MP was suspended from the party in April 2023 after claiming that groups such as the Irish, the Jewish and Travellers didn’t face racism all their lives. This seems like a viable point of view and one she might well know more than most people about. Such matters cannot, however, be freely discussed any longer. In particular, the Labour Party is very thin-skinned about accusations of anti-semitism. So, into the outer realms she was cast. What happened next – and why now – is slightly more confusing.

[more below]

• Whip

The party whip was restored this week but reports, including from Abbott herself, said that she’d been barred from standing as an MP again. Starmer claimed that this was “factually inaccurate”. According to The Voice, Starmer there contributed an inaccuracy of his own by saying that the investigation into her conduct was “‘ongoing’ when it had concluded in December.” Then, on 30 May, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said that she couldn’t see any reason why Abbott couldn’t stand, even though her boss clearly feels otherwise. As a result, the stories of the more widespread purges of the left have resurfaced.

What on earth are they playing at? If the enquiry had been finished late last year, the hangover period of early January would have been the ideal time to announce what had been decided, by which time most people would have forgotten all about it. The voters of Hackney South and Stoke Newington might not have done, of course, but her majority there is almost embarrassingly large and so probably bomb-proof: in 2019, she polled over 70% of the votes. Nationally, however, the furore would surely have subsided. Instead of which, the whole thing is detonated at the start of a campaign. Why?

No candidate has yet been selected for Hackney South and Stoke Newington, which Abbott has contested and won nine times on the trot starting in 1987. The party will have to get its skates on as nominations close for all the seats on 7 June. If she isn’t selected, the new Labour candidates might have a bit of a rough ride. Other candidates might decide to muddy the waters and grab a bit of the limelight (if these two clichés can operate at the same time) in what may suddenly prove be a more interesting local contest than usual. I’m not suggesting that the fight could be as complex or as toxic as in the notorious Bermondsey by-election in 1983 when there were no fewer than five candidates claiming to represent various parts of the Labour movement, but anything’s possible.

• Service

The PM recently announced that if re-elected (or, to be precise, “elected” as he’s not fought a general election as PM before) his government would introduce a form of national service for 18-year-olds. There would be two options: community volunteering with organisations like the NHS and the fire service for the majority and 30,000 military placements for those described as “the brightest and the best” (best at what? I wonder). Non-compliance would be punished by “non-criminal sanctions” but details of this and other aspects of the scheme are currently unclear.

The merits or otherwise of national service have been debated for some time. About a third of the world’s countries have some form of this according to Sky News, citing the World Population Review. Until 1960 the UK was one such: so it clearly isn’t an idea without form or substance.

What one has to question is the cynicism of the timing. This is clearly designed to appeal to the right of his party who might be flirting with the idea of voting Reform. If Sunak does win, the plan will, having done its job, doubtless be pushed to the bottom of the pile. If it appears at all, it will probably be in a watered-down form, the diminution being blamed on the usual suspects of trendy liberals, a leaden-fitted civil service, military and other leaders who lack vision and anti-growth tofu-eaters.

Certainly the military so far seem unimpressed, the former chief of the naval staff Admiral Alan West describing it “basically bonkers” and Richard Dannatt, a former chief of the general staff, as “electoral opportunism”. Michael Portillo added that “I very much doubt whether it’s been thought through, and I doubt whether the armed services and all the charities that need to be involved have been consulted and are on board.” The pledge was made only days after the Defence Minister Andrew Murrison said that the government had no plans for national service in “any form”. This doesn’t seem like a party marching in step across the parade ground.

We’ve had about a dozen people of around national service age doing a week’s work experience here at Penny Post. We’re happy to do this and regard it as a part of what being a CIC involves: but it’s hard work if we’re going to do it properly.

Our normal working week needs to be changed, projects created for them to work on and challenging but achievable goals set for what they’re to learn and do. All this has to combine giving them some worthwhile experiences but not disrupting our own schedules. We usually meet them for the first time on the first morning and sometimes discover they’re far better suited to other projects than those we’d ear-marked for them. Matters like literacy standards and a willingness to use the telephone are attainments that can only be tested by observation and sometimes produce surprises.

We hope and believe that all the young people who’ve worked with us have got something useful out of it but it’s pointless to pretend that, certainly in the short term, this has increased our business’ efficiency.

And these, mind you, were volunteers. All of them wanted to come to work with us. How we would cope with an unwilling person being billeted on us for a week, still less a year, hardly bears thinking about. I must stress that Sunak hasn’t identified Penny Post as a national service provider (or if he has he’s forgotten to tell us): but even so…

It’s possible that someone volunteering at the same place for a year would get better at the role: but the reverse is also true. Most organisations are not geared up to coping with a regular influx of new staff of varying levels of aptitude and commitment. If someone were kicked out of several different places this would have exactly the opposite result to the increase in self-confidence intended by the scheme.

I’m not saying that the idea can’t work, merely that it needs to be carefully planned and all the participating organisations fully supportive of it. At present, it doesn’t seem as if they are.

Hang on, though – it’s only an election pledge. As mentioned above, its job will be done if it helps achieve a miracle for Sunak or even coax a few Tory voters back into the ranks of the faithful. You don’t like it? No matter: even as you read this, a focus group is coming up with another one, also designed to plug some gap in the respective party’s message. Who knows, it may even also be what the country needs…

• Outcomes

Another idea which has recently emerged is that of doing away with “rip-off” degrees and instead encouraging more people who want to continue to learn into apprenticeships. That would, perhaps, be easier were there more apprenticeships available and better funded.

There used to be a network of polytechnics until the early ’90s which helped address this need for vocational training but these fell out of favour under successive governments. Universities were seen as the way forward. Whether this change has worked is a big question. Whether Sunak’s winnowing will improve matters is another one.

As with the national-service idea, the obvious question is “why now?” This is doubtless designed to appeal to exactly the same part of the PM’s party and involves exactly the same group of young people, most of whom probably wouldn’t vote Conservative anyway.

The Guardian suggests two other reasons: the increasing shift towards “caring about outcomes” (which could be translated as a “return on investment”); and the belief that “perhaps the number of students going to university is too high”. Both of these points have some merit but, once again, the febrile atmosphere of an election campaign is not the best place to explore them.

The Guardian article goes on to look at a number of problems with the policy. One of these is that the measure of earning potential thereafter validating the course runs into a problem with public sector jobs, like social care, where the salary is set by the government. “The complication here is that the government has characterised the courses that do not have high earning prospects as being frivolous or unserious, but few would argue that we need fewer social workers.”

Courses that are not regarded as rip-offs presumably include most of the STEM (science, engineering, technology and maths) subjects. More people studying these would, one imagines, be a good thing – providing we have enough people to teach them.

A deeper problem perhaps lies in the school system. I studied medieval history at university. Most of my scientist friends could have done this course if they wanted but I couldn’t even have started theirs. The reason is (not necessarily) because I’m less intelligent but because I, or my schooling, failed to instil a basic level of knowledge and confidence. I was allowed, and allowed myself, to drift towards arts subjects – which were also regarded as cooler, another problem – not because I was better at them but because they were easier. More, and better, STEM teachers are needed. To do that one needs more STEM students. But who will teach them?

Whether this plan will break the cycle is impossible to say. One thing’s for sure: it won’t be able to accomplished over the lifetime of a parliament. Then again, so few things of any importance are.

• Combinations

There’s another aspect of both of these ideas which has just struck me. Many students, me and my two elder sons included, were too young to go to university when we did. My suggestion would be to mandate that all students take at least a year off. This would have four results, all of them I suggest beneficial.

Firstly, they would have had a chance to recover from the exhausting and relentless cycle of school classes and exams. Secondly, some of them would decide after working for a bit that they didn’t want to go to university at all – many people don’t so no problem there. Thirdly, some might decide (as my third son did) that the course they’d originally chosen wasn’t right for them and change it. Finally, those who did go would be a year older, perhaps a year wiser and certainly that much more committed to the experience to come. I can’t see any downsides to this. Mind you, the architects of ideas rarely can.

If Sunak’s national-service plan becomes a reality then this would impose this break anyway. However, I can’t help feeling that my plan would be cheaper and possibly achieve many of the same results. True, there might be complaints that imposing a year off was infringing the person’s civil rights. However, after all the money that’s been spent on defending the Rwanda scheme against rather more serious accusations of that nature, I imagine he has plenty of lawyers ready to defend the idea.

The usual credit if this suggestion appears during the election, Rishi, and see my agent about the fee.

• Thugs

Not to be outdone, the Labour Party has come up with its own eye-catcher, with shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper repeating the party’s promise of “13,000 officers and community support officers working in neighbourhoods in England and Wales” in order to “take back our town centres from thugs and thieves.” The BBC reports that “Labour has estimated hiring the extra officers would cost £360m, which it argues could be paid for through more efficient purchasing of police equipment.”

Colossal savings on efficiency and procurement have ever been used to support extra expenditure without cuts or taxes. If £360m can indeed be saved off Police procurement then there are some pretty serious questions to be asked about how this has been run so far.

Conservative policing minister Chris Philp said the policy “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. This is the same party that fought to keep violent murderers and sexual offenders in Britain by stopping deportation flights and tried to take Tasers off our police,” he added. Even if the second sentence is true, which I haven’t had time to check, I can’t see how it supports the first.

He went on to say that the Conservatives had recruited “record police numbers” with 20,000 more since 2019. According to Stastica, this is true as regards recruitment but ignores the fact that there are still fewer officers than there were in 2009: the party has, in other words, not quite reverted the situation back to the one it inherited. So, not a lie but a very misleading and one-sided truth. Welcome to the election.

• Votes

Thus far, the election has been pretty strange. The two main parties seem to be performing a rather crude form of shape-shifting with the Conservatives trying to make themselves more like Reform UK and the Labour Party trying to seem more like the Conservatives.

This leaves a huge centre-left gap which the Lib Dems and the Greens may aspire to fill but will be prevented from doing by the vagaries of our electoral system. If both of the main parties decide to lurch in one direction then the whole debate is constrained around those points. The fact that both of them are trying to seem as much like each other as possible has made this so far an uninspiring campaign.

Bickering about alleged racism and proposing blue-sky plans are one thing. There are other issues as well. Climate change? Hardly a word. The water companies? Hardly a word. Disinformation? Hardly a word. We’ll be asking all the candidates in the four constituencies covered by Penny Post 15 questions which will include these issues and look forward to bringing you their responses.

The current system also discriminates in favour of both the two large parties and the regional ones. The simple matter of dividing the number of votes cast in 2019 by the number of seats won gives us the following results as to roughly how many people are needed to elect an MP (in ascending order):

  • SNP: 25,900
  • Sinn Féin: 26,000
  • DUP: 30,500
  • Conservative: 38,200
  • Plaid Cymru: 38,300
  • Labour: 50,800
  • SDLP: 59,400
  • Lib Dem: 336,000
  • Green: 835,900

In other words, a vote for the SNP (which only those in Scotland can provide) is 13 times more more likely to produce the desired result than a vote for the Lib Dems and 32 times more likely than a vote for the Greens. I refrain from further comment.

• And finally…

• If you’ve noticed that for the first time in weeks I’ve not said anything about the Post Office Inquiry, this is because following the high-profile appearance of Witness Vennells, P, last week, the event is on half term (its phrase, not mine) until Monday 3 June.

• Most of us can only dimly imagine what it must be like for South Korea to have a neighbour like North Korea, and vice versa. A few years ago, South Korea sent some balloons across the DMZ loaded with anti-North leaflets and USB sticks with K-Pop music. This week the North retaliated with some fly-tipping on an international scale, despatching hundreds of balloons to which large bags of rubbish including excrement were attached. This video on the BBC website takes a look at this strange fraternal hatred.

Donald Trump’s trial regarding Stormy Daniels seems to be about to reach a crucial point with the jury now considering its verdict. Although the US judicial system looks similar to ours – which is hard enough to understand in any case – the seeming similarities only disguise the differences, much as between cricket and baseball. An appeal by the losing side seems likely; so too does the the utter irrelevance of any verdict on the election. In fact, an acquittal may serve the Democrats better.

• Only eight British players have ever played for a non-British team in a European Cup or Champions League Final (can you name them?). This Saturday we’ll be treated to two more, with Jude Bellingham turning out for Real Madrid and Jadon Sancho for Borussia Dortmund. Both played together for Dortmund which must add some extra spice to the occasion. Being an inveterate underdog supporter, I’m firmly on team Borussia. Real have won 14 finals, double the total of number two on the list, Milan, and only one fewer than all of England’s six winners have managed between them. Enough is enough – except it probably isn’t…

Across the area

• A look at the leaflets

This week it’s the turn of the latest offering from Lee Dillon, the Lib Dem’s candidate in Newbury.

This is an improvement on the last one as he’s abandoned, hopefully for good, the pretence that his campaign literature is a local newspaper. This flyer is an A3 sheet folded to A4. Aside from a funding appeal, the centre spread is in two main parts.

The first describes three campaigns with which he’s been involved (health services, sewage and cost of living) and what he’s accomplished on each to support the claim of “a real record”. The first mainly involved launching a survey while his action on the other two are merely suggested solutions: “demanding a sewage tax”, for instance, which falls some way short of his claim that he “has been tackling sewage in our rivers”.

The second part describes his 20 years as local councillor and “hardworking campaigner in the Newbury constituency”. He mentions several issues that he campaigned such as free school meals and simplifying the Household Support Fund and he may well be right about that. He also refers to his challenge to the then Conservative administration about the cuts to the Readibus service. This is certainly true although it must be said that only a handful of people in the then administration had the slightest idea why this battle was being fought and they certainly did a very good job of keeping this reason to themselves.

He also adds that he’s worked for a housing association for the last 14 years. As he doesn’t mention its name I won’t either. However, some residents (including those waiting for repairs or hoping to move into the long-promised Chestnut Walk site in Hungerford) might question whether this connection is a good card to play.

The back page is a graph which we’ve seen before. This shows the results of an election for a different organisation covering a different area from over a year ago and so has no conceivable bearing on what might happen here in July.

• CIL again

We’ve covered this issue so much over the last four years that it seems only logical to bring you the entire statement recently issued by West Berkshire Council on 24 May 2024:

Earlier this year, West Berkshire Council announced plans to commission a review aimed at improving the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) customer journey.

The Community Infrastructure Levy is a legislative charge requiring developers to make payments towards infrastructure needs created by new development. While self-builders, residential annexes, and home extensions may be exempt from CIL payments, they must first complete the necessary paperwork for formal exemption. Incorrectly completed paperwork has resulted in some householders being liable for CIL charges and subsequent enforcement action.

The Planning Officers Society (POS) conducted a review of the CIL customer journey at West Berkshire after complaints were received regarding the CIL process since the policy’s adoption in 2015. This was presented to the Council’s Executive on 23 May 2024. While the POS Review found no evidence that the Council acted contrary to the legislative framework, it made several recommendations that will allow the Council to embed a more customer-friendly approach to CIL.

Five priority recommendations were made:

  1. Urgently post a prominent note on the website clarifying that exemptions must be applied for by the applicant as per the regulations and outlining the repercussions of non-compliance.
  2. Report to the Executive on the benefits of not processing CIL liable domestic extension applications, considering the risks of non-compliance with regulations.
  3. Report to the Executive on adopting a more lenient approach to self-build claims for genuine self-builders.
  4. Review the current website content to improve signposting and prominence of CIL matters for residents and applicants.
  5. Introduce a training program for officers, members, parishes, and agents to improve understanding and implications of CIL.

Recommendations 1 and 2 have already been implemented, and recommendation 5 will be addressed through an action plan which will be developed and presented to the Council’s Executive in the future. To address recommendations 2 and 3, the Council’s Executive has agreed to adopt a new CIL Enforcement Policy for Householder Applications, allowing greater flexibility in enforcing CIL liabilities where genuine homeowner mistakes have occurred.

“Previously, some residents faced significant CIL liabilities due to simple errors on complex CIL paperwork. This review allows us to implement a fairer approach, immediately applying changes to enforcement policy for pending and future householder CIL cases.

“Any householder previously subject to CIL liability can request a discretionary review by the Council from 1 June 2024 until 31 May 2025,” WBC’s Leader Jeff Brooks observed. “As outlined in our Council Strategy, we continue to listen to our residents and treat everyone fairly, and these changes are reflective of this new vision.”

• Election details

The following information was supplied by West Berkshire Council. However much of this refers to national laws and so is equally applicable wherever you live.

With polls opening in just five weeks, you should register to vote now if you’re not already on the electoral register. Registering to vote takes only a few minutes and can be done online. You can also vote by post in advance of polling day or nominate someone to vote on your behalf (a proxy vote) with more information about how to do this available on WBC’s website.

This will be the first general election where voters are required to show photo ID. Information on accepted forms of photo ID can be found on the Electoral Commission website where you can also apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate if you don’t have another acceptable document to show.

It will also be the first time residents elect Members of Parliament for the new constituencies of Newbury, and Reading West and Mid Berkshire. We’ll be administering the elections for both constituencies.

Your polling station may have changed since you last voted so please check the venue on your polling card or check it online nearer to polling day.

  • The deadline for registering to vote is Tuesday 18 June.
  • Applications for postal votes must be received by Wednesday 19 June at 5pm.
  • Applications for Voter Authority Certificates must be received by Wednesday 26 June at 5pm.
  • Applications for proxy votes must be received by Wednesday 26 June at 5pm.
  • Polling stations will be open on Thursday 4 July from 7am to 10pm.

• Councillor Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck who represented Newbury Clay Hill ward for 19 years until he stepped down at the 2023 election, died this week aged 91. Our condolences to his friends and family.

Graham Pask, the former ward member for Bucklebury who served with him on WBC for the whole of this time described him as “a very sound person – knowledgable, helpful to his residents and a keen party supporter. he was widely respected and will be sorely missed.”

Former WBC leader Lynne Doherty said that “Jeff was one of the most decent, fair and dedicated Councillors I have had the pleasure of working with. His sense of duty and desire to serve the residents of Clay Hill was remarkable and I am sure he will be missed by many.”

Dennis Benneyworth, one of three ward members for Hungerford and Kintbury, described him as “an absolute gentleman who devoted many years to public service in West Berkshire. A man of high principles and a great role model for councillors regardless of political colour.”

• 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 details of the orchard campaign, launched last year by Veoilia and West Berkshire Council.

• A motion presented in March to give people who’ve been in care greater protection was approved at a meeting of West Berkshire Council’s Executive on 23 May.

• West Berkshire Council has announced that Stagecoach is adding more bus journeys to the route connecting Newbury and Basingstoke. Service 32, formerly known as The Link, will now operate on Sundays/bank holidays for the first time, with extended evening hours Monday to Saturday, and additional peak time options on weekdays.

• West Berkshire Council has been rated as “Good” for its performance in ensuring people have access to adult social care and support following a recent assessment by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

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).

The animal of the week is Moses from Warwickshire. Cats don’t like water, right? Wrong…

• 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 here’s my nomination for the Song of the Week. 1 June 2024 marks the fiftieth anniversary of a rather strange concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London featuring Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico and Eno, so giving it the name of the ACNE concert. There was an album as well, the cover of which shows Ayers and Cale locked in a very strange stare-out, explained by the fact that Cale had caught Ayers having sex with his wife shortly before the photo was taken. The album itself is mixed: but here’s an opportunity to celebrate one of Kevin Ayers’ most famous songs (though not the album version), Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes.

• And for the Comedy Moment of the Week. With the election coming up, this is as good a time as any to reflect on what role, if any, morality plays in politics. As usual, few expound the issues with more aplomb or cynicism than Sit Humphrey in Yes, Minister as this clip from The Whisky Priest shows.

• And finally, for the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What mammal has the longest average life expectancy? Last week’s question was: What was odd about the UK general elections in 1951 and February 1974? The answer is that the party which got the most votes (and so won) didn’t get the largest number of seats (and so lost).

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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